Testament guitarist Alex Skonick talks Metal Allegiance, Axes and Anchors Cruise, new Testament album and more

Every once in awhile an album releases that features numerous heavy hitters in the metal world. The last time it was done successfully was when Roadrunner Records released Roadrunner United way back in the day. 2015 sees the release of Metal Allegiance- the self titled release from Metal Allegiance. The band started a few years ago with Mike Portnoy and a group of metal musicians who just wanted to jam and play metal together. They played Shiprocked and a few other shows when the members were all free and it snowballed into something much bigger. Now we have an album from the group and guitarist Alex Skolnick sat down with us recently to talk about the band\’s debut album as well as the Axes and Anchors Cruise he\’ll be taking part in over the New Year and more. FRR: We’ve got a lot to talk about today- we’ve got the Metal Allegiance album coming out next month. You were a big part of that album. It’s a really cool project- it reminds me a lot of the Roadrunner United album from way back. It’s just an album of everybody who is everybody is on this project. Alex Skolnick: That’s part of the idea of this. FRR: How cool was it to be a part of this? Alex Skolnick: It’s amazing- it’s amazing for me. I feel pretty blessed actually because I was brought in as a principle member. Sometimes with these grand visions you have to be careful because there’s so many people involved but it was very well planned. The plan was to have it written by a small core group, as though it’s one small band, and then to have it with all these extra artists, the different vocalists, the different guest guitarists, etc. So even though it’s this big collective, to be just such a creative voice in it, it feels like a strong individual statement for my guitar playing as well. FRR: Definitely. At what point did you come in to the project? Were you a part of the original creative process? How did it all come about? Alex Skolnick: Well I think once it got to the stage of being a planned original project I was brought in for the guitar department, basically, which meant writing the guitar parts, the recording of the guitar parts, being the main soloist but also helping choose and produce the guest soloists. This all came about less than a year ago, it’ll be a year at the end of this month, but before it was an original project it was like an all-stars covers band, a great all-star covers band. So it was this all-star cover group that I had never gotten a chance to play with because they hadn’t done many shows and it had been brought up but I was never in the same city at the same time that they were doing the shows so finally we were in the same place at the same time on the Motorboat cruise and I was brought in informally to jam but it went so well that the guys pulled me aside Mike Portnoy and Dave Ellefson were the core players, actually I guess they started talking about it around that time while we were still on the cruise and I probably got a call within a week or two saying “Hey, we’re thinking about this, we’re thinking about you being a partner with the guitar stuff” and it made a lot of sense. Even though there had been several guitar players involved in the live shows I think they wanted somebody, like, none of us have any history. I’ve never been in a band with Dave Ellefson, I’ve never been in a band with Mike Portnoy There’s members of Megadeath that have been in Testament, there’s members of Slayer that have been in Testament, and so on and so forth. It’s a perfect combination, we don’t have any overlap so it doesn’t look like a new version of any other band and also it felt like starting a new band in a way. With so many great players involved, it’s not a threat to our existing bands. It’s really this new combination of players and we’re capturing the spirit of the live shows which is all of this familiar material and there is familiarity on the album. There are some moments that may be reminiscent of great moments by Black Sabbath or Maiden or Priest, but it also doesn’t sound too much like any one thing. FRR: With a project like this is there a possibility for more in the future or is it more of a one time thing? Alex Skolnick: I think so. I think it would definitely, given what has happened, it would absolutely make sense to make more music. When we first started we didn’t know what to expect. One of the most important elements in the creative process in music or probably any other art as well is just having an instinct about what’s working and what’s not working and it’s something that you can’t plan too much. You can make these grand plans and say “oh, here’s how things are going to work out, we’re going to get this great group of people” but most of the time when you plan things too much it doesn’t work out too well. It really just became this whim. Hey, we have a feeling that if we all sit in a room and spend a week together in Mike Portnoy’s house that maybe we’ll come up with some material for an album. I think at that time we weren’t even sure if we were looking at a whole album of originals. We thought we’d do an album of covers but it’d be nice to have a few originals but once we got together we were on fire and we couldn’t stop creating music, and the next thing we know we’ve got this whole album of originals. I don’t remember at what point it was that we were like “you know what, screw the covers! We’re going to be an original band.” FRR: What’s insane is just how good the album is- there’s no filler material at all. Alex Skolnick: Yea I think that was just a result of letting the process happen. I didn’t know what to expect I don’t think any of us knew what to expect. My highest profile thing that I’m known for is Testament but when I play outside of Testament it’s usually with musicians from different genres, that’s my chance to work with musicians that are full time jazz artists and most recently world music artist. And you know, Testament, that’s enough metal for me. I haven’t felt the need to do some other metal project, so I didn’t know what it would be like but it turns out we do have a lot of common influences. We all love the same, those first two Ozzy albums, the original Van Halen records, the original KISS records, the Sabbath records, everything that got us excited about hard rock and metal we have that in common and I think that when you get guys that are as experienced as us in a room together we have all of that as a reference and it sounds good. I think without the pressure of having a designated lead singer and like “What’s that person comfortable with” and “hey that’s out of my range” we could really go anywhere with it and then go “you know I could hear so and so on this song, I could hear so and so on this song, this one we should probably think of a female voice” so we didn’t have those restrictions on it of it being written around one individual and I think that helps the process. FRR: Next year, we’ve got to talk about the Axes and Anchors cruise. There are so many cruises out there now but this is really cool because it feels like the guitar gods cruise. This is a hell of a lineup for this cruise. How did you come to be a part of it? I know you’re doing a workshop on it as well as performing. Alex Skolnick: I got approached, originally I was told it was going to be a cruise based around the guitar. There may be some rock bands as well but the main idea is it’s the guitar and several of the good guitarists are going to be doing workshops as well. I thought “you know, that’s a really good idea, nobody’s done that yet” and then they told me so far we have Invade, Zakk Wylde and we’d like to have you too for our initial announcement” and I was like “that works for me- sign me up!” and then they said they were bringing in Michael Schenker and I was like “oh wow, doubly sign me up! These are guys I grew up listening to so the announcement with a lineup like this is unbelievable. FRR: There are so many cruises- Motorhead’s got a cruise, Kid Rock has a cruise, Mayhem had one a few years ago. Alex Skolnick: I did the first one, I think, which was 70,000 Tons. Testament and Exodus did that and that was when it was a new thing and it was really kind of scary. What’s going to happen? Let’s lock all of these wild child fans on a boat go out to the sea but it was great, it was actually a great experience. It’s amazing now, they’re just popping up left and right- I’ve done several. The Motorboat was great, Metal Allegiance followed that up with Shiprocked which is a little more of a 90’s thing with Chevelle and Buckcherry. FRR: Yea, it’s more radiorock bands on there, I think Alex Skolnick: Yea, but we brought the heavy stuff, the virtuoso guitar stuff. We did a whole Van Halen tribute- we did the whole first Van Halen record, which was a lot of pressure on me but it was a blast. Wolf Gang Van Halen was on the boat playing with Tremonti, so he actually joined us for the first few songs- it was pretty unbelievable. So yea, the cruises are a lot of fun and I think Axes and Anchors is the first of its kind. I think it’s a great idea. Why not do one geared toward musicians but you certainly won’t have to be a musician to enjoy it. FRR: Yea there are so many good bands- Flyleaf,  Thousand Foot Krutch, Breaking Benjamin, Motionless In White, etc. Alex Skolnick: Yea so it’s got a good balance too, I think it’s gonna get a lot of fans of those bands but I think it’s also for fans of guitar, there’s a lot of players that I think will enjoy that that might not have gone to the rock band oriented cruises because there’s such an emphasis on the guitar and workshops and musicianship. FRR: With so many cruises out there do you feel like it’s important to have something so specific. It’s almost getting a bit oversaturated with how many there are, but this one is very specific. Alex Skolnick: Yea, I think this one is different- it brings something different to the table and it’s going to bring a slightly different crowd. The crowd that I’ve seen on some of thes cruises, especially Shiprocked and 70,000 Tons, they would not be interested in a lecture on music theory and guitar patterns but I think this one is gonna have that element but it also is going to have the fun rock and roll element for those that are interested in that. I also think that one reason you’re seeing so many of these cruises is that they’re fun for everybody. You’re also getting a lot of, rock typically used to be marketed to purely to the youth demographic and that’s why you’d see such a sense of ageism in rock- a band was too old by the time they’re 30. But now a good portion of the audience has grown up- they’re not kids anymore but they’re still interested in music and a lot of them are married to someone who might not want to be dragged to a concert with a mosh pit where they’re sort of trapped, but you can bring your whole family on one of these cruises and they can watch a concert or they can choose not to, they can lounge on the sundeck, they can stay in the cabin. I think it’s a little bit like what happened to Las Vegas- it used to be a terrible place for families. It was all about gambling, smoking, purely about vice, and you certainly still have that but it’s a very family friendly place, there’s shows, off-Broadway shows, shopping, it’s a place you can take family and I think the cruise really represents that for music, particularly for heavy music. FRR: So after the Metal Allegiance album releases what’s the rest of the year like for you? More work with Testament, possibly? Alex Skolnick: I’m shocked, actually, the year has flown by. We wrote this album over the winter break, I think it was between Christmas and New Years, and then we had another session in January to button things up and the remaining tunes were written then, we played ShipRocked in February, went straight into the studio to begin that process, and a big chunk of my life actually was Metal Allegiance studio and just getting it together, producing singers. This was the first record I got to lay all the foundation to. Even though with Testament I write a lot of the riffs Eric is the main riff guy, he’s the rhythm guy, that’s usually him you’re hearing with the rhythms, but in this case I laid the foundation so it was a lot of work. And then Testament had a big touring season after that, so no sooner than we finished that in April and then testament hit the road with Exodus in the US and then we were in Europe for a few weeks playing a lot of festivals, a lot of them with Metallica for the first time, but Testament is buckling down now. We did have some writing sessions last year and a lot of that stuff I think is going to be used on this record. We have these one-off’s coming up and we’re doing Riotfest, and we’re doing Loudpark in Japan and in between we’re going to be taking the new                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              to the next steps and get this record done. I think we’re actually going to attempt to have it recorded by the end of the year, that’s what it’s looking like. I hate to put times on it because every time that happens it gets quoted and then it never matches up but anyways, that’s happening! Then Metal Allegiance is doing some shows. We have a big album release show in September that’s been announced at the Best Buy. We have some other shows too that I’m not sure have been announced yet. But there’s shows here and there, they’re spread out. I’m not sure if it’s going to be a touring entity or a one-off entity, and it depends. We’re still trying to figure out if we want to do every show as a grand extravaganza which we’re definitely doing for the release show but given everybody’s schedule between myself with Testament, Ellefson with Megadeath, Portnoy with Winery Dogs, that’s difficult enough to work around but then you’ve got all the vocalists, and we want to try to have at least one guest guitarist at the show too so it’s tough but I think the excitement around it is great, so we’ll find a way to make it work. In between I’m still doing instrumental stuff- I just got done touring with Stu Ham, a great bass player, and I’ve got some music recorded with my jazz trio that I’m planning on releasing some time probably early next year. FRR: Man- it just doesn’t stop! Alex Skolnick: It’s definitely not boring! FRR: This new stuff is insane. Alex Skolnick: Good to hear it! We’ve been hearing it for forever. We think it’s really good but at a certain point it’s like “okay, are we just kidding ourselves? Let’s put it out there” We appreciate it! -Reggie Edwards