INTERVJU: Chuck Billy i Testament

Med nya given “Brotherhood of the snake” har Testament återigen visat att de har mycket kvar att ge. De gamla hjältarna från the Bay Area känns mer vitala än på länge. Vi mötte upp jätten Chuck Billy en solig dag i huvudstaden för att reda ut ett och annat om nya plattan, men även för att titta in i framtiden, minnas Lemmy och ge en liten känga åt en viss Donald Trump.


How would you compare ”Brotherhood of the snake” to ”Dark roots of earth”?

It´s night and day. I´m proud of “Dark roots of earth”, but going into the new record, we definitely talked about what we could do to improve it and what we wanted to do and what we were lacking maybe on that record. For me and Eric (Peterson) it was… we´re a thrash band and we should probably pick up the pace and play a little bit faster since we got Gene Hoglan playing drums and he´s really conservative and solid, but he can do much more than this, and we wanted Gene to have a bigger drums sound, a bigger set with bigger toms and better kicks. We wanted it to sound real and not sampled and I wanted it vocally to be melodic with the hooks and keep that. Typically, if we play faster, my instinct would say “Sing faster!”. I knew that, “Don´t do what you would typically do. Challenge yourself and try to do something else.” So I had to try and find my way with a pattern, with something that is real fast or blasting, I had to kind of just try to flow within it. It worked and I think I succeeded at that and all the things we sat out to do. In the past Eric put delays and stuff on his rhythms and me vocally, I put more delays and stuff on my voice and it kinda washed out everything else, just the mix itself, so the last record was the first record we had the dry approach and I went into this one thinking “I´m gonna take that dry in your face approach.” and Eric really dried his guitars and that really opened up sonically for the drums and bass to be heard a little better. We left it raw and didn´t do a bunch of tricks with a lot of delays. Eric just did a couple of things with his guitars. For the most part it´s just dry and in your face.

When you´re writing for an album, do you ever kinda sit down and go “Ok, we´re gonna take it in this direction.” or is just always the songs taking you in a direction?

It´s always the songs, because we´re not a band that goes “Ok, let´s write 25 songs and pick 10 for the record.” If we did that, the next record would probably sound like the last record, because those songs and ideas were created with that mind-set back then. Luckily for us, Eric is in his own world. He doesn´t listen to new bands, he sticks with his black metal, so when it´s time to write he just writes and I think that´s really the key for why Testament´s records all sound individual, they´re not just like the last rccord. Also, he´s not trying to do what we did and rehash the glory days of the first three records and try to just write that. He doesn´t do that, so fortunate for us, we write for today and it actually sounds like we´re maybe we´re a band of today. We´ve been working long enough together and it comes a little easier and we kinda know our limits with each other. He knows my range and he knows what I like for him to come up with, so the formula´s working, it´s just that this year it was really hard to make that formula work. I don´t know what happened or why he couldn´t dig down and get it done? I know he´s got young kids and he´s a soccer coach and he needs to get them to school and pick them up from school, so there´s a lot of that and maybe that had something to do with it and that´s why he couldn´t focus on completing the songs. We went into the studio first time without Eric doing a demo or rehearsing the songs together and that just added tension because it took like a year and a half to get to that point and even going into the studio feeling “Shit, are we jumping the gun and maybe going too soon just for the sake of having a record out this year? If we don´t come through, we can have big problems if it flops and we have to dig ourselves out of this hole and that´ll be a tough hole to get out of.” There was a lot of pressure and I was scared and nervous and angry, “If this thing flops, I´m done, I quit!” There´s a lot of things going on in your mind. Amongst all that stuff, maybe that´s what we needed to do and go through to get to where this record is at? I never wanna do it again.


Is pressure always good? I guess you need some kind of pressure to get stuff done?

Yeah, you do, but at this point you would think that after doing it for 30 years you´d want it to be fun and enjoy it and have control of when we could do it, but the hardest part is that we don´t live near each other. Alex (Skolnick) lives in New York, Gene´s in San Diego and Eric´s in Sacramento, so just for us to rehearse for a tour, we have to fly everybody in and get everybody to hotels. It wasn´t so simple and writing wise, at the beginning I asked Gene, Steve and Alex “Gimme riffs! If you guys got ideas, throw them at me and if I hear something we´ll use it.” I never got anything from them guys, so everything was on Eric so all of us waited on him. He was the one and that´s a good thing – bad thing. Good thing in the end that the songs came through and he came through with the goods in the end. Bad thing, he just couldn´t organize his time and couldn´t plan out and see the calendar of what we needed to accomplish. It was me pushing him “Dude, dude, dude we need to get it done!” and then just saying “Sorry, we´ve booked the time and we have to have it recorded by June 15 or we´re not gonna have a record to show.” Gene, Alex and Steve going into the studio didn´t hear the tracks. No vocals, no leads and didn´t really know if they had the riffs, so Gene was really kind of angry and frustrated. I remember talking to the engineer “Oh, Gene´s pissed.” At some point you don´t know what you´re doing, you´re just playing and Eric´s saying “No, try it this way.” and as a drummer you´re probably thinking “What the fuck am I doing? I don´t even know what the fuck the song is! I´m just being told what to do.” It makes you angry and pissed and I´ve heard Gene on some tracks yelling and screaming, but he did lay down some solid stuff where he beat the drums hard. We all had to go through it, but it was for the good of the record.

Throughout the years, how would you say your lyric writing has changed? Is it getting harder or easier coming up with lyrics?

It´s never been easy for me. You know, I´ll write a song on my own, every now and then it comes together and those ones are easy, when I can do it myself. I´ve been working with Del James and Steve Zouza (Exodus) for quite some time because I like bouncing my ideas off somebody or somebody will say “I like that!” and that will inspire me to come up with something. Even in the early days when I started writing for the “The new order” (1988) record, “The legacy” (1987) were more typical kinda cliché metal lyrics with cemeteries and zombies and that kinda stuff, so then we wanted to be more realistic and that´s why we chose Nostradamus and things that could be real and happening in the world and that kinda ended up being the way we established the band. Even up through “Dark roots of the earth” it was more real things like losing a parent or being ill or climate change and all that stuff and then this year Eric said “Hey, can we like not be so real and try to come up with cool stories and cool lyrics and create something?” I was into it and said ok and I had been watching this alien and religion program that got my mind turning and it showed all the different religions for thousands of years where there were all these scribblings on the walls and writings and connections with alien beings with long arms and big heads and flying objects in the sky. I was like “What is the connection and they´ve all spotted the same things a long time ago and it´s been documented? Maybe there is aliens, maybe there is something to this?” It opened up the possibilities and then I really find the brotherhood of the snake stories because I was looking up secret societies and it turned out that the brotherhood of the snake was a secret society that was formed more than 6000 years ago and they were on a crusade to put down all other religions as false religions. Their religion was basically that there was an alien leader/king/god named Anu who basically created mankind to serve as a slave on earth to mind for our minerals and gold. There was a good story to grab onto and ten Eric said that the brotherhood of the snake would make a great title for the record. The word brotherhood is where we´re at as a band today too, so it kinda fit and made sense, so we started creating the ideas for the songs, based on the aliens and religion and secret societies and power and control. It all started coming together.

Do you believe in any of this yourself?

I watch those shows and they point out things. Maybe there are aliens way out there. There´s the pyramids in Mexico and Egypt and Stonehenge, all these things that they say are markings from outer space and it´s like “Really? Maybe.” There´s that possibility. I was born and raised Catholic, so I was raised on certain stories and beliefs of Catholic religion, but as I grew up, my mind was more open to the idea of maybe there is something about other religions and it´s not about their god, maybe it is about having hope in a higher power or hope that there is something after this life that we all go to. In the end it´s all about heaven and hell, wright and wrong, good and evil. For me it´s about being a good person, being a righteous person. There are religions out there that say “If you don´t believe in our religion, you´re going to hell.” and those ones are a very extreme thinking, for me. My mother is very religious and when I got into this band… Testament, of course she loved the name, but with the pentagrams and the demon skulls she was like “What is that? You guys aren´t worshipping the devil, are you?” and I was just like “No, no mum, it´s like a mascot.” (laughs)

I´m not religious at all in any way, but being a good person is what it´s all about.

It´s karma. You have good karma and you always say that, like someone does something bad and you say “Karma´s gonna get them. Let´s leave it to karma because they´re bringing it upon themselves.”

Do you have a personal favorite on the new album?

The ones that really stand out because of the way they came together are “The pale king” and “Seven seals”. Again, Eric´s communication… he went and recorded the guitars and drums and I found out as I was going into the studio to start tracking and it was like “Did you hear the new song?” and I said “What new song?” and he said “Yeah, there´s a new song.” and it was like “Well, thanks for sharing that with me.” I got the song and listened to it for a few days, try to soak it in, went home and I kinda latched on to the pattern and then I had that story of the Book of revelations and the seven seals, I had it written down on paper, so I said “I´m gonna use that for the song.” I went home and wrote it one night, came back the next day and recorded it and it came out killer. Those songs that come together that fast makes it special. “The pale king” was one of the last ones we wrote in the studio as well. They just came together pretty quick.

Test 4

Where do you see Testament ten years from now?

I don´t know. We´ve spoken about it and we can´t wait four years to do a record. We wanna do it sooner. I pointed out to Eric “Look man, four years… we lost momentum from putting out some good records. We´re not selling anymore records after a couple of years, it´s peaked out. If you think about it Eric, when we first started it was 87, 88, 89, 90 and we´re knocking out records every day and we kept the momentum going and we kept our name in the press and delivering the goods. We´re delivering some music now and we need to take that mentality again. Put out records every couple of years, keep the momentum, keep our name in the press and if we can keep delivering the goods, I bet you it´s gonna pay off.” So ten years from now, hopefully we´ll have five more records according to my calculations. (laughs)

To keep the momentum, isn´t that even more important these days when no one´s selling records anymore?

You always wanna keep your name current and be talked about. I read the Kurt Cobain book and it fascinated me, because maybe they didn´t know what they´re doing or the way that attitude is, every tour they did, they put out a new single, like “Ok, we´re getting ready to tour, here´s the new single!” Every time they toured there was something new to talk about, something new to promote, a new product to push and that was really smart and really clever. Maybe where our industry is going, it ain´t about putting out full records, especially now that the digital things are selling? People don´t buy full records. They´ll buy your single or your video or a song or two, so maybe it´s not about putting out records anymore? Maybe it´s about creating music and just keep it current and keep it flowing and have everybody looking for something new coming out. It might be the better way to go. Things might change, I don´t know?

Do you ever get nostalgic about the 80´s when you had songs playing on MTV and so on?

Not anymore. It´s a different life and we were young and dumb, I would say. You think you´re getting in a band and you got signed, you´re going on tour, making money and selling out concerts and the crowds are getting bigger and bigger… you think you´re on the right track, but you kinda lose sight a little bit. Times change and we´re smart enough to know that those days will never be there again. The scene will never be like that again and music took such a change from thrash metal to just all kinds of forms of metal and there are so many bands. You can´t control it and the labels aren´t as much of major labels signing acts, it´s the independents that took over the world and smaller budgets and people aren´t spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on a video like we were then. Everything´s kinda shrunk down and brought it more down to reality. Our focus is “Let´s not try to write music like we´re trying to relive those early records and that time and try to rehash that. We´re not living today for our past and our history. I think that´s the beauty with Eric because he listens and is so on his own with what he does and we don´t write extra songs for records, we just write enough. We don´t write 20 songs and say we´ll play 10 and then next year we have 10 waiting to go. That keeps us sounding fresh amongst ourselves and our records doesn´t sound the same. It doesn´t sound like we´re trying to rehash something that we´ve done. We´re always trying to better ourselves or create something unique. You can listen to any of our records and go “Yeah, I know that´s Testament!”, but the records doesn´t sound the same.

Test 2

How long did it take for you guys to actually start making money off of your music?

Well, we did right away with “The legacy” and “The new order” records. We were on Megaforce for that one and “The new order” and when “Practice what you preach” came out, Atlantic Records bought out the contract, so the machine got bigger. We were spending $100.000 making a video and getting $300.000 to $400.000 making a record. They were giving us a lot of money and stupid of us we said “Get us a 400 grand producer and make a record for us.” and it was like “Sure, thank you! You just bought my new studio.” That was crazy, but back then we all lived at home in mom´s house. We didn´t have no bills, no credit cards, or anything. With the second record we all went and bought our new cars and got all brand new equipment, looking to move out of mom´s house into apartments. The money was coming in at the time, but it was going out the door just as fast because we were growing so fast and our shows were getting bigger and we got bigger backdrops and a truck full of gear. We didn´t know better, because we just thought “That´s how you do it and maybe more money will come in and you get bigger and bigger.” Looking back it´s like “Man, we blew it. We had money and just threw it out the door and shit.” Alex and Eric and Greg and all of those guys have never had jobs since then, since day one. Me, I couldn´t just sit around and sit at home, I´d get lazy and stoned all day and never accomplish anything, so I needed a pattern in my life and I needed to get up. I started working because my wife lost her job and we didn´t have medical insurance, so my buddy had a trucking company and said “Come work for us, man!”. I had medical and I was making $80.000 a year on salary and it was such an easy job. We were getting drunk every day. We would go to lunch at 11 and not leave until 2 or 3, playing cards and gambling all day and getting fucked up and then go back to work for an hour or two. It was so easy, “Why would I ever wanna quit this?” (laughs) Then they sold the company and I had to choose between the band or the company and I said “Fuck that, I´m going with the band!”

Starting a band at a young age, I guess all you wanna do is play? Were you taken advantage of, since you were young and didn´t know the business aspect of things?

Yeah, we learned the hard way because we had a manager that was also our lawyer. You can´t do that. Once we split up from them… we were young kids and it was like “Here´s thousands of dollars, sign this contract that you can´t come after us ever.” and it was like “Ok sure, I´ll take that money. No problem.” We had no guidance, no one saying “No, don´t do that!”, so we did it and after we got all our records and all our books and the ledgers of the checks, I think in one year our manager made almost $400.000 and us as band members were probably making $30-40.000 a year. We got fucking took. They were kinda double dipping because on the checks it just said “back lawyer fees” “How can we owe someone $30.000 for back fees?” and we couldn´t chase them or come after them, so we learned the hard way. It was like “Wake up! Next people you work with, you´re gonna have to start paying attention.” Know what you´re signing and what you´re getting into. An eye opener. You better learn the business because it´s not just about writing songs and going on tour.

Test 3

A guy like Lemmy and the band Motörhead, were they in any way an influence on Testament?

I got into them later on in their career and even more so when we did the Metal Masters tour with Motörhead, Testament, Heaven & Hell and Judas Priest. That was an awesome tour, but that´s when we formed more of a friendship, especially like me and Phil (Campbell). Phil´s a character and a prankster and we became pretty good friends… drinking buddies, prank buddies. On days off we´d go to magic shops and try to find cool, funny pranks to pull on each other. Fart machines and I had a bullhorn. I remember Ronnie Dio bought him a dress and a blue wig and on days off, he would go pick up his dates from the airport dressed up as a chick. Full on with high heels, purse and the whole deal. It was just like “Man, these guys know how to have fun.” Cool guys. At the very end of the tour, the night before we got to the Bay Area, I told Phil “Hey, I´ve got this Playboy Playmate coming down to the show and she´s interested in meeting you.” and he said “Really? Oh shit, thanks Chuck! You´re a pal.” He was getting all nervous and hyped up for the show, but it was actually a Playboy Playmate blow up doll. (laughs) I put her in a lounge chair at the side of the stage and I sat next to her with my arm around her going “Here she is!” and he said “Fucker! You son of a bitch!” because he thought I was serious and had someone coming for him. It got under his skin, so the next day on the last day of the tour, he was silent all day, so something was going on. It turned out that he had ordered a horse and it came out during our set and our crew were in on it. I was about to introduce the band and we stopped and here comes Phil riding out on the horse on stage, wearing the dress and the wig and there´s Mikkey Dee in front of him pulling the horse, wearing a poncho and like a half horse outfit and a big sombrero and Lemmy´s behind the horse with a push broom and a turban and an Arab outfit and he´s sweeping up the shit behind the horse. It was like the biggest prank pulled off in history. Every time I´d see Lemmy after that, he had to bring it up “Dude, no one´s ever gonna top that prank! That´s gonna go down in history as the all-time prank of all times.” I have the sheet for the production office when he showed up that day. He gave the runner list, what they needed, because they didn´t just prank us. They bought like a 1000 newspapers for the front row, so when Heaven & Hell came out, they all sat there reading the paper, like the first 1000 people in the front row all had the paper up. That was fun. Every time we saw Lemmy, that was something we went back to and laughed about. It was great and only Phil Campbell could pull that off.

A totally different thing, but what about the US election? Donald Trump´s been insulting people all over the place, including Native Americans.

It sucks. I don´t think it´s gonna happen, but if it did, especially for me as somebody who travels the world and makes a living, people associate me… “Oh, you´re American. You must be a Trump guy. You´re an idiot too.” That kinda sucks. Because I´m a Native American I never vote and I´ve never voted because I´ve seen what our reservation was from a kid growing up. Seeing people who lived on the reservation, they really didn´t have any help – schools, buses, the water systems, no police department, no fire department, no help from the government what so ever, until we built our casino. We build a casino and next you know, here´s the hand and “Oh, now we know you´re there.” I had a chip on my shoulder about the government. Once the casino was built, things started turning around for our own tribe. Everything started getting positive.


Text: Niclas Müller-Hansen

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