Photo: Jimmy Hubbard
A guitarist version of Jekyll and Hyde, Alex Skolnick has a split personality. Between the legendary thrash band, Testament, and his genre-busting modern jazz trio, Skolnick lives in two seemingly unrelated worlds. With Veritas
, Skolnick lays out all of his influences on the table and pays tribute to them while keeping his identity as a composer and guitarist intact.
The material covered on the album covers a lot of ground, both stylistically and compositionally. On the title track, Skolnick combines delicate chords and arpeggios with a thumping rock backbeat aptly supplied by bassist Nathan Peck and drummer Matt Zebroski. Both Peck and Zebroski have been with Skolnick for nearly a decade, and the interplay between them borders on telepathic. Throughout the album you hear strains of Jeff Beck, John Coltrane, and Jimmy Page—all three are cited as influences in the liner notes—but presented in a way that is entirely improvisational and in some ways, very free-form.
Fresh off a showcase at SXSW, Premier Guitar caught up with Skolnick to discuss chasing the perfect guitar tone, influences, and how a Metallica tune helped him to move past his jazz and metal repertoire.
What was your sonic vision for this album when you went into the studio?
I wanted it to be the music I liked—music I put on first thing in the morning. It’s everything from Keith Jarrett to Bill Frisell to e.s.t. to Bach’s Two Part Inventions. I like music that is energizing, inspiring and very clear. There is something about those types of albums that is just very warm, intimate and direct.
When you say “energizing,” you don’t necessarily mean loud and fast, right?
Definitely not. I have this recording of Bach’s Inventions played by a classical pianist named András Schiff. That to me is very energizing. I am not sure why that is, but you can definitely put it on to relax at home. Maybe stimulating is a better word. There are different types of music for different purposes. Speed metal serves a different purpose but I wouldn’t put that on first thing in the morning.
So Veritas is essentially an interpretation of an “Alex Skolnick Morning Mixtape?”
That’s a good way to put it. I wouldn’t say that about the entire album, but a majority of it, yeah.
How did you capture your guitar tone in the studio?
Spin Music Studios, where we recorded this album, is really good. We recorded our first two records in a much smaller studio, where there was a lot more bleeding, making it much more difficult in regards to separation.
My main sound came from my Budda V40 Series II Superdrive, but we worked in a Fender Vibrolux ,my one classic amp, there was well. We used a combination of different guitar mics on both amps, as well as some room mics. We found combinations that would work for each song. A song like “Veritas,” which is very atmospheric and ambient, requires a very different sound than “99/09,” which requires a very dry, crisp and punchy sound.
Are you hands-on when it comes to producing and engineering?
I don’t think I would be a good engineer myself, because I’m not quite as technically minded, but I definitely understand what I like as far as sound. Our engineer, Nick Chiboukas, is perfect. Nick was in a rock band called Collison that actually had a hit on MTV in the ’80s—so he is somebody that understands the musician point of view—but is also very “left-brained.” We would describe the sounds we wanted and he was really good at helping us chase them.
Were these tunes tested out on the road or developed in the studio?
Most of the tunes were put together over the course of a few months. Interestingly, I had written some of them while in Europe doing a Testament tour with Megadeth and Judas Priest. There was a lot of down time on that tour and a lot of mornings spent sitting in the lounge of the bus while everyone else slept. Very often I was overlooking mountains, because a lot of the arena-sized venues in Europe are in remote locations. It was beautiful. At night I would be playing this loud, very aggressive music but then have very peaceful mornings, and I think those mornings really influenced the music for this record. When I would get back to playing with my trio, we would occasionally work in one of these songs, but the vast majority of them were worked out in rehearsals.
You have been playing with your trio for a while. How did you three originally come together?
It started with the drummer, Matt Zebroski, and me just doing it for fun. The experience of this trio coming together has been a metaphor for a lot of things that I have done since—not planned. Matt and I just happened to find each other and moved to New York at the same time to attend The New School, where we studied jazz. Even with our ten-year age difference, we seemed to have more in common than most of the other guys at the school, and we weren’t limited in musical taste. Both of us wanted to have fun with music and play music that contained the jazz aesthetic we were surrounded by, but with no limitations. Our idea was just to play the occasional gig around New York. There are a lot of “low-maintenance” musical projects in New York where you get together just for the purpose of playing. You aren’t thinking about the music business and you aren’t thinking about long-term plans. You just play. It became the best improvisational musical experience I had ever had and the reaction was great. At a certain point it made sense to just pursue it and see where it went.