By Dave Pehing
SAN FRANCISCO (CBS SF) — The Bay Area may have been the epicenter of the emerging thrash-metal scene at the dawn of the 1980s, but NYC’s pioneering headbangers Anthrax unquestionably earned a place in the genre’s history. Founded by guitarist Scott Ian and bassist Dan Liker in 1981, Anthrax served as an East Coast counterpart and early ally of Metallica during the band’s stay in New York while preparing to record their landmark debut Kill ‘Em All.
Anthrax would craft its own unique template by mixing hardcore punk’s breakneck tempos and shouted gang vocals with brutal guitar riffs, eventually bringing monster drummer Charlie Benante into the fold and getting signed to record store owner John Zazula’s then fledgling label Megaforce. After putting out their highly praised debut Fistful of Metal in 1984, there would be some major changes in the band with Likker departing to be replaced by Benante’s nephew Frank Bello on bass before the group eventually hooked up with singer Joey Belladonna. That version of the group (rounded out by lead guitarist Dan Spitz) would produce some of the timeless classic thrash albums of the decade like Spreading the Disease and Among the Living that were powered by mosh-pit inducing tunes “Caught in a Mosh,” the Judge Dredd tribute “I Am the Law” and “A.I.R.”
After the underappreciated 1990 gem Persistence of Time, the band had an acrimonious falling out with the singer in 1992, which led to the hiring of former Armored Saint vocalist John Bush for well over a decade. While Anthrax would switch back and forth between the two singers for a number of years after initially reuniting with Belladonna in 2005, the lanky singer has been a constant with the band ever since they participated in a series of “Big 4” European concerts with fellow thrash titans Metallica, Slayer and Megadeth in 2010 (there would subsequently be two U.S. concerts held at Yankee Stadium in New York and in Indio where the Coachella Music Festival is held).
The following year, the group released Worship Music, the first album to feature Belladonna since Persistence of Time and the band’s first new recording since 2003. Featuring some of the most indelible songs of the band’s career, the effort marked a brilliant return to form without sacrificing an iota of the band’s characteristic aggression. The band has continued it’s creative hitting streak ever since, issuing the covers EP Anthems (featuring covers of classic tunes by AC/DC, Rush, Thin Lizzy and more) before finally offering fans a follow-up to Worship Music in 2016 with the critically acclaimed For All Kings.
Things have stayed busy for Anthrax this year. In addition to the group releasing the live album and DVD Kings Among Scotland recorded in Glasgow that featured Anthrax performing Among the Living in its entirety, the band has joined fellow thrash-metal icons Slayer on the two U.S. legs of the group’s current farewell tour. CBS SF spoke with Anthrax bassist Frank Bello at a stop in Montana to discuss the current jaunt across the country that also includes ’90s thrash revivalists Lamb of God, Bay Area favorites Testament and British grindcore greats Napalm Death ahead of the leg coming to a close at SAP Center in San Jose this Sunday, Aug. 26.
CBS SF: Hi Frank! How’s it going?
Frank Bello: I’m great. I’m in Missoula, Montana. One of the places I really love after touring through here so many times. It’s just a really great, really cool place to just vibe out in. I’m just walking around and enjoying the day. It’s a little rainy, but that’s OK. We have a headliner here tonight.
CBS SF: So this is one of the free days you had to book your own show? It looks like you’re keeping up a pretty hectic schedule…
Yeah, it’s been a long run. We’ve been going at it quite hard, so we’re looking forward to some time off soon.
CBS SF: I didn’t realize until I was sorting through information for the interview that the San Jose show was the last date on the part of the tour. So technically the last Slayer show in the U.S. as of right now…
Frank Bello: Of this leg, yes. Anthrax has some one-off shows coming up in September and October, but the next leg of the Slayer tour is November 1st in Europe. And we’re on that until December 8th, I think. So we’ll have a little time to be with our families before we’re off again. But we’ve been going pretty hard since the album [Kings Among Scotland] came out. But it’s great to be touring so much. I’m glad people want to see us!
CBS SF: The last time I talked to someone with the band was an interview with Scott when Worship Music came out in 2010. I think the tour I saw for that album in San Francisco at the Warfield with you headlining was also with Testament and Death Angel…
Frank Bello: Well, they’re all our good buddies, both Testament and Death Angel. We’re all good friends. Everybody is very close. It’s a very cool, tight knit metal community.
CBS SF: I guess that was one of the things I wanted to ask about. Given all of the history you have with Slayer and Testament as far as touring in the ’80s and the ’90s, I’m figuring those times might have been a little wilder. Have things changed a lot from back as far as hanging out after shows or what you do socially?
Frank Bello: All of the bands on this tour have toured together a lot. Let me put it this way: the other day, we had a day off and I went with our guitar player Jon [Donais of the band Shadows Fall, who joined Anthrax in 2013] to have a couple of drinks after dinner, and then we went to go meet Kerry King at a tequila bar [laughs]. And we had a great time! Not hammered; we just had a good time.
I’m pretty good friends with Kerry. He’s probably one of my better friends in the metal scene for a long time. I’m often in their dressing room after their show having shots. It’s not crazy. It’s under of control, because of course, you have that next show is the next day and you’ve got to be up for it. The last thing I want to do is be hung over and feel like s–t. So it’s all done in moderation, you know? You’ve got to be smart.
If you see all the shows that we’re doing, there’s no time after the show to really be doing that much partying, because we’re off to the next show. And you’ve got to be ready. That’s the truth. We did seven in a row; we did five in a row. One stretch we did 17 shows in 20 days with our headliners in between the Slayer shows. So you’ve got to keep up on it, man.
CBS SF: I’m sure there’s a certain intensity to these shows with it being the last go-around for Slayer. Has there been anything on the tour that has stood out in terms the most insane, reckless displays by fans as far as stage diving?
Frank Bello: You know, the security has been so tight on this tour specifically, which I’m really happy to see. Because no one gets hurt that way. On either side. You don’t see a lot of that, because it’s all very controlled. Slayer has really great security. They have really taken care of the whole tour. This dude Chris on this leg, he’s just been awesome. He cares about everybody and watches out for everybody.
And these are big places; arenas and amphitheaters and they are packed houses. If they’re not sold out, it’s packed. The crowds have been insane. Nobody expected this. The other night, we had 17,500 people. It was just incredible. That has been the biggest factor. The people have really been showing up for this tour. It is the hot tour, which I’m proud to say. It’s been a great tour for everybody. We’re all getting in front of a lot of people.
CBS SF: I know Slayer fans are not always the most generous when it comes to their patience with support acts. I’m imagining that the history that Anthrax and Testament have as far as touring with the band takes that out of the equation…
Frank Bello: No, the Slayer fans are awesome. And most of them are Anthrax fans. It’s metal! It’s about the metal fans and metal fans rule, period. Everybody knows that it’s a great community of people getting together. And that’s not a kiss up, because I’m a metal fan. I know how it is and I love that I’m involved with this thing that we’ve chosen since we started a whole bunch of years ago.
CBS SF: That reminds me of something Steve Souza from Exodus once told me in an interview. He said, “People don’t say, ‘Yeah, I remember that one summer I listened to Slayer.’ If you listen to Slayer, you listen to Slayer!” It’s a lifetime thing. You’re either in or you’re out. That’s it. I’m kind of sad to see them go. I’ve been seeing them play live for over 30 years, but it’s good to see them going out on top.
Frank Bello: Exactly. And there’s always going to be Slayer to listen to. That’s the way I look at it. I’m very close with these guys. You don’t say goodbye. You say, “I’ll see you next time.”
CBS SF: One thing I wasn’t aware of as much prior to researching for our talk was the hand you have in writing the vocal melodies for the songs. I was curious how that works. Are you sitting down with Joey and working out ideas once the songs are taking shape, or is it more of a full band collaboration when you get that part together?
Frank Bello: Well the beginning of the writing, working out the song structure from the riffs, that begins with Charlie, Scott and myself getting together in a room and banging it out. It’s kind of like making a cake. You make the batter, you bake it and then you put the frosting on top. So the vocal melodies go on top of it once you have the structure of the song. You have to work out the verses, the chorus and the bridge.
And, quite honestly, it’s about what’s best for the song. We’ve been doing it for so long now. You’ve really got to get rid of your ego and just think, “What’s best for the song?” You’ve got to swallow some s–t sometimes. That’s the bottom line. What’s best for the song is all we want. And what’s going to get people moving. If it gets us moving and it gives us a fire in our bellies, then we’re pretty sure — and hopeful at the same time- that people will feel it too.
CBS SF: I was really happy to see the cover of Joe Jackson’s “Got the Time” on recent set lists, especially since you only have a limited time onstage for this tour with five bands playing. But it got me wondering. Given the band’s full-album performances of Among the Living on recent tours, have you considered the idea of doing a similar performance retrospective tour for Persistence of Time? To me, that’s probably one of the greatest Anthrax albums of all time and a personal favorite…
Frank Bello: It’s funny, a lot of people ask about that record. It’s between that one and State of Euphoria. And that song, “Got the Time” is really a punch in the face. It gets the crowd going. We start that song, and all of a sudden, it’s on! And for this specific tour, we just want to come out and rage. It’s non stop. And everybody knows there’s another record that’s got to be written and all that stuff.
I mean, I’d love to do everything from the latest record. I’d love to play every song from For All Kings, but there’s not enough time in this set specifically. Who knows about the future? I look forward to doing more, even from Persistence. We have talked about doing more songs from that in the future. I’m sure that’s going to come around.
CBS SF: With all the time being taken up touring, do you and Scott and Charlie try to work on new material for the next album while you’re on the road?
Frank Bello: What happens on the road, you can’t really get together right. You just have your own personal thing, maybe putting down some ideas on your iPhone or tape recorder or whatever you write with. I usually just use my iPhone. So if you have riffs and you have melodies, you remember them; what’s good and what’s going to stick. So that’s what I do.
We have some tentative time that we’ve got booked in January to try to get together, Charlie Scott and I. But I also have another record coming out with this side project coming up in January. It’s with Dave Ellefson from Megadeth called Altitudes & Attitude. I have to deal with that too, so I’m going to be a little bit busy. But I like that kind of busy.
CBS SF: As much stuff as will be going on, do you see yourself having time to tour with Dave in Altitudes & Attitudes once the album is out? I know from the clips I’ve seen, when you’ve performed while doing bass clinics, you’ve played as a two piece, but I figure you’d go out with a full live band…
Frank Bello: That’s a good question. Now, as we speak, we have a tentative release date of January 18th for the record. We’re pretty excited and Megaforce is loving the record. I’m happy to hear that. It’s just straight up hard rock with melody. It’s a hard-rock record, it’s not metal. But that’s what we wanted to do and what have a good time doing. Anybody who has heard the EP we did a few years back, it’s more along the lines of that.
But we are working on some tentative dates. Right now we’ve got a booking agent looking into it. It’s not going to be long, extensive dates, because that just won’t work with our day jobs in Megadeth and Anthrax [laughs]. That’s first priority. But we are looking at when we have time to book some shows.
CBS SF: In the past, you’ve also talked about going to open mic nights to try songs out with just a guitar. Are you also working on material for a projected solo album somewhere down the line?
Frank Bello: That’s sort of what A&A is; those songs are part of it. But yeah, I’ve done the open mic nights for years. There’s nothing more raw than standing in front of a mic by yourself with an electric guitar. And I love that. Just trying stuff out in front of people you don’t know, and they don’t know me.
It’s not like I’m a big star or anything. I don’t say, “I’m Frank Bello from Anthrax!” I just say I’m Frank…I don’t remember what last name I used! Just so I can get stuff out and experiment. And a lot of people will come up afterwards and acknowledge it and that’s a cool thing. I appreciate that kind of openness. It’s a good time. And I just want to have good songs. That’s what it’s about really.
CBS SF: This is probably not something you can discuss in any official capacity since there hasn’t been any announcement yet, but there have been rumors that Slayer might continue touring in 2019 with either a revival of the Clash of the Titans tour with Megadeth and you guys as well as the possibility of the Big 4 doing more dates. Is there any credence to any of that? Or that all still under wraps at this point?
Frank Bello: I wouldn’t say it’s under wraps because I don’t know about it. But I would absolutely love for the Big 4 thing to happen again. That would be the right thing to do for everybody. I would love that. I mean, as far as Slayer goes, I’m sure they’re going to do more shows next year, but I don’t know if we’ll be on them, because we do have our album to write. It’s all about scheduling and agents and all that. But we’d be open to any of that, specifically the Big 4. I think all four bands that were involved with the Big 4 would love to do it again. But that’s totally up to Metallica.
CBS SF: I’d say really make a day of it and add Testament and Exodus and Death Angel. As someone who grew up in the Bay Area, I would love to see that.
Frank Bello: A lot of people would. And believe me, we’d love to do it. But it’s not our game. It’s Metallica’s decision. When they’re ready. They’re doing alright by themselves right now [laughs].