Away-Team.com senior staff writer Jim Keller recently conducted an interview with guitarist Alex Skolnick of San Francisco Bay Area metal veterans TESTAMENT. A couple of excerpts from the chat follow below.
Away-Team.com: Your current album, "The Formation of Damnation", to me, is far and away the strongest album you guys have recorded since "Practice What You Preach". It's probably a more straightforward thrash sounding album than some of the last few albums. Was this a culmination of various writing from the last nine years or did you all sit down and write the album together as a whole band?
Alex: No, it was a combination. I think the previous album the guys did when I wasn't with the band, "The Gathering", that was the first one I felt, a lot of people felt, where Chuck [Billy, vocals] and Eric [Peterson, guitar] sort of found a formula that works for them. So I didn't want to really get in the way of that formula and try to make it 1989 again. But I made a lot of suggestions with the music they were doing and I did bring in some music of my own. Some of that got used; the song "F.E.A.R." is something I wrote. But it was more a combination of ideas that Chuck and Eric had had, playing around with some new stuff.
Away-Team.com: Some amazing stuff has come out of the original Bay Area thrash scene in the last couple years. It seems that it's alive and well again. What do you attribute the current popularity or resurrection of the Bay Area trash scene to?
Alex: Well, I think part of it is it's not as isolated as it used to be. It used to be this very isolated area of music. Pretty much limited to the Bay Area with the exception of, you know, MEGADETH from L.A. and ANTHRAX form New York. I think it's now like one of many genres of very heavy metal. You have black metal, you have death metal from Florida and it all relates to thrash metal. There are all these relatives in metal. And now you've got some newer bands that have formed in the last ten, fifteen years that in some cases are seeing a lot of success and that's brought a lot more awareness to the original Bay Area thrash scene. So when we first did the reunion shows, it was unclear what kind of type of fan we would have. Was it just going to be old-school fans? But there are actually a lot of young fans that are keeping it alive and well.
Away-Team.com: With you guys, VIO-LENCE, EXODUS, DEATH ANGEL, were you kind of a close-knit community? Was it kind of you against everybody else? Was there a lot of camaraderie there, or...?
Alex: I'd say there was camaraderie and competition simultaneously. Everybody wanted to be the best band they could and even though a lot of us we didn't really sound alike. You always had to keep an eye out for the other bands. It's like different football teams that are all in the same league. You want, as a whole you want to do well, but you still want to come out on top, above everybody else.
Away-Team.com: Your current tour, in support of "The Formation of Damnation", is unique in that you guys are allowing the fans to vote, via your MySpace page, for the setlist they want to hear in their given town. You have three options, "The Legacy" plus hits, "The New Order" plus hits, or a chronicle setlist, basically from start to finish of your catalogue. How did you guys come about the idea? How has it been received? And any regrets on having to keep rotating a roughly thirty-song playlist on tour?
Alex: It's worked out very easily, because overwhelmingly everybody's voted for the chronicle stuff, so that's pretty much what we've done. And I'm not sure who came up with the idea, but it's definitely been a very good idea and it's just been fun to hear from the fans. And in the process they've not only voted on the songs, a lot of them have made suggestions a long the way. "We want to hear a chronicle, but we really want to hear this song. Why don't you play this song?"
Away-Team.com: With all the side projects, from your various members, DRAGONLORD, you in TRANS-SIBERIAN ORCHESTRA, Chuck's DUBLIN DEATH PATROL and your jazz trio, how do you guys find time to get together to record and tour? And how does that affect... I mean, is TESTAMENT now the priority or is it, "We can fit in TESTAMENT around these various projects?" TSO's a big deal, it's a big show and you have to…
Alex: Yeah, it's a unique situation, because I was already, I'd already been playing with TSO for several years by the time the TESTAMENT reunion happened. So it's been pretty understood that during the months of the winter TSO tour I'm not available. I do my best, as far as my trio [ALEX SKOLNICK TRIO], and I have couple other projects I'm involved with as well, some as a producer which I can't talk about yet. They're…They're gonna be...
Away-Team.com: Then I won't ask that question…
Alex: Pretty exciting times and projects… We're doing an album cycle right now. So, since last year we've been doing an album cycle, so this... TESTAMENT has been the priority. As soon as we're done with this album cycle, I think there's going to be a slight shift in priorities. The way this record got created was a lot of the basics were worked on while I was with TSO, I would write ideas, which I think is going to happen this next tour as well, and then I think next year, before the album cycle, before the TESTAMENT album cycle starts, that's going to be a good chance for me to do a lot more stuff with the ALEX SKOLNICK TRIO. But then, of course, once the TESTAMENT album cycle starts then that's going to be the priority. It really depends on where we are in terms of the album cycle..
Away-Team.com: Is there anything you haven't done yet, goal-wise or music-wise that you still want to? And what is it?
Alex: Yeah, there's a lot of things. Definitely, I'm close, I mean I feel like with my instrumental albums I'm able to do the music that's in my head. Which is great! For me it's just getting my instrumental stuff to a wider audience. And I'd like to see Testament reach a wider audience as well. The truth is, what I would really like to see is the trio playing venues like TESTAMENT's playing; those size crowds. I'd like to see TESTAMENT playing to crowds more like TSO's.
Alex: I get this experience of every year playing in front of a packed arena. Sometimes twice a day! And this band has never experienced that. That kind of production, that kind of audience. We've had some great support slots in arenas. But I think this could be a great arena band.
Away-Team.com: There's many bands out there today that are citing TESTAMENT as an influence, as a musician it's got to be an ultimate compliment. How do you react to something like that? I mean, how does that make you feel?
Alex: Great! It feels great. It's a great compliment. It's not something you think about while you're doing it, while you're in the studio or playing live; about having an influence on somebody else, you just do what you do. But when you hear that, it's amazing, 'cause having had many influences myself, just to think that I was able to be what I saw in my favorite guitars players, other people are seeing in me, which is really, really cool.
Read the entire interview from Away-Team.com.