Pillars of the 90s: Testament Talk Low and The Return of the Heavy
[This is the Sixth installment of the Pillars interview series. You can check out the rest here]
Label: Atlantic Records
Favorite Song: "Dog Faced Gods"
The Bare Bones: Low is the sixth full-length album by Bay Area thrash band Testament, and the first without longtime members Alex Skolnick and Louis Clemente.
The Beating Heart: Testament is a minor miracle in the annals of American thrash metal of the 80s and 90s, and Low is perhaps one major component in its unexpected longevity. As fellow members of the elite thrash metal club were floundering in the unchartered alt-laden waters of the mid 90s Testament rejuvenated its sound, in no small measure due to the band's openness to new influences, most notably that of the new wave of death metal bands that was slowly but surely claiming supremacy over the metal underground. The departure of Skolnick and Clemente following the previous album, The Ritual, enabled Testament to integrate more and more of that brand of metal that would prove to be the genre's future, turning the uncertainty of the 90s to their advantage. Low, introducing James Murphy (Death, Obituary) and John Tempesta (Exodus) saw the band both double down in their heavier side as well as continue their penchant for melodic masterpieces such as "Trail of Tears." It is truly unique album and on that, in our eyes, has turned out be very influential to the contemporary extreme metal scene.
For those reasons and many others we have chosen to include Low in our Pillars series of interviews through a new interview with Testament mastermind Eric Peterson about that unique album (shout out to the great Eliran Kantor for making this happen – he draws pretty too).
Before that, however, a few words about what this all is, and what I hope to achieve in an investigation of the great albums of the 1990s. I feel like what happened, inadvertently with the Albums of the Decade project was a documentation and to an extent consolidation of what it is that I have loved an admired about the music of the past 10 years or so. I began writing this blog as a way back into music and heavy music after something of a hiatus from metal in the early 2000s and it was for me an investigation not only of what I love but also why I love it. And those interviews were instrumental in my own understanding of my appreciation of music and, really of art more generally. However, having gone through that series as long as I have has also pitted me face to face with the understanding that the wellspring of my own musical inspiration as well as that of many of the artists I admire today – that weird, unique confluence of inspirations that made up the musical scene of the 1990s – had to be tackled in some way.
So, now that that's out of the way, follow us on Facebook, Instagram, Spotify and support whatever it is that we do on Patreon, and check out our kinda-sorta podcast, MATEKHET (YouTube, Spotify and all that). On to my conversation with the great Eric Peterson. Enjoy.
Do you remember a moment you had, perhaps as a younger person, that really changed what you thought about music? That scared you or shocked you? I’m assuming you may have had many of those, but one that sticks out.
Totally. I remember being in eighth grade, it was the summer of ‘79, and I really wanted to Day on the Green, a Bay Area festival at an outdoor arena so that about 55,000 could attend. And they had the likes of Led Zeppelin in ‘77, Judas Priest who came over for Stained Class, they were the opener. And just reading about this, I was just getting into music at that time, I ended up taking BART [Bay Area Rapid Transit] from my hometown of Lafayette – I had to go to the dentist’s office to get my braces tightened [laughs]…
And I decided to take the BART to Oakland to go see Day on the Green. I was a big Aerosmith fan, Draw the Line had just come and Rocks, I loved that era of Aerosmith, and I also got turned on to AC/DC and thought they were pretty cool and Ted Nugent was headlining, and Frank Marino’s Mahogany Rush was playing too and I was really into live records at that time. So, all those bands were playing so I just figured: “I’ve gotta go.” I remember getting up to the front and AC/DC came on. When you’re up to the front you can’t really see the band unless they walk to the front, and I was right against the rail and as I looked up I could see Angus [Young] banging and then Bon Scott appeared, and he just looked like a god. Just the way he stood there and just commanded the vocals, I was just blown away. I wasn’t there to see them, I mean, I wanted to see them but I wasn’t expecting…and they just fucking brought the thunder [laughs]. And then Aerosmith came on, Steven Tyler had mascara that was all smeared and he looked haggard. They didn’t finish the set, I remember him telling everyone that we were a bunch of dumb motherfuckers and then he fell down and Joe Perry tried to finish the song and then they dragged him off. And I was like: “Wow!”
So, yeah, that was pretty cool. I was really, really blown away. The other one that really made me feel weird…. So, that [Day on the Green] was a moment of “Amazing, wow, this is really cool! I want to play guitar!” I mean, I had a guitar at that point but mostly I would stand in front of the mirror and play Scorpions, Aerosmith, Judas Priest and that kind of stuff. But a couple of years later Iron Maiden came with Number of the Beast and so I went to see them and they sounded like dogshit. And I was like: “What!? This is my favorite band!” Because I got into them from the first record. And they were earlier in the day too and then Black Sabbath came on and they just sounded amazing. Dio did the horns, and obviously he had done that before but it was kind of new to everybody, or at least new to me, and when I saw 50,000 people doing the horns I got this feeling of something like devil worship, and I didn’t do it because I got scared. It really made me feel uncomfortable, but I liked it and I was scared all at the same time. Just the way he looked, with the black satin cape on with a purple lining, he just looked like the devil or something [laughs]. I mean, I ended up touring with them and meeting him and he was a sweetheart, but that kind of music really phased me.
So, I had a question but I also have a kind of intermediate question: Do you come from a traditional family? Were these things scary to you or shocking because of how you grew up as well?
My parents were very young when they had me – my mom was 19 and my dad was 21 – so by the time I was old enough to talk and have friends over they would have company at night with friends, listening to records, Carly Simon, Carole King, Jimmy Reed. And then there was this record where I went: “Wait, but what’s this?” and it was kind of purple with nature, and then there was this person in the background staring at me and I was like: “What is this?” And it was Black Sabbath’s first record. And I remember putting it on and just freaking out [laughs], I think i started crying or something.
How old were you?
Probably about six. If you’d look at my records you would see the best of the Jackson Five, stuff like that. It’s funny because I have all those records now, I have all my parents’ records, all the Rolling Stones records, all that cool vinyl.
It’s interesting because I asked that question a few times already and I’m pretty sure you’re one the only person who brought up not necessarily the music aspect of the live show but the spectacle or performances aspect. You were in awe of an experience.
It just gave me goosebumps, you know? You look up and you see the bass player just headbanging, basically just doing the hustle – he walks up, does a move and then walks back, walks up, and so on. But then when Bon Scott just stood there in his almost-white faded jeans and this denim jacket all torn up. And at that point he also looked really healthy, I remember seeing him in magazine pictures and his hair was much shorter. He just looked super healthy and confident. There was this kind of David Lee Roth sexuality about him in that he was just cool. And I’m in eight grade, going: “Oh my god! I want to be him!” Just in his confidence, how he’s chewing gun and his singing, plus they just sounded really good.
So, it’s safe to say that moment was a long time ago.
Yeah, ‘79. I remember it though. I have the visuals in my head.
I kind of feel like I was there just listening to it. But most of that time, for you, was spent recording music, touring with your music. And sometimes you’re hit by something when you’re a kid and you don’t really have an appreciation of what it was that drew you in. But I wanted to ask whether Eric of now can look back and say I kind know more about what it was I experienced or think about ways in which you yourself as a performer tried to replicate that?
Yeah. It was a good show, they probably had good stage sound, because they came on and they were just firing on all cylinders, and Aerosmith were kind of messy and sloppy, and you could see him just yelling at the monitor guy – but it was still cool. It was “Oh my god that’s Steven Tyler! That’s Joe Perry!” Brad Whitford was bad ass back then.
He still is in my book.
Yeah, he wrote all my favorites – “Round and Round,” “Nobody’s Fault,” some of the darker stuff.
Do you feel like that performance informed you when you went out on stage? Or when you were writing a riff or trying to shock someone, do you have those experiences in the back of your mind? Kind of to give that to other people?
Well, yeah, it made me say to myself: “I want to do that.” I remember looking at my eight-grade yearbook with my daughter the other day and we were looking through there and you know everyone writes something. And she said: “Why is everyone saying something about the talent show?”. I played the talent show, we got a band together and we played “Rock ‘n’ Roll Fantasy” by Bad Company. I wanted to play an AC/DC or Aerosmith song but my singer was the football-player-jock rocker dude and he really wanted to play Bad Company. It was still fun, it’s a cool song. But I remember everyone telling me “You were so good at that talent show! You’ll probably be a rock star!” and all that. And then there was a page that said “What do you want to do when you grow up?” and everybody’s either joking or serious, and I looked at mine and it said: “I want to be a rock star” [laughs].
I wonder how many kids wrote that but never got to be one.
Yeah. Or kids who said they wanted to be doctors and ended being physical education teachers. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
Or kids who wrote they wanted to be doctors and ended up being rock stars [laughs].
Yeah, like David Lee Roth. I Mean, I’ve been on stage and felt like I can’t connect to the audience because I’m too far away, or it sounds like shit, or I don’t feel comfortable. But then I’ve had shows where I feel like I’m right there. It feels biblical, like I’m the golden calf that they’re carrying [laughs]. You get to these moments where you couldn’t have dreamt that you would ever get that feeling, you can’t even touch it, you just have to experience it. And the crowd gets to experience with you too because you know where you’re connecting.
I would assume that the shows you thought were good are the shows that the crowd thought were good.
Yeah, yeah. Though there have also been shows when I thought it didn’t go well and someone told me it was the best show they’ve ever seen. I just zip it, just nod. I wouldn’t want to take that away from them.
Yeah. My mother in law has this tendency to serve a dish and say there’s something wrong with it before we start eating it. It’s never a good idea. Probably best to let people taste it and then if it’s good you can pretend like you meant it to be that way.
Or maybe she knows it’s killer and then she says that and you’re let down and then you taste it and: “Oh, this is dope!” [laughs].
[Laughs] Maybe, maybe. So, we’re going to talk about Low and I wanted to share my thought process in how I finally settled on that album. The first Testament album I ever owned was Souls of Black, and so it was very tempting for me to go there, from a personal nostalgic place. But then it seemed that the biggest album you guys had in that decade, at least in terms of what’s happening with music now is The Gathering. Because Testament was always a heavier band for what it was, you always had those flirtations with death metal and Chuck always had that deep growling voice. And so if the context was metal right now then it would have to be The Gathering. But then I settled on Low. Because The Gathering is a great album, very modern-sounding. But then there’s Low, and it’s such a strange album and the more I thought about it the more I liked that fact about it. Because it’s such a product of the mid 90s with all the cross pollination and cross influence that was taking place all over heavy music, and a lot of bands made really unusual albums then. And on one hand it's a period where a lot of bands were accused of selling out, of compromising with alt rock or grunge, but I personally like it when artists are faced with challenges they had to meet. And to meet it seems that Low was a challenge well met. That you guys faced all these changes, in lineup, in the industry, everything was different from even a couple of years prior. And that’s a challenge – what kind of album can Testament create given all these changes? And the result is Low, which is a great album but very much of its time. I have no idea if any of this makes any sense to you.
Well, as you were saying that I was picturing everything that was going on in my life then. Everything was different. The first thing is that you wake up, you turn on the radio and KNAC isn’t on the air anymore. Where are all the long-haired people? Everyone looked kind of like in the 60s again – everyone is wearing sweater shirts and flannels, and all of a sudden we’re on tour and there are posters of this band called Pearl Jam and everything was that vibe. Everything just switched over to the Seattle thing. And, to tell you the truth, after I had thought about it, there were so many metal bands that it was just getting overpopulated with mediocre metal. I’m not talking about the bands that are still around, kicking ass now, just a lot of bands and everyone was doing the same thing and it was just getting boring. And at the same time there was a new movement in thrash metal, which was strong.
And then Alex [Skolnick] told us that he was leaving the band, this is after The Ritual. And the record sales were doing so well because of the other kinds of music. I remember being on your and feeling like we’re on a plane and a plane is about to crash and we needed to start throwing stuff out of the plane so we could survive. So we were getting rid of this, getting rid of that. We had to let go of our management, which was making way too much money, we had to get rid of our tour manager, who was awesome, but we were just waking up to the fact that we were paying these people way too much money. When we started the tour we had this big production, by the time we ended it we basically didn’t have anything.
And then we went home and though: “OK, what are we going to do?” I just pretty much wrote Low, the music. We got Glen Alvelais to join the band and we basically started touring a lot. And then we got Paul Bostaph to join us, because Louie [Clemente] left around when Alex did. It just felt like we were sinking, like: “What’s going on?” But when we got Paul and Glen in the band – Paul was in Slayer and I guess they were writing and they let us borrow him for a whole – we ended up doing the Return to Apocalyptic City record, which was a live EP. And when we came back we knew Paul had to get back to Slayer so we recruited John Tempesta, from Exodus.
At the time he was pretty good, but I had been with Lou for so long that I was now telling drummers what to do. I was tired of not being to say what I want with drummers, because I would tell Lou and he couldn’t do a lot of the stuff that I wanted so I just got used to “OK, up beat, down beat, thrash beat.” But with John I could see the potential so I remember just being on him: “Do this, try this, try that.” He probably got pissed at me a lot but later he would go: “Dude, you kind of made me into a better drummer,” just because I was always on his ass. And he improved so much from when he was in Exodus. And when we were working on Low Glen didn’t really like anything. Like, when I introduced the song “Low” he went: “Well, I don’t like it,” and so I asked: “What don’t you like about it?” and he said “I don’t know,” and I said: “Well, we’re playing it” [laughs]. So, it was kind of weird and we had to let him go. He was a great person and a really good guitar player but at the time I don’t know where he was at musically and it just wasn’t going to work, because he didn’t like anything and we had some really good songs. We had “Trail of Tears,” we had half the record done.
So we just kept working, and when we were getting ready to record our record label guy just suggested: “Hey, you should get this guy named James Murphy, he’s like Alex only in death metal, a virtuoso guitar player and he was in all these bands.” And of course I had heard of those bands but I hadn’t really listened to them, I wasn’t really a fan of that stuff yet, I was more into the old-school Mercyful Fate stuff. And so he came in and we wrote one song together, “Hail Mary,” and that was pretty cool. He kind of stayed in my house and molded his style to Testament. And I had just got married too, so I just got a house, got married, had a little kid, so my life had totally changed. And it was the first time when we really knew what we wanted to sound like. I think that in our first four records, now that I look back I think their sound is kind of weird, especially on Souls of Black, that guitar tone is so weird. But at the time, being young, maybe not paying attention, you just go “Yeah, that’s good! What do you think?” “Oh yeah, that’s amazing!” Plus they used to really crank it in the studio, and it’s a professional studio so it sounded amazing there.
But with Low we were very cautious about who we were going to work with. I wanted to get a much better tone and much better-sounding record. We ended up hiring Bill Kennedy and Gggarth. They were more alternative-sounding people, but we ended up working in a much more high-class studio in L.A. But after that we finally got the mix and we were like: “This isn’t cutting it, this isn’t going to work.” And it was kind of a bad scene because we had already spent $250,000 at that point – this is when record budgets were huge [laughs]. But that was going away. The footnotes would say “A year later studios began disappearing because ADATs were about to pop up and people were going to start home recording.” But, anyway, we ended up finding Michael Wagener, who did Master of Puppets, Accept, Skid Row, and he was just amazing, like an angel sent from heaven. Because he just gave us this sound that we’ve always wanted – that bigger, professional sound. The kind that you can put on any classic record and it still sounds good.
That came from the mix?
Yeah, it came from the mix. I mean, our recordings always went well but our mixes were always weird to me, especially the early stuff. It just sounds of that time. And what I meant by the classic stuff sounding good, like that first Led Zeppelin record – if you put that on now it would still be very clear, the drums sound like drums. It’s not [emulates reverbed drums] that you go “Oh, that’s the 80s], it just sounds like a drum set, and that’s what we wanted. We just wanted it to sound like what it sounds like in the room. I think The Ritual was kind of leaning that way, with Tony Platt – he did Back in Black and a lot of cool stuff. But Low was more so, and it was also the birth of us messing with death metal. Our record company told us: “We need something more alternative” and so I was like: “I know what they mean, but I don’t think they understand what they mean,” because “alternative” wasn’t alternative anymore, alternative was normal. So I wrote “Dog Faced Gods” and I wrote the lyrics to it and I went to Chuck as we were rehearsing it and I said: “OK, you know how on ‘Blessed in Contempt’ or ‘Empty Life’ when you go [growls]?” And he goes “Yeah,” so I said: “So you’re going to sing this like that.” And he went: “What!?” And I told him to just try it, and he went: “No, I’m not doing that” and he did this in this other, higher voice. And said: “No, you know how you do [growls again]” [laughs]. It took me a couple days and then he finally did it and we’re all going crazy in the room.
Did he get it immediately? That it was good?
Not at first, but when he did get it he was like: “Wow, I can do kung fu!” [laughs]. It was really cool, it was a cool moment. It was such a cool moment, in fact, that the entire next record was like that. We kinda went a little crazy [laughs]. And it was funny because [the record company] went: “Where’s our alternative song” and we were like “This is your alternative song.” And it was, it was very alternative to what was going on.
That’s super interesting because a lot of the charm I find in that period of music is that in many different styles of heavy music there were people coming in with divergent influences and a lot of weird, interesting things were being mixed. You had bands like Tool who were bridging in the prog thing and bands like Helmet who were bringing in the noise-rock thing or bands like White Zombie who were all over the place. And then there were bands, and I guess I can include you guys in that group, that came in from the 80s, bands like Napalm Death or Carcass, and they all had these weird, mid-90s albums that no one seems to have a very high opinion about but they’re always my favorite albums.
Because there’s something very strange happening when all these elements are colliding. And so I think it’s interesting that you’re told to do an “alternative record” but you have James Murphy in the band so your version of alternative is bringing in death metal influences.
Yeah, but also….. I remember when Alex quit, the other guys were really bummed, and I also didn’t know what would happen. But at the same time it was kind of like a Home Alone experience -[sounding dejected] “My family left me at the airport…” and then [sounding elated]: “My family left me at the airport!” [laughs], or whatever it is he says. So I went: “Wait, I can be heavy!” Because Alex was fighting with his other side, he wanted to play jazz, he didn’t want to play metal and so he was coming up with songs that sounded like “Pour Some Sugar on Me.” And I don’t mean that in a bad way, they were really good, but it was really commercial hard rock, which was going away from what I wanted to do. I wanted to play “Dog Faced Gods,” you know? And Louie and Alex just weren’t there anymore. So when they left and I had John Tempesta who was new in the band and he’s not going to fight me, he’s going to listen to me – at least for a record or two [laughs]. They all turn on me eventually [laughs]. No, but it was cool, I had everyone in that frame of mind. Except Chuck, but he always comes around and outdoes himself. I’ll push his buttons and he’ll push mine – he’ll hate me and then about a year later he’d say: “Let’s do something like that song!” And I’d go: “But you hated that!” But, it was cool. We ended up with a really cool record in a weird time. We had a ballad in “Trail of Tears,” “Low” was a really cool song. And we tuned down to C sharp. Before that we had been on standard E the whole time. So, yeah, there were a lot of changes going on.
Obviously you just kind of said it, but that’s not the only lineup change that would happen and it’s not the only one that would involve people with a history of death metal or heavier music, and I wonder whether or not that first taste of artistic freedom resonated with you later on? That you took the opportunity to take on new people in order to shift the sound of the band? A mindset where you could instead of saying “Oh shit we lost our guitarist?” instead saying “We gained an opportunity to make a heavier or groovier record?”
Testament got better, we definitely got better. It wasn’t as much about the solos…. Of course we wanted good solos, but it was less about pinpointing it on one person. It was more about “Let’s write some good songs and get back to being heavy.” I mean, back when we started we had “Reign of Terror,” “Curse of the Legions of Death,” a lot of stuff that was going toward what we had on Low but when we got Alex in the band he was kind of like Yingwe and we just adapted to that. Which was great for us, it was perfect, it set us apart. But when we had done all that and we went back to having artistic freedom we were like “Well, what are we going to do? Well, we’re not going to be Practice What You Preach or Souls of Black so let’s just be heavy.
I just think it’s interesting that with all the lineup changes that happened in the big thrash bands, wherever a member was switched out they usually went for a member from another thrash band. And it just feels like Testament caught on to something at that moment since, while the Florida death metal scene wasn’t a big deal for you at the time, it would come to be a very big deal and was actually a huge deal in underground terms already.
Oh, it was a big deal at the time. I remember fans asking me about Cannibal Corpse and stuff like that and before I could make up my mind Alex was already making fun of it so I kind of went along with him: “Oh yeah, what’s that funny thing they’re doing with the vocals?” and then later I got Dragonlord and I’m screaming my ass off [laughs]. We were just doing what we wanted [during Low]. I mean, we starting out doing what we wanted but somewhere along the way it became too much, too quick.
You already talked about “Dog Faced Gods” so I won’t ask about that again, but I was wondering if you could say how “Urotsukidōji” came to be.
I was just getting into anime at the time, Pushead [Brian Schroeder] had turned me on to it. Pushead did a lot of art for Metallica. He had done stuff for other people but he’s probably most known for doing all the art for …And Justice for All and Damage Inc., he had that signature skull look. And he just told me about about this show Urotsukidoji and it was all demon’s cocks flynig through the air, demons having sex with girls in the air [laughs], heads exploding and I was like: “Holy shit! This is crazy!” I mean, for me Japanese animation was Speed Racer and Kimba and some other stuff, but this was some new, crazy stuff. And James [Murphy] was really into it too, and so we ended up just picking out parts of the song and replacing it with stuff. James was staying at my house then and so we contacted the film company and said we wanted to use certain clips. And they said we could use it but it was $25,000 and royalties on top of that and we were like: “What?!” So me and him went to Michael Rosen’s house and we ended up doing the voiceovers ourselves in his garage. I did all the Japanese stuff and he did all the German stuff and we just kind of did it ourselves.
And the music?
Yeah the song is crazy and kind of all over the place. It’s just metal but just made up of so many different pieces. It’s riffs that I had throughout the years, broken pieces of stuff that I had laying around, kind of Frankensteined it together. I remember telling John and Greg “You two guys just jam – John you do this beat and Greg do something there” [laughs]. It was a lot of fun.
Alright, final question. When you think about Low, if you do, is there anything that you’re especially proud of? An element that you think held up especially well? The mix, a song, the album?
It felt like our second wind. We had just gone through barely making it out alive from touring, Alex had left. But I knew that we were going to be OK. We’re going to write some really heavy stuff and it’s going to be killer. And it was also a time when we were working with new management, we were working with some really inspiring people. James had come to the band and me and him became buddies. He would ask me: “Hey, how come you don’t play any solos” and I would say: “Ah, because I was told I’m the rhythm guy [laughs]. But that was a big thing for me, that I played a lot of solos on Low and we did back-to-back stuff, and it was really cool for Murphy to point that out. He’d say: “Yeah, you’re Schnker and I’m Uli” [laughs]. It was cool, like being kids again.