Recently in town to kick off the North American leg of his new "Speaking Words" tour, I spoke with guitarist and founding member of thrash metal icons Anthrax, Scott Ian about his new spoken word tour, his thoughts on performing in Chicago over the course of nearly thirty years as well as about upcoming DVD and book releases he's working on to commemorate this new chapter of his career...
As guitarist and founding member of one of thrash metal's "big four" (alongside Megadeth, Slayer and Metallica), Scott Ian has sold nearly three million records since 1984 as the face of heavy metal stalwarts Anthrax.
But it's his work over the years on VH1 documentaries like I Love the 80's and more that first exposed his intelligence, quick wit and savant-like knowledge of all things music and pop-culture to a larger audience outside of the heavy metal music world.
Having worked or toured for nearly thirty years with a cast of characters including everyone from Motörhead's Lemmy Kilmister to The Who's Roger Daltrey (Daltrey contributed vocals to the 2003 Anthrax album We've Come for you All) has armed the clever and perceptive guitarist with an arsenal of one-of-a-kind rock stories.
But let's not forget that he's filmed reality shows with the likes of Ted Nugent and Sebastian Bach (Supergroup on VH1 in 2006) as well as Joan Rivers, Andrew Dice Clay and Khloé Kardashian (alongside Donald Trump on NBC's The Apprentice in 2009). Plus he's guested on The Walking Dead and is the unlikely answer to the trivia question, "Which heavy metal guitarist is also son-in-law to rocker Meat Loaf?" (Ian is married to Meat Loaf's daughter, Pearl Aday).
So it seems worth reiterating that Scott Ian may have gathered a pretty strong collection of stories over the years...
And he tells those stories - as if he was sitting across from you in a bar over a pint - in intimate venues as part of his "Speaking Words" tour. What started in London in 2012 - a tour no doubt influenced in some part by the massive success of hardcore punk legend Henry Rollins' spoken word projects - made it's North American debut recently on February 20th at Mayne Stage in the city of Chicago's Rogers Park neighborhood.
Hard at work on DVD and book releases to document "Speaking Words," Scott Ian checked in recently over the phone to talk about the benefits of being underestimated, working outside of his comfort zone, fond memories of performing in Chicago over the course of nearly thirty years... and Lemmy.
Q. You’ve got quite the history in Chicago – from filming the “Bring the Noise” video with Public Enemy on the south side in 1991 [at 18th and State] to recording an Anthrax DVD at Metro in 2003 [Music of Mass Destruction], you’ve spent significant time here over the years. What stands out for you about the city specifically? Any favorite memory?
Scott Ian: Wow… Specifically… Certainly the first time we ever played the Aragon… That was definitely one of those moments kind of etched in my brain back in 1987 – December of 1987 actually. I just remember looking out at a sold out Aragon and literally thinking, “How the hell did we get here?” Just a couple of months before that, we were playing to five or six hundred people and now we were playing to fifty-five hundred people who were just losing their minds. And we had never seen or felt anything like it. That still stands out in my brain as one of the best shows [Anthrax has] ever played.
And then all the way up to most recently - playing House of Blues a bunch of times. Over the last few years we’ve just had such amazing shows in that venue. I think one of the last times through, we played two nights there. [We were] offered to play a bigger venue but chose to do the two nights at House of Blues just because the vibe there is so good for us and we’ve had such great shows there. It just seemed like the thing to do.
You brought up the “Bring the Noise” video… That was an amazing experience. It’s just always been a great place for us.
Q. I’m assuming that the Vh-1 stuff was the first exposure to your wit and pop culture knowledge for a lot of non-metal fans. I think an important point of distinction to hit right away here is the fact that you don’t have to be a metal fan to enjoy this show…
Ian: No. You definitely don’t. I’ve had people come up to me on tour – people who like work in the venues who have no idea who I am – I’ve played venues in the U.K. that are like at art centers, actual theaters where they put on plays and things like that – The people who work in these places don’t have a clue about me or my band or anything. They just happen to be working that night and they see the show and they’ve come up to me and said “Wow! I didn’t know who you were. Coming in, I didn’t know anything about you or your music but I was entertained for two hours.”
Really, what it comes down to is they’re just human stories and if you have any type of sense of humor at all, you will be entertained.
Q. In my experience, metal fans are some of the biggest music fans – and not just of metal but of all kinds of different genres, of music in general. So it seems like this tour, with all of the different stories you're telling, would lend itself well to that. Do you think that metal fans get kind of unfairly stereotyped though?
Ian: There’s definitely a stereotype when it comes to everything involving metal. Still - to this day - people who don’t know any better definitely have an image in their brain of the stereotypical metal fan, metal band, whatever it is. But to me, that’s fine. It’s always better to fly under the radar because then you tend to be able to get away with a lot more sh-t. Just think I’m stupid or think our fans are stupid. That’s fine with me because in the end it just kind of helps if people underestimate you.
Q. I’ve read that before the first "Speaking Words" show in London in 2012, you basically did zero prep - no rehearsal. Now that you’ve gotten a bunch of shows under your belt, is it a bit more polished thing or do you still basically just get up there and wing it every night?
Ian: I definitely have a better idea of what I’m doing. So the "winging it" factor pretty much comes in... that I don’t feel like I’m stuck to a setlist so to speak. Because I can get onstage and make a right turn or a left turn at any point and basically call an audible and go into whatever story I think feels right to go into – which at first I couldn’t do. I was very much more regimented. Certainly, that first show I did, I had a list of stories and I had them up on my laptop on the stage so I could just look at it like I was looking at a setlist. And then into the tour, when I started that – let’s say the first week – it was still more setlist based. And then I just kind of learned how to do it.
It was the same as learning how to be onstage in a band. You get onstage with a band and it’s you’re first time playing shows… you don’t know what the f-ck to do onstage. You’ve got a guitar on and it’s like “What do I do? How do I move?” You don’t know. You just learn it by doing it and it was the same thing with this: I learned how to do it by doing it.
Q. You're a veteran now of the stage in a variety of ways – When you get up there with Anthrax, I’m sure there’s that moment when you know that you’ve got a crowd. Is there a moment like that now when you’re on stage doing spoken word?
Ian: Yeah! When they shut the f-ck up! It’s that simple. If they’re out there having a conversation, then they don’t give a f-ck and they’re not interested and/or they’re just rude and they’re a--holes.
I didn’t really come across too much of that because people are paying to come see this. I know, in general – especially the first time through in the U.K. – a lot of people didn’t know what they were getting themselves into. I didn’t do like any advance press. There was nothing out there. There was no video teaser for people to see. They didn’t know. So they were taking a total risk. Than they showed up and they get entertained for two and a half hours and were stoked about it. So many people said to me at the meet and greets, “We had no idea what this was going to be. We didn’t know if you were going to be playing guitar and singing songs or reading or what it was going to be.” People just didn’t know. But ninety-nine percent of the time, I didn’t have any issues.
There was one drunk girl in Dublin who felt the need to “help” me. Every time I finished a sentence she would then yell out what I just said and laugh really loud. That got pretty annoying not only to me but the rest of the crowd pretty quickly.
I was going to ask if you had to deal with any hecklers yet...
Ian: It wasn’t even that she was heckling me. She just felt the need to “help” me for some reason… I don’t feel the need to be rude but I finally just literally turned around to her at one point and said “Listen. You need to shut the f-ck up.” And then the whole crowd stood up and cheered. I think she got it after that point.
People were pretty wasted in Belfast as well but I just kind of went with it. It was pretty rowdy and it was a lot of fun.
Q. I’ve heard you talk music influences frequently… But when it comes to something like spoken word or stand-up comedy, what about influences there?
Ian: I don’t know really… I’ve seen [Henry] Rollins do this. It’s been forever (I’ve seen him do it back in the nineties). And definitely it was a huge inspiration for me to see this guy that I was already a big fan of be able to go do that and hold an audience as if he was onstage with his band and just be extremely entertaining for two hours just by talking.
And [I was] always thinking, “Hey, I can do that!” but not really knowing how or when or why or any of that - how I would ever do it. But [I was] just always thinking, “Wow. It would be really fun to try that someday.” Although what I do is completely different than what he does at this point.
I’m fans of tons of stand-up guys and friends with a lot of them... but once again, a completely different animal. I’m not writing jokes. So it’s really hard for me to have someone that I can look at.
Playing guitar, I can look and say “Well, Tony Iommi [of Black Sabbath] and Malcolm Young [of AC/DC] are the two biggest influences on my playing. When I grow up someday, I’d like to be like them.” When it comes to this, I don’t know that I really have somebody that I’d say, “I’m trying to be just like that guy.” Because I don’t know that there is a “that guy.” I’m just out there trying to relate my life to people as best I can and keep them happy.
Q. Did any of the stand-up guys that you’re friendly with have any words of advice for you when you got ready to start doing this?
Ian: No. Not really. If anything, my wife did. Because the night before my first show in London – the first one I ever did – I was so nervous about it and I had done nothing. No preparation. No rehearsal. I didn’t know. What do I do? I walk on stage and… how do I do this? What do I say, “Oh, hi?” I didn’t even know what to do – to the point where I was so nervous, I was going to cancel. I was going to call my agent and tell him I had the flu and tell him to cancel the show. Because who cares? It’s two hundred fifty people and who gives a sh-t? It’s not like we’re cancelling a big Anthrax gig or something. They’ll get their money back and nobody will care. And my wife Pearl said to me, “That’s silly. There’s no reason for you to cancel. You are these stories. They’re a part of you. You could sit in a bar with your friends and tell these stories and they’d be great. And that’s all you’re going to be doing tomorrow night. Just go there and you’re going to be in a bar with your friends and tell them these stories.”
And that’s really what I guess I needed to hear because that calmed me down enough. Then my brain kind of got into gear and I thought of how I would open the show and got my sh-t together enough over the next twelve hours to show up and yes, be extremely nervous onstage – my hands were shaking for five minutes and not even from the public speaking aspect - because I don’t have a problem with talking in front of people... It was just the idea of “I’ve got all this responsibility now. I’ve got to entertain these people for two hours and I certainly don’t want to be onstage and eat it. I want to be good.”
And that’s what I did. Two and a half hours later, I was in the dressing room with a giant smile on my face asking my agent how I get to do it again.
Q. Is there anything coming out to document this tour?
Ian: A DVD and book. There’s a DVD coming out in the spring of a show I filmed in Glasgow and a book is coming later this year – in the fall. And that will be a much more extensive and thorough and fleshed out with a lot more going on in it than I could relate to people in two hours onstage.
I am working with a guy named Jon Wiederhorn. He did the Louder Than Hell book. He did Al Jourgensen [of Ministry's] book. But I am doing quite a bit of the actual writing. That’s kind of one of the reasons why I haven’t done one yet. For years I would get asked about doing a book but I couldn’t commit because I couldn’t say “yes” and then take seven years to write it. But I know Jon so well and he’s written things based on interviews that I’ve done with him – He’s literally written things that are my voice. He could write in my written voice. So I just knew that it would work really well together with him and obviously that takes a lot of the load off of me. So we’ve kind of broken it up into who’s gonna do what.
Q. I imagine in thirty or so years of being in a touring metal band and traveling the different roads you've traveled, you’ve got quite the stories… I won’t ask you for a specific story because people can pay for that on the "Speaking Words" tour… But when it comes to B.S.ing and exchanging stories after a show, who would you say have been some of the best storytellers that you've encountered over the years?
Ian: Oh, boy… Certainly, [Iron Maiden drummer] Nicko McBrain. He’s a pleasure to hang out with because he’s just a natural... What’s the word for like an English gentleman who just has the gift of gab? He’s got a rapier wit. I mean, Nicko is just one of those guys who you could just sit and listen to him talk and tell stories for hours. And we have.
[Iron Maiden frontman] Bruce Dickinson is another one. Actually, I’m pretty sure he went last year and did a couple of shows in Scandinavia. He did talking shows and I’m dying to know how it went. Because that guy can tell a story. He’s amazing.
Lemmy [Kilmister of Motörhead] is right at the top of the list too. Nobody can tell a better story than Lemmy as far as I’m concerned. He should be doing this! If he’s too tired to be in Motörhead anymore, he can sit onstage with a cigarette and a whiskey/diet coke and talk for three hours! He could pack venues all over the world. He’s an amazing storyteller.
*** This interview was conducted by Jim Ryan (@RadioJimRyan)
(Jim Ryan also hosts "The Rock N' Roll Radio Program" Sundays at 6PM central on WIMS and WHFB - streaming at wimsradio.com and via the free TuneIn Radio app for the smart phone or tablet - Just search "WIMS" to find it on TuneIn)
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