It may have taken Alex Skolnick a few years to find a way to relate to his school classmates, but he says that the hottest band in the world offered up a world of possibilities for him around age nine.
“I never related to sports, and everybody in school was a big sports fan. And one day, one kid had cards, that I thought were baseball cards, and they turned out to be KISS cards and I just thought that was the coolest thing. Then, a short time later I saw a commercial for KISS on television. I decided I had to buy KISS records, ‘cause the first album I ever bought was KISS and the first concert I ever saw was KISS in 1979, and the first song I ever learned was KISS. So, I was a big KISS fan for years.”
Sealing his fate as a rock musician, or so one would have thought, Skolnick says that a few years later, he started taking guitar lessons from the ultimate instructor, Joe Satriani, before he earned his name as a guitar god.
“This was when I was fourteen, it’s really only four years after starting guitar, which is pretty amazing now. Then six years after starting guitar, I heard about this band that needed a guitar player, and they were called Legacy. Suddenly, I was playing in clubs opening for Slayer and Exodus, and groups like that. When I was eighteen, I did the first record, and then, Legacy found out that some other group had the rights to the name, we changed the name to Testament. I was with Testament from 1984 to 1992, and in that time, even though I was playing rock and metal, I just, I never felt like that was the only music. I felt like there was more music out there to do.”
The Curiosity to Explore
Skolnick says that he had always desired to be “just a good-all-around musician.” Thus, he was studying the art when he was not on the road, and finally, when time permitted, he was finally able to pursue a degree in his craft at the Musical University in his hometown of New York City. He says that even though his main thing was metal, he had always explored other kinds of music, which were actually quite helpful in developing his technique, which was customary during the years that rock guitarists were required to know their way around a fretboard.
“It takes a lot of guitar technique to be able to play metal, at least the stuff that we were playing…it was when guitar solos where still ‘hip’ (laughs)…I guess over the years it translated pretty well to other styles of music. It was difficult at times, like when I first started playing jazz, the jazz rhythm is so different and the swing rhythms and funk rhythms are so different than hard rock. And, it took a while to get that, but once I got that it came pretty naturally. So, I’ve had various teachers over the years and then I think a lot of my most valuable lessons were self-taught.”
A few things happened that changed diverted Skolnick’s focus from his first band. First, he says he started getting more and more into other styles of music, especially electric jazz and acoustic fusion music and he thinks that “a little bit of that influence came through on some of the Testament songs when there were acoustic parts.”
In addition, he stumbled on the opportunity to tour with the extraordinary bass player Stu Hamm during a tour supporting his 1991 solo release, The Urge, and was introduced to a new audience, as well as special guests like Steve Morse and Joe Satriani.
A New Testament
Though Skolnick did return to record the next Testament album, The Ritual (Atlantic), he says that tension in the band had mounted at that point and not just with him. In short, he says that he was getting more and more into other music and some of the other guys just weren’t getting along.
In addition, after working with several musicians, who he had respected, and who had respected him, he felt let down by the other members of Testament at the time, but now realizes that that they did in fact respect him, they just wanted to keep the band together.
“If I tell you the whole story, it’s right out of VH-1 Behind the Music,” he jokes. In addition, he says, “They didn’t understand why I was expanding, and to them, the band was the most important thing. So, it just made sense at some point to just go our separate ways.”
So Skolnick decided to officially part with Testament in 1992, and spent the next several years trying to find his direction. And while he had formed his own project Exhibit A and joined the band Savatage for an album and tour, he says that really he has only recently found that direction, and while he and his former bandmates have never reunited, they have patched things up.
The Growing Process
While Skolnick may joke that his career had gone into a downward spiral after he left the band due to lack of industry interest and other factors, he has found that it actually worked out very well in hindsight, because he really needed that time to do some experimentation, as well as musical and personal soul searching.
“I think I was always the person I am now, but that needed to come out. I mean, I knew I wasn’t going to have the hair and the jacket – long hair and a leather jacket for the rest of my life. Still, when I did it, I was very into it, but it was part of my youth. And it’s not like I decided to become a banker and wear a suit and tie and be what my parents wanted me to be, but I did change.
I think at this point now, a lot of the audiences from that time period have grown up too, and they’re more understand about my decision to leave that and do other things. I think it probably looked like I disappeared for a while, but I was getting my new things together. I didn’t know it at the time, I really wanted to go straight from Testament to having a big solo career, but it was difficult because alternative music took over and the industry was not interested in flashy guitar player.
Now, I’d like to think that I had more than that, more than just flash. I’d like to think of myself as a musician with depth. The music industry people really don’t care about that (laughs). It’s just about record sales…It was awful. A few years earlier I had record companies begging me to do a solo record, and within a few years all those people were gone and there were these new people at the record companies that loved alternative music and wouldn’t accept anything else.”
Skolnick said he tried forming the group Exhibit A, but had no luck with record companies and no satisfaction with the line-up despite the fact that he formed the band himself and controlled member changes. Though the band did do a tour with Savatage, where Skolnick played with both groups, he eventually decided that the band really wasn’t the answer. Though he had only recorded demos with the band, he still says he got a lot out of being the leader of his own band.
When he joined Savatage on the road and for the recording of Handful of Rain, he was so far into his exploration of jazz music that he couldn’t give them the commitment that they wanted – he says that at that time, he couldn’t even commit to Exhibit A, the band that he had formed. So, during that period the uncertainty in the music industry and his love for jazz lead him to make a “crazy” decision.
A Window of Opportunity
“I always wanted to get a music degree, and go study with master musicians and get my reading and my composition together, and just be able to hang with like the highest level of musicians – the same musician who I listened to and whose material I wanted to learn at this point in my life. I was beyond KISS and Jimi Hendrix.”
He says that while he still loves that music he was discovering the music of players like Chick Corea, and had decided that he wanted to be like them, only on guitar. So he began to study music at the highest possible level at the aforementioned Musical University.
This brought about the realization that even if he just studied music and played small venues it would be worth it, because his goal was not to please the music industry. Fortunately, those studies not only opened up his mind, but also opened up a new world of musical opportunities for him, including the Attention Deficit Project with Michael Manring and Tim Alexander for the progressive label Magna Carta, which first surfaced in 1998, a tour with Trans-Siberian Orchestra, and participation on many other diverse projects including Stratosphereous, which is lead by a violinist named Joe Veninzon, who had performed a few times with Trans-Siberian Orchestra. In addition, Skolnick has two of his own bands, the Skol Trio and the electric jazz/funk group Skol Patrol.
One of many projects Alex Skolnick has recently dedicated time to, Attention Deficit, is a band formed with Primus drummer Tim Alexander and bassist Michael Manring from the Michael Hedges band. While the trio first joined forces for Alexander’s solo release in 1994, their work as Attention Deficit has spanned over two albums that are best described as a combination of electric improvisation, jazz metal, and progressive rock.
Most recently, the Attention Deficit members brought forth the release of The Idiot King (Magna Carta), which has been described as an “updated version of those great Italian horror soundtracks of the seventies.” For Skolnick, the band partially represents where he is as a musician. Interestingly, when he describes the music that he is making, there are very few musicians that Skolnick can point out as examples, and those who do come to mind are not typically other guitarists.
“Certain parts of that record more than others are how I see myself as a musician. Obviously, it’s all a part of me because I played it, but I think there are certain things more than others. I think the next thing that I do is going to sound very different than that, but I’d still like to do more records like that as well. What I really want to do is do a completely different type of CD every time I put one out.”
He hopes that the band will be able to do some touring, though it will be difficult since Manring is in San Francisco, Alexander is in Las Vegas, and Skolnick is in New York. However, they have received a few offers and are hoping to make something happen in the fall.
In addition, he will be doing The Alex Skolnick show with weekly live performances in New York City at a club called the Izzy Bar starting in September, where special guests will join a rotating roster of his many bands.
Trans-Siberian Orchestra and Savatage
When asked if Skolnick would participate on new material for Trans-Siberian Orchestra he said, “they can tell you that. If they ask, I’ll be there. I really enjoy working with them.” And while he admits that working with Savatage again as well had crossed his mind, he is not prepared to make that type of a commitment.
As reflected in many line-up changes over the years, “Savatage is the type of band that requires 100% commitment and there’s a whole attitude that goes along with it,” says Skolnick. Consequently, he explained “I’m just not at a point where I can give that kind of commitment and attitude that they need. I still think Savatage is a great band, but it’s almost a 24 hours-a-day/7 days-a-week job for at least part of a year, and I can’t do that. I’m involved with so many other projects…I just graduated. This whole time they’ve been on the road I’ve been getting my degree.”
For more information on Alex Skolnick, his upcoming Web site is due shortly at www.alexskolnick.com. Other resources include www.magnacarta.net and his fan club on Yahoo, which also offers information on his diverse talents.