Between New and Old: The Testament of Chuck Billy

Few names in heavy metal resonate the way Chuck Billy's does. He is and has been one of the fathers of metal, a true-to-form vocalist of remarkable consistency and dedication to craft. Chuck has been a point for fans to rally around, either to carry the banner for metal, to not forget the halcyon days, or even to give cancer the finger. Over roughly thirty years, Chuck and his band Testament have been to hell and back again, surviving the changing times and lineup changes, all the while producing the same high caliber of original Bay Area thrash. We were honored to talk to Chuck Billy about his new album (both of them,) the Big 4, microphone stands and whether or not this legend has ever thought of hanging it up.
M.DREW: I’ll start with a question that you’re probably sick of, but is very important to your fanbase. How’s your health?
CHUCK BILLY: One hundred percent. So far, so good. Just over ten years good.
M.D: Good to hear! Personally for me, I think someday when my next of kin says “You saw Testament live, what was Chuck Billy like?” the first words out of my mouth will be “air guitar.” How did you start doing all that air guitar, what is its importance to you, and where did you get the awesome light up mic stand?
CB: I started off playing guitar after eighth grade. Throughout high school, that was my goal, to be the guitar player, actually. I think I’ve always played air guitar from that age. Even younger I guess, with a tennis racket, you know? It was the whole rock thing. I’ve always done that, and once I became the singer, when I wasn’t singing, I had nothing to do. So I did what I normally did listening to music. As for the mic stand, I’ve always used a half-stand. And I decided I wanted something a little more exciting than just a mic stand. So I went online and punched in ‘mic stand’ and researched a few things, and those mic stands, different people had them. And I thought ‘those are pretty cool,” and as I was going through the website, I noticed that they had a half-stand one already. So that’s it, right there. I put the order in, and now it’s a cool part of the show.
M.D: A couple of years ago as you’ll remember, there was a lot made of the “Big Four” reunion (Metallica, Megadeth, Anthrax, Slayer.) Do you feel any resentment that your band Testament, and Exodus and bands like Overkill were left out of that?
CB: No. I mean, if you’re talking about the Big Four from back in the ‘80s, those four are probably the biggest bands at the time. Those are the bands that were selling platinum records. They had a lot of radio success and bands like us and Overkill, at least I know for us, our first two records, going into the third record, “Practice What You Preach,” those records were just starting to climb and sell a lot of records. Each record kept growing and growing and growing as far as sales went, but once we reached “The Ritual” part of our career, music style and the times were changing. By that time, Nirvana, Soundgarden, Pearl Jam were all coming into the fore at that point. Overnight, heavy metal kind of fell off the map. Especially with radio stations. At one point, there were probably a hundred radio stations across the country that in primetime and drive time radio was playing heavy metal. Overnight, that probably went down to thirty stations, and it was tough for new bands. The Big Four bands had crossed that line already, they were selling platinum albums. I don’t look at it like we were snubbed from Big Four, we were next in line if the market hadn’t crashed. We were right there to sell a platinum record then. I don’t hold resentment, I just look at it as we’re a band that survived those ‘90s, where a lot of bands jumped ship and tried to sound like Soundgarden or something like that. They’re talking up the Big Four reunion right now, and I feel like we’re right up there with them as far as talent and how the fanbase receives Testament. I’m flattered and honored that people think we should be up there as number five, it’s cool.
M.D: Speaking of, metal fell of the page for a while and then came back, it feels like there’s a new wave of thrash bands coming out. Have you listened to them and who do you like among the kids?
CB: I think in the past ten years or so, a lot of new bands have made great names. Shadows Fall, Soilwork, The Haunted, and a lot of thrash bands like Trivium have made good names and I think the music fits. They’ve kept it alive and kept it going and a lot of people have evolved in that style of music. And I listen to those bands and that style of music, and it actually inspired me. I like it that people are still playing that style and it inspired our writing for “The Gathering” and “The Formation [of Damnation],” and it’s just cool to me, too. Those younger bands brings in a younger age bracket of fans, and that means that our show is brought to a whole new generation. Twelve and fourteen year old kids who don’t know the history, but they know the band name and they come to see the show. Come see us, meet us, hang out with us, and then they know the band and learn the history of the band. It definitely seems to have come full circle right now.
M.D: Testament obviously has a new album out, it’s been received very well. For the entirety of its life, Testament has been lauded for its consistency. Have you ever thought about radically experimenting with Testament’s sound?
CB: Not really the sound of the records, no. We’ve always tried to improve the sound, though. We’ve always been guitar driven, so I’ve always wanted a bigger guitar sound and better guitar sound. When I hear it from other bands, I think “wow, where did they get that, and how do we get that for our sound?” This record for sure, I definitely jumped out of the box as far as mixing. Every record we’ve ever done, Eric [Peterson] and I have been breathing over the engineer’s shoulder in the mix. We got mixed up in washing out vocals and putting too many effects on them like delay and reverb. And in the final thought, it’s like the vocals are there but something’s funny. It all sounds like everyone’s fighting to be heard on the mix. Where on this record, we let Andy Sneap really go for it, we have confidence that he knows our sound now. We gave him a direction, what we were trying to accomplish, and he nailed it. I really thought hard about the vocals, and I know people always are trying to get me to one-track the vocals, but I’ve always double tracked. And then put reverb and effects on it I get this kind of doctored thing. But this year on the double track, we turned down the double and the center was really built around more of the vocal. So now when I hear the record, the vocals are what sticks out, and I can compare it to other bands that I enjoy or just have had more success on the radio when you hear their song. I just thought about it and analyzed it and said ‘these are the vocals, out there, dry.’ So, that’s been our approach, and we set out to do it, and I think we accomplished it. Now, I’m listening to our new record and thinking ‘damn, I wish I’d done that before,’ but it took us this long, and it took the mixing. And I’m glad we did, they pushed me to sing some notes that I wouldn’t usually use. There’s some songs, like “Cold Embrace,” where there are some notes I never really touched on, or wouldn’t have chosen. I don’t know what it was, maybe we’re confident enough in what we do, and I’m always up for the challenge, to see what happens.
M.D: “Dark Roots of Earth” also feels more raw, and it feels heavier. Was that a conscious effort, or did it just come out in the writing process?
CB: I wouldn’t say heavier than the “Gathering” or “Formation” records. Those records were just fucking thrashy…vocals, guitar, everything. Whereas this record definitely has more dynamics in it. The mixes the songwriting, the vocals, everything is just a little bit more dynamic. Now just one sound or one vibe. I think it has a little bit of everything we play, and that was a conscious effort. I think everyone can relate to it, something more like “Practice What You Preach.” That was a turning point for the band in terms of our writing and style, we put a little more melody into it. I really did consciously on this record want to go back and be a little more melodic. Where, the last probably three records, if I were to be given a mix tape of those songs, I would notice me using my death metal voice. Where, I decided I didn’t want to do that on this record. I wanted to use more melody, and that actually made it more of a challenge. I had to be careful not to make it boring vocally. I think I did it. I got it where the vocals are still driven but there’s still that focus on melody…they aren’t boring. When I listen to our old records, the vocals are just one voice, one melody all the way through, and it’s not as dynamic vocally.
M.D: After all the years and all the albums and everything you’ve been a part of, do you ever get used to the feeling of a new release, or is it always new and always fresh every time?
CB: After writing and record and mix, I don’t listen to the records. I mean, I listen to the shit out of it while we’re doing it to make sure it’s right, over and over and over and over. Once we say ‘okay, that’s good, this is it,’ I don’t listen to it for months and months and months. I just finally got the CD last week or the week before, maybe. And I still didn’t listen to it, so finally I ripped one open and put it in. The first track sounds fresh, still sounds good from what I remember, but I don’t overdo it. This record especially, it still sounds good to me. The last records, I pop them back in, and I go ‘oh, the vocals should be forward, I shouldn’t have put so much delay on it,’ and I start picking at it again. This record, when I listen to it, it’s there, it’s what we wanted, it still sounds strong to me.

M.D: You’re also part of Dublin Death Patrol, which also just released a new album. If I say “Bay Area Metal Scene,” what does it mean to you?
CB: [pauses] It’s a term of the past. We always related to the Bay Area metal scene when it was the ‘80s, all of us thrash bands. In the ‘80s, that was a new style in the world, I think. Metallica and Exodus found it. It was a new style that was to be proud of, and it was definitely new to me when I first came around to it. So, that term for me just reminds me of that. Beyond the metal scene, there’s still a lot of us bands still around still playing. We’re all still writing great records. But as far as the scene…it was the scene back in the ‘80s, there were so many places to play. We had so many clubs…a lot of those are gone and shutdown. There isn’t a lot of choice now. It’s starting to grow, there’s here new clubs in Oakland now. But, the scene is less of the ‘scene,’ because the scene used to be, you know, you could catch two or three different shows in one night. All week long, there were shows at every venue. There were so many venues you could catch a lot of music, and it’s not like that anymore. There’s limited places you can go to now.
M.D: Between the two bands, Testament and Dublin Death Patrol, what’s different about them for you? How does your experience change working with one versus the other?
CB: Well, Dublin Death Patrol was all just a side, fun thing. It all came to life at a high school class reunion. They had five years of classes at a reunion, so of course there was a wide range of people there, and all of us in school or right after school had a garage band that we played in, playing around at parties and stuff like that in Dublin, California. So it started out saying ‘hey, maybe we should just get together and jam.’ That was the premise of it all. Once we got together and started playing music, we started writing some songs. And then those songs, we had a touch of shame that nobody’s gonna hear these, but let’s just do a record and put it out with a website. That was just a big step. Then we had an offer to play some shows in Europe and got to go over, and a lot of the guys had never even left the country or gotten to play a festival stage like that. It was very cool for me to see that, my brother got to experience that. In the meantime, the label bought the first record and wanted a second record. So we ended up getting to go back there either last year or the year before, I believe, and play again, a couple of shows in Europe and a festival show. It was all just for fun, everybody had day jobs and it was never a serious thing, we ended up getting more out of it than we ever thought was gonna happen. The second time we went to Europe, Machine Head’s bus broke down and they missed the show, so we got put up in their slot right before Heaven and Hell. Me and Ronnie Dio were good friends, so Ronnie came up to our room and said hi to all the guys, and all the guys were blown away. ‘Here’s Ronnie Dio, and here we are just a bunch of guys from Dublin playing this festival.’ At that point we decided that was the best note to end the journey on, we got way more than we ever thought, and it would probably be the last show we play, let’s enjoy the moment. We all brought our wives to Europe on vacation and had a good time of it.

We recorded [“Death Sentence”] eight months ago, but I think the label wanted to wait to have it closer to the Testament release. It’s definitely night and day. Testament is more of a serious thing, more focused on it, where DDP was just a bunch of guys getting together and having some fun bullshittin’ about old stories about Dublin. [DDP] said we’re not playing any more shows, and we’re not planning to, but who knows? Never say never.

M.D: As a last question, you’ve had this amazing career, you’re still doing well, you’ve overcome a lot of obstacles to get where you are. What is the greatest pride that you personally take in your career, and have you ever considered retirement?
CB: There was never a time I considered retiring, but after I got sick in 2001, I thought I was done. I’d lost all my hair, I was on a steroid and ballooned up, I just looked in the mirror and didn’t see me. I just wanted to deal with the illness, be with my family and friends, just live life. At that time, after “The Gathering,” we’d had so many member changes over the years, it was really getting old. Tiresome just getting new members and people you never know who’s gonna be there for a tour offer. At the point, I thought ‘that’s it, I’m done.’ After, they had a benefit concert, Alex [Skolnick, guitar] did a last recording with us, that was cool, I got to get onstage with all the original guys one more time, and that was fun. And then one day, I put on a Testament CD. I hadn’t listened to music for about two years, put on a Testament CD, and it was almost like it sounded new and fresh to me again. Like I hadn’t heard those songs before. That got me fired up, and I thought ‘I think I want to play. I’m better, I’m healed, got no reason not to.’ I contacted Andre Verhuysen who ran the Dynamo [Open Air] in Holland, and asked him if there was a chance to get Testament on the show. At that time, he told me ‘hey, I just confirmed the original Anthrax lineup. Any chance to get the original Testament lineup?’ and I thought that sounded cool, it was what we should do. Anthrax was the first band we ever toured with, first time we ever went to Europe, it was a big step for us. So, I called everybody and next thing you know, the original guys all committed for a show in Holland. That one show turned into ten shows over there and ten shows turned into thirty and it just kinda kept going and going and going. Louie [Clemente, drums] ended up not being able to play because he had arthritis in his hand, it kept him from holding the sticks, so he had to drop out. So we got Paul Bostaph back in the picture.

But to your other question, that reunion in 2005, having everybody coming back, was the highlight of everything. With everything we went through and the illness, and having the opportunity to have the original guys back in the group, was like ‘man, this is it.’ The first rehearsal we had was sloppy; day two, we were tight like we hadn’t left each other, and it felt like what I remember. This is the style, the tone, this is what I remember as Testament when we started. To me, it was almost a blessing that beating cancer, having the original guys back together, having fun, enjoying each others’ company as songwriters, bandmates, the whole deal. That was definitely the highlight; here we are still and just like the old days trying to top the last record. Making better and better songs and I think that’s what we have been doing since we got back together, made “Formation” and this record.

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