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Riffing With Christina Podcast

Alex Skolnick of Testament on Brotherhood of the Snake, classical thrash and more on “Riffing with Christina” podcast

In the latest episode of the Riffing with Christina podcast, Testament guitar legend Alex Skolnick chats about their forthcoming record (out on Friday), Brotherhood of the Snake, the roots of thrash, guitar heroes through the years and much more. A few moments from the chat are transcribed below. Listen to the full podcast on iTunes.

Christina: In a recent interview, Decline of Western Civilization director Penelope Spheeris was talking about the difference between the glam rock guys and the thrash guys back then … [the glam rock guys] were into this whole ridiculous rock star dream but the thrash guys were focusing on riffs and saying provocative things. This album has a lot of provocative messages and I think thrash and having a message is a really good mix. How do you see that time?

Alex: “It not only had to do with a style of music, it had to do with different scenes, different types of social settings … going to a thrash show back in those days was really just about excitement. Loud, fast music. Having a good time. Also, this sort of ‘living on the edge.’

The glam scene, [as someone from] the San Francisco Bay Area, [I] just didn’t relate to it as much. I would go and see some of those bands. There were ones like Dokken and Ratt who had very good guitar players. These were guys that had come up in the Randy Rhoads/Eddie Van Halen mould. Those were the guitar players that I listened to. Then, I ended up joining these bands where the style is more like Venom or Slayer. It wasn’t really about virtuosic [playing]. People would talk to me [and say] ‘guitar players like you don’t join bands like this, what are you doing?’ I’m sure it would have been easier for me to solo over those glam tunes, but it wasn’t what I wanted to do and I wouldn’t have wanted to dress like that and act like that. Something about it just rubbed me the wrong way. So I figured I’d rather do this kind of music … these are the type of shows I like to go to, [I need to] find a way to work this more advanced guitar playing into it. And now, its not such a big deal. There’s plenty of other bands where the music is very heavy and the guitar playing is advanced. But when I started, that was like a shock. Nobody did that.”

Listen: Director Penelope Spheeris on the Riffing with Christina podcast

Christina: Was it like that thrash at that point was more of a punk rock vibe where it wasn’t as much about musicality as much as it was about force?

Alex: “That’s exactly right. I liked the punk rock attitude. There were things I liked about it. I also liked the musicianship. It was tough going but I really wanted to combine the musicianship that I was hearing in lighter music … even like more light rock stuff, that had guitars. Like Journey or Toto. The guitar is fantastic. I listened to it just to be able to play. I wanted to be able to play that. [However] being in a band like that just wasn’t as interesting.

Just to tie back into your question, they were very different types of people that gravitated to the different types of music and there were some bands that would draw fans of both teams. For example, if Judas Priest would come around, or the Scorpions. All the thrashers loved the Scorpions and Priest. And all the glam people would be there as well.

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Christina: I really like the solos on [Brotherhood of the Snake song] ‘Stronghold.’ Was that a fun thing to make? That’s some sick shit.

Alex: “That one just lent itself to a lot of different types of ideas. It had to do with the place where I was musically at that time. I had a huge honour this year, I got invited by Joe Satriani to be apart of his G4 Experience. So he picks four guitar players to be with him for a week, to work with students and play. So it was him, Eric Johnson, Mike Keneally and myself with special guest Steve Vai. When you know you’re going to be around those guys for a week and you’re sort of on the same platform with those guys, its very humbling. It kind of inspired that solo in particular, and a couple of others as well. When you’re around those heavy guys I need to record something that instrumental fans would like. That’s always something I try to do, bring that quality to the lead guitar playing.

Christina: When you start out, you have heroes. But, when you’re thirty years in, how does the relationship change and how do you see your heroes? Do you see them as peers or are they forever on a pedestal?

Alex: “I think Keith Richards talks about this in the film ‘Hail, Hail Rock and Roll’ when he puts together a tribute show for Chuck Berry. He talks about having this part of you that maintains this childlike excitement. But they’re human, they’re people. So you can relate to them as a person. Good and bad. Chuck Berry in that film comes across as a little bit difficult. Most of my heroes have not been that way at all. I think you learn to separate that. Its the same thing you do with yourself. I have a stage persona. If you see me performing with Testament, you’re going to see me jumping off the drum riser, holding a guitar high in the air. Looking at the front row, playing with them. Coming across [as a] very communicative, charismatic character … there are people who are the same offstage and onstage. I know some singers that are like that … then there’s others. Actually a very good friend of mine, Randy Blythe from Lamb of God. We get along so well because we’re alike in this way. Onstage he taps into this other heart of himself. Its hidden [when he’s offstage]. If I meet a great artist, I don’t think of them onstage, I think how are they one-on-one.”

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