At the vegan café in Santa Cruz where we’re hanging, Paul Bostaph looks like any of the young-ish bros you might see in this beach-bohemian oasis. With that signature unkempt mane framing wraparound shades, tattered cargo shorts, and Vans slip-ons, he could also be the hippest homeless person this a side of the Boardwalk. If the attire is skater-dude casual, Bostaph’s state of mind is anything but as he wonders aloud about his latest beat creations. “In this business there’s always something you’re going be unhappy with,” he explains, biting into a corn chip. “But I’ve learned to trust the process. If a kick and a snare is there, it works. I don’t agonize over that stuff, but I’m not going to lie: I do hear things sometimes that I wish I could go back and do over again. But at some point you just got to let it go.”
That quick-and-dirty approach can be heard on the new album Repentless, Slayer’s twelfth studio album and fifth with Bostaph, in every crusty rimshotted note captured at Henson Studios in Los Angeles with producer Terry Date (Pantera, Deftones, Korn). “Terry did a killer job,” he gushes. “I’ve been listening to it and it just sounds fat.” Against the backdrop of singer/bassist Tom Araya skewering religious hypocrisy and political corruption in that distinctive baritone and guitarist Kerry King’s aspic-tinted solos, this latest collection could have been Slayer outtakes from 1986 if you did a blind taste test. “Cool, yeah,” he nods in agreement. “It’s got to be raw and honest for it to be Slayer.” Beyond the ring-y, so-analog-you-can-taste-’em drum tones, the thing that may surprise fans is the sheer amount of space that was left to experiment with elaborate fills and tom-driven ideas (“Pride In Prejudice”). On “Vices” and “When The Stillness Comes,” the tempo slows a hair to better breathe and groove. “Kerry wrote a lot more on this album that was kind of funkier stuff. That’s the difference for me.”
The groove alchemy didn’t happen overnight. When the Slayer throne became vacant, guitarist King sent his one-time bandmember a demo with two songs, giving Bostaph three days to play with them before he was summoned to the Slayer compound in Southern California. There the two jammed together and the resulting demo was given to the rest of the band [see King interview below]. If it felt like 1993 all over again, it didn’t surprise the unassuming, humble Bostaph. “I had been gone 15 years,” he says. “You probably would want to see if the guy’s still got it. Fifteen years is a long time. It could be like riding a bike again, and that’s great. Or it could be, I don’t think we’re on the same page anymore. Life changes people, and it changes your style of playing.” Nothing is as stressful as that post-audition limbo, but Bostaph is the exception here, too. “It’s one of those things where you go down, you put your best foot forward, and if I get a phone call, I get a phone call.”
He also isn’t sweating who else tried out. “In business, you’re going to make the best decision. So whether or not I was the first guy that came to somebody’s mind, I have no idea. And it doesn’t matter because I’m here.
“It’s really strange,” he says after a pause. “I never thought I would come back. Not because I didn’t want to. It’s just because you don’t hang onto it. If you leave a band, you leave a band.”
But the curtain almost came down on Bostaph’s second act with Slayer before it even started. Shortly following his official reunion in 2013, founding member Jeff Hanneman passed away. Earlier in the year the guitarist was forced to drop off the tour due to necrotizing fasciitis, presumably caused by a spider bite, which caused the flesh on his arm to literally rot off. Exodus’ Gary Holt stepped in to finish the tour while Hanneman, expected to make a full recovery, recuperated at home. Hospitalized for complications from liver cirrhosis in May of that year, Hanneman died a few days later.
A revolving door of drummers is one thing, but Slayer without its main cowriter didn’t seem like a possibility. However, the tragedy had the opposite effect. “You get these people online, like, ‘Jeff’s gone, it’s over’,” Bostaph says, his blue eyes unblinking. “But it’s the fans saying that! Nobody in the band at all wanted to quit.” Maybe the Hanneman-penned “Piano Wire,” a track left over from the recording sessions of previous album World Painted Blood and since rerecorded with Bostaph, was a spur — but only just. “If you put all this work in this band, it becomes your life. Do you really want to like just throw it in a trashcan? During the time Jeff was alive I’m sure there were plenty of times where they had things they had to fight through as a band. You knuckle up and you get through it and you’re on the other side of it. No, I never thought the band would break up. I knew Jeff wouldn’t want it.”
All Work & Low Pay
As surprising as it was to get that fateful phone call, consider the vague circumstances under which Bostaph departed Slayer the first time back in 1996 for “personal problems” after recording the punk covers record Undisputed Attitude. Slayer hired Testament drummer John Dette to take over, but fired him less than a year later. Bostaph returned to finish the tour. (He won’t speculate why his replacement didn’t work out: “That’s John Dette’s story.”). But after recording 2001’s God Hates Us All, Bostaph bailed again. It’s hard to describe what was going on in his head at the time, he says, before chalking it up to the growing pains of being vaulted into the metal big leagues. “I think I was letting the business get to me too much, and I felt jaded. I think that maybe it was just I wasn’t having fun anymore. And that’s the most important thing.”
In between Slayer tenures there was frequent yet short-lived activity with established bands as well as personal projects, including the proggy Truth About Seafood. In 2007, he returned to Testament to record The Formation Of Damnation. (Bostaph briefly played with Testament in 1993, right before he got the Slayer gig). He was slated to record follow-up Dark Roots Of The Earth when he was injured on a daytime construction job. Fear Factory/Dethklok drummer Gene Hoglan, like Bostaph a former member of Testament, was called in as a temporary replacement. But when the injury didn’t heal as fast as expected, Bostaph declined to continue. “I’m not going to hold up a band when they’re ready to keep going forward. I told them if you can get a guy like Gene Hoglan in the studio then you should keep him.”
By 2011, Bostaph was in the process of getting the “Iron Maiden-ish” NWOBHM-inspired Black Gates off the ground. After its first show, he was encouraged to dive in full time, but things stalled once again. It was a tough gig to maintain with Black Gates’ members living in different parts of the country and having their own problems, so it was put on hold. “It’s hard to put your own band together and get it going, and that’s the truth,” he adds. “Then I got the call for Slayer.”
Third time’s the charm, or at least you hope so, as he makes his latest run with the anchor member of thrash’s so-called Big Four. Without a doubt, he is sick of leaving bands. “I remember when I came back to Slayer [after leaving the first time] people were like, ‘When’s he going to quit again?'” He’s no longer that guy, but something about his earlier drumming self is hard to shake. “The first time I played with Slayer I had something to prove. Now I don’t, but I want to keep thinking as if I do. Somewhere between being confident and having a chip on your shoulder, there’s this really chaotic energy — I like that.”
Beaten Down Path
The way Paul Bostaph approaches his parts in Slayer has a time-honored consistency to it — but you could have fooled us. Divine Intervention from 1994, his first with the band, is super-slick compared to the gritty vibe of Repentless. But this has more to do with musical trends and individual engineers than it does with the way Bostaph has changed as a player because, per usual, on this latest set he drove himself hard until he got the keeper. “I’m usually a five-take guy,” he says. “My first take is a warm-up take, the second take gets a little closer, third and fourth takes usually are money. The take after that is very experimental. It’s like, I’ll go somewhere in my head. I’ll do fills and things I never thought of. Fifty percent of that falls on its face; then there’s the other 50 percent. It’s like, ‘Let’s put that on the record.'”
Bostaph’s elevation of thrash drumming from punk-style d-beat to something more complex goes back to Forbidden. On the title track off the seminal thrash band’s cultishly revered 1990 release Twisted Into Form, for example, a series of oddly accented double bass triplets in the verses give the tune its insidious groove. Bostaph credits it to time spent with Led Zeppelin records, which opened his mind up to rhythmic possibilities. Similarly, most of his beats in Testament and Exodus are more physically demanding, if not more technical, than anything in Slayer.
But not for lack of trying. During an early writing session with then-new employers King and Hanneman on Divine Intervention he had been sitting behind the kit while they argued. “I looked at Kerry and Jeff, ‘Hey guys can I make a suggestion?’ They stopped talking, looked up, and were like, ‘Nope.’ ‘Okay, got it!’ and I sat right back down again.” It was a different dynamic from Forbidden, in which he did a greater share of the songwriting, but that awkward exchange proved illuminating. “At first I was, ‘Aw, man, this sucks!’ Then I thought, ‘No, it doesn’t. These guys are successful. What they do works. They’ve written some of the best songs in heavy metal. There’s Metallica, and then you have Slayer. So shut up and learn something.'”
The pressure outside the band could be just as brutal in those days. During his first-ever tour, some random guy backstage was mad-dogging him. As Bostaph tells it, the guy rolled up his sleeve, grabbed his forearm to measure the muscle mass, shook his head, and walked away. “I could have the skinniest arms in the world and it wouldn’t matter,” he says. If anything, the tensile strength caused the younger Bostaph to grip the sticks too hard. He credits Jeff Campitelli (of Satriani Band) with taking his playing to the next level. “I basically wouldn’t be playing the drums if it weren’t for Jeff,” he says. “He worked on my drum setup with me and then taught me tension and release. It’s basically just getting that fulcrum between your index finger and thumb. Nothing new there, but it was to me then.” Doing the 9-5 thing and playing in a thrash band ain’t for sissies. At that time he was working in an autobody shop with pneumatic tools. “Playing drums and working with my hands all day, with the constant vibration in my forearms, my muscles were just shot. So I got in with Jeff and learned this new technique, and through constantly working with it, it found its way into my playing and now it’s a staple. I’ll never go back.”
Bostaph briefly experimented with a double pedal/ single-kick setup in other bands, but two drums are essential for the juicy, rounded bass hits of Slayer. “You play on a one kick drum [setup], a couple things happen: Each time you hit a stroke, the next comes through and kills the resonance of the drum. The other thing is you are only physically hitting one drum. When you have two bass drums, you have two drum shells; they’re ringing out. It’s sonically different. And it feels different. That left drum is going to feel a little different [on a single kick]. With two kicks you get something solid under both of them.
“And it looks cool.”
When we bring up the subject of bass drum triggers, mostly it’s to get a rise out of the veteran thrasher. “Oh, hell no,” he says. The antitrigger policy goes for any band Bostaph is in, except one time with Exodus after recording 2005’s Shovel Headed Kill Machine. “Exodus wanted me to do it because we were playing a lot of small places [that didn’t] have PAs with enough oomph to give you that good kick drum sound. Sampled sound can give you more of that in those situations.”
While there are fast double bass parts in Slayer’s catalog, Bostaph is not a blast player, so his feet don’t migrate or swivel during speedy passages, which, in a way, makes his faster tempos that much more impressive. “I keep them in one spot while I’m playing,” he says, except when leaning into a roll. “Depending on where my weight is shifted, sometimes I’ll look down at a certain point in the pattern, and I can see my feet wavering because of the way my body’s moving.” His Slayer kit is smaller than it was back in the day (“I used to have three sets of chimes”). Lately he’s slightly lowered every piece of equipment. “It looks the same but it isn’t. I’m constantly changing it.”
Gear fundamentals, like tuning, create the foundation for that amazing drum tone. In Slayer, it’s as open as possible. “I’ll use some muffling on the snares, but not a lot, because I don’t like them to sound choked. I like the best possible tuning [without sacrificing] the sweet spot.”
Solo Free & Proud
Several months after our Santa Cruz meeting, Bostaph is squirreled away in a quiet room backstage at the Shoreline Amphitheater in Mountain View, California, seated in front of a coffee table doing stick exercises on a rubber pad. His girlfriend is curled up on the couch next to him, watching him do paradiddles. He sits perfectly straight as the muscles in the wrists take over. Maybe it’s a sugar rush from the bowl of M&Ms; he dips into, but more likely it’s preshow adrenaline, even though Slayer doesn’t play for another three hours on the third show of their headlining Rockstar Mayhem trek. For a hardscrabble thrash kid, Bostaph’s warm-up routine is methodical: A solid hour on full-kit pad and then another half hour on just hands. The routine is critical: Slayer doesn’t do soundchecks. When they walk on stage it’s show time. “I hate getting all loose and then having to wait another half hour.”
He glances at his phone and mutters something. Family will be at the show tonight. It seems he forgot DRUM! was dropping in — we’ve interrupted the zone — but we had to get a progress report from the trenches. “People have been really cool,” he says of fans coming up, glad to see him back. Bostaph is glad to be back, too, and his mood has bred confidence. He’s pulled out all the stops on the set list’s handful of Repentless songs. He’s also been playing parts differently on classic tunes, something he avoided during the first Slayer bid out of respect for Lombardo and the fans. “I still think I’m changing them less than probably even he did.”
The question is always the same: Does it feel weird to be back, or is it like he never left? “I can’t say it feels the same. We’re older, for one.” Bostaph is 50. “But the production, everything, it’s a lot bigger. It’s efficient,” he says of the crew dialing in the sound each night and a drum tech who reads his mind (“It doesn’t take them long to get it: ‘Make it sound big, make it sound warm.'”) During the show, it’s obvious again what he means by “bigger.” The lighting design is the band’s high school fantasy version of itself brought to life, inverted crosses and Satanic imagery swirling on a giant screen, plus enough pyro to mistake it for a Kiss concert.
On the way back from a beer run, we spy a wall-mounted screen in the venue’s common area showing multicam shots of the performance. One edit has Bostaph carving up the toms as a column of fire erupts in the background. For a second it looks like he’s in the middle of a solo, something he would never do in Slayer. “The whole show is a drum solo,” he says just before we leave him in the dressing room. “Playing this extreme, songs back to back, you tell me where there’s room for one?”
The sense of accomplishment after a show is satisfying, he told us back in April. It’s similar to the feeling the former high school track team member would get after running the quarter-mile. But living and breathing the band life, day after day, for a 90-minute payoff makes that satisfaction costly. “It’s the irony of that that makes me smile,” he said. “I could sit there and go, ‘Well, we only get to play an hour and a half a day,’ but all the energy that’s invested into that moment, city to city, is pretty cool. Everyone’s invested; we’re all in. And if you put into the experience, you’re going to get out of it, and that’s a Slayer show. We’re not here for you to love us. I’m here to play a show. Hopefully you’re here to see one. If you want to hear it, let’s go. It’s so simple.”