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Interviews   

Chuck Billy (Testament) : both natural and native


Dark Roots Of Earth, Testament’s last album, is not the result of an intellectual approach, but of a spontaneous one. Testament is a down to earth band, which doesn’t conceptualize its music (“they are just good songs”) and whose organization is very simple, as Chuck Billy states it in an interview done last week. Speaking of Gene Hoglan, Chuck Billy doesn’t care whether he’ll join Testament “officially” or not : the famous drummer can do whatever he desires, as long as he can be there for the recordingsessions and for touring.

Even if Dark Roots Of Earth is a dark album, dealing with such themes as the Native Americans (Chuck Billy has native blood), the greenhouse effect or young Americans burning the American flag, it doesn’t mean that Testament is a committed band in its lyrics.

« Good songs are good songs, that’s all, and some of the songs on our last album are good, so if you’re not a metal head and you hear them on the radio, you might say « Oh ! I like them ». »

Radio Metal : You recently declared that there will not be huge gaps between records anymore. Where those four years between The Formation OF Damnation and Dark Roots Of Earth somehow frustrating ?

Chuck Billy (singer) : No. Everybody keeps asking me that, but we toured three years for The Formation Of Chaos record, so there was only one year gap between the two albums.

You declared about this new album that « you don’t have to be a metal fan to enjoy this record ». Even if this record has a lot of melodies, this is a pretty metal and powerful record. Do you really think that people that aren’t enjoying metal are going to like this album ?

Yes. What I meant by saying this was that sometimes you hear a pop song on the radio, and although you’re not going to buy the album, you will say « Oh, I like that song ». Good songs are good songs, that’s all, and some of the songs on our last album are good, so if you’re not a metal head and you hear them on the radio, you might say « Oh ! I like them ».

« We didn’t write consciously one type of material. Whatever felt good was what we went with. »

This is a pretty diverse album. It has some epic, aggressive or melodic moments. Although this is a very modern album with an actual sound, it has some sort of an old school feeling. Did you want this record to be as much representative of your whole career as possible ?

That wasn’t our goal : we’ve never really discussed what the approach would be. When Eric (Eric Peterson, Testament’s guitarist) started writing material for the album, he had a sort of a brain block. He went off to England to Andy Sneap’s place (Andy Sneap is a well-known producer of the metal scene) and came back with ten songs which were close to what’s on the new record, so he wasn’t focused on writing only thrash songs. He just began to write a bunch of songs : what came out of it made a sort of a diverse album. There’s a little bit of everything. For example, there’s stuff on the album that we’ve never done in 15 years, like the « Cold Embrace » song. We didn’t write consciously one type of material. Whatever felt good was what we went with.

You said that you hated the production of your first albums. Is the sound of Dark Roots Of Earth the sound you would have wanted for those records ?

I think I would have wanted a more modern sound. I remember that when we were recording The Legacy and The New Order, we knew nothing of production or recording records. When I look back at it now, and remember the techniques that we used, it explains why it sounds like it does. The sad thing is that the original recordings of both The Legacy and The New Order are lost forever, because nobody could find their master recordings.

Have you ever considered to re-record one of those albums with an actual production, in order to give them a second life ?

That’s what we’re talking about now, as we can’t find the master recordings. We’ve been discussing it : if we can’t find the original recordings, why not doing them again ? We haven’t really changed much as the sound of the band during all these years : only the production has definitely changed.

This album really feels like it was written in the eighties, but recorded today, with an actual production. Do you think that this album is a way to revisit the eighties and the way thrash metal was written at the time, with aggressive songs, but also with epic and melodic moments ?

I don’t think so, because when we were in the eighties writing songs, we were just young kids who wanted to compose thrash songs. That was our focus at the time as it was a whole new thing for us and the world. Today, things are just different than they were in the 80’s.

(Note : about Gene Hoglan) « I don’t really know what “a full-time member” means actually. I don’t like to restrict or hold somebody from playing for another band. »

Let’s talk about Gene Hoglan’s (Gene Hoglan, Testament’s drummer) work on the album : there are some beats and drumfills that are typical of extreme metal, like blast beats and stuff like that. Is it something he brought to the album ? Did he change some parts that were already written ?

No. Eric wrote all the drumbeats on the drum machine before Gene came : he was the conductor. Eric told Gene what he exactly wanted : Gene learned the songs in six days and recorded them in two weeks. But Gene brings his own style : I don’t think that an other drummer would make it sound like he does.

You said that you would really like Gene Hoglan to become a full time member of Testament. Have you discussed this with him ?

I don’t really know what “a full-time member” means actually. I don’t like to restrict or hold somebody from playing for another band. Gene recorded the album, and we’d love him to play with us on every tour : we just leave it like that. We’re not asking him to give up everything and play only for Testament.

(about Native Americans) « I think it is getting stronger in the USA as Indians can give their own people jobs or build casinos. »

The song Native Blood is about Native Americans. You talk in that song about their right to be heard. What is the situation in the USA right know about this particular subject. Is it allowed to talk about it ? How is that part of american history perceived by Americans ?

When we wrote « Native Blood », it wasn’t just about the American Indians. Even if I wrote about my native blood, the song itself is about indigenous people in general, as they can be found in every part of the world and in every society. I wrote it from the Native American side of it. I think it is getting stronger in the USA as Indians can give their own people jobs or build casinos in their reservations. For instance, in our reservation, before we had a casino, there wasn’t any financial help from the government. A lot of people were poor. When the casinos were built, we were able to have more schools, more education : all that helped our people. However, it is a bit upsetting, because as I’ve said, before the casinos, no help came from the authorities and now that the money is here, they want their part and their taxes. Now, they pay attention.

« In the eighties, we wrote about the greenhouse effect or things happening in the world, but I don’t think that this message was heard, not only by music lovers, but by people in general. Twenty-five years later, everybody in the world realises that “Hey ! Our climate has changed !”. »

Most of the lyrics are very dark and deal with war, death, genocides or hate in general. We have songs like « True American Hate », that talks about young children burning american flags, « A Day In Death », « Man Kills Mankind » and of course « Native Blood ». Why do the different ways that mankind finds to destroy itself became the main theme of this album ?

I think we’re all completely conscious of this problem. In the eighties, we wrote about the greenhouse effect or things happening in the world, but I don’t think that this message was heard, not only by music lovers, but by people in general. Twenty-five years later, everybody in the world realises that “Hey ! Our climate has changed !”. The summer and the winter are not the same as when we were kids, seasons aren’t seasons anymore : our planet is changing. There’s so much talk about it now : for instance, people are more and more promoting a “green” way of life.

As a bonus track, there is an extended version of « Throne Of Thorns » on the special edition. Why didn’t you put this version on the record ?

At the start, the song was exactly the same as the one on the record, but when we started recording the album, Eric decided to extend it. None of the band members knew nothing about it. And it didn’t make any sense because the song was over. It was too confusing, so we didn’t put it on the record. But Eric wanted it as a bonus track, so we said “yes”.

How did you choose the cover songs you put on the special edition of the album ?

We sent an email to all the band members and told them to give their suggestions on some songs, some of them actually very popular. Eric came up for instance with the Scorpions or Iron Maiden’s “Powerslave”.

There is a cover song of Scorpions’ “Animal Magnetism”. This isn’t actually your first cover of the Scorpions. You already covered “The Sailor’s Charon”. It really looks like you have a special relationship to this band. Can you tell us more about it ?

I love the Scorpions and I’ve always been a fan of the Tokyo Tapes and Uli Jon Roth. Actually, a lot of people don’t even know this period. When the choice of the covers was made, if it hadn’t been an early Scorpions one, maybe we wouldn’t have chosen one of their more recent stuff.

Interview conducted on july, 26th, 2012 by phone
Transcription : Jean Martinez – Traduction(s) Net

Testament’s website : www.testamentlegions.com
Album : Dark Roots Of Earth, out



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