INTERVIEW WITH KYLE THOMAS BY KEVIN STEWART-PANKO
PHOTOGRAPHS BY DANTE TORRIERI
Exhorder originally burst onto the scene back in the mid 80s with two classic demos that eventually begat the band’s much heralded and respected debut album, 1990’s Slaughter in the Vatican. It’s an album that not only expanded the dimensions of thrash metal, but also heralded in what would come to be called groove metal, influencing a little band you may have heard of called Pantera to take the sound and run with it on a little album you may have heard of called Cowboys from Hell. By the time 1994 crawled around, New Orleans’ Exhorder had issued its second album, The Law, but were collapsing under the weight of their own expectations and insanity, not to mention the usual business complications and record company induced hardships.
In 2017, original members—vocalist Kyle Thomas and guitarist Vinnie LaBella—reconvened with the intent of playing a few shows to celebrate Slaughter in the Vatican by performing it in its entirety at showcase gigs and festivals. The response to the band’s cautious return was met so rabidly that Thomas and LaBella saw fit to unleash nearly 30 years of pent up anger with new material. The result is a new and third album, Mourn the Southern Skies, a return to form that spans a broad swath from vicious thrash metal and pan seared hard rock to electrified mournfulness and bluesy swamp stomping. The band has also returned to the road, which is where we caught up with Thomas during an El Paso tour stop on their recent run with Kataklysm, Krisiun, and Hatchet to discuss the importance of brotherhood, management, and supportive love.
Exhorder didn’t have a very extensive touring history when you were around originally, but from what you’ve experienced so far on the tour you’re on, how are things comparing between 30 years ago and now?
In some ways it’s extremely different, and in some ways it’s the same. Back then, it was all brand new to everybody, every time we went and played somewhere. We’re still getting that. There are still a lot of people coming up to us saying that they’ve never even heard of us, but they really like it. But there’s also the contingency of people who have been saying they’ve been waiting 30 years to see us. It’s kind of new still, and that’s pretty cool and magical in a lot of ways, but it does have the throwback, legendary feel to it.
Is the excitement you’re feeling a different type of excitement, one that comes with maturity and experience?
Well, maturity is a strong word, so I wouldn’t give it too much credit (laughs). I guess it’s fair to say we’ve definitely grown a lot over the years. We handle things a lot differently than we did and in a much better way. But to just be a part of something that every time we walk away from it and walk back into it, it’s bigger, we’re lucky because it doesn’t always happen that way.
“THE FRENZY THAT CAME WITH THE FIRST YEAR’S WORTH OF SHOWS DEMONSTRATED TO US THAT WE HAD TO DO SOMETHING.”
Was the reunion supposed to just be those shows in which you played Slaughter in the Vatican, or was the intention of writing new material there from the start?
Initially when we talked about it, the first idea was to just see how it went. The initial talks came around because our management company had reached out to us saying they thought they could do something with us and if we were interested in doing anything. And they reached out to Vinnie, and they did that through Jason Viebrooks, our new bass player. So, he came to me about it, asking if I would be interested in doing anything. Initially, they were talking about us doing reunion shows and festivals and seeing what happens. I was game for it. As it progressed, things looked really good. They asked about the possibility of an album, which was already a possibility because Vinnie had a lot of music stored up over the years that he hadn’t done anything with, and once he handed it to me, I made short work of it. The frenzy that came with the first year’s worth of shows demonstrated to us that we had to do something.
How and why did you already have management if you weren’t an active band?
Our manager is an old fan of ours and he believes in the band. I think it’s something that he wanted to do as much for personal reasons as much as he wanted to do it for business reasons. He’s really done a lot to push this thing forward in ways we never could have before.
Were the other members from the classic lineup invited to participate?
Well, when we first started talking about it, it was just me and Vinnie. He and [ex-drummer] Chris [Nail] had still been in communication, but he and [ex-guitarist] Jay [Ceravolo] had not. So, I called Chris and talked to him about it. He really sounded like he wanted to do it, but it’s not logistically possible for him to do this right now with where he’s at in his life. He runs a business with another guy, and they have a chain of music stores and I don’t think he’s able to step away from that because it’s pretty successful. I talked to Jay, and he didn’t really have any interest in doing this. I’m not even sure he really plays the guitar much anymore from what I gathered in talking to him, and that’s difficult to do getting back into this style of music, playing that intricate guitar riffing. If he’s not interested, then we charge forward.
How did you come to have the lineup you have now?
Jason’s got a history with us. He had played with us before over the years. He and Vinnie and [drummer] Sasha [Horn] had a project called Year of the Tyrant they were working on, and [guitarist] Marzi [Montazeri] and I were in the process of recording the Heavy as Texas album. So, we had a band sitting right there, but we didn’t realize it. We put everybody together, and everybody gets along famously and loves each other. It’s really been a good experience.
When it came to playing together, did it click quickly?
Yes, but there were instances where for me, personally, I had to get back up on the bike a couple times and figure out how to ride it again. More than anything, it’s just that neither Vinnie nor I had played extreme metal, like that fast and intense kind of stuff, for many, many years. The hardest part was when we were writing and demoing the first batch of songs, listening back and thinking that the songs were perfect for Exhorder. Then, we’d listen back with vocals and think it sounded great, but that it just didn’t sound like Exhorder. So, I had to go back to the drawing board on the songs, rethink them, and come back with a different delivery to make it sound a little more proper.
You said Vinnie had a stockpile of music kicking around, but when you sat down to put it all together, did it happen pretty quickly?
I would say so. There were probably four songs that Vinnie had either completed and had on the backburner and another four or five we had to write from scratch. And Jason brought a song to the table as well. We’re hoping, that as we do future albums, the other guys are more involved in the writing as well. We’d like to make it an everybody thing.
And when did you come to the attention of Nuclear Blast?
Well, the first song we demoed was “My Time.” Our management company sent a copy of it to Nuclear Blast and Monte Conner, who is with Nuclear Blast USA but was our A&R guy when we were at Roadrunner. So, he’s believed in us from square one, much more than the ownership of Roadrunner did, I’ll just say that. That said, it was kind of a no-brainer. From what I understand, Monte heard the one song and he was sold. I think some other labels were interested, but we just got back into business with Monte right away.
“I WAS OUTSIDE ONE DAY, IT WAS A BEAUTIFUL BRIGHT CLEAR DAY, AND MY WORLD WAS JUST SHIT.”
What’s the story behind the title of the album, Mourn the Southern Skies?
Musically, that was a song that Vinnie started putting together back in 1999-2000-ish, and he gave it to me shortly after that. And from that I came up with the title and a lot of the lyrics that ended up on the album as well. It was the only song on the album I had written anything on prior to last year, aside from “Ripping Flesh,” which is from 1986 and Vinnie wrote the lyrics to anyway. The title was something that was inspired by the lyrical content of that particular song, which was pretty much about a lot of the negative personal experiences I was going through at that time. I was outside one day, it was a beautiful bright clear day, and my world was just shit. So, I’m looking at a beautiful sky in complete sorrow.
Was the artwork also your idea, or did you give it to Travis Smith and say, “Have at it?”
The way that unravelled was that the first thing that came up when we got into talks with Travis Smith about doing the cover was that I wasn’t quite sure what we wanted, but I definitely knew what we didn’t want. I’m usually the one that handles the lyrical content, themes, artwork, and that sort of thing, so we went to the drawing board and talked about avoiding black and silver and cookie cutter metal themes. So, we started thinking about what kind of theme we wanted to have and the colors to go with it. Being that we’re from New Orleans, everything has such a rich history of voodoo in it, and we felt like it was appropriate to embrace that theme. It pays tribute to where we’re from, it pays tribute to the heritage of a lot of the musicians we grew up listening to, and what’s more scary than voodoo? (laughs) So, I sent the lyrics over to Travis to read and get ideas from, and he got right on it. I really think the layout is amazing.
“IN RECENT YEARS WITH THIS REFORMATION, WE’VE GOTTEN ALONG BETTER THAN WE EVER HAVE AND WE’RE BOTH REALLY HAPPY ABOUT THAT.”
When you decided to move Exhorder beyond just playing old material, did you have a plan as to how and what to do differently so it wouldn’t implode this time around?
It’s no big secret that the biggest enemy of this band comes from within this band (laughs). The first conversation Vinnie and I had about putting it together was about hiring management. All of the things that we thought about are things that management has taken the burden away from us so now Vinnie and I can focus on running the band as a business from the inside and spend a little more time focusing on creativity. All of that other stuff goes to management, and we put the trust in them that they’re going to make the right decisions. And so far so good! For all intents and purposes, Vinnie and I are brothers. We started playing music together when we were teenagers/young adults, and it’s kind of like a family business and that can be a delicate dynamic, for sure. From here, in recent years with this reformation, we’ve gotten along better than we ever have and we’re both really happy about that. He told me, when we were putting this together, that if we get into this a year or two from now and we’re on a flight overseas and sitting next to each other and can’t stand being next to one another, that’s when we know it’s time to hang it up again. He let me know that our friendship is more important than this business.
Was there any hesitation from you at getting back into doing this given the stage of your life that you’re at?
Not so much for me. I’ve remained fairly active throughout the years with other bands. My wife and I have a great understanding and working pattern on how we make this work for us. She believes in me greatly and our children aren’t small anymore, so they don’t even necessarily need me around let alone want me around (laughs). The love is always there, but when they’re babies, they need you, and I learned that the hard way when I was touring with Alabama Thunderpussy back in 2006-07. We worked hard and were road dogging like crazy. My sons were three and six when I started doing that, and I’d call home from Belgium in the middle of the night and they’re crying, “Daddy come home, daddy come home.” So, I walked away from long tours for a long time after that and held a regular job. Eventually, I started getting back into it with Trouble and going out for a week or two or three here and there, and I had the paid time off to cover it. But this time around I don’t, so that’s why I walked away from a day job. While my wife was in medical school I worked two jobs so that she could graduate and have a career that she’d always dreamed about. This time around, she looked at me and said, “All right, your turn.” It helps to have the ones you love believe in you. I think it’s been a bit of a learning curve for Vinnie because he hasn’t done any touring in 27 years. Fortunately for him, he’s coming back into a good situation as most of the tours we’re doing are on tour buses and are very comfortable. We’re not having to live hand-to-mouth in a van. I’ve done it both ways and it’s tough. It’s been an adjustment, but he’s right where he belongs, I believe (laughs). The other guys in the band have probably had as much or more touring success than Vinnie and I put together.
“IT HELPS TO HAVE THE ONES YOU LOVE BELIEVE IN YOU.”
I hadn’t realized that you jumped right into it and that Exhorder is essentially the green light and red light for you.
Exactly! I had the other project with Marzi brewing and I’m still an active member of Trouble, so there’s a lot going on there I have to work around, but it got to the point when I was at my day job when this was starting to develop that I talked to my supervisor and told him what was happening. In the past, they helped cover for me when I needed to be gone longer than whatever time I had allotted to me. I told him this was going to be significantly more and asked if this was something we’d be able to work around. He said that our company had just been bought out by another company and he wasn’t sure how they were going to do things and nothing was guaranteed. So, I gave them my two week notice.
Now that you have this newfound freedom, how far in advance are things planned for Exhorder?
We’ve got this tour we’re on now. We’re about at the halfway point of 23 shows in 25 days. After this, we’re home for two days before we go overseas for two weeks of shows in Europe and the UK. Then, we’re done for the year except for our album release party in New Orleans later on in October. They’re working on stuff for next year. Nothing’s been announced, but there are things in the making and we’re going to be busy.
With that same freedom, does not having a steady pay check to rely on create added pressure for you? Are you finding yourself keeping an extra eye on the money and worrying about stuff like guarantees and the amount of merch you’re selling?
Yeah, because Vinnie and I together did this the right way this time around. We formed an LLC and made a business out of it. It’s tough for sure, and we’re still in the start-up phase of it. As any business goes, you have to spend money to make money, and it’s been a struggle for him and I to really see any positive profit turn yet. But, it’s definitely at a point where we’re close to getting past that start-up phase. The next year is definitely looking good. The good news is that people are really embracing this new stuff. For instance, the merchandise we’re selling we have a Slaughter in the Vatican shirt, a shirt from The Law, a shirt that’s themed from one of the songs off the new album, and a tour shirt with tour dates and the new album cover. The tour shirt is the one that’s selling the most. People are excited about this new album. We are doing okay with the old merch, and that’s stuff that people are always going to want, but when your new material is outselling your old, it’s definitely a positive sign.