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Q&A: Scott Ian

Before the “Big 4” heavy metal show at Yankee Stadium, the Anthrax guitarist and lyricist talks Queens, Jews, and Louis Farrakhan

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Scott Ian of Anthrax at a “Big 4″ show in Indio, Calif., April 23, 2011. (Kevin Winter/Getty Images)

Not at all. Public Enemy became my favorite band as soon as I heard them. I had a bunch of friends that worked at Def Jam back in the eighties. A guy named Scott Koenig, George Drakoulias back in the day. I was friends with Lyor [Cohen]. I knew everybody in the office back then. We used to go to Rick Rubin’s apartment and listen to records all the time, before everything blew up. This is pre-Def Jam becoming Def Jam and Rush becoming Rush.

So, how come Rick produces Metallica and not you guys?

We never asked him to produce us.

You should!

We don’t want Rick Rubin on our records. I love Rick Rubin, I think he’s amazing. I just don’t think he’s the right fit for us. But anyway, I was just a big Public Enemy fan. I got to hear tapes of the first record before it was out. And I remember hearing “Rightstarter” and “Rebel Without a Pause” and just thinking, “Man, this is the heaviest shit I’ve heard in my life. These guys are brutal. They’ve just taken all rap to the next level.” Then I got to meet Chuck and we became friends. I started wearing a Public Enemy shirt all the time on stage. Chuck would see pictures of me wearing it. So, we just became friends back then.

Cut to when they record “Bring the Noise,” and they name-check Anthrax in the song. We were just completely blown away. So, it was kind of like this mutual admiration society. And in the back of my mind I just always wanted to find a way to work together, and I knew there was a way, I just had to figure it out. How could I do something with Chuck D?

It was in 1990 when we recorded Persistence of Time. We were pretty much done with all the drum tracks. And I said to Charlie, “I’ve got this idea to cover ‘Bring the Noise.’ ” I basically transposed the horn part, came up with a guitar riff based around the horn sample that they were using. I said, “Let’s come up with an arrangement.” So, we came up with an arrangement for the song and we tracked it. This was back in the day when there was no Internet, so you couldn’t send an MP3. We made a cassette and sent it in the mail to Chuck.

So, I called him up and said, “Hey, man, we just recorded ‘Bring the Noise’ and we want you and Flav to be on it.” And he said, “Scottie, why don’t we come up with something new, from the ground up? Let’s write something together.” And I said, “Well, let’s do that too. But you gotta hear this.” Because we recorded the track and we were like, “Holy shit, this is sick, this is so heavy. People are going to lose their minds.”

So, it takes three days for him to get the fucking tape. We had already spoken to Rick Rubin. I told Rick what we were doing, because Chuck said, “Why don’t you call Rick and see what he thinks.” So, we spoke to Rick and immediately he says, “I think it’s redundant. They already recorded ‘Bring the Noise.’ Why don’t you do something different?” “I know, I know, but you just gotta hear this, Rick. You just gotta hear it.”

Finally another two days goes by, Chuck gets the tape, calls me back, and says, “Holy shit. This is slamming. When do you need us? When and where?” And that was it. It was as simple as that. They heard the track. They did the vocals. We shot the video in Chicago when we had a day off on the Clash of the Titans tour. On the way back to the hotel from the video shoot, someone on the bus—I think it was our manager at the time, Johnny—made a mention, “You guys should play some dates together.” And Chuck’s like, “Hey, you got my phone number.” World tour was booked like two weeks later. It was all just because we liked working with each other so much.

I just did “Bring the Noise” with them at the Sunset Strip Music Festival two weeks ago in L.A. Eight thousand people out on the street. It’s as magical now as it was in 1991.

And how do you feel about the Farrakhan line?

I never cared. If that was their belief at the time, and they backed Farrakhan, and obviously he had problems with Jewish people—you know, I never spoke to the man myself.

I can’t tell you how many interviews I did back then, in 1991, when people said, “How could you work with Public Enemy? They hate Jews, they hate whites.” And I said, “Well, if they hate Jews and they hate white people, they’re all really great actors because I just spent two months on tour with those guys and we had the best time ever.” Especially Professor Griff, who got the most heat back in the day. He was my best friend on that tour, and even now when I see Griff it’s all hugs and kisses. I’m like, if these guys hate me, they’ve got a good way of not showing it, you know?

Lyor once told me a story about when he was tour manager, when the controversy around Griff erupted, of saying, “Look, you guys may not know what buttons you’re pressing, but I want to show you something.” And he had the Holocaust Museum in Washington closed down and he brought those guys through it. And was like, “I travel with you, we’re friends, you’re going to see this, so you’re going to know what you’re talking about. The next time, if you still want to, go ahead, but this is it, this is the shit.” I think Griff and them then parted ways.

My attitude with it is I never judge anyone until I meet them. And obviously I already knew Chuck, and I never felt for one second that this guy had an evil bone in his body, so what he felt about Farrakhan wasn’t my business. My business was my relationship with Chuck D.

Now tell me about that release of energy on stage and how you prepare yourself to do that and what it feels like afterwards. That’s an insane amount of yourself to put out.

I just stretch. I don’t do much. I do a little bit of stretching. I warm up on the guitar for about 15 minutes. I do as little as possible all day long to save as much energy as possible, basically for the show. Because it is a crazy burst of energy, almost like running sprints. You go from zero to 100. One second you’re standing around doing nothing, and the next second you’re on stage giving every amount of energy you have in your body. At an Anthrax show, there is no really pacing myself. I always try and say I’m going to pace myself, but it’s hard to. It’s just natural for me to get on stage and do what I do. Sometimes, yeah, if I get winded, I get winded. There’s nothing I can do about it. Like I said, from zero to 100 in one second.

Doing that night after night after night, the stamina required for the touring thing, has always astounded me. I know some great musicians and they can’t do it. They can play at home, they can play in a studio, but to have to do that for two months, three months, it’s too draining.

We’re still able to play five nights a week. But it’s hard. Physically it definitely takes a toll. I’m waiting for the day when I’m going to need hip replacement, probably knee surgery—all that stuff I’m sure is in my future. Just like athletes. The damage I’ve been doing to my body since 1981 is, I’m sure, going to come back and bite me in the ass. All the headbanging—I’m going to be like one of those old guys walking on the street hunched over like this.

An old Jewish guy.

I look at AC/DC as my touchstone for it. Because Angus is 10 years older than me, and he’s still out there doing it at the level he does it. I always felt like, whatever Angus does, I have to do at least that much. And they’re still out there destroying. I figure we’ve got at least 10 more years.

How much time do you spend in New York now?

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Not not not not not not. I really enjoyed this interview. One of the reasons that I’ve always enjoyed Sott “Not” Ian and Anthrax is that they never took themselves as seriously as the rest of the metal scene. They made sure that everyone was in on the joke.
Glad you brought up SOD – a really kooky album if there ever was one. Also, on the hip hop meets metal tip, there was an early single with Anthrax and UTFO.

His last name is Rosenfeld, not Rosenberg.

I had dinner with Chuck D 18 years ago and he said that touring with Anthrax was one of the best times he’s ever had.

Matthew Fishbane says:

Mike, you are correct, as is the piece now that we’ve made the change.

A guy who says he doesn’t claim to be Jewish and who doesn’t mind singing about Louis Farrakhan — great subject for an interview in a Jewish magazine. Tablet should rename itself A New Read on the Lives Of People Who Had at Least One Jewish Grandparent but who no longer care to be associated with being Jewish.

Verificationist says:

I love David Samuels for this. Any chance that Bobby Blitz from Overkill was a little Jewish?

Verificationist says:

But David, David: There’s only one “a” in Megadeth.

To Hell with Ian for saying, “My attitude with it is I never judge anyone until I meet them. And obviously I already knew Chuck, and I never felt for one second that this guy had an evil bone in his body, so what he felt about Farrakhan wasn’t my business. My business was my relationship with Chuck D. I never cared. If that was their belief at the time, and they backed Farrakhan, and obviously he had problems with Jewish people—you know, I never spoke to the man myself.”

If someone is a public figure and has made public comments, then you don’t have to “meet them” to know that they are trash. To say that Farrakhan “had problems with Jewish people” is a lame cop-out. It shows how you can be in a heavy metal band and still be a wussy.

Ian says, “I can’t tell you how many interviews I did back then, in 1991, when people said, “How could you work with Public Enemy? They hate Jews, they hate whites.” And I said, “Well, if they hate Jews and they hate white people, they’re all really great actors because I just spent two months on tour with those guys and we had the best time ever.” Especially Professor Griff, who got the most heat back in the day. He was my best friend on that tour, and even now when I see Griff it’s all hugs and kisses. I’m like, if these guys hate me, they’ve got a good way of not showing it, you know?”

Sounds like a great barometer. So, if they like you, then they can’t hate Jewish people, in general. You must be really f’n special, Ian.

The bottom line is that Ian was unwilling to converse – let alone confront – Chuck D and even Griff – about their praise for a filthy anti-Semite like Louis. Clearly, he knows how to perform like one who has guts, but in a simple situation that calls for courage, he does nothing.

david samuels says:

I can’t spell to begin with. So how am I supposed to spell their mis-spelled metal words correctly?

Great interview. Loved his line on Woody Allen. If you think of what our people did to make it in this country, “nebbish” would be the last description. And loved Scott’s take on Public Enemy. That’s the Jewish spirit I identify with… not legalistic and quibbling. Kinetic and human and about first hand experience. Not confined by life and tension but liberated by it. Really refreshing read. Thanks.

Jonathan Field: I wouldn’t call it “quibbling” to call someone out on praising an anti-Semite.

And who told you that the Jewish spirit is “legalistic?” Paul from the New Testament? That the Jewish spirit expresses itself – not exclusively – through law doesn’t make it legalistic.

God bless him for mentioning the Dictators, the greatest band in the history of rock and roll. Richard “Handsome Dick Manitoba” Blume, Andy “Adny” Shernoff, Scott “Top Ten” Kempner, Ross “The Boss Funicello” Friedman, and for a time Mark “The Animal” Mendoza, members of the tribe all. With lyrics like “We knocked ‘em dead in Dallas, didn’t know we were Jews” and “Have you ever made it with a Hebrew boy?”, they knew where their roots were. So howzabout an article?? Dictators forever, forever Dictators (DFFD)!

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Q&A: Scott Ian

Before the “Big 4” heavy metal show at Yankee Stadium, the Anthrax guitarist and lyricist talks Queens, Jews, and Louis Farrakhan