TESTAMENT – Interview with guitarist Alex Skolnick
By Peter Atkinson
Live Photos by Arto Lehtinen
I realize Testament guitarist Alex Skolnick was the subject of an interview for Metal Rules two months ago, but I was originally set to speak with guitarist Eric Peterson about their new CD/DVD Dark Roots of Thrash and the current state and future plans of the band. But our scheduled interview didn’t happen – as sometimes, well, happens. Two subsequently rescheduled interviews with vocalist Chuck Billy ended up being re-rescheduled because of, well, scheduling difficulties. So, eventually, the ball fell into the lap of Skolnick, but this time things went off at the appointed time – albeit it 7:30 on a Friday night – and without any hitches. Whew!
Since Skolnick’s recent interview here focused primarily on his new book, Geek To Guitar Hero, I largely steered clear of that subject and stuck to things Testament – as well as some of the other projects the busy guitarist has on his plate, notably his jazz trio. And, despite a cold that sounded a lot worse than he let on, Skolnick, on the phone from Brooklyn, N.Y., was able to provide some fresh perspective on Testament, who marked the 30th anniversary of their formation as Legacy this year, where things might be headed after this and offer a few words on the recent passing of one his thrash guitar contemporaries, Slayer’s Jeff Hanneman.
So how is everything? Sorry to you got stuck doing this when you should be settling into the weekend.
ALEX SKOLNICK: Oh, no worries at all. I just got back from a trip and I have a slight cold, so I’m laying low and taking it easy. I’m doing a lot of “green drinks” right now (laughs).
If you don’t mind my asking, where did you travel to?
SKOLNICK: I was just in London, that’s where I traveled back from. I did a short tour of Dublin, London, Scotland and Northern England with my jazz trio.
Eric and Chuck did a DVD preview event out in California, are you doing anything like that back East?
SKOLNICK: Not that I’m aware of. I guess the tour is really what’s gonna hype it up.
Will you be doing any more trio stuff between now and then, or is it time to get back into Testament mode, since the band hasn’t played that many recent shows?
SKOLNICK: The Testament tour is coming up pretty quick, I’m just gonna rest up and get ready for that. I leave for that Oct. 20 and the first show is Oct. 22, so it’s really right around the corner and it’s definitely time to get back in Testament shape. But I think everybody is gonna be on the top of their game. That’s the thing about touring with bands you respect, everybody’s gonna be really up for it.
Your relationship with Lamb of God goes back a ways, but have you encountered Killswitch that much over the years. Are you that familiar with them?
SKOLNICK: I’ve bumped in them. I’m not nearly as familiar with them as I am with Lamb of God because we’ve played a lot of festivals with them and I did a guest solo for one of their albums [the title track of Ashes of the Wake] and their drummer [Chris Adler] – (sneezes), excuse me! – did a guest appearance on one of our [Dark Roots of the Earth] bonus tracks [the iTunes version of “A Day In The Death”], so yeah, we have a pretty good relationship with them. But I’m looking forward to getting familiar with Killswitch. They’re one of the “new faces of metal,” even though they’re not that new anymore, so I’ll be interested seeing what they are all about.
Most of the tours you’ve done over the last few years were with contemporaries from back in the day – Slayer, Megadeth, Anthrax, Death Angel, Overkill – are you excited to go out with the so-called “new breed” this time for a change of pace?
SKOLNICK: Absolutely. It’s been great. We’ve toured with bands from earlier generations, like Heaven & Hell, Judas Priest and Motorhead, bands whowere a few years of ahead of us like Slayer and Megadeth, so yeah, getting to tour with these bands who came later is great. I think it’s gonna open up a whole new fan base. I think many fans of those bands know the name Testament, and some of them will no doubt be familiar with us, but not all of them. So it will be great for them to get a chance to see what we’re all about and hopefully we’ll win some of them over. This seems to be the tour of the fall, from what I’m hearing.
The last time you toured with Slayer, was Jeff Hanneman still with the band?
SKOLNICK: The last time we toured with them I think it must have been one of the last tours that Jeff did, of course no one knew that at the time. He hadn’t developed his health issues so Gary [Holt] wasn’t there yet, he was still going full-time with Exodus, who we also toured with. You couldn’t have known what was going to happen. That was 2010, and it was only 2011 when the Big Four shows happened and he [Hanneman] couldn’t do those, which was such a shame.
You wrote a very eloquent and well-circulated tribute to Hanneman after his death, Testament toured with Slayer many times, but did you really know him that well or was that more to show respect for his talents?
SKOLNICK: I never really knew him well at all. He was very difficult to get to know, actually. And I don’t say that disrespectfully. Even close friends of his said it would take a long time to get to know him. Robb Flynn, a friend of ours from Machine Head, wrote that he’d toured with them like eight times and he still felt like he barely knew him. He kept to himself more. I don’t think he related to many people, that was just the way he was, but he was a towering presence, no question.
I wrote about him more from his reputation, which is tremendous. When you think about the music, the music is great and he is such a part of it. With all due respect to Kerry [King], when you take a look at the iconic Slayer tunes, its Hanneman’s riffs all over it.
I haven’t seen anything about Chuck’s health in a long time, so I’m assuming no news is good news there and his health is good? How’s the rest of the band holding up, since none of you are kids anymore?
SKOLNICK: Yeah, thankfully that’s worked out really well. Chuck’s been much better [after a battle with rare form of cancer in 2001], he’s been in great shape. Everybody in this band, knock on wood, is in relatively good health. I think as time goes on and you realize that you don’t have as much free time as you once had, your perspective changes.
Fortunately, most of us realize that and take better care of ourselves. I was always a lightweight when it came to alcohol and never really developed a taste for other substances, so I think that worked to my benefit. I was taking care of myself early on, and I would get a lot of funny looks, but it seems like now many people are catching up to me.
Testament’s been pretty busy, especially over the last few years, and just about everyone has at least one other band going on the side – notably Gene [Hoglan, drummer] with Dethklok and now, apparently, with Dark Angel again. Are you all finding you are able to balance Testament with the other things you want to do?
SKOLNICK: That’s been the toughest, I think, with Gene. I used to be the thorn in the side, with my trio shows and I was doing Trans-Siberian Orchestra for a long time. I narrowed it down to Testament, my trio and a world music project I’m working on. But I have control over those, so I am able to let the chips fall where they may with Testament, because usually their shows are booked well in advance. Occasionally, there are some curveballs where we get last-minute things like festivals or something. I’m mostly able to work my activities around the Testament schedule.
Eric and Chuck do their side projects [Dragonlord and Dublin Death Patrol, respectively] so sporadically that it never poses scheduling problems. With Gene, it got a little bit easier when he wasn’t playing in Fear Factory anymore, which happened last year. And the Dethklok shows are usually booked far in advance, so we can work around those.
Occasionally, he’ll have to miss a few dates, a friend of ours, Mark Hernandez from Forbidden was able to fill in and it worked out. But with all of us, [bassist Greg Christian rounds out the Testament roster] we really feel like the core lineup and we do everything that we can so the fans get to see this lineup.
If you were still doing TSO, you probably wouldn’t be playing this tour because you’d be out on the road with them, since they tour around the holidays.
SKOLNICK: Oh yeah, I’d have to miss that tour. I would have had to miss a tour with Anthrax the year before, I wouldn’t have been able to do a tour my trio did with Rodrigo y Gabriela the year before that in Europe. It was a great experience, I definitely valued the experience, but it got to the point where the sacrifice was too much. I couldn’t imagine missing this or any of those other tours I mentioned.
Still, being part of that TSO spectacle must have been pretty cool?
SKOLNICK: It’s a spectacle to be sure (laughs). It’s definitely something else. On the other hand, that’s one of the reasons why, for me, I felt it was time to focus on projects that were about music and the musicians. It’s fun to be part of a huge production like that, but sometimes it feels like it’s more about the production and the wow factor it can give the audience than the music itself.
Was the band tempted to go a little overboard with the production for the show you filmed for the DVD, or did you want it just to represent what a genuine Testament show is like?
SKOLNICK: Yeah. We just wanted to capture the show we were doing and the tunes that we were doing, at that time. Who knows, it would be nice if things build and maybe we can do a little bit more production that’s on a level that can compete with some of the bigger shows, but we also didn’t feel the need for it. The music speaks for itself. The crowd is a big part of the show, and the crowd speaks for itself, and the whole experience is captured. So I think that works out well.
Compared to the last DVD, Live in London, which was filmed in a pretty small place and really had no stage production whatsoever, you can certainly get a feel for how things have grown for the band since then?
SKOLNICK: Sure. That first DVD was meant to capture a moment in time that might not ever happen again – the classic lineup from the first couple albums with Louie [Clemente] playing drums, even though it was only for part of the show [John Tempesta played for the other half of the show]. And we weren’t real sure where things were going to be headed afterward as far as the band goes. This one captures us at the height of our second life, if you want to call it that. And there’s new material in there, and stuff from the albums that came after the classic lineup started to fragment, so it captures the entire history of the band. I think the first one was a little more to celebrate the old days, this one’s more about where we are now.
You had a decent break for the summer, have you started doing any writing for new Testament material, or will that come in the new year after this tour?
SKOLNICK: I think that is something we’ll focus on next year. There’s always ideas popping up, any time you pick up the instruments to warm up there’s a chance some random part might come out that just might find its way to an album. I always try to keep the “cassette player” handy (laughs). Nowadays it’s the iPhone or the MP3 recorder, but it’s always there and there are a few ideas on there. I think we’re so focused on the tour and next year will be the time to set aside the time to go through those ideas and see what works and develop them from there and try to get into a routine of coming up with more ideas.
You mentioned the band’s second life, since things seem to be going pretty well are you concerned at all about maintaining the momentum you’ve built over the past couple years, or are you just taking things as they come, given that you’ve also seen the downside over the years as well?
SKOLNICK: You can’t think too much, you can’t overthink and you can’t try to micromanage. You can drive yourself crazy. We’ve already been through this with Formation [of Damnation]. With it having been so long since the band had done an album, could we get together and do an album that people can say they value? And we did.
And also there were questions, I would read about myself online, “Oh, he’s a jazz guitarist now. He can’t play metal.” And I’m not hearing any of those comments now (laughs). OK, so we shut up a lot of people with that, and then the next time it was “well, they’ve done one record can they do another record?” And we come out with Dark Roots [of the Earth] and it was almost in a Top 10 album. So I think it’s safe to say we’re doing something of value.
It is a hard process and there are disagreements along they way and it always takes longer than you think it’s gonna take. It’s a really big endeavor, the process of the first riff being written to having a full musical composition and putting vocals on top of that. The creative process takes a while. But we focus on what we like and we find enough common ground where we can create music that overall, the big picture, we all like it. And that’s the test, otherwise you can go crazy.
I really think we suffered in the early days because there were all these questions where we started out one way maybe we should just be like the old days and not develop. I always thought we should develop because what’s going to set us apart are melodies and hooks, so there were disagreements about direction, what are people going to think? What are the critics going to think? What are the old fans going to think? Now, we don’t concern ourselves with what people are going to think.
Metal fans are very vocal, and more power to ’em, that’s part of it. There’s a Woody Allen movie, I can’t remember which one, but he meets this space alien who says “Why don’t you make the funny films anymore, like you used to?” And I think anyone who’s gained some level of popularity deals with that, and you just have to push it aside and do what satisfies you first. Because if you try to please everyone else, it ends up driving you crazy or leaves you feeling empty. And if people end up not liking it, well that’s the way it is sometimes. At least you, yourself, can feel good about what you’ve done.
Alex Skolnick with his new signature guitar by ESP Guitars. Photo by Tom Couture Photography
You’re arguably in the position where you could just go out there and play the old classics and people would be happy with it. I don’t know if you’d be happy with that, however?
SKOLNICK: No. I wouldn’t do it. I could never do anything that’s like the nostalgia thing. It’s one thing to do a classic album thing, we’ve done that and a lot of other bands have as a celebration of a significant achievement, and it can be pretty cool. But groups I used to hear on the radio and I see them really doing the nostalgia thing without doing anything new, that doesn’t seem fun to me.
Didn’t you miss the tour where Testament did the whole first album, I think it was when the band played with Megadeth. Glenn Drover filled in because you were out with your trio?
SKOLNICK: Yeah, I was on tour with my trio and Rodrigo y Gabriela, and that had been booked for like half a year, and it was all booked around the original American Carnage tour, Slayer, Megadeth and us. And there was so much craziness because that got postponed because of [Slayer frontman] Tom Araya’s back surgery, but [Megadeth mainman] Dave Mustaine decided he wanted to tour anyway and that’s why Testament did that tour, along with Exodus. That was just one of those things. And it was funny because the tour I did with Rodrigo y Gabriela ended up playing some of the same venues, so we almost criss-crossed a few times. I felt bad about missing that, it was unfortunate, but the Rodrigo y Gabriela tour was amazing.
With all the other stuff you have going, did you ever end up doing any kind of book tour for “Geek to Guitar Hero?”
SKOLNICK: No, I didn’t and I would like to. Like you said, I’ve been so busy with the music tours that it’s been hard to get a book tour together. I would definitely like to. I may, on the upcoming tour, do some appearances. We’re working on that. And then after [February Soundwave Festival dates in] Australia, there’s talk that we may visit a couple other countries out in that direction. Once that’s done, that will be the end of the album cycle. We’ll be going out with a bang.
And then I’ll be busy with some other things. I have a lot of activity coming up at the NAMM show. I have a signature guitar that’s coming out form ESP. We’ll officially be launching it at NAMM, and I’ll be doing some other events for Budda amps and D’addario strings. So that doesn’t leave a lot of time. But I think it would be interesting and worthwhile. It would definitely be something different. So we’ll see what we can do.
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