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:: Spotlight :: Interview with Testament

By: Justin Donnelly

Although they never enjoyed the same level of success that thrash acts Anthrax, Megadeth, Metallica and Slayer (commonly referred to as ‘The Big Four’) achieved throughout the late ‘80’s/early ‘90’s, San Francisco’s Bay Area based act Testament have more than made their mark on the thrash scene over the last twenty plus years.

From the release of their debut album ‘The Legacy’ in 1987, Testament continued to build a formidable following that almost saw the band breakthrough to mainstream success, but it was the departure of guitarist Alex Skolnick and drummer Louie Clemente following the release of 1992’s lacklustre sounding ‘The Ritual’ that began what was an ever changing line-up for Testament throughout the years.

Since the release of their highly acclaimed album ‘The Gathering’ in 1999, Testament have continued to tour sporadically throughout the years with a number of musicians passing through the ranks (Apart from vocalist Chuck Billy and guitarist Eric Peterson), before reuniting with the original line-up for a short European tour in May 2005. 2005 also saw the release of the CD/DVD ‘Live In London’, the first release to feature the original line-up of Testament in thirteen years.

Throughout the last two years, Testament have continued to tour both the U.S. and Europe, with Australia finally being given the opportunity to finally see the thrash legends this month. After a long thirteen hour flight from L.A. I caught up with vocalist Chuck Billy immediately upon touchdown in Melbourne to talk about the group’s Australian tour, how new drummer Nick Barker was working out with the reformed line-up and how the progress of the group’s long awaited reunion album was coming along.

“Having Skolnick and (Bassist Greg) Christian back in Testament has been amazing. In particular, Skolnick adds that lost element that Testament has needed. It’s made us a lot more confident because everyone knows their parts and knows what they’re doing, so it makes the shows a lot stronger. We’re having fun, and enjoying each other’s company too. I think it’s just been a really good thing for us as people. Most band’s have bad split ups, with the hope that when they get together they can finally work things out as they go along. We didn’t have a bad break up as such, but I’m glad that we’ve overcome all the small problems we had in the past to come back together. Our philosophy has been whatever happened, happened. We’re all having a good time, and enjoying reach others company. There are no dramas at all. It’s just amazing because we’re all playing these songs that we wrote some twenty odd years ago, and they’re all current today, kicking ass and thrashing away! (laughs)”

Although many have coined the regrouping of Testament as a reunion, Billy doesn’t see it that way at all.

“I think that we’re beyond the reunion tour thing now, especially now that we’ve decided to do an album together now. It’s simply a return to the original line-up, and that’s now been cemented given that everyone’s agreed to do the next album. A new album is definitely going to be happening this year. Skolnick and Barker, who has been playing drums for us since last year, have been up in the Bay Area working on writing new material, so we are going to have an album out this year. We have about five or six songs written so far, with the aim of writing about fifteen songs in total. There’s one song in particular at the moment that is right in the direction of ‘The Gathering’, but I would say that it takes it one level higher. I mean it is just a brutal thrash song. It’s really, really good. It blew me away when I heard it. ‘The Gathering’ is one of my favourite Testament albums, and this one song had me saying to the other guys, ‘Guys, if you could write ten more of those, we’re going to smoke ‘The Gathering’ big time!’ (laughs) It would bring Testament up to a whole new level. Barker did such a great job on this song too. I can’t tell you when we’ll start recording, but I can tell you that Andy Sneap is going to mix the new album. We actually have time scheduled in April with him I believe. I mean he has a lot of projects on the go at the moment because he’s so in demand, so that schedule could blow out a little bit. But we can afford to wait. He knows metal, and he knows exactly what Testament is trying to do.”

When asked as to whether Testament were feeling any pressure to top ‘The Gathering’, especially given the return to the original line-up, Billy claimed being in Testament was more about fun, rather than trying to compete with the rest of the metal scene.

"Ah, I don’t think it’s pressure any more because were a band who have reached a point in our careers where we just play our own shows and do our own thing. We’re not trying to bring down any world barriers with this. We all do our own things. We have some good musicians, and some good songs, and we just go our there and play our asses off. If it were all about writing certain music and certain sounding songs, we would be signed to some other label other than our own. It’s not like that for us. We have the beauty of having our own label, and doing what we want to do for the fun of it.”

It’s been a long between albums for Testament, with their last proper studio release being 1999’s ‘The Gathering’, but as Billy explains, it’s all a matter of scheduling.

“It’s just tough because Skolnick lives in New York, Christian used to live in New York before moving to California, Barker lives in the U.K., Peterson lives in Sacramento and I live in the Bay Area. So everyone’s all over the place. That makes it really tough. It’s not like everyone else’s band where the band can get together at a local studio and rehearse for the night. It’s not that simple, so it’s something that needs to be coordinated carefully.”

And of course, there’s Skolnick’s busy schedule to work around too, as he splits his time between orchestral/progressive rock outfit Trans-Siberian Orchestra and his own jazz outfit Alex Skolnick Trio.

“We basically had to look at his calendar this year and work everything out around his dates. I mean everybody has busy schedules, but Skolnick has his next year booked out in advance. So we either have to get into his schedule really early, or just play what he has left. I mean he’s committed to the band, but this isn’t his only commitment. That’s not to say that one project favours the other, because he has the same amount of commitment to all three of his projects, which is nothing short of one hundred percent. But when you see him play with Testament, you can see that it’s music that he hasn’t gotten to play in a long time, and he’s absolutely just shredding the songs.”

And then of course there’s Billy own side project Dublin Death Patrol, which counts ex-Exodus/Legacy co-lead vocalist Steve ‘Zetro’ Souza, Sacred Dog/Rampage/Guilt guitarist Andy Billy, Rampage guitarist Greg Bustamante, Out Of Control guitarist Steve Robello, Machine Head/ex-Vio-Lence guitarist Phil Demmel and Lääz Rockit bassist Willy Langenhuizen amongst its vast line-up.

“The group has been around a long time (as far back as 1997, when the group was given a thanks in the credits on the ‘Demonic’ album), but its only really been taken on a life of its own within the last year. We’ve been writing and recording in the last year, and we’re currently mixing our debut album right now. The album is pretty close to being completed. We’ve had a couple of track on the band’s MySpace page for a while, but you have to bear in mind that the Thin Lizzy track (‘Cold Sweat’) wasn’t mixed before going up there. But hopefully we’ll be able to put up a couple more songs in the near future, along with getting a couple of singles out there. They’re being manufactured right now as we speak. We’ll start sending them copies out to the press around the world real soon so they can check it out. Dublin Death Patrol is more of a fun project. We’re not trying to reinvent the wheel here. People need to understand that it’s just a bunch of guys that all come from the same town playing together. We’ve all been friends for like thirty-five years or more, all grown up together since third grade and continued to be friends ever since. It’s kind of a unique situation. There are some guys in this band that did well within the business, and we have a lot of guys that played in the local Dublin scene here in the Bay Area when we were growing up. So we kind of have the best of both worlds. Our whole idea was joining those two groups together and making an album with the guys we all grew up listening to. It’s just fun. We’re hanging out, telling stories of the old days, and the old parties, and it’s been really fun! (laughs) At one point, we had no intentions of releasing the album we had recorded, but then we reached a point where we all thought the album sounded really good, and we took the whole thing a little more serious. So here we are. The album should be out around the start of April. I think we’ll release the album ourselves on the Dublin Death Patrol website, and then if somebody wants to come along and pick it up, we’ll see what happens next.”

One of the more unusual names contributing to Dublin Death Patrol’s cover of Thin Lizzy’s ‘Cold Sweat’ is Tesla drummer Troy Luccketta.

“Well Luccketta grew up in Dublin across the street from Souza, so they’ve been childhood friends. We’re still big Tesla fans, and see them play from time to time. It’s funny because Luccketta had a studio in Hayward, and that’s where Testament and a bunch of other bands recorded their demos, all with the help of Luccketta too. So with that history, there was no hesitation in asking Luccketta if he wanted to be involved, and he really wanted to help out on two songs. He kicked ass on both those songs too.”

One member that has added fuel to the Testament fire in recent times is drummer Nick Barker, who replaced original drummer Louie Clemente mid way through last year due to health reasons.

“I would say that Barker’s a full time member. I can’t promise anything, but he could well be here forever, as long as we’re still willing to have him! (laughs) It sounds strange but we’ve always said that about all of our drummers in the past, but they’ve always found greener pastures somewhere else! That’s just the way it goes I guess. So right now, Barker is in for the new album and the full tour cycle. Beyond that, we’ll see what happens.”

With talk about studio work complete, I asked Billy about the band’s upcoming tour of Australia, what fans can expect up onstage and what the band has planned for the months following.

“We’re really looking forward to playing to Australian audiences. Totally! We’ve been waiting to come to Australia for twenty years. Fans can expect all the classic songs written from the era that this band played together, and three songs from ‘The Gathering’. So there’s a lot of old classics, and the songs from ‘The Gathering’ played with this line-up sound incredible too. It’s funny because the first rehearsal that we did together was a little shaky. But by the second rehearsal, it sounded like we hadn’t missed a beat. We just clicked together, and all the shows since have been the just the same. I think people will see that. After the Australian tour is finished, we’ll be playing some of Europe, the U.S. and South America from March through to April, and then covering some more of Europe in July and August. Then I’ll be heading out with Dublin Death Patrol in Europe after that. So this year is looking pretty busy for us. It’s all looking good for us. It’s great to have the original guys back. And as long as everyone is down with writing the new album, it’s going to be even better. Skolnick is excited to be playing metal again, and the rest are excited to be back as well. I wouldn’t say Testament have anything to prove, but we’ll certainly keep stamping our place in metal scene for some time yet.”

Testament plays the following Australian shows:
February 7 - Prince Of Wales Hotel, Melbourne
February 8 - Manning Bar, Sydney
February 9 - Waterloo Hotel, Brisbane
February 11 - The Capital, Perth

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