Back on the road with latest album ‘Brotherhood of The Snake’, Testament have been selling out shows all across Europe, reaching new heights in a career that’s endured for over three decades. It hasn’t always been his way however, as bassist Steve Di Giorgio knows all too well; “The band had to come out of the darkness”, he tells us. We sat down with Steve to talk changing times, his return to the brotherhood, and his unlikely stint with Sebastian Bach. Riding the snake; Eamon O’Neill.
Hi Steve, how are you today?
I’m excellent. We had an early morning ferry crossing, so the sleep patterns are a bit off, but for now, I’m awake.
Testament are coming to the end of your current run of dates; how has it been?
It’s been excellent. This run has been extremely enlightening. The shows have been great, but a lot of Testament shows are great. That’s just an observation. The shows are great, but the travels; we went through Scandinavia and Finland, Russia, Israel, and now were here in the U.K., and Ireland today, and what a mix; it’s not quite a straight line, so culturally, and the human side of it has been very interesting.
You used the word ‘enlightening’ to describe the shows; what exactly do you mean by that?
Less monotony, less repetition, more culture. It’s the first time for almost everyone in Israel. The promoter took us to the old Jerusalem town, and that was the first time for any of us to walk those old stone streets, so that was different. In Finland, we had some time off and went and saw a band called Stickmen, which was the King Crimson rhythm section; Tony Levin and those guys. So yeah, we did things that were a little bit out of the ordinary. Sometimes tour life, a lot of it’s self-imposed, and you tap yourself into a dull routine until show time. Obviously, that’s the highlight, and it’s what we’re here for. So yeah, it’s enlightening; just meeting a lot of different people and it’s just been a different run.
The Israel show has popped up on a few news sites; does it sadden you a that spotlight was put on that?
Well, I’m not so naïve. It’s a hot topic in the world, and people love to spew out what they believe should be, or what it shouldn’t be. I’m glad Alex [Skolnick, guitarist] said something. It’s a little more eloquent, and it’s his heritage. He’s born in California, and he’s an American, but he is Jewish, so it’s good for him to speak on it because the rest of us are completely unqualified. I would love to lash back, but I keep my mouth shut because apologies is not my arena. We’re not here to make a stand with anyone; I don’t care if someone is Jewish or Palestinian or freakin’ Irish - they’re music fans. I’m a musician, they’re a fan, and that’s the 100% reason we go places. But like I said, I’m not ignorant to what’s going on in the world, and it sucks, and you’d be a fool to think that you can isolate yourself from it.
Of course, a lot of nights we’ll post up the ‘bow’ picture – the end of night photo where we have the crowd behind us – and sometimes it’s the flag of where we are, and we’ll hold it up for them, just to show respect for the people that come to show us respect. So there’s a million pictures of us holding up flags, for those reasons. So, here we are holding up this badly printed Israeli flag – it you notice the little star in the middle is kind of crooked, and I don’t know if that’s an ignorant print job, or if there’s some sort of hidden, clandestine fucking illuminati meeting – I don’t care! And that’s the point of it all; we don’t care! Not like; “Fuck you, we don’t care” – we just don’t invest in taking a stand, and I’m glad Alex went out and said; “You can hate, and support, all in the same”, and it was cool that he said that. And I hope people understand that we definitely don’t have a political message, or a stance.
Moving on, and this is your second stint in Testament. You first joined in 1998 for ‘The Gathering’, which came out at a difficult time for metal.
Metal, in general, the scene went through a hard time, and Testament was victim to that. It was a rough time, and they went through a lot of incarnations; of not only member-changing, but sound, and trying to reinvent it. But the pieces just fell into place for ‘The Gathering’. We had Slayer’s drummer [Dave Lombardo] available.
That was an incredible line-up for that album.
When I got a call; “Hi, this is Eric Peterson, we’re looking for a bass player”, I was like; “Meh”. I told the guys from the beginning - and it’s a funny joke now I’ve just completed my tenth total year in the band - that I wasn’t a huge fan. I didn’t hate them or anything, but the local bands I was into were more like Possessed; a little bit heavier. They didn’t need my support; they were on MTV, they were on FM radio doing just fine! Also, you don’t want to say yes for the sake of it; you’ve got to give it your all, and if it wasn’t something I liked, I’m not going to thrust that on them. But it was cool, because they said; “Just drive out here and listen to our new stuff and let me know”. So we sat in his pickup truck and played a cassette tape, and he goes; “What do you think?”, and I said; “Man, I mean this in all ways of a compliment; it sounds like a Slayer jam, in a killer way”, and he goes; “That’s funny, because I’m going to tell you a secret; that’s Slayer’s drummer; we’ve got Dave Lombardo”. So let me get this straight; you need a bass player, and you’re asking me to play on a Slayer-sounding Testament album with Dave Lombardo? I don’t need to think about it, let’s go! It was awesome, and it only got more awesome from there.
Your time in the band came to an end when the original line-up reunited in 2005.
I saw it developing. They were rebuilding and mending the bridges with former members a little bit as I was travelling with them. The previous members had all moved to different areas, so when we would come through on tour, they would reach out and invite them down to talk about old times. There was a healing, a reconnecting going on, and I saw it, and so when they had the offer to do the reunion, it was inevitable. Fortunately for me, I walked right out of that straight into the band from the lead singer of Skid Row, so I didn’t have any time to worry about anything as I had to go to work on a whole new, weird adventure. I wouldn’t trade it for anything, it was awesome.
What was it like working with Sebastian Bach for the ‘Angel Down’ album?
Dude, there’s not one word to sum it up; he’s a lot of everything! But, I consider him a friend. He got me in the line-up, and we got on great. Sebastian made it clear to all his new line-up that he wasn’t reinventing himself, but he was re-establishing his love for his heavier side. His absolute mentor is Rob Halford. He never said; “I want to make my solo band like Judas Priest”, but he definitely said; “I’m looking towards Priest”, and the music we were playing in the dressing room was like Motörhead. He was not playing Cinderella and White Lion and shit like that.
So Sebastian had a specific direction in mind for that album?
He was making it clear that he wanted to do what he wanted to do. We performed a lot of the Skid Row songs because that’s what he’s known for, but he always made sure that he did the material that we wrote with him. And he told us for sure; “I want you guys to be you. Don’t think you need to come in here and be the next Skid Row, or look a certain way, like L.A.-style.” There was none of that; I was from the heavy side, and we were from nothing even remotely similar to Skid Row. He wanted that, and he loved it.
Were you familiar with the Skid Row catalogue when you signed up for working with Bach?
Absolutely not. At the point that I accepted the gig, I drove to my friend’s house that I knew listened to that music, and I said; “I’ve got to crash course”. Now, when he started playing some of it, I recognised the sound of it, but I couldn’t call who played it. I favoured the stuff off the third album. ‘Frozen’ is awesome, and Sebastian really appreciated that I pointed that out, because that was a legitimate album for them, it just didn’t do good. His singing evolved, and I guess it was tamer, or controlled, and you can tell he was on his third album.
How did you enjoy the live shows with Sebastian Bach?
When you get on stage you see how much people really love that stuff. My background was, the first few rows was a dog pile; it was basically a wrestling match with people beating the shit out of each other. That’s where I come from, and then I join his band, and the first few rows are women in fishnets crying with mascara running down their face! It was totally different for me. It was an experience. I’m glad I got to be a part of it, because the younger me would have just said; “Absolutely never!” I’m glad because, I stuck around for two years, and I helped him write his first solo album. Two tracks on that I wrote completely, with him writing all the lyrics. He encouraged everyone; he was wide open, really cool to work with, and very excitable.
Back to the present day, and you re-joined Testament in time for ‘Brotherhood Of The Snake’, which Chuck Billy has said was a difficult album for the band.
No, not at all. They were in good stride. When you refer to the recording, it was more like brain-racking, like hard work difficult, but it wasn’t negative, really. It’s like climbing a mountain; it’s hard, but the view is great when you get there.
With a lot of the dates sold out on this headline run, you must see some big changes from your first time with Testament.
Huge changes, huge. Yeah, I did from ’98 to ’04, and I came back in ’14, and so the ten years I was gone, everything had gone up. Just standing on the stage was different. I felt like Iron Maiden Jr.; they had production. We always had a nice backdrop and stuff, but we never brought anything really props-wise. That’s so important to the band now, and I see the value in production, in performance; it’s a big picture. Everything is way higher on a professional level.
Have you seen a big increase in the fan base too?
Yeah. ‘The Gathering’ is big now because there’s been so much time since its release, but when it first came out, it needed a starting point, and the band had to come out, still, of the darkness. ‘Low’  was a great album for them, but the scene wasn’t available to be as big as it potentially could have. ‘Demonic’  was a big change for the band, and it turned a lot of different heads, which is another form of a beginning. And then ‘The Gathering’ come out, and the scene itself was ready to re-emerge and explode again, so one fed the other. So, a lot of the tours following that album, we were still building it up, re-establishing the name, putting it back out there saying; “We know you’ve got ‘The New Order’ and ‘The Legacy’, but this is the new shit – this is what the band is now”. We had the ‘Low’ and ‘Demonic’ songs to mix in on that tour. And we were heavy; we were flying and vicious, and it was building the band up. But like I said, you have a starting point, and it got bigger.
Having played during a period when Alex Skolnick was absent; do you think it was important to have him back in Testment?
Yeah, it’s pretty obvious. He’s head and shoulders, by far the best musician in the band, and he’s a fan favourite. I mean, he’s a founding guy, and back in those days when bands had their guitar hero, he was very recognisable. And to have him here in this age, in this period of time, it’s great. He’s an amazing performer, and an important part of the show.
Finally, you’ve been back in the band a while now, but did it feel like a nice coming home for you, to be asked back?
Yeah. I mean, I knew what I was getting into, and they obviously called me back because they knew what they were getting. To come back was pretty easy on both sides. In fact, me, Gene [Hogland, drums] and Alex all returned. Alex was one of the founding members, but he was gone for a long time and he came back; Gene was in for a brief period and he came back; I was in for my stint, and I came back. So, you could say ‘revolving door’ if you want, but it’s a little more stable, and it shows; we have chemistry and we put a lot into the performance.
So the live shows are where it’s at for you?
It’s not only with the variety of the set list covering such a wide span of so many albums, but the production, the show, the lights; for so many years we had directors that just pushed buttons, and sometimes that was good enough, but that’s no longer acceptable, and we have a permanent lighting director who is a complete artist. Just looking at the fan photos after we’ve passed through, we’re like; “You’re making us look great!” So everything matters; good sound, good lights, good performance, good chemistry, good song list, and that in culmination with touring packages. I don’t want to leave this out, but the bands that we take out; Annihilator and Vader are heavy hitters, there’s no taking them lightly at all, and our previous tours with Death Angel, and Sepultura, and Prong, and supporting Amon Amarth and Slayer the year before that; the package deal is very important to a show too, so all of that stuff; boom! And that’s why we’re selling out.
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'Brotherhood Of The Snake' is available now, via Nuclear Blast Records.