Scott Ian has been the spiritual leader of Anthrax since its birth, even if he's not the de jure frontman. But he's handled the role with aplomb for over 30 years, steering the band through the heyday of thrash, then the metal-deficient 90s, and eventually the band's latter-day resurgence. The veteran band delivers its latest record, the long-gestating For All Kings, this Friday, featuring four-fifths of the classic Among the Living lineup, plus new lead guitarist Jon Donais, of the hibernating Shadows Fall.
Ian is a man who performs from the gut, so he doesn't have many flowery, esoteric descriptors for the new album, going as far to say "I hate talking about music," so we found middle ground in discussing setlist construction, watching his son grow up on the road, and how growing up helps one ignore bands that previously caused annoyance.
AllMusic: You toured on Worship Music for a good long while, you must be excited about getting to finally put some new songs in the mix live.
Scott Ian: Yeah, I’m definitely excited for it to finally come out and for people to hear it. Honestly, I hate talking about music, I find the whole process a bit of an annoyance, because for me, music needs to be experienced, you need to hear it, you need to feel it for yourself, you need to listen to music in your zone where you’re happy doing it, where it makes you comfortable. Music is an experience, and to talk about it, I don’t have words to describe what the new Anthrax album sounds like. I could say it’s a metal record and it’s heavy and thrash and all that, but it means nothing until you hear the songs. I’m excited about it coming out so I don’t have to talk about it anymore. People can hear for themselves what we worked really, really hard on and gave years of our lives to.
I don’t have any words to describe it other than the same 15 cliches that every dude says about their new album, because what else are you going to say? If I didn’t like the record, it wouldn’t be coming out. I love this album and I’m really excited about people hearing it.
AllMusic: Your friend Patton Oswalt has a bit about how as he's grown up he doesn't feel the need to hate any music anymore. Did you have a similar revelation at some point?
Ian: Yeah, for sure. I just think in general, when you’re younger and you have more time to think about that kind of stuff, that’s just natural. Patton’s not a metal guy, but for me being a metal guy, especially growing up, that was natural, that attitude, that hardcore fan attitude of if "it’s not my music, then fuck it, everything else sucks." I had my phase with that in the late seventies and into the eighties, for sure. I can’t tell you the date or the year, but at some point I stopped giving a shit about that, I just didn’t have time anymore. For me, that’s what it comes down to, if I have a list of priorities of things I need to focus on, worrying about other genres of music would be way low on that list. At a certain point in my life, that definitely happens, where I don’t really give a shit if there’s some new pop thing that’s all over MTV, whereas two years before that I might have gone out of my way to talk shit about it, and it becomes just, “I don’t care, it’s not for me, whoever it’s for, that’s for those people, it makes no difference in my life one way or the other, so why am I wasting a moment thinking about it?”
In the eighties, sure, we didn’t like the hair bands, and we were very vocal about it, and people ask me about that now and I just say, “I don’t care, who cares now? That was 30 years ago, why is this even talked about?” It’s funny to me, the idea of that person, that 20-year-old who had such an anger for everything else that wasn’t metal, “That’s not metal enough, you can’t call that metal,” that whole attitude. I’m not saying I was wrong for feeling that way, because a lot of those emotions got me to where I was, got Anthrax out of the basement and onto the map, because I was so devoted and so focused and so in love with this music that I was able to commit my life to it, it was that important to me, and it still is, on some level, but I don’t need to criticize or spend a moment thinking about that kind of stuff anymore. I’d rather do things that make me happy.
AllMusic: What's your favorite part of being in a band after 30 years?
Ian: Being onstage, that would probably be the best thing for me. I love creating music, coming up with it and then four hours later you’ve got something that didn’t exist prior, all of the sudden you have an arrangement of a song that wasn’t on this planet before that, that was a cool feeling. I love writing lyrics, and the same thing, writing something down and coming up with an idea and putting it all together is still super exciting and fun, and recording is fun, but live is what it’s all about. From the beginning, getting in front of people was the goal for me. Everything else comes along with that, but for me, getting onstage and playing in front of people, that was the dangling carrot for me, that’s all I wanted to do.
It sounds cliché to say that metal has the best audiences in the world, but from an audience reaction point of view, we really do. If you look at any live entertainment, any genre of music or live show, live theater, or live television, nobody gets a crowd reaction like metal. You might get an immediate reaction, but you don’t have a mosh pit, it’s not 80,000 people at a festival screaming. For what we do live, we get the best reaction, the best gift, every time we play a show, because the crowds are so vocal and so full of emotion and passion for music and are willing to give it up every time they see a show. No other music and no other live entertainment gets that same energy that we do playing in metal.
AllMusic: People love to nitpick setlists online now. Would you do that as a kid with your friends?
Ian: It wasn’t until I became a guy in a band and I’d get to actually ask Gene Simmons, “Why won’t you play ‘Love Her All I Can’ in your set just one time, because I want to hear a deep track and I don’t need to hear ‘Rock and Roll All Nite’ again,” although it’s not like I’m against it, I totally understand why that song is going to be played every show, because if they don’t play it, 15,000 people are going to be upset, and 18 people like me are going to be like, “Wow, they didn’t play ‘Rock and Roll All Nite,’ they played ‘Two Timer,’” and he’s right. I asked him way back in the eighties, I said, “Why don’t you play ‘Love Her All I Can,’ why don’t you play ‘Ladies in Waiting?’” and he’s like, “Because you would be the only one in the audience who’d even know what the fuck song we’re playing,” and he’s not wrong.
I saw Aerosmith in ’02 or something on that Aerosmith/Kiss tour, and they played a whole bunch of their late eighties/nineties hits, then they busted into “Nobody’s Fault,” and I’m not exaggerating, we were at a shed with 15,000 people, and 12,000 people went to the bathroom and to get a beer, nobody knew what song they were playing, nobody, except us dudes in Anthrax down front losing our minds because they were playing “Nobody’s Fault.” So I understand it, and I’m in a band, so I’m in that same situation, people ask me all the time, “Why do you have to play ‘Antisocial’ every show?” and I’m like, “You know why, because everybody except for you and five other people want to hear ‘Antisocial,’” and it doesn’t matter how many times they’ve seen us. And I agree with that, I go to shows all the time, and if I went to see Sabbath on this tour and they don’t do “Iron Man,” I’m going to be bummed. How many times do you get to see Sabbath play “Iron Man,” it’s not like you’re seeing Sabbath 100 times a year, it’s once every couple of years. I want to hear that fucking song, I get it. I understand both sides of that equation, but the problem is you can never please everybody. We just have to put a set together that we feel is really strong and is the best songs in the allotted time we have, whether we’re opening or headlining.
A couple of years ago we did a whole bunch of shows playing all of Among the Living, and there are some deep tracks that we haven’t played since ’87, ’88, songs like, “One World” and “The Horror of it All” and “Imitation of Life,” so we’d play the album in order from front to back, so you get to song six, “Indians,” and then it gets to the last few songs and we could feel that drop-off in energy every night, because you get to those songs that we haven’t been playing live for 25 years, and it was palpable in the room, because people didn’t know the songs. Some of the hardcore did, but in general, everybody knows “Indians” and “I Am the Law” and “Caught in a Mosh” and “Skeletons in the Closet” and “Among the Living” and “N.F.L.,” everybody knows those songs, it’s the last three where people are like, “Yeah, I remember these,” but we’d feel it every night. You’d play “One World” and people were like, “Is this a new one?” So I get it. We try, and we did have a conversation about once we start headlining, we’d like to bring back some songs off of Persistence of Time, we feel like we’ve been ignoring some of those songs for a while and we need to play that stuff.
AllMusic: As long as they hear "Antisocial."
Ian: Yeah, and hey, I want to play it. If I’m not bored playing it, then I don’t see a problem with it. I get bored playing some songs, and we’ll take it out for a year. “I Am the Law” hasn’t been in the set for a while now, we were just getting played out on it. If we’re feeling bored, then the audience is going to feel it.
AllMusic: Are there any styles of music you love that you would like to try out sometime?
Ian: No. Nothing I can think of. Besides having no time to do anything, no, it’s not like I have a great need to go out and play jazz or something.
AllMusic: So you don't have that Alex Skolnick gene.
Ian: If I was as good a player as Alex, maybe I would. The learning curve for me would take way too long.
AllMusic: The arc of your career has been pretty interesting; whether it's music, comics or horror, you've managed to make a life for yourself doing exclusively things that you love.
Ian: That’s the thing I’m most proud of, is my career, that I’ve been able to be in a band for going on 35 years, and that’s opened some crazy doors for me. If it wasn’t for me picking up a guitar when I was a kid and deciding that’s what I wanted to do with my life, everything would be different, but I knew from early on that I just wanted to do something that would make me happy, and getting to play guitar in Anthrax is certainly a good way to make a living.
AllMusic: Your son is five years old, does he understand what you do?
Ian: Oh yeah, totally. He’s been coming on tour since he was three months old, so he gets it, he gets what I do. He’s home right now, and we Facetime a couple of times a day, and he’s always, like, “Where are you, on the bus, in the dressing room, at the venue, what are you doing, when do you go on, was it a good crowd?” He totally gets it. Mayhem Fest  was right before he started walking and talking, and it’s crazy to think about that, that he wasn’t doing those things yet on that tour. I see pictures from that tour, and I’m like, “He wasn’t even functioning yet.” We rode on Corey [Taylor]’s bus, and he was constantly saying, “He’s gonna walk, he’s gonna do it on this tour, he’s gonna do it!” It wasn’t long after that that we got home and he started walking. And we actually got that on video, crazy enough, I happened to be filming my wife and him in the living room, and he gets up and starts walking. You hear both of us going, “Holy shit!” So that was crazy.
AllMusic editor Chris Steffen was an assistant on Scott Ian's memoir, 'I'm the Man: The Story of That Guy from Anthrax,' now available in paperback.