Testament Guitarist Eric Peterson Discusses Past, Present & Future, And Gives A Taste Of Music From Upcoming Album
Band Photo: Testament (?)
After a lengthy period teeming with myriad personal and professional struggles, influential Bay Area thrashers Testament dropped an atomic depth charge known as "The Formation Of Damnation" through Nuclear Blast records in 2008. Their ninth studio album, it was a commercial and critical smash hit that mopped the floor with pretenders and cemented one of the most powerful comebacks in recent music history. It also officially reunited the (almost) classic lineup of frontman Chuck Billy, guitarists Eric Peterson and Alex Skolnick, and bassist Greg Christian - with the new addition of drummer Paul Bostaph.
After more than three years of successful touring with some of metal's biggest and best names, Testament is hard at work on their followup Nuclear Blast effort, due out sometime next spring. However, this hasn't stopped them from hitting the road across North America with veteran thrash comrades Anthrax and Death Angel. It was from this tour that band founder Eric Peterson took time to fill in Metal Underground.com with - among other things - some details on the highly anticipated new album, the cryptically titled "The Dark Roots Of Earth."
Mike Smith (OverkillExposure): You’re about halfway through the current tour. How’s that been so far? Do you see it stacking up against some of the other big package tours you’ve done recently?
Eric Peterson: This tour’s a little bit more downsized. We’re playing more theaters and club-type places. But it’s going pretty good, sort of co-headlining with Anthrax. The weird thing is that we had [former drummer] John Tempesta to do the tour, but he ended up having to do some other shows, so we called Gene Hoglan, who stepped in for a couple weeks. He’s out with us right now, until about the 14th. It’s going good, we’re having some fun out here.
Mike: Gene just recorded drums on your upcoming album. Do you see him being a part of Testament for some time to come?
Eric: Yeah, if he’s available, we’ll get him on board. We’re kind of getting mixed signals on the situation with Paul, [benched due to injury] but as soon as we get that sorted out, we’ll figure it out. Gene has a lot on his plate as well; he’s doing Dethklok and Fear Factory. So we’ll have to wait and see what’s going on. I’d imagine that when the new record comes out, he’ll be booked on a lot of stuff. So it’s a weird situation, but it kind of worked out well for us on the record, because Gene really stepped it up. And it’s funny, because all the problems this band has, with members and stuff, that all kind of ignites us and makes us step it up. The new record would’ve been great with Paul, but I think some of the writing, some of the blast beats and crazy ideas I had, Gene’s style of playing was perfect for. We’re putting out our first single “Native Blood” in January or February, and wow, it’s really killer! [Laughs] It has a blast beat and a chorus, which is really melodic, like a Maiden song or something. We’re really, really excited about the way everything turned out. I had 11 days to teach Gene everything and make it sound like he’d been jamming with us for six months, like the real deal, not like a session player. We worked 12, 13, 14 hours a day for 11 days in a row, and he was thinking he could learn everything in about four days. I looked at him and was like, “Not with my songs!” [Laughs] So it took a bit longer than he thought, but it was worth the wait, and it came out really killer. I’m really stoked for this record. Again, I think we outdid ourselves because of the situation. It threw us in a loop, but at the same time, it opened up a lot of doors for drum stuff that we normally don’t have. Incorporating blast beats like Dimmu Borgir’s into Testament – without sounding like them – was a feat in itself. We dabbled with it a little on “The Gathering” , like on the song “D.N.R.,” which has a bridge section at the end with a blast beat. But this record features a LOT of blast beats and choruses and stuff. It really sends things over the top. I’m doing a little under half the leads on it, and it’s really killer to hear Alex and me trading off. I always did little licks before the big lead, but now I have longer ones, just as long as Alex’s, and we trade off. I did that with James Murphy a lot on “Low,”  but on this one with Alex, you kind of get that extra flavor. You still have everything Alex does; it’s part of the brew. And I think I’ve nailed my style, where my influences are really shining, and you can tell the difference. I’ve always been a big fan of Uli and Schenker, Joe Perry, guys like that. Blues meets classical music is kind of where I’m at.
Mike: As someone not on tour, my perspective is limited, since I can’t be at every show. What does your crowd look like to you these days? Are they older, younger, quieter, or noisier than in the past?
Eric: Our crowds are really mixed. I’d say there are a lot of younger people coming to the shows. I see a lot of people my age bringing their 15 and 16-year-olds, and then I see a lot of young people who’ve bought our back catalogue. Atlantic just re-released our first four records on some other label called Back In Black. They’re gatefolds, which is really cool. We’ve been signing a lot of those. I see fans with our old records too, but I see a lot of fans with those brand new copies of the old catalogue.
Mike: We’ve recently seen a lot of young thrashers pop up, trying to “bring back the past” a bit. What do you think of those bands – Warbringer, Bonded By Blood, Lazarus A.D., guys like that – are they for real? Are they doing you justice?
Eric: I’d say “nice try.” This is just my opinion, and those bands are great for what they’re doing, but the bands they’re trying to sound like haven’t gone away. It’s not like we’re not around anymore! There’s nothing like the real thing. It is sometimes cool to hear a rehashed script a little bit, and I hear what they’re trying to do, but I like to hear a little more originality. I know out of all of them, Lazarus A.D. is one of my favorites. They’ve got their own thing.
Mike: And thrash overall has been enjoying a major renaissance. Can you remember a moment in time where it struck you that this stuff was really back in a big way?
Eric: I think when we put out “The Formation Of Damnation,” the record sales alone showed that we were still viable. Selling close to 300,000 worldwide isn’t bad. We sold more records than Anthrax with the last one, so we’re kind of catching up to everybody in a way. For Testament, I think the quality of what we’re doing is a lot better than what we used to do. A lot of other bands, their old stuff is classic, and the new stuff just sounds… pretty good. I think with Testament, we actually sound better than we used to. Just as a fan – I’m a fan of what I do – the new stuff is a lot more thought out, with fresher ideas. “Formation” and “The Gathering” are my favorites.
Mike: Last time I saw Testament live, I really loved seeing “D.N.R.” and “3 Days In Darkness” as two out of three encores.
Eric: We took those songs out of the set for a couple shows, but eventually we realized those two songs are such a big part of our set. At the end, they really hit hard. So we slipped those two back in. It’s kind of a highlight of the show, I think.
Mike: About the so-called “Big Four” of thrash, [Metallica, Megadeth, Slayer, Anthrax] some people tend to disagree over who should belong and who shouldn’t, based on taste or personal prejudice. What’s your take on that whole argument?
Eric: I think with that whole Big Four thing, they’re talking about a certain time. They’re not the Big Four now. They were called the Big Four back in the day when they first came out. Metallica, they’re in their own league. They’re kind of a phenomenon in my opinion. No one will ever sell as many as they did, y’know? Maybe some band coming up. Certain artists just break out, and you scratch your head and think, “Why?” Do I think Megadeth has some stuff that’s as good as Metallica? Yeah. And I think Testament has some stuff that’s as good. But it’s something about luck and timing. Look at the New Wave of British Heavy Metal. Maiden are a phenomenon in their genre, and there were other bands in that genre that were good too, but just didn’t do anything. It’s all timing and luck, and of course having good music, but sometimes, just having good music isn’t enough.
Mike: Are you perfectly comfortable with the current trend of sticking a group of classic thrashers on tour together, like for American Carnage? [Slayer, Megadeth, Testament/Anthrax]
Eric: I think the Carnage Tour was a great idea. This tour, we were actually gonna pull out of it, because the record isn’t done. We were a little skeptical about it, and a lot of these places we’re playing, we headlined on our own. So we were trying to get off this tour, but the ticket sales are doing well, so we decided to just stick with it. It’s turning out to be a good bill. In the future, I’d like to check out some other opportunities and see what else is out there. There’s been talk of us and Dimmu maybe doing something. Sure, we’d like to do something nostalgic again, something we’re more in control of, where we can pick out some bands and stuff. But overall, Death Angel, Testament, and Anthrax sounds like a good marquee to me!
Mike: Have you had local openers, or has it been just you three?
Eric: This is pretty much the lineup. In San Francisco, Chimaira and another band played on the bill, because they were playing the same night, and we ended up joining tours and doing something with them. But this is pretty much it right here. We play an hour, Anthrax plays a little over an hour, and Death Angel gets about 40 minutes. It’s enough time to enjoy all three bands without getting burnt out.
Mike: In 2002, I discovered the awesome Norwegian band Susperia because of your public praise. Are there any other semi-obscure bands you’re championing these days?
Eric: As far as newer bands, not really. I have my favorites I listen to, but… I’m sure there’s stuff out there that I haven’t discovered yet. There are a couple bands I really like that are new, that have actually proven they’re good, and are doing well like I thought they would. I’ve even said that to a couple people. They’ll be like, “Oh, it sounds like this or that.” And I’m like, “Oh yeah? Watch.” And here it is a year later and they’re getting big. One band I’m talking about is a band called Ghost. They’re from Sweden, and they’re just killing it in Europe. They’re a little theatrical, but their music sounds like it’s from the ‘70s. What I mean by that is, it’s a really simple clear sound, through undistorted Marshalls. They don’t have that modern crunch that bands rely on. It’s more of a Thin Lizzy, rock ‘n’ roll sound, almost like they’re playing through AC/DC’s riffs back in the day, on “Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap.” But then again, they also sound like Mercyful Fate. And the singer doesn’t do any distortion or screaming at all; it’s all clean singing. Check ‘em out! They lean more towards the Satanic side with their lyrics, but it’s really good, killer music.
Mike: You’re the rock of Testament, the guy who was there from the beginning and who never left, ever. The back catalogue is pretty diverse, and people have varying opinions on it. Of all the records and songs, and all the lineup changes, do you ever look back and think you would’ve, or could’ve, or should’ve done something differently?
Eric: On the first four records, I was kind of naïve, production wise. Back then, we’d hire a big producer and let him make our sound, whereas now, we basically self-produce, or at least I do, so I make sure I get exactly what I want. Or I’ll explain to the producer how I want the record to sound, from the drums all the way up to the guitar tones. The production on “Practice What You Preach”  and “Souls Of Black”  is not to my liking. When I listen, it sounds dated to me. I would’ve remixed them and gotten rid of the clicky bass drums and the extra reverb on the snare, and tracked the guitars a little better. The way we tracked the guitars and miked things back then was kind of retarded. I’ll think, “How come I didn’t know then what I know now?” Now, it’s simple. I use a 157 right on the cone, and there’s the tone. [Laughs]
Mike: Have you thought about going back and remastering those old records?
Eric: We’d like to. We’d need to get ahold of Atlantic. We attempted to do something like that 10 years ago, and they didn’t want to work with us, so we ended up re-recording some stuff from “The New Order”  and “The Legacy,”  and called it “First Strike Still Deadly.”  We did that right after Chuck came out of chemotherapy. Alex wasn’t in the band; he was still doing jazz. It was kind of a weird time. The record came out great, but some of the tempos are slow. That was another learning process that had its purpose. It brought us back with Alex, and it was a good time, even though there was a lot of weird shit going on. But that’s what we’re about. The day after Chuck walks out of chemo, he’s singing those songs, and it just blew me away. It proves that life is hard, and we’re harder.
Mike: Excluding the potential for future greatness, what do you feel your finest hour has been so far?
Eric: Um… I wouldn’t be able to sum that up until I write my last will and testament.
Mike: How big is your set list on this tour? Are all your records represented?
Eric: Not all of them. I’m disappointed we didn’t do anything off “Low” with Johnny, and now that Gene’s with us, I was hoping to do something off “Demonic,”  which he played on, but we’re kind of keeping it true to what fans know and expect of us, with certain songs like “Souls Of Black.” The one thing we’re not doing is “Practice What You Preach,” but we are doing “Envy Life,” off that same album. We tried it out, and it was shaky in the beginning, but it’s a really good crowd pleaser now. It’s a really good rock tune. That song’s a lot of fun.
Mike: What pumps you up most about playing live these days?
Eric: Just getting a rise out of the crowd, trying to get people to look happy and excited. That’s my job, liberating people, putting smiles on their faces. Sometimes I’ll look at people and they'll look like “Yeah, whatever.” If I can have those people giving me the horns by the end of the show, then I feel like I’ve done my job.
Mike: Any particular songs you’re enjoying?
Eric: The songs that do it for me are “The Persecuted Won’t Forget” and “3 Days In Darkness.” That one really humbles people, especially at the end, where we really slow down and keep fucking up the meter. It sounds killer. I really can’t wait to start playing some of our new shit, ‘cause it’s just really, really heavy and modern. I can’t wait to start doing blast beats and stuff like that. It’s just off the hook. I can’t wait for people to hear this stuff. Especially Chuck’s singing – he sounds like he did on the first record, really high registered. It’s gonna surprise people, because he went from doing the high singing to the death grunty stuff, then mixed all that pretty well on the last record, but now he’s gone back to his old school style like on “Souls Of Black” – the higher pitched, Hetfield kind of tone, which is a good range for him. This new record has a lot of that style, which sounds really good to me.
Mike: So he ditched most of the grunts, then, for the new record?
Eric: Yeah. There are a couple songs with those pieces, but most of it’s higher-pitched singing. We do our first ballad in a long time, too. I don’t like to use the word “ballad,” but that’s what everybody calls them. Slow song, clean guitars. We haven’t done a song like that since “Trail Of Tears” off “Low,” so it’s been 17 years. [Laughs] And the new record has one called “Cold Embrace.” It’s gonna be a highlight, and it’s about seven and a half minutes long, so it’s super epic. Actually so far, a lot of these new songs are over five minutes. Our own management was like, “Hey, you didn’t cut anything.” And I’m like, “What part do you want to cut out?” They listen and go, “I don’t know.” And I’m like, “Yeah, exactly!” You’ll listen to a song, and if it FEELS long, then you look at cutting stuff out. I’ll keep rewinding it to certain parts and go, “That part right there!” But if you listen and it doesn’t seem long, then it’s a good song. If you have a seven-minute song that doesn’t seem long, then you have it.
Mike: For a long time, “The Preacher” and “Disciples Of The Watch” were your signature live opener and closer. Do you see that ever changing in the long run?
Eric: On the Carnage Tour and the Metal Masters Tour, [with Judas Priest, Motörhead, and Heaven & Hell] we were opening with “More Than Meets The Eye,” and closing with “The Formation Of Damnation.” For this tour, we went back to the “Live At The Fillmore” set, where we opened with “The Preacher” and ended with “Disciples.” We tried different songs, and when we tried those, we went, “Oh, killer!” And then of course later, we went, “Oh hey, that’s what we used to do.” [Laughs] But it doesn’t matter, because it works, y’know?
Mike: Aside from “Envy Life,” are there any deep cuts you’d love to resurrect, or even debut, live?
Eric: Man, there are a lot of songs I wish we could play. I wish we could play “Hatreds Rise” and “The Burning Times” off “Demonic.” Those songs kick ass. I wouldn’t mind playing “Chasing Fear” off “Low,” or this instrumental off that album called “Urotsukidoji.” It’s pretty cool; it’s like a lot of bass soloing with drums at the beginning. I’d like to play “Low” and “Dog Faced Gods.” I try to get “Time Is Coming” off “Practice” back in there, but it always gets to where no one does his homework, and then we’ve got a tour, and everyone’s like, “Ah, we’ll just do the other songs.” [Laughs] It’s kind of hard, too, because we all live so far apart now. Alex lives in New York, and the drummer on this tour lives in L.A., so we’re just trying to make it work. Overall, it’s a good set.
Mike: Can you share a tad more about the new record, and give me a little background on the title?
Eric: We haven’t really done any interviews for this record, basically, aside from a couple little ones that leaked out. It’s still in the works, and Chuck still has about five songs to sing. We haven’t mixed it yet. But “The Dark Roots Of Earth” was a title I had. I was thinking about the Mayan clock, and how the end’s coming, the whole 2012 thing. And the past of human civilization coming back up, surfacing, and showing its head again. But then it has a double meaning: OUR roots. You can interpret it the same way with our music. You can hear a lot of different influences; the darker roots of metal in general. It’s kind of early; once the record and layout are all done, I’ll have a better analogy, but yeah – something like that. [Laughs]
Mike: You can be totally honest about this. Do you feel the overall metal genre has gotten better or worse over the past couple decades?
Eric: I think it’s gotten better, definitely. There’s a lot of music out there to be influenced by, and some good bands to compete with in a friendly way, like “I love that idea, but I can do it better this way,” or whatever. But yeah, there have been a lot of great metal records out. It seems like thrash started getting popular again once the 2000’s hit. The ‘90s seemed more of a death and black metal era. Where the late ‘80s and early ‘90s were thrash, it turned into death, which kind of turned into black, which then got all mixed up and repackaged back into older school stuff, back to the beginning, the dark roots of earth. The dark roots of thrash.
Mike: That’s pretty clever.
Eric: With the title track in particular, I gave it that title because I’d named the riff that. When I came up with the song, I realized it sounds like a Sabbath song from the Dio era. It’s really Sabbath-y, the song “The Dark Roots Of Earth.” Chuck kind of sounds like Ozzy a little bit on it. [Laughs] He has a cool, clear vocal line, and then the riffs have these bending notes. Pretty Sabbath-y altogether.
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