“A sense of apathy/ Crushed with the smallest resolve/ This beautiful violence/ As the powers come crumbling down/ Revolution, who’s side are you on,” sings Joey Belladonna on Anthrax’s “Revolution Screams” as his emotional hostility concludes one of the greatest comeback records – 2011’s Worship Music – in the history of heavy metal.
My connection to Anthrax is almost a lifelong story. It’s a second-generation passing of the torch that starts with my aunt who watched these guys master their craft at the original L’Amour in Brooklyn. This same aunt of mine played songs like “Madhouse” and “Got The Time” for me when I was just a toddler and I proceeded to headbang and throw up the devil horns in my playpen. More or less, my destiny was to get “Caught In A Mosh” and thrash metal was encoded into my DNA at a very young age.
Once Metallica became my life-altering gateway band, the fellow ‘Big 4’ legends like Anthrax, Slayer, and Megadeth morphed me into a full-fledged metalhead. After conducting some research online, acquiring thrash masterpieces like Among The Living became absolute necessities. In the midst of my early teens, the opening riff for “Among The Living” immediately unraveled this burning resentment to attack my goals with the same ferocity as Anthrax’s music. This album reflected my attitude towards my surroundings – I wasn’t going to settle for mediocrity or take shit from anyone yet I could still maintain my lighthearted quench for fun and nerd nostalgia after hearing songs like “I Am The Law.”
Whether I learned the guitar intro for “Indians” or blasted “Efilnikufesin (N.F.L.)” for motivation before I went to school, I intuitively connected with these New York thrashers. I looked up to Charlie Benante and Frakie Bello since we came from similar backgrounds. From my perspective, knowing how two tri-state area Italian’s like myself took their love of heavy metal into previously unseen heights of global recognition made my musical dreams seem realistic. Long story short, I missed out on the golden era of thrash metal. When I was younger, I never thought I would experience that feeling of discovering a thrash-driven Anthrax masterpiece like most fans did throughout the late 80s and early 90s. My generation made significant contributions to the evolution of heavy metal but nothing personally resonated like those historic thrash records…until September 12, 2011.
Looking back at Anthrax’s career, this band survived the dehumanizing business practices of the music industry and always managed to prove their detractors wrong. This brings us back to 2011’s Worship Music – quite possibly the best album of their career and a quintessential catalyst in resurrecting the legendary aura of their back catalog. Once I witnessed them tear apart their hometown turf during the ‘Big 4’ show at Yankee Stadium, I just knew this album was the answer to my metal prayers. Unlike some of their fellow thrash titans who lost sight of their roots, Anthrax found the perfect balance in recapturing the energy of their classic material through a modern outlet. The songs were stronger than anything off State of Euphoria and even Persistence of Time yet stood neck to neck against any modern metal album from Lamb of God or Avenged Sevenfold from a production standpoint. This newfound life in Anthrax saw them tour behind Worship Music for nearly three years. Unlike most classic bands, longtime listeners wanted to hear the material off Worship Music performed live and songs like “The Devil You Know” shoved aside the notion of ‘new songs’ being meant for beer breaks.
For the past couple of years, fans and journalists alike have been wondering, “Could this band somehow pull off another masterpiece on par with Worship Music?” Instead of feeling overwhelmed by the critical pressure, the group absorbed the positive energy surrounding Worship Music and translated this renewed excitement into another definitive artistic statement. While some might misinterpret their New York confidence as cockiness, the members of Anthrax possess the same drive to thrill listeners as if they were driving in a decrepit van and gutting it through the trenches circa 1984.
In an exclusive interview with Pop-Break, I spoke with legendary Anthrax drummer and main songwriter Charlie Benante for an absolute must-read and in-depth look into the songwriting process for Anthrax’s upcoming LP. For longtime listeners, be prepared to walk away ecstatic after hearing Mr. Benante’s thoughts on the new material.
Let’s start off by talking about the early seeds for the new material. Correct me if I’m wrong but you were recovering from hand surgery and were forced to miss some shows during the latter dates of the Worship Music tour. That’s when you started writing riffs that became the basis of the new material?
Yeah, it was probably around that time. I had a bunch of ideas and it just built from there. I’ve said this before – I set a goal to write 20 songs and I definitely met that number.
Could you talk about having the added benefit of time to write some new material at your own leisure? You weren’t necessarily facing a deadline when you started composing these new ideas.
After the surgery, that was a while back, I couldn’t really do anything with my hand. I had to slowly comeback and go through physical therapy and all that stuff. Everything started to comeback again and that’s when I started to play more and then the ideas inside my head started to pour out. I was really inspired to make the best music I possibly could. The last record basically gave me the incentive that I could top that one really. I was really inspired by that record and the shows we played plus the reactions from people.
It sounds like the positive energy surrounding Worship Music translated into this new album.
I think it is. In this world we live in the now, it’s not like it used to be where bands put out a new record every six months to a year. That sort of cycle – it’s not that way anymore. I guess people are waiting for this new record and we don’t want to make them wait too long like we did on the last record. We just want it to be right this time and we don’t want to rush it.
When you think about it, most fans of established bands don’t want to hear the new material but that’s not the case for Anthrax. Your fans can’t wait to hear this new record and for you to play these songs live.
I think it’s because we kind of reinvented ourselves. You go through this career and sometimes you do get a second chance and sometimes you even get a third chance as well. For us, we’d always go through these periods where we’d maybe experiment a bit and that’s just the way it is. We have always been on the cusp of something and a couple of years afterwards, that’s when it catches on with everybody.
Speaking of experimenting, talk about the songwriting chemistry between Scott, Frankie, and yourself. Has your songwriting approach evolved over the years or has it stayed consistent since the three of you compliment each other so well musically?
The way we’ve always done it in the past, I would usually bring in the basic framework for a song and we’d go from there. I often call it the production line. I’m the front of it and then I get it and I’ll hand it down. It goes through the conveyor belt where Scott takes it and writes some lyrics. Frankie will take the idea from there and he’ll apply some melodies and Joey will do the same. We’ll all re-group and we’ll really start putting these ideas together. Once we have a basic semblance of a song, then we know it’s time to go record it. There’s so many great ways of doing things but I just find this is the best way that works for us. Now with technology, I will do a demo here at my place and then I’ll send it to everyone and see if they like it and build on that.
How do you approach your two roles of being the drummer and main songwriter? Do you have a different mindset for either instrument or is it as simple as picking up the guitar or drumsticks and writing away?
It’s basically starting on guitar for me. I’ll usually do a basic demo for a song and put drums to it but it’s still very skeletal. Once the song turns into ‘the song,’ then I’ll take it and really starting putting certain drum parts to it. Sometimes the drum parts automatically come to me and sometimes you really have to spend time with it.
Once it became clear that Rob Caggianno was moving forward with different projects, what were you ideally searching for in a new lead guitarist and how did Jonathan Donais from Shadows Fall fit the criteria? Were you a big of his material in Shadows Fall?
The way the whole thing came about, Rob was thinking about leaving for a bit and I think he wanted to have someone in mind to step in and take care of his duties. It was his choice, like he said, “How about Jon from Shadows Fall?” I’ve known Jon throughout the years and I thought he was a really good guitar player and I definitely got along with him. I think the other guys felt the same way too. Jon stepped in and did a tour with us and that’s how it happened. He worked out really well. This being his first record that he’ll be making an appearance on, I just wanted him to come out shining and kicking ass. I think he deserves it. I think with Shadows Fall, it was his thing. With us, I think his style is a little different. I definitely wanted him to be aggressive in his approach to his leads. The shit that he’s doing, it’s really good. I’ve joked about this but it’s really not a joke, he’s my new guitar hero.
His style is so intense yet completely different from any of your previous lead guitarists. How did his musical influence affect or enhance any of these new songs?
I swear, I think on this record, we’ve wrote more lead breaks than any other record that we’ve had. There are a lot of leads going on in this record – maybe too much (laughs) but it’s good. The cool thing about him, we did this live DVD down in Chile (Chile On Hell) and after spending time doing the mix and everything, Jon’s playing was spot on. You know how some guys will go in the studio and overdub some of their parts and they’ll be like, “Oh, I fucked that one up. I gotta fix that.” He didn’t fix anything. He was pretty much spot on.
Since we’re talking about the crazy leads on this record, I’ve also heard both Frankie and Scott mention how certain riffs forced them to step up as musicians since they were so difficult to play.
Yeah, I don’t play around when I’m writing riffs. I’m pushing the fucking threshold here (laughs). If you’re fingers are here, they better be there (laughs).
I was really excited to see Jay Ruston’s name attached to this album. I thought he did an incredible job in capturing the core essence of Anthrax’s ferocity through a modern sounding outlet on Worship Music.
Oh yeah, definitely. Jay’s been right there with us for this record too. He’s become our George Martin. His ear is great, his attitude is great, and he’s all around good guy. I really respect his opinion on things.
I could imagine after so many years in the business, you guys have a firm grasp on songwriting but what makes this collaboration with Jay Ruston so successful? Which of Jay’s suggestions or recommendations stand out the most in pushing you as a band?
I think A.) He listens. If he hears something, he will definitely say it and he will definitely make a suggestion. Nine times out of ten, we’ll definitely listen and I’m always like, “You know what, that could be really cool. Let’s try it.” That’s the thing with music; we have the mindset, “Okay, let’s try it.” I always say things like, “Well, let’s do a version of it like this and let’s try out this idea too and we’ll see.” I don’t like when people are really close-minded when it comes to different things. It’s just like, “Let’s try it.” You never know what will spark from it.
It’s crazy to think how you guys are potentially coming up with your best material almost 30 years after Spreading The Disease and Among The Living. What’s been the biggest attribute or contributing factor in maintaining such consistency in your songwriting?
Honestly, for me, I still feel I have something to prove and I just push myself harder and harder every time to not be generic and to not be so cliché. Make music in your realm but just make it the best you possibly can. Don’t just say, “Eh, it’s good.” I want to push it more and more. I feel like a lot of musicians and bands nowadays just don’t push it.
I totally understand what you’re saying. You guys have seen both the best and worst sides of the music industry yet still have hung onto your love for songwriting.
That’s the important thing. That’s one of the reasons why the last record had the title Worship Music. We all love music and we all get up and we either take music with us in our cars when we’re driving to work or we take music with us when we’re on the bus going to school. We’re always listening to music. So when there are other bands or acts out there that I feel have devalued music, I’m trying to say, “Look man, you should worship this because it could all be taken away.”
It’s cool how you guys have also supported younger bands either influenced by your music or someone you personally enjoy. You guys could tour with a heavy hitter like Volbeat and an upcoming band with massive potential like Crobot.
I’ve known Volbeat for quite a bit now and they’ve really come out and made a name for themselves with the certain style of music that they create. They’re really great guys atop of that. And Crobot, I’ve heard their record and I think it’s really good. I think they could really do big things.
I’ve heard about song titles like “The Battle Chose Us,” “You Gotta Believe” and “The Evil Twin,” but which other songs are you most excited for fans to hear? Has the band ultimately decided on a new album title as well?
We have a title in mind and we have concept for it and everything. One of the first songs that written for the record, the title became “You Gotta Believe.” It had a part two to the song that I called “The Evil Twin” because it reminded me of the other song and they flow so well into each other. Those two songs, they’re both old school thrash metal songs but they’re done in a modern way. Those are two of my favorite songs on the record and they’re long and really ferocious. There’s another song that clocks in at seven minutes and it’s one of my favorite songs on the record because it takes you on a musical journey. I’m really excited about some of these longer songs and of course, the songs that are fast are just extremely aggressive. I’m just happy about the way this is all coming out.
Just to double check, we spoke about this in the beginning. How is your hand feeling and how is the physical therapy going since you’ve gone back recently?
The thing is – it’s not like I just had surgery, because I had it almost two-years ago. The problem is – it’s hard for me to go out and do long extensive tours. That’s when my hand acts up again. It’s the fatigue and wear and tear on it. That’s my biggest issue. I’ve done this for so long and I’ve beat the shit out of my hands. I guess it just catches up. I could still play fine, but when it comes to touring for long periods at a time, that’s when it becomes a problem. I still go for my therapy and everything though.
You hear about bands like Megadeth or Van Halen who have hundreds of unused riffs stored over the years. Does Anthrax possibly have a stockpile of unreleased riffs? Do you mostly incorporate all of your ideas into the new material?
I’ll go into every record and start with some leftovers. What always happens – the new stuff outshines the leftovers and that’s how it always goes. I do have a stockpile of riffs and stuff like that. There’s probably some really cool gems in there somewhere and I just have to go through it all and find them.
We’re a Jersey-based website and you guys really cut your teeth playing in some of the older New Jersey venues. Are there any venues or moments that stick out in launching your career?
When you start out, you really aspire to play in these big places that you went to when you were younger. The Meadowlands was always one of those places that we hoped to play one day and we did eventually play there. It was one of those magical moments that was just killer. There was also a theater back then called “The Capital Theater,” which always stands out to me. We played the Stone Pony and places like that and it was always really exciting.
Yankee Stadium must’ve been the pinnacle.
That was probably one of the greatest moments of ever being in this band. I joke about it till this day and I’ll say, “I don’t think my feet ever touched the ground that day.” I was just fucking floating the entire time (Laughs).
Anthrax performs with Volbeat and Crobot tonight at The Hammerstein Ballroom in New York City.