Chuck Billy is the last person to waste time or squander opportunity. He’s busy promoting a sick new release from his side project Dublin Death Patrol (with former Exodus singer Steve “Zetro” Souza) and of course the latest effort from legendary thrash icons Testament, “Dark Roots of Earth”. The new Testament album is already every bit the critical and commercial success that the last album “Formation of Damnation” was and the band is blazing a trail across the globe on tour with their old friends in Anthrax and Death Angel. Chuck is a guy who can speak with passion and sincerity about practically any subject and we recently spent some time talking about life, health and of course….metal. Read on….
Legendary Rock Interviews: Hey Chuck…how are things?
Chuck Billy: Great, things are great. Busy, but great.
LRI: You went through a well documented health scare about a decade ago. A lot of us who are fans and hate doctors visits received a big wake up call from hearing about you but I’ve always wanted to know what symptoms did you have or when did you knew something was wrong?
Chuck: I had started smoking cigarettes at that time. I had been smoking for about two or three months and I was just walking up the stairs in my house and just huffing and puffing and thinking “Man, these cigarettes are just killing me. I gotta stop smoking, I can’t breathe”. That was the first thing I noticed. I think I was just really fortunate and blessed and had an angel looking down on me because I probably would have just kept right on smoking anyway and I was the kind of guy that never went to the doctor. I probably hadn’t been to the doctor since my high school physical to play football. One day, totally out of the blue, a real estate agent knocked on my door and told me that she had somebody who wanted to buy my house. My house wasn’t even for sale but she just had someone she was talking to who had told her that they wanted to buy my house. I told her I wasn’t interested but just wondered how much she’d sell it for and when she told me how much she could sell it for I was like “Well, okay, if you can sell it for that much than maybe I am interested” (laughs). So she did. She sold it and at that time I was playing with these guys in Antioch which was about an hour from my house and hangin out in this really nice little country town with not a lot goin on out there. So when we sold our house I told my wife, “Hey let’s move out there, it’s quiet, on a river, let’s go there”. So, the drummer I was working with there was a guy from Sadus and his wife worked at a hospital there and recommended a doctor and my wife and I decided to switch doctors and dentists and everything and meet them and all of us go get a physical. The doctor called back and everything was fine with my wife but they wanted me to come in for a catscan on my chest and further X-rays. That’s how they found it. So it was kind of like a fluke situation. If that lady never knocked on my door to sell my house I probably would have died and never see it coming because I had a tumor in my chest that was the size of a squash. It was growing off of my heart and pushing on my lungs which is why I couldn’t breath. I didn’t have any space in there for my lungs to expand.
LRI: I stupidly smoke a few little cigars here and there so that’s pretty freaky shit. There was no pain or anything?
Chuck: No pain, nothing, just some shortness of breath. They did biopsies and what my doctor told me was that my body had built a shell around the tumor, I guess, trying to fight it and it built a thick shell around the tumor. When they did the first biopsy it came back with a negative result because of that shell until they went deeper. When they went deeper that was when they broke it open and it started spilling out and when that happened that was when the doctor was like, “Okay, it’s spilling out. Monday you’re starting chemotherapy” and that’s when all of that began.
LRI: All of that therapy almost sounds worse than the tumor but you’ve spoken about how you actually found help through more traditional Native American means right?
Chuck: Yeah, I had a friend who I grew up with and she cut my hair and she moved out to L.A. but everytime we would go out that way we’d get together. One time we went to the Rainbow Bar and Grill and she actually told me that she had a dream. For about a year before that, she had been telling me about this Medicine Man named Charlie that she really wanted me to meet and telling me how we looked alike and basically just saying she really wanted me to meet him. We never did but that night she told me that she had a dream that he and I were sitting around a fire putting on warpaint about to go into a battle together. I mean, we’re drinking at the Rainbow and I’m like “Yeah, yeah, whatever” and it kind of went in one ear and out the other. One day I came home after having chemotherapy and Charlie showed up to my house unannounced when I was home alone and right away when we met there was a connection as if we had known each other for a while and I was really comfortable with him. He came in and said he was going to perform a healing ceremony on me and that after he was done, he was going to sit me down and we were gonna talk and explain a couple things to me. I laid on the floor and he had an eagle scepter and a flute and was chanting and I can tell you that I had my eyes closed and saw myself floating through the sky and he just took me on this journey. I was like traveling through the sky and I heard the wind and wolves and howling and chanting and I was thinking to myself “How’s he doing all this?” because it was this really trippy experience. He wiped an eagle feather across my chest and it was like something moved inside of me and then he sat me down to talk to me and explain a few things. He said there were things that were going to happen that weren’t going to make any sense to me but when they start happening I will notice that things will start falling into place and make sense. He told me that the wind was actually going to be my spirit guide and that the wind was going to be very important in communicating what was happening to me. Then he was gone, it all happened within the span of about an hour. Weeks went by and we had a bar-b-que and had some friends over and this night I was woken up in the middle of the night, because of the wind and I went to the bathroom because I was having all these stomach issues at that time. My stomach just didn’t feel right and I couldn’t go to the bathroom for days at a time. I walked downstairs and sat in our guest bathroom. Outside the window of our guest bathroom and outside the bathroom there was this little gathering funnel cloud and these beer cans clinking together and just making this rattling noise spinning in the wind. I sat on the toilet and released something out of my body and had this weird sensation and the wind stopped and the beer cans hit the ground. Right then I just had this overwhelming sensation that I got the sickness out of my body and I went upstairs and woke my wife up and said “Hey, I don’t have cancer anymore. I’m cured. I just got rid of it downstairs” (laughs). She of course, thought I was crazy and out of my mind and that was that. That week when I went in for my blood tests to see what my levels were and all this my doctor says “Wow, your tumor is cancer-free” and I just became a true believer at that point.
LRI: I would imagine. Wow.
Chuck: I really wasn’t prior to that. I was raised a Catholic and never really followed the Native culture or beliefs and spirituality until I had become sick but when he told me that and explained the chain of events I really became a true believer. I didn’t tell the doctors anything. They told me I was cancer free but the tumor was still there but too big to operate on. I went back to the Native traditions and I traveled out to L.A with my son and went to sweat lodges and healing places down there. I traveled up into the foothills because another friend of mine had another Medicine Man who was a direct descendant of Geronimo and lived with and raised wolves. We pulled up in front of his house and he has a pack of wolves there and a small one in a cage but had two that roamed free and one that sat on the porch. My friend said “You have to approach the house and if the wolves show aggression that means you can’t go inside but if they don’t then you can pass”. So I walked up and I passed the wolf and went inside and he taught me grounding techniques to ground myself with the earth and use the energy of the earth to focus the energy on shrinking my tumor and we spent some time talking and by this time I was just becoming more and more of a believer and knew that I was going to go home and continue practicing this and beat this. So, after a couple of weeks of that, I go in to see my doctor and found out that my tumor was now small enough to have an operation. I went in and had open heart surgery to cut the tumor out and have been free of it ever since. From that point forward I knew I would always be a believer that no matter what path I took or road I chose my spirituality and belief in Native culture would be strong. I try to look ahead and make the most of every day I am here and really stay focused forward rather than look back on the illness or what I went through partly because of something I had heard about earlier in my family. My uncle had epilepsy and my Grandmother had a Medicine Man stay out at their house for about a week and put him up and fed him. After the Medicine Man left my uncle was healed from the epilepsy but he said don’t speak the word, don’t mention it or talk about the illness and that always kind of stuck in my mind. I really do enjoy every day now and move forward and life is so much easier, I go out on the road in the past it was such a battle to be out there away from family and not party and have a good show and now I have my wife with me and it’s such a pleasure. It’s like we’re tourists (laughs) when we go on the road because we’re living life to the fullest and seeing the sights wherever we are and having dinner and enjoying our day and almost forgetting that we’re even working and it’s like “Oh, yeah we gotta go back and I have to go perform for the next hour and a half (laughs) where are we going tomorrow?” It’s not this big, tiring drag leading up to the show, it’s fun. It’s a whole different way of living on tour.
LRI: Would you have believed it if someone had told you ten years ago during those dark days that you’d be talking about promoting two records and out touring with Testament in 2012?
Chuck: No, not at all. Quite honestly, when I was ill, they had me on a steroid and got all swollen and ballooned up. I lost all my hair and I really didn’t recognize myself when I looked in the mirror and was really down. I didn’t listen to music or do anything music related for two years, I didn’t listen to Testament and I thought my music career was done. I thought I would focus my life on my family and friends and just try to live my life.
LRI: Did depression creep in a little bit?
Chuck: A little bit and then one day I put in a Testament CD and it was all like brand new to me (laughs). I was like “Wow, this is awesome and this is feeling really fresh” and I actually made a call to see about playing again. I called about the Dynamo Festival because I had a friend who ran it and he told me that he had actually gotten the original Anthrax together and wondered if I could get the original Testament together and I just said to myself “Man, Anthrax is the first band we ever went to Europe with and man this just sounds like a perfect thing that would be really cool”. So I called all the guys in the band and next thing I know we have the original lineup back together. It was supposed to be one off thing and here we are it’s been seven years and we’re still together and making new records (laughs). It is pretty cool. So you can see what I mean from my illness to getting our band back together again it does feel like I’ve had a little angel watching over me and what’s going to happen in my life.
LRI: We talked to Zetro (former Exodus singer Steve “Zetro” Souza) about his new band Hatriot and he mentioned Dublin Death Patrol but it didn’t really make sense to me until I heard it. It’s really friggin thrash and awesome hearing you two together singing. Is this pretty much just old school thrash strictly for the fun of it?
Chuck: Yeah, it was totally a fun thing. First of all, with Dublin Death Patrol you had to live in Dublin, California or grow up in Dublin in order to be in the band. It started out from a class reunion believe it or not where all of us metal guys got together and thought we should just jam and do something. All of us had our bands in high school and went on to be in all these other bands and it just took off from that initial idea. We just wanted to get together and play some of our old high school songs and jam and that’s how it started and that’s what it was supposed to be. The thing was, once we got together we ended up jamming and writing more songs and at that point we were like “It would be such a shame for nobody to ever hear these songs and we have our own studios, let’s record it and just put it out on a website”. That was the original plan and then next thing you know we had an offer to go over to Europe and a lot of these other guys had never been in bands that toured or played festivals or that stuff so we had to figure out what we were going to do show-wise. There were like THIRTEEN of us on the record but the touring band was about 8 people. Three guitar players, two drummers, two singers and a bass player which is still a big lineup (laughs). We went to Europe and played and had a blast and then we had a label interested in buying that first record off of us and releasing it as well as a second record so we did it and then we also got to go do another festival in Holland. Machine Head was scheduled but they couldn’t make it so we actually got to take their slot and open for Heaven and Hell. After that show, which was so great and so amazing, we just kind of decided that would be it and we’d go out on a high note because we’ve all got other jobs and families and that was it. The second album “Death Sentence” finally came out and that’s it, there are no more tours or shows planned but it was fun. It started out as nothing and ended up being more than we ever expected (laughs).
LRI: It’s such an amazing thing to hear the two of you trade lead vocals. Does it surprise people that you and Steve work so well together?
Chuck: Yeah, well, that’s just it, one thing we really realized is that Zet and I really write well together and we actually wrote some songs together on both the last Testament record and the new album “Dark Roots Of The Earth”. Even though he’s busy with Hatriot and me with Testament we really have a great dynamic writing together and that’s one of the coolest things about it all. It does surprise some people but you have to remember our circumstances with Zet are a little different. He left the band to join Exodus and it wasn’t like he was kicked out of the band or there were any hard feelings or bad vibes with any of the band members at all. The way it went down was just that he made a choice that actually benefited me because I walked into a a record deal and a gig.
LRI: Sometimes, actually most times bands reunite it’s good for a really solid tour and some awkward albums where they try to rekindle some lost magic. It is absolutely ridiculous how vital and essential these last two Testament albums are and how memorable the songs are. “Dark Roots of Earth” is even more diverse. Was that a conscious effort?
Chuck: I think it was conscious vocally. Usually what I tend to do if I am approached with a mid-paced tempo song is lean towards my heavier, death metal voice to somehow try and make it heavier where on this record I consciously tried to sing more like the “Practice What You Preach” or “The Ritual” style. A little more melody and a little more vocal hook driven. I really approached it differently than I had been and this is the first record that I actually let somebody produce me or push me on the vocal and our producer Andy Sneap really did work with me on those things. We tried different things and the end result is what you hear on the record and it really stands out to me. Other than vocally I think this is the first record we really didn’t think about anyone else consciously. To be honest, in the past we would sometimes think like “Well, what will the fans or critics think if we include this ballad or this style of song or whatever” but on this record we really didn’t do that. I don’t know if we’re maturing or what or if it’s the age we’re at, I just turned 50 this year and at some point it’s just like “What do i got to lose” (laughs). We haven’t had a ballad on a record in 15 years so right away when Eric came up with the riff on “Cold Embrace” I knew we were onto something. There was none of the “Oh, the fans aren’t going to dig that” or “We’re gonna get criticized for that”, none of that even came up. We just said, “That sounds good and that’s feeling really good so let’s go for it”. So we did.
LRI: The album cover is amazing.
Chuck: The last two records have been done by Eliran Kantor. He’s a younger artist, we really like his work. It looks amazing 40 feet wide and 25 feet tall onstage with us with the colors and the design of it.
LRI: It fits the “Earthy” title as do the lyrics which kind of go back to some of the same ideas and messages that were a part of classic Testament stuff like “The New Order”.
Chuck: Totally. It’s the earth and what mankind does to themselves and the planet, that’s really, really the focus of what a lot of the songs are about. Mankind is hellbent on war and destroying ourselves and our environment. I would think with all of the war and hate going on around the world that it would shake us up and Americans would become closer with one another and have less violence and less crime but I guess things just don’t change. Things keep going the other way and it sucks but there’s always a good song in that and that comes out in a lot of this material. I didn’t really set out to write it that way but I slowly noticed I just kept writing about that stuff as did Zet and Del who also wrote on this. Now that the record’s done I am looking at and thinking “Man, this sure is a dark record. It’s not very happy is it?” (laughs). I really try to write songs that affect me or other people personally or strike a nerve because I seem to have more conviction in them when I’m singing the vocal. It’s funny because when you tell somebody you are in a heavy metal band they immediately think you’re writing about graveyards and cemeteries and stuff. It’s cliche but it’s true, that is what a lot of people think of when they imagine a heavy metal band so I usually get that from people (laughs). Especially if they’re not a heavy metal fan, they tend to read the lyrics and think “Wow, that’s interesting” or “That’s not what I thought bands write about”. Which is cool, the end result is better for me when I write about stuff I can relate to personally and I think that helps other people relate to them. Like we had the song “Afterlife” which was written after Eric and I lost our fathers, it really seemed to reach people who could relate to losing a parent. Just the fact that we could somehow help somebody through a time like that is pretty cool so to be able to strike a nerve like that is really important. The song “Native Blood” on the new album is another one. There are a lot of Natives or indigenous people who are reaching out to me on Facebook or wherever and letting me know that they do appreciate it and they do have a voice and want to be heard. It’s cool when you get that response from people.
LRI: Do you find that it’s easier to operate creatively without an entity like Atlantic Records hanging over the proceedings?
Chuck: Oh big time. I mean, Atlantic Records had A&R people who were solely focused on trying to have a hand in that and those were also the days when having a hit video was so important and radio ready stuff because the radio stations were playing more metal and there were also more stations out there in general. So you had these A&R people who wanted the “single”, the “ballad” ,or whatever for the next video and they’re breathing down your neck for something commercial or accessible. Those days are gone and our label Nuclear Blast isn’t even close to trying to accomplish that so today it’s all about the internet and websites and youtube, that’s where you’re going to get your most exposure.
LRI: I think if your latest video “Native Blood” would have come out in 1990 it would have been a massive hit on MTV or Headbanger’s Ball. It’s really well done, although I was a little scared for you guys watching you perform with 8 foot flames around you.
Chuck: It was kind of dangerous, although we actually toned it down from how it was originally (laughs). The first take with the fires was crazy. We built five fires around the band and we stacked the pallets up like 6 to 10 high before pouring gas on them and lighting them on fire. We knew it would be hot but we didn’t realize it would be that out of control. I’m doing the very first scene and I’m sweating and getting hot and thinking “Holy shit” and I look over and Eric (Peterson, guitarist) is 30 yards away and out of the scene and I look over the other way and Greg (Christian, bassist) is completely out of the scene and it’s just me and Gene (Hoglan, drummer). They’re all yelling “Get out of there, get out of there” so he and I got out of there and 30 seconds later you see the flame just swoop over right where Gene was sitting and we were like “Holy Shit, let’s not put THAT many pallets on” (laughs). Let’s just put three on at a time. It melted the drum head and started peeling the skins and all that and burned the hairs off your arms. We all had red faces! It was that intense but we had a fire truck there on standby and they got it under control before we scaled it down. It was crazy but it turned out great. Nobody does those kind of conceptual videos anymore but the lyrics to “Native Blood” are so meaningful and I really wanted to get the point across. We were really fortunate to hook up with our director Mike Sloat. Most people would have only been able to deliver a performance video for the money we spent but that really wasn’t what we wanted. I came up with a storyline idea and threw it at Mike and hoped for the best. I had no idea how it was going to turn out or that it would look as good as it does. He really had the vision and my ideas for scenes mapped out and saw it to the end. When I saw the final edit I couldn’t believe it. We really didn’t have to tweak it because he nailed it. My first time seeing it I got choked up, it was so emotional to me, he captured the lyrics, my story and the concept 100%. I couldn’t wait for people to see it because it’s really good and it looks like one of those 100,000 dollar videos from back in the 80s. The video was shot on the reservation. I didn’t grow up on the reservation, my father’s family did but since they’ve passed it’s become my and my brother’s property and we cleared it and gutted out the old houses that were there and it’s just land now so it was the perfect place to do it. It really brought my family and community together because it’s not often you have a big production video at a small reservation site like that. Everybody brought their chairs and sat and watched and enjoyed it. We handed out a bunch of Testament shirts to all the kids (laughs) so it was pretty cool and they had fun. I’m sure there were a bunch of little kids running around in Testament shirts that whole weekend (laughs). The actors in the video are my nephews, the younger kid and the middle kid and the tribal council in the video is the real tribal council, the dancers are real Pomo dancers, the medicine rock is actually a real place there. When we were kids, even when we were adults, that was where we would go swimming that was our little swimming hole down there. When you approach that medicine rock from about a quarter mile away on each side, coming from the north or south, if you look at the top of the rock it looks like the profile of an Indian face. I just remember from being a kid that as soon as we’d see the face we would know we were getting close to the reservation. The video has gone over so well that we were contacted by a Native American Film Festival that happens November 10th at the House of Fine Arts in San Fransisco. They said we have to enter our video and they would waive the fees and everything because they really want it to be a part of the festival. So that’s really going to be cool and my nephews and I are going to be there and announce the video as part of the festival.
LRI: Not to get too political or personal in a rock interview but I don’t really hear a lot about the problems and issues that face the Natives. Do you think the issues people are dealing with are pushed under the rug in 2012?
Chuck: They’ve always been pushed under the rug. When I was growing up, we all could see it. The reservation was your stereotypical reservation where everybody had ten or 15 broken down cars on their property and garbage piled up and weeds growing over on the streets and all that. They never really got any government assistance to help out kids who didn’t have ways to get to school or the things they needed. It was tough. Then they built a casino on it ten or fifteen years ago and next thing you know they all have guaranteed jobs and money started coming in. Of course when money’s there and you have people who don’t know how to run a multi-million dollar company, the next thing you know here comes the government and they wanna take their share of it and it just kind of upsets me. They never paid attention or wanted to help or be a part of anything until there’s a bunch of money involved
LRI: Before I let you go, what’s on tap for the rest of 2012 and beyond?
Chuck: Touring and more touring. We’ve got the third leg of the Anthrax, Testament, Death Angel tour and the film festival in November and we’re going to be out there supporting the new album from here on out and playing a bunch of great new songs and ones from way back. Come see us.
Sites That Link to this Post
- TESTAMENT Frontman: How I Beat Cancer • Metal4ALL.com | September 18, 2012
- Idioteq – TESTAMENT’s Chuck Billy talks about surviving cancer | September 19, 2012
- Testament Frontman Talks About Battling Cancer | | September 20, 2012