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A Quietus Interview

The New Testament: Thrash Titans Talk Fitness And Lady's Clothes
Mark Eglinton , April 22nd, 2009 05:27

Mark Eglinton caught up with the Bay Area legends Testament recently

Ask a fan to name his top ten seminal thrash albums and you’d fancy your chances of getting one, maybe even two from Bay Area thrash unit Testament’s early repertoire in the reply. In all truth, The Legacy, their first and for many their best work sounds by today’s demanding standards as if it might have been recorded underwater, so poor is the recording standard. But be in no doubt, the songs were there, not to mention the aggressive delivery and high quality playing. Much the same applied to the bulk of their early back catalogue, actually; it was all technically excellent and very well crafted but crucially lacked that one career-changing record that would have shoved them firmly towards a new and more commercially orientated audience. That’s all history now however and Testament output of the late nineties and early 21st century has involved a fair bit of experimentation. And due to both metal’s temporary decline and personnel changes they lacked any definable direction, so much so that you wouldn’t have been entirely surprised if Messrs Billy and Co hadn’t bothered popping their hairy mops up from beneath the metal parapet ever again.

Not only did they resurface, however — they positively rammed their defiance in our faces in the uncompromising form of 2008’s Formation of Damnation, a massively well produced, hook-rich triumph that drew on and enhanced every positive feature of their entire career. A slot on the Priest Feast mega-tour followed, as well as a large US trek of their own, their reputation and drawing power stronger than ever. We caught up with Chuck Billy and Alex Skolnick before their one-off show in London, which showcased their first two albums back to back.

Hi Guys, you’re both smelling very nice, which isn’t exactly rock n roll, is that for my benefit?

Chuck Billy: [laughs] "Not really! We just arrived on the bus a few minutes and we have a ton of interviews to do so we like to get cleaned up first."

No problem, this show is quite an unusual concept, how did the idea to do it evolve?

CB: "Well the original idea was to do Formation of Damnation in its entirety but that idea got shelved for whatever reason. Then we thought it would be great to do The Legacy until we realised that the show would only be 40 minutes long. The obvious thing then was to includeThe New Order and do the show that way. You have to remember we really hadn’t played a lot of this stuff for a long time so we got the chance to rehearse some of them during the Priest Feast tour. My voice has changed over the years since we recorded all this stuff too so we made some changes like tuning the guitars a bit lower and it will definitely sound great."

Alex Skolnick: “Yeah this whole process has really been an adventure and we have only recently done a rough rehearsal. We started dropping a few songs here and there into our live set to get them down live and they are sounding great and we are really enjoying playing them again. Then this show was kind of announced so we were like ok, let’s do it.”

CB: “It’s coincidence really that we are doing it in London too, it’s just that our main tour has finished and this is where we were flying home from so it kind of made sense.”

How was the tour with Judas Priest? There were a few big personalities kicking around there?

CB: "The whole tour was absolutely great and everyone got along really well. We’ve been doing this for a long time now and there were none of the usual issues. Sometimes the main band will hold back production or sound because they feel threatened, but we do what we do and Priest do what they do, so there was nothing like that. There were no big egos and Judas Priest and Rob Halford are a class-act. The London show at Wembley was awesome and was the one we wanted to get absolutely right. Usually in those circumstances something goes wrong when you least want it to, but it was perfect."

AS: "Yeah the tour was a lot of fun and we have absolutely nothing to prove to anyone, we’ve been doing this for 25 years.”

CB: “Also, Judas Priest could have taken anyone they wanted out on tour with them, maybe a young band or something, but they actually chose us and Megadeth, and also, we’ve toured with them before.”

Speaking of Megadeth, how was Dave Mustaine? Do you guys get on ok?

AS: “Dave and I have known each other a long time and he is without doubt a very intense personality, so I could see how people might find that intimidating. He’s very interesting and at times during the tour he actually came to me for some tips.”

Really? So you’re saying that Dave Mustaine No.1 in Joel McIvers100 Greatest Metal Guitarists came to you, No 13, for guitar tuition?

AS: [laughs] "Well I wasn’t aware of that but yeah, I play in a jazz orchestra when I’m not doing this and we have very different styles so Dave was looking for some help with jazz chords. What you need to know about Dave is that he always wants to improve and he is recording his new record as if it’s his first, which says a lot about how driven he is.”

CB: “Dave and I have a lot of history too and basically at the heart of it he is a great guy. Sure, he has his good days and bad days just like anyone but I have always managed to have a joke with him. He’s just one of those people you need to catch right.”

Apparently he is ‘reborn’? How does that present itself?

CB: “I guess it works for him.” AS: “Yeah, it’s definitely not like he shoves it down anyone’s throat anyway. It’s a personal thing.”

Why do you think that you never made that one killer commercial album like say Metallica’s Black Album?

CB: “Honestly, we thought at the time that every record we made might be the ‘big one’ but sometimes it works out differently. When we were signed to Atlantic around the time of Practice What You Preach that was probably the best opportunity back then. There was pressure on us to come up with a single and it’s hard not to compromise.”

AS: “True. For me though I always wanted a really well produced record and The Black Album had that. I like it because it’s still heavy enough but with that big production. I actually hoped and thought they’d go back and do the really heavy stuff again, but they didn’t. But really, when you compare us to them, we didn’t have anything even close to being as commercial as some of that stuff.”

Mid career albums like Low and Demonic; do you regret the direction that material took?

AS: “I won’t comment, I wasn’t around at that time...”

CB: “It was really difficult because metal was basically underground at that time. We also had so many line-up changes that it was hard to be really creative. I tried to make the best stuff we could and experimented a lot with the three vocal styles I have worked on over the years. The new record was different because we decided we wanted the guitars and the drums really big and also I would sing with quite a lot of melody.”

AS: “I agree and I think that Formation of Damnation is a mix of all the best parts of every era of the band, and it’s really well produced.”

Alex, has metal guitar playing changed a lot over the years, since you started?

AS: “In some ways it’s very different. For a long time I felt like a complete black-sheep because my background was much more Van Halen or Randy Rhodes. Recently I was listening to 80s stuff like Ratt and Dokken and the guitar playing there is really great, imagine that in a modern speed metal band! Basically, I wanted to fit my kind of guitar techniques into heavier songs because there was no way I was going to wear a scarf or hairspray!"

Drummers are big box-office nowadays, you guys have had a few?

CB: "Yeah we have had a Who’s Who of metal drummers over the years. Louie Clemente came first and he was very different with all his chops and everything and of course John Tempesta is amazing too. Paul Bostaph though is very much our drummer; he just works so incredibly hard and he really helped us out at short notice. We actually couldn’t believe how quickly he learned the material, just like he did with Slayer, but that just shows how professional he is. Also, he lives locally so everything about Paul fits perfectly."

AS: “Yeah for sure, John Tempesta would be next on the list; he does things very differently and is always improvising."

Your upcoming U.S. tour with Lazarus AD seems to be taking in some great venues, do you feel you are getting some deserved reward?

CB: “Yeah we don’t know too much about them but we’ve heard they like to thrash. We are really happy with how the tour is set up because before the new record came out people were cautious and didn’t know what to expect from us. Now, with the album being well received, we have some new booking agents who have fixed up a great schedule.”

AS: “The reunion really started things and really we were just having a lot of fun again. That combined with the record doing well has resulted in this great tour. We also think that $23 is a great value ticket for our show!”

CB: "Definitely, in fact we always try and give our fans something extra, whether it’s VIP packages or ‘meet the band’ opportunities, we want to give them a bit more than just the live show.”

Presumably there is a need to look after yourselves nowadays in a way that you maybe didn’t before? Do you co-exist better nowadays?

AS: [laughs] “It’s a lot different nowadays. In the old days the tour bus was just one big party; there was music playing, smoke everywhere and porno on the TV and the whole place was basically a zoo. I am a runner and I need to get out and do that five days a week and Paul has started coming along too. It’s hard though, because on the Priest tour it was restaurant standard catering and you had to be careful. The company that looked after us were called Eat to the Beat and we had a lady called Mandy who looked after us and we nicknamed her The Queen of Tarts!”

CB: "We have a lot more respect for each other now than we did back then too. Now the tour bus is like a sanctuary and we know we can go there and there will be no partying going on. I don’t run when it’s cold out because I don’t want to get sick but I do jump rope and we have exercise mats and balls to use for working out.”

Chuck, kindly tell me about your ability to guess a woman’s dress size just by looking at her. Did you need to work on that skill?

CB: [laughs] “Yeah that’s kind of true actually and the reason is that simply I always buy all my wife’s clothes for her...”

So let me understand, you go to the mall and a return home with armfuls of clothes for Mrs Billy and she says ‘Thanks Honey’, is that about right? CB: [more laughs] “That’s pretty much how it is actually. I have always bought her clothes for her so it’s pretty easy really and she seems to like what I buy her!”