Interview – Exodus’ Gary Holt, the Alcohol-Free Grandpa Still Mad at the World
After seven long years, thrash icons Exodus are back with a new album, Persona Non Grata. The drought is entirely excusable — after all, Gary Holt stepped up and assumed duties in Slayer in the wake of Jeff Hanneman's death, and saw it through to the end of the group's exhaustive farewell tour. Now, able to turn his full attention back to Exodus, which he co-founded in 1979, fans will be greeted with high-potency riffs and scathing social commentary, which Holt went into further detail about in our recent interview.
Even though he's living the grandpa life and flooding his Instagram with cat memes, Holt still hasn't softened much and channels the familiar sense of rage and violence that has dominated Exodus' music for 11 albums now. His motivations for anger and discontent, however, have shifted a bit as he sees the world his grandchildren will inherit plunging into total chaos and upheaval.
The beauty of Persona Non Grata is that wherever your political and social allegiances lie, the lyrics are likely to resonate. Holt and his bandmates disagree on quite a lot politically, but, overall, the messages ring true regardless, which is the hallmark of timeless music.
Our conversation, spurred by the furious new single "Clickbait," even delves into what makes something actual, genuine clickbait and "Elitist" drives us to reconsider the definition of elitism and its perception. Holt, for one, has valid reasons as to why elitism can be a good thing — and, no, he's not talking about elitism and gatekeeping in metal. He even made time to praise Limp Bizkit!
Wrapping up, the chat turned to some banter about trashy reality TV shows, of which Holt is a rabid fan of, as well as continuing his newfound alcohol-free lifestyle.
Let's get the smallest amount of Slayer talk out of the way early here… Stepping away from Slayer after wrapping up the tour and going back to Exodus after having to kind of live in Jeff Hanneman's hands for the last few years, are there any Jeff-isms that you found coming out in your playing as you were developing new riffs for this album?
I don't think so, but that's not to say I don't take anything from Jeff. In Slayer, I was allowed to basically to do my own thing and I just tried to match vibe of what Jeff did — frantic whammy bar… I wasn't going to take that as an opportunity to start throwing in sweep arpeggios. I was going to like to try to keep it crazy — the music demands it. I know, like, five licks, and I just play them real fast and mix them up enough that hopefully people don't notice.
Yeah, so you had an unexpected break with the pandemic, but it gave you a really cool opportunity to do something else full time, which was to be full-time grandpa.
It was amazing. The family time was killer, but the pandemic also introduced me to the beginnings of a full-scale drinking problem. I managed to get and take care of it before it became that.
The positives though were time at home with kids and time to work on this album the way we wanted to. We're able to just lock ourselves away up in the mountains and do nothing but write music. As Tom says, the one thing we had control of was to write music.
We didn't lose a summer of tours because we weren't going to do it. So, we're lucky, but unfortunately, we're still postponing shit. Otherwise, everything would've worked perfectly for us — Tom is recovering from cancer and the timing could not have been more perfect, but I think he needs the additional time at home to get back to full strength to be able to do four or five weeks on the road.
Tom received a diagnosis that does not end well for most people, but it did for him. He's a strong motherfucker, and he battled that shit and he wasn't alone.
An Exodus album is never lacking in anger, rage and violence and Persona Non Grata really threads that needle. How has your relationship with the emotions of anger and rage changed from the early days of Exodus to now? Are you still getting mad at the same things? Do you react differently?
I've always channeled my anger into the music. There were times in my life during some of the other parts of the modern era where I was generally an angry dude, and I was channeling that anger.
Now I'm the happiest, most positivity filled fucking angry man you'll ever find. The music is also very therapeutic. It allows me to like to vent those frustrations. I'm super fortunate — I'm 57 years old doing what I love to do and I've got nothing to complain about.
It's a constant shifting of things that set you off as you get older — you become a little bit cranky or become that get-off-my-lawn old guy. I try not to be that guy. I'm super tolerant of kids. It's the adults that I don't like that are responsible for everything bad this world today. There's always another set of adults coming up behind the last one to fuck it all up.
I get most angry at the world my grandchildren are being left behind. As a parent and as a grandparent, your goal in life in every way is to leave a better world for your offspring, and I don't see that happening.
Exodus, "The Beatings Will Continue (Until Morale Improves)"
Let's talk about clickbait! It's the title of a song on the new record we are obviously in the media on our end at Loudwire. There's difference between a well-crafted headline intended to properly draw you into a story and something that is actually clickbait — what, in your mind, separates those two things?
I got sucked in by as much clickbait as anybody on the planet during these last few years.
When you read the article and basically the premise of everything you just read is completely not the image that the headline gave you — it's not just political news, it's metal news and news in general because their income is derived by clicks. They need you to click on it and they don't care if you read it — you've just got to open that fucking page and that's their whole goal. They don't know if you've read the article, but they do know if you open the fucking link.
I keep my Instagram completely politics-free because there's enough fucking battles going on everywhere else. I hate moderating battles online. I don't want to be a moderator — I want to post kitten pictures and fucking guitars and leave it at that.
What's clickbait to you is not clickbait to someone who believes in different things. If it's news you like, it's never clickbait. Everybody knows I'm a liberal, but I'm a centrist more than anything. I'm very conservative on certain things, so the news I read is not clickbait at all. I believe every bit of it.
Let's talk about "Elitist." It's a total knuckle-dragger — great riff, great hooks. It's so much fun. Is there any point in your life where you acted with a certain air of elitism?
With that song, the lyrical angle was Zetro's lyrical angle. I was writing the song originally but my workload got really high. I didn't instruct him on how to do it, because Exodus is a band of varying political ideologies and we allow that and encourage it. We hardly agree on shit politically, but we're still best friends, and we just don't argue about it.
Since when is [being an elitist] a bad thing? If I'm up on murder charges, I want an elite fucking lawyer. If I need brain surgery, I want an elite surgeon. Everybody thinks they're better than someone else. Everyone, it's what makes the world go around is the air superiority everybody can have against someone else.
Are you allowed to think you're better than some people? Yes, absolutely. Should you think you're better than people for the wrong reasons? No.
What about musical elitism? The reaction from a lot of you original thrashers when nu-metal came along was to rejected it, but that's natural to reject the next wave that comes after you, especially in youth. Have you changed as far as being a musical elitist?
I listen to everything, but you could drop me on a desert island with the UFO and Rainbow catalogs and I wouldn't need anything else. My favorite album on earth right now is Haim, Women in Music Pt. III — it's a fucking masterclass in songwriting.
Haim, "The Steps" Music Video
Nu-metal… the hip-hop elements had metal people like crying foul [that it was] rap with loud guitars. I always said nu-metal was the home for bad white rappers. To this day, you have fucking Machine Gun Kelly, who gets dissed out of the rap game and now he's in the rock game. Why do we keep bringing them in? But then you have someone like Zack from Rage Against the Machine, who is one of the greatest rappers of all time.
We did a festival together a few years ago with Slayer with Limp Bizkit and I watched their set. They were amazing… It was fun. It was heavy, it was tight as fuck and I've always thought Wes is a great guitar player — phenomenal and different and interesting. Sometimes you've got to see it for yourself to appreciate it.
I made the decision myself a few years ago that, unless I was really pushed, I won't diss musicians anymore because who's to say if something is good or if it sucks? It's taste. I've tried to make myself the ambassador of trying to never diss people who play guitar because I want more people to play guitar.
On Persona Non Grata you've even got a fun acoustic aside with bit of a southern vibe to it — "Cosa Del Pantano." What's your relationship with the acoustic guitar? Do you start a lot of riffs on acoustic that wind up electric?
We recorded up in the mountains at Tom's and when we weren't rehearsing or recording, music was still being created and played all day — acoustic guitars laid out everywhere and when we're done with the loud stuff, I'd sit down and work on things… Tom liked that one a lot and he started calling it 'Swamp Thing.' I got out my phone and translated 'Swamp Thing' to Spanish — "Cosa Del Pantano."
Since we've brought up you on Instagram already… I see you talking about some trashy reality TV every now and then…
It's like a whole other level of fucking pain and suffering because I'm the one suffering but I love this shit. My wife and I watch it and we full on yell at the TV and curse these people — it's like Mystery Science Theater 3000. I'm a longtime veteran [viewer] of Little Women: Atlanta. They're just hilarious in their thirst for fame and notoriety and twerking. It's really awful.
In the pandemic I started watching 90 Day Fiancé and the really good stories are the ones where the people are being catfished. It's awesome.
Love After Lockup is another classic. These dudes get catfished by these women in prison and they think they're in love with them. They're in there for fraud and violence and shit and it's awesome — it's a super guilty pleasure of mine.
You're also newly sober as of the last few months. I see you doing so many outdoor projects and just really going out there and getting an after it — you made a giant table top. How involved are you in more of these kind of day-to-day activities than you were before when you were drinking?
Before I quit drinking I still worked all day around the house. I'veI got like 2.6 acres and it's all trees and work never stops. I was only here a few months with my wife and a massive oak tree fell on the fucking deck, nearly missing where I was standing 45 minutes earlier barbecuing.
Does waking with that kind of daily purpose help you in your sobriety?
Absolutely. The only thing I would miss about drinking is the taste of beer and I've found that there's amazing alcohol free beers out there now.
The first time I went out sober was to a benefit in Sacramento for Tom Hunting, and I knew I was going to get swarmed on for autographs because sometimes I'm still Gary Holt from Slayer, I'm not Gary from Exodus and I'm showing up to a small club. Usually I'd have a couple of beers before I walk in to take the edge off because you're socially awkward sometimes. I got kind of closed in on for a minute and I felt kind of unsure of myself and I went into the dressing room. They had some alcohol free beers and I drank one and the placebo effect is real. I went back out and I hung out till I took every photo that anybody wanted, and I felt great.
Thanks to Gary Holt for the interview. Get your copy of Exodus' new album 'Persona Non Grata' here (out Nov. 19 on Nuclear Blast) and follow the band on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and Spotify.