INTERVIEW: Chuck Billy of Testament on promoting a new album while recovering from COVID-19

Testament, Chuck Billy, Alex Skolnick, Eric Peterson, Steve DiGiorgio, Gene Hoglan

Chuck Billy (center) and the rest of Testament. Courtesy photo.

If these were typical times, East Bay thrash metal rockers Testament would have been in the middle of a tour of Australia, Thailand, New Zealand and Singapore right now. An American headline tour would begin on April 20.

Titans of Creation
Nuclear Blast, out now

Testament just released its 13th studio album, Titans of Creation, on Friday. While Chuck Billy, Alex Skolnick, Eric Peterson, Steve DiGiorgio and Gene Hoglan are happy about the accomplishment, they’re also stuck at home. Billy, DiGiorgio, Billy’s wife, Tiffany, several touring crew members, and several musicians in Exodus and Death Angel, are recovering from COVID-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus.

The three bands had just completed a European tour, dubbed “Bay Strikes Back.” In the throngs of illness, they—at best—were completely drained of energy. At worst, Death Angel drummer Will Carroll spent nearly two weeks in an induced coma.

Billy and his wife went through all of the reported symptoms other than a fever—trouble breathing, body aches, headaches, dry cough; even loss of smell.

“Everybody [associated with Testament is] recovering,” Billy said on Monday. “Steve was the one who was probably the sickest for the longest. He held a fever for weeks. They refused to test him at first, but then he finally let them know it had been weeks, and he still had a fever. But he wrote and said he’s now starting to feel some energy.”

Testament, Exodus and Death Angel arrived in Europe on Feb. 3, at a time when coronavirus was largely seen as being contained to China. Halfway through the tour, the bands found out their Italy show was called off, Billy said.

Billy said his bandmates and he spoke to other touring acts at the time to gauge how they might handle the situation. One of them was Sons of Apollo’s Mike Portnoy, who Billy spoke with while on the way to Paris.

“The common theme was, ‘Are we going to be able to get back home, or get back into the States because of this and where we’d been and what we had been doing?’ That started becoming a thought,” he said.

As the tour progressed, Europe started limiting gatherings to 2,500; then 1,000.

“They started cracking down on the capacities and gatherings,” Billy said.

They played their last show on March 10, and that day they found out the tour closer on March 11 was also canceled. Yet the March 10 show went on at the urging of the promoter.

“It was like 15 minutes before doors, and they came to us, and they said, ‘The country is recommending gatherings of no more than 1,000 people,’ and we already had 2,000 people there. The promoter came and said to me, ‘We’re going to continue the show as it was.’”

On March 12, the band woke to the news that Donald Trump was instituting a travel ban from Europe that was to start the next day. The flight back to the U.S. was the same day.

“We left, and all of us were fine. None of us were sick on tour,” Billy said. “The next day after getting home, people started feeling ill.”

His wife became ill first, on Friday, March 13. He followed the next day. He later heard that several of the band’s techs got sick. The band members talked to each other, their crew and the other bands regularly—and found out that all three camps had people exhibiting COVID-19 symptoms.

“We assumed that we probably got it. We started calling [Kaiser Permanente, Billy’s healthcare provider] right away trying to get tested,” he said.

At first, they were turned down. On March 15, a Sunday, they finally got tested in a Kaiser Dublin mobile testing facility.

“Your vehicle pulls into a tent, you roll down your window, they swab your mouth and your nose, and that’s it; you’re on your way,” he said.

The test, which includes an oral and nasal swab, was no easy matter.

“It feels like [the swab] touches the roof of your skull. They go up the side wall of your nose, and it’s really irritating,” Billy said. “When I got home, me and my wife were so irritated, we just wanted to sneeze more.”

They finally got their positive test results more than a week later. They quarantined at their Discovery Bay home in the meantime and didn’t need to worry about how to pass the time because the illness wiped them out.

Tiffany and Chuck Billy are on the mend now but don’t know whether they still have COVID-19 or if they can spread it to others because that would take another test; something Kaiser hasn’t asked them to do.

“We still feel something, and we’re tired,” he said. “We’re just now starting to get up and trying to get motivated and do things here at home like exercise.”

They’ve been told that quarantining for two weeks should be enough and that they can now go out if they wear masks and continue to social distance themselves from other people. Since they’re not sure, though, they’re choosing to stay inside and have groceries delivered by friends and left on their porch.

“We started washing the sheets and the clothes, and wiping down the house and being sterile about things,” he said. “We’ve been trying to get out and go for a walk. There’s not many people out here in our community, so we’re trying to get outdoors and get moving because we’ve been doing nothing for two weeks.”

But then there’s DiGiorgio, who lives near Billy in the Bay Area. He got sick later than others and tested positive for COVID-19 on April 2—two weeks after returning home.

While COVID-19 has hit Testament and its crew hard, the novel coronavirus crisis is affecting the band in several other ways, as it is artists worldwide. Because Billy and co. have canceled numerous tours, they’re left to promote Titans of Creation in other ways.

“We’ve been doing a lot of press, talking to a lot of people, doing a lot radio spots, and a lot of people seem to be enjoying the record,” Billy said. “It’s just a weird time to release with everything that’s going on right now.”

The band was already expecting to take a hit on physical album sales because Best Buy, a major source of CD sales in the past, stopped carrying them.

But “now, people aren’t going out, and the stores aren’t open anyhow,” he said. “We’re probably going to take a hit as far as the amount of physical records sold, but it will be interesting to see how the digital sales compare to the old sales just because of the times we’re in right now.”

The highly regarded new record has been described as standing up to early material by the Bay Area thrash icons.

Coming off of 2016’s Brotherhood of the Snake, the band wrote what became “Children of the Next Level,” about the Heaven’s Gate cult; about “people taking their own life thinking they were going to board a meteor … about how maddening and crazy it is; it’s almost like they’re brainwashed,” Billy explained. The song was simply a story rather than a political allegory.

“I thought we were going to go in that direction … and what Eric started giving me; it really had a different feeling and flavor to it,” he said. “A lot of the songs weren’t your typical metal songs with a lot of E-chugging [riffing on an open E string]. That was some different progressions that maybe for me weren’t the most comfortable stuff to sing over.”

Perhaps the creativity was the result of Billy not wanting to fight the natural direction the music was taking. The previous album took two years to make, while Titans of Creation had already been delayed after Testament couldn’t pass up the opportunity to open for Slayer on that band’s farewell tour in 2019. Billy said that Slayer influenced some of Testament’s old-school vibes on the record.

“I wrote patterns over sections that ended up being lead sections because I just didn’t know,” he said. “I was just writing on whatever [Peterson] was giving me. … Some of the structures of the song, chord progressions and just the flavor totally changed the whole topic of the futuristic stuff [of the previous album].”

Billy pointed to songs like “Ishtar’s Gate,” “City of Angels” and the Skolnick-penned “Code of Hammurabi” as being a large part of why the new album feels more dynamic.

Because the band members are spread out—Peterson lives in Sacramento, Hoglan in San Diego and Skolnick in New York, the songs were emailed back and forth many times until the band entered the recording studio. Peterson composed the instrumentation, often with the help of Hoglan, while Billy wrote his lyrics. Skolnick came with two completed songs—“Code of Hammurabi” and “Symptoms.”

Billy and Peterson produced the album with the help of Juan Urteaga of Trident Studios and Andy Sneap (of Judas Priest).

Testament, Titans Of Creation

Interestingly enough, the album title has no direct connection to the songs themselves. The album cover preceded it and even some of the songs.

“We just stared at the cover for months trying to figure out, ‘What is the name of this record?’” Billy said.

The band almost settled on “Hammer of the Gods,” but a week prior to the deadline to turn it over to the label, Peterson came up with the final name, and it made sense to everyone because of the way Testament wrote and recorded—created—the album.

So what’s left now? To wait and hope for the best.

“We’re watching Europe—some of the summer festivals have announced cancelations,” Billy said. “We’re waiting to see if all of them start doing that as well. It will be a long break with the new record out. … It’s a chance to get more personal with the fans, I guess.”

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