Guitarist Gary Holt joined thrash-metal band Slayer under trying circumstances. His friend Jeff Hanneman, a co-founder of the band and one of its two guitarists, was stricken with necrotizing fasciitis in 2011, possibly caused by a spider bite. A temporary slot sadly became permanent two years later after Hanneman died from liver failure at age 49.
Holt, who'd co-founded Bay Area thrash band Exodus in 1981, joined Slayer in the studio for 2015's "Repentless," on which he played alongside founders Kerry King (guitar) and Tom Araya (bass, vocals), plus drummer Paul Bostaph, on his second tour of duty as replacement for original drummer Dave Lombardo.
The band is playing on Thursday, Aug. 17, at the KettleHouse Amphitheater with fellow U.S. metal veterans Lamb of God and Polish blackened death metal band Behemoth. They'll close out the season for the new 4,000-capacity venue's inaugural season, and Holt said audiences should "prepare to get their ass kicked three times in one night by all three bands."
Holt, who spoke by phone from an earlier tour stop last week, said King is "captain of the set-list ship," but all four members contribute ideas.
"There's standards that are in the set every time — we're always going to play 'Reign in Blood' and 'Angel of Death' and so forth like that. He just tries to make sure we're not totally repeating ourselves from the last time we may have played any certain city," he said.
The set lists posted online from the current tour reach back to their 1983 debut album, "Show No Mercy," through to genre-defining classics "Reign in Blood" (1986) and "South of Heaven" (1988) plus latter-day records ("God Hates Us All" (2001) and a deep catalog cut from their EP "Haunting the Chapel" (1983), and healthy dose of "Repentless."
From his very first tour with Slayer, Holt said the band encouraged him to be himself and not emulate Hanneman.
"The band never asked me to play anyone's solos but my own. I always told people that I try to match vibes sometimes more than actual notes, 'cause Jeff has a style that's entirely his own and there's a million guys in Slayer tribute bands that can do a better job of mimicking Jeff than I can. But I've been doing this for as long as anybody alive as far as thrash metal, and you know I've been allowed to have my own voice and it's liberating sometimes," he said.
For instance, he has free rein to solo off the cuff when the inspiration strikes. "I'll improvise heavily on some nights, you know. It's kinda cool, you know almost like a jazz musician. Some nights your improv skills are totally, madly awesome, and other nights it's like, 'Oh, that wasn't so good.' But it's great as a musician — it keeps you on your toes," he said.
When he first set out learning Slayer material, he picked up nuances that he hadn't noticed before, but he's now very comfortable inside Slayer's music.
"I did at first, but I've been here so long now that I'm used to living inside their heads as far as how they go about this stuff. I think with any band, with any songwriter, there's gonna be little bits of nuance that aren't readily apparent to somebody right off the top. Whether it's someone learning the most simple Exodus riffs, and I find them played incorrectly constantly, because there's just little things in there that people don't hear until it's shown to them. The same goes for Slayer stuff. But now I know what to look for in those things," he said.
When it comes to his own playing, Holt is like most musicians and pulls from a wide variety of inspirations.
"I'm as metal of a guitar player as you'll ever find, but if you looked at what's on my phone or on my iTunes or what's in my collection at home, 90 percent of it's not metal. You know, Prince is my No. 1 musical hero, and this goes way beyond his passing, way before that. I'll quote the lyrics to prove it any day over some drinks if anybody doubts my Prince bona fides," he said. He's also a fan of other acts from the Minneapolis funk scene, plus classic funk acts like Ohio Players and Funkadelic.
Holt grew up listening to hard rock, including Lynyrd Skynyrd, Montrose, Robin Trower, Ted Nugent and Black Sabbath. "You know I still love that stuff," he said. "I could be stranded on a desert island with just my UFO record collection and I'd be perfectly happy."
His favorite guitar players are in a "really close one and two" — influential shredder Ritchie Blackmore of Deep Purple and Rainbow, and Michael Schenker of Euopean proto-metal band UFO.
He counts Nugent as "a big influence on me. Not on my politics, but on my guitar playing," and says Nugent inspired him to pick up the instrument in the first place.
"Seeing him live in his heyday, the guy was 10 feet tall to me up there. And I'm still a huge fan — I'm one of those guys who has no problem separating politics from the music. But in this day and age, you see comments like, 'What? That guy hates Trump? Oh, that guy loves Trump? I'm never listening to his records again.'"
He doesn't see music and politics as "bound together at all times. There's a lot that I don't agree on, but I'll throw on 'Double Live Gonzo!' any day of the week ... it's just awesomeness, you know."
The band is currently on tour in the United States, followed by a stint in Japan. Regardless of the continent, Holt said the audience showing up for Slayer "has gotten quite young. Obviously, you have some old-school fans. There are whole legions of kids that are into this stuff now, which is very important you know. You need new blood to come and step in."
Performing high-energy music like thrash metal on lengthy tours requires some work that might not be obvious to fans, such as an hour and a half of playing backstage before he goes out.
"I'm not being my own drill sergeant and beating myself," he said, just warming up so "by the time rolls around to hit the stage, the hands are warmed up and ready to fly."
"It's demanding music to play, physically. When you're getting up in your years, yet you insist on performing on a level that not many can do, you have to take care of yourself. You have to be prepared for it, you know. Otherwise, you can kind of run out of gas," he said.