March , 2013
By Vinny Cecolini
Discusses The Highs And Lows Of One Of Metal's Big Four
JAM Magazine Interviews Anthrax Drummer Charlie Benante
Anthrax's 30-year career has been through so much turbulence, its members should be required to carry air-sickness bags with them at all times.
As the East Coast's answer to the early ‘80s Bay Area metal scene, these hard rocking thrashers are now regarded in the world of ‘metaldom' as charter members of the “Big 4”, that also includes Metallica, Slayer and Megadeth. During the last few years, these bands have toured together, and in various configurations, highlighted by the historic September 14, 2011 show at New York's Yankee Stadium.
In addition to selling millions of albums, numerous global tours and pioneering both rap metal (the band's hit cover of Public Enemy's “Bring the Noise”) and hardcore punk-metal crossover ( drummer Charlie Benante and guitarist Scott Ian's side-project S.O.D.), Anthrax has endured obstacles and hardships that would destroy weaker artists. Some of these bumps in the Anthrax road have included a revolving membership door featuring several reunions of these turnstile artists; splits of its “classic” lineup; a Spinal Tap-like issue with singers; a devastating fire at its rehearsal space that ruined most of their equipment; the mid-‘90s metal downturn, which saw the band performing in smaller venues before dwindling audiences. Perhaps the worst, a demand that the band change its name when a domestic terrorist began mailing a powder form of the deadly cattle disease to various targets. In each case, the stubborn New Yorker act stood its ground.
When the band hired Dan Nelson as its fourth front man in 2007, it appeared at first that this position had finally settled down. A longtime fan familiar with the band's back catalogue, Nelson quickly built a rapport with audiences and commenced work on the album that would become Worship Music. During the creation process, however, a rift developed between Nelson and his mates. Multiple release dates were announced and then scrapped. Although the record was nearly complete and a European tour with Slayer and Megadeth was approaching, Nelson either departed of his own volition, or let go for reasons only the band knows. Scrambling to fulfill touring commitments, Anthrax turned to former vocalist John Bush, who agreed to head out on the road, but refused to recommit. In addition to beginning another arduous search for a singer, the band faced a dilemma. Should it release its often-delayed album with Nelson's vocals?
Fortunately for Anthrax, they collectively made two very positive decisions. They delayed the release of the much maligned Worship Music, and members reached out to meet with its ‘classic-era' singer, singer Joey Belladonna. Everyone aired out their grievances and the vocalist agreed to return. Worship Music was rerecorded with Belladonna's vocals and guitarist Rob Caggiano co-producing. The result was a stunning album regarded as one of Anthrax's greatest ever. It was not only embraced by fans, but also received universal acclaim from all corners of the globe. As drummer Charlie Benante jokes, “It only took 30 years” to reach the consensus with fans and critics.
Despite the acclaim and sold out tours that went with it, Anthrax's ups and downs continued to plague them. Despite the Worship Music track “I'm Alive” recently being nominated for the Best Rock/Metal Performance Grammy, longtime guitarist Rob Caggiano left the band in order to concentrate more on producing records. Scott Ian and Charlie Benante were forced to sit out various tour segments to deal with family issues. The Anthrax machine refused to slow down and just used temporary parts to repair the damage. In addition to multiple upcoming tours, Anthrax is bridging the gap between Worship Music and its next album entitled Anthems. It will be the band's first covers EP in more than a decade. Rush, Thin Lizzy and Journey are just a few of the surprising artists the band tackles on the new recording.
JAM: While overcoming numerous obstacles during its career, Anthrax has somehow managed to maintain a rather unique sense of humor about everything it's gone through.
Charlie Benante: It's our New York attitude. Hit us and we're just going to come back. It's what has kept us going. We don't look back; we just move forward. Comparing Anthrax to other bands, however, I'd say Metallica has had some pretty back luck itself, including the 1986 loss of bassist Cliff Burton during a horrific bus crash. Yes, we've experienced ups and downs that have been well documented. I wish they weren't well document, but they were.
JAM: Did previous singer Dan Nelson's short tenure actually help the band create such a great album?
It was an education. It made us realize what was important and what wasn't important. Some of us needed the kick to mature us; to bring us back down to earth; and to make us refocus on what we set out to do in the first place; to create music we enjoyed. I don't know why we were put through a tornado. Maybe that is what it took to make such an important record.
JAM: You attempted to reunite with Joey Belladonna on several occasions. Did both occasions fail because it happened too soon or was the timing just off?
The last reunion was a half-baked idea. The people who were working with us didn't do the right thing. It was a thought that quickly became a reality. We were put in a room, told to repair our relationship and then told that we were going on tour. It was a whirlwind that no one was prepared for. There was a honeymoon period that eventually ended. Individuals who did not get along in the past had not put those differences aside, and thus did not get along in the present. Boom, it was over.
JAM: What makes it different now? Why has this reincarnation worked out?
I'm not singling out Joey, but this time things came about organically. It wasn't forced. It did not involve money.
JAM: How did retooling the music for Belladonna improve the Worship Music?
During the fall of 2011, while we toured with Slayer and Megadeth, we used our downtime to work on the music with Joey. That was when Worship Music really started to take shape. When he started putting his voice to the music, we looked at each other and said, “That is what this should sound like.” It was a humbling experience for us, even for Joey. I don't think he realized just how good it could be to be back in Anthrax. That was a great day for this group when we realized that the songs were finally coming together; to hear once again what our band used to sound like.
JAM: Although many veteran rock singers no longer possess the range that made them popular, Belladonna sounds better than ever.
Joey is an enigma. He takes care of himself, sounds great, and has all of the clarity in his voice where he can still hit those highs. I can't say enough good things about him.
JAM: Worship Music is my favorite Anthrax record since ‘87's Among the Living.
I agree. The first song we reworked with Joey was “Fight ‘Em”. The second track was “The Constant.” Those songs are quite different from each other, so it was difficult to see how the entire record was taking shape. The last song we completed was “In the End,” which I fought hard to get on the record. That song went through different periods of change. The criticism was always the same where the band would tell me it's almost there, but it needs something more. So I went back, worked on it again and again where it finally turned into this seven-minute monster.
JAM: Although it is epic, would Anthrax ever consider releasing “In the End” as a single?
It would be great if we lived in a time when a song did not have to be less than four-minutes to be a single. Music should not be diluted or edited. It should be as free-form as possible and just put out on the radio so people can decide if they want to listen to it.
JAM: Ironically, you are sounding like ‘60s and ‘70s artists, who complained when their 20-minute epics were cut down for release as singles. The Moody Blues eventually broke through with “Nights in White Satin.” I wonder what it will take to break that barrier again.
I doubt that will happen anytime soon, because there are too many corporate sponsors that require radio advertising time. Why play a seven-minute song, when that extra time could be used for selling something? The days of hearing a song like “Stairway to Heaven” on the radio are over.
JAM: When I talk to younger people, I feeling like the old man on the street corner who utters, “Back in the day, we had it better; vinyl had its flaws but it had a better bottom sound than…”
We all become that person, but nowadays there is more validity to it. Technology has come a long way, no doubt about it. I appreciate the total spectrum of music from making the record to the system that you're going to listen to it on. That is another thing that angers me. We spend all of this time and effort to make a record sound perfect and people walk around listening to it with these little ear buds.
JAM: Now, however, instead of storing thousands of CDs, you can capture all of the music on a tiny iPod or computer. There is something to be said about storing 20,000 songs on a little box.
That was a great invention. The only thing inventors could not replicate was album cover art. You can no longer stare at album covers. While growing up, that was a big part of record buying. You'd come home from school, sit in your room and stare at an album cover or read the liner notes. It's a lost art. But we did sell a lot of vinyl copies of Worship Music.
JAM: Wax is still for Anthrax.
(Laughing) There you go.
JAM: Why didn't Rob Caggiano produce Worship Music?
Rob worked on certain parts. I really value his opinion. He was behind the board while we were tracking the songs. We wanted to work with people we liked and trusted. When it came time to mix the record, Jay Ruston was the guy for the job. He understood the band; understood sonically where the music needed to go.
JAM: Is it the same production, engineering and mixing team the band will use in the future?
JAM: Some journalists have referred to Worship Music as Anthrax's comeback. Does that reference bother you?
We knew exactly what we made, what we had and we were excited about it. But you can't really get excited about it until other people hear it and provide feedback. At that point, you can breathe a little easier.
JAM: Is Anthrax having the last laugh?
No. My entire career has been about making music. The creative process is more important to me than playing shows. I am at my best when I am writing music. When you tour, all you are doing is repeating what you have already done. Yes, there is excitement performing your work, but is not the same as the inspiration you experienced that resulted with the final product. That is the part of songwriting I love.
JAM: At what point did Anthrax decide you should write the majority of the music?
Once our original vocalist Neil Turbin was out of the band, we started to rehearse and write what was going to become Spreading the Disease. I had written songs for the first album, Fistful of Metal, but once we started working on the second record, I took a bigger role as a songwriter. I wrote more of the music, while Scott wrote more of the lyrics. The other guys in the band also contributed, but I would usually come in with the basic framework of each song.
JAM: You've come a long way for a musician who auditioned for Scott Ian's burgeoning band named after a horrific cattle disease he found in a high school text book. Is it true that you simultaneously submitted audition tapes to both Anthrax and Manowar?
I got a friend to give a tape to the band's then-guitarist Ross the Boss (Friedman). This was even before Anthrax recorded its first demo. Manowar didn't offer me an audition, however, because I was too young. I think I was 17 at the time. The Anthrax audition came about a little later.
JAM: The Public Enemy collaboration; promoting bands like Fishbone and the S.O.D. side-project that pioneered the ‘metal core' movement. You became an unheralded musical pioneer for your accomplishments and never really reaped any financial rewards for your deeds. Did it ever bother you?
There have been many times in the past when I have been “name checked" and people will say, “He is the guy who started that.” But it doesn't bother me that others might have, as you say, reaped the financial rewards for the seeds I was responsible for sowing. It happens to a lot of people in this business. You can always be on the cusp of something great, but just be a bit too early with it. It often takes a few years for musical innovation to catch on. Yes, the S.O.D. thing was very influential. It showed hardcore bands that you can play what you want to play and make money doing it. I think it definitely helped a lot of those hardcore bands to reach a certain level of success and popularity. The blast beat on the S.O.D. song “Milk” had a big impact on rock drumming.
JAM: What was it like for a kid from the Bronx to perform with the “Big Four” at Yankee Stadium?
It was surreal. I had a feeling of how the day would go and unfolded exactly that way. I just had to dive in and enjoy as much of it as I could, because the actual experience was going to be quick.
When we are doing our shows, the band gets in this zone, and it doesn't matter where Anthrax is playing. We are hitting the same drums and playing the same notes. When we played Yankee Stadium, every so often, I'd look up at the crowd and see the enormity of it all. It was crazy. We were playing in our back yard. I put my head right back in the song, so I would not lose it. I do recall members of the band looking at each other from time to time and mouthing to each other, “Can you believe this?”
JAM: The highlight?
The best moment for me was after our performance was over. I had all of my family together in one of the stadium's suites. They were having a ball. At that moment, everything had come full circle for Charlie Benante. I was thinking about all those years my family had helped me out while I struggled to make it. Now here we all were together, enjoying the fruits of that labor as a family. It was truly a great moment in my life. Also, Anthrax can now we have played Yankee Stadium. It was the first heavy metal show performed there ever.
JAM: Hopefully, it won't be the last. Many heavy metal fans have matured and no longer damage property like they did during the ‘80s.
This concert was a celebration. In no way did it feel like anything fans did in the ‘80s.
JAM: With all of the controversy, turmoil, successes and history Anthrax has experienced, the band is ripe for a reality show.
That would work. And don't think we haven't joked about it either.
JAM: You could say that anthrax had a happy ending, but there is still so much more of the story to be written.
There is the future. There is the next album and the leftover tracks we have yet to complete. I'm looking forward to it. That means I get to be creative again.