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Return to Serenity

Testament vocalist Chuck Billy speaks about changing labels, performing with the classic line-up again and why he thinks the new Megadeth record is amazing

Bobin James May 10, 2010

Formed in 1983 in San Francisco, Testament, have in the subsequent quarter century, emerged as one of the essential thrash metal bands. While they didn’t quite manage to go as high up the charts as some of their contemporaries, Testament remained a force to reckon with in heavy metal. “We decided that we were gonna write heavier music for ourselves and be underground. And that was a hard decision,” explains singer Chuck Billy, one of the only two constant members in the band. (The other being guitarist Eric Peterson.) But that decision meant that they kept making music that pulled no punches. Their 2008 album, The Formation of Damnation, also saw a reunion of sorts, with founding members Alex Skolnick (guitars) and Greg Christian (bass) coming back. One of the best metal albums of that year, Formation is proof that thrash is alive and kicking. Right before the band left to support Megadeth on a month-long Rust in Peace twentieth anniversary tour, alongwith Exodus, Billy took time out to speak to us.

How have you been, Chuck?

I’ve been fine. Just getting ready to hit the road in a few days”¦

And what is the news with the band? I believe you are working on a new album?

Well, we’re working on a new record right now, but we’re leaving this week to go with Megadeth and Exodus. Then once we get back, we get right back to work writing the record.

How far is the record done now?

Ummm”¦ overall, four or five tracks into it. But you know, nothing is written yet. We are still sort of jamming around. But I would definitely hope to see it out sometime this year.

So there are no specific dates as of right now?

Well, we have set ourselves a goal to get into the studios by at least May. That’s the goal we’ve set for ourselves. If we do get in there, I would think it should be out by September. If not, early next year.

I see. And are there any album names yet?

Not yet. That usually happens around the end of the writing. That’s when we really start getting a fix on the direction.

Chuck, the 2008 album, ”˜Formation of Damnation,’ that was your first album with Nuclear Blast. Two parts to this question: One, why the shift? And two, how’s it been with the new label?

Well, the shift was something we had been wanting to do for a long time. We’d been talking to Nuclear Blast for the last ten years. We’ve always joked around, you know. They kept asking us, “When are you gonna come to Nuclear Blast?” And we kept saying, “When are you gonna buy us off the contract?” So that was an ongoing joke for ten years. And then one day we heard through the grapevine that Spitfire Records had sold the label to a company called Sheridan Square in America. And when we called Sheridan Square, we said, “You know, we are Testament, what’s going on? We understand that you have bought the record company.” And they said, “Well, we are not releasing anything but gospel music.” So we said, “Okay, so where does Testament fit in?” They said, well, we really didn’t fit in their organisation so they gave us our walking papers. We got out of our contracts and got all of our other records back as well. So the very next call was to Nuclear Blast. Hey guess what, we are out of the contract and we got all our records. So it happened pretty fast. Next thing you know Nuclear Blast had a contract out for us just a week later. And off we went.

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And how’s the support been from the label so far? With the new album too?

It’s been wonderful. Over the last couple of years before we signed, we’d see the guys at Nuclear Blast, and we were joking about the company and the label we were on. None of them ever made the effort of ever coming to one of our shows. It was  very odd. The very first time we met the Nuclear Blast crew, fifty people were on our guest list from Nuclear Blast”¦ and we were like, “Holy smokes! We couldn’t get anyone to come before and now we have fifty people here!” [laughs]. So it was a pretty awesome feeling. And they really were all metalheads and they all loved the music and supported the music of the band and it was such a good feeling. I was like, “Wow, I knew we should have been here a long time ago.”

Better late than never. Chuck, ”˜Formation’ sounded like you guys were really really back in the groove again. How is it working with the classic line-up again?

When you perform with the original line-up”¦ We’ve performed with a lot of great musicians who replaced them, but with the original guys playing the songs, you play with much more confidence. And I don’t know, it’s better pleasure, because you actually wrote and created these songs with these guys and it’s the four of them that are back. So it’s a really good feeling. We’re out with the band now on the last record and touring. It’s working pretty good for us now.

Chuck, a lot of Testament fans feel that the band never really got its rightful place in the history of thrash. Do you feel bitter about that? I personally believe that Testament has always remained an underrated band when it came to thrash metal. There were a lot of bands that made it huge commercially, but unfortunately, Testament never reached that level. Testament, to a large extent, had a cult following”¦

Yeah, I understand. And you know, a lot of it was to our choosing. We’ve also had those years with Atlantic Records and the major labels were”¦ there was a lot more radio play, MTV play, a lot more exposure. Then the Nineties hit and we decided that we were gonna write harder and heavier music for ourselves and kind of be underground. And that was a hard decision. But we stuck with what we did and as things turned out, heavy metal is pretty healthy right now. And it’s like a full circle right now. It’s getting popular and getting heavy rotation on radio and MTV. So for a band like us, Testament, to actually still be putting out some good music and that we’re doing it with the original guys makes it more special for us”¦

As you just mentioned, there is this sort of a thrash revival happening right now. There’s a lot of new bands coming up with thrash records and there are a whole lot of the older bands coming up with newer records, very strong records. Why do you think there is this renewed interest in thrash, or metal as a whole?

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Well, there is a certain energy about it. I mean, I think, thrash style is a very energetic rebellious style of music. Of course, it’s definitely something that’s not easy listening music [laughs]. You’ve definitely got to be in the mood for it. So I think a lot of the young bands have probably seen some of us. As you said, we have been doing a lot of stuff ourselves”¦ Megadeth, Slayer and all of them”¦ We’ve been doing it for years when metal wasn’t as popular. But it’s just great. We are all still here putting out relevant kind of music and even the new fans are enjoying it and we are enjoying it as well. Because I get inspired by these bands, because I enjoy the thrash style of music. So they inspire me”¦ they get me fired up. So it’s like a full circle of metal.

Are there any new bands that have particularly caught your attention?

There’s a lot. I like the thrash style bands. Some of my favourite bands like Soilwork and The Haunted and even Exodus, that’s thrash style music. There’s some new bands, like the new Throwdown record. The band sounds great on it. I like that a lot right now. That’s the latest thing I’ve been listening to.

Did you manage to listen to any of the new records from Slayer, Megadeth, Metallica? All in the last year, year and a half”¦

Of course. I think the Metallica record [Death Magnetic] is a great record. It’s stuff that the fans have been waiting for and they delivered it. That’s great for metal, for the biggest metal band in the world probably to come out and get metalheads excited again is a great thing. That I thought was great. The new Megadeth record [Endgame] kicks butt. I think the guitar playing on it is just incredible and Andy Sneap is one of my favourites, so the production on it is just amazing.

The latest news is that the original bassist, Dave Ellefson, is back in Megadeth”¦

Yeah, that’s the thing. That’s a statement for itself. I’d seen Dave a couple of days ago and he told me about it. And I asked him, “Well, who took the first step?” And he said, “Well, we’re really not sure”¦ we’ll sit down and figure out how it all happened.” So in the next couple of weeks, I guess, we’ll get the details.

Very soon, you are touring with Slayer and Megadeth. Some people think there are going to be big egos that are going to be involved. What’s your take on it?

Not at all. I think that’s just someone trying to stir up something. We’re gonna have a great time”¦

And any chance of that tour coming to this part of the world, to India?

Shit, I’d hope. That would be great, wouldn’t it? [Laughs] We’re still waiting for our invitation [laughs]. We’d almost stopped there last year and then it didn’t happen, but I hope to see you guys soon.

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