How a drink before the show works miracles and other topics
Testament surely has had its up and downs in their thirty plus year career but the last couple of years the only way is up. They have their eleventh studio album in the pocket called ‘Brotherhood Of The Snake’ and HeadBangers LifeStyle spoke with guitarist Eric Peterson, a man who doesn’t mince words. Together with singer Chuck Billy, he is one of the only two founding members of this successful American thrash band.
Eric Peterson (Testament) Photo by Eus Straver/Metal-Experience
Eric, ‘Brotherhood Of The Snake’ is your eleventh studio album, it is four years since ‘Dark Roots Of Thrash’ and you have been constantly touring. Did you ever have any doubts that the album would see the light of day?
,,Definitely, four years seem like forever. When you get older it seems like time flies by. Testament tours a lot so it isn’t that much time at all. In the past we made an album every year, year and a half but back then we were discovering our style and touring was clearer. You released an album, you toured for two months. Nowadays it is two months Europe, States three months, the world is bigger. That doesn’t leave that much time unless we write on the road. A lot of ideas are saved over the years. Late 2015 I had more than half the record written so I decided to finish it up but a couple of tours were already planned so scheduling was crazy. From April until June we had some time, the album was half way ready so we took that opportunity to schedule a recording session. The odds were a bit against us because we were not done vocally but we took the chance and we made it happen. From my end, I did my best and was able to come up with a record worth of material. I got Chuck involved and we were able to deliver 10 new songs.’’
Does writing new material become easier the more experienced you are?
,,I can’t say it does. Technology is a lot different though. This was the first time I wrote a lot of demo’s at home. I have a mini drumset linked with Toontrack and all my guitars go through Logic. That was different but the hard part thirty years later is that this is our 11th record playing a certain style of music. It is like writing the same story over and over. You have to come up with something cleverer, something you haven’t done before and that is a challenge.’’
Being the only constant member of Testament, also counting the days you were called Legacy from 1983 until 1987, do you feel responsible to keep it going?
,,I started the band back in 83/84 and Chuck, I and Alex, Alex is an original member who left for 10 years and came back, so yeah, I guess I’m the first and the last at this point. I’ve always been involved in writing the music. Some records I wrote all the music like ‘The Gathering’, ‘Demonic’ and ‘Low’. And there is some collaboration in the earlier days when Alex first started out. This time a lot of stuff was going on with everybody individually so I don’t feel like I have to but it’s the way it’s been set up.’’
For this album one of the best rhythm sections got reunited, Steve DiGiorgio and Gene Hoglan. How did this influence the songwriting?
,,Well, I don’t know if it influenced the songwriting. They are a great rhythm section. Steve is awesome on bass; Gene is awesome on drums and with Chuck, Alex and myself who played on this record, it just made for a better record I think. Those guys really deliver their parts. We are totally happy with everybody’s tracks. There’s nothing that leaves room for disappointment, we are impressed with each other. ‘’
‘Brotherhood Of The Snake’ is more brutal, faster and melodic again. Is it a mix of what you’ve done so far?
,,Yeah, I think that’s what any band that is hungry wants to achieve, keep upping themselves. It’s a challenge to keep your sound after this long. At this point it can go either way, man, we’ve done that, I am a musician, I wanna try other things, to me that’s where you do a side project. When you’re in a band that’s established and people like what you’re doing you kinda got to stick to a formula but that makes it harder because you already done a lot according to that formula. That’s where the heart comes in, the feeling, the will to be a fan of the music.’’
What are the ingredients for a good Testament song?
,,Wow, I would have to say some good harmonies on guitar, a solo that is like a story, clever riffs that you can maybe hum but having said that some of our best songs you can’t even whistle, it’s a whole listening experience. Vocally you need a good topic, a good story, good lines that are interesting.’’
You are the principal riff writer in the band. Are you never afraid you run out of ideas?
,,Oh yeah, there’s definitely times that I can’t think of anything, but the best way for me is that I start recording myself when I pick up a guitar. I notice that when I warm up I come up with a lot of ideas and then when I press record I don’t have any ideas. So what I do is right when I pick up the guitar is press record and the first 15 minutes I just play a bunch of garbage but after I forget I’m recording and I start playing guitar and suddenly after an hour I stop, lean back and listen to it. I don’t even know what I did so it takes some listening and it builds from there. Sometimes I write a song in an hour, sometimes it takes forever.’’
How do you and Alex divide the solo’s and the guitar parts?
,,On this album, I kept in mind that Alex told me he didn’t want to play over the chorus riff or the verse riff, he wants it to have its own part. Some parts that works, some parts it doesn’t, for example Alex plays a lead section over ,,Canna-business’’ which is the chorus which is also the intro so that works because it’s a moving chord. On ,,The Pale King’’ he couldn’t play leads over the verse riffs so I created a whole different section at the end of the song where it goes into its own world. That’s where I’m influenced by bands like Rush and Mercyful Fate to where it doesn’t mirror anything that happened previously; it kinda goes into its own world. There’s both elements on this record. There’s elements where it’s got pop culture style music like: intro, verse, chorus, bridge, verse, solo, chorus, then there is songs like ,,Born In A Rut’’ that is kinda written like a traditional song and then you got songs like ,,Stronghold’’ that has its own part for the solo. The lead section that Alex plays in ,,Neptune’s Spear’’ is influenced by Bach. Alex likes chords moving around and that’s melody. It just depends on what’s called for in the song. It’s kinda like an Ouija board, I let the music do the talking. Some stuff is planned out, others happen by accident.’’
What would you’ve become if not a musician?
,,I don’t know really, maybe a carpenter, my father was a carpenter. I like to use my hands…sports maybe. As a kid I was into soccer. Music has always been a big part of my life. My parents were very young when they had me so I grew up with Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, Carole King, Commander Cody, Rolling Stones. My dad listened to a lot of different kinds of music. There was always a lot of balladry kind of music like Carole King, Linda Ronstadt, Ella Fitzgerald, John Coltrane in the background of my youth. What I liked best was the scarier stuff, the Led Zeppelin stuff like ,,Whole Lotta Love’’.
What do you consider Testament’s biggest achievement so far?
,,Our longevity. It’s been a long road and for a band like us, we’re not a small band but we’re also not a big band, we’re kind in purgatory so we’re fighting our way through it. We are definitely a fighting band.’’
In 1987 Testament released its debut album ‘The Legacy’. If somebody would have told you then you would still be around more than thirty years later. What would have been your reaction?
,,I would have been scared like shit, I would be blown away but overall pretty excited. And knowing what I know now I would do it again.’’
What makes Testament so special? Reason for asking is that Steve DiGiorgio left and came back, Gene Hoglan left, came back, Alex Skolnick left, came back. You and Chuck are the only ones that never left. What makes Testament a band that ex-members want to be a part of?
,,That is a good question. I don’t know, the smell of our underwear? Maybe we’re not as bad as they thought we were, I don’t know really. Maybe they thought the grass was greener and maybe it wasn’t greener. I’m being sarcastic, all truth been told it’s probably business. When we started we were all kinda on the same page but when people started leaving…I think money has a lot to do with things. I think right now our situation is that we try to be as fair as we can on the business end of it to keep Testament going and to keep the members happy. It’s a hard balance because you can’t split all the money up because we’re running a business. A lot of people in the past have accused us of taking all the money, but those people don’t do anything of the business end, they don’t understand that we’re flying people here and there, we have a studio. You just can’t go: we’re going on tour, what does that mean. You have to hire a bus, you need tickets and you need a crew. The record company doesn’t do that for you. They did that and you ended up being in a van and you’d be on a 5 connection airplane ride to Europe and it’s a bloody mess. I’ve seen bands who have been around as long as us and I am kinda flabbergasted on how they do that. We try to make it more comfortable and I don’t wanna say we’re a socialist band but we try to make everything a bit more even.’’
If kids come up to you and say they want to become a musician as well. What advice would you give them?
,,Go to school, go to college, forget about it, haha. It’s not as glamorous as it seems. If you like waiting around all day, if you like flying coach for 12 hours at a time, playing live in front of a crowd kinda makes up for everything but it’s definitely harder than I envisioned it, especially when time goes by so quickly. Before you know it you’re living the dream of a young Eric. The older Eric goes like…I should have done this or that, but overall you get what you deserve.’’
What music are you listening to in your spare time?
,,Anything BUT metal, a lot of different stuff because that’s good to get a break. Lot of ideas come from other styles of music. I take the melodies and try them with guitar distortion. I take vocal patterns and work with that. It is interesting that something you’ll never guess would be a metal song. That’s my little secret.’’
What is the last thing you do before you go on stage? Do you have some sort of ritual?
,,Yeah, I need to have a couple of shots of grape juice vodka. I definitely drink before I go on. In the past I started drinking maybe a little too early but Steve, Alex and I, we all like to have a couple of drinks before we go on. It kinda loosens you up and it just relaxes the whole situation. I don’t drink to get drunk, I drink to relax and get into the vibe. If you have a couple of shots like a half hour before you go on it just loosens you up. I’ve tried to go on stage without and I am a mess, my hands get shaky. After all this time I still get scared before I go on stage, I don’t know what it is. I think that is a good thing because it means I care. I worry a lot about everything, I have too many feelings, I can smell things other people don’t smell, I can hear things people don’t hear and I need to calm my senses down.’’
Last question: the third Dragonlord album. When will it be ready?
,,What a nightmare that one is. I will tell you the honest truth, I’m 98% done, I have 2 songs to sing and then I’m turning this beast in. It’s been a ride, I am working on these last songs and I am pretty blown away. I have Leah [McHenry], a Celtic singer and friend who does all the choirs you usually do on keyboards, all alone, it gives me chills when I hear it, it’s kinda spooky. Trust me, it’s gonna be a killer record.’’
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Check out an earlier interview HeadBangers LifeStyle did with Chuck Billy here: