Anthrax: “If it ain’t broke, try to continue”

Due in Australia this week to headline Sounwave Festival, Anthrax singer Joey Belladonna talks to JODY MACGREGOR about the departure of guitarist Rob Caggiano and what keeps one quarter of metal’s ‘Big Four’ inspired after three decades at the top.

Coming out of New York at a time when thrash metal was centred on Los Angeles (home of Slayer and Megadeth) and San Francisco (residence of Metallica in exile), Anthrax drew on a different set of influences to their peers – their city’s underground hardcore scene. But Joey Belladonna could sing in a way that was rare in either thrash or hardcore. When other bands’ vocalists were ripping growls out of their throats, he was pitching his voice over the top of the instrumentation. The fact he could genuinely sing inspired the band to incorporate more traditional structures, to have actual songs in contrast to the thrash scene’s tendency towards pure assaults of speed and sound.

Joey Belladonna was a hired gun who became the definitive lead singer of Anthrax by default. Initially brought in as a replacement for Neil Turbin, he was there for their run of classic albums, from Spreading the Disease (1985) to Persistence of Time (1990), before being replaced by John Bush (who was himself replaced and then brought back), and eventually returning in 2010 for their latest album, Worship Music.

When I speak to Belladonna he’s in upstate New York, preparing for a gig completely unrelated to Anthrax. The hard-working singer still spends weekends playing with a covers band called Chief Big Way – if he ever gets squeezed out of Anthax again at least he’ll have something to fall back on.

We had the news recently that Rob Caggiano left the band quite suddenly. Can you tell me why he left and why he chose now to leave?

I just think he wanted to produce and try some stuff of his own. I don’t think there’s any hard feelings, in fact we’re all in touch and everything. He was thinking about it for a while and just finally made the decision to move on.

How did you go about selecting his replacement?

Oh God, it was pretty quick. We know so many people now and when people get wind of stuff or a press release comes out, somebody puts something up on the internet, it just leaks out and next thing you get 50 calls from people you know, or bands, or people who are guitar players who want to reach out. But John [Donais], he’s toured with us with Shadows Fall and he’s known us, we’ve known him, and I just think that the situation was right for him to come in and do it. Whether it will be a full thing we don’t know. We’re just taking it in [our] stride right now. He’s already enrolled for the tour and we’re all looking forward to playing together. It should be interesting.

Will the shows in Australia be the first shows that you play with him in the band?

No, actually we’re going to be in India prior to that for a couple of shows.

When you play the older songs from Persistence… and State of Euphoria and Among the Living do you play them the same now as you did then? Or have you changed them?

[With] some of the stuff obviously we dig in more. We try to keep things fairly intact. There might be some extensions here and there with some songs, you know, maybe a four-bar – stretch a section out that we always loved or something. Then there’s the live endings, just stuff that we do normally. Nothing so revamped you would wonder, “Wow, it was interesting what they did to that one.” The songs are too detailed to really unravel them I think. We just play them with great aggression at this point, and conviction.

Are there any songs in the setlist that you really look forward to?

I love digging into the first record, some of the first things that I did with the band and of course the new stuff too, especially aside from our considered “hits” of some sort. ‘In the End’ is a really special tune that we do off the record live. It’s fun to kinda hit each avenue on each record. It’s just nice to have a good, packed setlist. Nothing in particular, we just take ‘em one song at a time. Obviously if the set is a little bit shorter we’re more definitive in what we need to be playing, with a 45-minute or a 40-minute set. Get to an hour and you can stretch a little bit and if you’re headlining of course you can really air out a few things.

“I don’t think what we do is for everybody.”

Do you do any songs from the John Bush-era or from Fistful of Metal?

Fistful of Metal, we’ve done a few. Nothing off the Bush – I’ve done one song only, back in ‘89, 2009, 2010, something like that. We don’t really do it, don’t personally feel the need for it at this point. We’ve got enough stuff that I’ve done.

When you were brought in to work on Worship Music some of it was already written. What’s that like, when you come in and the album’s already partway finished?

Well, it wasn’t so much different than [past albums]. I walked into the studio and they were ready for vocals for Spreading the Disease and at that time I’d never heard of them, never heard of that music, never sang the music, so just to walk in and start hammering away was kind of the blueprint of what we’ve done on every record. I walked in on this one and the only difference now was noone was in the room but me and the producer, Jay Ruston, and we had a very focused and structured time together. It really doesn’t bother me, I take anything that’s in front of me. Sometimes things are a little bit more lined-up and ready for you, but other things are a little bit more challenging. Overall I’ll try anything. It’s a little different when I’m writing on my own, I guide the key, lyrics, everything – melody, the riffs, so it’s interesting. I don’t think what we do is for everybody.

There’s a lot of stuff on Worship Music, in songs like ‘Earth On Hell’ and ‘Fight ‘Em ‘Til You Can’t’, really apocalyptic, end-of-the-world stuff. Why do you think that is?

When you’re a band like us that’s got a staple, I think it’s just that’s how you end up being. We try to stick to what we’re comfortable with. You know, they moved into another style after I was gone for a while. I still think there was Anthrax roots somewhere in those songs, just different vocals and all that stuff – not that I couldn’t have sung any of that stuff, it would have been just as easy for me to try anything like that. I think the band’s evolving a bit but I still think that what we do is in the nature of the style. If it ain’t broke, try to continue. I think we’re unique, we have our own style so we just drive that home, you know?

“It’s not something that comes easy to us.”

What do you think is that thing about Anthrax that makes you different from everybody else?

I don’t know – we have our own style, the structure of the songs. Everybody’s got a different style of actually playing instruments. There’s so many things about the way we approach it. I just try to stand on my own. Everybody has a cool style and that’s what’s cool, you put it all together and you got this thing that’s intricate, strong and fast. It’s just something about it; I don’t know. I guess it’s in the ear when you finally hear it. Everyone’s got their own interpretation of the band. As a performer it’s just really unique. It’s tight and well done. That helps, it’s not something that comes easy to us too.

You’ve chosen some unusual acts to cover over the years, bands like The Refused [‘New Noise’] and Joe Jackson [‘Got the Time’]. How do you choose someone to do a cover of?

People bring them up. They weren’t picked by me originally. It’s interesting when people throw songs your way, whether it’s something you’ve never heard before, or [something] you’re in favour of. We’ll try just about anything. In the end it becomes our song. So that’s really cool, how we make it ours. We’ve actually turned around some of those songs. Look at the Joe Jackson one, if you listen to that song it’s like, woo, that’s not even the same song.

How long do you think Anthrax will keep going for?

We’re fresh and ready to roll as long as we can. It’s all about focus and camaraderie and being on the same page and really working together. That’s what it’s all about. The love of being in the band, of playing this music and not having any distractions. As far as carrying on, that’ll keep us going

Anthrax Sidewaves:

Thursday 21 February – The Hi-Fi, Brisbane (18+)

Monday 25 February – Big Top Luna Park, Sydney (18+ w/ Slayer + Kingdom Of Sorrow)

Thursday 28 February – The Hi-Fi, Melbourne (18+ w/ Fozzy + This Is Hell)