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INTERVIEW: Chuck Billy, Testament – February 2014

| 1 March 2014 | Reply

INTERVIEW: Chuck Billy, Testament – February 2014
By Shane Pinnegar

Chuck Billy has been lead singer of Californian thrash metal titans Testament for 28 years, helming all ten of the band’s albums, and selling well over 1.4 million records in the US alone. In Australia for the 2014 Soundwave Festival, I got on the phone to California before the tour started, to find that the singer is looking forward to our summer weather.

Testament Chuck Billy 01

“Sure are,” he says with a throaty chuckle. “It’s getting cold here in California. It’ll be good to get down there to some warm weather.

“We [look forward to] the beach,” he continues. “I mean, I think the first time we came there, we stayed an extra week out on Bondi Beach in Sydney, and we had a great time just hanging out, enjoying the weather, and the beach, and all the people there seemed to be more laid back like California. Everybody was real nice and real friendly, and we all had a good time.”

This time around, Billy & his bandmates – Eric Peterson, Alex Skolnick, Gene Hoglan and Steve Di Giorgio – are planning a few days in Melbourne after the Festival completes its thundersome run around the country.

“Yeah. We got some friends that live there so, hopefully, we can get to spend some time there. We’re finding out when we first land in Brisbane that we can’t get into our hotel until later in the afternoon, so I think we’re supposed to go visit some koalas and, hopefully, hold some koalas and stuff like that. The first day there, so that should be interesting.”

Bassist Steve Di Giorgio was a member of Testament between 1999 and 2002, and has returned to the fold once again. Billy doesn’t have much to say about the circumstances surrounding Greg Christian’s latest departure from the band.

“Well, I think Greg,” he starts hesitantly, “he informed us that he wasn’t going to be participating on the new record release and that was his last tour with us. We knew we had Australia coming up, so, of course, Steve Di Giorgio was probably one of the first ones to come to mind. He did The Gathering record with us and we enjoyed that whole cycle of touring, so he was definitely, probably, our first choice. We didn’t want to go through auditions and do all that. We just knew that he was here, and he could do it, and it was killer.”

Mid 2013 Billy said in a couple of interviews that the band were ‘getting along really, really well’, and that he hoped that they were all going to stay together and make another record. Was there a particular reason that Greg just had enough of it?

“Well, I think that the last tour he just wasn’t getting along,” Billy states. “and he just decided that that was going to be the last tour with us, so we just kind of said, well, okay. I guess we’ll have to maybe look for what’s coming up in the future.’ You know – there’s nothing we can do.”

Testament - Dark Roots Of The Earth cover

2012’s Dark Roots Of The Earth album was Testament’s highest rating album in the Billboard charts, carrying on a career resurgence that started with 2008’s The Formation Of Damnation. After 30 years of the band, this success has certainly been a long time coming.

“Yeah,” agrees Billy, “I think we’ve kind of, from 2000 from The Gathering record up until the Formation record – I don’t know if it was just the climate of heavy metal, [but] promoters weren’t stepping up with great tour offers and the scene wasn’t as strong as it is now, and we weren’t really touring a whole hell of a lot. We were doing what we could.

“I think once we did the reunion and did The Formation record, I think we’ve been working hard right up to The Formation record and put that out and did a lot of touring, and then Dark Roots came out, and we did a lot of touring. I think we kind of built it back up to where we kind of can consider ourselves a full-time band again, where before it was kind of … just the timing wasn’t right.

“It’s all timing in the music business. Eric wrote some great songs for the last couple records.”

Testament 01

Billy says that work on a new Testament album is already underway.

“Well, Alex and Eric actually got together two weeks ago and started trading off riffs to see where it’s going to start, and we’re all going to get together here in a few weeks. We’re going to see what they came up with.

“Hopefully we’ll get it out by the end of this year; if not early next year.”

Looking back on Testament’s career as a band, Billy thinks they are in the best possible place now to create a killer record after having had this recent success and, as he said, being back to being pretty much a full-time band again?

“Yeah, I think so. I think we’re all pretty pleased where we’re at, and I think just metal in general is a lot stronger. Everybody over the last three, four, five years – and especially in America they’re coming a long ways as far as metal goes, and satellite radio’s giving a lot of exposure to this kind of music. Bigger things like Mayhem Festival and stuff like that that are going on here, so just getting better and stronger, and it’s like a whole new generation of younger fans, too, also popping up.”

Billy agrees that although listening to the radio one might think pop-indy hipsters were where it’s all at, but in reality there’s a really big underground swell that is saying ‘that stuff is shit and we want the metal back.’

“Exactly,” says the singer, “I wouldn’t think, ten, fifteen years ago, I’d be hearing Ozzy or Judas Priest in television commercials.”

After having those last couple of successful albums, does the band feel any more pressure to go in and make a quality follow-up?

Testament Chuck Billy 02

“Well, it always does. Every record you do we think is our best, and how’re we gonna top it, and somehow the songs just happen. I mean, I don’t know. I think especially coming off Formation and Dark Roots, they were really strong, So of course, we’re thinking, ‘Shoot. How are we going to … What are we going to do? How could we possibly do it?’ But I would be happy if we still wrote songs that were like coming off of those two records, I’d be pretty pleased.

Despite not selling the huge numbers of records that Metallica, Megadeth, Anthrax or Slayer have, Testament and Exodus are still often mentioned in the same breath as ‘The Big Four’ of thrash. Does the influential singer think it should be ‘The Big Six’ instead?

“Ummmmm, yeah, I mean, I don’t buy into that ‘Big Four’ thing…” he says, “but then, I kind of do, and I understand why they call it just ‘The Big Four’, because if you really look at the facts, those four bands back in our era, in the eighties – those bands were doing much bigger things than what we were. They were selling platinum records, doing big touring, and then grunge came out and wiped out heavy metal. I think bands like us – and, actually, there’s another wave of bands who were right in the pocket that were going to be up-and-coming, and then the ceiling fell out. I think when they say, it’s The Big Four, I think that it’s a true statement of where we were at that time compared to where we are. I would say, as of where we’re at today as a band and song writers, I think we’re right at a par with all of them.”

 

Certainly, whilst those four bands sold more records, Testament have a very real claim in terms of being influential to metal in the whole.

“Yeah, I agree. I agree that each band is from the same genre, but I think that everybody has their own identity, as well as style, that they’ve contributed.” He says.

Billy, a member of the Pomo tribe of Native Americans, is much respected amongst the Native American community, releasing songs like Allegiance and Native Blood, which encouraged pride in that heritage. Does he feel a responsibility of sorts to speak about his people?

“Yeah. I probably didn’t do it as much in the past,” he explains, “I don’t know, just I was more into metal. I didn’t think being Native American was really a part of that metal image. But while I was battling the whole cancer thing, I really crossed into that Native American train of thought and used my Native American heritage as kind of a crutch to get me through what I needed to get through the whole time.

“After making it out the other side, I just felt that it was a big part of my life and who I am, and all these little things started to kind of popping up because of my heritage. So I have been kind of incorporating them more into the music and what I do, and who I am. The video we did for the last record, Native Blood, won some awards at film festivals and it really made a big statement. I think maybe that the timing is right now for me to do that.

“I’ve travelled everywhere. I’ve seen all different indigenous cultures and traditions and different beliefs. Somehow, those indigenous cultures – I don’t know why, but indigenous people always kind of relate to the earth. The power of the earth. There’s a lot of faith and beliefs in that, you know.”

Testament 02

Billy also agrees that the US Government – like the Australian Government – treats it’s indigenous people with disrespect.

“It’s disrespect and a lack of a people or community or something, especially financially. They still have reservations [in the US], and they still are having their own government, police, fire and are kind of left to do their own thing. It’s still kind of mind blowing that where we are today you’d think we’d be getting more government assistance and help, stuff like that.”

At fifty-one, Chuck Billy is a thrash metal legend, he’s successfully battled cancer; has done countless tours with Testament and sold a couple million records, and more. Does being on the road still excite him to this day?

“Oh, yeah. I think that’s the payoff right now,” he agrees enthusiastically. “I’ll always love touring, and when we didn’t tour as much, I missed it a lot, but now that we’re touring more and we have a great band who are a bunch of good friends, we’ve got some great music to tour with. It’s exciting all over again, and especially makes it more exciting because there is a new generation of young fans that are discovering Testament. When they kind of learn the history of our band, they go back and find the old songs or records, it’s kind of exciting and cool – to talk to the younger generation and see thirteen, fourteen, fifteen-year-old kids coming up to you, like, ‘Wow, you’re the best, blah blah blah.’ It’s a thrill, and it makes you feel good.

Are you digging your place in the culture as a sort of an elder statesman of thrash and metal?

“I think so,” Billy says, “I think I’m right to the beginning stages of that. I get invited to do a lot of benefits or a lot of new things, like when I went to the NAMM show last week. I got invited to do the Metal Masters show with all the guys from Anthrax and Megadeth and Slayer – a lot of big-name people, and I got to be a part of that. It really made me feel like I’ve kind of established myself in the music scene for what I’ve done.”

Testament Chuck Billy 04

Of course, things could have gone very differently a couple of times. Billy was heavily into the booze and dope at one point and then in 2001 was diagnosed with cancer. Does it feel like he’s on his third wind or something at the moment.

“Totally like a third wind, especially now,” he laughs. “I don’t smoke pot. I try not to drink at all anymore, and it really shows on the road when I’m touring. I’ve got a lot more energy, and I’m sober and feeling good, and I’m excited for the performance and the show, and I think I’m singing stronger and better than ever. Everything’s firing better than it has when I was younger – like a fine wine.”

There was talk last year that Billy might be commencing work on his autobiography, partnering with his friend (and former Guns n’ Roses collaborator) Del James.

“Yeah. We’ve talked about it, we just haven’t really found the time yet.” He says. “I think this year might be a good time, because I’ll be writing a record, and I have a lot of time off this year. This might be the year to get that started.”

No doubt a lot of people will be very keen to read that and hear the singer’s perspective on the real metal scene and the birth of thrash.

“Yeah, I think I’ve got some great stories,” he says, “and some great memories – and I’ve got kind of a different life, coming from the Native American perspective, and then kind of like a pop culture scene.

“I look forward to it, and I really read a lot of biographies by musicians, and I really enjoy it. Its hearing and really seeing who these people are and what’s inside them. That’s always what people want to know, because when you do interviews, you just talk about who you are in a band, not who you are as a person. It’s good to do things like that, where people can really relate to your life.”
Soundwave Festival comes to Arena Joondalup in Perth on Monday 3 March 2014.

 

Shane

Category: Interviews

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