Interview: Anthrax - The Long Road to Worship Music
September 11, 2011
Scott Ian, Rob Caggiano, and Charlie Benante discuss the long-awaited, new studio release from Anthrax, reuniting with original singer Joey Belladonna, and how an Anthrax song comes together.
|Hear two tracks from Worship Music:
To fully appreciate just how monumental this album’s release is, you have to understand a bit about Anthrax’s history. As one of the pioneers of thrash metal, Anthrax came into prominence in the mid- to late ’80s with Joey Belladonna as the voice behind classic albums like Spreading the Disease and Among the Living. In 1992, shortly after crossing-over into the mainstream with the thrash meets rap “Bring the Noise” collaboration with Public Enemy, Belladonna was fired and replaced by John Bush, who had just disbanded Armored Saint. In 2005, Belladonna was asked to perform with the band again for a one-off reunion tour. Bush, who was still officially the vocalist at the time, was also asked to take part on the tour and share the vocal duties, but declined. Although Belladonna sang on that tour, he was not asked to rejoin the band. The slot was saved for Bush, but he had quit the band by the time the tour was over. Anthrax then recruited vocalist Dan Nelson in 2007 and began work on what would become Worship Music. After recording most of the album, Nelson unexpectedly quit the band (or was fired, depending on who you ask) in 2009, leaving Anthrax with a mostly-finished album and no vocalist.
Metallica’s induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame turned out to be the catalyst for change. Founding members Scott Ian and Charlie Benante were having a drink with Lars Ulrich when Ulrich brought up the possibility of a Big 4 tour featuring Metallica, Megadeth, Slayer, and Anthrax. The tour materialized and in 2010, Belladonna was brought back onboard since he was the voice of Anthrax from 1985 to 1992, the years the Big 4 came to prominence. The third time proved to be the charm for Belladonna—he ended up re-recording the vocals forWorship Music and is now officially back in the band. The album, co-produced by guitarist Rob Caggiano and producer Jay Ruston, marks Anthrax’s 30th anniversary and is Belladonna’s first studio album with the band since 1990’s Persistence of Time.
Many feel that Worship Music blows virtually every metal release this year out of the water. Songs like “In the End,” an homage to the late Ronnie James Dio and Dimebag Darrell, the knock-your-head-off thrash of “Earth on Hell,” and the Anthrax-meets-AC/DC riffage of “The Devil You Know” (streamed above) will quench the thirst of fans that consider Belladonna to be the Anthrax vocalist and who have waited more than two decades to hear his voice on a new Anthrax album. A few days before their Big 4 hometown gig at Yankee Stadium, Premier Guitar caught up with guitarists Scott Ian and Rob Caggiano, and drummer/principal songwriter Charlie Benante.
Worship Music was just about finished when singer Dan Nelson left. What was the game plan at that point?
Caggiano: We didn’t really know what to think or what to expect. The only thing that was inevitable was that we had to put the thing on ice for a while, until we figured out what we were going to do. We actually got pretty far with the album, all the way up to the mixing stage. I’d say it was about 85 percent done when all that stuff went down.
Benante: He quit the day we were going to Europe to finish up a festival. He quit that day.
That’s really screwed up.
Benante: Uh, yeah. Think about how we felt. That day I had all of these thoughts in my head, like “Now what?” But the thing is, I’ve been doing this for so long that I couldn’t let a little bump like that hurt me.
How did Joey Belladonna get back into the picture?
Benante: I had written some acoustic songs that didn’t really fit with Anthrax. I was looking for a vocalist to do a side project with so I had actually reached out to Joey awhile back. I sent him some songs, we started to talk, and our relationship started to become good again. Then Metallica dropped this Big 4 thing. That’s when we started taking the idea of Joey coming back into the band more seriously.
Ian: We literally just called him up. It was early 2010 and we all ended up getting together to meet. We just sat around and bullshitted for a little while and then made the decision to move forward with this being the band until there is no more band, hopefully.
You had most of the songs done by the time Joey came back in. Did you have to rework them to accommodate his style?
Ian: We had about 13 or 14 songs in some state of being finished or almost finished. And after not listening to them for about a year, we pretty much spent all of our time in the dressing room listening to the songs last fall when we were on tour with Slayer and Megadeth. We took a song per day and then made decisions. Does it still hold up? Are we still in love with it? Do we still think it’s awesome?
After that run, we narrowed it down to the 10 that we felt either completely held up or just needed some rewriting and re-recording. There were about three or four other songs that either got thrown in the trash or just got put on the shelf until we could spend more time on them.
Benante: Joey’s approach to it was way different, at least different than I imagined. He brought a different flavor to it and it was so apparent that we found what was missing. It sounds like Anthrax now.
Caggiano: Joey basically came in and did his own take on the songs, injecting his own sound on them. There were three songs that we actually went in and re-tracked. “Fight ’Em ’Till You Can’t” is one of them. That song didn’t really change—it’s just that we’d been playing it live, so we felt that we could play it better after doing it for a couple of years. “In the End,” which was originally called “Down Goes the Sun,” was also re-cut, re-tweaked, and rewritten.
Benante: I really fought for “In the End.” I felt it needed to be on the record because it was so different than anything else.
Charlie, what kind of resistance did you face with that song?
Benante: These guys just felt like it wasn’t ready yet. We had a problem with the chorus of the song and it went back and forth like, “Yeah I like it” to “Nah, I don’t like it.” It was that type of thing. And then the guys said to me, “Work on it some more.” I did, but the song turned out to be seven minutes long. But it was good because it didn’t feel like seven minutes, and who cares if it’s seven minutes long?
I sent everybody a demo version and that was it—everybody liked it. It has a melancholy feel, which is probably why I thought of Dimebag. If he were here, he’d probably be playing on this album. We would have asked him to.
I understand that this record is the first time you guys were not present at the vocal sessions. That’s a pretty big level of trust especially considering it’s been so long since you’ve recorded with Joey.
Benante: Joey has a pretty good relationship with Jay Ruston and Jay was pretty much producing the vocals, so we felt like we didn’t need to be there. Plus, I don't think we needed to be the jury in the room. Personally, I wanted to give Joey the room and the freedom to do whatever he wanted.
Ian: We got mp3s sent to us every night. We made notes and stuff but we weren’t sitting in the room with them all day long.
Why was Joey fired the first time?
Benante: I really should clarify a lot of this stuff. I must say that back when this all went down, we were all very young men [laughs]. I don’t think we were mature enough to handle certain high-pressure situations and I think the easiest way to handle them was to just get rid of them. Certain people had issues with other people, they just built up, and that was it, basically.
So it was a personality conflict?
Is Joey here to stay now?
Benante: Oh he’s definitely here to stay.
Caggiano: Absolutely—as long as he wants to. I mean we love him, the vibe is great, and the shows are great.
The music business has totally changed since your last album, with piracy at an all-time high. Considering what an affair it’s been to get this album out, are you worried about this?
Ian: No. Why would we worry about that? We’ve never been the kind of band that had any use for the industry other than it being a distribution channel for getting our music out there. We’re a thrash-metal band that started in the underground and we’re still here 30 years later. We do everything ourselves—the same way we’ve always done it. We worry about things that we can control like making records and playing live.
Benante: I don’t think there’s a quick fix or even a long-term fix for the music business. They totally screwed it up and now we suffer for it. You go through all this hard work making an album, and what happens? A certain demographic out there considers it free. It’s like, “Hello idiots. It’s not free. It costs money to make this.”
As much as I love Apple and iTunes, I think they’re partly responsible for a lot of this too. I miss those days of going to a Tower Records and shopping for hours just discovering new things.
Ian (signature Jackson in hand) and Rob (with his ESP Custom Shop Horizons)
Even with your enormous fan base, eight years is a long time between album releases. Were you concerned that you’d lose fans because the wait was so long?
Ian: I never thought about that in my whole life.
Caggiano: Even though we took a long time, I think it worked to our advantage because we had all of this time to really sit with our songs and tweak them. We were tweaking things to the 11th hour and the songs are as good as they could possibly be. I think they’re great.
Benante: I was just talking to someone else about this. The problem we have nowadays is the immediacy of everything. Everything is “get it done right now,” and I think it hurts in a sense because as fast as it comes is as fast as it goes. It has no longevity. So I think making people wait for something is good.
Can you talk us through the writing of an Anthrax song from beginning to end?
Ian: We get in a room and we jam. We arrange it and we just know what sounds right. “Okay, this sounds like a verse and okay, this sounds like a chorus.” And you just start arranging things until you’re happy.
Benante: Either I’ll come in with the basic framework for a song or I’ll come in with a whole song. Then Scott, Frankie Bello, and I will sit in our rehearsal room and I’ll show them the ideas. It grows from there where I’ll bounce ideas off them and they’ll add something to it. “Earth on Hell” was one of those songs that was already done when I brought it in and “In the End” was another one. Sometimes they just come out that way, but sometimes the guys will modify a riff or add something to it. Once we have a start and a finish, Scott will take the song and come up with some lyrics and Frankie will work on the melodies. This time, I wrote a lot of the melodies with the guys too. Joey also added his two cents to it.
Caggiano: Charlie’s been one of the main songwriters in Anthrax for a long time and he definitely has that whole shtick down, so the tunes are in a pretty good place when he brings them in. There’ll be arrangement tweaks or like, “Play this chord here instead of that.” We just mold it into what the band is all about.
Benante: The songs stay pretty much true to the way they were when brought in, although sometimes they’d get altered a little bit.
What about something like that catchy riff in “Judas Priest?” Was that added in later?
Benante: Yeah. Rob came up with that lead section. It was one of my favorite parts that he did on the record. Rob has a really good ear for that kind of stuff and I like his leads because they’re like songs within a song.
Caggiano: Each one of us brings our own stamp to the music and it definitely gets to the next level that way. It’s funny that you mentioned that one because that’s another one of the songs that we went back and re-tracked. It was originally called “Maniacal,” and the original solo on that song was my favorite on the entire record. I was really into it but after all that shit went down with the singer, we kind of felt like that song had a negative vibe to it. We felt like we needed to rework it. Charlie came in to recut some stuff and the song is completely different, other than that opening riff.
Rob, you played some great solos on this album, like the one in “The Devil You Know.” Are your solos worked out?
Caggiano: I don’t really like to plan things out because I find that it makes it sound stale. I like to keep the spontaneity and the fire. What I do is put the song on really loud in the studio and just jam to the track. I’ll do like three or four passes and then it’ll start to take shape in my head. I’ll listen back to the performances and I might like that part from this take or that melody line from that take, and I’ll just make mental notes. Then I’ll come up with the plan in my head and go for it. It’s not practiced or rehearsed—it’s very off-the-cuff.
“Crawl” begins with some haunting chords. Can you tell us about that?
Benante: It was played on a 12-string. I have a Jackson doubleneck that’s like a Jimmy Page replica and I played it down near the bridge. I wanted Allison, the cellist on that song, to give it a John Williams, Jaws effect. That’s probably another one of my favorite songs because it’s so different. I remember being a little worried about showing everybody that song, but they liked it.
Charlie, a lot of the songs you write have very rhythmic guitar parts. Does that come from being a drummer?
Benante: Most of the songs are written from a guitar point of view, but the drummer is still inside of me so it’s a very rhythmic thing. I like to be rhythmic and percussive on the guitar. Honestly dude, when I’m there in my room writing riffs, I’m almost possessed by the whole thing.
“The Giant” is very rhythmic.
Benante: It is very rhythmic. You know, I gotta say if there’s one song I wish I could do over, drumming-wise, it would be that one. I hear it in a different way now.
Then how will you play it live? The way it was recorded or the way you’re hearing it in your head now?
Benante: That’s a good point. I don’t know [laughs]. It may start off the way I played it on the record and it may evolve later on. That happens to a lot of our songs when we play them live. They evolve, they change, and they become something different. There’s a great quote from Sting where he said, “The way we do music is wrong. We write a song, record it, and go out and play it. But after you play it through a tour you’re playing it different and so much better. That’s when you should go record it.”
Tell us about your guitars.
Caggiano: I use ESP Custom Shop Horizons and I have a signature model on its way. Most of my guitars are loaded with Dimarzio Tone Zone pick-ups but Dimarzio is working on a brand new signature bridge pickup right now based on some ideas I have. I use Sperzel (or ESP) Locking Tuners on all my guitars and I play a fixed bridge most of the time.
Benante: I have a Van Halen “Shark” replica with Dimarzio Super Distortion pickups, a 1980 Charvel Starbody also with Super Distortion pickups, a Gibson Howard Roberts "fusion" with stock pickups, and a 2005 Jackson custom double-neck Jimmy Page replica, just to name a few.
Ian: Which guitars? I have about 70 guitars. On tour I use all my new Jackson signature models. In the studio, two Jackson signature models as well as a 1982 Randy Rhoads model and old Soloist model (the one with the NY logo on it).
Scott, as I understand you’ve used that NY Yankees Jackson on every record.
Ian: Yeah. I used those two and my 1981 Gibson V on every record.
Charlie, a Gibson Howard Roberts guitar seems like an odd choice for a guy in Anthrax. What prompted you to get it?
Benante: Okay, I’ll tell you a funny story about that guitar. Back in 1992 we had just signed to Elektra and I got some money and I always wanted a Howard Roberts so I went and bought it. The reason I got that guitar is that the guys from the Cure spoke highly of it. And I was totally absorbed with that whole sound they were getting back then.
The Cure! Who would have guessed? Have you used the Howard Roberts guitar on any Anthrax recordings?
It’s been played on some Anthrax songs like “Black Lodge” and “Walk All Over You,” an AC/DC cover song that we did. I tried to use it on this record but it didn’t work.
Charlie, who made your Van Halen Shark replica guitar?
Benante: A friend of mine named Mark. I also have two other Van Halen replicas.
What about amps?
Caggiano: I use Fryette Pitbull Ultra-Lead heads with KT88s and matching cabs.
Benante: My Vox amps are still my favorites. I have two AC30s—my original from 1990 and a newer model from 2006.
Ian: I use my Randall Signature series amp exclusively. Dave Friedman made three modules based on tones from previous records. The first one called “Malcom,” has clean rock AC/DC-type sounds, the middle one is called 1987 and it’s basically my main rhythm tone that I’ve had forever, and then the last module called “The Nuts” is more high-gain and modern sounding, comparable to an EVH. Dave Friedman re-built my Randall cab from the ground up. I always thought the Randall cabs sounded like shoe boxes. Dave pointed out a few problems that made them sound that way and we fixed it for them.
Scott, you’re a really heavy hitter yet you use .88 mm picks, a relatively light gauge.
I used to use 1 mm picks. At some point someone said to me, “Try using a lighter pick,” and there was an .88 mm lying around. I used it and it felt good. Way, way back in the early ’80s, I actually used a .73 mm, but I felt those were too bendy. Then I jumped to the 1 mms and later the .88 mms.
Staying in tune is important to me and I have a pretty heavy right hand. I really dig in and when playing live, the last thing I want is for the chords to ring out of tune. I use a custom set of strings with a heavy top and a heavier bottom—I think it’s .011, .016, .022 (wound), .030, .044, and .059.
Anthrax Gear Boxes
Guitars: Jackson Scott Ian Signature, 1982 Jackson Randy Rhoads (studio only), 1987 Jackson Soloist with NY Yankees logo (studio only), 1981 Gibson Flying V (studio only. All guitars outfitted with Seymour Duncan JB pickups.
Amps & Cabs: Randall Scott Ian RM100SI with EL34s and Dave Friedman modules based on tones from previous records, Dave Friedman-modified Randall SI412 cab, Marshall JCM 800 (Rebuilt by Steven Fryette, studio).
Effects: MXR Carbon Copy Delay, MXR EVH Flanger, MXR Micro Chorus, DigiTech Whammy, and Dunlop 404 CAE Wah. Effects controlled by Ground Control switcher.
Accessories: D'Addario custom set: .011, .016, .022 (wound), .030, .044, and .059, Monster Cables, Shure wireless, Mono Cases strap, Dunlop .88mm picks.
Guitars: ESP Custom Shop Horizons. All guitars outfitted with DiMarzio Tone Zone pickups and Sperzel or ESP locking tuners, most with a fixed bridge.
Amps & Cabs: Fryette Pitbull Ultra Lead heads (with KT88s) and matching cabs.
Effects: Dunlop Cry Baby Classic, Boss Tuner, MXR GT-OD, Death By Audio Interstellar Overdriver Deluxe, Rockbox Boiling Point, MXR Smart Gate, MXR EVH Phase 90, MXR Micro Chorus, and Boss DD-5. Effects controlled by Musicom Lab EFX MKII.
Accessories: D'Addario .010s, DiMarzio cables, Mono Cases straps and DiMarzio Straps, Dunlop Yellow Tortex picks.
Charlie Benante (gear used in the studio for Worship Music)
Guitars: Replica of EVH's "Shark" guitar with DiMarzio Super Distortion pickups, 1980 Charvel Starbody with DiMarzio Super Distortion pickups, Gibson Howard Roberts, Jackson Custom Shop Jimmy Page replica double-neck with Seymour Duncan JB pickups, Gibson Les Paul Standard Sunburst, Ovation 6- and 12-string acoustics.
Amps & Cabs: 1990 Vox AC30, 2006 Vox AC30
Effects: 1986 TC Electronic Booster + Distortion, DigiTech PDS 1002 Delay, DigiTech Multi-Chorus, Boss Metal Zone
Accessories: D'Addario strings (usually .009s, sometimes .010s), Best-Tronic Cables, Dunlop Nylon .88mm picks.