Q&A: One-time metalhead Rob Anthony finds his voice with acoustic guitar

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By Mike Thiel, Appleton Post Crescent

It’s not about Rob Anthony. It’s about the community of people he entertains.

The 39-year-old Appleton singer/songwriter spent most of his professional career playing music; his first taste of success? Performing with a touring heavy metal band shortly after graduating high school. However, heavy metal wasn’t a lifelong endeavor for Anthony as he ditched the metal scene – and a steady music career – about five years later.

It was time for Anthony to find a “real job,” working in the shipping department at a manufacturer in Milwaukee. But, like his metal career, packing boxes on the shipping docks would be short-lived. After a handful of years on the docks, Anthony rediscovered himself as a musician in 1999. This time, instead of striking distorted power chords, he found his voice strumming to an acoustic guitar.

The Stevens Point native, who moved to Appleton with his family while in middle school, began hearing music in a different tone and seeing it in a different light. He created the Rob Anthony Band before going completely solo, playing mostly his own music and booking his own shows (more than 200 a year) across Wisconsin. Anthony jokes that many people now refer to him as “the acoustic guy.”

However, it’s OK with Anthony if people don’t know his actual name; he prefers to trade celebrity for community outreach, anyway. Since reclaiming his music career, Anthony has used a number of his songs to raise money or contributions for charitable efforts such as the American Red Cross, the Special Olympics and the Wounded Warrior Project, a program dedicated to helping injured soldiers. Also, his song “Down the Road,” used to raise money for the annual Special Olympics Truck Convoy, struck a heartfelt chord with many men and women in the trucking industry, becoming an anthem for many.

P-C: When did you decide you were going to be a full-time musician?

Anthony: I had a career early on when I graduated from Appleton West in 1990. I got in a band called Acrophet and we were signed to Roadrunner Records and Triple X Records with our brothers Jane’s Addiction and the punk scene. It was a totally different genre. I played metal all through the ’80s. … I picked up an acoustic guitar in the middle ’90s and just kind of found a way to express myself as a songwriter and I started going that way. Preparation met opportunity when theInternet age came in and all of the sudden you didn’t have to be signed anymore to make records. I just jumped on board and started recording. … Then it snowballed. I never really planned for it to happen, but I just got really good at learning how to play the acoustic (guitar) and singing. I toured about nine years with the Rob Anthony Band, and then for the past three years I’ve been doing solely acoustic.

What was the No. 1 reason you ditched the metal scene for an acoustic guitar?

I changed solely on the fact that No. 1, our label didn’t want to continue with our agreement for another record, so basically we were dropped and that was that. Again, there was no outlet to go on and make your own music in ’95. It wasn’t for another four, five years that you could afford to go into a studio by yourself and then actually put a CD out by yourself. It was a (time of) transition, but also being a metal musician, it’s a tough lifestyle. You get a little older and it’s a lot of work and it’s a lot of hassle. It’s not the easiest gig being around such negativity all the time (laughs). That’s the best way to put it, most honestly. Plus being on the road is hard. My best friends are all tattooed and just living the life, but the partying gets old after a while.

After your metal band broke up, you worked on the shipping docks for a few years and then went back to music. Why did you go back?

Desperation (laughs). I didn’t want to wake up at 5:30 a.m. for a job anymore. In all honesty, that was pretty much it. I guess I’ve always been an artist, I just resurfaced, and like I said, with an outlet like the Internet and other technology you’re able to do it yourself now. The future is wide open.

You’ve created and released a lot of music; five albums including “Is This the Plan: The Essential Rob Anthony,” a 38-song double disc last year. Why release such a massive collection of songs, most of which you’ve already released?

As an artist, I have a lot of CDs and music out there because that’s just what I do. I write music. I express how I feel and I love the art of being in the studio and playing with bands and arranging music and all that. In regards to the two-disc CD set, realistically it just came down to recapping the past 12 years I’ve been doing this, and I couldn’t keep selling five different CDs at my gigs (laughs). People get confused because there are too many. I kept getting asked, “Which one’s better?” Well they’re all different and they’re all unique. … I just ended up putting all the music on one CD set and I fit as many songs on there as I could. But the two-disc CD set also has (a) storytelling (aspect). I start off with the first song “Is This the Plan” because that was the question: Is this the plan? Am I going to be a musician for the rest of my life? … I talk about coming from the heartland and working on the shipping docks, packing boxes, getting drunk in the bars and I think it sets the overall tone of the whole CD, which is basically the evolution of a songwriter. You can hear the difference over the years from when I used to really suck, and then I started to get a little bit better and then I got to a point where I’m like, I’m not sounding too bad (laughs). I’m learning, you know?

Your song “Down the Road” is a tribute to truckers. Tell me what that song has done for you and the truckers you wrote it for.

It moved me forward to be more of a solo acoustic artist. I’m more comfortable doing that now. The song, the only thing I can say is that it creates a really good message of what drivers do out there and the importance of their jobs, the families they leave behind, and I think that resonates within the trucking industry. I met a lot of cool people, and a lot of families in the trucking industry, learned a great deal and there’s nothing more rewarding than people connecting with your music based on something that you wrote for somebody else. … “Down the Road” was being used as a central theme campaign for the truck convoy for Special Olympics in Wisconsin, so they were raising money and I basically let them use the song for donations. I’m proud of the song because it did help raise a lot of money for a lot of great causes through Special Olympics and driver appreciation efforts through FedEx. That song helped me grow as an artist and it means a lot to me to help through music.

And most importantly, you’ve found a way to give back to the community though your music.

The more I’m able to generate musically for myself, the more I can give my time and give back to the organizations that I’m involved with. If you lose the fact that it’s about you and it’s about the people you’re entertaining, it makes it all honest.

Watch the video for Rob Anthony’s ‘Down the Road’: 

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