What’s a heavy metal musician doing on a spoken-word tour? How much could a noisemaking Neanderthal like that have to talk about, and how well could they possibly say it?
Anthrax guitarist Scott Ian has plenty to discuss—thank you very much—owing to three-plus decades of head-banging in one of the world’s foremost metal bands. The New York native is also as articulate and well-read as they come in this genre, which admittedly doesn’t spawn many Shakespeare types. Yeah, his arms are covered in tattoos and his wardrobe’s predominantly black, but this gabby, goat-bearded guitarist has catholic tastes in music and art, and a seriously wicked sense of humor. All of which earned him T.V. gigs, movie cameos, and guest spots writing comics in the ‘90s and ‘00s.
But Anthrax is Ian’s baby.
The Jackson-wielding warrior formed the thrash quintet in 1981with original singer Neil Turbin and bassist Danny Lilker, issuing the debut Fistful of Metal on Jonny Zazula’s now-legendary Megaforce label. The lineup solidified on 1984’s Spreading the Disease, with Joey Belladonna manning the microphone and Frank Bello replacing Lilker on four-string. The mid- to late-‘80s saw the band define (and redefine) the thrash genre along with their “Big Four” brethren in Metallica, Megadeth, and Slayer—all of whom issued successive landmark albums between ’84-’90.
Their metal credentials secure, Anthrax starting embraced experimentation and evolution early on while copycat bands plodded musical treadmills, issuing one sound-alike disc after another. An unwitting pioneer of the “hip to be square” lifestyle, Ian openly celebrated his love of comic book culture and penned the concert classic “I Am the Law” in homage to U.K. cartoon antihero Judge Dredd. He and lead guitarist Danny Spitz were often seen wearing colorful beach shorts when most “shredders” favored ripped jeans and leather jackets. Ian even talked his band mates into doing a rap-metal hybrid / parody (1987’s “I’m the Man”) long before Rage Against the Machine, Linkin Park, or Korn ever considered fusing the sounds. But it was another rap-metal project—the “Bring the Noise” collaboration with hip-hoppers Public Enemy—that brought Anthrax to wider audiences.
The five-piece endured in the ‘90s as the post-Nirvana grunge wave swept most hard rock acts and hair metal balladeers from the industries’ upper tiers. When Belladonna departed for a solo career in 1991, Ian and company soldiered on with Armored Saint singer John Bush for The Sound of White Noise, Stomp 442, and The Threat is Real (1993-1998). On record, Anthrax were reduced to a quartet, but absentees Spitz and Belladonna returned for a mid-2000s reunion tour—prompting Belladonna’s reinstatement. Afterwards, lead guitarist Rob Caggiano stepped in for the retired Spitz, fortifying the band’s twin guitar attack. Between albums (and the record labels releasing them), Ian moonlighted as host of VH-1’s Rock Show and turned up regularly on the music channel’s popular “I Love the ‘70s, ‘80s, ‘90s” series.
The first Belladonna-fronted effort in two decades—2011’s Worship Music—marked a return-to-form for Anthrax, who embarked on a wildly successful headline tour (and signed on for the warm-weather Mayhem Festival). By 2012, Caggiano had absconded to the Danish band Volbeat; Ian and company headed home for well-deserved sabbaticals.
One can only imagine the funny stories, lurid tales, and off-color anecdotes Ian’s got locked in his freshly-shorn skull after decades of touring with scores of bands—many of whom probably gave Anthrax a run for their money in the charisma and calamity departments. Given the hiatus, the time seemed right for Ian to hit the road with “Speaking Words.”
And why the hell not? It worked for punk stalwart Henry Rollins. And it worked for Jesus Christ. For a while, anyway.
Ian is set to enthrall the North Coast with his profane parables on Monday, February 25 at the Cleveland Agora’s intimate ballroom. We caught up with him by telephone this week to get an idea of what to expect—and to find out what comes next in Camp Anthrax.
CLEVELAND MUSIC EXAMINER: Hey, Scott! Thanks for chatting with us about Speaking Words. We know you already did shows overseas in England, Scotland, Ireland—and now you’ve finally brought it back home to the States. What can fans expect to see and hear?
SCOTT IAN: You can expect a lot of stories [laughs]! You can expect a lot of stories from my life. You can expect shit that you can’t make up. You can expect a lot of swearing, a lot of self-deprecation with most of these stories ending up with me at the short end of the stick. It just kind of depends. I’ve gotten pretty good at gauging a room within the first few minutes of being up there and figuring out where I’m going to go with it. And by “gauging a room,” I mean seeing how drunk they already are before I’ve started! Because sometimes a forty-minute story with kind of a convoluted path where you really need to follow me for the payoff at the end—maybe that’s not gonna work, depending on how the crowd is. I’ve got forty years of stories to pull from in my brain that all seem to work and make people laugh, so.
CME: And during the time that you did the tour overseas, did anyone come back saying, “Hey! I heard you were talking smack about me and discussing this-or-that! Stop talking about that!”
SCOTT: No [laughs]!
CME: Well, that’s good!
SCOTT: And if they did, I wouldn’t care either way!
CME: [Laughs] So, you’ve got a Glasgow DVD coming out that captures some of what you’ve done already.
SCOTT: Yeah. I shot the show in Glasgow last summer. Which was about halfway through that run of the U.K. And I really felt like the show had gotten good at that point. I had a bunch of shows under my belt, and went from just being a guy who kind of stands up onstage and tells a story to someone who really knew how to get up there and really entertain people and work the stories. I learned how to do it, basically. It’s one thing to just stand there and talk and tell stories. It’s probably entertaining, but once you get a bunch of shows under your belt…I don’t know. It’s like being onstage with a band when you start. You pretty much suck at first, and then you develop some presence and learn what to do with yourself. But it shows, and it all develops naturally. And it was the same with the talking shows.
CME: When you started out did you ever have a show where you get that phantom limb sensation of, “Where’s my guitar?” and you felt naked and vulnerable?
SCOTT: No. I’ve never had that, because as nervous as I was the first time I did it—because I’ll admit that at the first show in London I was very nervous, and my hands were shaking—but it wasn’t a case of, “Where’s my guitar?” or “Where’s the band?” It was more a case of me being able to find my rhythm, really. Find the groove, you know, and feel comfortable in my own skin up there doing this, and being completely outside my comfort zone. It didn’t take very long—maybe five minutes into it, and I got a really good laugh where I hoped people would laugh. That really calmed me down. That was all I needed.
CME: I understand there’s a meet-and-greet option for fans on the tour where they can hang with you before or after. What’s the deal there?
SCOTT: Yeah. I kind of call it the “show after the show.” And the way that worked in the U.K. was, I’d end up in a dressing room with whoever was there for the meet-and-greet, and we’d just hang out for another hour and shoot the shit. That’s kind of what the meet-and-greet became. People have kind a more intimate version…their own little Q & A. Really loud, drunk metal fans tend to maybe clam up and get shy when they’re given the opportunity to ask a question. But then at the meet-and-greet, when you’re just sitting in a room with somebody, you don’t have to speak in front of a crowd. It gets easier. So people have that option, and when they get in the room they ask like thirty questions!
CME: You mentioned for like, forty years, and it’s been a bit over thirty for Anthrax. I think today is the anniversary for 1984’s Fistful of Metal….
SCOTT: Yeeeaah, I don’t know…it’s not specifically today. This month is the 30th anniversary, but we’re not sure of the exact date. I’d been scouring the Internet for an actual release date on that record but haven’t been able to find the specific date anywhere. All I can find is January 1984. And I don’t have any memory of it, nor does the record label—although they’re searching through some old archival stuff they have to find the actual date. I’m assuming it may have passed already, being that we’re almost at the end of the month. It’s weird that I don’t know the date.
CME: I knew it was coming up, the band’s Facebook scroll it cited today as the date. I mention it only to ask a bit about the old days. I know those were some lean and mean times for you guys, and you used to say you’d have “baloney on hand” for dinner and joke about the rough and tumble lifestyle.
SCOTT: I’ve got tons of memories. I wouldn’t be doing a talkie show if I didn’t [laughs]! Yeah, tons! I have very fond and distant memories of being in a van, basically, all around this country in the summer of 1984 on our first every tour for that record. I remember recording that record in Ithaca, New York in Fall 1983. I remember driving around upstate New York in a U-Haul truck because we left New York City to drive to Rochester, and—well, you’re from Cleveland so you know how far it is—it’s a pretty long drive in a U-Haul loaded with band equipment. And it was only to get to the studio, and it was the same studio Metallica used on Kill ‘em All, and we get to this place called Barrett Alley. We pull in, and we’re supposed to set up our gear and rehearse for a couple days before recording. But we get to the studio, and there’s no mixing desk in the control room. So we’re like, “Huh. What’s going on?” So we asked Chris [Bubacz]—who was the same engineer for Kill ‘em All—and he’s like, “They got rid of the old mixing board, and there’s a new one coming.” We said, “Great! When’s it coming?” and he said, “Probably not for like a couple months!”
SCOTT: We were like, “Aw! Well, what are we gonna do? We thought we were making a record here!” And he said he’d thought our label said we weren’t ready. But no, that wasn’t the case. So there we were, stuck in Rochester with all our gear. No studio, nowhere to go or stay, and no money. So they let us crash on the floor of the studio for two days. And Danny Spitz—our old guitarist—and I got in the van of the U-Haul truck and drove around all of upstate New York, just looking at studios for two days. And we ended up at a place in Ithaca, where we met a guy named Alex Perialas, and we thought his place was good. Pyramid Sound. That’s where we ended up making the record, and the next one, and so on. And everything Megaforce did back in those days, you know, it all went through Pyramid Sound just because we were driving around and happened to find it.
CME: So it was a good bit of serendipity. Jumping ahead to more recent days, Anthrax had Worship Music in 2011, and it was a great new album with Joey back in the gang. Now, [guitarist] Rob Caggiano is gone, and Jonathan Donais from Shadows Fall is on board. Is he a permanent fixture?
SCOTT: As permanent as anything on this planet could be, yeah—that’s how I’ll answer that question [laughs]!
CME: Have you started recording the 11th studio album, or are you still in the writing phase?
SCOTT: We’re in the middle of it. Not recording, but in the middle of writing the record. We just had a session on Monday. Charlie and Frankie were out here in Los Angeles and we were at the studio all day working. So we’re in the thick of it right now, with the hopes of getting in the studio in like, late spring or early summer.
CME: I also wanted to ask about Anthems—the EP of covers you did in 2012. You guys covered Boston, Journey, AC-DC….a bunch of great classic rock bands from the 1970s. How’d you decide on these particular bands and songs?
SCOTT: We don’t really think about cover songs all that much. That defeats the purpose for us. Doing cover songs is supposed to be for pure entertainment value—our own entertainment. And there are always songs that we pretty much know or have been jamming since even before we were in Anthrax. Because if we have to start sitting down and learning stuff, that becomes work! It’s usually just a case of it being stuff we’ve messed around it, whether at sound check or in the studio, and we do it to break up the monotony. That’s how that batch of songs came together. On a lot of the tour in 2012 we were jamming those songs everyday, and that’s how the idea came up to record them. And they were recorded over a span of like two years—it wasn’t like we just went in and banged ‘em out. We did them in bits and pieces over the tour for Worship Music, all over the world—in hotel rooms and buses. And that’s a fun way to do it, and obviously the technology these days affords us the ability to do that.
CME: The songs are killer, and I dig how the sleeve art has variations of your “penta-thrax” logo with the original cover art from the respective albums.
SCOTT: Yeah, we did parodies on the original artwork.
CME: I wanted to talk a bit about Stormtroopers of Death—it’s been like twenty-five years since I picked up those first couple releases, and I wanted to ask….
SCOTT: It’s been longer than that. S.O.D. came out in like, ’85.
CME: I guess you’re right. See? My math is bad and I’m forgetting how old I am! But a lot of the lyrics from the S.O.D. releases would be considered politically incorrect by today’s standards.
SCOTT: They were politically incorrect in 1985. It’s just that people weren’t so sensitive to it then.
CME: Right. I mean, some of the lyrics were shocking—but I took it all in fun and couldn’t believe you and those guys were mean-spirited or whatever. So it was good-time metal, and very funny, with short tracks delivered on the quick in short succession. Do you view the S.O.D. music any different nowadays? Is there any sense of, “Wow, we were immature” or “We were a bit mean with that one?”
SCOTT: It’s a hilarious record. I think most people feel the same, because it’s held up all these years, and people still want to hear us play that stuff. Yeah, absolutely. I think we kind of tapped into something special on that record. I hate to use the cliché “lightning in a bottle,” but that’s kind of what that record is. It was a moment in time that we captured, and it couldn’t have happened the week after or the week before. It was literally all set up to happen, because we’d just finished recording Spreading the Disease with Anthrax, so all our gear was set up. All the S.O.D. stuff was written so we were able to step right in and—bam! We didn’t have to think too much or plan. We just banged it out in three days. It was unheard of back then, let alone now. I think it really is a special record.
CME: Another legendary Anthrax EP was I’m the Man, back in ’87 or so. You guys are known to larger audiences for fusing rap and metal elements together on your collaboration with Public Enemy a couple years later—but you did it first. Can you tell us how that came about?
SCOTT: We were just fans. Fans of music. Charlie, Frankie, and I were all big rap fans early on. Even before rap got big—even before Run-DMC broke and the Beastie Boys got big. We were into that way early on, probably just because geographically, they lived in the Bronx and we lived in Queens. So we right in the middle of that. Granted, lots of my friends who were into metal hated rap when it came out. But there was just something about the sound—that energy—that I connected to in the same way I connected with Iron Maiden, and The Ramones, and KISS, and everything I’d been listening to. There was just an attitude and an aggression in it that hit me the same way, and I was just a huge fan. So I’m the Man for us was basically a representation of what we were really into, rap-wise, at that time. It was our kind of lyrically-inside joke version of what we were into when it came to rap. And yeah, of course, we’d kind of opened the door for ourselves to do the track in 1990 with Public Enemy. Because they were my favorite rap group, and all I could think about at the time was, “How could we work with Chuck D?” So we just worked to make that happen.
Watch Scott Ian “talk” about his U.K. Speaking Words Tour while riffing on guitar: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PAsQDGWuplM&feature=player_detailpage
CME: I remember it being almost like a game in high school, listening to I’m the Man. You guys are talking and doing your schtick on the track, and my friends and I would kind of guess, “Who is that? Is that Scott, the guitar player?” “Who’s that there saying ‘Watch the beat!’” and whatnot. And meanwhile, you had all those little sound effects going on around it.
CME: Then later, when I hit college, you did “Bring the Noise” with Public Enemy, and everyone’s like, “Wow—a metal band doing rap!” And we’d have to tell ‘em, hey, Anthrax did this once already three years ago. This isn’t new; it’s just the next level.
SCOTT: Yeah, a lot of people didn’t realize that. By that point, there was a new audience, and we certainly reached a lot of new people with that Public Enemy track. People who maybe weren’t into what we’d done before, or who weren’t metal-heads. So that track crossed over for us and took us into a new zone. But it’s funny, because we haven’t done anything rap or crossed over since “Bring the Noise,” yet people once again still talk about it, which shows me how special it was. People still want to hear it and people still reference it all the time, and it’s almost 25 years old. And sometimes we’re categorized as a “rap metal” band, when we only ever did the two songs—other then maybe screwing around with “Looking Down the Barrel of a Gun” with the Beastie Boys as a B-side—but yeah. People still talk about it as if that’s what we do.
CME: I think the die-hards know better, but it raises a good point about Anthrax. Of metal’s “Big Four” bands—Metallica, Megadeth, Anthrax, and Slayer—you guys probably had the most open minds as far as your interests, and what you listened to on your own, and what you were willing to pursue on record. Your horizons were broader, maybe. And that’s not to but down those other bands, who I love. But it speaks to your willingness to embrace new things.
SCOTT: There’s definitely something to be said…. Certainly, Metallica kind of stretched and spread their wings later on. We did stuff like that early on, whereas Metallica kind of changed their sound in the ‘90s after the Black Album, and—obviously—by doing something with Lou Reed later on. And I think they might even have done a rap thing of their own with that guy, Swizz Beatz. I just think musically, it’s about who you are as an individual. That’s what it comes down to. Slayer’s Kerry King himself has said, “We’ve been called the AC-DC of thrash.” And you can only take that as a compliment, you know? Because Slayer is Slayer, and you know exactly what you’re gonna get, and you’re not going to suddenly hear Slayer doing a collaboration with Bruno Mars or whoever. And I’m just pulling Bruno Mars’ name out of the ether. But probably no one ever thought you’d hear a Metallica and Lou Reed record—and then they did it. And that opens the door for all kinds of other stuff to happen, whether you like it or not. It comes down to who you are as an individual and as an artist, and what you want to do. Speaking for Anthrax, we never felt like we were in a box. Or felt that we could only play one type of music all the time. Because we loved the diversity within the band. You had Charlie, Frankie, and I as the big rap fans—but at the same time there was Joey, whose favorite stuff even now is classic stuff. He loves Rush and Deep Purple and Yes and things like that. There was just a huge amount of diversity going on within us.
CME: Piggybacking on that element of the band—your openness—you’ve got a reputation for being metal’s Renaissance man. You’ve done all this music, the different styles, plus you’ve hosted VH-1 shows and written articles and blogs like “Food Coma.” And you’re the go-to guy when it comes to insightful or funny comments in rock documentaries like The Story of Anvil or Lemmy! Do these things just float onto your radar screen, or do you actively search them out to participate, or….?
SCOTT: No, I just…. It’s been a while. I haven’t talked on any of those shows for a while. I think they’ve run out of ideas for those “list” shows. I don’t watch TV, so maybe I’m wrong, but I haven’t been asked to do things like that for a while. But yeah, in the past, you’d just get an email where they ask if I want to talk about something for an hour, or whatever. And if it was something I felt like I might be able to contribute and say something, I’d say “Sure, I’ll come do that!”
CME: You just hit your 50th birthday over the holidays—a milestone for most people. Any big changes for you? Approaching anything differently, or was it just another day?
SCOTT: No, nothing’s changed. I don’t see that I’m approaching anything differently just because I turned 50. I’ve been pretty conscious of things like my health, and staying in shape, and stuff like that long before 50. So I’m just trying to stay on that same path, for many reasons. I want to be a healthy husband and father for as long as possible, as well as be the guitar player in Anthrax for as long as possible.
CME: Well, Scott, thanks so much for your time. We look forward to checking out the Speaking Words show here in town on February 24th.
SCOTT: I can promise there’ll be nothing better in town that night than coming out and having a laugh!
CME: Hopefully it’ll be warmer when you get here. I don’t know how it is in L.A., but it’s damn cold here.
SCOTT: Yeah, I don’t know what the temp is here—but I can tell you it isn’t zero [laughs]!
Scott Ian. Monday, February 24, 2014 at Cleveland Agora (Ballroom). Tickets $15.60 at the link below. VIP packages available at www.scott-ian.com .