Heavy metal kingpins Testament pioneered the distinctive thrash metal style that galloped out of the Bay Area in the mid-80’s. And if their excellent tenth album Dark Roots of Earth (out July 31st on Nuclear Blast) is any indication, Testament’s still firing on all cylinders, more than 25 years after forming. I spoke with the band’s outspoken vocalist Chuck Billy about the process and inspiration behind Dark Roots, and what it’s like to age well in extreme music.
I understand you and Testament guitarist Eric Peterson wrote most of your 2008 album The Formation of Damnation together, but that everyone contributed to this one. Was it at all a challenge to work up that songwriting chemistry with the entire band again?
Not really. I mean, Eric pretty much still wrote a majority of this record. ‘Cause Alex [Skolnick, lead guitarist] lives in New York. So he wasn’t out here for a lot of the rehearsals.
In what way was it a little bit more balanced, as you’ve said in a couple interviews?
Well, since Alex and them were gone, the writing was different just in the sense that we were trying to write lead breaks. It was more about writing songs built around just rhythm. Since The Formation, it kind of brought it back to the writing style that we had when we first started, the mentality of thinking [about] what was needed. And then this record definitely took the same approach, knowing that “Okay, it’s feeling like the old Testament again,” with Alex writing songs based on songs with leads in them and stuff. So it was a different process, but I think Alex is a busy guy, and Eric actually this year had a writing block when he first started writing. He went away to England to [producer] Andy [Sneap]’s studio. That’s where we mixed our record, and he went over there and came back with nine, ten skeletons of songs. And a lot of those just made it to the record. Alex really put a lot in as far as arrangements and stuff. So I think that is where Alex came in mostly on this record.
So he has sort of a streamlining role, once Eric comes in with the skeleton of the song.
Yeah. I’ll listen to the riff and then I’ll decide what I want to sing for a verse and bridge and chorus, kind of lay it out that way, then Eric will go back and try to make it all work, and then Alex will come in and comment and try some different things. So we all have our little parts and it seems to be working. It helps that we have been writing songs for 25 years together. [laughs]
Dark Roots of Earth seems both more aggressive and catchier than The Formation of Damnation. The choruses stick much more. Were those two things goals for the band this time around?
I think for me vocally, I try to do something a little different. Whenever we write songs that are more of, like, thrash style songs, of course I will jump in and it won’t be much of a death metal voice - it’s more of a faster, barky voice. But when I have a mid-paced song, I tend to always want to go death metal because I’m always mentally thinking “Oh, it’s more mid-paced. I need to make it heavier by singing heavier.” And this year I really didn’t do that. I thought “This year, I’m really going to lay back and try to sing a little more, and go back to [1989 album] Practice What You Preach, maybe a little bit like [1992’s] The Ritual, where it’s more controlled vocals with melodies and hooks. It just seemed like the right thing to do for the record. So It worked. I mean, this year is the first year that I let Andy the producer give me more input on the vocals. And now I’m sitting back and listening and I’m glad I did, because a song like “Cold Embrace,” it’s like another voice tone, a vocal tone that I have never really ever used before, and some notes that I probably would not have chose to hit that he kept driving me to get to, and I hit them. And now looking back, I’m really proud of what I accomplished on that.
That song in particular reminds me of some of my favorite metal power ballads, for lack of a better term. You know, it’s incredibly heavy but also seriously emotional. A lot of that is your voice for sure.
That one there is definitely a ballad, and we haven’t done a ballad in 15-plus years. And this year we really didn’t think what anybody but ourselves thought about it. In the past you’d write records thinking “Are the fans going to like this? Do they want this? Is the time right for this?” You always have that in the back of your mind, whereas this record, with songs like [“Cold Embrace”], when we first heard it I was like “Wow, that’s good, I like that. I want to work through that and let’s make that happen” without thinking of what anybody else is going to think of it but us. And once again, now that we have accomplished it...that is an eight-minute song, and it doesn’t seem like eight minutes when you hear it. So it’s all good.
I know you’re saying that you were trying to please yourselves this time around. But Formation of Damnation was such a big success critically and commercially for Testament. Did you have a sense of wanting to top it with this record?
Well you always want to. When we wrote the Formation record, we had just come off a record called The Gathering back in ’99, and that record for us was a big accomplishment. But I think that that record was where we actually found our style and sound, more of the modern Testament sound, [where] we took all of our elements of the past and added a little bit more of blast beats and still kind of melodic, and it sounded better than our other records. So on that one, we were like “Man, this is going to be a tough one to top.” And once we did the Formation record, back when we mixed it and listened to it, that was when we sat back and said “Wow, I think we did it. We topped it.” And we were very proud of it. Going into this record of course we’re like “We did it before but we keep raising the bar for ourselves,” which is a good thing I guess. But we really didn’t think about what we had to do. Like I said, before it was making what the fans wanted or what we hoped that they would enjoy. We are just really comfortable with the band, and friends at this point, and having the original guys back in the group as of 2005. So it is a whole different metal thing for us right now, just being comfortable with each other.
I’m sure that helps in every part of being a band. Can you walk me though the standard Testament songwriting process? I’m guessing that it’s rare for all of you to be sitting in the same room jamming something out, but do the riffs come to you and then you write over them, or are there times where you lead it with your lyric?
No. It always comes with the riff. I write based on what the music makes me feel. And sometimes that will be a riff and I’ll be like “Eh, I don’t like that” or “I don’t hear me singing over that.” You know, it’s an odd chord that I wouldn’t want to sing on or I’m not used to singing on. So it all starts with me and Eric. If it catches me, “I like that, let’s work on that.” And that is how we have been approaching everything.
Do your bandmates give any input on the topics that you choose to sing about?
Not really. They all have their opinions on some of the lyrics or some of the patterns. Like when we were first writing, Alex came in the early phases when there were no lyrics, and I would just be mumbling melodies over the riffs and they were kind of going “Yeah, I like that, that’s good.” We record everything and Eric remembers everything, like, “The first day you sang it like this, do it like that.” So in the back of my mind it’s kind of burned in a little bit and that’s what I write off of.
You’ve always sung about serious, current issues. It’s one of the things that distinguishes Testament from a lot of metal bands. So what were you particularly fired up about while writing Dark Roots of Earth?
Well I mean, the Earth, the planet. We have always been a planet-conscious band. I think especially since 2001 after I beat cancer, when I was going through the cancer for a few years, I was doing chemotherapy and I was also going to my native heritage and looking for inspiration or something through that, spirituality. Native Americans believe in the power of the Earth. And that’s a big part of me getting through that. So of course, I have to talk about the Earth and since The New Order record in 1988 we’ve written songs about the Earth, and Nostradamus predictions. We’re almost living through it here, 25 years later, experiencing them. It makes me think “Wow, all those things we wrote about we kind of lived through, and here we are on the biggest prediction this year, end of the world.
But, it’s still always something that makes you look now, that 20-something years ago nobody really paid attention to what we were doing. Or being green. Everybody trying to do the little part that they can. Whereas I see it more now, it’s more relevant, everybody is trying to be green and be a little bit more planet-conscious. And it’s kind of a shame that it took so many [years]. I mean, I’m sure everybody experiences that our seasons have changed. You know it’s not winter; summers aren’t like they used to be and it’s all screwed up. And so maybe that’s what it’ll take people to go “Man, I remember when I was a kid summer was summer and winter was winter, and now it’s Christmastime and it’s 100 degrees out.” So I think people maybe notice that we aren’t making a big enough impact.
Does Testament make any efforts to address those issues in the way you live your lives, or the way that you tour?
Well you can’t control everybody but I do what I can do myself. I don’t want to be a preacher, and don’t want to tell people how to live their lives. Everybody has their own opinions and the way they do it, but it’s just [about] everybody being aware. And that’s all that I can do is be the messenger a little bit through song, so someone can relate to it. Some of the other songs on the record are about war. I know I’ve gotten emails from people putting on heavy metal, getting prepared and possibly sacrificing their life or taking a life. And that has got to be pretty heavy on a kid just out of high school joining the service who let you know they’re out there in that. It’s definitely a mental thing. And for me my part was, “Well, I got those letters and they are telling me the songs that they are getting hyped up and getting ready to go and get psyched up. I want to do a little part.” So I wrote the song “Rise Up” and it’s kind of like an anthem, kind of a battle cry, like [about] being prepared to go to battle. There is a song “True American Hate” on the record and I think people are interpreting that song wrong just from the title, like “I hate Americans” or something. But it’s actually quite the opposite.
After 9/11, I’m sure the world was shocked. Us Americans are watching the news, and on the other side of the world I see adults with their children in the streets waving guns around, burning American flags. And that just kind of burned in my mind “Wow man, how could a father teach his young kids, at that young age, so much hatred?” And some of the young kids probably don’t even understand what they are doing, but they are following their parents. It made me think “What’s the generation like?” My kids or my grandchildren are going to grow up and this whole generation of young people that grow up raised to hate. That’s just the way it is.
Do you feel it’s your responsibility as the frontman of a well-known band to be responsible in what you write about?
I don’t feel that it is a responsibility. I feel that that is what is in my heart and that is what I want to talk about. I could write songs all day long about a cliché heavy metal story or something. I’ve learned those are the songs that I sing with not as much conviction when I sing them. When I write songs that are more personal, I have more emotion in it. Like on the last record, my father had passed away years ago and so did Eric’s, so the “Afterlife” song that we wrote meant a lot and every time we played it I just had this overwhelming sensation like “Wow, it’s kind of like our message to our fathers, that we will see each other again some day in this afterlife, if there is an afterlife.” So I mean, all those things to me are more… people relate to them. Like that song there, I got a lot of emails from guys that have lost their parents and they are just like, “Man what a great song and a great message that you gave.”
Dark Roots of Earth is your tenth studio album. Does it feel like a milestone to you?
It does. When I was sick in 2001, we had gone through a lot of band member changes and it was getting really old trying to find new band members - bass players, guitar players. When I was sick I didn’t think I was coming back to play music again. When I looked in the mirror I didn’t recognize myself, and I didn’t listen to music or talk music or anything for two years. So I’m a big believer that things happen for a reason. And when we had the benefit concert and Alex and Greg [Christian, bassist] and Louie [Clemente, former Testament drummer] came out and we got a bunch of dates and performed a song, that was it. It was like “Okay, we all came back together and did this.”
And then a few years after that, in 2005, is when we decided to all get back together and do a reunion show. And we all enjoyed it, and had fun doing it and we’ve been doing it ever since. And Louie the drummer would be right here with us if he could play. He has arthritis and is having a hard time with the playing, but I still consider Louie an original member right here, and whenever we are on the east coast he comes out and he’ll hang out and give us his opinion on things, so it’s good. So to get to do two great records after we got back together was like, “Wow, this is killer.” What a great payoff and feeling that we are still doing this. And now that we have the other guys there it’s like “You know what? We get to finish something that we all started together, and not a lot of bands get that opportunity. So we are taking full advantage of it. [laughs]
Pictured (l-r) at Foundations Forum in 1989: ASCAP’s Loretta Muñoz, Marc Ferrari (Keel), Songs Music Publishing’s Tom DeSavia, unknown, Testament’s Chuck Billy and manager Elliot Cahn
Have you found that your relationship with Testament and heavy metal in general changes as you get older?
Definitely with the band. It’s not about yourself. It’s about everybody involved, your families, your kids, and everything that it takes. So yeah, it definitely changes. I mean, when we were younger we took the road for granted and didn’t treat it as we do now, for sure. There is a lot of partying and drinking, and I know that I have missed a lot. Traveling the world I missed a lot. And I probably put on some bad performances being hung over. Whereas now, it’s all about the performance, all about the show and all about what we are doing. And it’s paid off. I think I’m singing better, performing better with more stamina than I ever have. As I’m getting older it is kind of a weird thing. I was expecting to loose a little bit but I’m actually fine tuning-everything. [laughs]
Man that is a good place to be right now. Tell me about the upcoming tour plans.
We are going to be playing in Europe, going to some festivals and a little bit of some of our own shows. Right after that we come home and we are going to start the third leg of the Anthrax/Death Angel tour in the U.S. and Canada. And then we will shoot back over to Europe again and finish out the year in Europe doing some headlining shows. And by then the record will be out there and everybody should have it, so we will try to plan something good, maybe some headlines, put a good package in the States early next year, but we are still working on that, trying to bargain on some of the bands. And one of my goals is to do the Bay Area tour with Exodus, Death Angel, Forbidden. Trying to get something like that ‘cause we are all friends and we have all had this opportunity to come back and still make good music, new records. Let’s go out there and tour together. Why not, ya know?
Sounds like you are just as active as ever.
Yeah. We are very fortunate right now.
I know that Testament have been ASCAP members almost since the beginning. Can you tell me why you chose ASCAP over the other PROs?
When we first started in a band we didn’t know what ASCAP was, and those were just letters to me. And I’m glad that our management at that time had been in the record business. Our manager was Elliot Cahn. He performed in the band Sha Na Na for a lot of years and then through the business he became a music attorney. So he actually guided us in the direction that he thought was best for us. And so that is where we have been ever since. We have never had any issues, and why change something or go somewhere else with the new music? I don’t know of anybody stronger! [Laughs]
Testament’s Dark Roots of the Earth is available now on Nuclear Blast Records.
Find out more at testamentlegions.com.