The coronavirus pandemic has affected the entire world, including the music industry. After touring in Europe, Testament frontman Chuck Billy and his wife tested positive for COVID-19, but thankfully are feeling better. I spoke with Billy about that experience, their new album Titans Of Creation that was just released and other subjects.
Chad Bowar: What an unusual time to be promoting an album.
Chuck Billy: Wow, you’re telling me. But, we didn’t want to hold up things. We have a campaign going, we want to stick with it and give people who are stuck at home something new to listen to.
You tested positive for COVID-19 after returning from a European tour. How are you feeling now?
We’re getting better every day. We’re not 100 percent. Some things are still lingering, but we have energy, we’re getting up doing things, we’re feeling normal again. So I think we’re over the hump now.
Have you been hearing from a lot of people since your diagnosis went public?
Oh yeah. We’ve had a lot of family and people you haven’t heard from her in a while. It’s been a little overwhelming. Everybody’s concerned but we want also to let people know that we’re doing fine. Yes, we have it, but we’re fortunate not to be on the bad end of it.
Have your doctors told you if you are immune to this now, or could you get reinfected?
They don’t know. They don’t have that data yet. That was my first question with everybody. When do I know I’m not sick? When do I know I’m not contagious? There’s a lot of stuff they just don’t know. Am I going to get it again?
In most areas of the country, people are under stay-at-home orders to prevent the spread of the virus. But there are a few states that still haven’t done that yet.
We watched it unfold really quick from being in Europe, watching things happen and then to get home and then over the last couple of weeks, it’s just escalating every day. It’s real. It’s real and people need to take it serious and do their part and contain themselves.
It’s impossible to know exactly when things like touring will be able to resume. How are you evaluating that when it comes to rescheduling dates?
We’re working on a reschedule because we have a tour in America in September, so we’re kind of continuing on that. We had the tour here in April that we had to postpone and reschedule. I don’t think it’s going to be the same package in September, but we’re taking our dates and rescheduling it. It’s just kind of wild. We have some dates in Europe, we’ll see how that goes. I know some festivals in Europe have canceled already, so we’re waiting to see how the summer is going to play out. But we’re not holding our breath on that because those are huge and there are people from everywhere in the world. I can’t see them having those gatherings. It keeps escalating and until we see it peak and get steady and contained, we just don’t know.
Some bands have been putting together online shows. With Testament’s geographic separation, that would be very difficult to do, wouldn’t it?
Yeah. We can’t even see each other. Alex is in New York, Gene’s in San Diego, Eric’s in Sacramento. So we couldn’t even really get to each other.
Do you have any plans to maybe take a previous concert and stream that?
We do have a bunch of shows like that, and over time might be something that we’ll have to start working on. If there’s not shows happening and people are stuck, not working, you’re going to have to have alternatives.
Let’s talk about Titans of Creation. There was a fair amount of time in between this one and the last one. When did you actually start writing the material that became this album?
Right after the Slayer farewell tour. We actually were planning to do the record sooner and then that Slayer farewell tour came knocking. So of course we wanted to be a part of that, wouldn’t have missed that for the world. So I think we finished on that tour in September and really started working on it December, January, really started hitting it hard. It was definitely a better process for this record. We seemed to communicate and get the songs completed a little quicker than the last record.
And you have a studio in your house now, right?
Yeah, which makes it nice. We had one in Oakland that we kept all our equipment, but we ended up just not enjoying going down into Oakland. We ended up saying, Eric, let’s just put one in your house, I’ll put one in my house and let’s just work like that. I’ll come over your house, you come over my house, instead of having both of us travel to Oakland, to the studio.
You and Eric are listed as co-producers along with Juan Urteaga on this one.
Yeah, we go to Juan’s studio, he’s nearby here in the Bay. Juan’s always been a guy that’s been engineering stuff, but he’s always been the guy to have a voice, have an opinion on a melody or a word or to try something. He’s always been like that. So on this record he was there during all the process of writing patterns and melodies. He had a little more input on this. So we decided that he should get the credit, co-producing it with us.
You had Andy Sneap mix and master the album. What impact did that have?
He makes it become a record. When we have it before that, to me, it sounds like demos. It’s all a bunch of tracks, all one level with no dynamics. Once Andy gets it, that’s when it really starts sounding like a record. The drums, the tones, the blending of everything. Once Andy starts mixing it, all the tones of the drums, the bass, guitars, everything starts improving. But he really does a great job in the separation. Especially on this record, I could really hear everything going on from the guitars to the bass to every kick drum and cymbal, everything. Everything is heard on this record. I think this is one of Andy’s best mixes and I don’t know, he was on the Judas Priest tour for a few years. Maybe he was just a little hungry and ready to knock out a record when he got home. So maybe that had something to do with it. I don’t know. But he sure did a great job on this one.
You mentioned that the recording process went smoother than usual. When it comes to track order, is that something that you struggle with or does that usually come pretty smoothly?
Once the tracks are done and we have to put a sequence together. I just leave it to Eric. I don’t get involved. I might have an opinion on the opening song, what I think is the strongest song to open the record. But after that I just let him put it all together.
The album has a variety of lyrical topics. What drew you to darker subjects like the Heaven’s Gate cult?
The Heaven’s Gate song “Children Of The Next Level” was the first song we wrote for this record. I think that song could have been a song right off Brotherhood of the Snake, just the lyric content. That record was about the futuristic possibility of aliens creating mankind, futuristic lyrics and stories. “Children of the Next Level” could have been right off of that record. And as the songs were coming from Eric, they really started having a different identity and different flavor. And that’s when I started getting off the futuristic topics and started doing stuff a little more personal. I’d say five of the songs when we got in the studio, didn’t have any patterns yet, and just kind of let the song roll. And I just mumbled my way through and found some key words that I stumbled across while I was doing that. And some of those songs ended up being some of the ones we stuck with.
I’m guessing the song “Healers” has the most personal lyrics for you.
For sure. It is about the three healers, the medicine men that helped me get through cancer when I was ill. I decided to sing the song to praise them, to talk about what I learned and what they taught me at that time. But I lost connection with the guys. Charlie passed away a few years ago, Lupon is in a V.A. hospital in New York and has Alzheimer’s. He didn’t remember me when I went to see him. And Turtle, the third one, he moved off the mountain where we did the sweat lodges. So I just wanted to pay homage to them on this record and that song had a unique feel and flow of the vocals and I thought that would make a good choice for that song.
And how was it having a co-vocalist in Eric doing black metal vocals on “The Night Of The Witch”?
When we wrote that song, of course Eric gave me the idea. He wanted a witch song. So we wrote that song about witches. That part that he sings, I actually wrote it out of the song because I didn’t want to sing that part. It was more of a witch scream and that wasn’t me. Eric wanted to keep it, so I said, all right, if we’re going to keep that, then you’re going to do the witch. You do that voice on your Dragonlord stuff, this was going to be your part. So he gave it a shot and it sounded great and it just gave that song a different feel to it. I’m sure when people first heard it, they’re like, what’s that? Is Chuck singing that? It’s probably confusing a little bit. (laughs)
Your last couple albums have cracked the top 20 in the U.S. Will you be disappointed if Titans of Creation doesn’t do the same?
It’s always great to get an accomplishment and to be recognized, but our times of music and times of everything and people spending money and all that, it’s tough right now. Where we’re at in these times, people probably don’t want to spend money. We’ll just see how it goes. It’s a tough time, a weird world right now.
Back when you guys started, when you made videos, they actually played on video channels like MTV. Now videos are on social media platforms. Do you think their importance is still as big as they were back then?
Back then the platform was just on MTV, but now that we have the internet, there is a bigger platform for that kind of stuff. I think it’s gotten bigger. I think it is important. Our video for “Children of the Next Level,” we did an animated video this time because we did the record, did the tour. We were supposed to be leaving for tour coming up here in a few weeks. So we didn’t have time to shoot a video. So we decided, let’s do an animated one where we didn’t have to actually be there. And I thought “Children of the Next Level,” the song about Heaven’s Gate, would be a good visual animated video story.
Unlike the old days, social media is a vital part of promoting albums these days.
Definitely an online presence is a big thing for exposure and being more connected to the fans. That’s a big part of it, getting to know somebody on a personal level. People have known us for 30 plus years, but the promotions we just did with the elements, everybody’s in their element, was a totally different promotion. The response was really cool. Everybody seemed to really enjoy it. It wasn’t your typical making of the record, it was more in depth personal, which I thought was a cool idea. (You can watch the “Chuck Billy In His Element” video here.)
For people of our generation, the online presence doesn’t come as naturally to those who have grown up with it. We’re more old school.
That’s right. Look how popular vinyl is. It’s coming back. We put a cassette out on this record as a collector’s piece. It’s about pleasing those fans as well that are actual collectors. And it seems to be more of the older generation fans that actually grew up holding the vinyl records and playing the records and reading the lyrics on it. Those generations seems to be the ones that are actually buying the physical products.
Are you a vinyl collector?
I do, yes. We have a turntable upstairs and downstairs and every now and then we’ll have vinyl day and just pick a bunch of records from the collection and listen to them.
Back in the day people would go to record stores and buy albums just based on the cover art.
Exactly. But those old records don’t sound like they do now. In the ’70s and ’80s you used to do a test pressing and listen to it until it was correct. I don’t think they do that now. They’ll just take the CD pressing and just press it onto vinyl. The quality could be better if you really had somebody that gave it a listen and really focused on making it sound better for the vinyl. But those are just little things. I look at the vinyls as more of a collector’s piece.
Do you have a prized album?
I have a few that it took me a long time to find. There’s Scorpions’ Tokyo Tapes. I couldn’t find that vinyl for a long time. I finally found it in Japan. And also a band like Witchfinder General, I couldn’t find the vinyl anywhere, either. And I found that one in Japan. So I’ve been having some good luck in Japan with some of the obscure ones I can’t find.
As you look back on Testament’s catalog, are there any albums that got overlooked or didn’t get promoted as well as they should have when released, but now in retrospect, that album has really stood the test of time?
It’s hard to say. Practice What You Preach, Souls Of Black, those records at that era of our life and career, things were really starting to happen, things were really good. The business was good, the metal scene was good. Shortly after that was when everything changed; the industry, the music, the bands. Radio changed, metal bands started getting dropped. It was a weird period then.
With what’s going on in the world and how it’s affecting the economy, this could be another watershed type of moment for the industry.
Oh totally. It’s going to be tough because you’ve got to figure a lot of these venues that don’t have shows right now are losing money and may have to shut their doors or go out of business. It’s going to be weird once it all gets back going again and clubs not being available. We’ll see how things are going to go and see how it pans out.
(interview published April 7, 2020)
Watch Testament – “Children Of The Next Level”