Testament’s Eric Peterson Talks New Album “Titans of Creation”
By the summer of 2008, thrash was heating up. It hadn’t reached a boil yet, but the bubbles were forming. Testament had released their comeback album The Formation of Damnation that April and planted the seed for their peers to try and match them. Over the next three years, nearly every one of those old thrashers would stake their claim to rebirth. Ironbound, Exhibit B, Endgame, Death Magnetic, Worship Music... the list goes on, and the resulting tours were out of control. But Testament were the first, and in August 2008, they went on a cross-country victory lap (the Metal Masters Tour) with Judas Priest, Heaven & Hell, and Motorhead,
I sat on the lawn of Shoreline Amphitheater watching Testament play with shades on, the sun hitting their faces at 6 p.m. on a Sunday. They were specks in my view, but something felt special about watching a “local” band in this big shed. For the next four years, thrash was nearly all I listened to. Occasional splashes of doom and death metal found their way into my iPod, but thrash practically defined my teenage years. Testament was a rather huge part of that, with The Gathering marking the first time I remember enjoying death metal vocals.
At 27, I realized that I’ve hardly listened to thrash since I was maybe 20 years old. But when the chance to interview Eric Peterson -- Testament’s guitarist and primary songwriter -- came up, I knew I’d regret skipping the opportunity to reconnect with that time in my life. Turns out that Testament’s catalog remains rich for the thrashers of the world, and Alex Skolnick’s solos are still some of metal’s most dazzling.
As for their new record Titans of Creation? If Testament is still in your rotation and polka beats still tickle your thrashy bone, you’ll be jumping into the pit in no time.
So, let's get straight to the point. You've got a new album coming out in a few weeks, Titans of Creation, and, first off, hearing the promo, it's funny, it almost reminds me of The Gathering... in that case, there was death metal going on, like creeping its way in there. But, this one, it's black metal, and I don't think I was expecting that.
Well, I mean, there's some essence, definitely. Like in “Night of the Witch” and in “Curse of Osiris” and maybe “The Healers,” some of the riffing. Well, I guess the most obvious part is me singing on parts.
Right, like on “Curse of Osiris,” I think you take a chorus there, right?
There's that, and even on “WWIII,” that opening riff, it's pretty damn cold and grim.
I mean, it's that chord introversion that gives it that sound. I did that on “The Pale King,” too. There's those kinds of riffs, those kinds of chords. I feel it gives it that kind of sound, I guess It's kind of like “D.N.R.” -- "da-di-gi-di-gi da-di-gi-di-gi da-di-gi-di," you know, that kind of gallopy, picky… yeah, I'm just probably influenced by early Dissection kind of stuff. I mean it's swift, I guess, Testament-kind of picking, but using those chords definitely gives it that ring.
You know, with Dissection, were you listening to them when they were a contemporary act in the mid-1990s?
Yeah, I discovered them on... what record is that?
Storm of the Light's Bane, maybe.
That's the one. Yeah, it's the records like that I discovered and [Anthems to the] Welkin at Dusk. I think Enthrone Darkness Triumphant by Dimmu. It's really [Enthrone] Darkness Triumphant. I was listening to those records a lot in the mid-1990s. So those kind of just got in my brain and I really liked the Norwegian, the second wave, I guess, the earlier stuff, like Bathory. I love that stuff, too. That was just more raw, I guess. I really liked how bands like Emperor and Dimmu and even Old Man's Child brought, tightness and quality into it. I mean true black metal kids, they liked the raw stuff, but I just liked how they mixed thrash and the metal together. I mean, it all kind of stems from thrash, doesn't it?
One thing that I thought was so fascinating about Testament, back then: I think a lot of your contemporaries, like say Megadeth or something like that, they're only getting to the blast beats and stuff now. They're only just now getting there, whereas, it seemed like Testament was maybe ten years ahead of the curve.
Yeah, when we introduced that stuff on The Gathering record. And that was right when I was really knee-deep, I mean, I was doing Dragonlord, right, Dragonlord at the same time -- thank god I did Dragonlord because if I didn't do Dragonlord, The Gathering would have been a black metal record.
I told myself I just… because I think I was writing something like, [that could’ve been on] the record Rapture. You know, those riffs, that's what I was coming up with. And, I remember when I was jamming with Dave [Lombardo], he's all, "Dude, you need to..." There was one song “Legions of the Dead” which was on The Gathering, and I did the drum machine and the guitars, and then I wrote these same lyrics of how I sing. And I played it for Dave, and he just looked at me and he goes, "Dude, you need to do a project." Because he, at that time, was doing a bunch of projects.
I played some other stuff and he goes, "You know, we'll definitely do Legions, but the other stuff, you should do something, you know, on your own." And I think it was good advice, and it helped because I got that off my chest and then I was able to focus more on still having the influence, which was the good thing. But it helped me write with Dave and get Steve [Di Giorgio] involved to write that record.
With Titans of Creation, you've been talking a bit about how the writing on this album is a lot more collaborative than Brotherhood of the Snake. I know you're all scattered across the country, so what does collaborative writing mean in this kind of distant age?
Yeah, I mean, I still wrote pretty much most of the music, but "collaborative" means we got to actually jam on the songs before it went in the studio. There were months where the guys would come over to my house and we would go over what parts they're gonna do and teach them the song and maybe they would go, "Well, maybe I'll go like this," as opposed to following like this, regarding the bass, stuff like that. So, yeah, being collaborative and just letting those guys do their own thing rather than no trying, “this is how it goes.”
Brotherhood was kind of like that, I think. Especially for Gene [Hoglan] because he was more involved with doing other projects. So, when he came in everything that I had demoed up, there wasn't time to change stuff. I mean, it still kept his vibe and the drummer that worked on that stuff with me had him in mind and was influenced by Gene. But, on this record, Gene pretty much was with me the whole time coming to my house and just jamming out all my riffs and putting it together. So, in that sense, it was more of a band collaboration putting everything together and arranging it and whatnot.
Gotcha, and where do Chuck's vocal melodies come into that? Is that something that you're guiding him on?
Yeah, Juan [Urteaga] and I... Juan's the engineer and producer. We definitely guide him along the way because he'll come in and just be like, "I don't..." He has some ideas, but once Chuck gets it, he just goes. At first, you're like "fuck," but then when he gets it, you're like, "fuck yeah." He just blows me away. So, to me, when I go into writing, I always feel we're gonna go in circles a little bit but I'm confident that at the end of the day, it's gonna be killer. So, I know there's gonna be a light at the end of the tunnel. It's just kind of scary going into the rabbit hole.
And where does Del James play into this because I know he's been helping Chuck with lyrics for like…
He's basically Chuck's co-writer, and he's been working with us since The Ritual, so they have a great thing going. Chuck will go down there with his patterns and they both... we'll either all kind of decide on what we want to talk about -- what does the song sound like? Like “Night of the Witch,” it just sounds like witchcraft or something. And then stuff like “Children of the Next Level,” that was Chuck's idea.
So, I mean, it's basically a collaboration. That's more of Chuck's role with the lyrics. The only time I'll intervene is if I truly feel like, "Oh, this song needs to be about this," and sometimes I'm wrong. He's like, "No, I wrote it about this," and we're like, "oh." Too, like “The Healers.” I wanted that one to be more of a Demonic-type song. You know, that era, him singing just full-on "ahh-blaargh" [laughs]. But, he came back with something totally opposite: really melodic, and once I read the lyrics and heard it, it was like two different worlds. But they worked together and I was like... [it] took me a while to process it, but after the dust settled, I mean, when I hear it now, I'm like, "Wow, it's really cool."
Yeah, I was actually gonna bring up “Dream Deceiver,” too. I mean, that one for Testament, that's a pretty fist-pumping chorus in a way, but still very barreling and fast.
It's just heavy [laughs]. I mean, it's the crowd… to me, that's more of a crowd [song]. It was just, "bang-bang, da-do-da-do-da-da." You know, it's got that bass structure, "boom-boom-boom." Yeah, I think singing-wise, that's a really good song for Chuck. I mean, he just sings really good on that song.
You were talking about writing with Gene and how he'd come to your house and then on Brotherhood of the Snake, you worked with effectively a practice drummer. Now, when you're writing with Dave or writing with Louie Clemente or John Tempesta maybe, how do you have to adapt your writing style to accommodate those drummers, or maybe vice versa to you?
Basically, I looked at it as they're like, you know, and this isn't in a bad way, it's just they're like the human drum machine. I'm like, "Okay, here's my idea. Here's the song. I already kind of got it in my head how it's gonna go. Here's the beat I'm thinking of. Here's the punches in the beginning." And we take it from there, and then they'll collaborate and change some beats, whatever. Where the snare hits or whatnot. I mean, they're the best drummers in the world, why would I not listen to them? Pretty much in my brain, I kind of hear the whole song, and then we just kind of take it from there.
On this one, there were times where I just got stuck and was frustrated. Gene was like, "Play the riff backwards." And I'd play it backwards and, like, boom. "Oh, great idea." You know, so there's stuff like that that happens when we're jamming.
And I guess with Gene in particular, it helps that he is a talented guitar player as well, right?
Oh, yeah. Yeah, because he'll be outside... You know, I have a little balcony and I'll be in there just doodling and he comes in and he goes, "That's fucking cool. What was that?" And I'm like, "What?" And I don't even know what I did, and he'll grab my guitar and figure it out what I did, and I'm like, "Oh, yeah." It's happened so many times, I mean, I've just even stopped… I've taped myself, or not taped, but, you know, recorded myself playing. I'll just press record and sit on my couch and jam for an hour and then we'll sit there and listen to it and there's, like five seconds of something cool. I'm like, "I don't even know what I did." And he's like, "I totally know what you did." It's pretty cool that way, so... Yeah, Gene's awesome to work with. He's very mellow and chill and he's cool.
Were you taking any leads on this record, like doing any dueling stuff with Alex like you kind of did on The Formation of Damnation a little bit?
Yeah, it's kind of half-and-half on this one.
Like, “Dream Deceiver,” I take the first one. And you can kind of tell because mine's more like with the wah and that kind of phrasing, and then Alex is more shredding. Some highlight ones, to me, are “Dream Deceiver,” of course, “Ishtar’s Gate,” I do the first one. I do the first couple on “Children of the Next Level.” I do the first couple on “City of Angels.” There's a part where it breaks and then goes "da-di-gi-da di-gi-da da da," then kicks in and I do the first one, he comes out with the second one. There's a couple of ones where I do by myself, too. “The Healers,” that's one I solo. “Curse of Osiris.” So, there's definitely some… and it gives it a different flavor, you know, it's definitely not taking away from anything, it's just adding more colors to the new Testament record, and all these little, small little elements are what makes this record, I think, sound better and different. Rather than everybody's just got their jacket on. The same jacket on, like, "Okay, here. This is what you do. Boom." Just, you know, it's cool.
As a fan of all those classic British heavy metal bands, it's cool to see Testament evolve into this twin guitar lead attack. You know like, the tradeoffs and both guitarists really just offering these badass solos.
That's how I've always wanted it even in the beginning, but I think from lack of confidence and just being younger, I guess, the other band members just basically put a jacket on everybody. "You're this. You're that." Like, "No, you don't do that." And, you know, if I would try, and I was a little bit more nervous and not as skilled as Alex was in the beginning, it's just how it happened, I guess.
Sure but hey, you got the “Over the Wall” melody. I've always associated it as, "That's the big Eric melody right there." The "da-na-na-na-na-na-na-na," at least in my head…
Yeah, I mean, there's a lot of things that I've done, and, you know, some of the stuff, Alex, you know, would go, "Hey, do this part." You know, I mean. Actually, that part, that's Alex's. Alex wrote that part. So...and he's like, "Okay, you can do this." So, yeah, mine got switched up a little bit, but... And there's even some solo stuff that I was gonna do, and I'm like, "Okay well, here. Just, you know, you can do a lot of changes to this part since this is gonna be your solo. It doesn't make sense for me to do this small little part, and then it's the same rhythm and you're doing the lead. You can just build it into your lead." In particular, like, “Throne of Thorns,” at the beginning of his solo. Kind of going along with the riff, but there's little things like that. And that's what makes it, to me… and that's the newer kind of stuff, that's what makes it a twin guitar thing. And it's cool, I mean, that's what Testament is. I mean, like it or not, there's two guitar players, so. And it's cool to have different flavors of soloing because it's a reflection of the guitar player.
Right. I want to ask a little bit about the benefit concert for Chuck in 2001…
Thrash of the Titans.
Thrash of the Titans, yes. So, I think it's been almost 20 years since then, right? It's almost become this marker of when so many thrash bands got back together and stayed together. Those reunions were permanent.
A lot of them, yeah.
The thing is, all those bands, it seemed like they all took about ten years to make their big comeback records. You know, even Testament that was about seven years after that. Now that it seems like everyone's kind of established, it's like, what's next? It's almost to me like these bands have proved their point, in a way. It's like they've proved that they can still do it. What's the next big mountain to climb for those bands that came from that era?
Well, you know, we all got a second chance. I mean, Testament never kind of went away. Chuck got sick, but we never… it wasn't, like, this big hiatus. We took a little time off, but we bounced right back. Chuck bounced back very quickly, I think. And, I guess the second wind, I think we all got better. The bands all took it more seriously and proved that this genre wasn't a... Back then, interviewers were going, "So, what are you gonna do for your future after this, you know, this trend ends?" And I'm like, "Trend?" And they're like, "Yeah, well, thrash metal, it's like rap. It's not gonna last." And now thrash and rap are, you know, some of the biggest genres in music. I mean, Metallica and Megadeth are on commercials or, you know, it's considered classic radio. So, it's kind of funny.
But I just see all these bands that got back together, including us, it's a second wave, just being in a really cool way, being classic in the future. I mean, it's turning into that. And that's not a bad thing for this heavy dark music being classic. I mean, I'd rather pick this genre than, you know, some kind of an indie... I mean, I like indie music, too, but, you know, stuff where you're just going, "What?" You know, metal category, Jethro Tull. Nothing against Jethro Tull, I love Jethro Tull but you know, wrong category.
Maybe about ten years ago, you had that whole thrash revival like, say, bands like Warbringer or Evile, right? I don't know, it almost seemed like it kind of fizzled out in a way whereas say Overkill and yourselves are still marching ahead.
Yeah, definitely. I mean, there were some, definitely like a third generation coming in and doing it but you know, the strong survive. That's hard, but Testament's harder.
Eric, thank you very much for the time and, hey, you stay safe, and best wishes to all of you and yours.
Awesome, and don't forget our record comes out April 3rd along with the new video, an animation video for “Children of the Next Level.” So, we're pretty excited about that.
One thing that I think is worth squeezing in here somewhere, given the present state of the world, what is the best way that people can pick up this album?
There's a lot of indie record stores that are closing down or just shutting their doors. Check with your local record store as a lot of them offer online ways to get records, say, if you want to get into supporting bands like Testament.
Titans of Creation releases April 3rd via Nuclear Blast.