Interview: Anthrax

interview by mike bushman

Anthrax is an institution of American Metal. The first wave of thrash metal that swept through the mid to late 80’s had about five bands that really mattered. Metallica, Megadeth, Pantera, Slayer and Anthrax. The first on that list took a left turn at “wuss” a long time ago. The second progressed themselves right out of a great thrash band into a mediocre hard rock unit with flashy solos. Phil is over Pantera and onto different bands. Slayer still kicks the shit out of all of you, but one cannot live on Slayer alone. And Anthrax shares one other admirable trait with Slayer, and that is they never broke up. In fact, they released an album entitled “We’ve Come For You All” earlier last year and are currently in the middle of a zombie filled video shoot for the opening track “What Doesn’t Die”.

I caught singer John Bush doing his taxes (proclaiming 2003 was actually one of Anthrax’s better years, fiscally speaking) but took some time out to answer a bunch of questions from an 80’s metal kid who had followed the band through both of their singers and many albums. Even though John Bush has been the vocalist for Anthrax the longest, he still is very respectful, if not a little in awe himself, of the bands earlier catalog that originally established the band as a significant contribution to metal.

It’s great you embrace the bands earlier catalog, but I’ve seen you live, and you definitely do the “John Bush” vocals instead of trying to mimic Joe’s higher vocals. In fact, since you’ve been in the band over ten years, you’ve actually been the bands longest vocalist correct?
Yeah. The voice is a pivotal thing in a band. And Joey had a real distinct voice, and I do to, but they are different. I think the sound of the band evolved, but it always sounds like Anthrax regardless of who is singing it. But for me, I just try to take what he did with the old songs and sing it my way. He had a higher voice than I did. As you get older, those highs start to diminish a bit. Because I listen to old records I did with Armored Saint and I am like, “I could never do that.” So as you get older, your voice gets naturally a little deeper. I try to sing them in the way that I can that still sounds like the original style and version of them, but my way, and doing it in the way that I can do it.

I notice you, as a singer, and Anthrax as a band seem to want to underline this lineup as the definitive Anthrax by re-recording some of the earlier catalog. And letting the fans vote online to which songs you guys do is a choice move. Although I can see the benefit of presenting recorded versions of songs that more closely resemble what the fans are going to hear live, do you fear you might upset purist fans that don’t want you to fuck with it? Like when they go back and digitally re-enhance movies to make them “better”.
That’s a good point. My goal is not to “redo” the bands catalog at all. As a matter of fact, when the band discussed this thing, they were like, “Let’s do 20 songs.” My attitude was that was too many. And they aren’t all going to go on this record. They will probably show up in different places like a B-side here, and there is a box set we are eventually going to do. I don’t even want to do that many songs because I don’t want the perception to be that we are trying to redo the bands catalog. That’s not it. Those records are amazing and they stand on their own. They were very successful and people are very close to those records. My goal is to just say, “Here is a few songs that we do live, that people have been hearing me sing live for 11 years now, so here is how they sound. Here is another way to listen to them.” The same as it would be if you did hear a live record or a DVD. A DVD is more visual, that’s something that we want to do. The standard live record that bands used to put out, they just don’t seem to have the intensity that they used to have. At least compared to records I grew up with as live albums. So we didn’t want to do just a standard live record. Our goal is to get into the studio and do this as raw and live as possible. But have this kind of be like a live album. I always try to respect everything that’s happened in Anthrax’s history because it’s obviously laid the groundwork and been very important to the band. And I have my own integrity and pride when it comes down to it as well. I think we try to do the right thing at the end of the day. And I don’t want to come off as “Mr. Joe Humility” because I’m not THAT much like that. Although when it comes to lead singers, I think most of them are pricks. I am definitely the anti-lead singer. I’ve never been like that. Even in the early days when I started playing music and people were like, “You gotta be more of a singer, a rock star.” And I was like, “I don’t know what you are talking about. I don’t know what you mean by that.” I literally never wanted to be that. Which is kind of a conundrum for a lead singer. You gotta be the front guy.

I think the key is to do it on stage, and then leave it on stage.
I always trip out when I see a band like U2. The guy just played to 80,000 people, and at the end of the night, you back to your hotel room, and you are alone. That must be a trippy sensation to some degree. It’s like, “WOW”. And then you go and have to take a shit. And you go into the bathroom and you have a magazine, and that brings it all back down.

People just get too lost in the fantasy that is TV.
For me, it’s always been important to not lose myself in the person I am on stage. That’s a part of me, and a big part. But that’s not the only part of my existence. That’s one aspect of John Bush. There’s an aspect of me that likes to play basketball. And read a book. So it’s important for me and that keeps me as grounded as possible.

[Feeling a true kinship in this next question…] So what kind of names did you get called in school?
I’m sure I got called “Bushman”. That’s one thing I got called. I got like, “John Shrub” and “John Tree”. Plenty of things. And now. Look at the association now. Whenever I do anything relating to writing my name down for somebody, “Oh, are you related?” and it’s like, “NO! I’m not related”.

I saw your VH1 Behind the Music Special. Do you think that was partially spurred by the whole Anthrax connection in the press?
It was funny because VH1 approached us about doing it, and then it kind of went into a limbo state, and then it was kind of rebirthed. I can’t tell you the exact timeline of it. The VH1 Behind the Music’s… I can tell you how those happen. Band starts, rise to fame, tragedy, phoenix rising in the end, blah blah blah. And for us, it was the perfect story because there was plenty of that in the bands career. So I’m sure that [Athrax postal scare] didn’t hurt and it is a great story. It’s funny because when the whole Anthrax thing happened, so many people obviously asked us about what we are going to do. “Are you going to change your name?” We never really sat and pondered it. The whole thing probably lasted about three weeks with the whole frenzy and paranoia. My whole attitude was to just chill and ride this thing out because it’s going to fade away as the top story in the media. Then we will have better vision on what we should do in terms of going on and how approach this. I can’t imagine the guys in this band, especially the three original members, Frankie, Charlie and Scott, ever making music together and that not being called “Anthrax”. We just couldn’t uproot and say, “OK, we are now called The Windmills”. It’s just not going to happen. So we had to just wait and kind of let that thing fade away. And it did. It was horrible, don’t get me wrong. It was a weird time and a weird thing to go through. But it wasn’t like we were sending it out and going “Let’s do this. It will be a lot of promotion for us.” Because record sales actually started to increase at the same time. So it was a mixed emotion. Everywhere you look, it’s “Anthrax”, but it’s bad. The frenzy got to a point where Fortune Magazine and Wall Street Journal started contacting us. And we knew once that happened, it would probably have this weird slant in it and it wouldn’t make us look good. So that’s when we actually did a press release, and whenever anybody ever asked us, other than music publications that we could talk very candid about, and then we just say “Here.” That was when CNN got it, and in the press release Scott made a joke, and he made it very clear. He said, “The band Anthrax is changing their name to “Basket Full of Puppies”. And then the next line was, “It’s a shame that I have to joke about this.” And all CNN did was take the first line and started putting it on the ticker for the telecast. We were all going, “Are you kidding me? That’s what they are printing?” And if that’s what they were saying in regards to us which we know is not true, what else are they saying that is not true. That made me lose a lot of respect for CNN and the way they handle news.

I know this is ancient history, but some of the kids might not know, but you used to be the singer for Armored Saint. How was that decision to leave that band to join Anthrax back in the day? Did you have to leave Armored Saint?
Yeah, I had to quit to join Anthrax. We made the last record that we made before we broke up called “Symbol of Salvation” that was eventually our biggest selling record. But it wasn’t enough to take Armored Saint to that next level. That was the thing about the band, we had this international status. We had a cool cult following. But we just couldn’t get it to the next level where bands like Anthrax and Slayer and Megadeth were at. So it was just a logical thing for me to do. I couldn’t say no at that time. Not that I wanted to, but it was difficult because two of the main guys in Armored Saint with me are guys I grew up with since I was 8 years old. So we have a history of friendship that supercedes even being in music together. That part was really difficult. It was like going through this gnarly breakup. You know that it’s right, but it’s really hard never the less.

Did the rest of Armored Saint support your decision?
They did. We were lucky that years later we got to make a reunion record so to speak when there was some down time with Anthrax. The guys in Anthrax, Scott and Charlie did the S.O.D. project and they put out a record. So I did mine at the same time. It was great. It was a lot of fun. It gave a lot of perspective. In Armored Saint, it was something like, we had this huge buzz when we came out. And never was able to get to that next level. And it created this weird albatross feeling around our neck that like, “Oh man, we never made it. We never made it.” So when we were able to do this other record and go and play some shows and we did these festivals in Europe and they were great. When we were able to do all that, it was so pressure free because we had no expectations at all. It helped me in the way I perceive Anthrax to this day. We’ve gone through a lot of stumbling blocks to. It makes me go, “You know what? Why are you doing this? The most important reason is because you love music and you want to make music.” And sure I want to be able to pay my bills and do all those other things, but this is the reason I’m doing it. And that helped me out a lot.

I must comment, you said that when you were in Armored Saint you guys didn’t feel like you “made it”, that’s really so much from perspective though. As a kid sitting growing up in the midwest, seeing Armored Saint on Headbangers Ball on MTV, you guys MADE IT. We bought your albums. You were on a legitimate record label. You got to tour the world. A lot of people would think that’s “made it”.
You’re right. You’re right. That’s true. There were some amazing opportunities and awesome accomplishments that band had. So believe me, I don’t downplay that either.

Obviously, compared to the financial success of Anthrax…
I guess that’s what I was trying to say. Thanks for kinda helping me.

I’ve been in bands to and my musician side is calling you out.
And I’m so down with that. Believe me, there were some times in Armored Saint, all we had was the music because we were dropped from labels and we couldn’t get a new deal. One of the guitar players, one of the main players ended up dying from Leukemia. So we had all these things going on in our life, but thinking the main thing was the music. It was actually a beautiful time in the band and we had nothing.

But that’s a reality one learns about the music industry with age and perspective. When you are 15 years old and see a video on MTV, you just assume they are on a label and making a million dollars, not realizing only the elite of the elite make the tons of money.
These days there is such an emphasis on what bands sell. What I wish they really would do is inform people what bands make. Because there are so many labels that spend so much money, so a band will sell a million records, they’ll have a Platinum record, and they will still be in the hole with the way the money was spent.

The business model is wrong.
Right. It’s like, “Hey wait a minute. If you spent 5 Million to make that record go Platinum, that’s not really that major of an accomplishment as I’m concerned”.

It just proves you can sell anything if you market it right.
Exactly. And that part really frustrates me. Because there are so many amazing groups that are on a lower level, but are fucking awesome, that really should require at least a little more promotion. I just wish it were a little bit more of an even playing field in terms of promotion. But of course, what am I talking about. This is the music business.

That’s why the mid-level indie label is doing fairly well on the whole business model.
Very well.

To put it in easy numbers (and over-generalize), when you are on a major, they spend so much money on promotion, you have to move a million units before the artist starts to see significant money. But the indies don’t spend so much money, and if you move 50,000 units as an artist, you will see money in your pocket.
One of my good friends is the main guy at Metal Blade Records. Armored Saint started with Metal Blade so I’ve been friends with him for 20 years. We just had a long conversation and I asked him how things were going, and he said things were going great because all the majors are struggling, it’s doing amazing things for the indies.

What label are you guys on nowadays?
We are with Sanctuary here in the states, through BMG. In Europe we are with Nuclear Blast. And JVC in Japan. There has been some positive and some negative. The positive is we can see what the other two labels are doing contrary to the one label. Usually, if you have a label that has you world wide, they just have more of a vision for the whole thing. We are a little scattered. Nuclear Blast has done an amazing job for us in Europe. A killer job. Sanctuary has been in a position where… they kind of … the truth of the matter is that our record is already out in Japan, and it was already going to come out in Europe and our American deal was a situation with a contract that was just fucked. Bad. We needed to get out of the contract so we could release our record here, otherwise it was going to come out everywhere but America. That would have been a nightmare. As it stands, it still came out four weeks late. With the circumstances with downloading, you don’t really want to do that. It kind of works against you. So they did bail us out of our contract, and we were grateful to them for doing that.

Who bailed you out of what contract?
Sanctuary bailed us out of a contract we had in America with another label that went belly-up called Beyond. But because they did that, I don’t know if they had enough preparation to set up the record as well and as big as the other two companies did. And this is America. This is our home country. We want to do the best we can. We want to do as well as the other territories are doing. We have high expectations in the states. Higher than we do in Europe and Japan, and that’s probably why the heat has been on Sanctuary more than the other labels.

What’s the most definitive Anthrax album?
Probably “Among the Living”. I think that’s the record that everybody just kind of looks at as the one turning point. Since I’ve joined the band, it would probably be “Sound of White Noise” because that was the first record with me in it. And that seems to be one that everybody kind of felt that closeness as well. But it’s up the rest of the band to make the decision on that.

You are just about to record a video for “What Doesn’t Die” the opening track off of your latest album “We’ve Come For You All”. I’ve heard is going to be “The most kick-ass, zombie-filled video of all time.”
That’s our objective. I hope we make it happen.

You looking to knock “Thriller” off that throne? You feel the time is right to mess with Mr. Jackson?
I’m really hoping that it’s just gonna be intense. With zombies, I love the campiness of certain things associated with zombies. But I don’t think that we are going for that. I want it to be really intense. I hope that’s what happens with it. At the end of the day we are going to put it in the hands of the director. But he’s a friend of ours, Brian Posehn, who is an actor and writer. He’s been on Mr. Show and Just Shoot Me. He’s a total die-hard metalhead and he’s gonna do a great job.

Give me 20 years worth of wisdom in one sentence.
Just be true to yourself. I know that sounds like a cliché. But it means the most. It really does. All the other shit, is fluff.

We like to list discographies when we can, but these guys have well over a dozen releases so best to just check their website and fill in the holes in your Anthrax listening history.