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A Lesson in Violence: Exodus' Gary Holt & Lee Altus

Photo by Susan Moss.

The Bay Area thrash legends on their moonshine-vs.-wine riff-writing styles, reuniting (again) with vocalist Steve “Zetro” Souza, and founding guitarist Kirk Hammett’s cameo on Blood In, Blood Out.

In 2004, shortly after the release of Exodus’s sixth album, Tempo of the Damned, vocalist Steve “Zetro” Souza quit the band the evening before a sold-out Mexico City show and an impending South American tour. It wasn’t the first time—it had been less than two years since the thrash-metal vets last reunited following previous disputes. The resignation led to an all-out flame war and some of the most intense mudslinging in thrash history, culminating in guitarist and de facto bandleader Gary Holt publicly stating that Souza would never get his job back.

Fast-forward 10 years, and guess what? For 2014’s Blood In, Blood Out, Souza is back for his third stint with the Bay Area headbangers often credited with inventing thrash. For some fans, Souza is the voice of Exodus. But given his track record, will things work out this time around?

“Am I a fortune teller?” quips co-guitarist Lee Altus, who joined Exodus in 2005. “I can just tell you how things are going right now. I call it the honeymoon stage—of course, everything’s all peachy and great. Can I guarantee it’s not going to happen again? Absolutely not. But time heals all wounds, and I think he realizes the error of his ways. Let bygones be bygones.”

“If you ask Lee, he’ll probably tell you my riffs are stupid, crazy, and weird—even though, to me, they’re completely basic and simple.”
—Gary Holt

Blood In, Blood Out also marks another reunion: Kirk Hammett, founding Exodus guitarist (along with Tim Agnello, now a full-time pastor at a California Christian ministry) appears as a guest soloist on “Salt the Wound.” It’s Hammett’s first officially released recording with the band. (He played on Exodus’ 1982 demo, but departed to make metal history with Metallica before Exodus’ 1985 debut, Bonded by Blood.)

But for Holt and Altus, life isn’t just a big nostalgia trip. In addition to their stints with Exodus, they’ve remained at the forefront of the thrash scene. Since the 2013 passing of Jeff Hanneman, Holt has also toured and recorded with Slayer, and Altus still tours and records with Heathen, the Bay Area thrash band he co-founded in 1984.

Premier Guitar caught up with both guitarists to get the dirt on Blood In, Blood Out and find out why these thrash titans have ditched their modded Marshalls for digital technology.

Before we get into the heavy guitar stuff, how did Zetro get back in the picture?
Gary Holt:
Some issues arose between us and Rob [Dukes, vocalist since 2005]. Some were long-standing and some weren’t. It was never anything expected. We went into this album not thinking we were going to make any damn changes at all. Change isn’t something I embrace, you know?
Lee Altus:
It’s a sensitive subject and a he-said/she-said thing. It seemed like Rob just wasn’t into it anymore. He was going through a lot of stuff and wasn’t happy during the recording. He was getting married, and we were out on the West Coast recording—he’s from the East Coast, so he had to spend all this time here. But that’s part of the job.

Photo by Susan Moss.

Did you originally write Blood In, Blood Out with Rob in mind?
The songs were written for Rob. I tend to write with this band in mind, be it Zetro, Rob, or even Baloff [Paul Baloff, intermittent Exodus vocalist until his 2002 death]. It’s just one of those things. I love Rob—he’s an amazing singer and frontman. I watched him go from a guitar tech with a pink Mohawk and no vocal experience to being one of the best. I’m proud of that.

Did Rob record Blood In, Blood Out initially?
He finished all the songs except one. He went back home, and we were trying to decide what to do with the last song—whether to send him the track and have him finish it in New York or have him fly back here again. When we were listening to it, it sounded like someone just going through the motions—like somebody reading off the lyric sheet. It seemed like he just wasn’t there. When he joined in 2005, the guy was just unstoppable. Maybe he started taking it for granted in some ways, but when we talked to him, he was like, “No, that’s really not true. You guys have got it wrong.” Maybe that’s true—but then it’s even more unfortunate.
When it became apparent that we needed to make a change, it came down to, “Do we audition new guys or give Zetro a call?” We explored both possibilities, and the first thing we did was find out where Zetro was mentally, and how prepared he was to come back and give it everything he’s got. He was. From there, we let him audition. We gave him one of the new songs, and he had the audio file for seven hours—and the lyrics for two. When he sang it, it sounded like he’d been singing it for 10 years. It felt so natural and right that we didn’t explore any other options.

Do you guys write as a band?
I wrote most of everything. Lee wrote the lyrics to “Honor Killings,” and Jack [Gibson, bass], Lee, and Zetro wrote the lyrics to “Body Harvest.” It was the first time Jack got involved in that.

How would you describe the differences between your writing styles?
If you ask Lee, he’ll probably tell you my riffs are stupid, crazy, and weird—even though, to me, they’re completely basic and simple [laughs]. Everybody has their own little ways they do things, but we’re both Bay Area guys and we both write Bay Area thrash. It’s not like you have one guy’s songs that sound obviously different from the other guy’s.
Altus: Gary’s writing is like making moonshine, and mine is like making wine. He’s really fast, while I tend to be more anal and overthink stuff. It drives everybody else crazy. Other than that we both just write in that Bay Area style. We grew up with the same influences: everything from the New Wave of British Heavy Metal to Rainbow, Priest, Deep Purple, and Sabbath.

Photo by Susan Moss.

What’s the trick to getting the evil sound in the intro riffs of songs like “Numb,” “Collateral Damage,” “Wrapped in the Arms of Rage,” and “BTK”?
It’s just octaves and shit like that. I haven’t listened to it for a while. I tend to not listen to my own records when they’re done. I’m not the guy who sits there and blasts the record in the car over and over. If we’re about to play something from the record out on the road, I’ll pull it out if I need a reference, but I don’t sit there patting myself on the back and thinking, “This album’s so killer.” I’ve heard it lots of times and I do think it’s really good, and now I’ll go back to listen to some UFO records.

The solos on songs like “BTK” have sections with harmonized parts weaving in and out. How do you decide which parts to harmonize?
A lot of times, it’s planned as a harmony section from the get-go, and we just figure out the run and how to play it in harmony. The little harmonies and subtle layers usually happen near the end of the recording process, when we listen to see if spots could use a little thickening or some textures.

Gary, how did you reconnect with Kirk Hammett?
I did so many shows over the past couple of years with Kirk while I was playing with Slayer. We’ve shared the stage with Metallica several times and we totally reconnected on, like, a 1981 level. When we get together we’re still like kids, just talking about the old days. If anyone stands there listening to these stories, they piss their pants at what criminals we used to be. It went from there to like, “You should do a solo on the record.” Kirk recently said he thought about it for like 60 seconds and was like, “Fuck yeah.” I think for Kirk it was kind of like going home, coming full circle and playing a solo for the first time on an Exodus record. This is the second recorded Exodus moment for Kirk, after the first “Whipping Queen” demo. He got to come back to where he started for a little bit.

Gary Holt Gear

ESP single-cut signature-model prototypes (yet to be released)

Kemper Profiler

Maxon OD-9 Overdrive
Boss OC-2 Octaver
MXR Bass Octave Deluxe
TC Electronic G-System
TC Electronic Shaker
Pigtronix War Hog
HomeBrew Electronics signature Doomsday Device
Voodoo Lab Ground Control MIDI foot controller
Voodoo Lab GCX Audio Switcher

Strings and Picks
Dunlop .010-.050 Heavy Core strings (Exodus)
Dunlop .009-.046 strings (for standard tuning and Slayer)
Dunlop .010-.052 strings (for C# tuning)
Dunlop .010-.058 strings (for B tuning)
Dunlop Tortex .88 mm picks cables
Dunlop straps
Schaller strap locks
Line 6 wireless system

Lee Altus' Gear

Various ESP V models

Amps and Effects
Kemper Profiler

Strings and Picks
Dunlop .010-.052 strings (for D tuning)
Dunlop .009-.046 strings (for standard tuning)
Dunlop Tortex .88 mm picks

Tell us about his solo on “Salt the Wound.”
He came down to our studio at the Goat Ranch and whipped out a bunch of takes, and we picked the best one. It’s totally killer. Kirk does the F# solo and I do the second solo in C#. I just rip off [Michael] Schenker as hard as I can on that one.

Did you offer suggestions on what you wanted from Kirk?
Nah, come on—he’s coming back to the old band that he started! Kirk’s got his own style. Some people like it, and some people don’t and talk shit about it. But if you’re big, people just want to bring you down. And now, with social media, everybody’s got an opinion. I like Kirk. He’s not one of those guitar-hero shredder guys, but one thing I give him credit for is that he created his own style. There are a lot of players who came out from those guitar institutes or whatever, and technically they’re awesome—don’t get me wrong—but they have no soul. They all sound the same. I don’t know if it’s Tony MacAlpine or Yngwie. With Kirk, love him or not, the first note you hear, you know it’s him. A lot of young guitar players think it’s all about how you play technically, or arpeggios or whatever, but the hardest thing is to achieve your own style. Obviously, you start with your influences, but you put all that together and make a jambalaya, and hopefully come out with your own style. The more distinct your style is, the harder it is to achieve that. Two notes in, you know it’s Eddie Van Halen. Two notes in, you know it’s Kirk Hammett. That’s big.

What are your main guitars?
After many years of absence, I’ve just rejoined the ESP family. Right now they’re sending me mockups of my new signature model, which will be available at three price points. I opted to go with the Les Paul [-style] body this time. I’ve been playing Vs for a long time and wanted to switch. The new guitars are super badass. They’re 24 3/4" scale and have a Floyd Rose, red multi-ply binding, and red EMGs. The higher-price-point one is black with a red metallic swirl—it almost looks like lava. Then I have a gloss-red guitar with just black binding, and I think that’s the baddest-looking one. And then we have a simple starter-level one.
Altus: I’m mainly playing ESPs, too. I’ve been with them since the late ’80s. I’ve always been happy with them, so I never switched. Over the years I’ve used everything from Vs to King Vs. Lately I’ve been sticking with King Vs. I like the way they feel and play.

What about amps?
I used the Kemper Profiler on everything on the new album. It’s the first time I’ve recorded with it, though I’ve had one for a while. When I got mine they didn’t even have the rack models yet. I’ve got profiles of my modded Marshalls and Engls all in there. I just plugged it in and let it rip.
Altus: When we started, I remember having Marshalls we would modify, and it was like, “How many distortion boxes can we plug in to get any kind of tone out of it?” Now you basically have a computer chip that does that. When we go somewhere like South America or do a fly-in show, no matter how much you tell them exactly what you want, you know you’re not going to get it. And even if you do, you don’t know what kind of shape it’s in—the tubes could be shot. This eliminates that. You always bring your tone with you.

Photo by Bruce Getty.

Are your old amps collecting dust?
I don’t know what to do with the heads I’ve collected over the years. I put everything into the Kemper, and all the sounds are there. There are certain amps, like the Mesa/Boogie Mark III that they don’t make anymore, or my specially modified Marshall JCM800, that I’m definitely hanging on to, but for the rest it’s like, “I don’t really need you. Gotta let you go.”
Holt: My modded Marshalls are retiring. Fortunately, I’ve got a perfect profile of them now. If we’re flying into a gig, Lee and I just take the Kemper. We run direct out front when we use it, but I go through cabs, too, because I need some interaction with speakers. I have some random nameless cabs with really great speakers: Celestion Vintage 30s.
Altus: I’ll use any cab. It doesn’t really matter.

Gary, do you use the Kemper for Slayer as well?
No, I use the new Marshall DSL 100 heads. Three of them with six cabs—it’s awesome! I put a Maxon distortion in front just to boost it a little.

What effects did you use for Blood In, Blood Out?
I use a ton of different pedals. I love stompboxes—they’re like crack to me! I have pedals from Maxon, Dunlop, HomeBrew Electronics, Pigtronix. I use a lot of the Maxon Tube Screamer-type pedals. They made the original ones, so they have ones that are exactly like the original, sought-after ones, and they also have updated versions.

“A lot of young guitar players think it’s all about how you play technically, or arpeggios or whatever, but the hardest thing is to achieve your own style. Obviously, you start with your influences, but you put all that together and make a jambalaya, and hopefully come out with your own style.” —Lee Altus

I also love the Boss Octaver. I’ve never been without one my whole life. Dunlop makes a bass octave pedal, which sounds probably even a little better and has a smaller footprint, which I also like. And I use a Voodoo Lab Ground Control. With Slayer, I’ve been using the Dunlop Jerry Cantrell wah. Kerry [King] uses the Zakk Wylde wah, so I wanted something to differentiate our wah sounds.
Altus: The Kemper’s got a lot of good effects. For solos I use a little bit of chorus and a delay. Sometimes I throw in a little bit of reverb. It depends where we play.

Lee, do you use any effects outside of the Kemper?
Not anymore. It’s all stripped down and simplified. I’m completely spoiled. I just wish they would make it smaller—like the size of an iPhone—so you don’t have to worry if an airline is going to lose it.

Gary, you’ve been playing live with Slayer and Exodus. How do you mentally recalibrate for each situation?
I’ve been doing it for some time now, and with Exodus the songs are totally second nature. It’s the same way with a lot of the Slayer songs, but then you have the ones that make their appearance every now and then on the setlist. For those I have to give myself a little refresher course before going out.

YouTube It

This footage from last summer shows Steve “Zetro” Souza back at the helm and slaying at the Antwerp Metal Festival

How do you prepare? It must be physically demanding.
Certainly. In November, we have a four-week tour where I’ll be playing twice a night. You just have to prepare and take care of yourself. You can’t sit there pounding down cheap vodka until four in the morning.

Are you doing intense warm-ups?
Yeah, you’ve got to stretch before you do this shit. I’m 50 years old, and pulling muscles is a common occurrence if you don’t take steps to prevent it.

Last question: Would you say Exodus is the greatest thrash band of all time?
Of course—only a loser would say we weren’t! [Laughs.] I’ve always said that the greatest thrash-metal album ever made is [Metallica’s] Master of Puppets. I think it’s the best metal album ever made. It’s perfect from start to finish. As far as pure thrash, I don’t think anything can top [Exodus’ debut album] Bonded by Blood. But you know, there are a whole lot of others. [Slayer’s] Reign in Blood is pretty fuckin’ killer, and so are [Anthrax’s] Among the Living and [Megadeth’s] Peace Sells … but Who’s Buying? There’s a plethora of awesome albums that can enter into any conversation about that.
Altus: I would say Exodus is one of them—definitely in the top three. But if you ask who started thrash metal, Exodus was doing it before Anthrax—they were power metal. Metallica were not even really doing it, and even Slayer were more like Priest. So if you want to get, like, to the beginning of time, you could say that Exodus was the first.