San Francisco’s Testament are genuine Thrash Metal Icons. Bursting out of the Bay Area in 1987 with the release of debut album ‘The Legacy’, they’ve weathered several storms including record company politics, the fall-out from grunge, and changing line ups during their near three-decade existence. Now returned from the apocalyptic city since reforming the original band in 2005, this year sees Testament gearing up for the release of their eleventh studio album ‘The Brotherhood Of The Snake’. About to hit the U.K. for their most extensive tour in aeons, we caught up with vocalist Chuck Billy to chat about the band’s history, as well as what lies ahead.
How are you today?
Yeah, I’m doing okay. I’m actually home here in California. Yesterday was a little ugly; the sun’s out right now, but things could change.
You’re returning to the U.K. for a series of shows in the summer. Are you excited to be bringing The Brotherhood back this way?
We are. Unfortunately we haven’t got to tour properly across the U.K. in a long time, so it’s nice that we have these four shows other than just London. Every time we come we’re playing in London, so it’s nice to do some other cities.
Your new record is rumoured to be titled ‘The Brotherhood Of The Snake’. Is that correct? If so what can you tell us about it?
That’s correct. The songs are definitely going to be a little faster paced than the last record. A lot of the songs - at least five or six are just straight-up thrash style songs. I think it’s going to be different. I don’t know until we actually mix it and we’re standing there listening to a whole record. It seems that’s the way it always happens; we’re always not confident that the record’s going to be better than the last one until we play the whole thing in sequence and then it’s like; “wow, you know, that’s a pretty good record!” So that’s when we’ll really know. Right now they’re kind of individual songs and parts, so it’s hard to judge whether it will be better than the last record. I know it’s going to be different just because of the timing of the music, but we’ll see.
You are following up two albums that have been particularly critically acclaimed in ‘The Formation Of Damnation’ and ‘Dark Roots Of Earth’. Is it tough following records like that?
It is, and every record we ever do it’s; “aww man, this is going to be tough to beat”. We started doing that from [1999’s] ‘The Gathering’; we were like; “man, ‘The Gathering’ was such a great record for us, I wonder how we’re going to top that?”, and then we did ‘Formation’, and it was like; “okay, yeah, we did it!” And then how do we top ‘Formation’? We did ‘Dark Roots’ and it’s a totally different vibe but overall it’s like; “wow, it’s a good record” and just as strong; a different style for Testament, but just as strong. I think it keeps us current - it keeps everybody on their toes, like; “what are they going to put out now?!”
Have you got a release date in mind for the new album?
Yesterday was the first day in the studio of recording, so, we’ll hopefully turn in the record by the time we come to Europe. It’ll then be mixed, and I’d hope to have it out by September. That would be great.
So yesterday was the very first day of recording?
Yeah, Gene [Hogland] just flew into town, we got the drums all set up and mic’d and today’s probably the first day to start tracking. We have up to June 15th or 14th, something like that, so we have some time. There’s no pressure.
I wanted to go back through a little Testament history. The band were one of the originators of the Bay Area thrash scene. What were those early days like?
The Bay Area at that early 80s period had a lot of glam bands, so being a part of that thrash scene and coming up, we didn’t know how special it was; it was just something new. What you’ve got to remember is that the Bay Area, it was just glam rock and punk rock, and when thrash metal came in it was almost like a natural progression from the punk, with metalheads taking over. The glam bands all left and went to L.A. and Hollywood, so all these bands playing that thrash style started popping up; Testament, Death Angel, Vio-Lence, Forbidden. It was a good thing because the bands supported each other. There was definitely a friendly competition, but everybody went to the same shows and the same after parties. It was a cool scene going on.
By the time of your second album ‘The New Order’ in 1988, you had made your way over to Europe, stopping off in Belfast with Anthrax.
Yeah, and we had a bomb threat the first day there in Belfast. I remember it was like a gymnasium or something we played [Avoniel Leisure Centre], and we pulled up and they said; “everybody stay on the bus, there’s a bomb threat”. We were young kids, gung-ho, and we were like; “let’s go find a Guinness somewhere!” So we all walked through the city, and we were a bit blown away, like; “holy s**t, look at these buildings, a lot of them are in rubble here!” So we went to a bar and of course it was like; “don’t say what you’re doing here, just drink your beer and don’t say much”. So we went in there drinking the best Guinness we ever had in our life, and that was out first experience there.
How did you enjoy that tour?
Well that was amazing for us because that was our first, real proper touring over there. We were young kids; I mean, the guys weren’t old enough to drink yet [in America] and here we are in Europe drinking, smoking, and doing whatever you’re not supposed to do, and it was a great experience. We were like; “wow, we should be here all the time! This is happening; we can drink under age, and the kids, they love heavy metal and they know our music. This is the best place in the whole world!”
Moving forward, I wanted to ask you about the ‘Souls Of Black’ video. Do you remember filming that?
We filmed it in an alley in Los Angeles, and it was a very cool scene, and a very cool set up. We were very proud of the video, but we were totally pissed off when we found out – I forgot the band’s name, but it was a glam band, and the director took another artist and shot a video on that same exact set that we did. I think it was Firehouse, but we were like; “man, we’re so proud of this killer video”, and of course, Firehouse, a glam band playing on MTV, were the ones getting all the play! So it was a little weird with that video and the outcome of it, but the song itself has done really well for Testament; we’ve got it on the ‘Rock Band’ video game.
It was a different era for Testament, with a change of pace and more melodic songs coming to the fore like ‘The Legacy’ and later ‘Return To Serenity’.
Well you know, I think at that time, especially coming off of the success of the first three records before that one, you build a little bit of confidence. So it’s not all about; “okay, we have to play ten thrash songs, are the fans going to hate us?” We built a bit of confidence were you know; we’re feeling this, it feels good and sounds good, and we’re confident in doing it – let’s do it no matter what anybody thinks or says. It set us apart a little bit too, because everybody wasn’t doing that.
I saw an interview with you where you said that record company pressure led to the slower songs being released as singles.
Well, we were with Atlantic records and Atlantic records of course had other artists that are metal artists, and they’re on the radio or MTV, so of course you have A&R people saying; “where’s the single? Where’s the radio song? We need something to put on MTV.” So of course they’re leaning on you, and they’re not going to put a thrash song on there; they want a ballad or a single, or something they’re going to take to radio. So, it always ended up where every time you see a video on MTV or something, it’s always a Testament ballad, not a heavier song. To me, it’s like, that’s not what we are – Testament’s not a melodic ballad song band. Anybody out there that just sees those would think that’s who we are, and that’s not what we were.
Things changed dramatically for the Testament between 1992’s ‘The Ritual’ and 1994’s ‘Low’. What are your thoughts on ‘Low’ now?
I haven’t heard it for quite some time, but I do know where our headspace was at just coming out of the band break-up and industry change. I was kind of a little upset and angry and wanted to write something a little harder and heavier. That was the first record I started singing a whole song in a death metal style, with ‘Dog Faced Gods’. So that kind of spawned onto the ‘Demonic’ record, the next one following it, and I got some fans saying that; “yeah, Iove it”, and then the old school fans said; “oh no, no, no, don’t do that”, so I was kind of being pulled both ways. But the songs on ‘Demonic’ just led me down that path to use that voice.
It must have been a difficult time to be in Testament.
Well yeah, it was. I mean, you never want to break up, but maybe we were just a little jaded from the success of everything going on. Losing the guys, that was just a bad, bad time. It was a bad time for the music, and our scene.
Moving forward the band reconvened in 2005 for the ‘Ten Days In May Tour’, with the original members coming back together. Was that the shot in the arm the band needed?
Well, before we had the reunion, we had a revolving door of drummers, guitar players and bass players coming through the band. Before we had the reunion we weren’t a full-on touring band, because at that point we never knew who was in the band, or who was available. It was just really, at the end of it getting kind of tiresome. So once we did the reunion, everybody came back and we all just said; “Should we carry on?”, and it turned into like four tours, and we really didn’t push the issue of writing a record; we said let’s just see if we can jam together and get along. And we did, and we succeeded, and at that point we decided; “okay, we’ve got a new record with all of us, the reunion; is everybody in? We’re going to go back to being the Old Testament and tour our asses off and be back right at it”. And I think that’s what turned the band around.
The band seems to be back to the peak of your powers. It must be a great feeling.
Yeah, it’s nice. We really covered some ground and put out two good records and toured a lot more as a full-time touring band, and it opened the door back up and like I said; the confidence, having everybody there; it was a good feeling. It’s almost like you’re going to finish something together you started. We are a band that’s coming up on thirty years here, and it’s tough to cross that line to get to the young audience, but we’re here, we’re doing it. We’ve still got our head on straight and we’re still a good strong band, and everybody still loves writing heavy metal. So until we break down and can’t do it, we’re going to keep on doing what we do.
What’s your favourite Testament album?
It’s tough. For me it’s a toss-up between ‘The Gathering’ and ‘Formation’. That’s what a lot of our set consists of; the newer material. Of course we throw some classics in there, but it’s more of the new stuff.
Is there any chance of dropping the song ‘Low’ back into the set?
You know we keep talking about it, and we keep wanting to do it, so there’s for sure a chance that we’ll be playing that. I think we did it at a sound check on the last tour because we were playing some extra songs, and I think we chose that. It was like; “ah, that’s a good one! We should bring that back”.
I wanted to get your take on the departure of bassist Greg Christian from the band as there was some negativity in the press about it.
That’s just Greg. Greg has his opinion on the band, and it’s unfortunate. Me and Eric [Peterson, guitarist] have carried the flag of Testament from day one and never left, whereas Louie [Clemente, drummer], Greg and Alex left for quite some time; I mean, Greg was gone eight or ten years. So when he come back into the original band, his expectation was; “okay, we’re going to carry on where we left off and I’m going to be an equal business member”, and that wasn’t going to happen. Greg sees it one way, and he just had the view that it’s not going to work for him and it wasn’t working for him, and then he decided that he was going to quit. So, when he quit the band we decided that we were going to get [Steve] DiGiorgio back in the group, because when we had the reunion, we kind of just pushed those guys to the side to make it happen.
Steve played on ‘The Gathering’ didn’t he?
Yeah. Steve was a great bass player and I love having him in the band, so when Greg left, I was like; “okay, cool, we’ll get Giorgio back in the band”, and he was glad to come back. But Greg didn’t remember that he had quit the band, and a couple of months later he calls and goes; “hey, we’re going to Australia”, and we were like; “no, you quit the band, we’ve got Steve in the band now, and he’s going to Australia with us”. And he didn’t understand that, and so that just kind of spawned into this episode online, and there you have it. *laughing*
Back to the U.K. dates, and the most talked about element of the tour is the ‘Thrash-N-Bowl’ show that’s taking place in London.
That’s going to be on my birthday, so it’s going to be fun. When we’re in America and we’re on our days off sometimes we go bowling just to get away from everything. I’m not that good, but when they asked us if we’d be into it, I was like; shoot, that sounds like a great thing, especially to connect with the fans and come hangout and bowl with them. It’ll be awesome. Will I be drinking as it’s me birthday? Oh yeah, for sure, I’ll probably be a mess that day!
Finally, as you’re going to be bowling, I have to ask; will the first strike be the deadliest?
It will! It will be the deadliest. Who’s likely to deliver it? Probably me. *laughing*
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Testament's U.K. tour kicks off in Oxford on 19th June. For tickets to all dates click on the links below.
Testament 2016 U.K. shows:
19th Jun – Oxford, O2 Academy
21st Jun - Leamington Spa, The Assembly
22nd Jun – Southampton, Engine Rooms
23rd Jun – London, Thrash’n’Bowl @ Brooklyn Bowl