With a new album, “For All Kings”, coming on out February 26th, I had the chance to chat with drummer Charlie Benante and discuss the band’s longevity as well as songwriting for their new album.
Jean-Frederic Vachon: Did you ever imagine that the band would enjoy the longevity it has had?
Charlie Benante: I always had this thing inside of me that I always felt I’d be doing this as a career. Maybe it was ignorance, I don’t know! (laughs) It’s just funny how certain steps took me to where I am today. I often scratch my head at some of the things I’ve achieved, just because I play music.
I’ve been playing an instrument since I can remember. I come from a musical background, especially on my mom’s side so it was just a natural progression. My dad bought me my first drum kit when I was almost 5 years old. He saw that there’s was really something there and they just encouraged it. I started playing guitar probably when I was around 12 or 13. I realized I was never going to be able to convey what I was hearing in my head through the drums so I had to teach myself to play piano or guitar, and guitar was way cooler than playing piano, so I started playing Black Sabbath and KISS riffs, and boom, just went from there.
JFV: Back in December, you put out a deluxe reissue of “Spreading the Disease”, the album that broke you through to the mainstream. Can you share some recollection of that record?
CB: I spent a lot of time putting that re-issue together; it took me about two years to finally get it done. I quite enjoyed revisiting that time actually. It brought me back to a time where I was way more innocent about the music business, songwriting… everything was a new world to me. At that time I took a bigger role in the band as far as the songwriting process goes. We didn’t have a singer at the time so Scott took over the lyrics and I took on more of the music. I would come in with a lot of the song ideas for that album, and then it really started to sound like what would become Anthrax.
JFV: Did you remix the album?
CB: We couldn’t remix it because for some reason we couldn’t locate the actual tapes for the record. I also felt that it wasn’t such a great idea to remix something that people already know how the record sounds like; I didn’t want to mess with history. All I wanted to do was remaster the record to bring out some of the lows, some of the highs and make it sound the way it did back in 1985. And then I went in my vault and found some really interesting tracks to add to the record. And right now I’m looking for a lot of stuff to add to the “State of Euphoria” album; I have found a lot and it’s starting to take shape. I try to keep one of everything; it’s a lot of crap, I’ll tell you that! (laughs)
JFV: The Big Four shows seemed to give Anthrax a shot of adrenaline, along with a renewed sense of purpose. What happened?
CB: Scott and I were invited to the Rock ’n Roll Hall of Fame, you remember that? At the time we were a little “un together” about where the band was, and where the band was going. Afterwards, we were sitting at a bar and talking with Lars (Ulrich), and he said “What do you guys think about doing a Big Four type of thing?” And we looked at each other and went “That would be fucking awesome!” We both said to each other “We got to get this shit going, dust off everything and get this in motion.” And that’s what we did. We got our shit together and never stopped.
JFV: The new album is called “For All Kings”. What’s the story behind the title?
CB: “For All Kings” was a title I came up with that was my feeling about how in this day and age we need to look up to some more important people than some of the crap that people look up to. I think our kings, or my kings, when I was younger, were of course your dad or your favourite baseball player. For me KISS were such kings: I looked up to them as fucking gods. They made such an impact on me; they’re one of the reasons I do this. So I’m trying to convey that to a younger generation. I just feel some of these younger bands are just lazy in what they do. It’s almost like “ah, that’s good enough”. Man, come on, take that extra effort to not sound like that other band. Sound like yourself; strive to make something that’s original.
JFV: How did the songwriting for the album go?
CB: I’m always kind of humming riffs and ideas into my phone, and when I get home or whatever, I’ll grab my guitar and play what I hummed. So during that time I was sidelined and couldn’t do anything for about 6 weeks because I had bandages and stitches (Charlie has chronic carpal tunnel syndrome and had a wrist operation), I was just thinking about the album or just songs in general. Once I was able to play, I started to catalog these ideas and songs that I had, and I’d just get lost in my studio; I would just play and record. I’d listen back and be like “Wow, there’s some really good stuff here.” I would then make a demo of the song and send it to the guys, and they’d say “Great! Can’t wait to get together and play this”. And that’s how it went, and how it evolved.
We’re on tour right now and we play two brand new songs every night, and they go over extremely well which is a great sign. The response has been awesome and that’s all I can wish for. That’s the thing too about making a record: you live with it for so long, and you can feel really confident about it, think you’ve achieved something great but it’s only until other people hear it and you get great feedback; that’s when you know something was really good.
JFV: When we spoke last year, you told me you had 20 songs for the record. Did you finish them all?
CB: Personally I had 20 songs; we didn’t finish 20 but they’re still there and I can see these other songs appearing somewhere else at some point. We had to put a stop and say “Ok we need to finish this” so we picked the songs we felt were great and these were the songs that would be on the record.
JFV: How different are the finished songs from your original demos?
CB: Some of them are almost spot on and there’s not really much that’s been changed in them. Sometimes the way Scott’ll play a riff or two will change something. But I would never tell these guys “It’s gotta be like this.” Sometimes I’m very adamant about the groove of a section but it’s always open to interpretation.
JFV: Did you also write melodies?
CB: We all met in New-York to work on melodies and vocals, and this time around Frankie had a lot of melodic ideas so we used quite a bit of them too.
JFV: How was it to work with a new guitar player (Jon Donais) in the studio?
CB: Jon is an exceptional guitar player; he just plays stuff that just fucking blows me away. So when it came time to record some leads, Jon’s first approach needed a little more aggression and bite, and more melody. And once we started, boom, he was fucking blowing them out. I wanted the solos to be a song within a song. Because really, anybody can just come up and blow a bunch of notes. But let’s make this really memorable, so that people can whistle your leads as they’re walking down the street. And I think he really understood. He’s got the capability to really blow you away. And we loved them so much that we would write more material for him to play.
JFV: Do you have a favourite track on the record?
CB: That’s hard to say; I can’t pinpoint a single track because they’re all pretty personal; they all mean something at some point. The first three tracks were the thrash metal type of songs: “You Gotta Believe”, “Evil Twin” and “Zero Tolerance”. Those were just dying to come out. After we had about 6 songs, I kind of took a breather and said “I think we can go somewhere else now”. I had this song that ended up being “Blood Eagle Wings”; I had the demo for it and its working title was “Epic” because it was just so epic. My original demo was 8 minutes long, but it was like a musical journey.
It was just this very organic way of writing music, and not doing math equations. It wasn’t about ‘how are we going to get from point A to point B’; it was just an honest to goodness love of the music again that was driving it.
JFV: How are your wrists?
CB: My health issues are what a lot of drummers and athletes go through. I’ve just abused myself for so many years, being out playing show after show after show. Eventually something’s gonna break down; one of my tubes is gonna fucking go, you know? (laughs) Nowadays I just can’t tour the way I used to tour; I can’t play 6-7 weeks in a row. I need to have a little bit of a break and that’s when Jon Dette will come in, and he’s been awesome. He’s such a great drummer and we really don’t skip a beat at all… that’s pretty funny that I just said don’t skip a beat. I didn’t even realize that! (laughs)
I appreciate him more than ever because if it was up to me we’d tour for 2-3 weeks on and then take a 2 week break. But in this day and age, to sustain some kind of a living, you gotta work. Our days start off doing a bunch of phone interviews, and then some days we’ll have to do a record signing and when we’re back we’ll soundcheck and then we do a meet & greet and we have time eat, we warm up and then we play. That whole day is just consumed! It’s different now; it’s not sex, drugs and rock ’n roll anymore.
JFV: Social media has also transformed the business and demystified rock stars.
CB: I hate it. The Internet was created for information but nowadays that information has taken such a bad turn where the Internet is full of lies, deceit… porn (laughs). Just all the wrong things. People use it to just criticize and hurt people. That’s just the way I see it. You cannot say anything on the Internet without it coming back to hurt you. Because even if you’re saying something that’s really righteous and you’re feeling really strongly about it, there’s gonna be a ton of people who are just gonna say “Nah, fuck you. You’re a dick. You have all this money, why do you need more money.” Stupid shit like that; it’s so irritating.
There are so many times I’ve just said “I don’t even want to do this anymore.” I just want to delete every account and just start from scratch. We all need to clean our hard drives and start from scratch at some point because I don’t think we, as people, are operating in the best way that we should be operating.
I think we’re all really fucked up because of things like the Internet.
“For All Kings” will be released on February 26, 2016 (Megaforce in North America). More info at www.anthrax.com
This article was first published on Montreal Rampage.