An Interview with Alex Skolnick and Paul Bostaph of Testament
Band Photo: Testament (?)
Thrash metal legends Testament have been a subgenre titan for over 20 years now. With the original lineup mostly reformed and their critically acclaimed new album "The Formation of Damnation" released earlier this year, they have embarked on a massive touring campaign in support of their new album. I had the opportunity to sit down with guitarist Alex Skolnick and drummer Paul Bostaph at the Chicago leg of the Metal Masters Tour (also featuring Judas Priest, Heaven and Hell and Motorhead).
Terminator: How’s the Metal Masters Tour going so far?
Alex: Really great. Having a great time, kind of a dream come true. These are some favorite bands of all of ours and they’re just very professional, they’re great to work with, they’re great to watch every night and everybody’s pretty much on the top of their game.
Terminator: Now, this next one’s kind of a loaded question. Which of the three bands also on the Metal Masters Tour - Judas Priest, Heaven and Hell or Motorhead - has had the biggest influence on you personally?
Alex: For me personally, Judas Priest. I discovered them first, I discovered Black Sabbath later, Dio later. And obviously they were all big influences as well, but Judas Priest was the first one I found.
Paul: Wow, that’s a pretty good question. I’m gonna have to say Black Sabbath or Heaven and Hell.
Terminator: On that note, what other bands or players have influenced you guys or got you guys into metal?
Alex: Well Kiss was one of the first bands that got me into playing music and they're kind of an honorary metal band. And most metal bands have Kiss as an influence on some level. And for me later on it was Van Halen and the first Ozzy records with Randy Rhoads. Randy Rhoads and Eddy Van Halen were my big guys for that sound, but then later I discovered Tony Iommi and he’s like the source of that sound. The 80’s guys sort of took the technicality to another level. But I’m influenced by them all.
Paul: I wouldn’t say as much any players per say as it would be a band. The first time I heard the song “Godzilla” by Blue Oyster Cult, that kind of got me into heavier music and that opened the door to a heavier style. But I would say ultimately what got me into heavy metal was the cover of Iron Maiden’s “Killers.” I saw that and I was hooked.
Terminator: So artwork is important to you then?
Paul: Yeah, very.
Terminator: Recently Testament has been playing a lot of festivals and large arena shows. How does that compare to playing smaller venues and which do you prefer?
Alex: I think there’s advantages and disadvantages to playing both. You play a place like this (Metal Masters Tour at First Midwest Bank Amphitheater in Chicago) you have a really short set time, you don’t get to do your full show, you’re far away from the audience, but you get to reach a lot of people and you get a lot more press. These tours are much more publicized. Doing a smaller venue it’s not as comfortable, it’s usually pretty tight quarters, you’re hot, you’re sweaty. Sometimes you go on really late, but you’re also much closer to the audience, the audience is there to see you and you get to do a longer, more complete set. And a sense that you can give the audience a better show.
Paul: As long as the catering’s good, I’m there.
Alex: Catering can be hit or miss at both shows. Fortunately on this tour it’s been mostly very good.
Terminator: I can imagine. So what do you guys do mentally and physically to prepare yourselves for a show?
Alex: Paul and I both go running. We’re both runners, and this is the first tour I’ve had a fellow runner.
Paul: We prefer to go running on golf courses.
Alex: Especially in Chicago where they’ll chase us off (laughs). But other than that, I work on the same music I work on at work. I just work on it more intensely closer to show time. That’s also my warm up.
Terminator: As you guys both get older, how do you cope with excessive amounts of touring compared to back in the day when you guys were in your 20’s?
Paul: Well for me personally, I don’t charge as hard as I used to and what I mean by that is that I definitely don’t party as hard as I used to. My body won’t recover as quickly and even then when I was younger, you know, it was so new drinking beer, having fun, going crazy, staying up as late as you possibly can, dealing with your hangovers. But now for me personally, the show’s more important than ever and I want to give people their money’s worth. Back then my eyes were wide open and I’d never been on a tour bus before, its like “Holy crap, I’m on a tour bus.”
Alex: And I think a lot of people go through that. All of a sudden it’s a free-for-all. They provided you with beer, hard alcohol, there’s no curfew. You can even go a little crazy, but I think once you go through that and get older you tend to pace yourself a little more.
Paul: And now it’s red wine instead of Jack Daniels.
Alex: I know when I toured the first time around, I wasn’t in shape the way I am now. And also just keeping occupied and keeping stimulated, staying connected with the outside world, which is a lot more possible now with the internet and cell phones. You used to have to use pay phones to call home and you didn’t used to have the internet, all you had was television.
Paul: Or you’d write a letter. Instead of sending an e-mail you’d write a letter.
Terminator: In early 2005 Testament reunited the original lineup, with the exception of Paul. What was the motivation behind bringing back that original core of guys?
Alex: Well talking to Eric (Peterson, guitarist) and Chuck (Billy, vocalist), who have been there throughout the band’s history, I think they weren’t sure how much longer the band was going to be going. They’d been through countless lineup changes and a lot of personal problems and such, they just wanted to get the original lineup back together and have some fun - see if they could get some of the old magic back. And we did and that’s what led to Paul coming in and us getting our new record out and getting on this tour.
Terminator: I understand that Testament was collaborating with Nick Barker for some time on the new album, how much of his work actually made it into “The Formation of Damnation?”
Alex: None, actually. Paul recorded all the tracks. Nick was there while some of the new material was being rehearsed, but by the time Paul was in the band Nick was long gone. And by the time we did the record, Paul was actually playing with us.
Terminator: “The Formation of Damnation” has had a large amount of success, debuting at #59 on the Billboard Top 200 chart and earning a Golden God award already. Do you feel that Testament is receiving some long overdue recognition?
Alex: I think so, I think so. We were always sort of just under the radar compared to some other bands. It's great to see that, you know. We didn’t win awards, we didn’t get tours like this, the biggest metal tour of the summer. So its nice, its nice. It’s a pleasant surprise.
Terminator: Describe for me the writing process of “The Formation of Damnation.” Did either of you try any new techniques that were different from any previous albums you’ve been a part of recording?
Paul: The way the album was written, there was really nothing that was really new from what had been done in any band I was in before that. Alex had some ideas that he would bring in that were pre-recorded and that’ve been done before, like four- track recording. Eric and I would sometimes work on an organic level,. He would come up with a riff and I’d go “What’s that riff you played ?” He’d go “I don’t know” and we’d turn that into a song. The one pleasant thing about it all was when we had an 11 day period when Alex was here for pre-production before he had to move onto TSO (Trans Siberian Orchestra). It was nice to have Alex and Chuck in the room while the music was being written because I think the songs were crafted a lot quicker. “Killing Season” being one of them, was a song that was my second least favorite on the record. When Alex showed up, with just his insight of what we should do, it changed the whole song and actually made it one of my favorites on the record.
Alex: I would hear certain parts that I thought were really good, but they hardly ever happened. I’d hear a part and you know this part is great, let’s hammer it home. I did that with a few other songs as well. It takes a person that didn’t come up with the song to really hear that kind of advice for arrangement.
Terminator: What was the goal, stylistically, that you guys tried to achieve on "The Formation Of Damnation?"
Alex: I really didn’t feel that there was any set goal. The record is gonna be what it's gonna be. It’s going to be all our parts, it's going to be everything that we come to agreement on and I think that there was some idea that we didn’t want it to be a nostalgia album. We didn’t want it sound like a late 80’s early 90’s type of album. We wanted the sound to be more modern to compete with the current crop of metal bands, but also to have sort of that certain special effect that Testament had originally.
Terminator: What can we expect in the future from Testament? Is this current lineup meant to be a permanent lineup or is this just sort of going through the motions: reunite, record an album and then go separate ways?
Alex: I think originally that was a possibility. We hadn’t played together in so long, we couldn’t plan how it was going to turn out, but I think the way it’s turning out and the way it’s feeling now I can’t imagine that we’d being going our separate ways. It wouldn’t make sense at all. We’ve got a good thing now and it almost feels like a new band now with Paul and with all the new fans we have. So it would be absolutely foolish to just walk away from it.
Terminator: Have you guys been working on new material for a next album on this tour?
Alex: I haven’t thought about it. I’ve got some parts, I know Eric’s got some parts.
Paul: When we get back home and Alex goes to TSO, I think we’ve got plans on getting together and starting and at least getting some groundwork laid. There’s no sense in being dormant because as soon as he (Alex) becomes available again -- ideally for me it would be cool to keep the ball rolling creatively. We’re touring quite a bit on this record and I think that if we rest on our laurels, enough time will pass and I think the momentum of what’s working live on this record and the reaction we’re getting to the material, even our own reaction. Sometimes we’ll hear the record and I’ll [think] wow, that’s a really cool song. Like “F.E.A.R.”, we listened to “F.E.A.R.” the other day and we don’t play that one yet, we haven’t had the opportunity to. We’re still learning the record, we’re playing some of the old stuff and trying to get it into the set, but we’re only playing a half hour right now. It’s funny to say, this album’s been out since April and we as a band are going to be going over some of the material that’s on the record to play that for fans for the first time. And not to drive this point home too much, but it’ll be nice to get home and take a brief break and get some of the creative juices going so when Alex becomes available again we can start forging that.
Alex: It’s always good to have a head start. The record ("The Formation Of Damnation") is only four months old, we really don’t have to think about it for a while, but its nice to get it going so we’re not in a place where it becomes overdue.
Terminator: It was about 9 years between “The Formation Of Damnation” and “The Gathering,” is it reasonable to expect a new album within the next decade?
Alex: Yeah, this is a different situation. It was nine years and probably the same number of lineups. Now there is a lineup that’s building off a current album and there’s no way its going to take that long.
Terminator: One final question. What advice would you give to any beginning band or musician?
Alex: Quit. (laughs)
Paul: Stay in school.
Alex: You know, it’s not as glamorous as it looks. You have to stay connected to what you love about it. The music, connecting to the fans. But you’re going to deal with a lot of unpleasantness along the way. Be ready for that and don’t let it get you down. Read some self help books. Just stay true to what you want to do. Get advice from all directions, conflicting advice and the best thing to do is to just step away and be your own band, don’t try to be the band that other people try to tell you to be.
Paul: I would say practice, practice, practice. Practice as much as you can to become the best that you can. Don’t write the same record twice. Like what Alex said, you gotta trust yourself . Don’t start listening to everybody else, you know, you gotta make this kind of record to get on the radio. Be the band that you believe you are and if you stay true to yourself, then you’re successful no matter how many records you sell.
Terminator: I appreciate you guys taking the time to talk to me.
Alex: Thank you.
Paul: Thank you.
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