Interview by Alex Stojanovic
When you think of the real busy musicians that play in multiple bands, make appearances at camps or on stage with other artists, one of the first people that come to mind is the one and only Alex Skolnick of Testament.
The man is not only one of the most talented, versatile and influential guitarists in the world, but he is also one of the busiest. If you look at his schedule, he's constantly on the road with Testament and his jazz trio, and is also a part of several other recording and live projects like Metal Allegiance, Planetary Coalition, and he often makes appearances both at shows and on records of other artists.
Metal Master Kingdom: Hi, is this Alex Skolnick?
AS: This is Alex Skolnick
MMK: Hey, my name is also Alex, I'm calling from Toronto at Metal Master Kingdom. How are you?
MMK: Great to talk to you Alex. Thank you so much for taking some time to chat with me for a bit!
AS: No problem! My pleasure.
MMK: First off, I have to congratulate you on the new Metal Allegiance album Volume II: Power Drunk Majesty. It's an amazing record, I've been listening to it for the last couple of weeks, and I can't get enough of it. The title Power Drunk Majesty, where did the title come from?
AS: It has to do with our modern political debacle that's going on in the United States. I'm not going to name any names. It's not hard to use imagination, but I will say it's not just about one person. It could be applied to multiple public figures, not just that, but also the whole loss of truth. As great as the internet is, it sort of gives everybody a voice, it unfortunately gives a voice to some who shouldn't have a voice. Some people get drunk with power and delusional at all levels, whether they're in positions of actual power politically, or just rabble-rousing on the internet, which collectively can have a detrimental effect on society.
MMK: It is a very political-sounding title. That was my first thought when I first saw the title, that there would be some more political-themed songs, like "Liars & Thieves" for example.
MMK: You guys have an album release show coming up in New York City. Shows for Metal Allegiance all come down to everyone's schedules, because everyone has their own bands, but I have to ask you because there's a lot of people that want to know what the chances are of seeing Metal Allegiance in Toronto, or anywhere in Canada?
AS: We'd love to come to Toronto. Like you said, with everybody's schedules, it's very difficult. Some of us have bands that are very busy. We actually had some shows that had to be put off indefinitely when Slayer did their farewell tour and invited Testament, so that's what we've been doing the whole summer. Earlier in the year, we had some shows booked, and Megadeth booked a bunch of shows. That took out David Ellefson. In terms of the bass, we have Mark Menghi, who can cover the bass parts, but it's much harder to not do the show without me because I'm sort of the musical director. It's really occasional shows that are done around events, such as one of these music cruises, or the album release. That's an exception. That's where we go over everyone's calendar, and find a way to do it. Even the NAMM show music conference, and a couple of festivals. We did one in Tokyo called the Loud Park festival, because Testament was there, and Anthrax and Slayer. That was easy because Charlie Benante who is in the extended network was able to cover the drums, and Gary Holt on second guitar. It's occasional, that's how we look it. However if something happens in Toronto where you are, and there's a big festival or conference, then absolutely. It all depends on the offer and everyone's schedules. Another thing is because everybody is so busy with other projects, when we do a show, it has to be a really good offer because it has to cover a lot of people who are flying in from different places and holding their schedules. It limits the amount of activity we can have. It's not like a new band where you can just put everybody in a van and tour clubs, but anything's possible. For now, we got the album release show, I'm sure we'll play at the next NAMM show. We're looking at a couple other possible events, based on our calendars.
MMK: That's awesome to hear! My buddy, who is also one of our writers (Alex Mrkonjic) had a question for you, which I will ask on his behalf. You're no stranger to saying how you really feel about stuff, you speak your mind. He wanted to know how you feel about this new trend of kids wearing metal shirts without even knowing anything about the band that they're wearing.
AS: (Laughs) That's funny. I actually got into a little trouble about that.
MMK: With the Kanye West thing?
AS: Yeah, because Kanye West was seen at a Testament show, and I thought it was great because he must be into the music, but I mentioned that seeing some of the people around him that wear shirts like that, like Khloe Kardashian and Kendall Jenner, and people like that, is weird. I've seen people on the street, young people that, like you said, seem like very trendy consumers. They don't seem like they would know anything about these bands. Maybe I'm pre-judging them, but I've also seen stores that are catering to the type of people that couldn't give two hoots about metal, but it's for fashion. It's weird, yeah, and I do have some problems with it. It's like if celebrities like the Kardashians or whoever, if they want to truly embrace the music, then great. Like, 'Hey, why don't you guys sponsor a tour? You're making billions from your reality show about nothing.'
MMK: I'm just picturing this: "Testament's new tour sponsored by the Kardashians", and we're all like "WHAT?" (laughs)
AS: We're doing alright. Testament's doing alright, but we have friends in bands that go to Europe and travel with two bands per bus, no hotel rooms, fourteen shows in a row because they need that just to get by. If these people want to support the music, support the artist, then I'd give them a pass if they could name a song off Kill 'Em All or Among The Living or whatever, but it's clearly only for trend purposes and trying to be cool, and that's not cool.
MMK: Yeah, I totally agree with that. I want to switch it up a bit and ask you about Planetary Coalition. The album you put out a few years ago is just incredible. I love world music.
AS: Thank you so much!
MMK: Your very welcome. I know it's another huge project with almost 30 musicians from several countries. Projects like that take a lot of time to make with scheduling, and it may be a while, but are there chances for a second album to come in the future?
AS: That's a good question. Planetary Coalition was definitely a labour of love. It's something I wanted to do for years, and there was enough of a break in Testament's schedule, and my trio's schedule because we were coming off an album cycle as well. There seemed time to do it, and I didn't know that it was going to be quite as attentive and involve as many musicians, but it just grew. I was fortunate to work with so many wonderful musicians who referred me to other musicians. For example, I worked with the artist from India on the song called "Passage To Pranayama", and we would get to talking, and a couple of those musicians knew this great African musician Yacouba Sissoko, who was in New York, so I got to know him and loved working with him. Next thing you know, I have a song with musicians from India, musicians from Africa, then I thought 'How do I not have China?' I have to have China. I always loved the pipa. I've seen musicians in Chinatown playing that. It's really shredding, and I always thought that if people who aren't familiar with that could hear it, I think they would like it.
The Chinese musician came to me through another member who played on the Indian track, who connected me to somebody at this Chinese cultural institute, and they gave me a couple of numbers of different people. The Chinese musician Yihan Chen, who ended up playing on the track was based in Connecticut, which isn't far from New York. For that track, I knew I wanted to be in the room with someone. That's not a track that I could do where I send the file because it's so interactive. Luckily, he was in Connecticut and it worked out. As a result, the project kept expanding, and I didn't know it would end up being such a huge cast of characters. The most ironic thing about it is that I told myself at the time that the next album I do that's an instrumental album outside of Testament and my trio, I'll do as a duo and keep it totally simple. Then the next thing that came along was Metal Allegiance, which ended up being almost as many people, and even more complicated because everybody was even more spread out. Luckily there were other people running the show, and I had partners, as far as the organization and the production, where the other was completely on me. I would like to do another one, but I'm only going to do one when there's time. It's definitely something that's not going to happen right away, because things are just too busy, especially because Testament's going to be doing another record, and so much touring is happening, but when the time is right.
MMK: Absolutely! No need to rush things.
AS: Yeah, I agree.
MMK: Let's talk about the trio a bit. The new album Conundrum is coming out, which I can't wait for. This is your first album of all fresh new material since Veritas. I love the jazz stuff just as much as the metal stuff. When did the writing for the album begin?
AS: Writing for the trio album started around 2015, I think. We also did our first trip to Europe in 2016, in terms of headlining. We've done support tours with Rodrigo Y Gabriela, and we did a couple of one-offs in London and a couple other places in the U.K., but in 2016, we got a pretty good tour. It's taken a while for the trio to find a home in certain venues, because for the longest time, people would look at me and see me as the guy from Testament, and they'd say 'We have to put him in a metal room with a local shred guitarist supporting.' That's not right, and that doesn't work for the trio. And some of these jazz-oriented rooms were afraid for the same reason.
MMK: Really? Wow!
AS: Yeah, and then suddenly, in 2016, Stu Hamm, who is a great musician and great friend of mine and someone who I play with often, he plays a lot of those rooms and he plays to an audience that includes jazz fans, but also instrumental rock fans, prog fans, and so on. He had a scheduling conflict, he wasn't able to do half a month worth of shows in Europe, so the agency got a hold of me and asked if the trio would like to do it, so we did. Every show was great, every promoter invited us back, places that we hadn't played started reaching out, and when we went back to Europe a year later, we did a month-long tour, and we're looking at doing that again next year. I knew we were going to do a new trio record eventually, but suddenly we had to kick start the process. That first tour of Europe was coming up so quick, that even though we had some music written, there was no way we could do a whole record and have it up to standard by then, but we needed something prior, so we did a live record.
MMK: Live Unbound, right?
AS: Right. So we did Live Unbound, and we had a couple of songs: "Culture Shock" and "Unbound", which are new, and we decided to preview those songs on the live record and do the live version, so those ended up on the next record when we made it in the studio. By 2017, all the music was written, and it was just a matter of finding time to record it. We recorded it in late 2017. Mixing and mastering was finished early this year. Since we're putting it out on vinyl, you have to turn in music way in advance, like six months, because it takes a long time to do vinyl. It was all done in the spring, and we were already planning on September to release it, but the Metal Allegiance record was supposed to come out in the summer, but then Slayer invited Testament to do the farewell tour with Lamb Of God and Anthrax, and that threw a monkey wrench, but we're almost done with this tour, and the Metal Allegiance release show is coming up. It sort of became an accident that the trio album was coming out at the same time as Metal Allegiance, but you know what, it's fine, it's exciting in a way. They're both coming out at the same time, it's two very different sides of my playing, and I've been able to talk about both, so it's fun.
MMK: That's awesome! Going to Testament, this year is the 30th anniversary of The New Order. It's one of my favourite albums of all time. It's still held in high regard as not only one of the best thrash albums of all time, but one of the best metal albums. What are some of your favourite memories of recording that album.
AS: That was our second record. I was 19 years old then. For me, I remember the photo shoots. It's one of my favourite of the band photos where we're outside of a hut, but we were freezing that day, because we were in Ithaca, New York in the winter, and it was just freezing. I live in New York now, but I'm from the Bay Area, and the whole band is from there, but we were not used to those winters. That was one where we couldn't bundle up in parkas and scarves, we dressed like we normally dressed, but we were just freezing. However, we got a great photo shoot out of it.
I do really remember being inspired musically. I don't think I did my solos yet, but we did the rhythm guitars, and the bass was being tracked, so I had some time to hang at the hotel, and I caught a couple of concerts that completely changed my life. One was by Miles Davis and his electric music. That really planted the seed that resulted in the instrumental music much later on.
MMK: Right. I was actually just watching the video you did with Dave Davidson of Revocation where you guys were talking about your love of jazz, and you said that the Miles Davis show was your first dip of the toes in the water into other musical avenues.
AS: That's right, I've talked about that often. Honestly, I had no idea that was jazz, and from my vantage point, metal was about screaming guitars, drums and high energy, and jazz was sort of this mellow hip thing where you wear a beanie, you have a goatee, and you're just this mellow hip dude that smokes a pipe or whatever, but that concert was high energy, pounding drums, but delicate, going from loud to soft, super funky bass, and great screaming guitar. I didn't think of it as jazz, because this was a whole new type of music. Of course, I quickly learned that to be able to grasp that at all, you need to learn how to play proper jazz guitar. Pick up a guitar with F-holes and sound decent on it. It's very different. It took me many years just to have anything worthy of playing like that on the instrument.
MMK: Right. All amazing stuff, and The New Order gave birth to some of the band's signature songs like "Into The Pit, "Trial By Fire", "The New Order", "Disciples Of The Watch", list goes on.
AS: Yeah, and that album actually ended up being the album we pick from the most. Even right now, this is a short set we're doing on the Slayer tour, but it ended up being three songs from that record: "The Preacher", "Into The Pit" and "The New Order".
MMK: Right, right. Just one last question, then I'll let you go. Testament's currently finishing up the Slayer tour. Some of us at the website were at the Toronto show back in May, and it was an amazing show. I know Chuck has said that the writing for the next Testament album has begun. He said that you and Eric have riffs cooking now, right?
AS: Yup, we're definitely in the raw cooking phase (both laugh). We're chopping right now. We haven't combined the ingredients yet, we're not even in the kitchen together yet, but we're all working in our own little corners. We're definitely planning for something to come out next year.
MMK: Awesome stuff! Alex, thank you so much for taking the time chat with me for a bit. I wish you all the best with the new Metal Allegiance album, the new trio album, and everything going forward, and we all look forward to new Testament next year!
AS: Much appreciated! Thank you!
MMK: Alright! Looking forward to seeing you guys again up here whenever you guys come back!
AS: You got it. Sounds good. See you soon.
MMK: Take care Alex!
AS: See you!
Testament have just finished up the second leg of the Slayer tour, and will be taking the rest of the year off, except for a couple of shows in Mexico and California later this year, to take time to focus on writing the next album, which they hope to release in mid-2019. Keep your eyes and ears out for that.