TESTAMENT – Alex Skolnick
Interview by Luxi Lahtinen and Marko Syrjala
Live and offstage pictures by Luxi Lahtinen and Marko Syrjala
Thanks to Blake Wolfe for the transcription
There is no doubt that Testament is one of the most important bands in the history of Speed – and Thrash Metal. The original line-up of Testament has released such classic albums as "The Legacy", "New Order" and "Practice What You Preach". In 1992 the band unfortunately lost its two original members when guitarist Alex Skolnick and drummer Louie Clemente decided to leave the band, but luckily the rest of the band still decided to carry on, releasing more high quality albums with several different line-ups.
Now thirteen years later Testament are back with the classic line-up – and let?s at least hope they are here again to stay. We met Alex Skolnick at the backstage after Testament’s brilliant performance at the Tuska Festival last July, talked with him about both the days of Legacy (pre-Testament), Testament and his musical career in some other line-ups (Savatage, etc.) naturally as well.
Here?s the result of that particular conversation, so enjoy your reading… ;o)
This reunion happened very quickly. Can you tell us how it started?
We were out of touch for a long time. The last few years we?ve gotten back in touch. We had some business situations to work out, personal situations. Basically, we became friends again. Last January, I was playing a show in San Francisco on tour with my jazz group, the Alex Skolnick Trio. Chuck came to the show, and Greg came to the show. And neither of them knew the other was going to be there. It was cool ? it was kinda like a little reunion. About a week or two later, Chuck was talking to the Dynamo festival in Holland, and they said "Well, Anthrax is getting back together for the festival. Is there any way Testament would consider doing a show with the original line-up?" So he asked us that. Chuck called all of us ? we said "Sure, we?d like to do it." Next thing you know, they had a ten-day tour. So we did that, just to see how it would go. It went really well. Everybody was having a good time. Since then, they booked this show, a show in Rome yesterday, and we?re going to Japan in September. Hopefully, we can keep it going.
How does it feel to be back in Testament after so many years?
When I left, this was the only music I?d ever done professionally, and I did have other interests. I always wanted to be a musician that could play for any band. I really needed to go off and develop as a musician. I ended up going back to music school, getting a music degree ? learning to read music, learning to write charts, learning to work with horns and pianos, just to be that type of musician. The last several years I?ve lived in New York, working as a studio musician and a freelance guitarist.
After you left from Testament you briefly joined for Savatage. How did you ended to join them back then?
Savatage was right after Testament. That was ?94, and I hadn?t quite figured out what I wanted to do yet. But I really enjoyed the time with Savatage. It was a little difficult because they were in Florida and I was in California. It was a little bit of a long-distance relationship. I think they needed more of a commitment than I could give at the time. But I?ve been working with the guys the last couple of years doing the Trans-Siberian Orchestra, which most of the Savatage members are involved with. I?m going to be touring with them again this year.
How do you like the album "Handful Of Rain", which you did with them?
With Savatage? I liked it because it was very different from Testament. At the time, I needed to do something different. Not as different as some of the music I ended up doing ? my solo albums are very, very different. I thought the Savatage record was a perfect first step towards the world outside of Testament. Testament?s music is great, but it?s very fast, and it?s very intense, most of the time. With Savatage, Savatage is a little more influenced by classic rock. There?s a lot of Deep Purple and Queen in Savatage. So for me to explore that, I thought it was very cool.
Did you find it more challenging to play in Savatage than in Testament?
No, actually it was a lot easier (laughs). Much easier.
More rock oriented…?
Yeah. Mostly what I practiced early on was stuff like Queen, Deep Purple and the Scorpions. That?s more where Savatage is coming from. I was a big fan of Brian May, and Michael Schenker, and guys like that. I just felt with Savatage, I could use more of that influence. It felt very natural. At the same time, I liked the challenge of taking these other influences and putting them into Testament. Now, that?s one of the things I?m enjoying the most.
In some past interview you said that you left Testament because you wanted to do something different. Was it you who carried Testament from straight Heavy Metal, like on "The New Order"? When we come to "The Ritual", there?s much more melody than harder stuff. Was it you who wanted the band to go another way, or was it someone else?
It was the whole band ? it wasn?t just me. Every album was a group effort. We had some main contributors, which would be myself, Chuck and Eric. I was the youngest one. I didn?t really have much of a voice at that time. I?m enjoying it now, because I?m older and have more of a voice now. I didn?t force ?em to do that record. I think there?s some great stuff on the record. You can tell that the band is going through a hard time ? you can hear that in the music. It?s funny ? when we play "Electric Crown" now, it sounds great and inspired. I?d like to re-record it.
What kind of memories do you have of promotional videos you?ve made with Testament, like the one for "Electric Crown"?
Making a video is kind of hard. It?s a long day ? a lot of waiting around. I remember it was never exciting. I never wanted to be an actor. It was always fun when you were done. You got to see the video when they started to edit it, and putting it together. But the actual making of it is a long, tiring process.
The video of "Electric Crown" was a very sad?
True. That was fun because that was one of the first videos where we had a real actor. That was a guy named Billy Wirth. He was in the movie The Lost Boys with Kiefer Sutherland. It was great seeing him playing that part. He was really good. It was definitely inspiring.
How much did you follow Testament?s career after you left the band?
I?d have to say not very much (laughs). We were in very different places. I was curious to see what they were doing. I thought the production on the records got better, and I liked the drummers that they worked with. I felt that some of the melody, the things we had early on, weren?t there. At the same time, it was a different band. I respected it.
Testament lineup 1995
Which different line-ups of Testament have you seen playing live?
I saw them a couple of years ago with Steve Smyth. Actually, I think I saw them all, or most of them. I saw them with Glen Alvelais, a year or so after I left. He was my first replacement.
Did you see them with James Murphy, too?
I definitely saw them with James Murphy.
What do you think about James Murphy overall? He?s been having a lot of trouble with his health but I guess he?s probably doing okay right now?
I know, it?s awful, I feel very bad for him. I think he?s really talented. I also think he?s a really talented producer, too. He was very into studio recording. I wish him the best. It?s really sad that happened.
STEVE SOUZA AND THE LEGACY DAYS
Legacy lineup in the early eighties
What kind of memories do you have from this demo (holds up the first Legacy demo)?
Oh wow, many memories. Well, it?s 20 years ago. I remember sticking these stickers on (laughs)!
Not just by myself, we all did. Oh wow, there?s a misspelling ? "REDUCEIT".
But it?s the original demo anyway (laughs)
It?s interesting too, because we?re not in touch with these people anymore that worked with us.
What about Alexandra D?rrie (taking care of the Legacy management in Europe at that time)?
Yeah, we haven?t seen her in years. I wonder how she?s doing. So many memories come together with this.
How was it to work on this demo?
It was fun. It was a little bit like summer camp. We went away, stayed overnight, and recorded this thing. I was so young. I think I was 16. So for me it was a strange time. I wasn?t sure anything would become of this.
This is the demo that made your name for some record labels back then.
Was it your first official demo?
Yeah, this was the first.
Do you have a copy of this too (holds up The Legacy demo)?
I?m not sure if I do. I should ? I have a lot of stuff laying around. It is very interesting to sit here all these years later (laughs)
What kind of memories do you have about the Legacy days?
Like I said, it was a strange time. I didn?t know what this would lead to. Pretty wild.
Did you try to play as many gigs as possible around to get your name on the map?
We were playing a lot of gigs, and it was ? I don?t know, for me it was, I was joining up with a group that was already playing and already had professional gigs. That was a big step, and it really separated me from my friends that I would play with in high school. A lot of the guys I played with in high school slowly started drifting away from their instruments, going to college or getting jobs, getting into sports, whatever. Again, we were still very young. I remember as soon as this happened, as soon as I joined this band and we started working and doing shows it was very clear that "This is what I?m doing. At least for the next few years, I?m going to give this a shot."
Have you been in touch with Mike (Ronchette; on the Legacy demo)?
Not for a long, long time. He did come to a couple shows in the early 90s, like ?91-?92. Even then, we hadn?t seen him since, then.
How would you feel if you got Legacy line-up together and played some Legacy songs just for one or two shows?
With Steve Souza? With Mike? I don?t even know if he still plays. It would be interesting, but it wouldn?t be the same because this was a very short period of time. Honestly, I don?t think this line-up barely lasted a year.
But this was the album that put you on the face of heavy metal?
It was, but within a year and a half at the most, Steve Souza was in Exodus, Chuck Billy was in Testament, Mike was gone, and Louie was back.
What kind of memories do you have from that?
From Steve leaving to Exodus?
It was a big shock. I couldn?t believe it. Steve is a very intense personality. He?s a good guy, just really intense, and he was like the boss ? he would yell at everybody.
Were you pissed off at the guys in Exodus because they took your vocalist into their band?
At first yes, but then we got Chuck Billy. Chuck Billy was meant to be the singer of this band, no question. Nobody will ever question that. Anyway, when Steve left, it was a shock, and we were upset at Exodus, we were upset at Steve. This was the guy who would yell at us during rehearsal, saying "You have to think of this as a job! You?re all lazy! Not me – I take this seriously, and you have to start taking this seriously too! That goes for you too, Skolnick!" It was mainly Greg and Eric he would yell at. Anyway, here?s the guy who used to yell at us, and he walks in one day, and he?s almost crying. He goes "Guys, I have an announcement to make ? I?m really sorry, but I?m joining Exodus now (sobbing)". (laughs)
How is relationship between you and the Exodus guys nowadays?
Everybody has grown up…
Yeah, and you know, it was so meant to happen. Obviously, Chuck Billy joining this band had to happen. This band was meant to have Chuck as a singer.
Chuck live 2005
How did you find Chuck in the first place?
We knew him ? he was from the same town as Steve Souza. They grew up together. I knew of Chuck because he was in a band with one of my guitar teachers, a guy named Danny Gill who went on to be in a band named Hurricane Alice. His first band was called Guilt, and it was kinda like Ratt. If you see pictures of Chuck from back then, it?s pretty funny. He had scarves, pleather, boas ? he was doing the L.A. rock thing. But he always had this presence that was so intense. We all thought it would be interesting to hear him in a heavy band, and when this situation happened with our first singer, we thought "Alright, let?s bring him in and see if he?s interested in doing it." It was very different. We weren?t sure at first, and the more he did it, the more comfortable he got. The record company heard our recording. We were already talking to Megaforce Records then, and we were afraid that losing our singer would kill the whole record deal, but they were cool and they worked with us. We sent them tapes of Chuck to see what they thought, and they liked it. They said just keep working with this guy, and it worked out.
Did you try any other singers at that time?
We talked to a couple of other guys, we listened to a couple tapes, but Chuck was the only guy who came in and started singing with us. We just thought "Let?s give this a shot."
You did some Testament classics re-recordings (First Strikes Still Deadly) a few years ago ? how was that?
That was lot?s of fun. That was my first time re-visiting the songs in a long time.
The songs on there actually sound more aggressive somehow than the older versions?
Well, the sound is better. I think a lot has happened with technology since then. To me, heavy metal tone, modern heavy metal tone, started with Van Halen and the first Van Halen record. I?m not saying heavy metal started with them ? heavy metal obviously started with Black Sabbath. But even so, the Black Sabbath sound was more like this classic rock sound ? same with AC/DC. Van Halen was the first guy with a modern metal sound. Eddie Van Halen had to blow up amps regularly to get that sound. I blew up an amp tonight, which was interesting. Nowadays that?s unusual. To get a good metal sound was tough. The recording equipment wasn?t used to it, the live equipment wasn?t used to it. Equipment then was designed for classic rock. Now, here we are 20 years later, it?s very normal with Metallica becoming mainstream, Megadeth, and even all the bands who followed ? the Korns, the Limp Bizkits, the Linkin Parks ? that?s such a normal sound. You can buy a Marshall amplifier now, and it?ll have that sound. Many amps have it, just so you don?t have to blow them up. I think recording equipment has gotten better too ? the P.A. systems have gotten better. So anyway, when we re-recorded the songs a few years ago, I think we had this better sound partially because of that.
When you did the "The First Strike?" album, who contacted you to play on it?
I think it was Chuck. At the time, Chuck was dealing with cancer, so that sort of brought us together. We were sort of all rallying behind Chuck. That?s sort of what inspired that album.
When you decided to regroup Testament, you were the first person they contacted. How about Greg and Louie?
At that show that Chuck came to, with the Alex Skolnick Trio, Greg came to the show as well, and it was the first time they had spoken in a long time. Louie had been in contact with them. Louie hadn?t played drums in many years, so in May, we had John Tempesta playing drums for most of the set. As the tour went on, Louie played more and more songs. Now he?s doing the whole set, and it?s working out great.
Greg on stage again in 2005
What about Greg. How much he?s been playing since his departure with Testament?
He?s been playing the whole time. He was in different bands. There was a time when nobody knew how to get a hold of him. He lived in San Diego, we heard he lived in L.A., but now we know where he is. (laughs)
You guys are coming along great together again?
Yeah, it?s feeling really good and it?s better then before because we?re having more fun, not taking it as seriously.
You?re not kids anymore?
We don?t have as much to prove. We proved we have this back catalogue of music, and we?re out there playing that music. We?re not competing with other bands. When we played with Anthrax, it was so great to hang out with those guys again. Back in the day, we were in competition. There was pressure – pressure from the record company, the critics. It?s great ? we?re not doing it for any other reason now except for ourselves and the fans.
THE FUTURE OF TESTAMENT?
Alex and Chuck having fun in Tuska.
Can you say that this Testament reunion is stable and you are maybe doing some new music at some point?
It?s possible. Nobody wants to rush into anything. We?re seeing how it goes, and it?s been going great. As soon as we promise a new album, we?re in trouble. We?re gonna see how it goes. I think it?s likely to happen. We?re still getting re-acquainted, feeling things out.
But you would like to do a new album together with Testament?
I don?t want to give up my other music. I have a full career now, which I intend to hang on to. But if I can do it and continue to work outside the group, I?m very open to that, and they seem very open to that as well. It?s very different now ? Eric has his own side project, Dragonlord.
But if there?s going to be a new Testament album, what kind of style is going to be presented? Is it going to be kind of going on from "The Ritual", or going back to your roots?
I have no idea. I really have no idea…
What kind of stuff do you think it could be?
I want it to sound new. It would obviously have some of the elements of the old music, because it?s the original line-up. But I would also want to take advantage of the technology and get a really good sound, good production. Also, the maturity that we have, I have a feeling that we?re better songwriters now. I don?t know – I?d have to see. I could see that happening…
If you could choose a producer for that album, who would you want it to be?
Not Bob Rock(laughs)! That?s a good question. I really like how the last Lamb Of God album sounds. The guy who produced that, his name is Machine. He?s a cool guy, based in New York. He would be on my list. But that?s kind of like naming a Supreme Court pick.
How much do you care about who?s the producer?
Yeah, I?m not that up on who?s producing too much.
Why you are not doing all shows in this current tour? Metal Mike (Halford, ex-Testament, Pain Museum) is doing some dates of instead of you?
When they got a hold of me to do these reunion shows, I do other shows between my own band, and the other projects I play with ? Trans-Siberian Orchestra, etc. ? I?m already booked until May 2006. When they come to me and say "Can you do a show on this date?," if I can do it, I?ll do it. With those two shows that Metal Mike?s doing, I was asked to do them but I was already booked. I have my other commitments. There?s been a couple of shows that I?ve been able to move around or get substitutes for, but I can only do so much. In the future, it?s early enough so that the dates for next year will hopefully be booked around the dates that I already have.
Do you have any plans to release a DVD from this current tour?
A DVD? We have a DVD coming out, from the shows we did in Europe, in London. It should be out before the end of the year if I remember right?
Did you tape any footage from this Tuska Festival show?
It would be great, it would be great to have that. I don?t know if they filmed that?
I don?t think so cause I didn?t saw any cameras on stage?
I don?t think they did. But the footage we have from London is really cool. It?s gonna be a good DVD. I promise (laughs)
TEACHING KIDS, THE STATE OF METAL SCENE
AND BEING ON THE ROAD WITH IRON MAIDEN …
Alex and Eric live on stage!
How much do you think the metal scene has been changing since you started with "The Legacy"? Have you been following it?
Yeah, a little bit. I think the whole scene changed a lot. A lot of the bigger groups like Testament and Anthrax went underground. The only other group that was big was Metallica. They ended up getting so big. They were in a league with Madonna and Bryan Adams. So it was very strange, and then, there wasn?t very much of a scene. Then these newer bands came along, and a lot of them sounded the same. Some of them had good ideas, like Korn and Linkin Park. I don?t want to insult these bands, but I never really got their music. Maybe it?s just because I was older. It?s interesting now, because there?s a lot of young fans coming to these Testament shows. They?re telling us that they?re sick of their generation of metal bands, and they?re discovering Testament and Anthrax.
Do you actually like any of these "new" bands?
Well, Lamb Of God ? great band. Slipknot ? great band.
How do you feel about the Bay Area scene nowadays? It?s actually getting back together with bands like Exodus doing albums again. It seems to be quite strong again after all these years?
It?s hard to say. Exodus ? I think it?s only Gary Holt left in the band. You gotta hand it to him for keeping it going.
What about bands like Death Angel and Heathen?
Is Heathen still together? I know the bass player has passed away. I think Lee is playing in Exodus now?
What about your old mates Anthrax then?
We played with them in May. It was great to see them again!
What kinds of things inspire you as a musician nowadays?
Nowadays in general? I really like being able to step in and out of different situations. When I?m in New York, I often play with my trio at this club called The Knitting Factory, which is like an avant-garde jazz club. We just got off the road with Mike Keneally, who was Frank Zappa?s guitarist. They were some of the best musicians I?ve heard. What really inspires me is hearing great musicians. At the same time, last year I went to OzzFest. I was hanging out with Lamb Of God, and they invited me to play on their last album. Actually, Slipknot was at that show too. They invited me and my drummer on stage to watch them, and we were completely knocked out. So whether it?s Mike Keneally, or Slipknot, or Lamb Of God, or the musicians I go see, like John Scofield. Just great music, whatever music it may be.
You did two albums with your own band Alex Skolnick Trio. What?s the future gonna hold for that band?
Well, we?re signed to Magnitude Records, which is in upstate New York. They do a lot of instrumental music. We have another record on our contract. We have a couple weeks of tour dates in August, and then we?re gonna start writing a new record. It?s been doing really well. We were featured in Downbeat, which is a big jazz magazine in the States. Jazz Is did a big feature. Billboard gave us the whole jazz column. It?s really unusual for a metal guy to get into the jazz world, and I expected to be crucified, but we?ve actually gotten a lot of really good press. We were in the Top 30 on the jazz radio charts. I think what we?re doing is a different thing ? I?ve taken a lot of classic metal songs, like Scorpions, KISS, Ozzy, and I?ve arranged it for a jazz guitar trio. The guys in my band are top young jazz players. I think they can play with anybody, and I?m very lucky that they play with me. They teach me a lot, ?cause they?re such good musicians.
You?re also doing some teaching in the school, right?
There?s a music school in New York City, where I teach when I?m not on the road ? and I?m on the road a lot of the time.
How does it feel to teach kids?
It?s great. It?s really cool, ?cause when I was a kid, when I was younger, I would?ve loved to have taken lessons from Van Halen or Brian May or people like that. Good luck ? that would never happen. But a lot of these kids that come to me, they seem to feel the same way about me that I felt about these guys. It?s just really cool that I can work with them one-on-one.
Do they know about your history in Testament?
Oh, absolutely. Not all of them ? I?ve actually gotten some that know me more for jazz playing. There?s others that know me from articles I?ve written for guitar magazines. But I would say the majority of them know me from Testament. It?s cool because a lot of them play metal, but they want to be able to play other types of music. They want to expand as musicians. In that sense, I?m a good teacher. I know what it?s like to just do metal, and then sort of incorporate other elements and expand, then still be able to play metal.
I?m curious to know actually, what is the highlight of your career as a musician so far?
There?s a few. Obviously, getting Testament to the point where we were traveling the world. I think that going to Japan for the first time made us realize that, because we were headlining. Here we were, on the other side of the world, with this Japanese audience completely going nuts for our music, so I think that was one thing. I think my first tour outside of Testament was a highlight. It was with Stu Hamm, the bassist for this great guitar player, Joe Satriani, and Steve Vai.
George: I remember you mulling over that decision at the time. We talked about it. I was like "Go for it!," but you didn?t want to.
That ended up being…
George: A tremendous opportunity.
It was a great opportunity. It was cool too, because speed metal, it?s never really been about the guitar, for the most part. When we first started, there was Venom and Motorhead, and then there was Metallica and Slayer. Great bands, but it was never really about virtuoso guitar playing. I would always listen to guys like Randy Rhoads, Van Halen, and I tried to bring some of that in. For me step out and do this tour, where Satriani came and sat in with us, and one night Steve Morse came in ? all of sudden, I had to go one-on-one with these guys. That was really cool.
So you don?t think Kerry King?s solos aren’t that great?
I think they?re great for Slayer, but it?s not something I would ever learn. None of my students would ever want to learn that. It?s not to say that it?s not ripping, and I don?t want to hear some trained guitar player playing for Slayer.
Do you actually consider Kerry King?s solos as solos at all?
It?s like part of a sound. It?s this aggressive energy. It?s actually very cool in it?s own way, but if it?s between learning that and learning a Randy Rhoads solo, it?s obvious which one is more musical. I?m not saying it doesn?t have its place. Part of what I?m trying to do is bring in more of the Randy Rhoads school, the Van Halen school, to this kind of music. I took a lot of heat for it ? there?s a lot of people who think that melodic guitar solos have no place in this type of music, and I?m a poser and I should just get lost. Years later, I?m still here, and the vast majority of people seem to appreciate it. That?s good enough for me.
Thirteen years ago, you were on tour with Iron Maiden. Do you have any memories from that tour?
That tour with Iron Maiden was really interesting because we were starting to go through our difficulties, and it ended up being one of my last tours. Coincidentally, they were going through difficulties too. We didn?t know it ? it was very private. I think that might be partially why. We were thrilled to be on the road with this big band that we were all fans of, but we never really got to know them. I think that?s part of it. I think as soon as that tour was done, Bruce Dickinson left the band. The same thing happened the year before, when we toured with Judas Priest ? Rob Halford left the band. Maybe touring with Testament is like a curse. I think what it was, at the time, both bands are going through these difficult periods, which result in nothing much except for doing the shows and traveling to the next town.
Do you have any memories of Finland? I remember you were sleeping in the bus behind the concert hall and there was lot?s of fans teasing you outside then. Remember that?
Not really, no. I remember it being like this ? like nighttime, but it still feels like it?s during the day. I think it was cold ? I forget what time of year it was?
Do you remember anything else?
Not much. There were so many ? it was one in a series of shows, but unfortunately, we weren?t here long enough to get a feel for the place. We weren?t here long enough to create a lot of memories (laughs).
Okay, it?s 45 minutes that were at, so were going to end it. Thanx Alex !!!
Okay. Thank you guys!
MORE PICTURES OF TESTAMENT PLAYING AT TUSKA FESTIVAL IN 2005 !!
SPECIAL THANKS TO JOHANNA KIISKI FROM EDEL RECORDS FOR BOOKING US THIS INTERVIEW!!