Nuclear Blast

Exodus – The Bay Area Thrash Pioneers Roar Back

Persona Non Grata has been out in the world for just over a week, dropping on November 19, and yet it’s already a fan favorite – which is quite the big deal for a band that has been around over for over four decades.

Exodus is the priority. Guitarist Gary Holt’s time with Slayer is in his back mirror and it is time to focus all of his attention on the band that originally took him to the dance. And who can blame him? The band’s long-awaited new album Persona Non Grata is the Bay area thrashers’ best in decades, if not in their entire nearly 40-year career. Produced by the band and perfectly mixed and mastered by longtime collaborator Andy Sneap, it’s a disc for which such cliches as “face melting” and “blistering” actually apply. With such ferocious tracks as “Lunatic-Liar-Lord,” “Clickbait,” and the title track, the album is certain to turn heads, especially of those who no longer consider them one of American Thrash Metal’s fabled four, which arguably include Metallica, Slayer, Megadeth, and Anthrax.

Fans and artists alike have been demanding that “The Four” to “The Five.” After all, it was Exodus who released the genre-defining debut Bonded By Blood during the mid-eighties, before most of their contemporaries released their respective debut opuses. Not that Holt cares. The guitarist is in a jovial mood. In addition to Exodus’s amazing new album, his band is gearing up to get back up on stage, something Holt has not been able to do since COVID-19 reared its ugly head, but Exodus’ future looks especially bright and he is ready to get the ball rolling.

For an aging Thrash fan like myself, I must admit, I was pleasantly surprised by just how strong Persona Non Grata is. Not just the songs, but the guitar work, the production, the engineering, and the mix are all pitch perfect.

Thank you, but I agree. The record is gargantuan in its sonic abilities and we couldn’t be happier. I am getting older as well and when I wake up each morning, every joint in my body hurts except my neck.

Ironically, I just read a report that stated, “Heavy metal is bad for your health,” and that headbanging is harmful to your neck. I laughed. I first read that same warning more than 40 years ago.

I have had life-long back problems – not from heavy metal, but from when I was younger and was a skateboarder. I damaged my L5 disc. I’ve seen a chiropractor on and off for decades. During my twenties, I showed the chiropractor what I do [while performing on stage] and he said, “That’s the worst thing I have ever seen anyone do to his neck.” [Laugh] “That is terrible. You should not do that.”

Nearly four decades after forming, however, Exodus are still going strong.

Well, we love what we do. That is the key. If you are faking it and you don’t like playing this type of aggressive music, it would be impossible to write these kind of songs. You would just be faking it and it would hurt. Our newer material is 10 times harder to play than our early stuff. We are certainly not making our jobs any easier. We do it because it brings us happiness.

When The Aquarian last caught up with Testament’s Chuck Billy in March 2020, he said he wanted Exodus to tour with Testament in the states, but they needed to release a new album first.

We worked on Persona Non Grata all last summer. [Drummer] Tom Hunting and I got together at his place up in the mountains in July 2020.

Early in 2020, we were touring with Testament in Europe, during which we were being chased by COVID. We were fortunate. If we had started a few weeks later, we would have lost half of the tour. When we came home our only goal was to record a new album. We were lucky. We didn’t lose a whole summer of touring like so many other bands. The shutdown worked in our favor.

Then Tom fell ill with cancer.

He was undergoing treatment, so we pushed the recording of the album back to November 2020 believing Tom would be recovered and the pandemic would have subsided. Well, Tom’s treatment went well, but the pandemic is still as strong as ever. And the risk of positive tests equaled cancelled shows and debt, so we just pushed the whole tour off ‘til next year.

When the fully vaccinated former Secretary of State Colin Powell recently died of COVID as well as others undergoing chemotherapy treatment, I immediately thought of Tom and the dangers he would face while touring.

Tom is immune compromised. He is done with his chemo. After his surgery, they waited enough time for his immune system to build back up and they were going to resume chemo, but after testing they told him that he did not need it. That was the best news we could have received, but right now, we want him at full strength before we immerse him in a Petri dish of people. 

The rescheduled Bay Strikes Back tour with Testament and Death Angel begins in April.

Yes. It’s another round of months of me sitting around and not touring. Aside from the chance of cancelled shows – you see 90% of the tours out there being affected – we wouldn’t be able to hang out with each other. We don’t want to live in bubbles. The last tour we did in Europe was super-massive fun, because we are all old friends. For Testament, Exodus, and Death Angel to go out on the road together and not co-mingle and have to walk around with masks on is not appealing. None of us are anti-vaccine or anti-masks, but we are pro-fun. We are willing to wait until the situation improves. We are not making a statement against anything; we just don’t want to get stuck in a hotel room in the middle of the US losing money while we are in quarantine for 10 days. We came to the decision that if we did that on the road – if someone tested positive – the tour is done. Then you are stuck with tens of thousands of merchandise with incorrect tour dates that you have to try and sell at swap meets. [Laughs]

Although I understand, Exodus has a reputation where they could still sell those shirts – and Chuck Billy is a COVID-19 and cancer survivor as well.


The world still does not know the full-effects of COVID-19.

Yes. Hopefully, next year we will be back out there and having fun.

And no one thought the pandemic would go on for so long.

If everyone would get vaccinated, it wouldn’t have to go on. People say that even when vaccinated, you could still get it. Well, if you could get a vaccine that reduces [a deadly disease] to a nasty cold, you don’t have to overflow the hospitals and you wouldn’t have to have the snowballing amount of problems it is causing. We could get back to normal. Unfortunately, some people are more willing to take a de-worming agent than the vaccine. It is crazy. I wish people would realize that chemists, scientists, and the pharmaceutical companies are responsible for both the vaccines and the de-wormer. There is no logic in the world anymore.

How did your time playing with Slayer influence the new album?

Not at all. [Exodus and Slayer] are two different entities, two different bands. I am always writing riffs. I have a catalog of thousands of riffs. I have some great stuff that wasn’t used on the new album. I get super A.D.D. [Attention Deficit Disorder] about riffs, ‘cause I’ll come up with something new and think, “Do I sit [on the new one] and dig into the older stuff?” Sometimes, I’ll sit with Tom and play him stuff I’ve recorded on my phone and he’ll say, “Wait! Play that one again.” And I will have forgotten how to play it on my guitar. [Laughs]

You have to be careful about losing your cell phone. It happened once to former Exodus and current Metallica guitarist Kirk Hammett. He lost a slew of material.

I have my stuff backed up, but if I lose my phone, I wouldn’t care. I’ve used the stuff I have really wanted to and by the time we do the next album, I’ll probably record another thousand riffs that I don’t listen back to.

When downloading Persona Non Grata, the disc’s genre is listed as Thrash Metal. Maybe that was true in 1984, but in 2021?

I still refer to Exodus as a thrash metal band. Thrash doesn’t have to be old school high-top sneakers and stuff. It never was. I have never shied away from the title. I embrace it and love it. We are a thrash metal band and always will be.

The fantastic new track “Lunatic-Liar-Lord” incorporates acoustic guitars and tribal drums. That is new to Exodus.

It has all kinds of stuff going on. On our second album, Pleasures of the Flesh, we were doing the tribal thing and we had [former guitarist] Rick Hunolt in front of the microphone making noises like a parrot or a cockatoo. [Laughs] Yes, ladies and gentlemen, that was not a real bird.

Who made the baby noises on the new album?

Longtime band producer, engineer, and mixer Andy Sneap put those in and we loved it. More babies!

What recent metal album hasn’t Andy worked on?

He is a super in-demand producer, but he is also one of our best friends. He has worked with us [in some fashion] on everything Exodus has done since 1997. We work so well together because we are such close friends. We both want the same things for the band. We are not a young band that requires a producer to tell us how to do it but having him there means another person [in the studio] who knows how to do it. We can put our minds together and come up with some great things.

He can bring an objective perspective.

Totally. And he says working with Exodus is like walking into a living breathing episode of The Banana Splits, ‘cause we are pretty much out of our minds when we are in the studio. [Laughs]

As you and I have grown older, we can no longer do the things we once did when we were in our twenties.

I am sober right now. Other than during the pandemic, in the world of heavy metal guys who drink, I was practically a tea-totaller. I avoided hangovers at all costs. I drank beer every day, but I’m a beer drinker. Sitting around at home with nothing to do during this damn pandemic this summer, I found myself pounding beers each day. I saw the signs of what could be to come, so I stopped.

I have always considered Exodus one of the elite four of American heavy metal. What happened for the band to have fallen from that distinction?

I don’t waste any thoughts on that. I don’t waste thoughts on any comparisons to any levels of success. In the whole tree of thrash metaling, I know where I was and where Exodus were when this started. And I know where other guys were not. I don’t need to be put into that conversation. I am still here. I am 57 years old. I may be biased, but I believe we are putting out albums that kick the shit out of our contemporaries.

I always wondered if you regretted not taking the record deal with Def American Records soon after Slayer signed.

We never actually had a deal on the table. [Owner and legendary producer] Rick Rubin was a big fan back then and things certainly could have been different. Capitol Records tried to sign us for two albums. When we were finally free agents, [after leaving Combat/Relativity] and we did sign with Capitol, everyone who had fought for the band were gone. We no longer had an ally there. Rick Rubin was going nowhere in the world of Def American, so if he was an ally then, he would have seen us through the recording process. That would have been a positive for sure. But shit happens and I don’t really give any thought to what I should have, or could have, done. You do learn from your mistakes and I try not to repeat any of them.

At the time, there was also label interest from Sire. We could have been label mates with Madonna. [Laughs]. That the label was known more for alternative might have been a good pairing for us – at the same time, I don’t think anyone there would have understood our music. By the time we recorded for Capitol, no one there understood the music. Although they did have Megadeth, we were 20 times more gnarly and abrasive than them.

And now there are labels like Nuclear Blast, but the recording industry isn’t what it once was.

In a way, that is good. It gives a lot of control back to the musicians.

On the other hand, there is no longer a budget to fly dopey music journalists like me out to California to speak with you in person. We are conversing on the phone. [Laughs]

Those days are gone. I do miss the days [of press junkets]… and I’m old enough to remember what print magazines were.

How do you think the shakeup of vocalists, including Paul Baloff, Steve “Zetro” Souza and Rob Dukes, affected the band?

Yes, we have had a lot of shakeups… more than most bands. There are other bands out there like Napalm Death who continue with no original members. And they are still totally awesome. All of the Exodus vocalists are a part of the family and all have their firm branches in the Exodus tree. I am proud of what we did with all of them.

I never knew that Testament and Exodus have been so close. I always figured there was acrimony after Steve Zetro Souza left the band [the called Legacy] to join Exodus.

I am sure there was acrimony of there part [when Zetro left]. We took their singer! But everything worked out for them as well. They have Chuck Billy come into their ranks and he has become a legendary frontman.