Testament Singer Chuck Billy Talks Touring, ‘The Chief Of Thrash,’ & The ‘Canna-Business’

Testament Frontman Chuck Billy talks metal, cannabis and the upcoming album.
Ethan Miller / Getty Images

The rekindling of my love affair with thrash metal titans Testament has been twofold.

First, great memories spring back to me from the Guitar Hero and Rock Band craze that captured the zeitgeist of the aughts and moved into the decade we currently find ourselves in, petering out in recent years. Rock Band 2, to my mind, was the best of the bunch – featuring a killer set list that included one of the best Testament tunes of all time, “Souls of Black.” The song was played dozens if not hundreds of times surrounded by friends and family rocking out to in brutal fashion, making some metal memories that remain with me to this day.

The second prong reinforcing my rekindled affection for Testament was their 2013 smash-hit album, Dark Roots of Earth. At once modern and yet imbued with a classical thrash engine driving thunderous beats behind, the album was one of the band’s greatest commercial successes and the beginning of a new era that would continue with 2016’s Brotherhood of the Snake. Perfectly mixed and mastered heavy metal tracks backed by the creative thrash minds of the men of Testament, it seems like the band is better than ever.

Having had the opportunity to speak with band frontman Chuck Billy was a true honor. In our discussion, we spanned topics both musical and societal, and also got the chance to profile his recent partnership with Lord Vaper USA on a line of inventive merchandise they are calling “The Chief of Thrash!”

TESTAMENT is Chuck Billy, Eric Peterson, Alex Skolnick, Gene Hoglan, and Steve Di Giorgio.

TESTAMENT performs in Slovenia.

Nicholas Morine: So, you guys just wrapped up a pretty grueling tour across the United States. What was it like getting out there and playing in front of some of your lifelong fans?

Chuck Billy: It was awesome. I mean, Slayer’s farewell tour is a big deal. I think a lot of people, a lot of fans came out to see it. For us to be out there, and to be a part of that is, I guess — to be a part of history. Being there when Slayer called it quits is a big deal.

And we have a lot of history with the guys, you know, we go back – from the beginning of our careers, through now, and have done a lot of touring with them. Personal time, and the past with Tom [Araya] and stuff. So you know, it’s almost bittersweet to see, and sometimes it shocks you when you’re out on the road and you’re thinking ‘Wow, this is the last time this town’s probably gonna see Slayer!’ [laughter]

That sort of put it into perspective. Wow! They mean so much to heavy metal, and for them not to be doing it — especially to see them now, and they’re crushing it now…

Shortly, they won’t be playing together, and that’s kind of mind-blowing. But, the tour’s been awesome. The fans are out there, coming out in droves. I see a lot of old-school fans that haven’t come to see Slayer or Testament in a long time… but they’re here now, because of this tour.

NM: That’s one of the things that I was always interested in. You guys, and along with Slayer, both really what I would describe as metal legends. So, for fans to get the opportunity to see both of you on one card – must have been something special for the crowd – must have been some kind of energy, right?

CB: It was total energy from the first band to the last. Every band had a great show. The fans were getting there early to see everybody. It was one of those tours where you go ‘Oh, we’re the opening band – nobody’s gonna be there!’ That wasn’t the case. People were ready for the show, they’re gonna get their money’s worth. They were getting there!

NM: Switching up, I just want to talk about the last album – ‘Brotherhood of the Snake.’ It’s done very, very well, both critically and amongst the fans. What are some of the factors that contributed most to the success of that album, and do you have a favorite song as well?

CB: My favorite song on there’s gotta be ‘Seven Seals.’ Yeah, I mean, with that record me and Eric [Peterson] went through hell and back to get that finished. It took us over a two-year process to get all the songs completed. And even up to when we got into the studio, we weren’t prepared and the songs weren’t finished. I don’t know what it was, but me and Eric just couldn’t get it done. We had a lot of riffs, a lot of music, and a lot of parts — but they just weren’t complete.

We forced ourselves, basically, to go into the studio. Because we know if we were going to have a record out that year, we had to have the record finished, mixed, and recorded by April – because we had big plans in Europe, tours were lined up… and that was our window. So we knew – like ‘Okay, we’re not there yet. So we don’t have a choice. We’re booking the studio next month.’

And just kind of put the pressure on ourselves. And once we got into the studio, there was some built up some frustration I know. And probably like Gene [Hoglan] and Eric were the first ones in there laying the drum tracks down. At that point, Gene, Steve, and Alex hadn’t even heard the songs yet – because there weren’t any songs to hear, there was no demo at that point.

So we got in there, really just working as we go. Laying it down. And I would have to say Gene – being the first one up, and a little frustrated not having the parts or rehearsals – he beat the hell out of the drums! [laughter] And laid down some angry, aggressive drums… and that was the best foundation for it. Then it started coming together towards the end of the process, of the recording, it just started really coming together. All the riffs that we had, where we were thinking ‘s**t this is just a riff.’ ended up being something that worked in the songs, and especially vocally.

When I wrote something for the part, that didn’t really have a verse yet, it was just a fragment. But once we started putting it all together, I don’t know how to explain it, but once we listened to the songs being mixed. We sat back and – I was nervous, I really was, going into this thinking, ‘Oh no.’

Every band kind of has that record is probably not their strongest. And we had always been so prepared to go in, and at this time, we weren’t. So, I was a little scared and nervous thinking, ‘Oh no.’ Is this gonna be our record that is not gonna happen? It was kind of scary because we have had some great records before that, and it could hurt the momentum that had been created at that point.

It was a nervous and scary situation until we got all the final mixes and we all listened to the album as a band. Because, you know, we were on the road as the mixes were coming in. As we started hearing all the mixes we were like, ‘Wow, that’s good. That’s good. It sounds strong.’ And when we heard them all together? That’s when we kind of looked around said, ‘You know what? I don’t know how, but I think we just did it!’

We succeeded. You always want to outdo your last record, and top your last record, and write a better song. I don’t know, there was something about the final product of ‘Brotherhood [of the Snake]’ that just… every song, every part, every solo, the vocals, the mixes… everything just really came together.

At the end of the day, we were just like wow, we did it! Now we’re going, with our new one, saying ‘Now what are we going to do? How are we going to outdo that?’

But I think, us going into the new record, we’re all pretty excited and ready to dig into it. Much more so than we were on the last one.

NM: Absolutely. We’ll definitely talk a little bit more about the new album in a bit, as I’m super excited myself.

CB: Cool.

NM: I was recently spinning through ‘Brotherhood [of the Snake]’ to refresh my memory. One song stood out, that’s really topical right now – ‘Canna Business.’

CB: Yeah!

NM: Can you tell us a bit more about that?

CB: It’s something that we see growing in America. From the states legalizing marijuana. I was approached in 2014 by a company called Lord Vaper to put out a signature vaporizer. And I was totally down for it.

But, I see all the states just expanding the business — the cannabis business, growing. Now especially that California is legalizing. It’s starting to spread and become more of the norm, and not so taboo. People look at it in a totally different light now than they used to. It’s good for business. There’s a head shop now, or two or three, in every city. Every city has their smoke shops now. It’s all about paraphernalia. It’s a big business.

And yeah, it is for the stoners. But it’s also for the families, the kids, those that have seizures or other medical reasons – and that’s even a bigger reason to hopefully see it pass in other states. I see families that have to uproot their entire family to move to states like Colorado or California to get medicine for their children because they can’t get it in their home state, or take it through state lines without getting into trouble.

So I hope it just spreads, and they look beyond it just being for recreational use.

NM: There is definitely a very strong medicinal purpose to the herb. I agree with you entirely. On a similar tangent, discussing the Lord Vaper USA partnership, I noticed on the website that you have three distinct product lines. The War Drum vaporizer, the Dream Catcher oil cartridge battery, and of course the Tomahawk signature pipe for those old school smokers. Could you tell us about the inspiration behind the line and a little bit more about the products?

CB: Okay, well, in 2014 when we put out the first Chief vaporizer we were kind of new to the industry, and all of the vaporizers were kind of new to market. So the battery life wasn’t the best, and some of the designs weren’t the best. We found out that batteries were dying sooner, not holding charges. The mouthpieces on the first model was hard to get off and tended to break over time.

Lord Vaper actually started going downhill – that was started by a friend in the Bay Area, a metalhead, who had been seeing all of the R&B and rap artists coming out with vaporizers. He was like ‘I want a metalhead to have a vaporizer!’ So he called me up and we were off, and I was into it.

But, he ended up selling the company, though we did a short run of that [original product] even though it was a limited edition. The new owner of Lord Vaper contacted me, and said ‘Hey, I would like to continue selling The Chief… but I want to reinvent it.’

So we decided that we needed to target the problems of the past. The battery life hadn’t been the best, and the mouthpiece gave us problems. So we addressed that and fixed the mouthpieces – that now has a ceramic mouthpiece with a magnetic lid that comes on and off really easily. It has an interchangeable battery now.

Also, the new one can vape wax or marijuana. The battery life is much better, it’s more inconspicuous. Lord Vaper took it a little step further – inside the packaging there’s a really cool zipper pouch containing a cleaning kit and a weed packer, a cool little package he put together.

They didn’t want to stop there – more people are now going with the e-cigarettes and or, in our case, oil cartridges. So we came up with the Dream Catcher, which is really cool and something we didn’t see out there. The Dream Catcher basically looks almost like a Zippo lighter, and the cartridge goes in, and when you’re done with it you just close the lid and throw it in your pocket.

Most of the other ones I’ve seen out there don’t have a lid and you can’t really throw it in your pocket – because the cartridge will fall out or they’ll break. Or they crack off. They’re not made to be portable. So this one was more unique, with the lid – it was like wow! I’d never seen something like that. And once again the battery life lasts forever. That thing probably lasts a good 10 days with some pretty solid juice every day.

When you hold it in your hand it’s got some real weight to it, it just feels like a tank. It feels heavy-duty. That one, when I was on the road, on tour, it was kind of like my favorite. Because it was really convenient in my pocket.

The third one was the Tomahawk which is basically a cone-shaped pipe – and it has a lighter built in on the end that you can recharge with butane as it runs out. It comes with like five little pods that you can preload with like half a gram of weed. That comes with a little storage tube for the five pods that you can keep on your keychain or whatever. But the beauty of it is, that it’s all one handed.

Most pipes, when you’re smoking, you’ve got two hands. The lighter and the pipe. This one’s really inconspicuous.

NM: I’ve never seen one before that’s one-handed.

CB: Yeah, it’s one-handed and it works great in the wind. The flame is protected a little bit in there. That one was a big hit, you know, because it comes with one pod inside the chamber and another five pods as spares, with half a gram packed in each. You’d probably get a good 10 to 15 tokes out of each pod.

So, you know, you’re taken care of throughout the day. Lord Vaper sells extra pods, you could buy 20 or as many as you want to have on you. But I hadn’t seen anything like that, so it was really cool to help come up with that.

He really loved the artwork of all the stuff, of all the Chief products, so he wanted to create a merch line, so we did a line called ‘The Chief of Thrash!’ Which I thought was cool.

He’s got T-shirts and hats and beanies and anything from a mousepad to coffee cups or whatever you want with the Chief artwork on it.

NM: I believe, having taken a look at it, it blends a heavy metal motif with an indigenous motif.

CB: Yeah, yeah.

NM: That calls back, I believe, to part of your heritage Chuck. Is that incorrect to say?

CB: No, no. I’m Native American. The artwork is cool and that’s why we kind of stuck with the Native American theme and the naming of the products, tying in with the Chief.

Lord Vaper really did a great job – especially doing his homework – he traveled to China to check out a lot of competing products. He did a lot of homework and came up with some great products. When I talk to people I really try to stress to them that all of these products, not one of them is a novelty. These are all top-notch, you know, the real deal.

And I can’t wait to get reviews back. I got great reviews on my first one, but this one is way better. So I can only imagine the reviews on this.

Just being in the vape line – at first – was kind of just like a cool thing, it was a new thing and a new way to be burn and be a little inconspicuous. When I first started doing it I would take my vapes to the movie theaters or a football game or somewhere where you couldn’t just fire up a joint, you know?

I would be using them there and being like, ‘Man, this is great!’

But I also found another reason to vape, and that’s medicinal. I lost my sister-in-law about a year and a half ago. She had cancer. She was having problems eating, her appetite wasn’t there… so her doctor recommended trying cannabis. So my brother called me and asked me if I could rig up a vaporizer and some weed and show her how to use it. And I did. And it worked. You know, it helped her appetite. And this is someone who was raised never smoking weed, totally against it – but she gave it a shot when she was sick and it helped.

Right then, I kind of… it was such a good feeling that… her doctor recommending that? I couldn’t imagine someone who’s never smoked, maybe 50- or 60-years-old, trying to smoke a joint. You’d probably cough your lungs out and you’d probably have a really bad experience and say, ‘I don’t wanna do that.’

But the vaporizer is so smooth and it’s actually more beneficial because you actually get more THC than you would out of a joint. So you’re getting more of the concentrated THC through vaporizing than you do through smoking joints. This is perfect for novice smokers or just medicinal users, people who have never given it a try.

To me that was a whole other thing, this is something way more important than just being an inconspicuous smoking device for the average stoner. This is a perfect for those who require the medicine, this is the answer.

NM: Two more questions related to this subject actually. Do you think there is any connection between cannabis and the heavy metal culture, and has there been for a long time?

CB: Ohhhh yeah! [laughter] Well yeah! I would say yeah, heavy metal culture and music culture in general. The first time I was around weed, or smoked weed, I must have been about 12 or 13 at a KISS concert in San Francisco. My aunt dropped off me and my cousins at this concert, and I didn’t know much about weed and this was my first concert. There was so much weed being smoked in there, and that was only like Colombian Gold back then, but it was such a different and alien smell. You would see people passing it around, it was like a social thing.

That was my first introduction to the whole weed thing. And that started with me at a KISS show. I see that from me being in a band from day one until now – it’s always been a part of that culture too, I think. I’ve always had fans, for my whole career, come up and want to smoke.

‘Hey Chuck! You wanna smoke a joint?’ or ‘Here, I got some weed here for you!’

It’s always been there, you know, and I think now with it legalizing in more states — I can only see it growing, with more people trying it. Hopefully driving some income here in the U.S., and generating tax money for sure.

NM: Do you think that it’s an inevitability, in the United States, eventually, that the federal government will say – whether it’s legalization or decriminalization – that it’s going to happen?

CB: I do. Look at all the states that are going in with it. I hate to say it, but money drives a lot of things. Some people, I guess, maybe they’re sitting back and seeing how it goes down in the other states – analyzing the problems and crime. Likely a lot of people in office have never smoked weed or are totally against it, not thinking of the advantages of sales taxes and the benefits of medicinal use.

I think it’s just the beginning, but I think that people can’t ignore it. Especially the state next to one that’s going to legalize. They’re going to say ‘Wow, they’re generating so much money!’ They’re going to need that.

I think it’s going to keep growing.

NM: Right. In Canada, as you may probably know, we’re set to federally legalize on October 17. That’s some additional pressure from up north, so who knows?

CB: It’s just growing, and again it was so taboo – but so was prohibition of alcohol. But when there’s income and money to be made… I think the same thing will go down with marijuana.

Because it is has come a long way already. It’s not just growing a plant. People go to school, and are creating new strains and different potencies. We’re moving into oil cartridges now with even purer THC concentrates.

There are people just growing, being hippies, and there are people going to school and getting serious about the stuff.

NM: Every aspect of the business is getting more involved for sure. People, like you, say working with oil and concentrates that are big-time popular now. It’s becoming big business, so I agree with you entirely.

We’ll switch tracks a bit here, want to switch back to the band a little bit there. This is sort of a general question of philosophy. With you having been the frontman for Testament for, well, 20 years… no, 30!…

CB: 32, yeah!

NM:… basically, you guys – all of the boys – have become icons of heavy metal in the process. What do you think is the most important element of the heavy metal subculture, in terms of the brotherhood or sisterhood of heavy metal? What are the most important elements of that subculture for you? That you see in the fans and in yourself?

CB: Hmm. Well I mean first and foremost it’s a taste. This style of music isn’t a style – especially today – that you’re going to catch on the radio driving in your car. There’s so much new types of music. I mean you say metal and there’s black metal, speed metal, thrash metal, death metal. There’s so many different offsprings of metal now.

There’s always going to be a new teenager that’s going against the grain and is going to have that rebel attitude I guess.

For me, growing up, starting with metal – especially with it being so new when we were first starting. You almost felt like… the outsider. Because it wasn’t the most popular, you really had to seek it out and listen to it and dig for the stuff you liked. It wasn’t something you listen to on the radio and call a single and go get that record.

I think it has always been, for most, that aggression, that anarchy in the music. Just being the odd man out, being proud of it.

NM: How do you think Testament’s sound has evolved from the ’80s, if at all, and what do you think is the most prominent artistic or creative factor in your guys’ continued success.

CB: Definitely it’s evolved musically. For us, I think we’re fortunate – Testament as a band – we’re lucky to have Eric Peterson. He writes most of the music. He doesn’t really follow a lot of other things. He has his black metal that he enjoys, and he likes his Dragonlord [Eric Peterson’s side project] and loves playing that stuff. But he doesn’t really listen to something current – that which is playing out there – which I think keeps him in his own creative groove. His own ‘Eric Peterson Testament writing blinders’ on.

Which is good for us, because it’s always kept Testament sounding like Testament. But, you know, Eric is also trying to squeeze things in there. Sort of like ‘The Gathering’ record. Elements of black metal with the blast beats and different elements that he enjoys – he’s tried to work them into Testament. I think it’s really kind of expanded us, and I’d say from that ‘Gathering’ point, we really kind of found our identity as a heavy metal band.

It’s kind of like a culmination of everything we did up to that point. Thrash, death, melodic vocals. Death vocals. And then when we came to ‘The Gathering,’ all of it kind of got put in there. And the songwriting just started getting better.

I don’t know. As with anything you do in life, the more that you do it, you’re only gonna get better. So, I don’t know. I’m glad that I have Eric as a writing partner.

NM: He’s clearly doing an excellent job, and not all bands are as fortunate. I don’t even know – in some ways, not all bands are as fortunate, inasmuch as ‘the longer you do it, the better you get.’ Because you guys have consistently produced material, I think, that the fans have always liked. A lot of your peers – and I won’t name names – in the genre haven’t been so lucky. They came up, and they sort of diverged away from their roots in a way that their fans really didn’t appreciate at all.

CB: Some bands try to get on a bandwagon. They listen and focus on what’s current or what’s popular, or who’s got the big tour. You almost have to see what’s happening, but you can’t follow that and change what you do. Because, once you get a fan base for what you do, that’s what starts things. And once you bend from that, it kind of goes out the window – and those fans will move on to something else. Because something that they had enjoyed isn’t the same anymore.

That’s a downfall when bands do that, you know?

NM: There’s a lot of speculation surrounding the new album, though we don’t know a lot about it yet. I see you speaking in some interviews about a potential 2019 release date. Did you have any ideas, or details, that you’d like to throw out there as to how that album is taking shape so far?

CB: I think because we’re feeling good about the new record and what we did on this new record – we have a continuance of what we’ve been writing. We’ve still got some songs on us that probably could have been on the ‘Brotherhood of the Snake’ album. So I think we’ll head down that road first, and see where it goes.

Eric has told me, ‘I’ve got a ballad on this record, so be ready!’

I was like ‘Alright…,’ because we haven’t done a ballad in 20-something years probably. I mean a full-on ballad. ‘Born in a Rut’ off the other one [‘Brotherhood of the Snake’], it’s soft and has melody, but it’s not really a true ballad.

I’m excited. We only finished our tour a few weeks ago, but I’m gonna start going out there next week. They’ll start showing me riffs and I’ll start putting my head to them. So it’s the beginning.

NM: One last question: how do you spend your downtime? Time off tour, time off the studio. What sort of things are you pursuing in your free time nowadays?

CB: I spend a lot of time boating. A few years ago, me and my wife moved on the water, so we have our boat in the backyard, on a dock. We can fish off the dock or jump on the boat and go for lunch. Or just fart around and listen to music out on the water.

We do a lot of that. A lot of our friends that are here have boats as well, so there’s a lot of visiting and hanging out. I really like that, because we’ve been on such a roll and it’s not very often we’re home in the summer. So, I’m gonna take full advantage of it! Haha!

NM: Right on! I know I said that was the last one, but I do have one bonus question for you. Any heavy metal albums that you’re listening to lately that you’re really digging?

CB: The one I really enjoy that probably hasn’t left my stereo is the last Lamb of God record. I thought the songs and the writing for that album was really killer. That’s probably one of my favorites in terms of recent metal records.

NM: Fantastic. Thanks very much for your time today Chuck.

CB: Cool, right on man. Spread the word! It was nice talking to ya!