EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW WITH 33 1/3: REIGN IN BLOOD AUTHOR D.X. FERRIS
If you’re not familiar with Continuum’s 33 1/3 book series, you should be. Each entry is written by a different music critic and/or journalist, and each one is devoted to the study of a single, seminal album. There’s a wide range of types of music covered by the series – everything from the Beastie Boys to The Velvet Underground – but metal hass, up ’til now, been criminally unrepresented. There are entries for albums by Guns N’ Roses and Nine Inch Nails, but those aren’t metal bands in the strictest sense and, obviously, both groups have been wholly accepted by the mainstream; there was a book covering Sabbath’s Master of Reality recently, but, weird though it may be, at this point Sabbath are pretty much as accepted and unrebellious a metal band as we’re likely to get.
So D.X. Ferris’ recently release tome on Slayer’s Reign in Blood is the series’ first honest to God (or honest to Satan?) book covering a metal album. And it’s an AWESOME read – fascinating, intelligent, informative and insightful, you’re likely to blow through it record time, and then feel depressed as you realize you’ve reached the last page. Ferris not only takes a critical look at the album, making astute observations and pointing out little musical nooks and crannies you might have never noticed even after your gazillionth spin of the classic record, but he also managed to interview everyone and anyone who was involved with the album – from the band members themselves to producer Rick Rubin to engineer Andy Wallace to cover artist Larry Carroll and a few hundred other people I’m forgetting about – as well as loads and loads of musicians and artists who are fans of the album (Henry Rollins, Tori Amos, Gary Holt, and Paul Romano among them).
After I wrote this blog about Slayer and their continuing relevance in the metal world back in June, Ferris actually e-mailed me basically just to say “thanks” for the shout-out to his book. I asked him if I could shoot him some interview questions, and luckily for us, he agreed. After the jump, read what Ferris had to say about the process of putting the book together, things he learned about both Slayer and Reign in Blood while working on the book, and the state of Slayer today.
So how did you come to write a book about Reign in Blood, anyways?
Power of the Dark Side, sir. Power of the Dark Side. I liked some of the 33 1/3 books, and I thought it would be cool to write one. Long story short, I pitched it to the publisher. There were around 50 books in the series at the time. The publisher received, I think, 451 pitches about 120 albums, and mine was one of 20 or so they accepted. Due to the power of the Dark Side. And, hey, it’s fuckin’ Slayer.
There haven’t really been many probing studies of seminal metal albums like this, and certainly the 33 1/3 series is predominantly devoted to more mainstream albums. When you told people you wanted to write a book like this about a metal album, did they think you were nuts?
No. Or maybe at first, but that was to be expected. So I opened with, basically, “Great series, no metal albums, so you should let me do Slayer’s Reign in Blood – I know, I know, hear me out on this one.” And then real quick, after the obligatory, “best thrash album, maybe best metal album, best metal band,” I followed up with “BUT it was Rick Rubin’s first rock record, and engineered by [Andy Wallace], the guy who produced Jeff Buckley’s Grace and mixed Nirvana’s Nevermind, and Tori Amos recorded a cover” – pretty quick, that was enough to get them think maybe it wasn’t just some crazy devil music shit.
Where the hell do you even begin when do a project this ambitious? Did you just put out an APB trying to talk to anyone and everyone? Write an outline? Just listen to Reign in Blood a few thousand more times?
For Plan A, which is what I was ultimately able to do, I had a pretty tight game plan, and that grew into an outline. It changed and expanded, but my original vision for the book was pretty much how it happened. I wanted to get like 25 musician-fans to testify about the record, and I wound up with 50. Still not sure how that happened; the thing took on a momentum of its own.
The problem with much music writing is that, compared to, say, sports writing, there are alarmingly few facts. And I’ve worked with editors who will go so far as removing any kind of facts or any kind of quantifiable, empirical data, because they think music writing is about putting your opinion out there. So it reads like, “This album/band is my favorite, and it’s my favorite because it rules, and it rules because it’s my favorite.” What if you think the writer’s a douchebag? You don’t care what he has to say. You don’t need me to tell you why you love the record.
With the book, like you said, I knew people would raise their eyebrows at a making a serious case for Slayer as a great rock band. So I didn’t want it to be one fan’s love letter to the band. And, honestly, who the fuck am I? It’s my first book, my name’s not out there much, and what if you do know me and think I’m a douche? But you’ll probably care what Matt Pike and Tori Amos and Glenn Danzig have to say about the band. I tried to make the book doucheproof.
You start the book by giving mini-biographies of each member of Slayer as well as Rick Rubin and Andy Wallace and even Larry Carroll. Why did you decide to begin this way, as opposed to diving right into a history/analysis of the album?
A few reasons. One, simply, I like profiles. Two, by the time I got rolling on it, I knew Joel McIver’s bio of the band [The Bloody Reign of Slayer] was coming down the pike, so I figured I’d do well to try some kind of different approach.
Mostly, though, once I started thinking about writing the Reign in Blood book, here’s what I realized about Slayer: Everybody know about the band – or anybody you’d want to hang out with, anyway.
But even for someone like me, who’s been into them since the 80s, my whole life – I didn’t know much about the guys IN the band. The fans know their story: they form in California, sign to Metal Blade, hook up with Rick Rubin, become metal gods, and Kerry King’s the one musician on the planet who will talk shit on Metallica and Dave Mustaine. But beyond that, who in the hell were these guys, and where did they come from? And Andy Wallace, this guy who’s an almost iconic mixer and producer, there’s never been anything big written about him.
But it was the first Slayer book, so you couldn’t just assume people knew the story. Older fans do, but what about people who discovered the band through God Hates Us All?
And it’s a good entry point for non-fans: If you’ve never shouted “fuckin’ Slayer!” or bought a record or cared about metal, you might follow the story if I launch straight into a bio of the band. But seven short profiles is a quick, fast way to get a hook in you and get you following the story.
You actually learned some things while interviewing the band members that other band members of Slayer didn’t even know – e.g., about Jeff Hanneman’s sister [We could recound the story of Hanneman’s sister here, but really, you should just read the book. – Ed.]. So I take it the band was pretty supportive and open to giving you access? Was there anything intimidating about telling them “Hi, I’m gonna try and write a book about your most revered album?”
The band were all on board for the project. It’s not an official, approved book, but management and Rubin thought it was a good idea, and the band agreed. That said, it was weird: They’re a real tight-lipped bunch – not secretive or hush-hush, but just not real chatty or introspective, which was both refreshing and frustrating.
For me, I’ve written about some big bands, and I’ve been to MTV on business, but when I get around bands I’ve been into since high school, that’s when I worry about going all Chris Farley Show or Luca Brasi. Like “Uh, Reign Blood, was, like, the awesome album for me to be liking, and I like.” In my mind, even after having written the book, those guys are nine feet tall, and when the speak, red flame and smoke come out of their head. And they’re regular dudes who don’t carry themselves like that – which only makes it weirder. Like, “I can’t believe I’m talking to Kerry King.”
Was there anyone who declined to participate in the process that you really wish you could have spoken to?
Not everyone I asked said yes, and not all the people who said yes came through – but honestly, except for Hatebreed’s Jamey Jasta, who’s this generation’s host of Headbanger’s Ball, I hit all my wish list. And that kinda surprised me – I got the whole band, management, Rubin, Wallace, Larry Carroll the cover artist, Tori Amos, Kat Von D came through. I didn’t think I’d get Russell Simmons, but that came together.
Dave Grohl woulda been nice – he’s a metal guy, but he’s got more money than God, and it’s not like I’m half a big name; I offered one publicist six bucks and two mix tapes if he could hook me up with him, but no dice. Kreator, their people said they were in, but it didn’t happen. Tom G. Warrior from Frost – but I guess he was having other issues to deal with. I tried to get Vinnie Abbott, but no dice there. Derek Riggs from the Iron Maiden covers didn’t want to talk about someobody else’s work, I guess. Or maybe I am a douche.
Once I started rounding out the list, I wanted to get a couple more people that weren’t musicians, like Beavis & Butthead creator Mike Judge, a total genius who you think would have some insight into metal and the pros and cons of being known as A Metal Dude. I tried to get South Park’s Trey Parker and Matt Stone – they had that “Slayer scares hippies” episode. But again, richer than God, busy dudes, and I’m just some dude. The comedian Brian Posehn, total metal guy, but we could never get on the same page.
It’s been mentioned that you actually had to edit the book down from its original length. Anything interesting factoids you wish you could have left in? Also, who the hell made you edit it down and what can we do to punish this person?
Not exactly: I mean, it’s 42,000 words, and I wrote a 65,000 short biography of the band, and coulda kept going. And the press paid me to write a 25,000 word book about the record. So for the same cover price, they OK’d nearly twice what they wanted, and they let me get off topic a little. But all that stuff about Wallace, Def Jam, Rubin, Christ Illusion, and the Grammies isn’t that long, and it all tells you – I think – exactly where Slayer and Reign in Blood fit in the grand story of rock and roll history. And that’s kinda what the series is about.
One thing that didn’t make the book was a chapter about the Reign tour, which is where some of the real drama happened. But the book was about the record, not the tour, so it got the axe. Fortunately, Decibel was kind enough to run that in the April 2008 issue, so it got out there in some form [You can actually read that here. -Ed.]. I still feel like I got away with something, having a Slayer book in this series about the all-time great records, alongside the Who, the Kinks, the Beach Boys. And a very smart guy with a Ph.D. and real solid taste made that decision. I’ll take that, you know?
Did anything you learned about Reign in Blood surprise you?
I think the biggest thing was what Rick Rubin didn’t contribute to the record; don’t get me wrong – he’s probably the reason that Reign isn’t widely thought of as, as Nirvana-Soundgarden-High on Fire producer Jack Endino says in the book, “some shitty little underground classic.” But I always figured Rubin was the difference between Hell Awaits’ seven-minute epic vampire songs and Reign’s three-minute rippers. But they had the music all but done by the time he signed them to Def Jam – which, of course, was the world’s hottest rap label at the time. Odd match there. And Hanneman’s original idea for “Raining Blood,” that’s probably my favorite nugget from the whole book [Again, you’ll have to read the book if you want to know this little story! – Ed.].
As you discuss in the book, a lot of people don’t look kindly towards Slayer’s work post-The Holy Trilogy. But you obviously seem to disagree. Please discuss why you think post-Abyss Slayer is still worth our time.
I’m glad you picked up on that, and I know you agree, and I know we’re in a minority on that – maybe not a minority, but the people who disagree, they disagree loudly. And some, like Gene Hoglan, you have to consider their opinion, at least.
I think a similar thing happened to the Ramones late in their career: They kept doing their thing, and people got a little fatigued from it. Those mid-80s albums where they were playing respectable hardcore got no appreciation at the time, but they sound pretty good now. I think the same thing will happen with Slayer.
The trouble bands like Slayer and even Metallica face is that there will never be those exact circumstances that made them sound so fresh ever again. Slayer’s never going to blindside you with an album that makes you reconsider what metal is. You pretty much know what you’re going to get. They’re not going to get any faster, more technical, or slow down. Plenty of credible metalheads say that countless bands have “totally lapped” Slayer, but none of those guys are going to put together a groove like the totally underrated Diabolus In Musica.
I think the new Exodus is tremendous, but it’s a very different band than Bonded By Blood, and there’s not that body of work in between. I love Anthrax’s Sound of White Noise. But like I say in the book, no band has stayed closer to their peak form, intent, or intensity longer than Slayer. Bottom line, compare any of the big four thrash band’s 2000-whatever album to their 1986-7 album, and what compares better than Christ Illusion?
Finally, if you had to write a book about any other Slayer album, which album would it be and why?
Tough question: South would be an interesting story, but pretty much a continuation of Reign – you’d have some of the same characters, even more new characters like Def Jam’s Lyor Cohen and Rubin’s engineer Steve Ett – Reign in Blood was the first album he did without Ett, really, and they wouldn’t do many more. And you could see how Rubin walked away from rap, started working with Slayer, Danzig, and the Cult, and wound up walking away from Def Jam.
Diabolus gets such a bad rap, I’d like to vindicate it a little. Christ Illusion took so long together, and it all happened while Lombardo was working his way back into the group, there’d be a lot of ground to cover. Divine Intervention, it’d read like a comedy of errors.
I’m a huge hardcore fan, so I think you could really get a lot out of the covers album. Before Slayer agreed to the book, Plan B was to write a more general book about thrash, metal, and how hardcore plus metal led to the crossover movement, then to the metalcore era – kinda like how that Get Thrashed flick turned out, which is really really really good, by the way. And the story of Undisputed Attitude says a lot about metal, where it came from, what happened to it, and where it wound up. But the Reign story pretty much covers that.
For more info on D.X. Ferris’ book, hit up his MySpace page.
And we really, we can’t recommend this book enough, so why don’t you just order it from Amazon already?