Stephanie Cabral

Revisiting Magic With Testament

What is Testament if not the perfect example of what happens when you bring good people, good music, and a good mindset to the table?

The Bay Strikes Back tour featuring San Francisco thrash favorites Testament, Exodus, and Death Angel began in Europe in March 2020 and quickly ground to a halt when the pandemic began. Many in all three bands and their crews, including Testament singer Chuck Billy and his wife, successfully battled rough cases of COVID contracted overseas. Death Angel drummer Will Carroll spent 12 days in a coma before overcoming the virus. (Billy is no stranger to adversity, though, having beaten cancer two decades ago.)

Now, the tour is starting anew in the United States, with plans to bring the thrash road show all the way into 2023. The Bay Strikes Back includes a stop at Starland Ballroom in Sayreville on Saturday, April 30. Testament is touring for the first time in support of their latest and 13th album, Titans of Creation. The record was released on April 3, 2020, just two weeks after entertainment venues started shuttering.

Testament is true thrash royalty, the result of a strong work ethic, a consistent songwriting core featuring Billy and guitarist Eric Peterson, and exceptional talent. Peterson has a seemingly never ending supply of mountainous riffs at the ready and Billy is never short of a wide variety of lyrical subjects. Guitarist Alex Skolnick, a master of his craft, lays down fierce, melodic solos. Testament’s rhythm section has changed over the years, but always provides a resilient, reliable foundation.

Speaking of which, there’s big news on the drummer front. Dynamic sticksman Dave Lombardo (ex-Slayer) joined Testament for a second time following the departure of Gene Hoglan earlier this month. Lombardo, revered as a drum guru, also played on The Gathering, Testament’s monster 1999 release.

We spoke with Chuck Billy on a wide array of topics, including the Bay Strikes Back, Titans of Creation, the singer’s lyrical muse, Lombardo’s return, the 35th anniversary of the band’s debut album, The Legacy, and Billy’s plans to record his first solo album. 

Given all that’s happened in the past two years, between cancelled tours and your coming down with a serious case of Covid, how are you feeling about going back on tour?

This is our first tour since COVID and it’s a little bit of everything. I’m excited, anxious, and uncertain. We’ve never had two years off except for maybe when I had cancer. Sitting at home, especially kind of being trapped in my home for two years, I spent a lot of time with the animals… so to leave the house for more than a week, I’m a little anxious about it. After having COVID I’ve never had to perform a whole tour. I don’t know how my lungs will react yet. I’m working and training on them, I’m riding a bike, trying to build it up. But I haven’t been actually out there, so there’s that little anxious part about it. 

Are you nervous about contracting COVID again?

Not so much since I’ve been vaccinated and boosted, but I’m still going to try to isolate myself. If I were to get sick anyway the tour would be over and we don’t want that. My wife and I had it pretty bad for about two weeks and we’d just finished a tour, so you’re pretty wiped out anyhow, so on top of that and being sick it really wiped us out. 

Testament have played on many package tours. Is the Bay Strikes Back different because you’re performing with your fellow hometown thrash friends?

We’ve all seen each other and known each other for so long and we’ve always questioned how come we haven’t all toured together. We just haven’t been able to work out our schedules until The Bay Strikes Back. Once all the agents focused on making this work, they finally put it together. If COVID didn’t hit we would’ve had an American run, a second European run, and brought it to Japan already. We had a lot of plans for The Bay Strikes Back, so now, [after] two years on hold, we’re trying to get back into it again. It’s all in the mindset. We’ve got this tour [to do] safely and then we do a run over in Europe this summer with part of the bands and then we’ll probably come back to America and do a second leg with the same package and then back over to Europe in 2023 with the same package. Hopefully it all happens. We’re going to fire it back up and see how long it can last.

Your latest album, Titans of Creation, was released on April 3, 2020, just as everything was being shut down. What were the pros and cons of releasing a record at that uncertain time? 

The pro was that everybody was getting locked down so we thought at least somebody had something new to take their minds off it. We already had the campaign for the album started so we figured let’s not just pull the plug on it. The con was all the stores were closed. You couldn’t go out and buy a physical copy unless you ordered it online and of course the people weren’t at the labels or warehouses to ship it out so that was even tougher – our digital sales went through the roof, 400 or 500% they rose because that’s the only way people could get it. Now it’s time to come out and perform it and play it and maybe pick up where we left off, push the record again. We’re bringing the physical records on tour to get into the fans’ hands. We also did a play through of the whole record and that’s going to be on a DVD in the near future. 

Where would you place Titans of Creation in the pantheon of Testament releases?

Since the reunion with The Gathering forward, we’ve written some pretty good records. You’re always trying to top yourself with better production and writing that one song that hits good, but this one came out and I think it’s a little special. When we wrote the The Brotherhood of the Snake [Testament’s previous, 2016 album] it took two years for us to get that all written and put together and I didn’t want to go through that again. 

So when we began writing Titans of Creation, I said “Just give me the songs, I’m not going to challenge any of the riffs, I’m just going to do my best to create from what you give me.” By doing that it was challenging because some of the riffs I would’ve said, “No, change that,” or “Do something different,” but I didn’t do that. It pushed me out of my comfort zone to try things I hadn’t tried. Like on “City of Angels,” I used three different voices on that song. After writing music for 35 years, to still be able to experiment and come up with something new, that’s pretty cool. All the songs have their own identity. It makes for a pretty good start-to-finish listening record. 

Some big news in the Testament camp is the return of drummer Dave Lombardo. Did the band reach out to him or did he contact you following the departure of Gene Hoglan?

Just so everybody knows there was neve anything bad with Gene. It’s just that after two years Gene had plans and we finally got our plans together and there were some conflicts. We thought if he couldn’t do the whole tour we might have to find someone else. We told him, “Go for it. We wish you the best.” He was going to make an announcement but we decided to do it together. The day we did it Dave Lombardo’s wife saw the announcement and Dave happened to be looking for a gig because The Misfits, Suicidal Tendencies, Mike Patton, and those guys weren’t doing a lot at the time. Dave called me within an hour or two after the announcement. 

I said, “I would’ve called you first if I knew you were interested but I thought you were in four bands and our problem with Gene was a scheduling conflict.” He said he was ready to go, and we’ve got three tours in the books with him. We’d always talk on tour, too, about how it would be cool to do The Gathering record in its entirety. We’re like, “Yeah, maybe one day.” This opens the door again to like, “Wow, this is a real possibility.” 

Is Dave in for the long term? Do you see him playing on the next Testament album?

Yeah, we’ve talked about that. We’re not making plans, so let’s just see what happens. We’re enjoying jamming and hanging out and going out on the road and having some fun. Eric does just happen to have a bunch of riffs so maybe sometime on tour they could jam and see what happens. 

In ’99 when we wrote The Gathering, up to that point Eric did a lot of songwriting with a drum machine and handed the parts to the drummers and said here you go, make them your own now. When Dave came into The Gathering sessions, Eric didn’t have to do that. Dave was like, “Let’s just jam, just play,” so that’s what they did, and started playing and created this great record. So I’m hoping that’s the energy that comes backs again and revisits that little magic that he created for The Gathering.

Dave brings a different energy than Gene. Gene is a really meticulous, precision drummer. Dave’s a little more loose, a little more organic. He’s always been like that. It’s a totally different style, and he hits really hard and tunes his drums a little lower. It makes for this bigger sound which I think brings some more power to the bottom end of the band.

Your lyrics throughout the years have covered a wide range of topics, including environmental issues (“Greenhouse Effect”), your Native American heritage (“Native Blood”), serial killers (“City of Angels”), cults (“Children of the Next Level”), Nostradamus (“The Preacher), and songs based on Steven King novels (“Disciples of the Watch”). Where do you get your lyrical ideas? What’s your muse?

I’ve written songs for 20 years now with Del James, who was the editor of RIP magazine at one time. We met in the early nineties and we became good friends. He really understood my writing. I’d bring the concept and the melody and he’d interpret what message I was trying to get across. Also with Steve Souza from Exodus, we’ve been writing songs for years, as well. It starts with me and the melody and maybe a word here and there or a chorus line here or there and that sets the groundwork of where I’m going on it. That’s for the majority of it. Sometimes I’m baffled, like, “What’s this one about”’ I sit down with Del and we work and talk our way through it. 

A long time ago I started writing about things that were real or effecting me in my life or were part of my life. I think I have more emotion with the lyric that way. It has a little more impact. Early on we used to write a lot about Nostradamus predictions and here we are 30 years later and a lot of that stuff really happened. On Titans of Creation we wrote a song called “Symptoms” and then COVID hits. We wrote a song called “WWIII” and now this war is breaking out. There’s always this weird connection of what’s happening in our world and our life and what we’re writing. 

You’re planning your first solo album. Why now? Is this something that has been on your mind for a while?

I’ve never done it and I thought maybe it would be fun to write my own record, but I don’t want to write a metal record or a thrash metal record. I want to write something different. Maybe hard rock or bluesy – a little bit of everything. I want to write a record like we used to make in the eighties on vinyl, one take, do your best and get that real, raw sound. I want someone to listen to it and go, “That’s Chuck?” I’ve recruited some guitar players and said, “Write me a song,” and then that guitarist will contribute that song. I’ll have one common band record it and bring in each guitar player. Since I’ve announced it I’ve had a good number of people approach me. I’ve probably got enough people to get it done now.

Do you have an approximate recording and release date in mind?

I don’t want to plan it or lay it out. I just want to let it happen. Once people start getting songs in to me I’ll lust start listening and soak it in and really absorb it and put my two cents on it. I want to be organic with it.

April 21 was the 35th anniversary of the release of The Legacy, Testament’s debut album. Coincidentally, 1987 also saw your tour mates Death Angel’s first release. Do milestones like this cause you to look back and reflect? 

It doesn’t get us to look back but it definitely makes up appreciate where we’re at and what we have and that we still get to go do what we do. We’re very lucky in that sense. I think for the fans it’s great. I’m a big Scorpions fan and they’re playing a Vegas residency and I’m loving that I get to go see a band I grew up with and they’re still performing and playing. I hope someone who grew up with us has that same kind of feeling and comes to the show and says, “Wow, that was so fun going and seeing them.” Once we started I thought, “This is what I’m going to do for the rest of my life.” Fortunately, we’re lucky enough to get to do that.