The legendary, Thrash Metal band – Testament (whose original lineup re-formed in 2005), will kick off their first major heading tour in years, today. Riding high off of their critically acclaimed, brutal and intense 2012 release, “Dark Roots of Earth,” Testament is ready to take the next step on their incredible journey back. The band, which features original classic line-up members: Chuck Billy (vocals), Eric Peterson (guitar), Alex Skolnick (lead guitar), Greg Christian (bass), along with Gene Hoglan (drums), are out to prove that they are not only better than ever before, but also one of the top hard rock/metal bands out today.
In addition to Testament, the “Dark Roots of Thrash” tour will also feature thrash metal veterans Overkill, Flotsam and Jetsam and newcomers 4Arm. This must see winter, early spring tour will give metal fans, much bang for their buck. All four bands have great reputations as killer live bands, who are amped up to sonically assault everyone in sight. And to make it fresh and exciting, they all have new material out or coming out soon.
What follows is an exclusive interview with Testament lead singer, Chuck Billy. During this chat, we discuss the upcoming, “Dark Roots of Thrash” tour, his battle with cancer(germ cell seminoma), and much, much more.
RMS: Testament is about to hit the road, headlining a major tour, “The Dark Roots of Thrash” tour. This tour also features thrash metal legends Overkill and Flotsam and Jetsam, with a new upcoming thrash band, 4ARM. Do you find this time, leading up to a tour, stressful and exciting? What is your mindset right now?
CB: Yeah, I’m a little of both, actually. We have a new show, with new songs that we are going to perform. We had previously played three legs of a tour with Anthrax, so we are trying to put in some new songs for this one, do a new show. We also plan on filming a DVD on this tour. We did a couple live DVDs/CDs, and we want to do some songs that are not on those, and to create something new.
RMS: Without giving too much away, how long will your set be and how many new songs will you be performing?
CB: Our set will be about an hour and a half, with five songs off of the new record, “Dark Roots of Earth.”
RMS: Tell us a bit about the new band that’s opening the shows on the upcoming tour, 4ARM. What are they like?
CB: They are a younger band, but they have a real old school thrash sound. When I first heard their material, I could definitely hear a bit of Testament in them. They are a good addition to the package.
RMS: Who was responsible for putting this tour package together? Did you have any input in the process?
CB: Well, our agents out a lot of it together for us. All the bands have a new record, or a new record coming out. I’ve learned from doing the Anthrax and Megadeth tours, that fans and promoters want bands that fit together. So, when we were approached with this tour, we said, “OK” and the promoters thought it was a good package as well.
RMS: I know that it’s early, but have there been any talks of a summer tour for Testament?
CB: Well, we are currently booked up until June. We’ll be in Europe then. But as far as the states for summer, we haven’t got that far.
RMS: Would you consider doing a festival such as “RockStar Mayhem”?
CB: I would totally be into being on a festival tour. We are willing to get out there, wherever and whenever we can. We really want to push this new record, any play as much as we can.
RMS: As far as the new record, “Dark Roots of Earth,” it has received some great reviews, and his even been referred as the best hard rock/metal record of the year. How gratifying and satisfying was it for you to get all of these accolades at this point in your career?
CB: It really was great, especially with all the hard work that we put into the record, and into the writing process. It probably was the first record we wrote, not thinking about what the fans and critics were going to think. Songs such as “Cold Embrace” are in the style of songs that we haven’t had on a record for like fifteen years, or so. I think getting the original line up back together has given us more self confidence. When we started writing the songs, we were really into it, and didn’t really think or question what people were going to think. And now with people giving us props for the record, we are glad that we stuck with our instincts, because it really paid off. But, yeah, it’s a very gratifying feeling.
RMS: You really raised the bar on “Dark Roots of Earth.” Did you feel that there was a lot of pressure going into it because of the high expectations from your fans?
CB: There is always pressure, because you want your record to be well received. You want the record and production, and songs to be as good as possible. You want people to like it. But there is always pressure, and you’re always thinking, “How am I going to do this?” We thought the previous releases, “The Gathering” and “Formation” were really strong. And we’re thinking, how are we going to top these? And then to see “Dark Roots of Earth” get received the way it did, it was like, “Wow!”
RMS: Many fans feel that Testament is actually better now than ever before. And that can’t be said of too many bands that have been around for 30 plus years. Can you objectively comment on that thought?
CB: Yes, I do think so, especially the live performances. Before we were young kids, we partied hard. And I’m sure that some of the shows weren’t as good as they could have been. But, now we are a little more heath conscious, a little bit older, and more focused on doing a good performance. People are (still) paying to see us, so we better deliver. So, in my mind, we are performing better and I think that we are writing better material now, and the production has got much better over the last 25 plus years. It all adds up.
RMS: Do you believe that Testament has another five or more releases left? Do you think that band will last that long?
CB: I really hope so. We made it this far, so I don’t see any reason why we can’t, as long as we are all healthy. Eric and I would love to do it; hopefully the other members feel the same. But I think they do. And as long as we have all that, Testament will continue to write music and keep this going together as long as we can. There have been many different line-ups in this band, with some incredible musicians, but there really is a very special sound and magic with this line-up.
RMS: You see many classic rock bands with band members in their mid 60’s to 70’s still doing it. There is no rule in rock n’ roll that states that you have to quit at a certain age.
CB: Yeah, a lot of those bands were heavy into the partying and drugs, but they cleaned up and live a different life that they had. Bands like Aerosmith and the Stones are all about living a different, healthier lifestyle and really enjoying it.
RMS: In the early days of Testament, were you guys heavy into the partying and drugs use?
CB: We really weren’t into drugs, but we were hard drinkers. (Laughs) We drank a lot. And smoked, so drinking and smoking weed where our biggest thing. But we never fell for any of that heavy drug stuff.
RMS: Have you ever considered writing an autobiography? I think it would be an extremely interesting read. You have been though a lot in your career and overcame quite a bit of adversity.
CB: Yes, I have thought about that over the last couple of years. It funny because the guy that I’ve wrote music with over the last twenty years, Del James, has writing a couple of books. He actually worked with Guns n’ Roses, he helped write “November Rain” and a few of their songs. But he and I have actually spoken about him helping me write my book. But he knows our history and he’s been with me for twenty plus years now. It’s probably something that we are going to start looking into this year.
RMS: Wow, I’m sure a lot of hard rock fans will be happy to hear that.
CB: The only challenging think is going to be trying to remember everything, and all of the history, because I was such a pothead and can’t remember everything. (Laughs)
RMS: Well, I’m sure you’ll do fine. Since, we are on the subject of drugs. About six months ago you made a comment about Dave Mustaine, in reference to him accusing the government of being involved in the Colorado mass murder in the movie theater. You said that he must be back on drugs to make a statement like that. Have there been any repercussions to you, from Dave because you said that?
CB: No, not yet, but I’m sure that I’ll eventually hear from him about that. At the time, when I made that statement, many other people were asked as well, but my statement was the one that made a headline on blabbermouth. And I was thinking, “Oh, great.” But then shortly afterwards, Nikki Sixx took the pressure off the next day by making his comment, “Dave Mustaine is an asshole.” (Laughs) I was like, “Thanks Nikki.” But, I’ve known Dave for twenty years, I’ve been with him when he was straight and clean, and I’ve been with him when he was messed up, and sometimes both in one tour. Dave could be a different Dave on the next day. But for Dave to go off and talk about this, on stage, in another country, where people had no idea what he was talking about, aside from the language barrier, just to me, wasn’t the right forum. If you want to state your opinion on a topic like that, go on same crazy news forum that discusses that, not on stage, in the middle of a concert. So, to me, that didn’t make any sense. So, I’m thinking he has to be fucked up to do something like that.
RMS: Yeah, his mouth really gets him into trouble at times.
CB: Yeah, it does. (laughs)
RMS: Back in 2008, Testament was the support band on the Heaven & Hell, Judas Priest, Motorhead tour. That was one of the last tours that Ronnie James Dio did before his death. What was that tour like for you?
CB: Well, I met Ronnie a long time ago. The final tour we did, with the original line-up was a tour that we did in 1993 was opening for Black Sabbath on the “Dehumanizer” tour. It was a cold winter tour, every day I would hang with Ronnie. We had our little thing after the show, where we would meet back in his dressing room, we would sit down and have a cold beer, maybe burn one every now and then. And just sit there and chit chat. It was our little thing that we did for that three week tour. I was great, we had a great connection. Then we didn’t see him for a few years, but when we did, he remembered everyone’s name, his memory was just incredible. He was always the nicest guy. I took a lesson from him, on how to treat my fans. He always took the time and day to talk with his fans. And his fans stuck with him, and loved him during his whole career. So, I try to do the same, if a fan wants an autograph or a photo, I’ll do it, because that’s the right thing to do. But, I really miss him a lot, and hearing him do his music.
RMS: During that tour, in 2008, was there any signs of his illness at that point?
CB: No, not at all. We did think that he was looking a bit frail, but that was about it.
RMS: You were fortunate enough to beat cancer yourself. It was a very rare form of cancer, how was it discovered in you?
CB: With mine, I really think that the higher powers had something in store for me. It was just a freak accident on how it was discovered. One day, a real estate agent knocked on my door, and she said she had someone who was interested in buying my house. I told her, “My house isn’t for sale, but how much are you thinking, if I were to sell it?” She threw a number at me, and I said, “If you can get me that number, then I will sell my house.” So, we sold it. And at the time, I was jamming with the guys in Sadus, in Antioch, which was about an hour from my house, and a really nice little quite town. So we bought a house out there. So one of the first things we did was get a new doctor. So, we all went to get physicals, since at the time, I hadn’t been to a doctor since high school. So we went, and later in the evening, after my physical, the doctor called and told me that I need to come back in. They found a mass in my chest and they needed to do a cat scan. So, I was like, “What???” So, I went back in, and they did a cat scan and they found a tumor. And they immediately started to do a biopsy. I then had two operations to remove it, and they couldn’t get it deep enough into the tumor, because my immune system built this wall around the tumor. Then finally, they went deep enough in, they ruptured it, and it started leaking out. The doctor then said, “OK, Monday you are starting chemotherapy.” And it all happened that quickly. I was lucky, that it was caught when it was. I was lifting weights during the time before it was discovered, and by lifting, the tumor could have easily ruptured and it could have been fatal.
RMS: Wow, that’s an incredible story! Did you have any warning signs prior to it being discovered?
CB: No, not really. I was smoking cigarettes here and there, so I was having some breathing problems, so I just thought I should quit smoking cigarettes. That’s what I thought it was, but it was the tumor. It was as big as a squash in my chest, pressing on my lungs and heart.
RMS: Unbelievable. This horrible situation did however help get the wheels in motion for Testament to get the original band back together in a way, right?
CB: Yes, because there was a benefit show for me, and it was the first time that Alex Skolnik (guitar), Louie Clemente (drums) and Greg Christian (bass) got together on stage in a few years. And that really helped spark the re-union. That also sparked Exodus, Dark Angel and Forbidden getting back together as well. It lit up the Bay area again, with all those bands getting back together. And they are still together today. So, it was all a weird plan that some higher up had for all of us. And here we are, with a second chance and making some great music. So, the whole thing was really a blessing.
RMS: Yes, it certainly was… Well, Chuck thank you for a great interview. I’m looking forward to seeing Testament on Feb 17th when you play in Buffalo, NY.
CB: Thank you, Thomas. We are really looking forward to getting on the road and kicking ass.