Chuck Billy of Testament on the 70,000 Tons of Metal cruise, Reign in Blood and Gene Hoglan
Testament (sharing a bill tomorrow night at Summit Music Hall with Anthrax and Death Angel) is one of the bands that make a strong case for expanding the Big 4 to the Big 5 (or Big 6, if the often-overlooked Exodus were included). The Bay Area act was part of the original thrash movement, which fused the precision and savagery of speed metal with the intensity of hardcore punk, and like its brethren in the Big 4, Testament often treated its fans like comrades in a subculture shunned by mainstream society.
For nearly three decades, Testament has been putting out some of the most consistently interesting heavy music anywhere, even in the face of lineup changes. Distinguishing itself from its peers with Chuck Billy's musical vocals and a guitar team that excelled at slashing rhythms and tastefully blistering leads, Testament's songwriting has always seemed to find new ways of making brutal music haunting.
Even when the general music audience turned its back on much of metal in the early '90s, outfits like Testament continued to thrive, because its popularity never relied on fashion statements and trends. We spoke with the band's longtime lead singer about the band's roots, the 70,000 Tons of Metal cruise, playing with Alex Skolnick again, working with Gene Hoglan and Reign in Blood.
Westword: Is this current tour in support of Dark Roots of Earth? If not, what periods of your career can we expect to see represented at the show?
Chuck Billy: No. We're still on The Formation of Damnation. Dark Roots won't come out until April or May of next year. We're still just finishing up the recording right now, and we'll start on the mixing probably next month. We're still going to play most of The Formation. The thing that sucks, especially with the Internet, is everybody's got a cell phone, and next thing you know, we'll have songs out that sound horrible through people's telephones on the Internet. That's not a good representation of our new stuff that way. We're going to tend to not do it until it's time.
We'll be covering a little of everything. Especially since it's with Anthrax, and Anthrax was one of the first bands we ever toured with, and we know most of the set they're going to play. They're playing their classic stuff, so we figure we're going to stick with what the whole show's about, kind of like old-school thrash. So we'll go back and play some of the old stuff. But we're definitely picking some new songs off of The Formation and some new ones off of The Gathering.
How did you end up working with Gene Hoglan on the new album, and what was it like working with him that might be different from your other drummers?
Well, Gene worked with us on our Demonic record in '97, and he did a great job on it. That was a different record for us. Over the years, we've been adding blast beats, and Gene is the man for any beat. Paul Bostaph has been injured this year, and he's been out. He's had his surgery, and he's been kind of recouping. We put it off for a long time hoping Paul would be ready for the record, but he wasn't, and we had to move forward.
We had two calls in. We called Dave Lombardo from Slayer, and we called Gene Hoglan. Dave was interested, but with his Slayer schedule, we had to get started sooner than later. So we called Gene, and he said he was in. Gene was the choice because of scheduling, but we had two monster drummers to pick from there, and it was going to be awesome no matter who it was. Gene came in and learned the songs at rehearsal for a week and recorded the songs in ten or twelve days. He was in and out of here in, like, twenty days. He learned, practice and recorded the album -- that's how much of a professional Gene is.
Is he going to be on the tour with you?
On this tour, John Tempesta from the Cult is going to be playing drums. He played with us on our Low record. Gene's going to come in on the middle of the tour and fill in for two weeks because John has some Cult shows.
What initially attracted you to metal -- and thrash, specifically -- and how did you become involved in the Bay Area scene of the '80s?
The Bay Area established itself as a metal scene, especially in the early Metallica days. At first it was more punk rock and glam, and right around the early '80s, a lot of those glam bands...either the punk scene or the metal scene kind of pushed them out of San Francisco, so they went to L.A. and Hollywood. So in the early '80s, the Bay Area was established as a punk-rock and heavy-metal scene. So it was more of an attitude type of music and sound in the Bay Area.
So you really had no choice but to be a part of it. It was such a new scene and a new sound. It was something you wanted to be a part of, so you were naturally drawn to it. Being a younger kid, punk and metal was music that was rebellious and had attitude, you know, and every young kid wants to be rebellious and play and listen to stuff that's kind of against the grain. It was a cool scene, because a lot of the bands in the Bay Area and fans supported everybody. There were these venues in the Bay Area that you'd go to a show and see a lot of the same people and the same bands hanging out.
It really was a scene, and it was definitely a cool community. It's pretty awesome that bands like us, Exodus, Death Angel and Metallica still are still making music and putting out records. The scene isn't like it was back then, just because during the '90s a lot of the clubs shut down and people grew up, had families and moved on in life. As far as bands go, it's really interesting to see, for me, that a lot of the bands that were so influenced by the Bay Area scene and sound had their own identities.
There were a lot of bands that played thrash from our Bay Area, but each band had their own identity and didn't sound like the others, which was really kind of unique. It wasn't like L.A., where glam is glam and everybody sounded the same kind of bubblegum stuff. In the Bay Area, everybody was influenced, but [they] took that influence and did their own thing. It's just killer for me to see a lot of these bands still doing it and making great music and having their own identity. It was awesome.
Did Steve "Zetro" Souza ever tell you why he recommended you to take his place in Testament?
Steve left to join Exodus. Zet was best friends with my younger brother, and Zet was always hanging around my house, hanging out with my brother; he played guitar. Me and my brother Randy were in a band called Rampage when we were younger, and Zet started coming and hanging out. And one day he started this band called Legacy. They were doing good, and they had a record deal, and they got a lot of attention in Europe for their demo. At that point, Exodus asked Zet to join Exodus. Before Legacy could ever put out a record, he left the band.
He knew at the time that I was going to college and taking private singing lessons. I was studying to be a singer. He knew that, and we were close, and I don't know if it was more a convenience kind of thing, but he felt bad about leaving and said, "Hey, I'm leaving to join Exodus. Here's Alex Skolnik's phone number. Give these guys a call, man, they're killer."
I really started listening to the demo and thought, "Wow, these kids are awesome." I called them up and came in for an audition. They were a little skeptical, because I tried to be more of a melodic singer, whereas they were more into the thrash, straight-ahead power vocals. So I studied the demo and sang the demo with the style I wasn't used to singing, but I put my own flair to it. I think they thought it wasn't the same, but it was kind of cool. So they thought, "Let's go for it, give Chuck a shot."
When I joined the band, we did another demo and sent it back to Megaforce to see if we still had a record deal. They wrote back and said, "Yeah, we're still on; we're going to do a record with you guys." We made it that far, and they came out to see us live before they finalized the deal, and the morning we showed up to do the audition was the morning we found out that Cliff Burton had been killed. So it was a very sad day for everybody in the community, but it was also the day that kind of started our music career.
It was a tough audition, because Johnny Z and Marsha -- they're the ones who signed Metallica -- they were up all night and tired by the time they came in, and really down and depressed about the whole situation. We thought, "Man, this is going to be a weird audition." We played three songs and they said, "Okay, we've got a deal. We'll see you guys later."