Chuck Billy of Testament on the 70,000 Tons of Metal cruise, Reign in Blood and Gene Hoglan
For The New Order, you did a cover of "Nobody's Fault," by Aerosmith. Why that song in particular, and would you say that Aerosmith was an influence on Testament, and if so, in what ways?
I think Eric Peterson and Alex Skolnik chose that song. They're both Aerosmith fans. That was kind of a song that was a little out of my vocal range, so it was more of a challenge to try it. Once I got it and found the notes and hit it, it showed a different side of us instead of jumping on the bandwagon and being Metallica or something like that. I thought I had something different vocally to offer.
That put us in a position to perceive us as just a thrash band barking and yelling; we can actually carry a tune and play. We decided to make a video out of it, and still, to this day, I think it's one of our best videos, because it was a different concept and early in our career, and it was so cool, all the stuff we did in the video. It was a different style element, taking Aerosmith and making it a little rough, you know?
For the video for "Trial by Fire," it looks like you're running around some kind of post-apocalyptic junkyard. Where did you film that, and did you have any creative input on the video?
That one, not really. We left it all to this guy Sam Taylor out of Texas, and we always went there to do our videos. We kind of knew him through King's X, and he had done the video for ZZ Top's "Legs." That was a big video for back then, and we let him have the creative freedom and to come up with concepts. For all those videos, we went out there with him; they were cool. Back then, videos were kind of cheesy. But I thought they looked good.
"Trial by Fire," for me, visually, looks killer. The slow motion, us thrashing around and head banging. A lot of people had seen it and thought, "What the hell is this?" I guess that's what we wanted. He captured what our image was for sure. Nothing fancy or glamorous, just black jeans, high tops and banging our heads without trying to make sure our hair was pretty like a lot of bands did back then.
He had a lot of places for us to go Texas. We'd fly into Houston. When we did videos back then, we used to always go see Pantera before they ever had a record. They covered one of our songs, and we'd go hang with the guys and get on stage and perform with them in the early days. So that was kind of my first introduction to Pantera, going to do those videos in Texas.
How did you come to play at the 70,000 Tons of Metal cruise, and what was it like for you?
When we first heard about it, I'd never been on a cruise. The first thing I thought was, "Wow, this'll be cool. It'll be like a vacation. All I have to do is play for an hour." That's kind of the way I looked at it, and I didn't know what to expect. It was the first one, and the first festival or any planned event of any kind always has its bugs and problems.
Amazingly enough, it had no flaws. It was very well organized. They had the equipment, production, accommodations.
Everything was awesome at this first event. Fifty bands on there, and a lot of them were Bay Area guys: Death Angel, Exodus, Forbidden. So it was a lot of our buddies that made it for a real good vacation party. It was off the hook. Went to Mexico off the boat for a day. Senor Frog's had a big party, and it was just a very memorable, fun time for everybody hanging out. The camaraderie was awesome.
It just turned out killer. It's something that, when anyone asked how it went, I said, "Man, if you ever have the chance to play one, play it." I'd go just to go and hang for a week and go see the shows. It was really well done. The bands weren't overwhelming. Everyone was mellow. Everyone roamed the boat without getting hammered. I would definitely do it again. I signed off on it a year early, and the rest of the band was like, "No, man, we don't want to play that." By the end of the trip they were all glad we did it.
You've cited Slayer as one of your favorite thrash bands here and there. With the 25th anniversary of the release of Reign in Blood happening this year, what did you think of that record when you first heard it?
It was off the hook. Especially with that record, we listened to it to death. Slayer was probably the number one thrash, heavy band in our genre of music. It was such a different sound, too, because, like I said, in the early '80s, with glam and the big producers, Slayer always had this raw, dry thing. For me it was just like balls out, pounding, turn it up loud and just killing.
The songwriting was great. Slayer always had their own trip. They still have the same kind of raw, dry mix today, which they've kind of stuck with and makes Slayer what they are. But those songs, to me, were just classic Slayer. I think they stepped it up from their early [style of] just playing as fast as they can and high-pitched, screaming vocals. This was more calm, and Tom was more confident in what he was doing as a vocalist, and you hear it in the songs. Watching it live, it was just like the record. It wasn't an overproduced album, where most bands, you'd hear the record and go see them live and it's, "Holy smoke, is that even the same band?" Slayer always had the bigger sound than the record, and it was even better.
Alex Skolnick has been back in the band for the last six years. What do you think he brings to the music of Testament?
In the early years, especially when I heard that first demo, Alex was like fifteen or sixteen at the time. I thought he was one of the most phenomenal guitar players. He had studied with Joe Satriani when he was really young. He just had his own sound, and I think with him and Eric together -- Eric is a heavy rhythm player and Alex was a tasty soloist -- over the years, we've been very fortunate to have some pretty great players.
When he came back in 2006, it really did bring it back and make me realize that this is the style of Testament, with these two guys playing together with these songs. Right away, it was something that I wanted to keep. So we started jamming again, and we wanted to find a way to make it work and make it stick. We never talked about where this was going to lead to when Alex first came back. It was all about, "Let's go on tour and play these live shows and see how it goes."
The live shows turned into ten, the ten turned into thirty, and we kind of assessed it as we went and said, "This feels good; we're enjoying each other's company and things are cool." The thirty turned into fifty and a hundred shows. At one point, I finally said, "Hey, guys, let's think about doing a record together." That's when we decided to do the Formation record. It all started at that point.
When Alex left, we were writing records like Demonic and Low and The Gathering, with songs that were structured without a lead guitar player; it was more basic rhythms in writing songs. With The Formation, we went back to the old-school way of thinking in writing that. "Now that we've got Alex back, where's Alex's lead section?" That creative writing process was all of a sudden back.
When we put out that record, a lot of people were like, "Wow, that's like the old, early stuff." It's just that we were working the way we had done in the past, and it brings people to what we did in the past and the style. And even when I hear him play a solo and the licks that he has -- nobody else did those licks with the same tone. Even when they try to play his stuff, it's not quite the same. At this point in our career, we feel pretty good about each other and see this to the end and finish what we started. It's kind of a relaxing and confident feeling know what our strengths are as a team.
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