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Interview: Testament

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Californias Testament have enjoyed a long and storied career.

Testament

Thirty years after emerging from the same scene that gave birth to fellow thrash legends Metallica, Slayer and Megadeth, the band have played all over the world and are now preparing to unleash their eleventh album.

“We grew up in the 80s and in the Bay Area, which at the time was more glam metal and punk rock,” recalls Testament’s front-man Chuck Billy.

“When the thrash metal by Exodus and Metallica really started to make some noise, a lot more bands – Death Angel, Forbidden, Testament – started popping up. And I actually think we drove the glam bands out of the Bay Area, and that’s how it started to become known for the thrash metal. But we didn’t realise what was going on; we just all came from that punk scene, but were a little more aggressive with long hair and leather jackets instead of skinheads and mohawks.

“So it was something new and it had a new vibe, a lot of the same people and fans and friends and bands all went to the same shows and hung out at the same venues and went to the same parties. Sometimes we all ended up at the Metallica house or [then-Exodus vocalist] Paul Baloff had a party at his place. We didn’t realise how special it was, but now looking back, it was actually that time that was really making a mark on history for this style of music. We’re honoured to have been there, at the beginning of all of that.”

A great deal of metalheads view San Francisco’s Bay Area with rose-tinted glasses, hailing it as the birthplace of extreme metal but, according to Chuck, “There isn’t a scene like there was.”

“There’s not as many clubs to play: there’s a small handful. Back then you used to be able to go to [local venue] the Stone and watch the first band on, then go across the street to Mabuhay Gardens and watch the band going on in the middle, and then go up the stairs to Rock on Broadway and catch the headliner. You could literally go to four shows on the same street. It’s just not like that anymore. And back when the music was growing, we had MTV and even FM radio was playing heavy metal during drive-time traffic.

“There’s none of that, there’s no radio playing metal anymore, no MTV, so it’s definitely changed. It’s harder to get exposure, unless you just get out there on the road.

“But the internet did pick up the slack, I believe. Most bands that are lacking in exposure now have the internet and YouTube: you can really create something on your own.

“There’s not a lot of bands that go platinum anymore, unless you’re Adele. People bought more physical records back then and now, everything’s done through download. I just think there’s something that’s missing; growing up in my era, I had vinyl. I sat back with the record, put it on, looked at the cool art and read the lyrics, and it’s just not as fun doing that with a CD. It’s so small, you can barely read the print, the graphics aren’t as good… we lost something.

“Unfortunately, the new generation doesn’t know that. All they know now is the download era, and maybe they’re younger and don’t have room for a big collection like we did.

“But I actually went to see Metallica performing at the Record Store Day in Berkeley a few weeks ago, which was wonderful. And it’s good that they have that and that people are starting to recognise and push vinyl. More labels are putting out vinyl for every audience now, when it used to be just a specialty for a band to release a record, but now it’s standard.”

Thirty years down the line, Testament are now getting set to release their eleventh studio album, which Chuck confirmed will “definitely” be entitled Brotherhood of the Snake.

“The Brotherhood of the Snake was actually a society about 6,000 years ago that debarred all religions. It was just a fascinating topic that caught our eye and attention and spawned a lot of songs. We’re going with that vibe.

“There will be some songs that deviate, but the majority will be around that and aliens and religion. Then I’ll probably tap into my native heritage and write some songs about that. It’s not just going to be one concept, but there is some interesting stuff that we’re finding to write about.”

The hardest part about the production for the band “is that we don’t live near to each other. We’re not like a normal band where we’re like ‘Oh, we’ll see you at the studio, we’re jamming tomorrow.’

“Alex [Skolnick, lead guitarist] lives in New York, Eric [Peterson, rhythm guitarist] lives in San Diego, and me and Steve [DiGiorgio, bassist] are the only ones that still live in the Bay Area. So when it’s time to rehearse or go on-tour, they bring everybody in together to practice. It’s not the easiest way to write when we’re going through that stage. It’s like ‘We’re writing, OK, everyone send in stuff through email.’ That’s the hardest part of it, but I think it keeps us focused on the song a little more, so it has its ups and downs. I still like getting together and kicking around thoughts in the studio with the band.”

Chuck has been singing with Testament non-stop since 1985, and as a result has to keep a very disciplined regimen in order to keep his vocals at the level of aggression the music demands.

“I don’t think there’s a trick to it, I just think it’s like anything you do in life. If you start lifting weights and you do that for a long time, you’re gonna get pretty strong and know what you’re doing. Same kinda philosophy, I’ve been doing it long enough. I don’t go out and sing until I warm up, and I think I’m less harsh on myself than when I was younger.

“Back then I was a party maniac: half the time I was hungover on-tour and I felt I didn’t give the fans 100% because I wasn’t 100%. So at some point, it was all about the fans and putting on a good show and not being hungover all the fucking time.

“Over the years, I’ve learnt to take care of myself, take care of my voice and that it’s about the show, not the party. I’m all grown up now, been doing this for thirty years; it’s about the performance now, so I’m really focused on the voice and I think I have the hardest job. I tell the guys: ‘Yeah, you can play seven days a week and strum the guitars, but I gotta sing.’ It’s not as easy, so I always have to make sure that I don’t do too much. And it really is the song selection, because if I were to put together a show that was a lot of stuff off [1997’s] Demonic with a lot more death metal, I would probably trash my voice. Back when I did that record, those tours for that year, I really put some abuse on my voice. So it really is the song selection as well.”

But the singer hasn’t ruled out playing a handful of heavier tracks for their upcoming UK tour, which will cover four dates in June with support from Savage Messiah and Broken Teeth.

“We just did a tour with Slayer and Cannibal Corpse before that so we brought out some pretty heavy, death stuff and it felt really good. It was rad to stick with songs we hadn’t played in a while, it worked really well. We play a lot of the same songs when we go to Europe, so it would be nice to come over there and play some different stuff we haven’t done in a long time.”

The band also plans to hold the first (and only) “Thrash n’ Bowl” event on the tour, letting fans join them on a lane as part of the VIP package before their show in London.

“Our agent came to us with it. When we tour the US, on our days off we bowl. It’s something we’ve done in the past when on-tour, so when we were asked if we were interested in the Thrash n’ Bowl we were like ‘Hell yeah! That sounds good!’

“And it happens to fall on my birthday [23rd June], so it’s gonna be a little special event. And it’ll definitely be good to hang out and connect with the fans, I’m really looking forward to that one.”

In closing, Chuck comments that “I’d just like to say to all the fans out there that we apologise for not doing a proper UK tour in a long time, but we’ll play these four shows and once we’ve got the new record we’ll plan another UK run.”

Between this upcoming UK tour, the Thrash n’ Bowl, and Brotherhood of the Snake in September, Testament fans have a great deal to look forward to in the latter half of 2016.

Testament are playing four UK shows in June with Savage Messiah and Broken Teeth.

Testament’s Thrash n’ Bowl event will occur at London’s Brooklyn Bowl on 23rd June.

Testament’s eleventh album, Brotherhood of the Snake, is expected for release in September 2016 via Nuclear Blast Records.

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