Frank Bello: Metal Reflections

The beloved Anthrax bassist bares his soul in his new book and EP, including overcoming tragedy & his triumphant rise to success

Frank Bello: Metal Reflections

The beloved Anthrax bassist bares his soul in his new book and EP, including overcoming tragedy & his triumphant rise to success

When you think of the music of Anthrax, what typically comes to mind is burly tones, brutal riffs, electrifying stage performances, and the intimidatingly heavy thrash metal the New York City quintet has been cranking out for four decades. Having sold over ten million albums and being acclaimed as one of the “Big Four” of metal (alongside Metallica, Slayer, and Megadeth), their status in the metal world is legendary. But beyond their perceived tough-guy image, the members of Anthrax are immensely nice gentlemen, incredibly smart, in tune with their emotions, and fiercely dedicated to their fans. Most of their followers know those things, but with the release of Frank Bello’s recent memoir, Fathers, Brothers, and Sons: Surviving Anguish, Abandonment, and Anthrax, the 56-year-old bassist lays everything out on the table, including the duality of being a compassionate, kind individual while also unearthing some of the heaviest music around.

Written over the course of the COVID lockdown with author Joel McIver, the memoir delves deep into Bello’s life and reveals his recurring bouts with abandonment, depression, a broken household, and the death of loved ones, as well as how music continually saved his life and sanity. Starting with his early upbringing in the Bronx, we learn about a young Bello who was infatuated with music and often turned to the albums of Barbra Streisand to drown out the fighting in his home. When he first picked up a bass, Geddy Lee and Rush became his obsession, and he would spend many nights up until the sun rose learning the bass parts to Moving Pictures [1981] and Signals [1982]. He got to know two other bass heroes, Steve Harris and Gene Simmons (Simmons wrote the foreword to the book), and learned early on the importance of always making time for your fans and treating them with the utmost respect. After strictly playing his bass alone in his bedroom, in 1984 at age 16, he was invited by his cousin Charlie Benante to try out for his band Anthrax, and Frank landed the chair.

From there, his life changed forever. He hit the road and basically hasn’t stopped touring or making albums since. Bello has played the biggest stages in the world and touched the lives of adoring fans in the same way that Gene and Steve did for him, always making time for his fans and making sure they know the love is reciprocated. He suffered great tragedy, first losing close friend and fellow bassist Cliff Burton when they were on tour together in 1986, and later experiencing deep grief with the murder of his brother in 1996. Learning to practice the art of humility, he continued to work at his uncle’s Bronx deli, even when Anthrax had become successful. He’d hop off the road from sold-out shows and put on an apron to serve sandwiches. The grateful bassist has retained the same work ethic that got him where he is today — something he’s imparting to his own son, now that he has a chance to be the father his dad never was for him.

The memoir is a wild ride as a whole, and a tremendous read for both Anthrax fans or anyone looking for a larger-than-life story filled with humor, pinch-me moments, revelations, and the lows and highs that come with being a rock star. Bello is also releasing his debut solo EP, Then I’m Gone, to go along with the audio version of the book — something that has been long overdue, but felt appropriate at last, for him. After revealing everything on paper, he was inspired to take the subsequent emotions to his basses, and the album was born from the experience. On top of his solo focus, Anthrax has been hard at work on their upcoming album, which was sidelined due to the pandemic. Fans, however, are thrilled at the prospect of new material coming out within the year. Riding the wave of all of these projects, Bello is happy to be back at work and doing the thing he loves most. While he might be one of the nicest guys in music, he’s still going to make some of the angriest, heaviest damn music you’ll hear.

How did your solo EP Then I’m Gone come about?

I revisited some very dark times in my life when I was writing my book, and writing these songs was the result of reliving them. Music has always been a great outlet for me as a coping mechanism. I felt it was a good time to put out these songs for people who connected with the book, and maybe some who haven’t yet.

What can we expect from the songs?  

These songs were a good outlet for venting some of the shit I was reliving while writing my book. It helped to release the anger emotion valve. For my friends who liked my side project Altitudes & Attitude, these songs are along those lines. Maybe a bit angrier.

Writing your story in words is so different from performing onstage. How vulnerable did it feel to put out your memoir?

So vulnerable! I’m not exaggerating when I say that I was boozing to keep my emotions in check. The day it came out, I had a couple of shots of whiskey, and my wife kept telling me to calm down. I was genuinely a nervous wreck. It’s not like an album or anything like that; this is your life. And nothing in the book — I can say this from my heart with all honesty — was made up or exaggerated. I had no idea what people would think of me after reading it, instead of just knowing me as Frank Bello, the bass player of Anthrax. I had to put that aside, because I know that some people feel the same things inside and have these issues that I discuss in the book. I’ve always thought that if one person feels better knowing that I’ve gone through the same fights with depression, abandonment, and everything else, then it’s all worth it. That’s important to me.

How did the idea to write a book about your life first come to you?

Joel McIver and I had been talking about doing this for years. He was writing a lot and I was touring a lot, and there was never time. You can’t do this kind of thing on the road. Joel is great at lighting a fuse and getting me to break open the dam for the words to come out. During COVID I was writing music, and I wanted another creative outlet to put my energy into. It was then that I knew it was time. Joel and I started the sessions, and we would talk for hours, jumping around to different parts of my life. It was so cathartic; there was so much pain in reliving things that I hadn’t touched in so long. I could see my brother’s body lying there after he’d been murdered. I could see all of the hardest moments of my life. I’d have a big box of tissues, and I’d use every one of them. But then there were all the great rock & roll stories, which brought me so much joy.

A key theme to the book, and the story of your life, is abandonment. How has music helped to deal with that?

The truth of the matter is that music is one of the greatest catalysts for all of us. Without music in the last couple of years during COVID, we would’ve all gone mad. Music is always the soother. When I would hear my mom and dad viscously arguing through the walls of my room before their divorce, I knew it was bad, so I’d put on my headphones, and it would take me far away from that terrible situation. It doesn’t matter what type of music you like — put it on and you’re away from whatever ugliness you’re facing. That’s important in life. Music is a gift. This book is also my thank you letter to music.

You talk about the positive impact rock music had on you early on, and how big of a moment the 1981 release of Rush’s Moving Pictures was for you as a budding bass player. Describe Geddy’s influence on you.

To this day he’s a huge influence on me. I’m still a student at this point in my career, and I want to learn something every day. Geddy has an infinite catalog of beautiful bass playing — from the one-finger playing he does, to the little runs that you have to pause to wrap your head around — I’m still learning from him. That particular album sculpted me so much. I listened to it on repeat and even bought both the cassette and vinyl. That was my training. It was so important to me to learn those songs and bass lines, and they sunk into my blood and became a part of how I write and play.

Did you learn that full album on bass?

I did. It was the challenge of it for me. I wouldn’t sleep; I would stay up all night to learn Geddy’s lines, to figure out what he was doing. We didn’t have YouTube or tab books back then — we had to learn it all by ear and just keep hacking away at it. It was all about repetition. When I would finally learn his parts, I could fall asleep, at last.

Kiss and Gene Simmons were also a big influence on you.

The fact that Gene wrote the foreword to my book is insane. I’m forever one of Kiss’ biggest fans. I grew up in the Bronx, and the Kiss management office was in Manhattan. My friend Tom and I were obsessed with them. Tom somehow had an inside connection with their management, and he would get a call anytime the band had a meeting at those offices. Tom would call me up and tell me, “It’s on.” We would cut school and take the Manhattan express bus and go down to the city. We’d be freezing our asses off outside that building, waiting for hours. And remember, the band wore makeup back then and never showed their faces in public, so nobody knew what they looked like — but we did. We’d see four guys in suits, with platform shoes, and we would go right up to them. After a while, Paul [Stanley] would say hi to us. Finally after seeing us many times, Gene asked what our names were. Then he’d say, “Frank Bello, how do you always know when we’re coming here? Who the hell tells you kids when we’re going to be at this office?” We’d tell him that we just get lucky and that we’d wait out there all day. He’d just shrug and smile and walk into the building.

How on earth did you sneak into Kiss’ studio and have Gene play you a rough mix of “Young and Wasted” [Lick It Up, 1983]?

Tom and I found out that Kiss was recording at Right Track Studios, which doesn’t exist anymore. We took the bus down and went to the front of the studio, and there was a button next to a camera. Tom just walks up and pushes the button, and a voice asks who we’re there to see. I’m mortified, and Tom just matter-of-fact goes, “We’re here to see Gene.” And goddammit, they buzz us in! My heart dropped. The door opens and there’s a long hallway with an elevator at the end. I try to go back out the door but Tom grabs me and shoves me into the elevator. The doors open to a desk in the front, with no one there, and Tom walks right past it. I reluctantly follow him in, and we see a wall with two cowboy boots sticking out from behind it, somebody relaxing and watching TV. We peek our heads around, and who is it but the one and only Gene Simmons! He looks up and sighs a loud sigh. He recognized us immediately and he plainly asked, “What are you doing here?” Tom told him we walked in to hear new songs. Gene puts his head down and says, “Do I come to your homes when you’re relaxing or bother you while you’re working? Does that happen?” He gave us a whole speech, and I was mortified. Tom told him to come to his house at any time. Gene smiled and he gave in at that moment, and he said, “Would you like to hear a song?” It was the most surreal moment ever. We were about to hear a Kiss song that nobody had ever heard. He calls the engineer in the other room and says he’s going to send some friends of his in to hear the song they just recorded, and the engineer punches in “Young and Wasted.” It was a dream. The speakers were blasting, we were freaking out … it was one of the best moments of my life. Gene was so amazing to us, and right then and there I knew that if I ever made it in the music business, I would always treat my fans that same way. We came out of the studio on cloud nine, and Gene asked if we liked it, and we couldn’t even speak. Then he said that he gave us what we wanted, and asked if he could get back to work now. And that was it. We floated for weeks from that experience.

You also got to meet Steve Harris in 1983, as Iron Maiden was recording Piece of Mind in a similar fashion.

I live in New York City and Electric Lady Studio is down in Greenwich Village. Tom got word that Iron Maiden was mixing there, so we went down on a freezing night wearing only leather jackets. We waited in front of the studio, and Tom rang the bell and told them we were there to see Steve. They told us he went to eat around the corner, and that’s all we needed. We looked in every restaurant until, lo and behold, we look into the huge window of a place, which is still there to this day, and we see Steve Harris eating dinner alone next to the window. We’re standing there freezing just staring at him, and this is how great he is — he sees us and waves us in. We sprint inside and apologize for bothering him, and he tells us to have a seat with him. He bought us dinner and answered every Iron Maiden question we had, and it made our lives. He’s such a father figure to me because he showed me how to behave. That’s the way you treat fans. You treat them with respect and love. I’ll never forget the feeling I felt from him.

How did these encounters with your heroes sculpt how you would act when Anthrax rose to stardom?

They taught me everything. I love our fans and will always take the time for all of them. If it’s a bad day and I have the runs or something, I gotta go, but I’ll come back for ya [laughs]. You always treat everybody how you want to be treated. Gene and Steve taught me that firsthand.

Your first experience with death was the passing of Cliff Burton, whom you were close with and spoke to the night before, while on tour together. How did that impact you?

It was not only devastating for me and everybody, but we were so young in bands on the rise together. We felt it and we knew we were in it together. We were on tour for so long, and we were bass players and close friends. We would sit and talk bass for hours. I loved picking his brain, because he would think so far outside of the box. I would ask him about what he did with the wah wah pedal, and how he bent the strings. I was a student of his. I would watch their set every single night, and then before we’d get on our buses, there was a caterer who would give us sandwiches for the ride. We’d sit together and eat and talk about our sets. Then there would be a bus call, and whoever had to leave first would turn to the other one and say, “Hey, maybe I’ll see you tomorrow,” and the other person would answer, “Maybe you will.”

On that fateful night, Cliff was boarding his bus first and I said that to him, and he turned around and got back off the bus and smiled at me and said, “Yeah, maybe you will.” That was the last time I ever saw him. That’s what hit me, because that’s the face that I still see in my head. We got to the next hotel, and that’s when we got word there was a crash. It still haunts me. I would love to have heard what [later] Metallica would have sounded like with Cliff Burton because he was an innovator. I love Jason [Newsted] and Rob [Trujillo], but as a Metallica fan, I wish I could hear what he would be doing now. He created beautiful things on the bass at 23, so imagine what he’d be doing now. Rest in peace, Cliff.

The 1996 murder of your brother was obviously one of the most impactful moments of your life. You went on to write the song “Pieces” in his honor [Anthrax’s Volume 8: The Threat Is Real, 1998]. How cathartic was that song for you?

I have to be honest, people are going to “Pieces” and revisiting it or hearing it for the first time, and that means a lot. I had a tour three weeks after Anthony’s death and went on it because I knew he would have wanted me to. I would just lie in my room each day and cry, and then play the show and go back to my room. I wrote the song “Pieces” with an acoustic guitar in my hotel room, and it was my way of saying goodbye to my brother, because I never had a chance to say goodbye. My band was kind enough to put it as a hidden track on our record. [Play through the final track, Stealing from a Thief,” to find it.] People found it and connected with that track because of their losses. Now through the book, people have found the song again, and it’s helping people once again, which makes me feel amazing.

You’ve been in Anthrax practically all of your adult life. How does it feel looking back on your career?

I look back and think of how fortunate I’ve been. It’s been so much hard work, but that’s essential to anything. You need some luck in there, too, but you’ll never get it without the work. I still look at myself as a fan and a student. I’m still dying to write the next great song and the next great album. It never stops, and in that sense I have the same perspective as when I was just a teenager joining the band. Anthrax was my first band and I had only played bass in my bedroom before that. Going from that to a full band in packed venues was insane. I never took any of that for granted, and I never will. But it all came from hard work.

Speaking of hard work, the book details how even up through Anthrax’s third album [Among the Living], you were still working at your uncle’s deli in the Bronx. What was it like going from playing sold-out shows to serving sandwiches?

I would come off tour and my uncle Joe would call me in to work the deli. After my dad took off, Joe was like a father figure to me. He knew I had the music thing going, but he knew I needed money. He taught me about life and work and how to remain humble. I would come off the road playing for all these fans, all over the world, and I would get home and start my shifts working behind his counter. If there’s one message I can pass along through the book, it’s that you work hard to get what you want in life. Put the ego aside and go after what you want. And if you have to work in a deli while you’re doing it, then do it.

Anthrax has been working on a new album for 2022 but reworking it and waiting for the right time to release it. What can you tell us about it?

Hopefully by the end of this year we’ll have the album out. None of us can say what’s going to happen next, but we’re ready and we’re hungry. I’ll tell you right now, this pandemic and these two years of being locked up created a lot of angst, and what’s good for metal? Angst. I’m psyched about the future. A lot of great music is being written right now.

How does bass resonate with your personality?

Foundation. Being settled. I always look at bass as being the foundation with the drums, and being locked in, and I need that in my life. I need to be locked into something. That’s why I chose bass and that’s why bass chose me. In my upbringing I always desired to be grounded and rooted, and it’s all one. I was always looking to be locked into something that wasn’t there, and I found my home in bass. I still truly love playing, and I’m still learning and growing. You never stop. –BM

A Chat With Co-Author Joel McIver

Fathers, Brothers, and Sons co-author Joel McIver is one of the busiest writers, journalists, and bass players around. He is the bestselling author of Justice for All: The Truth About Metallica, which has been translated into nine languages and has seen huge success all over the world. His book count is now at 35, and he has written for Rolling Stone, The Guardian, Metal Hammer, and Classic Rock, as well as being an occasional guest on BBC. Classic Rock magazine called him “by some distance Britain’s most prolific hard rock/metal author.” He is currently the editor of Bass Player magazine and shows no signs of slowing down his prolific pace of writing.

What was it like working with Frank on this memoir?  

It was a blast! We had a lot of laughs. Even though we were just sitting at opposite ends of a Zoom call, it felt very real. Frank would often be up out of his chair, laughing his ass off at a story he was telling. At the same time, a lot of what we talked about involved pain and sadness on his part, and at those moments, my job was just to be supportive and help him through the process of getting it all out. The actual task of getting someone’s entire life story onto tape can be daunting. The trick is to take it slowly, be flexible about when you do interviews and for how long they go on — because, as you know, they can be exhausting for both participants — and be sensitive about what the interviewee is going through. We’ve all been through good times and bad times, and recalling any of those times in detail is inevitably draining unless the circumstances are friendly and relaxed.

What was the process of writing this book together?

I met Frank around 2007 when I was interviewing him for the UK’s Bass Guitar magazine, and as we crossed paths again over the years and became friendly, we began discussing the idea of doing a book. The deal was signed with Rare Bird Lit in late 2020, and we carried out 24 hours of Zoom interviews between October of that year and January 2021. I asked Gene Simmons to do the foreword, Frank dug out the pictures, the legal permissions were secured, and we submitted the first draft in March. Rare Bird’s editor asked for a couple of small changes, and then it was just a case of proofreading, picture captioning, doing an index, and now doing press.

What compelled you the most about Frank’s life? 

He has a clear mission. His father abandoned the family when he was a kid, leaving him with understandable issues that he still struggles with today. But rather than allow himself to become bitter or sink into a bottle like so many people tragically do, he faces those demons head on, with courage and honesty. He’s also a great dad to his son Brandon, which might not mean much to anyone who wasn’t abandoned by a parent — but believe me, being a loving father is important at an existential level when you’ve been through that trauma. All of that fills me with admiration for Frank.

From all of the time you’ve spent with him, what can you tell us about Frank as a person?

Everyone says that Frank is a total sweetheart for a reason — because it’s true. He’s one of the very best people in this crazy business, and I feel privileged to be his friend. We were in a bar in London once, and some asshole came up to us and started yelling at us for blocking his view of a TV screen. Instead of getting angry, Frank gently talked this guy down and solved the problem without raising his voice once. That’s the kind of guy he is.

You’ve been a longtime fan of Anthrax and have worked with them many times. When did you first hear their music?

In 1988, when I was 17, so I was quite late to the Anthrax party. Like a lot of their fans, I couldn’t believe how fast and heavy they played while still writing choruses that you could sing along with. Once I heard Among the Living, I was hooked. I was just starting to play bass at the time, and tried my best to play along with Frank, failing miserably most of the time.

What are your top-five favorite Anthrax songs and/or bass lines?

“Gung-Ho” for the ridiculous picking speed; “I Am the Law” because of the adrenaline rush I get from the fast break in the middle; “Be All End All” for that cool groove riff; “Got the Time” because how can you not love that song as a bass player; and “Blood Eagle Wings” from their most recent album, For All Kings, because it’s so atmospheric. This band does everything.

Frank is a big influence to bass players of many genres. What mark do you feel he’ll leave on the world of low end when he finally hangs up his bass strap?

Frank is a singer, songwriter, and guitar player, as well as bassist, so he’s got a lot to offer in all sorts of areas. Specifically as a bassist, I think he’ll be remembered for playing lines that are as melodic as hell in a genre of music where that is uncommon, the only other example I can think of being Cliff Burton. He also does this without resorting to an obnoxious tone to make himself heard — quite a feat, in a band as heavy as Anthrax. –BM

Read Fathers, Brothers, and Sons: Surviving Anguish, Abandonment, and Anthrax [Rare Bird Books, 2021]

Hear Him On Frank Bello, Then I’m Gone [2022]

For more on Bello: Click Here

Jon D'Auria   By: Jon D'Auria

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