I’ve been given the wonderful opportunity to speak to the great Alex Skolnick very recently!
Besides being the lead guitarist for thrash metal band Testament, he has also put together the jazz group Alex Skolnick Trio as an amazing and emboldening outlet for his musicianship, and also has been part of (and collaborated on) other projects like Skol-Patrol, Attention Deficit and with acoustic guitar duo Rodrigo y Gabriela. He also pens the popular blog Skolnotes. Alex has recently published his memoir titled Geek to Guitar Hero, not a life story but a book that features numerous key moments from his life (You can order the book here or on the link on the bottom). He also has an ongoing but still new project titled Planetary Coalition, which promises to allow him to do further collaboration with artists around the world.
Alex had a few minutes to Skype for The Glass.
CM: Can you please talk about the book Geek to Guitar Hero?
[Image left courtesy of Maddy Samaddar]
Alex: I planned to segue into writing many years ago, before hard rock musicians were writing and putting out books, and before hard rock audiences were reading books, I was planning to do it. I’m a big reader myself, and I’m a big fan of writers like Philip Roth, Tom Wolfe to more recent guys like Nick Hornby and David Foster Wallace. I was related to the content and the process of writing, and I just wanted to get to a point where I felt the quality was there and worth sharing, so I finally did this. I finally put out this book, which is my own memoir–I wouldn’t call it an autobiography, because it’s not a full-life story, it just focuses on certain events, and specific reflections on certain events, but the response I’ve gotten is really great, from both literary people and music people, and I’m excited to finally share it.
CM: I love what you have accomplished with the Alex Skolnick Trio! It is such a great thing that you have a jazz trio, and you are playing a genre that speaks a bit closer to my taste than perhaps thrash does, and you’ve been doing some great selections in jazz renditions, but have you found any songs to be harder or impossible to transform into jazz?
Alex: Absolutely! When I was in my exclusive jazz phase, which I was in for a long time–pretty much just focusing in improv as a player–I never stopped being a fan of hard rock or heavy metal, and I envisioned coming back to it once I felt like I could balance both styles of playing. So, the whole time I was a fan of these songs, and I was like one of these Jack Black characters. I was pretty close to that–the inner-fan that most of us are as musicians, so while I was creating jazz, I still enjoyed the Scorpions, Deep Purple, and Kiss–to me, it felt natural. But yes, there were songs that didn’t work arranged for jazz. The ones that did work, I knew worked right away. The vocals on the Scorpions’ songs are very melodic, so to me it was easier to write re-harmonization around the melodies. A couple of times I tried it with AC/DC, and it didn’t work so well! But one of the reasons for that is that for their songs the music is much more riff-based, and the vocals are part of the riffs more than anything. And that’s just where the strength is, whereas the Scorpions have riffs, but there’s more melody, so whichever piece I would choose–Ozzy’s “Goodbye to Romance”, Kiss’ “Detroit Rock City” or Dio’s “Don’t Talk to Strangers”–All that stuff has the strong melody, so that was a factor.
CM: And “War Pigs”! A very dynamic song already with it’s volume and stops!
Alex: Very innovative melody! It starts out major! It ascends major and descends minor! Obviously, Ozzy wasn’t thinking of it from the standpoint of a trained musician, he just felt it! There’s a sophistication there that really lends itself to doing an interpretation.
CM: Years ago, I never would have thought anyone in the metal or even the rock world would be getting involved with jazz or other genres of music.
Alex: It’s a rare thing, and hopefully this is changing that. Hopefully other musicians will follow and won’t be afraid to do stuff or think that they have to be exclusive to whatever band they’re in.
Alex Skolnick Trio – War Pigs (Live in Schenectady, 2006)
CM: I also have to say that it’s so cool that you get heavy even during these jams! The metal world mixing with the jazz world.
Alex: Exactly! At that point, it says a lot. I think it takes on a whole other form of energy because you’re not expecting it. It’s taken out of context. It’s not a large venue with walls of amplifiers and a giant drum kit, it’s a small intimate jazz performance and suddenly there’s a metal moment there. It takes people by surprise, and it’s a different way of doing that.
CM: Are the other members of the trio also versed in other genres, or are they strictly jazz?
Alex: Both those guys are very diverse. The bass player Nathan [Peck] plays acoustic and electric bass, and the drummer Matt [Zebroski] plays in both rock and jazz bands. I think all of us are mostly the type that if we had been working during the 70s or 80s when there was more a scene for studio musicians, before electronic music or catalogued music became such a common thing, we would have all made great studio musicians.
CM: Are you also still working on Planetary Coalition?
Alex: Yes, it’s in a slow period right now because I’ve been busy touring with Testament, but steps are being made for this to happen. It’s a bit of an ambitious project, and it’s going to be my first crowd-funded project, but basically it’s going to be my first acoustic album, my first world music album, and it’ll have some electric as well. But that’s just the musical side of it. I’ve already written some music for it and recorded it with some great local musicians, including Max Z.T. and violinist Rachel Golub. Depending on how things go, the goal will be to involve musicians from all over the world, from different cultures and regions, and to write music around them, collaborate with them, and eventually have a social component too, where we actually tell the story of some of these regions–the untold story from their perspective, including slide shows, video, etc. It’s a vision I’ve had for a while now, and the few times I’ve performed the music, the response has been very good. Even on this metal website, Blabbermouth.net where they hate everything, they actually seemed to really like this music. Even though it’s not metal music, it has an intensity.
TESTAMENT – Native Blood (OFFICIAL VIDEO)
And a bonus clip:
Rodrigo y Gabriela w/special guest Alex Skolnick