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Testament Still Deadly - Part 1: An Interview With Chuck Billy

By Peter Atkinson, Contributor
Monday, February 12, 2007 @ 2:24 PM


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For a time, it seemed as if the legacy of Bay Area thrashers Testament would conclude on a note of disappointment, disarray and, even, tragedy. Label and business turmoil and politics, lineup churn and an ever-changing musical landscape had left the band — despite the early successes of such revered, benchmark albums as The New Order and Practice What You Preach — on the fringes of the underground as the new millennium dawned.

Then came the cruelest blow in 2001, when frontman Chuck Billy was diagnosed with germ cell seminona. The rare cancer had blossomed near his heart, putting his life very much in danger. Despite the illness and a grueling treatment regimen, Billy was able to complete the vocals for First Strike Still Deadly, a collection of re-recorded tracks from the band’s first two albums that departed guitar hero Alex Skolnick returned to re-create his solos on.

Soon after, however, Billy had surgery to remove the cancer and Testament — which, by that time, was basically Billy, guitarist Eric Peterson and a revolved cast of session players including drummer Gene Hoglan, then-former Slayer drummer Dave Lombardo and guitarist James Murphy — closed up shop while he recovered, its future very much in doubt.

By 2003, Billy was back in fighting shape and he and Peterson decided to reactivate Testament and start playing live again in earnest. And with that, after having hit rock bottom, the band’s luck began to change.

Two years later came the surprise announcement that Testament’s “classic lineup” of Billy, Peterson, Skolnick, bassist Greg Christian and drummer Louis Clemente (sharing duties of John Tempesta, who played on 1994’s Low) that hadn’t performed together in a decade was reuniting for a 10-day, Europe-only tour. The shows went so well, and were greeted so enthusiastically, that the band did another handful of dates in the States, Japan and Europe — and then a handful more and a handful more as Skolnick’s busy schedule, which included working with his own jazz trio (The Alex Skolnick Trio), performing with the Trans-Siberian Orchestra and several other decidedly non-metal commitments, would allow.

Fast-forward to early 2007 and things have progressed to the point where a new album is now in the works. With Tempesta and Clemente unable to perform for various reasons, Testament has turned the drum throne over to Nick Barker, the hulking human tornado from England who’s worked with Dimmu Borgir, Cradle of Filth, Borknagar, Lock Up and Benediction. With a slew of dates also being penciled in for the rest of the year, Testament continues to plow forward, although now with a full head of steam and the prospects of a brighter future.

On the phone a day after Testament’s first show with Barker, Billy talked about the road ahead for the band — which was leaving for Australia on Super Bowl Sunday — the lessons learned from a rocky past, his health and the prospects for what could be the quintet’s most vicious album yet.

KNAC.COM: How was the first show with Nick?

BILLY: It went great. Sold-out show. A lot of energy. It was good, man. It was our first show since September or October, but it was killer, it sounded really good. It had a lot of energy, that’s what I really took away from that show. And the stuff him (Barker) and Eric are writing is pretty extreme (laughs).

KNAC.COM: How did you come by him?

BILLY: We’ve known Nick for quite a while. It’s funny, we went out to dinner with the record company people and Nick was there and he was telling us how he was a Testament fan, he’d grown up playing the songs and if we ever needed a drummer to give him a call. And, of course, we thought it was just in good fun because we were drinking and having a good time.

And when we came through where he was last year, we talked to Nick and said “Hey, why don’t you learn ‘Over The Wall’ and you can come onstage and jam with us.” So he came down and played “Over the Wall” and it sounded great. And at that point it was like, “man, that song sounded really good, it be interesting to see how the other ones sounded with him,” so that was when we decided Nick would be the drummer we worked on the new album with. And we’re excited about incorporating his style of playing with us, and vice versa.

KNAC.COM: He’s kind of an itinerant drummer, does he have anything else going on right now?

BILLY: No, not really. Nothing that will take him away from working with us. Right now he’s just going to be with Testament while we’re writing and recording, and then touring with it. We’ll probably be keeping him pretty busy. But since we to take a lot of breaks because of other people’s schedules, he will have time to do other things (such as playing with Benediction).

KNAC.COM: Was the idea to keep working with Louie and/or John and they just couldn’t or wouldn’t do it?

BILLY: Yeah, of course we wanted Louie to be here, but he has his furniture business and he has some health issues, so he wasn’t able to be here. He has some arthritis issues, and if not he’d be right here with us. He did a great job with what he did with us last year, but I think playing again just kinda caught up with him.

But we got to do it with the five guys, the “classic lineup” (laughs), for a while and that was cool. It was a lot of fun. We’ll have him come out and play a song or two when we’re in the area, but doing a whole set is just too much for him, so doing a tour is definitely out of the question.

And John Tempesta, he plays in The Cult now, they hired him for a year or two years, so he has no time. We keep him tuned up for better, easier gigs (laughs).

KNAC.COM: Greg’s still playing with you too?

BILLY: Oh yeah.

KNAC.COM: He was in Havochate for a while, is he still with them?

BILLY: No, he isn’t, at least since he’s moved back out to California and is living here. I think they made some tour plans, but they fell through and he was waiting to see what they were going to do and nothing really happened. Now we’ve got the band in place and we’re getting ready to make a killer record, so he’s with us.

KNAC.COM: So after this it’s off to Australia?

BILLY: Yeah. That’s the first trip we’ll have ever taken there, so we’re pretty excited to go.

KNAC.COM: You’ve played some pretty out of the way places on your “reunion tour.”

BILLY: Yeah, a bunch of places we never went the first time around. Bulgaria, Serbia, Turkey, that was off the hook. Dubia, that was good too. At this point, with everyone back, it’s like “why just do the same thing in the same places we always went, let’s go places we’ve never been.” And the opportunities keep coming up, so we’ll take ‘em (laughs).

KNAC.COM: The one place you really haven’t played all that much is the U.S.?

BILLY: We don’t really have time to commit to a whole tour of the states because Alex has a really busy schedule all year and we have to do this while we can. He’s doing musicals and plays with orchestras and his trio, so he’s booked pretty solid. So we have to pencil in our time and make the most of the opportunities we have. And no one really wants to go out for a month across the whole country. I think we’re stronger and have a better performance doing two weeks of shows consistently, and then take a break. I think the crowd gets a better show that way, definitely. At this point, it’s much more about quality then quantity. Even if we could, stringing together a bunch of long tours would wear us out and you’d see it. And we don’t want that. We want the show to be something special, and the schedule we have right now lets us do that.

KNAC.COM: It’s not like you haven’t done that already, you were real road dogs for quite a long time.

BILLY: Oh yeah. We burned ourselves out for years. Being out for six weeks at a time, it beats you up, you’re tired, you just want to go home, your voice hurts, the shows lose their energy and you lose in the performance and then the fans are just wasting their money (laughs).

For us, we want to put on 100 percent all of time. So now it’s like let’s enjoy our career and our life and let’s go places we’ve never been and have a good time. I don’t think we need to play every club across the country. We do a lot of weekend shows because Alex is available and so are the sound guys, so it’s just worked out. We’re like weekend warriors flying around the country doing shows, which is cool.

KNAC.COM: When do you hope to get into the studio to record the new album?

BILLY: The plan is to, hopefully, get in there in April. Nick’s gonna be here up through there working with Eric. We’ve got probably four really great songs pretty much in the can and with a few months of writing we’ll hopefully have it ready to go. Alex has been out here working with the guys too, so the ball has started rolling. And as soon as they give me the music, I’ll be listening to it in my car all the time until the words and melodies appear.

KNAC.COM: You mentioned what Nick and Eric had been working on was pretty extreme ...

BILLY: Yeah, one song they played me is really brutal, it is beyond like even The Gathering stuff, like “D.N.R.,” it was really, really crushing, tight, heavy. It had everything, I loved it. If we can write 10 more songs like that, then we’re going to have a fucking great record. So it’s there, it’s just a matter of bringing it out and getting it down on tape. We’re due, and hopefully we’ll have a good record out this year.

KNAC.COM: Do you have a label right now, or are you doing this on your own to shop around?

BILLY: We’ll, it’s a bit complicated. We’re still with Spitfire, but they’ve been sold to another company so we don’t really know where we’re at. So we’re just forging on and writing the record and getting it ready. Someone’s gonna come along and it’s gonna happen.

KNAC.COM: But that’s not stopping them from putting out that new greatest hits album (The Spitfire Collection, due Feb. 13).

BILLY: Yeah, that’s weak. When Spitfire got sold, the company that bought it decided they needed to put out a “best of Testament” album, and it’s all the same shit that we have on the two other “best of” albums, not to mention that album of songs we re-recorded. And these companies put them out without us letting us know or having any say into what goes into them or how they are packaged, but in the contract they have the right to do that, so what can you do? They just grab the songs and put ‘em out, which I think kinda sucks.

KNAC.COM: The Live in London DVD, though, that was your doing, right?

BILLY: Yeah. We wanted to do a DVD for a long time. And when we went forward with the reunion tour, the time was definitely right. And it actually looks and sounds pretty good. We didn’t have a lot of money to put into it, but I’m pretty proud of the way it came out. It was fun.

KNAC.COM: Do you still consider this a reunion?

BILLY: I wouldn’t call it a reunion anymore because Alex wants to take part in this record cycle, he wants to write the record with us and record it and tour it. So I would say it’s beyond the reunion now, it’s just Testament.

KNAC.COM: Given his other commitments, would you keep the band going if Alex had to bow out again?

BILLY: If we had to do that, we’d do what we’d have to do. But at this point we’ve gotten over the hump of just playing songs with Alex and now doing the record it’s more of a commitment by him and we’d like to keep it going with him for was long as we can. I’d rather focus on what we have now than what we might have to do if this or that happens.

KNAC.COM: Given all that the band has been through with the record company turmoil, the lineup changes, your illness, etc., was there a time when you thought “let’s just put Testament to rest and move on?”

BILLY: Well when you’re sick and you’re looking at yourself bald in the mirror, yeah, it makes you wonder. I had to take these steroids as part of the treatment and gained a lot weight, really ballooned up. It was pretty rough. And during that whole process of a year, year and a half, I really didn’t think of the band, talk about music, sing or any of that, really. We shut the studio down and put it all in storage and stopped. I just had to deal with what I had to do to get better.

But once I was free and clear, and the doctor said I was back in good health, at that point it was like “OK, let’s think about playing music.” But me being native American (he’s Pomo Indian) and always having my long hair, performing with short hair was a whole different thing for me (laughs), I would be banging my head and nothing was moving. It was weird. So that whole thing was the only hard thing about starting up. But after that it just felt great, and then Alex came back in the picture and everyone else in the band, so it was just timing I guess.

And even though we’ve been through some rough patches, Eric and I were able to keep Testament going and maintain the spirit of what the band has always been about. I think as long as we have that, Testament will be around.

KNAC.COM: How is your health now?

BILLY: Fine. Everything’s gone. I had the operation, I go for an annual checkup every November, and this last one everything was 100-percent positive, so I’m flying free and clear. My stamina’s pretty good, I run a lot, I run every day, so I’ve got some pretty good wind and I think I’m singing as good as ever.

KNAC.COM: How about the hair, it was pretty long on the DVD?

BILLY: It’s grown back even longer than it was before, its all the way down to my belt now, it’s crazy. It’s growing like a weed (laughs).

KNAC.COM: To take a step back to the old days, Testament was always a bit of an outsider when thrash was really happening, why do you think you never were able to make it over that hump?

BILLY: As I was just saying, it’s all timing in this business. And the timing just never seemed right for us. When the whole thrash thing hit, we were right in the middle of that and just got caught up in the masses. When the Seattle stuff hit and all the labels were dropping metal, we were right in the middle of that, and it was a time when we were also ending as a band – at least with the lineup we’d had together for a long time. So it was a really bad time for us, and it was like “the band is over and metal’s dead.” We fell right into that hole.

That’s when we started doing the independent thing after being with Atlantic for 10 years and got burned like three times with record companies going bankrupt and bad deals for us. But we sold a lot of records and we’re still here playing music and that’s what it’s all about. We can still make a good living, and support ourselves and our families by going to play shows.

At this point its not about the record business part of it, if we just go play shows, we can go tear it up and still make money. So now we’re not looking for anything bigger, we’re pretty content. I guess the key is you’ve gotta right good fucking songs, if you’ve got a good album that’s gonna carry you through no matter what happens. So that’s our goal, to make sure we’ve got a kick-ass album and that’s all we can do.

KNAC.COM: How much of a burn did you take when the indie labels you were on folding?

BILLY: Not as much as we could have. When we started our own record company, Burnt Offerings, all the companies that burned us, we did licensing deals with them, so at least we still own our records, our music. They screwed up, they folded, but we still have our records, Demonic, Live At The Fillmore, we can take them to other labels and still get them out there and do a better job. At least we are set up that way, if we were in a position where they owned the records, we’d be really screwed. At least we’re walking away with our music.

KNAC.COM: You talked about not wanting to do a long tour of the states, but would you want to do an opening slot for some bigger band? Or would you rather just do your own thing?

BILLY: We would do it. The problem is that all the bands that are going out have their record companies telling them who take, and which label is going to put up this much money for a band to be on their tour, and we’re not at that point. We don’t want to buy onto something to play. So we get bands that offer us nothing.

The Gigantour, we got offered to play that twice, but we could not afford to do it. It doesn’t make sense for us to pull money out of our pocket to go play. We can go play on our own and we make money, and it’s just as fun, we can bring as much production as we want, decide what time we want to go on (laughs). It’s all better.

A big tour is always great, but you gotta just weigh it out. If we’re going to open up for Guns N’ Roses or someone and play for 30,000 people every night across the country, then it might make sense to pay to play. But anything less than that just isn’t worth it.

KNAC.COM: Since you play with a lot of these bands at festivals, do you pay much attention to the modern metal underground, or are you more of an old-school guy?

BILLY: I like old school and new bands, the Soilworks and the Haunteds, the bands that I see that we might have influenced and the new shit they write now that might influence me. It’s kind of a full circle of influences.

KNAC.COM: Eric’s dabbled in black metal with Dragonlord, does that stuff have any appeal to you?

BILLY: I like the music, but I’m not into it more because of the vocals. I’m more into melody. I’ve got nothing against the way they sing, to a point. But when the whole show’s like that it becomes a din and I get tired of it.

KNAC.COM: As it stands now, you have like two-dozen shows scheduled here and there through August, will you be doing more shows than that, or wait until the album’s done and out?

BILLY: No, we’re going to play some more. We’ve got a bunch of other tentative dates. We just sat down with the booking agent to map out what we’ll be doing for the rest of the year. We’ll probably end up doing close to 70 shows this year, so we’ll be able to cover a lot of ground and just about anyone who wants to come see us, should at least get a chance to at some point.

(In part two, prodigal guitarist Alex Skolnick talks jazz, theater, the Christmas season behemoth the Trans-Siberian Orchestra has become and the thrill of playing thrash metal again — and how he manages to juggle them all as one of music’s most diverse performers.)


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