Members of METALLICA, MACHINE HEAD, DEATH ANGEL, FORBIDDEN, SKINLAB and D.R.I., as well as former members of EXODUS, OVERKILL, S.O.D., POSSESSED, SACRILEGE B.C. and STEREOMUD, are among the musicians who made an appearance at a special event to celebrate the life of Debbie Abono, a well-respected and much-loved manager and promotional machine behind some of San Francisco Bay Area’s strongest metal bands (POSSESSED, FORBIDDEN, EXODUS, VIO-LENCE, SKINLAB), who passed away on May 16 after a battle with cancer. She was 80 years old.
According to an obituary published in the Contra Costa Times on May 30, 2010, “Debbie was in her mid-fifties when she plunged into the Bay Area’s heavy metal/thrash metal music scene. She quickly [started working with] some of the Bay Area’s strongest metal bands (POSSESSED, FORBIDDEN, VIO-LENCE, EXODUS, SKINLAB) as well as Chicago’s BROKEN HOPE, Florida’s OBITUARY and CYNIC, Ohio’s SPUDMONSTERS, and from Texas SKREW. Many of these members who have gone onto further success with their careers with Debbie‘s constant guidance. She is known around the world not only for the work she has done for countless musicians, band crew members and their families, but more so for her heart and generosity and her ability to uplift, motivate and empower all those around her to always be honest and to be their best.
“After recently learning that Debbie was gravely ill, James Hetfield of METALLICA, another Bay Area legend, gave a verbal tribute before singing the hit song ‘Nothing Else Matters‘ at a performance in Belfast, Ireland. Alex Skolnick, guitarist for TESTAMENT, posted the following statement: ‘In the mid-1980s when most folks over forty were afraid of metal, there was Debbie Abono, a kind, sophisticated woman in her 50s. She saw right through the pentagrams, upside-down crosses, leather and spikes and recognized that some kind souls lay underneath the anger reflected much younger, often-misunderstood group of metalheads and became manager to some of the heaviest bands. By doing so, she helped us realize that older people weren’t so bad either.’ TESTAMENT also dedicated the song ‘Alone In The Dark‘ [to Debbie] during the band’s May 16, 2010 performance in Enschede, Netherlands.”
Donations can be made through this web site and via check payable to “East Bay Community Foundation” and should be accompanied by a note designating that the gift is for the Debbie Abono Memorial Fund for Music. Contributions should be mailed to The East Bay Community Foundation, Attn: Giles Miller, 200 Frank H. Ogawa Plaza, Oakland, CA 94612.
The Bay Area Thrash Scene of the early 80’s has been well documented. The most successful metal band of all time, Metallica, helped define it’s sound, and give San Francisco it’s second major music ‘scene’ (the first being the flower power, hippy, acid rock scene of the 60’s). Bands like Testament, Exodus, Death Angel, Possessed, Heathen, and Vio-lence where at the forefront of the new scene.
Death Angel released three albums to much critical acclaim and built a very strong following. With the release of ACT III the band seemed poised to jump from a well known underground band to commercial success, but a bus accident at the beginning of the tour cycle sidelined the band with injuries, and they eventually separated in 1991. Fast forward ten years to Thrash Of The Titans a benefit for Chuck Billy, the singer of Testament, who was diagnosed with throat cancer. Many of the ‘old school’ Bay Area Thrash bands united and reunited for this epic event and cause. Death Angel was reborn with a new guitarist and due in part to the crowd response, and the persistence of a record label, Nuclear Blast, the band decided to hit the road and actually record an album. The last 9 years has seen three new albums, several successful tours, and a resurgence of the Bay Area old school Thrash Scene.
Ted Aguilar has been with Death Angel now since the Thrash Of The Titans show in 2001. And while the band was on tour with Soilwork this summer, I chatted with Ted Aguilar after their Raleigh, North Carolina show (and heated Galaga video game match!) about Death Angel, a proposed tour of China, the first ever ‘metal’ themed cruise ship, the soon to be released Relentless Retribution (September 14th on Nuclear Blast), what it feels like to be starring three years of non stop touring straight in the face, and how he was able to take the stage at Thrash of the Titans after only two rehearsals with the band (‘fuckin’ nervous man, fuckin’ nervous!’ was his response)
AWAY TEAM: This is ‘Slim’ Jim Keller with Awayteam.com and I’m sitting here with Ted Aguilar from Death Angel. I want to thank you very much for taking time out again for this interview. Congratulations on the soon to be released 6th studio album from Death Angel entitled Relentless Retribution.
TED AGUILAR: Yes!
AWAY TEAM: So how long have you been with Death Angel?
TED AGUILAR: Nine years now this is my 3rd album with them.
AWAY TEAM: Ok so when they reformed…
TED AGUILAR: Yeah I’ve been with them since Thrash of the Titans.
AWAY TEAM: What brought you on board to Death Angel? They reformed for the benefit for Chuck Billy called the Thrash of the Titans and it was the first time that they’d gotten together in eleven years to perform and so how did you end up in the band?
TED AGUILAR: Actually, I’ve known the guys for a long time even back in the 80’s. I’d been to majority of all their hometown shows from Ultra-Violence until Act III. And when the band started to reform I guess everyone was into it except Gus (Pepa) the other rhythm guitar player. And I mean he just wasn’t into it, he was in the Philippines at the time he just basically checked out of music, well heavy music in general. I’d known Rob (Cavestany), and Rob gave me a call and said, ‘Hey man you want to do it? Gus can’t do it.’ and at first I was like, ‘Are you SURE?’ I don’t wanna step on anybody’s toes since Death Angel was more of a family unit. He goes, ‘Nope Gus can’t do it.’ So in 2 rehearsals I had to learn all the songs on my own and you know I jammed out with some individuals just to kinda get some ideas of the structures of the song. We did 2 rehearsals like 2 days before Thrash of the Titans and boom did the show. It was fun man. I was nervous as a motherfucker though I’ll tell you! But it was fun.
AWAY TEAM: Kind of a big stage to take on for your first with only 2 rehearsals under your belt
TED AGUILAR: Two rehearsals and its Death Angel’s first gig in 11 years! You gotta be on your game! I was nervous as a motherfucker. These guys know the songs inside out I mean they grew up writing it so it was like second nature to them.
AWAY TEAM: So what were you doing before you got the call?
TED AGUILAR: I just played in a couple local bands nothing really big, just jamming around with friends and local bands just played around the Bay Area. And my band played with Rob and Mark’s (Osegueda) band Swarm at the time. We did a few local gigs together and that’s how I guess I got the gig. They never actually told me I was in the band they go ‘You wanna jam?’ and 9 years later here I am today man!
AWAY TEAM: Still waiting to sign the contract right!
TED AGUILAR: I’m still waiting! I didn’t even get a handshake! Put it that way.
AWAY TEAM: So your first album with Death Angel was Art of Dying. What was it at that show or shortly after that they decided or you all decided you should reform properly and actually do something with this?
TED AGUILAR: Well that show was supposed to be a one-off. I mean from what the guys told me Death Angel wasn’t meant to reform, they were just done. They went out on a high note of Act III and they started doing other various projects as The Organization, Swarm, Silver Circus and Big Shrimp and all that stuff. Right after we did Thrash of the Titans… I loved it, and the rest of the guys just felt the overwhelmingness of the crowd. Just very into the band. We didn’t realize how much Death Angel was missed. So after that show there was other offers coming about and I guess we decided let’s just do one more round of touring put out a live album and that’s it, call it a day. But as soon as we went to Europe the crowd was just amazing! The first time we went there we headlined the F&R in 2002 July of 2002 I believe then we did the Dynamo Festival and those shows are just like, ‘Holy Shit!’ I mean metal is big in Europe and again we didn’t realize how much fans around the world missed Death Angel. And we did that and went back out on the road again we got this offer to do two weeks in Europe on a festival with Testament. Nuclear Blast started coming around offering us you know… they wanted to sign us without even hearing new songs! They just loved the band, loved the legacy, ‘we’ll sign you!’ So from there on we just said well let’s give it a shot we did and we released Art Of Dying, we released Killing Season, now we’re going to release Relentless Retribution and it’s been a great ride and we still got more to conquer! More to conquer!
AWAY TEAM: Well you’re currently on tour with Soilwork, Swashbuckle and Mutiny Within; I saw maybe 5 dates left after tonight, what’s next?
TED AGUILAR: After this we’re going to go home and kinda hang out with family real quick. Just hang out and chill, then the album comes out as you know September 14th, everyone go out and get it!
AWAY TEAM: On Nuclear Blast. Find it on Nuclear Blast; pre-order it now you get a T-shirt with it…
TED AGUILAR: There you go! And there’s gonna be there’s a limited DVD too. It’s the making of the record which I kinda filmed, directed, and produced the whole thing. I had someone else edit it. It’s the making of the record from the first riff all the way until the last riff and into the recording studio and whatnot. And September we’re going to do the Mezcal Metalfest the last week of September with Twisted Sister, Destruction, God Forbid, and Obituary. Then in October we’re going to South America for the first time which we’re really excited about then we come back in November. December we’re going out to Europe with Kreator, Exodus, and Suicidal Angels and that’s going to be a thrash fest festival across Europe! Come back for the holidays then in the new year we pick up at that 70,000 ton metal cruise we’re doing with Testament, Forbidden, Exodus, Fear Factory, Uli Roth, Trouble, Swashbuckle, so many bands! Then right after that we start our headlining U.S. tour and who knows what’s going to come after that. I know next summer we still have to do the major European festivals so relentless touring, relentless touring.
AWAY TEAM: So springtime we should see you back in the States then on the road…
TED AGUILAR: Around springtime yeah around there.
AWAY TEAM: Early summer before the European festivals kick in?
TED AGUILAR: Yeah then go back to Europe for the summer festivals then maybe come back in the fall too. Relentless touring! Who knows? But that’s the plan.
AWAY TEAM: On this album you have two new musicians (Damien Sissom – bass, Will Carroll – drums) on it, has that changed how you guys write?
TED AGUILAR: Well it definitely changed this time around because we have a new rhythm section. Andy Galeon and Dennis Pepa are no longer with the band due to personal and family obligations. They couldn’t go out on tour basically so we got a new rhythm section and when we got them, before we even started writing a record, we went out on tour with them. Just played the old songs and we noticed they have a thrashier element. So it was kinda good to go out on the road with them and play some of the old songs and get a feel of what’s going on. I’ve known Damien and Will for awhile, I’ve played with them, so I know what their vibe is about. But it was good in a sense for Rob and Mark because it’s probably the first time in Death Angel history they got to jam with somebody who are not family, somebody totally new. So when we came to writing the album Rob kinda knew what styles Will played, he knew Will’s a thrash drummer, basically like full on thrash drummer, Damien’s a thrash bass player but with a sense of like, ala Cliff Burton, Steve Harris, all those great players. So Rob wrote accordingly to that. The band’s been through a lot of ups and downs in the past couple of years losing members and a lot of personal things going on internally and externally. So all that influence and jamming with new people helped create this record which is the most aggressive and thrashiest record since Ultra-Violence. You know a lot of double bass a lot of fast parts and it feels like a new band. When you listen to the record, for us, it seemed like a new band getting its first record deal, excited! Just going out there again you know? It’s kinda like they helped bring that excitement back which was kinda tapering off with Dan and Andy because they just weren’t into it any more. You can’t really force anybody to be into something when they’re not. And it was really hard for the band because those guys had been with the band since the inception and a lot of fans are like, ‘Oh man! What’re they gonna do?’ But this album’s going to really prove that Death Angel can go on and we’re happy about that.
AWAY TEAM: That’s one thing I’d noticed with the Art of Dying and Killing Season. Act III to most fans out there was the ‘be all end all’ Death Angel album and it was probably the most diverse out of the three original albums, very funky, a lot of different styles woven through the basic Bay Area Thrash sound and with the Art of Dying & Killing Season and what little bit I’ve heard of Relentless Retribution it’s like you have gone more towards the straightforward thrash. Is that more angry or just…
TED AGUILAR: It’s a combination of things. I mean it was intentionally to do that and two it was like I said we’d gone through a lot in the past couple of years so all that vibe went into that, and Rob being the sole the chief writer on this one. Art of Dying was good you know it got our feet wet with the band discovering themselves again because it’d been a long time. Killing Season was a great record where everyone like pretty much honed in, but then again, like I’d said in the past couple of years there was tension within the band of collaborating. I mean collaboration is good sometimes you know and it works well when it works well and the past couple of years with everyone it was hard in a sense. And when everyone collaborated it made Death Angel, but this one was more Rob wrote everything. I mean he had the ideas, he had the thing, there was no fighting, there was no pushing and pulling. It wasn’t like, ‘No this has to be that way!’ ‘No this is that way!’ Rob had so much ideas, and so much to let out, that with our new rhythm section and we heard what Rob was writing and we’d go, ‘that’s it!’ You know he was feeling it, he had all this vibe and ideas, we just ran with it. It was easier for Rob to write. There was no pushing and pulling, he had everything, we just added to what he did. It’s like I said being a band, being in a first band, someone forms a band, ‘I got all these songs let’s do it, let’s do it, let’s do it!’ And when it came to the lyrics, Mark wrote the majority of the lyrics. There’s 12 songs on the record. Mark wrote 9 of them and Rob wrote the other 3 and it’s a heartfelt record. Mark finally got to release. Mark had a lot… you know we all went through a lot of stuff. We were all able to release, and that’s why the record’s more thrashy, more aggressive. It was purposely done that way. Along with the fact of what we went through, so we’re stoked about it. We’re just stoked. And it still has Death Angel elements in there. It doesn’t have the sing-along’s like some stuff on Act III, but there’s melody. It’s just aggressive melody. Who knows how well this album does. We could go on the road even longer. That’s something we want to do. It’s something a proper band should do. And that’s something we never got to do with Art of Dying and Killing Season. Due to the fact that a couple of the guys in the band either didn’t want to tour… we get booked a tour and go ‘I can do that first half but not the second half’ it’s like we gotta do it all! But now that those roadblocks are not there we are able to just tour and we need to tour to promote the record and to get in people’s faces. A lot of people want to see us live and they don’t want to wait 4 years for us to come by. So we want to keep comin’ and coming around.
AWAY TEAM: Yeah I’m getting tired of driving 5 hours to see you guys!
TED AGUILAR: Yes yes yes! We want to keep touring a lot so we can hit other markets where people don’t have to travel to. We’re hitting these markets where people have to travel because we haven’t come around a lot. The more we come around we can hit other territories. The word gets out ‘hey come over here instead of over there’. Cool. You know maybe hit your town so you don’t have to drive!
AWAY TEAM: So you’re doing South America and with the European festivals you’re hitting a lot of Europe, what is probably like the one market or the one place you guys haven’t played that you want to?
TED AGUILAR: Oh South America, one. Central America, probably want to go to Africa. I’ve heard they have shows in Africa. Morocco, Sepultura just did Morocco, they had a couple festivals in like Dubai. We’ve done the Philippines which is great awesome and …
AWAY TEAM: How are you guys accepted there?
TED AGUILAR: Great!
AWAY TEAM: I think you and Journey ‘cuz of their new lead singer…
TED AGUILAR: Yeah yeah!
AWAY TEAM: You guys are pretty much the favored children of the Philippines.
TED AGUILAR: Pretty much yeah! Well Journey more than us! We were accepted really well and the fans were awesome the people there were awesome. We want to go back to Japan, we’ve been to Japan, but I know there’s other territories. There’s talks of Malaysia, Indonesia, China, and you know Hawaii… There’s so many places, it’s just trying to get out there. It is hard but we’ll play everywhere where it’s feasible. If we can get out there without losing it, losing our asses, we’ll play! We’ll definitely play.
AWAY TEAM: In the age of downloading, you guys unfortunately don’t make a lot money anymore on the actual album sales. Labels and no offense to Nuclear Blast and some other great labels out there but the big labels we’ll say are slowly but surely crumbling. And if they don’t change their business model then they’re not going to exist in the next few years. Can you still exist and can you make a good living doing this full time?
TED AGUILAR: If you play your cards right!
AWAY TEAM: It’s about being in your blood and wanting to play. That’s one thing. But being able to survive in today’s market…
TED AGUILAR: A lot of bands seem to do it, I mean a lot of younger bands. Thing is to tour one, merchandise of course, you can download music but you can’t download a shirt. And we get people go ‘oh I’ve seen your YouTube performances’ great! And they come out to see us. Yeah you can see it on YouTube, but it’s not the same as going to a live show. Downloading does hurt and I’ve talked to people in bands and labels, it hurts but you gotta embrace the internet. I see it as touring, your merchandise, and just playing your cards right, and just embracing the internet. Don’t kind of shun it, it’s there, it’s not going away. The days of making money off platinum records seems to be over. Not even pop artists sell as much as they used to but…
AWAY TEAM: Which is good actually!
TED AGUILAR: Well in a sense, but for bands like us we gotta go out and tour. And the live show’s where people really see us. And the more we tour the more merch you sell or whatever and just gotta keep going. Putting out records cause the diehards will buy the records and in this day and age you got people like me and you who still buy records. The newer generations don’t seem to, a lot of the hardcore scene people kinda like download, but a lot of metal kids that I talk to, that I meet, have bought CDs and vinyl and want to sign it. So that’s good that they’re buying it. But it’s just touring and word of mouth the old school way.
AWAY TEAM: Well, used to be when you’re starting out you lived on the road. You lived in the back of a van and you toured incessantly just to get your name out there. Now you have to tour incessantly to put money in your pocket! As you get older it really starts to wear on you more, how do you keep up the intensity? Because you guys put on a phenomenal show! Like I was telling Mark (Osegueda – singer) before we started the interview, I’ve been following this band since ’87. I’m from the Bay Area originally and there was a high school radio station KVHS that played metal, and that’s all they played! That was my introduction to Death Angel in ’87. They played the Ultra-Violence and I was hooked instantly. I’ve seen you guys live, since you got back together, I’ve seen you probably 5, 6 times. And they are just amazing shows! And the intensity on that stage whether it’s a huge room or a very small room, you guys just slay. How do you keep up that level of intensity and that energy night after night being on the road for say another 2 years now?
TED AGUILAR: One we try to stay healthy eat right on the road a lot of us exercise a lot you know
AWAY TEAM: And a lot of Galaga!
TED AGUILAR: And a lot of Galaga!! We exercise a lot, we watch what we eat basically, and we’re not excessive drinkers. We don’t do drugs, an occasional puff here and there with the guys. Who doesn’t? It’s basically just really taking care of yourself. Plus when we play the songs that we play we’re just so into it, it just makes us go crazy night after night whether it’s a small crowd or a big crowd. We throw out the energy and the crowd throws it back at us. We love to do it, we love to go out there and perform. People come to see a show we’re going to give you a show! Plus we’re from the old school, where we go to a show and fuckin’ Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, old Metallica, all those bands they put on a show. KISS for example! So we kinda like are influenced by that, but how do we do it? We just rest, exercise, and try to work out and be cautious of intake.
AWAY TEAM: Well I thank you very much it’s been a pleasure again thank you for taking time out of your busy schedule
TED AGUILAR: No problem man thank you
AWAY TEAM: Good luck with Relentless Retribution and the next 16 months on the road and hopefully we’ll see you again in Raleigh in the spring.
TED AGUILAR: Raleigh or wherever you live! Hopefully you know the more we tour, and if the record gets pretty successful which we hope… Countin’ on you guys to buy it so we can hit more than just one city per state you know? So everyone can come out, we’re into it! Hope you’re into it too. Relentless Retribution September 14th via Nuclear Blast GO BUY IT! Come see the shows!
Thank you to Ted Aguilar for the time he took out of his Galaga match to sit and talk with me, Francois for ensuring the interview happened, Charles at Nuclear Blast for setting it up, and Melissa for her great transcription services as always.
Relentless Retribution can be pre-ordered here.
For more DEATH ANGEL click here.
Photos courtesy of Barry Knain
MACHINE HEAD frontman Robb Flynn has recorded audio and video of an acoustic cover of BLACK SABBATH‘s “Die Young” song from the classic “Heaven and Hell” album for free download in tribute to the late Debbie Abono, who sadly passed away on the same day as legendary heavy metal singer Ronnie James Dio. In a statement made at the beginning of the video (which was recorded the day after Debbie‘s passing and which can be viewed at this location), Robb says, “I don’t know why I recorded this song, it doesn’t really have relevance to Debbie or Dio, but I was sad and depressed and it was the only thing that made sense in the world.”
There are no plans to officially release Flynn‘s version of “Die Young“, but an MP3 version of the track is available for free download at the MACHINE HEAD web site.
Debbie Abono, a well-respected and much-loved manager and promotional machine behind some of San Francisco Bay Area’s strongest metal bands (POSSESSED, FORBIDDEN, EXODUS, VIO-LENCE, SKINLAB), passed away on May 16 at approximately 9:59 a.m. PST after a battle with cancer. She was 80 years old.
According to David Konow, author of the “Bang Your Head: The Rise And Fall Of Heavy Metal“, Debbie Abono was in her mid-fifties when she began to manage a band named POSSESSED. Abono started taking her daughters to MOTÖRHEAD shows, where the members of POSSESSED first asked her to manage the band. “There’s nothing to it,” they told her. “All you gotta do is get us shows.” Abono agreed and even allowed them to practice at her house.
POSSESSED‘s association with Debbie Abono was not a “first” for both sides: Debra Abono worked with LaLonde and Becerra’s “Blizzard” while they were sophomores in high school even — before they guys learned to drive. Abono would then become the band’s first manager, and POSSESSED were Abono’s first official managed band. Abono had no previous connection to heavy metal music other than as a concert designated driver for her daughters, one of whom was a girlfriend of guitarist Larry LaLonde. Due to generation gap, Abono also had limited awareness of the sometimes blasphemous themes of heavy metal, and was allegedly offended upon reading the lyric sheet of “Seven Churches“. Nevertheless, she agreed to manage and represent POSSESSED as long as bassist/vocalist Jeff Becerra and LaLonde finished high school commitments. Although the group’s relationship amongst themselves and their first manager would reach points of discord and eventual termination, Abono would go on to manage additional bands in the Bay Area metal scene like EXODUS, VIO-LENCE and FORBIDDEN EVIL (pre-FORBIDDEN), as well as death metal bands like Chicago’s BROKEN HOPE and Florida’s CYNIC and OBITUARY.
In a May 17 statement regarding Debbie Abono‘s passing, Flynn said, “Yesterday was a very sad day for metal.
“I am devastated at the passing of Debbie Abono and words aren’t coming very clear for me right now.
“Debbie was like a second mom to me, and having never lost a family member yet, this is very difficult.
“Debbie managed VIO-LENCE [Flynn's pre-MACHINE HEAD band], and toured with us in a van as manager, tour manager, mom, friend, and facilitator. Phil [Demmel; current MACHINE HEAD and former VIO-LENCE guitarist] and I were her roommates at crummy Motel 6′s across America.
“Thinking back on it now, touring with a bunch of snot-nosed thrash metal-ers for two months at a time in a van, playing crummy clubs, isn’t the usual course most 55-year-old ladies take in their lives, but she was no ordinary 55-year-old lady. She was fiery, feisty, charming, funny, and could look a person over in about two seconds and find something to joke about / roast them about should they wanted to test her.
“She was one of the biggest forces behind the thrash and early-death-metal movements than I think most people will ever realize.
“I dated her daughter Gina, and I lived at her house in Pinole on and off in my late teens, and even after Gina and I broke up, she gave me an incredible amount of belief and advice once MACHINE HEAD started.
“My wife Genevra and I used to go out to dinner with her fairly regularly, especially before kids, and she was there the next day after my boys were born. She always came to our parties.
“She was so proud of what we accomplished. Most importantly, she believed in me, even right up until the end.
“The last time we spoke, she told me how much she loved me, and that ‘my money is on Robb Flynn.’
“Fuck. What the fuck. I’m crying.
“Rest in peace, Debbie.”
This interview was conducted on May 29th, 2009 in Raleigh, NC.
When you think of Bay Area Thrash, you think of four bands; Metallica, Exodus, Testament, and Death Angel. Sure there were others of that time, and many that came later. But those four bands defined Thrash Metal and the ‘Bay Area’ sound. Naturally there were none bigger than Metallica, but close on their heels has to be Testament. After 24 years, numerous lineup changes, a throat cancer scare, and a nine year period of inactivity, Testament is back with a new album Formation of Damnation featuring Chuck Billy on vocals, Eric Peterson on guitar, Alex Skolnick on guitar, Greg Christian on bass, and Paul Bostaph on drums. A new tour that is taking the bands to markets they haven’t played in 15 years or more (I caught the show in Raleigh, NC, and there was much debate as to whether Testament had actually ever played Raleigh before). And a new focus and determination to take the band higher and farther than it has ever been before. I met with Alex Skolnick right before their set at the Lincoln Theatre in Raleigh, and talked about Testament, Trans Siberian Orchestra, the Alex Skolnick Trio and life before and after Testament. Here we go….
Away-Team: This is Jim Keller with Alex Skolnick from Testament. Once again I want to thank you for sitting down and doing this interview with us, much appreciated.
Away-Team: What I’d like to do basically is start at the beginning of the band.
Away-Team: Testament was originally started as The Legacy..
Away-Team: By Eric (Peterson) and his cousin. They had Steve Souza in the band as a vocalist who left to join Exodus before you recorded your first album. It was reported that he actually suggested Chuck (Billy) as his replacement. Why did Steve leave?
Alex: Well it was funny ‘cause he was the guy that gave us all serious talking toos about how everybody in this band has to be serious. You know when I joined the band he’s like you’re either serious, you either take this seriously or you take it somewhere else. We don’t want guys that are just in here that are just gonna leave and join some other band. Sure enough *laughs* he’s the guy that ends up leaving. But you know he left because I think he felt Exodus was going farther, faster.
Away-Team: At that time when you joined, you were a student of Joe Satriani’s Correct?
Away-Team: And after you joined the band did you continue practicing with him, learning from him?
Alex: I studied with him for about two years. I was with him, basically for the first six months I was in the band and then he started getting really busy. He did his first solo recordings. He definitely uh got me to learn a lot more on my own than I would have otherwise.
Away-Team: So, is it kind of a prerequisite that if you’re going to be in one of the better thrash bands out of San Francisco a la Testament, Metallica; you had to learn from Joe?
Alex: Apparently!! Everybody studied with him, yeah!
Alex: It was a hotel band…
Away-Team: A hotel band had copyrighted the name The Legacy?
Alex: Yeah. A hotel R&B band in New Orleans.
Away-Team: So the story I had heard was that the reason you changed it to Testament was because the CD artwork – everything was already done and the label didn’t want to re-do everything, so you had named the album originally Testament…
Alex: That’s not true
Away-Team: That’s not true, okay, so how did you come up with Testament, then?
Alex: Billy Milano, the singer for SOD came up with the name. Ya know he was on Megaforce Records. So basically an all points bulletin went out, to find a name for the band that Megaforce had just signed. So yeah, I think the guys from Anthrax were suggesting names. Everybody at the record label suggested. We were trying to come up with names and it was Billy Milano that came up with the name Testament.
Away-Team: Did he know you guys or was it just kind of, this is a cool name they should use something like this?
Alex: We had met him, once. But I think he had come up… I feel like I had met him, like maybe when we were recording the first album, and we just, we knew we had to have a name, before the album was released, obviously and it was just one of many suggestions and it was the one, we kind of lived with it for a while and it felt the best.
Away-Team: Your current album, Formation of Damnation, to me is far and away the strongest album you guys have recorded since Practice What You Preach. It’s probably a more straightforward thrash sounding album than some of the last few albums. Was this a culmination of various writing from the last nine years or did you all sit down and write the album together as a whole band?
Alex: No, it was a combination. I think the previous album the guys did when I wasn’t with the band, The Gathering, that was the first one I felt, a lot of people felt, where Chuck and Eric sort of found a formula that works for them. So I didn’t want to really, get in the way of that formula and try to make it 1989 again. But I made a lot of suggestions with the music they were doing and I did bring in some music of my own. Some of that got used; the song F.E.A.R. is something I wrote. But it was more a combination of ideas that Chuck and Eric had had, playing around with some new stuff.
Away-Team: And Eric being the predominant songwriter, music writer for the band, now with this you’re current lineup which is the semi-reunited lineup or the original lineup with addition of Paul Bostaph is it a more of a collaborative thing now or at least going forward to looking at the next album is going to be more collaborative?
Alex: We’ll see, just kind of going to let it happen as it happens.
Away-Team: And will there be a new album?
Alex: There will eventually be, yes.
Away-Team: We mentioned the many lineup changes you guys have done over the years. You being one of them. You guys all got together in 2001 as The Legacy for the Chuck Billy cancer benefit. That show saw the best of the Bay Area thrash scene reuniting for a great cause. Bands like Exodus, Death Angel, Sadus, Vio-lence and of course you. In the last eight years or so, Exodus, Death Angel, you guys now with the Formation of Damnation, have released what many consider to be the best music of your individual and collective careers. Some amazing stuff has come out of the original Bay Area thrash scene in the last couple years. It seems that it’s alive and well again. What do you attribute the current popularity or resurrection of the Bay Area trash scene to?
Alex: Well I think part of it is it’s not as isolated as it used to be. It used to be this very isolated area of music. Pretty much limited to the Bay Area with the exception of ya know Megadeth from LA and Anthrax form New York. I think it’s now like one of many genres of very heavy metal. Ya know you have black metal, you have death metal from Florida and it all relates to thrash metal. There are all these relatives in metal. And now you’ve got some newer bands that have formed in the last ten, fifteen years that in some cases are seeing a lot of success and that’s brought a lot more awareness to the original Bay Area thrash scene. So when we first did the reunion shows it was unclear what kind of type of fan we would have. Was it just going to be Old School fans? But there are actually a lot of young fans that are keeping it alive and well.
Away-Team: Well, if you go in the venue right now; I was very surprised. ‘Cause that was one of the things I looked at as they were lining up out here. Is that they are all going to be my age or our age like a bunch of older guys standing out here but the entire crowd in there tonight has gotta be 25 or younger!
Alex: And if we depended on guys our age, the audience wouldn’t be that big. Let’s face it.
Away-Team: Yeah. Absolutely.
Alex: People get to be our age and they have jobs, families; most don’t go out to shows like they did when they were in their twenties. So it’s nice to have a combination. It’s not that we have, we haven’t lost the original fans. But we do have this big young following now. I think a lot of other bands are seeing that as well, like Exodus.
Away-Team: You had mentioned what I call, like the second wave of thrash.. 10 to 15 year old bands. Today you’ve got bands like the band on stage right now, Lazarus AD. Very, very similar to the old Bay Area thrash style. Warbringer, Municipal Waste a lot of very young bands, that seeing a lot of good response, that can be harkened right back to you guys. It’s like the third generation now. Twenty years later there’s still bands coming out and they’re not Retro, they’re not recreating the sound, but they are continuing it if nothing else and that’s got to really, for you guys to be their inspiration, it’s really got to be something.
Alex: It’s great. It’s also great because for so long we were told our music’s not going to last. It’s passing. It’s in left field. It was this outcast music that nobody predicted a future for. So there’s the answer right there. Great, new young bands that are doing it today.
Away-Team: And twenty four years later, you guys are still out here kicking ass, so it’s very cool. Going back to the formation of not damnation, but of Testament. Can you name one of your favorite memories of the mid to late eighties in the Bay Area Thrash music scene? Some of the shows from The Stone or Ruthie’s Inn or Mabuhay Gardens?
Alex: Yeah, I will say I remember one time Metallica playing at Ruthie’s unannounced, just to do a warm-up. That was great. They did a lot of, they did some punk covers. It was just a fun gig. Uh, there was also this project called Spastik Children, with Cliff Burton, James Hetfield on drums and it was like comedy like sort of South Park before South Park. Completely politically incorrect, funny, bad, badly played on purpose music.
Away-Team: God, I forgot all about Spastik Children…
Alex: Yeah, some of those shows are pretty memorable.
Away-Team: With Metallica coming from L.A., basically because the L.A. scene just couldn’t handle them. The crowds didn’t get what they were trying to do, with you guys, Vio-lence, Exodus, Death Angel, were you kind of a close knit community? Was it kind of you against everybody else? Was there a lot of camaraderie there, or..?
Alex: I’d say there was camaraderie and competition simultaneously. Everybody wanted to be the best band they could and even though a lot of us we didn’t really sound alike. You always had to keep an eye out for the other bands. It’s like different football teams that are all in the same league. You want, as a whole you want to do well, but you still want to come out on top, above everybody else.
Away-Team: I understand. Your current tour, in support of the Formation of Damnation, is unique in that you guys are allowing the fans to vote, via your MySpace page, for the set list they want to hear in their given town. You have three options, The Legacy, plus hits, The New Order plus hits, or a chronicle set list, basically from start to finish of your catalogue. How did you guys come about the idea? How has it been received? And any regrets on having to keep rotating a roughly thirty song playlist on tour?
Alex: It’s worked out very easily, because overwhelmingly everybody’s voted for the Chronicle stuff, so that’s pretty much what we’ve done. And I’m not sure who came up with the idea, but it’s definitely been a very good idea and it’s just been fun to hear from the fans. And in the process they’ve not only voted on the songs, a lot of them have made suggestions a long the way. “We want to hear a chronicle, but we really want to hear this song. Why don’t you play this song?”
Away-Team: And you guys are actually listening and paying attention to what they’re…
Alex: Oh absolutely.
Away-Team: Beside the main lineup changes, you guys have several label changes over the years; mainly due to simple bad luck and the labels folding on you. Did I read though that somehow you guys ended up on a gospel label prior to signing with Nuclear Blast?
Alex: Well I think what happened was we were signed to Spitfire which got bought by another label, which was a gospel label.
Away-Team: OK. And they had no interest in releasing the new Testament CD? Laughs
Alex: Oh, Exactly. I’m sure at first they thought, oh this is perfect.
Away-Team: A “New Testament” band awesome!
Alex: And then they found out what it was and then they let the band go, no problem.
Away-Team: So did Spitfire have some religious bands on their roster?
Alex: I don’t think so. I’m not sure.
Away-Team: Laughs. Alright, you are currently on Nuclear Blast and they are treating you well…
Alex: Treating us great. It’s a great partnership absolutely.
Away-Team: Good, good. When the current tour with Unearth and Lazarus AD, at least the North American leg of it is over, what are you guys’ plans? Where are you going next?
Alex: We’re off for a couple weeks, then we’re going to be in Europe for July and part of August to do a lot of festivals.
Away-Team: Do you have any plans for a follow up album and will we have to wait another nine years for it?
Alex: No, it’ll be recorded next year, most likely released, late, by late next year
Away-Team: Great! With all the side projects, from your various members, Dragonlord, you in Trans Siberian Orchestra, Chuck’s Dublin Death Patrol and your jazz trio, how do you guys find time to get together, to record and tour? And how does that affect, I mean is Testament now the priority or is it ‘we can fit in Testament around these various projects’? TSO’s a big deal, it’s a big show and you have to…
Alex: Yeah, it’s a unique situation, because I was already, I’d already been playing with TSO for several years by the time the Testament reunion happened. So it’s been pretty understood that during the months of the Winter TSO tour I’m not available. I do my best, as far as my trio and I have couple other projects I’m involved with as well, some as a producer which I can’t talk about yet. They’re…They’re gonna be
Away-Team: Then I won’t ask that question…
Alex: Pretty exciting times and projects… We’re doing an album cycle right now. So, since last year we’ve been doing an album cycle, so this, Testament has been the priority. Soon as we’re done with this album cycle I think there’s going to be a slight shift in priorities. The way this record got created was a lot of the basics were worked on while I was with TSO, I would write ideas, which I think is going to happen this next tour as well, and then I think next year, Before the album cycle, before the Testament album cycle starts, that’s going to be a good chance for me to do a lot more stuff with the Alex Skolnick Trio. But then, of course, once the Testament album cycle starts then that’s going to be the priority. It really depends on where we are in terms of the album cycle..
Away-Team: So everybody’s working together though, with all their side projects, everything kind of fits in OK and there’s no real conflict going on with it?
Alex: Yeah, I mean it’s a different thing with me, because with TSO it’s a very set tour. With Dragonlord, Eric decides, when that tours. With my Trio there are people that decide it with me, so we work to make sure that we capitalize on any available time I have to tour with them.
Away-Team: I have heard that some of your solos for Formation of Damnation were recorded while on tour with TSO and done in someone’s bathroom in New York. Is that correct?
Alex: That’s not true. I mean the part about the bathroom is not true. What basically happened was some of the solos were recorded in Albany, when TSO had some days off in 2007. The first studio that we found was a guy’s basement…
Away-Team: It was his basement, OK
Alex: Yeah. And it just, it was an awful situation. We had like 48 hours, we had two days and the goal was to do all of the solos and basically a whole day was wasted. We were getting all of this radio signal out of the amps and the guy had no idea what to do about it. So then we found a really good studio the one that we should’ve been at all along and I did half of the songs, and I did the other half as soon I was done with the TSO tour.
Away-Team: Now did you already have the solos worked out or a rough idea what you were going to do with them…
Alex: I had a couple rough ideas, but some of them I came up with on the spot….
Away-Team: ‘Cause they’re some outstanding solos.
Alex: Thank you!
Away-Team: Across the board the musicianship and the work on Formation of Damnation is actually very stellar…
Alex: I appreciate that.
Away-Team: Paul Bostaph is currently drumming for you. This his second stint in the band now. He’s played with some other great bands besides Testament. He started out with Forbidden… Slayer, Exodus and another not as well known Bay Area band, but that I’m very familiar with, Systematic. He’s kind of become known as the ‘go to’ metal drummer, almost like a journeyman. Is he now a permanent member of Testament?
Alex: It certainly feels that way. That remains to be seen. Yeah, it definitely feels that way. I know on our end there’s no thought of working with anybody else…
Away-Team: OK, so Louie’s not going to come knocking on the bus one day? Where is Louie?
Alex: Louie comes… Louie makes appearances. He’s always… He always visits us when we play. He was just on tour with us for three days…
Away-Team: Oh, really?
Alex: He doesn’t really play any more. He just likes to hang out. We like having him around. It works out well. We get him away from his job. He’s like a, a relative…
Away-Team: Is there anything you haven’t done yet, goal-wise or music-wise that you still want to? And what is it?
Alex: Yeah there’s a lot of things. Definitely, I’m close, I mean I feel like with my instrumental albums I’m able to do the music that’s in my head. Which is great! For me it’s just getting my instrumental stuff to a wider audience. And I’d like to see Testament reach a wider audience as well. The truth is, what I would really like to see is the trio playing venues like Testament’s playing; those size crowds. I’d like to see Testament playing to crowds more like TSO’s.
Alex: I get this experience of every year playing in front of a packed arena. Sometimes twice a day! And this band has never experienced that. That kind of production, that kind of audience. We’ve had some great support slots in arenas. But I think this could be a great arena band.
Away-Team: You guys have never actually headlined arenas?
Away-Team: Really. Wow, I did not realize that.
Away-Team: There’s many bands out there today that are citing Testament as an influence, as a musician it’s got to be an ultimate compliment. How do you react to something like that? I mean, how does that make you feel?
Alex: Great! It feels great. It’s a great compliment. It’s not something you think about while you’re doing it, while you’re in the studio or playing live; about having an influence on somebody else, you just do what you do. But when you hear that, it’s amazing, ‘cause having had many influences myself, just to think that I was able to be what I saw in my favorite guitars players, other people are seeing in me, which is really, really cool.
Away-Team: Who are some of your influences?
Alex: Well, it started out with Randy Rhodes and Eddie Van Halen, Michael Shanker. I studied their influences, Jeff Beck, Clapton, Hendrix and then the classic Blues players. And then once I got into Jazz, Wes Montgomery, Pat Metheny…
Away-Team: What made you pick up a guitar to begin with?
Alex: Yep. I discovered KISS and wanted to play KISS songs.
Away-Team: And it was the guitar always?
Alex: It was piano, very briefly in third grade. And then I had a bad music teacher and I, I quit piano. Now I bought a piano. I still like to play, but I have no plans to play professionally.
Away-Team: We’re not going to see you in a hotel lounge somewhere tickling the ivories…
Alex: Not anytime soon!
Away-Team: Well Alex, that pretty much wraps up my questions. I do appreciate your time… I wish you much luck with the rest of the tour…
Alex: Thank you!
Away-Team: The festivals this summer, of course TSO in the winter and then at some point next year we’ll hear a little bit from the trio again.
Alex: Yeah, yeah, going to try to squeeze out a new trio album. Or at least an EP this year.
Away-Team: Great! Alright, well I appreciate it Alex, thank you very much again for your time!
Alex: No problem Jim, good to see you again.
There you have it. We got some shout outs to Cliff Burton, James Hetfield and Spastik Children, Billy Milano of MOD and SOD, and KISS! My thanks to Brian at Adrenaline PR for setting up the interview, Mark for ensuring it actually happened, Alex for jumping in last minute and rescuing the interview, and Bam Bam as always for getting me in the interviews to begin with!
If you haven’t heard Formation Of Damnation go pick it up NOW!!!! And check out Testament on the road. The show that night was nothing short of amazing. The guys played with a furiousness that belied their age, and a sense of fun and having a good time. The music and vocals were spot on, and I did not hear one person walk away from that show with a bad word.