Anthrax’s Charlie Benante Talks Mayhem Set, ‘Worship Music’ + Much More
We recently had the chance to speak with legendary Anthrax drummer Charlie Benante. As one of the main acts on the 2012 Mayhem Festival, Anthrax chose to take a ‘guerilla’ style approach to their Mayhem set, pumping out song after song in an unrelenting series of bursts.
Along with discussing Mayhem Fest, we spoke with Benante about ‘Worship Music,’ the return of singer Joey Belladonna, zombies, the recent death of his mother + much more.
Check out our exclusive interview with Anthrax’s master of the drum kit, Charlie Benante.
Anthrax are playing this year’s Mayhem Fest and what I think is really interesting is that you guys, because of your shorter set time, have committed to play a really fast, blitzkrieg of a set like the Ramones used to do. Is that something you’ve always wanted to try as a musician?
Well when you’re put in a situation, you have to figure out the best way to handle the situation. How effective can you be in 40-45 minutes of getting the message across? You basically have to go out and do it and you have to live by that. If it’s going to be 40-45 minutes, lets try and hit it as hard as we can in that amount of time, so when we’re finished people are like, “Wow that’s killer!” you know what I mean? It was only 40-45 minutes but it felt like a fricken hammer coming over me, ya know? That’s the plan.
Were either Tommy Ramone, Marky Ramone or even Richie Ramone influences on your drumming?
No. Johnny Ramone was an influence on my drumming.
He was very percussive on the guitar.
Yeah, he kind of invented the all downstrokes thing.
Downstrokes, exactly. He was the man.
This year’s Mayhem Fest is getting a lot of attention because the lineup is so good. Do you think this is the best lineup in Mayhem history?
Well, for sure I can tell you it’s more like the European festivals than any other American festival. I mean, [there are] four bands that have had pretty much influenced many other bands. I mean, Motorhead influenced us a hell of a lot. You may not hear it in our music, but in the beginning of the band, Motorhead was the band that I looked up to because they didn’t care about getting on the radio or how they looked. They were the people’s band and that totally just stayed with me, you know what I mean? And I think Slayer would probably agree with me on that too. So I think this lineup is definitely not eclectic — it is a heavy metal lineup and it’s a heavy metal fan’s gift.
When you guys released ‘Worship Music,’ it got hugely positive reviews by critics and fans. It’s not the easiest thing to do to make a new comeback record. Other bands in the past weren’t able to do it so successfully. What is it about Anthrax that made it work so well?
I think throughout the history of the band and throughout our career we’ve always been a band that, kind of, has taken some chances musically. We’ve gone this way and we’ve gone that way and we never stayed a stranger. But the thing that bothers me sometimes [is] when I hear myself talking about it. These are good things to do — to take musical chances or you want to expand your musical horizon. But it also hurt us.
If I’ve learned anything it’s that heavy metal fans don’t want you to go to the left or to the right. They want to say to you on the street, “Please don’t go to the left anymore” or “Please don’t go to the right anymore,” “We want Anthrax to stay metal.” And for me, it almost makes me feel like, “Oh my god, this is music and you should be open minded.”
I took music as going in a different direction. It started to, and I think when that nu-metal explosion happened, I think people just got very like — when I talk about people, I’m talking about traditional heavy metal fans. When that happened, the nu-metal thing, I think a lot of the metal fans went, “I hate that,” and I really think they should be held responsible for a lot of that happening.
When recording ‘Worship Music,’ when in the process did you first think, “Wow, we’ve really got something here.”?
Well, a lot of these songs I’ve had for a long, long time and I … we knew, some of us in the band knew that this would be something really special. It wasn’t until Joey got involved that this record really started to take shape and I’ll never forget the day I heard him sing the first song and I heard it back and said, “That’s it. Yeah, that sounds like Anthrax!” I just knew that everything was going to be okay.
What song was that?
It was ‘Fight ‘Em ‘Til You Can’t.’ That was the first song. It just has this feel of a late ‘80s, early ‘90s Anthrax kind of persistence. It just had that type of vibe, and when Joey started singing … It was funny how we said, “That’s what been missing.”
I think fans, especially with ‘Fight ‘Em ‘Til You Can’t,’ have really, really embraced the song. It’s sort of become one of the fan favorites now and that song is all about zombies. Is the whole band made up of zombie fanatics?
[Laughs] I wouldn’t call [myself] a ‘zombie fanatic.’ I mean, speaking for myself, I’ve always been into horror movies since I was a little kid and I’ve always felt that heavy metal and horror go hand in hand together and I’ve been obsessed with the “zombie holocaust” thing for quite a while now. Ironically, we’re in Europe and this whole bath salts thing happened.
Yeah, that was weird.
Yeah, it’s weird. So I always felt if there was going to be a zombie holocaust, it would be caused by drugs and here it was. It was like entertaining art.
Author’s note: This interview took place before ‘bath salts’ were ruled out in the ‘Florida Zombie’ incident.
[Laughs] When it comes to touring with Joey back in the band, how would you compare touring with him 20 years ago to touring with him now?
I hate him a lot more! [Laughs] We’re together quite a bit and we are much more mature than when we were in our 20s — back then we were just like goofy kids. You know, now we’re much more mature and we deal with things in a much more mature way and we actually enjoy each other’s company a lot more.
That’s probably a part of the Ramones you don’t want to take into your band. They didn’t seem to like each other all that much.
You know what? People don’t understand this, but being in a band for a long time — you become a family. And when you are a family, you can’t help but have issues because one person decides that he’s going to do things differently than everybody else does and all of a sudden that one person becomes the outsider of that group and then the other guys start to “click” and then before you know it, that one guy is out of the band. If we had more communication, and I’m not speaking about just being in a band, but if we all had more communication I think our problems could have resolved a lot sooner.
I got the chance to see you guys in New York City in February, and unfortunately that was very soon after your mother passed away. Where did you and [your nephew] Frank [Bello, bass] find the strength to just keep going and play that show?
Well, my mom was always, always, always so supportive, and I knew, she always knew, for me the happiest place was me sitting down and playing my drums. I know that it’s cliche to say, “Oh, she would want us to do that show,” but we talked about it. So, she wanted me to go do this show, and for me the best thing was about a month before when we played Yankee Stadium. I was chatting with my mom there and it was one of the last shows she got to see and she was just so happy about it and it was a great night. So it’s hard to put everything into words but it was just … that night, everything was just special.
Yeah, it certainly was to a ton of metal fans. Can we expect any future ‘Big Four’ dates?
I get this question everyday. I would give you Lars [Ulrich's] number but I don’t think he would be happy about that. [Laughs] I always joke [that] they (Metallica) gave all the bands this hotline and whenever it rings, we answer it.
Do you think the guys from Slayer and Megadeth feel a similar way to that? Are Metallica really the ones you’re all getting the call from? Do they feel the same or can you not really speak for them?
Oh, I think they do. Oh yeah, I think they do too. I think, you know, Slayer are really into the shows. Those guys loved it and we had a good time. And I think, you know, Metallica makes the call and hopefully everyone’s schedule works. The thing about the Big Four is, to me it’s all about the music and the fans that have made us all what we are today. So why not give them what they really want? That’s the way I view it.
I’ve had the pleasure of asking a lot of thrash metal musicians about who their favorite thrash drummer is. In your opinion, who’s the best thrash guitarist and who’s the best thrash frontman?
The best thrash guitarist? Wow, I would have to break it down to maybe sub-categories. I really love the riffing on ‘Bonded by Blood,’ so that’s Gary Holt (Exodus). If I’m going for really heavy type of chunking stuff, I’d say James [Hetfield] on the ‘Master of Puppets’ record. I think his wrist is awesome on that record. If I’m going for sheer brutality I would have to say Kerry [King] on ‘Hell Awaits.’ Best thrash frontman? I’d have to give it to Joey [Belladonna], because he’s the best frontman.