Testament is riding high at the current pinnacle of modern thrash metal. The secret of the band, since their resurgence in 2007 has really been to combine the ability to have their classic sound intact, upper echelon musical chops, while making new music that crushes with a modern sensibility. In this regard they may only be rivaled by fellow Bay Area Thrash kings Exodus. Armed with a brand new concert DVD/CD, The Dark Roots of Thrash (Nuclear Blast) and a prime spot on their last US tour for a while with the likes of Lamb Of God, Killswitch Engage, and Huntress, life is good in the Testament camp. Ghost Cult’s Keith (Keefy) Chachkes chatted with front man Chuck Billy to get caught up on the DVD, touring hard, and their next album.
Testament has a solid history of putting out good concert albums and DVD packages. They even used to put our their own pro-shot bootlegs, that were better quality than what the labels were doing at the time. Doing justice to their live act has always been important to the band. Waiting for the right opportunity came along last fall. Chuck expanded on why now a good time for Testament to put out a new concert DVD:
“Since the last DVD we shot, we’ve done Formation (of Damnation) and Dark Roots of Earth. And the last one before that was Live in London. And that was the reunion with the original guys. But they only wanted to do songs off of records they did, so we didn’t get to do any of The Gathering, Low or Demonic material. It’s been seven… eight years now since we put those out. We’ve put two good records out. And the last few years we have been playing a lot more songs from The Gathering or Low. Now is a really good time to capture where we are at, since you never know who comes or goes.
It was a good time to capture where we are at as a band too, since we are playing more current stuff, as well as classic material. It was our headline tour. It was a really good package that we had with Overkill. There is a lot of good stuff . Just where we are in our lives, there is a lot of cool stuff going on.”
One of the most important choices for band in recording a concert DVD is the venue. Not just taking into consideration the location and the potential crowd response, but actually that the venue is capable of supporting the production of the tour. Testament had an impressive set up for this run, with a massive catwalk leading up to a tall drum riser. I felt the choice of the Paramount venue was inspired, since the band has such a strong following on the east coast.
“We had never played there before. When we were first looking at where to do the DVD, we already did a live record at theFillmore. Also, we wanted to wait until we got into the tour a little bit to choose a place. You don’t want to do something like this in a smaller club. We had seventeen cameras. We didn’t want to take up all the space from the audience, so we needed a big enough venue for the crain. So we started looking at the dates and venues. We were looking for a place with decent size stage, and a wide open floor and a good enough sound system. We played New York City the night before, and everyone comes out and drinks a lot, and feels a little hung over the next day (laughs). But we had a great turn out and ended up being a really good night.”
Testament has been going non-stop with almost no break since 2006 in a constant cycle of writing, recording and touring. Not too mention for a band that has been around over twenty-five years, yet they seem sharp as ever live. Of particular note on the headline tour, several band members from Testament and openers Overkill battled a serious flu outbreak. A few nights later Overkill would drop off the tour and the band battled through a few tough, but entertaining shows to finish out the run. Chuck waxed about feeling no pressure to hold up, health-wise for the recording, and what it takes to stay in shape vocally.
“That show especially, we decided we were gonna add in five or six classic songs in there too. So we knew it was going to be a long show. We were kind of fired up about doing it. We never really tripped on being sick that day, we just went for it. A lot of it is probably mental and physical. I used to take lessons. I’ve always had a tape and a routine before a show to warm up for about an hour. I do it religiously at this point. A lot of it is mental. Maybe if I didn’t do it, I wouldn’t feel ready. It’s a lot of that. Maybe it’s also few shots of whiskey before you hit the stage (laughs). You get a little bit loose, but most of it is going out there and having fun, and doing what you love to do.”
As with any legacy act with a lengthy and beloved back catalog, it must be challenging to choose a set list for a tour. Let alone a performance for filming a DVD. You are always going to have fans complain they didn’t hear their favorite song or ones the band “used to play”. Chuck talks about not wanting to disappoint the fans…
“It gets really tough. You get used to playing the same songs for years and you get really comfortable. It almost never fails. We always set out to add some new songs to the set list, it sounds good when you pick em, but then you get in the rehearsal room and there are other songs that are better, sound better and go over better. We always change it around, but wind up keeping the songs that sound and feel better. It always makes it tough. When we do those shows when we decided to do two records back to back. It’s fun because we go in and learn them, usually a lot of songs we might rarely ever play. Those are really fun shows when you do it like that. This tour we are especially trying to play a lot of the current few records. The Gathering is one of Eric’s favorite ones. We did four songs from The Gathering for the DVD. Those ones always stand out. I still really enjoy singing those songs.”
I asked Chuck with Gene in the band, about the possibility of bringing back some songs from Demonic.
“Well, that is what’s next. And Gene, he’s like “We should play some Demonic!” But we just haven’t. I imagine in the near future, next year when we have a new record, that is gonna be one of those records, we’ll say, we haven’t played anything live from in a while. I’d love to say “Let’s pick out ‘John Doe’ or something like that”. Sometimes it’s hard when you are not headlining and don’t get as much time. Especially for this Lamb of God tour, we have a forty minute set time, so we can’t really talk. How do we pick out six songs out of a hundred? We need to just hit it hard, and go.”
With this album cycle winding down, the band has no intention of slowing down. Since they have continuity working for them with the lineup for now, they have already plotted a course for their next recording:
“We start January 1st. We’re gonna take the first three or four months off to write to start off the year, and then get the album out by summer. We’re on a pretty good wave right now, so let’s not slow down. So let’s put together a new record and put ten new songs out there. Let’s keep it going! When everybody gets off the road, everybody does there own thing, and does what they enjoy too. Then we all come back together to do Testament stuff, it makes it all that much more special. We’re like “alright, we’re all back together!” I’m really happy to have Gene around too. I have Dublin Death Patrol (DDP), which is a lot of fun for me. You know, everyone in the band is busy, and I wanted to be busy too! So I wanted to do a record. It started out as just a bunch of friends. Me and “Zet” (Steve “Zetro” Souza) have been friends for a long time. And the rest of the guys are just my friends and it was just for fun, but now we’ve gotten a two records out of it.”
The finest track on Dark Roots of Earth, happened to be the single ‘Native Blood’. Not only is the song a catchy, melodic-thrash masterpiece, it is a battle cry of political activism for all indigenous Americans. Through the bands lyrics (‘Trail Of Tears’), and occasional stage shout outs, Chuck has always talked with pride about the role of his culture in his music and life. The ‘Native Blood’ video took 1st place at prestigious Native American Film Festival, and he reflected on the impact of the song/video:
“The message of the track totally came out exactly the way we wanted it. Up on the reservation where we shot it, it’s actually kind of funny when I go back. Last week I was back on the reservation. I was there for a festival and I went up there, helped out, and introduced the band, hung out. It was trippy because I used to go to the reservation all the time, and didn’t really have the acceptance. Now people are really recognizing me, and greeting me. People recognized me from the video, who would never really know about it from metal, like older people and grandmothers. It was cool! It was really rewarding for me that they got the message and dug the video. You didn’t have to be a metal fan to get the meaning of the video. That’s how I knew it worked.”
Keith (Keefy) Chachkes