Interview by Eamon O’Neill
San Francisco’s Exodus have banging heads that do not bang since 1983. At the very forefront of the nascent thrash metal movement along with the likes of Metallica and Testament, the Bay Area band set the world alight, first with their high energy live performances and then with a string of now classic LP releases. Going through numerous line-up changes along the way, the band has been active, on and off for more than three decades. Having welcomed back vocalist Steve ‘Zetro’ Souza in 2014, the five-piece have gone from strength to strength, as seen on latest release ‘Blood In, Blood Out’. We caught up with Zetro in Dublin, for an exclusive in-depth chat about the band’s long history. Learning a lesson in violence.
Welcome back to Dublin!
It’s good to be back. I haven’t been here since ’89. It was ‘Fabulous Disaster’ tour the last time we came to Dublin; Zetro with Exodus.
You’re currently touring ‘Blood In, Blood Out’ which came out in 2014.
We’re working on two years almost. Time flies. Where does the time go?
I want to take you back to the start. Exodus were true thrash metal originators.
We’re not considered one of the ‘Big 4’, and I hate that phrase. Metallica is by far the biggest band in the world, so to put the other three in that category? No disrespect to Megadeth, Anthrax or Slayer; I love all of those bands, but I lived in the Bay Area when metal was being born, and everybody wanted to be like Exodus. That goes from Possessed, Legacy, Death Angel; it was not necessarily Metallica, it was Exodus, so to me that was the band that innovated and started it out.
Was there a lot of competition in those early days?
Sure there was. I looked at it like everyone looked at it – I would have to say if you didn’t look at it like that, then you were not hungry enough to do this. You know what they say; only the strong survive. But I think it’s fresher now, and it’s a lot of fun now. I think back then we were so worried about trying to be the number one like everybody was, you lose sight of everyone else and everything else. But now it’s like we pull for everybody like champions. We want to see everybody else succeed and make it, whereas before it was like; “I gotta notch myself up!”
In those early days you were part of what was to become Testament.
Oh you mean Legacy? If you look at the initial period, if you had to ‘clock in’, I would have to clock in around ’83. ‘Kill ‘Em All’ came out in ’83, ‘Fistful Of Metal’ came out in ’83, but it was not a thrash record necessarily. Dave [Mustaine] came from Metallica, so I would consider Megadeth very much a thrash band, and Slayer definitely was a thrash band from L.A. I remember Slayer coming up to San Francisco the first time with the black paint around their eyes, and Exodus told them to take it off. I wasn’t even in the band then, but even the Slayer guys were like; “this is how we have to be. We’ve gotta be like these guys”.
So Exodus were at the year zero of thrash?
Well I think I would have to say so, and I lived it. I wasn’t even in the band then so that’s why my point is when I was even in Legacy, there would have been no other band in the world I would have left for but the grand example of the guys that I was trying to emulate.
You got that opportunity, and your first album was 1987’s ‘Pleasures of the Flesh’. What was it like finally joining the band?
I think that that was a transition. People were very mush used to Paul [Baloff, original vocalist], and to get a new singer in a band like that, especially after a monumental debut record comes out, it’s a big drastic thing. But it worked – it took a minute, but it worked, and then by ‘Fabulous [Disaster, 1989]’ people had forgotten, and by ‘Impact [Is Imminent, 1990]’ and ‘Force [Of Habit, 1992]’, it was I was the singer and people were like; “you had another singer?”
Those were clearly the heady days of thrash metal.
I’m talking about ’88 to ’91 – thrash was just; you could cut it with a fine tooth comb, man. It was up in the forefront, people were talking about it, and everywhere we went the shows were sold out. It was just this great thing. People were in the crowd being able to slam into each other, so it was a new inception for a lot of things.
Most thrash bands were all signed to major labels by then. It was a big thing, wasn’t it?
Yeah, and it was the demise of it all too. They didn’t know what to do with it.
Metallica changed their sound, Testament were releasing ballads; was change being forced upon Exodus too?
It was for ‘Force Of Habit’. There’s some really good heavy stuff on there, but there’s some stuff I just truly despise on that record. I don’t like ‘When It Rains It Pours’, and I don’t like ‘Climb Before The Fall’. I don’t think they belong on that record – or on any Exodus record. We did a song that was kind of a B Side, and it didn’t make the record but on the Japanese version there was ‘Crawl Before You Walk’, and it was terrible, and there was another one called ‘Telapathetic’; they were just terrible f****n’ songs, stuff that wasn’t our signature. We were just trying to, you know, get a record label that had Garth Brooks and f****n’ Tina Turner to give us some attention.
‘Force OF Habit’ is a very different Exodus album, down to even its cover art.
I mean, the logo! We changed the logo and it’s like; “uh-oh!” We had Ralph Steadman who was like a famous artist, do that cover. He was Hunter S. Thompson’s illustrator, and it was like; “oh cool, we’ll have him do it!” We spent so much money on that record, it was stupid. I could have opened a chain of f****n disco, f****n’ topless dancer places with the money we spent on that m***a f****r. Live and learn.
The band seemed to run out of steam around this period.
I don’t know; running out of steam? I think the scene was. All of a sudden metal just disappeared, and as that happened, the labels that had snapped up the thrash bands like ourselves were starting to let them go. And all the other independent labels that had risen like Roadrunner and Nuclear Blast were like; “now they’re dirty laundry, nobody wants them”.
Fast forward a few years, and you returned to the band in the early 2000s’.
It was 2002. The tide was changing for metal, but it was still at the beginning stages, and we all had a substance problem by that time. We were also being directed in the wrong direction. I had young kids and a wife, and it wasn’t right for me anyway. I don’t regret the way I left the band; I regret the way that it happened, but I had to take care of business at home. I can’t take back that time, but that’s why this time’s the best time.
Your latest return in 2014 was kind of a surprising, given that the band had established themselves with another singer.
Yeah, with Rob [Dukes], and that usually never happens. But it’s like Anthrax; how much better is it that Joey [Belladonna]’s there? That’s their guy, and I’m the guy they [the Exodus fans] grew up on. And I mean it gives no disrespect to Rob, or the records that Rob did with Exodus; they’re good songs and we play some of them. It’s part of the history.
What was it that led to your return?
Chuck Billy had a small part in it. He used to manage the band and I don’t know the real story, I just know that I got a call from him saying that they wanted me to sing a couple of songs. So I met him and I got the songs I think at ten o’clock on a Wednesday night, and I had to sing them the next day I think at five o’clock in the afternoon. I had to learn them really fast. So they heard it and they came back to me and said; “we want to know if you’d like to rejoin the band again?” I didn’t even get into what happened with Rob because it was none of my business, and had nothing to do with me. So I said; “okay, sure”, and two days later they announced it and the world knew, and I recorded ‘Blood In, Blood Out’ and here we are.
So the band’s in a much better place now than when you were last a member?
I would have to say so, and not because I am one, but because I’m a fan; a singer is a very significant part of the band, I think. You know, it took a while for everybody to get used to Brian Johnson after Bon [Scott]. I was sixteen when Bon Scott died, and I remember, I was like; “oh my god, what are they going to do?! That voice is that music.” He fitted that guitar, what they were doing, it was like a glove. How do you replace that? And then in time, Brian has become that, and out of everybody, I would have to say him and Bruce Dickinson taking over from Paul Di’Anno did an amazing job in the transition. I guess you’d have to put me up there too because I followed a very heavy act in Paul Baloff, and now here I am; it’s thirty-one years later, my third tour of duty, sixth studio record with Exodus out of the ten they’ve done, so I guess I would be considered the voice.
There must be part of you that’s proud to be planting your flag in the Exodus soil once again.
Oh sure there is, I mean I had to leave in 2004 and it wasn’t something you wanted to do for any reason, you know? It was all the wrong reasons, I mean, I had a family, they were young and I was making more money at a job I had to support them. And it was hard to be on the road with these guys, I mean, we were all f****n’ wired out of our skull. It was just a mess, so now it’s not a mess anymore; the band functions and the band is a successful business.
You’re missing founder guitarist Gary Holt on this tour. Do you miss him?
You know what, it’s not like that, but I do miss him, and no disrespect to Kragen [Lum] who has taken his part. He is very much Exodus, but on the other hand I’m very proud of him, and he deserves being in a band like Slayer. What does that go to show you about the man himself? He’s playing in two of the most legendary thrash bands ever. He’s the real deal so I’m very fortunate to get to play with a player like himself.
You must be relieved that Exodus can continue to work despite his absence.
Well you know, when I first came to the band we knew that Exodus was doing a new record and within a years’ time Slayer would be. Exodus put out our record in October 2014, Slayer put theirs out in September 2015, so within eleven months they had had a record after we had put out a record. We’re in the middle of a tour cycle right now, but we knew this was going to happen. It probably won’t be as much as we’ve used Kragen on the future stuff, and this is just a speculation because I don’t know what goes on or what Slayer’s going to do. Are they going to do another record in three years, four years, whatever? That leaves a lot more time for Gary to come back, because we will be doing albums in those times.
Finally, I couldn’t leave you without asking about album covers, and some of the comical artwork that adorned those 1980s’ releases.
Wow! You mean the worst albums covers back in the day, other than ‘Bonded By Blood’?! On ‘Pleasures Of The Flesh’ they wouldn’t allow it [original illustration]! They said; “well, if you guys do that then” – just like in Spinal Tap; “Wallmart and K-Mart will not pick it up!” So in the last minute we went to a comedy club called The Punchline in San Francisco, and we got these skulls and we turned this place into ‘Cannibal Bar & Grill’ basically, where we were the proprietors.
They’re iconic sleeves in their own way though, aren’t they?
Well now they are! Back then it was like; “what are these idiots thinking!” But no regrets, with big capitals; NO REGRETS!