I caught up with Anthrax drummer Charlie Benante to talk about their current tour with Volbeat, and the upcoming album they’d been working on up until they went on tour. When I asked him how the tour’s going, his answer was surprising, “I hear it’s doing great! Volbeat’s a great band.” If he has to rely on second hand accounts, it’s because he’s still a few days away from joining the tour. “I had surgery on my hand a while back,” he explains, “But it’s really hard for me to do long, long tours because it acts up again. I guess the years of wear and tear, and the abuse that I’ve done to my body, at some point in your life it says ‘alright, we’re gonna have a problem now.’ (laughs) I can still play fine, it’s just that as time goes by it starts to get painful and numb. “
At 52, after playing really intense music for over 30 years, it might not be surprising that it takes its toll, but the guys in Anthrax still live up to that youthful image they had in the ’80s. While their contemporaries wore jeans and black t-shirts and looked deadly serious, Anthrax would get on stage in shorts, grinning like mad men, and never backed away from pushing the limits of the genre. Concert staples to this day include covers of musicians Joe Jackson (Got the Time) and French punk rockers Trust (Antisocial), and long before bands like Limp Bizkit fused rap and metal, Anthrax was doing ‘Bring the Noize’ with Public Enemy. And while other metal bands’ lyrics tackled the occult or other dark imagery, Anthrax sang about Stephen King novels and comic books.
“I never dreamed of us going for so long,” Benante tells me. “I never dreamed of Iron Maiden still doing this. Honestly I still feel like that same person from when I was going to shows and stuff like that. It’s weird when someone brings up age or longevity; that’s the only time I really think about it or give it any attention. But for the most part, I’m still young at heart, and I still have that ‘something to prove’ type of attitude.”
Over the years, it seemed at times like Anthrax never got the breaks some of their contemporaries did. Despite a solid catalog of music, success on the level of the other members of the Big Four has eluded them. In his autobiography, guitarist Scott Ian expresses his frustration about the bad luck the band has had over the years, and I asked Charlie if he shared that point of view. “That’s a tough question to answer because who’s to say what we should have gotten? Maybe when I look at the other bands that were around with us, I’m thinking that these bands stayed true to what they were; I’m talking about Slayer and Megadeth. They consistently wrote the same records, you know, and stayed true to that fanbase. Maybe we went off a bit here and there and did try to experiment; maybe we did lose a few (fans) at that time. You know, I’m proud of a lot of the things that we’ve done, but maybe I see that point of staying true and staying consistent.”
Metal in the 90’s
By 1992, singer Joey Belladonna left the band to be replaced by ex-Armored Saint John Bush. Faced with a disappearing metal scene, Anthrax had to evolve. “In the ’90s, there was a lot of experimenting; it’s basically how the times felt around us, you know what I mean?” he explains. “When you’re younger, growing up, and you get into a certain type of music, and that music being heavy metal, it is like you’re being kind of an outcast. For me especially, it was a way of life. If you saw somebody walking down the street with an Iron Maiden shirt, you could go over to that person and immediately start a conversation, and you’d probably turn into friends because you have a mutual admiration for this. And in the ’90s I felt so alienated from the music world in general because you had so many chameleons who were playing heavy metal and then switched over to play a different kind of music just to be part of this cool crowd that was happening. Those were times where you’d ask yourself, ‘Do we really want to continue doing this?’ The climate was so weird.”
But soon the pull of a more familiar territory would start having an effect on the band’s musical direction. “And I’ll tell you the one thing that saved me: in the beginning of the 2000’s, we started to go back to Europe to do festivals, and I could see this loyalty, this love of heavy metal. And they never fucking cared about this alternative shit that was going on: they were strictly metal. And that really inspired me to write the ‘We’ve Come for you All’ record, which was a step back in the direction of our thrashier roots.”
Europe has been indeed much more faithful to metal than its American cousins. “And I think it’s because here in the States, and it may be similar to you in Canada, but things are not the way it once was. Over in Europe you can still get magazines that cater to heavy metal, and it keeps the interest, it keeps things moving very well. Over here, heavy metal is in a sad state: who is true metal, and who isn’t metal. And you know, I have to play on these festivals with some of these bands that are just god awful. It gets fed as kind of hard rock or heavy metal, but at the end of the day it’s pretty shitty.”
The road back to thrash
The ‘We’ve Come for You All’ album proved to be the last studio album with John Bush (although a compilation of re-recorded Belladonna era songs followed). Following a reunion with Joey Belladonna that soon petered out despite a high profile opening slot opening for the reunited Judas Priest, the band entered a pretty dark period. Amidst news of them working on a new record, the band announced that unknown Dan Nelson was the new Anthrax singer. But after a few gigs, rumours started flying around that there was discord in the band, and soon Nelson was unceremoniously fired. The truth about this has never really come out, and even in his book Ian completely glosses over it in a single paragraph (he never even mentions his name). Benante wouldn’t expand on it either. “It was probably the lowest point of our career,” he told me. “And we don’t really like talking about it to be honest with you, because it brings up so many awful memories. And that’s the truth.”
As fate would have it, Anthrax reunited yet again with Belladonna for the Big Four concerts that may have been the biggest happenings in the history of metal. The material they’d written was reworked with Belladonna, and finally, ‘Worship Music’ came out. “It’s very cliché to say something like ‘we got the band back together’ or ‘our sound really came back,’ but it’s the truth. That’s the only way I can express it: we really got our sound back. Sometimes these songs, this is the way they’re intended to be.”
Was it a conscious move to get back to a more thrashier sound? “I absolutely think that it was a total shift and in just a natural way. You know, thrash metal, I’m not saying it wasn’t right when John was in the band but it didn’t feel right to play those type of songs and to write those type of songs. With Joey back, it just seems more natural and like I said before, to have our sound back.”
Fast forward to 2015, and Anthrax is working on new music again. Will it be easier to get to completion than ‘Worship Music’ was? “I think it was easier, especially as far as the way the compositions went. In my head I had a very clear idea of how the music was going to be this time around because I had Joey’s voice in my head now. It’s a lot easier to write a song when you already know how the vocals are going to come out. So I think that I had a lot of inspiration from the last album and from the shows that we’ve done. There was good momentum and that opens up a lot of creativity for me, and it just started the flow. We have about 21 songs; this is a rarity for us, to write way more than we need. But as I said, the ideas just kept flowing and I kept writing more and more.”
In addition to his stick handling prowess, Benante is a fine guitar player and writes the lion’s share of Anthrax’s material. “Basically it starts with me. I usually come in with the basic framework for the song, and then the other guys have a hand in it. Of course Scott has a hand in the lyrics; he writes most of the lyrics. Frank has a big involvement in the melodies and Joey as well. It’s like a production line: I start at the front part of the belt, and then I put it on the belt and Scott takes it. He does some things to it and it goes down again.”
Already fans can hear a song from these sessions. The track “Soror Irrumator” was released on ‘Catch the Throne: The Mixtape Vol 2″, a collection of music inspired by the show ‘Game of Thrones’. “Lyrically, the song translates to ‘Sister Fucker’, which is basically a storyline in the show,” Benante explains. “But we wanted to make it very intense and fast-paced, like an old school type of song but modernized, and that’s what we did. We’re doing it on this tour. It’s definitely not a throwaway song; it was going to be on the record.”
How did they get picked for this project? ” Being friendly with someone involved with Game of Thrones had something to do with it, but it also had to do with our record company and HBO coming to us, asking us to do it. It was probably one of the greatest things, we had such a ball doing that. I love that show so it’s very easy for the aggression to come out; just watching that show, it’s so intense.”
Charlie Benante, coffee maker?
While he’s not writing, recording or touring, Benante has turned to another of his passions for inspiration, and came out with ‘Benante’s Blend’, his own signature line of coffee. “That actually happened a few years back, myself and Dave Mustaine we did a coffee line together,” he explains. “It was kind of not managed very well, and it kind of just fell, but I was always interested in continuing it. It took me a few years to find the right people to do this with, and a good friend of mine helped me find roasters and get the coffee going back. This is something that has been a labour of love for years. I pick the beans, and every type of thing that went into the coffee; it’s all me. I didn’t just slap my name on it. I chose everything the way I wanted it, how it tastes, all that stuff all the way down to the bag. It’s 100% me and I love it. There are two different types: there’s a stronger one and a milder blend. The purple one is strong, the red one is milder.”
As our conversation is coming to an end, I asked him what achievements he feels he still needs to reach for. “I guess I’m really looking forward to sustaining a level, and this may sound weird to people who’ll say ‘why would he even think that?’, but to maintain a certain level of popularity, and never kind of fall off. I mean, I would hope that with this last record we really brought back some fans that had lost touch with us, and maybe gained some new fans. I think this new record will definitely please those old fans, and for sure please the new fans that we made. So I’m just looking forward to people once again embracing music. The last album was titled ‘Worship Music’; I want people to worship music again, and not treat it as if it’s disposable. I want people to not devalue music anymore.”
Does he listen to more modern artists? “I really love Ghost; I think they’re awesome. I love the band Rival Sons, another awesome band. I love other sorts of metal like Deftones. I still enjoy Slipknot; I still have my foot in there.”
But he quickly goes back to an early musical influence, and the excitement in his voice speaks volume about what he means by ‘worshipping music’. “I always say this: ‘I wish I could produce a KISS record’ because I could make the best fucking KISS record; it would just be awesome.” Did he like their last two efforts, which were supposed to be back to basics albums? “No. Not really,” he admits after a little hesitation. “KISS to me, growing up, and I think Scott has said this before, those years still mean more to me right now than ever. It’s funny, I think they implanted that “K chip’ in all of our heads. Every once in a while it goes off ‘boom!’ and we have to go listen to KISS, and have to go buy something that’s KISS related. It’s something that was implanted when we were younger and it’s something that’s still with us to this very day. A very strange thing.”
What’s not strange though, is the musical legacy of Anthrax, a story waiting for yet another chapter to be added soon.
Anthrax is currently on tour with Volbeat and Crobot. They’ll play the CEPSUM on Friday May 15th 2015. Tickets can be purchased here. Charlie’s brand of coffee can be ordered from his website. The new Anthrax record is slated to be out before the end of the year.
Jean-Frederic Vachon is the brain behind Diary of a Music Addict, and an Anthrax fan since the ’80s.