Anthrax’s Scott Ian talks about shredding in his 50s, the decline of the heavy metal headliner and more

Scott Ian. Photo courtesy of Anthrax.
Scott Ian. Photo courtesy of Anthrax.
Published January 25 2018

Scott Ian's got plenty of fond memories in Tampa Bay, from playing Jannus Landing on 1987's Among the Living tour to seeing the Ramones there on a night off in the '80s.

But it's safe to say nothing will ever top the night in 1997 he was arrested for trying to break into the Yankees' spring training complex in Tampa.

"My short-lived life of crime, my one-day crime spree," the Anthrax guitarist recalled recently by phone from his home on Los Angeles. "I was so drunk. All I did was run the bases and run around like an idiot. I didn't steal anything. I didn't hurt anything. I maybe messed up the dirt a little bit from sliding around, which I gladly would have gotten the big sweeper out and fixed it for the groundskeepers if they'd asked me to."

It's not snorting a line of ants or trashing the Chateau Marmont, but it is a pretty epic tale of rock 'n' roll hedonism – so much so that it led off Ian's 2014 book I'm The Man: The Story of That Guy from Anthrax. Buy the book if you want to know how he escaped the wrath of George Steinbrenner – or ask Ian himself if you spot him on Tuesday, when Anthrax comes to Jannus Live with Killswitch Engage. (Click here for details.)

Ian, who turned 54 on New Year's Eve, isn't just a thrash metal pioneer. He's one of hard rock's most recognizable figures thanks to his books, online projects and many turns as a TV pop culture gadfly. But at an age when peers like Slayer are thinking about hanging it up, Ian still gets his biggeset thrills out of playing live.

"Playing a show has always been Christmas and birthday and Halloween and everything all wrapped up into one," he said. " Every time I get to play a show, that's what it feels like: Holy crap, I can't believe we get to do this, and people are here and they want to see it."

Before the show, Ian weighed in on his future as a performer, as well as the future of heavy metal in general.

Happy belated birthday. How'd you celebrate?

It was pretty mellow this year. I had dinner the night before on the 30th, and then on the 31st, just went to a friend's house. I home on the couch watching the ball drop.

It's premature to be asking this question, but is there a playbook to keep on doing what you're doing into your 60s and 70s? Who's done it well?

Well, Sabbath, although I don't know if any of those guys had hit 70 yet. Judas Priest and Iron Maiden aren't in their 70s yet, but Iron Maiden couldn't be more at the top of their game, and look how long they've been around. Angus (Young) is pretty much the only one left in AC/DC, but even Angus is seven or eight years older than me, and he's still out there doing it at the level he does. If those guys are still doing it, and they're six to 10 to 15 years older than I am, it makes me feel like I can do that, too.

What about those who haven't done it well? You don't have to name names, but do you know what you don't want to be doing on stage in a decade? What you don't want Anthrax to become?

If it's not fun for me to be on stage, then I shouldn't be there. Because I would have to imagine that would translate into what I was doing, and I don't want anyone to walk away bummed out and think, That wasn't a great show, and that guy's just phoning it in. That's not something I ever want to be a part of.

We just lost AC/DC's Malcolm Young. We just lost Motorhead's Eddie Clarke. You're getting to the point where you are the elder statesman among people who play heavy music. Does it feel like a responsibility? Like you're elevated to a new level of elder statesmanship?

No. (laughs) I think everyone feels the same way as they get older. Most of the people I know, including people not in bands, still look in the mirror and think of themselves as 18 or 20 or 21. I'm just a headbanger who grew up in Queens and loves metal, and I still feel that same way. I'm just a fan. Yeah, I know, I'm in a band, and we make records and we tour and we do all those same things that all the bands that I love do, but those bands are still on the same pedestal they've always been.

So no, I never see myself as an elder statesman. Maybe someday, if everyone I've ever been a fan of is no longer here, and there's literally nobody else left, people from my generation who are better prepared for the job, yeah, maybe. But what is that responsibility? There's no mayor of heavy metal. There's no professor emeritus of hard rock. What is the responsibility of being an elder statesman? The dudes in Maiden, they go to work just like I do and just like you do. They don't have a responsibility to anyone other than the people buying their records or buying tickets to their shows. There's no responsibility to the genre. That's something I've never understood at all.

Well, we'll always have Ronnie James Dio's hologram, I guess.

Yeah, really. Well, as mayor of heavy metal, I am against holograms. (laughs)

There'll never be a Scott Ian hologram?

I'll never say never. If I could have one right now, I would go for it. I could just stand in my house and play, and then they could beam that all over the world. That's never gonna happen, of course, but it's a nice fantasy.

We just passed another year where Priest and Maiden didn't get into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Anthrax, Megadeth and Slayer have all been eligible for years. Clearly there's a side of music history that's not being told there. You have any thoughts on that?

I don't care. It doesn't mean anything to me. There's a segment of the fans that are very passionate about this kind of stuff, and it would probably mean a lot to my parents. (laughs) I feel the same way about that as I feel about Grammys or any type of awards for making music. It's something that has nothing to do at all with anything of me being in the band or playing guitar or writing songs or touring. It couldn't be farther away from why I do this. What does it mean? That 20 dudes sitting around a room decided not to acknowledge the fact that Judas Priest are one of the most influential heavy metal bands of all time? So what? That doesn't change the way I listen to their records. It doesn't change the way I'm going to react when I go see them on tour this year. So no, I don't give a s—. It means nothing to me.

Obviously, everybody looks up to Priest and Maiden, and then your class of musicians has gotten a huge amount of recognition. But then the generation below you – Killswitch Engage is a good example, or arena bands like Avenged Sevenfold or Five Finger Death Punch, or even a critically acclaimed band like Mastodon. These are bands that probably will never have that kind of recognition on any level, no matter how big they are now or how much people love them now. There stands to be no canonization of these bands. Do you think that's the case? Or will people eventually appreciate these bands long-term?

I just think it's changed. People ask all the time, "Who's the next Maiden? Who's the next Metallica? Who's going to carry the torch?" F— if I know that. But in a different way, I can answer it: There's never going to be another Iron Maiden. There's never going to be another Sabbath or Metallica or Anthrax. To be able to create headliner in music these days is a hard, hard thing. You hope that people are still buying tickets, and they are – it's just not the same as it was. So there aren't going to be headliners like we used to have. All the bands you mentioned, none of them are ever going to be at that level of Maiden or Metallica or Priest or AC/DC. In my lifetime, in the next 20 years or so, you're not going to have a whole slew of bona fide arena or stadium headlining acts from bands either from the last 10 years or in the next 10 years. It's just not going to happen. The industry doesn't allow for it anymore.

I always wonder what would make a kid want to pick up a guitar these days. Not that there has to be a career path to it, necessarily, but it just seems like rock gods aren't gods to kids anymore.

I hear you. Look, guitar sales are down across the board. It has been for years. And yeah, what is there? The biggest genre in popular music is either pop or rap and country. So maybe in the country world there's hope. A lot of country acts, like Chris Stapleton or Zac Brown Band, they're more of a rock band than a country band. That's the real deal. You're going out and seeing four people on stage, not even looking at the audience, playing really dark, depressing country music. Does that make a kid want to pick up a guitar? No, I don't think so. Maybe Zac Brown Band. They're playing stadiums, and maybe they're inspiring kids who are coming to those shows, because they've got some s— hot guitar players in that band, specifically Coy (Bowles) – f—ing great guitar player. So maybe in the country world, there's hope.

As for the hard rock and heavy metal world, of course there's guitar heroes left and right, but how do you see them anymore, unless you search for them on YouTube? You're not turning on MTV and watching Headbanger's Ball and seeing Zakk Wylde still shredding after all these years. Zakk's out there 365 days a year, shredding his ass off, and hopefully, maybe kids know that. But it's so much harder now.

Look, I'm not one of those bell-ringers and doom-sayers saying rock and roll is dead. I don't believe that at all. It's never going away. Sometimes it's going to be more underground than other times, and certainly, in the '80s and '90s, we had our heyday. But look, we're all still out here. You've got a lot of bands out there that have been around 10, 20, 30 years who can actually go out there and sell tickets and make a living doing this. Do I wish it was 10 times bigger, like it was in the '80s, and everyone was still buying albums? Of course, that would be great for everybody. But we're still out there doing it, and that's not something I'm ever going to complain about. When I'm at a show, it's f—ing Christmas morning every time I get to play. Whether we're playing Jannus Landing or Madison Square Garden, it doesn't matter to me. This is what I get to do with my life, and it's something I'll never complain about.

— Jay Cridlin

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