Testament have overcome all sorts of adversity to become one of the most respected and heralded metal bands today. After dealing with cancer, record label woes and membership issues, the band has returned with their best album in years, The Formation of Damnation. After over a decade of exiting the Bay Area band, original lead guitarist, Alex Skolnick rejoined the fold and added his trademark solos to the album. PureGrainAudio’s Carlos Ramirez recently spoke with the guitarist while he was at home in Brooklyn, NY on a break from promotional activities.
The general feel I’ve gotten from people throughout the years is that you left Testament and then Savatage because you grew apathetic towards metal styled music in general. Is there any truth to that sentiment?
Alex: There is a definite truth to that statement but there were other things going on at the time that really contributed. There were elements in Testament I wasn’t happy with. But yeah, it was mostly that I felt confined artistically. I also felt unwelcome in the band towards the end. I didn’t feel like my ideas were not wanted anymore. When I told them I was thinking about quitting, I didn’t get a sense that they were too resistant.
Did you follow the stuff the band did after you left and was it difficult to be objective towards it?
Alex: Yes I did but I really think they found their voice on The Gathering. From all of the material they recorded after I left the band, that one I enjoy the most. That is a great album all-around.
It has been over 20 years since your first album, The Legacy. How do you feel about the music now?
Alex: There are always going to be things you don’t feel 100% about but for the most part, I am really proud of what we did back then. There are certain things that really stand out. There is the little guitar melody over the main riff in “Apocalyptic City” that I really love right now. It’s nothing really complicated or anything but I think it is really clever and fits perfectly. I think we did little things like that really well.
I don’t have the writing credits for The Formation of Damnation in front of me but how much input did you have in the creative process?
Alex: Eric did most of the writing. He has some insane riffs on this new one! I wrote “F.E.A.R.” and “Dangers of the Faithless.” I recorded the demo for “F.E.A.R.” at home on my computer and then sent it to Chuck and Eric. That one is pretty much untouched but Chuck laid down a really great vocal melody on that one that I would have never have though of putting there!
I just saw the band play in Los Angeles and I noticed that you were having a great time. The last time I saw you was on the tour for The Ritual opening for Iron Maiden and you seemed much more reserved.
Alex: Yeah man, I had a blast at those 2 L.A. shows! A lot of what you saw back then was me feeling frustrated with the situation and bad band chemistry. But I am a different person now and those L.A. shows were proof of that. When I was on stage it was like I was saying, “This is who I am right now.” But there are other things now that make playing live so much more pleasurable. The sound equipment is so more advanced now. The amplifiers and PA systems are constructed to withstand the tremendous power and volume a band like us needs. When we first started, the sound on stage was awful because the equipment couldn’t handle it. I can actually hear everything clearly now and it makes playing out on tour so much more exciting.
I also noticed that you weren’t playing your classic Ibanez Sabre guitar. Why the switch to the Les Paul styled guitar you were playing?
Alex: I play a Heritage now which has that Les Paul body. They are actually made in the old plant where the original Gibson Les Paul guitars were made. I just love the tone on these. Don’t get me wrong, those Ibanez guitars were great and the sound was really fitting. They also took a hell of a beating and still played great!
I know you took lessons from Joe Satriani early in your career. How important was that to your playing style?
Alex: I took lessons from him in 1984. I was with him from the age of 14 to 15 so I would say it lasted for about a year or so. It was a lot of fun and I learned so much from Joe. We stopped when he got offered a spot in Greg Kihn’s band. He was the guy who had that hit “Jeopardy” back in the 1980’s. It was a pretty big deal at the time so he couldn’t do the lessons anymore.
Which new guitarists are exciting you out there right now that we should keep an eye out for?
Alex: Well, I had the pleasure of playing with Rodrigo y Gabriela in the last couple of years. They aren’t exactly metal but they are huge fans and have found a fresh way to tap into it. I was lucky enough to play with them on an MTV live thing in 2007. I love them and I think people should check them out.