Testament's frontman is the larger-than-life Chuck Billy, one of the more imposing figures in thrash metal. It turns out he is also an extremely friendly fellow, as we learned during our phone interview.
Billy was diagnosed with germ cell seminoma (a form of cancer) in 2001, which he successfully overcame. The dark days of his illness gave way to a bright future when the band re-formed after Billy's recovery to play the 2005 Dynamo Open Air Festival in the Netherlands. Most of the classic lineup has been together ever since (drummer Louie Clemente being the only MIA member), releasing the albums The Formation of Damnation in 2008 and Dark Roots of Earth in 2012, the latter of which was the highest charting album of their career in the US, peaking at #12.
On June 6, 2013, Billy, who is of the Pomo Native Americans, was honored by the California State Assembly for the positive influence he has made in the Native American community and on the general public. He discussed this distinction and also talked about the early days of thrash and the stories behind several Testament classics.
Chuck Billy: Thank you, man. That was really, really cool.
Songfacts: Can you explain what that was all about?
Chuck: Our local assemblyman [Jim Frazier] chose to recognize me for my accomplishments for our district. Out of 80 something assemblymen, each one gets like eight a year to recognize, and they chose me and they contacted me to tell me about it.
I really didn't know what to expect or what to make of it until I got there, and it was a little intimidating sitting on the assembly floor with all these assemblymen going through their daily business. In the midst of all that, they called me out there and gave me a nice certified plaque, to recognize me for my accomplishments in music, being a Native American here in California, being a cancer survivor, and all of what I've done over my career.
Chuck: It was pretty neat.
Songfacts: And then this may lead well into my next question, which is if you want to discuss the Testament song, "Native Blood," as far as what the song is about lyrically.
Chuck: I wrote it - because I'm a Native American - about what I saw on our reservation as a kid, but the song really is about anywhere in the world in any culture that has indigenous people. I feel like they're the underdog who doesn't really have a voice, but has an opinion, but either doesn't say it or they say it and nobody's listening.
I did it through my Native American vision of the way I've seen it. Our reservation growing up was a pretty depressed kind of reservation, and there wasn't much help from government for schools and cleaning up the housing or the roads or water and all that stuff... until the day we put a casino on there. And once we put a casino on there, all the tribal members and community had jobs, had somewhere to go, had something to keep them going and kind of be proud of.
And then all of a sudden the government steps in with their hand out, like, "Okay, now we see that you're making money, now we're paying attention." So for those years, we didn't get any help. The council members and my father were making noise by going to Sacramento and talking about it, but nothing was really happening.
So it was just from that view of having an opinion, having something to say, but nobody listening. That's what the "Native Blood" song was about.
Chuck: Well, I didn't grow up on the reservation. My father, he was one of 13 kids. He and his older brother were the two that got off the reservation and went to college. He really didn't want his family growing up on the reservation - he wanted us to grow up in suburbia. We spent a lot of time going to the reservation, and I remember all the summers there. We had 40 acres of grape vineyards, so every summer we'd be there working, picking grapes and doing things like that.
We grew up in a different way, but being a Native American growing up in suburbia definitely felt like the outsider looking in.
Songfacts: Looking back at the early days of thrash metal, at what point did you realize that there was a movement going on and that it was also clearly different from the opposite of the spectrum, the glam metal bands that were going on at the time?
Chuck: Being from San Francisco, especially the late '70s/early '80s, the Bay Area was more glam metal and punk rock was the aggressive, rebellious kind of music that was going on here in the day. And once Metallica and Exodus and those guys came on the scene in the early '80s, it kind of changed. This movement grew so quick, and all those glam bands left the San Francisco Bay area and went to LA, where everybody ended up in that glam movement.
So the next thing you know, we were just more of a punk rock/heavy metal community, that grew really quick. And there were so many places to play back in those days. You could go to a show at The Stone and then later on catch the midnight show across the street at the Mabuhay Gardens or the Rock on Broadway. Or go down around the corner and there's another venue.
Then everybody seemed to follow, and you'd always see the same people and the same crowd at all these shows. It was a little community of the same people, and then the after-parties - going to Paul Baloff's house to a party or something and the same crowd from the show is there. It was just a trippy scene that grew really quick in those early years.
Chuck: I wouldn't say a lot. I think with the SOD record, that's when a lot of people first heard real powerful, heavy guitar tones, and I think every band came to him hoping to get that. I don't think we got it with Testament. I think back now, because we didn't know anything about recording. We did a demo and then we went in the studio for the first time. So we had no idea about micing techniques or what mics to use or anything.
But looking back, when I listen to the Legacy record, it sounds tinny to me. But it's because I know the way we recorded those guitars. We used condenser mics on some crazy clothes hanger concoction. I'm thinking, "What was he thinking?" It makes me realize that's why our guitar tones weren't that good. But who knows? Maybe Alex, he was still at a young age learning himself and experimenting. That's how it is: you've got to keep trying different things.
But in producing, I think we had our songs down and nothing really changed from what we did on demos and rehearsed by the time we got into the studio.
Songfacts: By and large, how does songwriting work in Testament?
Chuck: With us, it's been me and Eric [Peterson, guitarist] for a long time. Eric will come up with a structure, what he thinks is the verse, chorus, lead sections. Once I hear it, I listen to where I feel that the vocals should be, and then I'll either rearrange it or stick with what he hears and come up with the arrangement. Once we get the arrangement down, Eric will take it back again and then rework it to make it all flow together. If he has to build an extra part to connect what he thought was the chorus that's now a verse, going into a new chorus or something, he'll redo it. That's always worked the best.
There are some songs in the current years, like "More Than Meets the Eye," or even "Native Blood," some of those songs we came up with the riff and he had a lot of it already completed. From the first time we heard it to trying it live in the studio, the patterns were there, the song structure was there, and it came together really quick. And those are the ones where we go, "Wow, this is a special song because it just came together so quick and it still stands strong even after you reexamine it and make sure it's got everything we need in it."
And those don't happen all the time. Most of the time it's just building them. But sometimes we get lucky in that sense, and I think after working with somebody for 25 plus years writing music together, it's like anything in life you do that long, you hone your craft and get better at it. We kind of know what each other is thinking at this point and what our limits are and what keys not to go in and play in. He knows what I turn down as far as the scales and the keys he picks to write songs in. We've been pretty lucky in that sense as a team.
Songfacts: Who are some of your favorite songwriters as far as either rock bands or solo artists go?
Chuck: Well, Metallica's James Hetfield has always been an inspiration with clever lyrics. When I first started hearing Metallica it was something new to me the way his cadence of vocal styles sang to the music. Because when I was growing up, I was more like, UFO and Thin Lizzy and Scorpions and Priest, where the vocalists were more melodic singers. So when there was that thrash attack, it was a whole new thing to me. In Testament, it was what we were becoming, that same style. He really inspired me with his clever lyrics and clever hooks.
Bruce Dickinson. Ronnie James Dio has always been a great songwriter and lyricist, same with Bruce. And then Rob Halford. Those guys always were my heroes.
Songfacts: Let's talk about some of Testament's classic songs. What do you recall about "Into the Pit"?
Chuck: "Into the Pit," okay. That was off the New Order record, and that was actually the first record I really got to participate on the writing. Of course, that was what it was all about: being in a mosh pit and thrashing and stage surfing. So when I first wrote it, the riff was just so fast and powerful. That was one of those songs that the chorus just came. As soon as we hit that "Into the pit," it was like, "Oh, that's it."
What's funny about that record is that we were in Europe and it was the wintertime. It was very cold and our first really "winter" experience. We wrote that record in the back lounge of the bus on an acoustic guitar, so we never really got to go at it full live while we were writing that record. A lot of it was just out on acoustic and these guys just came up with these riffs and the song, vocals, patterns, just talked them right through it. So it was weird the way that record was written. It was so powerful, but we never put it to an electric guitar - it was on acoustic.
So that was a special record for us, because it was so intense. We did it on acoustic guitar, and once we got home and tried the songs on electric with drums and everything, it was like, "Wow! This is just crazy!"
As we were leaving the show we all piled in the van to go back to the hotel, and it all of a sudden just hit me, I was like, "Dude, I got the name of the next record. "Testament, Practice What You Preach," and everybody was like, "Yeah, yeah, that's it." And then right away we started working on that song.
It kind of made sense. At that time that was our third record, and we were starting to write more instead of just thrash it straight through. We were starting to put a little more melody and hooks in the songwriting. I think that was the first record that we were officially on Atlantic Records. Next thing you know, we have A&R people concerned about the next video song or the radio song.
So in the back of our minds we thought about writing songs with more hooks and melody. And "Practice What You Preach" was one that came together because it kind of summed up what we were about. We believed in our thrash and what we did, and we were going to practice what we preached. And that was that.
Songfacts: What about the song "Electric Crown"?
Songfacts: What would you say is your favorite Testament album from a songwriting standpoint, from front to back?
Chuck: That's a difficult question. But I would have to say, as far as from the heart right now, I'd say probably I think The Dark Roots of Earth, just because we were at that point of the band as friends and songwriters, that we were really comfortable and confident going in with the record. Other records, we were always concerned about what the press or the fans were going to think of the songs.
There are songs on the record - "Cold Embrace," or even "Dark Roots of Earth" - that are more slowed down or ballad-y type of songs. As a heavy metal band, we were always thinking, "Are people going to listen to this and think, 'Oh, they're getting older, they're slowing down?'" And this was the first record, writing it, that that didn't even cross our minds once we were working on those songs. We were like, "You know, this sounds and feels really good." We weren't concerned with what anybody else was thinking, because we enjoyed it.
I think that's probably the first record we wrote without thinking about the consequence of what we're doing, if it's right or wrong.
Songfacts: What do you attribute to the fact that Testament is probably more popular now than it's ever been?
So it made sense to me, because Anthrax was the beginning of Testament's career, it was our first tour to Europe and America. It all just made sense. It was like, "Wow, it's kind of like a beginning." So I called the guys up and everybody says "Yeah" - that was including Louie [Clemente, Testament's former drummer]. So we had the original lineup.
It was one show, and one show turned into seven years later to where we are now, two records later. And when we were at that point, me and Eric had so many different bass players, guitar players, and drummers, that we were kind of getting tired of not knowing who's going to be on the record, who's going to be on tour. So we chose not to tour as much and not to work as hard. We played some special specific shows here and there, but didn't really work hard. So we got the original lineup back in '05 and have been doing these records ever since. Once we decided we're going to start working hard again, I think that's when the turnaround came. We played everywhere we could and put out two great records. I think that's what brought us back in front: Testament got back to where we left off with that original band. So it's a good feeling.
August 13, 2013. Get more at testamentlegions.com.
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