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“SOMETIMES IT’S BETTER NOT TO CARE”: TESTAMENT’S ALEX SKOLNICK ON ‘DARK ROOTS’, WRITING LYRICS, AND RANDY BLYTHE

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If ever America tasked me with assembling a Council Of Excellence to guide longview policy-making and societal enrichment, I’d waste no time appointing habitual winners like David Fincher, Russell Banks, Steve Martin, Magic Johnson, and Utada Hikaru. And to head the Department of Guitars, Testament shredder Alex Skolnick would be my first pick: A renaissance man, Skolnick is both the “melodic conscience” of Testament and the first to state that their polarizing 1992 album The Ritual needed more speed and heaviness; he’s both a teen thrash metal guitar prodigy and a militant jazz dude; he’s a measured blogger and a fit, ageless hunk; a cool-headed debater and deft deflector of sweaty compliments. A perfect fit for the Council lol. 

Okay but until then, Skolnick is just one of Earth’s most valuable guitar players and songwriters, a boundless and insatiable talent who helps power Testament to a rank among thrash metal’s best three bands. Yesterday, Skolnick talked us through a handful of his signature solos; today, he gives us the big picture of Testament’s brutally melodic Dark Roots Of Earth, the function of his solo playing, whether bands truly all have a “Turbo” in their discography, and the flak that he got from MetalSucks for his editorial on the Randy Blythe situation.  

Anso DF: The new Testament record is super-heavy and melodic and hooky. So I’m glad that of all the members of Testament, I have you to talk about it; you’re the melodic conscience of Testament.

Alex Skolnick: [laughs] That’s a nice way to put it.

From your perspective, how did Dark Roots Of Earth evolve into a heavy, hooky singalong record?

Really one step at a time. There was no plan to make it a certain type of record. There was no outline for it. I think some of these ideas have been floating around from the last [record], and we were ready for a slow song. We have that song “Cold Embrace”; that was incomplete before and we finished it for this album. We sorta mutually agreed that we could have a slow tune that’s not a ballad; that’s something we definitely had. And of course, there are always going to be fast ideas and mid-tempo ideas. It’s a matter of working out on song at a time and seeing where it goes. It wasn’t pre-planned — except in those ways.

It’s interesting to see how a band like Testament operates, a band with many classic albums under its belt. A listener might wonder what’s left for Testament to accomplish. What’s your motivation?

You can’t plan on the same album. You can’t pick one album — say, The New Order — and decide to re-do that album.

[laughs]

You really have to look at each individually. It helps that everybody has a little more self-identity: There’s a Chuck Billy vocal sound now, whereas at the beginning we were under the shadow of other groups. Obviously Metallica is the big one. And in the Bay Area, Exodus cast a long shadow. There were so many different directions to go in, and Chuck was taking it all in. But he was kinda new to the Thrash world at that time; his previous band was almost a glam band, a commercial rock band. And then he had another band, a garage band, like punk. So he was really finding himself. But now he has his sound.

And I’ve had all these years away and just developed into this whole other type of musician that works in different situations. And Eric is a black metal musician, y’know what I mean. So all of that is … When we do an album, that’s all brought to the mix.

Take a song like “Envy Life” from Practice What You Preach. It’s a dark, brooding song; its rhythm parts in the verse are sorrowful. Yet its solo is slyly bluesy, kinda like Pantera’s “Walk” a few years later. Is it your aim to bring a counterpoint to Testament songs via your solos?

I think that’s going to happen naturally. I don’t have a choice. I come from a lot of different places with music. I never listen to what the other guys in our genre were doing — with all respect for those guys! I never did that; I was really a geek [laughs]. I looked to the musical virtuoso guys — early Van Halen, Randy Rhoads. Both of those guys were classically-influenced. And for a brief period, Yngwie [Malmsteen] too, when he was with Alcatrazz and on his first solo record. I really don’t like what he did after that [laughs], that sorta L.A. rock version of Yngwie.

But I could relate [my influences] to thrash metal. Thrash was a lot faster, obviously, but I was coming from that place. As I started getting into guys like Wes Montgomery, Bill Evans, and Miles Davis — which is not relatable to that music — I’d find ways of relating it. “Envy Life,” which you mentioned, was at around that time. I was just starting to study … I had just launched my mission to be able to play blues and jazz on a professional level. You definitely hear the blues in that song.

When Testament was releasing their first albums, the flag bearers of virtuosic guitar and expert musicality were yourself, Marty Friedman, Tommy from Coroner, and maybe Chris Poland too. In 2012, there are guitar virtuosos everywhere. For you, does that take the pressure off? Do you feel less compelled to dazzle and more focussed on serving the song? The opposite?

I never thought about it that much. I never felt pressure to dazzle. I mean, I did feel like there was a mission. I never liked the idea that you were categorized, that if you played heavy music then you were less musical than if you played in a, y’know, commercial band. There were great players in commerical bands: Warren DeMartini in Ratt, George Lynch in Dokken, and lesser known guys like Andy Timmons in Danger Danger and Reb Beach in Winger. You had all these really good players; it was a pool of good players.

I just think at the time, heavy music was more garage band-influenced: Motorhead, Slayer. And I think Kerry King’s guitar playing has gotten a lot better; I enjoy listening to him now. I did feel that, hey, somebody needs to show that you can actually do good music and have the virtuosity of guys who were playing in catchy, light metal bands. Not that I didn’t like that music, but I was more comfortable of the heavy music. I liked the vibe of heavy music better. And now, as I’ve developed into an individual player, my individual playing has become more unique. There’s no way that I could sound like somebody else if I tried; nobody could really sound like me if they tried. So I do think more about the song. It’s a matter of putting ego aside. Sometimes it’s better to not … care.

[laughs]

It’s not about impressing anyone, it’s about making a good piece of music. In that context, if you happen to pull something off that people find impressive, then great. But that shouldn’t be the goal.

I’ve always wanted your opinion on Testament’s 1992 album The Ritual. It’s a crunchy, catchy, heavy rock album, like super-charged Aerosmith. However, it’s not the most acclaimed, beloved Testament album. In one recent interview with Eric and Chuck, it was described as a compromise, not the purest statement of Testament music. How do you look back on The Ritual? Do you love it?

Yeah, I’m a defender of that album.

Me too.

I think a lot of people are. Sometimes what happens is that people get caught up in what’s called “crowd wisdom.” The prevailing crowd mentality takes over. This is what caused St. Anger to get all these great reviews when it came out [laughs].

[laughs] Great example. 

[laughs] Then people started waking up, like “Wait a second — this is not a very good album.” In the case of The Ritual, yes, it’s a mistake that it gets panned the way it does. The one mistake we as a band made was just to not [put] a very fast song on the album. If we had done one super-fast song — like “Into The Pit” or “The Formation Of Damnation” — it would’ve solved everything. Because The Ritual didn’t have one, because it was all slower and mid-tempo material, it got panned. Musically, I think it had some of the best ideas. The dynamics … It really goes places that the other albums don’t go.

Yeah!

We typically do [opening track] “Electric Crown” in our set and it goes over great! I think we play it with such an intense energy now. Kerry King recently said in a TV special about one of their albums — I think it was Diabolus In Musica — he said, “That’s our Turbo.” [laughs] Which I thought was a great quote. He said, “Every band has a Turbo.” I don’t consider The Ritual as our Turbo, but I think people need to see an album that way, to pinpoint one album as being our Turbo. So they point to The Ritual. [laughs] But I disagree.

So do I. And I disagree about Diabolus too — that album is brilliant.

[laughs] I know! I’ve heard it!

I like when heavy bands challenge themselves to do more than assemble riffs, and dare to put together tight, snappy songs like “As The Seasons Grey” and “The Ritual.” 

Right. Thank you.

I was looking back at some Testament songs for which you wrote the lyrics. I’ve always been really impressed by “Perilous Nation.” 20 years later, those lyrics sound even truer.

Um, sure! I was in a very [pauses] … I was reading a lot. Still do. But I’d just gotten into the habit of reading a lot and paying close attention to current events. It went hand in hand with my musical enrichment. I was becoming a more globally conscious person. There were situations where we needed lyrics; I think Eric came up to me and said, “Alex, please write some lyrics.”

[laughs]

So I came up with some stuff that was influenced by what I’d been reading at the time. I remember there was the fatwa on novelist Salman Rushdie; that was part of [“Perilous Nation”]. And George Orwell, as some of his ideas were coming to [be]. But it seems a little prophetic now.

Awesome. What haven’t we talked about?

Um, I think that’s about it! I know I was the subject of a recent editorial on MetalSucks [laughs].

Yes.

Which, uh, I felt was a little out of context and unfair, but … There’s no hard feelings and for a full explanation, everybody’s welcome to see my website.

You’re referring to a reaction [Randy Blythe And The New American Gospel Of Exceptionalism; July 12, 2012] to a piece on your blog about Randy Blythe.

Right. It wasn’t pro-American or pro-celebrity either [laughs]. And I even explained that; my explanation didn’t matter. Sometimes it’s like online posters are waiting for an opportunity to rip into somebody. Everybody’s entitled to their opinion and their interpretation of what I write — even if I disagree with it and I think it’s wrong. The sad thing about it is that it gives license to that herd wisdom that we talked about.

Right.

Anyway, I am not an American exceptionalist [laughs].

I agree that one might conclude that our story used your editorial as a means for axe-grinding, and to make a point to which your thoughts were only tangentially connected.

Most people understand that. But there are always the vocal few.

I think you and I agree that the Randy Blythe situation, the whole point, is how we haven’t heard evidence or an explanation that justifies his detention. And that it’s bizarre that it’s just happening as though nothing can be done about it.

Exactly.

It’s not that Americans deserve extra-legality [laughs].

Exactly. But other than that, I hope everybody picks up the new album and enjoys it!

-ADF

Get Testament’s Dark Roots Of Earth here and Testament tour dates here

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