Weathering multiple lineup changes–including several at the vital position of lead vocalist–and withstanding many seismic shifts in the musical climate, Anthrax has persevered through the decades like few others. In 2011, the band started to reclaim its position at the top of the global metal mountain with the superb “Worship Music,” its first recording with vocalist Joey Belladonna since 1990. Its 2016 release, the phenomenal “For All Kings,” has solidified that position, and is a surefire album-of-the-year contender. Anthrax has been on the road supporting it all year, first on a U.S. tour with Lamb of God and, most recently, on a South American run with Iron Maiden. Festivals in the United States and Europe are on the horizon next, with a U.S. headlining tour possible in the fall. Drummer Charlie Benante checked in with Live Metal’s Greg Maki to discuss the new album, his line of coffee (Benante’s Blend) and more.
LIVE METAL: Well, let’s start with the new album, “For All Kings.” I’m a longtime fan, and I think it might be my favorite Anthrax album yet. I really do.
CHARLIE BENANTE: Oh, awesome. That’s good to hear.
When you started working on it, what kind of goals did you have? What did you want to accomplish with this album?
I really wanted to make a great album. I didn’t want to make a great bunch of songs. I wanted a whole piece, so that after the listener gets past five songs, there’s still another five or six killer songs waiting. I think that that was the basic goal. I mean, my goal in the beginning was to write 20 songs—20 really good songs. I’m came pretty close to doing that, musically speaking. We didn’t get to finish the last three, four that we had, lyrically. But who knows, somewhere along the line, we may be able to finish it.
This was the first time in about 25 years that you were writing songs knowing Joey was going to be singing on them. What effect did that have?
It was all about the momentum going into it. The momentum was good, so I think that had a lot to do with it. Having Joey’s voice in mind really helped, as well, as far as the songs coming out the way they did. I would just go in to write for a few hours, put it on tape, and then I’d listen back to it and be like, “Oh, that’s good. That’s really good.” And I would pick and choose what to send to the guys and see what they felt.
Since Joey came back, on “Worship Music” and “For All Kings”—he was always good, but he just sounds better than ever now. I don’t want to say, “Were you surprised by that,” but singers don’t, generally, get better as they get older. What’s your take on that?
He’s kind of working in the opposite way. He’s going in reverse, where singers start off great, and then, slowly but surely, they start to lose it. He’s like the opposite—not that he wasn’t great during “Spreading the Disease” and stuff. I really think that he showed us more so than many others that he’s really versatile. “Give me something fast and heavy. I’ll sing it. Give me something slow and melodic. I’ll sing it.” Like I said, he really, really showed us that yeah, this guy had the goods all along.
You’ve been working with (guitarist) Scott (Ian) and (bassist) Frank (Bello) for many, many years now. You guys must have this down to a science. Do you have a shorthand between the three of you? Do you even need to talk about things, or do you just know where the other is going?
I think Scott and I have always had this mental telepathy telepathy type of thing going on. We’re both on the same frequency, and (since) a couple years ago, Frankie has gotten on that frequency, as well, and joined in on the madness. A lot of his melodies for “Breathing Lightning” were really good. I remember working on that, and he just started singing this melody. I think he was singing the words, too, and I think those words stuck. But yeah, like I said, I think he’s kind of come up to the frequency now.
Obviously, there’s a song on the album called “For All Kings,” but why did you decide to use that as the album title?
We rarely do that. We didn’t have a song called “Spreading the Disease.” We didn’t have a song called “State of Euphoria.” But on this one, I think it was such a strong title, and I think that it should’ve been used for the title of the record, because it does flow nicely off your tongue—”For All Kings”—and what it means, too, the concept for “For All Kings.”
You are heavily involved in the artwork and album cover. What was the concept behind this cover?
The cover, for me, is such a great part of an album. I swear, after I’m done with all the musical side of things, that’s when I just go into a whole different department and put my art hat on and start working on that–the cover, the concept. I had a great meeting with Alex Ross, and we just started talking about cover concepts. He didn’t like the first idea I had, but he did like the second one, and then we just started bouncing off each other until we came to what you see in front of you now.
His idea for the cover was to put the kings in that formation. I wanted them lined across, but he felt this way it showed depth into this hall, and basically, just as far as composition goes, it’s a way better choice doing it the way he wanted to do it. And the color scheme and everything, I wanted to throw in a bit of the blue from “We’ve Come for You All.” I wanted to show some of the creatures from the “Worship Music” cover. So I’m trying to tie in these other covers.
I love that you put so much time and thought and effort into things like that. With everything going digital and streaming, that’s something we’re losing, and that just kills me.
Oh, it kills me, too. I was talking to someone yesterday about this, that I was once against all this streaming—Spotify and stuff like that. I’ve since been turned around, because I see that people really use this and it is a way of getting our music to other listeners. The downfall about some of that stuff is I want the listener to have the experience of getting the piece of art, getting the cover—whether it’s the vinyl or the CD—and just reading along and getting that whole vibe. That’s the experience I want them to have. I don’t want them to have the experience of just playing it without a visual. It kind of hurts me when people pay no regard to the art.
Some of these songs—like “Evil Twin” and “Zero Tolerance”—in the lyrics, you’re kind of taking on politics and religion. You’re obviously not afraid to tackle these touchy subjects.
I think nowadays, with social media, I think people see a lot more now nowadays than they would’ve, say, 10, 15 years ago. Now someone puts on their computer—boom!—they’re getting hit with headlines, soundbites. They’ve become more aware of what is going on in our world, and I think a lot of people are realizing that we are living in a scary world. Some of the lyrics reflect that.
I just think that we need to make better decisions and better choices in our lives than the ones that we’ve been making. Sometimes, I believe that not all people who are saying things should be criticized as being anti-Semitic, racist, capitalist, this, that and the other thing. Sometimes you really need to call a person out on their bullshit. I think we have a problem with that, because as soon as we call someone out, you meet this other side that’s the liberal type of people who are like, “I don’t see that that way.” I just think we need to see things in black and white, the way they are.
After some of the things that have happened around the world, especially in Paris last year, do you have concerns? Are you thinking about security and things like that when you’re playing a show now?
I always do, to be honest with you. This is what we do. We play shows all over the world. It puts us all in jeopardy, the fear that this summer, I have to go do a festival in France, I have to go do a festival in Belgium. Yeah, it’s all scary, because it could be chaos.
You’re also, coming up, going to be playing some festivals over here in the U.S. These festivals here, more so than the ones in Europe, are kind of geared to that radio-rock-type stuff—and incorporating more and more metal now. You get to play in front of a lot of new people. It doesn’t really happen that often for a band at this point in its career. How important is that to you?
You know, I’ve always had a bit of jealousy at these bands—I call them radio bands—having the luxury of having their songs on the radio and capturing that audience, whereas some of us other ones have to work really hard on getting our music across. I feel like, in a sense, (laughs) we’re the ones that are breaking our ass like the construction workers, and these bands are like the guys working in the fuckin’ corporate building not getting their hands dirty. And no disrespect to them. That’s why I said I’m a bit jealous. But we don’t make music like that. When you set out to do this type of music—real heavy metal—you have to know that some of those doors are going to be closed to you. But it shouldn’t be that way. That’s my point, because it’s still music, and it should be treated as music, and if a song is accessible, then play it. I’m so happy that our song “Breathing Lightning” is getting played on certain radio stations. That, to me, shows that the tide is changing.
The past couple years, some of the newer bands like Volbeat and Lamb of God have been embracing Anthrax, and you’ve gone on tour with them. What has that meant to you?
I love both those bands. That’s the truth. As people and musically. Volbeat are metalheads. They love traditional, real heavy metal. And they have a sound that doesn’t sound like anyone else. Lamb of God, it’s the same thing. They’re great guys. They do what they do. They pull no punches. They make extreme metal music, and that’s it. It’ll be great to do shows again with those guys, because we had a ball on the tour we did together.
You just came home from a South American tour with Iron Maiden. It must always be a blast to go out with them.
That was a treat, man, to be honest with you. That was a luxury, I should say, traveling on the plane (Ed Force One) with them, living la vida loca. (laughs) It was fucking awesome. I’m an old-school Maiden fan, from day one. So when I’m sitting in the dressing room and I’m hearing a song like “Children of the Damned” start, I just have to go run out and just be a part of it. It’s just my love of that music. Yeah, to this day, I’m a die-hard Iron Maiden fan.
How hard is it now, even when you’re headlining, to choose the set list? You’ve got so many great songs. What goes into that?
Sometimes we have to really kind of monitor the audience and see what is it that they really like and what moves them, and maybe take a cue from them. Sometimes we’ll ask them, “What would you like to hear?” But you can’t just ask two or three people, because they’ll give you a complete deep-cut answer. You need to ask a majority, and then you can see what it is. I think that’s the best way to do it. For the longest time, people would always ask about this song called “Lone Justice,” which was from our “Spreading the Disease” record. We never played it, and then this last couple of shows that we were doing, we were doing heavy “Spreading the Disease” songs. It was great. It was a lot of fun to play that song again.
When Joey came back to the band, at first you were playing “Only” a little bit. Would you ever do any other songs from the John Bush era with Joey?
I’m not gonna force him to sing anything he’s not comfortable with singing. There’s some songs that I would love for him to do, because I think he’d put a different twist on it. And never say never, but god, we have so many new songs that why would we try and go back to that at this point? But I would like to throw in something from that era.
Speaking of the new songs, you’ve played “Evil Twin” and “Breathing Lightning.” Which others are you really itching to play live?
We’re working on playing “You Gotta Believe,” “Blood Eagle Wings,” “Monster at the End” and “All of Them Thieves.” I think those are the four that we’re gonna try and work on more.
You’ve had a battle with carpal tunnel syndrome, so how is that going for you?
I can go out and play a bunch of shows, and then it comes to a point where my hand needs a rest. My friend John Dette comes in and fills in for a little bit, and then I come back.
You’ve got the festivals coming up here in the U.S. and overseas. When can we expect a full U.S. headlining tour?
Last year, you did a 30th anniversary edition for “Spreading the Disease,” which I thought was really cool. Will you do anything like that with any of the other albums?
Yeah, I’m actually working on a “State of Euphoria” one right now.
Oh, excellent. When did you get into coffee, like seriously into coffee?
I’ve always been into coffee, like seriously into it, like going to different parts of the world to try some real deep stuff. And then an opportunity came a couple years back, and I jumped on it. And then it kind of went away, I guess because some of the people that were involved in it just didn’t want to do it anymore. So it just went away. But I always said, “I’m going to continue to do this. I want to do this.” And I started it up again. I got real dedicated roasters. I told them exactly what type of beans, how I wanted it roasted. I did the packaging, the look—everything. So everything that you see about my coffee is from me. It’s not like I just slapped a label on it and said, “Yeah, put this out,” like some others do. I live it, breathe it, drink it.
Going back to almost the beginning, Anthrax always kind of looked and acted differently than what a metal band, quote en quote, was supposed to look like, with the way you dressed and the fact that you smiled and looked like you were having fun on stage. Was that a conscious decision you guys made at some point?
No. That’s the thing. There was no scheme. There was no “we’re gonna do it this way.” Really, there wasn’t. It was just the personalities coming out. And yeah, the five of us, of course, weren’t this five-headed monster yet. The other guys kind of checked in on it, and it became a look. That’s the way it happened.
There are some really strong personalities in this band. Obviously, you guys do a lot of press, a lot of interviews. Do you ever hear about something or see something someone said—especially now, when something gets taken out of context on social media—and just kind of wonder what’s going on or talk to them about it?
Of course. And nowadays, things get taken out of context and blasted and put on Blabbermouth, and it’s like the response is always so negative. Every band in existence has had some strife in the band. It’s never been a beautiful day every day. There’s always gonna be problems. I really don’t like airing problems, but sometimes it just comes out there. I see a lot of bands fighting for the name of a band or the power to use the name of a band and go out and tour, and then there’s one of the guys in the band that will try and stop it. And you see this stuff all the time. So there’s always issues going on with bands. If you put four or five guys together, they become brothers, and then brothers fight, and brothers say stupid shit sometimes. It’s just the way it is.
OK, I guess it’s about time I should be wrapping this up. Like I said, I’m a huge fan, so it’s been a big thrill for me to talk to you. I really love the new album, and thank you very much for your time.
Cool, man. Thank you. I appreciate it.