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Part Two of Interviews with Testament: Alex Skolnick - Guitar Hero

By Peter Atkinson, Contributor
Saturday, January 2, 2010 @ 9:02 PM

"When we play it doesn't feel that dated. And I think that has something to do with newer bands like Lamb of God or Shadows Fall and Slipknot."

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There aren't many harder working men in metal than guitarist Alex Skolnick. A member of two very active bands - thrash legends Testament, who he helped found in 1983, and the "Broadway metal" behemoth Trans-Siberian Orchestra (TSO) that has become a holiday-time staple in arenas across the country - he recently added the title of producer to his cap by working with the Iraqi metal quartet Acrassicauda who recently relocated to the United States after years of travail. And then there's the instrumental jazz trio he leads, which will be issuing a new album in early 2010.

It's been a three-band juggling act for Skolnick since he rejoined Testament in 2005 for what initially was a "10 Days in May" reunion tour of Europe of the band's classic lineup - led by mainstay vocalist Chuck Billy and guitarist Eric Peterson and rounded out by returning bassist Greg Christian and drummer Louie Clemente (with drummer John Tempesta lending a hand). The ground work for the reunion had been laid several years earlier when Skolnick - who left Testament in 1992 after performing on their first five albums - returned to rerecord some old material for 2001's First Strike Still Deadly and play with Testament precursor Legacy as part of the "Thrash of the Titans" benefit show for Billy, who was recovering from treatment for germ cell serinoma.

The well-received "10 Days in May" shows begat more reunion shows, which begat even more and, after Paul Bostaph signed on to play drums, the new "old" Testament has been chugging along nicely ever since. In 2008, the band released their first new album in nine years, the crushing The Formation of Damnation, which earned glowing reviews and went on to become Testament's biggest chart success. High-profile tours with the likes of Judas Priest and Heaven and Hell followed as the band enjoyed a run of good fortune that always seemed just out of reach back in the day, ensuring Skolnick stayed extremely busy.

Though he admits he could use a break once the TSO shows are over in early January, Skolnick will rejoin his Testament mates a few days later when the band embarks as special guests on the thrash tour of the year: the 26-date American Carnage tour with Slayer and Megadeth. It will mark the first time all three bands have toured together since the 1990 Clash of the Titans tour in Europe.

On the phone from Indianapolis, during a day off from the TSO tour, Skolnick offered the following about his myriad pursuits as well as Testament's place in the metal pantheon.

KNAC.COM: An obvious first question, how has this year's TSO tour gone?

SKOLNICK: It's been good. It gets more intense every year. This year there is more of everything.

KNAC.COM: More ridiculously huge mobile lighting rigs, pyro, lasers, etc?

SKOLNICK: Yup. All of the above, plus video screens. So now the album artwork can be displayed behind us while we're playing.

KNAC.COM: Does the group itself keep getting larger, or have you reached the saturation point as far as how many people you can cram onto the stage?

SKOLNICK: I think we've been at that point for the last couple years. It's been the same number of people on stage really since we moved into the arena settings.

KNAC.COM: Since there's actually two TSOs, do you tour consistently with the same group of folks or do they throw you together at random every year?

SKOLNICK: It's mostly the same. We do get mixed up from time to time. Our violin player, Roddy Chong, get sent to the West Coast this year. The year before that, Anna Phoebe, who was the West Coast violin player, got brought here. There have been a couple other changes like that, but mostly it's been pretty consistent.

KNAC.COM: So it's like being in a sports league where they engineer trades?

SKOLNICK: That's kinda how it works, yeah. (Laughs)

KNAC.COM: TSO East, who you play with, features most of the guys you played with in Savatage, so you've got that extra familiarity.

SKOLNICK: It's interesting, there are people from the hard music world, the Savatage guys especially, who I know pretty well, but there are people from the more theatrical world and even the jazz world, the singer Tim Hockenberry, who sings jazz on the West Coast, we know some of the same musicians from the improvisational projects who I've played with out there. And I've played with some more theatrical-based projects, like the show "Jekyll & Hyde." The singer for "Jekyll & Hyde," Rob Evan, is in this show. So I'm one of the few who knows people from different circles of music.

KNAC.COM: When do you actually get together with the other musicians to rehearse that year's show, is there a lot of prep time, or you can you pretty much just plug in and play?

SKOLNICK: The production team is working on it months in advance. As far as the band, it's usually only two weeks of rehearsal, and we're sent any new tracks that are going to be appearing a bit before that. The first week is just making sure the music is together, which usually happens really fast. And then it's a matter of doing it on stage and syncing it up with the production. And then we're ready to go.

KNAC.COM: You guys will be touring right through Christmas, and only get like Christmas day off, right? That hardly seems fair?

SKOLNICK: We get Christmas eve and Christmas off. They used to cut it off before Christmas, but now, because of the demand, we keep going on into January. So we're basically victims of our own success, but that's not a bad situation to be in. I've been on the other side of that coin and this side is a lot better.

KNAC.COM: And then after doing all the Christmas stuff, you totally change gears and go out with Testament on the Slayer/Megadeth tour. How long will it take you to get out of "God Rest Ye Merry Gentleman" mode and into "God Hates Us All" mode?

SKOLNICK: Yeah, isn't that an interesting turnaround (laughs). I barely have a week at home and then I'll be with Testament on the American Carnage tour. But whatever gig I have, I need like a day or two to shift gears and then I'm in that mode. Since I'm out now with TSO, I wouldn't jump on stage tonight with my trio doing instrumental stuff, or with Testament, but if I had tomorrow to work on it and get it into gear, I'd be fine for the next day. I've got a system down, and it comes really quick.

It's a little like being a session musician. There are session musicians who specialize in playing all different types of music from one day to the next. They might back up a hard rock artist one day, an R&B artist the next day or do a big band thing. It is done, it's not unheard of. But it is rare for someone to actually perform and do gigs in these different styles, and to these extremes, But this is part of playing music in the 21st century. The old rules don't apply.

KNAC.COM: Have you been able to get enough time off between your various projects?

SKOLNICK: Absolutely not (laughs). My plan was to take a break after this [TSO] tour. I was planning a nice big break, but Slayer called. And when Slayer calls, you can't say no to Slayer.

KNAC.COM: Is this supposed to be the last tour Testament does for Damnation?Will the focus then shift to the next Testament album after that?

SKOLNICK: The plan was to already be finished touring so we could take a break and then focus on the next album, but that obviously changed when the Slayer opportunity came up. There were very few tours that could get us out now. Slayer/Megadeth/Testament is one. I think that's pretty much it. It's pretty hard to compete with that.

As far as the next Testament album goes, we're going to have to let things work themselves out after that. We're still in good shape. When I rejoined the band, the band was already overdue for a record, it had already been like seven years. Once I was in the band, it took some time to get that record done. We weren't sure if we were going to do another record and we were only going to do one if it felt right. And it took time to get to that point. So to now rush out another album on the heels of the last one, I think, would be a mistake. We're not several years away from the last record; it came out less than two years ago.

On this tour we're going to be set up on our tour bus to work on new music. It's usually really tough to do, but I think on this tour it's going to work. We have a situation where most of the crew is traveling on a separate bus, so our bus isn't going to be as crowded, we're going to have the back lounge set up for working on music. So we'll come up with some stuff then. After that tour I'm definitely taking my well-deserved rest. My plan is to rest and then I have a new trio album coming out, so I want to concentrate on that and get that out and give it the proper attention it deserves.

KNAC.COM: With the higher profile stuff you've been doing with Testament and TSO, has your trio been somewhat neglected?

SKOLNICK: I wouldn't say neglected, because I put as much into the trio as I do with anything else. They are very well supported by critics, but they don't get that much visibility. They don't have the machinery behind them, like Testament or TSO. Even though I am involved in those projects, and the trio could benefit from that, it's still very hard to get it the visibility I think it deserves.

I don't know what it takes, because it is such a very different audience. It's really tough because we don't get the crossover audience that Testament and TSO has. And those who are more in tune with jazz-influenced instrumental music are surprised that it's good (laughs). That's one of the challenges I'm going to try to deal with this year.

Every so often we get some help, like Kirk Hammett mentioning us in Guitar World, which was really cool. We're definitely helped by Rodrigo y Gabriela, who are big fans of the trio. I'm on their new album, as well. They've had us open up for them, they've got a link to us on their Web site and I'm definitely going to do some appearances with them this year. They're a high-visibility act right now. And they do have a crossover appeal to hard rock audiences. They are proof that anything is possible. Seeing their situation gives me hope for the instrumental stuff.

KNAC.COM: Getting back to Testament, since the reunion, and especially since Damnation came out, you've had the kind of good karma that had eluded the band in the past. That's got to feel pretty good after not getting those kinds of breaks earlier on?

SKOLNICK: Yeah, its true. It's not like we didn't get some good tours before, but it wasn't the same. Like Slayer with Megadeth now, that's the hottest metal tour out there. And the Priest/Heaven and Hell tour a couple summers ago, that was great.

We had played with some of those bands before, we toured with Judas Priest before, but it was a different time. It was a difficult time then, metal was struggling to survive; it was the beginning of the '90s. At that time, Judas Priest was having trouble filling seats, and there were internal problems within the band, it was Rob Halford's last tour before leaving the band. There were internal problems within our band (laughs). It wasn't long before I would leave.

At that time, there was more of a sense of struggle and now there's much more of a feeling of appreciation, not just for our band but for all the bands - the Slayers, the Megadeths, the Judas Priests - so I think this is a really good time for all this to happen. I feel like this tour, the American Carnage tour, is going to fill a void, a little bit. You didn't have Ozzfest last year. There was no Sounds of The Underground and I don't think there was a Gigantour last year either [though Slayer did play on the Rockstar Mayhem Energy Drink Tour] so this is filling some of that void.

KNAC.COM: Unfortunately, the way it is routed, not only is it a fairly brief tour, you're missing some pretty big swaths of the country, like where I am in the Mid-Atlantic?

SKOLNICK: Yeah, that I don't understand. I'm glad the tour's not longer than it is, because I need the rest, but there's places I wish we were playing that we're not. Like Florida. I think Florida's gonna riot (laughs). We weren't able to get there on the last Testament tour either. And we've got a comparatively large portion of dates in Canada, though I guess some of those are rescheduled shows from when Tom Araya's back went out a little while ago. It's unfortunate.

KNAC.COM: Hopefully there will be a second leg.

SKOLNICK: I guess we'll have to wait and see about that. That will all depend on who's available and when. And who knows if Slayer and Megadeth hook up again whether they'd even ask us to tour with them. So I wouldn't even want to begin to speculate about that.

KNAC.COM: Along with everything else, you recently did some production work with that Iraqi band, Acrassicauda. How did that come about and how did it turn out?

SKOLNICK: It turned out great. It was an extremely rewarding experience. The guys were Iraqi refugees who had been stuck in places like Syria and Turkey after having escaped a situation where it just wasn't safe to live in Baghdad. It was bad enough under Saddam Hussein and the oppression there, but with the American invasion and subsequent civil war it became even more dangerous. They had their rehearsal studio hit by a bomb, they lost all their equipment. It's an amazing story that was documented in the film "Heavy Metal in Baghdad."

A friend in literary world told me about the film. It was made by Vice, which is a magazine, a record label and a film company that hasn't done much metal, they are more involved with hipster indie rock. But the story of this thing, the cause, was something Vice really put their muscle behind. They gave me an advance copy and I was blown away by the film. And then Testament had a show in Istanbul, Turkey, which is where the guys were living, so I invited them to the show. They were really great guys; I was really struck by how normal they were. They just seemed like they could have been fans of ours from anywhere.

I got a call later from Suroosh [Alvi, founder of Vice and a co-director of "Heavy Metal in Baghdad"], who was very appreciative for inviting the band to the show, and he told me that they were working nonstop on their case, pleading with the United Nations and the International Refugee Commission to try to get the band relocated to the United States, which isn't easy. A lot of red tape, each of their cases had to be looked separately, but he said the whole goal was to move them to the United States and do a real recording and would I be interested in working on it.

I'd never thought of producing metal before. I'd produced my jazz stuff. But it felt like it was something I could do and I knew the right people who could help me. I knew the right engineer, Nik Chinboukas, who's recorded a lot of metal stuff and worked with Clown from Slipknot. And he works at a studio [Spin Studios in Long Island City] where one of the rooms is rented by Josh Wilbur, who just recorded and mixed the last Lamb of God album. So then he got involved. So with my direction and rehearsing with the guys, and Nik's engineering and Josh's mixing we've put together and EP [Only The Dead See The End Of The War] that I think is really exciting. And not just because of the story, I think you can hear the music and like the music.

KNAC.COM: I've heard a lot about these guys, but I've heard very little about what their music is actually like. So what's their music like?

SKOLNICK: It sounds like war, it's war metal. That's what it is. You can really feel it in the music, and it's got some Middle Eastern rhythms. It's got some real interesting musical stuff happening, there's some Middle Eastern percussion and chanting, but it's very heavy and its raw and I think it sounds great. I'm excited. I think it's going to come out in March. They have a wide variety of stuff over the four songs on the EP. I helped pick the songs, helped them shape it up. I've worked with some great producers over the years, so I took what I've learned and applied it to them, and hopefully they were able to learn some things from me. It was fun.

They're not used to doing things that we take for granted, like listening to things on the level that you need to record. They are familiar with a lot of music, they managed to get music on the black market, a couple of them actually learned English from listening to metal records. But as far as the actual regimen of doing what you need to do to become a "professional" metal band, they had no idea, because they had no way of learning that. But they're getting the hang of it now.

KNAC.COM: They're all in the states now, correct?

SKOLNICK: Yeah, a couple of them are in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, one of them is in Elizabeth, N.J., and another is in a different part of Brooklyn. They have a rehearsal spot in Brooklyn, the practice every couple days, and as soon as the EP comes out they are going to start playing live. I'm totally behind them and I'm excited to see what happens.

KNAC.COM: Is producing something you'd like to do more of?

SKOLNICK: It's something I could see doing more of. It's a really nice change of pace. It's not that I'd want to give up touring, but I'm at this point where I'm on tour most of the time. It'd be really nice to be able to balance that out and be able to work in one place.

KNAC.COM: Getting back to Testament, again, as you get ready to do the second post-reunion album, does the band have a long-haul mentality, or is it a one album at a time situation?

SKOLNICK: I think it's one step at a time. I have a musical career outside of the band that I had before the reunion tour happened. I think it's actually better, it makes the situation better because I'm not dependent on being in the band and the band can survive without me, I think. Most people like them better with me, which is cool, and I think a lot of fans like me better with the band (laughs). So I understand that. I think we're both better off with each other, but we're not totally dependent on each other. And I think that makes the relationship better. For us to promise that "we're in this for the long haul and that's all there is" is not realistic. But I will say that right now we're feeling pretty good as a band. We made a record, we're happy with the way it came out and the response, and we're planning another one and we'll see.

KNAC.COM: I know I speak for a lot of people in saying let's hope you can keep it going for a while longer.

SKOLNICK: It's exciting and now it really makes sense. It's almost more exciting now than it was back then. Back then we were one of many bands and it was really hard to stand out. The thrash world was really kind of closed off. There was the Big Four and that was a big shadow. And now I think things are different. You had so many bands back then coming and going and now we're one of the bands who's music has survived and the band has survived and it's proven that people want this band to keep going.

I've seen some other bands who've gotten together, I'm not mentioning names, but other bands from our era or slightly before and there just isn't the same excitement. But here, with this band, it really feels like "OK, we're finally doing it on a level that we never got to do it on before." And the fact that things are growing for the band at this stage is really pretty amazing.

KNAC.COM: I think a lot of old thrash bands saw the response to the Testament reunion and figured, "well if it can happen for them it can happen for us," and got together to cash in and discovered that's not necessarily the case.

SKOLNICK: Yeah, and there's music that's just gotten more dated over time. When we play it doesn't feel that dated. And I think that has something to do with newer bands like Lamb of God or Shadows Fall and Slipknot. It's not like we sound like any of them, but we fit with them. And I've heard some other bands where it still really sounds like 1982. Like who would ever do this now (laughs)? I'm glad Testament's music hasn't turned out that way. It's stood the test of time, as it were.

And we're playing it better now and technology has gotten better. When we started, unless you were a bigger band like Metallica who had a budget, it was really difficult to find a sound system that could handle this kind of music. We were constantly blowing up amplifiers and speakers and sound systems, the shows sounded like mud. But now heavy music has been around so long it's even gotten into the mainstream. The guitar sound that started with Metallica not only influenced thrash it ended up influencing groups that have become the new pop mainstream, not that I'm a fan of the Linkin Parks or the Three Doors Downs, but a lot of that sound came from our era of metal. And sound and technology had to catch up with that. So now you buy an amp and it has that sound built in. And you can play through a P.A. system that can handle it.

KNAC.COM: Is that the biggest difference you've noticed between now and then?

SKOLNICK: Yeah. When we play live I can really feel a difference between a Testament show now and one from the early '90s, late '80s. The energy is still the same, and so is the passion. But back then, people were so attracted to the energy of it that you could get past the bad sound, and that always drove me nuts. That was one of the big problems I had with it and it was a big part of why I left. It wasn't any prejudice against the music and I wasn't leaving metal because I don't like what it represents, but this idea of going to a show where you can't hear it, it just sounds like a wall of noise, I never got that.

No matter how good you played, it was always going to sound the same and that was very disappointing. You spend countless hours mastering this instrument only to have it lost in a sea of mud, that was very frustrating. But now it's much better, now I can watch YouTube clips of our shows and I can hear my solos. And that's pretty cool. It's a lot more fulfilling to know what you're playing is actually being heard.

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