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Chuck Billy is the lead singer of Testament, a heavy metal band that originated in the mid-1980s from the San Francisco Bay Area thrash scene. Testament is known for its distinctively intense, aggressive sound that at times delivers social, personal or political commentary. Illness forced Billy to pull out of the band in 2001. The consternation regarding Billy’s battle with cancer was such in the metal scene that a group of musicians and friends got together and organized a benefit concert, “Thrash of the Titans,” to raise funds for his treatment. The impact of the concert did not only reflect in the sold out show, but it also led to the comeback of then-disbanded Bay Area bands Heathen, Death Angel, Vio-Lence, Forbidden Evil, Legacy and Exodus, some of whom officially reunited later. From The Legacy (1987) to Formation of the Damnation (2008), Testament continues to deliver incredible power and inspirations through their music to old and new fans. One of the most influential heavy metal bands of their time, along with Metallica, Megadeath, Slayer and Anthrax, Testament has forged the foundation of what the thrash metal genre has become today.
Interview by: Valerie Bastien
Valerie:   I would like to start the interview by asking how you started singing. Everybody has a different story!

Chuck:    How I started was that I actually was a guitar player. My brother had a band and I used to watch him play. He asked me one day if I wanted to sing for the band, so I started singing. I put down the guitar; I took some vocal lessons and went to college for singing and theory in guitar. I’ve been doing it ever since then.

Valerie:   What kind of singing did you learn in college?

Chuck:    Well, this was the 80s so I wasn’t introduced to heavy metal yet. When I was taking those lessons, there was no heavy metal, no rock. I think the heaviest song I worked on then was an Aerosmith song! Everything else was real commercial-type stuff. I was learning how to control the voice and how to sing through your throat.

Valerie:   Do you feel that you benefited from that even though eventually you moved on from that style?

Chuck:   Yeah, but once I started singing metal, I was pretty much hurting my throat rather than doing it right. Then over the years, just singing in the style musically made it develop into my voice today. I sort of understood more the importance of singing through your diaphragm and your throat, especially with how hard I sing. I noticed when I really went back and applied what I studied that it helped me staying on stage and perform through my lungs for 1 hour, 1½-hour set. It’s tough because, as you’ll see tonight, I use all kinds of different types of voices, so it reaches out pretty good!

Valerie:   Yeah, I’ve seen you many times! Last time it was with Death Angel in Flint, Michigan.

Chuck:   Cool!

Valerie:   What are the key elements that help you use your screaming voice without hurting your throat because you do sing pretty rough and you’ve still had a long career?

Chuck:   It’s controlling the wind! I try to run more and build my wind up, get a lot of rest. When I’m tired, I hurt myself and my throat. When I’m tired, the control is gone. I really gotta learn how to be more aware and rest.

Valerie:   Many musicians tell me that the rest is very important and so is eating right.

Chuck:   Eating right, exercise, but the sleep is the best: the most important!

Valerie:   Is it hard on the road?

Chuck:   You’ve just got to make your own choices!

Valerie:   Over the years, you have evolved from a clear thrash style to a death grunt. You don’t sing as much with a clean tone. Is there a reason for that?

Chuck:  Well, we don’t do very many ballads anymore! That was the clearest, cleanest tone on the ballad stuff we did.

Valerie:   So for you, you associate the clean tone with ballads? You wouldn’t do a really heavy song with a clean tone?

Chuck:  I do still. There is stuff off The Gathering record. On “True Believer”, it’s in between the clean voice and an all-out power voice. It’s somewhere in the middle there!

Valerie:  How do you choose in your songs what voice to use?

Chuck:  Just whatever feels right!

Valerie:  Do you mark it down to remember?

Chuck:  No! Just what feels right. On the record Demonic, I did a lot of death stuff on it. It just felt like that’s what needed to be done on that record.

Valerie:  You were talking about health being really important as it affects your voice a lot. I want to know… Since you are a cancer survivor—which is amazing by the way. You are an inspiration of courage to us all for surviving that. What place did singing occupy in your life while you were going through chemotherapy?

Chuck:  None!

Valerie:  You stopped singing completely?

Chuck:  Yeah. I didn’t listen to music; I had no communication with the band. Nothing.

Valerie:   What took you back to your singing?

Chuck:   Not that I wanted to go back to singing, but at some point once I had my surgery and I was better and I was feeling more like myself; at that point, I started listening to our music again first. Because I didn’t listen to it for two years, the songs felt new and fresh. Some of them I couldn’t remember and I was like, “Wow! That’s our song?! That’s me?” I couldn’t picture it! Then I called Eric and went, “Let’s get together and jam!” That kind of started it and then we decided to try to do some shows. We just took it one step at a time, really.

Valerie:   So you found that the strength was still there even after you went through something so dramatic?

Chuck:   Well, music wasn’t gonna do anything for me at that point of my life. At that point, I had lost all of my hair. I wasn’t the same person. I didn’t recognize myself. I was done playing music. I just tried to beat it and enjoy time with my family.

Valerie:   I guess when you come so close to losing everything, including your life, you see things a little differently.

Chuck:   Yeah. At that point, I just wanted to get better and be with my family. I didn’t care if I didn’t play music again. I was like, “If it happens it does, if it doesn’t, it doesn’t.”

Valerie:   You’re really lucky. And now you’re back in full strength!

Chuck:   Yeah, I just take it a day at a time.

Valerie:   You are a true inspiration. It was also very inspiring when all your friends got together and organized a concert for you.

Chuck:   Yeah, that was pretty special.

Valerie:   Last summer I was in Minneapolis at The Mall of America and there was a big powwow and their music was really beautiful. I know that you have a Native American background so I was just curious to ask you if—when you grew up or maybe with your family—if you ever sang that kind of music?

Chuck:   Not when I was younger but I did it in the last ten years. I have some friends not too far… They get together; they do drums and chants and sing a lot of the songs. Before that I really didn’t… Our tribe has some songs but it is a smaller tribe and they weren’t really too organized with getting the traditions at the time, although they are now. When I was ill, I travelled around visiting a medicine man and we did a lot of singing and chanting and playing the drums.

Valerie:   That’s interesting. A lot of people say singing has healing powers because of the vibrations.

Chuck:   To me it wasn’t about the music; it was just about being with my family.

Valerie:   It’s already been a year since The Formation of Damnation was released. Have you started working on new material yet?

Chuck:  We’ve got some ideas but we’re not going to start until the end of September.

Valerie:   What is the writing process like for the band?

Chuck:   Oh, it’s just me, Eric and Paul. We get together first. We just jam and I jump in. That’s how it all starts. They start playing—Eric and Paul—and I’ll join in and if it feels like it’s natural then, we’ll build off of that. We get all excited and we build off it! Right now, Eric is always coming off with a lot of new riffs so it’s pretty easy to write songs with him because he’s constantly thinking of music. It helps having someone like that.

Valerie:   He keeps the creative flow going! Is there a song in particular that you feel is challenging or that you really enjoy singing?

Chuck:   All the songs on our new record are really comfortable and my favourites. But “Three Days in Darkness” off The Gathering is probably one for me that has a little bit of everything. The timing of the vocal, the voice, the death voices in there, the dynamic… It has a little bit of everything in that song so it’s one of my favorite to do live.

Valerie:   It shows off your skills well!

Chuck:   To me it’s so natural!

Valerie:   You look really intense, too, when you perform. You’re really into it and focused! I like that; it’s cool!

Chuck:   Yeah!

Valerie:   Do you have any words about this tour?

Chuck:   It’s going very well! It’s the first time in a long time that we actually get to travel with our own opening acts. It’s been great! The opening acts have been really good and the crowds are loving them, which makes it nice! The first opening Lazarus AD act are young—just 21-22 years old so it’s their second tour ever. So they are getting out there; getting some new fans. Then the Unearth guys: they have their own fan base with their style of metal so they are meeting our fans and we are meeting their fans! It makes for a very good rounded package!

Valerie:   Metal has made a great comeback.

Chuck:   There are a lot of young kids at the show.

Valerie:   Not a lot of metal bands come to Toronto so we really appreciate you being here. Thank you very much!

Chuck:   We are glad to be here. It’s a beautiful spot right here! Thank you!

Valerie Bastien is a vocal coach, teacher, musician and freelance journalist.
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