Anthrax's Scott Ian is sick of describing his music. "It needs to be experienced, it needs to be felt, it needs to be heard," the excitable guitarist says a few hours before he and his fellow headbangers take the stage at the Moody Theater in Austin, Texas. "This is just a super metal record."
Luckily for Ian, as the group has been test-driving songs off its upcoming 11th LP, For All Kings, including the blissful rager "Breathing Lightning" and thrashy battle cry "Evil Twin," it's been to the audible elation of fans. "People seem to connect with them, especially 'Breathing Lightning,'" he says. "When that ends, there's always a big roar."
Thirty-five years have passed since he started Anthrax as a high school student in Queens, New York and helped create a chunky, hyper-speed sound that put them at the forefront of thrash metal. Their ever-mercurial lineup has changed significantly since then, as they've settled into a writing core of Ian, drummer Charlie Benante and bassist Frank Bello, who fine-tune songs before turning them over to singer Joey Belladonna and recently added guitarist Jonathan Donais.
But it's nevertheless a system that works well compared to Anthrax's past, when Ian & Co. micromanaged Belladonna's recordings on classic albums like Among the Living and Persistence of Time before ultimately firing him in 1992. The band has learned from its past, Ian says. Following the genesis of their last LP, 2011's Worship Music, a years-in-the-making LP that found them working with two other vocalists before welcoming back Belladonna permanently to the fold, For All Kings was a cakewalk.
Here, Ian reflects on how he learned to let go of his "control freak" ways and how he and his bandmates found the internal bliss to make music that transcends their own explanation.
This is the first time you wrote a record with Joey Belladonna's voice in mind in a quarter century. How was that different for you?
We weren't thinking about it from a sonic perspective. It was more a case of the vibe in the band after doing Worship Music. We're really just becoming Anthrax again. So when we started writing in the beginning in 2013, we had a momentum and an attitude and confidence that hadn't been there in a long time. The writing sessions were different than in the past because we weren't distracted so much by outside bullshit. We could just be Anthrax.
Well, making Worship Music was a Homeric Odyssey.
Yeah. We don't need to rehash that [laughs].
When did Anthrax feel like a band again?
Pretty soon after Joey came back in 2010 and we toured with Megadeth and Slayer. That's when we started listening to the music for Worship Music as a band. We'd play songs in the dressing room and think about what we could do better. As soon as I heard Joey singing the new songs, any questions I ever had about the future of this band went away.
How did you incorporate Joey into this album's creative process?
Anthrax songs don't happen until it's in the room really with Charlie, Frankie and me arranging material. But for Joey, we left a lot of room for him – even going back to Worship Music – we felt we didn't need to be looking over his shoulder like we used to back in the Eighties and the Nineties. We used to all sit there and analyze and nitpick, and obviously things didn't work that way. So we decided to let Joey just work with Jay [Ruston, producer] and do his thing.
What do you mean?
No one else in the band has everybody hanging over his shoulder when he's doing his thing, so why should we all hang over Joey's? Obviously we had to become grownups to come to that decision [laughs]. So we sent template ideas of the songs to Joey – like, I've written lyrics that I shout down into my phone – but then we just leave it in Joey's hands. He's, like, the Superman of vocals. There's nothing he can't do, which I realized in the last five years. I certainly used to be a control freak and I'm not that person anymore in any shape or form, and Joey has certainly proved that he doesn't need anybody looking over his shoulder.
How did you let go of your "control freak" ways?
It started in my personal life and then I tried to adapt the idea of just not trying to control things I can't control to the band. I learned a long time ago just to focus on things that I should stay focused on and stop trying to control the whole world.
You write Anthrax's lyrics. What inspired "Evil Twin," which lambastes religious zealotry?
I live on planet Earth [laughs]. Actually, it's something that I have been thinking about for a long time, and it was the Charlie Hebdo shootings in Paris that what was the proverbial straw. I have a lot of anger and emotion towards that. "Evil Twin" was a very specific, "Here's a window into my brain about how I feel about religious extremism." I don't think how I feel about it is too surprising but I just needed to vent.
Let's talk about a different type of extremism. Former Pantera frontman Phil Anselmo, whom you are friends with, recently made a Nazi salute onstage and shouted "white power." You posted to Instagram that you'd like him to make a donation to the Simon Wiesenthal Center. What went through your mind when you saw him do that?
There was a lot of screaming in my brain: "Oh no. Please don't let this be real!" First and foremost, we are friends. I love Phil Anselmo like a brother. He's family to me. We've known each other for 30 years almost. This isn't something like where I'm just like, "Fuck this guy!" I know deep down, truly that he's not that person. But I had to say something publicly about it, because to me, silence is being complicit.
Phil is taking a deep hard look at himself and his life, and he is going to do what he needs to do to fix things. Kids who listen to this type of music shouldn't think that this is OK. I've seen so much rhetoric out there saying, "What's the big deal?" Ugh. I don't think I need to explain history to tell you what the big deal is. I've even seen a comment as stupid as, "Well, why does Scott ask for a donation to the Simon Wiesenthal Center? That's a Jewish thing. White Power has nothing to do with the Jews." So that's the stupidity that's out there. This is a big fucking deal and everybody needs to know that. Education needs to happen.
"My soul was impaled on metal."
Getting back to the record, on the song "You Gotta Believe," the lyrics talk about how you won't something be "viciously impaled." What are you talking about?
To me, it's about blind faith, but it could be about anything that you would sell your soul to. When we say, "impaled" in the chorus, it's like being impaled on religion or politics or drugs or crime, or in my case, impaled on metal. And that's really where I was coming from with that song. In a sense, I sold my soul to this back in 1981. I committed, and I've never looked back. My soul was impaled on metal.
Who came up with the title For All Kings?
Charlie sent it over, and those words just resonated. I didn't know what they meant or if there was even going to be a song "For All Kings," but just those three words together resonated really deep within me. And I wrote him back and I said, "I think that might be the album title."
For All Kings to Charlie means a tribute to music, a tribute to the people that came before us. But for me, it became about being a king for yourself. It's about throwing out the idea of trying to be the boss of someone else, and just growing up and becoming a man. And there's a line in the song, "The king is dead, long live the man in me." And actually, if you really want to get down to the deeper meaning, it's actually a love song. It's about respecting and loving and treating whoever it is you are with in your life as an equal. I think everybody has the opportunity to accomplish that in their lives.