Chuck Billy, Steve Zetro Souza and Marcos Leal Discuss the Dark Roots of Thrash II Tour
Interviews by Mike Bax
For thrash metal fans, the upcoming April 2015 four-week run of dates featuring Testament, Exodus and Shattered Sun could very well prove to be the tour of the year, considering the three decade legacy of both bands in this genre of music. Thrash historians all know the story of Legacy (Testament, before they migrated their moniker) vocalist Steve Zetro Souza leaving the band to sing for Exodus, and how his recommendation of Chuck Billy to his former bandmates landed them their new vocalist. True thrash fans feel that both Exodus and Testament are both bands worthy of the same kudos and accolades as Metallica, Megadeth Slayer and Anthrax – bands with only a year or two head start on both Exodus and Testament.
The Testament / Exodus family tree is a long and convoluted one. Both bands have charts dedicated to their line-ups, to assist in the understanding of who was in the band and when.
While Chuck Billy has been Testament’s only true recorded vocalist, his brush with germ cell seminoma in 2001 hit the vocalist/band hard. The rare form of cancer required chemotherapy, rest and a good block of time to recover. It put the members of Testament in a vigil, trying to support their bandmate while simultaneously questioning the future of Testament.
During this time, the Bay area Thrash Of The Titans benefit was arranged, with proceeds to assist Chuck Billy and Chuck Schuldiner (leader of the death metal band Death) who was also battling cancer. The benefit featured Heathen, Death Angel, Vio-Lence, Forbidden Evil, Legacy, Exodus, Anthrax, S.O.D., and Flotsam and Jetsam. This benefit concert brought Alex Skolnick back into the Testament ranks, and helped lay the groundwork for the reunions of Heathen, Death Angel and Exodus.
Suffice to say, the cultural significance of this tour is of note, certainly to fans of the genre. With Testament committing to playing their entire first two albums (The Legacy & The New Order), and select cuts from Practice What You Preach – it’s a Testament show veteran fans WON’T want to miss. Exodus is playing for an hour WITH Steve Souza (who will most certainly join Testament for a few of the tracks from their first album on this tour). And new Victory Records signees, Shattered Sun, are opening the whole tour. While Shattered Sun doesn’t officially release their album until April 21st, the album is the real deal, and fans should get there early to check out the band.
Chuck Billy Steve Zetro Souza and Marcos Leal – the vocalists from all three bands weigh in on this interview, discussing the Dark Roots of Thrash II Tour and what it means to each participant.
Mike: What was your earliest Legacy memory, Chuck?
Chuck: I knew Legacy when Zetro was in the band. Zet was friends with my younger brother, we grew up in the same town. We used to go see those guys play. I remember thinking they (Legacy) were really heavy. At that time, I had been taking singing lessons and going to college. Right when I finished my lessons, Zet had just quit Legacy to join Exodus and he knew I was going to school and that I wanted to be a singer, so at that point he said, ‘Hey man, I’m leaving to join Exodus. Here’s Alex Skolnick’s number. Audition for these guys. Check out our demo.’ So I listened to it and was very impressed with how advanced the songwriting was. (laughs) I remember calling Alex for a rehearsal to try out, they rehearsed in this tiny little room in Oakland. They weren’t even old enough to drink yet. I was and I brought beer. I had a live P.A. I got to the room, and it was so small I had to sing in the hallway – with my P.A. speakers at the doorway, and I cranked it. And that’s my first encounter with the group and first jamming with them. I had practiced for a week before that and I got the gig. I don’t know if it was because I got them all drunk, or if I intimidated them somehow (laughs) but I got the gig that day. And from then on it was easy. They had a lot of the record ready and had a record deal in place. And Jonny Z (Jon Zazula) said, ‘Hey, do a demo with the new singer, and if we like it we’ll keep the deal’. I went in and sang the demo again and he liked it. So the deal was still on. I got really lucky there, fortunately. I walked right into the record deal in place and the band and I’ve been there ever since – thirty years.
Zetro: It was just like that. I just said I know a guy and told Chuck to call Alex. Alex was probably 17 at that time. He was only 15 when he joined the band. I remember I had to ask his father if he could join Legacy, he was so young. And I had to pick him up for practice because he couldn’t drive. Now that’s ancient history, right? There you go.
Mike: (to Marcos) Chuck is pretty excited to take Shattered Sun out on this run of dates and thinks it’s going to be a good tour all around.
Marcos: It’s awesome. I spoke to him and Zetro and I think that it’s really awesome that bands of their stature would take a chance on an upcoming band like us and give us the opportunity. We’ll get to see what it’s like for veterans. We’re really excited about it.
Mike: At what point did you feel like Testament was where you were destined to be, Chuck?
Chuck: I don’t want to get all spiritual here, but I think when I got sick with cancer and had the reunion with the guys. When I became ill I didn’t think I was ever going to play music again. I lost all my hair and wasn’t the same person at all. I stepped away from music there for a few years. I had the second opportunity when we had the reunion with the original line-up, and it made me think, especially when I got to do the first jam with the line-up again after 15 years or whatever. It was like riding a bike. I knew right there that Testament was the band I should have always been in and HAVE always been in. It’s weird because a few years before that I had sent a demo tape into Sepultura as an audition for them. (laughs) Everything could have changed if I had made that audition. I’m glad I didn’t. I’m glad that today I am with the band, and the way it all turned out.
Mike: You mentioned your cancer a few minutes ago, Chuck. Do you think that it’s common knowledge that your cancer essentially brought back together Exodus, Death Angel and Heathen by way of the Thrash Of The Titans benefit show in 2001?
Chuck: Isn’t that wild? And Testament with Alex Skolnick. Yeah, it revived the Bay area thrash metal scene – that one show. It’s crazy the way the world turns. It was a blessing for me. Me, getting ill and going through it, with all my friends in the metal scene and everything. And to then have a show like that revive a scene that was a large part of my life… It’s unreal, you know?
Zetro: We’ve done in the past week probably four or five interviews together, and everyone has brought that up. That was the catalyst day where so many of us looked at each other and said, ‘Wow. We could do this again.’ I remember when we were all riding the major label wave, and around 1993 grunge came along and just killed it. MTV killed the Headbanger’s Ball, and that show was the medium for us at that time. It was such a big thing at the time, and none of the outlets were picking it up at all. It was like we were bad news or dirty laundry somehow. Trying to get a deal was almost impossible and we all called it quits. That gig really put everyone into a place where we rethought things. Everybody bought their A-Game that day. You couldn’t pick one band that was better than the other that day. There was a cause there, of course, and a feeling of urgency around our friends. From then, I remember being back within Exodus within a year’s time, and by 2005 Chuck had gotten Alex and John (Tempesta) and Greg (Christian) back and did a tour. And then Death Angel did a tour and an album around the time we did Temple of the Damned. Overkill always kept going and Anthrax always kept going. Megadeth always kept on going. Slayer always kept on going. Everybody’s strengths just picked the genre up again. When you look back now, everybody is in high gear. There is no looking back, and I don’t see it stopping anytime soon.
Mike: (to Marcos) What would you say is your favourite Testament album, and why?
Marcos: Man. I’d have to say Practice What You Preach. BUT, the newest one? Oh my God, it’s so good. It’s just brutal man – everything about it, the riffs and Chuck’s vocals… it’s hard to pick one between those two. Preach is a classic one, and it deserves it. But for the new school fans, kids today who maybe don’t know who Testament is, I felt like Dark Roots Of Earth was just so relevant and so great. And Chuck’s voice on it is so strong after all of these years. He’s somebody I definitely look up to for that alone.
Mike: I’m with you. Dark Roots blew me away. From the moment I heard it, just that intro cut, I could tell they’d stepped it up. For musicians their age, to put an album out that fast and relentless… and Exodus too. Blood In, Blood Out is crazy good. That is like their best album in decades.
Marcos: Yeah, man. When we first heard that album – it was when we were just signing everything with Breaking Bands. We got to hear a couple of the tracks before they actually came out and we were just blown away as well. Zetro is amazing. His voice on that album is awesome.
Mike: (to Zetro) Can we talk a bit about how the past year has been for you? Coming back into the fold with Exodus, and healing old wounds with Gary Holt and the rest of the band? And how you’ve managed to somehow put out arguably the best Exodus album since Bonded. Blood In, Blood Out is an awesome album Steve, my kudos there.
Zetro: Thank you. I agree with you on that 100%, by the way. I even said it when I was done recording my tracks, that this was the best Exodus album ever. And people scoff and say, ‘Of course, you HAVE to say that returning back, that’s what they always say.’ But I truly believe that. It’s the first Exodus album that I can go through track by track and won’t fast forward. I think as mature adults and mature musicians that have been in this game for so long and understand each other so well – the mentality is just different now. We are more focused, and aren’t influenced by the usual hang-ups. These things used to factor into the disagreements, agreements, fights, and whatever else went on. I think this time is the BEST time for all of us. I really respect everyone and their space. And I respect Gary especially, the icon that he is and what he’s accomplished. There is no friction on my part anymore. I’m certainly easier to tour with now than ever before, and I will be the first one to admit it.
Mike: Do you think that comes from being older? You have the perspective of years gone by now?
Zetro: Yeah. I think I have an appreciation of everything that I have and that I am getting it back for the third time here. Basically, don’t fuck this up. Be smart, be smart about THIS. There’s no substance influence anymore. That is gone from the table with everybody. Christ, I turned 51 this year. Gary will be 51 in May. The clock is ticking, it’s time to be good. Hey, this is the best time to go and see Exodus. We are all on top of our game. Like you said, Blood In, Blood Out is a great record. To me, it’s the best we’ve ever done. I just crack on this album. I think that has a lot to with having some time to be with my sons, writing for Testament, doing Dublin Death Patrol and keeping myself busy in the time that I wasn’t with Exodus. I’m really comfortable and confident with what I am doing vocally, I think that goes for everybody. When have you ever heard a record where the bass on an Exodus album sounds right out there booming in your face like Jack Gibson’s? And Tom (hunting), Lee (Altus) and Gary (Holt) especially – best thrash tandem there is. Tom and Gary both play amazingly and they have amazing riffs on this album. Everything is so strong and I get to put my stamp on this. This machine is just a complete monster and I think we are all feeling that right now. We are really getting a lot of good momentum. This is the best we have ever played, I’d have to say.
Mike: How about your earliest memories of each other? You guys have been friends longer than you’ve been in bands, right?
Chuck: Steve went to elementary school with my younger brother. So we’ve known each other forever. My first memory of Exodus was before Zet was even in Exodus. I was doing my demo for my band before I joined Testament and I was up in Prairie Sun (Recording Studio) doing a demo and I heard screaming in the next studio and I wondered what the hell was going on and I asked the engineer what was going on. He told me it was the band Exodus. So that was my introduction to Exodus and speed metal. The next thing you know, I met everybody and started playing in the scene.
Zetro: Yeah, him, my brother, Willie Bailey and Ken Ormond all hit a home run in the same game against the same team when Mr. Billy was coaching baseball in the 1970s in Dublin. That is my very first memory.
Mike: Will there be an opportunity for Testament fans to see Zetro perform some songs that he would have been involved with on the first album?
Chuck: I think so. We’ve already talked about it – which songs it would cool for him to do. Who knows? ‘Alone In The Dark’? Maybe ‘Raging Waters’. It’ll be one that we haven’t done before together. It’s going to be fun. We’re looking forward to getting out on the road together.
Zetro: You use that as the bait. I’m telling everybody that if the crowds are outrageously good, Chuck will make the final decision during the Testament set. There ARE a lot of songs that we have discussed already because we have done a tonne of press together for this tour. And we are not naive to those surprises. That is kind of what these shows are all about. There will be hardcore fans in the rooms at these shows. For all of you people that are reading, you gotta come and bring it! And then I’m sure we’ll give it to ya.
Mike: You did mention all three bands there, Zetro. Shattered Sun – oh my God, so fucking good!
Zetro: They have a very good record and are very hard working guys. Everything they do is about their band. They are on Breaking Bands Management too. I don’t have a problem with that at all. I think we want to get the new blood out on this tour. We could have easily added on some type of legendary thrash band. There are some tours that are ten/eleven bands deep these days, you know? It’s a good idea. It gives it a good forum for those guys to show their stuff. I haven’t heard the entire record yet. I’ve heard a bunch of songs off it and I was impressed by the heaviness, for sure.
Mike: (to Marcos) I’m curious whether doing a cover of a Testament song on an album while having Chuck Billy as part of your management freaked you guys out at all? How did that come about?
Marcos: Nah. We had been in talks for a while about covering a song. Me and Jonny were throwing that idea around for a while of doing ‘Return To Serenity’. We didn’t know that we were going to be out on tour with Testament and Exodus. All we knew was we wanted to do a cover. So I wanted to ask Chuck his opinion on it and Jonny was all, ‘Fuck that. Record it and send it to him and surprise him and see what he thinks.’ So we went on with it and we took a week to arrange it and then get into the studio to record it. Once we were done we sent it to Jon and he loved it. Then we sent it to Chuck and I swear to God that was the longest two hours of our lives man. We didn’t know Chuck was on tour in Italy right then. We sent him the track and we were waiting for his response, and from my understanding he heard it with the rest of Testament and we didn’t hear back from for over two hours. We were all pacing around waiting. Finally, he got back to us and said he loved it, and the group loved it and we knocked it out of the park. That started the consideration of it being on the album. That was a bit of a process, but we love the song and we loved performing it. We love that Chuck and Testament gave us the honour of putting it on our album and that’s just tribute to what a legendary and amazing band that they are. That is something we aspire to be in our career. Who better to learn from, you know?
Mike: You mentioned quickly there Breaking Bands. How did you wind up getting in front of Breaking Bands Management?
Marcos: Man, that’s kind of a long story. I’ll give you the short version. As a local band we were looking for something to get us ‘out there’. When we put out our first EP we bought onto a big national tour with a band called Spineshank, through a local promoter. He said he needed five grand from us. We told him that we couldn’t give him that, so we gave him half. Nothing was negotiated for us. We made friends with the other bands on the bill, but when you’re on that big level, it’s all about contracts and unfortunately we weren’t negotiated for anything. So, the last date on tour was one of the best ones, at the Whisky A Go Go. It was one of the most costly, and we wound up stranded on the side of the road. So we called the guy who booked us on the tour and asked if there was anything he could do to help us and he pretty much said that he would pray for us and left us stranded there at the side of the road. But through that experience we formed a friendship with Mike (Sarkisyan) from Spineshank. He helped us through the pre-production of this album and he taught us that the experience was just a lesson learned. He told us that when the tracks were done he’d see what he could do for us. I sent them over and he said he had this friend named Maria Ferrero who owns Adrenaline PR and that she could get us a PR deal. So he sent the tracks to Maria and a little while after that she called and she was like, ’Yo, I love the tracks, fuck the PR deal, do you guys want a management deal?’ And of course we said yes, but we didn’t know at the time that she was forming Breaking Bands with Jonny Zazula and Chuck Billy. She just said that she was going to put us on a conference call with business partners. That’s when we found out it was Chuck and Jonny. They said they loved the tracks, and wanted to fly down to Texas and we signed with them right there, man. It was crazy. And it didn’t hit us until later when we were in California and doing some press with Chuck and said that Shattered Sun and Exodus were their first signees. After they released the news that Breaking Bands was a company and they were looking for bands they got a hundred thousand submissions and the six of us were looking at each other thinking we’re this little band from small town Texas – how the fuck did this happen? We were pinching ourselves. Ever since they have treated us well. They are a huge part of why we are at Victory Records and why everything has been running so smoothly with us.
Mike: (to Chuck) With this Dark Roots of Thrash II tour promising to pull heavily from The Legacy, The New Order and Practice What You Preach, I’m wondering how your larynx is feeling about hitting so much of that old stuff? Your vocal stylings have changed a fair bit since those albums came out in the 1980s.
Chuck: Well, those first three or four records we tuned differently. And over the years we’ve tuned down those songs so it’s comfortable for my vocals now. It makes it a lot easier to sing those songs now. They come off a little heavier. I wish we recorded them that way, but that’s life. We didn’t know. (laughs)
Mike: Are there any particular songs that you haven’t played in a while that you are excited to put forward in front of a Testament crowd?
Chuck: Yeah, ‘Curse Of the Legions of Death’. I’m excited about that. And ‘Apocalyptic City,’ we haven’t played in a long while, or ‘Do or Die’. We haven’t done those in a long time.
Mike: Do you think Shattered Sun is nervous they might fuck up ‘Return to Serenity’ in front of you?
Chuck: (laughs) Ah no. They are a great bunch of guys. I’m actually excited for them. I remember my first tour in the band. It was fun and I met a bunch of bros out there. It’s good times. This is their first national tour and I can only imagine… they must be so excited. They leave shortly to go to California. I’m sure they are pumped. It’s cool for me to see them experience it. And to be there with them and try and make it an enjoyable first experience for them.
Mike: Do you remember your first time coming to Toronto, Canada?
Chuck: Toronto? Is the El Mocambo in Toronto? It is, right? That’s what I remember. Our first time playing there, I remember the night before our show that Robert Plant was playing. I think we all went to see Robert Plant the night before. So we were set to play the next night, and I remember it was a cold winter, and the heater in our bus went on us. And I remember freezing on the bus in front of the El Mocambo. So that’s my memory of being in Toronto for the first time – freezing my ass off. That’s just the first one. We’ve been there lots, and have played that outdoor venue there a bunch of times on the water there. That’s a real nice spot.
Mike: (to Zetro) I would love to know what your personal fondest memory of Exodus is? From last week to thirty years ago.
Zetro: Honestly, everything I have been doing lately has been great. We recently went to Australia and we did Soundwave, and we got to stay together with the same bands for two weeks. We all played on the same day. It was a nice camaraderie between all of the bands. Some of the bands, like Lagwagon, we didn’t even know. But we hung with them and they were cool. Animals As Leaders, they were great guys. The Butcher Babies. We had the greatest time hanging out with people while we were there. But to think about walking into Ruthie’s Inn and you’d look over to the right and that was where the bar was. It was just this square thing, and you’d see Kirk Hammett and Gary Holt would be there and I’d see Eric (Peterson) and the guys from Lääz Rockit and Phil from Vio-lence and Robb Flynn. I’d see all of these cats and we’d all be waiting there for whatever band was going to play that night, Megadeth when it was just Dave Mustaine, Dave Junior and Gar Samuelson, the original band. Those are the things that I still remember vividly. I fucking lived it and saw it first hand. Everything – the ups and the downs. Thrash metal was a part of when Ratt and Quiet Riot was the biggest thing going on. The stations didn’t play Exodus. They didn’t play Metallica until the third record for fucks sake, and the song played had to be one of the mellow songs. We were all bothers in arms back then. That’s basically how we all wound up knowing each other, how we all started together and held together and are so very much stronger now. We still take it out. Testament still goes out with Exodus. Exodus goes out with Slayer and Suicidal Tendencies. We keep it strong and keep it real. We work with each other and make sure that everything is all good. We will stay strong that way. It’s all right in front of us.
Mike: (To Marcos) All of these guys are either approaching 50, or have just crested 50, and they are showing no signs of letting up. It’s impressive.
Marcos: We’ve gotten to hear their thoughts on our album now, too. They’ve done some homework on us now, and it’s awesome to hear them talk about our album with enthusiasm. It’s a real welcoming feeling. It doesn’t feel like we’re just some crap band they are bringing along for the ride. They seem to genuinely like our music and care about the act. And that is awesome, man.
Mike: It’s sad to me that your debut album will see its release the last week of the tour. You will have three weeks of tour dates before you actually have a monument to put down on your merchandise table to sell to fans impressed with your performance.
Marcos: True. A little secret for you here, we will actually have the albums a week prior to the release. So people who come out early and like our sound will be able to buy the album directly from us a week before release. I think that it’s really awesome that bands of their stature would take a chance on an upcoming band like us and really give us the opportunity to go out there and earn it and work for it. We’ll get to see what it’s like for veterans, you know what I mean? They have both been around forever, right? It’s awesome for us. We are really excited about it.
The Dark Roots Of Thrash II tour touches down in Toronto on Wednesday April 15th at the Phoenix Concert Theatre. Tickets for the show are available here: http://www.ticketfly.com/event/787971-testament-toronto/
This promises to be a most memorable evening. Don’t miss out!!!