It’s a good thing Charlie Benante is working on his own coffee blend since he’s putting in so much time and energy at his day job. As Anthrax’s main songwriter, art director and one of the most celebrated drummers of the modern era it is a rare moment to catch Charlie without his energy invested in one creation or another. The new Anthrax EP, “Anthems” covers a pretty interesting variety of artists, some of whom you might have never imagined influencing the thrash icons at first glance. The new EP comes out March 19th, uniquely packaged in six different versions and three days later the band heads out on a new run of dates, this time performing their classic “Among the Living” album in its entirety and headlining the Metal Alliance tour along with Exodus, High On Fire, Municipal Waste and Holy Grail. For all of us enjoying the band’s new renaissance it is pretty cool to see Anthrax off and running in 2013 and back out on the road with Mr. Benante. I was very happy to once again be calling Charlie , a fellow Illinois resident and massive Cheap Trick fan, to catch up on all things Thrax . Read on….
Legendary Rock Interviews: Hey Charlie, thanks for talking to us again. I jumped at the chance to review this “Anthems” EP and granted I am a big fan of the band but I don’t ever remember being so excited a collection of cover songs. You guys have done plenty of covers over the years, did you approach this any differently this time around?
Charlie Benante: The only difference here is that we had so many songs already done here and then we kind of dusted them off and revisited them. When we did we started to get really excited about it like “Wow, these are really cool” and then we really wanted to finish them and let everyone else hear them, we liked them and we wanted everyone else to hear them too.
LRI: You can practically hear your singer Joey Belladonna smiling ear-to-ear on these tracks.
Charlie: Joey was really into it and the way he approached the songs was really cool because he paid tribute to the singers who did them originally but he would also put himself into it as well which I thought ended up really, really cool.
LRI: A lot of drummers would love to be able to have the chops to nail a RUSH track and you absolutely did with your performance on “Anthem”. Was that something you’ve been waiting to do ever since you were a kid?
Charlie: Well, let’s put it this way….If I’m gonna cover a RUSH song you can be damn straight that I’m really gonna pay attention to detail and speaking only for myself I am paying tribute to one of the greatest drummers ever in Neil Peart. For me growing up Neil was a BIG influence and I remember sitting in my room putting headphones on and playing along to RUSH songs. All of these artists really helped me to develop my chops and my style so here I am all these years later, sitting in that seat again and playing RUSH songs (laughs). Anthems is a great track to play and of course some people have said, “How come you didn’t play a latter song from a different part of their career” and of course it would have been obvious to do a song like “Tom Sawyer” but that just didn’t really “fit” us. “Anthem” really seemed to fit our style, especially our first couple albums, it sounds like that type of song.
LRI: I know that besides songwriting and drumming you are also sort of the art director of ANTHRAX and the concepts you guys have for this particular release are amazing. The idea of six separate album covers to individually represent each of the songs really appeals to me as a KISS fan and packaging freak. The Rush and AC/DC ones are hilarious, how did you arrive at these covers?
Charlie: My friend Stephen Thompson has become our artist, our graphics guy and he and I worked together on this “Anthems” EP. As a goof he did the AC/DC one and I saw it and was just like “Holy shit! This is awesome!” and that just got the ball rolling from there. At the end of the day I treated it like it was collecting baseball cards or something where you don’t know what you’re going to get when you open it up. That’s the same line of thinking I was going for with this release. The outside cover is going to be the spray-painted ANTHRAX logo on the brick wall but there is a little bit of a cutout in the front of it where you can get a glimpse of the cover behind it so you can pick from the six different covers on the inside. We just want to keep it interesting and kind of fun, the way things used to be in the 70s with KISS releases where they would always put something really special in there or Led Zeppelin would always put something cool in the album packaging. It’s a way to make the actual release interesting again as opposed to a song just being one of thousands of files on your iPod or computer.
LRI: You know I’m calling you from a Rockford 815 area code and I am just dying wondering what the Cheap Trick cover for “Big Eyes” is going to look like!
Charlie: Oh man, that’s a cool one (laughs). I can tell you that a Cheap Trick fan will really love it and it’s very Japanese!
LRI: This isn’t the first time you guys have covered a Cheap Trick song but your cover of “BIG EYES” is the most Anthrax-y to me along with “Anthem”. What made you lean toward that particular song?
Charlie: It’s definitely one of their heavier riffs and it’s always been a favorite of ours. I mean, we LOVE Cheap Trick, for me there are so many moments in Cheap Trick’s catalog that stand out it is insane. I would also have loved to pull out something from their first album, there’s a song called “Oh Candy” which is just fuckin brilliant and also “He’s a Whore” which we play at soundchecks all the time and also “Speak Now or Forever Hold Your Peace” which is to me their heaviest record. It’s so funny to me how that first album is so dark and heavy and then the next record “In Color” is kind of light and poppy but again had moments on it too which were heavier like “Big Eyes” and “Clock Strikes Ten”. Just a great, great band and a huge band for Anthrax.
LRI: You guys covered “SMOKIN” by Boston which has become as much of a staple radio classic from them as anything off of that first record. Was it difficult to narrow down which song to approach?
Charlie: Yeah, the thing about Boston is that it didn’t matter which song we picked off of that first album, every song is a fuckin hit. The most obvious hit would have of course been “More Than A Feeling” but I felt “Smokin” kind of had this heavy drive to it and the only obstacle in that song was the keyboard solo. None of us in the band could really pull that one off so we actually got someone to come in and do it. Originally it was going to be just a guitar playing the keyboard part but Rob (Caggiano, former guitarist) never kind of got around to doing it so it was done by an actual keyboardist who just fuckin NAILED it. I’m so happy that happened because it really made the song, that keyboard part, you have to have it in there.
LRI: You mentioned that Joey really paid homage to all these classic singers like Brad Delp, Geddy Lee and Robin Zander but the one which really just floored me was his version of “T.N.T.”. It’s like he was channeling Bon Scott from beyond and your drums, particularly the snare sound, has that classic Phil Rudd sound to it, really good shit. Everybody says they’re going to make a cover song their own but it really sounds like you guys were conscientious about maintaining the spirit or vibe of the originals.
Charlie: I just wanted to pay tribute to the artist who did it and I joke around about “T.N.T.” and say that I could have thrown in a hundred fills but the beauty of that song is NOT to, the beauty is in showing that restraint and just hit that one fill that Phil Rudd does. I just wanted to do it exactly the way he did it because that’s the beauty of that song. It’s very simplistic but it’s also very musical. People forget that to leave space somewhere is also very beautiful rather than overplaying it. I’ve done my overplaying in songs so for this I just wanted to sit back and enjoy the air.
LRI: The second I heard from Frank that you guys were covering a Journey song I just wanted to know which one because you could have picked so MANY songs. When I heard it was “Keep on Running” I had to dig out my vinyl of Escape to remember that track but it definitely rocks. How did you arrive at that song?
Charlie: I have always loved that song. That is probably one of my favorite Journey records and for me, after that record I kind of lost interest in Journey and didn’t really dig what they did after that too much. They really went more full-on pop than rock. There are songs on that ESCAPE album that are so good though and “Keep On Runnin” is definitely one of them and I thought “Man, we could really do a good job on this song” and yeah, at the end I threw a bit of myself in with the double kick drums because I felt it needed it. Let’s not forget Journey was a great band, let’s not forget that Journey started out as a fuckin blues band that came from Santana that later evolved into this huge band which had all these huge hits.
LRI: Your drum sound is crackin on “Jailbreak” too, I think maybe America is finally, finally starting to come around to embracing the Thin Lizzy catalog (laughs). It’s about time. Has Thin Lizzy always been important to you going back?
Charlie: Ok, so…..here’s the thing. Back in the day, Thin Lizzy never really reached America the way they reached overseas so consequently they concentrated on that more as a result. I mean, they had “The Boys Are Back In Town” which was a pretty big hit here but they never really did anything after that in terms of America and I have always LOVED Thin Lizzy. I’ve always said that if it wasn’t for bands like Boston and Thin Lizzy we may not have had that two guitar attack of a band like Iron Maiden who then influenced bands like Anthrax and Slayer and Metallica who came after them. I have always said thank God for bands like Boston and Thin Lizzy for that reason. Thin Lizzy is one of those bands like you said that I guess they do get their due now but back in the day when they were hitting they never really got it here in the states.
LRI: Aside from the cover songs I mentioned in my review that a lot of ANTHRAX fans should seek out this EP just for the alternate version of “CRAWL” which is a great track from “Worship Music” which may have gotten overlooked amongst so many other great tracks. This version is easily the moodiest, spookiest thing you have released since the “Black Lodge” single, how did this track evolve?
Charlie: Some of it is just for the fact that there were those remixes done for “Black Lodge” back then and they turned out so moody and kind of cool. We hadn’t done anything like that for a while because we didn’t have a song that necessarily lend itself to that. I was talking with Jay Ruston who mixed our record and I just really wanted to do something with “Crawl” and he knew someone who could put orchestration on it and do a really cool mix of it and I said “”Just go for it” and that’s what happened. It turned out great but we also wanted to put “Crawl” on this EP to kind of tie it into “Worship Music” for the fact that an AC/DC or Rush fan might get wind of this EP because of the band that they love and just being curious to check out what we did with it. We wanted to kind of expose them to something of ours as well on that EP so we chose to put both versions of “Crawl”on there.
LRI: I had heard that you were recording a version of Black Sabbath’s “Neon Knights” too. Are there a number of additional tracks that may see the light of day in some other form of release?
Charlie: Yeah, the “Neon Knights” thing was recorded exclusively for this Dio tribute album, I’m not even sure what the status is on that being released. Aside from that, there are some left over tracks from “Worship Music” that we’re probably gonna dust off and finish at some point.
LRI: You guys are taking along Jon Donais from Shadows Fall to play second guitar on this “Metal Alliance” tour and also a whole new set of touring mates like High On Fire and Exodus. I feel like you guys have been on one nonstop tour ever since the BIG 4. Does keeping new bands around you make things more fun or interesting for you?
Charlie: Yeah, like the other tours we did, I happen to be really good friends with Mark Osequeda from Death Angel and it’s always good to be able to see your friends every day and just hang and talk about music. Basically, at the end of the day that’s what it’s all about is your love for music but some of the other guys have kids so we talk about our kids and this and that. You know….. it is good to be around other bands that keep you entertained or stimulated while you’re out on the road going from city to city.
LRI: Are you thinking at some point you will take a little time off to work on the next record? Will it be out at the beginning of 2014?
Charlie: We are definitely, definitely going to be working on the next album but I know that we’re not going to be rushed to put something out just to put something out. I mean, it took us so long to put “Worship Music” out and it will never take us that long again but we definitely want to take our time and make sure it’s as good as it can possibly be.
LRI: Thanks for talking to us again man. Hope to check out one of the shows this time around. Before I let you go, I noticed that you have a bunch of really cool stuff like signature drum sticks and heads and even special “Charlie” themed T-shirts on your website but as a big coffee drinker, I wanted to ask you about your ” Benante’s” coffee blend. How is that coming along?
Charlie: Yeah, I’m still working on that and it’s getting closer too. It’s just taking a while to get the right people in place to do the right thing. I don’t wanna do a half-ass job so I really wanna put the right people in the right place because the coffee is just that good so I don’t wanna see it just fall through the cracks or something like that. I’m really serious about it and about doing the right thing because I am 100% involved in it. It will be up on my website when we get closer to having it available.