Charlie Benante (Anthrax)

by Greg Prato

Sometimes in rock bands, drummers are merely time-keepers, whose place in the background is probably for the best. Not the case with Anthrax' Charlie Benante, one of two steady members of the band since 1983 (along with guitarist Scott Ian), and also a major songwriter since their inception.

Along the way, Anthrax helped introduce thrash metal worldwide, and are responsible for such classic albums of the genre as 1984's Fistful of Metal, 1985's Spreading the Disease, 1987's Among the Living (among other titles), and such anthems as "Madhouse," "I Am the Law," and "Indians."

The band is still going strong - their 11th studio album overall, For All Kings, dropped in early 2016 and became one of the highest charting albums of their entire career, peaking at #9. Having once chatted with Songfacts a few years back, Charlie was up for a second round of questioning while in the midst of a co-headlining US tour with Killswitch Engage in the spring of 2017.
Greg Prato (Songfacts): What's the most underrated Anthrax song?

Charlie Benante: This last album that we put out, we had a song called "Breathing Lightning," which is probably the most radio-friendly song we ever had, but because of that "heavy metal stigma" that is always attached to us, we don't get a fair shake in radio. It definitely was eligible for that type of thing, because when that song was being added to radio, I saw all the other songs that were on the charts and I thought to myself, "Well, this one has more accessibility than a lot of these songs."

The reason why these bands that are on the charts with songs is only because they've had radio prior to that. So, I just think that this whole way the music business is run and structured - especially nowadays - is just completely wrong.

Songfacts: Which song by the other Big 4 has the sickest drumming?

Charlie: I like this one thing that Lars [Ulrich] does in the song "Battery," where it's after the lead section, and it just has this double bass thing. I just always liked that part. And there's a song on Slayer's Hell Awaits record, "Praise of Death" - there's a fill towards the end of the song that's pretty sick.

Songfacts: Is Flavor Flav any good on drums?

Charlie: Flavor Flav is very good on drums. Every day on tour [Anthrax and Public Enemy toured together in 1991, and appeared together in the video for "Bring the Noise"], I had a drum kit set up in the dressing room - a warm-up kit - and he would come in every day and just play. He was really good.

Songfacts: How do you feel about making videos?

Charlie: I hate it. It's that cliché of "hurry up and wait."

Songfacts: Were there any videos that you were particularly proud of?

Charlie: My favorite type of videos are the ones that they come and film us in our environment - not we go to them and we're in their environment.

Songfacts: I find the '80s era of videos on MTV - and their politics/policies - particularly interesting, as I wrote a book earlier about it [MTV Ruled the World: The Early Years of Music Video]. And I recall hearing that MTV resisted playing a video that Anthrax shot in 1988, "Who Cares Wins," which focused on the homeless situation in the US.

Charlie: That's exactly what happened. And then Phil Collins came out with a song, and it had all these homeless people in it, and that was praised.

Songfacts: The song "Another Day in Paradise," right?

Charlie: That's exactly what it was. I just watched this CNN documentary series called Soundtracks, and they did one on 9/11. And the funny thing - and the fucked-up thing about it - is it talks about how it impacted people's lives, and they showed Billy Joel, Sting, the Dixie Chicks. It would have been nice to go into a different type of genre, maybe hard rock or heavy metal, and show how the whole thing had an effect on our band, and how we played that show for the policemen and the firemen. But they didn't mention anything about that.

It's just one more of those things: that mainstream mentality that so much is so overlooked that it's just the cream of the crop that always gets mentioned. It's just how I feel about the music business in general - it's such a bunch of crap.

Charlie is referring to how his band was affected by 9/11. When Scott Ian came up with the band name in his high school science class, anthrax was known as a disease that afflicted sheep and cattle, but in the weeks after 9/11, letters containing anthrax spores were sent to media outlets and government offices, killing five people and giving many Americans a fear of unfamiliar mail. Suddenly, the word "anthrax" was associated with terrorism - it would be like if a band today was named Isis.

Anthrax is one of the best monikers in metal, and they had been using it for 20 years. Wisely ignoring those mainstream mentality calls to change it, they held firm, and when the scare abated, the band went back to being the #1 search result for "anthrax."

The show Charlie mentions was the New York Steel benefit concert, emceed by Eddie Trunk and New York Mets star Mike Piazza, which featured performances by local bands Twisted Sister, Ace Frehley, Sebastian Bach, and Overkill - as well as Anthrax, whose members hit the stage wearing white jumpsuits that spelled out the message WE'RE NOT CHANGING OUR NAME. The sold-out show raised about $90,000 for the New York Police and Fire Widows' and Children's Benefit Fund.
Songfacts: Let's talk about the meaning behind some Anthrax songs, starting with "AIR."

Charlie: That was a song that was added to the album [Spreading the Disease] when it was completed. I had this idea for another song, and the title was "AIR." It was kind of a rebellious type of song, and I took this whole "Rhapsody in Blue" and I made it "Adolescence in Red," which was basically youth in a rebellious type of state.

Songfacts: "Stand or Fall."

Charlie: "Stand or Fall" was one of those songs that I was apprehensive to show the band, because it wasn't a very "thrash metal-y" song. But I liked it, and it was very melodic.

We just made it work. We put it on the record, and it fit with the other songs. But it is a bit of a departure from that record, I think.

Songfacts: "Horror of It All."

Charlie: "Horror of It All" was written about Cliff Burton, and the whole tragic accident that happened. It had a huge effect on us. It had a deeper thing for those guys, but for us, we were friends with Cliff, and we were on the tour when it happened. [Burton died in bus accident on September 27, 1986, while Metallica was on tour with Anthrax in Sweden.]

We didn't even know how to deal with it - with death. It was a very surreal moment. You have to also remember, this is a time when there were no cell phones, no social media, so only we knew what happened. It wasn't even out there yet. It was a very strange moment.

Songfacts: "Imitation of Life."

Charlie: That was just about the fakeness of what we were seeing with music and with people, which still goes on today - the same exact vibe. You have people, especially in the music business and radio promotion, that you have to deal with, and they are just people who work. Some of them don't give a fuck about the song that they're working on, or the band that they're working on. It's just a job to them, and it's just so fake when they come to the show and they're like, "I love this, I love this!" It's such a bunch of bullshit.

Songfacts: "Be All, End All."

Charlie: That was always the working title for that song. I wanted that song to start off with the haunting cello playing. I wanted it to finish that way, and in between it was of course us playing the tune. But I always thought that "Be All, End All" was a great title for a song, because we always used that phrase so much: "It's the be all, end all."

Songfacts: "Who Cares Wins."

Charlie: At this time, we were starting to become aware of the homeless situation and the homeless problem in America. I remember going to play Portland, and usually on the days off, I would just go out to toy stores or record stores, just to go out for my day off and explore, and see what I could find. And a lot of times, I would see tons of homeless people. Everywhere. And back then, you really never got into the whole mental illness thing that was also going on, or the drug addiction, or how these were veterans who were basically tossed aside, and now were just part of society and we weren't taking care of them.

To this day, I know that problem still exists, because I just went to Portland and saw it again first hand. I don't know why I'm picking on Portland, it just happens to be on my mind because I just came back from it. We were just in LA, and I was in this area where the Wiltern Theater is, and there is a huge homeless section. It's hard for me to figure out in this day and age how we still have such a huge homeless problem, but I guess with everything - the economy, the drug abuse, the mental illness - we talk about it, but I don't think we ever really fix it. It's an ongoing problem, and I think this problem will probably always be here - until we're both gone.

Songfacts: And lastly, the song "In My World."

Charlie: "In My World" is another one of those songs where it is a very introspective type of thing: What we were seeing and what we were dealing with. Sometimes, in people's worlds, things aren't great - things are dark. There's no comedy in certain people's worlds. And the one thing I am going to say about being a musician and being in a band, believe me, it's not glamorous - it does have a lot of darkness to deal with. I guess that goes with everything, but you can use it in a cathartic type of way.

It always sounds so cliché when people say, "Oh, thank you for writing this song, it really helped me through a hard time," but it's the truth. That's just the way it is. I think everybody in their life will have a situation where they deal with a death in the family or a death of a friend or a loved one, and it hits you in such a way that sometimes music is the only thing that does help you through it.

Songfacts: Can you think of any examples of bands or albums that helped you through tough parts of your life?

Charlie: Well, my dad died when I was five years old, and I didn't understand it at five years old - I started to understand it when I was a bit older, because you really felt that loss and that absence. When it would hit me would be things like in school or other things like baseball, where you see the other kids with their dads, and you don't have that. You don't have that experience anymore - that's been taken away from you.

And I remember finding it in different things, just diving into music, diving into horror movies and things like that. And yeah, The Beatles did help me get through a lot of it, and Kiss and stuff like that helped me get through a lot of it. I think it made me see that it was the path that I was on, and this was the path I was taking.

May 9, 2017
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Comments: 1

  • Dsavala from CaliforniaThanks for this, it’s an excellent interview. I didn’t realize Charlie lost his dad at such a young age.
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