Chuck Billy of Testament
Interviewed by EvilG
Bay Area thrash metal legends TESTAMENT, hit #9 on the world sales chart with a total of approximately 58,500 copies sold world-wide of their new album Dark Roots of Earth in its first week of sales. This is a huge accomplishment for a metal band, debuting on a chart that typically dominated by bubblegum pop. With the original line-up together and drummer Gene Hoglan back on the drum throne, we all knew this album was going to be something special. However, they’ve exceeded fans, and my own, high expectations and have managed to top their 2008 release with an album that is arguably their finest. I got to speak with Chuck about the new album, the line-up, some of the songs, and a few other things. Read on…
So how are you doing this morning?
Good, good. Just getting up, enjoying the holiday weekend.
Excellent. My first question here is about your new album. I want to talk a bit about that. I know it’s doing very well for you guys and it’s even been breaking some records for the band and for Nuclear Blast, your label. So does it feel to you like the focus on the band has been increased in any way?
Well, maybe it’s, you know, we’ve done so many records and releases that you always hope for the best and the best response from the press and the fans once the record’s out and I think this record, we kind of , I guess, had – we wrote this record because we’ve had the original line-up since 2005 and I think we’ve reached the point that we’ve been back together long enough now that we’ve actually established a little more confidence. I guess it’s just friends, musicians, songwriters, everything all involved. When we wrote this record we really didn’t have like with past records there always was a sense of "what are they going to think?" You know, we haven’t done a ballad on a record in 20 years because in the back of your mind you’re thinking the fans are going to want this or they’re going to criticize it. So I think this record, with that little bit of confidence when we wrote “Cold Embrace”. It’s the song that hit us like, you know something? This has got a lot of emotion and feeling in it. Let’s go for it. We didn’t even think about what anybody was going to think about it. So once we recreated all the songs with that frame of mind, it was kind of like we hope that really was almost something written for us. Then to get the response we got off of it, it was really like a little bit of a sense of accomplishment. Like, right on. But the confidence and the feeling we’ve had going into this record, it’s like a payoff because the fans and everybody seemed to grasp it and so that was great. That’s a good feeling for us at this point. And again little builders of confidence for a little more, you know? So it’s been a good start.
Definitely. As always, I really enjoyed your vocals on the album and especially with a return to a little more variation and again more melody as with the song you just mentioned, “Cold Embrace”, is a stand out I think. So was it a conscious decision on your part to do that or did you feel that this mostly flowed from what was required by the music that was written?
No. I consciously wanted to go back and try to capture maybe Practice What You Preach, something when we really started putting a little more hook and melody into the song writing. Even like The Ritual record, it had a little melody in it and I wanted to do that because over the past record, if I was given a mid-paced song, I would tend to just like try to sing it with my death voice, make it somehow heavier. In this record I decided that I wasn’t going to do that. I wasn’t going to go against what I would normally do and try to keep it melodic and it actually was more of a challenge to do that! The mid-paced songs that make the melody and the hook work. You know, you could sing a heavy voice over anything and it’s just heavy. So it was definitely a little more of a challenge but I think in the end that it did take a lot of people. Even with like our old fans, some have also said it’s totally Practice What You Preach days and that kind of stuff and that’s kind of how we approached it so it’s actually cool that they actually got that.
It’s been eluded to in the press or by some interviews that maybe some members of Testament might not be sticking around for the long haul if this album isn’t a success but with the way things have been going, has this become a non-issue?
I haven’t heard anything at all…I haven’t heard that ,so I don’t know. I just think, like I said, we’re just kind of – we don’t talk about what the future is and what our plans are,. We just kind of let it happen and if people, you know, put an end to it and they leave, it’s just we’ll take it and deal with it when it happens. We’ve been through a lot with musicians in the band, drummers, bass players, guitar players, and there was a point right after The Gathering record – that’s right before I got sick – it was getting pretty tiring finding new musicians and teaching them the songs again and having a different line-up. It was just this revolving door. That kind of got old and tiring and at that point we weren’t really a hard touring band. We’d kind of pick and choose some of the shows and they were just festivals and they were just short runs. That was just the point where we’re kind of getting tired so I think having the reunion comeback, that’s when we all kind of just said, is it feeling good? Are we all cool? And everybody was, so we decided let’s be a full on, let’s go for it. Let’s do as much shows and write a record and go for it and that’s kind of the way we’ve done it for the last seven years and I think every record we’ve done has just kind of stepped it up and topped the previous one so I think everybody’s kind of comfortable where we’re at, you know? I mean, who knows what’ll happen to this band because we’ve kind of seen it all. So just kind of take it one day at a time.
So also with working with Gene Hoglan again, are there plans for him to be listed as a permanent member of the band? Or is it like you said, take it as it comes and he’s there for as long as he wants to be there – or is that kind of the way you’re rolling with it?
Well, Gene’s signed on to do this record touring cycle with us. I don’t know what it means to be a full member of Testament anymore, really. It’s kind of like, what does that mean? And we’d never want to hold anybody if they wanted to play other stuff or jam another project and we would never want to stop anybody from doing that so we’re happy that he’s into the record and he wants to tour with us and enjoys the organization. He just said, you know, I’m here to do whatever we can for this record so that’s cool and that’s kind of was we’re going to approach it, really.
Hopefully, we’ll get the tour two or three years off of this record and at that point we’ll sit down and say, what do you think? When should we do it again? And that’s when we’ll address that.
Okay, cool. And some names that the Testament fans have come to know that you’ve worked with is Del James and also, of course, Steve Souza and they’re both listed in the credits for the album so I just want to get your take on what they help you with – is it mostly help with lyrics, or do they also help with phrasing and melodies and other things like that, too?
No. I come up with all the melody and the phrasing and the story and what I want to write about. They help me accomplish putting it down to paper. You know, I could just tackle it myself but I like bouncing it off people and working with somebody because it challenges me, we work quicker because there’s just more ideas thrown out there. We’ve just worked well together and Del has been writing songs since The Ritual record and Zetro’s been writing with me when we did the Dublin Death Patrol and that’s when we kind of realized, hey, we’re working pretty good, we write pretty quick, and Zetro, if anybody knows this band, it’s him, because he was in the band! I started out singing his songs so there was that connection. So it just works, and I just wanted to try to have the best record possible with the lyrics and the approach on the mixing of this record. I really wanted to keep the vocals a little more dry and less effects so you can really understand the vocals because in the past records I would delay them and reverb them and they’d just wash out and this one we totally took a different approach. Now when I listen back, I wish I would’ve done it this way all along, on every record.
Can you tell me a bit about what the song “True American Hate” is about?
Well, that was a song that was kind of inspired by back when US started sending troops over. We’d see on the news protesting in other countries where kids were walking around on the streets with their fathers with rifles and burning American flags on the street and to me that was just – I was kind of like blown away just how a parent would teach or influence their son to learn that much kind of hatred towards something. And maybe those kids don’t really understand why they’re doing it, they’re just doing it because everybody’s doing the parents maybe painting a different picture. I was just blown away how much hatred it was for Americans to burn the flag. And that’s what kind of just burned in my mind. Just to me, that was just like the song came up just “True American Hate” was based on that visual that burned in my head watching the news.
So you haven’t experienced any hatred towards yourself as an American when you’re playing abroad, have you?
No. No. But you know, not hatred but the French always kind of feed that (laughs)……Americans are different. We’ve had some experiences trying to get around places and you speak English and they all of a sudden seem to not understand what you’re saying and give you the run around. We’ve had some misdirections. But any place else, not really. Not for what we do and the people we see and the kind of metalheads that are at the shows that we’re in contact with, they get it. They know what it’s all about. It’s just music, it’s just being creative, it’s not like we’re on the offensive with something.
And another awesome song from the album, “Native Blood”, has an excellent video as well. I was wondering, what is the message that you would like people to take away from the song?
Well, when I wrote it, I wrote because I’m Native American and when I was sick in 2001 I kind of went back to my Native American heritage to kind of get me through when I was sick – mentally, spiritually. I never really sung a lot about my culture with Testament, but that song, that meant something to me. It was a big part of it. So when I wrote it, I wrote it from the view of a Native American but the song is really just about indigenous people. There’s indigenous people everywhere in the world. No matter what culture you have there’s indigenous people that want to be heard, have something to say, and they have an opinion, and it’s time to speak out and let your voices be heard. That’s kind of the way I took it but I took it from the Native American aspect of it. I did the song in Spanish as well and that’s almost coming not from a Native American but from indigenous people the way the chorus is interpreted.
I saw some of the YouTube clips of you, I guess with a vocal coach who spoke Spanish helping you along with the pronunciations or something there online.
Yeah and that whole thing was a tribute to my mother. My mother passed away a few years ago and she was a singer and she sang for the Red Cross and did a record for the Red Cross and I guess she was proud but she never really wanted to be a singer. She thought there was nothing there, so I kind of just did it as like a tribute to my mom.
Cool. When you guys toured back in 2010 with Slayer and Megadeth, those two bands were playing one of their classic albums in its entirety. I was wondering, is that something you wanted to do then as well with one of the classic Testament albums?
Well, we did it right before that tour. That year before we were doing The Legacy and The New Order back to back. So when that came up, they were doing that and we were like, I don’t know. Especially when we only got like a 30 minute show. Maybe we should play like the best of with that time that we have and to pick one of those records, we couldn’t even do the whole record in 30 minutes. So we decided that it would be better just to do a kind of best of 30 minute show. But yeah, those were fun to do, the crowd really loved it. We actually dug it, too, because some of those songs we hadn’t played in a long time so we actually had to go into the studio and practice them and playing them 15, 20 years later, we definitely played them much better because we tuned it different. We didn’t go back to that old tuning, we kept the tuning that we have today and the songs definitely were easier for me to sing and they’re actually fun to sing. So those were good shows and they were special and we didn’t really want to overdo it because they were a special thing for us and the fans and we just didn’t want to run it into the ground, you know?
Have you ever thought about pulling like an Iron Maiden and playing the new album in its entirety?
Yeah, definitely. Like this new one here we had all kinds of ideas before we released it like, how can we do something special? We didn’t want to just do listening parties and everything like that so what could we do? And we threw the ideas out there. Why don’t we play the whole record start to finish and maybe livestream it or something, something like that to debut the songs. But that didn’t happen and so this is probably the first record that we’re actually playing four new songs off of. Any other record would’ve started with two, maybe three tops, but this one we’re starting out with four right off the bat and who knows? Maybe it’ll increase as we get out there but they just seem to be, I don’t know, when we play them now, and we just did a two week run in Europe, and we put those four songs in and the crowd response…..we opened up the show with “Rise Up” and they’re already singing the chorus right back and it’s already feeling like it’s a classic that we’ve already played for a while and the crowd’s kind of taking it that way. So it’s definitely the live material, this record is. We’re having a good time with it for sure.
I know a number of people, myself included, even though the album’s only been out for a little over a month now, consider this to be a contender for the best album of 2012. Have you heard much of that kind of feedback from fans?
Yeah. I’ve heard that and that’s awesome. I think so because the last couple of records people were saying that, but I think really this is the one. I mean, like I said, just because we wrote it for us, you know? And listening to the record, even our guys that work on our crew, our sound and light guys, they’re studying through the tours coming up and they’re just like, man, these songs are way more happening than the last ones we’ve been studying for the tour. So we’ll see what happens. Every year, of course, we’re hoping for that Grammy nomination or something like that. We always have our fingers crossed, so I don’t know. Maybe if it does hit people like that maybe we can get something like that going. That would be awesome.
Yeah, definitely. The cover painting is also quite captivating. I was wondering what direction, images, or words that you gave to the artist that helped inspire such artwork?
Well, Eric pretty much handles a lot of the artwork and cover and he does a lot of reading on that kind of stuff. He’s a real creative guy and when he read up on Seronis, the tree god, and he’s seen the visual in his head, once he’s seen that, and we’ve always been kind of like an Earth conscious band, and when he came up with the title of Dark Roots of Earth, right when he said that to me I thought right away, "Yeah, that’s it, that should be the title". Then once I saw the cover art it was like yeah, that’s a good looking cover and I get it for what I interpret it. Dark Roots of Earth could be us as a reunited band, rejoining ourselves, and the roots are reaching down and connecting with the earth and it all kind of just made sense to me, the way I interpreted it. Then once I’d seen the artwork, I was just like, I like it. He’s always coming up with some pretty visual stuff. We had the backdrop done up for a gig and just got to use it for the first time over in Europe just a couple of weeks ago, and it looked awesome! It looked really good up there!
I was wondering what your thoughts and concerns are in the wake of what happened with Randy Blythe. Not so much whether he’s innocent or not, because I think we’re all on the same page with our thoughts on that, but I was just wondering what your thoughts and concerns might be what it means for Testament and your infamous Wall of Death?
Well, that probably won’t be going on anymore. But you just got to mean it and I was pretty infamous for years on "Over the Wall". I’d invite people up on the stage. In Japan we had 30, 40 people up there and you’re wide open to anything happening like that. Anything, especially if it’s an invite or something you are really kind of held responsible but somebody to take it upon themself like that, man, it’s a shame for someone to lose their life, but at some point someone had to take responsibility from the fan, you know, or you get the fans that are upset with having too much security up there but I don’t know if everybody just kind of forgot too soon about the Dimebag Darrell thing, you know? So you never know. I’ve been in the same situation in the early ‘80s, hitting someone with the mic stand in the head and cracking their head open and a lawsuit and you don’t think about it at the moment and in his case I just think it was a shame. The U.S. didn’t step in enough and Randy, I’m sure he didn’t mean anything. If you’re up onstage performing, and like myself, sometimes when I’m singing I have my eyes closed and so all of a sudden next thing you know I’m being tackled. The first response of anybody is going to be kind of defend yourself or what’s happening? I know Randy, he doesn’t wear his glasses onstage. I’m sure he probably can’t see the guests when he’s performing in the first place. So I mean there’s just so much different stuff that I just thought that it was a shame that in the U.S. you would be innocent until proven guilty. Just to me, over there, it just seemed like he was guilty until proven innocent. There was just so much bullshit, keeping him in jail and raising the bails and stuff and there wasn’t overwhelming evidence. It was the opposite. It was totally backwards. Guilty until proven innocent, almost. It was just crazy and I’m kind of ashamed the U.S. didn’t really step in.
Or help the situation or making him bigger news than it was.
Yeah, definitely, so my last question… As you know, The Formation of Damnation came out in 2008, and here we are four years later with a new album. Are you content with a four year gap between albums? If so, the next one would be in 2016 – does that seem like the general plan for what you’d like to see?
Well, it’s not a plan. I mean, we did almost over 400 shows on the Formation record over two and a half years and it did take almost a year to create this record where I didn’t get it in the can and release it. No, we’ve already talked about that. This time in the middle of tours we definitely got penciled in the books that we’re going to the studio and we’re going to at least write a song or write two songs so we definitely want to get a jump, hopefully six to eight songs while we’re still touring on this record. So when the end of the cycle happens, whenever it is, which usually seems to fall around Thanksgiving and into December and January when the music business itself is kind of dead. Hopefully that’s when we can get in there, fine tune the eight tunes and maybe write a couple more and be ready a lot quicker than the last time. But we got held up just because Paul (previous drummer) was injured for a year and we didn’t have a drummer to write with. Eric was really trying to write with a drum machine and that kind of slowed it up. You know, it’s easier just to have Eric play and have a drummer just jump in there instead of trying to have it all thought out and drums planned out and then write with it. So Eric struggled a little with it and we kind of just hit a writer’s block because it just wasn’t coming yet.
So he went to Andy Sneaks place in England for a couple of weeks and Andy did the drums there, told him the beats, and Andy worked it out for him and so when Eric came back he had the starting skeletons of 12 tunes. He just went over there, got inspired, and did it. And a lot of those songs are on this record. You know, that held us up a little bit. I don’t think it’s going to happen next time. I don’t want to wait that long. We’ve also talked about, who knows, maybe a year down the line release an EP. With the way people buy off the internet and stuff like that, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to write those four songs, five songs, and release them as EP in the middle of all this.
That’d be cool. So is there anything else going on in the world of Chuck Billy that you’d like your fans know about?
I mean, I’d like to talk about the [Native Blood] video thing. The video actually turned out to be more than a just a video shoot. You know, we shot it up there on the reservation and a lot of my family and cousins and just the community really backed it up and joined in and were a part of it. From the Fire Department, Police Department, Tribal Council, just everybody got involved and it actually, I would say, brought people together. When people watch it, I don’t know, you can really feel the emotion. It really draws the emotion out of somebody when you see the video. When I’ first saw the first cut I was choked up. I was like, wow, you really captured it. It’s got real great emotion in it. And because of that, we were contacted by the American Indian Film Festival and they want us to enter it this year and it’s going to happen November 10th at the Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco. So we entered it and we’re still waiting to hear the response if it’s accepted now.
Excellent. That’ll be a new venue for you to get exposed to some different people again.
Yeah. And we’re trying to shoot for – we actually got our agent going to start inquiring about some of the native casinos around the country. If we can play for more natives out there because I actually got to do the first Native American Awards – must have been about 15 years ago and I’ve just seen how many artists that weren’t in the public’s eye but they toured and did a lot of casinos and reservations and these were platinum artists, just based on traveling around the country and Canada, playing on reservations. Because the people just really packed in and supported them.
Well, hopefully that works out. That would be an interesting way for people to see you who might not normally have a chance to see you.
Yeah. So we’re trying different things and just whatever we can at this point. Like I said, the record’s got a good buzz so just trying to see what happens. Everything’s kind of wide open for us. We only had 200 planned up through the end of this year and it’s kind of wide open right now for next year so we’ll see what happens.
You think there might be another big package kind of like what you’re starting up soon with Anthrax and Death Angel? Maybe like another Testament and Slayer pairing or something like that for 2013?
That would be awesome. We always like to tour with Slayer.
All right. For sure.
There’s so many bands out there, who knows? We’re open for whatever’s out there. I just want to get out there and play and promote the record and hopefully play with maybe more packages where we can play longer instead of the opening slot for 30 minutes. Get out there and have an hour set and do stuff like that, that’d be killer.
All right, Chuck. I’d like to thank you for your time, it’s been great to talk to you!
Cool. Thank you, man.
And all the best with your upcoming tour and hopefully the album continues to do really well and makes a lot of best of list this year!
Right, man. Thank you.