Along with guitarist Scott Ian, drummer Charlie Benante is the only other Anthrax member to play on every studio album by the band. And in addition to supplying rapid-fire beats, Benante is also a major contributor to the group's songwriting - most Anthrax tracks start with bits he writes on guitar.
Anthrax has never been ashamed to unveil their influences by recording cover tunes. The latest batch of tributes comprise the album Anthems, which will be released on March 19th (via Megaforce Records) and include renditions of classics originally recorded by Rush, Thin Lizzy, AC/DC, Boston, Cheap Trick, and Journey, as well as an all-new tune, "Crawl."
Here, Charlie explains how they selected these songs, and reveals how Tom Scholz, Queen, and John Belushi have affected the band. He also talks songwriting specifics and clears up any misconceptions about his current status in the band.
Charlie Benante: I actually wrote some songs on the first album, Fistful of Metal, and you could hear the songs that I was affiliated with, songs like "Death Rider" and "Death from Above." They started to have a different sound, more of a thrash metal-y sound.
Songfacts: At what point did you start playing guitar on Anthrax albums?
Charlie: I started playing guitar back in the late '80s. I would do a lot of the acoustic stuff, and then me and Scott would work out guitar parts. Then I would just end up playing the other part of it, and Scott would basically play all the rhythms on the record - all the meat and potatoes.
Songfacts: Besides those songs you mentioned on the first album, what are some other riffs that you're responsible for, as far as some of the better-known Anthrax songs over the years?
Charlie: I pretty much wrote most of the Anthrax songs, with Scott writing the lyrics. The bulk of the material and the ideas usually come from me and then we grow on it. Scott will write the lyrics and some of the other guys, of course, will add and help arrange. Frankie [Bello, bass player] adds a bit to it, too. But usually I'll come in with the basic framework for the tune.
Songfacts: What is your guitar setup?
Charlie: It differs. But the basic writing setup that I have, I've had a Vox AC30 since, god, 1990. I have two of those. And I run a bunch of effects through that. That's been my primary amplifier for writing. The guitars that I use, I've had my star body Charvel that's from like, 1980. I've pretty much written 80 percent of the Anthrax songs on that guitar. That guitar has a ton of songs in it. And then a friend of mine made me this Eddie Van Halen replica a few years back. It's built off an Ibanez Destroyer, and it looks like, chopped away. So I've been playing that for quite a few years now, and written a lot of Worship Music [2011 Anthrax album] songs on that guitar.
Songfacts: That's modeled after the guitar Eddie Van Halen is playing on the cover of Women and Children First, right?
Songfacts: And then what about effects; do you use any distortion boxes or effects when you write, or are you just running it straight into the amp?
Charlie: No, it's not straight to the amp. I've had this old TC Electronics distortion boost pedal since like the '80s, and I still have like three of them. I use that and I use this Metal Zone distortion pedal. And just some other effects - delay and chorus.
Songfacts: I remember reading an interview where you said that you're an admirer of [Boston mainman] Tom Scholz's guitar work and also songwriting.
Charlie: The thing about Tom Scholz is that he was a perfectionist. And the sound that came out of him and the band was such a signature tone. You hear those songs, boom, that is Boston. I mean, that first album for me was just like a greatest hits record. There's not a bad song on it. And when I was younger, I remember summer of like, '77, you just couldn't help but hear those songs blasting out of cars driving by and hearing it on the radio constantly.
It's just such a great memory, at least for me. I know other people who were born around the same era probably have the same type of memories of music. Whereas, nowadays, it's kind of sad that people won't have those really cool memories that we all had.
Songfacts: Right. Because back then it was more about album rock.
Charlie: Uh huh.
Songfacts: Who are some other songwriters that you admire?
Charlie: I've always admired, of course, The Beatles. That goes without saying. Those guys were together as a band making records for like eight years. And the body of work that they created in eight years to me is just astounding. It doesn't even make sense nowadays, because look, it took us eight years just to get this record [Worship Music] done! I love The Beatles. I'm always drawing inspiration from them, whether it be from their music or some documentary that I'll see on them.
The other bands, songwriting talent, I'd have to say Zeppelin, because when they were heavy, they were fuckin' heavy. And when they were kind of light, they wrote some of the most beautiful, soft, not ballad-y types, but just kind of folky songs that are just beautiful. I mean, a song like "The Rain Song," I don't know, man, sometimes I listen to it and I'm like, "This is just beautiful. Did this just pour out? How does it happen?"
Another band is Queen, who to me, wrote some of the heaviest shit, and then they could bounce backwards something like "Lazing on a Sunday Afternoon," which is totally the opposite of "Tie Your Mother Down." And it's just beautiful. All these groups who were so influenced by the blues from America, and totally took and did something amazing with it.
Songfacts: Queen is my all time favorite band, and something that I've always loved about them is they're one of the few rock bands that could do just about any style and it didn't sound forced, it sounded pretty natural with them.
Charlie: Correct. And they had four amazing writers in that band, as well. And to me, if I had to break them all down as far as who did what and who did this, I mean, I love what Brian May added to the other guys' songs. He always complemented really well on any of the guys' songs. But then you have someone like John Deacon who didn't write a lot of songs for Queen, but the songs that he did write were like, "Wow, that's pretty impressive." "Another One Bites the Dust."
Songfacts: And he also wrote "You're My Best Friend."
Charlie: It's awesome. And I don't even know if he had a part in "Dragon Attack."
Songfacts: Yeah. I don't know. I always thought he did. But maybe he didn't. I don't even know [It turns out Brian May is listed as the song's sole composer]. And then something else - does your songwriting approach differ when it depends on what singer you're working with at the time?
Charlie: In the past when we were in the full swing of things, in the early part of our career, I knew exactly how Joey [Belladonna] would sound on a song, so I kind of wrote with him in mind. And then when John [Bush] was in the band, I took a different approach and just went a little heavier and slower. And with Joey back in the band, he really impressed me so much with what he did on this last record - Worship Music - with his approach on the songs. He just nailed everything. I was so happy when he was singing these songs, and you could just hear the songs come to life. It's such a great thing.
So now I'm so excited about the next one. And of course, with this Anthems EP that we're going to put out, Joey's approach on these classic songs, he nails every song and he tries and put a little bit of that vocalist in it, but it still stays true to his own voice.
Songfacts: Usually with these interviews, there's a part where I'll name a few songs, and you can just let me know what comes to mind as far as the creation of it with songwriting or recording. If you want to start with "Metal Thrashing Mad."
Charlie: I remember that was one of the first tunes that we wrote when I was in the band. And it was just short and sweet. It didn't need to be four or five minutes. It was a short song and just pretty much got to the point. And that was like the start of the thrashier type of songs that we were venturing into.
Songfacts: And the song, "NFL," would you want to confirm what I've always assumed: it was about John Belushi?
Charlie: Yep. That's true.
Songfacts: I take it the band were pretty big fans of Belushi.
Charlie: It wasn't a pro drug song, because we've never been pro drug. But we did love John Belushi and his contribution to comedy. He influenced so many that came after him. It was just a shame that he died so young, and how drug use pretty much controls your life. I mean, he just loved to have a good time and he just took it a little bit too far.
Songfacts: And is it true that "I'm The Man" was originally going to be recorded with the Beastie Boys?
Charlie: That's true.
Songfacts: How did that idea first come about and how did it wind up that the Beastie Boys didn't appear on the song?
A lot of it was based on the film Easy Money. We just went for it. Looking back at it, we tried to do somewhat of a Beastie Boy interpretation. And that was it. That song blew up on us and it was by accident.
Songfacts: And what about the song "Only."
Charlie: "Only" was the first song written for The Sound of White Noise record, and that was the first song that John wrote with us. Instantly, it became such a very catchy song, and we were all really excited about that. And then what that record became after that was really exciting.
Some people said we went a little "grunge" on that record. But the only reason why they say that is because Dave Jerden produced it, and he did the Alice in Chains stuff. It would be really hard for us to come out and do Among the Living again with a new vocalist. I think it was a watershed moment.
Songfacts: I think I remember reading once that James Hetfield said "Only" is his favorite Anthrax song.
Charlie: At the time he said that, and then he changed it to "Safe Home."
Songfacts: Tell me about the song "Fight 'Em Til You Can't."
Charlie: Well, that was one of the first songs written for this Worship Music record. I remember Scott being really excited back when we got together and started writing. He was excited about the riffs. If there's one thing about Scott, he loves a fast fuckin' riff. He either loves a real fast riff or real heavy type of riff. So with "Fight 'Em," I could tell that he was really happy about, "This is going to be a new Anthrax song."
And then some of the songs that came after that, I remember him being really excited about "Earth on Hell," as well, because that was another fast song. And it was funny, because we were just in that frame of mind. It wasn't a song that we were forcing ourselves to write. It's just these are the riffs that were coming out and these are the ideas that I had. And I was just in that mode - I wanted to thrash again.
But unlike the aforementioned acts, S.O.D. didn't take themselves too seriously, as evidenced by such song titles as "Milk," "Pre-Menstrual Princess Blues," "Pussy Whipped," and "Fuck the Middle East," all off their classic 1985 release, Speak English or Die. And as with many metal-based acts of the '80s, S.O.D. had its very own mascot, a delightful-looking, cigar-puffing gentleman by the name of Sgt. D.
Charlie: That was Scott and Danny Lilker.
Songfacts: Were there any riffs on the S.O.D. album that you wrote?
Charlie: The bulk of that was Scott and Danny. I had a hand in some of the things, like "Milk" and "United Forces." But the bulk of that stuff was those guys.
Songfacts: Does anything stick out as far as writing "Milk"?
Charlie: Yeah. The beat has got to be this extreme beat. So that's how that whole song came together, because the beat was what it was going to be. So I kind of modeled it after that.
Songfacts: Before, you mentioned the Anthems cover EP that's coming up. How does Anthrax go about choosing cover songs?
Charlie: When we're going to record a new record, we usually have a talk about, "What are you feeling?" We usually throw some names of songs in a hat and then we'll say, "Yeah, yeah, cool, cool." And it was weird how the Rush one ["Anthem"] came about, because we were on tour and me and Joey were on a Rush kick. And Joey's like, "What song would you do?" And in the back of my mind, I didn't want to do a real '80s type song by Rush, because I guess it would be kind of obvious that you would probably pick something off of Moving Pictures or something. We didn't want to do that. So we went way back and we were talking about the first live album [All the World's a Stage] and "Anthem." That was the one. Because I think the thing about "Anthem" was it had elements of songs like off of our first album, and it appealed to us. We just went for it.
Songfacts: And looking back on the songs on Anthems, are there any that were surprisingly challenging, or were you pretty familiar with all of the songs that were selected?
Charlie: Well, for me, I wanted to keep it as close as possible to the original, but add a little bit of myself in it. I think the one that challenged me the most was the Rush song, because I played it as close as Neil [Peart] played it, but then I went and tracked the guitar, too, so Joey could sing over it. That was really challenging to me, playing the guitar parts in that song, because I was now following myself, but I was also following Neil. I had to really watch what I was doing and pay attention to where he was pushing it and where he was pulling it. So from a guitar player's standpoint, I just had to lay back a bit on parts. And then other parts, I had to push it.
Songfacts: And the last question I have is for fans that may be wondering: what is your current status in Anthrax?
Songfacts: In the past year there have been drummers filling in.
Charlie: Well, I hurt my hand a while back. And that problem still comes up here and there. But as far as anything else goes, I can't really discuss another factor of it.
Songfacts: I understand. Fans, I'm sure, just want to have peace of mind to hear that you're still a full member of the band.
Charlie: Oh, of course. 100 percent. As far as me and the band, I'm 100 percent in the band.
February 26, 2013.
Greg previously interviewed Charlie for the book, The Eric Carr Story.
The official Anthrax site is at anthrax.com.
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