It’s hard to imagine a more committed, impassioned front man than Chuck Billy, the lightning strike front-man of seminal thrash act Testament. Yet, away from the mic stand, Chuck proves to be a thoughtful, gracious host and, considering that your present narrator was more than a little nervous at the prospect of interviewing one of Thrash metal’s brightest stars, his calm manner and genuine interest in answering every question thoughtfully and fully (despite the fact that he’s undoubtedly answered several hundred similarly worded questions in recent weeks) made the interview a genuine pleasure to conduct.
We’re here, of course, to ring in ‘Dark roots of earth’, the highly anticipated follow up to the devastating ‘formation of damnation’ released on Nuclear Blast records, and what seems to have been almost a rebirth for the mighty Testament, a band dogged in the 90s by interminable line-up changes and, eventually, by Chuck Billy himself succumbing to cancer, causing the band to go on a hiatus that many feared would be permanent. The return of the band (not to mention legendary guitarist Alex Skolnick) to action was followed by the jaw-dropping ‘Live in London’ record and, eventually, in 2008 Testament dropped ‘formation of damnation’, a record of formidable power that saw the band reach a new peak of popularity, arguably eclipsing their previous successes as their old fans returned with a euphoric rush and new fans also scrambled to see what all the fuss was about. With awesome live shows following ‘formation’, the news that the band were working on a follow up was greeted with rabid enthusiasm and with the record now out on general release (read our review here) it is clear that that enthusiasm was more than justified.
We are, therefore, incredibly proud to present this interview with Testament’s mighty, irrepressible Chuck Billy, who talks at length about his lyrical influence, the return of Testament and their upcoming performance of Bloodstock 2012.
It feels, in the last couple of years, that Testament have reached a peak in popularity between the last album and the anticipation of this one, it must be a really exciting time to be in the band for you right now?
I think it’s actually a blessing because really when I got ill in 2001, the cancer, I didn’t think I was going to play music anymore; I didn’t know what was going to happen and I was positive that I was going to beat it, but I was focused just on surviving and being with my family and when I looked in the mirror I didn’t see the same person that was in Testament. So I kind of felt like my music career was kinda done – you know, that was it. And then when we got back together and finally played music again, I listened to a Testament record and it all sounded brand new to me again and I was ready to start going back on the road with ‘The Gathering’ line up of musicians and my first call was to play the Dynamo festival and they said they had the original Anthrax, and if thgey could get the original Testament that would be great and I asked them and we did those shows, and we’ve been together ever since, so it really has been a blessing having the original members back in the group and having a second chance to complete and finish something together that we started together. So yeah we’re all very excited, especially because without those guys we weren’t really a hard working band. We were doing records, but we weren’t really touring a lot because we were just so fed up with member changes all the time. But now we’ve got the original guys we’re working hard and touring a lot and having a good time and putting out some good music still so it really has been a blessing.
When I look at the career of Testament it seems like you’ve had more than your fair share of downers and I was wondering if you though that the courage in the face of adversity that you’ve displayed is part of the reason for your longevity as a band?
I think so – I think we’ve always just stayed focused on the prize, which was to try to keep writing good music. I think the 90s were tough times for us, and a lot of metal bands. The acceptance of it – Europe was always fantastic for metal, but America was another story. It really was pretty sad in America. But we forged on… in anger a little bit because we ended the 90s on Atlantic records and they were always / their A&R department was always letting us know that they needed the next single, the next ballad, you know, they really wanted commercial stuff from us. When we finally ended our relationship, it was just like “man! We’ve got that off our back now, and society has changed and we’re a little pissed off!” So I think we leaned a little heavier and were like “screw it! We’re going to write heavier songs and heavier records now,’ and I think the end of it all – it kind of gained us a little more respect from the fans that we didn’t follow the times like a lot of bands did and we just went the opposite way, back to our earlier roots.
For me, being a fan of testament over the years kinda feels like a badge of honour in the metal community, and when you came back in 2008, it seemed a lot of fans felt the same way – were you surprised at the level of loyalty your fans displayed after so long a break?
I think it was surprising, but it was more that it gave me the chance… it was getting to come back, and I survived and the original group too. A lot of fans were there in the 80s… we were selling a lot of records and maybe that’s what’s changed over the years with the record sales part of it… but our fan base carried with us over the twenty-something years and we’re actually happy that we’re back together – I don’t know – maybe it made the fans feel young again as well – I think they were like “well the boys are back together again and they’re putting out some records, let’s support them!” and a lot of our old-time fans came out of the woodwork, were showing up to our concerts and bringing their fifteen year old kids to the shows, just showing the new generation that this is what they grew up on; and I don’t think all of us in the band have really changed a lot – we still look like we did twenty-something years ago, we feel young at heart and I think maybe some of that… the fans want to live through that a little bit I guess.
In recent interviews you’ve said that the music of your past you’re very proud of, but the production was something of an issue – how do you go about recording now – how does Testament work in 2012?
We jam out the music and then once it’s time to track it’s done individually – like Eric and Gene will layer it down. But production-wise it’s definitely different from our first two records – I just remember – because we didn’t know any better when we did our first record and second record. We did demos, but we’d never done a full record and gone into a real studio so we didn’t know better. And now I look back and I remember those techniques and the way we recorded those records and it’s like “wow!” no wonder those records don’t sound very good! The technique and the way of doing it weren’t done properly in my opinion and so I think over the years, after we’d got our own studio and got a little more into the production side of it, the records started getting better and better. And now today, well everyone can have a home studio, and everything’s just gotten better – the amps, the guitars, the microphones, so of course it makes the music sound better. So we’ve come a long way from the early 80s and, you know, in the early 80s we couldn’t spend the money on the big name producers that were making big rock records –we had a different budget and had to pick people who were, I guess, in a different league.
You’ve got a huge wealth of life experience and I was wondering what inspired your lyrics these days because you’ve always been very environmentally conscious – you had lots of material like that on ‘the gathering’ and ‘the legacy’ – but what inspires you now?
Well, definitely life and we’re still environmentally conscious and planet conscious, I think everybody is, but I think me more so as the lyricist. Especially when I was ill, I turned to my Native American spirituality to get me through a lot of that and Native Americans are big believers in the power of the earth, the soil and the sun and just everything about it and it’s… I look at it going through the years of my life and the seasons just aren’t the same as I used to remember going to school: you’d go out in the summer and it’d be hot in the summer vacation, and then at the end of the year – thanksgiving though Christmas – it’d be cold and raining and you knew what time of year it was when we were growing up and now that’s all changed. You have Christmas and it’s a hundred degrees out now and the planet has changed and we’re more conscious now and everyone’s doing their part to help – and I don’t know – is it too late? Is it inevitable? Has it got to the point where whatever’s going to happen is going to happen? So there is a lot to write about all the time, about the planet, so I am still writing consciously about that in my lyrics, but also more about personal things. For ten records I didn’t really sing a lot about Native American things, about culture and spirituality, but it’s such a part of my life. So, for example, ‘native blood’ on this record was me saying ‘you know what, I am going to sing about it, I am going to speak about my blood and who I am and how I believe the power of it is’. Or watching the 9/11 tragedy and how American’s were treated with dishonour around the world, especially in countries that have terrorism, and our war – our troops being over protecting… sending our young soldiers to other countries to possibly be killed or to kill. So there’s so much going on the world that I don’t want to make up stories or what someone would assume a typical, cliché heavy metal song would be about – I want to write about things that are real.
That always seemed to me to be one of the defining features of the thrash movement – you and your contemporaries were very much about telling the truth rather than the swords and fantasy…
Right, exactly. I mean, the fantasy thing, I don’t know – I grew up listening to some of that, but definitely in testament I wanted to be real. I wanted to have some real things that actually affected people, so I wrote a song in there called ‘the afterlife’ (‘Formation of damnation’) after my father passed and I got so many emails from people around the world about the same feeling – people saying they’d lost their father or mother and it was a great message to our parents that we lose that maybe we’ll see each other again someday in that afterlife, if there is an afterlife, and songs like that are really… I didn’t think it would carry that far, but I guess it does and those are the ones that mean a lot to you – when somebody else can really get emotional through your song and lyrics.
Is that where part of the title comes from – ‘dark roots of earth’ – from this earthy, spirituality that you’ve written about?
Yeah – because the record is definitely a dark record – it’s not a bunch of happy songs, it has dark lyrics and I think the roots… again we’re a planet conscious band and again having Greg and Alex, and Louie for that matter when he came back with us, it’s all of us centring and grounding ourselves with the planet as one and that was why, when Eric came up with the title, it was so appropriate to me that I said yes right away and I can see what that means for me when I say ‘Dark roots of earth’ I know what I feel from it.
For me, when I think about heavy metal and for Testament in particular, you’ve got those real lyrics but at the same time there’s almost a contrast in that there’s such an obvious joy and passion and belief in the way that you play and the way you put your heart and soul into each performance, and that’s one of the great contradictions of metal I think…
I think it is – it’s true. I don’t know if we ever thought about it or consciously did it but, you know, we grew up in the eighties and there were a lot of people who weren’t real and it was all image and costume and everything and we always tried to not be that kind of thing. We’ve always tried to be true – true to our music, true to our fans, true to our families – to everything and I just turned fifty this last month and it’s been this long and I do feel a lot of love from the fans and from the people and it’s a big if, but maybe if I was a different person going through my music career, maybe people would look at me different and have different opinions about that so – you learn a lot. I learnt a lot just being on tour. In the early 90s we toured with Ronnie James Dio and Black Sabbath and I learnt a lot from meeting people I really respected in music and seeing how they treated their fans and the bands that they toured with. Judas Priest – KK and Glenn and all those guys are just so nice and so… accommodating and I realised that I had to take something from that and pass it down to the bands we tour with or the fans that I meet and I want them to feel the same way that I feel about my heroes you know – Ronnie and all those guys. It’s taken us a long way.
A very important part of the metal scene is the acceptance of the fans and the community spirit which has developed in the metal world…
Yeah – I mean look at the example of the early 80s – everyone just used to love to rip on Dave Mustaine and Dave was an outspoken person and did a lot of drugs and I’m sure he rubbed some people the wrong way and now he’s a different person and yet, today, people still remember that. There are people still in the business who kinda go “Man – they’re just handling it wrong – they’re saying the wrong thing, they’re people wrong,” and you’ve just got to learn by life experience.
You’re on tour and you’re coming to Bloodstock for the second time…
[Enthusiastically] Yeah, we played one of the first I believe, out in a big field somewhere
Well it’s still in the big field… but how does it feel to be coming over and playing what is probably Britain’s best extreme metal festival?
I think it’s going to kick butt! Testament hasn’t done a lot of exclusive UK touring in a long time and we’re really way overdue to do that and I hope that next year we’re going to get back to do that, but it’ll be one of our only appearances that we get to play over there so it’s gotta be a good one and we have some friends over there and we’ll get to see some bands that we don’t see a lot, so it’ll be cool.
How difficult is it to choose a set list that satisfies fans and keeps you as musicians happy that you’re playing something fresh?
It’s really hard! It’s really tough and you know the funny thing is, every time we put out a new record we’re convinced we’re just gonna play a couple of songs off that record but on this record we’re going to play four songs right out of the gate on this album, maybe even five, so there’re songs that we really enjoy playing and between ‘the gathering’ and ‘formation’, we’ve got a great set-list just from those three records and I think five, six, seven years ago we used to lean a lot on ‘the legacy’ and play a lot of early thrash stuff, so it gets tough because of course a lot of fans want to hear that… but we’ve got a lot of great songs from ‘the gathering’, ‘formation’ and ‘dark roots of earth’. SO it’s hard to choose a great set because on one hand we want to promote who we are now but we can’t forget who we were in those years either and that makes it really hard – especially when you only have an hour’s set – that’s like twelve songs – you’ve got to pick twelve songs out of a hundred and twenty songs, it’s really hard!
So I guess we can expect a few surprises then?
Yeah – we’ll play four new ones out there plus stuff from ‘the gathering’ and ‘formation’ so I can say there’ll be at least eight or nine songs from those three records.
Any final words for your UK fans?
I just want to apologise for not forcing the issue to get there more often and not tour there a little more. We had some great tours in the early eighties with Anthrax and Megadeth – I mean all over the UK and that’s my last memory of doing a big UK tour. So I apologise and I’m definitely going to be holding a flag to make sure that our agent puts together a proper UK run for us this year, or at least on this record.
That would be fantastic…
Yeah I’d like to do, like, a big fifteen sixteen date run across the UK.
Testament Play Bloodstock 2012 on Saturday 11th August but in the meantime check out the awesome clip for ‘Native Blood’: