Testament’s most recent studio album, “Dark Roots of Earth” (2012), entered the Billboard 200 at No. 12, which is their highest U.S. chart position to date. The album has propelled the forerunners of thrash metal to new heights, and set in motion an expansive world tour. Testament will be playing in Austin at Emo’s on Tuesday, Feb. 5, so with excited anticipation, I tracked down legendary lead guitarist Alex Skolnick and asked him some questions about the new album, the band’s longevity and their goals.
Skolnick has had a long and fruitful career, and his influence and scope are being recognized like never before. Budda, a division of Peavy, are currently developing an Alex Skolnick line of amplifier. Additionally, after about three years of work, he has published a critically acclaimed autobiography, “Geek to Guitar Hero,” telling his story of growing up with strict academic parents and being socially awkward. The book then follows him into maturity and rock stardom. It’s safe to say both his tenacity and yearning to learn has given him a place in history as a genuine guitar hero.
AFM: You’ve told me that you really like Austin.What specifically do you like about it?
AS: Austin is so funky. I like cities with character and that’s true of Austin. It’s a really happening place. There is a certain creative energy, blues guitar, country guitar, jazz guitar — you can find it all there. I always find that Austin has this uniqueness and appreciation for music and art, good coffee, good food, and a sense of fun. There’s something very endearing about it.
AFM: In the video documentary that is included with the new CD, we get the sense that this record was perhaps more intentional and collaborative than many of your previous records in the past — that each member has grown to respect the others opinions and roles in regard to songwriting and producing. How has this album and that collaboration process matured from past recordings?
AS: This was the second reunion album. “Formation of Damnation,” released in 2008, was the first new record in almost a decade, and I had been away from the band. But having completed that previous album, we’d done a lot of touring, and all that experience playing on the road gave us more of a prerequisite. There’s just nothing like coming off of a tour, and having that feeling of being on stage, and then you just have this connection with what ideas that are gonna work. Also we’ve had a few different drummer changes. For a while we didn’t have a drummer to work with, so Eric (Peterson) and I just had to sit with our guitars and write songs, and I think that was a really good way to write songs. It used to be more Eric sitting with the drummer and then I’d come in and make changes. And this time we really initiated the songs together.
AFM: Your brand of heavy metal has now been around for many years and yet the new album“Dark Roots of Earth” is iTunes’ U.S. Metal Album of the Year for 2012! Has your audience grown? And how has your fan base changed over the years?
AS: Absolutely! I think when it started out it was much more of an underground thing. It was almost all young fans, and it was rare to see anybody over thirty. Now there’s a good mix of ages and I think it’s a much more diverse audience.
AFM: Back in the day, it used to be that if you were a metal head, that’s what you were, but perhaps your music has crossed genres a little bit?
AS: Well, I think that’s true. One of the struggles I had with it early on was it just felt so exclusive. If you played metal, you couldn’t do acoustic world music, and you couldn’t do blues, and I believe in being an all around musician. But I also believe that you can be an all around musician and do metal. When I left the band, I immersed myself into other music scenes, the jazz guitar scene, the world music scene, and even to study music at the university level in New York, and that was unheard of. Nobody ever thought that I’d return to play heavy metal, but one of my points was that you can be an all around diverse musician and play metal. So now it’s a pleasure to play all these different styles of music. Now there’s an environment where you can be a diverse musician and also play metal, but back in the late ’80s, early ’90s, there was a lot of resistance.
AFM: So back then you kind of had to choose sides and today you don’t have to?
AS: That’s very true. And also the environment has changed a lot. I think metal shows back in the day had a lot more fights and there wasn’t as much friendliness back then. There’s an interview with Henry Rollins in Entertainment Weekly, where he says, “If you want to meet a bunch of really friendly people, go to a Slayer concert. There will be some real psychos there, but most of those people will take care of each other.”
AFM: Do you think there has been a resurgence of heavy metal music in the U.S. and/or globally?
AS: Absolutely, at least at the underground level. What happened in the ’90s was very strange. Metallica became this super group in league with Bruce Springsteen and Madonna, and the harder metal had been sort of relegated to underground status. And now it’s growing a lot. A band like Testament for example was playing very small clubs in the late ’90s and early 2000s in the U.S., and now in addition to playing Emo’s in Austin, we’re playing the Fillmore in San Francisco and The House of Blues all over the country. So it’s not arena level, but it’s not tiny club level either. And I think that’s true of a lot of other metal bands. In Europe we just played the Wacken festival which had 70,000 people.
AFM: Many favor you as one of the best guitar players in the world. Is there music that you find both interesting and challenging to play?
AS: For me, traditional jazz guitar is both challenging and nice to listen to. It requires not only an intense musical knowledge, but it’s very instinctual as well. It’s never the same each time you play it and requires sensitivity. Whether playing alone or with a group, you have to gauge the audience, and you have to know that they’re with you, and you have to be expressive. And that’s really hard to do because if you’re used to playing in rock bands, the expressiveness comes from the whole group. And it’s not that rock isn’t challenging in its own way, but with jazz you have to expect different styles and energy levels.
AFM: Now that Testament has become an institution in the rock world, with a career spanning almost 30 years and incredible accomplishments, what are your goals as a band?
AS: I don’t think there’s a lot of planning for the future. I think its one step at a time. We’re in a good place and we’d like to keep things going the way they have been. I think that things have worked out in recent years by not planning.
AFM: The theme of “Dark Roots of Earth,” in my best interpretation, is sort of a phoenix rising from the ashes motif. It exposes our vulnerability and carries imagery to the idea that everything comes from, and eventually goes back to the earth. The lyrics suggest a foreshadowing of environmental and/or societal catastrophe. Are you hopeful that human beings will figure out away to turn the tide, and avoid a potentially devastating demise?
AS: I can’t say that I’m that hopeful (laughs). First of all, I think we need to enjoy what time we have here. I guess it’s hard to say, if human beings will figure out a way to turn the tide, things have changed a lot. Some things have gotten better. It’s amazing that today in the United States, to name just one place, that we’re able to have a president who is part of a minority group. And that’s amazing. But on the other hand when you see some of the reaction, when you see some of the hatred that’s exposed, it’s disturbing. There’s also the fact, that there are so many that would rather just ignore it. I can’t picture that type of thinking taking place decades ago. It just seems like reason is being drowned out by the vocal minority. I’d like to think that most people are reasonable, but we live in a really strange time.
AFM: Well, hopefully the new album will put a fire under people’s asses.
AS: That’s what we want.
AFM: Aside from the questions that I already asked you, is there anything else that you want to say?
AS: I want to thank everyone for supporting live music.