Staff writer Carl Sederholm recently chatted with Chuck Billy as he and the boys in Testament get ready for their Dark Roots of Thrash headlining tour. We've included, at the bottom of the page, links for tour dates and ticket information.
SoT: You've had a clean bill of health for about ten years now. How are you feeling?
Chuck Billy: I'm doing great. I just had my checkup about two weeks ago and everything looks good.
SoT: You're definitely a survivor.
Billy: I am. I'm fortunate to be where I am today. When I was ill, I didn't think I would be playing music anymore. I just focused on my life, my friends, my family and going day by day. That's why I'm fortunate and blessed to have the original lineup of Testament back together to get a second chance to continue on.
SoT: You guys are about to kick off the North American leg of the Dark Roots of Thrash tour with Overkill, Flotsam and Jetsam and 4Arm. What kinds of things should fans look forward to on this tour? What might set this tour apart from others?
Chuck Billy: Definitely the song selections. We played mostly the same songs on our recent run with Anthrax. Since this is our headline show, it's time to really switch up the set. We've learned from talking to people in the press and to fans that there's a new generation of younger fans that don't necessarily know our older material but that are really into stuff from The Gathering up to where we are now. We decided that it's time to put more songs from The Gathering, The Formation of Damnation, and Dark Roots of the Earth into the set so we've been working on about six new songs for the set and swapping out some of the old stuff. Out with the old, in with the new! I think even the older fans will dig it because the last ten years and especially the last two records have featured our strongest material. I think we've really fine-tuned who we are as Testament and those songs really do present what we are as a band and as songwriters right now.
SoT: Testament seems to be getting some of the best reviews of their career right now. Some fans and metal writers are saying that you guys are the hottest thrash act today. ITunes, for example, awarded Dark Roots the U. S. Metal album of 2012. Loudwire, as of yesterday, has you guys on the list of best bands of 2012. Dark Roots also earned several high spots on several top ten lists of the year (it was my #1). What is it about Testament right now that people are responding to?
Chuck Billy: I think it's probably a combination of a few things. When we were doing The Gathering and when I was getting sick in 2001, we had so many lineup changes--new guitar player, new bass player, and a new drummer--we never knew who was in the band! We weren't touring that hard or even playing a lot of shows. We were just doing shows as they came and not really seeking out stuff. Since the reunion, everybody's feeling good about what we're doing and getting along as individual people, we decided that we're really going to start hitting the road really hard again and working as hard and as much as we can. I think just being together and being exposed a little more again to everybody makes a difference. The songwriting, as I mentioned earlier, is strong.
With getting the original guys back, the formula we had in the past is there again as far as writing songs, creating lead sections, and creating dual guitar parts--just the mentality of having the original guys in the group. When they left, Eric Peterson and I were writing records that were based on rhythms and weren't featuring as many leads so it was a totally different style. I think the newer stuff like The Formation of Damnation and Dark Roots of the Earth really features Eric and Alex as guitar players. Just being together again is almost like getting a change to finish something that we started together. It brings out a sense of confidence of what we do as performers and songwriters.
As we wrote this record, we really didn't have in the back of our minds, as we have before, thoughts about what the fans are going to think or what are the critics going to think about things like writing a ballad or slowing things down a little bit. That didn't cross our minds at all. When I heard "Cold Embrace," I thought, 'This feels good, I'm digging it.' I got an idea and we went for it, without thinking about what people would think or how they would criticize it. To get the response we did was a really great feeling. We stuck with our gut feeling about what we were pleased with and look at the response! It was really satisfying what we accomplished with the record.
SoT: I thought you guys sounded more confident in some ways, like experts doing things at the top of their game. It's a really good record.
Chuck Billy: That's what it felt like. We wrote it and were really pleased with it, without thinking about any of the consequences. We put in everything we had. Maybe that's why some of the other records aren't hitting people as much. Maybe they were released with more concern about the consequences or getting criticized. We just let it all hang out here, gave it everything we got. I think that's what people wanted! It definitely gave us a great dynamic on the record. It's got a little bit of everything, something you can play over and over again and not get tired of it. You can find something new in it each time.
For me it was definitely a challenge. I mean, I can sing fast thrash songs all day long. Trying to slow down and hit certain notes and hit a melody is more of a challenge for me as a singer. Listening back to songs like "Cold Embrace," there's a new kind of a tone to the voice that I found. I really enjoyed what I did. I listened back to it and thought, "I did a good job." That's when you know something is right.
SoT: On the deluxe edition of Dark Roots of the Earth you included three cover songs, Iron Maiden's "Powerslave," Queen's "Dragon Attack," and The Scorpion's "Animal Magnetism." Were those fun for you to record? I thought your version of "Powerslave" was so natural it almost seemed like a Testament song rather than an Iron Maiden one. Which songs might you consider performing in a live setting?
Chuck Billy: They were definitely fun. When we were talking about doing covers, we sent an email out to all the band members asking them to think about songs to do. We wanted to do more obscure songs and make them Testament songs. We definitely didn't want to do karaoke versions of these songs! We wanted to think outside the box. My wife came up with the idea of doing "Dragon Attack." The other guys in the group didn't get it at first. I said, let's make it a guitar driven song rather than bass driven. Think about what a band like Ministry would do to it. They decided to go for it. It turned out great.
We've always been Scorpions fans, especially the Uli Roth era. We knew "Animal Magnetism" would definitely be heavy for us, make it a little more brutal. Some people may not even recognize it.
The Maiden song surprised me, even. I didn't know we were going to do that one. I was in the studio to record the cover songs and they played "Powerslave." Eric and Gene had worked it out while they were tracking. I heard it and I thought, 'man that's a solid track!' I went out to the car and listened to the original track, went back in and said, 'OK, I'll give it a shot!' I wanted to have my own identity on it, but also keep it kind of true, not do a Karaoke version or hit all the same notes. It ended up being pretty strong. I listen to it now and think, 'man it's so solid!'
SoT: Powerslave was the first Maiden album I bought. I love that album and that song. You guys made "Powerslave" a Testament song for sure.
Chuck Billy: That's what we were trying to do for sure. It's kind of an obscure Maiden song. If you had seen the list of songs people were bringing to the table, we were like 'no way!' What ended up being on the record ended up being great. We are proud of the outcome.
SoT: Have you thought about performing one of them?
Chuck Billy: Eric really wants "Dragon Attack" or "Powerslave" on the list. I think that if we're going to play a headlining show we should play Testament songs. There's so many Testament songs, we need to focus on them. But you never know!
SoT: What's the drummer situation in Testament right now? I assume that you want Gene Hoglan to play with you for the long term.
Chuck Billy: Yeah, Gene was in for the record. We never know for sure, but we definitely don't want to say to Gene 'you're a Testament member and you can't do anything else. Do whatever you'd like to do.' Same with Alex. But they're both committed to the record cycle and we all get along great as people and band members. We're enjoying what we're doing together right now.
SoT: How is Paul Bostaph doing? Last I heard there was something going on with his health.
Chuck Billy: He had an operation right before the time we all started recording Dark Roots. He healed up and decided that he really wants to start his own group and have more control over the songwriting. I've been writing songs with Eric for a long time, so I didn't really want to change what we were doing. If it isn't broken, don't fix it. He wanted to have more control over what he does so he's trying to start up a new band. We still see each other and talk. We're still friends. No hard feelings. We wish him the best. It's just one of those things. Things happen for a reason. Gene stepped in for Dark Roots and killed it. As a live drummer, we're not held back by any of the earlier drummer's styles because Gene can do it all.
SoT: The "Atomic Clock" is amazing! "Native Blood" was honored in Best Music Video category at the American Indian Film Festival. You were also part of a Smithsonian exhibit called Up Where We Belong: Native Americans in Popular Culture. What were your thoughts about that experience?
Chuck Billy: It was an honor to be in the Smithsonian. My grandmother also has baskets in the Smithsonian. Our tribe is known for basket weaving. We have two generations of Billy family in the Smithsonian for two different reasons, me for music and her for basket weaving. That was pretty awesome. The display is now in Brooklyn. It's traveling around and will probably go somewhere else after that. When I'm in New York, I'm going to try and check it out. I've seen photos of it, but haven't seen it in person. It's definitely an honor. When they first approached me about it, I knew I wanted to be part of it. It's awesome.
SoT: I looked up the Wikipedia page about the Pomo tribe. Your tribe is widely known for basket weaving. They also list five well-known members of the tribe and you are on there.
Chuck Billy: Our tribe is definitely known for basket weaving. My grandmother Susan Billy, Elsie Allen, and others are important basket weavers. Back in the 70s, UC Berkeley documented my grandmother and Elsie Allen making baskets. They did a series on the Pomo tribe and basket weaving that they have at UC Berkeley.
SoT: I love Eliran Kantor's art for the cover of Dark Roots and in the liner notes. The picture of the skeleton king in the liner notes is awesome. What's your relationship with him?
Chuck Billy: Eric works pretty closely with him; he's kind of the visionary that throws ideas out to him. Eliran gets the ideas really quick. Eric will get him and idea and by the end of the day he'll have a sketch. We approve it and he runs with it. He usually turns out exactly what we expect, even better sometimes. We've never had any issues with him. He helps us create the backdrops and the merchandise. He does a little bit of everything for us and he works quickly. When we need something on the fly, we call him and he works really fast.
SoT: Is there anything else you'd like to add that I haven't asked you about?
Chuck Billy: I'd like to let everybody know that the tour will be offering VIP passes that will include a chance to win some cool stuff like an Eric Peterson signature guitar at the end of the tour. Every night we also pick two of the VIP people to sing background vocals on "Into the Pit." Some people are really pumped about getting on stage and singing that with us! If people are interested in coming and hanging with us and getting their stuff signed, it's a great opportunity. Go to our testamentlegions.com page for information.
Tour dates and links to ticket vendors may be found at:
Nuclear Blast Website
(Click here to read our reviews of Dark Roots of Earth)