Force of Habit: An interview with Zetro from Exodus

Exodus were there at the beginning of thrash metal. Giving up a founding member to some band called Metallica in 1983 and another one to the grave in 2002, the band has forged ahead through the years and created a unique and compelling legacy in heavy music. Steve ‘Zetro’ Souza was the first “new guy” to enter the fray after the release of the band’s classic debut album, and helped the band move forward and become the underground juggernaut that they are today. On the eve of the release of his first album with the band in ten years, he took a moment to sit down with us to talk about the band, new record, reality TV, and the next generation of Souza thrashers.

Now I can concentrate fully on Exodus. It’s the number one priority again and it stands out as being number one.

Metal Blast: You’ve been back in Exodus since June. How does it feel for you?
Steve ‘Zetro’ Souza: I’m excited! I think it’s going to be the best time ever! I’m looking forward to what’s going to happen with what we’re about to embark on with Blood In, Blood Out. It’s been great, all the shows and the fan response, there’s been nothing even close to negativity so far. So I’ve been having a great time!

MB: When you left/were dismissed from the band,  I remember there were a lot of harsh words. Was it awkward when you were first coming back in to the fold?
Zetro: I think that when you’re a member of a family, you may piss a family member off and you may not be invited to thanksgiving or Christmas for 10 years… but once you patch it all up it’s all good. It’s water under the bridge and nobody brings it up. I think it works the same way with bands, and I think that’s the case here.

MB: So you don’t have those awkward thanksgiving dinners?
Zetro: I didn’t think so! I moved right in! I talked to every single person in the band, as well as every person involved in their management. We talked on the phone about the issues and we all felt contrition. Especially me because I was the one who caused it. I was the one who was miserable out on tour and it’s hard to be around a guy like that.

MB: So you place a lot of the blame on yourself?
Zetro: I place ALL of the blame on myself. I was in no mental state to be in the band during Tempo of the Damned. Even though everybody loved the album and loved the tour, I hated it. I hated being on the road. I hated the whole thing and it was like pulling teeth to get me to do shit… whereas now I’m so excited. I just want to go and play and have a great time and bring great music to the fans. It’s been 10 years and I’m ready to do this now, in a big way! I think they know that now. I’m sure at first there was a bit of apprehension for them, kind of like “Ah he says he wants this, but let’s see it!” But now, it’s been nothing but a good time. Everything we’ve done has been great!

MB: Considering your career and your trajectory as an artist, what in the end caused you to sort of get pissed at everything? Was it the strain of touring or is it pressure from the fans…?
Zetro: No, no, no. At that time I had a wife and little kids at home. Their mother, who I’m no longer married to, couldn’t really keep everything together. So I kind of, at that time, had to have one eye on the road and one eye at home. Plus I was trying to juggle a full time job. All of that, in conjunction with Exodus, the bubble basically popped, and I couldn’t handle it anymore. Now those children who were at home are grown up, and that needy wife at home, I’m no longer with. Now I can concentrate fully on Exodus. It’s the number one priority again and it stands out as being number one.

Exodus Interview

MB: I’m curious about your personal experience in regards to family issues. Considering what you’ve seen as a musician on tour and everything that’s involved, when your sons told you that that’s what they wanted to do as well, were you happy about it or were you nervous about the kind of things they might experience being musicians?
Zetro: No, no. I’m happy about it. I’m not going to be a hypocrite and be like ‘Uh, you know son, don’t do this. It’s been terrible for your dad’. No, if you get the opportunity to do this, it’s a gift. You don’t go to college for eight years, to rock and roll school, and then you’re a rock star. It doesn’t work like that. If you want to become a doctor you can go to school and become a doctor. You want to be a musician? There’s no guarantee. If you get the opportunity you should do it. You only live once.
On the other hand, my sons are very smart. One is a refrigeration apprentice, the other runs a sandwich shop AND is a carpentry apprentice. I’ve instilled values in to my kids for them to realize that they should depend on rock ‘n roll to pay their bills. It’s great to do this but you should always have something to fall back on. It’s great to do this but always have something to fall back on.

MB: You think that nowadays it’s very important for musicians in general to have a fall back position?
Zetro: I think when you’re starting out, definitely. When you’re somebody at my level you’re fortunate enough to be able to live off of the business, you know what I mean? But then again, that’s a lot of years of hard work. But I always think that anybody, not just musicians, but all people should know how to do SOMETHING!

MB: Definitely, I agree completely. I think that, as a parent, there would always be the fear of ‘What if this kid tries to do this and it doesn’t work out! What are they going to do with their life?’
Zetro: You tell them that it’s great that they try, but that they should always have something to fall back on. They shouldn’t think that being an actor or a musician is going to be a given. I was never a pussy with my children and I always told them how it is. I raised them to be go-getters and made sure they knew that I wasn’t going to pay their way. That they’d have to go out and get it. If you kick the cubs out of the nest, they’ll go find meat, they’ll go kill it… if they’re hungry enough.

MB: Do you think it’s different to start as a musician now versus when you started?
Zetro: Oh god yes! There’s too much competition! Everyone wants to be this! The number one thing in the world is to be THIS! You know how many shows on television are dedicated to this? Everybody just wants to be famous! It’s gross. It’s sickening.

MB: Bruce Dickinson (of Iron Maiden), said once that ‘If you watch the X-Factor, you don’t see musicians, you see people who want to be famous. The music is just a gimmick to become famous.’
Zetro: That’s exactly what it is! That’s what they think! They go on American Idol, they say to themselves ‘Oh! Gwen Stefani thinks I’m great! She’s going to make me famous!’ I don’t even know anybody from that show who is famous, but then again I don’t listen to pop music. I know there are a couple of people from American Idol, that girl who sings country, and then Kelly [Clarkson] that first year girl, they both kind of made it. As far as anybody else though, are they at the point of like, signing autographs at Wal-mart? They have Ruben Studdard come and sign autographs? Because you wanted to be famous and not a musician? Because just because you can sing doesn’t mean you can write! I really think it’s a just a fake way to become famous. I don’t really pay attention to those shows and I never really have.

MB: I don’t think anybody should. It’s an example of the way in which we have become so obsessed with being famous. We have this idolatry toward people who are famous for being famous. It distracts people from the important things and draws their attention to this garbage media.
Zetro: I think that goes with everything. I mean, do the people in the south know that we think they’re funny? I mean we have Duck Dynasty and Hollywood Hillbillies and Man vs. Wild. What are they? They’re all southerners. It’s a total rip session. We laugh at them. We think they’re funny by the way they talk. Have they not figured out that we’re laughing at them? I mean they’re taking it all the way to the bank, but they’re buffoons! We rip on all the south! They don’t give a shit though because it’s the price of fame! Look at Honey Boo Boo, what does her family do? They’re a bunch of fat rednecks who pick their nose and fart and eat gross food. It’s interesting to the rest of America because we think ‘Wow! People are this backward?‘ These people think they’re huge stars, but we’re laughing at them! We’re making fun of them!

MB: It also gives us a false sense of security because we think ‘Oh we’re better than them!’
Zetro: Well that’s also it too! It’s like ‘look at their food, that’s gross’! Look at me, I have real meat sauce on my spaghetti! I believe that’s the mentality. I agree with you on that.Exodus - Blood In, Blood Out

MB: Let’s talk about Blood In, Blood Out, your new album. I thought it was a very interesting name because it reminded me, of course, of the “blood in, blood out” philosophy of prison gangs. You kill someone to get in, kill someone to get out. Since it coincided with your return to the band and the dismissal of Rob Dukes, was there was any significance in that title choice?
Zetro:
They had the title of the record before I came back in. Gary [Holt, guitarist] explained it as… being in this band is like giving your blood to get in and you have to give it to get out too. He said he was watching a bunch of stuff on prison gangs and gang wars on TV and that’s how he came up with the title.

MB: If I’m not mistaken, they were already well in to the process of writing when you came back in to the band. Was it easy to put yourself in to the songs that were already in progress?
Zetro: I’ve been in this band forever. So I know how they write and how to approach their songs. I’ve done five albums with this band, I was there in the heyday. I didn’t really question myself, I just went in and did Zetro with Exodus. It wasn’t that hard.

MB: So this 10 years of absence, when you got back in to the studio, you just slipped back in like you’d been there forever.
Zetro: I had three days. You guys found out that I had rejoined the band on June 6th, I found out on June 5th, and I started recording the album June 9th. It wasn’t like I had a month to soak the album in and get to know it. I had very little time, but I took advantage of it. I studied and studied like I was cramming for a final. Honestly, I learned it and made sure I knew it well. Within 14 days I’d finished the whole record.

MB: Were you nervous at all about delivering the kind of quality output that you were before you left the band?
Zetro: I’ve been vocally in tune because of playing with the other bands I’m in. So I was ready, and I think the band was ready. A lot of people have heard Blood In, Blood Out and say that’s totally Toxic Waltz-era Exodus! And it may be, but I hear a lot of stuff in the style of some of the more recent albums too. I’m partial to all of it. I think it’s a good mix of what Exodus has exemplified over the past 30 years, and I think we’ve taken from everything that we are and that we’ve done to make this record. I wasn’t there really through the writing process, so that’s only what I’m hearing when I listen to it. I’m also a fan, because I’ve been out of the band a couple of times so I’ve had the opportunity to be a fan of the band as well.

Zetro laying down vocals for the new album.
Zetro laying down vocals for the new album.

MB: I saw you guys perform in August at Heavy Montreal and I thought you and the band sounded fantastic. As a singer, what have you done to keep your voice fit and healthy over the last 30 years?
Zetro: I don’t know, man! I don’t abuse it, I’ve never been a drug or alcohol abuser, I just… If I try to do something I really, REALLY try to do it. So since I’m a singer, I’m always going to try to be the best singer I can and knowing your voice and your limits is being the best singer you can. Knowing what you do, knowing how you do it, knowing my sounds, the way I scream, how I use my tongue and my jaw and my head. It’s all about being aware of my own mechanics, and maybe 25 or 30 years ago I wasn’t entirely in tune with that but now I am. I may be that to make one sound I have to do all of these different things, but it honestly comes naturally.

MB: But as you grow older do you find that keeping your voice working becomes harder? Like do you have to make more of an effort than you used to?
Zetro: No, I do it all effortlessly. I’m completely relaxed up there. Even though I may look like I’m about to kill ten people, I’m, vocally, completely relaxed. I know what I’m doing and how my body functions and what I have to do to produce my different sounds. I know that I’ve got to play tomorrow night, and the night after, and the night after, so you’ve got to be relaxed. As intense as you are, you must be calm. I’m always thinking that, even when I’m about to go on stage and the stereo’s play, then the lights go down and the crowd roars, you’re thinking to yourself “I’ve got to go out there and kick 40 thousand people in the face” but on the inside I’m just *sigh* relaxed.

MB: So when you come on stage there is sort of… a part that you play while you’re on stage?
Zetro: Of course! Zetro’s a role. When I come out on stage it’s all a look and an attitude. But at the same time I’m not playing a character. It’s still very genuine, I’ve always been that way. It comes straight from the heart. I guess It’s sort of a controlled intensity.

MB: In general, Exodus’ lyrical content has always dealt with violence, war, death, destruction, and now in Blood In, Blood Out you have the song about the BTK, and a song about honor killings, and you deal with Sharia law. What do you feel is the role of the lyrics in thrash?
Zetro: I think that thrash metal in general has always been really socially aware. It has never given you something really pretty. I mean Metallica had songs like “Leper Messiah” and “Master of Puppets”, thrashers have always talk about social issues, religious issues, politics, war, etc. I feel like there’s more realism coming from it versus bands whose songs come from blood, death, and nowhere! Everything has a message and comes from a point of view. And it’s usually a point of view that’s usually very strong and/or debatable. There’s nothing wrong with being controversial or telling it like it is. Exodus has always been about that. I mean the first record, we set a precedent there. 30 years later it’s still the same sort of controlled violence.

MB: Do you feel like there is a certain responsibility on bands in general to try to have political content?
Zetro: I don’t know if it’s a responsibility, it’s about whatever type of music you choose. Thrash metal has always been that way, always socially aware. We’ve always told it like it is in this genre.

MB: I’ve seen that in the digital version of Blood In, Blood Out, there’s going to be a cover of “Angel of Death” by Angel Witch. I thought that was interesting because your voice is obviously very different from Kevin Heybourne’s. How did you approach the song?
Zetro: Actually I didn’t sing that one! Tom [Hunting, drummer] did! When he left Exodus back in ’89, he actually did a stint in Angel Witch. So when the decision was made to do the cover, we got in to a bit of a debate when he asked me how I was going to sing it, and I was like ‘It’s a B-side, we’re never going to play it live, you sing it!’ So he sang it and I think he did a great job!

The current line-up of Slayer (including Exodus leader Gary Holt)
The current line-up of Slayer, including Exodus leader Gary Holt (far left).

MB: You’ve said in previous interviews that Hatriot lives on and that you’ll go back to them when Gary is off working with Slayer. He’s been pulling double duty a lot lately with Exodus opening for Slayer. Do you think Hatriot will ever play as the opener for Exodus?
Zetro: Yeah we will! I’m sure we will down the road. I know I can do double duty and that’s definitely something that’s in the works. It’ll be fun!

MB: Isn’t that a little tiring as the singer?
Zetro: I guess it would be a little bit but Hatriot won’t get the same amount of time that Exodus will. You know, I’ll pace myself and it’ll go great!

MB: Is there anything that you would like to say to the fans as we prepare for the release of Blood In, Blood Out?
Zetro: Thanks to everyone that has followed this band for thirty years. I think we’ve really delivered on the new record and it’s going to kick your ass!

Check out our review of Blood In, Blood Out to see why it’s a sure contender for album of the year!