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Interview: Guitar Virtuoso Alex Skolnick of Testament

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Soul legend James Brown will always be known as the “Hardest Working Man in Show Business.” But keep your eye on one guitar virtuoso's itinerary over the next few years and you’ll find yourself asking if he isn’t the hardest working man on six strings.

The founding guitarist for influential thrash metal act Testament, New York-based Alex Skolnick has reunited with that band after a lengthy estrangement. They have a new album (fittingly titled The Formation of Damnation) and have been burning up venues across the country for very appreciative audiences. Frankly, they’ve never sounded better – which is a good thing, because they’re on the road together for at least the remainder of the year.

With a resume that includes studying guitar with Joe Satriani, stints in Savatage, Trans-Siberian Orchestra (TSO), and a number of offshoot jazz groups – including his current Alex Skolnick Trio (AST) – the six-string whiz guitarist is showing no signs of slowing down. In the middle of a Testament headlining tour and a shared “Metal Masters” tour with Judas Priest, Heaven & Hell and Motorhead, Skolnick is also doing solo shows, prepping for more recordings and seemingly crisscrossing the planet.

And when he’s not scheduled to be somewhere on the above itinerary, he’s tirelessly working with the Alex Skolnick Trio with Matt Zebroski on drums, and Nathan Peck on bass – supporting a sleeve of three releases that includes last year’s smashing Last Day in Paradise (Magnitude/Magna Carta Records).

When does Skolnick find any time to himself, you might wonder. Maybe while running errands? Scratch that, people. Cleveland-based author/journalist Peter Chakerian caught up with him on his cell phone in Brooklyn, New York last month while the guitarist was stocking up at the store. Their conversation covered a lot of ground (literally and figuratively) as Skolnick traversed city blocks, dodged traffic, hopped buses, bought groceries, and prepped for a trip to Europe.

The conversation – sans ambient street noise, “correct change,” and conversation with the checkout clerk – went a little something like this:

Thanks for making time. I know you’ve got a lot going on.

Glad to do it. Thanks!

You have broadened your musical horizons and improved as a guitarist in some very unique and organic ways. It’s great to hear your metal playing informing your jazz work and vice versa these days. Even the phrasing and approach seems very different. Talk about your transition from metal to jazz and how each genre informs the other in your world.

Well, thanks. I do try to find common links between each one like you mentioned.  And I think that for me, metal helps with the technique and fluidity and also the sense of conviction. On the other side, jazz makes me play a lot more relaxed and gives me more control with metal playing. That musical knowledge [from jazz] also offers a lot of harmonic choices I probably wouldn’t have realized otherwise.

What’s it like playing again with Testament? Can you talk about how stable the relationship is these days, and lessons learned from that time apart?

Yeah, I think we’re all at a good place. I was being pulled towards different music in the past and that perhaps was a threat to the band, maybe in the sense that I wasn’t “metal enough” or something. But in the time we’ve been apart, they’ve worked with other guitar players and, I think, over time have come to appreciate what I bring to the band. The reverse is true, too. I realize that not all situations are perfect and no matter what your vocation, there are challenges to collaboration for everyone. There’s much more mutual appreciation now than there was before, which adds to that stability.

From all accounts, it seems the “one step at a time” approach you all took in reforming the band helped heal the partnership, too. It could just as easily not worked out, like that old adage says, “you can’t go home again.”

Yes. Part of it was definitely the way we all got back into it. We eased into it slowly and gently. We did a few shows in 2005 and 2006 and before we knew it, we all realized that we were having fun. The audiences grew and, to a certain extent, it was almost like starting a new band again. The audience was new, too. We’re still getting a lot of younger fans in the audience, which is great – those people [who were] too young to see the band the first time around. It made sense to do a record after we realized these things, even though we didn’t push ourselves to do one. And looking at it all now, The Formation of Damnation is getting a lot of attention. It did well on the Billboard charts and we ended up as an MTV “Artist of the Week” as well.

It’s a great new record, by the way. It reminded me a lot of the old Testament days, but it still sounded fresh and contemporary – not at all as dated as some of the recent work your contemporaries have put out.

That was really important. None of us wanted to do something that sounded dated; there’s no point in going that route. Even before I started playing with Testament again, I had done some guest appearances with Lamb of God [on their Ashes of the Wake tour] and considered stepping back in again after that. We were all on the same page and clear about what we wanted to achieve: something current and satisfying.

Your recent show at Peabody’s Down Under in Cleveland was a much more commanding performance than even I expected. Has this reunion led to more than you expected or perhaps even bargained for?

Yes, most definitely! (laughs) On both counts! It really is great. Even though it’s my old band from my early days, it has been a little overwhelming. I’ll be honest; it’s been an adjustment in terms of scheduling as well. This started out as a part-time thing – like a lot of the things I’ve been doing. This year, it’s the thing! (laughs) The jazz trio also is very important to me, because it provides me the most creative freedom. Working that into the schedule with South By Southwest, a New Zealand guitar festival, the Monsters of Rock with Ozzy [Osbourne] in Canada and a run of US dates with Judas Priest, Heaven & Hell and Motorhead has been pretty intense. (laughs) But I’m squeezing it in.

And then before you know it, TSO starts up for me in November and December! Friends are laughing at me because I’m so busy, but these are all good problems to have. The fact that all these projects are so successful that people are clamoring for windows of my time – and leaving me to ask for days off – is a good thing.

Indeed. With so little time to yourself, are you getting to hear anything new? What are you listening to these days? Any new metal artists intriguing you right now?

I have to say I really like Meshuggah a lot. I like the really unique bands, like Dillinger Escape Plan and Apocalyptica – which started out as a novelty but proved to be more than that, didn’t it? A lot of people thought my jazz trio thing was a novelty when we started, but it’s serious, straight-ahead improv based on arrangements and not a novelty and people realize that now. And I think it’s gone as well as it has because I related to what some of these other acts like Apocalyptica are doing.

I know you’ve got gigs lined up with Testament, particularly on the “Metal Masters” tour with Judas Priest. But what’s the future look like for Testament – and your involvement in it – after this year?

Well, we’re getting big support gigs this year and the offers are coming in for next year, too. I want to keep doing it and make it work for as long as it feels right to do it. (laughs) Let’s put it this way: I can definitely see us doing another record, but the way I work, I can’t see looking beyond one record at the time. Right now, yes, I see it continuing but not necessarily at the expense of doing my other projects as well. It’s all about balance. I have another instrumental project I want to do on top of everything else we’ve talked about and it’s gonna be tough because there’s so much going on.

I want to do everything at the highest possible level. So basically, I’m gearing up for a busy couple of years! (laughs)

Like a lot of people, my first exposure to your jazz work was the Goodbye to Romance: Standards for a New Generation CD. Was it intentional to rework metal classics in the hopes that you would broaden the minds and palates of your fans and get them to come along for the ride you’re on now with the Alex Skolnick Trio?

There were a number of things involved. For one, I didn’t want to do a typical jazz album. At the time, I was in New York, going to jazz gigs every week and playing whenever I could with a lot of different artists [while] getting my degree [from New School University]. I was working with a lot of artists I wouldn’t have worked with before. (horn honks) I felt like I was missing out in playing with different genres of music and different instruments by playing in Testament. Beyond that, the trio format is my favorite jazz context; it allows for the greatest flexibility and is a standard for most jazz musicians to explore. I figured, I could force trying to be accepted in the jazz community or I could just do my own thing and [rework] these metal songs.

If that inadvertently converted and brought in metal fans, that’s great, but that was not the byproduct of an intention or gimmick. My thought was: Do an album that helps express yourself in jazz idiom and don’t deny where you come from.

Parts of the last record Last Day in Paradise reminded me of the group The Bad Plus, although not as proggy perhaps. Are you into them at all and who are some of the newer artists in the jazz realm that you’re drawn to?  

The Bad Plus is excellent. They’re great musicians on a whole other level. But I haven’t listened to them a lot as a group; I am much more familiar with them as individuals. There’s a band called EST [Esbjörn Svensson Trio] which some journalists have mistakenly called “Europe’s answer to The Bad Plus.” They don’t do rock songs, but they add rock elements to their work. EST is a big influence on me, and one of my more favorite bands…

[Two weeks after this interview was conducted, pianist Esbjörn Svensson died in a scuba diving accident at 44 years old].

Other that that, I’m a Pat Metheny fan, I like a lot of Herbie Hancock’s work. I really admire both of those guys. All of what they do is so diverse. Bill Frisell, John Scofield… I try to look at what all my favorite artists are doing and, without knocking off, try to incorporate elements of those influences.

Are there some accomplished jazz musicians that you’d like to work with? And if so, what about those artists make them so appealing…?

[Jazz bassist] Dave Holland is a big hero of mine. Jack DeJohnette gets great rock tone on his drums and plays with McCoy Tyner and Keith Jarrett. He’s brilliant. Playing with all those guys would be great. Cuban piano player Gonzalo Rubalcaba, Chick Corea – I love his collaborations and acoustic playing. His work with Bobby McFerrin is one of my all time favorites. Playing with him would be an amazing experience. 

Based on each AST release, is it safe to assume that you will continue to offer more of your own original compositions with each new offering.

Yes. And there are a couple rough ideas floating around in my head right now, but probably no new record until next year. As we talked about earlier, I can’t really comprehend that right now. It’s definitely in the works for next year.

Are you road-testing any of those ideas for the new record?

We’re still doing the material from Last Day in Paradise, which still feels very fresh to me. I am sure we’ll do that at some point when we schedule some more dates.

Final thoughts for your fans that may not be familiar with your jazz side, but could be convinced to come and experience the AST?

It’s great contrast if you’re used to a metal show. For one thing, there’s no mosh pit! (laughs) It’s a completely different experience. It’s engaging in a more quietly intense way. You get to observe [musical] interplay and become a part of the music – which turns out different every night. It’s a relaxed fun experience with a lot of energy. Parts of it gets really crazy, but it’s very multi-dimensional, dynamic and a lot of fun.

Alex Skolnick on tour 2008 with Testament (unless otherwise indicated):

June

06/25/08 Barcelona, Spain – Apolo
06/27/08 Graspop Festival – Dessel, Belgium
06/28/08 Gods of Metal – Bologna, Italy
06/29/08 Hunterfest – Szczytno, Poland

July

07/12/08 Stadionul Municipal – Sibiu, Romania
07/16/08 New Plymouth, New Zealand (solo – G-TARanaki International Guitar Fest)
07/17/08 New Plymouth, New Zealand (solo – G-TARanaki International Guitar Fest)
07/18/08 New Plymouth, New Zealand (solo – G-TARanaki International Guitar Fest)

07/22/08 WAMU Theatre – Seattle, WA (w/ Judas Priest)
07/23/08 Memorial Centre – Victoria, BC (w/ Judas Priest)
07/24/08 GM Place Vancouver, BC (w/ Judas Priest)
07/26/08 McMahon Stadium – Calgary, AB (Ozzy Osbourne's “Monsters Of Rock”)
07/27/08 Shaw Centre – Edmonton, AB (w/ Judas Priest)
07/29/08 Credit Union Centre – Saskatoon, SK – Credit Union Centre (w/ Judas Priest)
07/30/08 MTS Centre Winnipeg, MB (w/ Judas Priest)
07/31/08 Epic – Minneapolis, MN

August

08/01/08 Eagles Ballroom – Milwaukee, WI
08/03/08 L'Olympia De Montreal Theatre – Montreal, Canada
08/04/08 Theater Imperial – Quebec, PQ
08/06/08 Susquehanna Bank Center – Camden, NJ (Judas Priest’s “Metal Masters”)
08/07/08 Nissan Pavilion – Bristow, VA (Judas Priest’s “Metal Masters”)
08/08/08 The Chance – Poughkeepsie, NY
08/09/08 PNC Bank Arts Center – Holmdel, NJ (Judas Priest’s “Metal Masters”)
08/10/08 Nikon at Jones Beach – Wantagh, NY (Judas Priest’s “Metal Masters”)
08/12/08 Erie County Fair – Buffalo, NY (Judas Priest’s “Metal Masters”)
08/13/08 Molson Amphitheatre – Toronto, ON (Judas Priest’s “Metal Masters”)
08/14/08 Palladium – Worcester, MA
08/15/08 Mohegan Sun Casino – Uncasville, CT (Judas Priest’s “Metal Masters”)
08/16/08 Post Gazette Pavilion – Pittsburgh, PA (Judas Priest’s “Metal Masters”)
08/17/08 Monkey Bar – Huntington, WV
08/18/08 DTE Energy Music Theatre – Detroit, MI (Judas Priest’s “Metal Masters”)
08/19/08 FMB Amphitheatre – Chicago, IL (Judas Priest’s “Metal Masters”)
08/21/08 Diamond Ballroom – Oklahoma City, OK
08/22/08 Superpages.com Amphitheatre – Dallas, TX (Judas Priest’s “Metal Masters”)
08/23/08 Mitchell Pavilion – Houston, TX (Judas Priest’s “Metal Masters”)
08/24/08 Verizon Amphitheatre – San Antonio, TX (Judas Priest’s “Metal Masters”)
08/26/08 El Paso County Coliseum – El Paso, TX (w/ Judas Priest)
08/27/08 Journal Pavilion – Albuquerque, NM (Judas Priest’s “Metal Masters”)
08/28/08 Cricket Pavilion – Phoenix, AZ (Judas Priest’s “Metal Masters”)
08/29/08 Rialto Theater – Tucson, AZ
08/30/08 Glen Helen Pavilion – San Bernardino, CA (Judas Priest’s “Metal Masters”)
08/31/08 Shoreline – Mountain View, CA (Judas Priest’s “Metal Masters”)

September

09/03/08 Dr. Watson’s Pub – Philadelphia, PA (Alex Skolnick Trio)
09/04/08 Club Café – Pittsburgh, PA (Alex Skolnick Trio)
09/05/08 Wilbert’s Food & Music – Cleveland, OH (Alex Skolnick Trio)
09/12/08 Dublin Underground – Albany, NY (Alex Skolnick Trio)

09/17/08 Senayan Indoor Tennis – Jakarta, Indonesia
09/20/08 Club Citta – Kawasaki, Japan
09/21/08 Club Citta – Kawasaki, Japan
09/25/08 The Arena – Brisbane, Australia
09/26/08 The Hi-Fi – Melbourne Australia
09/27/08 The Metro – Sydney, Australia

October

10/01/08 The Star Live – Beijing, China
10/04/08 SFA – Seoul, Korea

November

11/09/08 AMI Stadium – Christchurch, New Zealand

Visit Alex Skolnick online at his official website, and the Testament site

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About Peter Chakerian