METALSUCKS EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: TESTAMENT’S CHUCK BILLY ON THE NEW AMERICAN CARNAGE SET, NEW ALBUM
In a way, Testament is like The Small Faces to Metallica’s Beatles and Slayer’s Rolling Stones: a band as virtuosic, productive, and creatively astute as their deified peers, but hamstrung by bad business breaks. Another factor is the absence of an outspoken know-it-all (Slayer, Metallica), a gimmicky mascot (Anthrax), or a Mustaine-esque diva (duh) to which Testament’s marketing efforts could be anchored. Aside from singer Chuck Billy’s serious illness a decade ago, the Testament story’s most noteworthy turns include little more than the defection of a jazz-crazy guitarist and a dickish but minor betrayal by metal’s most corpulent drummer.
Even if a hypothetical Testament: Behind The Music would clock in at about six minutes, an All-Star Tribute To Testament concert event could stretch across days to cover just the highlights of their dudless catalogue. (My personal best-of runs 175 minutes. Yeah baby.) And while the band is enjoying what guitarist Eric Peterson calls “a second wind” since the return of uber-guitarist Alex Skolnick and bassist Greg Peterson for the magnificent 2008 outing The Formation of Damnation, Testament remains supplicant to sexier tourmates Slayer and Megadeth in the opening slot on this summer’s rescheduled American Carnage Tour. That seems fine by the surprisingly affable (and occasionally merry) Chuck Billy, who spoke exclusively to MetalSucks about getting hammered in Europe, how Dave Lombardo’s enabled the awesomeness of The Gathering, the quest to control their back catalogue, and their exciting-as-fuck new setlist. Emphasis on “new.”
We are looking forward to playing that tour, but actually in September of last year, we decided that we’re not going to fill our calendar too much this year because we want to work on a new record and try to get it finished. We were really focused on getting that accomplished. Then the American Carnage tour offer came up. Of course that’s a great tour; we had to take it.
Then it was postponed, but the Megadeth/Exodus tour popped up. That’s another great tour that we couldn’t pass up. So, yes, we are looking forward to it. But we’re also looking forward to getting our record written. The ultimate goal for us is to have that done this year.
You and I spoke last April and at that point, creating the new album hadn’t yet gotten under way. Where are you guys at now?
We’re jamming. There are a lot of riffs and ideas rolling around. You know when you get the first song, and you’re really feelin’ it. I think we have a lot of good riffs, we just really haven’t constructed that first one that makes you go “We’re feelin’ it. Here it is” It’s coming along.
It’s nice not have the pressure with somebody breathing on us to finish it. Of course, I want to get it done but you can’t rush it and just write songs then put them out unless you feel cool about them.
Is it accurate to say that at this stage in Testament’s career, you guys can take your time?
Uh, no, I just think that at this point in our career, there’s no label saying, “This is your deadline and this is your release date,” so we have to fight to get it out by that day. Because we have Burnt Offerings and we license our own music, we don’t have somebody… of course, they’d like to have a record every year. It just doesn’t happen!
Back in November, Eric told me that the plan for the American Carnage setlist was The Legacy front to back. But things changed and you ended up doing that set for the Megadeth tour. Now, we hear that Testament will be doing a set that spans the band’s entire career.
I think that since Alex and Greg have been back in the band, we’ve been playing a lot of old songs and a couple The Legacy and The New Order [complete] shows. And we’ve heard from some fans, and from ourselves as musicians, why not play something else? So for Carnage, we’re gearing up for more off The Formation of Damnation, The Gathering, and Demonic. We’ve been playing a lot of the old with a few recent songs. It’s going to be the opposite for Carnage; I think we’ll play more of our recent tunes with a couple of classics in there. We’re going to just turn it around. We’re going to concentrate on more of our newer stuff where me and Eric left off as a band; we took this band to a certain point by writing those records. We’d like to continue that especially now with the line-up we have.
What about the middle era of Testament, from Practice What You Preach to Low? How do you view that period of Testament? It isn’t represented much in your live shows these days.
Basically when Alex, Greg, and Paul [rejoined] the group, it was about going back and playing a lot of old songs. A lot of those Alex was a part of. We did that. Now it’s time for this line-up to play our current stuff. That’s where we’re at.
On the tour, Slayer is playing their classic album from 1990 and Megadeth is playing all of Rust In Peace again. At any point did you all entertain the notion of playing Souls of Black? That’s your awesome 1990 record.
Ah, no. We never discussed doing Souls of Black. If it would be discussed, I’d want to play the new record. What’s wrong with that, right?
It’s great that Slayer and Megadeth are going to do that! But they have a longer [set], so they can spread out their show and play new stuff too. The opener wouldn’t get that opportunity; we’d have a shorter set and might not be able to finish a whold record. We’re going to go out there guns blazing and play new stuff we haven’t played in a while. It will feel great playing it.
We’ve been rehearsing “Riding The Snake,” “Legions of the Dead,” –
“The Fall of Sipledome.” That song is brutal!
Also, “Eyes of Wrath” is in there. “True Believer” is back in the set.
Those are songs that Eric and I talked about in detail. That’s really exciting! Those songs are so dynamic.
Well, listening The Gathering just fires me up. I’m like “Man, those are some great songs. What are we doing [playing only old songs]?” So we’re playing ‘em live and it feels like a different band, because we’ve been mostly playing these other old songs. I watch Paul play the drum parts and he’s like an animal. It’s good to see that. It’s going be a good thing for this tour.
Yeah, Paul is a drummer who can hyper-charge a band. To have brutal, high-level material like the songs from The Gathering played by a drummer of his caliber … that is amazing.
I was telling him, “On these songs, you get to just go off.” And he was like, “I know. I am!” Even in the rehearsals, Paul comes in and there’s a difference in his feeling playing it.
You might not want to answer this, but do you agree that The Gathering is Dave Lombardo’s best drum performance?
He’s an amazing drummer and I’ll tell ya – the key and the secret to that record was that Eric Peterson… He [was always forced to] dictate to drummers over the years what the part is going to be, the accents. On The Gathering, he didn’t have to do that. He got to be a guitar player and Lombardo jumped in and was just Dave Lombardo.
When I came in at the end of a day of them working, I was like ‘Wow, man!’ The songs were killer, and I could come up with patterns on the spot. When things like that happen, you think “This is working.” When things come together that smoothly, you know it’s going be a good riff, a good hook, and a good tune. That’s how we wrote that record. Like you said, Lombardo was a part of it. He let Eric be Eric.
And at that point, while writing [The Gathering], he was really into black metal. So you hear fast strumming and blast beats, which we’d never done before in Testament. That record was something special.
Absolutely! That’s so interesting! I love The Gathering for many reasons, and one of them is that it was incredibly heavy compared to the records by other thrash metal greats around 1999. Your peers were losing their edge and the genre seemed to be ailing. Then, blam! The Gathering was like a sledgehammer. Did you guys start to feel alone out there?
Nah, we didn’t think that at all. We just thought about ourselves. To a certain point, Eric can’t just write what he likes to listen to. He has to take into consideration that is has to sound like Testament. But, on that record he had the freedom to experiment more with what he likes. That element really fired up the songs.
Well, 1990 was a whole different era for music business. At that point, major labels still signed metal bands. Metal bands were played on more than 100 radio stations at drive time. Times were good for metal. So yeah, everything was great for the Slayers and Testaments. Of course, that was the year we did Clash of the Titans with Slayer, Megadeth, and Suicidal Tendencies over in Europe; it was good times for metal in Europe, too. Europe has always been about metal, that’s what landed us on the map.
You mean Testament experienced success first in Europe?
Before I got in the band, The Legacy demo was a big-selling demo out there in Europe. There was a big buzz. So labels wanted to sign Legacy and Maria Ferrero from Megaforce was really pushing it. Megaforce had Metallica, Raven, Anthrax, and S.O.D., so we were like “That’s where we want to be.” [laughs] The band reached the right person at the right time, I guess.
That was our very first time to leave the country [when] we went to Europe to play the Dynamo Festival. There’s 25,000 people and they know our music. We were just young kids going ‘Wow. This is incredible!’ [laughs] Of course, culture was different there. I was old enough to drink [in the U.S.] – I don’t think anybody else was. Of course, in Europe you can drink if you can stand up to the bar. So our first time over there, Alex was like 17. Everybody was under 21 except me, and we were just getting hammered. It was like “Where is this foreign land?! This is great!” It was like we went to another planet: We could drink, they’ve got pot, and they love our music. I didn’t want to go home. Europe was it for us.
I think a lot of people my age can say they first heard Testament on MTV. How do you feel about “The Ballad” and “Practice What You Preach” as first impressions of Testament?
[pauses] That’s when we [were signed directly to] Atlantic Records. At that point in our career, it was the first time we found out what an A&R guy was. And we had this A&R guy floating around the recording studio telling us to get out the next single [and] the next video. These guys were thinking that the single had to be like “The Ballad” – something radio-friendly. Of course, songs like “The Ballad,” “The Legacy,” or “Return To Serenity” were chosen because that’s their shot at radio or whatever. It gets corporate like that.
It’s sad that Testament was presented and got exposure with the softer side of the band, instead of the harder side. So yeah, there are some people who still see [those videos] on the internet and say “I can relate to that. If that’s what Testament is about, then I’ll go buy the record.” And then they hear the record and say “Wait – that’s not like the video I just saw.” [laughs] I’m happy on one hand because it’s exposure, but on the other hand, it’s misrepresentation a little bit.
But for many, it’s a gateway to the harder stuff. It kinda evens out.
Oh yeah. My thing is – Hey man, I can show you that I can sing a note. We can play more that what … I guess, people think of you as a metal band and perceive you as maybe not being a real talent or not knowing how to play or whatever.
Few could’ve doubted the band’s skills.
But you know what I mean – it’s the perception. Someone corporate who doesn’t understand it [would say] “Heavy metal? I just market it. I don’t understand it.”
Oh I see. The decision-makers at the label were like that. That makes sense.
Then [those types hear a song like] “The Legacy” and totally get that.
Does that perception persist for Testament?
Not anymore. We’ve done it, we’ve lived with it, and we’re moving forward. It’s about the music, not the business. Since we license our own music, that’s been the beauty. And we’re working with the right companies. We got stuck in a bad deal with Spitfire Records for ten years and finally got out of there and got with Nuclear Blast, who’d been pursuing us for about ten years. It’s been great ever since. The turnaround of the music part of the business wass when we signed with them.
I’m glad you mentioned Spitfire. A lot of fans feel that The Gathering should’ve been a much bigger-selling record.
It was just a stroke of hard luck. In Europe, we went with a bad company called USG, which was a new independent company. I think they went out and sold about 70,000 records and then filed bankruptcy. So we didn’t make a penny on that in Europe.
Yep. So we went over to Spitfire. They didn’t really do much for it either. So we rode that wave. Once we got [ownership of the album back], we took it to Prosthetic Records, which [now] has Demonic, First Strike Still Deadly, and Live At Eindhoven. So we’re getting that stuff out. We’re still trying to get on Atlantic to push the first five records – that’s up to them how they solicit it. It’s tough to follow that.
So, Atlantic still controls the first five Testament records.
They still distribute them, but who knows how hard they’re working to distribute them. We’ve tried to get control of those records and we’ve tried to get with them to remix, re-master, and re-release them. They said no. That’s why we did First Strike Still Deadly. We just decided to just go in and re-record it because it’d probably sound better anyhow. And it did.
I’d love to see The Ritual get the full re-master treatment. Even if it’s not exactly a pure Testament record, it’s still a great achievement. It’s like a super heavy Aerosmith record. It’s awesome.
It’s a good record. Where we are as a band right now, I bet we’d play those songs much better. I think those songs would have a different attitude today. We still play “Electric Crown”; that song’s been in our set over the last couple years.
I’ve heard it! I think “Deadline” and “As The Seasons Grey” would fit perfectly into a Testament live set, too. That shit is awesome.
Yeah! There’s some good stuff on there!
Get America Carnage tourdates on Testament’s MySpace page.