Songwriter Interviews

Steve "Zetro" Souza of Exodus and Hatriot

by Greg Prato

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You never know what the future is going to bring - especially if you're a member of a rock band. Case in point, Mr. Steve "Zetro" Souza. When this interview first took place, Souza was no longer a member of thrash metal vets Exodus, and was exclusively serving as the frontman of Hatriot and discussing their latest release, Dawn of the New Century. But on Sunday, June 8, 2014, it was announced that Souza was once again a member of Exodus, replacing Rob Dukes behind the mic.

Previously serving as Exodus' singer/shouter from 1986-1993 and again from 2002-2004, it was the Souza-fronted version of the band that brought them some of their greatest success, including the albums Pleasures of the Flesh and Fabulous Disaster, the latter of which spawned the mosher anthem, "The Toxic Waltz." And in the process, Exodus helped spread the word globally about thrash metal.

In this chat with the man many call Zetro, he talked about Hatriot, his fondness for Bon Scott-era AC/DC, the stories behind several Exodus/thrash metal classics, and one of heavy metal's all-time gnarliest album cover concepts.
Greg Prato (Songfacts): How would you say the songwriting in Hatriot compares to when you were writing music also in Exodus?

Steve Zetro Souza: We're more in tuned, I guess. And I don't want to say that against Exodus, but we have a system down with Hatriot, and we worked really well with that system. I mean, most bands, you go and you do a record and your record comes out and you go and do an album, a tour cycle. Then at the end of that tour cycle when it looks like it's starting to fall off, you take a couple of weeks off to get to re-know your family again, and you get back into writing music and probably within, what, three, four, six months, you've got another record out. Basically that's how we do it. Hatriot doesn't do it like that. Hatriot continues writing constantly. Dawn of the New Centurion came out on February 21st and I already have two songs for the next record. I'm not screwing around with this one.

They kind of put me on the spot yesterday because they put it in Blabbermouth: "Zetro says you'll get a new record every year." I'm like, "Ooo, wow." Okay. Yeah, I did say that. And I do mean that. And honestly, I try to work on a timeline like I'm projecting ahead. So January, I plan on being in the studio again to record Hatriot's third record. And then we have a lot of touring to do this year. A lot of things are coming up.

But I still think that the band should be busy and be productive in that manner and still try to put out a record. Back in the day, Sabbath put out two records in one year. Bands used to do that. You never went three, four years. So the songwriting process is consistent.

Songfacts: Which Hatriot songs are the most challenging to write and why?

Zetro: I don't look at them like that. I honestly don't. I love the challenge. But I think that I'm very in tune with heavy metal still, and I'll be 50 on the 24th of this month [March 2014]. And I am way in tune with newer bands, what's going on. When you're driving in my car, you're listening to metal. I just do this because I've been doing it for 30 years. It's not like that at all. For me, this is real. It's the real deal. I have to have it like that, and I'm very serious about it.

So I don't have any problems writing lyrics. I come up with a song title or a story I want to talk about, and I research it. I'll pull stuff from the research to make sure that what I'm talking about makes sense.

Songfacts: Who would you say are some of your favorite songwriters from different bands, or also artists?

Zetro: That are around today or from the past?

Songfacts: From the past and it could also be from today.

Zetro: Anything in the '70s and through the New Wave of British Heavy Metal. I was always a big fan of that sort of thing: Judas Priest, Iron Maiden, Saxon, AC/DC. Especially AC/DC. I've emulated my voice after Bon Scott, just in thrash metal. I just love the guy. I actually have my own AC/DC tribute [AC/DZ]. When I really get a bug up my ass and I want to go do it, I go out and I book a show and I play Bon Scott for an hour and 20 minutes.

So I really love that era. I think those are some of the best songwriters. I think Plant and Page were amazing songwriters. Obviously, Lennon and McCartney, because I love the Beatles. That kind of stuff.

So, songwriters, they weren't necessarily metal for me, but definitely people that I respect. But it was pretty much from listening to hard rock in the '70s. My dad was an old school biker, and still is. God, he still is. He's almost 80 years old, and you can't get him off that Harley. When I was hanging out with him in the garage when I was a little boy, he listened to Sabbath and the Allman Brothers and Zeppelin. I'm talking '71, '72. So I think that's where my first influence of hard rock or, as it's known, heavy metal, came from.

Songfacts: I've always thought that AC/DC never really gets the credit as far as writing great songs. It was cool that Exodus covered their song, "Overdose," which is one of my favorite AC/DC tunes.

Zetro: One of mine, too. I loved that song. And we also did "Dirty Deeds" on Tempo of the Damned. Always fun to play AC/DC, because those are just fun songs. Everybody in the crowd knows them, and it's just good. It's great stuff. It was the foundation of what we do now.

Songfacts: The second rock concert that I ever saw was AC/DC on the Flick of the Switch tour, with Fastway opening up [on December 8, 1983, at Nassau Coliseum in New York... to be exact!].

Zetro: Really. I played with Fastway in 2011, or was it 2007? I did the side project with Chuck Billy called Dublin Death Patrol. I didn't even know if "Fast" Eddie was still around.

Songfacts: Yeah.

Zetro: But I remember that my first AC/DC show was Day on the Green. In San Francisco they used to have these concerts - they weren't even tours. Bill Graham would just put these concerts together, and they were called Day on the Green. And it was AC/DC, Van Halen, Ted Nugent, Blue Öyster Cult, Cheap Trick, and Foreigner. That was on one show. That was the first time I saw AC/DC.

The "Day on the Green" festivals, typically held at the cavernous Oakland Coliseum Stadium, ran at irregular intervals from 1973-1992 (with a one-off revival in 1999). The man in charge of these festivals was the late/great Bill Graham, who because of his connections with the biggest names in rock, was able to recruit some extremely impressive multi-band bills. In Zetro's recollection, he is likely conflating two concerts in 1978: Aerosmith, Foreigner, Pat Travers, Van Halen (during their first-ever tour), and AC/DC (when the late/great Bon Scott was still fronting the band) for a July 23 show, and Ted Nugent, Blue Öyster Cult, Journey, AC/DC (again!), and Cheap Trick for a September 2 concert.
Songfacts: I think that was Van Halen's first tour, right?

Zetro: Yeah. '78. They had already come around and did the arenas, but they came and did that Day on the Green. Pretty wild.

Songfacts: Awesome. Before, you mentioned that you like Bon Scott as a singer. As far as your singing style, did you ever have any throat problems over the years?

Zetro: No. Not at all. I do that sound effortlessly. That may be hard for you to believe. I scream, and I do that sound effortlessly. When I was in Exodus, I went to singing lessons for five years, and I made sure that I knew what I was doing. So the screams and all that stuff is just the way that I pitch my jaw and cock my throat and kind of hold my chest back. It's all technique.

When I'm working with Chuck Billy, he needs a warm-up tape. A lot of singers use them 25 minutes, 40 minutes before they go on. It's funny. "Zetro, you ready?" And I'm all, "Oh, yeah, here, gimme a second." And I'll just, like, (screams - play the clip to hear it), belt out this long-ass scream. "Okay. I'm ready."
It's like, "Damn, how do you do that?" I say, "I work on my craft." I don't have a boat, I don't have a Harley, I don't do stuff like that. Music is my life.

Zetro's Hatriot is quite the family affair. In addition to featuring the man himself behind the mic, the band also includes his sons, bass guitarist Cody Souza and drummer Nick Souza, in their ranks (with Justin Cole rounding out the group on guitar).
My children are older and they're in the band with me. I'm not married to their mother anymore. I have a beautiful girlfriend that takes care of business. So basically music is all I do.

Songfacts: Tell me about the Hatriot song "From My Cold Dead Hands."

Zetro: "From My Cold Dead Hands" basically is my take on how our freedom is always being challenged, especially by our own people. The reason our freedoms were put into our Constitution and as Amendments was so that nobody could alter them, even 240 years down the road. This country was given the right to bear arms, and that should stand true. There shouldn't be any modification of types of guns or bullets or whatever it is. It should be, in my eyes, left the way it is.

And because there's so much gun violence in the United States, it seems like they're trying to regulate what you can get as far as bullets or ammunition and stuff like that. I just don't think that you should repress any of that.
The PMRC grabbed quite a few headlines during the mid to late '80s. Short for "Parents Music Resource Center," the committee was mainly comprised of politician's wives (including Al Gore's spouse, Tipper), who were outraged by the lyrics of many songs of the era. Heavy metal was mostly targeted (W.A.S.P., Def Leppard), but pop was also included (Prince, Cyndi Lauper). The end result was "warning stickers" being placed on the supposedly offending albums, which were not allowed to be sold to minors (although I can speak from experience as a heavy metal loving teenager in the mid to late '80s - I never had a problem purchasing these recordings entirely on my own!).
I mean, for us as heavy metal singers and artists, we've gone 30 years having our records stickered. Remember the PMRC crap in the '80s and taking Judas Priest to court because two kids committed suicide? And it was because they played their record backwards. Like, "Oh, my God, how absurd was that whole thing?" That's something that pisses me off.

I don't own guns, and I'm not a hunter. I never have shot a gun, nor have I hunted, but it's something that I feel really strongly about. So I wrote that song about that.

Songfacts: What do you remember about the writing of Exodus' "Toxic Waltz"?

Zetro: "Toxic Waltz" is funny. I remember Gary [Holt, Exodus' guitarist] coming to practice and going, "Okay, check it out. I want you to write a song and we're calling it 'Toxic Waltz.'" And I go, "Okay. What's it about?" He goes, "Well, it's just about what our fans do at our gigs. Just write about what they do." Okay.

So I was home that night and I saw an infomercial or one of those things. This was back in the '80s before they really had a lot of them. It was for some '50s and '60s Greatest Dance Songs compilation, and it had "The Twist," "The Mashed Potato," "The Watusi," everything you can think of, it had one of those songs. "The Stroll." Anything that had a song that had a dance to it, they did. And I thought, "Wow, good idea."

So I wrote the lyrics as a parody and I wrote it as a joke. I didn't even think that we were going to use it. If you read the lyrics, they're kind of silly. I'm thinking, you know, here we are, this totally hard thrash band, we kick in your face and rape and murder your wife, and now here we're writing a parody of a '60s or '50s dance number.

And then Gary read the lyrics and was, like, "These are brilliant, dude." I'm all, "No way. If we put this on there, they're going to kill us. Are you kidding? They're going to be flipping us off."

Who's to know? However many years it was later - 25 years later, I guess - it's still probably the most-asked-for Exodus song. In fact, in Hatriot we play it now just because they ask for it all so much.

Songfacts: What about the song "Til Death Do Us Part."

Zetro: "Til Death Do Us Part" is about us and the fans. First song I ever wrote when I entered Exodus. It was about us and the fans, and how we'll be here forever.

This is our type of music. I know that most people don't like our type of music: It's not really socially acceptable. They don't play us on the radio. But don't worry, fans, 'til death do us part.

I'm holding true on that.

Songfacts: What about the song "Chemi-Kill"?

Zetro: "Chemi-Kill" is the way that especially at that time there were so many companies cheating the environmental thing. It's basically about dumping toxic waste and dumping stuff into our streams and our rivers - the water that we drink. Our children are turning green.

So that's what "Chemi-Kill" is. It's socially aware thrash metal. I've always written like that, but I think thrash metal in general is very socially aware.

Songfacts: Yeah. Even thinking back to the Master of Puppets album when Metallica did the song "Leper Messiah," which was about the TV evangelists.

Zetro: Sure. "Leper Messiah," I remember that.

We had a song on Impact is Imminent called "Objection Overruled" that was about all the TV judges and the TV courtrooms. Now look what it's gotten into: you can't turn on the TV without seeing a court case. Especially in the morning, I mean, from probably 8:00 or 9:00 in the morning till 2:00 in the afternoon, you could see "Judge Judy" and "Judge This" and "Judge This Person" and "Judge That." It's amazing. So it's just wild how things don't get any better, they stay the same.

Songfacts: Is it true that besides singing, you also have a full time job?

Zetro: Correct. For 20 years I've been in the Carpenter's Union in California.

Songfacts: And just what exactly does your job entail?

Zetro: I am a commercial door installer. So when you walk into, say, a movie theater or into a bathroom somewhere and you open the door and you grab the handle and the door closes, I put all that type of hardware in commercial buildings. I'll do hospitals, schools. Right now I'm at a huge job at Stanford, the college. There's a credit union going in the middle of it. It's a really, really detailed job. A lot of detailed different hardware, a lot of electric hardware on the doors. So very intricate stuff. I had to be at the job at 6:00 this morning. So that's what I'm actually doing today.

Songfacts: Lastly, do you agree that the original cover for Pleasures of the Flesh is one of the gnarliest cover concepts ever?

Zetro: I think so. I love the metaphor: pleasures of the flesh. Yeah, especially at that time, you think you're getting a glam album where you're going to have a chick on the cover, and here we're all eating meat and stuff. So I've always loved that cover.

I actually have that one framed in my house because I love that cover so much.

June 19, 2014
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