Testament Interview

Band Name: Testament
Interviewed: Alex Skolnick
Date: 2011-11-17
Previous Testament Interviews

The Gauntlet: Hey Alex, how is it going?

Alex: Good. Sorry I missed your call earlier. I had my headphones on as I was in the studio.

The Gauntlet: Are you still working on the new Testament album?

Alex: No, the album is mostly done. I am actually just at my home studio recording. Everything has been great though. We are still on tour and I am definitely ready to wind it up. We have been out for over a month and anytime you are on the road that long, you start to get home sick. We actually only have three more shows left including tonight. You never want to be on the road too much longer than a month. In this case, there was an extra leg of shows that was a week long that we decided not to do. We felt everyone in the band would be burned out. Everyone is really pumped for these last shows. We still have pretty good energy after a month and a half run.

The Gauntlet: It has been a month since the Los Angeles show, and before that I think the last I saw Testament was 2008 at the Key Club.

Alex: That seems like ancient history now. When you are out on the road, you lose all sense of time.

The Gauntlet: I was shocked how much energy you still have on stage. You were jumping around like a fifteen year old.

Alex: Right, right. At fifteen years old, I lacked the confidence to jump around on stage though.

The Gauntlet: So when did you get your stage presence?

Alex: I think it happened later. That just came from having a lot of experience from playing night after night and looking at a lot of videos of myself performing.

The Gauntlet: Is it hard watching videos of yourself?

Alex: Yeah. Not just the older ones, but even current videos. I start to get an idea what I look like. In my case, when I first started out I wasn’t thinking about the performance. I was more thinking about the playing and about the music. I think as I got older the performance did start to matter to me. I realized people were paying good money for tickets and they deserved to be entertained. When I go to a show, I want to be entertained. I don’t want to feel like the people I am watching are uncomfortable on stage and not expressing themselves to the fullest. You need to express yourself not only through the music, but also your performance on stage. I have a much better stage presence now.

The Gauntlet: At what point do you feel you had the stage presence?

Alex: I think for me it took a couple of albums. I think it really started happening by the second or third album. After the first album, I was eighteen and just a kid. I didn’t really have a lot of confidence. I practiced a lot and could play the instrument. I think it takes years of being on stage and being comfortable and not having feelings of self-consciousness.

The Gauntlet: Is this the type of advice you’ll be giving people at the Skolnick and Broderick’s Winter Guitar Retreat?

Alex: Oh, absolutely. I think a lot of it will focus on actual playing and self teaching. I want to have the students go away with a whole repertoire of lessons they can work on themselves. That is what the best teachers can do. I think I will have to do a discussion on performance though.

The Gauntlet: I think performance and production is something lacking at today’s metal shows. My wife drags me to Britney Spears, Beyonce, Alicia Keyes, etc shows and music aside, it can be entertaining due to the production they have on stage.

Alex: Oh yeah. The performances are amazing. It is very rare. A lot of bands just don’t have the budget and have to rely on themselves and their individual performance. If you are a strong performer, you don’t have to rely on a production though.

The Gauntlet: Yes and no. Back in the day, Alice Cooper would show up in a city and raid the local drug store for stage materials to put on a show. They didn’t have money, but fans were left in awe at their budget stage show. At the same time, their music is still celebrated today.

Alex: Yeah, I’d say get the music together first and only then can you start thinking about performance and production. You just need to know at what point to do that and it is different for everyone. For an artist like Britney Spears, even her albums are just about production. I wouldn’t say she doesn’t have talent as it takes talent to play the roles she plays. But there are so many people that they can insert into that role. Her production manager for the live show does a great job. Individuality in music is important. I think someone like Lady Gaga is an interesting example. She can sit behind a piano and play like she did recently on the Howard Stern Show. It was phenomenal. It was just as riveting as her full live show. That is a good example of somebody that might have too much production and it might not be necessary, but she at least got the music down first. In the 70’s, there were people like KISS. They always had more of an emphasis on production and performance. I was a KISS fan at 10 years old and they were the reason I got into music. They did some great music, it was virtuosic music. They were able to create really good music. There are also plenty of bands out there that have too much of a focus on production and performance. There is just no substance.

The Gauntlet: Do metal bands have a chance to reach that next level without some sort of production?

Alex: It is very rare. I have a lot of theories about it. The bands that get to the next level have a very clear sense of who is in charge and who is in the driver seat. With Metallica, it is very clear that Lars in in the driver’s seat and James is in the front seat. Those guys are running the show. That has been clear from the beginning and it has helped a lot. A lot of bands don’t have that and have problems. They don’t have the ability to follow a leader. Or that leadership from them isn’t affective. That is why it is so rare for bands to reach a high level, but it is not impossible.

The Gauntlet: You take all the fun out of being in a band and make it sound like it is a business.

Alex: [laughs] That is the reality of it. I’m not saying it isn’t fun though at times. You should really enjoy the fun parts. There is an old expression that the music business is only 10% about the music and 90% about the business.

The Gauntlet: Do you have it in you to walk away from it all when you stop having fun?

Alex: Absolutely, I have walked away before. I wasn’t having fun. It is a long story, but if it isn’t fun anymore then you need to get away and re-evaluate why you are there in the first place. If you are just trying to move forward and be the best musician you can be and you are surrounded by self-destruction, it is a very difficult position to be in and that was the position I was in. It happens with all kinds of relationships like friends, business, romance, and bands. When it happens, you try to set an example and you try to express your feelings in hope to get the others get on track. If they don’t hear you, then you have to get out and let them do what they are going to do. Hopefully they will bounce back. In the case of my band Testament in the early nineties, they were really in a downward spiral. As it turned out, I wanted to explore other music anyway. But I came back for the reunion shows in the mid-2000’s and they had turned around a lot by then; they weren’t self-destructive by then.

The Gauntlet: With the Skolnick and Broderick’s Winter Guitar retreat, are you teaching from a metal standpoint or a jazz standpoint?

Alex: From both. I also want to talk about all the forms of music that I like. I think my master classes are going to focus more on musicianship in general but there will also be a metal class and a jazz theory class along with a jazz composition class.

The Gauntlet: What era of jazz? It is every evolving.

Alex: I started getting into jazz because of Miles Davis. The music he did in the 80’s up until he passed away in the 90’s was very rock, funk and world music. That is what I was interested in at first. It was explained to me that to learn that music you need to learn jazz from an earlier period and a lot of it connects to Miles. That was how I was able to grasp Miles’ stuff. I went to listen to Wes Montgomery, Jim Hall, and Pat Martino. At first it was out of necessity but then I found myself really enjoying it. It was a nice break and I began to like it more. I began to focus on the more traditional acoustic jazz. When I moved to New York and got my music degree, that was all I listened to. I knew I was going to comeback at some point but I needed to experience it. I needed to be a purist for a while so I could start over.

The Gauntlet: Do you think in order to be a great metal guitarist, you need a jazz or blues background and understanding of it?

Alex: Absolutely. I think they are at the very least really limiting themselves. If you talk to the members of Black Sabbath, they are very influenced by jazz. Tony Iommi was influenced to play the guitar by the jazz great Jango Reinhardt who also had a finger injury. Bill Ward was massively influenced by jazz drumming and Geezer Butler was influenced by jazz bass playing. Blues, absolutely. AC/DC’s foundation is in blues. Early Van Halen is also blues. Led Zeppelin totally comes from blues. If anyone limits their exposure to jazz or blues, they are really doing themselves a disservice. To me it was obvious from the beginning. I never thought I was especially gifted starting out with guitar. I had to work really hard and tap into whatever potential I had, but even from the very beginning I could hear the blues in my playing. I could hear the blues in the rock and I understood how they were related to hard rock.

The Gauntlet: Did you start playing jazz guitar?

Alex: No, not until later. I was a very advanced rock player for my age. I listened to a lot of Van Halen and Randy [Rhoads] and then Yngwie [Malmsteen]. And then one of the next important players happened to be my teacher, Joe Satriani. I was with him for about two years when I was fourteen. I was an advanced player for my age but didn’t have a jazz background. I think it wasn’t until I was eighteen that I first heard Miles Davis and it really struck a chord with me.

The Gauntlet: So Satriani took you in at fourteen? How did he find you?

Alex: I found him. He was probably the busiest guitar teacher at Berkley and definitely the most respected. Everybody knew about him. He was in his mid to late twenties but all these younger players in their early twenties who where starting to get attention came from him. He was very feared. He was very strict and very serious. He definitely had a reputation for refusing to teach students that wouldn’t practice enough. It was a bit of a bold move to take lessons from him.

The Gauntlet: Metal back then was thought of as music for people of lesser intelligence. Did Satriani shake his head in dis-approvement when you joined Testament?

Alex: I asked him about it and he thought it was a good idea for me to join Testament He thought it would probably be temporary. At the time I had no idea if I’d stick with the band or if it even made sense. Then things started going places. He wasn’t really unfamiliar with that genre of music anyways. Kirk Hammett from Metallica studied with him, and the guys from Exodus would occasionally drop in for lessons. He was very supportive. The fact that he’s Italian, it was like going to the Godfather for permission [laughs].

The Gauntlet: Did you kiss his hand?

Alex: It was not really like that. It was just good to have someone to go to who was in the music industry. he didn’t have the name that he would later have. He played in bands and was courted by some well known pop bands and was a good person to get advice on this kind of thing from.

The Gauntlet: Usually at this time of the year you are on tour with Trans-Siberian Orchestra.

Alex: Not this year and not last year. I have been really busy with the Anthrax and Testament tour. There is no way I could have done both. I would have had to been in two places at once. Last year I was in Europe playing large venues with my jazz trio and Rodrigo y Gabriela. Also I am getting ready now for my Winter Guitar Retreat. At this point, it would just be too much of a sacrifice.

The Gauntlet: I thought you stepped away from TSO to have more time for you, but it seems like you are busier than ever.

Alex: That is right. I stepped away indefinitely and I have been so busy with so many cool things. None of them are as big as TSO. It is such a big production and big venues with tons of people. It is really more about the show than the people in the show. Keep in mind I have done it nine times. It isn’t like I haven’t gotten the experience. I know the deal and I know what it is like. I had a great time doing it and it was very educational. A show like that helps you. I am very grateful for the opportunity but I am also at a point in my life where I am more interested in doing things that are more about the people performing. I want to be an individual, even if it is smaller. I would rather have a bigger role in a smaller show than a tiny role in a huge show. Some people point to it and say it isn’t a tiny role and they come to see the show for me and my features, but the majority of the show is about a lighting rig. It is a three hour show and there are times where you are playing and their are dancing girls, explosions and platforms rising. It is awesome. But sometimes when you play you want it to be about the music.

The Gauntlet: So you don’t want the same billing as a rising platform?

Alex: A platform! Exactly! Or a laser. We all had our fans. The men would be ogling over the girls and us guys had our share of female fans; although they were usually much older and with their husbands.

The Gauntlet: So instead of that, Alex Skolnick Trio will be playing some December shows, what is next?

Alex: After that I have some time off for the holidays and then the Winter Guitar Retreat. Then the Testament album and we do it all over again. I have plenty going on. I am also working on more dates for the Trio. I will be squeezing in those anywhere I can.

The Gauntlet: Does it get hard to do what you want to be doing when there is such a demand for Testament?

Alex: Yeah, I love doing stuff with Testament and it is a priority. Also the guys in the band are very understanding. But sometimes there are fans or people that work with the band that don’t get it or only see me as a guy from Testament. They think any little thing that comes up with Testament I should drop everything and be there. Sometimes you have to be resistant of negative forces like that. There are times where it makes sense. If a really good opportunity comes up for Testament like a big tour as opposed to one show for myself, then of course I will do the tour. When I have my own tour booked with the Trio, I have to fulfil that obligation as well.