Dan Roth: I'd like to take you back a few years. It is 1993, you had left Testament and had assembled a new band, Exhibit A. Savatage guitarist Criss Oliva was tragically killed in a car accident and Jon Oliva decides to make a new Savatage record. For a little history, lead me up to how you entered the studio for the Handful of Rain record.
Alex Skolnick: I was still managed by Testament's management at the time and I had gotten a message through them. After so many years of this period that was very intense, the last thing I wanted to do was jump into another band. I told them that I was totally flattered but I don't think I'm the right guy for this.
I loved Savatage. My friends and I used to trade tapes in high school because back then you couldn't get the first couple recordings.
Alex Skolnick with TSO November 2009
Photo Courtesy of James Marvin Phelps
Looking back, what I should have done is taken a "gap year". You know, the year some take between high school and college? As far as my music career goes, that first wave of Testament was my high school. I didn't know what I was going to do to after leaving them, but I knew I wasn't looking to jump right into something else.
Somehow Jon Oliva had gotten my number and called me personally. He said, "Look, the record is done, we just need someone to play the solos. I know my brother and I know the one person that he would want to play the solos on this is you."
DR: Wow. That's heavy.
AS: Yeah, that's pretty heavy.
DR: So this wasn't an invitation to join the band, this was more to wrap up the album.
AS: Right. Clearly the door was open though. Look, I'm a fan of the band and I know it's sacrilege to take the job as the band's guitarist and not be totally committed to it. So, I told them, "Let's see how it goes."
It was great for me to do a record that was not thrash, but it was still heavy. It was based on heavy rock - influenced by Maiden, Sabbath, Deep Purple, but more modern. It was very different from what I had been doing with Testament. At that time, there really weren't that many influences in that music: Motorhead, Venom, Slayer. It was a real struggle to get my melodic ideas into the music and in the end, that's what really made Testament stand apart.
But recording with Savatage, it was so open; it was nice to do a record like that.
DR: Did you do all of your recording at Morrisound Studios in Tampa?
AS: Yeah. We were holed up there. I worked entirely with Jon and Paul O'Neill. I didn't actually meet the rest of the band until the very end of the session when there was a photo shoot. I think I was there about a week or so. We did about three songs a day.
The music was done already and I was just recording solos over top. There were a couple spots where I would add fills, like in "Handful of Rain". That has fills between vocal parts. That was new, and I don't think it was planned. I was just noodling in the studio and they said, "That's great! Let's keep that!"
|Savatage Group Shot|
(L-R) Doc Wacholz, Johnny Lee Middleton, Zak Stevens, Alex Skolnick
DR: Did you play your own guitars, or did you use Criss Oliva's Charvel?
AS: I played Criss' guitar on a lot of it. It's a very special guitar. It really has some magic to it. It has a great sound and really represents the best instruments of that era.
DR: How much latitude were you given? Was there any pressure to emulate Criss' sound at all?
AS: I just did what I do. The first song that I worked on was "Taunting Cobras". I remember talking with the Morrisound engineer and telling him that I had been listening to the song and I have some ideas outlined. He said, "Great. Let me record them so we have them as a reference." I laid it down and first thing I heard was "That's great!" So right away I knew it was clear that we weren't going to have a lot of problems. Sometimes I would give them a few different options and let them choose. Other times I asked for guidance - like I would ask if they wanted more of a melodic thing there or more of a heavier thing. In general, I ended up doing the solos the same way I do them today.
DR: What was the mood like in the studio, with Criss' passing in the recent past?
AS: It had reached a point when they were ready to move forward. There were times when it would come up and it was sad, but for the most part we were all in good spirits. Jon Oliva is such a character and the jokes were flying and a lot of stories being told.
DR: Looking back on this album, do you have a favorite song or one that stands out to you?
AS: The song "Stare into the Sun" is my favorite. On that one I really got to play dynamically. I take heat sometimes because I play outside of the rock and metal genres and I enjoy working with musicians that play jazz or blues. On that one, I felt like I was able to bring in some different influences. To this day, I hear from fans that cite that song as one where they really enjoyed my playing.
AS: Yeah! That would by my second favorite. Even though it was mostly keyboards and vocals, I really felt connected to that one and enjoyed laying down those guitar runs in there. I heard it made its way into the TSO thing not too long ago.
DR: They performed it on their Beethoven's Last Night tours and also in 2015 at Wacken Open Air.
AS: Wacken! Yeah! I saw some clips of that and remember saying "Hey. I played that!" [Laughs]
DR: Were you invited to be part of that Wacken Savatage/TSO gig?
AS: No. I wouldn't have been able to make it anyway had I been asked. No hard feelings there. But it was fun to watch those clips.
DR: Al Pitrelli has said that was the first show he has played in 20 years without a tailcoat on.
AS: Ah. It must have felt good.
DR: You guys made a music video for the title track which got some MTV play.
AS: We flew to Dallas to film that. It was a lot of fun. I remember driving past the Grassy Knoll for the first time which was interesting. I had played Dallas many times, but never went there before. I actually hit it off with the actress in the video, Kelley Huston. We became a thing for a little bit after that and we're still friends. And in a strange twist, she later dated the bass player in my Trio. [Laughs]
DR: Was touring with Savatage part of the plan?
AS: It was not in the beginning, but it was hinted at over time. I also had a great opportunity to let my own band at the time, Exhibit A, open for Savatage on the tour.
DR: When the band went out on tour, you obviously were also playing songs and solos that Criss Oliva had recorded and was known for. You changed up some of the solos which many fans didn't appreciate. It seemed like a no-win situation; if you had played them note for note, you could be called out for being just a stand-in with no originality. If you played them with your style, the fans of Criss would be upset.
AS: I tried to reference his solos at times, and sometimes that was hard to do. I remember playing some very closely and some were a blend. I know if I am in a situation like that as a fan, I don't want to hear the exact solo that was on the record, unless it was something like "Little Wing" or "Running with the Devil" where the melody is part of the solo. Maybe I should've played them more like the record. At the time, I was listening to a lot of Allan Holdsworth and more instrumental stuff that was influencing me. Allan Holdsworth was known for playing radically different solos than were on his records. I recently was honored to play at an Allan Holdsworth tribute concert and one of the songs was his "Metal Fatigue". Allan never played the solo on that song the same way twice, but I happen to love the original solo on the record. So, when I went to play it at the concert, I played the original solo. Sometimes as an artist and as a listener, you can see things differently. I try to see both sides.
DR: Any songs on that tour that you particularly enjoyed getting to play?
AS: Sirens! That was one of my favorite songs growing up and was great fun to play on stage. "Jesus Saves" is another that has such great riffs. Some of the newer ones were fun too, like "Chance".
DR: After the tour was over, you moved on from Savatage. Was there some consideration to staying? Was there an offer to stay in the band?
AS: I had a lot of things that I wanted to work on as an artist and staying in that situation just would not have been honest. I was actually open to it for a little bit but then it became clear that I was not going to be part of the creative process. During the tour, I really bonded with Jon. He turned me on to these Deep Purple records that I hadn't been aware of and so many other classic rock records. I started brainstorming ideas about combining some of these classic rock influences and some of what influenced me growing up and I had some ideas about where we could go with the next Savatage record. But then one day I get a phone call from Paul O'Neill; "Great News! Jon and I got inspired and wrote the whole record. It's done. We just need you to come down and record it." He then read me the whole long Dead Winter Dead narrative over the phone with Sarajevo and a gargoyle [Laughs] - I loved Paul, but - I could tell that they were going to do to some great things with that record but this all just wasn't for me, so I respectfully declined.
DR: After you moved on from Savatage, you did start working on some different things with bassist Michael Manring in Attention Deficit and then eventually made the move to New York City and started studying jazz in at the New School here. Was that a long time coming?
AS: Yeah. It was in my head for a long time off and on. I was so afraid of doing it and finding out I had made a mistake. I gave myself six months and then a year and so on. Instead, I realized that the mistake was that I should've come straight here after the original Testament lineup fell apart. But then we wouldn't have Handful of Rain, we might not have had Attention Deficit. It took a while, but I got here.
DR: It was while you were in school that you met up and started collaborating with violinist Joe Deninzon in Stratospheerius?
AS: Yeah. He was hanging up flyers for a gig that he was doing and saw my name on another flyer. At the end of every semester, every ensemble that was part of the class would do these public performances in the auditorium of the New School. Joe wound up coming to the performance and talked to me afterwards. He says, "Are you the same Alex Skolnick from the Testament records?" [Laughs] He had a gig coming up and he was looking for a guitarist. That wound up being my very first New York gig. We had a pretty good band. We had this respected latin drummer named Phoenix Rivera, a ridiculous bass player Rufus Philpot and of course Joe who is amazing on violin. We just continued gigging and eventually recorded the first Stratospheerius album which was a lot of fun.
DR: So you are going to school here in the city, playing gigs and recording with Joe Deninzon and forming your own jazz trio as well. Meanwhile, Paul O'Neill, Jon Oliva and Savatage are releasing Christmas records and starting to tour as Trans-Siberian Orchestra. In 2000, you are once again working with them, this time in the role of "Guitar 1" with the TSO East touring production. Connect those dots for me.
AS: It was really the strangest thing. I was heading to one of my very first shows with my Trio - right around here actually - I was in a cab heading to the Izzy Bar which is the first place in New York that I was playing a lot. The Izzy Bar was a great spot where a lot of jazz artists were playing regularly, like the great bassist Richard Bona. The same guy who booked him knew who I was and started booking me there for various projects. Anyway, I remember it was a misty night - heavy fog - and I see this figure walking down the street that looked like a ghost coming through the fog. I remember thinking how strange this guy looked but I had a feeling I knew him. I hadn't seen him in five years but as we got closer I realized it was Paul O'Neill, walking through this dark mist, looking like this mad genius plotting something or other. [Laughs] Just as I realized it, I was going to roll down the window and say something, the cab took off.
Not two weeks later, I get this email from Adam Lind that basically said "My name is Adam Lind and I work for David Krebs. We hear you are in New York now and we need to talk to you." What followed was this hilarious charade over several days of trying to reach David Krebs, who was not an easy person to reach at the time. Once I finally got through, it was hilarious, like right out of the movies. [In Krebs' voice] "We're looking at different guitar players. So, I'm listening to this record called Handful of Rain. Who is that guitar player? That's the guitar player you should get. Which one is that? Are you that guitar player?" [Laughs] We got to talking and he basically explained that he was managing Paul now, TSO has been spawned out of Savatage, and they were splitting it in two bands. Pitrelli was in Megadeth at the time and not doing the tour so they were looking for some guitar players. This led to a meeting with Paul where I explained to him that I think I saw him a few days earlier and he remembered that night perfectly. He lived in the building right around the corner from where I saw him and it all made sense. But the whole thing was kinda spooky. I don't always go by feelings and coincidences but the whole thing was spooky and made me think that I should do this. It was really strange because the path I was on was going full-on jazz and music education, but this sounded fun.
|Alex Skolnick with TSO 2007|
DR: Sounded fun? That partially answers my next question. You just explained that you didn't move forward with Paul and Jon in Savatage because you were not going to be part of the creative process. This is a similar situation with the same guys, except now you are playing Al Pitrelli's guitar parts. What made you say "yes" this time?
AS: [Laughs] Well, a number of reasons. I looked at it and considered the reasons to say "yes" and the reasons to say "no" and the number of reasons to say "yes" outweighed "no". For one thing, it was optional. I could do this tour, but that does not mean I was expected to do the next one. I could decide to do the next tour or not - it's not a big deal. The way it is run, different people can be plugged in, as has happened with almost every role over the years. That can be frustrating when you are in it as a performer, as you want to be more of the face of it. But, I respect it as a business model, especially at that time.
I was actually in school when I agreed to do the first one. I talked to all of my professors and was given homework assignments to take on the road with me. One of my hardest assignments was to work on a big band arrangement. Luckily for me, Mee Eun Kim, who is now my good friend, was a keyboardist that had also been hired for TSO and is a Berklee graduate. She specialized in notation, arrangement and all of the gaps that I needed to fill. She graciously and enthusiastically helped me with my homework while we were doing that first East tour.
Also, you have to remember that the tours back then were much shorter. This wasn't like saying "yes" to the TSO of 2017. It was less than a month and I realized that it wouldn't interfere with my schooling. By the time the next tour came along, I had graduated and had released my first Trio record.
DR: The album that was mostly jazz versions of rock standards?
AS: Yes. Goodbye to Romance. We recorded it at the same studio that I did the Stratospheerius record with Joe. I didn't think much was going to happen with it, I just knew I wanted to make a real jazz guitar record. I then got contacted by this radio programmer out of Nashville who was very influential in jazz radio programming at the time. This programmer told me that he loved the record and wanted to work it himself, which led to it getting on radio stations across the country. It was really surreal. It was really blowing up and PR costs money. I also took the band on the road with my own money. I only did that once before and that was with Savatage and I didn't put together the tour. The TSO tours helped support my PR campaign and my recording costs and it made sense from a business standpoint to still do the short TSO tours. The following year (2003) I did not do the TSO tour for all of the reasons you would think I would say "no" in the first place.
DR: After that year off, you were back out on the TSO stage in 2004 and right on through 2009.
AS: Why did I come back to it? The paycheck was certainly part of it, but being away from it I realized that I missed it more than I thought I would. I knew it was getting bigger, but I didn't realize how big. I was determined to balance it with everything else I was doing, even with how much energy I was putting into it and how beaten up I was feeling.
DR: Your own musical preferences were certainly counter to what you were playing in TSO - and you were not alone in that among TSO's cast. Was it difficult to keep up the energy and enthusiasm for their Shows playing music that was not created by you and played with such a level of direction?
AS: You learn how to do it. And also, the audience is so wonderful. They bought a ticket and made plans and you can feel the excitement that they bring. It's beyond your own musical preferences. If you add up all of the tours I did with them - I did nine tours! That's a lot. As much as I loved the audiences and the camaraderie, it wasn't going to sustain me anymore. The energy it was taking from me and who I was and what I wanted to do was becoming too much. I wanted to step away before I became bitter - that's not fair to anyone.
DR: Over the years, the TSO Show became a bit more choreographed for various reasons. Many past performers have talked about the increased amount of direction as the Show changed. Did you receive a lot of direction?
AS: There was a lot of direction. I remember rehearsing "Christmas Canon", the girls were singing, and Paul would walk on stage and start flipping his hair around from side to side. [Laughs] It was the funniest thing, but he was serious about this direction. Many of the moves would come about this way.
A guy who deserves a lot of the credit and someone that I miss greatly is bassist Dave Z. A lot of the moves we did on stage came from him. He would egg me on all the time, "C'mon do this! It will look great!" and I would always resist until he wore me down. "Alright Dave, I will do it this one time just for you because we're friends." And the next night I hear, "That move you guys did was fantastic!" and it suddenly became a nightly stage direction. Dave was so committed to performing and you had to keep up with him. It really helped me as a performer no matter what musical project I was doing. I credit Dave for helping me with my performance.
|Photo Courtesy of Erin Williams / RockPhotographer.blogspot.com|
Some would paint me as an elitist because I am in it for the music and I believe art triumphs above entertainment. That's my mindset; I am all about the art. Doing the TSO Show - in particular working with Dave Z - helped me see that the entertainment is important too. There are moves in the Show - even today - that originated with Dave. There may be a few that I came up with, but not as much. Like the end of "O Holy Night" where I was lifting the guitar away from me, trying to get some feedback. That just came naturally; nobody told me to do that. But as I have seen clips of the Show, whether it's Joel Hoekstra or Bill Hudson, that's part of the Show now. [Laughs]
One more thought on direction before we move on, sometimes I thought there was too much direction. I remember one time where there was a note that I played, and I slid into the note. I was quickly told, "Don't slide into the note. Just play the note." That level of micromanaging is a little antithetical to where I come from.
DR: I noticed that over the years as TSO brought in the scissor lifts and rear rising stage, you rarely were involved in those.
AS: Yeah, well I was more of the "player", which was fine with me. I don't need to do stuff like that. There was one tour, where we opened with "March of the Kings" and we descended on platforms. That was the only time where I was involved in that. As the Show got bigger though, I got busier with my performance. If your stage partners are running around the arena, you still had to hold down that large stage.
DR: One of the many musicians that I have interviewed was a vocalist that you worked with, Peter Shaw.
AS: Another character. Great guy though and fantastic singer.
DR: He talked a bit about the slowing of the tempos and the frustration the band had with that.
AS: I remember the tempos were shockingly slow. Paul was convinced that everything sounded faster to the audience. He might be right, up to a point. All of us felt that it was too slow, and it presented challenges for certain singers. My good friend, Steve Broderick, loved the original recording of "Old City Bar" which is a reasonably mid-tempo waltz. We slowed it down to the point that it almost became a narration.
We would also have these celebrity special guests on the tours back then and we had a moment of vindication when Roger Daltrey performed with us. We had been rehearsing this trio of The Who songs at a painfully slow tempo and Roger Daltrey stopped us mid-song and said, "Who came up with these tempos?" [Laughs]
DR: I wanted to run a couple song titles past you that you performed live many times over your nine tours. You talked a bit about "O Holy Night" earlier. You changed the ending quite a bit from what Al Pitrelli recorded on the original.
AS: That was one of those interesting dynamics, because you're not supposed to change the song. I did and its part of the Show now. [Laughs] But it felt natural and was no disrespect to the original. If I play it naturally and what feels right to me, this is what happens. To this day, fans talk to me about that song and that video. I am grateful that I got to do that every night, that was sort of my moment in the Show.
DR: "Tracers", where you got to play the double neck.
AS: That was a fun one to play. There is a break in the middle where it's only 12-string electric guitar, so that double neck was helpful for that. That's a very meaningful guitar. I was its caretaker and eventually Paul gave it to me. It made its way onto the new Trio record that we just recorded, and it sounds amazing on there.
DR: "Old City Bar". Was this a bit nerve wracking at all? To go from a stage full of musicians to just you playing completely exposed acoustic in a packed arena?
AS: I loved playing that song, even when the tempo was directed to be so slow. I am the only one playing in this giant arena and there is some power in that. I loved the challenge of making the song more musical at that tempo. There were a lot of funny things that happened when Steve and I did that song. For a long time, it seemed cursed. One time, a section of the stage that we were on came loose while we were playing it and it felt like we were on the Titanic, rocking back and forth. [Laughs] That's the song where everyone - the singers, the band and the crew, take a break. I'm looking over at a crew member trying to signal him with my eyes as the stage is rocking, and I am trying to look like I am moving to the song. Finally, he realized what had happened, grabbed some other crew guys and they came up and fixed it. We never stopped playing the song.
Another time, there was a medical emergency a few rows back from the stage - which wasn't funny - but the paramedics are coming in, tending to that and everyone is watching that while we are carrying on with the song as if everything is normal. [Laughs] Another time a light caught on fire during this song. Everyone is looking straight up and pointing at this fire while we're playing and looking up there too. Eventually a lighting tech climbed a ladder, put out the fire and everyone cheered. The song never stopped the entire time. [Laughs]
DR: That was the one TSO song where you got to sing a bit.
AS: Yeah. I enjoyed that, and it helped me with my vocals. It was the best training. I tried to sing before with Exhibit A, but I hadn't found my vocal range and really wasn't ready. Doing that vocal part night after night with TSO really helped me. When Testament was resurrected, I started taking on more backing vocals. Even today, I take on more vocal parts, like in the song "Electric Crown", there is that high part during the chorus - I got that! I even sing a bit of blues now with the Trio.
DR: "Christmas Eve/Sarajevo 12/24"
AS: That was fun to play, and the fans love it. It's an amazing charge of energy. And it's not that easy. There are some good licks in there! Al played some challenging stuff on the record. When I first learned it, Al was at the very first rehearsals even though he wasn't doing the tour that year. He was telling me how I didn't have to do the runs exactly as he did on the record, but still you have to make it exciting. It's a workout and fun to play.
DR: We know that most of what we are hearing when listening to the TSO albums is Al Pitrelli's guitar work. Did you ever get to record anything with them?
AS: Yes. I had a couple riffs that showed up on the Lost Christmas Eve album and then I played lead and the solo on the TSO version of "Believe". I played some rhythm but not sure if it was used or not.
DR: Your last tour with TSO was 2009. You had left once before. What made you leave for good that time?
AS: Part of the reason that I left wasn't from a guitar-related thing, but from the overall sound and presentation. It was like being in a blender. I think any large ensemble will be like that to a point. Even playing in Testament, it's a smaller ensemble but still a blender. If you hear me playing with Stu Hamm or with my Trio, it's a smaller group but my role is so much larger. It's not in a blender - you can hear everything I do. I'm somebody that likes to not be in a blender all of the time.
There would be parts of the show where I remember feeling lost. I would be playing a part that required a lot of technique, I'm putting my heart into it and I was trying to figure out why people didn't seem to be noticing. Then I look to my left and the girls are doing these dance moves and to my right there is an explosion and fire and then a platform coming down. I started having enough moments like that along with the feeling of how much energy I was expending that I realized it was time to go.
DR: Understandable. Looking back at your time with the TSO, I understand it helped fund what you really wanted to play and was a bit of a learning experience. What did you take away from it?
AS: [Laughs] Well, I could go on and on. It was a real life and profound learning experience. Doing TSO forced me to become a better performer. It was a major course in the music business, in psychology, personal dynamics and drama. I've seen some people that were unfazeable, Dave Z for example, that saw the bright side of everything and never focused on the negative. On the flipside of that, I have also seen meltdowns that you wouldn't believe and unnecessary drama that would make reality television look tame. It was fascinating. If I ever have time to do a book, I would love to write a fictional book about all of the stuff that went on.
DR: Are there any particular moments during your nine tours that still stand out today as memorable?
AS: Oh yeah. The visit with Roger Daltrey was one. After everyone was told not to talk to him and leave him alone, I was pulled aside and told that Roger wants to play guitar with us and can I work with him on his parts! All of a sudden, he and I are in this small room together going over guitar parts which I will never forget.
Another was playing the opening part of "Roundabout" when Jon Anderson guested with us. That was one of the hardest things I had ever done. Not that the part was that difficult, but it had to be played exact with Jon standing there in front of 14,000 people. That was a moment right out of a TV show. Paul pulled me aside before the show and I think I am going to get a pep talk. He explains that this is Philadelphia, this is where Yes had their biggest market, there are 14,000 fans out there, this performance needed to be right, don't screw it up. [Laughs] To play that opening, I had to use some meditation and yoga breathing techniques to just get disconnected from any nervousness. I was really playing from a different space. It was like I was on a meditation retreat and unaware of the gravity of the moment. Later, when everyone was going crazy I let myself enjoy the moment.
DR: Nice. I know you are busy with so many things, what is coming up next for you?
AS: Well, the new Stratospheerius record just came out and I was so happy that Joe and I were able to reunite and work together on that. He came by and we had a great time and I laid down a solo on one of the songs on there.
I also just finished tracking and mixing our new Alex Skolnick Trio album that will come out soon. I am really excited about it. I think it's my best work. There's acoustic and electric guitar on there, all original, one classical arrangement and no rock arrangements.
DR: You played some of these new tunes on the short tour you did recently. Does that help when you go to record them?
AS: No comparison. Especially for a project that is basically recorded live. Playing these songs out first was basically our studio prep.
Metal Allegiance also has a follow-up record that is recorded and it's going to be great. Mark Menghi and I wound up being the main production team on this one and I recently went in and did some edits. It is very heavy but with some very cool creative stuff that I am excited about. We also have some touring in Europe planned.
And Testament just signed on to a North American tour that I can't talk about yet, but it will be one of the biggest tours of the year.
DR: Alex, thanks so much for delving into this part of your history for a bit and look forward to hearing your upcoming albums.
AS: Thank you! Glad we were able to make this happen.
|Alex Skolnick Trio|
Photo courtesy of Evelyn Steinweg
For more information:
Alex Skolnick: http://alexskolnick.com/
Alex Skolnick Trio: https://www.facebook.com/alexskolnick/
Metal Allegiance: http://www.metalallegiance.com/
Trans-Siberian Orchestra: http://www.trans-siberian.com