Scott Ian On When He First Heard Thrash: 'Oh My God, It's Possible'

In 1981 Scott Ian and some other punks from New York started a band to make faster, heavier and more evil-sounding music than they'd ever heard before. They called it Anthrax.

And while Scott soon learned about bands from Europe and the West Coast that were faster, heavier and significantly more evil, he was undeterred. Actually, he was thrilled.

Scott learned that Anthrax wasn't alone in its own musical universe when Megaforce Records cofounder John Zazula played him Metallica's No Life 'Til Leather demo in 1982. Scott was blown away but also validated.

"It was like ‘Oh my god, it’s possible!’" he told Q104.3 New York's QN'A. "These guys are all our same age and Johnny’s going to bring them to New York to make a record somehow. Even Johnny didn’t know how he was going to do it. But somehow he was going to do it."

Scott looked back at his place in heavy metal history during a launch event celebrating Jackson Guitars' new American Series Soloist. The beloved company has been making tools of heavy metal destruction for as long as Scott has been spreading his disease.

Jackson's return to an American production line is a major moment in the company's history and a testament to the brand's enduring stature in heavy metal — a stature Scott Ian and Anthrax helped establish.

The investment in Jackson as a brand also evidences something metalheads have been saying since the beginning: heavy metal is forever.

Read the full QN'A conversation below.

For more on Jackson's American Soloist, go here or watch the "Origins of Speed" via the player above.

What are you doing nowadays creatively, beyond getting ready for the next Anthrax tour?

We've been writing for a while, even pre-COVID. We’ve been writing and putting a record together, slowly and deliberately, as we always do.

I’m jamming a lot with my son. My son plays bass and guitar. There’s a lot of jamming going on at home. He’s got two bands. There’s a lot of music in the house. I’m constantly surrounded by music in one shape or another. Playing, playing, playing constantly.

And Anthrax has been doing some one-off shows. We just played Summerfest in Milwaukee. Our tour starts in [July]. I’ve already been relearning some songs for that that we haven’t done in a while so I’m ready before we rehearse.

It’s been a while since the last record, For All Kings. Did the pandemic play into why it’s been so long or did you not really have plans for a new record until recently?

Yeah, 2016. Sure. We finished touring that album in November of ’19, with the intent of taking the rest of the year off and then early-’20 is where we were gonna seriously start writing, maybe with the idea of getting into the studio maybe by the end of ’20 or early ’21.

But yeah, COVID just changed everything. That first year was just lost. Then we slowly — once it was seemingly safe to travel, ‘cause we’re all in different cities — we started getting together again and writing and jamming. That creative spark kind of lit into a flame again.

I just really enjoyed spending time with my family. I used that time for that. You had to be home; what else were you going to do?

Right. Stress will take the creativity right out of you.

100 percent. Yes.

So we’re here in L.A. celebrating the launch of the Jackson American Soloist. Anthrax started around the same time Jackson did, and you’ve been getting guitars from them for almost your entire career.

Yeah, pretty much whenever Jackson has existed as a company, I have played their guitars. There was a period of time I believe in the 2000s that they weren’t really a company anymore, until Fender came in and revamped the whole brand. But yeah, I bought my first Jackson in 1982.

I custom ordered a Randy Rhoads [model] at Sam Ash on 48th Street in New York. That was my first Jackson. That’s all I ever wanted to play.

Was Randy the reason you were attracted to Jackson initially?

No, not necessarily. It just sounded so good. I loved Flying Vs. I loved his take on the Flying V, and the guitar sounded incredible. I plugged it in to a JCM 800 in the store and it just sounded so great. I knew that was the guitar. I just had to have that guitar.

I wasn’t a lead guitar played by any means. I just thought it sounded killer for what I was already doing in the context of Anthrax at that point. We’d already been a band for about a year-ish. A little more than a year, we were already writing songs. It just felt like the right tool at the right time.

So you custom-ordered it. The one in the store is not the one you bought.

No, I wanted my own. Funnily enough, I ordered it with this yellow and black paint job and it came in with a Floyd Rose [tremolo]. I wanted a different size neck than the one in the store. I was already a big fan of Charvels at that point — I ordered a neck similar to those Charvels.

Anyway, it came in and I hated the paint job on it. It took like eight months to get, too. (Laughs) Even in 40 years, nothing’s changed.

Even with all those fancy machines they have, custom orders still take forever.

Oddly enough, the guy who built that guitar for me back then, Mike Shannon, still has a lot to do with the guitars I order, which is crazy.

Yeah, I hated the paint job and I came up with another idea and I went back to Sam Ash and I said I wanted to send it back in to have it refinished. They said, ‘You realize that’s probably going to take four months?' I was like, ‘I don’t care.’ You can see it on the back of Spreading the Disease. It’s that guitar. That white Rhoads with the anarchy symbol and the NYHC and all that.

Is there an Anthrax track that you feel is a great example of one of your Jackson’s at work?

I used that Rhoads on Fistful of Metal, but I hate the mix on that record. The guitars are buried on that album, which has driven me crazy. But on Spreading the Disease, certainly “Madhouse,” the whammy solo just really shows off that guitar at that time in that moment, just how great it sounded and how great it played.

The first 30 seconds of “Madhouse” is pretty indicative of where I was at and what I was doing at that time. It’s a nice framed portrait on audio [of that guitar].

Looking back on that era of thrash metal, it seems like Anthrax is the one big band from that era that everybody likes, from fans to your peers in the other bands.

Yeah, well, we’re the New Yorkers. Everyone else is West Coast. We’re New Yorkers. I don’t know how it is now … People think of New York City as this hard-ass, tough guy place, and it was in a lot of ways, but that’s only if you act like an asshole.

I’ve always found that New Yorkers are extremely friendly and open-minded people. That’s certainly how we were meeting all these dudes from other bands back in the ‘80s. We get along with everybody.

I saw you telling a story of your first time hearing Metallica’s No Life ‘Til Leather demo. And it made me wonder, were you enjoying that record as a peer of theirs or as a fan of the music? Or was it a competitive thing, like, ‘This is the standard. We need to beat this?’

It wasn’t a scene yet. There was no scene in New York at all in 1982. I had never heard of [Metallica] until Johnny Z played me that tape. We had no idea what was going on in L.A. or San Francisco. We knew about European bands — Merciful Fate — we knew of stuff that was going on in Europe.

So you expected music like that to be coming from Europe.

Yeah, so when he plays me the tape of this band from San Francisco. I hear it and it was like Motörhead meets Discharge, it was like, ‘Holy s--t!’ I remember thinking, ‘How did they do it? How did they write these songs? The songs are so good.’ That was beyond me at that point in time as a musician. The quality of their songwriting was so realized, even that early on.

You can hear it — how far ahead they were. I was just blown away by it. ‘This is what we want to do. This is what we’re striving towards.’

So it was aspirational.

Totally. It was like ‘Oh my god, it’s possible!’ These guys are all our same age, and Johnny’s going to bring them to New York to make a record somehow. Even Johnny didn’t know how he was going to do it. But somehow he was going to do it.

Lucky for us we were in that right place at the right time with Johnny Z and Metallica. Everything Metallica did opened the door for us and for Slayer and, oddly, for MegadethDave [Mustaine], you could say, opened the door for himself in a weird way.

Metallica opened that door for everybody.

As you went along, you got to know a lot of your peers. Was there a competitive aspect to it?

I don’t think so. We didn’t do it that way, certainly.

Because some segments of metal have certainly gotten that way.

If you’re talking about competition with commercial success, there was a time when none of us had a pot to piss in. We were all just working our asses off trying to get anybody to listen to our band.

Then Metallica started to grow and the growth of Metallica, of course, starts to help everybody. When Metallica opened for Ozzy in ’86, I feel like that’s the actual moment that allowed the whole thing to happen. The Big Four, thrash, it was when they opened for Ozzy.

You know, 85 percent of that audience had no idea who they were, walking to that Ozzy show, going to that arena to see Ozzy Osbourne. He’s sharing the stage with this new band and that 85 percent of the people who had no idea who Metallica was, they all went and bought the records within the next three days.

By the next year, they were a bonafide headliner. By the time ...And Justice For All came out, they were headlining arenas, in 1988 or whatever.

And of course with Metallica growing leaps and bounds, people were like, ‘Well, I f---ing love this band Metallica. What else sounds like this?’ And they go to the store and they find Anthrax, Slayer and Megadeth.

I never looked at it as competition. Any success any one of us had helped the others.

Like when we teamed up with Slayer and Megadeth in ’91 and we did 'Clash of the Titans,' I like to say the three of us teamed up so we could be equal to Metallica (laughs). But it worked! One plus one plus one equaled three. We went out and all of us played the biggest shows of our careers at that point.

I never saw it as competition, and I was always a fan of all the other bands. I was always interested to see what they were going to do next, always excited when they had a record coming out.

I think just because we all became friends at such a young age. We were all just working and trying to get our bands noticed.

And I think the key, which is what I meant to say right at the beginning of this, another reason why I never saw it as a competition is because all four bands — I’ll throw Exodus in there too — all five of us sounded completely different.

None of those records sounds alike. We never sounded like Metallica; Slayer never sounds like Megadeth; Megadeth never sounds like Anthrax, you know what I mean?

What would be the reason for competing, we’re all doing our own thing.

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