Anthrax‘s fierce new album Worship Music delivers us their first studio release in 21 years with frontman Joey Belladonna, and it picks up where they left off. The rip roaring collection of thrashers and melodic headbangers is one of their strongest releases ever, encompassing everything from the raging “Earth On Hell” to the more contemplative “In The End”. It’s classic Anthrax for the modern rock world. I recently interviewed Joey Belladonna for Newsday just prior to the Big 4 show at Yankee Stadium, and we had a lengthy chat about his return to the iconic thrash quintet, his musical philosophy, his cover band and meeting Steve Perry. Most of the excess landed here on A.D.D.
This is the first new album you have done with Anthrax in 21 years. What has it been like getting back together with them?
For me, it’s nice to do a record because I would’ve liked to have done records throughout the time that they’ve been together. There wasn’t any reason in my eyes to make all these changes. I didn’t think we were doing anything wrong or something wasn’t working. When the Nineties came in and they felt they had to jump ship with something I was doing — sometimes when you have something that works like that, you should stay the course with it. It’s easy for me to say sometimes when somebody has some other opinions on what style they’re looking for. Who am I to say that even if I did stay in the band we would have been fine and dandy. I think we would’ve been personally. From what I can read now, we definitely would’ve been fine because we’re not doing anything right now that’s unusually different or harder or anything that anybody had to figure out how to persuade somebody in the band to figure out.
The first generation of thrash bands deftly combined menace with melody. From what I understand, when you first joined Anthrax you were more of a classic rock fan and liked more melodic music. So you brought that aspect of your style into Anthrax’s music.
When I first got there, it almost seemed like as time went on if I wasn’t into metal or they didn’t think I was…I was plenty into metal enough. It takes time to learn about other bands. Take Queensrÿche — maybe [I didn’t know a lot] until I got to know who they are. I could mention Max Webster, a great Canadian band that has played with Rush; they might not have heard of them. There’s a lot of good music out there. For me, if someone’s not into something that doesn’t mean they can’t apply themselves to it. I never started singing to be like someone else. I just do what I do and how I feel, and I have my own original style. I’m not going to do follow someone because he’s barking now or singing higher than ever. I want to be original. It’s a hard tossup. I definitely was into even more progressive stuff when I joined the band. I was a huge fan of Kansas, Deep Purple, Yes, UK and all kinds of crazy stuff. That was the cool thing. I just came in with a whole different aspect of singing and hearing what they did, and it just came out cool. I never read into it any further really.
“When you ask me about music, I’m really reluctant to bring up names of bands like it’s something that I shouldn’t have brought up — ‘Oh my God, he listens to that, how crummy is that’.”
Is it surreal to think that you first joined Anthrax back in 1985?
The other night I was talking to Neal Schon and the drummer from Night Ranger [Kelly Keagy]. We were throwing ages around, and I said, “I’m 20, I don’t give a shit what you guys are. I really don’t think about it.” It’s all how you feel, how you go about it and how enthusiastic you are and eager you are to participate in something like this.
As you get older, how do you keep your voice in shape?
There is no real set way. Some days you just do what you do. It’s a normal day and normal procedure. You take it easy and try to sleep as much as you can. I’m just singing more. I just focus on what I’m doing. Maybe I’m just into it enough that it translates. I don’t warm up or do anything. I just prefer not to. Like tonight — there’s no place that I would’ve done any warm-up for four hours. I just go. I just start singing. I could never see myself sitting in a room and singing scales.
Anthrax tried recording Worship Music previously with Dan Nelson, but it didn’t work out.
They went through their own steps of putting the record together, and I think there were so many hurdles to go through. I don’t know how the hell they thought they could just put anybody out there and start singing on a record. You could do that, but I don’t think you can do it like that. Anthrax is a bit different. I don’t think they were that far off on the record. They had plenty of stuff going on, pieces and parts. But when I got in there, I was singing to two tracks of rough stuff. I wasn’t hearing the record in its entirety, and I didn’t need to. If you have guitar, a drumbeat and an arrangement that’s correct, I could sing over it. I’m starting to hear the record as a whole now. That’s fine. That’s how I write too. If me and a guitar player were here today, I’d be coming up with a good beat and structure the whole song, get the tempo, the arrangement and guitar. I don’t even need a lead break, I just need to know where the verses and choruses are, and I can sing on it.
I basically went in there with the lyrics and started busting away. I had references for some things, like a structure they were looking for. Nobody was there [while I sang my parts]. I just don’t think they had a whole lot done. Everybody seems to have been concerned that they just wiped something off and I just jumped in there. Even if that had been the case, that’s still a lot to do. This is all brand-new bass, a lot of brand-new guitars and most of the leads are new. Charlie did a lot of drum tracks over, and we re-cut quite a few tunes. There were some songs for which I hadn’t heard any vocals yet. It’s pretty new. It just took a long time so it seems like they had it finished a long time ago.
I assume you come up with your vocal melodies and harmonies?
Yeah, I come up with a lot of stuff. As a matter of fact, I was restricted in a way because I really wanted to finish it to a point of their liking, but I had a lot more ideas that I could’ve put on it. I wanted just to go way beyond it, but I didn’t want them to consume too much of what else they hadn’t heard. I did quite a bit, but I was also very content and trying to stay with something that they wanted and that I was cool with. We almost got to the point where I didn’t know if I was going to finish everything. There’s a bunch of B-side stuff that I wasn’t really too crazy about, but I wasn’t concerned about doing that. I wanted to get a record out. I didn’t care about cover songs.
Sonically it sounds amazing too. This record is one of those things that takes a little while to consume. There are some interesting arrangements. I don’t know if people get will it right away or if it will take them a little while.
You also play drums and did so at a cover gig recently at the Nutty Irishman on Long Island. And Charlie also plays guitar.
He plays all the guitars at the end of “In The End”.
Do you think Anthrax will do a jam on stage were you all switch instruments?
That would be great. Even Rob plays drums. He could play keyboards. We could do some funny stuff, man, but I’m not sure anybody’s up for that too much. We did it in Japan back in ’88 when Danny [Spitz] was in the band. That’s when Charlie got his nose broken. Danny tipped back — Charlie was behind him on the guitar — and hit him right in the nose. I think we were doing “Living After Midnight” or “Green Manalishi”. I don’t even remember.
Anthrax is known for bringing a sense of humor to metal. You smile once in awhile.
That’s one thing with Anthrax that I didn’t see when they did the [John] Bush thing. Everything was stoic as all hell, and it wasn’t the same at all. I still think that I bring that same kind of thing to the band at this point in time, but I don’t set out to be that way. That’s just the nature of how you want to be — if your personality is a little bit witty and open to just enjoying yourself. I just feel better doing that. I don’t want to be like, “We’re the band, and you need to look up to us. We’re the shit.” I never got into that. I just think people want to have a good time.
I found an interview that you did with KNAC in 2005, and supposedly Steve Perry was backstage with you.
Journey has been going strong without him, but nobody knows what’s happened to him. Have you stayed in touch with him since then?
No, I never got to share any phone numbers, although that would’ve been awesome. I think he had 50 songs or so. So he had music. I didn’t bring up Journey.
What was he like?
He was cool. He was in [Rob] Zombie’s dressing room with an agent, so we kind of made our way into that room. I asked him what he was up to, and he said he didn’t know if he ever wanted to do it with that band anymore. He didn’t think he wanted to try to chase it. But at the same time he was working on that surround sound version of the [vintage Journey] Houston show, so he was definitely in the midst of doing something with Journey, but not in a live sense. It was cool seeing him. I also had a nice time talking with Neal last night. It was cool to chat with him again.
The new Journey album is great.
The writing isn’t nearly what used to be. It’s just so different.
“When the Nineties came in and they felt they had to jump ship with something I was doing — sometimes when you have something that works like that, you should stay the course with it.”
It’s different, but I think there’s a lot of good stuff there. There are some critics who have found the album to be impenetrable or said that fans who know the pop hits won’t be able to get into it. To me, Journey wasn’t all just about pop hooks.
I liked them long before they even had Perry. I loved them when they were just instrumental, and [Gregg] Rolie was singing “Look Into The Future”. It was very fusion/hard rock. I love the rock, and I like the ballads too just because there are some great numbers with some awesome vocals. Neal is a great player. These guys have been doing it for a long time and just love to play too. It’s great to have good talent out there still performing. I never thought I’d meet the guy, but it’s great to run into him. He knows my name.
What kind of music do you have in your iPod?
It really depends upon what mood I’m in. I can come across Sevendust in an afternoon or be listening to John Mayer tonight on my way home. I’m crazy with my interests. Late at night after playing for hours, I wonder why I’m listening to something heavy. Should I be listening to something like Sade on the way home? I’ve got a wide range of stuff. I don’t get into the brand brand new stuff. Certain music doesn’t appeal to me. There has to be something in there. I was just talking to somebody about David Weckel. I like fusion drumming in that style. I have all his records, and it turns out the guy from Night Ranger played with him not too long ago, so we got on that kick. I love anything that’s got some style to it and has some cool vocals too. I’m a sucker for melody.
When you ask me about music, I’m really reluctant to bring up names of bands like it’s something that I shouldn’t have brought up — “Oh my god, he listens to that, how crummy is that”. It’s more weird that I’m a metal singer, so to speak. Certain music will tend to educate me in some ways and give me all kinds of depth. “I didn’t know they could put those three chords together and make it sound like that. And those harmonies underneath, wow!” That’s why I listen to certain things, and sometimes it just makes you feel good. I don’t care if it is or isn’t heavy. I don’t think that way, but I’m afraid to say that I just listened to all of Bread’s Greatest Hits. People are weird like that — they actually take that to heart. That’s where you’ve got that worship, which relates to the Worship Music title. “If you’re a fan of them, I don’t like you!” Even when I’m playing my cover [band] thing, if somebody finds out that I’m in Anthrax and didn’t know anything about it, they actually like what I’m doing in the cover thing better. Not that I care because I’m not trying to sell the Anthrax thing, I’m just playing covers and having a good night out. People are funny about what they like. That’s cool, but I can’t take it that far.
What band name do you play your covers under?
Chief Big Way. It’s a three-piece, sometimes a four-piece with keyboards. We play Triumph, Deep Purple, Rush, Van Halen, Led Zeppelin, The Who, Pink Floyd, Hendrix, Cream, all classic stuff. We also do Priest, Sabbath and Dio. It’s all older, straight up hits type stuff. I’m on the drums with the [vocal] headset. There are no props and no gimmicks. I sing the whole night.
Isn’t it difficult to sing and play drums at the same time?
It’s not an easy thing. I never thought that I would sing and play “Tom Sawyer” at the same time. Something that you think is easy to play is often not. “Heartbreaker” by Led Zeppelin has so many different [drum] accents that have nothing to do with the song vocally. It’s a good challenge.