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Interview: Alex Skolnick from Testament

Testament press shot

San Francisco thrash metal giants Testament may have dealt with more line-up changes and setbacks than you can count on both hands, but for over three decades the hardcore quintet have helped revolutionise metal and become one of the most popular bands the genre has ever seen. We chatted with legendary guitarist Alex Skolnick to discuss their latest album ‘Brotherhood of the Snake,’ his secret to alternating from thrash to jazz, and whether Testament will be returning to Australia anytime soon!

Congratulations on ‘Brotherhood of The Snake!’, I especially like how the title was based on a society from over 6,000 years ago to dethrone religions. Why did you choose this concept?

I’m actually not the best one to explain that (laughs). It was really Chuck (Billy) the singer and Eric (Peterson) the guitarist. It was something they were excited about. If you look at some of the earlier tracks I tend to focus a little more on politics and environmentalism, but I guess they got inspired. So yeah, they really ran with it.

If I’m correct, you individually started writing the tracks in late 2013. How did the separate periods of writing set it apart from previous albums?

It was a little different because we used to set aside a big period of time in order to just focus on a record. We never really had that this time. We would have a week here and there but the band toured for sometime, which was great. There were summer festivals every year so we had very busy summers and most of us were involved in different groups. It was no longer the period of time where you needed to play with just one group. Scheduling wise, it just happened in a bunch of shorter periods.

Eric Peterson has mentioned how different influences were used for this album. What were the main ones and how did you incorporate them into the tracks? 

Everybody brings their own influences to the album. I think definitely having drummer Gene Hoglan was an advantage, he really has his own style. He played on the last record but it was actually written with the previous drummer. I think just having Gene, being on tour a lot with him and knowing he plays very well, affected the music quite a bit.

I know when I worked on my solos I wanted to play with ideas that were melodic and exciting guitar wise but also really worked with the drums because the drums are a totally different animal from what we were used to.

What did you contribute in terms of guitar parts? 

I composed my solos and tried to steer Eric into playing parts that were interesting and could easily play on top of the same parts that changed over. Sometimes I would come up with my own parts like in Neptune’s Spear, which I actually wrote on my own as an individual progression.

I listened to classical piano and was trying to write a melody with Baroque counterpoint. In the end of the song you will hear layers and layers of my melodic guitar and that’s what I was going for. I’m sure a proper classical pianist who plays Bach two-part and three-part inventions would probably critique it, but I did my best and I think it captures that feel!

Could you walk me through the recording process this time around?

We’re sort of at a point with technology where it changes things quite a bit. If I were to walk you through it from the 90s for example, it would have been a process of recording the drums and building on top, the bass, then rhythm guitar, lead guitar, and finally vocals. Now the only thing the same is the drums still get recorded first but the rhythm guitars are fine-tuned and get recorded with the drums.

Usually the bass it done on top of that and then by the time I hear the song, it usually has bass, some of the songs even have vocals…we’re able to operate at our own pace.

I live on the East Coast, I’m a New York resident, and the rhythm tracks were recorded on the West Coast where the band is from, the San Francisco Bay area. The tracks were sent to me remotely and then I was able to record them in New York. In the old days you couldn’t do that, you would have to ship a giant tape across the country, which is very risky. Everyone had to record in the one place. Now you have the options!

What type of guitars and equipment did you use for this album? 

Well I have a signature guitar made by ESP, The Alex Skolnick model, and I used it on the whole record. There’s a budget version of it called the LTD, which is also very good and I even used it on a couple of tracks. I have a signature amplifier made by Budda and I used that as well. The pedals I used came from ToneConcepts based in Canada and JAM Pedals based in Greece. My strings were made by D’Addario, and the picks and effects were made by Belmont.

For live shows we use Kempers, which are a different type of technology called Modelling Amplifiers, it’s actually a digital replica. Some people use them in the studio. I think Eric used rhythms with his, although I’m still partial to my Budda to get the exact sound. But if we’re playing live these modelling amps are great. They’re very consistent and are easier to travel with than regular amps and are much easier for the sound people to work with!

What is your favourite song on the new album?  

It’s hard to say. I guess I like the song The Pale King a lot. We just did a video for it and everybody seems to like that one!

One of your side projects of course is the jazztastic Alex Skolnick Trio. Jazz is such a long way from thrash metal! Did you grow up liking both genres or did jazz come later?

I always liked it but I never aspired to play it until I was in my mid to late teens. At the same time I was doing my first Testament record. I was so young when I joined the band. I was 16 doing the first record, and by 18 I felt like I was still developing.

Some people get into a band and say, “Okay, this is what I’m meant to do”. As much as I appreciated being in the band I felt like there was no reason why my tastes couldn’t develop and change. They became more open and I developed such an appreciation for jazz, for all of it…guitar, piano and saxophone.

It just really spoke to me as a fan and the more I explored it, the more I wanted to play it. I figured I put so much work into attaining technical proficiency and musical knowledge, why should I limit it to this one style of music, which is really music for playing on stage very very loud.

When I’m at home I want to put on John Coltrane and Bill Evans and when I pick up a guitar I want to play that music. It took many years and it was like starting over. People thought I was crazy because when you’re in a metal band you just don’t do that, but I did. 

How awesome! And speaking of, what’s the latest on the Alex Skolnick Trio? 

We have a new live recording, our first live recording, and it comes out November 28. It’s actually available in some outlets now. It’s from a couple of sets just this year within the Fall European tour, mostly originals but there’s a cover of Aerosmith’s Dream On and a bonus track of Still Loving You by the Scorpions which quickly migrates into full-on blues at the end. Dream On goes into 60s George Benson to 70s John McLaughlin and just many different places.

Throughout the decades Testament has undergone many transformations, but what is essentially the heart of Testament? 

It’s funny, if you listen to the very first record you can tell the songs that were written before I joined were straight ahead and fast. I brought in something new, originally to do with melody and harmony, making it more musically interesting…it was a bit of a struggle at first!

We would bump heads a few times but gradually it became more part of the picture. You can hear from Eric’s writing now that he’s able to write more harmonically and more interesting so I think even when it’s just him and it’s more of his creation, you can still hear the influence of us together.

I think what else happens is bands evolve and sometimes the individual players don’t evolve at the same pace. In my case I evolved too much (laughs), so I needed to be out of the band after a few years just because I had other genres of music and other types of musicians I needed to work with.

When I came back about 10 years ago we found some common ground and I felt I was able to be my other self and exist outside of the band but also bring that into the band. The rhythm section just feels right even though we play radically different than the original rhythm section. 

When will Testament return to Australia? 

Not soon enough! We all want to go. I think the last time we were there was a couple of years ago at the Soundwave festival, which is unfortunately not happening anymore. Usually it’s hard to go to Australia more than once in an album cycle, but now we have a brand new album cycle so I think it’s a safe bet we’ll be there sooner than later!