TESTAMENT’S ALEX SKOLNICK: THE METALSUCKS INTERVIEW
[MetalSucks contributor, resident old fart and best-selling author Corey Mitchell recently attended the San Antonio stop of this summer’s Metal Masters tour featuring Judas Priest, Heaven and Hell, Motorhead and Testament. Before the show he caught up with Testament wunkerkind guitarist Alex Skolnick and asked him questions about the band’s formation, the steps leading to their reunion, his work with his own jazz trio and his experience being in New York when the twin towers fell on September 11th. Read Corey’s review of the show and of course check out his interview with Skolnick after the jump.]
[recorder starts mid-sentence]
MetalSucks: Where do you guys see Heaven and Hell?
Alex Skolnick: I can’t wait. I’ve actually enjoyed that more than Priest.
Really? Just want to ask you some stuff from back in the beginning. You joined Testament when you were 15?
16. So how did you actually get hooked up like that?
They played in the Bay Area club scene. I used to see them with Exodus, Metallica, and Slayer when they would come up from L.A. Testament just became a support act for most of those bands. A friend of mine told me about them. “Wow you got to check out this support act, they’re really good.” I still hadn’t seen them yet. Then one day my friend said, “Remember that support act that I was telling you about? Their guitar player left the band. So they’re looking for a guitar player. Maybe you should join them.”
That’s excellent. Were they playing in bars at the time?
Yeah it was the Bay Area clubs.
That was when they were called Legacy.
Right it was called Legacy, and then it turned out another band had the name, so we had to change.
So how was playing with all those other guys who were a little older than you?
We were the kids. You know, the baby band. It was actually inspiring because there is no sense that you should have seen these bands back in the day. They are as good as ever. It’s great to see bands that are veterans like that sounding so good.
Did you find that you were learning from them like you were going to some sort of school?
Oh yeah. They are professionals, they got it down. We learned a lot in our time, and I think we got a lot better. There are always lessons to be learned with bands like that.
So you said that you could disappear and watch Heaven and Hell.
Every night, yeah.
Have you been watching them almost every night?
Almost. As much as I can, I can’t watch the whole show. Motorhead are great too. It’s hard to sit through the great bands and then play my own show. It’s a lot.
It’s a long day.
Usually every day I pick 1 or 2 acts that I’m going to see.
How did you guys hook up on this tour?
It was perfect timing. Our album came out and there was all this pressure to do an album last year or the year before. We just had a new album out at the right time. We got an offer to play. We were on the short list, kind of like being chosen for Vice President.
Like being the Joe Biden of metal? [This interview was conducted directly after Obama chose Biden to be his running mate. – Ed.]
Yes like being the Joe Biden of metal, exactly.
Which is a great thing?
I’m very proud of that. There was a guy in a McCain shirt right in the front row. I couldn’t believe it. Well it was a San Antonio show, so you got to expect that.
Are you going to do some of your Trio?
I do the Trio for about 10 days in Pennsylvania, Upstate New York, and Ohio.
How do you go from doing mellow, laid back jazz to getting up here and doing metal?
I figure whatever it is, that’s what I do. I’ll try to do a jazz gig when I’m here opening up for Buddy Abbott. I’ll try and do a metal gig when I’m playing a club on [Inaudible] Street. There are moments of each that affect the other.
That’s awesome. I definitely feel that too.
I love being able to do that. Not many people can step into this and go into that.
It’s like a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde thing going on sometimes?
I’m talking about the new album; once again it’s probably the best album I’ve heard this year. You actually brought a couple of songs to the table this time, didn’t you?
Yeah, Dangers of the Faithless and F.E.A.R.
There is a song “The Evil Has Landed” which deals with 9-11. Was this something you lived through?
Yeah I lived through that.
So talk about that.
Chuck wrote the lyrics. I think he was very fascinated by it. It was a tribute.
It’s a great song.
I remember the first time he came to New York after that. He told me that he visited Ground Zero. That’s what people were doing. I was thinking, “Why would anyone want to do that?” I think if you’re not from there, and you didn’t go through it, it has this special/social patriotic significance. I think that’s where he’s coming from.
Do you mind talking about it? I know you were there that day.
It was just the craziest day of my life.
Really, and you’ve been through a lot of crazy stuff?
I’ve been through crazy stuff. I was never in harm’s way. I didn’t know that at the time. I was about 10 blocks away from the Twin Towers when it started. I was on jury duty, and we were immediately evacuated. All transportation shut down in New York. I was a good distance away when the Towers fell, but I saw it. Having not heard any news, not knowing why this was happening, it was very surreal.
So the planes hit while you were still in jury duty?
Yeah, we heard very loud explosions, but we didn’t know what it was. Obviously now we know what was going on, but at the time it was very frightening. Then we heard about the second plane by the time we got out of the building. Then we heard about the Pentagon, and then we heard about Pennsylvania. The skies were cleared immediately except for emergency vehicles, but every time we heard vehicles we didn’t know what was going on. It really felt like we were under attack and you know what was going down.
What did you try to do?
Get home, lock the door.
Were you able to get in?
Oh I was fine. My place, fortunately, was Uptown in the 90s. Where this happened was below the numbers, probably about 150 blocks or so away.
You just happened to be down by the courthouse.
It was my starting day of jury duty, Tuesday September 11.
Really? Do you remember what kind of case you were sitting in on?
We didn’t even get to a case. We were in the middle of juror orientation.
Did you have friends who were firefighters, rescuers, or anything in your building that you know of?
No, fortunately I didn’t know anybody. I didn’t learn interest in people. It was just a mass exodus. I did talk to some people about it from the building that was telling me about it.
Did you and Chuck sit down and talk about that effect it had on you?
Not in terms of the song. We did right after. Barry gave me a call; I got a lot of calls from people outside of New York. “What’s going on? Are you okay? Are you a refugee?”
You’re living in New York still?
How do you feel about it now after all that?
It made me more determined to live here. It’s the greatest place to live. New Yorkers get accused of being a little biased about it, but it feels like the cultural center of the world. I love it. That just made me feel stronger.
How does that affect you guys with the band meaning all the guys are in the Bay Area?
It works. I think that’s one of the reasons why it’s working so well. I have my own identity. Part of being in a band, which is tough, is that you tend to lose your identity. Look at the first years of The Beatles. They all had the same haircut. They freaked out, right? 15 years later they all have these [Inaudible] jackets. They somehow made it work as a band, but they all definitely have their own personality. I just think my being in New York is part of my personality. I get to bring something different to the band now.
Interesting because back in the old days too because you all dressed the same.
Yeah, tour jackets, jeans. It was like a gang.
You have the big 4 thrash bands. You guys are on top of the second tier. Which I think, looking back now, should have been 5 or 6 in the top tier. Do you think that whole sameness with the outfits and hair and everything worked against you guys? It’s like a football player. Everyone knows what a basketball player looks like, but the football guy has the helmet on and stuff. Do you think the image of Testament all in black was why you guys didn’t stand out individually?
I think we could have done more, but I think at the time it made sense. I think now we still have our identities. I’m the New York guy who does other stuff. Eric has a black metal side project.
Yes. Chuck’s gotten very connected with his Native American heritage and motorcycles. So he’s got a biker/American Indian/metal hippie thing going. So now I think it’s better because everyone has their own identity.
How do you like playing with Paul?
Paul is great. We love Louie, our original drummer, and he’s still a good friend of ours. It’s just working really well with Paul.
Did Louie have a physical issue?
Well there were some physical issues. It’s just he hadn’t played for a long time. He has a successful business. He did the first reunion shows with us, but once it started to be clear that it was going somewhere, it was breathing new life. Then I think he didn’t want to commit to something that he couldn’t follow through on. I think it made sense. We had 2 different drummers, but we ended up with Paul.
And Paul was a friend of the band so it seemed like a natural fit.
An absolutely perfect fit.
Chuck also has or had a real successful business too, right?
Yeah he works for a trucking company. It’s not a business that he started. He helps run the business and does really well with that, and he’s been doing that for a long time. I think that’s helped the situation too because he’s less dependent on the band for his sole existence. He really likes his job. Everybody really likes their lives outside of the band as well. I think that makes it better. I think there was too much pressure when all any of us had been the band.
And now it’s like you can do much nicer tours, much higher profiles and make it worthwhile instead of going out 11-12 months on tour.
Yeah that’s right.
Kind of going back to when you left the band. Was it because you wanted to do different types of music?
Originally yeah that was the main reason.
You were pretty young even then. You were like 22 or something? So what kind of direction did you want to go then?
I was 22. Well I used to see musicians on T.V. I saw Miles Davis on T.V. and the musicians playing with him blew my mind. I just thought “Well I don’t know if I’ll ever be that good, but I want to be able to stand up there with those guys and know what I’m doing and at least play at a professional level.” I used to see guys on the Letterman Show that could play anything. Then I started seeing club musicians at small jazz clubs. There were a couple in Austin, I remember, that just knocked me out. I felt more powerful at these little shows in front of 15 people than I was in front of these huge shows that have thousands of people.
Now was it a comfort issue for you? Did you kind of want to go to the beginning of the band with the smaller crowds or is it more of the playing?
It was the playing. I wanted to have people listen. They weren’t talking. They weren’t drinking beer or moshing. I understand that now. I understand how that fits with metal, but I really just wanted to be listened to. I felt that I wasn’t being heard, and I was just really attracted to this music that was jazz improvisation. I started going to concerts to see John Scofield, Herbie Hancock, Michael Brecker and John McLaughlin. I mean so many people. I just couldn’t have it be a hobby. I wanted to be able to play that music.
That’s a pretty ballsy move back then because Testament had just put out a 4th album.
A 5th album.
So you were doing what feels good.
We were reaching a point where if you were going to stay in the band, this is your life. This is always going to be your life. This is always going to be what you are. That wasn’t what I was. At the time, it wasn’t what I was at all, but now, it’s a part of what I am.
So was it an acrimonious split between you guys?
I can’t recall. I was the first one to leave, but eventually other guys left as well. It was very tense. It wasn’t that dramatic. They begrudgingly understood.
Well it was respect for a fellow musician to expand your horizons like that.
Oh absolutely. They understand that now. There’s no way I could have stayed in the band at that time.
Well then coming back around 2004?
So you’re doing well with all the other projects. I know there were some big offers for Testament to come out. Where did it switch on for you “hey this is a cool thing, I should get back into it”?
I thought that the Trio thing was doing pretty well. It was up and running. I felt like this will make it extra special to get back into this and do this music and do it as well as I can as well as do Trio and my other projects.
Yeah you’ve got quite a range of projects there.
I’ve got a roster.
I’m sure you have a great assistant there.
Did you play that one off show in San Francisco?
Yes I did.
Was that the first time you played with the band again?
Chuck was in pretty bad shape wasn’t he?
Yeah he had a serious cancer scare. He took 2 years off to deal with chemotherapy and surgery.
That was a benefit concert?
Yes it was.
Did you get the vibe back then on that particular show?
At that time no. It was just kind of being there for a friend. It wasn’t until 2005 that it felt that it could be fun and to give it a shot.
You were supposed to do a handful of shows and go from there?
It escalated into another tour and another tour. We went and did a record, and bands came out of the woodwork. Younger metal bands started to get excited about it. Suddenly there was all this excitement about it, and I had no idea it was still there about Testament. There were some very non-metal bands that liked Testament. The guitar player in Matisyahu is a big Testament fan. The guitarist in Nickelback, I never met him, but in an interview I read he said he was a big Testament fan. Rodrigo and Gabriela. . .
You did some opening spots for them?
I did some opening spots with Trio with them.
So it’s like a guy and a girl and then they’ll do a Metallica cover?
I’ve heard they’re really good.
Have you seen any of the old Bay Area guys? Violence and Forbidden guys?
You see them once in awhile. Sometimes they’ll come and see us when we play. We’ll run into them at festivals and stuff like that.
Have you guys ever thought of putting together an old versus new thrash tour with all the bands from the 80s and bringing some of the young ones on?
It hasn’t happened yet.
That would be great.
If a promoter makes it happen then we’ll see.
I’m not going to keep you longer; I know you have friends here. Is there anything you want to touch on?
I think we’re good.
Top photo and 3rd photo © 2008 Loryll Bailey