Say you’re a member of Anthrax, a band that’s shaped the face of hard rock and heavy metal for 35 years. How do you give the fans what they want while challenging industry trends and your own musical growth? Innovation seems like the right answer. But guitarist Scott Ian isn’t sold on being labeled an innovator.
As pioneers in the heavy thrash landscape, Anthrax have sold more than 10 million records and received six Grammy nods. In 1988, they teamed up with Public Enemy, crossing over race and genre barriers. As a part of the Big Four, they defined the speed/thrash metal genre alongside Metallica, Slayer, and Megadeth. And in 2012, they were the first metal band to have their music heard on Mars. So in 2016 when the Epiphone/Revolver Music Awards presented the first-ever “Innovator Award,” there seemed no better choice than Anthrax.
“We don’t think about doing that,” Ian laughs when asked about the band’s innovations over the years. “If someone deems it to be innovative 25 years later, great. But unless your name is Elon Musk, I don’t know how you sit around thinking of ways to be innovative. We write metal songs.”
In early 2016, Anthrax released their 11th studio album, For All Kings. For critics and fans alike, it was one of the year’s most anticipated metal albums. For the band, it was a tribute to their 35th anniversary. It debuted at number one on Billboard’s Hard Rock Chart, the iTunes Heavy Metal Chart, and Amazon’s Best Sellers in Metal, making it the band’s highest-charting album in more than two decades. Then in March 2017, a For All Kings 7-inch box set was released. It contains the original album, as well as two covers, six demos, and a previously unreleased track called “Vice of the People.” The songs are a testament to Anthrax’s ability to keep each of their albums distinct and culturally relevant.
For a long time, Ian might’ve been most recognizable as “that guy from Anthrax” — hence the name of his 2014 autobiography, I’m the Man: The Story of That Guy From Anthrax. But he’s built a career beyond the band that’s taken him around the world. He’s toured the U.K. and North America, entertaining audiences with stories from his life and career. He spurred the creation of the band’s own craft beer, Wardance, which was released in March 2017. He hosts a show on The Nerdist network called Scott Ian Bloodworks, is related to music legend Meatloaf, and wrote a comic book for DC comics in 2010.
In advance of Anthrax’s April 20 concert with Killswitch Engage at Marquee Theatre in Tempe, New Times spoke with Ian about editing the band’s songs, what he’s learned in his music career, and his hope that Lady Gaga will make a rock album.
New Times: For All Kings was written in part to honor the band’s 35th anniversary, and it definitely feels like a type of opus. What is one thing you guys wanted to get across with this album?
Scott Ian: That’s never really the angle. It’s just always about writing the best songs you can, molding them into the sound and style of ... how we hear them in our heads. I can’t say we were trying to accomplish anything different with this record. It’s more that we’re always trying to do better. We’re our own worst critics. If there’s a riff or idea we think we’ve already done, we throw it in the garbage. We’re very good editors. When it comes to arranging, we really do try to cut out the fat.
That guitar solo in “You Gotta Believe”— that India-esque influence is so different from some of Anthrax’s past styles.
That song needed to be like that. It was a trip! It had to start somewhere, take you on a ride, then bring you home. Jon’s [Donais] playing on the record really does it for me. If I have a fave thing on the album, it would probably be that solo. It’s new. It’s the first record he recorded with us, and his solos are very attractive to me. Every solo in every song is like a beautiful girl walking down the street. He brings something to the songs we didn’t have before.
What’s the story behind the epic, almost eight-minute-long “Blood Eagle Wings”?
I was walking around London just kinda musing about a city like London that’s existed since the Romans were there, so thousands of years I guess, and just all the blood a city like that is built on. All the blood and suffering and sacrifice and murder. It was all kinda rolling around my brain on a three-hour walk, and it inspired me to write once I got back to my hotel.
And the newest track that came out on the box set, “Vice of the People”? It has some powerful lyrics.
I forgot that literally just came out like, yesterday on the boxed set, right? I haven’t thought of those lyrics in probably two years. It’s not specifically about religion in any way, shape, or form — but that’s a part of it. It’s about anything people use instead of the truth — and there’s certainly been a lot of that going on around the world in our lifetimes. People would certainly rather take the easy way out than be honest about themselves.
The cover of “Wayward Son” was surprising, but great.
I’ve been wanting to cover that for 30 years.
What are the three most important things you’ve learned in the 35 years you guys have helped shape and change the face of heavy music?
What have I learned? Oh, man …
Okay, rephrase: How about, what is something that still challenges you as a player? Then we’ll work into what you’ve learned.
[Laughs] Well, it’s always challenging to write songs. It’s never an easy thing, regardless if it’s an hour to write or six months. Speaking on our behalf, at least, it’s not an easy thing to do. To sit in a room where you have nothing, and a few hours later you have a song that didn’t exist an hour before on this earth? It’s such a strange thing. I’m not a pot smoker, so I don’t think about it too deeply or get in crazy metaphysical discussions about it. We have 11 studio albums full of songs that didn’t exist before we wrote them. I do trip out on that.
Okay, now what have I learned. Pack light. I used to be one of those guys that would pack for six weeks if we were on tour for six weeks. And on tour, you end up with four more bags of shit and have to buy a suitcase. Never check a bag is what I should’ve said. You wanna get in and out as quick as you can. I’m backpack guy with maybe a roll-y bag.
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Don’t listen to anyone else except for yourself and people in your band. And a third thing: I have learned not to question what we do. Hell if I know where they come from! If I knew, it’d make my life a lot easier and I’d put it in a book and sell it and make a lot of money. There is no answer there.
In terms of talking about music with different people: any future plans to team up with an artist of a different genre, like Metallica and Lady Gaga? I heard she’s a big Anthrax fan.
No plans. If someone calls us, yeah!
What did you think of that performance at the Grammys?
I love Lady Gaga and I’d love to hear her do a rock record.
Anthrax performs at the Marquee Theatre in Tempe on Thursday, April 20, with Killswitch Engage.