Who is Alex?
By Will Romano
Goldmine (May 6, 2011)
Alex Skolnick was just 16 years old when he joined the San Francisco-based thrash band Legacy, that evolved into Testament, one of metal’s founding father bands. Skolnick’s work with Testament on genre-defining recordings such as The Legacy (1987) and The New Order (1988) spoke to a generation of hard rock fans hungry for more … darker, faster, angrier. A more aggressive attitude.
Matt Zebroski, Nathan Peck, and Alex Skolnick. Photo courtesy Magna Carta
Matt Zebroski, Nathan Peck, and Alex Skolnick. Photo courtesy Magna Carta
Yet, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, who could have guessed that Skolnick would soon exit Testament and later migrate from the adrenaline-fueled metal community to the more traditional world of jazz?
Since his discovery of iconic artists such as Miles Davis and Pat Metheny, Skolnick has earned a degree in jazz from New York City’s The New School and, much like the guitar teacher of his youth, Joe Satriani, grown emotionally and technically as a musician. Though Skolnick occasionally rejoins his one-time Testament bandmates, the Brooklyn resident has often steered clear of the heavy metal scene altogether, in part, by spearheading his own guitar-led instrumental jazz band, Alex Skolnick Trio.
Growing in confidence as a bandleader and composer, Skolnick continues to surprise audiences and even shatter expectations, while offering insights into his musical identity. Alex Skolnick Trio’s latest album, “Veritas,” which shares its name with the Roman goddess of truth, reflects the guitarist’s love of traditional jazz even as it contains moments of funky fusion (“99/09”), acoustic melancholia (“Alone in Brooklyn”) and Indian music-inflected jams (“Bollywood Jam”). Fittingly, it’s perhaps the Trio’s most lively, honest and original statement to date.
Given the musical flavors of “Veritas,” the temptation is to conclude that Skolnick has found spirituality or that he’s a 21st Century update of jazz-rock icon John McLaughlin. But perhaps this would be missing the point or purposefully overlooking the intense commitment Skolnick has made to jazz and guitar playing, in general. “I think the music on ‘Veritas’ represents who I am,” says Skolnick. “What’s come out on the record is what’s inside me.”
Goldmine spoke with Skolnick about “Veritas,” his diverse musical career and what truth in music means to him.
Q Your new record ‘Veritas’ has touches of metal, but is mostly a jazz album.
Skolnick: It’s definitely jazz. I’m playing with jazz musicians and even an upright bassist [Nathan Peck]. I’m playing a hollow guitar with F holes. It’s the music I love and these days I want to play the music I love.
Q Why did you switch from metal to jazz?
Skolnick: I can’t explain why I’m drawn to certain things. I think it’s like explaining why I played guitar in the first place. I had come from an academic background. My mother’s a law professor and I was expected to go into some profession similar to that, like law or medicine. The thing is, I don’t like hospitals. I do like guitar strings, however. I think it’s that simple. I like holding the guitar. It feels good. So, when it came to jazz it became such a part of me as a listener and fan. I was compelled to make that a part of me as a musician.
Q The title of the Trio’s new album is “Veritas.” What does the idea of truth mean to you as a musician?
Skolnick: Two main thoughts that come to mind: one is that when you play music, or you’re any kind of artist in the public eye, you are written about, a lot. You are described; it is part of the process. It’s not often that your own voice and your own image of yourself get through all the clutter. This was doubly true for me, because I come from the heavy metal world, which I was playing professionally since I was 16. You’re immediately categorized as a certain type of person, a certain type of musician, and I feel like I’m finally able to assert who I am outside of all of that stuff. So that’s one reason. The other is that the artists that I gravitate towards are truth tellers. One example would be Pat Metheny. When you see Pat Metheny play he’s telling it like it is. He’s not looking for trends.
Q With the inclusion of Indian-inspired music on this album, it feels as though you’re on a spiritual journey. What can you tell us about a track like ‘Bollywood Jam’?
Skolnick: It feels a bit like a journey and I hope I’ve begun to evolve. But, the song ‘Bollywood Jam’ came about by accident, really, because I saw the movie Slumdog Millionaire. I’m not up on Bollywood films, but I did see that one. I was captivated by the music. I did some research into the composer, A.R. Rahman, and it turns out he’s the leading composer of Bollywood films. I thought the Trio should try something similar to his style. I came up with the basic ideas for the song … and these different parts started to come together, like the main riff and main melody, and it just took on a life of its own.
Q What’s the deal with the song “99/09”? What do the numbers mean?
Skolnick: The song starts out with this funky rhythm, which is inspired by Prince. So, 99 is a reference to Prince’s “1999.” I think of the song as a … collaboration between Prince and John Scofield, a jazz guitarist who has a lot of funk in his playing. 09 is the year the song was written.
Goldmine: Who’s in the band these days?
Skolnick: Well, it’s the same drummer who’s been there all along, Matt Zebroski. He’s as much a part of this band as I am. I can’t imagine doing this without him. The bass player is Nathan Peck, who’s been with us for the last two recordings [2004’s “Transformation” and 2007’s “Last Day in Paradise”]. When he first joined for the “Transformation” record, we barely had a month to work on the material. But with the new album, a lot of history has passed between the three of us and we know each other so much better. There’s no substitute for that, as far as I’m concerned. I could hire great session musicians and do a decent jazz record. But that’s all it would be — a decent jazz record. I want something more.
Q Your interpretation of other artists’ material is intriguing. In some cases it’s difficult to discern what song you’re actually playing.
Skolnick: I think Rush’s “Tom Sawyer”, from “Last Day in Paradise,” was the first time we’d recorded a cover and it wasn’t obvious, until late in the song, that we were covering anybody. The Judas Priest song, “Electric Eye”, from “Transformation,” was a little bit like that, because we changed the beat. It was arranged in the style of modern jazz piano music. The first album, “Goodbye to Romance: Standards for a New Generation,” was nearly all covers. Since then we’ve recorded a number of original songs that we’re really proud of and are going over well live. While we were in rehearsals on the road … we just decided to jam on “Fade to Black.” But we’re in the process of including more originals in our live sets. So, the fact that we chose to record “Fade to Black” is perfect, because it’s like a statement about phasing out the covers.
Q After Testament you recorded with Savatage and later the band that evolved from it, Trans-Siberian Orchestra (TSO). What can you tell us about those experiences?
Skolnick: Savatage was a very bittersweet situation. On the one hand I got to do an album with a band that I liked in high school. The flipside is that the gig came about because of a tragedy: Savatage guitarist Criss Oliva had passed away in 1993. That was around the time that I had left my band, Testament, because things hadn’t been working out, and I found playing with Savatage appealing. It was like, ‘Hey, why not?’ Then again, I knew I was heading in a different direction from the band, but I just didn’t know where. For some reason, joining Savatage just didn’t feel right. I’m not sure why that is. It’s a little like our conversation earlier — who knows why things happen? It wasn’t one particular thing. Maybe I felt I needed to … be one of the main creative voices in the band. If I had stayed with Savatage I wouldn’t have been.
Q Producer/songwriter Paul O’Neill really revamped Savatage and provided the overriding vision for the highly successful TSO touring/recording machine.
Skolnick: I’d agree with that. All I can say is that some guitar players are just happy to play guitar. Then there are others who want to be creative people. I guess I’m the latter. I don’t view myself as just a guitar player.
ON — JOINING SAVATAGE
Guitar For The Practising Musician
by John Stix
transcribed by Nathan Bradley
“I wish I didn’t have the opportunity to do this,” says ex-Testament guitarist (and GFTPM “Metal Edge” columnist) Alex Skolnick on his “special guest” status recording and performing with Savatage. “I wish Criss [Oliva, the band’s late lead guitarist] was still around. He is meant to be a guitar player. But it’s very interesting what I chrashed my dad’s car while I was listening to Savatage. I was 16 and had just joined Testament. Me and a couple other guys had “Sirens” on in the car. We saw our singer at the other stoplight of an intersection. He turned and I followed him, making a right hand turn from the left-hand lane. Luckily nobody got hurt. Needless to say, I was into Savatage from way back then. In fact, a lot of the octave melodies I did in Testament — songs like ‘Apocalyptic City’ and ‘So Many Lies’ — came from Savatage. Anyway, it’s kind of weird that years later here I am playing with Savatage and Criss was in a car wreck.”
While the circumstances that led Alex to record Handful of Rain with Savatage were tragic, it is not at all weird that he received the call. As one of the true melodic metallists, this student of Joe Satriani’s is currently fronting his own band, Exhibit A, who are just as likely to break into a Bryan Adams cover to warm up as they are tunes by Soundgarden or Thelonius Monk. So while his chops and musical knowledge make him a player’s player, his aggressive approach and background in Testament make him a hero in the mosh pit as well. this is exactly the combination of talents Savatage needed to record their best album in years.
The recording process reminded Alex of anything but a metal band. “the songs were written by Jon Oliva [brother of Criss] and Paul O’Neil, who doubled as the producer,” he explains. “They are not being photographed, they are not part of the band, but they wrote everything. It really [reminded me of] Steely Dan. In the studio it was just me and the singer [Zachary Stevens] trading off. All the other tracks were laid down. In a situation like this, my only responsibility was guitar solos. In some ways it was liberating.”
Rhythm parts were played by both Jon and Alex using Criss Oliva’s old Charvel Jackson guitar, dubbed “the Gargoyle.” According to Alex, this guitar has the distinct sound of Savatage. “We had six rhythm tracks for each song, all with different guitars. Usually we ended up going for a track of the Gargoyle and a track of my Ibanez in the background,” he recounts. “The Gargoyle sounded best each time for the rhythm tone, but the lead sound was my guitar and tone. A lot of rhythms were going straight through an amp Jon gave me, one of the best sounding Marshalls I’ve ever heard. When I ran my gear through it, we got a wide variety of tone. Depending on the dynamics, it reminded me of quiet Beck or when cranked up, like early Van Halen, which is my favorite tone in the world. This 50-watt JCM 900 from Thoroughbred Music was a dream amp. When Jon gave it to me I was speechless. I don’t know if I want to take it out on the road because it sounds so good. It might just be a studio head.”
“The result is that this record has some of the best tone I’ve ever gotten,” Alex claims. “We ran it through the ADA MP-1 preamp, which I’ve used for years. Running through the ADA added a richer sustain sound, which is better for solos. In fact all I brought for this trip was a guitar and preamp — there was my sound. I like a little dirt. I mean, I love Allan Holdsworth’s playing — he is a revolutionary player — but he is so clean it’s almost non-human. I apprecaite what Steve Vai does as well, but it’s perfect. That’s cool, but somehow Eddie Van Halen — especially the early stuff — there’s this touch of dirt. There’s a touch of slop that makes it more human. It sounds like it’s on the edge. I like that.”
My favorite guitarist is Jimmy Herring from Colonel Bruce Hampton and the Aquarian Resuce Unit. This guy plays with the power and diversity of Jeff Beck and Micheal Schenker, only with the speed of Steve Morse. My favorite is when he does licks like Scofield and Mike Stern. It’s outside, interesting stuff, only with a hard rock tone. He gets a warm rich sound. A lot of their music is open and funky. With ‘So What’ [from Guitar’s Practicing Musicians Vol III ] That’s what I was trying to achieve. It’s funky and it’s really open.”
Alex’s decision to leave Testament is better understood in the light of the musical differences between his former band and Savatage. He has particularly enjoyed playing over sustained chords instead of synchronized power-rhythms where the drums, bass and guitar play as one voice. “It was a thick voice that didn’t leave much room for lead guitar,” he says of much of Testament’s music. “That was one of the reasons for the split. With Savatage there are a lot of very open sections where the drums and bass were independent of the rhythm guitars.”
“Another thing I enjoyed about this album is I got to play rock’n roll like The Who or Queen. A lot of Savatage music has a theatrical quality. There are several spots on this album that remind me of Tommy and Night at the Opera. I actually pulled a ‘Baba O’Riley’ I-V-IV riff in the song ‘Alone I Breathe.’
“It was also a pleasant surprise to be able to get out of E minor. One of my biggest problems with Testament was we had the same dynamics the whole time. I love heavy music, but it becomes heavier when you have a situation of contrast. On several of the Savatage songs, the music quiets down and it can breathe. I like NIN a lot for that reason. It goes from the heaviest thing in the world to quiet and silence.”
To be the master of his own dynamics, Alex formed Exhibit A, which if all goes well will open shows on the Savatage tour. His vision is to maintain the big guitar sound, blending muscular chops, dark textures and driving grooves while drawing from funk, progressive and metal influences. “Everybody in this band [Alan Lucchesi, drums; Amir Zitro, bass/vocals; Phil Bennett,keyboard/vocals] has influences that have as much of a range as mine,” he says of Exhibit A. “We could be the best cover band in the world. We like Prince, Sly, James Brown, Yes, Rush, Genesis, Judas Priest, and Scorpions — we play their ‘The Zoo’ all the time –Michael Schenker, UFO, and Metallica. We do ‘Sins of Omission’ by Testament live.”
When asked what band he would use as a role model, Alex quickly answers: Faith No More. “Sometimes I hear them and go, ‘Wow! That sounds like us,’ even though the truth is we sound like them. More and more we are getting our own sound and identity. A lot of what we are doing now is deja vu. The whole development stage is what I went through with testament. People who were expecting more of a progressive direction are going to be surprised how heavy it is. At the same time, people who think I’m going to do Testament Part II are also going to be surprised.”
Right now Alex is out cheerleading for his work with Savatage. It’s a job he finds easy. “I think it is a great album. It’s some of the best playing I’ve done on record. I’m glad to be doing it, but at the same time I’ve busted my ass for years to be able to have my own band. Even though I am the captain of the ship, the co-pilots are really important. I still feel like Exhibit A is me; in Savatage I am a passenger, which is cool. There are very few ships I’d like to be a passenger on. But right now I’m not going to give up my position as captain of a small ship that has the potential to develop into a big one.”