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Testament’s Chuck Billy on Battling Coronavirus, Releasing an Album During the Pandemic, and the Future of Live Shows

on April 20, 2020, 2:11pm

It’s been a brutal stretch for thrash metal legends Testament. After nearly getting stranded while on tour in Europe while on tour in early March, the band returned home to discover a few of its members and crew had contracted COVID-19, including frontman Chuck Billy and his wife Tiffany. Members of Death Angel and Exodus, also on the European tour with Testament, tested positive, as well.

To top it off, Testament’s 13th studio album, Titans of Creation, came out April 3rd, during the height of the coronavirus pandemic. With live music effectively on pause worldwide and record stores shuttered, the band has been left with few options to promote its record or sell it in-person.

Billy, who has since recovered, spoke to Heavy Consequence about Titans of Creation, his battle with the coronavirus, the challenges of releasing a record during pandemic, the future of live concerts, and more.

On recovering from COVID-19

I think we’re back 100-percent now. It took a month, but I think we feel normal. We’re still a little isolated. We’ve only left the house twice. But we’re back to normal at that energy, doing things around the house. We’re bored like everybody else, but feeling a better.

We were gone for a little over five weeks, and when you get home from tour, you’re beat up and tired and you don’t do anything for a week. You just want to do nothing and get off schedule. So when we got home off of this, we were feeling like maybe we were jet-lagged, and then once we started getting sick and having the same symptoms as a few people, we realized, “Oh, maybe we have it.” We were really ill for two and half weeks, really didn’t do much, no energy. So after that, after we started feeling better…getting back to normal, doing normal things — it’s been hectic. At the same time, it’s kind of what we do anyhow off of tour, just chill.

On the making of Titans of Creation

The songs all have such an individuality and their own identities. A lot of the music Eric [Peterson] delivered on this was a lot different than we’ve had in the past. And it made it more challenging for me, and it made the songs more dynamic on this record. We took chances. We did things that we liked that were successful on [2016’s] Brotherhood of the Snake: getting into the studio, not really prepared in having all the parts done or demoed, and finding our way and putting it together. We took that same approach with this one.

But we had a lot more parts and pieces of music. In that sense, it pushed us out of our comfort zone. It made us try new things, especially for me vocally and for Eric musically, trying new chord progressions and choices, different moods. It challenged us. And being challenged made us try different things. Songs like “City of Angels”, I found myself trying different vocal textures and voices and harmonies, which I never do. For me, after 13 records, to still be able to try new things and find new things was pretty cool and fun.

On the challenges of writing new material and taking risks in the studio

You don’t know, because I have to write with what Eric gives me. So if Eric writes 10 songs that are similar with the same beat, that’s what I’ll write. But this time around, he went out of the box — not your typical “chugging on E, here’s the verse” — that’s pretty simple. Usually in the past, Eric will write a riff, give it to me, and I’ll challenge him on it. He’ll say, “Here’s the verse, here’s the chorus, the bridge…” Sometimes I’d go, “No, I’d rather sing the chorus riff as the verse, so let’s move that.” Maybe I simplify it for myself to get the easy way out, or what I hear is the simpler way.

But this record, I didn’t challenge him on any of that. I knew there were unusual chords, and I was like, “That’s kind of weird.” But I just went with it, and instead it challenged me and made me approach it a different way. It made the record more dynamic.

On the technical differences of recording Titans of Creation versus past albums

Usually when Eric’s writing, he uses a local drummer or a drum machine to write a lot of the stuff, then gives it to Gene [Hoglan] to interpret and do his thing. This time around, Gene went out and worked with Eric. So a lot of the stuff was a lot more solid as far as drums go. And we never even heard the songs with Steve [DiGiorgio] on bass because we only wrote them with guitars and drums when we were creating it. And on the last record, Alex [Skolnick] recorded on his own in New York, and this time we brought him out with us. Everybody was together at the same studio recording this time. I think that was the right choice.

On the inspiration for the mythological and historical lyrical content

We draw it from song to song and what we talk about. On this record, the first one we wrote was “Children of the Next Level”, which musically and lyrically could’ve been off Brotherhood of the Snake because of that record’s futuristic and alien-create-mankind themes. I thought that’s the direction this record would go. But then it started going in a different direction when Eric started delivering the songs. Some of those songs, like “Ishtar’s Gate”, have a really different feel: This isn’t futuristic, this is more of a story. And that song, I know Eric was inspired, we went to Israel, we went to Jerusalem, to the museums in Berlin and saw the gates. I knew that he was probably inspired by that, it had that mood; so, I stuck with those themes and what he was thinking. It really did have that sense when I went into write it.

On “City of Angels” and how it was almost cut from the album

When I first got the song from Eric, I didn’t want it on the record. It was too slow, too long, too repetitive — I didn’t really hear it. I was fighting to write that song and finish it. When I was writing lyrics with my friend Del James in L.A., he wanted to hear the last song. I said, “Well, we’re done, but there’s one more I don’t want on the record.” But he wanted to hear it, and after playing it for him, he said, “Hold on a second.” He came up with some lyrics. I played it and talked it through and said, “Shit, I think I can make this work.” The pattern and the lyrics were just enough length for this long song that Eric gave me. I came back to the studio a few days later and recorded it, having never sang it before. And I found myself trying a new voice, a new tone, and that’s the song I tried doing some harmonies on some of the bridges, and I never do that. It started developing into this really cool piece. That’s the one song that shouldn’t have made the record but ended up being one of the standout songs.

On releasing Titans of Creation amidst the pandemic

We could have postponed our record, but no matter with this or without it, we knew physical sales would take a hit this year, losing Best Buy as one of the retailers. It’s going to be a digital world, especially now. People are at home, they’ve got time on their hands. Let’s give them something new. Even though our physical sales will take a bigger hit, oh well. It’s a good fun record. Hopefully it brings a smile or enjoyment to somebody. Let’s move on and when the world starts back up again, promote it, get out there and play it, and those records will sell eventually.

On the anxiety of being on tour in Europe as the pandemic was unfolding

We didn’t know how extreme it was going to be when we were over in Europe and saw the news of things happening. The show in Italy got canceled, and from that point on, we started seeing gathering capacities getting smaller and smaller. And as we got to the end of the tour, the second to last show was canceled, and then on the last night, we found out a half hour before doors in Belgium that they were recommended to cancel, as well. But the promoter said, “Everybody’s already here, doors are open, let’s just do it.” And we played.

We just watched it unfold. We were nervous because we just wanted to get back into America. Get home: That was our concern. But we didn’t realize how big it would escalate and grow. It was like a week or two before we left, saying, ‘I hope we’re gonna get home.’ Thank God we did it and didn’t get stuck in Europe. We had one tech, he’s stuck in Europe. He got sick and he can’t get home. So he’s stuck over there sick. Just…what a mess.

On returning home and battling COVID-19

Everybody felt fine, we thought when we got home it was just jet lag. We got home on a Thursday evening, and Friday my wife started feeling bad and by Saturday, I was feeling bad. And Sunday is when I got tested.

Right away I woke up Saturday morning and just could not stay awake. I just wanted to sleep and close my eyes, and my body was aching and I had a headache. You just felt sick. And the body chills — I mean bad chills. Shaking violently. But I didn’t get that big fever, maybe because we were taking Advil and aspirin, helping me not feel a sweat. But Steve [DiGiorgio] had the fever for over two weeks, up in the 100 degrees.

You know when you have a bad flu, it’s three or four days you feel bad, and then you start feeling better. This just wouldn’t shake. You just felt bad. Four or five, six days into it, you’ll be like, “OK, I think I’m feeling good” — you get up, do a few things, then all of sudden bam — you’re wiped back out and tired again. Aching body and bones again, the headaches. It just comes back. It’s like, man, I’m just not shaking it. And then even after about two and a half weeks, I know I’m feeling better, but I still know I’m not 100-percent. But as of this week, we’re really starting to feel back to normal, no headaches, no coughing. Body’s not aching. We’re starting to exercise and get physical again. Having appetites and energy. So we know we’re feeling definitely better.


On communicating with other band members during quarantine

We had a big group text together, and we all started writing in talking about how we’re feeling. Lot of the symptoms the same. We had to realize, “Alright, we’ve got to have it, let’s all get tested and start quarantining yourselves.” I started to touch base with the Exodus camp and the Death Angel camp, and the same thing, a lot of the same symptoms.

On the future of Testament performing live and the return of concerts

We have a tour planned in September that we’re booking. We’re going to try to complete booking that tour and if it happens it happens, if not, we’ll move it into 2021. We’re taking it a day at a time, to see what happens.

We’re going to see how the world’s communities react. It’s not going to be packed houses at the flip of a switch. People are going to be cautious going out and being around other people. It’s not like it’s gone. Once we get that [antibody] test to find out if they were sick once with it and cured of it or never had it and maybe need to be cautious. Once we’ve reached that stage, when people are out knowing that they’re safe amongst other people that are probably safe as well — cool. Because the scary thing about this illness is that you could have it and not show symptoms and still be carrying it and spreading it. That’s the scary part.

On Testament moving forward and navigating the pandemic

This summer festival season is falling apart. We’re shooting to be back in September. But if not, and it’s down for the rest of the year, we’re gonna have to start thinking about being creative online and trying to do things to stay connected to fans and people out there. That’s what we’re going to have to do. It’s too soon to worry about trying to write new music. We’re just gonna ride it out. We’re geared up and ready to head out and tour. The record’s out, we’re ready to go when it opens up and see what happens.

Our thanks to Chuck Billy for taking the time to speak with us. Testament’s Titans of Creation is out now via Nuclear Blast. Buy it here.

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