2016 marks the 35th anniversary of “Big Four” thrash metal band, Anthrax. Over their impressive career, the band has changed their lineup several times, released 10 albums (with an 11th slated to drop late this month), and has sold in excess of 10 million records worldwide earning them multiple Gold and Platinum certifications and a total of 6 Grammy nominations.
Anthrax has snagged some incredible “unofficial” accolades during their long-running career as well. The band helped break down the race and genre barriers in the early 90s when they collaborated with Public Enemy on “Bring The Noise,” and were the first metal band to have its music heard on Mars when NASA played “Got The Time” to wake up the Mars Rover. Placed among the ranks of Metallica, Slayer, and Megadeth, Anthrax helped define the speed/thrash metal genre from the 80’s on and continues to influence musicians today.
Charlie Benante is one of only 2 band members to have appeared on every album (the other being Scott Ian). Due to an unfortunate diagnosis of carpal tunnel syndrome and the surgeries that followed, Benante was forced to sit out a number of tour dates. The time on the bench was put to good use as Benante got to writing a slew of foundations riffs and penning numerous new song ideas. In addition, Benante designs the band’s cover artwork, advertisements, marketing tools, and merchandise. In fact, he has kept every t-shirt, poster, demo recording and so on in the band’s rich history, allowing for the incredible anniversary editions that Anthrax has released.
For All Kings, the band’s 11th studio album, will be released on February 26, 2016.
AltWire [Edward Oswald]: First off, congratulations on the Smithsonian Institute honoring Anthrax with a video documentary as part of their Places of Invention exhibit. After 35 years on the scene, how does it feel to have a museum do a feature on your music?
Charlie Benante [Anthrax]: It’s definitely a real honor. It’s something that we always learned about growing up (the Smithsonian) and it’s a pretty big part of our history here. So when we found out they were doing it we were like ‘Wow! That’s awesome!’ We’re all pretty honored.
AW: When your band started out in the early 80s, did you have inclination back then that your music would grow to be so influential? Was there talk among you and your bandmates that what you were doing back then was really different?
Charlie Benante [Anthrax]: I don’t think we really analyzed it back then. The blueprints are all in your mind and I think that as the time goes on, those blueprints can become way bigger or grander than you could’ve ever expected them to be. Sometimes when it takes off it just takes off, and for us basically in the early days it did just kind of ‘take off’. We were just caught up in this kind of whirlwind, you know?
AW: Absolutely! In the time since the band formed in 1981, you’ve had a chance to release 11 studio albums (including your upcoming record For All Kings). Given that you’ve been together for nearly four decades, how would you say that the band has evolved musically in that time period? How would you compare the Anthrax of now to the Anthrax of 1981?
Charlie Benante [Anthrax]: Back then the music, the shaping of it and the way it was created, was always taken very seriously, and even today to this date is still taken very seriously. I just don’t think that we ever took ourselves too seriously. There are a lot of groups out there that I feel do take themselves too seriously in this business and they don’t have enough fun with it. I guess once you start a certain style or a certain concept of your band, then you have to see it through, and if that means not smiling and just being very dark and mysterious, well then that’s how you chose to portray yourselves. But with us we always were a New York band, so we already had this kind of attitude in us anyway. We just didn’t want to show people this idea that we were somewhat protected. We were pretty vulnerable and we would smile in pictures etc.
AW: Your debut “Fistful of Metal” came out 32 years ago in 1984. How do you rate that album after all this time? How special of a place does that record hold in your heart?
Charlie Benante [Anthrax]: It was our first record so of course it was our introduction to so much. Recording a record was a pretty big undertaking, and we were so excited to do it, but of course it’s your first record so you don’t have that luxury of ‘time’ to spend so much time on it. You really have to get in there and get on with it because there isn’t much money there to make your record. You have to be well prepared and know your songs and know your parts, and that experience to me was awesome. It was one that I still remember fondly!
AW: Almost every Thrash act seemed to have a change in style in the 90s, and yet you all, have come back with amazing records in your original style. Your albums in the 90s are very different beasts to your earlier releases, what made you return to Thrash?
Charlie Benante [Anthrax]: I guess we’ve stuck to what we know, and really that’s all you can do, which is to write what you know and what you feel. On this new record there’s strong thrash elements to but there’s also strong modern styles of music in there too. I call it ‘back to the future’. It is a throwback but it’s also moving ahead.
AW: Commonly, Anthrax has been listed as part of the ‘big 4’ bands that really changed metal (the others being Metallica, Slayer and Megadeth). Most notably, Metal has seemed to go in a harder direction over the last few decades, shedding the glam image of the 1980s, with many notable artists remaining influenced by the Thrash movement that your band helped create. What is it about Thrash that is seemingly so relevant and visceral three decades on?
Charlie Benante [Anthrax]: With the thrash bands, the four that actually hit it in the 80’s, I think the reason many fans kind of embraced that form of music is because they felt that it was really genuine. It wasn’t polished, and it wasn’t manufactured. It didn’t have this gloss over it and it was something that I think they felt they could relate to, because I think we all looked like them. I think it was that resemblance that really gave us the edge on a lot of the other styles of music. Those fans that bought the records and who came to see us, really felt that they were one of us, and I think that had a lot to do with it.
AW: So many of your fans love both the Belladonna and Bush era’s – but with lead singer changes sometimes it does make it more difficult to include tracks from the alternate era. It’s understandable, with the most renowned material recorded with Joey that you will concentrate on that – however, there are so many great songs with John Bush as well. For the fans who genuinely love those albums, what songs do you feel stand out/stand the test of time? What songs would you love to perform, and, crucially, what songs do you think Joey would do most justice to?
Charlie Benante [Anthrax]: I think we have such a big catalogue with Joey, that I don’t really feel the need to play any of those other songs. Maybe it’s me just me putting them away and not wanting to dust them off, because I feel so confident with everything else that we’ve done with Joey. And now with these new songs we’re going to have to make some room for these new songs, so some of the older ones are going to have to go for a bit too. So as far as with stuff that is in the closet, I think we’re going to leave them in the closet.
Photo Credit: Jimmy Hubbard
“I was just writing so much material that it was unstoppable…”
AW: A few decades ago you guys broke down both race and genre barriers when you collaborated with Public Enemy on ‘Bring Tha Noise’, which in many ways I feel made the rap-metal movement that came years later possible. I’ve always wondered the backstory with that track. How did the idea come about to remake the Public Enemy original with Public Enemy, and what was it like recording in the studio with such completely different artists? Any fun stories from the studio session if you can remember that time?
Charlie Benante [Anthrax]: I remember when we were working on this record called ‘Attack of The Killer B’s’, we had worked on doing a cover version of Bring Tha Noise, and we couldn’t get Chuck D to schedule anything or come in and do it because his schedule was so hectic. We were going to just do it and not have him on it. That was a thought – it was a stupid thought. However, we finally got it together and we did it and it was explosive. It was like ‘wow, this really, really sounds like a great mashup of both us and Public Enemy’. Everything that happened after that was just like ‘oh by the way what if we did this?’ ‘yeah let’s do that!’ and that’s the way that whole thing went. It was such an organic thing, that it was so real. It wasn’t done by labels, by agents, by managers or anything like that. It was done by artists, doing it together, and you don’t really get much of that today. You get ‘talk to my manager and we’ll work it out’ and that kind of stuff.
AW: One thing I noticed, especially in the press is the statement that “all Anthrax songs start with Charlie”. Generally it’s appeared that you write the music, Scott the lyrics, and Frankie the vocal melodies. However, on the music side, do you write all the actual riffs or does Scott contribute? How do you split the music writing duties?
Charlie Benante [Anthrax]: Most of the time I will come in with the basic ideas or the framework for a song, or a demo of a song and I’ll send it off and I’ll get a thumbs up. Then we’ll get together at some point when we have maybe three or four ideas, and we’ll start playing it and then it starts to sound like all of us together, like Anthrax. Once we have a start and a finish to a piece of music, Scott will take it and bounce it around lyrically, and then sometimes I’ll put a guitar part in for a melody. This time I think Frankie worked really well, and he worked hard on doing some melodies for the songs. Joey comes in and he does his part too, and then John our guitar player comes in and he does some stuff. It’s like a production line. I’ll start from one end, then Scott will take it, you know what I mean? It just goes back and forth.
AW: With you having undergone surgery to help correct your carpal tunnel, you had to sit out a few tour dates, but astonishingly you didn’t stop writing…instead you poured your available downtime into writing guitar riffs and ideas for your upcoming release For All Kings. I imagine doing so must’ve been difficult with your recovery. How tough was it getting back into the swing of things after being sidelined with your surgery?
Charlie Benante [Anthrax]: It just gave me time to think more about the album, and just put it all together. Once I got my cast off and my stitches out and stuff like that, I had to go for therapy and slowly I started playing again. All the ideas I had kind of accumulated, like I would sing into my phone and save it…when it came time to listen to it and transcribe it to guitar, that’s what I was doing. I was just writing so much material that it was unstoppable. It was a very productive time for me especially; I wasn’t just sitting around doing nothing.
AW: In between Worship Music and For All Kings there was a five year break. Were any of the songs recorded for For All Kings ideas written around the time of the last album cycle, or were these songs all written brand new from scratch for this cycle?
Charlie Benante [Anthrax]: Nothing was used from anything from the last album; all these songs were brand new. Because what started to happen was even if I did have old stuff lying around to use, the new stuff ended up outshining that. The thing about when a good batch of songs comes together; it gives me momentum and for some reason it makes me stronger. I just go on and get ideas for other tunes which is the best part.
AW: What would you say was your favorite track to write and record of all the tracks you did for the new record?
Charlie Benante [Anthrax]: I have so many personal favorites that it would be extremely hard for me to pick one. But I’m really fond of a lot of the songs especially this one called Blood Eagle Wings. I love You Gotta Believe, and Zero Tolerance came out great. There are a lot of them that I really, really loved.
AW: Going into this studio session Anthrax recorded 20 songs, but only 11 made it on to the final track listing, leaving 9 or basically almost an entire album’s worth off the table. With all that extra material recorded, do you have any plans to release it in some form? Perhaps as an EP or even another album?
Charlie Benante [Anthrax]: One of the songs (Soror Irrumator) went to the HBO Game of Thrones soundtrack, and there are some that we haven’t finished working on but I could definitely see some of these coming out in some way, shape, or form at some point. Some of them are really good.
AW: Your new guitarist Jon Donais joined the band all the way back in 2013, and your upcoming February release marks the first time Anthrax has actually worked with him in the studio, as far as what we could find. What was it like working with him in the studio for the first time, and what differences would you say he brought from your previous guitarist Rob?
Charlie Benante [Anthrax]: I think both of those guys are really good guitar players in their own right. I think Rob brought something and Jon brings something. I worked really closely with Jon on this record in getting these leads to be songs within a song. I would tell him ‘enter strong, but leave stronger’ so that when his lead was done; it was like ‘fuck! Whew that was killer!’ We even wrote longer sections for our songs just to feature some of his leads, just because he’s really good. In this day and age, there are few real guitar players. It just makes me sad when you mention ‘oh who’s really good?’ and people will go ‘Zakk is great!’ There are more people out there than Zakk. Zakk is awesome, but give this guy a listen too. Because the stuff he’s fucking blowing is fire.
“We want to write songs that raise awareness and make you think, make you smile, make you move, and make you jump….”
AW: I had a listen to the songs and this is definitely one of your strongest and most lyrically inspired releases. One song that comes to mind is “Evil Twin”, a track that at the time of its original release in October was intended lyrically to deal with the attacks on Charlie Hebdo and mass shootings. Less than two months after that song’s release Paris would be attacked again, this time at multiple locations. Although it was Scott who wrote the lyrics, how do you feel about the current state of society with everything that’s been happening as of late?
Charlie Benante [Anthrax]: This is tough, because I feel like with social media or wherever you are; you’ll never win in a conversation about race, or religion and/or politics. So I choose not to really comment on any of that stuff because there’s a lot of backlash and a lot of stupid people who don’t take the time to listen to what someone is saying. They just jump the gun. There’s a lot of hate in this world and a lot of it is here in America as well. We’re a very divided country and there’s a lot people who believe certain things, that I’ll just look at them and be like “I just don’t understand how you can say that, when something is based on a fact and you’re still telling me that you just don’t believe it”. Even though it’s a fact. Not a feeling, but a fact. So I just stay out of it. We want to write songs that raise awareness and make you think, make you smile, make you move, make you jump, make you want to go out and play an instrument, or make you want to go out and see our show. You know, just do what music does to you. It should provoke you in one way, shape or form.
AW: You recently changed from a chain driven pedal to a newer style. Was that a big adjustment for you with your style of play?
Charlie Benante [Anthrax]: It wasn’t a big adjustment for me. Tama approached me with this new pedal idea, which really wasn’t that much of a difference. It was just smoother and a lot lighter. When I played them I was like ‘this feels a lot better’. It was a lot less work on my calves and ankles, so it felt good.
AW: Musically you guys have seemed to always have a bit more of a punk influence than some of your peers. Were there any early punk acts that influenced you as you got on the scene?
Charlie Benante [Anthrax]: There was definitely many punk or hardcore bands that influenced us, especially in the early days of the band. We’ve always been a punk rock fan. We’ve always loved Sex Pistols and The Clash, and bands from over here that were very underground punk, and yes that influence definitely creeped in to our music, and basically the way we looked too.
AW: Speaking of Classic bands, one of the classic bands you’ve mentioned as liking in the past is The Beatles. What would you say are your favorite Beatles songs or even your favorite Beatles albums of all time?
Charlie Benante [Anthrax]: I’ve always been saying Revolver. I think Revolver is still one of my favorite Beatles albums, because it’s a transition period for them. There are some really great moments on that record, and to this day it just amazed me how they were together for eight years and created so much in those years. It’s just an astonishing feat.
AW: Some rock bands recently have encouraged fan participation in their live shows, by offering fans the opportunity to vote on the setlists. Given the large amount of material you have to choose from when preparing your live shows, would you ever consider doing fan voted setlists?
Charlie Benante [Anthrax]: We’ve done some of that before, and it helped. We appreciated it and it’s always fun to do something like that.
AW: We were going to see you guys in Jersey but the damn snow blocked us in! How did you survive the storm?
Charlie Benante [Anthrax]: Looking back at it, it was kind of interesting. We got stuck in Baltimore and the next day I fucking jumped on a train, and spent most of the time in New York. It was great.
AW: Finally, a lot of bands at this stage of their career would by now resort to being a legacy act, performing a revolving set list of greatest hits instead of working on new music. Your band however is still going strong after all this time. In closing, where can fans expect to see Anthrax not just in the year ahead, but down the road? Do you see the band continuing to write and record new music for decades to come?
Charlie Benante [Anthrax]: If they want them we’ll make them! That’s what it basically comes down to. It takes time, it takes effort, but if they want them we will make them. That’s how I feel. I think we’re on a roll here, and we have a few other records in us to write. So let us know you want more, and we’ll make more!