We were fortunate enough to catch up with Chuck Billy a few months ago and now that Testament is heading back out on the road headlining their own "Dark Roots Of Thrash" tour after the incredible success of their last album, Dark Roots of Earth , I knew it was imperative to see if I could catch him before this epic tour with East Coast fellow thrash legends Overkill, as well as Flotsam and Jetsam, began its march across the nation.
The day began as usual, going over my questions, making sure everything was tip top, and the time came to make the call...no answer. Ok, it happens, scheduling conflicts and such. I mean, this is a man who has been worshipped by millions of headbangers around the world going on now almost three decades...plus with the phenomenal success of the album, I was even amazed he could take the time to do an interview the day before the tour begins.
I wait a little bit and call a couple more times, no answer. Damn! Well, you can't win them all and I go about my other duties writing reviews, contacting writers, etc, etc. ..and at the very second I finish another interview, the phone rings; I answer and it's Chuck! Now, I can't go into detail, but he was incredibly busy that morning and when he recounted as to why he wasn't around, my jaw dropped...I could not believe it, here's a dude about to go out on a road, has tons of things to do, has some serious last minute personal issues to attend to, yet finds the time to call a writer back! Think about that for a moment, that says a lot about the character of the man...and that is exactly why so many people love Chuck Billy and this band!
When I was a kid down on the coast of California we had a term for people like him; soul...that's right, Chuck Billy is pure soul!
ThrashHead: A few months ago we spoke to you just as the September/October tour with Anthrax and Death Angel was underway, now you're hitting the road with Overkill and Flotsam and Jetsam on the Dark Roots of Thrash tour. How excited are you? Do you have a love/hate relationship with the road?
Chuck: Not with the road, it's actually, that's almost like vacation time (laughs) we get to put everything aside and, once you get on the bus, you're traveling and all you're doing is performing and you don't have to work on all those things you have to work on with the home life.
ThrashHead: I hear you.
Chuck: You know, we look forward to getting out, we're looking even more to it because it's our headline tour, the shows with Anthrax were great, but we get to put on our show and play more of our songs than the Anthrax set...we did three legs of that tour, and we think it's time to change the set a bit and play some more current stuff, the Gathering, Formation and, of course, Dark Root.
ThrashHead: It's going to be awesome man, everyone I know is excited to see you, I have a couple friends who caught you and they all agreed that Testament absolutely killed it, everyone wanted to get to those shows to see Testament, and now they are flipping out because this album has become a thrash classic almost right away... it stands up to anything Testament has put out.
I've been meaning to ask you, other thrash outfits that have one maybe two members from back in the day, seemed to have lost their edge but you guys are rolling with yourself, Alex, Greg and Eric ...is that why we hear such an intense energy on Dark Roots?
Chuck: I say it certainly does, especially having them back when we first reformed in '05, there is a sense of confidence that came back in the band, you know we had created that music and sound and we wanted to take this opportunity to finish something together we started.
It definitely brings a sense of confidence to what we've been doing together the past seven years together. I think writing especially after Formation, that was the first time we had all worked together on a record and it turned out great; but this one, we didn't really think much about the process...we haven't done a song like Dark Roots or Cold Embrace in twenty years and, usually, I say over the last ten years we always thought, in the back of our minds, that the fans or the critics might judge us on slowing down a little bit for putting songs on the record, but this record we just wrote it, listen to those riffs and it didn't even cross our minds, it feels good, it sounds good, we're into it, let's go! And the response for the record has been just great!
It's kinda like we went with our gut feeling and just went for it, which is even more gratifying you know, having that.
ThrashHead: Right, you just let it flow naturally, you just do what you've been doing.
ThrashHead: The album debuted at, what, No. 12 on the US Billboard top 200...?
ThrashHead: When you heard the news for the first time, what went through your mind?
Chuck: We were just blown away, when we got the news we were together, so we were all on top of the world, because to debut at 12 was just incredible! And then they had a world chart the next week and it debuted at number 9 and we were like "wow!", It was just overwhelming the response...we were very gratified, it was like I said, it was that gut feeling and stayed with it, also like you said, it was a natural thing what we've done...and reinforced what we accomplished over the seven years rejoining the group back together, it was something where we said, "You know what? This is just the icing on the cake...this is something we definitely have to finish together."
ThrashHead: Right, a validation of everything you've worked for...
ThrashHead: We really wanted to include our readers and those we know in the music community to submit questions to this interview and, with this being your headlining tour, one which was really interesting was submitted by Jonah from one of our favorite bands Ramming Speed who asked, "How much of a role do you play in picking opening bands on your headline tours?"
Chuck: Well, of course we have the ability to say no, it's not going to happen, you know I've been kinda convinced and went both ways; I say five years ago, I was told and convinced that having a newer act go on the road with us is where it's kinda at, and when we did the Anthrax tour with Death Angel, it kinda opened our eyes, and talking to promoters and such, this was something they really wanted to make happen and we were like "Ok" and the tour was great, it was a very successful tour.
Of course, when we were going to do a headline tour, we went back to the old thinking about what current bands have new records out that we could play with, we had a package that we thought would be great together, but then our agent and promoters came back, and said... The first was our agent who said "How about Overkill and Flotsam?"...and we came back and asked "what do you think?" to the promoters and it came back that there was a lot of interest for it. So, the Death Angel thing went really great, I could definitely see the promoters feeling that way, and so we said "Let's go for it".
This first week of ticket sales are really strong and we're ready!!!
ThrashHead: The combo of Testament and Overkill makes perfect sense, I know you guys have toured with Anthrax, but Overkill is also another East Coast oldschool legendary band, and with Bobby Blitz and D.D., do you remember the first time you guys got together and played, anything in particular about the show?
Chuck: Yeah, it was 1987, it was one of our first American tours, we went out with Overkill and that was the last time, I think, I've actually ran into them...it's been 25 years or so, since that time we have never crossed paths, we've played tons of Festivals over the years, but never crossed paths...
Chuck: So, it'll be...it's kinda funny, because it's going to be like after 25 years, starting all over again when we see each other tomorrow. It'll be like the way it was back then when we first met each other. You know, when we were kids, it's a friendly rivalry, you know East Coast, West Coast, it was definitely exciting, we were just kids with one record under our belt, with ten or eleven songs to our names and that was it, and ready to do it! So, it's really interesting to see each other now when we have a hundred plus songs and trying to put the show together...it's going to make for a really great show!!
ThrashHead: Do you think, since you haven't seen each other for such a long time, there might be that spark of energy you had back in '87 which will manifest itself on stage?
Chuck: Yeah, it's in the back of our mind, it's almost like...it's like deja vu, what it was like when we had first met each other, ready to give it our all and just go for it, but on the flipside, now that we're more confident in what we do, we're positive the shows are going be better, a great experience for everyone, the bands and the fans.
ThrashHead: I'm going to let you book, because I know you're catching up from this morning and you have a lot to get ready for...I'm going to forgo a couple questions I had for you, I just have to ask one more though which is probably the most important out of all of them; for all the sweat, blood and pain you've invested in your art throughout the years, what is the biggest reward for you as a musician?
Chuck: (Pauses) Definitely, this record...but, I think also, where I am at right now because when I beat cancer in 2001-02, I really thought my career as a musician was done, I didn't know what life had in store for me and didn't know what was going to happen; I was no longer the same person looking at myself in the mirror I was before that illness.
So, beating that illness and having the reunion, to me was like a blessing and a second chance to do something and still put out the Formation and Dark Roots albums and get the fan's support...everything has been...incredible, it blows me away and I am so grateful for that; being where I am as a musician and in music.