Testament interview with Chuck Billy: "Somehow, we feel like we are trying to finish something that we altogether started"

05/10/2012 @ 13:13
Testament have their own big history in the thrash scene and their new album "Dark Roots Of Earth" was the perfect chance to have a talk with the band’s frontman for almost the last 30 years, Chuck Billy. Because of his origin and the health problems that he has been dealing with, our talk included a few more topics than just music. Read below all the interesting things he had to say.

First of all, congratulations on your new album. Now that the pressure of its release has been lifted of your shoulders what do you think of it? Are you 100% satisfied with the result? Will you describe the sound of the album as modern thrash?
Yes, we are very pleased with the result. Every album we do, we want to make it sound better and better and I think that the direction we were trying to accomplish was that very sound of this new record. Vocally, I wanted to make vocals more understandable and without using so many effects on it. In the past records I used a lot of delay and reverb, but this time my vocals are pretty rough and pretty dry and I think that taking that approach it’s set up the rest of the mix by making a little bit bigger I guess. This time we wrote song just thinking about how we wanted them to sound, so as to make us happy because, you know, in the past whenever we were writing records among other thing we always concerned if the fans and the media were going to like it. We always thinking about that and that’s probably why we didn’t make more records the last ten years, because we were thinking maybe that’s not really the good time to write a new album. The thing that happened with "Dark Roots Of Earth" was that we stopped thinking about that, we were feeling good with putting out a new record and we said 'let's do it'. The approach I took with vocals was using more harmonies and melodies instead of going straight to the death metal voice and I think that gave a little bit different layer than the last one. It’s more like  the "Practice What You Preach" style.

TestamentHow did you choose to work with Andy Sneap this time? He did a perfect job by the way. In which way you think he helped you with the album?
He helped a lot because in the past we would record the music and vocals and everything and give them to Andy to mix them. In this record we had him in our studio in Bay Area and he tracked the all guitars, drums and vocals. Actually, Andy gave me a little more direction and pushed as far as producing the vocals. And by doing it he really helped me out trying some different things and different notes. And that’s the big help we got from him, by having a little more control from the start to the finish and that was the key of how the record finally came up.

I understand that "Dark Roots Of Earth" is doing remarkably well at the U.S. charts. In fact, it got you your highest position on the Billboard 200 list, reaching number 12. What would you say made this possible, considering the overall decrease of the albums' sales as well as the fact that it came out during a time of the year that is considered 'commercially dead'?
Actually that was the record label decision for releasing the new album. I know that’s not the best time of the season, but the reason that it went so remarkably well maybe have to do with the lack of other releases, I don’t know. I think that the thing that pushed the sales was that Nuclear Blast has done a really fantastic job with the marketing and promoting and the campaign was really good. They started a month or two before the record came out giving some teaser songs and the video clip. So, it was a really good campaign before the album hit the streets. Another fact was that the metal fans were impatient because no other heavy metal album was coming out at that time, so it was perfect for us.

TestamentYour two previous records had a 9-year gap between them, while your new album reduced the gap from its predecessor to 4 years. Can Testament fans expect a more consistent band, now that you have surpassed the lineup's instability and health problems? Do you feel like you're back on track nowadays?
After "The Gathering" record I didn’t think that I would play music anymore. I was trying to beat cancer and live my life. We had the reunion in 2005 and it was not that we had a tour or something like that, but after that the one show turned to be 5 which turned to be 10 and the number kept growing and after three years of touring with the original lineup we spoke and agreed to make a record, so we came up with the "The Formation Of Damnation". We enjoyed that and the writing process was like it was in the old days. Since I got sick in 2001 we stopped being a touring band. We played some shows here and there (but not touring hard) and when we had the original lineup together , so we all sit together and agreed that we were going to tour hard again and do as many shows as we can and for "The Formation Of Damnation" we did in a couple of years almost one hundred shows. That was the time that we realized that we still were having fan, we were doing ok, we wanted to do another record, so that’s how we came up with the last one. Working with the original lineup we feel more confident because we know how the thing works. Somehow, we feel like we are trying to finish something that we altogether started, which is a good feeling.

TestamentSo, we have to expect another album in the future?
Oh yeah, definitely. We toured about three years for "The Formation Of Damnation" and took almost a year to write the new album, but I don’t think that we’re going to take that gap. Yes, we’re going on tour for two or three years, but in the meantime we will try to write some material for the new album. We have such a good chemistry right now that we should try to take advantage and try to write more songs.

The lyrics of "Native Blood" are dealing with your Native American heritage, an issue which you have revisited in "Trail Of Tears" and "Allegiance". What's the difference of the song's meaning compared to the aforementioned songs? And how important is your ancestors’ heritage for you?
I wrote that song because I’m a Native American, but it’s really about indigenous people who have something to say, who have a voice and an opinion and that’s what the song really is about. But I wrote it through my interpretation, from Native American perspective. I never really sang a lot about this subject for over a hundred and more songs, but when I got sick in 2001, I got back to my native roots, I saw a couple of medicine men and tried to solve my problem and it got part of my life for sure.

TestamentYou've also released a video for "Native Blood", which included some members of your family, if I'm not mistaken. Can you share some details on that?
When I wrote this song I knew that probably would be the one that we‘d shoot a video for and I had the vision for how I wanted it to look. I mean I knew that we‘d use the dancers and how the story should be like, but I didn’t know if we could accomplish it with the budget we had. When I contacted the director and gave him my ideas, he liked it and tried his best and regarding the time spent and the money we had, he made that video looked probably better from some of the videos we shot in the 80’s, even though we spent a hundred thousand dollars back in the day. So, I think he did a great job with the money we had to work with. It was great because it’s more than a video. We shot it in our reservation, our property and a lot of the people from the reservation showed support. They came to the video shooting, the kids were hanging out and everybody was exited because we stayed there for three days, we had the dancers dancing and there was really a kind of gathering. I met family members that I haven’t met before, so it was bigger than just a video shoot. Because of that video we were contacted by the Native American film festival which is going to happened on November 10th this year. They contacted us and wanted us to enter the video in the film festival which is a great honor for us to do that.

TestamentAre you willing to pursue to keep Gene as a full-time member?
I don’t know what a full-time member means, but Gene is here to travel with us in the whole record cycle and be our drummer.

So you don’t know if he is going to continue with you?
He wants to, but I don’t know if that means he is a Testament member. He definitely wants to record and be part of the band.

The 2001's benefit concert Thrash Of The Titans has undoubtedly been a milestone for the following years for the whole Bay Area scene, as many bands have reunited and recorded new albums since then.
Definitely, I didn’t realize at the time the significance of what was happening. It was really good and moving, all that bands been together and reunited for that special show and started to make albums and write great music again

Are there any touring U.S./ Europe plans? Is Greece included perhaps?
Actually, we are getting ready to play live in two weeks with Anthrax and Death Angel for the third leg of the fall tour. We are coming to Europe in November for a couple of weeks but right now we are still working things and don’t know for sure

TestamentYou've also recently released a new album with Dublin Death Patrol, where you joined forces with Zetro Souza, your brothers Eddie and Andy, and Laaz Rockit's Willy Lange, among others. I guess it's safe to say that DDP is more of a family than it's a band, right?
It’s a fan project and, not a band to take seriously. It’s something that we put together just to have fan and it turned to be something more than that. We make some albums, we did some shows, but that’s pretty much the extend of it

You started out as a seven-piece band, yet you welcomed four more members to reach a total of eleven. How do things really work for a band this big?
That’s because we use two drummers, three bass players, four guitar players and two singers. We were just friends that grew together in Dublin and there were a lot of friends from Dublin that wanted to perform in the record, so we just let the door open and everybody was welcome to join us.

How you see the thrash scene now?
I think that the scene is stronger than ever. In the 90s it was struggling, but then 2000 came along, there’s a lot of new metal bands making good name of themselves and I think there is a whole new generation of young fans out there that enjoy thrash metal.

Thank you very much for your time, Chuck!
Thank you too.