Even if all of the band members question their group’s inclusion in the genre of thrash, Armored Saint was in the mix at the dawn of thrash metal. Two members have been asked to be involved with Metallica (John Bush in 1983 and Joey Vera in 1986), and vocalist John Bush spent some time with Anthrax – bringing along Joey Vera for the ride for a short time in 2004. The band tends to downplay their thrash roots, describing themselves as more of a heavy blues-influenced rock band. Their fans will always lump them in with thrash, Armored Saint being from LA and often photographed with members of Metallica, Exodus, and Megadeth in their early years.
Recently, Armored Saint has released Win Hands Down (2015) and Carpe Noctum (2016), the albums consisting of new studio material and live material, respectively. They have been touring the US and Europe and have their eye on some possible Canadian dates.
PureGrainAudio was allotted some interview time with Armored Saint vocalist John Bush who launched right into his love for Canada, Hockey and his interest in coming up here to play a few shows. We go back and forth a bit on Toronto and Montreal and make a little small talk. John asks where I live.
I’m in Kitchener. I’m not sure if you’d know where that is. It’s about an hour outside of Toronto.
Bush: Not to stereotype the whole country of Canada as being into hockey, but my son is into hockey. He’s such a big hockey fan, and he follows many teams. So I know that area a bit. And because of that, it’s motivated me to see if I can get something going for Armored Saint up in Canada. Quite frankly, it’s been years since we have played up there. Toronto and Montreal. We only played Quebec City once. And we have only played Ottawa once in the history of the band. We’ve never played Edmonton or Calgary ever. I never even played there with Anthrax. We’ve played Vancouver a couple of times. It’s got me thinking about maybe doing a Canadian tour. The problem is geographically it’s a big giant place. It’s something I’m thinking about though. I have this idea of doing a weekend or a couple of weekends. Do the east coast and the west coast or something. I don’t know how practical that is. But it’s something I’d love to do. I’d love to come to those cities. It’s been a long time. I don’t know what the interest would be in seeing Armored Saint there even is.
There would definitely be interest. Veteran bands in this genre, especially a band as renowned as Armored Saint would draw a crowd. The exact number of interested people, that’s the trick. Figuring that out, so it’s viable for Armored Saint and the promoters doing the bookings. We are seeing a resurgence in numerous genre metal bands doing dates in Toronto. Sacrifice, Annihilator, and Razor for instance. There’s anything from small venues through to 1500/2000 capacity rooms in this city.
Bush: That might be ambitious for us. If we could fill a 300 capacity hall after all of this time I think that would be great. I dunno. Maybe. We just toured England and Ireland. We did club shows and Hammerfest. To do it we have to have a support act that shares their gear. At least some of their gear. That’s what it comes right down to. That’s how we’ve been doing it, doing these further reaching Armored Saint shows. It’s a challenge doing that. Gonzo is on a different drum set every night. There’s levels of different gear every night. You really don’t know what you are dealing with in that regard. But at the same time, we want to play, and we want to go and play different places, and if we are playing on our own, this is kind of how we’ve been able to do it. It’s not really the most comforting thing. You don’t really know what you are going to be getting. But that’s what we’d have to do. I dunno. A Toronto and Montreal Friday and Saturday kind of thing, maybe we could get the same support act and use their gear and just fly in and out. I’d assume we could do okay in those two cities. I don’t know how Ottawa or Quebec City would go quite honestly. Those are two of the other bigger markets.
Quebec is a big metal town. They are quite fanatical there. I think you’d do fine in Quebec. Honestly, I think Quebec might be a robust stop for Armored Saint. You’d draw fans old and new there. Both Quebec and Montreal, their metal fans are quite dedicated. They are great cities for the genre.
Bush: What about Ottawa?
Ottawa is a smaller city. It’s our nation’s capitol, and you’d draw a crowd there, but likely it would be the lowest attendance of Toronto, Quebec, Montreal and Ottawa. And I say that with my myopic understanding of those regions. I’ve seen shows in all of those cities.
Bush: Right. So maybe a Thursday, Friday and Saturday. We’ll see. I’d love to come to those places. I love those cities. I think the last time Armored Saint played Toronto – I think it was on Revelation. But it might have been Symbol of Salvation, to be honest. I don’t honestly know. Joey (Vera) said that we went to Toronto on Revelation, but I don’t remember that at all. And I am pretty good with remembering gigs and cities. Montreal, I can’t remember the last time we were there. Quebec that might have been Metallica and WASP in 1985. So there’s a bit of a gap between Armored Saint shows in that city, you know? (laughs) Quebec might even remember us.
We talk a bit about Heavy Montreal here. That the festival is on hold this year, and that it would be a logical place for Armored Saint to appear.
Can you tell me what it’s like being in a band with basically the same line-up for 35 years? I’ll add here that I’m of the opinion that if David (Prichard) was still alive, he’d still be in Armored Saint.
Bush: I think that is one of the awesome aspects of Armored Saint, that we are the same guys for the most part. Phil (Sandoval) and Jeff (Duncan) were originally in the band at different times. They both did get to play with Dave, which was really cool. This version of Armored Saint has been around now since Symbol Of Salvation, which is around 1990. Obviously, there was a break when I left to join Anthrax. Then we got back together to do Revelation in 2000. I was still in Anthrax so that was a period of time where we weren’t 100% back together and I didn’t leave Anthrax. Eventually, I wound up out of Anthrax and I came back here to Armored Saint for good. We are not only a band that has been together for years, but we have been friends for years. Our friendship goes back to when we were like 8 or 9 years old. That was when we met as school friends. Joey (Vera) and Gonzo (Sandoval) and Myself. Gonzo and Phil being brothers, we knew Phil that way.
it’s crazy to think that the history of our relationship goes back over forty years. It’s pretty remarkable. I believe we are better friends than ever for it. Maybe it’s because we are older and more mature when we get together. It’s pretty casual and mellow. All of the egos, there just really isn’t anything there in that regard. We had them when we were in our twenties – everyone posturing to be the leader (laughs). At that point, we were like a lot of chefs in the kitchen, I think. Nobody really took leadership of the thing, and that likely created uncertainty about who was and who wasn’t. That stuff is all yesteryear. Really at this point, our leader is Joey. I don’t think there’s be any questioning about that within our ranks. It’s good. You need somebody steering the ship. He’s incredibly capable at doing that. More importantly, we need him to do it. Everyone is happy.
We have our disputes and disagreements of course – We’re humans. When it comes right down to it, we are all on the same page. Especially when we get together and do shows. Everyone is happy to see one another. There is a good vibe. I think it’s an awesome thing. As I’ve said before in other interviews, everyone in this band has an emotional connection to Armored Saint. Nobody is a hired gun or anything like that. There’s nobody with us looking for a two month run of dates for X amount of money or anything like that. That’s not happening here. Armored Saint is guys who feel connected to the music that we are playing in some way. Almost everybody has performed on everything for the most part. There is a lot of love for that brand that is Armored Saint amongst our ranks.
A question I ask a lot of newer bands is what it’s like for them trying to fit into their genre of music. So what is it like for a veteran band like Armored Saint, trying to stay relevant in the genre of metal, if you will?
Bush: Armored Saint was… well, you know… (laughs) we never really fit in anyway. And that is something that was kind of a problem early on. We started in L.A. But we didn’t really sound like we were from L.A. And then we had this kind of image thing that we thought was cool at the time. It embellished our name. But that became an albatross around our necks. We didn’t really just want to be known as this band that wore armour and leather. That stuff was cold and heavy and a pain in the ass to put on when you are in Rochester New York in January. The stuff doesn’t dry. We just got to the point where we didn’t want to wear the stuff all of the time. So we kind of tried to shed that whole thing because it wasn’t cool anymore when Metallica was wearing jeans and t-shirts anyway. We had hair then. Some of us did, anyway. Some still do. We weren’t like a hair band, though. We were from L.A. but our sound was more like we were from England. That created some confusion sometimes in the identity of the band.
And then the other problem was that you had these two genres that were propelled to success – the hair scene and the thrash scene. And we were really neither of those things. We could write slow types of ballad style songs but they weren’t like some of the sounds that were coming out of L.A. at the time. They were more based on things like UFO and Victim of Changes. We were powerful. We could rock with the best of them. But we really weren’t a thrash band. We also weren’t a band that was playing full throttle every song. We just had our own style of powerful stuff. I think that all of these things considered, it sometimes led to some uncertainty about what type of band Armored Saint was. And that was frustrating at times. In the end, we just did our thing. We tried to stay true to our sound and in the end, it kind of all worked out for us. We built up our name. We had this bluesy style, but we were heavy at the same time.
Now, more than ever, we are comfortable with what we do. I like to try and emulate all of my favourite R&B singers from the 70s. That’s what I want to do. Those are my favourite singers, you know? Don’t get wrong, I love Bon Scott and Halford and Phil Mogg who I just saw recently. He’s still kickin’ ass. These are some of my favourite singers. But I also love Stevie Wonder and The Gap Band. Lionel Ritchie from his Commodores days. These are singers that I really try and emulate.
In the end, I think we just kind of do what we do. As long as we are always growing as a band, and our style is progressing and our songwriting is progressing, I can’t worry about what genre we are a part of. It really doesn’t matter. Especially as we are guys in our 50s. I do think that there are certain bands for us to play with, something that is a logical pairing. Like us just touring with Saxon and Queensryche. We played some shows with Accept. Those to me are bands that would be more beneficial for Armored Saint to do shows with. We did some shows with Metal Church, and those shows went really well. We’ll do festivals with anybody, obviously. That’s a festival vibe. But we have been on bills before and all of the bands sound like death metal bands, and we will wonder “Why are we playing on this bill? This is not who we are.” That can be frustrating.
Yeah. I can see that. A lot of those death metal bands would cite you as an influence, right? They are probably excited to share a stage with you and see you play. Maybe they are as confused as you are that they are playing amongst Armored Saint. It’s funny how those decades of time are making situations like this even happen.
Bush: Yeah, you know, it’s funny. I just watched a documentary on metal. Global Metal, I think? It was a guy from Canada who actually did it.
Oh, Sam Dunn? Banger Films?
Bush: Yes. That’s the one. It was quite entertaining. He was breaking down all of the genres of metal and it was funny because there aren’t a lot of them when you really want to dissect it. But it was great. people ask us what we play and we say ‘metal’. It’s funny, you know for us, we’ll do a show and it never seems to fail that the band opening for us is snarl-growling his way through a song. That is just not us, you know? But because we’re Armored Saint and because we’re powerful. Maybe because I was in Anthrax or something. People seem to think that this death metal sound is the style of band that we are. We are really not.
That can’t be it. Anthrax vocals are all pretty smooth. Your vocal stylings with them, and Joey’s. You are both very harmonic singers.
Bush: Yeah, Joey sings cleaner than I do. Definitely. And they are doing a tour with Killswitch Engage, and they are very different vocally. But Anthrax is that kind of band. Their music is very heavy. They have always been known as a thrashier kind of band. They could pull off playing with bands like Killswitch much more logically than Armored Saint.
Yeah. True. I was listening to the latest Armored Saint live album. It’s super clean-sounding live material. They sound great. Great recordings. It’s a nice package. Interesting to look at that release, and then look at Saints Will Conquer and recognise that album was your first Metal Blade release, almost thirty years ago. It’s insane that you have been with Metal Blade for that long.
Bush: Thanks. That was actually our return to Metal Blade. Our first EP was on Metal Blade. Then we came back to make Saints Will Conquer. Which was recording on the Raising Fear tour. At that point, we were dropped by Chrysalis. We were trying to bide our time thinking that we’d get another major record deal, which of course never happened. This was probably much better for our career in hindsight. I make the joke that sometimes live records are a little bit of a time-buyer. “We need to buy some time, let’s put out a live record!” And truthfully, that might be a little bit of the case currently. But I truly love live records. Some of my favourite records of all time are live records.
Same here. Yeah.
Bush: It seems like a lot of bands aren’t making them as often. Let’s face it – record sales are hurting, period. And live records maybe need a particular type of purchaser. But I do love live records. And that is what we tried to model this record after. Our favourite live records. Unleashed In the East, Strangers In The Night, Live and Dangerous and Made In Japan.
Made In Japan is the best Deep Purple album in my books. It’s still the platter I throw on when I want to hear them. Live at Budokan is the best Cheap Trick album.
Bush: Exactly. Those are killer albums. Kiss Alive!! Come on, right? We wanted to make a record that kind of had that same vibe. And I think we did. It sounds great. It’s a little short, we know. There have been some complaints about that and I apologise. It was only two shows that we recorded and we wanted to make sure we had material on there that we were all really happy with. Once it’s released globally, there’s no turning back if there is something all of us don’t like on any of those songs, right? We really wanted it to sound like something we could be proud of. So it’s a little short, but what’s there sounds great. I think it’s awesome.
Check out Armored Saint’s “Mess” (LIVE BOOTLEG) Video
It’s still a 45-50 minute recording. Back in the seventies, an album was 30 minutes long a lot of the time, right?
Bush: I know. It’s funny, it has eight songs. I remember talking to Joey about that and saying, “Who cares how many songs are on it. Aerosmith Rocks has nine songs on it, and it’s still one of the best rock albums of all time. Power Age by AC/DC. Same. My attitude is that it’s about quality over quantity. Why fill it up with mediocre songs. It kind of started happening in the 1990s. When CDs came in you could make longer albums because you weren’t subservient to the time limits on vinyl. With eighty minutes on a CD, people started putting out 15 or 16 song albums, and the truth of the matter is that’s too many songs. That’s too long. I’ll look at a record, and if there are more than 12 songs, I generally don’t try them. It’s hard to focus on that many tunes, quite honestly. I prefer ten songs. I’m happy with that. As long as they are ten great songs.
Do you find that writing music has been an evolving thing over the years, John? Is it easier or harder to do as the decades go by?
Bush: Fortunately, knock on wood, I feel like writing has come pretty easily over time. Especially writing lyrics. Maybe it’s because I’m a little more educated having done it for so long? maybe I have more to say? I’m a little more wordly than I was when I was 21. That’s my theory anyway. I love writing lyrics. It’s still something I really enjoy doing. I like trying to use different words and say stuff I haven’t said before. I kind of feel like any topic is approachable when it comes to writing lyrics. I know that metal is metal. There’s a certain theme that tends to go with the genre, but I don’t adhere to that, you know? I kind of feel like I can write about anything. And that’s what I do. That’s what I want to do. And Joey, who has kind of become the chief writer in Armored Saint, he has written stuff that has blown me away the last couple of records we have done. I’m really proud of it.
I think our songwriting has evolved. We can show that we have continued to branch out and do different stuff and incorporate different instruments. I always say that our music is always going to sound like Armored Saint. We’re never going make a coffee house electronica album or an alt-country record. It’s going to be Armored Saint. We are a bluesy hard rock band. That’s really what we are. With that being said, we do kind of feel like the skies the limit with what we can do. I think we are our hardest critics. If we do something and we feel like maybe it doesn’t work, we would be honest with ourselves about it. When it comes to writing, I think that we have pushed the envelope. We can do whatever we want to try – a longer song or a shorter song, some different instruments, some piano, an intro with just vocals, something that’s scathing. Whatever. However we feel the song should go, that’s what we will do. With that mindset, I think it’s made us better writers.
Has Armored Saint ever had their own Spinal Tap moment? Something that sticks in your mind as being comical, but sticks to the genre of metal?
Bush: Oh, we’ve had every Spinal Tap moment. EVERY Spinal Tap moment. Our whole career has been one big giant Spinal Tap moment. We wore armor. Right? (laughs) The beauty of it all is that we all actually have a pretty good sense of humour. People maybe don’t think of us as humorous, but we really are pretty self-aware. We don’t try and take ourselves very seriously. I think we are pretty good at laughing at the stuff we have done as well. We certainly aren’t embarrassed by it or anything. We look back and we have a chuckle quite often.
Life is humbling. The music business, man, it’s a humbling world. Armored Saint got that enlightenment really early on. We were lucky enough to get our starts at age 19 and we were doing our first major tour on our first full-length record at 21. By 25 we had made three full-length studio records and were on a major label and then we were dropped. We always laugh at a guy who was a soundman of ours on the Raising Fear tour I think, and we were all 24 or something, and something happened with him. We pissed him off somehow and the tour wasn’t doing well and he had a moment where he was saying “You guys are done. You’re done. Armored Saint is done.” And he hurt us emotionally at the time. It scared us. Looking back, I wish I’d just laughed.
Done? We weren’t even 25. Most bands don’t even get started until then. But it was a bit scary to us. We were all like “Oh no. He’s kind of right.” It felt like that at the time, anyway. And now here we are in our early fifties, our mid-fifties, really. And we are still rocking out. Still doing our thing, and doing it a pretty high level, at least for our band anyway. We withstood the test of time, and I think that was what we really wanted to achieve. You go into this wanting to be successful and make money and know that this is the only thing that you will have to do in life, and that often doesn’t happen. That isn’t really the road that our band took. What are you gonna do? I think you just have to have a lot of humility with it all and keep it all in check. We appreciate everything that happens in regards to Armored Saint. And we are humbled by it.
I have found for the most part that the musicians within the genre of metal are good-willed, affable people. A total juxtaposition given the ferocity of a lot of the music. Especially the imagery associated with the music back in the days of curated music videos. Even the crowds of people that go to metal shows. It’s a family thing. There’s some tomfoolery and an element of free-willed alcohol consumption, but I’ve always felt very comfortable at metal shows. A safety, if you will. There doesn’t seem to be much of a question here, does there? (laughs) I love that most musicians in metal don’t take things very seriously. It’s a cool little pocket within the music industry where these diva moments you see and hear about in pop-fourty music – they don’t seem to happen in metal.
Bush: Yeah man. People that love metal music are passionate human beings. They love the genre. They thrive on it. And usually, they love it forever, you know? They might have started in their twenties, and they are still loving metal into their fifties. It’s a cool thing. I just went to see UFO and Saxon. Phil Mogg, one of my favourite singers of all time. He was still DOING IT, you know? This guy is almost 70, and he’s still sounding really good. And there were people in the crowd who might have been close to his age watching him and enjoying it. So I think that people into this type of music are very passionate about what they like. We see people who will bring their offspring to our shows. Which is cool. My son has come on stage with us and done stuff. We are kind of just passing the torch to a new generation, which is really neat.
Will there be a follow-up to Win Hands Down anytime soon?
Bush: Well, we haven’t really worked on anything yet. We’ve had conversations about it. I want to. I think we made such an awesome record. I think it’s kind of challenging, and even a little bit fearful how we follow it up. I really think we made a pretty awesome record that has set the bar pretty high for us to follow up. That being said, we will rise to the challenge and do it. I think we just have to figure out exactly how we want to do it. We’ve got a bit of a quandary in that we aren’t getting any younger. We are not guys in our thirties anymore. In that sense, time is of the essence. There’s a little urgency to it there, and we haven’t really done anything even knowing that.
By the same token, I want it to be great. Because it’s the records that you make that are the things that last. The shows are fun and they are always enjoyable, but they are kind of a fleeting moment – you play and then it’s gone. People may remember that show, but it’s the record that will continue once the band is over. if we never played again, the records would still exist. So you want those to be of the highest quality. You don’t want to make a record that is just an excuse to play some more shows and sell some more merch. I don’t think that has ever been the philosophy of our band. It certainly isn’t now.
We want to make a great album. And we will go play some shows. And frankly, I want to play Toronto, Montreal, and Quebec, but I don’t think we need a new record, per se, to do that. Because we’re Armored Saint. We’ve been around for 35 years. It’s not like we have to do a release. Of course, you have that story of a new release. It’s a new record. You are selling it. It gives the promoters a little extra incentive, and I understand all of that. But we are also honest with the fact that we’re Armored Saint. We started in 1983. We are not a new band. It’s funny because bands of our ilk, and I believe that we have made really cool and contemporary, modern sounding records lately, but the truth of the matter is that a lot of the fans who will come and see you will want to hear the old stuff.
I don’t think that if Armored Saint announced they were playing, everyone would assume there was a new record out. That probably wouldn’t be the response. That’s the same feeling I had when UFO was playing – They have a new record. And that’s great. But it wasn’t like that was the reason I wanted to go and see them. No. It’s UFO. You want to see them because of their catalogue. I think that’s the honest thing about older bands touring. Whether people want to admit that or not, well that’s their thing. Especially our peers, that’s the reality of it. If you are a band from the eighties, that’s probably what people are thinking. That being said, we want to play a bunch of new songs. We really love our latest record. And we think that fans do as well. But I don’t think having that new material is mandatory.
No. If you have not been up here, and I know Armored Saint has not been up here in a while because I would have gone to see those concerts, I’m going to want to hear some of the nuggets from March of the Saint, Delirious Nomad and Raising Fear.
Bush: Well of course.
Right? I’ve not really experienced these songs live. I don’t believe I’ve ever seen Armored Saint. I had a chance in the late ’80s, and couldn’t make it for whatever reason. I think I got sick. I don’t really want some of those songs to not make it onto a live setlist. Whether the new album is great or not, I’m really going to want to hear some of the deep cuts I loved as a kid from your back catalogue.
Bush: Absolutely. That is a very real thing that bands from our era have to contend with. It’s a combination. You want to play some cool old stuff and you want to play some cool new songs. That’s what you want to try and do. If you only played new material, people would wonder what you were doing. They want to hear that old stuff. The classics. When I go and see a band I love, and they play five new songs in a row, I am baffled by that. To me, that’s just not a good decision. You need to mix that up with a new song and then classic songs – curate the newer stuff in with your old stuff. I think that’s the right way to construct a setlist.