Chuck Billy of Testament
Interview by Luxi Lahtinen & Niko Karppinen
Live- and backstage photos by Luxi Lahtinen
Transcription by Niclas Lindstrand
Jalometalli festival, which is arranged at the metal heart of northern Finland, Oulu, seems to get better and better each year as far as the line-up of bands is concerned. The festival has been organized since 2002, and for the last 3 years the festival has also become one of the most noteworthy metal festivals in Finland along with Tuska and Sauna Open Air festivals.
Last year the organizers of Jalometalli managed to book such names as Onslaught, Helloween, U.D.O., Dismember, etc. for the festival. This year?s menu hardly paled in comparison to the previous years? settings; especially thanks to such known and popular international metal acts like Candlemass, Kreator, Holy Moses, Unleashed, Rotting Christ and Testament for ensuring such a strong setting for every self-respected metalhead.
Undoubtedly one of the Jalometalli?s most awaited bands in 2007, were the Frisco-thrash pioneers Testament who made their reunion in February 2005 with the original band members. Testament hit Europe for a bunch of gigs in August ?07, playing shows in such countries as England, Norway, Sweden, Belgium, etc. Also, the band has been preparing songs for next album that they are supposed to start recording in March 2008. That new album will also feature Nick Barker (ex-Cradle of Filth, ex-Dimmu Borgir) on drums, so it?s gonna be interesting to see how his blast beats will fit into the new Testament songs.
2 experienced reporters from Metal-Rules.com found the Testament frontman Chuck Billy from the backstage after the show late at night, and Chuck was more than willing to reveal more details about the band?s future as well as giving his thoughts about several other topics that we wanted to inquire from him.
Thanks to the Testament tour manager Mike Stellone and Chris Delaney of Adrenaline PR for setting up the interview for us
FIGHTING BACK FOR YOUR HEALTH
After THE GATHERING album, everything seemed to be ready for Testament for coming back stronger than ever. THE GATHERING was released in 1999, over 7 years ago. Soon after it was released, your guitarist back then, James Murphy, was diagnosed with a brain tumor and because of that he was unable to continue with the band (though Murphy underwent surgery and made full recovery later). In 2001 you were diagnosed having cancer and also got completely recovered later in 2003. Can you tell us something about those circumstances straight after THE GATHERING, how bad were those years for Testament actually when the ground was badly shaken under Testament?s feet at those days due to the band members getting sick?
I think THE GATHERING was a combination of everything we had worked on until that time, musically and vocally and everything. When James got sick, those days weren?t good. Then when I got sick, I didn?t play music for years. I didn?t do anything with music, so those were bad years but we don?t look back now that we?ve made it through it all. It?s just all about going forward now. That?s about it. I don?t think about it.
Did you ever think to quit Testament during those tough years?
Well, when I got sick and lost all my hair ? I?ve had long hair my entire life ? I thought that ?my music career is over now, I?ll just try to survive and live?. I didn?t think about music, I just tried to exist and stay alive. Once I got through the sickness and everything I started growing my hair back and started playing music again. I put everything behind me. I didn?t think about quitting, just that this was probably the end of it and tried to concentrate on surviving.
How and when did you start to warm up an idea about this classic Testament line-up? Did the main idea about getting the old line-up back together happen when you played at Dynamo Open Air -festival, Holland in 2005?
Actually the idea came up when I was trying to get us on the Dynamo festival. I talked to the promotor who had just confirmed the reunited Anthrax, who did their first ever tour in Europa, and he asked ?What are the chances of getting the original Testament?? I said ?I don?t know? and when I got home I started calling everybody. In about one week?s time everybody said ?Yeah, sure, let?s go play with Anthrax, that sounds like a fun show?. That one show turned into five shows that week and we just kept adding and adding and adding. We had a good time with it and at that time we decided that maybe we should do a record together. So that?s what we?ve been doing, just playing and writing and having fun.
Over the years the sound of the Testament has been updated quite a bit – I mean, especially when you recorded your albums like DEMONIC and THE GATHERING, you used some of these Death Metal style riffs and parts on those two albums.
DEMONIC I think was different because we had so many different drummers and what they brought to the table with the music made me wanna sing more like death metal. The songs just made me wanna sing that way. I try to take the vibe from the music and those songs made me wanna do it like this. It was a different step from me to take a whole album and sing nothing but death vocals. I didn?t know how people would react to it, like the old Testament fans, maybe they didn?t wanna hear that style on the songs. But I think it probably grew on a lot of fans and I?d love to do some of that stuff again.
NEW TESTAMENT ALBUM COMING UP
You also played a brand-new Testament track, titled ?The Afterlife? song at Earthshaker festival in Germany on July 20th. Do you think ?The Afterlife? pretty much also represents musically how your next album is going to sound like?
No, that?s probably one of the more melodic, commercial sounding songs. The other songs are a lot more heavy, a lot more intense. That was one that just fell into place really quick and we knew we wanted to play a new song for that show so we decided not to give them everything but to give them something in the vein of what we were playing. I think it?s a catchy song, a melodic song. But I don?t think it represents the whole record, no.
As far as I know, you have 8 songs ready for your next album. How many songs more are you going to write for your forthcoming album before you enter a studio?
I want at least an hour of music before going into studio and now it?s about 40 minutes so I guess we?ll write another five or six more songs. This is the last trip of the year for us, then we go home and do nothing but work on the record and make plans to record it.
Have you already decided which studio you are going to use for these recordings of your new album?
We will probably do the drums here in England and then do vocals and bass and maybe guitars in the Bay Area. We?re actually moving into our old studio where we did DEMONIC and THE GATHERING and FIRST STRIKE STILL DEADLY. We?ll do the vocals and bass there, I?m not sure where we will do the guitars, we?ll see how it all turns out.
Will Andy Sneap produce it?
Yeah, we signed with Andy yesterday and we?re gonna start with the drums at his place.
Testament inked a worldwide deal with Nuclear Blast this summer, and before that you had this deal with Spitfire…
What went wrong with them?
They never supported the band. We were with theem for nine or ten years and not one time did a representative of the record company come to a concert. We even shot a DVD in London where their home base is and none of them showed up. That?s really strange, isn?t it? It was a weird situation with them. We were on a contract, but we wanted out. Nuclear Blast has wanted us for a long time but the time wasn?t right. Once Spitfire got sold to Sheridan Square they said they wouldn?t sign any more bands and that they would only do gospel so we don?t fit in their plan. They asked what we wanted and we said we wanted to get off. So they sent us a letter and we got off and started calling all the labels to make them give offers. Nucelar Blast came right at the front, just stepped up with the right offer and the right deal. They?re probably the best metal label for us. We?ve had problems with labels going bankrupt on us. THE GATHERING was probably our best work, we put our heart and soul into it just to have someone not care about it. It?s kinda a shame but now I think Nuclear Blast are gonna do a great job. They believe in the band and I don?t think they?re going away anywhere soon.
What kind of hopes or expectations do you have towards your new label, Nuclear Blast?
They?re gonna do a great job in promoting and marketing, good budgets, good marketing budgets. All the guys on the label are fans and believe in this music. The very first show we did, everybody from the label showed up. That was more than we ever had in all the years with Spitfire and that was the first time we met them. They?re really excited and so are we. It?s gonna be cool, a good relationship I think.
TESTAMENT GETTING BLACK-BLAST BEATED
You have now Nicholas Barker in Testament?s line-up (former Cradle of Filth and Dimmu Borgir member). How did he end up playing in Testament in the first place?
We called Nick in England and asked him to come out and play ?Over the Wall? with us. I met Nick like 15 years ago with Cradle of Filth and he said even then ?Hey I?m a big Testament fan, if you ever need a drummer, let me know!? We were like ?Yeah, whatever?. Then we saw him in his home town and he just came out and slayed, so we thought, that?s the guy who?s gonna do the record. He?s been in California since February working on the record. He?s here to stay.
Don?t you think there will be possibility that Barker could bring even some of his black metal blast beats in for the forthcoming Testament -stuff?
Yeah, I think so. I like a challenge, we?ve been doing something different with pretty much every record. This is just gonna be a new era for Testament again. We?ve got great musicians back in the band once again and I think he?s gonna add just a little sparkle on the drums.
Testament has been somewhat lucky to work with some of the most remarkable drummers in the whole metal scene. You have had names like Gene Hoglan, Dave Lombardo, Paul Bostaph, Louie Clemente, John Tempesta and now Nicholas Barker. Do you think you?re been lucky that you have worked with all these incredibly talented drummers for Testament?
We?ve been really lucky, that?s it, but it?s almost like a stepping stone as well. Every time we get going with a drummer, the drummer leaves to join another band or something else. No big deal, me and Eric pretty much create the music and the sound and everything. Even on the new record we?ll probably do the majority of the writing.
The classic Testament line-up has been touring together for some years now, excluding all these drummer changes in the line-up, however. How do you feel this current line-up you have on tour right now?
Very comfortable, just like in the old days. When we came back and rehearsed, the first day was a little bit loose and then the second rehearsal was so tight like it was as if we had never left each other. It had been 14 years and it was just like ?Wow, this is the way it?s supposed to be!? There?s a sound that Eric and Alex make together that?s just the Testament sound that I remember. On stage I?m so much more comfortable now because before me and Eric had other musicians playing our songs and it felt like we had to carry the show and the songs. It?s not like that anymore, we all did this together so now we?re all carrying the songs.
"THE BIG 4 OF THRASH"
Talking about this so-called ?Big Four of Thrash?. If you take a look at what has happened to all those four bands over the years, i.e. Metallica, Megadeth, Anthrax and Slayer, yes – they are still very big and very popular amongst people, but do you think they can still live up well enough to their thrash metal reputation of which they originally became known for since they started back in the day?
Of course Slayer does. And Anthrax playing their classic stuff of course, but I think they?ve jumped around too much on bangwagons that were popular at different times. Metallica… I was a big James Hetfield fan and I loved his lyrics, he was always very clever about his lyrics. Once he started letting the rest of the band help write lyrics it just changed for me and it was different. Too many cooks in the kitchen. James should just take control of that band and do what he always did. I hope Rick Rubin sits them down and pulls the best out of them. The old stuff, that?s what I miss.
Do you find it kinda funny that it?s called ?Big Four of Thrash? because bands like Legacy and Exodus followed almost right after these 4 aforementioned thrash bands made themselves known as that "Big 4 of Thrash?
Well, music is all about timing. At the end of our time with the original band, when we split up, grunge was in with Nirvana and Pearl Jam and all the metal bands got dropped off the major labels. The radio stations weren?t playing metal anymore. It was all timing. We were set up for it, then the band broke up, we were dropped by the label, radio wouldn?t play us so we decided to stay heavy but just go underground I guess. That?s what we did for a while and that?s what we still are. I think that with Nuclear Blast and a big push for this new record, who knows? Anything can happen but we?re just having a good time playing. Just having fun!
Do you miss the past times like you had in the 80s?
Well… no. I think it?s more meaningful now because in the 80s we were a lot younger and there was a lot of partying instead of seeing the world and paying attention to the world. Now, after so many years and with the original guys back in, we?re paying attention to the fans and what?s happening. It?s more meaningful. We take more time to sit and talk to fans because before we thought we were rock stars or whatever and were always fucked up. (laughs) Now we enjoy our company and everyone?s more mellow instead of shitfaced so it?s about performing and making a good show. Before we?d be drunk up there going ?Uh, I dunno…? but now we feel good and confident.
SLAYER SPLITTING UP?
Tom Araya from Slayer has already informed in public in one recently made interview about Slayer that they might still do one album and then break up.
I doubt that.
What kind of thoughts does this raise in you?
They won?t do that! Why would they do that?
It was in an interview with some magazine…
That?s bullshit. Why would they do that after this many years, are they gonna go and get jobs?
Tom?s getting older and can?t headbang like he used to back in the days…
Yeah, but you don?t need to. I used to bang a lot harder back then, now it?s about concentrating on my singing. I still headbang a little but it?s more about performance.
Do you think it?s a publicity stunt to gain for attention for Slayer? Even though they?re a very popular band these days, they wouldn?t need to do any that kind of ?media sucking? for themselves…
I don?t see it, they?ve established so much for so many years, I can?t see them throwing it away like that.
CLIMATE IS GETTING HEALTHY AGAIN
There have been quite a few comebacks of old thrash metal bands (Exodus, Onslaught, Heathen, etc.) during these past years. Do you see this overall as a good thing?
Of course! Especially right now when the climate is getting good again. You have new bands like Lamb of God and Trivium and those nu-metal bands getting popular and doing great shows and it?s good for bands like us. I think the climate is just getting healthy again. The timing is right for us because we have the original guys back again, having a great time and playing better than ever. I could see us keep doing this for another 10 or 20 years. Tom might be done but we?re not!
So those comebacks might actually help the other bands?
Of course! MTV, radio, they play a lot of metal. Shadows Fall, all those bands, they?re doing great out there. I think the climate is good.
How much have you had time or interest to follow the local metal scene there in California?
Machine Head is doing great of course. And I hear that Forbidden are talking about coming back now. That?d be awesome. Death Angel came back, Exodus came back and have done great records so it?s good, man!
What about these new bands like Warbringer, Merciless Death, HeXeN, Exmortus and many others? They all play old school thrash metal even though they?re young.
That?s good. You gotta stay true to what you believe in and what you enjoy doing.
Do you believe this so-called second coming of thrash metal has something to do with the fact that some of the pioneers of thrash like Exodus, Testament, Destruction, Onslaught, Kreator and the likes, are still around and have been making strong albums?
It?s good. The production of records has come a long way from what it was like going into the studio. You can get a bunch of guys who can?t really play and get a production that makes them sound great. Maybe live it doesn?t sound the same but production wise if you can get a guy who gets the right sound and the right songs, anything can happen these days. You don?t have to go to the big stuios these days, you can have a home studio and make a great record.
DUBLIN DEATH PATROL
Last couple of questions about Dublin Death Patrol that is sort of project band of yours…
Yeah, it?s a fun thing with me and some friends. All the guys grew up in Dublin together and it was supposed to be just for fun, doing some covers. We ended up writing some songs and they turned out pretty good so we thought, let?s do a record. So we did a record, played a week?s worth of shows over in Europe and it was really successful. It?s more of a party band, you know. Fun party band!
Dublin is the place that you?re coming from?
How did you meet Zetro Sousa and got him to come in on this project?
I knew Zet through my little brother. He was friends with my brother and he was the singer of Legacy with everybody in the band. Then he quit Legacy to join Exodus and called me up saying ?Hey, call Alex Skolnick and get an audition for these guys!? So I called up, got an audition and got the gig. (laughs) Been there ever since!
Your album has been released on Godfodder Records. What label is that actually?
It?s one that me and Willy, the bass player, started.
I was asking for it in Finland and they said it wasn?t available in Europe at all.
No, because we only sell it on our web site, dublindeathpatrol.com. We manifacture it, sell it and put the packages together ourselves. The record business is such a funny business now and with our experiences we just thought to give it a shot and do it ourselves. Just for fun, it?s not like we?re gonna change music or something.
You have these cover songs on the album from Mot?ad, U.F.O. and…
How did you choose those bands exactly to be covered on your album?
Those are some fave songs that we liked growing up. That?s what we enjoyed. We?re gonna play some The Plasmatics stuff and Dead Kennedys, stuff that we loved when we were kids, loving something that wasn?t mainstream but rebellious.
What kind of expectations do you have for your new album once it comes out?
I think we?re gonna do a great job on it, then do a lot more touring next year… sky?s the limit right now. We?re just having fun right now and that?s the most important factor in this project. We?re all enjoying the company and being up on stage. It feels like old times again. We?re more confident because it?s the original guys. As long as we keep doing that, I?ll be happy to do it for the next ten years.
Do you imagine doing anything besides Testament in the next few years?
No, but I?m open to guesting on other projects and records by other musicians. There?s a lot of great new musicians on their way up and I?d love to be a part by singing on what they create. I listen to the new bands and hear that they?re inspired by our stuff and I listen to their stuff and get inspired by what they?re doing. It?s this big full circle. I would enjoy to sing with some new sound.
Ok Chuck, I guess we are done, so thank you for this chat with us and all the best for you guys on your way towards your next album.
Thank you guys. Appreciated!