Interview by Mike Bax
Currently on a four-week run of dates with Testament and Shattered Sun, Exodus is riding on a career high at the moment with the recent release of Blood In, Blood Out, arguably the band’s finest album since the earliest material from the mid-1980s.
Thrash historians all know the story of Legacy (Testament, before they migrated their moniker) vocalist Steve Zetro Souza leaving the band to sing for Exodus, and how his recommendation of Chuck Billy to his former bandmates landed Testament their new vocalist. True thrash fans feel that both Exodus and Testament are bands worthy of the same kudos and accolades as Metallica, Slayer, Megadeth and Anthrax – all of which with only a year or two head start on both Exodus and Testament.
Steve Zetro Souza is currently enjoying his third return to the Exodus ranks as lead vocalist, having quit the band in acrimonious fashion twice before. Souza can talk almost as fast as Exodus lead guitarist Gary Holt can play guitar (lighting fast) and an interview from a few weeks ago for inclusion in this interview yielded more than just the comments used in the Dark Roots of Thrash II interview we posted a few weeks ago. It is presented here unabridged.
Mike: Are you guys getting psyched for this tour, Zetro?
Zetro: Yeah. We’ve been screwing around between Australia and Japan the past couple of weeks. We’ve only been back here for a short period of time. I was at the gym this morning at 7:00am. I’m getting ready. I’m looking forward to it on all levels, obviously with the history between our bands. Say no more, right?
Mike: This upcoming tour with Testament must feel like a coming home for you in many ways.
Zetro: I guess it’s full circle everywhere. This will only be my second US tour since my return to Exodus and it happens to be with Legacy, my original band that I started back in ‘82 / ‘83. Chuck and I have been connected by the hip ever since, between him as part of managing Exodus and this tour and Dublin Death Patrol. The past two records I’ve written lyrics for Testament. So we are always working together in some form or another.
Mike: Do you ever reflect on recommending Chuck Billy as your replacement when you left Legacy – how that simple recommendation has led to a thirty year stint for him?
Zetro: It was just like that. I just said I know a guy and told Chuck to call Alex. Just call Skolnick up. He said “Who’s that?” and I told him it was Alex from Legacy – the guitarist. Alex was probably 17 at that time. He was only 15 when he joined the band. I remember I had to ask his father if he could join Legacy, he was so young. And I had to pick him up for practice because he couldn’t drive. Yeah, he had to be maybe 17 when I told Chuck to call him and now that’s ancient history, right? There you go.
Mike: Can we talk a bit about how the past year has been for you, coming back into the fold with Exodus, and healing old wounds with Gary Holt and the rest of the band? And you’ve managed to somehow put out arguably the best Exodus album since Bonded together. Blood In, Blood Out is an awesome album, Steve. My kudos there.
Zetro: Thank you. I agree with you on that 100%. I even said it when I was done recording my tracks, that this was the best Exodus album ever. And people scoff and say “Of course, you HAVE to say that returning back, that’s what they always say.” But I truly believe that. It’s the first Exodus album that I can go through track by track and won’t fast forward. I think as mature adults and mature adult musicians that have been in this game for so long and understand each other so well – the mentality is just different now. We are more focused, and aren’t influenced by the usual hang-ups. These things used to factor into the disagreements, agreements and fights and whatever else went on in the band. I think this time is the BEST time for all of us. I really respect everyone else. And I really respect their space. And I respect Gary especially, the icon that he is and what he accomplished and the things he does, you know? The way he is looked at musically. I really trust that. Before I might have been inclined to say, “I want to do it this way”. I wasn’t fully like that because I’ve always fully respected him, but what I’m saying here is there is no friction there on my part anymore. I’m certainly easier to tour with now than I ever was before, and I will be the first one to admit it.
Mike: Do you think that comes from being older? You have the perspective of years gone by now?
Zetro: Yeah. I think I have an appreciation of everything, and that I am getting it back for the third time here. Basically, don’t fuck this up. Be smart about THIS. There’s no substance influence anymore. That is gone from the table with everybody. Christ, I turned 51 this year. Gary will be 51 in May. The clock is ticking, it’s time to be good. Hey, this is the best time to go and see Exodus. We are all on top of our game. Like you said, Blood In, Blood Out is a great record. To me, it’s the best we’ve ever done. Listen to it. I just crack on this album. I think that has a lot to with me having some time to be with my sons, writing for Testament, doing Dublin Death Patrol and keeping myself busy in the time that I wasn’t with Exodus. I’m really comfortable and confident with what I am doing vocally, I think that goes for everybody. When have you ever heard a record where the bass on an Exodus album sounds right out there booming in your face like Jack Gibson’s? And Tom (Hunting), Lee (Altus) and Gary (Holt) especially – best thrash tandem there is. Tom and Gary both play amazingly and they have amazing riffs on this album. Everything is so strong and I get to put my stamp on this. This machine is just a complete monster and I think we are all feeling that right now. Especially live, I think we’re getting a lot of good momentum. This is the best we have ever played, I’d have to say.
Mike: Being ten years away from the band, how has it been revisiting old material and putting your current stamp on things as a returning vocalist?
Exodus: I have no problem with that. I welcome the songs from the era that I wasn’t there. You know I’ve done that already on the Bonded Songs way back when. There was an album already when I came on board so I had to sing somebody else’s songs right out of the gate and put my stamp on them. I’m pretty much just trying to do them like I do them, how I hear them without altering them. It’s almost like an arrangement that you have to do mentally. It’s like that with ‘Iconoclasm’, ‘Children of a Worthless God’, ‘Beyond the Pale’, ‘Good Riddance’ and ‘Deathamphetamine’. In a short period of time I’ve done all of those songs live. And I don’t think about how they maybe should go, I just do them like Zetro would do them. There’s not a lot of singers who re-join and then re-re-join a band and just sing the songs that were done when they weren’t there, even if those songs are good. The songs are a part of Exodus history. Chuck Billy had to sing a tonne of songs that were all mine when he joined Legacy. I think he wrote one for that album. I think you just have to acclimate yourself to that when you go into it.
Mike: That is so surreal. You left a band and your songs to sing someone else’s material and Chuck stepped in to sing your material and here we are thirty years later and you will get an opportunity (I hope) to sing some of those old songs WITH Testament while you are on these dates together.
Zetro: Yeah. You use that as the bait man. I’m telling everybody that if the crowds are outrageously good, Chuck will make the final decision during the Testament set. There ARE a lot of songs that we have discussed already because we have done a tonne of press together for this tour. And we are not naive to those surprises. That is kind of what these shows are all about. For all of you people that are reading, you gotta come and bring it! And then I’m sure we’ll give it to ya.
Mike: You did mention all three bands there. Shattered Sun – oh my God. So fucking good!
Zetro: They have a very good record and are very hard working guys. Everything they do is about their band. Chuck is managing them, too. They are on Breaking Bands Management, too. I don’t have a problem with that at all. I think we want to get the new blood out on this tour. We could have easily added on some type of legendary thrash band. There are some tours that are ten/eleven bands deep these days, you know? It’s a good idea. It gives it a good forum for those guys to show their stuff. I haven’t heard the entire record yet. I’ve heard a bunch of songs off it and I was impressed by the heaviness of it for sure.
Mike: I got passed a Shattered Sun advance before doing these interviews and have had it on in the background over the past couple of days. It didn’t take long at all for me to love it. It’s solid, really solid. I’m super impressed.
Zetro: That’s great. I’m sure when I am out with them I’ll get to digest it a little more as we play with them. We have five weeks there where we are going to be together so I’m sure I’ll get a full bevy of it.
Mike: What is your earliest memory of Chuck Billy, Steve?
Zetro: Yeah, him, my brother, Willie Bailey and Ken Ormond all hit a home run in the same game against the same team when Mr Billy was coaching baseball in the 1970s in Dublin. That is my very first memory.
Mike: The Thrash of the Titans benefit to aid with Chuck’s cancer back in 2001 helped bring you back into the fold with Exodus and re-launched Death Angel and Heathen as well as bringing Skolnick back to Testament. It’s kind of surreal that an illness like that in his life turned things around for so many awesome bands.
Zetro: We’ve done four or five interviews together in the past week and everyone has brought that up. We know that was the catalyst day where so many of us looked at each other and said, “Wow. We could do this again.” I remember when we were all riding the major label wave and around 1993, grunge came along and just killed it. MTV killed the Headbanger’s Ball, and that show was the medium for us at that time, you know? It was such a big thing at the time, and none of the outlets were picking it up at all. It was like we were bad news or dirty laundry somehow. Trying to get a deal at the time was almost impossible and we all called it quits. That gig really put everyone into a place where we rethought things. We all felt like we could totally do this again. Everybody bought their A-Game that day. You couldn’t really pick one band that was better than the other that day. There was a cause there, of course, and a feeling of urgency around our friends. From then I remember being back within Exodus within a year’s time, and by 2005 Chuck had gotten Alex and John (Tempesta) and Greg (Christian) back and did a tour. And then Death Angel did a tour and an album around the time we did Temple of the Damned. Overkill always kept going and Anthrax always kept going. Megadeth always kept on going. Slayer always kept on going. Everybody’s strengths just picked the genre up again. When you look back now, everybody is just in high gear. There is no looking back, and I don’t see it stopping anytime soon.
Mike: Cool. Life is a series of circles, man.
Zetro: It’s funny because we were just on Soundwave. My daughter is seventeen and she loves this band called Of Mice And Men. I’ve heard them before, but they are a younger band with a sound that I wouldn’t necessarily listen to. Well, I started listening and I actually like them. It seemed like anytime we got shuffled somewhere on the tour, we were with these guys. So we talked and became friends and it got to a point where we would all (this is great) pull up to our hotels and there would be NOBODY there for us and twenty girls waiting to see them. (Laughs) I remember this from when we were this age and I remember saying to one of them, “Don’t take this the wrong way, but you are a rock star right now. In ten years you are going to be a has-been. If you can last twenty five you will be a legend.” And he kind of gave me this sour look. “Look at every musician in the history of time. Not everybody has a ride where it just keeps flying up and up. EVERYONE falls at some level. Prince sold out seven nights on the Purple Rain tour. Next time around he sold out two. Would you not call that success? Yes? But you wouldn’t call it where you were, either.” It’s just the way it is – there’s a peaking point, and once you hit it there is nowhere else to go, man. And now that we have gone through the ‘has-been’ stage and are into the ‘legend’ phase, along with all of the rest of our genre, I think the band sells itself really well. Blood In, Blood Out is an awesome record, we’re still bringing it, and the rest of the bands in our genre are still bringing it hard, and it’s great again. And a lot of fun.
Mike: I totally agree with you. When you look at bands like Of Mice And Men and Pierce the Veil, who the kids are all over right now, they’re just starting out doing their thing. Exodus and Testament have put albums that are as hard and poignant as these new bands are putting out. You guys are just older. Your audience is the hipsters and guys like me who are fucking 48 and still into the genre, and really happy to see you back and putting out some of your finest music.
Zetro: I’m still a big music fan. I’m still checking out new stuff. I’ve been listening to the Blood In, Blood Out record recently because I want to deliver those songs as best as I can when we play them. I will listen to my own stuff. Gary for instance, does not. But I listen to Kreator and Iron Maiden and Saxon Live in Glasgow, you know. It’s not like I’m listening to Fleetwood Mac and Journey. I love that stuff, it’s great. I appreciate the fuck out of it. But it’s not what I listen to. Slayer is my thing. Whatever it is that is hard or heavy metal is what I am. I think being a fan, and all of us in general being fans, of our genre of music, allows us to be proud of what we do, and very fortunate to be a part of what we do. We broke the top forty with our tenth record forty years down the road. Name another genre of music yet alone heavy metal or thrash metal that can do that? You can’t deny our fan support. Its guys like you. You are 48 years old reporting on what you love. It’s what we are. We always say that: This is what we are. This is my religion. This is what I am. My life revolves around heavy metal every single day. I’m either doing an interview or five, or I’ve got unanswered questions and have to address them, there’s a management team meeting or a roundtable or whatever. My life revolves around this completely. It is what I am. There’s no hobbies. This is my hobby. I am very fortunate to get to do this at this level. When you think about it, you can go to school for eight years and become a doctor, or a lawyer, or whatever. You do the school and you are in like Flynn. There is NO guarantee in this. Its luck of the draw or right timing or whatever. Some talent I guess, and whatever else goes into it. Insolence as a kid that maybe brought that out amongst other things that I attribute this to. I never take it for granted. Again, I think this is the best time to see us.
Mike: When I saw the tour announcement come up there was really small type over Testament’s name that read “Playing material from the first two albums and selected cuts from Practice What You Preach.” And that was like a bonus, you know what I mean? It could have said Dark Roots in full and Blood In, Blood Out in full and I would have been JUST as excited. No lie.
Zetro: We are going to give you an hour’s worth of ass-kicking. We’re probably going to be able to get anywhere from 12 to 14 songs in there. We have already talked together about NOT stopping, and trying to chug along and do as many songs as we can. We are definitely going to some new material on these dates.
Mike: Going back to 1985, Exodus back then was one of the only bands in the genre that kind of frightened me. I don’t know if that was the magazine articles I was reading in some of the zines, the Bonded By Blood cover art, photographs of the band or the intensity of the music. There was a notoriety back then about your band that I think helped propel your namesake. Would you agree with that?
Zetro: Definitely. Even before I was in the band I used to call it ‘Exo-mess’. “Where are you going tonight? Dude, I’m going to see Exo-mess.” That was just what it was. When they hit the stage, there HAD to be ten motherfuckers sitting up front just to push everybody back because there were just so many people coming up towards the stage at once. Remember, this is the band that had the lyric ‘kick in your face and rape and murder your wife’. For me, I wanted to join this fucking band, you know what I mean? That to me was the pinnacle of Exodus. Sheer violence. Shit, look at the lyrics now. Gary Holt hasn’t backed off at all. If anything it’s more brutal and more relevant.
Mike: I would love to know what your personal fondest memory of Exodus is, from last week to thirty years ago.
Zetro: Honestly, everything that I have been doing lately has been great. When we went to Australia and we did Soundwave, we got to stay together with the same bands for two weeks. It was a nice camaraderie. Some of the bands, like Lagwagon, we didn’t even know. But we hung with them and they were cool. Animals As Leaders, they were great guys. The Butcher Babies. We had the greatest time hanging out with people while we were there. But to think about walking into Ruthie’s Inn and it was a dark setting and you’d look over to the right, and that was where the bar was. It was just this square thing, and you’d see Kirk Hammett and Gary Holt would be there. I’d see Eric (Peterson) and the guys from Lääz Rockit and Phil from Vio-lence and Robb Flynn. I’d see all of these cats and we’d all be waiting there for whatever band was going to play that night, Megadeth when it was just Dave Mustaine, Dave Junior and Gar Samuelson, the original band. I remember all of that stuff because I was there. Those are the things that I still remember vividly. These rock icons now, they all came up in the same place. It wasn’t something I read in a magazine, you know? I fucking lived it and saw it firsthand. Everything – the ups and the downs. We lived it, we were that close. Thrash metal was a part of when Ratt and Quiet Riot was the biggest thing going on. The stations didn’t play Exodus. They didn’t play Metallica until the third record for fucks sake and the song played had to be one of the mellow songs. That’s when we were. We were all brothers in arms back then. That’s basically how we all wound up knowing each other – how we all started together and held together and are so very much stronger now. Testament still goes out with Exodus. Exodus goes out with Slayer and Suicidal Tendencies. We keep it strong and keep it real. We work with each other and make sure that everything is all good. We will stay strong that way. It’s all right in front of us
Mike: Right on, man. I hope this tour is awesome and that you enjoy every single day of it.
Zetro: I enjoy everything that I do. Every fucked up plane flight! Every time I’m landing I think about going to a job someplace. I just got my 21 year pin from the carpenters’ union. I left that for good last year because I don’t want to do that anymore. I want to be doing this from here on out – making music. That’s what I plan to do.