Talking "tunage" with Testament
By Naughty Mickie
Back in the early '90s I was a music writer for a
local magazine and spent many hours hanging out with bands at
various clubs (not so much different than what I do today!). One of
these groups was metal rockers Testament. Whenever the Bay area band
was down in Southern California, they would buy me a beer and invite
me to sit at their table watching the other acts. Later, when they
needed to get ready for the show, I would watch their van as they
changed inside. My job was to keep nosy people from looking in-- not
a very hard job in a dark parking lot when most everyone was inside
the venue. Still, I did my best by these guys and when the
opportunity to talk with them again was made available, I just
Testament's current lineup is vocalist Chuck Billy,
guitarists Eric Peterson and Alex Skolnick, bassist Greg Christian
Paul Bostaph. They just recently released "The Formation of
Damnation" (Nuclear Blast) and are on tour.
"Being a teenager growing up, I was into sports in
seventh and eighth grade and I really wanted to play soccer, but I
also loved music," Peterson starts. "I had Aerosmith, KISS, Mahogany
Rush and stuff like that in my collection. I had some problems with
my knee, I couldn't play soccer any more. They wanted to amputate my
knee and my dad was freaking out. I went to another doctor who said
God will heal it. So we went with his advice instead, I'd rather go
with go than have someone cut my leg off.
"They took me out of P.E. and I did a lot of thinking
and I decided that I was going to be a musician at that point. In my
eighth grade yearbook they asked us what do you want to be and I put
a rock star. I formed a band that year and we played a talent show
and that was pretty funny, but all the kids, all my friends,
everybody was like, 'You're going to make it.' I stuck with that
dream all through high school, just being influenced by a lot of
different bands and guitar players. I really stuck with it."
Peterson continues, "Instead of practicing though, I posed in front
of the mirror a lot. I should be practicing, my colleagues were
shredders and I still could not hold a bar chord, but I was pretty
good at jumping around."
Peterson formed the precursor of Testament, Legacy,
"I put Legacy together right out of high school,"
Peterson tells me, "and it consisted of (drummer) Louie Clemente, my
cousin Derrick (Ramirez, guitar) and myself and we had a good time
with it. We just got on and it got real serious once I got Zetro
(vocalist Steve Souza) in the band and (bassist) Greg Christian. It
became Legacy. Derrick quit very shortly after that and that's when
we got Alex (Skolnick) and we became serious.
"We had to change our name right before we went into
the studio. (The Legacy was already trademarked by a jazz band). The
new name was cool, I mean Billy Milano (S.O.D.), we were in New York
and we were hanging out at his house and barbecuing and all sorts of
stupid names were flying around. When he suggested Testament, right
away it had a kind of ring to it. We were like, 'Wow, that's cool.'
I ended up drawing the logo that night, it just went like a Ouija
board. And since all the music was Legacy music we decided we were
going to call the record 'The Legacy.'"
The album, "The Legacy," came out on Megaforce
Records in 1987, with Chuck Billy on vocals.
"I didn't go to college," Peterson admits. "Basically my goal was
just getting the band together. If I could play the Stone or some of
the places that I'd go see bands, that was really all I wanted to
do. As soon as achieved that it's like, wow, if I can just get our
demo out and then I'll go to college. And once I achieved that I
started getting good reviews, then if I could do just one record,
then I would be happy. And after that I forgot about pursuing
college. I did construction and carpentry and whatever I was into at
"I was still sleeping on my mom's couch, as we all
were. We were touring a lot so it kept us busy. We weren't making a
whole lot of money, our managers were making it. Now I find out that
everybody was making money but us, but we were young- 20, 21, 19 and
we had traveled the world already."
So how is life now for Peterson?
"These days I have lots of chores at home," Peterson
laughs. "I've got three kids, one of them doesn't live with me, but
the other two are four and ten and between the kids and taking care
of the house, it's a lot of work. And I'm in a heavy metal band."
Following Testament for 25 years, I'm curious about
how they write.
"I'm more focused and better at what I do and more at
peace with how I write," says Peterson. "The kickoff and the
majority of the writing starts with myself. To get the ball rolling,
I need to write a couple songs and doctor everything up with the
drum machine, it's pretty accurate about how I want the drums to be,
pretty intricate with the drums, how they're going to play out. It
sets the base of what we're going to do on the next record.
"I think that I'm very fan-based when I write. I've
still got my little office and I've got all my posters and all my
dragon figures. I come up with vocal patterns sometimes, but Chuck's pretty adamant
that he wants to write the lyrics himself. Lyrics are very personal,
but for my other band, Dragonlord, I pretty much do all of it. I was
getting frustrated at first, but now I've got another outlet I'm
cool with letting Chuck write the lyrics."
We talk about how the music scene has changed.
"All things changes, but we're trying to keep the
same formula, just like ingredients to our recipe." Peterson adds,
"We've learned what are our abilities and what things we can do and
that we can't in the band. We just take it from there."
But 25 years! What is the secret to Testament's
"Just being a fan of music," states Peterson. "Just
being a fan of this genre of music, the heaviness, and I'm still
trying to combine all of the previous bands that I was into and and
there's still a lot left that I need to do as far as making music
and putting my style or my influence into my music. I'm just now
trying to crossover different band styles into my music. In the
beginning I was putting more of the heavier stuff into my music, but
now I get ideas from old Deep Purple, old Rainbow or old Scorpions
and stuff like that and applying those influences into my writing
And since I have Peterson on the phone, I'd be remiss
if I didn't ask about his other project, Dragonlord.
"Dragonlord was something that was a calling to me.
Testament was always doing great for me and we're doing good, but I
started getting into this darker style of music and particularly
it's a style called black metal." Peterson explains, "It's a new
form of black metal not to be confused with the older school of
stuff like Merciful Fate or Venom, but some of the newer stuff like
the bands coming out, Emperor, Dimmu Borger, a lot of stuff from
Norway and the Scandinavian darker countries. They're mixed to get
the brutality of the black scene and they're putting lot of
orchestration in which gives it an atmospheric sound.
"That was cool, not only as a fan, but I was starting
to get songs in my head that weren't songs in my first group and
over a two year period it was driving me nuts. I had to do something
with this, it was just calling and I was being haunted. I picked up
a guitar and just started getting out some of those ideas in my head
and I wrote about four songs in one sitting.
"I needed to find a keyboard player to do the ahs,
the string sections and the choir and I borrowed James Murphy's
guitarist 1994-96, '99) keyboard at one point." Peterson continues,
"Soon as I turned it on and did a couple of chord progressions of
the ahs, I felt like a little kid, I was so tickled. I ended up
lining up this one keyboard player, he was the only keyboard player
in the Bay area and he from Sacramento, and I jammed with him and we
put together about four or five songs. It went really quick. It was
like, again, the Ouija board just taking over.
"It was really quite simple, I called up the record
company, I got a deal in a day and it was very effortless. Now I
find myself five,
six, seven years later, it's a little bit more harder now that the
band is known. It's almost like business as usual, but it was a very
special time when I got this together because everything just fell
in my lap.
"I'm not a singer, I'm a backup singer, but I ended
up doing the vocals in the band because I couldn't find anybody who
could get what I was trying to get out of my head." Peterson goes
on, "When I did the record I flew over to Sweden with a producer
named Daniel Bergstrom and I had never sang yet. I had all the
lyrics, I had all the patterns, and I never even sampled anything
up. He said, 'Do you have a demo of what you're going to do?' I'm
like, 'No, I just have it in my head.' He's all, 'Do you have any
rehearsal tapes?' And I go, 'No, I would never rehearse in front of
anybody.' Even the band was like, 'Aren't you going to sing ever?'
And I'm like, 'No, I'm going to sing when I get there.' 'On the
"I just knew in my head that it was going to come out
the way I wanted it to. I put a lot on myself and it came out better
thought in was going to be, but I knew from the voice that I have
with the backup stuff I do, that wicked witch sound and the clean
melodic stuff, that it worked out quite well."
"Testament's got a new record out called 'The
Formation of Damnation' and it's long overdue and it's doing quite
well right now, it's still in the early stages." Peterson bubbles,
"And we're about to do this really cool tour with Judas Priest,
Heaven and Hell, Motorhead and Testament. It's pretty great, but we
only get a half-hour and that kinda sucks. It's going to go by
quick. I just hope people show up there. We have 90 songs and each
band member has a different set in mind, but we all agree on half of
I comment that Testament has spent most of their
stage time in venues far more intimate that the big amphitheaters
and arenas they will be performing at this tour.
"We've done that our whole career," agrees Peterson.
"We never went to that next stage, but we never fell off. That
middle place is very consistent. I'm OK with that. We were concerned
where we were all stressed out, trying to write different, trying to
go up, but it's like what's going to happen is going to happen and
I'm totally at peace with where we are now. I'm very happy. We're
still working and our foundation's great. It's funny because just a
couple of weekends ago I was hanging out with David Coverfield and
Doug Aldrich and the guys from Tesla and I was all, 'Man, this is
Looking at the clock, I realize Peterson has spent a
nice chunk of time with me, so I ask him for a few final thoughts.
"I would just say thanks for everybody's support
that's been around with us for all these years and anybody who
hasn't heard the new record, they really need to go pick it up,"
says Peterson. "Of course that's what everybody says about their new
record, but the music says it all. The feeling of it, it doesn't
sound like we're trying to sound a certain way, it just feels right.
It's got that feeling of our cool way of playing, but it's very
modern and it's the best sounding record since 'The Gathering.' 'The
Gathering' was pretty good as well, but this one is really heavy."
Peterson then asks me what I think of "The Formation
of Damnation" and I tell him I like it, especially the song, "Leave
"'Leave Me Forever' is really different," Peterson
responds. "That song in particular was a leftover song from
'Demonic.' It never got lyrics and it was a song that Greg
(Christian) wrote and then we parted ways with Greg so we just
decided not to put it on the record because a) there's no lyrics and
b) half of it was written by Greg. He was an angry man back then and
we didn't want to have any crap.
"It's cool because it's been around and we've played
it." Peterson continues, "It's very old school and we added a couple
new things to it. At first it was going to be an instrumental on
this record, it was going to be called 'Labyrinth's Myth.' Then
Chuck was like, 'I want to sing on this.' We were, 'No, it's going
to be an instrumental' because Al threw leads on it and I was doing
stuff on it. He just kept saying it, so we said we'll go in the room
and what's your ideas. So he went and laid down some tracks and it
was really cool.
"Then the lyrics, to me, I think so many people can
relate to. Everybody's been through a bad relationship or feels a
about their partner. It's not like a happy, you're there for me,
it's more of a pissed off thing, but it could be therapy for some
people I guess. You need songs like that to make you feel better
"We've already got five songs for the next one too.
We had a slow song, it was called 'Forever' and it is the ballad
type song with the clean guitar. I don't like to use the word
ballad, but that's a way to describe it. It's a slow song and to me
it's the best ballad we've ever written and just vocally it wasn't
hitting right, so we told him, 'We're not going to do this one
half-assed, this is going to be "the song".' So we decided to keep
it for the next record. It's got a great melody, it reminds me of
something the Scorpions would do. Or maybe I should sell it to
Tesla," Peterson laughs. "It's a really good piece, but I could see
us playing it as well. It's got to be my way or no way."
That said, Peterson offers up one final thought:
"Through it all, this journey, life's hard, but Testament's harder."