Interview: Anthrax’s Joey Belladonna – “I’m a great choice to have as a last resort”
The drought is almost over asprepare to release their latest studio album ‘ ’. ‘Worship Music’ is the first album to be released in eight years, and the first with vocalist in twenty one years, but those eight years have not been without there fair share of ups and downs.
In 2007 the band announced Dan Nelson as their new lead vocalist and soon got to work on brand new material for what would become ‘Worship Music’. Everything seemed to be moving forward with Dan on vocals but in 2009 they parted on bad terms with Anthrax releasing a statement regarding his departure and Dan following up stating that he was forced out.
After trying to reignite the flame with former vocalist John Bush on a reunion tour, Anthrax would again be at square one when Bush turned down the opportunity to return full time after refusing to perform material written by another vocalist.
The band turned their attention to former vocalist Joey Belladonna who fronted the band during the 80’s and early 90’s. It was from here Anthrax was reborn and entered the studio to work on the material that would be released and form ‘Worship Music’.
I recently caught up with Anthrax vocalist Joey Belladonna to talk about his return to Anthrax, the band’s new album ‘Worship Music’, theand his solo material.
‘Worship Music’ will be released on 12th September via Nuclear Blast and Megaforce Records.
Track: The Devil You Know
How excited are you to finally see a new Anthrax album being released even though you haven’t been through the same rollercoaster of emotions as the rest of the band?
Aw you bet I’m excited. It’s like the day I left or they parted ways with me, it was kind of sad that we couldn’t make any new music but here we are again making music. It’s pretty awesome that you can put together a new record after this length of time.
Do you think this is the perfect way to celebrate the 30th year anniversary of Anthrax? It does seem like with all the years that this album was in motion that it was kind of hanging off until this perfect moment.
Yeah the record is one thing but trying to keep it going and make a future out of it again is what we are hoping for. This seems like the perfect moment to cement the future of the band and give fans a line-up that they can be happy with and stick with.
Yeah with the changes over the last few years it has been hard to see where Anthrax have been going and what direction the band would ultimately take if they ended up with a completely different frontman.
Yeah I believe that. It is hard to really say to your fans and yourself what the future holds when things are always changing. I certainly hope that this is it now but there are no guarantees. I will tell you that it is everyone’s goal within the band to now move forward.
That’s good to hear that there will now be some stability because with the chopping and changing over the years there was a worry that the band may start to lose their identity.
Yeah you’re definitely going to get that but then other people will feel that they like the new guy or they will feel that they have to sit and compare every aspect of each line-up before focussing on what is most important and that is the music. Some people might have only heard Anthrax with the change (with John Bush on vocals) and may have not even known of me before and when they start to compare it does stink. I suppose everyone does get a little bit of variety if you want that kind of thing but I don’t know, the identity of who are we has definitely changed. People get to flip the coin with us and they can look right or left and I can’t really change that, I just have to be there to do what I do and hopefully they dig it. I don’t want to compete personally, I don’t feel like I have to compete because I think what I was doing with the band was really good and that’s where I feel like I left the band, not anything less than that.
As this is the first album in eight years and also your first with the band in twenty one years, do you feel any pressure of trying to live up to those former glory days and try emulate the success that ‘Among The Living’ had for example?
Well every time you put out something I guess there is a level of expectancy. It’s like the old saying that “you’re only as good as your last record” but yeah, pressure is always interesting, I don’t really feel it because you have just got to do what you do in order to put it together. Putting songs together is a mystery because as long as we’re feeling happy about it then that is all you can ask for but you still hope it translates at the same time and there is no way to tell how it will translate until it is finally released. Usually your gut feeling is pretty good but I didn’t really worry about it because I just had to do what I had to do and I don’t take on any of that pressure if there is any at all.
I suppose you have been doing this for far too long now so experience helps you past all of that.
Yeah experience is the key. I never used to get too worried about back in the day either because like I said, I just went in, done my part and if I liked what I heard and the band liked it then we were all happy.
Yeah, if you put too much focus on what will make people happy then you lose who you are and you will only end up disliking your own material.
Exactly and that is the way I roll. You do wonder what songs people will like more and stuff like that and maybe at times you’ll tune into things a little differently to make it more open but there is plenty of music on this album which should be appreciated for different reasons. I think we’ve got our best songs on this album and sonically it is amazing so I’m definitely psyched.
Do think that ‘Worship Music’ picks off from where you left off with ‘Persistence Of Time’ or were you looking at this as a new evolved era of Anthrax so it stands apart?
I think the band has evolved especially with their writing style so there are some interesting riffs that are now coming up that we probably wouldn’t have had before. I don’t think I approached it any differently but it does appear to sound different. I guess you could say that it does sound like were we left off and technically it does keep some of that feeling from then but it’s just a new record, I never approached it with the thought of what I did back then before I left, right here and right now is where I’m at.
Before the reunion last year and after you parted ways with the band in 2007 did you ever see yourself getting back together with the band or did you think that your time was over?
I guess it was a case of never say never because there were lot of things going on in the band and a lot of moments were it could have been possible. I thought there might a shot to do it all again someday and then of course the reunion came along [in 2005] which was more a case of let’s just go out and do some shows and not take anything too seriously. I always remember the words “baby steps” being said and that we shouldn’t get too excited about being a band again as we’ve got to go through all of the motions, let’s just go out and have some fun and whatever it was at the time I just rolled with it. I thought they were looking for me to stay but I don’t think they ever wanted to fully open the door to me so there was no way for me to get in there and stay there. Then I read online that they have got another singer and I didn’t even hear anything about it until I saw that so I was never on the cards to come back and apparently I was never on the cards to come back this time either. If John had stayed then they probably wouldn’t have been bothered to think about me.
I was actually going to ask you about that considering the fact they had Dan Nelson in first then they had John and then it was yourself, do you kind of feel like you were a last resort?
It’s interesting to think that I’m the last resort and sadly enough I think that I’m a great choice to have as a last resort [laughs]. It does seem to be that way as I’m never at the top of their agenda and all I can really do is smirk as I can’t fuss over it or cry over it and nor do I want to do any of the above.
When they finally asked you to join full time did you have any sort of sit down with them to discuss everything that has happened before and how you felt about it or did you just want to move forward and not dwell on the past?
Yeah we are always trying to make sure that those loose ends are all tied up if there are going to be any at all. When they first asked if they could get me to come in and start working on the record I said “yeah I’d like to” but I wanted to know if I was officially there as a member and will this go down properly. I had to make sure everything was going to be the way it should be as it was a little late in the game for me to be jumping on board. We finally got to the point that I was coming in and we booked some time, me and the producer Jay [Ruston], after I looked at my calendar and said “well I have these days open” so we ended up doing like four days then stop, couple of weeks break then four days and stopping again. We went in and done one song a day and it just came together. So overall we didn’t so much sit down with a set of stipulations that if they were not met then I wasn’t coming in, I just wanted to know my place. We toyed around with what we were going to be doing but there was nothing that stopped us from rolling forward to the record.
When you were talking about what you were going to be doing, did you at any point feel the way that John did in that because you had no initial input to the album and the creative process that you would have preferred to have more or less scrapped the album and started a fresh?
Not really as I didn’t have any stipulations regarding that. You know at first if you are working on a record you would want to be there from the start and it is nice to be able to analyse everything that you can possibly do with the record but I don’t always think that it is absolutely necessary. Sure you get a better look at things but that doesn’t always result in better results. I didn’t have a problem coming in and we ended up doing so much stuff that it felt like we had started from the beginning anyway. I had to take every song from the bottom. We made plenty of changes because there are lots of new guitars, all new drums, all new bass and new lead and all new vocals so I find that it was a brand new thing. As far as I saw and heard, the album wasn’t done at all, it was in the process of getting to the point where they would be recording for real and they might of had a couple of things that could have been mixed up or whatever but I never heard anything and I think they were far from being where people think they were.
All of the reports that have been coming out had all suggested that around 85% of the album had been recorded before you came in so it was more a case of demos had been put in place?
Well when I came in they had a good layout of the songs and I got a good idea of the tunes and I was singing, I was literally singing to two tracks, not like separate stuff, I was singing to two tracks that they gave me of basic stuff from the get go. I didn’t find anything finished at all, in fact there were times I was singing to the wrong cut [laughs]. They would just turn round and say “oh you’re singing to the wrong thing, we gave you the wrong one for that but that could kind of work” so they were far from done, not even close to it. Even if it was to a point where it was more done than not done it still didn’t really factor in to me as I didn’t think of it that way. I would know what is done or what doesn’t sound finished I should say, so at the same time if it was finished then that would have been fine but I never considered anything they gave me as being complete. I had to listen to all of the music to see where I was going to sing on there and how it would come together and it was pretty easy. Whatever I was using as a guide track was good enough for me as I do at home all of the time. I could finish the guitar and drums for a track and sing to that today without any bass guitar or any lead guitar as I’m so used to doing things like that. They could have given me a whole tune but there would have still been a lot of work to do on that song because it is empty without the vocal on it and nothing would really happen if we had not dug in deep and made everything work. You have to make all the elements work somehow and that won’t happen unless things change.
I saw an interview where Scott was talking about this and he was saying how they wanted to give you as much freedom as you needed, more or less an open door policy, to come in and change things as you seen fit to make the songs work.
I made changes but they weren’t so much like scrap that part, take that part out, move this part in, there weren’t a lot of enormous changes. I had a foundation of the riffs and the arrangement was fairly close but there were times I sang and they decided to re-record to my voice by putting down new guitar, new bass and new drums. Even ‘Fight ‘Em [Till You Can’t]’, we did that on the road for quite a while, we did that whole song and some others that they haven’t even heard vocal takes that I did which I was really happy about but there were just so many different kind of things going on. So yeah they gave me as much freedom as I could take without me wandering off or making so many changes that they didn’t want me to make. I didn’t make it hard for them and they didn’t make it hard for me at the same time as I think we work together quite good. When it came down to finishing the songs we didn’t have a whole lot of time to spend on it and I’m one who doesn’t like to spend a lot of time on a song, I don’t tend to dwell on a song for too long before I’d just say let’s write another one. If it is what it is and there are no changes to be made then fair enough but a lot of time they don’t allow you to do a lot things as they are what they are. If you take a song like ‘In The End’, I mean god that is a long song but then if you start thinking “oh that part is too long, why don’t we shorten that” you just need to say stop, it works the way it is and you don’t need to touch it. Back in the day or any other band might say “wow seven minutes, what the hell are we going to do with that, we need it to be like four minutes and twenty five seconds” but it’s cool the way it is and there is space to edit it if you want to but why bother.
How easy did working with Jay make that process of being able to go in, work on the vocals, find out what areas of the song needed developed to work vocally and musically and then look to move forward?
Well Jay and I worked alone and he was very observant of the song and he knows how I sing so I would just grab the best attitude that I could and go with it. If there were any kind of cool things that I did he picked up on it and he would like “wow that’s great, do that again” or if I did something that might have given him another idea then he would let me know. We were passing ideas back and forth constantly and there were times that I would sing and it would feel good but we would go again and get to about three takes for every song. We didn’t spend a lot of time working things out so much as he would pick up on things quickly like timing and he would just tell me to be a little bit sooner on this part, just normal stuff. He was very cautious of what I was doing and he was very easy to work with, he never became degrading or pushy or non-complimentary. I hardly said anything, I just saved it all for when I was singing so we weren’t wasting time with chitter chatter all day talking about stuff as you can easily get caught up but we just stayed focussed and got down to business. We used our time as wisely as we could and there were points that I just didn’t want to stop but you have to stop, take a break and eat or eventually you will start to fade but this was the shortest amount of time I’ve ever spent in any session. Sometimes you can go on into the night because people are just sitting picking and picking at it.
Charlie has been pretty open with his praise for your vocal performance on this album so do you think that kind of way of working helped to bring the best out of you?
Well you know all I can say is that I’m very happy that they can enjoy what I have done and that is all I can ask for. I don’t know if it is the best that I could have done as I think I could have done a whole lot more to be honest with you as weird as that sounds. I was very cautious of not getting too far ahead of myself on this album because there are moments I think that I could have unloaded a little bit more but overall I’m glad that they like it because it sounds good and it feels good. It’s probably going to take a little for it all to set in with me because I did it so fast, I mean there is stuff that I cannot even remember doing because I did it so fast.
Does the final album meet your expectations then or do you think it is actually lacking something if you felt you could have put more into it?
Yeah so far it is a lot better than I thought it would be when I look at the final album because parts of the music, lyrics and direction had been thought about before me and I think I helped as I had a lot of great ideas that I put in there. Whether it is the parts that me and Jay put down or the other guys put down, there will always be room for improvement. I think overall I am very happy but you can’t really say how happy you are until you finish it and let it sit for a little bit. When I write songs it takes me a while, you know when I hear something and I think it sounds good then I know what will very likely be one of the better songs but it isn’t until I can let it sit and listen to it that I realise how good some of it is and I think “wow”. Usually I can tell from the start what is going to be good as I’m pretty good at hearing where a song is going and there were times I walked out of the studio knowing what songs the guys were going to like when they heard them. So yeah overall I’m pretty happy and I’m thankful for the response we have already received because you can never tell how that will turn out.
When you came out of the studio thinking that the other guys would like these songs, what were some of those songs or what are some of your favourites?
I’d say ‘The Devil You Know’ is definitely one of them. ‘In The End’, ‘Earth On Hell’ and of course ‘Fight ‘Em [Till You Can’t]’ has been there for a while and that is another one. ‘Crawl’ is an interesting song but there are plenty on there that I dig but those are some of them which hit me. ‘I’m Alive’ is a cool tune and oh, there are too many on there to go into all of it but yeah those are some picks.
‘In The End’ is actually a tribute song for [Ronnie James] Dio and also Dimebag Darrell if I remember correctly.
Yeah I didn’t even know it when I was given the lyrics to the song and it just so happened to be the year of his passing. It’s a nice thing to have as a song but even though I didn’t write it, Scott put it together, I have been able to channel those lyrics myself and I thought it came out really good and I’m happy we have it as a tribute to him.
When we look at some other aspects of the album one is the artwork which was again created by Alex Ross. He created something which is very similar to ‘We’ve Come For You All’ so was there a reason to keep it so similar after an eight year gap or did it just work with the theme?
To be honest with you I’m not really sure where it all came from as it was in the works before I got back in the band. I didn’t get to approve a cover, in fact I didn’t even get to see the cover for a while, hell I wasn’t even told anything about it. It’s not for me to say anything other than “oh that’s the cover, interesting, cool!” [laughs].
I have to ask also about the rosary beads you used as promotion for the album. The idea ties in well with the worship part of the title but how did it originally spring up or who came up with the idea?
Yeah I guess the whole idea behind that was just focussed on the whole ‘Worship’ idea but you know, I guess you can worship anything but man, I don’t know where that all came from either to be honest with you, this is the first time I’m hearing of these beads [laughs]. This shows that I’m really kind of in touch but not in touch with this record.
Track: Fight ‘Em till You Can’t
You’ve touched on the song ‘Fight ‘Em Till You Can’t’ as one of your picks from the album which we’ve heard from Scott is all about fighting zombies and demons but I was wondering if that was written based off fighting some of your own personal demons?
I don’t know and I can’t say specifically what it’s geared towards but the good thing about it is that I’m able to diverse and I’ll just kind of divert myself from that title and those lyrics just because I don’t know. It’s cool the way people hear it and perceive it whether it is completely false or they are right and just leave it at that but I can’t answer that assuming that I know what led to those lyrics.
The next step in the album cycle is to tour on it but I’ve noticed on recent tour dates you have been performing the song ‘Only’ from the first Anthrax album with John Bush [‘Sound Of White Noise’]. What was the decision that led to this?
They just brought it up with me and asked if I wanted to try it so I said “yeah I can certainly try” but I would hate to get into too much of the Bush era as I’d like to do what I can do with what I have done before and with the new songs and stuff. I don’t want to have to go into that catalogue if I can help it but I don’t have a problem doing it, it’s neat to try it and it’s cool live as it goes over well and it is a good song.
Would you just prefer then to avoid doing any song from Bush era or do you think you need to do something to please some fans?
Personally yeah and it’s not like I can’t sing it because I can sing most of it but the more you do other stuff by other people then you have got to start seeking approval from people over how you do it. If I could just not have all of that hanging over my head it would be better but I can do it. There always be somebody shouting “yeah you did ok with that” like as if I need their approval, I don’t, I just prefer to do the song without having to worry like “hey did I do it ok? You guys think I’m doing it right? What am I doing wrong?” that kind of thing. I think we have plenty of good songs but you never say never, I’d prefer to just keep doing what I did before and that is my own songs. They didn’t do a whole lot of my back catalogue, well in the beginning they did because John came in and we already had such an enormous catalogue of songs that it needed to be done but eventually they did what they did with their songs and it’s just one of those things. I’m sure that David Lee Roth (Van Halen) doesn’t do many Sammy Hager songs, not that he needs to either [laughs]. There is always someone who will feel like you haven’t covered it well or something stupid like that so why bother when you don’t have to.
Do you think touring might become difficult for the first little while as Scott has recently become a father and he might find it difficult to leave for long periods of time?
No it shouldn’t become a problem because Frankie [Bello, bass] and Charlie [Benante, drums] have had children and you just know how to work it so you can get around touring and things but I don’t know how to predict anyone’s personal life when they have a child but it is something that you have got to work at. There is a lot of convenience and inconvenience but I don’t see it being a major problem. I’m sure that if it was a problem that Scott would know how to work around it because everyone has needs in the band.
The next Big Four show is at Yankee Stadium which will be somewhat of special show for yourself and the band being that you are a New York band.
Yeah it is quite a big feature for us as you don’t get to play that sort of place as a venue too often. Its home for everybody but it’s also a big demand on family and friends because it becomes a really big burden on everyone to get everything in and make sure that everything is right with all of the tickets and that. There is no doubt that it is a special show with a venue that holds many many fans from the city and to even just be in that stadium as a fan is one thing but to have your hometown band be in there so to speak is really cool. To even tell someone that you’re playing Yankee stadium is awesome. Even people that I met yesterday were like “oh you play in a band? That’s cool, where do you play?” and I’m like “well the next gig is in Yankee Stadium” and they just look at you and say “you’re….playing….Yankee Stadium” with no idea who you are, they just have this look like “how can that be” [laughs].
[Laughs]. So what is the future for the Big Four because you will be touring on ‘Worship Music’,
I don’t know what’s in store right now. It is really hard to say because Metallica are going to really busy and I don’t see anything coming up by the end of the year at this point for some reason but that’s just a prediction. We’ll see but everyone has to continue on doing what they are doing and when it happens just give us some notice and we’ll always be there.
If you were to pick a favourite song from the other three bands what would be your picks?
Oh, that’s caught me off guard, let me think. I’d say ‘Symphony Of Destruction’ by Megadeth, ‘Raining Blood’ byand ‘Master Of Puppets’ by Metallica.
When you look at the bands who are currently out there performing right now, can you see any band or bands that you think would be capable of being somewhat of a new generation of the Big Four or have you set such a high level that no-one would ever be able to emulate that sort of success?
I don’t know. I think the level that we have reached is a certain level of longevity and we’ve earned the right to be where we are. It is too early to tell and it’s hard to tell if bands will stay together for as long as we all have in order to build such a catalogue of music. It is just too hard to say at this moment.
While we’re on the subject of the Big Four I may as well ask you this question. Obviously everyone is talking about the Metallica and Lou Reed collaboration right now but has there ever been someone that you would have liked to have collaborated with whether it was an album or even just one song?
Hmm, good question. I suppose any one of the musicians [from the Big Four] would be interesting to try and do anything with. I’m sure any one of us working together would certainly make some good music. I’m not sure if any of us want to work with anyone in particular as most of the time it just seems like we’re doing our thing and they are doing their thing so it is not possible. Funny you actually ask me that [laughs]. One time I was in the elevator with Dave Mustaine and he was working on a record and I turned round to him and said “so when should I show up to the studio to do some vocals? When are we going to do something together man?” cause I think he was asking about the new Anthrax album and I was like “hey I don’t know anything yet, no-one has told me about anything yet” but he says “aw…but…you’re working on it or something like that right?” So I ask him when am I going to show up on his record and he just looked at me and laughed like it wasn’t possible. Why would any of that be not possible you know but then again I don’t know how people roll or how they feel.
I suppose one of the benefits for you, in terms of doing some collaborations, is that you always have your solo material so you can ask for favours and do a little work with people to help make an album happen at some point.
Yeah that’s true.
Are you still planning to release more solo material in the future?
Yeah definitely. I’m working on some stuff and I have almost a full record worth of material sitting right here which is very well demoed up but it is still far from done in its own way. I just keep running out of time whether someone’s schedule is messed up or whatever it is happening at the time and it’s unfortunate. Now of course Anthrax is back on the go so I just don’t have the time to sit for hours with the material but there is definitely some cool metal here. By the time I get to do these songs I’ll probably have a fresh batch of ideas and songs to put on top of those. Right now I don’t like to do too much as I like to go out and play with my covers band when we can at the weekend. I’m playing drums and singing some old classics like Rush, Deep Purple, Led Zeppelin, Journey, Foreigner and all kinds of stuff like The Who and Pink Floyd. Then I have Belladonna which I tour on and do some shows in and out of the dates I have with Anthrax so that all keeps me busy. I’d like to put another record out some day, put something out that I can again call my own as I have some great ideas.
I was actually going to ask you about drumming as I saw some pictures recently on Facebook of you behind the drums but I had no idea that you had a covers band.
I have some dates coming up soon to keep me going until I head back out on the road with Anthrax. We go out and play for four hours a night, singing all the cool classic stuff man and it’s such a blast, we have so much fun. I pick the whole line of songs that I like whether it be [Judas] Priest or Free, Cream or [Jimi] Hendrix, Rush and [Led] Zeppelin, there are just so many songs and it’s such a blast.
Could you ever see yourself recording an album as part of a band with yourself not on vocals and maybe just drumming?
Oh yeah I could see that happening. At this point right now I’m not sure what to do with all of that you know. Do we release a covers record? Well yeah we could do that but it’s always interesting when you put out something that is just full of cover songs. I think it would cool but it’s just one of those things were I need to try find time and can everyone else find the time to put it together because I don’t want to do something that is just going to be a week here, a week there and a month there. If I’m going to do it then I’m going to do it right but I do think it would be really cool to do. It would be very interesting because that is all it takes, whoever wants to write some music or play covers and play some music together. I’d love to do it as it would be very interesting. Fact when I did the [Ronnie James] Dio tribute there we did ‘Man On The Silver Mountain’ [from Rainbow’s first album ‘Ritchie Blackmore’s Rainbow’], that should come out too as that was a really beautiful take and I’ve been doing that every night. It’s a brilliant thing and I just feel privileged enough to have a song like that for Ronnie.
Thank you very much for taking the time to talk to me.
No thank you, I appreciate it. Thanks brother.