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TESTAMENT - Interview with Steve DiGiorgio
By Wojtek Gabriel,
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Testament thrash metal band
When it comes to the most uniquely sounding bass players in the world, Steve DiGiorgio is definitely somewhere near the top of the list. The back catalogue of his work is more than impressive, with Death, Sadus, Obituary or Iced Earth being just a few of the more well-known bands he's played with in the past. Currently providing the low end for Testament, whom he re-joined a few years back to record "Brotherhood of the Snake", Steve was kind enough to answer our questions about that album. But it's Steve, so we had to ask about his musical past as well, obviously...
So, you re-joined your mates in Testament a few years ago. How did it come about?
The phone just kept ringing, ha-ha! Obviously, I don't know very much of the reason why Greg was finished, I know a little bit... But the point is they needed me back and I just reached a point in my life, where I figured I could arrange for it to happen. I guess it was pretty easy decision, because I'd been in the band at least six, maybe seven years before and so I knew what to expect. And they obviously asked me back for a reason, they knew what they were getting. So, in one regard it was a really, really easy thing, you know, to have a band request you and then to know that it's familiar, almost family. That was pretty easy. And in fact, Gene has returned, he was in the band, and Alex, even though he's a founding member, he returned. So, the three of us have returned to the band. So, even though the band seems like it has a lot of members and stuff, I mean, it's still kind of close to, I don't wanna say original, but strong line-up in the history of the band.
How would you compare Testament back in the late '90s when you first played with them to where you guys are now? I mean you're a much bigger band these days...
Yeah, during that time the band was kind of climbing out of a hole, like the whole metal scene had kind of gone away, you know? So, for the band to decide to continue on and survive, it was like, not starting over, but starting again to pay the dues and to do the work. When "The Gathering" came out we were doing like any band of that level, playing any shows, a couple hundred people, going with small budgets just to make it work. And I stayed in all the way until they made the big re-union. So, they did the re-union and then during the time that I was away they did two albums, "The Formation of Damnation" and "Dark Roots of Earth". So, to get to your answer, when I came back everything has gone up from my previous time. I mean the show is bigger, the production, the professionalism. Now they have account agencies and there's professional organisations involved, everything is just so much more advanced and optimised. And everybody's a little older and party a little less and kind of take the job a little more serious. And as a result of that, I think we've got a little better, ha-ha! Imagine that! You quit fuckin' around, you get pretty good at something, ha-ha! So, yeah, we put a lot into the show, in all facets, you know, what you can see and what you can't see, the things that help the business operate. If I returned to the same situation, like you said, like in the late '90s, I don't know, it'd be difficult at this age. But they've created quite a nice, comfortable business, and it's great to be part of it. I'm glad they called me back. Everything's rolling really nice.
Due to a very busy schedule you had very little time in studio for recording "Brotherhood of the Snake". Did it have any negative impact on the quality of the album? Did you have to compromise on anything?
It's hard to compare it to something that doesn't exist, like I don't know how the album would be if we did it different. I only know how it is. In a normal situation, I guess you imagine the band together in a room, discussing ideas, trying things, like living and growing with the material, where in this case, this album, Eric had worked on it pretty exclusively. There was small moments where Alex got with him, Gene got with him, and we would do things just, you know, "Here's an idea, listen, what do you think?", like without our instruments. But we still imagined and discussed things. So, there was some preparation, but compared to a normal session I would imagine this was a little bit more segmented, where once Eric had everything written, it was the drummer's turn, and then it was the bass player's turn and the singer's turn. We just found the little pockets of time and then we just put it together. I mean, I remember recording the day before we left for a particular tour and I was kind of upset, 'cause I'm sitting there trying to finish my bass lines and I'm thinking, "I have to go pack for seven weeks," you know? So, we leave for tour and we're approving mixes, you know? The producer would send us email, like, "Oh, here, what do you think of this?" so we'd have to find a place in the bus or a room and set-up a speaker and, "OK, what do you think?" So, that part was weird, because we didn't have the comfort of where we normally listen to things, like you always have your car, you have your favourite stereo in your house, and you listen and you say, "Oh, change this, change that..." So, the biggest difference in my opinion was probably the final stage of the production which was just like approving mixes. But, I don't know, based on, not all the Testament records, but based on the last few, it might be a good way to go, because the sound, I don't know, most people agree the sound's pretty good. I guess maybe sometimes when there's hardship involved it kind of shows in the results, you know? So, it wasn't a perfect situation, it wasn't a comfortable situation and maybe because of that something good came out of it, I don't know. That was the biggest difference. But the way things are recorded nowadays, it's very rare for a band to record at the same time. Even for the budget purposes, it's just a lot quicker to just go one at a time. So even though we did it between tours, going at separate times, it wasn't so far off as the normal really.
How would you compare the recording session for "Brotherhood" to the one for "The Gathering"? The studio techniques must have changed drastically in the meantime?
Oh yeah, ha-ha! Totally, like what I've just talked about, with getting together and working on the songs. I had joined Testament in summer of '98 and we recorded "The Gathering" pretty much during the change of the New Year. And so form that summer to that end of the year, especially me, Eric and Dave we were in a room really working on ideas. So, the preparation was huge. Well, it wasn't steady, because Dave had jobs, he had to go away for periods of time, but we had a lot of time to work on building the songs. So in comparison that is completely opposite of the new album where we had no time to work on the songs. But the technology, yeah, it's a huge difference. We were using a DAT machine, they look like VHS tapes, and the machine has 8 tracks so if you want more you put a second machine and you link them together, and I think we had four or five of them. So it was cumbersome, it was bulky, and slow, but it was digital, ha-ha! But the board was kind of an older style mixing board so if you wanted to change something you had to do it physically every time. The board didn't have a memory like a computer and there was so much equipment in the room and all the wires. Yeah, very different. And this one was done in ProTools, everything is all internal now and digital, you know? So it was very different and the production went a lot slower because, another difference too, real quick, is "The Gathering" was recorded in Testament's own studio so there was almost no budget issues. So if somebody says, "Hey, what if we totally change this?" -"Sure, let's try it," you know? And on the new one we did, well, the drums you still need to pay for the studio, but a lot us can record at our own places and then we send it off to be mixed so there was no chance to waste time because we were paying for everything. So that's a big difference too.
"Brotherhood" seems to be generally faster than the previous two releases, more into straight forward thrash direction. Was it a pre-planned move?
Yes. That was about the only pre-conceived plan for the album. No-one really could imagine the big picture, but the one goal we set, was that we wanted to have the same feeling that "The Gathering" had, like just kind of like "Reign in Blood", just boom boom boom, you know? Some albums are nice that they progress through a story. There's fast song, slower song, it takes you on an adventure, and sometimes that's really nice and that might be the next one, I don't know. But for "The Brotherhood" that was the number one thing set, we said, "Let's kick ass. Let's go fast and show these old guys that we can play like young men again." And we went for it. After that it was, "Let's see what happens." But the goal was, we wanted to go fast, no ballads.
Do you know why Chuck picked aliens and ancient civilisations for the lyrical concept for this album?
What I do know is it was just something that was on his mind these days, you know, something he was interested in. I've written lyrics for different projects and I watch singers write lyrics and you have to be into something, you have to express an interest somehow, you know? You can't be Led Zeppelin and say "Ooohhh baby baby baby" every song. You have to have some kind of theme, some story, some idea. He was really into like watching "Ancient Aliens" and "Ancient Civilisations", just cool mysterious things, which is cool for a metal band because of the imagery. You can make it dark, not evil, but you know, like metal. But it doesn't have to be so pretentious either, because there's ideas that could possibly be true to human history, like ancient civilisations, maybe aliens, UFOs, that type of stuff, there's a possibility it's true. So there's some intelligence in there, but it's fuckin' heavy metal. So you wanna think of something that looks cool, and we don't have the stage set on this tour but on our bigger tours the drum riser looks like it's sitting on a giant UFO, so the drums are on an UFO but surroundings are like old Sumerian carvings and we were gonna have this huge statues like maybe the gates to Ishtar or something Egyptian. So when you have some kind of a theme or direction, it really helps. The lyrics start coming, the cover comes, the merchandise ideas, the stage, everything kinda falls into a package, you know? So he got to think of something cool and so I guess Chuck would be the best one to ask that question, but my point of view is, it was just something he was interested in, something that translates to looking fuckin' cool for heavy metal band.
US thrash metal band Testament
When you were with the band the first time, you also recorded some classic tunes for the "First Strike Still Deadly" album. Did you enjoy working on Testament's classic '80s material?
Yeah, that was really different. We did five songs from the first album, five songs from the second and all 10 of those songs we had already been playing on tour a lot. So, there was no mystery to record it. I kept the bass lines pretty true to the way Greg recorded them. I didn't feel it was necessary to re-invent something, I just played them the way they are but even if I played the bass lines the same as original it's a different musician, so it's not gonna be the same. Greg has his complete unique style, and I have mine. The interesting thing for me was new musicians to work with, like with John Tempesta on drums. That was really interesting to record with him. And it was the first time me and Alex had any interaction. We weren't really in the same place at the same time, he still lives in New York but once it was finished then it felt like I finally made a connection, because up until that point I never really got to know him and never did anything musically with him. And you know, he's a legend for the band, he's a legend in music, period. But for Testament, I mean that's what Skolnick is recognised. And so to have him to return to record all those old classics, that was kind of cool for me, because I was used to work with Chuck and Eric at this point, then had Alex back, so I was infiltrating into that classic line-up. But that album, the purpose was to re-record songs that people like to listen to with modern technology. They're classic songs, but every time you go back and listen to the original recording, it's a sign of the times, they were good then, but now it's really hard to listen to, compared to modern, and so it was mostly Eric who said, "Let's just make them sound good so when people wanna listen to them, they don't have to go back to the old, real thin sound." So the number one reason was inclined towards the fans. But there was a distant secondary reason, because Chuck was going through something really horrible at that time, you know about his cancer, he's conquered it so we talk about it like from a champion point of view fortunately but in those time it was scary and to plan a new record, so many question marks, like when he was going through chemotherapy his body changed, he didn't know if he could sing the same, he didn't know what the future would be, should we put out an album, should we tour, you know, we didn't know. So to do something like that to fill the time kinda helped. And for him to sing songs that he'd been singing for good 10+ years, that was comfortable for him at that time. And considering he was going through chemotherapy, he was still pretty well, he was a big strong guy and he was dealing with it, so you know, it gave us something to do and it was cool.
What are your favourite Testament albums from the old-school period and from the new era?
From "Low" to today, I like all those. I really, really prefer the later part of the band. I wasn't honestly too much into the old stuff. Obviously, it's growing on me now, I've become part of it. But before I would ever imagine that I would be in this band I wasn't really that much into it. I was from a little bit heavier side, more extreme stuff. The bands, where I grew up, we were in the same area as them, so we had a chance to support them in a local show and it was great. So, there was always massive respect for the band. At one point they were right behind Metallica, they had MTV videos, they were on fm radio, they were huge, they were rock stars in the San Francisco area. But I didn't really follow Exodus after "Bonded by Blood", I wasn't listening to Megadeth too much, or Anthrax, like that kinda stuff. I'm probably the only one person that only likes one Metallica album, that's it you know? And no, it's not the first one, it's the second one. So, that's my personal thing. So, the old albums I really don't know. I know them now because I play them, but "Low" was a great album and then "Demonic" was cool as fuck and then they called me for the next one and obviously "Formation" and "Dark Roots", I'm always asking them all the time, "Let's put more songs in the set from those albums." And I didn't play on them, so it's not even a selfish opinion, it's kind of a fan a little bit. And the new one's great. Whether I'm on it or not. I think we could play any song of that album. So yeah, it's hard to answer your question specifically, I'll just say I just really like the later era of Testament. It's cool to be in a band, with three thousand songs to choose from, ha-ha!
What do you prefer, studio work or live gigs?
They're both necessary to a musician. The studio work is very cerebral you know, because you're creating, you're pulling something out of nothing, something didn't exist and you're making something new. So, it's cerebral, it's mentally challenging, it's pressure to leave something that's going to last. Live is completely opposite. You can turn your brain off and it's completely physical. It's a routine. You know, we play the same set, there's little changes, but for the most part you're in a routine, it's physical and besides just the act of physical there's also the physical exchange with the audience. So, to do music without that, it would feel so empty, you know? 'Cause you can record an album in a studio and send it out and maybe read some emails or some reviews and people like it and it feels rewarding but you read it and you're done. Live, it's just a constant buzz, it's like a lightning bolt that won't stop. And so you need that as a performer. You need to realise that what you do is accepted. But the physicality, the routine and the grind, especially at our age, it wears you down. And so that's the downside of it. You can't do it every day, you need to go home, you need to stop, you need a rest. So, they're both necessary and they're both difficult. But I can't say which one I prefer, because one needs the other. It's an all-inclusive thing. I love the studio, I do a lot of recording, but I gotta turn off the computer sometimes and get out there and sweat, ha-ha! It feels good to get it out and see people's faces.
You mention Steve Harris, Geezer Butler or Geddy Lee as players who influenced you but none of them play fretless instruments. So, how did it come about that you play fretless bass?
Because back in the high school days when all the cool kids were listening to heavy metal, or I guess back then it was called like hard rock or whatever, I was kind of like a jazz nerd, you know, more of a music student. I had music classes and I was learning to play different instruments and performing with the school band, while the cool kids would go home and play in the garage. I did that eventually but I came to it later on. So, I was playing double-bass in orchestra when I was pretty young and that was my first string instrument that I played. It's in the family of cello and violin and those instruments have gone without frets for hundreds of years. And it was actually another bass player in the orchestra that brought his Fender electric to school to show it, like "Hey, here's an electric bass." And I remember the first time playing it, it was like, "OK, I'm gonna get one now." And so I guess I just came from that side. You know a lot of people take their big brother's guitar, they get their parents to buy them one in a music store and they sit on their bed and learn from albums and stuff. I came from a classroom, you know, reading off sheet music and using a bow and all this stuff so when I changed to learning albums and sitting on the side of my bed and stuff I already had a lot of fundamental music training. There weren't fretless electric basses available, so I played fretted for a few years, but I just had the idea to convert one of my basses into fretless, so I bought a neck and put together kind of a Frankenstein, like a home made instrument, that's the bass you hear on "Individual Thought Patterns", it's on Sadus and Autopsy and stuff like that. I made that bass with a help of a guy, 'cause once I got into electronics I needed somebody to help me but it's a home-made bass and it was kind of an experiment in a way 'cause it didn't seem like the right thing 'cause nobody else did it. But when the results came out and everybody was like, "Whoa, cool" I thought, "OK, I found my thing," you know? But now that you know the background, it was easy, it wasn't that new for me and a lot of the bass players that I listened to outside of Steve Harris, Geddy Lee, Geezer Butler, there were some fretless players back then and like I said, I was from more of a jazz or bigger instrumental side of music, not just jazz, but there's a lot of fretless players in that stuff. And so to me, I was following in their lines. But to a heavy metal listener it was brand new. So, I get the credit for starting it but it doesn't feel like I'm an inventor because I have so many people I looked up to, that I was following. So, I guess I just kind of introduced it to the style of music, I didn't invent it by any stretch. But that was always my calling card, you know, my identity. And to tell you the truth I just really prefer the sound of it. So, no matter how I'm known it's what I always use. I use two different Ibanez tonight and one of them has, the main one has the frets removed, so from a distance you see lines, you know? They don't shine because that's the filling but in essence it's a fretless. And then the secondary bass has frets. And I've always played both, like for example albums like Control Denied, and there's quite a few, like Iced Earth "Horror Show" I use both. I plan it like, these songs are fretless and these songs I'm gonna bring the fretted one or use them both and even, I don't know for other bands but I know for Sadus every now and then I would intentionally record with a pick for a song. I'm not that good with it, so I'm primarily finger player, or they say pizzicato, but you know, a pick is a tool and I don't wanna leave it in the mystery range, I wanna master it. So, I tried to use it. Fretless, fretted, pick, no pick, whatever. I try to I use it all. I think my advice to younger bass players is in those lines, just try everything. Then you'll know.
Testament thrash metal
You started your career playing with Sadus and you guys shared the rehearsal room with Death and you played with them too. So why didn't Chuck ask you to play on their first album and recorded bass tracks himself instead?
Ha-ha! That's good knowledge! Not a lot of people know that. Yes, we shared the rehearsal room and between Sadus and Death they shared a bass player. So, I was playing all day long; when the bands would take turns I'd stay in there and play both. And I came very, very close to playing on that album. And the only reason I didn't is because they were embarrassed to ask. And I suppose, well, I mean we were maybe 17 years old I think, so we were really young, we were kids, so sometimes shyness dominates and I probably could have offered myself and broke the ice. We used to go out, both bands which is funny because their band was two people, so it was just a small group of us. We'd go out on weekends and find a place that the cars couldn't see, stay away from the cops, like a park or a school, something dark, we would just drink beer, have a joint or something and we would do this all the time. They just told us, I think Chuck said, "Oh, we're not gonna be around for the next week, we're going to Los Angeles." So, the week goes by and they come back, we go out, crack some beer, "So, what did you guy do in Los Angeles?" just conversation, you know, "Oh, we recorded the album." "What? You recorded the album?" So, my first question was obviously, like, "Well, who played bass? Because I know for the past 4-5 months I was the bass player," and Chuck just rolls his eyes, "Oh, I had to do it, it was horrible, had to do my guitar, had to do my solos, I had to do bass and then I had to sing, I had so much work, I didn't like it." And I said, "Well, I knew all the songs, I would have done it." And Chuck hits Chris and goes, "I told you we should've asked him." And that was it. And at that time it was just like, oh well. That would've been my first album ever, so it's not like I came from a point of experience either, but we were just kind of shy. I might hold the biggest chunk of the history of Death after Chuck, because I was part of the line-up when "Mutilation" demo came out and came that close to the first album, then the next two they went away, but from album four until his death I was there on everything in one form or another and to think to add that one, I don't know how it would've changed the course of history. But they treated me like I was part of the band and the Death guys and all the Sadus guys we were always all best friends together. We were just that type of group of people where we were tight friends. I just happened to be the common point between them and Chuck remembered that and when we got older he called me back and then he wouldn't let me go after that, thankfully, ha-ha!
You've worked with many amazing drummers over the course of your career. How is it working with Gene Hoglan as compared to the other drummers you've played with in the past?
This is just a fact, I hate to brag, but a fact, I've worked with some of the best drummers in the world, it's a historical fact. You look at the drummers I've played with, wow, I'm blown away, I'm like, "How lucky is this guy, look at these drummers." So, people would ask me, who's the best and I'd say, there's no such thing. There's no such thing as the best. But I will tell you I have a favourite. It's Gene Hoglan by far. When we were really young Los Angeles was more like rocker town, hair metal, glam, whatever you call it and it was evidenced by Metallica, Megadeth, Slayer, these types of bands went to the Bay Area, San Francisco. You know, it's a big metropolis, called the Bay Area. And that's where the heavier bands, that's where thrash I guess was born, whatever. So, there's a thrash band in L.A. called Dark Angel and they need the same thing, they need the crowd that likes their music. They don't want hair metal fans, so they come to San Francisco all the time and almost every time they came to play San Francisco they requested Sadus to be part of the show. And the one guy of the band that brought the cassette demo of Sadus, that knew our names in his head, he knew the songs, it was Gene. And it was amazing for us, 'cause we were these young kids like watching these massive Los Angeles thrashers play, it was incredible, I mean, we must have listened to "Darkness Descends" a million times back then, we were huge fans and we'd finish our set and we'd go look on the side of the curtain, just watch Gene, just larger than life, just play that stuff and we were just like, "He is our fan and his just a god", you know? And so the connection started way back then. And a few years later we pulled together to play on a Death record and it was like old friends, like "Hey, buddy, what's up?" We were making music together and I realised how openminded he is and aware. Bass player and drummer go together, like a well-oiled machine but a lot of times the drummer makes his part and the bass player's the one that learns it and makes the connection. Gene was the first drummer that would change what he's doing because he heard something I did. So, it was reciprocated, it was an equal thing. And that blew me away. And that led to me analysing how he was aware of a lot of things. And to me, that's why I always say he's my favourite, because he's the smartest and most open-minded. You know, there's drummers that can do amazing things in the world, and you'll always find someone better than the last guy, but to me out of all that list of drummers in my career, he's my favourite. And when we weren't playing in Death anymore, we kept in touch like friends through the years and we always talked about, when are we gonna jam again. And because we kept contact, the time wasn't a big deal, we felt like we were being in contact, but when we came together in Testament, we realised it had been 23 years between albums. From "Individual Thought Patterns" to "Brotherhood of the Snake", 23 years that we hadn't made music together. So, now that I've been back in the band, for 4.5 years now, I told him, "We're gonna retire like this", you know? "We'll never gonna break-up again" ha-ha!
My countrymen from Vader are opening for you guys in Europe. Have you seen any of their shows?
Of course, quite a few of them. They're brutal. Well, you know my history with Sadus and stuff, we came from the same time, the same fanzines, the same tape-trading, we share a lot of the same background history with Vader. We're from the same world so to say. So, hanging with Peter and the guys, it's like, we have the connection to the old days. So, it's cool to have them here. You know, Testament, they're friends with Anthrax, Megadeth, even Judas Priest, bands like that so it's cool to see them embrace bands like Vader now, because back in the day they'd be, "Vader? What's that?" But for me, like I said, that was our underground so now that we can bring bands like Vader and we've toured now with Cannibal Corpse, bands like this, and stuff so it's really cool to be part of the brutal world sneak into Testament's world and now the worlds are coming together. So, for me it's just like, "Oh, those are old friends, come on!" And the Vader guys are super nice, they're great to travel with. Every day we get along awesome, they're funny. But like I said, it's not new to me. We've crossed paths since a few decades.
It's been almost two years since "Brotherhood" was out. Are you guys talking about doing another album or is it too early?
There's talk about it. Sometimes talk lasts a couple of years, sometimes talk means right-away. So, I'll leave you with that. But there's definitely talk about it. We have a long-long tour with Slayer coming up, we're part of the farewell tour in the States. Once Slayer is done with all the States and Canada, if they bring the farewell tour to Europe and stuff, I don't think we're part of that but up until that point we're busy touring and the plan of the band is after the end of that to go into creation mode again and do another one. So, if it happens it should happen in this time, they wanna to release it at least by the middle of next year, maybe spring-time type of thing. But like I said, every time these planes are talked about publicly, most of the time it gets changed and they put pressure on the band, "Hey, you said you're gonna do an album this year, where's is it?" -"Oh, shit happens." So, I'll just tell you that's what the talk is, that's what the plan is. We'll see what happens. But it's exciting to me, 'cause "Brotherhood" could've been the last album. They could've said, "Ahh, we've had enough, we're done." But you can't stop it. It's still going up. So, until there's a sign of it going down, we might as well keep going because like I said back in your studio vs. live question, there's nothing better than getting that reaction from the fans, that acceptance and that excitement, you know? And if "Brotherhood" is a sign that they're still into us, we'll give them another one.
Interview by Wojtek Gabriel

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Tags: Testament, thrash metal, Bay Area thrash, Steve DiGiorgio, Brotherhood of the Snake
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© 1997-2019 Wojtek Gabriel. All rights reserved.
Unauthorised use of any works published on this website is prohibited.
Materials may not be reproduced in whole or in part by persons, organisations
or corporations without the prior written permission.