Connecting through thrash metal: Interview with Anthrax's Frank Bello

While celebrating a 35th band anniversary, sporting a smoking hot new album, and killing it night after night on tours at home and abroad - 2016 just keeps getting better and better for thrash metal legends Anthrax. Having endured their share of turmoil during those three and a half decades - one case in particular that was literally radioactive - Anthrax has also racked up their share of accomplishments as well. And not just in regards to number's frame of reference like how the band has sold more than 10-million albums worldwide, but landmark achievements that have changed the face of music by helping break down racial and musical barriers with a Public Enemy collaboration, or scoring opportunities that no other band has ever done like being the first metal band to have their music played on the planet Mars. 

With their new album, For All Kings, released this past February still making waves and gaining fans, Anthrax recently returned from an extensive touring run in Europe hitting all the major music festivals along the way, and they're just about to embark on a heady tour alternating between dominating the Special Guest slot on tour with Slayer this fall, and flexing their muscles with a series of headlining dates on night's off of Slayer's itinerary. Beginning on Sept. 9 in Cleveland, OH., the band will be conquering stages across the U.S. and Canada before wrapping things up on Oct. 27 in El Paso, TX., and even then Anthrax has got more dates in the works. 

AXS got the opportunity to speak with Anthrax bassist, Frank Bello, the morning following the band's debut appearance on NBC's Late Night with Seth Meyers. Not only did Anthrax lay out a killer live performance of their new single, “Monster At The End,” which was a treat to metal lovers in attendance and watching on their televisions alike, but the band got their own reward that evening as well – meeting and posing for a photo with legendary actor Robert De Niro.

AXS: I'm so glad I got the chance to talk to you today of all days – Anthrax had a big day yesterday!

Frank Bello: Oh yeah! [laughs] To keep it all under control; it's really weird because I think we were all on such a high, it was so surreal – the whole day. Because we knew that De Niro was going to be on the show but when you're on one of these shows usually have the A-List kind of actor thing going on, and it's usually somebody from a tv show who can't be bothered, and they're usually nice and you say hello and that's it. But this – we thought there was going to be like this mountain of security there and they were going to keep him in a private space but it was the exact opposite. We walked in and [saw] the sign that said Robert De Niro, it was his dressing room, and what's great about NBC is it's an old building, it's a great historic building where SNL was and all that stuff. So the first thing I saw when we talked in was the sign that said Robert De Niro on his dressing room and I was like, 'Yes!' So long-story short of it all, there's like this common area in the center and the dressing rooms are kind of around it, so we saw him come in, and look, I'm going to be real honest with this – we're all die-hard fans of De Niro, it's a very Anthrax thing where everybody is, and we were just hoping to get a glimpse. And of course we asked if it was at all possible to just get a band shot, we won't bother him, you know? But we never got an answer, so long-story short, what happened was he was nice, he said hello, but he was almost about to leave after his appearance and then it was Charlie [Benante, Anthrax's drummer] who asked, 'Rob, would you mind taking a picture with the band?' and the guy was so cool! He goes, 'Oh, sure, I'll take a picture,' and couldn't have been nicer. We took the picture and answered some questions, and he got it. The guy has been through everything and he's Robert De Niro for a reason, and I have to say he fulfilled how great I always thought he was and he was just the nicest guy in the world. So I'm really psyched. And then we played. [laughs]

AXS: Yes, after all that and then you're actually performing on network television which is awesome because thrash music rarely infiltrates the mainstream, so to speak, but here's Anthrax performing on NBC's Late Night with Seth Meyers.

FB: Yeah, and we didn't think we'd have it on this cycle because you don't see a lot of thrash bands – let's face it, metal bands – on late night tv or anywhere in that kind of world. So for us to even get it - - - we have a friend, Eric, who works for Seth Meyers and he went to bat for us. And it was a great thing, they treated us like gold, and you know what's great? I'll tell you Melanie, you go in there and they have their own band there, and they're so psyched to see other kinds of music, specifically metal, because it's so different than what they do and what they see all the time. It was so welcoming and they couldn't have been nicer to us, it was a great experience. And I have to say, the show was great and the song went off well, thank god, and at the end of the day – we met De Niro. [laughs]

AXS: You guys got to be fan-boys for a day...

FB: Totally! It was total fan-mode and everybody was respectful, everybody was cool, and he knew it too. Because we were there for a long time and he was in his dressing room sitting down, anybody could have just knocked and did it but we were all very respectful and know just to be cool, and I think he knew that and he was just really cool with us. He was very friendly. I'm still on a high, so I apologize for that. [laughs]

AXS: So, the last time we spoke was in January before the release of the new album, For All Kings, and before you started touring for it. And it just seems like it's just been a crazy ride so far in these past months, you've already toured all over – you're going out for more intense touring throughout the next couple months, and people love the new album.

FB: It's nothing short of humbling and great, and I'll be really honest it's a lot of work - and nobody's complaining about our day-jobs, believe me. Because look, at the end of the day all you want to do is work hard and connect with people with song-writing, and really, that's it. And then when you finally put out that record that we talked about back in January, all you want to do is make as many people hear it so they can connect with you and you can connect with them. If anyone looks at the website they can see the kind of touring that we're doing right now, and it's been absolutely non-stop, and I'm not complaining about it but believe me you do need some time – I mean, we all have families. Put it this way, this is my two weeks of my summer break right now with my son. I have a ten-year old son so I get to spend some great time with him, but this is my summer – I get to enjoy these two weeks. He starts school in two weeks and then I start touring with Slayer in two weeks for seven weeks. But we're doing what we have to do because there's a buzz – thankfully - on Anthrax, and we're really psyched about that because you feel it. We feel it and there's a genuine buzz from the touring we did - - - we did over two months in Europe, all the festivals, it's been amazing and we're booked well into next summer, and in November or December I think we go to Japan. But you know, it's good to be working - - - the cruises are fun because you get to connect with fans and we've never done the 70,000 Tons of Metal cruise before so that's going to be interesting and fun [February 2017]. And the whole point is to keep busy and keep promoting this record and it's really important. And to be honest, people want to hear different songs off the new record and that's more satisfying than anything because I think people are listening to all of the record - to the whole record, and that really means a lot to me. So right now that's where we're at.

AXS: And For All Kings is a just a really special, exceptional album – I'm sure you felt that when you were writing and recording it, and I'd be willing to guess you still feel that now.

FB: I do. And being one of the writers in the band, I don't wear that like a salesman, I don't want to do that. If you only knew how intense it is with the writing and what we put these songs through and there's nothing that was written in two minutes – every one had to be lived with, dissected, if you're not living right with something then it goes or it's changed. Every little thing from the riff to the melody to the vocals to a note, it gets like that, and the song has to breathe, so I'm very proud to say that I truly love each song on this record, and nothing was let out unless it was ready. I call it the roller coaster ride, you start from the beginning and listen to the whole record. So that's very satisfying to hear. And I'll tell you how this is after doing this for thirty-five years, I can still listen to this record, and I just did the other day I was just driving in my car – I had some 'me time,' I put on the record just driving on the highway and listened from beginning to end, and that's how I know I'm satisfied, and that's why it's special to me. The connection thing we talked about? I'm glad that For All Kings has connected with people like we hoped it would. That's all you can do is do your best, write the best songs you can write, and hopefully you can connect with other fans – and that's all we are, we're fans – like-minded fans, and you want to do that with other fans.

AXS: But even with knowing you guys were putting out a quality album, were you still surprised at all by its success at all?

FB: I never look a gift horse in the mouth at any time. All you want to do is hopefully get a listen, all you want to do is get it out there and get people to listen to it. And of course, this is what you want – the accomplishment and satisfaction of saying 'ah, we're on the right page.' But I truly think the band Anthrax that we are in a good vein of writing right now and we found something that we're really comfortable with. And I think we know each other really well just when you get older and all that stuff, I think we're in a really good writing phase. And I'm happy to say that because not a lot of bands are around after 35 years, and with people saying things about us like that we recreated ourselves and we sound fresh but we're the same band. And I love hearing that because that's how I feel. I just want to write a good tune, I want people to forget about their problems when they listen to an Anthrax song, I want them to get away from whatever it is that's bothering them in life and feel good – - - that's the whole point. That's what music does for me.

AXS: In a few days you guys are going to be special guests on this big Slayer tour with Death Angel opening, and then you're also squeezing in several headlining dates as well...

FB: Yeah, it's fun. And I guess it's a great problem to have, right? Every time you want to do a headlining tour you get asked to do this other great tour. [laughs] We've been asked to do a lot and it's a great compliment that really good bands want us out to play with them and make a great package. So of course if it's right and it all works out with budget and all that stuff, you want to get to the bigger masses of people to listen to your stuff. Long-story short, that's what's happened, so everybody's asking 'When are you going to headline?' These are off-shows, the proper headlining shows you'll see. For days off the Slayer tour we're doing that, but there will be a proper Anthrax headlining tour next year. We have that penciled in right now that we need to headline because everybody's been asking for it. Again, a good problem to have that people want to see a headlining tour so it's a momentum thing. We're definitely having fun with it.

AXS: That's great, but touring has got to wear on you, at least physically. I know that you do yoga to help but it's probably not possible to do it on the bus.

FB: Not to complain, but the bottom line is that it does [wear on you], it beats the hell out of you. And anybody who hasn't done it and says, 'Oh, the rock guy's complaining...' just go up on stage and do five or six in a row and see how your back feels. And I'm really thankful with the yoga thing because if I didn't do that I'd be in really bad shape right now. I mean literally my back would be broken, so I need to do that. But at the end of the day I think you know how to pace yourself. Let's put it this way, on the road say you have a rough show, it's a hard stage, you do a jump that your back goes out on, just talking day-to-day stuff here, I'll give myself another hour in the bunk sleeping just to recuperate, and maybe you lay off that last shot of whiskey [laughs], or sometimes maybe that shot of whiskey makes it go away. [laughs] It's really a barometer and you feel it out, but look, we're all big boys here, and you know what you're in for so it won't be the first show where my back has killed me. [laughs] All I know is thank god for adrenaline because the fact that the show is there and the crowd is there, that kind of makes it go away until after the show, and then you scream.

AXS: You in particular are such a wild-man up on stage, and I'd imagine at this point it's just instinct – you're letting out that beast, so to speak, and you probably don't even realize what you're doing half the time and it must really take a toll on your body.

FB: You probably said exactly what my mind was thinking after a show, like what the hell was I thinking? It's kind of like the other guy, you know you go on stage and it's me but it's that other guy. So all you can do is prep before the show, stretch and all that good stuff so that you can do that kind of stuff without pulling a hamstring. And the older you get it gets harder, but again like I said, we're lucky enough to do this and it's all worth it for the show, and it's all about the show – let's face it.

AXS: So this is something that I like to ask the musicians I talk to who have been around the block a couple times over the years, but what do you think is the most important lesson that you've learned thus far in life?

FB: Well, it sounds like an old-school, generic answer to this question – and I have it because it's honest and it's real – if you don't work hard, like dig in and work for what you want, you're not going to get it. And from the beginning of this band, I'll tell you, it doesn't end. Yes, it gets easier if you have success and you get lucky, and you can graduate a little and make some money, get a tour bus and things will get a little bit easier. But the touring – look at a band like Anthrax that's been around for 35 years, touring most of this year into next year, you have to really want it. It's got to be in your gut and you have to work hard. I hate to sound like the old scholar here or the old wizard, but you have to really work hard and want this. And I know I sound like a father talking like that but it's the truth, you've just got to love this stuff. Thankfully, I'm talking to you after all these years, and I love this music, I love being a song writer, I love this more than I've ever loved it. And to have a record like For All Kings and the satisfaction that people are getting, and the vibe and connecting with people, that's absolutely the pay-off. So all the hard work and the time away from the family and all the bumps and bruises along the way, blah blah blah, all that matters is you're connecting with people and just being a fan with people for this music that's been so good to us. We're really thankful for that, so you work hard and hopefully – hopefully – it works out but you've got to really want it in your gut and have that fire. So, hard work, that's what it's about. It's just truth.

AXS: So here's a random question for you but is there any chance you guys will ever play the song “Panic” again any time soon?

FB: [laughs] That's a funny question. Again, another good problem to have when people want to hear a lot of different songs, which is fun as hell. But first we have to get through how many songs people want to hear off this new record because obviously we're promoting it. But then you never know with Anthrax specifically, we all have different personalities and someone will just bring up a song one day, 'We should just try this,' and it's as simple as that, and that could be one of the songs. And we have done that in the past so it's always in there, but the good thing is there are a lot of songs to pick from. But first we're going to concentrate on the newer stuff, we're going to bringing “Blood Eagle Wings” into it because people are asking for that and other songs from the new record, so we're going to try to mix it up and have fun with this stuff. But it's funny, I even like that song and I wasn't even in the band when they put out that album, but I toured that first record so I still like that song, it's cool.

Confirmed dates for Anthrax's 35th anniversary tour (in progress):

Sept. 9 Cleveland, OH Jacobs Pavilion
Sept. 10 Detroit, MI Freedom Hill Amphitheatre
Sept. 11 Traverse City, MI Ground Zero *
Sept. 12 Toronto, ON Sound Academy
Sept. 13 Montreal, PQ Metropolis 
Sept. 15 Pittsburgh, PA Stage AE
Sept. 16 Rochester, NY Anthology*
Sept. 17 Mashantucket, CT Revolution Rock Fest
Sept. 18 Chester, PA Rock Allegiance Festival
Sept. 20 Indianapolis, IN Egyptian Room
Sept. 21 Chicago, IL Concord Music Hall*
Sept. 22 St. Louis, MO The Pageant,
Sept. 24 Houston, TX Houston Open Air Festival
Sept. 25 Devore, CA Knotfest
Sept. 27 Orlando, FL Hard Rock Live
Sept. 28 Miami, FL Fillmore
Sept. 29 Destin, FL Club L.A.*
Sept. 30 Tunica, MS Horseshoe Casino Tunica
Oct. 1 Louisville, KY Louder Than Life Festival
Oct. 3 Norfolk, VA Norva
Oct. 4 Asheville, NC Orange Peel*
Oct. 5 Atlanta, GA Tabernacle
Oct. 6 Baton Rouge, LA Varsity Theatre*
Oct. 7 Dallas, TX Gas Monkey Live
Oct. 8 Austin, TX ACL at the Moody Theatre
Oct. 10 Denver, CO Fillmore
Oct. 11 Salt Lake City, UT The Complex
Oct. 12 Boise, ID Rev Hall*
Oct. 13 Missoula, MT The Wilma Theatre
Oct. 14 Idaho Falls, ID The Hill event Center*
Oct. 15 Garden City, ID  Revolution Concert House
Oct. 16 Spokane, WA Knitting Factory,* 
Oct. 17 Lethbridge, AB ENMAX Centre
Oct. 19 Penticton, BC S. Okanagan Events Centre
Oct. 20 Abbotsford, BC Abbotsford Centre
Oct. 21 Portland, OR Hawthorne Theatre*
Oct. 22 Elverta, CA Discovery Park
Oct. 23 Reno, NV Reno Events Center
Oct. 22 Sacramento, CA Aftershock Festival
Oct. 25 Flagstaff, AZ Orpheum Theatre*
Oct. 26 Farmington, NM Top Deck*
Oct. 27 El Paso, TX El Paso County Coliseum*

* Anthrax & Death Angel