Steve “Zetro” Souza‘s voice is instantly recognizable. It’s a sandpapery screech that’s like a cross between Accept‘s Udo Dirkschneider and an enraged mynah bird, and it pierces through even the densest mix; when he fronts a band, you know it’s him. A native of California’s Bay Area, he’s been a part of two of the most important bands in thrash metal. At the dawn of the 1980s, he was singing for Legacy, who after his departure became Testament. He then joined Exodus in time for their second album, 1987’s Pleasures of the Flesh, and stayed with them for three more studio albums—1989’s Fabulous Disaster, 1990’s Impact is Imminent, and 1992’s Force of Habit—as well as 1991’s live Good Friendly Violent Fun. The group disbanded shortly after his departure, but when they reformed in the early 2000s, Souza came back, too, and sang on 2004’s Tempo of the Damned and 2005’s Live at the DNA 2004: Official Bootleg, before leaving once again.
Watch Exodus‘s video for “The Toxic Waltz”:
In the 1990s and 2000s, Souza devoted most of his time to building a life and career outside of music. But he’s made a few appearances on record: He sang on 2009’s Sovereign, the sole album by Tenet, a project put together by Strapping Young Lad guitarist Jed Simon, guitarist Glen Alvelais, and SYL bassist Byron Stroud and drummer Gene Hoglan. He also formed the group Dublin Death Patrol (named for his California hometown), which included his brother John Souza on bass, Machine Head guitarist Phil Demmel, and Testament frontman Chuck Billy, among others. It’s only now, though, that he’s devoted his full energy to a new band: Hatriot.
Taking their name from a line in the Exodus song “The Scar-Spangled Banner,” Hatriot are a family band—in addition to guitarists Kosta Varvatakis and Miguel Esparza, the lineup includes Souza’s sons Cody on bass and Nick on drums. The music is fierce, modern metal; there are obvious links to classic thrash, but the production and songwriting make it clear that Souza and his bandmates are well-versed in multiple styles. At times, the music recalls Pantera as much as Exodus. The band’s debut album, Heroes of Origin (buy it from Amazon), is a forceful statement of purpose, with bottom-heavy, percussive riffing from Varvatakis and Esparza, and the Souza brothers serving as a tight, groove-oriented rhythm section. The solos burst forth like showers of sparks, but never lose touch with the song as a whole. Lyrically, the album runs the gamut from gore and horror (“And Your Children to Be Damned,” “Shadows of the Buried”) to a more socially and politically engaged point of view (“Weapons of Class Destruction,” “Globicidal,” “Murder American Style”).
Watch Hatriot‘s video for “Blood Stained Wings”:
Below, an interview with Steve “Zetro” Souza.
You got your start in the band Legacy, which became Testament after you left. How did you join, and why did you leave?
Well, actually, I pretty much formed it. My brother was in it first, he’s a bass player, but then he was gonna go get married, and that really didn’t fit at the time, the mid to early ’80s. This was around ’83-ish. And I was in a band with [Machine Head guitarist] Phil Demmel at that time, but everybody in that band had girlfriends. So I went and called Eric [Peterson, guitarist] one day and he was like, “Unfortunately, we’re gonna fire your brother, but we need a singer.” So then it was him, myself, Derrick Ramirez, and Louie Clemente, who was the original Testament drummer. And then we hired Greg Christian when Derrick left, he got some girl pregnant, and we found Alex [Skolnick, guitar], and that’s basically how Legacy was formed. And then we were just about ready to sign a record deal, and I got the offer to join Exodus. And to me that was the ultimate offer, since they were just so brutally heavy on Bonded by Blood. So that’s kinda how that came out.
So you had the invitation to join Exodus before leaving Legacy?
Yeah, they were gonna fire Paul [Baloff]. They were tired of Baloff’s antics. They wanted to grow, and he was not showing up for practice, saying he was gonna write lyrics and never writing them…they were even paying for singing lessons for him, and he wouldn’t even show up for those, so he really wasn’t working on his craft, and at the level that band wanted to be, they needed someone who was serious about it. They had been to many Legacy shows, to see what I would do, so there was always speculation, even a year before I joined, that that might happen.
Did you write a lot of the lyrics for the Exodus albums you sang on?
Not like I did in Legacy. I wrote all the lyrics when I was in Legacy, like I do now in Hatriot. But in Exodus, Gary Holt’s an amazing lyricist. So he and I would write together. I took a lot of them and he took a lot of them—it was a lot of back and forth. Like, he wrote “Last Act of Defiance,” I wrote “Toxic Waltz.” You know? So it was probably sixty-forty, back in the day.
You made your debut with Pleasures of the Flesh, an album a lot of Exodus fans don’t think is the band’s best work. Looking back now, what do you think of it?
I think that album shows a great growth of the band and great unity from the band. Songs like “Seeds of Hate” and “Chemi-Kill” brought Exodus to another level of songwriting, and the type of vocal I did at that time was nothing like what Paul did on Bonded by Blood. I think at the time, people were expecting them to come out with Bonded by Blood Part 2, and a good band—they keep the formula, but they try to advance it. And I feel that we did that on Pleasures, and I think that after being in the band for a period of time, and those guys being there before me, when we got to [1989’s] Fabulous Disaster we were all very much in tune with each other. We had been on the road together for almost a year, we had put out a record together, we were all very much aware of what each other was doing, and what we needed to do. So I think Fabulous was a good combination of what Pleasures and Bonded both were. I wouldn’t say that we went down on Pleasures, after Bonded, and then up again on Fabulous. I just think that Fabulous got a lot more exposure, and a lot more recognition at that time, for the type of sound. I don’t think it had anything to do with the musical content. Because when I meet fans on the road, I hear from a lot who say that Pleasures is their favorite one. And then a lot of people say that Fabulous and Tempo [of the Damned] are their two favorites. And then a lot of people say that everything that I did sucked, that they only like Bonded by Blood! I’ve heard it all. I remember that time period, and it seemed like the band only progressed—in size of venues, in record sales, everything, all the way up to Impact is Imminent. It was all growth, never a regression at any point.
I saw you on tour with Suicidal Tendencies and Pantera—which album were you supporting at that time?
That was for Impact is Imminent. That was ’90. At that time, we were putting out a record a year. Pleasures came out in September of ’87, and Fabulous came out in January of ’89, and then Impact came out in May of ’90. So we were pretty much putting out a record every year.
I remember those nights very well. We had a great party, both nights in New York. I love New York; I have such a good time when I’m there. It’s just so many things to do, and great places to eat, you can stay up all night fuckin’ partying, it’s just great. Jersey, too. We played in Passaic I don’t know how many fuckin’ times. I know the area so well, and I love the fans there. I can’t wait to get over there with Hatriot. Probably in the next year—I’ve got a lot of European stuff to do, but soon. And we do play Exodus and Legacy songs live.
The last Exodus album you were on in the ’90s, Force of Habit, divides a lot of fans. What do you think about it?
You know what? It divides me. I listened to the album the other day, and I think that was very much corporate telling us, “You guys, we wanna sell this one. Impact was too heavy; we wanna be able to market this one. Let’s do ‘Bitch’ by the Rolling Stones. Let’s be a little bit more groovy on this one.” I was listening to it about a month ago, and I went through it and was like, “OK, I love this song. Love this song. Love this song. Hate the fuck out of this song. Hate this song.” Right in the middle of it, it gets terrible. And then at the end it gets good again. If I could do that again, there’d be songs on there…but then again, I got fans that love it. I’ll give you a great example. Jason Bittner from Shadows Fall says that Force of Habit is his favorite thrash record. So go figure.
You returned to Exodus for Tempo of the Damned in 2004—how and why did that happen, and why did you leave again so quickly?
My children were very young—I had three of them at that point. I wasn’t expecting to get back into Exodus, and all of a sudden it happened. There I was on tour again, and I had this family and a job. I had a son who was nine, I had a little girl who was four, I had a boy that was thirteen, and those are ages where they need their dad, and I decided to have that family. Now, if Exodus at the time was financially lucrative, it would have been really good, but it wasn’t—it was actually costing me more money to go on the road, because I had a really good job in California. If I’m not making music, I’m paid quite well to do what I do. I don’t need the music industry; I do it ‘cause I love it. I have a good living outside of music—which I’m going to give up here, again, to go back out on the road with Hatriot. I wanna do this again in a big way. But basically [back then] I couldn’t do it anymore. I was trying to juggle being a father, being a lead singer, and being a foreman for a union construction company. And they weren’t digging me leaving every two weeks or leaving for a month or two months, coming back and working for a week, and then leaving for another week and a half or something—they weren’t digging that, so I just kinda stopped the madness and had to pull the plug on it. But now, I’ve got two of those boys are playing my band with me! So I’m taking the family on the road. It’s a different mentality, a different mindset.
You made two albums with the band Dublin Death Patrol, which feels more like an excuse to reunite with old friends than a traditional band…
Good eye. Good eye! Exactly. It was an excuse. Yeah, there won’t be much left of that—I don’t want to do that anymore. I was coerced into doing the second record. I did the first one out of fun, the second one I was coerced into doing; I really didn’t want to do it. But I think it’s a really good record. If I write something, I’m gonna write it really well, and I like it, but I’m not going on tour with them. My focus now is the band that I’m in.
Before we talk about Hatriot, I want to ask about one other thing, which is the Tenet album Sovereign. How did you get involved with that project, and what do you think you brought to the album?
Oh, I made the album very good, I think, because actually, [guitarist/founder] Jed Simon did the vocals, and that’s the reason I came in. He was originally doing the vocals, and the label was like, “Go get a singer,” and I was doing a New Year’s Eve show with Dublin Death Patrol and Glen Alvelais was opening with some band, playing guitar, and he called Jed up, Jed called me up, said “You wanna do it?” I said, Sure. They sent me the album that Jed had sung on and I just learned it. I went in, and I didn’t have any of those guys there. Jed and Glen flew in, and we went to a studio—actually, Testament’s studio, they have their own studio—and banged it out. It was just something fun. Never toured, never played a show, nothing. It was just cool to get together with such great musicians and do something so heavy. I mean, Tenet is thrash, but there’s a lot of other things in there, too. It’s a very angry album, with very high, screaming vocals, and it was very personal, lyrically, to Jed. That was the first record I’ve ever done and not written a fuckin’ word. Everything on Sovereign was written by Jed Simon. I just came in and banged it out. Now, in Hatriot, I’m the only one who writes. I won’t even accept lyrics. “Hey, dude, I wrote a song!” That’s great, go start a fire with it. That’s not what we’re doing here. I write the words.
Watch Hatriot‘s video for “And Your Children to Be Damned”:
Hatriot is definitely rooted in thrash, but it’s a really modern thrash sound…
That’s exactly what we feel. Exactly.
Did you ever want to sing any other kind of music? I mean, when you were growing up I imagine you were listening to what would be called power metal now—did you ever want to go for that style?
That’s what I listened to—I mean, I listened to Judas Priest and Iron Maiden, of course. But I loved punk music, so it seemed like thrash was metal leads and punk ferocity, punk anger, punk spontaneity, you know what I mean? Just off the charts. So I loved thrash. And just because I know more, and people know Steve “Zetro” Souza—oh yeah, he’s a thrash legend, one of the pioneers. So it was a natural progression for me to do this. And that’s the way it should be. I don’t wanna be like, Well, I’m gonna try this new form of music and see if my fans like it. My fans like me singing with Exodus. My fans like the songs I did when I was in Legacy. So why would I stray away from that formula? And I was fortunate enough to find a guy in Kosta Varvatakis who can write in that vein. ‘Cause I’ve seen a million guitar players, and that’s why I’ve never put anything seriously together, because nobody could write the songs. I think every song on Heroes of Origin is great. There’s no filler on that album. And there’s no filler on the next one that we start recording September 10. I’ve got number two in the bag.
How did the lineup come together? I mean, I know where you got the rhythm section from—you made them…
Well, the one guitar player, Kosta, had I never seen him, I would never have started this. It’s because I heard his rhythms; there’s a song on this album, “Mechanics of Annihilation,” and a song that’s gonna be on the next album that was a demo song, called “The Fear Within”—I wrote those two songs and recorded them in Testament’s studio before we even had a lineup. We just did it to a machine, and I let people listen to it, like the guys in Testament, the guys in Machine Head, Andy Sneap, Paul Bostaph, people that I trust, and they were like, “Oh, yeah, this is killer, you gotta do this.” So then I started piecing it together and we had another guitar player before Miguel [Esparza], and we went through that, and we had another drummer before Nick [Souza], my son, but that drummer wanted to play with a hundred million bands, and when you go on tour for four weeks, that stops practice in my band. So I had to let him go, and my son got that gig, and then Cody [Souza] moved in right as we were doing it two and a half years ago, so he’s been in the band for quite some time. So it just slowly pieced together, but I’m telling you, this is a hot lineup. The live show is as good as the album. We go out to destroy every night. You come see us, you’re gonna be like, “Man, you guys kicked ass,” because I make sure—I’m like a fuckin’ coach. I’m in these little motherfuckers’ faces constantly. “You will destroy tonight. I need your head in the game. Make eye contact and show these motherfuckers!” It’s not like “OK, here we go, he does his thing and I do my thing.” I’m in their faces, telling ’em to get busy. I wanna see shit happen.
You’ve been doing this for almost three decades; how does it feel?
In two years it’s three decades. I’m counting it down now. That’s longevity. Somebody told me last month, he said, “You’ve outlived your shelf life,” and I said, I keep myself current from the music that I write.
How did you come to your vocal style? Your voice kind of reminds me of Udo Dirkschneider from Accept, but it’s uniquely yours. How did it develop?
Same thing. I listened to Udo and Bon Scott, and just kind of modeled it after that, and when I started singing this type of music, it just went really well with that. So that’s the sound. I mean, Roy Orbison, when you heard his voice, you knew who the hell it was, you know? I think it’s almost the same thing with me. When you hear Zet, you know it’s Zet, right off the bat. I’m not trying to mask anything, or do anything different, or change my style, or whatever. I just do me. And I do me really well. Twenty-eight, almost 30 years, I can do me pretty fuckin’ good, you know?
I feel like there aren’t many unique voices in metal anymore; everyone’s doing the same kind of growling and roaring, and that’s why bands are so hard to tell apart. What do you think?
I agree, I really do. You’ve either got the high-pitched scream or the ultra low growl. There’s nothing in between, and there’s no distinctiveness to it at all. And I think that’s why some of the newer bands aren’t separating themselves necessarily from the other bands that were doing it, and doing it right. To me, I think the band is great because there’s great rockin’ music and then all of a sudden you hear this voice that just stands out. And I’m not gonna bullshit you—my voice stands out. I know; I make it that way. When I’m writing a song, I know it’s gonna come through, ripping you like a razor. When you come to my show, it’s gonna be like Skilsaw blades flying through the air chopping your head off, ‘cause that’s how I want it to come across. I’m not gargling glass; I train for it. I don’t even drink booze anymore. I’m way into the show, way into the health thing, making sure that when I go out there, your money has been well spent. When you leave, you’re saying, “Holy shit. Those motherfuckers kicked my ass tonight. What a show; what a performance.” I don’t want to hear, “Ehh, they were all right; played a couple of old Exodus songs, I guess it was kinda cool.” You leave the place saying, “Holy shit—30 years, and he’s still kicking me in the balls like that?” So far, all the live shows we’ve done, that’s what I’m hearing. That’s what I’m putting out; I’m making it that way.
The band’s name, Hatriot, implies that the lyrics might be more political than the majority of bands. Is that the case?
I do write about a lot of social issues. Very much so. If you go through the lyrical content, there’s a lot of social stuff on there. “Globicidal” is about suicide bombers in Third World countries. “Weapons of Class Destruction” is about kids who bring guns to school and shoot everybody, and that was well before the Connecticut thing—it was about Columbine, and I even mention them in the song, kinda. And also, whatever intrigues me—actually, “Suicide Run” comes from a story in the Bay Area a few years ago, I think it was 2005. This guy was on a killing rampage in his car, rolling through the streets, and he started from a city called Newark, and went to San Francisco, and if he saw you on the street walking he’d come and try to plow you, and he killed, like, eight fuckin’ people. So I’m very much socially aware. On the new album, we have a song called “From My Cold Dead Hands”—obviously I shouldn’t have to explain what that’s about—and we have a song called “Silence in the House of the Lord,” which talks about pedophile priests and how the Catholic Church covers it up, so I have a lot of socially aware stuff on the record. But the name Hatriot, to me it’s just very metal. We had a line on Tempo of the Damned, the last Exodus record I did, “I’m no patriot/Just a hatriot,” from the song “Scar-Spangled Banner.”
When you write political songs, you have to keep it from going too far and alienating people…
Keep it tongue-in-cheek. Make sure people can assimilate the words in another way, so that they get it.
Right, because you don’t want to wind up like Ted Nugent, where the messenger sours the message.
Actually, I mention him in “Weapons of Class Destruction.” And I’m very much pro-Ted Nugent, and I love the man, it’s just unfortunate that sometimes people get too wrapped up in what someone says. Because think about it, who’s a greater American than fuckin’ Ted Nugent? He’s all about freedom and rights—I don’t own a gun, I’ve never even shot one, but those that do, they should have them. And even if I was the victim of a violent gun crime, I’d still have to be for ‘em, because that’s part of our Constitution, the right to bear arms. And if you start cutting away at that, you’re gonna censor the Fifth Amendment and the First Amendment. You can’t do that, two hundred-some years later. That’s why the whole idea was that in the future, nobody can take these out. That’s why they were put in, ‘cause they knew that would happen. You had that when there were 30,000 people in the United States, not 300 million. It’s like the Internet. The Internet’s a great thing. Well, no it isn’t; it’s a double-edged sword. Look at all the trouble that it’s caused—Internet predators, and child pornography, and people stalking other people; when something is good, you get bad out of it too. That’s just the way it is. That’s just part of life. So you can’t regress technology, or things that move forward. You just have to deal with it. It’s like anything else.
You’re signed to a German label, Massacre Records; are they helping you in the U.S.?
I think they are. But you know what? I’m not necessarily worried about the U.S. Metal isn’t big here in the U.S. I’m five times the size everywhere else, so my focus right now is to be big everywhere else and eventually it’ll seep over to the U.S. How sad is that? But I’ll give you a great example. The Ramones played clubs in the United States, but they went overseas and played arenas and huge fuckin’ concerts. It’s just unfortunate that the town you’re in, or the country you’re in, doesn’t want you. Machine Head, when they play in the Bay Area it’s in front of 2100, 2200 people, if they headline with a good lineup under them. They play Wembley Arena in London. Wembley’s 17,000. So you do the math. You know what I mean? That’s why I signed with a German label. It’ll eventually happen here.
Do you play a lot of older songs at Hatriot shows, and do you feel an obligation to fans to do that?
Yes, I do. I really do. Look here. When you went and saw Ozzy, at the end of the show, what happened every fuckin’ time? They played “War Pigs,” they played “Iron Man,” ‘cause that’s what people want to hear. Same thing with [Rob] Halford. When he goes out with Halford, or Fight, or whatever, end of the show, he plays the Priest songs. You know me from Exodus. You know me from Legacy, which turned into Testament. Two legendary thrash metal bands. How dare I come and not play something from that? No, I’m not doing that to the fans. Fuck, no. They’re gonna hear it. And I mean this—we play it better than both of those bands. I make sure we’re tight. Back in the day, we used to do “Last Act of Defiance,” and Rick and Gary weren’t always on the backups. I have my whole band tight, so when the backups come along, they’re out front. People have seen it and said, “Wow, I guess I gotta go see Hatriot now to see Exodus songs played correctly.” And I’m gonna bring songs in and pull ‘em out as I go through the years. Probably songs they don’t play on the road anymore.
What do you think of a lot of these so-called “retro thrash” baby bands that are coming out? Do you worry that they water down the style, or turn it into nostalgia?
I don’t mind, as long as it’s genuine and it’s good. Let the baby bands do that. It keeps the interest up. I know the bands you’re talking about—Warbringer, Bonded by Blood, 3 Inches of Blood, Municipal Waste, Havok. Great bands, as long as they’re being fuckin’ real about it. Obviously, I was there in the beginning, so people have no choice but to know it’s for real coming from me. I think if you listen to Heroes of Origin, it’s all about Zetro, it’s all about Exodus and Legacy…and Slayer, Metallica, Kreator and everybody else we stole from on those records. And we’re stealing from ‘em all again on this one! But there are some surprises on the next one. It’s a progression, I think. And the way I compare it is, you just got Kill ‘Em All, and we’re giving you Ride the Lightning next. We go in in September, should be done in October, and it’ll be out in February again. Twelve months between records—we’re not wasting any time.