Interviews

Testament Turns Thirty: Eric Peterson Talks History, Lineup, New Live DVD

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Photo by Jen Guyre
Photo by Jen Guyre

Testament is one of the Significant Six old-school thrash metal bands. As such, they’re tied with fellow Bay Area titans Exodus as the groups that deserve to be mentioned shortly after Slayer, Anthrax and Metallica. Like those three bands, Testament have endured highs, lows and countless lineup shifts over a continuous thirty-year career.

The band celebrates its thirtieth birthday with a strong new live DVD, Dark Roots of Thrash, out October 29 on Nuclear Blast (pre-order it here). The set keeps the flames burning hot following last year’s long-overdue but well-received Dark Roots of Earth. The group’s tenth studio album rated an 8.5 over at Blabbermouth and scored a 9 from Decibel: “This feels like a record that they went into intending to make each song a memorable one,” wrote db’s Jeff Treppel.

As guitarist Eric Peterson tells the story, that was the plan… but the plan had some holes until the last minute. In between gigs with Slayer, off-again, on-again drummer Paul Bostaph was a full five years into his third stint with Testament when he dropped out late in the writing process. Lamb of God drummer Chris Adler was slated to play on half the album, but wound up contributing to only an iTunes-edition bonus track, “A Day in the Death,” after percussion icon Gene Hoglan stepped in for the sessions and tour, which was captured on the DVD.

Peterson is the band’s sole remaining original member, having been with Testament since its pre-Chuck Billy inception as Legacy. The riffologist called MetalSucks to talk about the new DVD, working with two of the burliest-and-baddest dudes in metal, and the band’s history — including the last eight years with most of its classic lineup intact, plus stints from all three Slayer drummers over the ages. He was a little hung over, and we were a little shticky, but we think we got some good stuff.

Gene Hoglan is on the new DVD. How did he come to be in the band at that point?

We were waiting around for Paul Bostaph, and he got injured. And his injury kind of took forever. And at the same time, during his injury, he was having second thoughts. And being away from it for awhile… kind of at the last minute, I had to make some decisions on what we wanted to do, because we needed to get the record out. We had already started writing without drums. I called [then-Slayer drummer Dave] Lombardo. He wasn’t available. I talked to Chris from Lamb of God.

When was this?

This was ’12. Or maybe later ’11. It was late ’11. [Yawns] Excuse me. Doin’ some drinkin’ last night. OK, so Chris from Lamb of God and then Gene. I put calls in to both of them. Chris called me back first. He was down to do it, but the schedules — he was getting ready to do his new record, but he was excited to do it. Then Gene came on board, and we were going to split it up half-half. And we ended up just getting Chris to do a track on his own. Gene ended up kicking butt and doing the whole thing.

What makes him good?

It’s his manner. He’s very precise. Just working with him, he’s really easy to work with. That’s a plus when you have to teach somebody something. [Some people] don’t understand it or don’t want to play it. He’s just a human drum machine.

How hard is it to drop someone into a band-in-progress?

With the whole Paul thing, it was hard. But by getting Gene, we stepped it up a little bit — not taking away from Paul. I’m putting my foot in my mouth there. Somebody dropping out in the middle of something, it’s going to be hard, but something interesting is going to happen.

You’ve played with all three Slayer drummers. What did those guys bring to your band?

Paul did a record with us, so his style’s stamped on there. Lombardo did one of our best records, The Gathering. That record really seemed like Testament getting more modern and evolving into more of the thrash-death-melodic style. Dette more filled in — he did a live record.

“The Ballad” video, the band’s WTF? moment from 1989’s Practice What You Preach: Guys with immaculately styled hair lookin’ for love and playin’ guitar in the rain.

You mentioned The Gathering. After “The Ballad,” Testament’s distinction from the other Big Six bands is that it became significantly heavier as time went on. Was that a natural evolution, or a reaction to “The Ballad” period, or…?

We still like ballads. We have a ballad on the newest record. We just got better equipment, newer equipment. I think our sound has evolved as a true metal band. Some of the bands that had come out had influenced me, as well.

How do you look at the different lineups of Testament? Do you see them as different lineups, different periods, different bands?

I really don’t look back. I look forward. If somebody’s new, I try to make the best of it.

But, looking back, you were doing something very different with, say, The New Order and The Gathering.

Right. It’s business as usual. I think our sound has evolved, and we’ve got our own sound, and you can tell it’s us. We try different stuff and do different things, and we’ve come full circle with what we’re doing.

You said you don’t look, back but when you think of the ballad video — that’s downright pretty hair. That’s a lot of hair spray in the video — and I wore some hair spray too at the time. But did that leave a bad taste in your mouth, playing the game for a minute?

Well, we didn’t do it like Poison or something like that. We just had long, pretty hair I guess.

It’s not like you never took the stage looking like that.

It’s funny how the record company pushed us in that direction. It’s not like that’s what we were really about. It was to get on MTV, I guess.

It worked.

Sure.

With Gene in the band, have he and Chuck Billy ever actually wrestled?

No. I think Gene’s actually taller than Chuck.

Who do you think would win?

Chuck.

Even with Hoglan’s size advantage?

He’s definitely a Conan in his own time.

This far into the band career, could you buy him a full microphone stand, or don’t you have the budget for that?

[Polite, short laugh.] That’s his trip. I think he likes the half-stand thing.

Has having the quote-unquote “classic” lineup more or less intact made a difference in your financial situation?

Sure. I think it helped, getting Alex [Skolnick, the classically and jazz-trained guitarist] and Greg [Christian] back. It’s cool that as we’re wrapping up our career, that it’s the original lineup.

The smooth, jazzy stylings of the Alex Skolnick Trio covering  Metallica’s “Fade to Black”:

Musically, what does Alex bring to the band?

He’s got a good lead style. He’s got a good shredding technique that works over my riffs. Musicianship, understanding theory. If there’s a certain riff, he’ll be the one who will maybe think to change the key or change the notes. Not that we do that a lot of the time, but he thinks like that. So that’s cool.

Was there a point when you considered packing it in, and thought, “Metal’s dead and we’re done”?

Yeah. You get worried, maybe. But you’ve got to make something happen. Probably right before the reunion, in 2004. We had a revolving door of guitar players. It just wasn’t fun anymore. I was sick of getting the new guy and teaching the new guy. That’s when we reached out to those guys and said that we probably wouldn’t want to do this anymore — would you guys like to try it again?

The lineup has been back together awhile. Do you think you get your credit, like how Exodus has reclaimed its legend and re-established itself as a presence on the road?

I definitely think we got a second wind. We’re definitely getting our credit. We’re working hard for it. It’s kind of cool.

Have you seen [Bay Area yearbook] Murder in the Front Row?

It’s pretty cool. It’s more Slayer-Metallica-Exodus, though because Harald [Oimoen, photographer] was closer to them. It’s got a few pictures of us.

What was the most insane show you went to in the Bay Area?

I would say Exodus shows at Ruthie’s Inn. Especially the ones we did with them, with Forbidden Evil opening up, us, Death Angel and Exodus. And it was like that every weekend.

Was that your favorite club?

That was where we started out. It was a hole in the wall, a little Improv-looking little comedy club.

What do you think this DVD captures?

This DVD captures us in our glory. It’s definitely a good set. And it’s a mixture of everything we’ve done in the past, with some songs that weren’t with the original lineup, from The Gathering, and then into our new stuff. It came out good.

Was it the right time to do a live video, or did you do it to capture the lineup, or…

I think both. It was time to do one. The other one [2005’s Live in London] was older, and it was more of a reunion show. And this one is like, “OK, this is for real. We’re not just playing our old songs. Now we’re playing everything.”

“Alone in the Dark” with former Slayer drum tech Gene Hoglan:

Testament live with former ex-Slayer drummer Bostaph, “Alone in the Dark”:

“Alone in the Dark” with ex-Slayer drummer John Dette (audio only):

No live video with Lombardo. Here’s studio cut “D.N.R.” with Lombardo:

“D.N.R.” live with some other dude:

“D.N.R.” live with John Tempesta of White Zombie and others:

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