By the time they hit Dallas, TX on October 28, Testament had already gotten slightly less than half way through their tour with Anthrax and Death Angel. Yet it’s likely not going to get any less hectic for the Bay Area thrash legends, as they’re about to put the finishing touches on their new album The Dark Roots Of Earth (due out in late April/ early May).
That’s why we were fortunate that singer Chuck Billy took a moment to talk with Metal Insider during some downtime while in Dallas. During our talk, Billy discussed how the tour with Anthrax came to fruition, his take on the hype surrounding the Big 4, recording and playing again with Gene Hoglan (though he does reveal that they originally approached Slayer’s Dave Lombardo when drummer Paul Bostaph’s injury sidelined him), and how celebrating the band’s legacy had a major effect on new music.
As we speak, Testament is on the road with Anthrax and Death Angel, a tour we’ve all been really excited for. However, when you first let it slip about the tour this past Summer, Overkill was originally mentioned. Then Overkill announced that they weren’t on the tour. What exactly happened?
Well I don’t know. I have no idea. I just heard all four bands, and then I heard they weren’t going to be on the tour. So I have no idea what happened.
So you found out about it with all of us?
Yeah, just like everybody else.
Well how did the tour actually originate? Who approached who?
Well originally Anthrax and us had the same management. So that’s what kind of started it. Then our booking agent started talking to Anthrax’s booking agent, and that was just the start of what brought it all together. And then Death Angel was offered the bill as well. So it just came together like that through our manager. But since then, we both parted ways with the same management [laughs].
How has the tour been going so far?
It’s been going really good. If you can hear in the background, we’re here at a shooting range right now shooting guns.
Yeah, we’ve been doing calls, shooting guns, and keeping busy off the road. But the tour’s been going really good. Like any tour, you get the bugs out with the first three or four shows. Actually, the fifth and sixth shows were out in California. So those were some of the bigger shows, and it’s kind of nice that we got the bugs out, did the big shows and now we’re heading East. So now things are real smooth, and everyone, all the way from the bands to the crew and setup, just everything seems to be flowing now and just on track.
Of course there’s the Big 4. Many though, agree that if it was to be expanded to the Big 8, Testament would be in it along Exodus, Death Angel, and Overkill. However, Testament and Exodus are often the two bands many feel deserve the same recognition as Metallica, Slayer, Megadeth, and Anthrax. Do you feel that Testament often gets overlooked?
No, I wouldn’t say “overlooked.” I think that when it comes down to the Big 4, as far as I can see it, back when metal was at its height in the late 80’s/ early 90’s, all of those Big 4 bands had a ton of great success and were selling millions of records. I think around that same time, we were growing apart as a band and the music market had changed. So I think we were kind of I guess as they say “on deck in the batting circle” waiting for our success selling millions of records at that time. So when people say the Big 4, 5 or 6, I don’t see it that way. The Big 4, those four bands had great success selling millions of records. But the rest of us, Exodus, Death Angel, Testament, we didn’t sell out those festivals or that amount of records. So I don’t see us being compared to that. I’d say if metal was still going as strong as it was, yeah we all stood a chance to sell a lot of records. That’s just my take on it. When people talk about that, to me those four bands are justifiable, and that’s it. I don’t see any other bands that were the “Big whatever.”
There’s been strong interest from both fans and bands to celebrate one’s legacy. Not only have we seen this recently with the Big 4 shows, but also with bands performing classic albums in their entirety. Testament have done this by performing The Legacy and The New Order in their entirety live before. Do you find this form of celebration limiting or enhancing to the creative process of a new album?
I think it’s helping in our case because Alex Skolnick [guitarist], Greg Christian [bass] and even Louie Clemente [original drummer who did not rejoin the group, but did perform their first reunion show in London] came back in 2005; we had the original band together. So by us celebrating what we started together really did take us back to like “This is what we started. This is what we’re about. This is what got our name on the map when we first started.” And I think Testament has always been a band that’s always stuck to their guns and stayed true to our style of metal. We’ve never tried to change or jump on a bandwagon to stay current or hot.
So as far as we go, it really did, especially for the guys in the group again, let us write music again the way we did when we started this band, which [included] writing music for a lead guitar player and harmony stuff. When Alex left the band [back in 1993], we were writing songs that weren’t geared up for a lead guitar player, more just riff oriented songs. So for us, playing those old songs and records again really made us go like “Wow!” Plus, we hadn’t played a bunch of those songs in so long. And it really did help with The Formation Of Damnation when we wrote that and our new record. It’s kind of taking it back to the formula that we had with the original guys.
So then you’d definitely agree that it’s definitely had an effect on the new album The Dark Roots Of Earth.
Oh totally! I listen to the record and it’s a really matured record for a group of guys who have been playing music together for 20 something years. And for us, with the original guys getting back together for the last six years, it really has played an influence on our writing. Especially for us because we know how far to push each other or what our limitations are, or what works and what doesn’t, and we’re not just pounding our head on the ground trying to figure it out. We have our ideas going into it.
Speaking of the new album, when is The Dark Roots Of Earth actually coming out? Because I originally heard a February 2012 release date, but more recently heard April/May.
It’s going to come out in April now. The last week of April, the first week of May. That’s the date.
Unfortunately, though, the band’s drummer Paul Bostaph was unable to record drums on the album and has been sidelined from the road due to a serious injury. First off, how is Paul doing? Can you give us an update on his condition?
Yeah, right before we left, he had surgery and it was a successful surgery.
Do you know if there’s a timeline as to when he’ll be coming back to Testament?
Well with Testament, I think in January. He’s got a new side project that he’s going to be recording with in December. Before we left, he just started playing drums again.
On the plus side, Testament recruited Gene Hoglan to record drums on the new album, with Chris Adler performing on two bonus clips. How did the band come to get Hoglan (who had previously appeared on 1997’s Demonic) to record on the new album?
Well we knew Paul wasn’t gonna [to be able] play and we knew we had to do the record. So we actually asked Dave Lombardo [drummer of Slayer] and Gene. And Dave Lombardo, he has a side project that he had to do. So we couldn’t wait for Dave. So we called Gene, and Gene was like “I’m in!” Like the pro Gene is, he came in and learned the songs, recorded them, and was done like within 20 days.
I didn’t realize that Dave Lombardo was approached.
Yeah, because we’ve been touring with Slayer for like the last year off and on, and we always talk and see him because he did The Gathering record. And he’s like “Hey, it would be nice to do another record. I had a good time,” and we’re like “Well, let’s do it!” So when it was time to do the record, we asked him and he was totally down for it, but said we’d have to wait a couple of months. And we didn’t want to wait a couple of months. We had to get started. So Gene wasn’t a bad replacement choice!
So Gene’s on the road with you now [note: interview was conducted on October 28], and then John Tempesta will be joining the band on the road as well, right?
Well, John Tempesta is on the road with us right now. Then Gene is flying in today, as a matter of fact, and is going to play for two weeks, and then John will come back and finish the tour.
What’s the reasoning behind the back and forth with drummers on the road?
Well, John Tempesta plays with The Cult. And The Cult have a couple of shows in the middle of our tour. So that’s his permanent band, he’s gotta go do what he’s gotta go do. And we called Gene, and he had things that he cleared and said “Yeah, I’ll come do it.” It’s nice to have friends like that [laughs].
Has it been fun to play with these different drummers as well, or has it been a little difficult?
No, it’s cake. I mean the guys are all pros, and they all know our songs and our material pretty well. Like I said, it would be terrible if we didn’t have friends like that who could fill in and trying to find a replacement in the middle of a tour would be tough.
On another sad note, former Testament guitarist James Murphy, also of Death fame, has been having some health issues again. Apparently his tumor [which was diagnosed in 2000 but had reduced in size since] has been showing recurrence. I was wondering if you’ve been in touch with Murphy or heard from in recently.
We haven’t been in touch with him, but we are trying to get people to step up and make donations on James behalf. We’re trying to get it linked up to the website, Facebook, and any of that stuff because it could really help.
Are there any touring plans for Testament following the tour with Anthrax and Death Angel?
Nothing right now. I have three songs left to sing, the record’s done. So once we finish this, I’ll record the rest of my tracks and then go mix it.