(Photo Credit: Stephanie Cabral)
Back in the 1980s, heavy metal was huge, and you had a slew of different bands that ruled the airwaves. A lot of it was this larger than life, glamorous, no shits given image with big stage shows and even bigger hair. On the flip side though, was this element of metal that rebelled against all that called thrash that was really fast and heavy, and often took up for more of the social issues in society and regularly gave a middle finger to the establishment. The core group that led this movement included legendary bands likes Anthrax, Megadeth, Metallica, and Slayer, but there was another group that was just as influential at that time and continues to till this day, a Bay Area outfit known as Testament.
After releasing their debut album The Legacy in 1987 on Atlantic Records, Testament quickly shot to the upper echelon of metal royalty, and after all these years, through all the ups and downs, Testament is still alive and kicking ass. The band is currently on the road with their Dark Roots Of Thrash II tour with Exodus and Shattered Sun, and I was able to chat over the phone with Testament lead singer Chuck Billy during their stop in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and discuss the band's history.
With this new tour Dark Roots Of Thrash II, Testament is doing the first two albums The Legacy and The New Order in their entirety and select songs from the third album Practice What You Preach, why did you choose to do that?
We've been touring over the last couple of records for 4, 5, 6 years and doing a lot of the same set, just including new songs from the new records. So this tour we decided we've done that enough. If we're going to go out again right now while we're still working on a record, let's just do something different. The agent thought doing a specialty record would be a good opportunity to do this. We did it in Japan and I think London once, and it went over really well. We never did it in the US, so we decided why not do it here?
Also, Exodus will be touring with you guys and you have a lot of history with them. How does it feel to be able to tour with Exodus still after all these years?
We've talked about it trying to make it happen. We thought it would be the best, especially both of us coming from the Bay Area. We always talk about doing a Bay Area package. This time we just so happen to have the same booking agent, so he made it happen; cleared our schedules and put it together. So far, it's been really good. A lot of kids are very excited for it.
Looking back at that time period during those first three Testament albums, what stands out for you?
The band was so new and young. Alex [Skolnick] and Eric [Peterson] were such young players, and they really impressed me by how advanced their writing skills were. Alex was like 16 and Eric was like 19, and their songs were so 'Wow! Blow me away'. It continued and I think coming out of that first record into The New Order was my first time to really start participating writing lyrics. It was always just a unique sound those guys came up with. Looking back, it's never changed, even coming on 30 years later, I think our techniques on writing songs, or what we're in to, or inspired by are still the same as they were back then.
Along with Eric Peterson, you have always remained a constant in Testament, what do you attribute to being able to have that longevity with a metal band?
It's the fans that's basically kept us here. Metal was really strong in the 80s and kind of had hard times in the 90s. I think we trended water and kept alive and kept focused on being Testament, and writing songs that we wrote without thinking or trying to change and play with what's current at the time. It really hurt a lot of bands trying to do that. Fortunately, we didn't do that. We went opposite. We went a little darker and heavier at that time. Then the metal got healthy again, and coming out the other end, we were in the right spot with the direction we were going, and the history we had, it just carried through. Metal has been real strong since the early 2000s. It's been gradually picking up. I see the generation changing with a lot more younger fans coming to shows now over the last ten years.
Speaking of that generational change, how would you describe this new up and coming fan base for metal?
They're getting very young, being rebellious and finding an escape in this style of music. In general, I think they still fit the mold as they did 20 something years ago. Black clothes, long hair, like to head bang to music. I don't think much of that has changed. They've learned from either family or parents, someone growing up back when the scene was really coming alive.
How does it feel to be able to see multiple generations of metal fans coming up right in front of you?
It feels pretty amazing, and it makes you think 'wow!'. The music really has stood the test of time. The very first show, we do these Meet & Greets, and we sold a package. A guy came up and had a young child with him, and told him 'Bring your son in, we'll get a picture'. He was like 'Oh! This is my grandchild! That's my son there.' All three generations were at that show. The young kid, he had all this Testament swag, and he's in the front row, right on the rail with his dad and his grandfather. It blows me away. The common statement from everybody is 'I had to bring him here to see what I was raised on'. That was the common thing from the grandparent or parent my age. They're passing it down to the next generation. That's really cool.
Going into the 90s, grunge rock really put a wrench into a lot of metal bands. How were you able to weather that storm?
Right when that was happening, was when actually Testament was breaking up. Alex left the band, then Louie [Clemente] left the band. At that time, we were pissed off because the band was breaking up, the music scene was changing, and we were at the end of our record contract with Atlantic. Everything was coming almost to an end it seemed like for a minute. We were a little angry, pissed off. We started writing harder music. We wrote the Low record then the Demonic record after that. That loyal metal fan base was still there. They pretty much recognized that we were going in a different direction. We were going against what was happening. Maybe they thought respect or appreciation, they were into what we were doing and recognized what direction we were going. And when we had the reunion, that was a whole new element to Testament because we had the original guys back and it felt like we're all back here, we're all going to start this together, go through this, and ends this together. That's where it went and we put out two good records since then, The Formation Of Damnation and the Dark Roots Of Earth. Everything has been on the upswing since.
During all those times, how do you stick to your roots in the ever-changing music world?
It was such a hard thing because one record you're selling 300k-400k copies, then the next record you come out a year and half later, you're down under 100k copies. You're like wow, where is the fan base? Where are all the people that bought the records? Again, I think the hardcore ones still stuck with you. It was possibly ones that liked metal and maybe even liked what was starting to happen at that time; Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and things like that. Maybe they just changed with it. It changed dramatically because at one point, there were hundreds of radio stations playing metal at drive time traffic. It seemed like overnight it went down to about 20. Metal labels within a month started dropping acts and started looking for the new Nirvana's and bands putting out records for a couple thousands dollars and selling a million. Every major label was looking for that act at that time.
During that downswing in metal, what were your thoughts as a band about what to do next?
We really were at that point. When Louie and them left, we were like what are we going to do now? We obviously want to keep playing, but what do we do? What direction do we go? Who are we going to get to play in the band? That was the start of it all and I think we were fortunate to be able to play with some amazing drummers like Dave Lombardo or Paul Bostaph, and some amazing people along the way after that, which probably had a lot to do with keeping our name alive as we have always had the best of the best, cream of the crop people playing too.
After all these years in a band like Testament, how do you keep the passion for it alive?
It's definitely the music and the fans, ultimately, every time we show up, they show the love. That doesn't get old. You're always going to have that fan and that song off a record where they go 'you don't realize what that song did for me, it saved my life', and did this or that. When you get those, those are the ones you go cool, what a feeling.
Do you remember the first time getting that realization that you actually have fans that are really paying attention to the music and the words and everything?
It was the first time we went to Europe. I don't think our record was out yet, but that's when tape trading was big. The Legacy demo was a very big traded demo. It was probably one of the most popular demo's traded back then in the early 80s. So there was already this big buzz on the band in Europe based on that demo before we came over for the record. When we got there, I think I was the only one old enough to drink. The other guys were under age, but in Europe, if you can walk to the bar and order, you can drink. So everybody is drinking and having a great time. Of course, first time in another in country, they don't speak English, we come out and play, and they're chanting 'Testament'. We start playing and next thing we know, they're singing the songs, like this is a trip. They know our songs and we don't have a record yet. That was the first time that people just recognized us. How do they know who we are? It was mind blowing because it was only a demo really, nothing else.
How would you describe yourselves at that time?
Those guys were a lot younger than me, and those guys had been together as a band for a few years before I joined. When I joined, I was like 4 years older or so than everybody, I was a little different. Maybe I was influencing, corrupting them. I don't know what you want to say. I just got into the band, when I got into the band. I wouldn't say took over, but I had my opinions on things and doing stuff.
After all these years, are there any goals Testament is trying to achieve?
Just to keep continue doing this. I've always said the day I'm not having fun or I can't sing it anymore is the day I'll probably stop, so the goal is to keep going one day at a time and keep creating as long as I can. Write for myself and write for the fans. Right now, I'm performing and singing better than I ever had. I feel pretty good about it, been doing it almost 30 years now.
What do you want the legacy of Testament to be?
That there's five guys that believed in something when they started as one and tried to stay on the same path throughout their whole career and stuck with it, and seen the pay off because of sticking with something we've believed in so much.
What's the status on the new album?
We have about six tracks in demos and a bunch of other riffs. Me and Eric been doing the demos because the other guys been busy with other projects, so when we just got on this tour hopefully over the next two-three months, while we're together, we're going to sit down with the demos, maybe mess around sound check and try to get crackin' and fine tune the writing. Hopefully, it would be great in July sometime we'll be able to get into the studio. It's hard to say when it's going to be done. We take it as when we're ready, we're ready, because we're the ones that have to live it forever, and if its not going to be good, don't put it out because it's a waste of time.
The Dark Roots Of Thrash II tour with Testament, Exodus, and Shattered Sun will be stopping through Harpo's in Detroit on Sunday, April 12th. For more information on Testament and the tour, visit testamentlegions.com.