November 4, 2015 Interview – Alex Skolnick
American Guitarist Alex Skolnick is a virtuoso. A highly skilled player with a diverse catalog of original works, Skolnick began his journey at the age of nine in Berkeley, California. With a variety of influences inspiring him, he studied under renowned guitar player Joe Satriani and earned a BFA in Jazz performance at the New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music in New York City. Over three decades into his career, he is considered one of the best guitar players in the world even beyond his most commonly associated work with Thrash Metal band Testament. Also heading his Jazz band The Alex Skolnick Trio, Skolnick’s credits do not stop there. He was also a member of Savatage, played with Ozzy Osbourne in 1995, and spent many Winter months between 2000 and 2009 with the Trans-Siberian Orchestra alongside fellow Savatage bandmate Chris Caffery. Quite a busy man, he is also an author, a producer, and most recently Skolnick embarked on a World Music project called Planetary Coalition, in which he plays an array of guitars including acoustic guitar with musicians from around the globe in an effort to raise awareness and bring the world closer together through music. Recently we had the chance to sit down with Skolnick for a closer look into his career in music, working with Metal Allegiance, plans for the future, and more.
CrypticRock.com – You have quite an impressive musical career from your accomplishments in Testament, and then with your work in Alex Skolnick Trio, and everything else between like Savatage and The Trans-Siberian Orchestra. What has this ride been like for you?
Alex Skolnick – I guess I am very restless creatively, so it has been just fascinating. It has been an incredible ride, it has been an incredible learning experience. I have learned a lot of lessons that I enjoy sharing with younger, up and coming musicians. One of them is that everybody is different, and you cannot try to be too much like anybody else. Everybody is inspired by somebody when they first start. Yngwie Malmsteen, for example, used to dress like Ritchie Blackmore. There are many examples of artists who emulated other artists before finding their own thing. In reality, nobody’s life story is the same, and you have to be you. There is no instruction booklet on that. Doing all these projects and just going in all these different directions for me, whether it is Jazz, World Music, or starting out in Thrash Metal, returning to Thrash Metal with these other projects that I have stepped into along the way, it has all been an amazing learning experience. I feel like between the resurrected Testament and my instrumental work with Planetary Coalition, and Alex Skolnick Trio, and now with Metal Allegiance, it feels like I am where I am supposed to be.
CrypticRock.com – That is excellent, speaking of the World Music, you are quite a diverse guitar player. In the Metal world, many would consider you one of the fastest guitarists in the world. You also have very strong Jazz background, and then you mentioned the World Music, with Planetary Coalition. How important is it for you, as a musician, to balance those styles, and can you elaborate a little bit more on how you got the whole project Planetary Coalition going?
Alex Skolnick – Okay, well as far as that goes, you mentioned some consider me this very fast guitar player. I can think of plenty that I consider faster than me. I think there is a place for fast playing, but to me it is more about music and creating a mood, and I would rather hear very simple music that has a mood and a feeling. That has always been a priority for me. As far as Planetary Coalition, the acoustic guitar has been with me for years, yet the only time the public has heard me play it is little intro’s on Testament records, or with a brief part of the Trans Siberian Orchestra Show. Nobody has really heard what I do on acoustic. So I wanted to do a record revealing what I do. I have also been a big appreciator of International music and collaborating with great artists. Maybe they are not household names to the people that are familiar with me, but maybe they should be, and these great instruments like the Chinese Pipa or the Indian Tabla. I am as moved by that stuff as I was the first time I heard Black Sabbath. It is different, it is a different sensation, but I have always thought about capturing that and it made sense to do my acoustic album, but also do my International album to make up for lost time. That is partly why it became this grand, mammoth undertaking with over two dozen musicians.
CrypticRock.com – It is really great that you are able to use your name and your reputation to bring that type of music to more people, to a more diverse crowd.
Alex Skolnick – Thank you, well it also inspires me. I have had offers before to do an instrumental Metal shred album and there is no shortage of albums like that. I have no interest in that, I have no interest in recording that. This is music I have an interest in. At this point in my career, I cannot do anything unless I am personally interested in, and I can align my reputation with it. Planetary Coalition in particular, I am really proud of it.
CrypticRock.com – As you should be. The Alex Skolnick Trio and Jazz music is part of your background, how important is that style of music to you as a musician and how has it shaped you to be who you are today?
Alex Skolnick – To me, in a lot of ways, my life is like a soundtrack. Imagine a soundtrack to a film. 1994’s Pulp Fiction, for example, you have this great soundtrack and everything’s completely different. You have Surf music, you have got Soul music, so if my life were a film, Jazz would be a part of it. It would not be all Jazz, there would be some genres of Jazz that might not make it, but certainly certain periods of Jazz, certain artists. I guess I could name a few, the John Coltrane Quartet of the 1960’s and certainly a Miles Davis and a Bill Evans, later guitar players from Joe Pass, Wes Montgomery. That has been a huge part of my listening and I guess at a certain point, I was not happy just being a listener of that music. I felt it too much to not play it, and I guess I just put so much work into being a good technical guitar player, it felt like a shame to not have that be a part of my toolbox. So for a long time, I had only been doing that because I felt like I needed to just live in that world. About ten years ago, Testament reunited and we were not sure where things would go, but actually it went really well, so now they are both a part of me and it is hard to imagine it any other way.
CrypticRock.com – Interesting. Would you say Jazz a part of your life growing up, when you were young, is that what you were exposed to?
Alex Skolnick – I grew up in Berkeley, California, the San Francisco Bay area. So Jazz, it was around. It was not my main thing, and I did not understand it. It took a long time before I understood how to listen to it, I think it was in my teens. I think it was John Coltrane, I was listening to John Coltrane music and it was just so powerful, so emotional, and just so brilliant. It actually reminded me of when I heard Van Halen’s “Eruption” for the first time. Nothing musically excited me that much, especially in guitar. Okay, there is some exciting guitar stuff, Yngwie, then Joe Satriani, who was a teacher of mine, actually. At a certain point, I needed something more, and I wanted to feel some of that same excitement and inspiration that I felt the first time I heard “Eruption” and that finally happened when I heard John Coltrane Live at Birdland. I did not know why, I could not explain anything about the music, but I just knew I felt it on that same level, and that was how it started.
CrypticRock.com – That is like what you said before, it is about feeling the music, right? It is about feeling something listening to a piece of music.
Alex Skolnick – Exactly, I think John Coltrane was the sort of first music that Jazz purists would like, that I heard, that I related to. Before that, I had heard Miles Davis, playing with one of his electric bands in the 80’s. I caught a concert on television. Those bands, at that time he had great guitar players, he had John Scofield on guitar, he had Mike Stern at different times, Robin Ford, this is screaming guitar. That was sort of the gateway for me as far as Jazz goes.
CrypticRock.com – Let us switch gears and bring you back to Metal and Metal Allegiance, so what brought the Metal Allegiance project together?
Alex Skolnick – It was just about a year ago, Motorhead did their first Motorboat cruise and Testament was on it, and a bunch of other bands. Megadeth was supposed to be on it, but had to cancel, and David Ellefson was still available and he got the idea to book Metal Allegiance, which at the time was more of a cover project, and they had done workshops and master classes. I had not been a part of it, until then, but since I was on the boat, we connected and we talked about jamming together and we just hit it off. We actually jammed, they had never done Van Halen or anything like that, and I am a Van Halen nut. I actually did a lecture on Van Halen for the New School University and had to learn “Eruption” note for note, and really dissect it, so that was fresh in my brain. We ended up playing the first three cuts from the first Van Halen record and it just went great.
We agreed that anytime I am available, I will do more Metal Allegiance shows. I thought that was it, but then I got a call a couple of weeks later and I was told that they had actually been thinking about working on an album. They were not sure how it was going to happen, whether it was going to be covers and originals, but they wanted to try the four of us working on some music and see if we can write some originals. That was how it started. So we set a date right around the holidays to meet at Mike Portnoy’s place in Pennsylvania, and it was almost like sleepaway camp. We wrote all this music and we just… again, the chemistry was just there. Once we started writing, we could not stop. It went from being an album possibly of being covers and originals to just an album of originals, I think at one point it might have been just an EP, and it went from being an EP to and LP. It just made sense. We realized we have something really good here, let us go with it.
CrypticRock.com – So, how many of you were at this? Many would say it was a fantasy Metal sleepaway Camp that probably people would pay a lot of money to attend.
Alex Skolnick – Right, there were only four of us. We call ourselves the core four, that was myself, Mark Menghi, who put the whole thing together, Dave Ellefson, and Mike Portnoy. We wrote the whole thing, we mapped it out, we decided who was going to play where. I decided where I wanted to play guitar solos, but I mapped out some great spots for guests to come and solo. Each person was sort of in charge of their instrument, really. Then we also collectively came up with different vocal parts for each tune.
Ellefson and Menghi focused on a couple of tunes, I focused on a couple of tunes, Mike came up with some melody’s himself, and yeah, it was just a really good collective. Somehow all the tunes work together, even though they are very different styles. Originally we were thinking of it being more of a Thrash album, just because Ellefson and I come from bands that are considered Thrash bands, and Portnoy is very good at that style. After a few tunes, we realized there is a lot more we can do. So we have tunes that are a little more Power Metal, we have a tune that Phil Anselmo ended up singing on, that was a little more like a Black Sabbath influenced tune. It just ended up working out really well. The tune with Christina from Lacuna Coil, that is almost like a Euro Melodic Metal. I think there is something for everybody.
CrypticRock.com – Amazing, it definitely has a thread running through it that ties it all together though.
Alex Skolnick – Yes, and it never gets repetitive. I would rather hear an album that goes many places. Most seem to really appreciate it. You will have people that maybe do not relate to Randy Blythe’s vocals for growling, but you know what, there are plenty of melodic vocals on it. There are others that prefer that style. Maybe the other stuff is too melodic for them, but I think the vast majority like to hear different things and like to hear an album switch gears. We can do that because we are all very devoted as individual musicians. If you want to hear one style all the way through, go get the new AC/DC album, and there is nothing wrong with that; with that type of band.
CrypticRock.com – Absolutely, and they do it very well. What has it been like sharing the stage with this vast ensemble of musicians?
Alex Skolnick – Well, it is different at every show. When we did the Motorhead Cruise, my very first show, so many bands were part of that cruise, that it was easy to get a lot of people. The same thing, my next gig with them, was right around the NAMM show earlier this year. Everybody is in town for the NAMM Show, so it is just a huge thing. We did a huge thing for the album release at Best Buy Theater in New York, but then not all of the shows need to be that big. So we actually followed that up, we did a secret show at St. Vitus, in Brooklyn. It is kind of getting known for secret shows; I mean everybody from Trivium, to Dave Grohl, and Nirvana after the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and Bjork. It is a very cool place, we actually did a show there and it was actually myself, the core four, and Mark Osegueda handling vocals. We did a blend of covers and originals.
Then we took that group to Mexico City and had a great turnout there, and then we headed to Tokyo where Testament was playing, and so was Metal allegiance. This one was in between the small group and the large group. It was me and Ellefson, Mike is actually on tour with the Winery Dogs, so Charlie Benante is going to play drums and Gary Holt is going to join in on guitar, and a couple of the other Anthrax guys too. That was sort of a mid-level group. We sort of tailor it to each situation, depending on who is available, but we are able to do it as a big unit or a small unit, and in either case, it always seems to go over great.
CrypticRock.com – Sounds great. What was the writing process like at this sleepaway camp that you guys had with everybody coming from different backgrounds?
Alex Skolnick – It was really different. I was wondering what we were going to write, because I have a lot of different musical ideas and I was not sure how open it would be. We tried jamming and, just from the first night, we came up with the tune “Destination Nowhere.” I had already had the introduction and Dave had the baseline that follows the introduction, so those guys played that and then I came up with the riff following him. Then we needed to go somewhere, so then I went to what would become the chorus of the tune. It was just a very organic process.
There is actually video tape of us all standing in a circle around Mike’s drum kit and we are just playing parts, stopping, and discussing different options. At a certain point, I started singing what became the chorus vocal pattern, that was just the first night. I think we came up with another tune that night, and then the next day there were a few more, and the next day there were a few more, and then we revisited the ones from the first night. Then it was almost Christmas so we had to stop, but we set another date, which was right after New Year’s. That became the next writing block, and then there was another three or four days. By the end of those days, it was clear we definitely had a full record’s worth of music.
CrypticRock.com – It certainly shows in the finished product. Which did you enjoy the most, the writing or the performing of the finished material?
Alex Skolnick – I would rather perform, but that is me; there are parts of it (writing) that I like. I like the initial writing process. I like when you are not expecting an idea to happen and you just pick up the instrument, let us say to warm up your fingers for example, and you are not paying attention, and all of the sudden something comes out that is kind of cool. Then suddenly you have a task at hand, which is to develop the part, and come up with the next one. I have learned to like the process. I used to not like it. I used to hate coming up with a great part and then have this major burden to have to come up with another part to go along with it. I think after a lot of experience, I know how to work with that. I know how to get in the headspace to come up with that next part.
CrypticRock.com – Understood, so are you overall pleased with the final Metal Allegiance record?
Alex Skolnick – Oh, beyond. I feel like it is everything we hoped it would be and more. I am very grateful for Testament and value my work, and continuing work with them, but it is also nice to have a Metal project that is very diverse in other ways, and to really be heard as the core guitarist as well.
CrypticRock.com – Speaking of Testament, do you have any updates on the progress of the new album?
Alex Skolnick – There are some very cool new ideas that we have and we are getting it together. We are definitely eyeing the first half of 2016 for a release.
CrypticRock.com – Very cool and that will be exciting to hear. We spoke of it briefly, but can you let us into some more of your musical influences?
Alex Skolnick – There are many. Initially, when I was a kid, it was ’50s Rock because I think a lot of the ’50s Rock, you could be a kid and understand it. “You Ain’t Nothing But A Hound Dog,” I remember thinking that was just the funniest thing I had ever heard, but I loved it at the same time. Then The Beatles. The Beatles were the one influence that just stayed with me forever, that I have never lost an appreciation of. KISS were really the ones who prompted me to start playing guitar. Then Van Halen, Randy Rhodes, and Jimi Hendrix really inspired me to play lead guitar. Then later, the Jazz guitar was inspired by guys like John Scofield, Wes Montgomery, Mike Stern, and Scott Henderson. There is a whole bunch.
CrypticRock.com – Great, diverse collection of influences for sure. It is often really hard to name just a few. Our last question for you is pertaining to movies. CrypticRock.com covers all areas of music but we also cover movies, particularly Horror movies. If you are a fan of Horror movies, what are some of your favorite?
Alex Skolnick – I respect Horror films. I am not a big Horror guy. I like films that sort of crossover into Horror, but by directors who are not generally Horror directors, for example, Stanley Kubrick. The Shining (1980) is one of my favorite films of all time. Jaws (1975), I guess is considered a Horror film; Steven Spielberg. If I had to pick a bonafide Slasher film, the original Halloween (1978) with John Carpenter, which is great, and he did the music for that too, which is some of the creepiest music of all time.