Anthrax didn’t want to make an EP of cover songs, it’s just something that happened. So says guitarist Scott Ian, relaxing in his L.A. home, about the classic thrashers’ forthcoming release Anthems, which contains Anthraxified renditions of tunes by likes of Rush, Cheap Trick, Journey, and Boston. The original idea was to record a few songs that could go with a deluxe “tour edition” of the group’s latest album, 2011′s Worship Music, but it couldn’t get it together in time. So, with no deadline in mind, Ian and his bandmates set forth to record some of the songs they grew up on just for the hell of it. Then it just became fun.
“Every time another little piece of a song was finished, we’d get all excited,” Ian beams. “I was like, I can’t wait to finish this Boston cover, then it came back with the keyboard solo, and it was like, ‘Holy crap! Listen to that.” When the group realized how many songs it had, it reached out to its U.S. and European labels who offered to put out Anthems as a stand-alone EP, which suits the band fine. “We just want people to hear these songs,” the guitarist says.
The EP’s release is just one part of what is a busy start to 2013 for Anthrax. After finding out whether they’ve won a Grammy for the Worship Music tune “I’m Alive” in February (they’re up for Best Hard Rock/Metal Performance), the guys will embark on a tour that will lead them a string of March and April dates in the U.S., where they’ll play their celebrated 1987 album Among the Living in its entirety. To make things even more interesting, the tour will feature Shadows Fall axeman Jon Donais filling in on lead guitar, since the group’s previous six-stringer Rob Caggiano recently departed its ranks to focus on album production. Once they wrap that up, Ian tells us Anthrax might start working on a new album. But before that, they’re taking things one anthem at a time.
How did you pick the six tracks on Anthems?
We’ve been doing cover songs since 1985 on our Armed and Dangerous EP. [Editor’s Note: as a reader pointed out, the first Anthrax recorded cover was Alice Cooper’s “I’m Eighteen” for their 1984 debut full-length Fistful of Metal.] They’re songs we’ve been playing since we were kids. They were all written before we were even a band. When it comes to doing stuff like these covers, I’ll do ‘em all day long. For me, it’s just fun to play these songs.
What was the hardest song to play?
For me, personally, it was the Rush song. I knew the song going in, but I had never played “Anthem” before literally tracking the rhythm guitars on it. I listened to the Rush live version a bunch, just over and over again, and went in and basically just threw it down. I had never actually played the Journey song ["Keep On Runnin'"] either, but it’s an easier song riff-wise.
Which one did you really want to record?
[Boston's] “Smokin’” was my pick. “Keep on Runnin’” and “Anthem” were both songs that Charlie [Benante, drums] picked. As much as AC/DC are my favorite band, Joey [Belladonna] was the one who picked “T.N.T.” And I think we recorded [Thin Lizzy's] “Jailbreak” years ago, like in the late ’80s, and never put it out.
This is the last release you recorded with guitarist Rob Caggiano. Was his departure a surprise?
We didn’t know he was planning on leaving while we were tracking this. He was literally finishing solos in Berlin on the last days of the tour. It wasn’t until after the tour ended and we started having conversations, and just to put it in a nutshell, he just needs to do his own thing at this point in time. We knew he had a record that he was going to be doing possibly. We had already told him, if you need to take a hiatus, that’s fine. The best thing I can say is that he’s on a mission to do his own thing at this point. And I’m certainly not going to stand in his way.
How did you end up picking Jon Donais for the upcoming tour?
It was actually Rob. He had already spoken to Jon and had kind of filled him in about what his plan was. He didn’t want to leave us hanging. As much as it sucks, this whole thing has been friendly. I may think Rob has made a mistake by leaving the band, but at the same time he’s my friend and I back his decision all the way in whatever he needs to do. He feels the same about us. We all know Jon. I’ve actually worked with him before on [comedian] Brian Posehn’s record. We all know he’s a great lead guitar player. And Jon said absolutely he wanted to do it.
Watch Anthrax play “I’m Alive” at the House of Blues in Myrtle Beach, S.C.:
Are you looking forward to playing Among the Living?
Yes! “Imitation of Life” is a song we’ve never played live. That one is a monster of a song because it’s relentlessly fast. We don’t write riffs like that. It’s almost like I have to reteach my right hand how to be able to do that.
Since the Grammys are coming up soon, do you have your acceptance speech prepared?
Well, I’m not going to the actual awards. The way it works is the metal award is segregated into the ghetto of the pre-awards. Obviously, hard rock and heavy metal is not important enough to be on the telecast with all the pop and all other crap that they decide is important enough to show on television. I’m not going to the pre-awards, because I have to walk the red carpet and do press. So that happens while the pre-awards are already going on. So either I will be walking the red carpet, knowing that we already won a Grammy or I’ll be walking the red carpet knowing we lost the award. So my acceptance speech is on the red carpet either, “Yay, we won,” or “We are the four-time Grammy losers Anthrax.”
Electronic music has exploded recently. Do you like dubstep?
No, I can’t stand any of that. Whatever this little phase of crap that’s around right now, which will be gone in the next 18 months, no. I thought dubstep was reggae when I first heard that genre description. I was like, Wow, reggae’s making a big comeback, huh? And then someone played me some dubstep thing. And I was like, “What the fuck is this?” So no. I’m not a fan of that name of music. [Laughs.] Nor am I a fan of DJs or any of that stuff.
Didn’t you record with the trip-hop artist Tricky?
Yeah, the Angels With Dirty Faces album. We met in New York, just randomly. I bumped into him at a bar somewhere and we ended up talking and having a conversation. We were having a real heavy conversation about music, and he was a huge fan of what we had done with Public Enemy. Next thing I know, I’m getting a call from someone at Island Records asking if I’d be interested in going up to Bearsville, [New York] where he was recording and writing and coming up with ideas for his record. It was cool. He was like, “Bring your whole thing. I want your whole fucking crazy metal sound there.” I was like, “Cool. Sounds like fun. And it really was fun.” There’s about four or five parts, like riffs that I came up with that are on the record.
Speaking of records, are you working on a new Anthrax album yet?
We did demo a song while we were over in Germany. We thought might get used in this TV show. So that kind of gave us the kick in the ass to start working. We also had a song that we never finished for Worship Music because it just needed some rewriting. At the time, we were happy with the album and didn’t think it was missing anything, but then we started reworking this track on the tour in Europe and we finished it. I’d say it’s about 90 percent now. Once that one gets finished, I can say we started writing. I’m pretty sure this song will be on the next record. And I know Charlie’s got a pretty good vault of ideas built up from over the last year, and I certainly have ideas. It’s just a case of getting together at some point in 2013. We’re not doing much touring this year. By August, we’re done and the rest of the year we’re off, so we’ll be in writing mode and hopefully in recording mode by the end of the year.
Anthrax’s Anthems comes out March 19 via Megaforce Records.