It's pretty rare for a band to wait nearly three decades to release its best album, but that's exactly what Testament did. Last summer saw the release of Dark Roots of Earth, Testaments tenth and most accomplished work. Melding the old school fire of the band's previous efforts with a modern sheen and sensibility, Testament forged a brave and powerful new direction that found the band reaching commercial inroads that they had never reached before.
Speaking from his home in California, lead shouter Chuck Billy talked with DC9 about how that sound came about and how the internet helped expose the band to a whole new audience, including a bunch of kids in Kuwait.
Testament has been around for thirty years. What have been some of the more significant changes in the heavy metal scene over that time?
There have been some big changes. It's strange to think about that in the 80's, heavy metal was a little more commercial. There were radio stations that would play it and we had MTV. There were more major outlets for this style of music. In the nineties, things seem to fall off the map. Those stations seemed to disappear. MTV stopped playing videos. Now, heavy metal is kind of on its comeback. We have satellite radio and stuff. It's been a big full circle; that is for sure.
Do you think that easy access to your music via the internet has resulted in your most recent album being your highest charting album ever?
Yes, I do. Everyone is always complaining about the internet and music pirating, but for us, that's where it is going. Record and CD stores are going to be out of business within the next ten years. It's all going to be on the internet. No one writes letters anymore; it's all email. Everything changes. You have to change with the times.
Were you surprised by the overwhelmingly positive response the new album received?
I wouldn't use the word surprised. I was very pleased. I think it's what we always wanted. Of course, you always want a good reception for something you create. I think we wrote this record to please fans. In the past, you might write thinking about what fans and critics would think of it. With this record, that really didn't cross our minds at all. We loved the record the second we heard it. I was really into it. We felt that maybe we had limited ourselves for so many years. We opened our minds up a little bit and it resulted in this record getting a great reception.
You were diagnosed with cancer in 2001. How is your health these days?
I feel good. I get checked out twice a year and I had my last check up two weeks ago. It's all good so far.
Is it more difficult to go on tour as the years go by?
No, I don't even think about it. The cancer is all behind me. I don't worry about it.
Do you think metal bands today can experiment a bit more than you could back in the day?
We did ballads back in the early days, even when it was all hard and heavy and we couldn't get away with it. I think a lot of bands now come on all heavy, but as they continue, they incorporate more melody into their songs. It's a natural progression. I think it's more challenging to bring more melody to a tune.
What do you think of all the sub-genres of metal? There cannot be another form of music that has so many offshoots.
When you think about it, there is no other form of rock that writes about such dark images. It's all about good and evil, right and wrong and dark imagery. All of the sub-genres have that same undertone, that same image, that same look. You can go to a concert by any band from any of those sub-genres and it's the same image.
I have a sixteen year old son that is a big fan of your music. What is it about what you do that seems to draw fans across generational lines?
I think we have evolved. There are a lot of new bands that we meet and we are influenced by. We have kind of gotten re-inspired. We've put some of those newer elements into our style of writing. I think that has help keep us current. We don't sound like a thirty year old band. The songs we wrote thirty years ago, there weren't a lot of bands doing that stuff back then. Now, there are a ton of bands that offer that flavor. I think we are still young at heart. We are just keeping up with the times. Production just keeps getting better so our records keep sounding better and better.
Are you still working with [former Testament vocalist] Steve Souza in the side project Dublin Death Patrol?
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We did a second record, but we haven't planned to play any shows. The Testament record came out right before that. We've been too busy and that whole thing was just for fun. It was just all these guys together, all these friends who grew up in Dublin together and make some music. That project went way beyond anything that we had planned. It was almost like a class reunion. It was a fun gathering, a party band playing cool cover songs.
In 2006, Testament toured the Middle East. Did you ever feel in danger?
Not at all; we did the Desert Rock Fest and we didn't know what to expect. We played in Dubai and it was very cool. It was a little restrictive. You couldn't drink beer on stage. You couldn't take off your shirt. There were things you just couldn't do on stage, but it was just an eye opener for me. I didn't know what kinds of fans were going to be in that crowd. It was the dame metal heads that would be at any show any place in the world. It was black shirts and long hair and they were all just banging their heads. It was trippy. Kids came from Kuwait and we realized that we were an hour away from where all the shooting was talking place. Those kids had been kept away from music. They had been using the internet to get our music. In that way, the internet really did help bands like us, helped us get to those kinds of fans. It's cool that they found us and got to come see us live. I thought it was great.