Interview 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 Speed – and Thrash Metal history. The original line-up of Testament has released such classic albums as THE LEGACY, THE NEW ORDER, and PRACTICE WHAT YOU PREACH. In 1992 the band lost its two original members when guitarist Alex Skolnick and drummer Louie Clemente decided to leave the band. However, luckily the rest of the band still determined 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 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.
This reunion tour was announced last January, and now you’re in Finland with the original band. Can you tell us how this whole thing got started?
We were out of touch for a long time. In the last few years, we’ve gotten back in touch. We had some business situations to work out, personal problems. Basically, we became friends again. Last January, I played 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 kind of 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 the band 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. I was learning to read music, write charts, and learn to work with horns and pianos, just to be that type of musician. I’ve lived in New York for several years, working as a studio musician and a freelance guitarist.
After leaving Testament in 1992, you then joined Savatage. How that thing came about?
Savatage was right after Testament. That was in 1994, 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.
You did the album HANDFUL OF RAIN with Savatage. How do you like that album now afterward?
I like 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. It’s 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 with Savatage compared to Testament?
No, actually, it was a lot easier (laughs). Much easier.
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. But in fact, the band did change its style a lot during the years. If you compare THE LEGACY to THE RITUAL, which was the last album you did with the band, it sounds like an entirely different band. So, were you the driving force behind the musical changes in the band?
It was the whole band. It wasn’t just me. Every album was a group effort. We had some main contributors, which would be me, Chuck, and Eric. I was the youngest one. I didn’t 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 them 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 done 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 to put it together. But the actual making of it is a long, tiring process.
The video of “Electric Crown” was very dark and 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 they worked with. I felt that some of the melodies, the things we had early on, weren’t there. At the same time, it was a different band. I respected it.
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. And 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 terrible for him. I think he’s really talented. I also think he’s a really talented producer, too. He was very into a studio recording. I wish him the best. Sadly, that happened.
STEVE SOUZA AND THE LEGACY DAYS
What kind of memories do you have from this demo (holds up the first Legacy demo)?
Oh, wow, many memories. Well, it was 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.
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.
Yeah, absolutely. It was the first demo we did.
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 lying around. It is very interesting to sit here all these years later (laughs)
What kind of memories do you have about the Legacy days?
As 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. Many 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. As soon as this happened, I remember as soon as I joined this band and we started working and doing shows, it was evident that “This is what I’m doing. At least for the next few years, I’m going to give this a shot.”
Have you still been in touch with Mike Ronchette? (the drummer on the Legacy demo)?
Not for a long, long time. He did come to a couple of shows in the early 90s, like 91-92? Even then, we hadn’t seen him since then.
How would you feel if you got the 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 Steve Souza leaving the band and joining Exodus?
It was a big shock, and 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. It was inevitable that 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 the relationship between Testament and 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 BILLY STEPS IN AND THE FIRST STRIKE
How did you find Chuck Billy in the first place?
We did know 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 was in a band named Hurricane Alice. His first band was called Guilt, and it was kind of like Ratt. If you see pictures of Chuck from back then, it’s pretty funny. He had scarves, leather, boots. 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 of 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 re-recorded some Testament old classics and released the album FIRST STRIKES STILL DEADLY a few years ago? How was that process?
That was lots of fun. That was my first time re-visiting the songs in a long time.
The songs on there sound more aggressive somehow than the older versions?
Well, the sound is better. I think a lot has happened with technology since then. The 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. It’s the 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. The 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. Korns, Limp Bizkit, Linkin Park, etc. That’s such a normal sound now. You can buy a Marshall amplifier now, and I’ll have that sound. Many amps have it so that 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 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 the 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 we had John Tempesta playing drums for most of the set. In May, As the tour went on, Louie played more and more songs. Now he’s doing the whole set, and it’s working out great.
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 than 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 catalog 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?
Can you say that this Testament reunion is now permanent, and you are maybe making some new music at some point?
It’s possible. Nobody wants to rush into anything. We see how it goes, and it’s been going great. As soon as we promise a new album, we’re in trouble. We’re going to 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 is very different now? Eric has his side project, Dragonlord.
But if there’s going to be a new Testament album, what kind of style will 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 have some of the elements of the old music because it’s the original line-up. But I would also like to take advantage of technology and get a really good sound, good production. Also, with the maturity that we have, I feel 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 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 are you not doing all shows on this current tour? Metal Mike (Halford, ex-Testament, Pain Museum) is doing some of the dates 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 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 going to be a good DVD. I promise (laughs)
TEACHING KIDS, THE STATE OF METAL SCENE AND BEING ON THE ROAD WITH IRON MAIDEN
How much do you think the metal scene has been changing since the Legacy days, and how much you still follow the scene?
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 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 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 seems that a lot of bands are getting back together again and recording new music, even like Exodus.
It’s hard to say. Exodus? I think it’s only Gary Holt left in the band. You have to 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 Altus 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 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 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 previous album. Slipknot was at that show too. They invited my drummer and me 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 to see, like John Scofield. Just great music, whatever music it may be.
You have released two albums with your band Alex Skolnick Trio. What’s the future going to hold for that band?
Well, we’re signed to Magnitude Records, which is in upstate New York. They make a lot of instrumental music. We have another record on our contract. We have a couple of weeks of tour dates in August, and then we’re going to start writing a new record. The band has 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 unusual for a metal guy to get into the jazz world, and I expected to be crucified, but we’ve 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 many 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 fortunate that they play with me. They teach me a lot because 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 is it to teach music to kids?
It’s great. It’s cool because when I was a kid, I would’ve loved to have taken lessons from Van Halen or Brian Mayor people like that when I was younger. Good luck. That would never happen. But a lot of these kids who come to me 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 with Testament?
Oh, absolutely. Not all of them. I’ve gotten some feedback that they know me better from my jazz playing. Others 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 many of them play metal, but they want 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 just to do metal, and then sort of incorporate other elements and expand, then still play metal.
I’m curious to know what is the highlight of your career as a musician so far?
There are 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 a 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 very cool in its 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. Did I take a lot of heat for it? Many people 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, Testament was 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 many fans were teasing you outside then. Remember that?
Not really, no. I remember it being like this. I like the nighttime in here because it still feels like it’s 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 we’re at, so we’re 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!!