Our next Road Crew Books Q&A interview is with Slayer guitar tech, Johnny Araya. I’ve done more tours with Johnny than I’ll ever be able to remember. He’s one of the best techs out there, and one of the finest people I’ve ever known.
Your brother, Tom Araya, is the singer/bassist for the legendary thrash metal band Slayer, and you’ve worked as Tom’s guitar tech for most of his career. Did you start your career with Slayer and were you there from the band’s inception?
Yes, I started my career with Slayer way back in 1983. I’d hang out in the garage and watch the guys practice. They were always practicing and writing; and since I was always around, they’d let me come along and help schlep gear. I was 13 years old and ordering beer at Gazzari’s and The Roxy. When we started the ‘Reign In Blood’ tour, I knew it was big time. I had to step up my game. We had a semi and carrying full production. We had a professional drum tech for Dave, a professional guitar tech for Kerry, and me taking care of Tom and Jeff. I was not a professional guitar tech.
What do you consider to be the hardest part of your job as a guitar tech for Slayer?
The hardest part of my job is making sure that Tom’s stage tea is not too hot. They are the best guys to work for. Sometimes I forget to hit the mute switch on his rig. I’ve missed the ‘Seasons In The Abyss’ cue a couple of times.
Do you ever perform any other jobs on the road such as tour manager, production manager or stage manager?
Well, Kerry’s tech, Warren Lee, and Lombardo’s tech, Norm Costa, and I sometimes do the occasional production/stage manager takeover. It’s only when local production is subpar. Being the production manager for Slayer is a tough gig, but I’m happy with what I do because I do a great job, and my job is to make sure that Tom is happy with his gear.
What is your best memory from the road?
Holy smokes. There are so many great memories. I have to say that my best memory is my first trip to Europe with Slayer back in 1985. We were alone out there. We had Doug Goodman as our tour guide, not tour manager. K. J. Doughton hanging out doing something, I’m not sure what. Lombardo drove because he’s left handed. I was the only crew guy. After load-in and setting up back-line, I’d jump over to front of house and mix. Sixteen years old and mixing Slayer—it was awesome!
What is your worst memory from the road?
Worst memory—almost dying on an Oklahoma highway. The runner had just picked up Ian, who was Kerry’s tech at the time, and me from the hotel. We were on our way back to the venue with our bus driver for bus call when the van ran out of gas on the highway. The runner and our bus driver jump out to push the van off to the side of the road. Ian and I tried to exit the van through the side door of the van to help push, but the door was jammed, and we couldn’t get out. Next thing you know, a car slams into the rear of the van. He was going about 80 to 90 mph, drunk, with a passenger. Knocked me out of my shoes. When I came to, I jumped into the driver’s seat and hit the brakes. The van had been cruising down the highway for several minutes with us passed out inside. The fire department thought the van had gone off the highway and into a ditch. I was on pain pills for the rest of Ozzfest ’99.
What do you like most about your job?
I love setting up gear and getting tones. I absolutely love it. There is a great satisfaction in watching a player dig the tones you dialed in for them.
What do you hate most about your job?
No severance pay. You agree to a tour, then find out that you’ve been let go or the tour has been cancelled. There is no severance pay. You’re screwed. Also, you hear the myths of how bands would keep their crew on retainer in between tours and stuff. What happened to that?
Do you feel that a person has to be a good guitar player to be a good guitar tech?
I think being a musician or musically inclined helps, but you don’t have to be a musician to drum tech or guitar tech. I know of techs who can’t play two notes on a guitar but they can repair the hell out of an amp, and drum techs that can’t keep a beat but they can make those drums sound like thunder.
How can young people learn to be a good guitar tech?
Observe and ask questions. If you’re not certain about something, ask. Most importantly, be neat and keep your work area clean. Also, don’t medicate too close to set time.
If you could work with any artist in the world, which one would you like to work with most?
Malcolm Young or Joan Jett. Either one. I love them both.
You’ve been a bass player in two bands of your own, Thine Eyes Bleed and Bloodcum. You’re a great guitar tech, but some good musicians don’t seem to make very good techs. Why is that?
Well, I can tell you from my experience with some musical techs. They lack the common sense to wire up a rig. Sure, you can flick the amp’s on switch and shred, but let me see you solder a five pin cable.
Do you think it’s harder for new metal bands to build a successful career today as opposed to when we started out in the 80s?
I think it’s easier to start a band and build a good fan base these days. With the internet you can promote and keep in touch with so many fans and record labels, and raise money to fund albums. These days, you totally don’t need a manager. Just find some die-hard fans or street teamers to help you promote. DIY.
What advice do you have for young people hoping to work on the road as a tech?
Go to school. Stay in school. Finish school. The road is awesome, but it’s not for everyone. It takes a certain breed to work out here. Weeks, sometimes months away from loved ones. It’s brutal. You want to tech? Learn electronics, learn how to solder and learn your frequencies.
When Slayer finally calls it a day and retires, will you also retire or continue on?
I’ll keep working for a bit, teching for whatever band will have me. But I don’t see myself doing this line of work for the rest of my life. No way. It’s tough.
What do you think you’ll do for a living after your career on the road is over?
I see a career in state level politics. Not sure if I’d go federal. Getting involved in politics locally and spreading the words of the Constitution of the United States and the Bill of Rights to all. Feed the people knowledge. Know your rights and liberties.
I hope we’ve not seen the last of drummer Dave Lombardo in Slayer. Do you think he will resolve his business dispute with the band and return?
Dude, I have no idea. It’d be great to see the guys work things out and I truly hope they do. Dave is an integral part of Slayer. The guys kind of grew up together, you know? There is a bond there. My positive thoughts are always on them working it out and getting Jeff back.
You’ve also worked as the guitar tech for Slayer’s lead guitarist, Jeff Hanneman. Do you think he’ll ever play live with Slayer again or just continue to write new music with the band?
That’s a tough one. Jeff wrote some of the most memorable Slayer songs ever. Jeff and Tom’s songs have been nominated for Grammys. What!? It’s safe to say that Slayer needs Jeff. Jeff and Kerry wrote great songs together. Dave, Jeff, Tom and Kerry recorded some of the best metal albums of all time together. It’d be wonderful if they could do that again.
Thrash bands have always been considered the black sheep of the music business; why do you think Slayer has endured through numerous musical trends and continues to grow in popularity for thirty years when the music business has pretty much been dropped on its ass?
I think it’s because they’ve never strayed from their roots. They’ve been true to metal and true to themselves. They have a very loyal following. People may think otherwise, and those people are also known as idiots, but these dudes have never been in it for the money. They’ve never tried to write a catchy tune to get that hit single played on the radio.
When Tom joined Slayer three decades ago and the band started writing such extreme songs as Chemical Warfare, Hell Awaits and the infamous Angel of Death, did you ever believe they’d end up being a bona fide heavy metal legend and two-time Grammy winner?
It never even entered my mind, dude. I was so young. Being there and watching them grow into the metal monster they are now, not once did I think they would be getting nominated and winning Grammys or touring with Judas Priest, Motorhead, Iron Maiden or doing gigs with X and the Circle Jerks. It’s pretty cool.
Are there any new musical projects of your own on the horizon?
Maybe a collaboration with Tom somewhere down the road; but for now, it’s just me and my acoustic death folk music.