Latest album: Persona Non Grata (Nuclear Blast)Website: www.exodusattack.com
Bay Area band Exodus are one of the few pioneers of a long-lasting musical movement commonly known as thrash metal, who have never wavered from their mission statement. After numerous uncompromising tours and being regularly cited as influential by a vast array of musicians within the metal scene, they are back with their eleventh studio album, Persona Non Grata. The band has endured personnel changes and delays over the years, including having one guitarist – Kirk Hammett – poached very early on by none other than Metallica. Whilst some albums are heavier than others, the overall approach across their discography has been consistently and suitably aggressive.
When Gary Holt, one half of the original twin guitar H-Team [with Rick Hunolt] joined Slayer on a permanent basis, he still kept Exodus going and admirably ensured that the band’s legacy was not watered down in pursuit of wider appeal. Vocalist Steve ‘Zetro’ Souza, returned to the fold in 2014, having served a substantial prior tenure from 1986 to 1994 that initially started following the departure of the unrelenting late vocalist Paul Baloff. So, when it comes to understanding the history of Exodus, Souza is well equipped to divulge the details and does so without curating or sanitising anything. Loud Online recently chatted to Souza via phone from California, and as anyone listening to Persona Non Grata can attest, he is every bit as fired up and capable of delivering on the vocal front as he has ever been.
The new album is very heavy. What are your recollections of recording it during a pandemic?
COVID-19 worked in our favour because we didn’t have to rush the album and nobody was on constraints. Like, Andy Sneap [producer] wasn’t on tour with Judas Priest or we didn’t have to get it done to go on the road and we knew it wasn’t coming out until the pandemic hopefully cleared up, so, we had time to record it. We all went up to Northern California where Tom [Hunting – drums] lives in a little town called Lake Almanor and recorded it up there. I think albums come out better when the whole band is there at the same time.
The recording is certainly tighter too.
I think that all goes musicianship. We are older now, I’m 57, and Gary is 57, we’ve been doing it since we were kids. I think we know what we’re doing now, we know how to achieve it and I think most bands that have been around as long as we have from any genre within hard rock or heavy metal, who are still doing it well, like Priest, Saxon, Maiden; I think that is kind of the same thing with them as well.
How do you keep your savage vocal approach but still look after your voice?
I don’t really do think about that but I do not drink and I do not do drugs. So, I know that helps. I exercise every day and I watch what I eat. So, I am very self-conscious about, you know, my voice. I think actually, if anything, I’ve gotten better over the years.
You’ve got some death growls in there. So it’s not restrained by any means.
Yeah, that’s there a little bit on this record. I did some of that and I don’t know, I think that it is always good to try out different things and to try to approach it in different ways. I am very proud of the vocals on this record. I would say it is the best vocal performance that I have done to this date.
Going way back to early days, I’m sure AC/DC influenced Exodus and then Exodus influenced plenty of death metal bands such as Morbid Angel and Deicide. Could you imagine that happening when you were starting?
It’s funny that you say that because I would say that even as we were doing thrash metal, I remember in ’84 and ’85, it was a big hair metal time and a lot of the hair metal bands were getting all the attention, not necessarily the thrash bands. I always said that as society starts getting heavier, so will the music and it was the truth. Death metal, black metal, a lot of things happened after that, and for every derivative of heavy metal, you can hear thrash in it, for some reason, any other sub-genre. Metalcore, grindcore, whatever, crossover, there is always thrash in it. You can always hear the tones of thrash.
It is fair to say that both Bonded by Blood and Kill ‘Em All are pretty much the two most influential Bay Area thrash metal albums.
Ah, it would say, the pinnacle and I still have to say, and I’m not being a Homer, but Bonded by Blood is the ultimate thrash record. The Anthrax guys, especially Charlie Benante will tell you that. There is no better album for the genre at its time when it all started out than Bonded by Blood.
By the time, it came in around to Pleasures of the Flesh, you had a song in there called Chemi-Kill. Most bands were just aggressive but your lyrics were showing some maturity instead of songs about punching people out.
I think we starting getting some maturity when we became socially, politically and religiously aware. That is a time when thrash metal stopped all the ‘Kill, kill, kill!’ and ‘Satan, Satan, Satan!’, and started turning its genre into that sort of lyrical content, honestly.
That flows into the current album. How do you look at the lyrical themes these days given the next generation coming in and probably expressing a certain level of despair?
Well, all I’ve got to say is that there is tonnes of material to write about now, especially as somebody who has been the earth for fifty-seven years. There are a lot of things that piss me off. But I would have to say that it is definitely one of those things that we are just very socially aware. If anything, we just got tonnes of content, especially in today’s world, to write about.
The two singles from the album, The Beatings Will Continue (Until Morale Improves) and Clickbait are clearly very topical.
Ironically too, and I don’t know if it was planned that way. I think that the album has a lot of topical content on it, I mean, Slipping into Madness, Elitist, The Fires of Division, R.E.M.F.; there is a lot topical content on there but it seems like those two tracks really resonated a lot with most of the fans and the press, saying, ‘Wow, those are two songs that are talking about the signs of the times.’ I didn’t notice it and I don’t think it was planned that way. I just think that the album has a lot of direction on that, you know, there’s a lot of political angle, there is a lot of a religious angle on it, and there is a social angle on it. So, I think that it could have easily been Slipping into Madness, or The Fires of Division as singles and maybe the opinion would have been the same.
The songs Elitist and Slipping into Madness are co-written; one with Gary and one with Lee [Altus – guitarist]. How is co-writing done these days?
Well, with Lee it is easy, I just come up with what I come up with, ha-ha, and if they like it, then the subject matter is discussed. But with Gary, he will give me a full-on, you know, what he wants the song to be about. That was in the case of Elitist. So, basically I’ll listen to him and I’ll come up with the phrasing, the lyrics and the groove, myself, you know what I mean. We’ve been bouncing off of each other for thirty-six years so I get it, he’s always written lyrics, I’ve always sung his lyrics, I’ve always sung my own lyrics on stuff that he has done. Toxic Waltz was his idea. He never wrote the lyrics or had no idea of how I was going to sing it or how I was going to do it. He just said, ‘I want this song to be called Toxic Waltz and I want you to write it about what the kids do at our show, okay,’ and that was it, so I went and wrote that. Basically, I am used to it.
The aggression in the title track is pretty full-on.
Yeah and that aggression there is not aimed at anyone in particular. Well, as far as I know because I didn’t write the lyrics. But lyrically, if you’re listening to me sing it, it is someone but who that someone could be, I don’t know, that could even be revolving, you never know. It is definitely brutal and gets the point across in that fucking song.
Certainly does. You got Rick Hunolt as a guest appearance on both guitar and backing vocals.
Yeah, Rick did that and he did backup vocals. My sons also did back-up vocals and Kragen Lum, who was Gary’s fill-in when Gary was on tour with Slayer, and also plays guitar in Heathen; he played on the record as well.
I guess everything is intertwined, even with Heathen and your side projects such as Tenet. I gather doing side projects is healthy?
I mean, you know, it is something that keeps your chops up, I guess.
That makes sense with a lot of space between releases and situations being as they were. What still inspires you musically today?
Being able to do it at the level that I get to do it at, and so I love the fans, I love everything about it. I never have not. I don’t dislike any part of it. The plane flights and standing in line at the airport; that is the worst part of it all. Other than that, I like bus rides, I like showing up, I like everything, I like hanging out, I like seeing all my friends, I like playing with bands that are my heroes and I certainly like playing with bands who are my heroes who know who the fuck I am, if you know what I mean? So, I’m very fortunate individual. I grew up with a dream and I am fulfilling it, one hundred percent.
Musicianship in thrash metal is underappreciated broadly. Exodus could say you’ve influenced Faith No More and White Zombie.
Oh definitely and if you asked either one of those bands, they would tell you that. I mean, we have crossed paths with Rob Zombie many times and he is a big fan and appreciative of us, I am sure, because again, we were out before all of those bands, for the most part, doing it on a bigger level, regardless of what the end result is with success or how you look at it. You’re still an innovator. I mean, the Ramones never had a gold record, look at that, you know what I mean. Everybody knows who the Ramones are and there would not be the punk world or even the hard or heavy music without them. So, you know that is certainly how you look at it. Motörhead were the same way.
You hear about the early thrash metal scene with fans ripping venues to bits. Is there a bit of folklore to it or was this actually happening on a generally wide scale?
Oh, it happened. It happened at many shows. They would destroy when we played and even, just yeah, they would go crazy. I remember we played at the Warfield in San Francisco and they ripped the first fifteen rows of seats out. They were going to renovate the Warfield after our show anyway but that helped with that. The same thing happened at Perkins Palace [Pasadena]; they ripped the seats out and there were big old chunks of wall taken out. They broke the toilets in one venue that we played and took out the partitions. Yeah, they were kind of, especially kids man, when it was new and fresh, they were off the chain. Everywhere they’d go, that shit just got fucked up.
I do not doubt it, am just curious how booking agents and venue owners would look at it, saying, ‘Oh no, we don’t want thrash metal.’
There were venues that wouldn’t let us play there. The Whisky a Go Go didn’t like us and wouldn’t have use there and there were a lot of clubs that wouldn’t take thrash metal because, you know, with thrash metal fans, shit would get fucked up. So certain venues just wouldn’t have us there.
Times have changed and we’re all hopefully older and wiser. Andy Sneap has built up a brilliant production reputation and these day, also plays in Judas Priest. Both have a legacy – presumably you don’t clash on anything production wise?
Andy has done Exodus albums since 1998 so it is a given that he is doing the record. So, Andy was doing the record and then I left the band for ten years and then came back and Andy is still doing the records. So we wouldn’t think of working with anybody else and again, he was able to work with us because he wasn’t out with Judas Priest. It worked out very well for us. Andy knows us, he knows what the sound is that we are going for and he works great with Gary, he works great with everybody. We all know what we get from him and he knows what we can give him, and we know what he can do. So, it is an amazing marriage.
Impact is Imminent was a really good album and arrived just before grunge hit. What are your thoughts on that album today?
Ah, Impact, I loved, I would say that it was an album before its time, honestly, because it is a very heavy record. Our mentality was that we wanted the heaviest record on a major label, ever, because that record was on Capitol Records. Force of Habit, not so much but with Impact, now looking back at it, I wish that we could re-record it and use the tones and the knowledge and the technology that we have now. To redo it would be fun and it would be so heavy, it would be so much heavier.
Force of Habit had some interesting artwork.
We had Ralph Steadman do the artwork and he was Hunter S. Thompson’s illustrator, you know; a very famous artist and actually that artwork cost us thirty thousand dollars. Yeah that was stupid, oh yeah, we were dumbasses. Anyway, so he just ran with it and that is what he saw and so, because it was thirty thousand, we never got to meet him. He did it and sent it back to us and we were surprised that he did it all, you know, because he was such a very famous artist. So anyway, that is the story behind that. It didn’t work, it didn’t work at all.
The latest album artwork is impressive, from Swedish artist Par Olofsson.
That is what it should have been, you know what I mean, if we’d known Par back then, you know what I mean, it would have been a different story. But I mean, this is a way of going back to the days of buying a record and lying on your bed looking at all the fucking shit that is popping out on the album cover. That is what it is all about, this latest album cover will give you that.
It would be a waste not to have it on vinyl to fully appreciate the artwork.
I always thought that in the late 80s, the 90s, and into the 2000s, that CDs were like, ‘Wow, they just didn’t have the push that an album had,’ you know and I mean, I am fifty-seven years old so I remember being eleven, twelve or thirteen years old, buying a record once a week with my money and lying on my bed, putting it on my turntable and reading all of the liner notes, reading all the words to the songs and you know, looking at the album cover and looking at everything on it. I feel that that sensation was lost when CDs came in and they got rid of vinyl. But look, vinyl is back and what does everybody want? Everybody wants vinyl. It is just the way it is.
You mentioned Impact is Imminent was on Capitol Record. Do you think that they were finally catching up with everything that Combat Records and other independent labels had been doing?
To me, I just think that the allure and because we were kids at the time and what we knew from being children, was, ‘Wow, if you made it to the big league, you know, the things like the major labels, you’re going to be a millionaire,’ and be set, and I think when we went there, that was the mentality. They had a lot of money behind us and a lot of leverage but they didn’t know what to do with us, they didn’t know how to handle us, as a thrash metal band. They didn’t know how to market it. You know, when you’re going from a label like Combat, that does, or a label like Nuclear Blast that totally gets it, you don’t even need anybody else, that is exactly what you wanted. But the whole allure of being on Elektra or Capitol or A&M or Columbia Records or any big major record label, you know, you had fucking made it, you know, here comes the millions. But it was actually the reverse thing, I mean the people at the label knew nothing of what to do or how to sell it or how to market it and what to do with it, anywhere. So, it just came out and they dumped money into it, boom, then you go back in. That was a mistake but I think, again, it was a learning process which I appreciate now.
Certainly and I gather Gary being in Slayer would inform decisions that Exodus make?
There was never a business decision that was made without him. Gary is Exodus when it comes down to it but we had to work as well and touring is part of it, so, you know, when he couldn’t be there Kragen filled in. But, I mean, the seven year lapse between records, definitely had to do with that; our schedules never worked coincidentally and we couldn’t just like go, ‘Okay, we’re going to go and have this three month period where we are going to go and write the record and then bam!,’ because then you would not have gotten a Persona Non Grata, you know, so we had time to spend and we even fiddled with it and it made it right so that Persona Non Grata is what it is because of that, not because we had a time constraint. So yeah, I think that had everything to do with it.
The twin guitar aspect was coined the H-Team for Exodus. Do you ever find yourself on stage sometimes pinching yourself at how good the twin guitarists are a guitar playing?
I have been very fortunate over the years in the bands that I have played with to always play with great guitar players. If you think about it, I was the original singer for Legacy [Testament] so I am the kid who found Alex Skolnick. My kids’ band, Hatriot includes Kosta Varvatakis who is one of the best guitar players I have ever seen in my life. Gary and Lee are absolutely the best, as are Kragen, Rick, Eric Peterson, you know, everybody that I have been fortunate to play with, also, Glen Alvelais from Tenet, Jed Simon [Strapping Young Lad], everybody that I have been fortunate enough to do records with are all great players. I have kind of been spoiled in that realm so I am very spoiled. But I do look at the whole package of Gray Holt, not just as a guitar player but as a composer, as a producer, as a writer, as a leader and it works out very well. I trust him on everything, if that makes sense.
Finally, which track on the latest album is your favourite and most representative of Exodus now?
I don’t know about most representative but I have two favourites; Prescribing Horror and Lunatic-Liar-Lord. I would say that Lunatic-Liar-Lord is definitely a good description of what Exodus does but then also, the title track, definitely. The riff, the rhythm, the changes, everything about it. But my favourite song is Prescribing Horror.
Well sir, thanks for having a chat.
No problem, my man, we hope to see you guys soon. Man, we miss Australia, we want to come back, we really do.