When you’re as diverse of a guitar player as Alex Skolnick, you can pretty much call your own shots.
He’s played thrash metal with TESTAMENT, filled in for progressive metal band SAVATAGE, was a full time member of classical/progressive rock band TRANS-SIBERIAN ORCHESTRA, and now fronts his own jazz fusion band named the ALEX SKOLNICK TRIO. This only means one thing, Skolnick is a guitarist that constantly challenges himself and this is the reason for his longevity in the music business.
Even though the ALEX SKOLNICK TRIO just released their fourth CD, Veritas, there’s still some nonbelievers in the metal world that can’t fathom that a heavy metal guy could play jazz guitar, and damn good I might add. The fact that he is this serious and this passionate about playing jazz guitar surprises a few metalheads just a bit.
The shoe is on the other foot as well. When die-hard jazzheads find out that Alex actually has played in a thrash metal band, they are surprised at first, too. Skolnick is so diverse, he adapts to different styles of music with ease. And that’s what makes a great musician.
This is your fourth AST album. What’s the meaning behind the title and what were you hoping to achieve with it?
It’s a Latin word which means truth. I wanted to do an album that I felt was definitive of me and where I’m at that adequately reflects who I am as a musician and my own listening tastes. It was also one where we threw away any preconceptions. The first trio album was my first recording as an improvisor. So that was a big step. I’m very proud of the record, but I was definitely conscience of what constituted being a jazz guitar trio. With each album there was a little more room to take chances. With this one, it was no holds barred, we removed all limitations and as a result, it’s quite the mix of styles. It’s definitely a jazz guitar album, but there’s a lot of other genres reflected in it.
Do fans of Testament and TSO like AST equally as well, considering it might be unusual for a metalhead to like heavy jazz fusion?
I think the fact that I’m involved in these really diverse projects gets people to check them out that wouldn’t ordinarily. I’ve run into fans of jazz at jazz shows, who’ve never gone to a metal show before. Even more so, I’ve run into a lot of metalheads at a jazz club. Which is an unusual site, but it’s great because they end up having this experience that they wouldn’t have seen on their own— what it’s like to hear music in a nightclub where there’s no moshpit, and they’re sitting there listening and just enjoying the experience. That’s really different from them. That dichotomy is very fulfilling.
You have such a diverse guitar style, but playing everything from TSO, to Testament to the AST, is it difficult to adapt to a certain style after playing one style for a certain amount of time, or does it just come naturally?
To me, it comes really naturally. Maybe not instantly, it usually takes a rehearsal or two before I start to feel comfortable. Even in my early days when I was only playing heavy metal professionally, that was the case. It always takes a few rehearsals to get back in the groove, but it’s not that different. It helps that I have a different rig for each project. In the case of the trio, I use very different equipment than I use in rock or metal stuff. That effects how I approach the music. It makes it easier to get into it because I’m playing on equipment that supports it. If I tried to play jazz on my metal rig, I would have a hard time! (laughs).
“Metallica’s “Fade to Black” is an interesting cover version. Did you contact any of the Metallica guys to let them know you would be covering it?
Normally when you record a cover song, you have to get what’s called a mechanical license, which is reached through the music’s publisher. I have a feeling they will be supportive because Robert Trujillo been really supportive of the trio and met up with us at Radio City Music Hall when we were on tour. Kirk gave us the thumbs up in the press for what we were doing, I’m sure he was well aware of it. I don’t anticipate Lars having any problem with it. Lets hope not! (laughs).
“Song of the Open Road” sounds very John McLaughlin/Mahavishnu Orchestra. Even Pat Metheny and Al Di Meola elements pop up on this album. Were they big influences on you?
Oh yeah, in a big way. Those guys really got me opened to jazz. But, I learned early on that in order to get a grip on what guys like that were doing, it was important to study guys earlier than that like Wes Montgomery, or early George Benson. All of that stuff was an influence. I think McLaughlin was more of an influence on the very first track of this record, “Panna,” which is very Indian flavored. It was actually McLaughlin that got me interested in Indian music. “Song of the Open Road” I was kind of thinking of the grooves of some of the Foo Fighters. I can definitely understand the Metheny influence, but I think I can’t sound too much like Metheny because he’s a guitar giant. I can definitely hear his influence in that song.
You’re touring worldwide for Veritas through most of 2011, where does that put the new Testament album?
It’s good. We’ve been working it out where it makes sense for us. When I’m not on the road I’ll go out and work with Testament for a week or so at a time. It’s coming along. If we had to go into the studio right away, we would easily have enough material. We want to write a few more songs to choose from. We’re definitely taking more chances, there’s some classic sounding stuff but there’s going to be some really interesting elements as well. It’ll work out perfect; that album will come out later in the year. It will give us time to focus on getting the trio out and promoting this album.
How did it feel recording The Formation of Damnation with the band again after 16 years? Did you have to rekindle the friendship and working relationship you had with the band in the early days?
Oh yeah. One of the great things about that record, it wasn’t even planned. When I came on board in 2005 or ’06, we just wanted to do some shows together, no pressure, just get together and have some fun. We had a good vibe, everybody was older and in a much better place. It was more positive. Everything came together naturally as we played more and more, it sounded better. We started toying with the idea of doing a new record and once we did the record, it kind of took off. Once we did do the record, it was actually a couple of years after we started playing together again. So, it wasn’t forced at all, and I think that’s a great way of doing it.
Did you leave TSO right after the 2009 Christmas tour?
I haven’t been involved since the 2009 Christmas show. TSO is the type of project where people come and go. You’re sort of always a part of it even though you’re not actively a part of it. It got to the point where I was so busy with my own career, it’s such a long period of time now. I really would have to had make a choice. It would have been great to do the tour, but so much else is going on. I would have had to put off this record coming out, I would have had to not toured last year in Europe with Rodrigo y Gabriela and other projects as well. That tour is just too big! It’s not like I haven’t done it before, it’s something i’ve done for nine years.
What’s next for AST? Tell me about your plans for the next year.
We’re getting the plans together. It’s been a bit of a challenge in the sense that I don’t think anyone thought that I was serious! (laughs). It’s taken four albums to get people to wake up, that this is real. I am doing this. Jazz is not a hobby for me. I’m very passionate about it, but it doesn’t mean I can’t do metal, too, I’m passionate about both. The point is, I’m doing it. We have a great new record label called Palmetto, but it’s distributed by Megaforce, which was Testament’s first record label. Now it’s a distribution company from everyone from Willie Nelson to Cheap Trick. They really get what we’re doing. We have management that really seems to get what we’re doing, the reaction has been amazing. The record reviews have been amazing. We’re really trying to plan and make the most of it. We’re not going to take any gig that comes along. We want to do the right gigs. We’ve had a problem in the past just when people see my name, they automatically assume metal, shred, prog metal … but it’s not. It’s an acoustic jazz project. Why they have so much trouble understanding that I don’t know. I’ve had promoters admittedly not listen to the music and put me on a bill with the local shred, prog metal guys, and it’s a disaster. So, we’re trying to do battle from the home front now. We want gigs. We want to be out there, but we want to be on the right bills and in the right venues. Even now, it’s hard to get people to accept that the guy from Testament can play jazz, for real! (laughs). So, until that starts to change, we’re mostly going to be concentrating in our home region. We have a lot of shows in New York and we want to keep that going.
By Kelley Simms