“Sometimes Chuck gets inspired really fast, other times there can be a song that we think is really great and he’s not hearing anything and we try to help the process along. Sometimes you get lucky, sometimes it just comes together really quick. Most of the time it’s the same thinking process.”
Testament have been giving us Thrash metal for the best part of 30 years, I saw somewhere that if there was a ‘Big 5’, then Testament would surely be a part of that! That in essence couldn’t be more true. Helping to keep the Thrash scene alive, it’s always a testament (pun intended) to a band of this calibre that can keep pumping it out after this many years.
On the eve of releasing their tenth album ‘Dark Roots Of Earth’ we had a great chat to Testament guitarist Alex Skolnick about the creation of their new album, as well as line ups, touring and he weighs in on his Randy Blythe statement he recently put out there. So check out what this stalwart of the Trash scene had to say…
It’s been four years since your last release, was that a planned length of time or did it just evolve that way?
Oh it evolved that way, it definitely had to happen naturally and I think everybody would’ve liked for it to come out sooner but we also, we live in a day and age where the length of a record cycle is longer than it used to be and we had a lot of touring to do and we were pretty much touring off this last record right up through this year. And there was a line of dates, that probably added an extra year, but at least by today’s standards it’s not unusual to take a longer time to promote a record.
Well I suppose it’s different now too where you have to be out on the road to make the money…
That’s true, that’s true, and it’s harder to create awareness for a record, the cycle just has to last longer. At the same time, sales are a lot less, so if you’re expecting to earn money of recording, you need to do more of them, which is really difficult when you’re touring so, yeah, you’re pretty much right, the focus has to be more on the live performance.
For this album, writing and composing wise, how were the songs created for this release?
You know, it was all a little different. Riffs are created, it’s a bit of a tedious process, if you’ve ever seen the film ‘Some Kind Of Monster’, of course we’re not in the kind of luxury ha ha, but I think no matter what level the band, there’s a similar process where you present ideas and it’s a little intimidating because you don’t know if everybody’s gonna like it. In our case, Eric is the main riff writer and there are other times when I liked some of his ideas and Chuck wouldn’t like them, or vice versa, then as far as my own parts, I used to try to bring in whole songs, but for me it’s just easier to demo out a part or two and present them to Eric and Chuck and if they both like it then it’s worth pursuing. Then usually once some riffs pass the initial test, we try jamming on them and we see, some of them come together really quick, sometimes Chuck gets inspired really fast, other times there can be a song that we think is really great and he’s not hearing anything and we try to help the process along. Sometimes you get lucky, sometimes it just comes together really quick. Most of the time it’s the same thinking process.
How did essentially having the original band back together help to make this record what it was?
I think, well there’s a certain quality there that, one great thing about the genre of metal music or at least our area of metal music is that you can really hear the personalities and you can hear a personnel change. There are some more modern groups where the recording process is so mechanical that you can’t really tell, you can’t really tell if they swapped somebody, it’s gonna be the same sound no matter what. But I think our genre in particular, you know we’re not the only one, but we play one of the genres where the personalities are really captured and they make a difference as far as the sound of the recording. So I think that helps a lot, nothing we could’ve done without the original line up on the record, but it definitely gives it uniqueness. It’s also almost the original line up, the last couple of records haven’t had the original drummer, but that’s also added to the personality of the albums.
I was going to ask about that, the drummer situation, have you managed to find a fulltime person yet?
Well, Gene Hoglan was the one who played on the album and he’ll be doing most of the tour dates with us, so for all intensive purposes he’s the drummer. Before that we had Paul Bostaph on one record, and we had a few drummers before that, it’s totally unplanned, but the group seems to be following the Spinal Tap drummer saga ha ha.
As long as no one explodes on stage you’ll be OK…
That hasn’t happened yet ha ha.
You worked again with Andy Sneap as producer, what is it that he brings out in the band?
I think he knows the band pretty well, he’s done a few albums with the band at this point, and he’s a musician himself, and he’s also recorded other groups like Megadeth. I just think he’s very in tune with this type of music at this time period. He was also around back in the early day, I have some friends that are great producers as well, Josh Wilbur who did the new Lamb Of God record is a good friend of mine, but young, you can’t believe how young he is and how he’s able to capture the music. There is something comforting about working with someone that was around when this music started, and I think at least for this band it helps to have somebody like that from that generation. When we started, there weren’t a lot of producers, people really didn’t know how to capture this music, you know Metallica was able to do great records, and that had a lot to do with them, themselves, you know I think Hetfield and Ulrich could’ve been a great production team even though they worked with engineers or whatever, but a lot of the other bands just went from producer to producer and some of the definitive metal albums, like Slayer’s ‘Reign In Blood’ was recorded by a guy who’s a pop rock producer, that none of the rest of us could afford, but it’s good that there’s now guys like Andy who specialise in this kind of music and we don’t have to wait for the Red Hot Chili Peppers to be done with their producer you know? Ha ha.
The artwork is amazing, where did the idea from this come from?
I think that was an idea of Eric’s, it’s sort of like a pagan god, it captures the titles and it’s basically a tree come to life, that’s being worshipped. It’s been getting a great response. It’s very distinct which is what I like about it. The last one was good, but the last one was definitely a metal cover. It could’ve been one of many metal covers, but I think this one really stands out which is a great thing.
You also recorded some bonus tracks for the album, including Queen, Maiden and Scorpions covers, how did you choose what to record for these?
I know a bunch of ideas were tossed around. I was of the mindset that we should try to do non-metal tunes and make them metal, I just thought that was more interesting, so with the other guys the first thing that comes to mind is Maiden and Scorpions, but I think the way those songs were recorded, they sound good, they sound different to the originals, so I’m pleased with how they came out. It was actually Chuck’s wife Tiffany that suggested ‘Dragon Attack’ by Queen and as soon as that was suggested I got all excited and thought ‘That’s what I’m talking about’ ha ha I voted massively in favour of that one. It’s a great riff and I like the idea of taking songs completely not from this genre and giving them special treatment.
Touring wise, I have to ask if we can expect to see you in Australia any time soon…
I think so, I think it’s very likely to happen in 2013, it sounds so far away, but it’s less than half a year away. We’re pretty booked up in Europe in August and then North America on and off for the rest of the year, so it’ll have to be then so I’m sure it’ll happen then.
Not sure if you celebrate milestones, but next year is somewhat the 30th anniversary of the band…
It is? Oh I guess it is… yeah…
Are there any plans in the works for something special?
That’s interesting, no nothing has come up yet, and you know I guess it’s the 30th anniversary of the bands forming, and I didn’t show up until a few years later and Chuck showed up a year after I did, so I don’t know if it really feels like a 30th anniversary, as far as this line-up being together it’s really 1986, so I think we’d probably wait a few more years, but I’m not sure, we’ll see…
You’ve recently shot a video for ‘Native Blood’, can you tell us about the song and give us an idea of what we can expect from the video?
Chuck wrote that about his Native American heritage, but it can apply to natives all over the world, even the Aborigines in Australia. It sort of captures the Native American experience. I can’t really speak for him but what I get from the song is, growing up in a region that was the product of colonisation and trying to adapt but also as one gets older, turning to their actual heritage to help get by in the world. The video was filmed on an Indian reservation in Hopland, California, Chuck’s family is on the tribal council of this reservation, so the video has us performing up there and it also has footage of the reservation and elder tribal members, native American ritual, dances, so it’s very cool, not a typical metal video. There’s a Spanish version of the song which Chuck sang, and I think it’s going to come out at the same time.
Now I did read your statement regarding Randy Blythe (read it here), and I won’t ask you about it but I do hope it works out OK for your mate…
Oh thanks, yeah, I hope so too. I’m surprised that there are some with taking issue with what I had to say. It’s funny a couple of people tried to twist it in to this pro American statement which it really wasn’t at all. It was really just a pro human statement and just wondering why our Government hasn’t taken any interest in it, our media has taken barely any interest in it and if he was from any other country I would expect the same thing for that counties Government or media. I can’t believe how long it’s been, it’s really insane…
That’s all I’ve got Alex, so thanks so much for your time.
Well thank you, and hopefully we’ll get there sooner rather than later.
From: Bay Area, CA – USA
Band members: Chuck Billy – Vocals, Eric Peterson – Guitar, Alex Skolnick – Guitar, Greg Christian – Bass, Gene Hoglan – Drums
Latest release: Dark Roots Of Earth – (Nuclear Blast / Riot! Entertainment)