TESTAMENT's Chuck Billy: Thrash’s Native American Warrior - “Express Yourself, Keep Speaking Up, Someone’s Going To Hear It Eventually”

November 2, 2013, 8 years ago

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Special report by Maria Nayef:

As the instantly recognizable and preeminent frontman of Californian thrash dignitaries TESTAMENT, Chuck Billy’s fighting spirit and outspokenness has garnered immense respect, praise and accolades from both the metal and Native American communities. Testament are still riding their most recent wave of success on the back of their acclaimed 2012 record Dark Roots of Earth and, a new live CD/DVD entitled Dark Roots Of Thrash, out now via Nuclear Blast.

Recorded during their sold out show at the Paramount in New York in February, Dark Roots Of Thrash kicks off with ‘Rise Up’ – a song that gathers a massive amount of momentum both on and off stage and continues throughout the entire show. The cameras regularly zoom in on the deft fingers of guitar virtuoso Alex Skolnick, while Billy plays along on his microphone. Fans join the band onstage to sing ‘Into The Pit’ and there’s that powerful performance of ‘Native Blood.’

BraveWords spoke with Chuck Billy right before Testament embarked on their current North American tour with LAMB OF GOD about the new DVD, the beauty of Native American culture, vampires and the problem with newer bands borrowing too heavily from the classics.

BraveWords: I’ve been watching Dark Roots Of Thrash, congratulations on an amazing live DVD. My face almost melted off due to the sheer velocity of Alex’ solos!

Chuck Billy: “You’ve seen it, cool! Yeah, we’re really proud of the whole thing, the editing, the audio, it sounds really good.”

BraveWords: ‘Rise Up’ is such a great song to kick off the show. Was there a big reshuffling of the setlist on the night the DVD was filmed?

Billy: “Well, we were about two weeks into our tour when we shot it and had about a 14-song setlist that we were playing already and we decided to add another four or five songs onto that show for the DVD. Those five that we played were songs that we were really tight with, so it wasn’t a lot of effort to put them into the show. We really wanted to capture the beginning of our career all the way to where we are today.”

BraveWords: There are a lot of young fans in the audience and everyone seems to love the new songs. How does it feel to still be making music that old fans connect to and younger fans rock out to?

Billy: “I think it’s exciting. We’re noticing that the fans are just getting younger – there seems to be a new generation of metalheads popping up all over the world, and that’s exciting for us because we get to see that; and they’re really young too, like 12, 13, 14 years old. I think the exposure of this type of music has increased over the last decade due to the Internet, due to things like Rock Band and Guitar Hero, so younger age groups are being introduced to more extreme music. In LA and New York it’s almost like going back to the era of the '80s with fans wearing stretch jeans and high-top tennis shoes. It’s kind of like: wow, it’s coming back!” (laughs)

BraveWords: What you achieved with ‘Native Blood’ was quite profound. It’s like it started out as something small but became something really big. Did it exceed your expectations?

Billy: “Oh it really did. And because of that, I was nominated and put into the Smithsonian Institute in Washington DC, I have a permanent display at the Hard Rock Café: all these things have just happened…

Testament’s ‘Native Blood’ has not only become a pillar of pride for the Pomo tribe of which Billy is a member, but an anthem for indigenous cultures around the world. The video was nominated for and went on to win best video at the American Indian Film Festival and Billy was recognized in the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian exhibit Up Where We Belong: Native Musicians in Popular Culture. Recently, Californian Assembly member Jim Frazier honoured Billy on the State Assembly floor for his positive influence on both the Native American and general community. Despite the accolades of which he is highly appreciative of, it’s when Billy is back at Hopland Indian Reservation, where the video for ‘Native Blood’ was filmed, that he feels the biggest impact of the song and its message.

BraveWords: Have you been back to the reservation recently?

Billy: “I went up to the reservation last weekend. There was a fry bread competition and I was one of the judges and I did the raffle! They had all the Native dancers from all these different communities come down and dance for everybody. I got to sing with the band and do the clappers when the Native Pomo dancers were dancing. I spent the whole weekend being a part of everything. People that have heard the song and have seen the video see me as making a statement. They see me in the public eye, being honoured at the State Capital: all these little things have happened and people, especially Native Americans, even elderly people, come up and shake my hand, and it’s great to be recognized for speaking up: that says it right there. It’s like I’m speaking for them. It’s something they want to say and here I am kind of representing them."

BraveWords: Often, news regarding Native Americans tends to be more negative than positive and the media sidesteps a lot of the beauty of the culture. What’s an aspect of your tribe that you find particularly beautiful that you would like people to know about?

Billy: “My tribe, including my grandmother, is known for basket weaving, and it kind of got lost over a generation along with the language. At least now there are people actually teaching classes on basket weaving and teaching the language again so the younger generation is going to be raised with that, where it kind of got lost for a time, so it’s nice to have things like that. The fry bread competition I went to was actually downtown in the city about 10-20 miles away, right down in the square, so it wasn’t only Native people, it was everyone up in that area coming down to participate and watch the dancers. They bought jewellery, tried the fry bread, and it was a really good gathering, and that kind of stuff is good because it brings people together and maybe helps give non-Native people a different opinion of Native Americans when they do see the beauty of our culture, especially in the kids all dressed up and dancing and being close and having fun. It’s not all what you just think it is.”

BraveWords: I know that the spiritual side of your heritage played a big role in your recovery and healing process after you were diagnosed with cancer. Is it hard to sometimes articulate the spiritual side of your culture to non-indigenous people, especially how profound spiritual experiences can be?

Billy: “Yeah. I mean some people are sceptics, there’s sceptics in any culture, but that kind of spirituality is like any religion: if you believe in something, and you believe that it’s real, then that’s what you have and that’s how you use it. In my case I believed what I was doing was working. It’s almost like power of the mind, mind over body, and that’s what helped me.”

BraveWords: What advice would you give to indigenous youth in countries like America, Canada and Australia who dream of making something of their lives, but feel trapped by the darkness of the historical aspects of their past?

Billy: “Where we are today, you would think that times have changed and governments would open their eyes and things would start looking up, but it just seems to be a slow process. Just like the message of the song, it’s like they have something to say, they have an opinion, but no one’s really listening, and somehow you’ve got to find that inner strength and just to do it. It’s going to be a challenge, but don’t keep it in, express yourself. Keep speaking up. Someone’s going to hear it eventually. You’ve got to stand up for yourself and do things for yourself. From our reservation point of view, we didn’t see a lot of help from the government for a long time. The reservation was run down, there was no bus for the kids to take to school, the streets were piled up with garbage, it was a bad situation. And then they finally built their own casino and started making money for themselves, putting the community to work, they began bringing back the language; things started looking up and then: here comes the government with their hands out, wanting their tax and their bit of it. It took money to get their attention, not the people crying out.”

BraveWords: One of my favourite songs from Dark Roots Of Earth is ‘Cold Embrace’ and I was particularly touched by the lyric “sorrow is the colour of her dream.” What inspired that lyric and how did that song come about?

Billy: “Well the big thing going on at the time was the Twilight series and stuff like that and we really wanted to get a song like that into a movie. The song is about being trapped, about somebody being turned into a vampire and being trapped in their world, and maybe if you think of it as not being a reality, but a dream: is it real? So it’s about the sadness of being trapped in the darkness and never seeing the light again, trapped in the sorrow – and I flipped that around and thought it was just a cool line.”

BraveWords: Was there any trepidation about having a slower song on the record?

Billy: “That was a risky song for us to do because we haven’t really done a song like that, I’d say in 15 or 20 years. In the past, always in the back of your mind when writing songs and doing records, you always think ‘what are the fans going to think of a song like that? Are they going to think we’re slowing down?’ But this last record was one of the first records where we really didn’t think about that when it came to do any of the writing of the songs. We just thought: ‘You know what? This feels good, this sounds good, I’m into it, we’re all into it, let's finish this,’ and we really didn’t consider whether it was going to be soft, or if people were going to take it the wrong way, and we haven’t heard one bad thing about any of those slower songs like ‘Dark Roots of Earth’, like ‘Cold Embrace.’ People just got it. I think people got it because it does strike a mood and it makes the record a lot more dynamic.”

BraveWords: There are many new metal bands out there these days vying for their music to be heard and with the increasing popularity of the genre, is it hard to come up with original material? There was some controversy recently surrounding the latest AVENGED SEVENFOLD record that is said to borrow heavily from METALLICA’S Black Album. Where do you draw the line between borrowing from the music of another band and being influenced by it?

Billy: “Influence is different than borrowing I think. Like us, I think we’ve always had our own sound, but we’ve always wanted to be and use the influence of early Metallica because for us it was such a new movement, a new young fresh sound. But we never tried to mimic that. We kind of tried to use that attitude and approach, the way they handled themselves, and you wanted to be cool like that (laughs). As far as using a song or a riff, or trying to be like that, people see right through that and it actually harms you because then people really come down on you. There is only one Metallica and you don’t want to copy them and do what they do.”

BraveWords: Is Testament at the peak of its career?

Billy: “I think right now we’re at a time where metal is being marketed a lot and the fan base is getting bigger with a lot of new fans popping up. Also, we’ve been working really hard and it’s kind of paying off for us. We’ve put out a couple of strong records the last couple of releases, toured hard, and you can really see that it does pay off. Things are well in the Testament camp right now.”

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