One of the iconic singers of Bay Area thrash metal, Steve “Zetro” Souza has been giving voice to the lessons of violence dealt out by East Bay heathens Exodus off and on since he first replaced original singer Paul Baloff in 1986.
Formed in 1980 by future Metallica guitarist Kirk Hammett and drummer Tom Hunting, Exodus established a reputation as a ferocious live act with its regular appearances around the Bay and is cited by some as the first thrash band in the region. While he didn't sing on the band's classic, neck-snapping debut Bonded By Blood, Souza fronted the band through its late-'80s rise in popularity, howling through such mosh-inducing thrash standards as “Parasite,” “The Last Act of Defiance,” and the MTV Headbanger's Ball favorite “The Toxic Waltz.”
Principle songwriter and guitarist Gary Holt would put Exodus on hiatus in the early '90s, but the band reunited with Baloff later in the decade for a live album and periodic touring. It wasn't until after Baloff passed away in 2002 from a stroke that Souza would return to the fold, recording 2004's Tempo of the Damned before a sudden and acrimonious split from Exodus that same year.
With the continued success Holt and the band found with new singer Rob Dukes over the course of several celebrated albums in the 2000s, few anticipated last year's surprise announcement that Souza would be returning to Exodus once again. Though some fans expressed skepticism over the change, the band's latest Nuclear Blast Records release Blood In, Blood Out was widely hailed as a pulverizing return to form.
The group has maintained a hectic schedule since the album's release a year ago, opening for Slayer and Suicidal Tendencies (a road trip that found Holt doing double duty, playing guitar for both Exodus and Slayer, a position he started filling for an ailing Jeff Hannemann in 2011, two years before the Slayer guitarist passed away), in addition to an extensive jaunt with fellow Bay Area thrash titans Testament on both sides of the Atlantic and playing Motörhead’s Motörboat cruise.
Souza recently spoke to All Shook Down about the band's jam-packed itinerary, how Exodus works around Holt's commitments with Slayer and plans for Hatriot, the band he fronts with his two sons Cody and Nick Souza. Exodus comes to town Monday night, playing a local show at the Warfield on its current tour supporting metal giant King Diamond, who is performing his landmark Abigail album in its entirety.
You’ve been pretty solidly busy since we talked in the spring. You did the “Dark Roots of Thrash II Tour” in the U.S. and Europe into the summer with Testament and then you were on Motörhead’s Motörboat cruise. Did I miss anything?
No, you got it all. We did the States with Testament like you said. And then we went over to Europe with them, but just for like nine dates. It wasn’t a full-blown thing. We were kind of doing festivals and our own thing as well, but it was just nine or 10 dates. We came home June 27 and were home for a couple of months. Then we did the Motörboat at the end of September. I think it was four days. But with what you could do on that, believe me, four days is enough!
I would imagine the Motörboat cruise would have you needing a vacation from your vacation…
Yeah, by the fourth day, I was thinking, “Wow. How much longer could this decadence go on?” It was wild and it just keeps going.
What was your experience overall? Those kinds of cruises seem to be getting more and more popular. It’s like a floating music festival. Is that the first one you’ve done?
For me it was. Exodus has done a few before I had returned, but that was the first one I did. I loved it! I mean, think about it: 20 years ago, do you think you’re going to be with your heroes on a boat in the middle of the ocean? There’s nowhere to go; you’re on the boat, so you see everyone walking around and hanging out.
And that’s what I was doing. Hanging out and watching all the bands. I was literally running from band to band. I want to see this band! I want to see that band! I want to see Hatebreed, I want to see Anthrax, I want to see Suicidal, I want to see Crowbar! Everybody! I want to see Corrosion [of Conformity]! Everybody was great!
When do you sleep on something like that? It seems like there must be somebody playing almost 24/7…
You find time to sleep in brief intervals, you know? I performed, so I slept how I had to. But I was very accessible. All the bands were. It was great. You’re just out on the deck and there are all these fans who are paying good money to see you and hang out with you. It was a blast! It really was.
Tonight is the first night of the tour with King Diamond. With just the two bands, will you be getting closer to 45 minutes or an hour for your set?
Yeah, it’s 45 minutes. I think it’s 9 songs we worked out.
Are you changing up the setlist from what you were doing on the Dark Roots II tour?
Most definitely. Oh yeah. We’ve got a few surprises for the fans. We’ve gone through the states twice opening with “Black 13” and “Blood In Blood Out,” so we’re changing it up a little bit. I want to hold of on the specifics, because it’s going to be kind of cool.
You’re also booking some headlining gigs as the upcoming schedule with King Diamond allows. We talked about this before, but do you foresee playing a headlining show in San Francisco after? Maybe December when everyone is back off the road?
We have been talking about that. We haven’t played a headlining show in SF since I came back in the band. But these are the tours that have come up, so every time we’re back in the Bay Area, we’ve been taken away by something else. So we’ve never been able to book the headlining local show.
But we have to. We haven’t even done the States headlining necessarily yet. We’ve been filling in the dates where we can. We did the same thing when we were with Slayer, but we haven’t done a full-blown headlining Exodus tour. So we’re definitely talking about that. We’re busy! You’ve got to keep busy.
Given that the Slayer album just came out last month, are you anticipating Gary will probably be fairly tied up touring with them in 2016 too? Will you try to hit the gaps when Slayer is not on the road and get out with Gary when you can, or will you just schedule it and he can make whatever dates he can make?
Well, that’s how we’re looking at it. We try to make the schedules accommodate for both. But we have his stunt double, Kragen Lum, who plays in his place and he does a great job. We want to continue to work and Gary knows that.
We love Gary; I mean, he is Exodus, you know? He gives us his full blessing to do it. It’s Exodus: the songs are the songs and the band is the band and the fans come and have a great time.
Unfortunately, sometimes he’s not there, but if you look at all the Exodus records and Exodus itself, Gary Holt is Exodus. He played on every one and he writes the songs, so there’s no denying that.
Yeah, I saw a few reviews of shows in Europe that talked about his absence; one even mentioned you referring to it onstage, saying “Hey, somebody’s missing! Where’s that fucker?” But they also went on to say that it was still a ripping show, so Kragen definitely seems to be holding it down.
Exactly. And Kragen has Gary’s blessing too. To play what Gary plays and to be that type of player, he’s not just any guitar player. We’re very fortunate to have Kragen fill in and be able to do it so we can carry the violence on!
As busy as you’ve been, have you been working on new material for Hatriot? Are there any plans for the band on the horizon?
Yeah, my son Cody is going to take over as the singer. He’s going to play bass and sing now. He actually went into the studio and sang two songs off of the previous Hatriot record so we could hear what he could do, and he has his old man in him very much so! So I’m writing lyrics for the band, but I’m no longer in the band. They didn’t necessarily fire me, but kind of asked me to step down because I’m too busy with Exodus and it’s holding them back from playing shows.
My sons had it all typed out and written where they want to reach and what goals they want to accomplish outside of their father's name. They had a whole agenda. I get a call that day and I say, “Hey! What's up Nick?” He says, “Me and Cody gotta come by and talk to you.” “Oh? About what?” “Well, we'll talk to you when we see you.”
I'm like, “Oh. Ok. If I come to the studio, is my shit going to be put to one side of the room and I'm going to hear that 'We're going in another direction' speech? [laughs] It was actually kind of funny. But it was cool. I'm glad they did that. It showed initiative. It showed balls.
That must have been awkward for them, to say “Dad, you're going to have to step aside…” But you'll still have a hand in it.
Yeah, writing the lyrics.
I was reading that you're also contributing lyrics to songs on the upcoming Testament album too?
Yep. Chuck and I have gotten together over maybe four or five songs and we put some stuff down. I've written lyrics on the last two Testament albums. We're great partners and we go back so far. When it was Legacy and I got the job singing in Exodus, I was the one who told him to try out and he's run with it. And they're huge! He's done really well with that band. So I got a text message from him about two weeks ago: “Time to write more lyrics Zet!”
To get back to Hatriot for a second, I was going to ask — since Slayer had taken Exodus out on tour with Gary playing in both bands — if you guys would consider taking Hatriot out as an opener. Though now if you're not singing with them, it wouldn't require you to sing with both bands. Still, is it something you'd consider regardless?
It's a good consideration, but they need to put out a new record with Cody singing first if that's the way they're going to go. They don't want to cloud things up by just doing songs from Dawn of the New Centurion and Heroes of Origin. They're trying to move forward, so I think if they're going to come out on tour, to sing my songs would be kind of lame. I want them to have their own feet under them. So I'm up their ass right now about writing new stuff!
In the press release about this tour with King Diamond, there was a quote from you about remembering shows the two bands played back in 1986. It must have been shortly after you took over for Baloff on vocals in Exodus. Where were those dates? Do you remember any specific stories about those shows?
I remember them well, since I had just joined Exodus. To me, Mercyful Fate was one of my biggest influences. So it was at Bender's in Long Beach. We had all gone out to eat and when we came back to the dressing room, King is sitting there putting on his make-up. And he looked in the mirror at me and said, “Hey! You're the new singer in Exodus!” He knew that and I was just blown away.
He's a very nice guy. A gentleman and a sweet guy. Awesome, like everybody in metal for the most part. He's always treated us well. I love the band and love the players. His band is just so talented. And he's such a great singer.
Is there any song in particular from Abigail you're looking forward to hearing?
I love the title song “Abigail,” for sure! It's so heavy. I'm looking forward to seeing the whole thing done in its entirety. What a treat for me to see it every night and for the fans in general. How awesome for him to do that!