bill bodkin speaks with Charlie Benante and Frank Bello of heavy metal legends Anthrax …
Anthrax is one of the greatest and yet most under-appreciated bands in not just heavy metal, but all of music. This might sound like some fanboy hyperbole, but if you’ve been listening to heavy metal for the last 30 years, you know this simple fact: Anthrax is flat-out amazing.
Over those 30 years, they’ve produced a muscular, brutal, high-energy style that’s incorporated elements of punk rock and, most importantly, thrash into an unforgettable catalogue of fist-in-the-air, caught-in-a-mosh style of metal. And in the midst of the chaos, they’ve always incorporated a singer — whether it be Joey Belladonna or John Bush — that is able to provide melody amongst the mayhem. And lest we not forget, they were on the forefront of incorporating hip-hop and rap into rock music with their songs “I’m The Man” and their classic duet with Public Enemy, “Bring The Noise.”
On Tuesday, the band will release their first original album in nearly a decade, Worship Music. This beautifully crafted release is quite possibly the band’s best record to date and without a doubt one of metal’s best albums in 10 years.
Pop-Break’s Bill Bodkin spoke with Anthrax drummer Charlie Benante and bassist Frank Bello about the new record, performing at Yankee Stadium, the Big 4, frustrations and so much more.
Pop-Break: So how does it feel finally having the record coming out? It’s been nearly a decade since We’ve Come For You All was released.
Charlie Benante: Well, I feel really strong about the record itself the way it is, what’s on it, everything about it. The thing that makes me nervous is we’re thrown back into the game, and by the game, I mean, this business to sell records or whatever the hell you call them nowadays. We haven’t had a record out in quite a long time, so there is a fear, of course, because records don’t sell like they used to. I am concerned with all this stuff, because I’m so protective of it, because so much love went into it and I just don’t want to see it fall or fail.
Frank Bello: It’s so weird just getting into the whole hoopla of another record after eight years. It’s just kind of overwhelming again to hear. Thankfully with the great reviews the record’s been getting, we’ve been fortunate, and I’m getting back into the whole cycle of talking about the record.
PB: There must’ve been a lot of frustration — nearly a decade in between albums, recording a record with a new singer that never sees the light of day. There must’ve been days where you had to be like, “I just want to get a record made!” It must’ve been maddening at times.
CB: That was a big thing, getting this record made. And believe me, there were times when I thought this record would never come out and just be shelved forever. It wasn’t until we started working together again with Joey and that tour last year with Slayer and Megadeth is when we started working on the new album every day. We set time to work on the record, whether it was music or vocals. We worked on it every day, and that’s when the momentum started. Okay, this is starting to take shape, and this thing may see the light day.
FB: We had these great songs and we had no idea what the fuck was going to go on. Thankfully, it’s a year later and the clouds went away and we can see clear now and we’re on a good roll and we’re really happy.
And without getting too much into the past, it was very frustrating. All the stuff we’ve been through, and it’s been a lot, you hear it in the music. Frustration and just the heartbreak and everything that was involved in it, there was a lot of body shots there. I just think there was a lot to deal, and I’m happy that people are understanding that in the music. People do hear it in the music now, and we put it in there. It’s straight from the heart and nothing less — because it’s been a rough ride. Look, we’re all big boys here and we like brushing ourselves off. [laughs] We dust ourselves off go on — that’s what Anthrax does. Finally, having the record release date, the day before Yankee Stadium, it’s pretty big for us.
PB: With the record coming out Tuesday, for the past month I’ve heard nothing but amazingly positive things coming from the metal world. That Metal Show‘s Eddie Trunk has been putting it all over his radio shows, and when I ran into TMS‘ Jim Florentine last month, all we could talk about was how good the record was. How’s the response been so far?
FB: I think thankfully — and I say this humbly, very humbly — that it’s a really great thing to be wanted at this stage in our career. This Big 4 was a great thing for Metallica to put together. Get a bunch of friends together and go out there and jam. [laughs] It’s kinda like that. It really gave us a great kick in the ass to get this record done and to make sense out of it and just become Anthrax again, honestly. Seeing those crowds made us all think, “We need to get this going here,” and I’m glad it did. I tip my hat to Metallica for doing this because it really inspired us to get a fire under our ass to get this record done — to get Joey [Belladonna] as the lead singer — and he kicks so much ass on this record. I haven’t been this excited about an Anthrax record in I don’t know when. You’re always excited about the new record, but from what we’ve been through, you’re hearing it all inside the songs because that’s what it is.
CB: I am seeing that. I see that it’s very genuine, too. It’s not people blowing smoke up our asses or something like that. When someone tells that they really like the record and then they go into detail about it, then I know they actually sat with the record and listened to it and now they’re telling me something about it. So that’s why I feel it’s really genuine it’s not, “Oh, I just heard the record, it’s really good,” and then they move on. There’s a bit of detail when they go into, and that’s when I know it’s real.
PB: I’ve been a fan for the band for a long time, and one of my personal favorite records of all time is your ’90s release Volume 8: The Threat Is Real! It’s an album I’ve worn out — I’m on my second copy. However, I feel that Worship Music is your absolute best piece of music. However, that’s just my opinion. In your personal opinions, is Worship Music Anthrax’s best record?
CB: It’s hard to say something like that because there’s records that we’ve done that have a signature sound to it. If you take a record like Among The Living, there’s a reason it’s always mentioned when people talk about us because it meant something and that album just hit something. If I’m looking at this new record, it has all the elements that record had, and it may have a little more. What people have been saying to me is that the reason they love this record is that it has that classic Anthrax sound, but you’ve taken it and modernized it. It sounds so fresh and new — which to me is the greatest compliment you can make because after doing this for so many years, if you can get people to say that about you, well, then that’s a fucking achievement.
FB: Quite honestly, everyone in this business has to promote a record, but from the bottom of my heart this is the best Anthrax record. For me, as a fan of the band, of this music, when I start this record, which I’ve had for a while, I really can’t stop the songs from going [all the way to the end of the record]. I have to hear it like a story — it’s kind of strange. I’ve heard it from other interviewers they don’t skip around the songs, they start the record and go through the whole thing. So that makes me feel great, and yeah, it is that record that we’ve had in us. For my friend Eddie Trunk, to say that, to hear you say that, for me it means more than you’ll ever know.
PB: The production on this record is really unique, in my opinion. It’s so focused that you can hear every instrument front and center every song — it’s just this really awesome band sound. What different approach did you take in producing this record?
CB: This record was done in different places, too — it wasn’t done in just one studio. I’ve done drums for this record in three separate situations. One drum kit was one at one point, another drum kit was used at another, another one was at another point. It has different elements to it, and one thing we did differently that a lot of bands don’t do, and I recently read the Foo Fighters did it too, we [recorded the album] to tape. We didn’t go digital.
I was adamant — “I want to record the drums on tape.” Because from my point of view, and everyone felt the same way afterwords, was that you lose something, especially in the drum sound, when you go digital. Digital is great, but you loose the warmth and just some of that sound when you directly digital. We recorded all the drums to tape, and for me it was the right thing to do. When you listen to those records done on tape, there’s just something about them it has a charm about them. That was one thing I pushed for. Everything we did with recording, I mean I recorded the cellist at my house, she did it in my foyer. We set up a little make-shift control, and boom, we just banged it up.
We recorded very clean, we didn’t distort anything. We just wanted to get the most pure sounds we possibly could get. And that was the approach — if you record everything clean when it comes to time mix, it’ll be that much easier.
FB: I totally agree — this is a band. The whole thing with Anthrax is: Whenever we’re interviewed, me, Charlie, Scott, Rob, Joey — we’re a band. Everybody knows their instrument pretty well at this point in their careers [laughs], and I think everybody shines on this record. I had a great time playing bass on this record, just creating stuff. It’s really fun to be in Anthrax right now.
PB: Frank, in terms of the writing of the album, how was this different from previous albums?
FB: Anthrax, we have our way of writing. The three of us idiots: Charlie, Scott [Ian] and I get together in Chicago and we bang out a bunch of songs. The great thing about this record is we had more time to make the songs stronger and better than anything we’ve ever done. We had a lot of time, because of the trials and tribulations, to really listen to the songs, to be honest about them — what they needed and what they didn’t need. We did a really good job with that, being honest about the songs. We’re more mature now and we’ve been around the block a few times writing songs, so you kinda know what works and what doesn’t, what your strengths are and what aren’t. I think it’s a really honest record, people have said that before, but this really is. It’s exactly what we wanted it to be. It wasn’t rushed, it couldn’t have been rushed.
When Joey came in and did his thing, he took it to a whole other place in [terms of] elevation. His pipes alone, it was a phenomenon. He sings better now than he has ever ,and I’m not saying that to kiss his ass, he’s a friend of mine, but the truth of the matter is he’s a fucking great singer. It kinda freaks me out, I’m a fan of this music, so I’m a kid in the fucking crowd and I’m watching him wail on these vocals. I’m stoked, I’m the bass player in the group and I’m having a great time listening to these songs just as a fan. And I think that’s what people relate to with Anthrax — we’re just fucking fans.
PB: Before the record, you had a different lead singer in Dan Nelson, and as I stated before, you guys recorded an album that never saw the light of day. Were any of those songs transferred to Worship Music?
CB: Oh yeah. Absolutely a lot of those songs are on this record. Some of them were reworked, some of them have different lyrics. You have to remember some of those songs were written before we had a singer. We love these songs, these were Anthrax songs before the singer was involved. So of course we kept them.
PB: So why did you bring Joey Belladonna back in as lead singer? After nearly a decade of him being out of the band, why tap into your past?
CB: The whole thing came down around the same time this whole Big 4 thing came about. We all talked about it, and if there’s anyone deserved to be a part of this Big 4 thing, it was Joey. He was around when there was the Big 4 when it was created back in the ’80s. He was there, so why shouldn’t he be a part of this now? That was the catalyst for this whole thing coming to Joey being a part of the band. Getting us to get our shit together and getting us going, so that we could be this band again.
FB: I wasn’t just surprised, I was psyched. I was psyched because I had an inkling of what I thought it [bringing Belladonna back as the singer] could be. This could be great, but man when it actually did happen … and this is because of the Big 4. We thought it was the right thing for the fans to have Joey back in the band. Those songs, the Among The Living stuff, songs from that era, those were Joey’s, and we thought it was the right thing to do. It totally made sense and it totally carried over from The Big 4 — Joey has to be the singer. We have to make this work — let’s put everything aside, let’s write a great fucking record, and let’s get Joey singing on it, he’ll put his touch on it, and it’ll kill. And I can’t believe it worked. Standing here today, I’m so psyched that it happened this way.
PB: What did he bring vocally? There had to be a difference in his vocals and performance since he was last in the band.
CB: Two things that happened here. First, Joey totally made our heads spin around because he proved that “See, I could fucking do this.” And the versatility in every song and his approach to it was, especially for me in my mind, this what I wanted. I wanted him to do it and maybe pushing it and pushing it, this was the result. And of course Jay Rustin who produced the vocals and mixed them, he had a great working relationship with Joey. It was just the two of them in the studio, and nobody in the band was there. That was really and it was probably the best part, it gave Joey the freedom to do what he wanted to do. There was no jury in the room, you know? I think that has a lot to say about us too. The difference between us now and us 15 to 20 years ago is the maturity level. We are more mature now to just let that stuff be. We trust you, go for it.
FB: Joey’s a hungry singer, and I like that. He’s got a lot to show, what he’s got going on inside, and he’s really hungry right now ,and I love it. I can’t believe some of the vocal performances and what he did with some of these songs.
PB: As a part of The Big 4, you’ll be performing this week at Yankee Stadium. Being a band of New York guys, it’s got to be absolutely mind-blowing and cool to be performing at the most famous baseball stadium in the world and a stadium you guys grew up near.
CB: I’ve been getting this question a lot. The only thing I can say is: I don’t know if we’re going to be walking in, we’ll be floating. I don’t, man, I don’t know to what expect. I know we have to play eventually, but I think it’s going to be one of those things where you don’t want to finish it, you don’t want to leave it or be over. I’m going to try play as slow as I possibly could that night so I can really try and absorb the whole thing and not let time take it away from me like it has so many times before. You look forward to something for months, and then all of sudden, it’s there and it’s over. Your moments done. That’s the way I remember feeling about when we did “Am I Evil?” on stage. And we were all walking off, I think [Megadeth's Dave] Mustaine, we stopped and I said that was a moment that we were just in and now it’s a moment for so many other people, but that was just our moment. You can’t take that shit for granted. You really have to try and live in that moment.
FB: Well, I can’t fathom it right now. As we speak two weeks before the show, I don’t know to figure it out in my mind. It’s overwhelming, growing up in the Bronx, 10 minutes of the stadium where my family, generations of Yankee fans have lived — it’s just more than you can think. It doesn’t make sense, and I don’t think I want it to make sense. I just want to enjoy the moment and I want to let it happen.
I mean, the press we have booked that week, we have the record coming out, it’s an “Oh My God” time in my life. I just want to capture it and get video of stuff like that. The record the day before Yankee Stadium, the press … oh my God.
PB: And you’re on Jimmy Fallon.
FB: [laughs] I forgot about that! [Note: The interview took place before the band's appearance on Jimmy Fallon]. So there’s a lot going on!
PB: It’s got to be a bit crazy — you’re legends in the metal world. I mean, you’re Anthrax, but to get pushed back into the mainstream spotlight after all these years, it’s got to be overwhelming.
FB: It’s been eight years since the last record and just working the record — the interviews and rehearsing for the tours again. I mean, we’re going on tours again. We do periodic shows with the Big 4, but there’s tours being booked for this record. It’s all getting back into this groove. It’s great and welcomed, you just definitely have to step back and catch your breath right now. Because of the great reviews, it makes you psyched to get out there.
PB: To wrap things up, can you gives us an overview of what’s to come for Anthrax for 2011 and the future?
CB: Final thoughts on the new record — I’m glad that this record is done and it has a collection of songs that aren’t one dimensional, it’s 3D. You have everything on this record from “Earth On Hell” to “The Devil You Know” to “Crawl” to “In The End.” There’s a good variety of songs that’ll satisfy every kind of hard rock and heavy metal fan. I just think people are going to be happy to hear it.
FB: Tour, tour, tour because it’s a touring lifestyle. There’s no record companies — you’ve got to stay out there and promote your band and your record. Anthrax is going to be around your town [Editor's Note: including New Jersey!] very soon.