Charlie Benante Is Still The Man

Thrash Like You Mean It

Benante missed a string of live dates the last few tours because of increasingly unmanageable carpel tunnel syndrome. The drummer has been dealing with wrist problems for 15 years, but it reached the point where six songs into a set his right hand would go numb — he couldn’t even feel the stick. He dealt with it on his own over the years either with massages, acupuncture, and when he was really desperate, cortisone shots. “You can’t do that too many times.” He did a ton of research until finally learning about a doctor in Los Angeles. There was a consultation and a procedure scheduled immediately. “He said everything would be fine, and that age is a factor in the amount of abuse that you’ve done to your hand. But, yeah, for the most part it’s okay. My problem is, after being on tour for let’s say three weeks, it starts to hurt. That’s why I can’t do a five or a sevenweek complete tour.”

With a song catalog as big as Anthrax’s you might need to jog the memory for the exact drum patterns on the deeper cuts, but the new stuff is fresh as a daisy. That’s because Benante basically writes the drum part at the same time he comes up with the riff — it’s a package deal. “Sometimes a riff will start with a drum pattern, and I’m already on top of it. I’ll just hear this finished version in my head.” That’s only half the battle. He still has to convince the rest of the crew. “Sometimes the hardest and the easiest part is trying to convey what you hear in your head to the other guys, because it seems like there’s a specific way that I hear it, but I don’t really like to tell them what to play. I like when those guys just kind of take it and express it their own way, but then there’s some times when it’s got to be, you know, ‘I hear it just like this. Can you please try to play it like that?’ Or vice versa, sometimes we’ll be playing something and Scott will say, ‘Can you speed it up or slow it down?’ So we’re always open for interpretations.”

You get even more interpretations by injecting new blood into the band. With the departure of Rob Caggiano, lead guitarist for most of the 2000s, Anthrax tapped Jonathan Donais (ex Shadows Fall) who wrote all the solos on For All Kings, but wasn’t present at the recording session with the rest of the band in L.A. and Chicago. It’s rare to join a band of Anthrax’s stature and immediately start leaving your imprint, but such is the uniquely intricate song building process in Anthrax. Like a good offensive coordinator, Benante offered plenty of guidelines. “There were moments where I said, ‘The guitar solo in the songs should be a song within a song.’ When you enter, you have to enter really strong because you want to make them sing that guitar solo after that song is done — that’s what makes a guitar solo memorable. Listen to the Randy Rhoads or Van Halen solos or even Ace Frehley solos. They’re songs within the song, and that’s where I wanted him to go.”

Working once again with Jay Ruston, Benante felt good about his drum parts, but knew the value of another set of ears. “I call him our George Martin,” he says of the producer. The machine-y sanitized tones of contemporary metal drums were something Benante wanted to avoid, so he, bassist Frank Bello (who comes up with vocal melodies before they are embellished by singer Joey Belladonna), and Ian scouted Los Angeles for a spot with a great drum room. “Our biggest thing was to get a great room sound so that we don’t have to add anything on it in the mix,” he says. “[Ruston] didn’t enhance one drum on this record. It’s all real drums.”

As methodical as they were during tracking, Benante feels Anthrax’s efforts go to waste given how people consume music today. “We spend so much time in the studio to get the greatest sounds so people can listen to it on these little ear-buds.” Audiences’ willingness to settle for subpar quality leads to a rant about today’s blasé attitude about music in general — not in a cranky way, but as a warning: Today’s listeners aren’t experiencing music’s full power to transport. Instead, we’ve settled for a background to our workouts. “Me and my friends still have this old school appreciation of music, and really, that was the whole basis behind my idea for Worship Music. Music is devalued and taken for granted. Kids will bitch that a song costs 99 cents, but have a $400 phone. So I don’t understand, but things need to change, the business model needs to change. I don’t like these services like Pandora because we as the artists don’t make s**t.” It’s hard to see the misanthropes of Anthrax looking up to Taylor Swift, but Benante admires the pop queen for refusing to put her music on Spotify. “Us compared to Taylor Swift is nothing, but I think that she did the right thing, especially for her fans.”

From the life-size Simpsons figures at home to the head-banging mermaid on his “Starbucks” kit, Benante’s love of art and comics is well known. Every Anthrax album cover except for the band’s debut has been Benante’s idea. For All Kings was the work of comic book artist Alex Ross, taken from a mock-up by Benante that reimagines the bandmembers as Babylonian kings or some kind of ancient rulers. As with the 15-year-old kid who stared at Kiss and Queen posters on his Bronx bedroom wall, music is still as much a visual experience for Benante as it is a sonic one. “I didn’t know they were going to be these iconic pieces of album art, but there was something about them back then. I would listen to the music and just stare at the album cover and that’s what I want our fans to do. I want them to get absorbed in the whole experience.”

That kind of imagination can cut both ways in the narrow world of metal. Early in Anthrax’s career, fans were confused by “Bring The Noise,” a collaboration with militant rap band Public Enemy from 1991’s Attack Of The Killer B’s (which Benante produced). “We just felt so compelled to do that stuff because we loved — well not everybody in the band loved rap, but some of us really loved it.” Benante makes no apologies for the experiment and then-label Island Records sure didn’t mind the EP’s certified gold sales. “That rap-rock thing was starting a big noise and maybe if we had continued with it we would have turned into a different band. But we just stuck to our guns because we were a heavy metal band.”

If such experiments came off as wacky, it’s nothing compared to midcareer missteps like Stomp 442 featuring singer John Bush and a grunge influenced sound that was unrecognizable to fans. “We made some great records with John, but I don’t think metal fans like being thrown a curveball,” he says. More important, the back and forth between Bush and Belladonna and the inability of either to commit hurt the band in the late ’90s/early 2000s, postponing or wrecking touring opportunities. Benante’s glad to have that chapter behind them. “I think [Belladonna] embodies that true Anthrax sound,” he says of the original singer’s clean, powerful, vibrato-laden pipes. “And at the end of the day he was the classic form of Anthrax. So I think that has a lot to do with [the return to our original sound] too.”

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