Testament – Titans ReturnSunday, 12th April 2020
When it comes to a thrash band that began in the ’80s still maintaining relevancy in 2020, it’s easy to put Testament in that category. Based on their ability to evolve as times, technology and members change, they are a solid example of incorporating modern and current aspects without forsaking the foundation that put them on the map at first in the Bay Area then into a global headlining attraction. Their latest album, Titans of Creation, delivers a blitzkrieg of anthems and headbanging outings, incorporating extreme nuances and progressive action against crunchy riffs and killer lead breaks. Plus, you have the unmistakable roar and screams of singer Chuck Billy – one of the most distinctive voices of the genre.
We recently got the chance to speak with Chuck, who was still recovering from the COVID-19 virus at home. You’ll learn more about the making of Titans of Creation, including the artwork, last-minute title of the record, highlights/underrated moments in the Testament catalog, plus, his thoughts on band chemistry and his boating and golfing time away from the band.
Dead Rhetoric: Titans of Creation is the latest Testament album. Does it astound and impress you how the craft and art of making an album can still be exciting and exhilarating this deep in the career of the band? Where do you see this album sitting in the catalog of Testament records?
Chuck Billy: I think at this point in our career, Brotherhood of the Snake, the final result was awesome. This album was definitely a different process, we had a little more fun with this one and a little more enjoyable of a process. (It) didn’t drag out for so long. But, I would think for where we are at from The Formation of Damnation record in 2008 to the current records, somewhere when we had our reunion in 2005 we’ve been moving forward from that point, there’s something about having all of those original guys back together that maybe has put us in a different comfort zone, we’ve got the right headspace. The process is definitely different than the past, especially because we all don’t live near each other. We were able to create something though that is still Testament. Lucky for me, I still live close enough to Eric and can work on stuff together with him; which helps make it more the real Testament sound still.
Dead Rhetoric: Do you think you were able to adapt better to the changing technology with home studios compared to the process the way records had to be recorded in the past through the ’80s and ’90s?
Billy: Big time. The process has helped a lot. Alex [Skolnick, lead guitar] is in New York, Gene [DiGiorgio, bass] is in San Diego, Eric [Peterson, guitar] is in Sacramento and I’m up in the Bay Area with Steve so it’s not easy to just get together just to jam. It does take writing and creating, a lot of it through the internet until we all get together and run through the stuff. It’s definitely a different process, but I think it helps out. Especially when we lay down the foundation, once we get into the studio we rearrange and come up with some different things – but it’s always a good way to start.
Dead Rhetoric: There’s never any shortage of current, social, or political/world topics to pick from lyrically at this point, is there? What typically captures your attention enough to want to talk about them from record to record?
Billy: Definitely the things that are going on in the world and things that are real. Things that are personal. Brotherhood of the Snake, the last album, there was more futuristic and relating to mankind. I thought we were going to take on more of that direction when we started working on this one because “Children of the Next Level” is one of the first songs that we wrote musically and lyrically, and that could have been off Brotherhood with the lyrical content. And then all the other songs started taking on their own life, their own vibe, and it strayed away from that, so I started identifying them all individually as they came.
Dead Rhetoric: The cover art from Eliran Kantor, who has been creating work for the band since The Formation of Damnation, is another outstanding piece. What was the game plan this time around, and where do you see the importance of artwork in heavy metal in this day and age?
Billy: We have faith in Eliran because we have been working with him for so long. We didn’t have the name of the record, so it just started with some sketches. I said to him ‘Okay, we saw that it has people swinging hammers.’ As it developed, it was a little darker and we decided we wanted to have life and pull it from life, not darkness or sadness. So we had to lighten it up and have a different color scheme, more like the universe and real bright and vibrant. Once he started going in that direction, it gave it a different feeling in the art. We still didn’t have the title until a week before we delivered the final layout and everything. Because when we looked at it, once it was final, we knew that those guys were pouring DNA and creating life, but we couldn’t figure out what to call them. Angels, demons, gods, we couldn’t figure that out until Eric came up with titans. Yeah, that sounds pretty bold – Titans of Creation. And we went with that from that point. The creation of the record, and how that came to be – a lot of the music and the lyrics, we worked those out in the studio on the spot.
Dead Rhetoric: Where do you draw the balance at this point in the band’s career to meeting your own personal expectations album to album, live tour to live tour, and also try your best to satisfy the multiple generations of Testament fans worldwide?
Billy: There’s always a tough challenge. We went in this time hoping that we would make a good record. There’s always that chance that you could make a bad record. We went in because of the last few records just challenging ourselves, putting our backs against the wall and be creative on the spot. It worked in our favor. There are so many new bands out there and there’s so much good music, bands that are so heavy that it’s killer. But it’s not like we can go about changing who we are. We still have to be Testament and stay who Testament is. I think Eric and I have done a pretty good job keeping things Testament while still evolving, sounding maybe still modern or current, I’m not sure of the right word.
Dead Rhetoric: I would definitely agree with that assessment. You’ve always been a band that doesn’t rest on your laurels but keeps up with what’s going on in the music industry, whether things are heavier, more modern, or in the production realm…
Billy: Especially production. You always try to outdo your last record and you always want a better sounding record. Something to just improve upon. You are always looking for that, and with our relationship with [producer] Andy Sneap, we have a lot of trust in him. He’s worked with us, he knows what we are looking for. On this record, because he’d been busy playing guitar with Judas Priest, when he came home I think he was a little hungry to get in the studio and knew it would work. Because of that, I think this is one of his best mixes.
Dead Rhetoric: Given the changing nature of the music industry, where do you see the state of thrash today compared to your early success in the 1980s to early 1990s? Do you believe we are at a point where the style never has to worry about being crushed underground as there is enough of a following between the veteran acts and younger artists to keep things alive and kicking?
Billy: I think it does. The internet has played a big part in that now for exposure, Spotify and all that. I think it keeps thrash alive… in the early ’80s though, it was such a new thing and a new movement, a different time where it’s never going to be like that (again). The attitude, the songs, and that era has held over the test of time. There are a lot of bands that are still inspired by that early thrash of the 1980’s – there’s something about it, aggression, rebellion, it still has that.
Dead Rhetoric: What do you consider some of the benchmark highlights for Testament in terms of albums, songs, or tours/festival moments, where you knew you were reaching a new level of respect and longevity?
Billy: I don’t know necessarily about longevity but when we found ourselves, I’m going to look at The Gathering record. Once we completed that record and got through the ’90s, [those were] tough times for us. And then to write those songs and that record at that time, at that point it was like we found ourselves, that this is what Testament should be from now on. Moving forward from that record, we have been.
Dead Rhetoric: And what do you think is maybe an underrated album or moment in your career that people need to look into a bit more?
Billy: We always say that The Ritual record was like a downer, but it was probably a downer because the band was starting to split up. When I listen to that record, it has some good songs, and it is a different Testament record but, we probably put that record down more than we need to.
Dead Rhetoric: Through your latest video trailer, we discover your love of boating and golfing when you are handling downtime away from the band. Discuss the charge that both activities give you to reset and recalibrate as an individual to give the best output you can to music?
Billy: When we work and tour, we take it very seriously. We are focused, and when you are touring you are set in a routine to give things one-hundred percent when you are out there. So when I get home, getting away from a schedule and having that routine, it’s almost like a freedom where I can just go get on the water and listen to my music – or get out on the [golf] course and listen to my music. Not really have to talk to a lot of people, and that to me, I love it. Getting off the schedule, that’s what I enjoy about it I guess.
Dead Rhetoric: How important have the relationships been between yourself, Eric, Alex, Steve, and Gene to the development of Testament in these past few years- especially when you took over management duties internally?
Billy: We are fortunate that we all get along – and that we all have an opinion. We don’t fight, and we haven’t had any arguments. Myself and Eric are probably the only ones who may – but we have known each other for so long, we argue like brothers. Or disagree like brothers and hold our ground like brothers (laughs).
Dead Rhetoric: With everything in a holding pattern as far as touring activities, will that allow the band to start getting some groundwork laid out for the next studio effort?
Billy: I don’t know. We are going to ride it out and see how things go. It’s such an abrupt ending to the touring and all the plans that we had, the arrangements we had. Everything is on hold right now, all we can do is plan for touring after the summer, and hopefully, things get better after that.
Dead Rhetoric: What’s the update on the status of your health after your positive reading for COVID-19? I’m sure based on your past health issues you are following all the proper protocol…
Billy: They’ve told us, the CDC called us twice and our own doctors called us twice to say we are probably okay to go out, but… they won’t retest us to know that we aren’t sick. How do we know we aren’t contagious still? Like Steve our bass player… just got tested on Thursday, and he’s been sick as long as we have, and he just tested positive. And he got results weeks after. Maybe we should just stay in longer, but we can’t get another test. We are riding it out as long as we can. We’ve been indoors since we’ve been home. We feel better but we are not one-hundred percent. For 12 days we felt really shitty.