Chuck Billy Talks Hash, Thrash, and New Music
with Jay Rollins
Testament is one of the world’s original thrash bands hailing from the Bay area that defined a subgenre and they’ve been active for the better part of 35 years. Since joining the band for the recording of Testament’s debut album The Legacy, which had already been written, Chuck Billy reigns as one of thrash’s most distinctive voices. Throughout their career Testament has lyrically tackled politics, environmental issues, ancient societies, and the cannabis industry all the while honing their thrash talons. From being recognized in 2010 at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian exhibit “Up Where We Belong: Native Musicians in Popular Culture”, to his company Breaking Bands, which offered guidance to other prevalent metal bands, Chuck Billy is a proud ambassador for music and heritage.
Today I get to speak with the Chief of Thrash while he enjoys a short break from the Slayer Farewell tour. Thanks for taking time to speak with Metalheads Forever!
Thanks for having me.
Chuck Billy, not surprisingly your first Slayer experience was at an Exodus show before you eventually became touring mates. I read an article where you were reminiscing about connecting with Tom Araya over a few puffs during Testament’s first shows with Slayer. How you do feel being out on the road with Slayer, yet again, but this time knowing it is in support of the beginning of the end?
Well there’s definitely been many different tours that we’ve done with Slayer, from when we were young and partying hard until now where we are just taking care of ourselves, but I still see that now Slayer is really soaking in it and enjoying themselves on this tour. Maybe they know it’s a farewell and they understand that, but I’m going to take full advantage of enjoying the tour as well, ha ha.
Absolutely, getting to live that again.
Testament will perform The New Order (1988) and The Gathering (1999) this December at the Decibel Metal & Beer Festival. Are you planning on doing both albums in their entirety?
Yes, it was something that we were approached to do. We said yeah why not it’s The New Order’s 30th anniversary, so we just figured it would be a good record to do, and everyone’s always asked us about The Gathering, especially the [Decibel Metal & Beer Festival] who really wanted us to play that record. So, it was upon request but we don’t mind that because we haven’t done that in a long time. It’s always fun to go back and play songs that you don’t really play, songs that don’t make the setlist. Sometimes it’s fun to do these because you have no choice but to dive in and to tackle them again.
It’s cool that those albums were put out just over a decade apart and you get to go back and revisit them now. The Gathering marked the beginning of a recording hiatus that 2008’s Formation of Damnation extinguished. In terms of music, how do you feel about the band’s career since returning?
Well it’s definitely been a much different return since The Gathering. The Gathering was a big statement for the band and a big record for us that was a turning point as far as the way our creativity was, you know our style and writing. After I got sick and beat cancer it kinda put a damper on the momentum but right after that Skolnick and the original guys joined the band again. From that point on the band has played more and have taken on more concerts and is more of a full-time thing. I think from that point the band has gained some momentum again. Things have continued, we continued writing records from [The Gathering], I think our records have even progressed and gotten better I would say. You know, the song writing and even the production in the records. So, I think from where we were at with The Gathering ‘til now, it’s been steady progress but we’ve been working hard at it.
How has working with Andy Sneap over the years influenced Testament’s recording process?
Well working with Andy, he’s got a great ear and he knows Testament’s sound. Being a guitar player himself he’s always keen on making sure it’s a great guitar sound, which is every band’s wish, to have a great guitar sound. Not as far as the writing goes but as far as production I think we’ve got enough trust in him [compared] to at the beginning, when myself and Eric were really mixing the records with Andy, and over the last record we’ve kind of let Andy just take the reins and send us mixes. We’re that confident with his ability in understanding what we want, and he’s got it. It’s a really easy relationship to work with now because he’s done enough that he knows our sound and he knows what we want. He knows our personality, it does make it easier the longer you work together.
Absolutely. Last year you were hopeful that Testament would be releasing Brotherhood of the Snake’s successor this year but, understandably considering your tour schedule, that has been pushed back to next year. Has there been progress on the new music for what will be Testament’s twelfth instalment?
Eric’s working on riffs now and the plan is after the Slayer tour ends at the end of August we won’t be doing any more touring, we’ll go heavy into writing mode. Me and Eric, we’ll start really just creating and working, trying to get the next record out as soon as possible because we have plans and hopes of setting a deadline on ourselves to have it out by summer 2019. We got a lot of work ahead of us.
(TESTAMENT – “The Pale King” OFFICIAL MUSIC VIDEO)
Nice, busy times. Your variety of vocals is impressive, as you look back through Testament’s discography the diversity is apparent but not always mixed on the same record. However, with Brotherhood of the Snake each style is implemented in a cohesive manner. Can we expect something similar in the upcoming effort or do you think you’ll pick more of a vein and stick to it?
I like the direction we went on Brotherhood but our hope always is that there is some special element. Something special like The Gathering feeling of music, that writing you know, it’d be nice to kind of experience some of that again. That was a little more thrashier, that record, and we like that, we like the more thrashiness but while still trying to carry a melody. So, I don’t know, we can hope but until me and Eric sit down and start writing together we don’t know really what the outcome is until we start working.
Having the melodic background that you do, seems to work in a thrash band because that helps set you apart through vocal melodies.
Yeah, thank you.
At 17 I walked into a local CD shop when the cover of Return to the Apocalyptic City, with the fish hooks and chains ripping a face apart, became my first exposure to Testament. Eliran Kantor has been working with you for a decade now to create impactful album art. Who initially comes up with the cover concepts?
Eric does most of the time, he still to this day works with the artists that work on concepts for t-shirts and for the cover art. Usually you know we start thinking of titles early on and start throwing ideas out to the artist to kind of come up with something, it’s a collaboration between what they see in a vision and what Eric’s trying to interpret to them. Sometimes it takes some time but sometimes, you know fortunately we’re working with Eliran Kantor, he works very quick and kinda knows what we’re looking for. And knows it’s not just an album cover, it’s gotta be for t-shirts, a big backdrop, it all has to translate into all the forms that we need. So [Eliran Kantor] has a lot to do with it and we’re all part of that.
Yeah it needs to stand out in all ways so you really get it out there, makes sense.So, Eric would have been responsible for the Return to the Apocalyptic City cover?
Well that one, let me see, Tommy Pons was a guy that was working with us at the time. He was doing a lot of t-shirts and he came up with that cover because we decided we were going to do the live E.P. and needed a cover, he was just who we were working with at the time. It looked great and actually we did that shirt for this Slayer tour but we exchanged a skull on that old original shirt to this legacy skull that we have now, it turned out really cool, so it’s kind of made its way back.
At least one track off Brotherhood of the Snake, “Canna-Business,” is rooted in current happenings. Since 2012 some places in the U.S.A have had recreational marijuana use legalized at the state level. Come October 17th Canada is due to legalize recreational marijuana use on a national level and the canna-business is booming. Will you be looking into the Canadian markets yourself to expand on your cannabis ventures, namely the Chief Signature Vaporizer?
Yeah, actually the Chief Signature series. We’re just getting ready to launch a whole new line of Chief products for retail, from cannabis to oils, to wax, to everything under the sun. That’s going to be coming out here probably within the next month and a half. We’ll definitely be expanding, I’ve already been talking to outlets. A lot more shops are popping up that carry that stuff now, which is kinda trippy you know, the record stores are gone but now the canna-business is popping up everywhere!
I had an opportunity to experience Testament’s full force last time you were in eastern Canada, on the Canadian Carnage East tour with Megadeth and Slayer. A while back it was mentioned that a Clash of the Titans featuring Testament, Megadeth, Slayer, and Sepultura could happen. Do you see something like that working out in support of your next record?
I doubt it, this is Slayer’s last tour so this is it. There will be no more Slayer tours, ha ha.
(Testament’s wall of death in Halifax. ***poor audio quality***)
Will the Atlantic Canadian provinces be fortunate enough to see a Testament show or two again in the near future? I know last time you were here I caught the Halifax show and it was amazing, with the wall of death, it was huge for us.
Well we just came through Canada on the Slayer run, I think we did 6 Canadian dates and on the second run we’re doing one Canadian date.
Thank you once again for taking time to speak with Metalheads Forever, as a group it’s always exciting to feature Testament and this time I was stoked to be the one asking you questions. I’ve always had your patch on my vest and will keep rockin’ Testament for a long time to come.
Right on, we appreciate it man, that kicks ass.
Cheers and I’ll also be keepin my eye out for your Chief Signature products once they make their way North.
Yeah keep an eye for that, we’ll be launching that and who knows maybe we’ll talk again.
Yeah absolutely any chance I get to talk to you, I’d always love to.
Right on brother, appreciate the call.
MHF Magazine/Jay Rollins