As drummer for thrash metal icons Anthrax, Charlie Benante has seen metal thrive in the underground, emerge during the early days of MTV, return to the underground and make a second emergence. As part of The Big Four of thrash metal, anthrax define lasting success in the genre, with their 10 studio albums selling over 2.5 million copies worldwide.
"It's rare that you can capture lightning in a bottle twice. There was a movement that happened with heavy metal music and we were just one of those bands. It was Metallica, us, Slayer, and then Megadeth. It was those four bands that really gave hard rock and heavy metal music a kick in the [rear]. It appealed to the youth, who wanted to just thrash."
Benante says his second band, Stormtroopers of Death, featuring metal players with a punk rock attitude, helped grow the thrash metal genre by bridging the gap for punk and hardcore listeners.
"I've always been a punk rock fan at heart and just loved everything that came out of England. Those hardcore bands just had this thing about them. The music was very emotional. We opened the door for a lot of bands to really enter that world of heavy metal. I'm not saying we were solely responsible, but we had a pretty big hand in it."
Growing up in the Bronx, Benante says he remembers having an early fondness for drums, though he never asked for a drum kit or for lessons. Fortunately, his family took his interest seriously enough to provide him with the opportunity to play.
"My mom, dad and my sisters saw my ability and acted on it. Across the street from us was a family with three girls who would play at churches and little tiny functions. They had a keyboard, guitar and a drum set. When the oldest one, who played the drums, went off to college, my dad offered to buy the kit.
"To sign up for drum lessons, my dad took me to Westchester Square, which is also the place where I bought my first record with my own money. I'll never forget it. The story just stays with me. The drum teacher, Louie, took a look at me and brought me right inside to the drum kit and just let me play."
Early on, Benante also played in the school band. At age 7, he was playing well beyond his years, often joining bands with teenagers. By his mid teens, he was playing at bars in the Bronx.
"My sister would help me load my drums in her car and she would take me to this place in the Bronx called City Island. I'd play the bars there, but I couldn't go through the front door because I wasn't old enough to drink. I would play four sets on a Friday and Saturday. One set would be a set of The Who. One set would be progressive rock where we played Yes, Kansas, and U.K. So, I had to learn all these tunes. I think that's why I love cover songsâ€”because I grew up doing it. I got tired of that type of thing and I just wanted to write my own songs. A friend of mine knew the guys in Queens who were in this band called Anthrax. He put us together. The two guys came over and we got along. Then it just took off. I left art school to go on a tour in a van and I never looked back."
The following Anthrax built in the thrash metal scene, buttressed by the punk and hardcore crossover groups, became one of the most loyal fan bases in all of music. The band's impact on the underground music scene did not go unnoticed, as companies like Tama and Paiste began calling for endorsements.
"Tama approached me in '85. I already loved Tama hardware, and some of my favorite drummers at the time were playing Tama drums. I loved the way they sounded. So I went with them.
"Paiste cymbals hit me like a flying saucer from outer space. I immediately fell in love with them when I heard them on records by The Police and Judas Priest. They just cut above the band and when I started to incorporate them in my sound I took a liking to the Rude cymbals. They were so loud that they cut right through the band."
After playing with one brand of heads for over a decade, Benante says he began having difficulty getting the sound he wanted from his drums. The issue came to a head in 2002, when an uninspiring drum sound pushed Benante and his tech to try Evans heads.
"We had moved the drums to a different location in the studio. We must have changed the positioning three, maybe four times. We changed the mic positioning. We tried a different type of head. We tried so many different things on it. It just wasn't happening. We went to lunch next door to a music store. I told an acquaintance there about what was happening in the studio and he gave me a complete set of Evans heads.
"We put the heads on the drums and the drums just came to life. They started singing. And I mean, my drum tech and I, we just couldn't believe it. Because we were thinking it was the edges on the shells. We were thinking it was the shells. I mean you start going crazy. And remember, this is studio time taken away. From that day on, I was an Evans believer and I haven't changed since."
On tour, Benante says he wants to get as many shows as possible out of the heads. Three shows out of the toms, and two shows with the snare, if possible. In the studio, it's a different story.
"I don't ever want to make a record that is three songs, four songs deep. I want to make 10 to 12 songs that every song you work 100 percent on. That's what we did on this last record. None of those songs were throwaways and, believe me, I worked my [rear] off on that last record. It's just a certain work ethic that I have.
"I don't like to say, 'Yeah, that's good enough.' I want to make it the best we possibly can, because when we're all long gone from this world, these records will live on. So I say, leave the best possible proof that you were here. I think we owe it to our fans and I think the reason why our record was received so wonderfully this time is because the next song kicked in and it was like, 'Wow! That's better than the last one.' Then the next one after that kicked in and they're like, 'Wow, that's even better.' We took them on a journey."
Written by Brad Porter / Photography by Ryan Hunter