Featured Column: In My Life:Alex Skolnick [From Testament to Jazz Trio]
Alex Skolnick lived the dream. For every young person who ever picked up an electric guitar and imagined what it would be like to be a rock star, Alex did it. For every one of us who ever wondered what 20,000 raucous fans at a heavy metal rock concert sounded like looking out into the audience from the stage at Madison Square Garden, Alex experienced it. For any person who has ever written a song and then felt the joy of hearing it played on the radio, Alex knows that feeling.
Alex grew up in Berkeley, California. At a very young age, he became fascinated with the group, Kiss. This inspired him to learn guitar. At age 16, while in still in High School, he joined a local band called Legacy. After graduating from High School, the band changed its name to Testament and Alex found himself in a recording studio playing on their first album. Five albums followed and Testament became a regular performer on the heavy metal concert circuit opening for such acts as Megadeth, Slayer, Judas Priest and White Zombie. Dissatisfied with the musical direction of Testament, Alex left the group to pursue other musical interests. He became an accomplished jazz improvisational musician and has performed and recorded extensively over the last 10 years. I had the opportunity to interview Alex in New York to talk about his life experiences and his latest album, Goodbye To Romance: Standards For A New Generation by the Alex Skolnick Trio.
MG Normally, I like to start interviews from the beginning, but I understand that you are working on a new album, so why don’t we start with what you are currently doing.
AS We’ve been very busy, going into the studio next week to begin work on a new album. In preparation for that, we’ve been playing our new material locally in New York. Over the last six months, we’ve been everywhere from Montreal to Cleveland to Atlanta to the Rochester Jazz Festival. We actually did a jaunt on the West Coast as well.
MG Going back home?
AS Yeah, my old stomping grounds. As you know, I was in the heavy metal band, Testament. This tour got put together with my trio along side two other projects, one fronted by Chris Poland who used to be in Megadeth and the other one was fronted by Marty Friedman who was in Megadeth after Chris Poland. This tour took place in September on the West Coast and it was called "GuitarEvolution." It was a lot of fun. We mostly played jazz venues, but this tour took us to established rock venues such as the Troubadour in LA and Slims’ in San Francisco. We’re hoping to put together an East Coast version of that tour.
MG Tell me about the current lineup of the Alex Skolnick Trio
AS We’ve made some changes to the trio. Matt Zebroskie who comes to us from Pittsburgh is our drummer and he and I can be characterized as the Glimmer Twins on this project. Like a lot of other bands, even though it’s got one persons’ name, it’s still a band. Matt and I are the core. We actually have a sort of Spinal Tap situation with bass players. We started with John Graham Davis who then decided that he wanted to play rock music more in the style of Cold Play and Radio Head. I can certainly understand people wanting to play different styles of music. We have a new guy named Nathan Peck. He is also from Pittsburgh and he actually grew up with Matt. Finding him was
almost a twist of fate in a way because Nathan only moved here last year. This summer, we had a residency at The Knitting Factory where we play on Sundays. Occasionally we would ask guys to sit in with us and Nathan was one of those guys that sat in. When we needed a replacement, he was an obvious choice.
MG Tell me a little bit about Nathan.
AS He’s played with some well-known jazz artists such as Maynard Ferguson and singer Maria Muldauer. So he’s definitely a working jazz player and he also knows a lot of the source material that we do. It’s worked out great having him in the band and we are looking forward to doing this new record.
MG According to your bio, at 9 years old, you were fascinated by the rock group, Kiss. Was it their music, their looks, what was it?
AS Definitely both their looks and their music. It all started when I was in 5th grade. Somehow, I never got the ‘sports bug" as many kids get. I got really tired hearing about baseball cards. Everyone at that age was obsessed by baseball cards. I just felt as though I didn’t fit in. One day in the playground, there were these kids crowding around a guy with his new cards and I was sure they were baseball players on the cards, but when I looked I saw these creatures, like these clowns with guitars. I had no idea what it was, but I was convinced that this was something I could get into to. They were like comic book heroes. Once I heard their music, I liked it. Their music just spoke to a 9-year-old kid. That was how it started and shortly thereafter I was taking guitar lessons and learning everything from Kiss to The Beatles.
MG When you took lessons, you learned from Joe Satriani.
AS Not right away. Prior to Joe I studied with a number of teachers who taught me rock guitar. I liked The Beatles and I learned some of their songs. Within a couple of years, I studied with teachers who turned me on to Cream, Jimi Hendrix and Jeff Beck. I had also gotten into Van Halen, but largely I liked Eric Clapton as a result of Van Halen.
MG How so?
AS In interviews Van Halen would talk about memorizing the solo to Crossroads. So I was having so much trouble playing Van Halen, it occurred to me that to correct this situation, I needed to learn Clapton, even though I wasn’t crazy about his music at first. And then the music grew on me and now that music has more staying power than the hard rock I listened to later on. When I was 14 or 15, I got into the pyrotechnic guitar players. I quickly realized that I needed more advanced instruction. I had heard that Joe Satriani was this local teacher. He was the guy that the teachers went to. He was the teachers’ teacher. I stayed with him for about two years.
MG You’re now 16 still studying with Satriani and you get into this band and the group all of a sudden has hit records, tours, etc.
AS It didn’t happen right away. Basically, I knew I wanted to finish school. That worked out well since the band was local. Right after finishing High School, we signed our record deal. The next thing you know, we’re on tour opening for groups like Anthrax, Slayer, etc.
MG It must have a very strange experience for you at that age
AS Yes it was very strange. I was very young and very shy. I was not very outgoing in school. So to be suddenly thrust on stage surrounded by big crowds. It was the really best education I could have had and I certainly did grow up very fast. It was definitely a whirlwind.
MG Looking back on it, do you miss it?
AS No, I don’t miss it. Any parts of it that I miss I feel are still going on today. I love being in the studio. Sometimes I like being on the road especially when the focus is on the music, then it’s great. I felt that a couple of years into working with Testament that
the focus was lost. Everybody was depressed because we weren’t selling as well as Anthrax. Although we were still doing great, the music scene was changing and as you know in the music business, it’s the survival of the fittest. I was also growing and I didn’t want to be just some guy in a band. I wanted to do other music and I had seen Miles Davis on TV and decided that one day I would like to play that kind of music. That’s sort of what led to what I am doing now. To me, progressing to this new music was a logical path, but for the guys in the band, it was rough because we all had the fantasy of the band becoming an overnight sensation and then we are all set. It was actually very hard work. There are always a lot of personality issues that come up, like any relationship. There are now mini series on VH-1 about the interacting of personalities in a band. It’s not just the music.
MG Of all the guys you toured with in those days, which would you say was the best band and/or guitarist from those heavy metal groups?
AS Hard to say. Most of these bands had good guitar players, but it was not about virtuoso musicianship. For example, Ozzy Osbourne has always had good technical guitar players. It was more about the band. I think the one band I enjoyed the most was Judas Priest. Their music was a combination of 70’s rock with just enough torque to make it heavy metal.
MG In that time period, you played on five Testament albums. Which one was your favorite?
AS I think the third one, Practice What You Preach was my favorite. If I had to point to my best guitar playing, the next two records have better guitar playing by me. I think I improved greatly. But as a band, we most came together on that album and truly found an identity. It was still thrash metal, but with other influences. On the next record, there was a collective feeling that I didn’t necessarily agree with that we needed to be more heavy, darker, to be more like Slayer. But let’s face it, Slayer is Slayer. The next record Souls of Black was an attempt to go in that direction, but I think it was mistake and it was the first record that sold less than our previous record. On the last record, The Ritual I had a lot to do with the writing and I feel is a very good album. I had felt alienated from the band and they came to me and said we feel like we made a mistake with the last record and let’s go back to the style on the Preach record. Let’s pick up where we left off from that album. Unfortunately that record did not do well. I have since made up with band and we get along fine. But there were a slew of interviews after Ritual came out and said that was their least favorite album and it was my fault. It was a behind the music kind of situation that all bands seem to experience. I think Practice What You Preach was our peak. That’s where it all came together.
MG You left the band in 1992.
AS While I was with the band, I started studying music full time. Just because I was in a heavy metal band, I didn’t want that experience to stunt my growth as a musician. I wanted to take that experience and learn from it. Years later, I toured with Stu Hamm, who was Satriani’s bass player. He did a solo tour and used me as a guitarist on that tour. Suddenly, this whole new world opened up for me. Satriani sat in with us and so did Steve Morse from the Dixie Dreggs. I am now surrounded by a whole new group of musicians. I got offers to write columns for Guitar World magazine. I was doing workshops. I felt that there was all this cool stuff that I could do. Within the band, there was a lot of tension and they saw me doing all these other things.
MG So it really was not a difficult decision to leave the band.
AS Oh yeah, by the time I left there was so much tension, which I felt was unjustified. Doesn’t it help everybody if I become a better musician? I felt that I was introducing us to all new areas, which in my opinion could only be helpful for the betterment of the band.
MG Given your experience, you would be perfect to write a column aimed at young bands telling them what to expect and not expect as they navigate through the music business.
AS Oh yeah. I saw everything going on with me as positive, but they saw it differently. Anyway, my next decision was what to do next. I felt like I had all this momentum doing the heavy rock thing. I felt that I needed to do something that would relate to that. So I did, but it was probably the worst time to do rock with a lot of lead guitar playing. I formed a group called "Exhibit A" which lasted a few years. In 1994, I did a record with a band called "Savatage." That same year, I auditioned for The Spin Doctors, but came in second and didn’t get the job.
MG Do you regret coming in second?
AS At the time, yes. I had my bag packed and ready to go. A year later I got a call from Sharon Osbourne to play with Ozzy in Europe. So I reasoned to myself that the Spin Doctors thing didn’t work out because this opportunity was better. We did one show and to this day no one quite knows what happened. Ozzie hired me after the show. The crew and the other musicians said that the show was great and Ozzie was very happy, but three weeks later, Sharon said they hired someone else. That really made me question what I was doing. What am I doing, staring rock bands, waiting for this big break that may never come. More importantly, what am I doing with my life? I was burned out, fed up with the industry. I just decided that I was going to stop for a while. Not stop playing, but just concentrate on the jazz thing. I had actually been taking jazz lessons. After the Ozzie thing, I said that’s it, I’m just going to play for fun. I decided that I would just play coffeehouses and other small venues, just enjoy myself. I wanted to do standards, I wanted to teach. All the things I could not do because of my rock life. I have always been interested in literature and writing, so I also thought I would get more into that. So I started taking classes at a college out in California in late 1995 and I did really well at school. This continued through 1996, 97. I started playing small jazz gigs, hooking up with local players in the Berkeley, San Francisco Bay area. I had no specific plan; just do music for the fun of it. During this time period, I visited New York a few times and each time came back with more energy than I had in months. My friends remarked how my playing sounded different and they kept asking me what happened to get me to this new level of energy and musicianship. After a brief time, I would acclimate myself to the slower speed of the Bay Area. I knew that eventually I would move to New York to pursue music as an art. First thing on my plan was to study music on a college level in California. I enrolled at Diablo Valley College taking music history. Having been in Testament, when my name gets read as each class begins and there are always a couple of kids in the class who knew who I was because of the band. At the school, I would meet fans of mine that became classmates of mine. That was a cool experience. I liked that better than being a rock star. I got all my credits and applied to a music school in New York. At the New School in NY, it was perfect because I could study with legendary jazz musicians, guys I had been listening to for years and take some really great classes. It was a perfect situation. So in 1998, I moved to New York and immersed myself in school. It was there that I met Matt. We started to work on class assignments together. I networked myself quite efficiently within the NY music community and everything started to fall into place for me. Somehow, between then and now, this project has taken on a life of it’s own.
MG As you said, it took you ten years to get to this point. It seems to me that it took you ten years to become comfortable with yourself.
AS Yeah, once I had this crazy idea to do a Scorpions song with the jazz trio, it suddenly it all made sense. The first one we did was "No One Like You." From there, we did "Detroit Rock City" the Kiss song followed by "Goodbye To Romance." The ideas started pouring out.
MG Did you have any input from the guys in those groups whose songs you were covering in this jazz style?
AS Within the last few years, I got hooked up with a project called the "Trans Siberian Orchestra." The nucleus of this band are guys from my old band, "Savatage." The producer, Paul O’Neill is basically the creator of the band along with Jon Oliva who is the singer and songwriter of "Savatage." They tracked me down while I was in school. They tour every year. The tours are getting bigger and bigger. Their music has been used for the Super Bowl; they have been on TV on Good Morning America and other shows. It just continues to grow. I started doing this in 2000. I was taking homework assignments on the tour bus me. The "Trans Siberian Orchestra" is managed by David Krebbs who is Aerosmith’s manager. I let him know what I was doing. He also managed the Scorpions. He immediately understood what we were doing and he was the one who suggested that we include "Dream On" in our repertoire.
MG That’s my favorite on the album.
AS For a lot of people, that’s their favorite. It’s kind of funny how that worked out. Other than that, I’ve had no contact with any of the original artists. Paul Stanley knows about it. I know that because I personally handed the CD over to him at a show. Zack Wyllde, Ozzie’s guitar player has also been very supportive.
MG The rock standards that you have chosen for the album are certainly well known to the public and have been heard countless times. How did you decide on the musical arrangements so that they stand out and yet do not lose their original appeal?
AS It’s very much like doing an original tune. I should point out that our next recording will be 50% originals. It all starts with the melody. Melody is the most important. Not all rock tunes have melodies that will work. Some music is not necessarily about the melody, it’s about the energy or it’s about the riff. James Brown is not so much about the melody as it is about the rhythm. AC/DC is not about melodicism, but more about power, their group sound. Occasionally, there are songs in the hard rock/heavy metal genres that have the type of melody that you can compare to a jazz band. It’s rare, but it exists. The Scorpions are my Rodgers & Hammerstein. Those melodies are timeless. In order to do an arrangement, I need to sing the melody, but also have it work over a good jazz rhythm. I try to picture Keith Jarrett Trio or John Coltrane Quartet playing the melody. If it can work in that context, then I can do an arrangement.
MG Given that on your album you are doing tunes like "Pinball Wizard" and "Dream On" do you foresee that on your next album you will include Clapton and Cream tunes?
AS Hasn’t come up yet and it’s not the territory that I’m in right now. All the music I’m doing now has staying power with me and yet it is not heard widely on the radio and somehow it hasn’t been frozen in time the way Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin or Who have. It’s not just the music When you listen to classic rock stations for example you will not hear Scorpions tunes. You generally won’t hear Ozzy Osbourne although he is getting more attention because of the TV series.
MG I thank you for your time today. Is there anything else you would like to add to this discussion?
AS It’s great to be able to share this music. I feel as though I have come full circle with this new music meeting my fans from the Testament days and gaining new fans with my jazz interpretations.
Alex Skolnick Trio, "Goodbye To Romance: Standards For A New Generation" (Skol Productions SP 1001)