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Testament Still Deadly - Part 2: An Interview With Alex Skolnick

By Peter Atkinson, Contributor
Tuesday, February 20, 2007 @ 10:56 PM

"I'm more fulfilled as a music

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What a long, strange trip itís been for Testament guitarist Alex Skolnick since he left the band in 1992. And itís a journey that continues to take tangents even after he rejoined the band in 2005 for the reunion of its classic line-up featuring departed bassist Greg Christian and drummer Louis Clemente and mainstay guitarist Eric Peterson and frontman Chuck Billy.

Early 2007 finds Testament going strong ó though with extreme metal journeyman Nick Barker taking over for Clemente ó and Skolnick juggling his time with two other very demanding commitments: his own jazz trio and the holiday season juggernaut the Trans-Siberian Orchestra, as well as whatever other opportunities might arise, such as performing with Broadway musicals in Korea. For Skolnick, who originally left Testament to explore music outside of metalís confines, itís the best of all worlds. Though revered in the metal community for his fluid, sophisticated soloing that lent an almost regal air to Testamentís crunching thrash, Skolnick stepped away at time of transition and turmoil not only for the band, but metal as a whole. Nirvana had just exploded and with everybody scrambling to sign anyone in flannel, metal bands were dropping like flies. With the release of Testamentís 1992 album The Ritual, its most polished, listener-friendly effort, Clemente left the band. And when it became obvious that the road ahead looked an awful lot like the road the band already had trod for a decade, Skolnick bailed as well.

In 1994, he joined Savatage for the recording of Handful of Rain, the bandís first since the death of founding guitarist Criss Oliva. Olivaís brother, frontman Jon Oliva, also sat out the album, but the relationship he built with Skolnick at the time would bear fruit later with TSO. For the following decade, however, Skolnick would follow a much more divergent path, kicking around with the Stu Hamm band and fronted several Bay Area projects including Exhibit-A, the funk band Skol-Patrol and Attention Deficit, which featured Primus drummer Tim Alexander ó although he did return to Testament to re-record songs from bandís first two albums for 2001ís First Strike Still Deadly.

Eventually, Skolnick relocated to New York to formally hone his chops, enrolling in the jazz program at The New School and earning a degree before founding the Alex Skolnick Trio. The improv-rooted ensemble has subsequently carved a nice little niche for itself with its free-form mish-mash of blues, jazz, swing, funk and Latin styles.

The groupís 2002 debut, Goodbye To Romance: Standards For A New Generation, offered a daring blend of originals and radically re-arranged hard-rock classics from Kiss, Aerosmith and Ozzy Osbourne. A second album, Transformation, soon followed with a third, Last Days In Paradise, set for release on March 15 through Magnatude Records. Paradise includes a Latin version of Testamentís signature track ďPractice What You PreachĒ ó perhaps as on homage to Skolnickís return to the Testament fold.

On the phone from New York, as he was scrambling to get ready to leave on Super Bowl Sunday for a tour of Australia with Testament, Skolnick reflected on what led him to sacrifice his standing as a genuine metal ďguitar godĒ to follow his muse, how that eventually led him back to metal and Testament, and what it takes to essentially juggle three careers at the same time.

KNAC.COM: Youíve really been wracking up the frequent flyer miles lately.

SKOLNICK: Yeah, we [Testament] played last Saturday, then I came back here. Then I fly back out to L.A. to then go to Australia, and before all this I was out there about two weeks ago to do a little bit of rehearsing Eric and Nick. And then we went to the NAMM show and after that I flew back to New York for one day then flew out the next day to the Bay Area, rehearsed with the whole band, did the show and then came back here to now fly back again.

KNAC.COM: Whatís been your impression of Nick so far?

SKOLNICK: So far itís been great. I wasnít that familiar with him before, but a lot of drummers I know are familiar with him. He sounds great. Heís a really good guy to work with. He seems like this big, intimidating, hardcore metal drummer, but heís actually a sweetheart to work with and honored and blown away that heís working with Testament.

KNAC.COM: Iíve read some of his web postings and he seems beside himself with glee.

SKOLNICK: Itís great. Itís hard not to pick up on his enthusiasm. That reflects back on the rest of us and it can only help in our performance.

KNAC.COM: When I spoke with Chuck earlier, he mentioned that you had worked on some new material with them during the rehearsals.

SKOLNICK: It was mostly the old stuff, because he [Nick] was about to do his first gig with us, ever. But we did look at some new ideas. And I brought in an idea of mine that is a little more complicated than things we did in the past as far as timing and stuff, but he did a great job on it and Iím really excited to see where it goes.

But whatís cool is he can keep a solid groove, which that was a concern of mine because Iíd heard the Dimmu Borgir stuff and I thought it was amazing, but I wasnít sure that he could keep a solid groove. Thereís some musicians, not just drummers but guitar players too, that can play all over the place but have trouble playing simple and he can play simple. Heís great, heís one of these guys who can do both, and thatís important. Thereís gonna be parts where you want him to go off and use all his resources, but thereís other parts where you just want it to be solid and establish a groove, and because he can do that I think thatís going to be a big plus for the band.

KNAC.COM: How will you approach the writing of the remainder of the album, will you work it all out as a group or just bring all your various parts together and try to make them fit?

SKOLNICK: I think weíre going to get together and put the parts together. Iíve always come up with parts on my own, and I also like add to other peopleís parts. But itís hard for me to be in a room full of people and be creative on the spot. Thatís a step in the process the makes more sense once there are ideas to work with.

Weíre still at the point where weíre creating a lot of ideas in our separate camps. We have put some of them together and itís starting to sound good. But the camps will come together as the project gets closer. And in the meantime weíll be spending a lot of time together on the road, so weíll be able to look at some new material there as well.

KNAC.COM: Given how much metal has changed since you were with the band, and how the bandís sound evolved after you left, and Ericís black metal dabblings with Dragonlord and whatnot, are you excited about the prospect of bringing all the pieces together, or could it be a recipe for disaster?

SKOLNICK: (Laughs) Itís going to be a very different record because of all that. But Iím more excited about it than nervous. I know we canít try to re-create the past, I donít want to. We need to make an album that sounds like today. And I donít think it should be that hard to do because we are living today. Itís not 1989, and Iím much more excited about what we can come up with now. I think the best thing to do is have fun with it and see where it goes.

KNAC.COM: Since much of what youíve been doing is so radically different from Testament, has it been difficult to get back in Testament writing mode, or is that something that never left your system?

SKOLNICK: I donít think it really left my system. I was actually sort of surprised. A lot of ideas come about and itís a very similar process to the way I did it the first time around. But at the same time, I find I do have to separate myself from some of the other music I do because it is such different frames mind, not just musically, but physically. The way I touch the instrument is different if Iím playing Testament music than if Iím playing with my trio.

With my trio I have more of a modern jazz approach, itís a lighter touch, itís much more sensitive, itís a quieter volume and itís a very different tone, itís much more acoustically toned. With Testament, thereís a sense of dynamics, but the dynamics come more from a volume thatís already cranked and it has to do more with how you strike the chords, the balance between open rhythms and closed rhythms and different types of grooves using a metal tone. But itís fun to compare the differences and similarities.

KNAC.COM: You did the whole Trans-Siberian Orchestra tour again this winter?

SKOLNICK: I did. All two months of it. That thing is a monster (laughs). I started doing it in 2000. It always seemed like it had this potential, but it was just a matter of reaching the point where ... itís like starting a fire, at a certain point it reaches the right wood and just ignites. And thatís definitely what has happened with Trans-Siberian Orchestra, and itís been exciting to see that. Especially for me.

Testament is an example of a band that I always thought could have gone farther but, for whatever reason, certain things didnít work out. Maybe that will change, you never know. But itís cool, TSO has given me the chance to experience being in a project that blows up and suddenly is selling out arenas and appearing on national TV shows.

KNAC.COM: Jon Oliva, and the other guys from Savatage, who really got TSO started, they slogged it out probably even longer than Testament and didnít really even reach your level.

SKOLNICK: You just never know. Itís nothing I could ever have predicted and I never could have predicted being a part of it. Iím very fortunate that I was able to be a part of it. I was admittedly very unsure about it when it first came up. But the show has developed a lot. It started out in theaters, it wasnít always in arenas. All of us who do the show, weíve grown into it, weíve grown with the show.

And I feel fortunate, too, that Iím able to do other projects. Iím able to have a career in jazz and improvisational music, which was my only focus for a few years because I felt that I need that just to grasp the depths of it. And now Iím able to work Testament into the mix, the timing seems right for a Testament reunion. Itís a really interesting time right now.

KNAC.COM: Maybe the key to having Testament blow up is to do a Christmas album.

SKOLNICK: (Laughs) That would be interesting.

KNAC.COM: If Twisted Sister can do a Christmas album [they also just allowed ďWeíre Not Gonna Take ItĒ to be used in an ad for a PMS remedy] anyone can.

SKOLNICK: Iíd like think thatís not gonna happen.

KNAC.COM: Was the constant slog and Testament never quite reaching the level you thought it could the primary reasons for you leaving?

SKOLNICK: It was a combination of a lot of things. I suddenly had dreams of being the type of musician who could play multiple styles of music. And Iím at the point now where I can do that. But it took a lot of time and it would not have been possible had I remained in Testament and continued on the course we were on. I knew there was more out there, I just had to discover it for myself.

Everyone expected me to do a metal type of instrumental album, or a Satriani type instrumental album ó and truth be told, thereís no need for more records like that. I donít need to hear more music like that. I appreciated it as a guitar player when it came out, but at this point itís not music that I want to listen to and have it a part of my life. When I do instrumental music I want it to mean something to me and have it be something I would listen to, and not necessarily as a musician. I never dreamed Iíd be able to put out these records, and theyíd have an audience.

KNAC.COM: What kind of audience do you get?

SKOLNICK: Thereís some overlap with the Testament and TSO fans, but thereís a whole different crowd there too. Itís a real interesting combination. Thereís no one particular demographic. You see some Rush shirts and we get some of the people who might go see the Dixie Dregs, or the same people that might go see Medeski Martin and Wood or John Scofield or Government Mule. A lot of guitar fans. And I talk to these guys and a lot of them donít know Testament at all. A lot of them check out Testament and they discover

Testament through my solo work. Obviously, a lot more often itís the other way around, because there was a time when Testament was a pretty popular band. Itís really interesting and really different, and I never imagined that when I was younger, I just knew I wanted to be able to do other music.

KNAC.COM: Do you feel fulfilled as a musician now, or is there still more you want to do?

SKOLNICK: Iím more fulfilled than I was, but thereís always room to grow, as I keep finding out. Another example of something Iíve been able to do is I was just in Korea with a production of ďJekyll & Hyde,Ē the musical that Sebastian Bach was in when it was on Broadway, where, ironically, there was no guitar in it at that time. Now itís been re-orchestrated for guitar and a complete orchestra, so I was out there playing with Seoul Philharmonic.

When I was younger, when I was in Testament, there is no way I would have been able to go a gig like that. I didnít have the sight-reading skills, I just didnít have the musical knowledge. And now Iím at that level, where you can hire me to do a Broadway show, or if Sting called me I could do the gig. Iíd be confident. I was never at that point when I was in Testament, I felt like all I was doing was metal, and as great as that is it just wasnít enough for me. I needed to step out of it and explore the world beyond that. And I think the fact that I was able to do that and get so much from the world outside has allowed me to be able to put a foot back into it.

KNAC.COM: I wonder how many other metal ďguitar godsĒ feel the same way you do, but donít want to risk the audience and idol worship they have?

SKOLNICK: Oh yeah. It was very limiting to me, just playing metal. The fans that were there, they were terrific, but I would go other concerts by some of my favorite improvisational artists and thought ďOh my god, if I played in front of this audience I would bomb.Ē If I got onstage with these musicians, I wouldnít know what to do, and I couldnít live with that.

And also I loved the music so much. This happened when I saw John Scofield, when I saw Herbie Hancock, Michael Brecker who is a great saxophonist who just passed away, and I felt so connected to that music. And I donít want to put myself in the position where I think I can play on their level, but at least now I understand where they are coming from and I know what I need to work on to get closer to that level. And just having that connection to that music is very important.

Over the years, I have met a lot of musicians in rock and metal that secretly love other kinds of musically, secretly love reggae, donít have a clue how to play it, would love to know how, but feel like ďIím a metal guy, Iím not supposed to know that.Ē And I think thatís ridiculous.

I took a lot of heat for stepping out of it and doing something else, but I think in the big picture itís much more appreciated. If I hadnít have done that, I would have been known for these nice metal records that I did, but Iíd be one of many players that do that music, which is cool, but Iíve got this whole other thing and that makes me unique. And I like being different. Iíve decided to embrace that.

KNAC.COM: Thatís certainly to be applauded, but itís easy to see where people would have some trepidation about stepping outside their comfort zone?

SKOLNICK: Definitely. You also get discouraged, any time you try something new, with the learning curve that comes with it. And I also got a lot of hate mail over the years, the main thrust of it being Iíd ďsold out.Ē Which is funny, because you donít sell out to play jazz (laughs). Itís incredible. So I can understand why someone could stick within their comfort zone, but Iím really glad I chose not to.

KNAC.COM: Has doing all the helped re-ignite your passion for doing the Testament stuff, or did that take root when you re-recorded the songs for the First Strike album?

SKOLNICK: It was a couple things. That experience was OK, I still felt pretty removed from the music at that time. The First Strike album was 2001 and I still hadnít done my first jazz album; Goodbye to Romance came out in 2002. Itís almost like I was pregnant with a jazz album, and it was hard to think about doing any other kind of music, but the Testament thing came up and I got a kick out of it, I stepped into it, it was cool, but I had a lot of other work to do and I was fixated on that.

But I think the more comfortable I got doing my own music, and playing jazz, the more comfortable I was with the idea that I could actually step back in the ring with Testament. And another thing that happened was I ran into other, younger metal players in other bands who were inspired by Testament.

One example is I saw Slipknot play, and I thought Joey Jordinsonís drumming was incredible. I thought the whole show was great, I liked the guitar players and then Mick [Thompson] talked to me and said how influenced he was by my playing. And I was kind of flattered. And the drummer Jason Bittner from Shadows Fall came to see the trio a few times and has been really appreciative of it. And then Lamb of God called me up to play on one of their records, the first album on Epic [Ashes of the Wake]. And I thought, well this is kind of interesting. So all of that kind of helped me get back into it.

And then when Chuck called me about it it just made a lot of sense. There was no pressure to do it the way we used to do it, which was touring two months at a time several times a year. And I warned them, too. I said ďI have a reasonable successful jazz group that toursĒ ó and they had been to see the trio, they were really supportive of it. ďAnd Iíve got this arena rock show that Iím a part of that takes a big chunk of the year and then Iíve got all this other stuff.Ē And they were fine with that.

Occasionally there has been a frustrating thing, thereís been a show I canít do because of scheduling, but for the most part itís been great. We work out the scheduling. I try to book around Testament stuff when I can, and they are understanding when I canít, and it just made sense. I think everyone is in a better place now, and having Nick on board is great. We did a few shows with Louie Clemente, which was terrific and everyone loves him. But I think this works out better because he has a life outside of music and has for some time and itís not fair to pressure him to get back into it to the level that we are, even if weíre not doing it as full-time as we were, it still is a lot of pressure, especially on a drummer. I think this way [with Nick] we have someone who is there and hungry and gives us some new energy, I think itís a good situation.

KNAC.COM: When I spoke with Chuck, he seemed pretty happy with the bandís work schedule as well.

SKOLNICK: Yeah, weíre not 18 years old anymore and some of us have careers outside of music, and I have a pretty busy career in music outside of Testament. So I think it works well. And itís very fortunate that weíre all at a place in our lives where we all want the same thing.

KNAC.COM: When you left, Testament was still a major label band. Now that itís an indie band and operates at a different level has that taken some adjustment for you?

SKOLNICK: Thereís always going to be business issues that come up. Things are different now partly because the band has its history. When you look back at heavy metal, Testament is a respected band. For whatever reason itís not considered one of the top, top bands. For example, when you see VH1ís all-time top metal songs or top metal albums, weíre not included. But if somebody does a list of groups from the Bay Area or California, weíre definitely one of them.

I understand it on a certain level. Just knowing what I know now about music and the music business, it makes sense to me. But thereís still a lot of people that love this band and a lot of people can continue to discover the band. A lot of people discovered Testament after I left the band, and even recently.

And the music has aged well. I donít want to compare us with other groups, but Iíve heard some other groups from the same period where I really thought the music sounded dated. And somehow, maybe itís not because of the music that we did but how hard music has developed, when we play our songs, especially when they are played live with the energy we have now and the sound that we have now, which has gotten a lot better, it sounds really modern. Itís held up pretty well and doesnít sound too Ď80s or early Ď90s.

How many bands come out after their initial appearance and just sound like a shadow of themselves? And sometimes itís huge bands that were at a much higher level than Testament. They come out and they donít have it, and they donít understand that they havenít got it. Itís a good thing that we do and are able to take advantage of it.

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