Interview with Chuck Billy of Testament

Conducted on Sunday July 24th 2011

Interview and Photo by Mike Bax

This was a day of humbling interviews for me – within minutes of each other, getting to meet and chat with Chuck Billy and Dave Lombardo back to back – two legends of thrash metal.

I was brought back into the band’s change room area and was led into an area partitioned off by thick black drapery. Testament’s tour manager opened the drapes to one side and I was steered into a sitting area, complete with leather sofas, dimly lit lamps, a table and a small beverage fridge. Chuck Billy was standing in the area in front of one of the couches smiling. He motioned for me to come over and sit with him.

While we got settled, Eric Peterson and Alex Skolnick stood together in the corner of the change area, picking out riffs from some of their songs together, concentrating deeply on what they were doing. After a minute of chatting with Chuck, I forgot they were even in the room with us – they were so immersed in their guitar work.

Chuck Billy is a big man. He has to be four inches taller than me (I’m six feet tall), and he is carrying a bit of weight around his waist. He settled into a corner of the sofa, backlit by the lamp which was directly behind him, and we started talking.

Mike: It feels like there’s resurgence right now in the genre of thrash metal. All these bands seem to be back and doing all these tours together. I understand you’re touring with Anthrax and Death Angel in the fall.

Chuck: Yeah, that’s in the works.

Mike: Why do you think people are reinvesting in all this music?

Chuck: I don’t know about reinvesting, it’s not like it was bad music, but you find new, young rebellious looking for something. To me a lot of the new metal bands copy each other too much, so maybe they’re (the fans) are finding that the twenty year old thrash music has a different feel from it. I know we do, so maybe that has something to do with it.

Mike: What are you impressed by now? What’s new that’s doing it for you now?

Chuck: I like hard aggressive music, but I like a powerful singer or some melody. It doesn’t have to be a singer to carry a melody or hooks, I guess. That’s just the way I am, I need something I can catch on to.

Mike: Have you heard the kids in Holy Grail yet? They’re very Judas Priest sounding.

Chuck: Where are they from?

Mike: They’re from California.

Chuck: Oh yeah?

Mike: Yeah, young, one album out. Speaking of new albums I understand you’ve got something new coming out soon. Can you talk a bit about it?

Chuck: Yeah. We’re actually in the studio recording, we came out just do this weekend and then we’re going right back Monday to finish. Right now we’re at the point where all the drums are done and all the rhythm guitars are done. Next week we’re going to start bass, vocals and lead guitar.

Mike: How many songs is it going to be?

Chuck: Ten songs.

Mike: Is there anything on it that’s going to be a little different?

Chuck: With this one we kind of wrote, I wouldn’t say a ballad, but something a little slower; we’ve got one of those on this record. Eric’s (guitarist Eric Peterson) always written some really strong ballads for the band, or whatever you want to call them. There’s some other stuff, there’s definitely some songs that are the fastest we’ve ever played, there’s some mid-tempo, there’s a little bit of everything on there. It’s definitely Testament, but we never try to do the same record twice. There are some good hooks on it.

Mike: Last year when Megadeth was touring “Rust in Peace” and Slayer was touring “Seasons in the Abyss”, did you feel like you wanted to go out and do a whole “The New Order” tour?

Chuck: We already did that with “The Legacy” on the Megadeth and Exodus tour.

Mike: “The New Order” is coming up on twenty-five years.

Chuck: I would like to do a “The New Order” one. In London (England) we did “The Legacy” and “The New Order” back to back. That was kind of cool. “New Order” is such a short record, so unless we’re the opening act we’ve got thirty or forty-five minutes.

Mike: When you’re doing festival shows it’s a shorter set list. When you’ve got so many great songs from your back catalogue, it must be kind of challenging to put a set list together.

Chuck: Well, because we’re in the studio and we’re not just rehearsing or haven’t been on tour, we can play our classics from “The Legacy” and “The New Order” in our sleep. That for us is what we are. We always play all the old stuff, which we still enjoy doing, but if we were going on tour we’d sit down and put a variety of everything, a real good mixture of music. For stuff like this, we just get together, go and just fucking play, man.

Mike: It’s not like your music is particularly slow, but as you get older and your body starts to give you some grief in your arms, legs, back, and that kind of stuff, how do you keep up with your music?

Chuck: I don’t know. I don’t really know the answer to that.

Mike: …..because I watch guys like you, guys like Metallica, guys like Slayer and still banging this stuff out and doing it well.

Chuck: I don’t think any of us really wanted to “grow up”. A lot of us still act the same way we did twenty-five or thirty years ago, I don’t think we’ve changed much. I think it’s like AC/DC, you still see Malcolm (Young) and the guys wearing the same black shirts and the same hair-do.

Mike: They still pull it off, though.

Chuck: Yeah! When I went and saw them I was like, “Fuck yeah!” Not a guy with a bald head or short hair, wearing a golf shirt or anything. I’m 49 years old and I’m still dressing like a kid.

Mike: But that’s you doing a good job, man. You’re doing what you love.

Chuck: I think that’s the key to us not wanting to grow up, we want to still listen to do that music because it gets you going and for us it brings back old memories. That’s what it’s about; it’s about what we did at the beginning.

Mike: When you’re writing, is it the same kind of process as back in the day?

Chuck: Well, now it is because Alex (original lead guitarist Alex Skolnick) was more on this record, where for years after he left, Eric was writing most of the songs. This year Alex came in and worked with Eric for weeks all day, all night arranging, contributing parts and he’s on a lot more on this record. I think Eric felt like he was writing “The New Order” record, because Alex is really good at taking what Eric’s doing and interpreting it to what he does, too. It seemed to work. It’s going to be a good record and it’s going to be a different record.

Mike: Chris Adler (of Lamb of God) did the drums on this record right?

Chuck: He did two songs and Gene Hoglan (ex-Strapping Young Lad) did the rest, he (Hoglan) worked with us on our demonic record. He’s a monster drummer. He’s perfect for the record we are working on and what we are doing.

Mike: What was it like getting Chris (Adler) in? Chris is a pretty badass drummer.

Alex: Well, Chris wanted to do the full record but he’s doing the new Lamb of God record so our schedules weren’t working. At that point, Gene came back to us and said he was interested to do it too, so it worked out having two great drummers work with us.

Mike: A lot of bands would like to have your problems!

(Mike and Chuck laugh)

Chuck: Yeah. Gene came up three days later, learned the songs in three days, recorded them in six or seven days, and got out of there.

Mike: How long did it take you to write “The Dark Roots of Earth”? (Testament’s new album currently due out in October 2011)

Chuck: It took a long time. I mean, we can only write as fast as Eric writes the songs and then we all came together. I think Alex came out and really put a lot of it together. It’s really coming together fast. We work well under pressure and trying to get it done, but we’ve got South America coming up next month so that puts us out of the studio.

Mike: Was there a song on the new album that was challenging for some particular reason?

Chuck: Every song’s a challenge; this cleaner one is an eight minute song where I have to do eight minutes of ballad style singing is a challenge.

Mike: Are you looking forward to doing that live?

Chuck: I don’t know.

(Mike and Chuck laugh)

Chuck: It feels good, but we’ll see.

Mike: What are you looking forward to at Heavy T.O, other than your set?

Chuck: The last time we came we only had a thirty minute set opening up for everybody, but we get to play a lot more. It’s always fun to play outdoors; we’re going to get fired. It’s good to get out and get off some steam. We’ve only done two shows this month, this and the Mayhem show, so we’re going to get out there and knock them out.

Mike: Who is your label right now?

Chuck: Nuclear Blast. We’ve been with them for “The Formation of Damnation” (released in 2008) and this one (“The Dark Roots of Earth”).

Mike: When is the new album scheduled to come out?

Chuck: Sometime in October. Like I said, that’s what we’re shooting for, but we’ll see.