Not much can turn the garrulous, gregarious rocker Tom Araya speechless. Except, perhaps, a touching ceremony staged specifically in his honor, like the one held a year ago in his provincial hometown of Viña Del Mar, Chile, where he was awarded the key to the city.
"I didn't know what to say — I just had a big shit-eating grin and kept saying, 'Thank you! Thank you!'" recalls the Grammy-winning Slayer frontman. "I was just humbled, because it's usually dignitaries or people of a certain stature who get that. So I was just really surprised that they were honoring me."
Later, during a local press conference, Araya studied his coveted key — which was actually a huge, ribbon-suspended medallion in the shape of a coin — and regained his trademark rapier wit with reporters. "They were asking me all kinds of questions on how I felt about the event, and I said, 'Yeah, they'll give me the keys to the city. But as soon as they do, they'll change the locks!'"
The quip garnered riotous laughter and a round of applause. That was the gallows-humored speed metal maven that everyone was expecting, the Poe-spectral songwriter whose favorite subject — ever since Slayer's definitive third outing Reign in Blood set the mood back in '86 — is usually serial killers and other dark doings. World Painted Blood, their recent 10th set, follows similarly funereal suit, in thrash-metal piledrivers like "Snuff," "Hate Worldwide," and "Public Display of Dismemberment."
In recent years, Araya has taken a bit of a thrashing himself. Right after undergoing gall bladder surgery a few years ago, he was back in the hospital again, this time for something far more serious. Midway through a 2009 tour of Japan, Araya's bandmates pulled him aside to ask what was wrong — he was constantly rubbing his left elbow, almost absentmindedly. "And then it hit me — it hurts," he remembers of the first warning sign. "My index, middle finger and thumb were all numb on my left arm, and there was one spot that didn't even respond to electric shock — the muscle had started to atrophy. And when they did the MRI, they could tell I had a pinched nerve, and they had to go in there and space out my vertebrae again."
Then came a second protruding disc in Araya's lower back, all brought on by 30 years of headbanging in concert. No joke, he swears. "So I no longer headbang — I don't wanna ruin or damage the cartilage to what's left of my neck." Out of a traditional weightlifter's belt, his brother fashioned a special support for his bass. "It sits on my hips, the bass sits right in front on a little hook, and there's no weight on my shoulders," he explains. "It's actually very comfortable."
Once Slayer finishes this summer's Mayhem Festival, the band will return to work on its 11th, which Araya sees as a probable lyrical departure. "A lot of my stuff lately is more politically oriented, as far as what's going on around the world, or here in the States," says Araya. "They're trying to put fear into everyone to make a world money system, and they're using fear for all kinds of stuff. So I think you'll see a lot of that kind of thing in the new songwriting." He pauses, then laughs. "Uhh, unless I come across a really cool serial killer and write him! Or her ..."