Of the “Big Four” of ’80s thrash metal — Anthrax, Megadeth, Slayer and Metallica — it’s often been said that Anthrax are the funny ones. Which is an odd compliment. It’s kind of like singling out the funniest Ice Road Trucker. It’s not really a profession where humor is an asset. If you don’t listen to a lot of Anthrax albums, you may be confused about how exactly they got a reputation for being a laugh riot. Sure, they covered a Joe Jackson song once, and they’ve been known to dress more like surfers than metalheads, and one of their best songs “(“I Am the Law”) is about Judge Dredd. But is any of that “funny” in the conventional sense, or just “more funny than the guys in Metallica” — which, let’s be honest, isn’t that difficult? Take a song like “Fight ‘Em Till You Can’t,” the first single from Anthrax’s newest album, Worship Music. It’s hard to tell if the apocalyptic zombie uprising anthem is meant to be tongue-in-cheek or deadly serious. Some of the lyrics have genuine thrash metal menace. “Brilliant savagery/ decapitate and bleed/ out the spoiled seed until it’s pure.” Excuse my French, but that is some scary shit. But then there are lines like this: “In the end of everything/ the dead will rise and sing.” Rise and sing? Like the zombies in Michael Jackson’s Thriller? That’s not really scary or funny. Or maybe it is and I just don’t get it. Maybe it’s a thrash metal thing, and unless you’re a hardcore fan, you just wouldn’t understand. I called Scott Ian, Anthrax’s lead guitarist and the most famous chrome-dome in thrash metal, to get some answers. Almost immediately, he promised to “explain the secrets of our planet. I can tell you how we got into this mess in 2011.” I’m still not sure what “mess” he was referring to, but he did manage to clear up a few mysteries.
Thrash metal has a reputation for being pretty exclusively angry and aggressive. Is that fair, or is there a gentle, sentimental side to thrash that isn’t obvious to the casual listener?
I can’t speak for everyone, but for me, I would say that around 90% of our songs come from something that pissed me off in some way. Just thinking about songs on the new record, I think all of them are angry. Other than “In the End,” which is about how we feel about losing Ronnie James Dio and Dimebag Darrel, because they were great friends of ours. It was our way to pay tribute and tell them how we felt about them.
But even that’s kind of violent. It’s got lyrics like, “Did I thank you for tearing my head off/ Ripping my heart out/ Fucking my world.”
That’s true. I guess you could say it comes from a place of anger.
So even when you’re sad, you’re like “Fuck you, sadness?”
Well, sure. Because I’m certainly not happy that they’re gone. Especially with Darrel, because we all know the story behind what happened there. It was tough. A large percentage of our songs come from that angry place.
Some songs you can’t help but be angry. Like “Fight ‘Em Till You Can’t,” which is about killing zombies.
It’s not, though. It’s not really about that at all.
It’s not? Are you positive? I’m pretty sure it is.
On the surface, maybe. But it’s really a metaphor for what we’ve been doing as a band for 30 years. And that’s basically been fighting zombies in the record business.
There are zombies in the record business?
How are they metaphorically zombies?
Because every time you get one inch forward and you think you’re making them understand that you have something to offer the world, they still push you back. The shit you have to deal with on a day-in-day-out basis as a band playing this kind of music is just unbelievable. And it never gets any easier. So that’s really what that song is about.
Have you ever thought about writing a non-aggressive song about zombies?
I don’t know. A zombie love song maybe? Or a zombie breakup song? Or a song about a zombie having conflicted feelings about his parents?
No, I take zombies very seriously.
You have too much respect for zombies to write sappy songs about them?
I do. And you better respect them too or you’re going to be dead.
Are you talking metaphorically again?
Metaphorically or literally. One way or the other, if the dead start walking the earth and they try to eat you, you better have respect and figure your shit out. And in the same way, if you don’t respect the fact that people are going to try and fuck with you in life, then you better just go live in a cave somewhere because you’re never going to get anything done.
What’s the least thrash song you’ve ever written?
There’s plenty of stuff on every Anthrax record that’s not thrash.
I mean a song that wouldn’t be out of place at a James Taylor post-dinner party hootenanny.
Any song. I think any of our songs would be great for that.
You are familiar with James Taylor, right?
If he likes good music, he should like Anthrax. It has nothing to do with whether it’s thrash or not.
Let’s talk about Satan.
[Laughs] Okay. That’s a hell of a segue.
Anthrax never struck me as a particularly devil-worshipping type of metal band. But on 2002′s We’ve Come for You All, a pentagram was a big visual theme of the album cover and the tour. And there’s also a pentagram on the album cover of Worship Music.
It’s not a pentagram.
It sure looks like a pentagram.
It’s the Anthrax “A” kind of emblazoned into the shape of a pentagram.
Can we call it pentagram-ish?
Sure. We just did it that way because we think it looks cool. And besides, if you go back, a pentagram isn’t a satanic symbol at all. If you buy into the teachings of the Catholic church, I guess it could be seen that way. But really, a pentagram was a pagan symbol, way before anybody associated it with the devil. It’s only been in the last 1800 years, since people started killing people because they disagreed with their religion, that it got wrapped up in devil imagery.
Maybe I just don’t know enough about thrash metal, but it’s never seemed like a musical genre that’s especially ironic. There’s not a lot of winking at the audience and air quotes, right? It’s never like, let’s “worship Satan.”
Well, I can’t answer for other bands. I have no idea what they’re thinking. But for me, there’s that old cliche that you should only write what you know. That’s how I like to do things. I only write about stuff that in some way shape or form affects me personally, that creates an emotion that’s strong enough to put into the context of lyrics. Now, I don’t know Satan. I’ve never met the guy.
I heard he’s kind of a dick.
[Laughs] And kind of fictional.
Well, yeah, that too.
I’m more scared of humans than I am of some pretend thing that you might have to deal with after you die. How could I ever write about that seriously? For me, the devil is something out of comic books. I put the devil in my Lobo comic, and he was a very humorous devil. That’s the only way I know how to think and write about Satan. If you’re going to write about something in a serious way, you have to believe in your heart that it’s real. I don’t believe that Satan is real, and I’m not particularly scared by the idea of him. How could I ever be scared by something that I don’t believe exists?
What actually scares you?
I don’t like flying. I know it’s a necessary evil but I hate it. Any time I get on a plane, I can’t help but think “this is it.” I’m kind of a numbers and odds guy from playing poker so much. So I’m always trying to figure out, “Well, I’ve flown X amount of times in my life. And planes crash this many times on average.”
You must be a delight on an international tour.
Oh, I’m awful. I hate even talking about it because I feel like I’m going to jinx myself. I’m not superstitious about anything except planes. Maybe because it’s something that’s so out of my control and out of my realm of understanding. I don’t even know how those things stay in the air. It’s just something I hate doing, but obviously I have to.
Here’s another Satanic-esque metal cliche I’ve always been curious about: Rock horns. What does it mean when you salute an audience with rock horns? Are you pledging allegiance to your dark lord?
I asked Ronnie James Dio about it because as far as I know he’s the first guy to ever do that in the context of heavy metal. He said it’s an old school thing that his Italian grandmother used to do to ward off the evil eye. It’s actually a good thing.
So when you’re flashing rock horns, you’re not saying, “Whoo-hoo, Satan. You’re the best!” You’re saying, “Keep away from me and Dio’s Grandma, Satan! Step off!”
Well, I don’t take it that way. For me it’s always just meant heavy metal. Throwing that hand sign, it’s just the international symbol for heavy metal. I’m not thinking about Italian grandmothers.
Obviously there’s no band uniform for Anthrax, but is there a dress code? Could somebody show up to a gig dressed in a way that’d make the other guys in the band go, “Uh, no, that’s not going to happen.”
Well, sure. You’re not going to walk onstage wearing whatever you want. You should at least kind of look the part. Luckily we’re all a bunch of like-minded kinda guys when it came to that. We never had to worry about somebody showing up in a powder blue tuxedo.
You’ve given yourself a costume with the shaved head and the goatee. It may just be your natural look, but it’s become like Slash’s top hat. You have to shave your head or the fans will be disappointed.
That’s not why I started doing it. Honestly, I don’t give a shit. I started shaving my head because I was going bald. That’s it. That’s why I do it. It’s easier than having my hair grow in kind of sketchy and having to deal with that.
Because then you’d have a comb-over situation, and that’s the least thrash metal thing on the planet.
[Laughs] It really is.
Anthrax started in 1981, when metal was still relatively new, and there was still a big pool of available band names. Thirty years later, have all the cool names been taken?
Even something as specific as bioterrorism diseases? You guys took anthrax, but there’s also smallpox, bubonic plague, viral hemorrhagic fevers …
I don’t know for sure, but I wouldn’t be surprised if there are metal bands with all of those names. I personally think that naming your band is the hardest thing to do. Everything else — writing songs, naming albums — that’s a piece of cake compared to coming up with a name that doesn’t sound horrible. I did it recently with my other band, the Damned Things. We only got that name because our singer, Keith Buckley, came up with it and the rest of us thought it sounded cool. We were lucky that he had that idea. I don’t envy bands today who have to think of something to call themselves that isn’t embarrassing and stupid.
There’s always Basket Full of Puppies.
[Laughs] That’s true. I forgot about that.
After the anthrax scare of 2001, you released a press release claiming that Anthrax was changing its name to Basket Full of Puppies. It was obviously a joke, but the name’s still available, right?
Probably, I don’t know. Somebody else can have it if they want. We’re never going to use it.
Are you sure that’s not a mistake? Basket Full of Puppies could be the biggest band in the history of thrash metal.
Maybe, but it won’t be us. And we’re not giving up the Anthrax name. Not now, not ever.