“We’ve been to a lot of places over 35 years. But now it’s all about the experience,” says Chuck Billy. The iconic Testament frontman is having the time of his life, as Metal Hammer catches up with him backstage at Silence Festival in Kathmandu, Nepal.
We have been here before, of course, courtesy of local metal heroes Underside and their frankly heroic efforts to promote their homegrown scene. For Chuck and his Bay Area comrades, the chance to headline this one-day festival was too tempting to resist. As he tells us, sporting a huge grin that is only partly caused by the reportedly colossal quantities of local weed and hash that he’s been hoovering down since his arrival, Testament have loved every second of their Nepali trip so far.
“Oh man, it’s been amazing. We’ve been to temples all over. We’ve experienced all the local cuisines, with these huge silver plates, eating with our hands,” he enthuses, miming yesterday’s dinner. “We also had a plan to take a helicopter up to Mount Everest but the weather was fucked, so that was shut down. But I know the guys went to another temple and rode a cable car up in the hills. We’ve just been catching the culture. It’s a trip, man. We keep saying that. It’s just a trip that we’re here.”
Having travelled so much over the last three-and-a-half decades, Testament have had a few experiences that might be considered comparable to their debut in Kathmandu. Chuck speaks of earlier shows in both India and Indonesia, and he sounds genuinely admiring of the professionalism and resourcefulness that metal bands in Asia have shown him. But something about Kathmandu really seems to have struck a chord; as he soberly recounts his band’s first taste of being driven around in the Nepali capital and witnessing the ongoing impact of the earthquake that decimated the city in 2015, he looks genuinely moved.
“Oh man, you can see it everywhere,” he grimaces. “As we came in, we could see there was a lot of construction and rubble. Once we hit the ground and started driving around, you could really see it in the buildings. Everything’s stone and brick, so it didn’t have a great chance really. It’s pretty intense to see.”
Chuck’s grin swiftly returns. “There was an earthquake here the other day, too. It was a 4.8! We were driving around at the time so we weren’t sure if it was an earthquake or just the guy’s driving! Ha ha ha!”
He takes a steady but hefty drag from his own branded THC vaporiser and then clicks into serious, focused mode. “The thing is, when we got the offer to play at Silence, I thought, ‘Right, it’s going to be a cultural experience first and foremost.’ But then on top of that, we get to play our songs for a bunch of people who really don’t get a chance to see much of us or any American bands, so that made it even more appealing.”
The singer goes on to note that Testament were also hugely impressed by the way the Silence Festival organisers go out about their business. It’s no mean feat, pulling off a metal festival in the middle of a city that is neither set up for such things in terms of infrastructure nor particularly enthusiastic about the whole idea on a societal level.
As the event’s prime movers, Underside guitarist Bikrant Shrestha and manager/festival director Flower are well versed in dealing with the authorities and having to turn themselves inside out in order to obtain the necessary permits. They were also involved in relief efforts, after the devastating earthquake that struck Kathmandu in 2015 and destroyed many people’s homes. Through Metal For Nepal, a series of gigs across 12 countries, they raised funds to build houses in the stricken Gorkha district. It’s a world away from the relentless commercialism of the American and European music industries, and Chuck seems enamoured with the punk rock spirit that seems to drive it all.
“This is such a small festival, man. They told me that it almost didn’t happen, but once we signed on, everything started working and people started coming in from different areas. So if a band like us didn’t play I guess it would all be a lot more local and regional. They really need to have established bands here, so that fans go, ‘You know what? I wanna go to Kathmandu too!’ Because this is fucking cool, right? They’re really making a great effort to do this. I hear they’ve built 325 houses, and that’s another reason why we just said, ‘Let’s go!’”
While Chuck sings Silence Festival’s praises, we can hear the event erupting in the background. Although Testament are the only internationally renowned band on the bill, the organisers have pieced together a stellar line-up of Asian heaviness, ranging from Indian death metal brutes Godless and Nepali grindcore legends Chepang through to Indonesian metal kings (and friends of Hammer) Burgerkill and, of course, Underside themselves.
Unfortunately, political unrest in Assam, India, has resulted in a blanket curfew and the band’s drummer, Nishant Hagjer, is unable to make the journey to join his comrades at the festival. It all looks like being a huge disappointment for the band that started this whole event, not to mention for the vast crowd of local fans that they are expected to draw. But after a couple of hours of frantic, behind-the-scenes discussion, a solution falls into the band’s lap; Testament drummer Gene ‘The Atomic Clock’ Hoglan has volunteered to learn Underside’s set and is happy to fill in for Nishant at what can only be described as insanely short notice.
The day has been saved and the rest of Underside are now wearing smiles so broad they all look a bit mad. As frontman Avishek K.C. notes as he rushes past, mere minutes before his band takes the stage, “It’s Gene fucking Hoglan!”
“That’s Gene!” Chuck laughs. “It’s no problem for him. We’re happy to help out. You know, we’re really not the most demanding band in the world. We’re all pretty easy going. Someone like Rammstein, for example, their show is a lot more of a challenge to pull off. We just need things to work, a PA system and some lights, but as long as things work we are willing to make the trip, even to Kathmandu.”
It would be generous to say that Underside’s set with Gene Hoglan goes off without a hitch, but it’s a triumph for the band and Silence Festival nonetheless: one of those “Were you there?” moments that Nepali metal fans will always cherish. As Avishek tells us later in the day, they managed to get through their songs without completely losing the plot and Gene did a sterling job at such short notice, but “there were definitely a few moments where no one knew what was going on!” Either way, the massive crowd that saw it certainly didn’t care.
At last, it’s time for Testament – Chuck, Gene, guitarists Alex Skolnick and Eric Peterson and bassist Steve Di Giorgio – to take the stage and give the local metal community the biggest thrill of its story so far. From his cheery opening, “How the fuck are you doing, Kathmandu?!” onwards, Chuck is clearly blown away by the response and he seems truly touched as the crowd chant his band’s name in every available moment of quiet.
From early classics like Into The Pit and Disciples Of The Watch to more recent rampages like More Than Meets The Eye, Testament are on blistering form and loving every minute of it. THe band’s 13th studio album, Titans Of Creation will be released a few months after we speak, in early 2020. As Chuck confirms, these are exciting, productive times for the Bay Area legends and Silence festival is just the beginning.
“We took nine months off from touring just to focus on the record this time,” he explains. “The process was a lot better than the one before [Brotherhood Of The Snake, 2016]. We weren’t weaving in and out of tours, so we could focus on it. It came out really good. When I heard it first as an album I thought, ‘Holy shit, that’s a good record!’ I think it’s [esteemed producer and long-time Testament collaborator] Andy Sneap’s best mix. He had fresh ears after he came back from playing with Judas Priest for a year, so yeah, holy shit, it sounds great.”
With Titans Of Creation one of the metal albums of 2020, Chuck Billy has every reason to be full of optimism for his band’s future. But whether they scale new heights of success or not, these veterans are still in love with the notion of finding new places to visit and new people to share some heavy fucking metal with. Kathmandu and its small but passionate metal community are now firmly on Chuck’s list.
“They told us, ‘Look, Nepal is a third world country, the production won’t necessarily be top-notch…’ but I just thought, ‘OK, it’s going to be one of those punk rock shows!’ and that’s cool, you know? Look at what they’re putting on for people, with a big stage and all the lights! It’s a proper show, man. The experience has just been amazing. We need to tell everyone, dude. Come to Nepal!”
Originally published in Metal Hammer #334. Visit Silence Festival on Facebook to find out more.
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