Testament‘s latest album, Dark Roots of Earth, debuted at No. 12 on the US Billboard Top 200 chart — over 20,000 copies of the album sold in its first week of sales in the United States alone (read Powerline‘s 5-star review of the album here). The well-received new album, produced by Andy Sneap, may be the best Testament record yet, and frontman Chuck Billy and guitarist Eric Peterson — the only constant members of the group — are leading the charge with a North American tour from mid-September trough October with Anthrax and Death Angel. With the band’s original lineup now cemented, Testament is gearing up to bring their latest music to the world.
The following is an interview with Chuck Billy for Powerline:
The new album is doing really well in the charts and pleasing a lot of fans. How do you think Dark Roots of Earth improved upon what some had called your comeback album, The Formation of Damnation?
Chuck Billy: I think, definitely going into this record, having the original lineup back together brought a boost of self-confidence as far as songwriting, musicianship, friendships … everything all together. Before we got the original lineup back together we were, definitely at that time, almost not a full-on touring band. We were kind of getting a little fed up with just trying to find replacement musicians and never knowing who was gonna be in the band. We weren’t touring that hard or working that hard. Since we got the lineup back together — and doing a few years of touring now — it’s gotten us more motivated and brought our self-confidence up. And I think it really shows in this record, in the writing. With some records in the past, when we wrote, we were really self-conscious about what fans or the media would think about putting songs like “Cold Embrace” or “Dark Roots of Earth” on the record. This year, when we wrote, we put those songs in. When we wrote them, we thought: ‘This feels good.’ And thinking about what people would think didn’t really cross our minds. We just wrote it for ourselves. I think that’s what really stands out on the record, all of that, you know. We’re touring a lot harder. We have a lot more confidence in choosing what we’re doing. And I think I consciously really wanted to sing a little more and put a little melody and hooks in the vocals. I took that approach and it definitely got received well by people. We’re really just pleased at the response from people digging it.
And we took a different approach mixing it this time. In the past, Eric (Peterson) and I would always be in the mix process, and we’d always be using probably too many delays and reverbs and effects on the vocals where it kind of got buried. This year I really felt so good about the lyrics and the melodies that I wanted a different approach. I wanted it a little bit drier, not much effects and make more of the mix centered around the vocal, and I think it turned out for the better by doing that. Now, looking back, I’m like, ‘Wow, I should have done this a few records ago.’ (laughs).
And Andy Sneap is really good as well, as far as a producer.
Billy: Yeah, he had a lot to do with the record … before we used to do a lot of the tracking ourselves and go mix it with him but this year we let him come out and track drums, guitars, vocals, bass … everything and take it home. I think that’s why maybe we had a little more confidence in what he was doing because it sounded really good, just in the studio, raw.
Obviously every Testament roster brings its own strengths. What does having Alex Skolnick back bring, as far as a player and songwriter?
Billy: It’s helping in songwriting — the formula and the way we write songs. When Alex was gone, a lot of the songs were based on rhythms, in touch with the ’90s then, writing songs with less lead in mind. There were more guitar melody runs with less lead section. Having Alex back, we’ve gone back to creating songs with lead breaks and dual harmonies, and giving Alex some time at the intros of songs. So it’s definitely going back to the way we approached the songwriting in the beginning, for sure.
A lot was made of (drummer) Gene Hoglan’s blast beats. Do you think he brought something to the sessions this time around?
Billy: His style and just how good he is and having such a solid tempo, it adds to making it a better record. But, really, Eric had a lot of that stuff created and thought out in his mind. He knew what he wanted already, and knowing that Gene could pull it off was a bonus. If we were to have had some other drummers that didn’t have the skills as Gene, maybe those blast beats wouldn’t have made it because it wouldn’t have sounded right. But Eric knew that whatever he threw at Gene, he was gonna get.
And what happened with (drummer) Paul Bostaph exactly?
Billy: Well, we were waiting for like a year for Paul. He injured his wrist and ended up having surgery — and he put that off for a long time. So when he actually had the surgery and healed he decided that he was not going to come back to the band, and he was gonna start his own drum project and have a little more writing control, starting the project from the ground up. Of course, we wish him the best and at the point since Eric had been working with drum machines, trying to write without a live drummer.
We knew that, okay, we have to get a drummer now, and that’s when we called a few drummers. We called (Dave) Lombardo first — we did The Gathering (1999) — and he was busy doing the Slayer record and we would have had to wait. Same with Chris Adler. He was interested but we would have had to wait because he was recording some Lamb of God stuff. And Gene, he called us back the same day and said ‘I’m down.’ He came up like a day later and learned all the songs in about six days and then within a couple weeks he had all the tracks done.
Lyrically, do you think the band has consciously maintained an end-of-days theme since “Apocalyptic City.”
Billy: It wasn’t a conscious thing but that’s the way it seemed to turn out. (The new record) is definitely a dark record. The lyrics, topics … We’ve always been a planet-conscious band so it’s based on the planet and mankind — what we’re doing to the planet, what we’re doing to ourselves.
“Native Blood,” which draws on your family heritage, is such a strong song. What emotions were at play when writing the lyrics to that particular song?
Billy: Well, when I was sick, I really went back to my native roots to help me mentally, spiritually face the cancer and get through it. That was a big part after a hundred and something songs of Testament. I really never touched on a lot of that. And it was a big part of my life and it just kind of came to me. I wanted a song like that. It was written coming from my Native American aspect but the song was really written about indigenous blood. I mean, everywhere in the world there are indigenous people. And there’s always people that feel like they have something to say, they have a voice, they want to be heard. I sang the song in Spanish and the Spanish interpretation doesn’t say ‘native blood,’ it says ‘indigenous blood.’ It ended up being one of the catchier songs with riffs, so we chose that song to be the first single with the video. People have been really relating to it and relating to the video, especially natives. I’ve been doing a lot of press for that and people have been really moved and if you see the video it brings out a lot of emotion, you know. When I had seen the first edit I was holding back because I was just choked up for minute because it was really emotional. It had captured the story and a strong message. It was killer.
You had hoped to pitch ‘Cold Embrace’ to the Twilight franchise. Did anything ever happen with that?
Billy: We were thinking that’s what we kind of based the idea on. You know, True Blood’s been out and the Twilight series. It was kind of a thing that had been out there and when I wrote the song I created it with the thought of what it was going to be about, but I didn’t write it thinking that it was going to be for a movie or something. We wrote it thinking it was going to be about a girl who has been turned into a vampire who is never gonna see the sun again. She’s going to be trapped in the darkness. That’s how we went with the song. After we did it, we were like ‘ Shit, maybe it will be perfect for those movies.’ (laughs)
Interesting choice in bonus material on the new album with Queen, Scorpions and Iron Maiden. What was the process of selecting those particular bands and songs?
Billy: Well, the Maiden stuff, they’re favorites. The Maiden one (“Powerslave”), that was one probably wouldn’t be our first choice but it ended up being a good recording so we used it. The Scorpions, the era with Uli Roth was definitely one of our favorites. “Dragon Attack” was definitely something out of the box. It’s nothing like the Queen version which is really bass-driven — we decided we really wanted it guitar-driven. It gives everyone a featured spot in there. Everybody has their moment in there.
“Dragon Attack” is such a great underrated song. isn’t it?
Billy: I hear it every now and then on the radio. Eric at first didn’t understand why that song but then I explained to him to forget about the bass line. Think of it as if Ministry took this song and spun it around or someone like that. And then he said ‘I get it’ and now it’s one of his favorite ones we did as a cover. He wants to put it in the live show now. But I don’t know. We have so many good songs on this record that we should probably play.
You’ve been touring with Anthrax and Death Angel, two bands that have been around since the beginning of the whole thrash/speed/power metal thing. What do you think contributes to the longevity of your band and bands like that?
Billy: In the ’90s metal was kind of a bad word. Over the last 10-12 years or so there’s been a lot more new generations of thrash-style music and it’s getting more popular. It’s just a new generation of that fan base. There’s always gonna be a young rebellious teenager looking for something against the grain. And heavy metal’s always been the answer it seems like, or punk rock or something. I think bands like us kind of survived those ’90s and are still creating music that doesn’t sound like it’s dated, or like a 30-year old band writing the same stuff. You always try to keep it new and different with every record we do. I think that’s what kept us alive. And it just happens that there’s a true spirit at heart still driving us.
A secret ingredient that Testament has is the use of melody. That appears absent in a lot of newer heavy bands out there today. They’re lacking that balance of heaviness and melody. You guys know how to perfect it, it seems. Especially on this album.
Billy: Like anything you do in life. You lift weights, you work out and you get stronger and stronger and stronger and it gets easier and easier to do in life. So the same applies to music and writing songs. Being a team as a band, you know, over time you get better and better.
Obviously Testament is as good as any band that had been on the Big 4 tour (Metallica, Megadeth, Slayer, Anthrax). Do you feel there should have been a Big 5 with Testament included.
Billy: The Big 4, that’s true to what that is. They are the Big 4. For us, we were right on that track to be one of them.
They are considered the Godfathers of Thrash but many think you are right up there with them. If The Legacy (debut album) had come out a few years earlier, maybe …
Billy: I think the way it is now, we’re just as creative artists, songwriters and a strong live performing band. I just think when you go back to the Big 4 … at that point those guys had a couple years of a jump on us and that’s when people were buying records and you had platinum records, you know. We were right up to that gold record status then right when we were going to take that next step, the bottom dropped out in metal. And so that was it. We kind of missed the train, as we say. But we kept going and kept doing what we do.
It really does make sense with what we’re doing now with Anthrax and these guys. Because it was something that really inspired, started guys back together to where we’re at now. After I beat the cancer and the illness I tried to get a show at the Dynamo Festival and I called André (Verhuysen) for the festival and asked him about getting The Gathering lineup at that show and he said ‘Well, I just got the original Anthrax back together for our show. What do you think about getting the original Testament?’ And, to me, I was like, ‘Wow, this sounds like a good plan.’ So I called everybody and next thing you know we had the original lineup and we’re gonna play the festival. And since that we’ve been together. So Anthrax kind of played a big part in that … it kind of, in a weird way, brought us back together with the Testament original lineup. So I am a big believer in things were always meant to be, and here we are with Anthrax going out on tour.
You’re pretty close to the Lamb of God guys, too. You must have been overjoyed to hear of Randy’s release (from Czech prison). Overcoming certain hardships in life yourself, like cancer for instance, did you have any words of encouragement for Randy (Blythe) to get him through this tough time?
Billy: That was just a whole bad situation. Unfortunate for him because it can happen to anybody. It has happened to me, actually. I had hit someone in the head with a mic stand in the ’90s and I got sued and it is that easy. Over the years I used to invite people up over the wall and now I don’t do that. I don’t even ask for the wall of death anymore because you just never know what can happen. And it’s a shame for him because in his situation, I don’t see it, nobody sees it on the internet, enough evidence to hold him that long. I think he got screwed over because in America you would be innocent until proven guilty. But in that country it seems he was guilty until proven innocent. And they kept fucking with him and raising his bail and stuff and I thought it was just totally wrong.
Have you spoken to him since?
Billy: I haven’t but I’ve spoken to Mark (Morton) and the band. We actually took a banner that we took on tour last month thru Europe saying ‘Free Randy’ for his release, and we had all the bands at all the festivals sign it. We were trying to get everybody to sign this thing and we were gonna donate it to the band and have them auction it off for his legal funds.
Back to Testament: What do you look forward to for next year? I mean, everything’s going so well right now. How do you top it?
Billy: Right now the sky’s the limit. We’re finishing these tours and then we’re ready to see what happens.
(Powerline scribe Ray Hogan contributed to this article.)