TESTAMENT: "Putting Down Roots"

By Dr. Abner Mality

TESTAMENT and Chuck Billy don't need any long-winded explanation of who they are from the Good Doctor. If you don't know who they are, then you shouldn't be here in the first place, so why bother? Go listen to Nickie Minaj and stare at your iPhone for the rest of the day.

Been four long years since Testament leaped full throttle back into the metal fray with "Formation of Damnation", but do not expect a total repeat of that sound with their new effort "Dark Roots of Earth". This new record pulls the trick  of differing significantly from its predecessor while retaining the Testament sound in every way. It seems like there was a lot of thought and evolution in the Testament camp over the interim.

I spoke to frontman Chuck Billy around the time of "Formation of Damnation" and enjoyed that chat. Well, this interview grinds that one into dust. What follows is a truly honest and in-depth conversation on a number of important subjects with the best singer in thrash metal. I shall say no more but leave you to consume and enjoy the following landmark talk...

WORMWOOD CHRONICLES: "Dark Roots of Earth" has charted well everywhere, it's been a huge success so far. Would you say this is the definitive Testament album?

CHUCK BILLY: I think so. Since the reunion...for sure.  We've gone back to what has made us great. Before the reunion, the songs were more based on rhythm, with structured leads. I think we went a little darker and heavier during the late 90's. Of course, since 2005, the writing style has changed, it's went back to the mentality of creating songs that have dual guitars and more lead work. It's more like what we used to do, when the original line-up was together. After the "Formation of Damnation", which I thought was a real strong record, we were testing the waters with the original line-up again. It was a good record. But I think we went into "Dark Roots" with a little more confidence, with us as songwriters, us as musicians, us as friends. At this point, we're all 100% focused on touring as a unit. Whereas, after "The Gathering", we had so many line-up was getting real tiresome. Everybody was great in those line-ups, but it wasn't like the original lineup. Now it's like, we're back together, we're having fun, we're enjoying Testament again. We want to finish something that we started together.  And that feeling is a little overwhelming, because back in 2001, I didn't think I'd be coming back to play this again. I was focused on beating cancer, on visiting my friends and family.  That was what my attention was fully focused on. When we had the opportunity to reunite, that was like a total blessing. It was like, man, I beat cancer, now I get to play Testament with the original guys! Things turned around. We're more settled as people and friends, and I think it really shows in the music we've created and in the live performance. All the way around, you know? We have new management, new booking agents, new record label, so it was like a fresh start again.

WC: You guys sure seem to be road dogs and enjoy playing live frequently. Do you think that's where you're at your best? Or is it in the studio or composing?

CB: I think Testament has always been that band. We've always been a stronger live band than a studio band. I don't think our earlier records really captured what we were as a live band.  Until Andy Sneap came aboard, a guy who was a metalhead and a fellow musician, a guy who understood us...he really knows what we want, knows what we're looking for, knows what our style is. He's a musician and guitarplayer,too...that really helped us nail the last couple of records.

WC: I saw the show you did at the Congress Theater in Chicago last year with Anthrax and Death Angel. That was a blowaway show for all the bands. The energy level was amazing, at this stage of the career particularly.

CB: Yeah, we're definitely having fun with it.  The chemistry is there in the live show.

WC: "Dark Roots of Earth" is a lot moodier and darker than the previous record "Formation of Damnation". Was that the intention when you started creating it or did that evolve naturally?

CB: It evolved. Musically, I don't know if it's darker. I definitely think "Formation" was up-tempo and really driven songs, while this new one is more of a dynamic record, with songs like "Dark Roots of Earth" and "Cold Embrace" and some more mid-paced tunes. It's definitely more dynamic but I think it is a dark record. It's definitely not a happy record. (chuckles)

WC: Some of the songs have a very apocalyptic theme to them. "A Day in the Death", "Man Kills Mankind" you really feel as a band that the end times are approaching?

CB: Well, I don't know about that, but I do think when we did "The New Order" record, a lot of those songs were based on Nostradamus' predictions and things that were happening to the planet. At this point in our lives, we've lived those 25 years and we're still hear but there are still a lot of things affecting the planet. There are things we do to each's almost like, is there really hope? We send troops out of our country to pitch in and help other nations...I think we should be at home protecting our own country. I think that would bring us closer as a nation instead of having so much violence against each other. Then, as far as the planet goes, 25 years later, yeah, there's a lot more awareness of going green and trying to get the message across but is anybody really paying attention and doing their part?

WC: In the years since "The New Order" came out, I have to say, I can't see anything that's gotten better since then.

CB: No, not at all. There was no message about saving the planet back then or people trying to get the message out. You see it see it in businesses trying to be more green, you see more groups trying to raise money and environmental attention. But can we ever reach the point where we can really make a difference? It's scary, very scary...even if everybody did their part, will it help? Or is too late? Are we just destined for collapse?

WC: Nature will impose its own will on people. There are parts of the ocean that are covered with plastic, with garbage. There is more awareness, but it takes more than that. You just can't be aware of the problem, you have to do something about it.

CB:  There are so many hurricanes, earthquakes and disasters now. Is that a higher power conveying a message? Could these crises actually be the catalyst for brining nations together and make us stronger? Who knows?

WC: That's an interesting take, it's almost like it's a trial by fire for mankind...

CB: Yup, yup.

WC: Another powerful song on the new album is "Native Blood". That's about your heritage.

CB: I did write it about my heritage but it was actually meant to be a song about indigenous people all over the world. Every race and every country has its own indigenous people in some way. It's about somebody who's being oppressed and felt like they're held down. Their words are not heard or taken seriously. So it's a song that I sing in both English and Spanish. In English, it's "Native Blood" but in Spanish the interpretation is "Sangre Indigena", which means "Indigenous Blood".  It's more about indigenous people, a different interpretation in Spanish than in English. But the whole vibe of the song is just having your voice be heard.

WC: Have you gotten any feedback from indigenous people on the song?

CB: I get responses on Facebook or Twitter or the Testament website and people from all around the world definitely respond to the song.  If you hear the song and you feel the mood of it and you see the video for the's a real emotional video...,it interprets the feeling of being a stranger in your own country. You can definitely apply it to your people and your struggle and your voices. Yeah, I have been getting feedback from people in other countries.

WC: I saw something really encouraging recently. They were planning on building a lot of dams in Brazil that would flood the forests and send a lot of the native people out of their homelands. There was a huge internet campaign against it and they have now decided to stop the project. I find that very encouraging. People without technology are using technology to save their way of life.

CB: Right, there you go. Somebody spoke up for themselves and made a difference.

WC: The other song that's getting a lot of comment is "True American Hate". When you look at the title of the song, there's different ways that can be interpreted. Do you think people really understand the ideas being expressed in that song?

CB: I've gotten it both ways.  I've got email saying "Chuck, I love Americans and you need to, too!". Well, I do, I'm an American Indian. The song was inspired by what I saw on the news. I had this news report burned in my brain for years. Back when we were sending troops overseas,  they'd show people on the street over there...fathers with their young children. as young as ten, carrying rifles, shooting rifles off, burning the American flag and hating America. So much hatred. I just thought wow! As a parent myself, I thought, how could you influence that young child like that? Teaching him so much hatred at such a young age...they probably don't even really understand it, they're just going  with the program. To me, it's kind of a scary thing. What kind of life will our children and grandchildren be living twenty or forty years from now when these young people have grown up with so much hatred? Who knows what kind of power they might wield? They could start something that leads to a World War someday! They've been taught so much hatred, especially towards's hard to see as a parent. To see a mind so young filled with such hatred...

WC: Well, in this country, we have the Westboro Baptist Church that pickets Ronnie Dio's funeral or soldiers' funerals...that seems just as twisted.

CB: A young mind is taught at a young age. For example, when I was growing up, my father was a big sports fan and he loved the Oakland Raiders and he hated the Forty-Niners. He taught me that as a young child...I was a Raiders lover and a Niner hater! (laughs). It stuck with me to this day...that's just the way it was growing up. I'm still a Niner hater! If I had been taught to burn flags and shoot guns, I'd probably still be doing that as well!

WC: I live right on the Illinois-Wisconsin border and I could tell you stories about the Bear fans vs. the Packer fans that would probably turn your hair white!

CB:  Look how friendly that is, it's just a sporting event. But it's true! A young mind like that,...when you give that child a gun when he's 15 years old and everybody around him is burning the flag, they don't know why, they're just being told something. "This is what you need to believe, this is what our faith teaches us." They are going to grow up and who knows, they may cause a terrible world war 30 or 40 years from now!

WC: The last song on the album is called "Last Day of Independence". That almost sounds like it was an anthem for the Occupy movement. Is that the case?

CB: It totally is. It is totally inspired by the Occupy movement. There was a lot of that going on near our studios here in Oakland. There were a lot of days where people just left town early and boarded up their businesses and moving their cars off the streets because your car would get smashed up or your storefront windows would get broken. Who knows what would happen? Once a riot starts going, it's hard to stop.

WC: Oakland really seemed to be one of the more violent epicenters of the movement. I remember that veteran Scott Olson getting shot in the head and that was really a turning point.

CB: In Oakland, we hang out at this local brewery all the time. That whole area was shut down that night...the windows broken, the cars turned over and burned. It was like, holy smokes! That helped to inspire that song, the Occupy movement.

WC: It doesn't seem like the way things are now can sustain itself much longer. Fewer and fewer people have control and the base of the pyramid have less and less choices in life.

CB: I don't know, it's just crazy. Everything happening in the world, all the events going on...I hoped that after Katrina, our nation would be brought closer together and we'd watch others backs more. After 9/11, there was definitely some of that feeling. But we're still destroying each other....still hurting fellow Americans.

WC: People create division for their own profit.

CB:  Yeah, there are people that are more  ignorant and just don't get the big picture.

WC: Ignoring the "Dark Roots of Earth" album, what would you say is the ultimate Testament album?

CB: Ummmm....I'd probably say "Practice What You Preach". Right after "The New Order" and writing about all the Nostradamus predictions, we found our groove and our style. That was a turning point for the band...that was definitely one of the great moments.

WC: On the new album, some of the vocal lines really seemed to go back to what was done on that album.

CB:  Well, that was a conscious thing on this record, because I really wanted to back and do more actual singing and have a little more melody. It's more like "Practice.."  or even like "The Ritual", because that's really what I wanted to do. In the late 90's, when the original band broke up, we were a little heavier in style and I was doing more "death" vocals. When I had a mid-tempo song, my natural tendency was to use my death metal style, thinking it would make the song heavier because it wasn't a thrash song.  Whereas this year, I said I'm not gonna do that, I'm going to go against what I would normally do. It's actually more of a challenge to put melody into a mid-tempo song without having it sound boring. The end result was something more people enjoyed, I think. The real old school fans definitely enjoyed it more...I got some grief on the album "Low" when I used the death metal voice all the way through "Dog Faced Gods" for the first time. A lot of the old fans were saying, no, no, don't do that!  But then I get it the other way from those new fans who like the stuff as heavy as they can get it. (chuckles)

WC:  I have no trouble with the death vocals because it shows a lot of range. I know the album "Demonic" was a polarizing album...

CB: That's what was called for at that time. That was the kind of band we had together back then.

WC: I don't wanna sound like I'm kissing up, but you have some of the most versatile vocals in thrash metal. Your more melodic stuff doesn't lose any power and that's not something you often hear.

CB: I just came to grips with the fact that you just can't  please everybody. You've got to do what feels good and right. I've always approached songs with whatever vibe I'm feeling at the time. On this new record, I put conscious thought into doing the singing against what I normally try to do! I wanted to be more melodic and write songs that had more feeling. Even in the mixing process,  I didn't want to go back to what I would normally do, which is throw delays and reverb on there and muck it up. I really wanted to have the vocals understood, have them really clear and audible to people understand what I'm saying. And I really took a chance on that but now that I listened to the record, man, I'm so happy I did that! And now I wish I could go back and make the other records a little more like that.

WC: It's good the vocals were so clear because the lyrics on this album are exceptional. You cover a lot of important subjects this time around.

CB: It works because the hooks are out there a little more. There's more enunciation. Everything about it comes across better. I'm a big Metallica fan. I look at how James did things. I realize when you have a good vocal on a good lyrics, you want it to be out there and heard. I look to James for doing that and going for a drier approach and a one vocal track. I really wanted that, so I went for it. I let my guard down and said, you know what? These are good songs with good lyrics and good hooks...just go for it!

WC: Do you follow any of the newer thrash bands that come up in the last ten years? Which really inspire you, if any?

CB: Yeah! There's not just one band but a lot of them. I like the thrash style so I like Soilwork, In Flames, Shadows Fall, Lamb of God...all these bands that came up that were influenced by Testament  growing up. I get re-influenced by what they've created over the last ten years. It's gone full circle because of what they're doing.  There are some great bands putting out great records. I can be influenced by them...they are helping to push Testament as a band. For example, Eric is really influenced by black metal and the Swedish stuff. A lot of that element creeps into Testament, like the blast beats on "Dark Roots..." It's helped to open up a new side to Testament.

WC: Is Eric's project Dragonlord  pretty much extinct or is it just dormant?

CB: No, he's actually writing the new Dragonlord album now. Testament takes up a lot of his time now, but during the last couple of tours, he's been writing new material, getting ready to record.

WC: Is there any side project that you're involved in?

CB: Not really 100%.  I do a side project for fun called the Dublin Death Patrol and their new album actually just came out a couple of weeks ago. It started out nears ago at a high school class reunion. When we were all living in Dublin, California, we all had our first bands that we played in. We all talked about getting together, just jamming and having fun and tossing stories around.  That's the way it started and once we got together and started playing, we started writing songs. At that point, we decided it would be really a shame for nobody to hear these songs. Let's record a record, let's make a website, let's get these records on our website only. So any friends or family or people that grew up in Dublin that can play music, come on down, you're welcome to participate! That's what happened, there were 15 or 16 people that worked on that record. Both of my brothers,...I think we had 3 o4 four bass players, two drummers, two singers, six guitar players...

WC: That was the "DDP 4 Life" record, right?

CB: Yeah, "DDP 4 Life". There was a good buzz about it and we actually got the opportunity to play some shows in Europe. Some of the guys in the band never really did anything musically, it was all for fun when we were kids. They never got to get out there and play in front of a festival audience and that's a whole experience in itself. We got to go to Europe and play in front of 40,000 people. Some of us had never even left the country before. It was a real cool thing and a good thing for me to share with those guys. We got to play those kind of shows with Testament before, but those guys...the look on their faces as they got nervous. It was really cool to see that and enjoy it! (chuckles) The experience was fun! We actually got to go back a couple of years ago and do it again. We got the opportunity to open up before Heaven and Hell. Machine Head's bus broke down or something like that, so we got the call to go on before Heaven and Hell. They asked us, how do you guys feel about going on before Heaven and Hell? And a lot of the guys just went...GULP! (chuckles) Oh man! It was great, we had a fun time. We brought our wives with us, so it was really like a big family vacation. We played the show, saw Europe together. We decided at that point that this was all for fun. In the meantime, we wound up getting a record deal. They wanted the "DDP 4 Life" record and they also wanted a second record.  But we all sat down and decided, this is just a fun project, we got to do way more than we ever thought we would do. Why don't we end this on a good note? This is the highlight of everything.

Ronnie James Dio came into our dressing room and the rest of the guys are just like oh my God, Ronnie's here to say hello! You know, it just doesn't get any better than that. We decided this is the highlight and we need to close it down here.

WC: Ronnie was one of the nicest guys ever in this business. I remember seeing him at the House of Blues in Chicago and then going to a meet and greet after. It was 3 o'clock in the morning when Ronnie came down and everybody was dead tired. Ronnie comes walking in fresh as a daisy after a two and a half hour show. I shook his hand and said "Hello, Mr. Dio." and he said, "No, no, call me Ronnie!" He was definitely a one of a kind guy.

CB: He definitely was, he was just that kind of person that remembered your wife's name and your child's name after not seeing you for 10 years. He was always interested in how you're doing.  Last time I got to see him,  he was already dealing with his illness, but he was concerned with my health and how I was doing. That's just the way he was. Him coming into our dressing room and all the guys getting to say hello to him, we decided this is the way to close the book on Dublin Death Patrol. We probably won't do any more big shows. We'll out the second record, which just came out and there you go. It was something that was an idea for fun and it blossomed into much more than we ever thought.

WC: Speaking of Heaven and Hell, you were on that great tour a couple of years back with not only them but also Judas Priest and Motorhead.  What were the memories of that? Those are all god-like bands.

CB: Those were all our heroes and you learn something from people that have been in the music business that long. That's the toughest business that's out there.  But to meet people like Ronnie Dio that teach you so's like you said, Ronnie always gave himself to the fans. I'v learned that from him. I toured with him back in 94, the last tour for the original Testament before we broke up. I took that away from Ronnie, how he gave everybody his time. That's how you keep a fan. That's what I learned for him, so now after a show, I always try to hang out with people at the bus. That's how you keep a fan for life, that's what they will remember for life. Being on those tours, you learn stuff like that from the veterans. We were the youngster band on that tour even though we were around for more than 20 years.  We try to carry on in that tradition. When we tour with younger bands, that's what I try to do. I try to teach them the importance of giving your time like that.

WC: I think in this day and age, with the music business suffering so much, it's more important than ever to focus on the personal side of things.

CB: Oh totally, totally! I see new young bands coming up and gaining in popularity and they just treat bands and people badly. I just go, you know what? You got the world right now but with you acting like that, when you do a bad record, just wait for that day.

WC: It's karma.

CB: It's total karma. When people ask me what kind of advice I would give upcoming bands, that's the advice I give. Give everybody your time, especially the fans that buy your records. The fans will remember you as a person instead of the music you've done. They're going to remember you as a human being. Period. You could have the greatest songs and the greatest records, but when you're an asshole to your fans, that's what will stick in their minds.

WC: What are some of the tour plans for "Dark Roots of Earth", especially here in the States?

CB: We're finishing the Anthrax/Death Angel leg, which we started before the new record came out. We'll start our European trip in November, which was booked before the record came out. That's what's on the immediate horizon. After that, we'll see. The new year is wide open...we'll see what happens in 2013. We've got new agents, the new record's doing well and we're a band that's ready to tour our ass off.  I know we're playing the Vic Theater in Chicago and that's one of the venues we played in the early 80's!

WC: What was the last CD you got just because you wanted to hear the band?

CB: I bought the last Lamb of God and Anthrax records.

WC: What was the last live show you saw just because you wanted to see it?

CB:  Ummmm...let me think for a sec. God, I can't remember the last show I went to!

WC: That's the comment I often get from bands that are really hard working.

CB: You know what it was? It was Y & T!  Over at the Fillmore!

WC: How was that?

CB:  It was awesome. I'm a big Y & T fan. They were doing on of their big farewell shows.

WC: "Meanstreak" was such an influential record...

CB: They were just such a great band. They were good songwriters, musicians.

WC: In the long history of Testament, has there every been a Spinal Tap moment where things went wrong?

CB: We had the exact Spinal Tap moment where we got lost at the venue. We were in underground tunnels and got hopelessly lost...we could hear the intro tape rolling already. (chuckles) We couldn't find the stage. We were like, dude, this is totally Spinal Tap! We were lost in the caverns underneath the venue but we finally made it.

WC: It wasn't Cleveland, was it?

CB: No, it wasn't Cleveland! (laughs) That's what we were saying. "Hello, Cleveland! Where the hell's the stage at?" (laughter)

WC: Any last words for the faithful?

CB: I'm just glad everybody's enjoying "Dark Roots of Earth" and we're really enjoying performing it live. So if we're in your city and you get a chance to see us, come on down. We're always offering VIP meet and greet upgrades with all our shows. If you wanna come down and talk and chit chat, that's how you'll get to do it.