ANTHRAX: THE POTENT LINEUP RETURNS
PCC’s Interview with Joey Belladonna
By Paul Freeman [June 2012]
For postal workers, anthrax is the last thing they want to see. But in thrash metal circles, Anthrax, for 30 years, has been one of the hottest tickets. They’re currently touring as part of the Rockstar Energy Mayhem Festival [for upcoming dates, visit rockstarmayhemfest.com].
In addition to Anthrax, the powerhouse bill includes Slipknot, Slayer, Motorhead, Devil Wears Prada, As I Lay Dying, Asking Alexandria, White Chapel, and more.
Of festivals, Anthrax lead singer Joey Belladonna says, “I’ve never looked at it as a competition. Or anybody that’s doing well, I have to do better. I’m already doing everything I can to be better.”
The band, which formed in 1981, seems to keep getting better. Considered one of thrash metal’s Big Four, along with Metallica, Slayer and Megadeth, Anthrax released a new studio album, “Worship Music,” last year and it ranks among their best.
“Hopefully you’re going to hit people with songs and sounds that they’ll like,” says Belladonna. “But all you can really do is deal with what you like in your performance and get your arrangements to where you’re completely content. And then you roll from there. I know the styles of writing has varied a little bit. But I still think we stay true to what we’re used to doing. I just tried to execute it as best I could.
“You’ve got the key in front of you. You’ve got the speed or tempo. Over the years, certain songs didn’t really give me a whole lot of room to do a whole lot of anything, just keep up, sort of follow as fast as you can and be in key. That seems so simple, but it’s a very hard thing to do over something that’s fast and has variable keys that make you jump around. This new album has a little bit of open ground for me to sing on.”
“Worship Music” was Belladonna’s first Anthrax studio album since 1990’s “Persistence of Time.” He was the vocalist during the prime years, 1984 to 1992. During that time, the band was nominated for three Grammys and Belladonna was voted number one metal singer two years in a row by Metal Forces Magazine. Then he was replaced. He rejoined in 2010 and fan response has been frenzied to the classic lineup’s return.
“It was great to be back in the studio, doing it on the upscale, with the expectation of all this change and movement in the band and being able to go in there and wreck it, hammer down on it. I know myself that I can sing with these guys at any different time. With the change in vocalists, I never really let anything like that bother me or anything. I just kind of do my thing. I’m not trying to do anything different.
“People always ask me for tips. The main thing is to just be original, be yourself and just try to execute the best that you can on a song. There’s a lot of tone and phrasing that are tough to do and I try to work on that stuff and fit everything in and obviously, that’s hard to do all the time. But some of my favorite vocalists, sometimes, you can’t even tell what they actually said. You don’t want to be robotic. I like a little bit of blues and soul going on. So that tends to be little bit neat and nifty.”
Belladonna, who grew up in Oswego, New York. As for early influences, he says, “Oh, man, there’s a slew of them, from The Beatles to Aerosmith and Rush, The Who, Bad Company and Foreigner and Journey, Kansas, Yes. I was into so much stuff, progressive, blues, like a Whitesnake kind of thing. Thin Lizzy. I could name them, for a good 45 minutes, non-stop. I listen to a lot of, lot of music.”
He played drums and sang in cover bands. “Then in 1980, I came out front and stopped playing drums for a while. So just taking on all of that was a hell of a lot different, you’re not back there, sitting down at the drums, you’re out front and you’ve got to move your body. You’re really out there. But I like that, too.”
In 1984, Belladonna hooked up with Anthrax. “That was when I got introduced to all of that thrash. I don’t think I’d even heard a lot of Metallica and all of that stuff. I mean, I loved Maiden and Priest... Priest especially. And Black Sabbath and stuff like that. But with the thrash, I didn’t really know a lot about it. I still don’t. There’s way more to explore. But I guess I try not to do too much exploring, because I already have a good set of things that I like to listen to and it just keeps me grounded in a way. I do come across a lot of new music and I do like a lot of new stuff, whether it be the newer type of thrash or grunge-y metal or whatever. There’s just so many categories, you know?”
With Anthrax, Belladonna hit the big time as a vocalist. “I was ready for it. The only thing I hadn’t done was a lot of original material, at that point. When I got in there, in a band really in a writing mode, that was the adjustment, just getting used to the music, getting my feet grounded with the style. That was a little bit troubling at first. I didn’t know if this was what I would enjoy and it would favorable for me. Not that I couldn’t do it. I just wanted to make sure that it felt right. After a couple of days, I could tell it was going to be good. I had no prediction of what was going to happen with the band, but they were very professional, had a great sound, and I was liking the songs. So it just kind of rolled from there.”
In 1991, Anthrax had a crossover hit with Public Enemy on “Bring The Noise.” Belladonna recalls, “We hit something new and turned a lot of new people on to what we do and Public Enemy does and just the whole combination of that. And touring. Both of us learned how they roll and how we roll. We showed each other a lot of nice tips of touring. And we had a lot of fun. We had a lot of friendship, too. Yeah, it was definitely a moment in time.”
But times change. And, despite his popularity with fans, the band decided it was time for a new lead singer. Belladonna was fired, getting the word by phone from management. Apparently the band was looking for a grungier vocal sound.
“I think that they were just looking for something else that was growlier, heavier, as this new music came in. Everybody can’t vocally be like somebody else. Nor can people be like me, if they want to be like me. I can’t be like somebody else. And I don’t want to. But I think that’s where it stemmed from. Whether they felt it wasn’t adequate or whatever, I don’t know. But if I had my way, we would have adjusted and made things work and so you don’t make the change.
“Overall - no disrespect to anyone else - but I think everybody would rather hear what we were doing, because it was working. I didn’t see any problem with any of it. I don’t know where there was any decline.”
The dynamic within the band has evolved. Belladonna says, “We’re more apt to be more conscious of how we’re going day to day, business, formal band situations, we want to make sure that everything is a little bit more on track. With the computer and your phone now, everybody is a little bit more attached to that, which is fine. There’s a lot of time alone with that. But we do hang a lot now. And try to do everything we can to keep that morale of just being a band, more so than ever. We’ve matured, too. Everybody’s older, wiser, better.”
Anthrax has displayed lasting power. “I suppose it’s just that we have our own style and it’s very unique. It’s kind of a mystery. Other bands have the same elements. But maybe it’s just the combination, how we put it all together, that makes it kind of special. I don’t know what to say, without being egotistical. But somehow, we do have a different sort of spark.
“I can’t read the other guys’ minds, how they feel. Obviously, you, as a person, if you’re good to get along with, and you’re polite, and all the good things about being friends, or at least being a companion, that certainly helps. I know from playing with other people, some people just don’t get along musically, forever, whatever they hear and how they hear it. I think we do. I really think we’re on the path of being content right now. So we’re just looking to move forward in that way, to keep progressing.”
When he’s not hanging with Anthrax, the vocalist, 51, still plays with his own band, Belladonna, as well as on all-night club gigs with his cover band, Big Chief Way.
“I’m just glad to be able to have a chance to go set up the drums, sing and play all the old songs that I love and have the people that I play with have the chance to get out there with me and work. And it’s also a very good tool. You can use it as a practice. It’s good to see people get off on the songs and they like the band. It’s very little frills. And it’s fun to keep it going.
“So many people are like, ‘I can’t believe you’re here!’ Wow! How come you’re playing this place?’ We walked out of there last night and people were going, ‘Man, that was awesome. I loved all the great jamming.’ And you can rally around things like that.
“I love being a musician. Just to see yourself be able to connect with other people and make a song come to life, not everybody can actually do that. That’s the cool part of it.”
For more on the vocalist, visit www.joeybelladonna.com.