Little introduction is needed for Testament's front man Chuck Billy; he has been at the vanguard of metal for some 25 years creating legendary albums which have never compromised on their full throttle sound...and indeed, if you haven't heard "Dark Roots of Earth" yet, you have been denying yourself the chance to listen to one of this year's classics, an album that will, and already has been, hailed as one of Testament's best!
From the hay day of the Bay area thrash underground up until now, Chuck Billy has belted out some of the greatest anthems in metal history, confronted hardships which only a few of us has had to deal with and has emerged with a strength and presence more powerful than ever.
Testament's current tour with Anthrax and Death Angel has just gotten underway and I was lucky enough to catch him just before the Portland gig...in usual fashion, Chuck, always finding a moment to speak with a fan, took time from the frenzied schedule of touring to answer my questions.
His voice, which is so powerful in song, reflected a man who, like the Native American warrior he is, has both feet firmly planted in the earth ready for anything which may come his way; a man who is as inspired for his music as ever. And I, as someone who is not only of "Anglo-Saxon" but Mexican and Blackfoot ancestry as well, find his story especially intriguing.
Ladies and gentlemen, my conversation with the legend himself, Chuck Billy...
ThrashHead: Let's go back before Testament, before metal had really entered you're life. I know your mother was of Mexican ancestry and raised you Catholic but, as a man of Pomo heritage, could you tell me a bit about your childhood, did you go through much what we see the child in Testament's latest video "Native Blood" go through?
Chuck: Well, a little bit... because my father got off the reservation himself and went to school here, he was one of thirteen kids and a few of them got off the res; they were able to get out and go to school... he wanted to raise his family off of the reservation but, you know, there is always that feeling of being different, you know, growing up in a different society, it does feel a little like that. I just wrote it because of what I've always...growing up as a kid my father would take us up to spend the summer on the reservation so we spent a lot of time there. Our reservation wasn't a big place and there wasn't a lot of help for school and housing and it always seemed they were always, I wouldn't say sad, it wasn't positive. I guess seeing everybody kinda...(pauses) you know seeing that and feeling that; seeing how over the years how our reservation has changed. My father retired and had moved up there, was a part of the water committee bringing water into the reservation...then they built the casino there and that's when things kinda changed for the reservation, lots of jobs for everybody, cleaning up the community, changes in the housing and school; everything kind of got better.
t was all a matter of doing it on their time and on their own laws. Seeing people getting off of the reservation, having a reservation life when you're thrown into a different society, other cultures, you do feel like an outsider looking in. You're not sure about speaking up for your ways, what you believe in and where you were raised...that was the whole message about it..it wasn't just a song about Native Americans but indigenous people all over the world who feel like they are on the outside looking in; it's about stepping up and having their voice heard.
ThrashHead: Yeah, I can kinda relate to that, I've lived in Mexico for about twenty years and been stateside for about three months, I was born and raised here but my father was Mexican and I went down there to find out who I was, met my wife and now I have to be here and I don't feel quite comfortable, like a stranger in my own land so to speak, like this isn't who I am.
You said you went up to the Hopland Reservation for the summers, what were some of the most valued lessons learned from your brothers and sisters of the Hopland Band of Pomo people?
Chuck: Well, I mean, there wasn't a lot of communication, everyone stuck with their own, that's the way it was, that's what I meant when I said there wasn't a lot of happiness, there wasn't community gatherings and such, there wasn't a lot of that, when the casino went in it changed because of the jobs, people had a place to go and work together...that's when you saw it turn for the positive. In the past, we'd go up there and worked forty acres of grapes, and that's pretty much all we did, work the fields and selling boxes of grapes for a quarter; that's how we earned our money.
A lot of our family was spread out around, there wasn't people my age, they all seemed to be older, now today, there are a lot more cousins and people, of course I don't spend a lot of time there now because after my father passed away, the house that he had there, my grandparent's house that my grandfather built and the house my father got from the tribe, people were no longer living there and people would go there to party, they would break in and in the end they burned them down...
ThrashHead: Oh geez...
Chuck: ...the houses just sat there like burnt wrecks for over ten years and over the last, three years, me and my friends have decided to take back the land really in a sense; we took bulldozers up there and tore down the burned remains of the house and took it away...and just returned it back down to the earth again.
I kinda had to stake a claim because there are new families coming in and I had to put up fences on the property lines and just kinda took the land back basically. So, there wasn't a lot to visit, I remember when I was in High School I would go up there a lot, get the keys to the house and bring friends up there to hang out and party, it was a place to go and there were cool memories, but once the houses burned down it was really different, really sad, a downer, there was a lot of bad mojo going on there...I was so angered and disappointed with the tribe and the people who lived there that I left it there as an eyesore; I let the grass grow ten feet tall with the burnt houses still there. Our house was maybe two hundred yards from the casino...I just (chuckles) left it there being an eyesore. And then finally, my mother passed away a couple years back, I said I am going back up there to reclaim the land instead of letting it just slip away.
I have four brothers, so we got back together and went up there and ripped it down and brought it back down to the earth. Now, it's a nice place, back to the earth, and that's when I wanted to do the video there because we had the land, it is pretty, I had a vision of what I wanted to shoot and it ended up being more than just a video for us because we brought the elder up there to do a ceremony, we had the Pomo dancers come down from up north to dance and it was really cleansing the land again, the energy was incredible, a lot of the community came to the property to watch the production, I met a lot of cousins who I hadn't met yet, it was really more a thing that brought me back, all of us, back a little closer together, they'd hear I was in a band, but when I brought the band and production up there, they were able to see and meet everyone in the band; we gave t-shirts to all the kids of the community that came out...the fire department, the tribal police, the council, everybody got involved. I still hear how much it's still a buzz up there and how they're proud of it.
Somebody contacted us from the American Indian Film Festival and asked us to enter it into the film festival so we did. Right now they are looking at all the entrants and will make a decision at the end of this month if we made it into the festival...then let's see, the film festival November 10th at the San Francisco Palace of Fine Arts....another thing is that, after this tour, I am going back up to the reservation and in the community center we are going to put up big screens and show the video to everybody because they haven't seen it since they don't have internet and such, we're going up there to make a little event with a BBQ and let them know we're entering it in the film festival...you know, get everybody back together again.
ThrashHead: That's such a great way to honor your ancestors, your father and grandfather, by returning to that land. It's kinda like the young warrior coming back as an elder, showing his triumph, you've gone through so much in your life and apart from the casino going in and bringing that monetary success to the tribe, you are a symbol perseverance and achievement over all the ills that the world has both outside and in the reservation, returning to preserve your family's land and, with this video, making the community a part of your story and you becoming a part of theirs...that's a great thing anyone can do no matter what culture or nation one comes from.
One last question about your Native American heritage; you were recognized as the first Native American entertainer to be permanently displayed at the Albuquerque Hard Rock as well as featured in the Smithsonian National Museum "Up Where We Belong : Native Musicians in Popular Culture" exhibition...tell me how does it make you feel that you have become a symbol of hope for so many nations? I mean, the Hard Rock, apart from you being an Native American, just from you being an integral part of American music history, a hundred years from now people are going to be talking about you just like Exodus, Metallica, perhaps even more so because you've stuck to your roots, but the Smithsonian, one of the greatest museums in the world!
Chuck: Yeah, that was pretty amazing it's really an honor; my grandmother...our tribe is known for basket weaving, and she was one of the best... she did a couple things in the 70's at UC Berkeley on Pomo Basket weaving, those are all documented, she has baskets in the Smithsonian...
Chuck: yeah, it was cool to have two generations for two different things in the Smithsonian. Another extra cool thing for me is that I just heard from Alex, he lives in Brooklyn New York, that the display, which they took down after a year at the Smithsonian, is going up at a museum in New York and it's just going up there now. Alex has seen it there and was just telling me about it last week. That same " Up Where We Belong" display is going up in New York right now.
ThrashHead: Right on!! That must have really hit home that you've become a symbol of triumph for so many nations, there's gotta be a lot of kids out there in the Pomo, Oglala Nation, Navajos in the South West and other reservations who need it, and those away from the tribe who may have lost a bit of their culture, a lot of their traditions, language... here's Chuck Billy who lived outside the reservation, who came back and was able to be recognized for who and what he is...and as one of the voices for Native American people, I don't know if that is a burden on your shoulders so to speak, but I think it's sorely needed for so many people, the original inhabitants of America.
Here's a question you've heard probably a thousand times before, but I tend to ask anyway because you often get a surprisingly different answer each time; when did you first get into metal? What appealed to you the most about it?
Chuck: Well, Sabbath or Hendrix or any of that, to me it was anything against the grain, anything going against the grain of commercial success...when we're young, sixteen, fifteen, even fourteen, at that age, you're looking for music that is not in the mainstream and perhaps less popular...listening to stuff that people really didn't know and then teaching them about it; "What? You don't know who that is?"
I think that's was just the start of it, for us, punk rock had that, the attitude, was the right attitude for that culture, you know what I mean?
Metal kinda came in with the heavier tones with Sabbath and then of course, Metallica and thrash metal and that was a whole different start of an era.
ThrashHead: Which Testament was very much a part of, you can't really talk about the Bay Area thrash scene without talking about Testament being in there; you were right there in the thick of things in one of the most magical times of Bay Area music, the bay was alive with Punk and Thrash and you guys were there...tell me about those years, before some of the bands found their fame and fortune, what are a couple of the amazing tales do you have of nights at the Fillmore and the whole scene in general?
Chuck: Well, the scene then was different than today, because there were so many venues; just on Broadway in San Francisco, you had four venues right there. You could go to the Stone and then across the street to Mabuhay Gardens and then upstairs at the Rock on Broadway, down the street there was just so many places...you could get four or five bands in one night on the same street! There was a lot of the same people and community went to those shows. That was a big difference, now in the city, the Warfield, the Fillmore and Slim's is about it as far as the venues...so it's a totally different scene than it was back then, a new culture and, now, a new sound, a new movement...because the Bay Area was known for its punk movement, that was the big scene back then.
ThrashHead: When Steve Souza had left Testament early on, he told the other guys to check you out...how did you come to know Souza?
Chuck: I knew him because he was friends with my younger brother and used to always come by the house all the time, we knew he was in a band with a bunch of kids who were really talented. I was actually taking private singing lessons at that time and had just finished my vocal training and she said "Ok, I'm done with your lessons at this point" and was done giving me lessons...so I was looking for a band... because at the time I was actually a guitar player...
Chuck: Yeah, I decided to find a band and sing for them, it was right around that time Steve quit Legacy and joined Exodus and told me "hey, here's Alex Skolnick's home phone number, give him a call and check these guys out", I listened to their demo, called them up for an audition and pretty much got the gig right then and walked into the record deal; that's what happened.
ThrashHead: When you first came on board, did you immediately recognize that you were home? Did you have a sense that this was destiny?
Chuck: It was a new type of music; for me, I was raised on UFO and other oldschool rock, this whole new sound, Metallica, was all new to me. This first record was a whole new style of music for me, different timing for vocals, instead of trying to sing a melody over a riff it was more singing... timing to the beat. So, I was trying to mix a little of both, melodic to the timing, I found my way after the first record on "The New Order"...from there I understood it, got it, I put my flare on the whole thing.
ThrashHead: You mentioned just there that when you joined, the band was named Legacy, out of curiosity, and you probably have already answered this, but it's one of those things which one always reads like "the story is..." or "it is said..."; is it true that Billy Milano of Stormtroopers of Death came up with the name Testament when you guys had to drop the name "Legacy"?
Chuck: Yeah, yeah
ThrashHead: Testament has some ten incredible albums, including this last one, "Dark Roots of Earth"; and we notice...there are a couple of the bay area thrash outfits, no names need be mentioned, who have really gone off the path so to speak. I mean, there's always an evolution to music which has to be accepted, but then there are moments when bands go way out into left field, a lot of purists will get angry, but even someone like me who is a bit more open-minded towards how musician's tastes change, find some of the newer albums by these bands to be unacceptable even though I can enjoy the music on any level...on the other hand, Testament has really turned back into the fold, ten albums, there have been ups and downs, lineup changes as well as health scares but "Dark Roots of Earth" seems to have a lot of energy, keeping very much with Testament's bay thrash roots, it seems to have been an inspired piece...as an artist, what did you see on the canvas before you began to paint, in this case, record the album?
Chuck: Yeah, it's all timing, I guess we've reached that point after getting the original guys back together, being comfortable, and confident...it kinda just came to be. We weren't really thinking about what people would think about the songs, we just wrote what we felt good about, that's just how it happened.
I think that's what really came across in the songwriting, when we heard the response to it we thought "Wow! they're feeling it!"
Thrashhead: It seems metal is getting back on track in a big way, with legends such as Testament and Kreator putting out killer albums, new school thrash outfits like Warbringer and others who are leaning more towards the New Wave of British Heavy Metal and Power Metal roots...in your opinion, do you think there is a new renaissance happening?
Chuck: Everything evolves so, I think the process goes full circle; the younger bands who were inspired by us are creating music and others get inspired by what they are doing too. Modern sounds, styles, blast beats and stuff like that. We're still young at heart, take it to heart and apply it to what we feel.
ThrashHead: Let's talk about those health scares I mentioned earlier, former member James Murphy had a brain tumor which he was able to recover from and you had to do battle with germ cell seminoma back in, what, 2001 I believe?...
... which is not only rare, but even rarer where it affected you. If you could, can you share with our readers how you found out you were ill, what steps you took to defeat it?
Chuck: I actually just moved, and we got a new doctor, and we took the family physical and it was as simple as that...they found a mass in my chest, brought me back for follow up x-rays and found it. It was one of those lucky things, I guess, that it was found.
ThrashHead: And what are you doing now to stay healthy?
Chuck: Well, just taking care of myself, just live life, that's all I can do really.
ThrashHead: Do you have any advice from those who might be facing the same thing?
Chuck: Be positive, that's the whole thing, everybody handles those things differently, I've had cancer, but I don't have the answer, all I can do is tell them how I handled it...the mind is a very powerful tool.
ThrashHead: Just keep battling forward and stay in a postive frame of mind...
ThrashHead: You're on tour now, you're going to be kicking butt across the U.S. and Canada...Testament has participated in some incredible tours which have become part of metal lore, played with amazing bands, but one question I have is about a recent gig you played, and I first heard about it when I spoke with Marky from Coroner, which was on the 7000 Tons of Metal cruise...tell me about that, was it just plain nuts of the promoters and cruise line to put a bunch of bad ass bands and their screaming horde of fans onto a cruise ship and push them out to sea?
Chuck: It was a great thing, a good idea to put something like that together, actually everyone was skeptical about how it was going to go down but, in the end, it was very organized...a lot better then what people thought it would be and it turned out to be really fun...everybody in the band was against it except for me, I was for it, I had never been on a cruise. When it was done, everybody said they were glad we did it, we had such a great time
ThrashHead: Right on, from all stories told it was a really incredible experience; I am definitely going to have to sign up for one of those the next time it rolls around....
Chuck: Yeah, you really need to check it out
ThrashHead: Well, the show is about to start and I appreciate you making time to talk with me, I wish you the best and have a kick ass show!
Chuck: Alright man!