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 couldn't resist.

Testament's current lineup is vocalist Chuck Billy, guitarists Eric Peterson and Alex Skolnick, bassist Greg Christian and drummer  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, in 1983.

"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.
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"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 the time.

"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 staying power?

"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 style."

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 (Testament 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 record?'

"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 than I 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."

We return to Testament.

"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 it."

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 cool.'"

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 Me Forever."

"'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 certain way 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 about yourself."

"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."

Catch Testament when they come to your town and check out their new release. Visit www.testamentlegions.com

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