Testament's Alex Skolnick: "The Main Players in Grunge Were All Metal Fans"
Since 1983, California-bred Testament has evolved into one of the biggest names in thrash metal. If you were a metal fan in the past three decades, chances are such albums as 1987's The Legacy, 1992's The Ritual and 2008's The Formation of Damnation. And of course, the band's most recent album, 2012's Dark Roots of Earth.
Even though the band has gone through multiple line-up changes (guitarist Eric Peterson has been the only constant member) and 20 collective albums, I must say that I still find the band synonymous with the current roster. That includes two of its original members, guitarist Alex Skolnick and bassist Greg Christian, drummer Gene Hoglan, and vocalist Chuck Billy, who replaced singer Steve Souza in 1986 before the first studio album and has been on board ever since.
Testament just released a live DVD/CD in October called Dark Roots of Thrash, and the band isn't slowing down anytime soon: the members have already begun planning an 11th studio album for a 2014 release, described as "an album that destroys all."
Even as heavy metal veterans (although, as you'll read below, Skolnick isn't particularly fond of that terminology), Testament is constantly on the road, and according to Skolnick is feeling in a better place than they've ever been in terms of music and understanding.
Up On The Sun talked with lead guitarist Alex Skolnick about his favorite Testament record, why grunge didn't exactly kill off metal, and how sometimes writing for his jazz project creates awesome riffs for Testament.
Testament is playing at Marquee Theater on November 7 with Lamb of God, Killswitch Engage and Huntress.
Congrats on the Dark Roots of Thrash. Do you have a favorite aspect of the video? I'm excited for the mosh pit camera. A good period of the band is captured, and we have footage from the early days when I was in my teens or early 20s. It's a good document of us getting back together and just reconnecting like old times. But since then we've done two albums, arena tours, festivals...we've really become resurrected during that time. So I think this video really captures us sort of back in action and fully resurrected.
What made you guys decide to do a DVD? We had been talking about it for quite some time, and it just hadn't worked out before, timing-wise. Last year and the year before we had a lot of focus on completing the Dark Roofs of Earth album. It made sense to do it while we were on an album cycle and it was relatively fresh.
Is Testament still planning on a new album in 2014? We are, absolutely. I don't think we are going to start working on it until 2014.
So there's been no writing going on then? Only the individual writing has taken place. I'm constantly writing music, and I play different genres of music, too. Sometimes I'll be writing for my acoustic or jazz project, and all of a sudden I'll have an idea that I feel could be a great Testament riff.
So I have some great ideas lying around on my MP3 recorder. Next year is when we'll put that all together.
I wanted to ask about the jazz trio. The last album was in 2011, correct? Yes.
So do you ever come up with material for one of your projects when you're working on the other? Generally it's very different, just as the performance is. It's different equipment; in Testament I play a solid body guitar and a very distorted amplifier, and with jazz I play a semi-acoustic guitar and it's a very different sound. But every now and then there are parts and riffs that can work for one or the other.
On the last album, for example, there's a song called "A Day in the Death," and the riff in it originally came from my jazz writing. Especially when I'm warming up for a gig, sometimes I discover patterns and riffs that will work for my other project.
Considering the album next year will be the band's 11th, if someone had never heard Testament and you could give them one album that you felt represented the band, which would it be? I think it's the most recent one, Dark Roots of Earth. That's probably an easy answer; I know, but I do think that it has the best combination of sounds that the band has had over the years. It has music that's melodic that's pretty far from some of the other music in our catalog that has been very fast and not-so-melodic.
While I was away from the band there was a death metal phase... you know, I think this latest album offers the most elements of the band. There are parts connected with the earlier albums and other parts that definitely have connection from albums during the nineties and beyond.
After 30 years in the industry and past health problems, what's the hardest part about touring now? I would say I've gotten more used to it if anything. When you're young you have so much pent-up energy. That's one of the reasons why it's difficult for young musicians on tour. You have these great highs, moments of tremendous excitement. Just the shows, and meeting people. But then you have these travel days and slow periods of waiting around.
Now being an adult, or at least feeling like an adult, there's always stuff to do. I can work on music for one of my other projects, I can write a blog or read a ton... so the downtime doesn't get to me that much anymore. You can stay in touch with people more, too. When we first started touring we didn't have cell phones or the Internet.
The one that has gotten more difficult is air travel. It just seems like every year it's like getting your rent raised. It makes it harder to travel with instruments, too, because of the baggage prices; I've heard horror stories about things that have happened to instruments on airlines.
You said you like to read a lot in your downtime on tour. What are you reading right now? I'm more of a fan of literary fiction.
Who are your favorite authors? Philip Roth, Don DeLillo, Dave Eggers... but I'll read nonfiction sometimes as well. I like Chuck Klosterman's writing a lot. I don't read a lot of music memoirs, because it's something so familiar although there are some new ones documenting extremes. Like, I did enjoy Keith Richards' biography. But mostly, yeah, great literary fiction. And there is so much of it!
Yes--if you're a reader, then a stack of books is always near by. I always do! Yes. A stack. Oh, and also Nick Hornby. He always incorporates a lot of music history in his writing.
On this upcoming tour you guys will be with Lamb of God, Huntress and Killswitch Engage. You guys haven't toured with Lamb of God before, but Adler did play drums for a track on Dark Roots of Earth. We've never toured with Lamb of God, just played festivals with them. We've grown close to the band, and Randy is a close friend of mine; we never feel like the guy from Lamb of God and the guy from Testament. He's been through this incredible situation, but he seems just like his normal self, [only] with a very intense story to tell. [regarding Blythe's trail in Prague for manslaughter earlier this year].
I saw the band a couple months ago and it was terrific. I don't think what he went through affects much in the U.S.; I think it's more in Europe. It affects shows because there is a much bigger concern about audience participation, especially on stage dives. And there's always been the risk of people getting hurt, but it's never been anything like this situation with Randy that I'm aware of.
What's something you are looking forward to on this tour? It's exciting because we've had the good fortune in the past few years of revisiting a lot of our tour mates from the old days. And that includes earlier and later generations of bands, from Judas Priest to Anthrax, but we haven't really had shows with groups that came later, like Lamb of God and Killswitch Engage.
Even though there are musically some obvious connections, I think they have some very different fan bases. There's an overlap of course. And I think some of their fans have heard our name but have never heard us live, so we'll reach out to a lot of new people.
Speaking of playing with these bands that came about after you, you've seen how the music industry has evolved. And in a lot of peoples' opinion, you're part of what's seen as the classic solid age of thrash metal. What are your thoughts about the new generations of metal musicians? I'm not comfortable with the term elder statesmen. [Laughs] But I like where we are at because I feel like an adult with some experience and a few times around the block. If anything we feel like we're better than we ever have been. We meet these bands that have been influenced by us, and I can respect the differences.
I can understand how our original fans may not like the newer bands, because it is really different. But I think a lot of these bands have been able to develop their own style and sound. Like we just played with Korn out in Sacramento, and I was surprised that they were Testament fans, but they are. Same with Slipknot.
These are bands that I enjoy watching, even though they may be hard for original Testament fans to get into. Of course, there are many others that original Testament fans like, like Gojira, for example. Great band. And some of the European groups like Meshuggah.
You know there was a period in the mid-to-late '90s where things got really odd.
You mean when metal was hanging by a thread? Well you can point to the so-called "grunge revolution," but the main players in those bands were all metal fans! I mean, Dave Grohl is like the biggest metal fan and collaborates with Lemmy and all these other guys. Mike McCready from Pearl Jam goes on That Metal Show.
Alice in Chains really was a metal band, but [they] just brought in different influences. But then OzzFest showed up and the New Wave of American Heavy Metal--Lamb of God, Killswitch, Deftones--and um, it seems to have evolved and found an interesting place in culture. And then you know, Metallica became one of the biggest rock groups, period. Which was never expected! They were this extreme band when they came out. It's remarkable.
Did you see Through The Never? I didn't, but I watched them on The Colbert Report and it was great.
Fans all over the world celebrated when Testament reunited years back. What band reunion would you like to see? I would like to see--and this is with all due respect to Steve Morse, who'a a great guitar player--but it would be Deep Purple. Although Jon Lord passed away last year, so that would never be the same.
I've always...they answered some questions about Deep Purple because the anniversary of their In Japan album was coming out. I grew up with Van Halen and Ozzy...and who doesn't love "Smoke on the Water"? But once I heard their live stuff I really got it and I understood what was so great about Ritchie Blackmore. And I can understand the need to expand artistically, and how one doesn't just want to be in a rock band.
But I do wish he would just...what he did was so great, and decades have gone by, and I think it's great he's doing acoustic Renaissance music. But as a fan I'd like to hear him put on the Stratocaster and blast through some Marshalls and play with the original guys.
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