Testament’s Chuck Billy Talks ‘Dark Roots of Earth,’ Favorite Metal Musicians + More
We recently had a lovely chat with Testament vocalist Chuck Billy. With Testament going strong after releasing their latest album, ‘Dark Roots of Earth,’ the band is set to conquer North America very soon through a winter trek with fellow thrash legends Overkill.
We spoke with Billy about ‘Dark Roots of Earth,’ how the album compares to their iconic discography, the setlist their fans can expect during the tour with Overkill, his all-time favorite metal musicians + much more.
Check out our exclusive interview with Testament’s Chuck Billy:
Congratulations on the success of ‘Dark Roots of Earth.’ Both fans and critics seem to love it and it reached No. 12 on the Billboard chart, which was your highest charting position ever. With the record industry in a weakened state across the board, what does that chart position mean to you personally?
Well, it’s definitely a big accomplishment for us. You always put your heart and soul into every record you do and I think this record was definitely a special record. We really wrote these songs and chose what we were going to put on the record by what leads us not by what critics and fans were gonna think.
When we came up with ‘Cold Embrace’ or even ‘Dark Roots of Earth,’ when we first heard it, it didn’t even cross our minds to think, ‘What is everybody going to think?’ The first thing we thought was, “This feels good, let’s go for it.” I think that’s what this record has above the other ones; the sense of confidence we came into while writing the songs. We took the risks and we’re just happy as a band and what we’ve accomplished.
It hit No. 12, after all is said and done, after what we put into it … it was awesome. It’s almost like our gut feeling paid off. We believed in it so much that everybody else did as well. [Laughs]
To be considered a ‘true’ thrash band you have to operate in some fairly narrow confines, but you guys have been able to put out albums again and again that sound very fresh and interesting. How do you keep your music sounding so fresh?
From when we started to where we are today, there have been a lot of bands that have a little Testament influence and over those years we’ve looked to those newer bands and have really gotten re-influenced off of them with the style and where metal’s gone and without trying to copy. I really wanted to stick to my style of singing and not really jump on what other bands are doing, but musically and production wise it’s just gotten better and better over the years.
There are a lot of great sounding records and great sounding bands. The hardest thing is to put out a great record and make it go off the same vibe live; that’s the toughest thing. When I see a band that’s just as good live as they are on the record, I really enjoy it. I think we took a full circle of people getting influenced off of us and we got influenced off them and I think the biggest thing is we still feel young at heart. We don’t feel like we’re a 30-year-old band; not feeling our age, put it that way. [Laughs]
Of those newer thrash bands that have inspired you, are there any in particular that inspired you the most for ‘Dark Roots of Earth’?
I don’t know about just one band, but there are a lot of bands we talk to all the way from Lamb of God to Shadows Fall. There are bands that I hear a little bit of that early thrash style and you see what they’re accomplishing, Lamb of God and bands like that. It’s all in the riffing and the style, you kind of go, ‘Okay I get it,’ and you apply it to what you’re doing in a small way.
A long time has passed since ‘The Legacy’ came out. How would you compare the songwriting and recording process from ‘The Legacy’ to ‘Dark Roots of Earth’? What are the most notable differences?
Well, we didn’t know anything about recording records when we did that record [‘The Legacy’], first of all. I mean, I listened to that record and I remember recording that record and the mic techniques we used and stuff … it was almost a joke actually. We were using condenser microphones on clothes hangers. I think back about it just going, “What the hell was that guy doing?” And when I listen to the record that’s why I hear the guitar sounding so small.
Things have just changed, we went from two-inch tape down to digital recording. I think there was a point there with digital recording, bands had a problem at first because you couldn’t get that warm, fat sound. Everything on digital boards and digital processing just sounded thinner. I think it took some time for engineers and people to really know what they wanted in a sense and figure out how to make those digital recordings sound fat like they were two-inch tapes. We went through the whole process from when we started to where we are now, and it’s night and day. Now you can make big sounding records through digital processing.
The songwriting … I think when Alex [Skolnick], Greg [Christian] and Louie [Clemente] left the band, it was just me and Eric [Peterson.] We were writing songs that were more riff oriented. The writing technique changed from the way it was before. We were just focused on the songs and the riffs. I think once Alex came back and the reunion happened, it was a matter of getting used to each other and comfortable with each other again.
We did the ‘Formation of Damnation’ record, it was the first step of bringing back that old style of writing together again and I think after that record and a bunch of years touring together, this new record was almost natural, just like the was it was [in the past]. We almost forgot about the way we wrote when me and Eric were the songwriters. It was a group effort to where we were thinking, “Okay, we’ve got to write a lead section here for Alex. Maybe we can do duel harmony guitars at the beginning.” The whole thought process was right there where it was at the beginning. I think that’s why a lot people say, “Yeah, I hear some of that early style in there.”
Speaking of the members of Testament, I saw you guys last year on tour with Anthrax and you had Gene Hoglan on drums. On this upcoming tour with Overkill can fans expect Gene to grace us with his presence?
Yeah, Gene pretty much signed on for the whole record cycle. I know he had Dethklok obligations so he had to miss one year of being on the road with us, but I don’t think Dethklok performs that often so I think he’s all ours right now for the rest of the record cycle. So yeah, he’ll be there.
You played your first show in India recently and you’ve now been added to litany of huge, important bands like Metallica and Iron Maiden who’ve gone there. Can you talk a little bit about that experience, playing in India?
I really enjoyed it, it was definitely an experience and kind of what I’ve learned by traveling the world is that a metal fan in the Bay Area has the same look and energy as a metal fan in the India: black shirts, long hair, banging their head. I think the experience was exciting for us because we had never been there after 25-30 years. There are a lot of people on the light crew, the sound crew, everybody who worked on the show seemed to be really excited because they’d been Testament fans for a long time and had never seen us. The excitement for them was pretty big, they were all very excited, which makes us even more pumped up like, “Man, we’ve really got to perform well because they’re expecting a lot.”
It was pretty cool because we had such a big repertoire of songs to play for them and we played extra songs that we didn’t rehearse, that we just threw in there and pulled off on the fly. It was an awesome festival, I would definitely love to go back there again to experience the culture. We only had a day to really sightsee, so we went around and checked out the temples and microbreweries are a big thing there now so we went and tested the local micro beers.
It was a really wild experience driving around the city because they seem to just drive wherever they want to drive … going the wrong way, there’s really no lines of traffic, it’s just kind of a free for all. The greatest thing was watching these families on Mopeds, they have the mother and the father and the kids and the little baby on handlebars, the grandmother sitting side-saddle in the back … they put like five or six people on a Moped in all this crazy traffic. Amongst all that crazy traffic was just people with their kids walking across the street. No one got hit, nobody got hurt, it was just the way it was. That blew me away. Traveling in traffic was just mind-blowing. [Laughs]
This year, 2013, marks the 30th year of Testament. Do you have any plans coming up to celebrate this milestone?
We keep talking about trying to do a special show or a special major city tour or maybe a different country tour where we play either ‘The Legacy’ front to back or maybe even ‘Dark Roots’ front to back, but it’s all just talk so we’ll see what happens. We have to get our agent on board and promoters on board with the idea, but we definitely want to do something special. I think when we did ‘The Legacy’ and ‘The New Order’ record back to back, we got a great response. The fans really wanted to see something special like that, so we’re definitely open to doing something cool like that.
On this upcoming tour with Overkill, another thrash band that had a very strong 2012, what can we expect in terms of your set and how important is it for Testament to perform new songs as opposed to the classics?
It’s very important, actually. When we re-formed with the original lineup, our set consisted mostly of the classic stuff because those were the songs that all of us wrote together. They weren’t really on the ‘Low’ record, ‘Demonic’ or ‘Formation’… any of those records. We tended to play more classics, but I think just talking to the band, there seems to be a consistency on what people tell us about how Testament’s sound doesn’t sound like a dated band and that we have a modern sound; that’s a great compliment to us.
We don’t want to be a nostalgic band and just play the classics. We want to show who we are today and what we’ve evolved to. If people are saying that we sound more current, then let’s play some more current stuff in our show. On the Anthrax tour, we played a lot of classics. We tried to mix it up with both, but coming out on this Overkill tour we definitely have a new set. We’ve got six or seven new songs in the show, so we’re leaning toward playing the more modern stuff we’re doing. I think new fans to the band who hadn’t been around in the early years, I think they’re going to be happiest hearing the songs they recognize in the records they’ve bought over the last 10 years.
When you think of each instrument in a band in the world of thrash, who do you think is the best at playing each instrument?
I’d say Kerry King [Slayer] is a master rhythm player. If it was up to me, Michael Schenker [Scorpions, UFO] is one of the best lead guitar players. Man, it’s tough between Gene Hoglan and Dave Lombardo [Slayer]. They have to be two of the better drummers I’ve played with. Bass players: Steve DiGiorgio [Death, Sadus] is probably one of the best bass players I’ve jammed with. Vocalists: I’ve got a top three … I love Ronnie James Dio, Rob Halford [Judas Priest] and Bruce Dickinson [Iron Maiden].