Chuck Billy of Testament on the 70,000 Tons of Metal cruise, Reign in Blood and Gene Hoglan
Testament (sharing a bill tomorrow night at Summit Music Hall with Anthrax and Death Angel) is one of the bands that make a strong case for expanding the Big 4 to the Big 5 (or Big 6, if the often-overlooked Exodus were included). The Bay Area act was part of the original thrash movement, which fused the precision and savagery of speed metal with the intensity of hardcore punk, and like its brethren in the Big 4, Testament often treated its fans like comrades in a subculture shunned by mainstream society.
For nearly three decades, Testament has been putting out some of the most consistently interesting heavy music anywhere, even in the face of lineup changes. Distinguishing itself from its peers with Chuck Billy's musical vocals and a guitar team that excelled at slashing rhythms and tastefully blistering leads, Testament's songwriting has always seemed to find new ways of making brutal music haunting.
Even when the general music audience turned its back on much of metal in the early '90s, outfits like Testament continued to thrive, because its popularity never relied on fashion statements and trends. We spoke with the band's longtime lead singer about the band's roots, the 70,000 Tons of Metal cruise, playing with Alex Skolnick again, working with Gene Hoglan and Reign in Blood.
Westword: Is this current tour in support of Dark Roots of Earth? If not, what periods of your career can we expect to see represented at the show?
Chuck Billy: No. We're still on The Formation of Damnation. Dark Roots won't come out until April or May of next year. We're still just finishing up the recording right now, and we'll start on the mixing probably next month. We're still going to play most of The Formation. The thing that sucks, especially with the Internet, is everybody's got a cell phone, and next thing you know, we'll have songs out that sound horrible through people's telephones on the Internet. That's not a good representation of our new stuff that way. We're going to tend to not do it until it's time.
We'll be covering a little of everything. Especially since it's with Anthrax, and Anthrax was one of the first bands we ever toured with, and we know most of the set they're going to play. They're playing their classic stuff, so we figure we're going to stick with what the whole show's about, kind of like old-school thrash. So we'll go back and play some of the old stuff. But we're definitely picking some new songs off of The Formation and some new ones off of The Gathering.
How did you end up working with Gene Hoglan on the new album, and what was it like working with him that might be different from your other drummers?
Well, Gene worked with us on our Demonic record in '97, and he did a great job on it. That was a different record for us. Over the years, we've been adding blast beats, and Gene is the man for any beat. Paul Bostaph has been injured this year, and he's been out. He's had his surgery, and he's been kind of recouping. We put it off for a long time hoping Paul would be ready for the record, but he wasn't, and we had to move forward.
We had two calls in. We called Dave Lombardo from Slayer, and we called Gene Hoglan. Dave was interested, but with his Slayer schedule, we had to get started sooner than later. So we called Gene, and he said he was in. Gene was the choice because of scheduling, but we had two monster drummers to pick from there, and it was going to be awesome no matter who it was. Gene came in and learned the songs at rehearsal for a week and recorded the songs in ten or twelve days. He was in and out of here in, like, twenty days. He learned, practice and recorded the album -- that's how much of a professional Gene is.
Is he going to be on the tour with you?
On this tour, John Tempesta from the Cult is going to be playing drums. He played with us on our Low record. Gene's going to come in on the middle of the tour and fill in for two weeks because John has some Cult shows.
What initially attracted you to metal -- and thrash, specifically -- and how did you become involved in the Bay Area scene of the '80s?
The Bay Area established itself as a metal scene, especially in the early Metallica days. At first it was more punk rock and glam, and right around the early '80s, a lot of those glam bands...either the punk scene or the metal scene kind of pushed them out of San Francisco, so they went to L.A. and Hollywood. So in the early '80s, the Bay Area was established as a punk-rock and heavy-metal scene. So it was more of an attitude type of music and sound in the Bay Area.
So you really had no choice but to be a part of it. It was such a new scene and a new sound. It was something you wanted to be a part of, so you were naturally drawn to it. Being a younger kid, punk and metal was music that was rebellious and had attitude, you know, and every young kid wants to be rebellious and play and listen to stuff that's kind of against the grain. It was a cool scene, because a lot of the bands in the Bay Area and fans supported everybody. There were these venues in the Bay Area that you'd go to a show and see a lot of the same people and the same bands hanging out.
It really was a scene, and it was definitely a cool community. It's pretty awesome that bands like us, Exodus, Death Angel and Metallica still are still making music and putting out records. The scene isn't like it was back then, just because during the '90s a lot of the clubs shut down and people grew up, had families and moved on in life. As far as bands go, it's really interesting to see, for me, that a lot of the bands that were so influenced by the Bay Area scene and sound had their own identities.
There were a lot of bands that played thrash from our Bay Area, but each band had their own identity and didn't sound like the others, which was really kind of unique. It wasn't like L.A., where glam is glam and everybody sounded the same kind of bubblegum stuff. In the Bay Area, everybody was influenced, but [they] took that influence and did their own thing. It's just killer for me to see a lot of these bands still doing it and making great music and having their own identity. It was awesome.
Did Steve "Zetro" Souza ever tell you why he recommended you to take his place in Testament?
Steve left to join Exodus. Zet was best friends with my younger brother, and Zet was always hanging around my house, hanging out with my brother; he played guitar. Me and my brother Randy were in a band called Rampage when we were younger, and Zet started coming and hanging out. And one day he started this band called Legacy. They were doing good, and they had a record deal, and they got a lot of attention in Europe for their demo. At that point, Exodus asked Zet to join Exodus. Before Legacy could ever put out a record, he left the band.
He knew at the time that I was going to college and taking private singing lessons. I was studying to be a singer. He knew that, and we were close, and I don't know if it was more a convenience kind of thing, but he felt bad about leaving and said, "Hey, I'm leaving to join Exodus. Here's Alex Skolnik's phone number. Give these guys a call, man, they're killer."
I really started listening to the demo and thought, "Wow, these kids are awesome." I called them up and came in for an audition. They were a little skeptical, because I tried to be more of a melodic singer, whereas they were more into the thrash, straight-ahead power vocals. So I studied the demo and sang the demo with the style I wasn't used to singing, but I put my own flair to it. I think they thought it wasn't the same, but it was kind of cool. So they thought, "Let's go for it, give Chuck a shot."
When I joined the band, we did another demo and sent it back to Megaforce to see if we still had a record deal. They wrote back and said, "Yeah, we're still on; we're going to do a record with you guys." We made it that far, and they came out to see us live before they finalized the deal, and the morning we showed up to do the audition was the morning we found out that Cliff Burton had been killed. So it was a very sad day for everybody in the community, but it was also the day that kind of started our music career.
It was a tough audition, because Johnny Z and Marsha -- they're the ones who signed Metallica -- they were up all night and tired by the time they came in, and really down and depressed about the whole situation. We thought, "Man, this is going to be a weird audition." We played three songs and they said, "Okay, we've got a deal. We'll see you guys later."
For The New Order, you did a cover of "Nobody's Fault," by Aerosmith. Why that song in particular, and would you say that Aerosmith was an influence on Testament, and if so, in what ways?
I think Eric Peterson and Alex Skolnik chose that song. They're both Aerosmith fans. That was kind of a song that was a little out of my vocal range, so it was more of a challenge to try it. Once I got it and found the notes and hit it, it showed a different side of us instead of jumping on the bandwagon and being Metallica or something like that. I thought I had something different vocally to offer.
That put us in a position to perceive us as just a thrash band barking and yelling; we can actually carry a tune and play. We decided to make a video out of it, and still, to this day, I think it's one of our best videos, because it was a different concept and early in our career, and it was so cool, all the stuff we did in the video. It was a different style element, taking Aerosmith and making it a little rough, you know?
For the video for "Trial by Fire," it looks like you're running around some kind of post-apocalyptic junkyard. Where did you film that, and did you have any creative input on the video?
That one, not really. We left it all to this guy Sam Taylor out of Texas, and we always went there to do our videos. We kind of knew him through King's X, and he had done the video for ZZ Top's "Legs." That was a big video for back then, and we let him have the creative freedom and to come up with concepts. For all those videos, we went out there with him; they were cool. Back then, videos were kind of cheesy. But I thought they looked good.
"Trial by Fire," for me, visually, looks killer. The slow motion, us thrashing around and head banging. A lot of people had seen it and thought, "What the hell is this?" I guess that's what we wanted. He captured what our image was for sure. Nothing fancy or glamorous, just black jeans, high tops and banging our heads without trying to make sure our hair was pretty like a lot of bands did back then.
He had a lot of places for us to go Texas. We'd fly into Houston. When we did videos back then, we used to always go see Pantera before they ever had a record. They covered one of our songs, and we'd go hang with the guys and get on stage and perform with them in the early days. So that was kind of my first introduction to Pantera, going to do those videos in Texas.
How did you come to play at the 70,000 Tons of Metal cruise, and what was it like for you?
When we first heard about it, I'd never been on a cruise. The first thing I thought was, "Wow, this'll be cool. It'll be like a vacation. All I have to do is play for an hour." That's kind of the way I looked at it, and I didn't know what to expect. It was the first one, and the first festival or any planned event of any kind always has its bugs and problems. Amazingly enough, it had no flaws. It was very well organized. They had the equipment, production, accommodations.
Everything was awesome at this first event. Fifty bands on there, and a lot of them were Bay Area guys: Death Angel, Exodus, Forbidden. So it was a lot of our buddies that made it for a real good vacation party. It was off the hook. Went to Mexico off the boat for a day. Senor Frog's had a big party, and it was just a very memorable, fun time for everybody hanging out. The camaraderie was awesome.
It just turned out killer. It's something that, when anyone asked how it went, I said, "Man, if you ever have the chance to play one, play it." I'd go just to go and hang for a week and go see the shows. It was really well done. The bands weren't overwhelming. Everyone was mellow. Everyone roamed the boat without getting hammered. I would definitely do it again. I signed off on it a year early, and the rest of the band was like, "No, man, we don't want to play that." By the end of the trip they were all glad we did it.
You've cited Slayer as one of your favorite thrash bands here and there. With the 25th anniversary of the release of Reign in Blood happening this year, what did you think of that record when you first heard it?
It was off the hook. Especially with that record, we listened to it to death. Slayer was probably the number one thrash, heavy band in our genre of music. It was such a different sound, too, because, like I said, in the early '80s, with glam and the big producers, Slayer always had this raw, dry thing. For me it was just like balls out, pounding, turn it up loud and just killing.
The songwriting was great. Slayer always had their own trip. They still have the same kind of raw, dry mix today, which they've kind of stuck with and makes Slayer what they are. But those songs, to me, were just classic Slayer. I think they stepped it up from their early [style of] just playing as fast as they can and high-pitched, screaming vocals. This was more calm, and Tom was more confident in what he was doing as a vocalist, and you hear it in the songs. Watching it live, it was just like the record. It wasn't an overproduced album, where most bands, you'd hear the record and go see them live and it's, "Holy smoke, is that even the same band?" Slayer always had the bigger sound than the record, and it was even better.
Alex Skolnick has been back in the band for the last six years. What do you think he brings to the music of Testament?
In the early years, especially when I heard that first demo, Alex was like fifteen or sixteen at the time. I thought he was one of the most phenomenal guitar players. He had studied with Joe Satriani when he was really young. He just had his own sound, and I think with him and Eric together -- Eric is a heavy rhythm player and Alex was a tasty soloist -- over the years, we've been very fortunate to have some pretty great players.
When he came back in 2006, it really did bring it back and make me realize that this is the style of Testament, with these two guys playing together with these songs. Right away, it was something that I wanted to keep. So we started jamming again, and we wanted to find a way to make it work and make it stick. We never talked about where this was going to lead to when Alex first came back. It was all about, "Let's go on tour and play these live shows and see how it goes."
The live shows turned into ten, the ten turned into thirty, and we kind of assessed it as we went and said, "This feels good; we're enjoying each other's company and things are cool." The thirty turned into fifty and a hundred shows. At one point, I finally said, "Hey, guys, let's think about doing a record together." That's when we decided to do the Formation record. It all started at that point.
When Alex left, we were writing records like Demonic and Low and The Gathering, with songs that were structured without a lead guitar player; it was more basic rhythms in writing songs. With The Formation, we went back to the old-school way of thinking in writing that. "Now that we've got Alex back, where's Alex's lead section?" That creative writing process was all of a sudden back.
When we put out that record, a lot of people were like, "Wow, that's like the old, early stuff." It's just that we were working the way we had done in the past, and it brings people to what we did in the past and the style. And even when I hear him play a solo and the licks that he has -- nobody else did those licks with the same tone. Even when they try to play his stuff, it's not quite the same. At this point in our career, we feel pretty good about each other and see this to the end and finish what we started. It's kind of a relaxing and confident feeling know what our strengths are as a team.
Follow Backbeat on Twitter: @westword_music
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene each week with music news, trends, artist interviews and concert listings. We'll also send you special ticket offers and music deals.