Armored Saint: A smashing return!

John Bush & Joey Vera - Armored Saint 2015 by Stephanie CabralAll those who know Armored Saint will agree that the band has never had the success or the recognition they deserved. And yet, both bassist Joey Vera and vocalist John Bush, the two leaders and main composers of the combo, don’t really seem to care. On the contrary, they fully appreciate their good fortune: over thirty years after their debut, they still have fans, are still able to release albums and enjoy full artistic creation. Their new album, Win Hands Down, is the epitome of musical success. Five years after La Raza, which was also lauded by the critics, the band comes back victorious.

We met the two musicians to talk about the record at length. And since Armored Saint releases are few and far between, we wanted to take the opportunity, with this very long interview, to also talk about the band’s state of mind, the way they look back on their career, the way they work, as well as Anthrax (with whom John Bush played for thirteen years), Fates Warning (Joey Vera’s other main band, which, in his own admission, helped him evolve as a musician and a composer in the 90s), and Motor Sister, Scott Ian’s new band, in which the bassist also plays.

Armored Saint 2015 by Stephanie Cabral

« At the bedrock of it all, at the very base of everything, the only thing that really matters to me is: ‘Is it a good song?' »

Radio Metal: No less than five years separates your new album Win Hands Down from the previous one La Raza. With John being free from Anthrax, we would have thought Armored Saint would have accelerated its releases. So how can you explain such long period of time?

John Bush (vocals): [Laughs]I guess it’s just the way we work that’s a little slower, maybe a little more meticulous. We also have to incorporate that with all the things that’s going on in our lives. Sometimes I would go to Joey [Vera]’s house after I drove my kids off at school and we’d be working on something by, I’d say, 9 or 9:30 A.M., and then I maybe had to go to my job, so I had to squeeze in an hour’s worth of work and try to get as much accomplished in that time because that’s all the time I had. Because I do have another way to earn a living and it’s the way it is, so I had to hurry up and get something done and then go to work. We’re not just sitting around, vacationing in the French Riviera for fifteen years, we have other things happening in life. Time is time and you don’t have a lot of it as far as music is concerned. But we were productive. It does seem like a long time but we found we got a lot accomplished in the last few years [chuckles].

Joey Vera (bass):: A couple of reasons. For one thing, in general, we don’t have any deadlines that we ever have to work with. We’re very fortunate to have a record label, Metal Blade Records, that allows us to pretty much work our schedule whenever we can, whenever we can fit it in with other daily life, etc. When we regrouped in 2000 to make Revelation , for instance, we said that we weren’t gonna make that reunion, so to speak, as it was before where we were working in the normal confines of a working band’s schedule and the cycle of you put out a record, then you tour for two years and then you go back to the studio and make another record as soon as possible, and you put the record out again and go back on tour… We don’t have a need to try to rekindle our career in that way. We have already gone through that during the eighties and the early part of the nineties. We spent eleven, twelve years in the band doing that cycle of being a regular working band. It’s a bit obscure maybe for some people but we decided that we were going to sort of do this thing with Armored Saint on our own terms. And that’s the reason why it takes a little longer. When La Raza came out, we spent about a year, maybe a year and a half, of not really doing touring, because we didn’t really do long tours, but we did a bunch of dates for that record, we did some short tours in the US and Europe and then a bunch of one off east coast shows in the US and things like that. And it wasn’t until about, I’d say, a year and a half ago – so we’re talking 2013, so that’s three years after the record was released – that we started writing. John and I decided to basically start writing. Why does it take a year and half to write and make a record? [Chuckles] For the same reasons, really. I mean, we work around our schedule, we all have families and kids, some of us have regular day jobs and that kind of thing. Not to mention the fact that I’m still involved in Fates Warning, I’ve still been busy during that time with Fates Warning, we’ve put out a new record and I’ve done a lot of touring with them. So I’m quite busy with other things as well. So we work around the schedule where it opens up. We try not to put too much pressure on ourselves to do it and we work at our own pace. That explains the five year absence [chuckles].

Does that mean you have a more instinctive approach to your band, meaning that you do an album when you feel the artistic desire to and not because you’re obligated to?

Joey: Yeah. The writing doesn’t start until we feel some inspiration coming from somewhere. Like I said, it’s not like schedule thing. It comes up when we just feel the need and that we have something else to say. That’s a pretty organic way of working and we hope it stays that way. I’d hate to feel like I ever got into a position where I felt like it was more of an obligation [chuckles].

John, you were quoted saying that “when [you] started work on this record, [you] said ‘Let’s pretend we are a really big band and can do whatever we want’.” But isn’t it precisely because you’re not a big band that you can actually do whatever you want, given the constraint bigger bands usually have with major labels and tons of staff surrounding them?

John: Yeah, probably. It was just more of a mindset on the artistic side, just kind of making sure that we felt like we could do whatever we want on our level, I was probably referring to that more. We’re lucking to have a lot of support from Metal Blade Records, Brian Slagel and his staff. He gave us a lot of freedom to do our thing. But yeah, I think our goal was to do the best we can and do music to the best of our ability, and kind of looking at it as if we were some big band and we could do whatever we want. So I think that was a little bit of the mindset that we had, and I think that’s what we did, we accomplished that. We’re not the most popular band in the world but we kind of feel that we can pretend that we’re able to do some of the things that you do when you’re playing [in bigger bands], by incorporating all these instruments, etc. Maybe having a big budget you can do a lot more things that you can’t do when you’re a smaller band. You can’t pull an orchestra into the studio or something like that, but the world of technology kind of enables you to do those things. And I think that was the spirit of it all, to just kind of say: “Look, we wanna have an organ? Do we have an organ player? No, too bad, but Joey can do it!” I think it just opened up the whole pallet of Armored Saint.

The music on Win Hands Down is very dense, with intricate songwriting and unusual structures, including some surprising sections in the songs (a jazzy interlude on “Win Hands Down”, some sitar on “Mess”, etc.). There are guitars riffs all over the place and Gonzo Sandoval behind the drums sounds more energetic than ever. Did you want to challenge yourselves musically but also challenge the listener? Is it important for the band not to fall into any sort of songwriting routine?

John: Yeah, of course. I think it’s exactly what it is. I don’t want to mail it in, so to speak. I think that for us, to just make a record that “you know, this is what people expect from a band like Armored Saint, so let’s give them what they’re expecting and kind of play it safe or by the Armored Saint book…” I don’t want to do that! It’s not fulfilling to do that! I wanna to do something that I think is pushing a little bit more my own abilities, as a writer, as a singer, try to do things that you’ve never done, try to just always grow! Look, I’m sure most bands say that. I don’t think anybody goes into making a record saying: “Let’s just do the same thing over and over again! That’s what our fans want. Here’s the same riffs, that’ll work…” I mean, there are certain bands that have a formula and they kind of play by that book, they do their thing and it’s effective. I mean, AC/DC is a perfect example of that. I certainly will never say anything negative about them, ever. But you know, they have their style, they have their formula and they play accordingly. For me, that’s not what I wanna do. For me, I need to feel like we can do whatever we want to do and I think that was a good mindset to have. It just embellished all the creativity. By doing that, I think that you’re sometimes taking a risk because your fans might be like: “What are they doing? I don’t know if I like this!” The joke I always say is: it’s not like we make the Armored Saint trip-hop/bluegrass record! It’s a hard rock/heavy metal record! Within those parameters, we try different things. We maybe wanna make an eight-minute song, we’ll do it! We wanna incorporate some piano, we’ll do it! We wanted a female voice on a song, Pearl [Aday], we did it! I don’t really feel like I wanna have that many limitations as to what we can do.

Armored Saint 2015 by Stephanie Cabral

« We have one of the best singers, I think, in the genre [chuckles]. So I need to make it a good spotlight for him [laughs]. »

Joey: Yeah. I don’t know if I intentionally wanted to challenge the listener – I don’t think that’s an intention – but it was an intention to push ourselves, that’s for sure! It was a very conscious effort on my part to try to challenge our band as songwriters and as what we’re capable of doing, also trying to capitalize on some things that I feel like we do well but also push that further. Being the main songwriter and director of sorts, I was pushing the other guys as well, Gonzo, for instance, and both guitar players, just trying to push everybody as far as they could. That was certainly an intention. When I first started writing this record, I said to myself and John: “I really want to make this a gigantic, huge, epic thing!” [Chuckles] I mean, I’m not gonna attempt to do something that I don’t think we can get away with [chuckles] or are capable of. But within the confines of what I think we’re capable of I felt like I wanted to make it as big and challenging as possible. That includes, on a production value, trying to make it unusual and interesting as well. I don’t want to be afraid to take some chances and add different instruments, and make these sorts of sonic soundscapes. I listen to a lot of different kinds of music and I sometimes feel like I want to incorporate some of those things that I like and listen to. That’s why there are a few things or instruments that sound different, like world music or some jazz influences or some funky influences, whatever. I don’t wanna be afraid to be able to incorporate any of those other things in the music.

Despite this challenging aspect, the songs still keep a fun and catchy feeling. Is it important to have that kind of balance, and make sure to always have hooks in the music?

John: You know, it’s funny. You go back to the early day in Armored Saint and the guy who signed us to Chrysalis Records, his name’s Ron Fair, he’s a really talented musician, he works with Christina Aquilera today and people like that, he was very talented as a pianist, he would always play “March Of The Saint” on piano and it was genius! He played it and it would sound awesome! But he was always telling us even back then to push ourselves as writers and to always have good hooks. You know, I think it just comes natural now, after all these years. You wanna write a riff that sounds killer and that people are gonna remember. You wanna sing a vocal melody that is something that gets in people’s psyche and stays with them. That’s part of being a writer and, yeah, sure, you wanna keep doing that.

Joey: Yeah, I think it’s important. At the bedrock of it all, at the very base of everything, the only thing that really matters to me is: “Is it a good song?” So my whole purpose to begin with, is just to write good music and make it a good vehicle for John Bush to sing over because John has a great voice! He’s a very good vocalist and he has great melodies. So I need to make a good vehicle for him to have a good platform to sing on. All the other stuff comes afterwards, like wanting to be epic and big, all the overdubs and special sounds, that’s just kind of like the icing on the cake. But at the core of it all, the songwriting is something that is the most important. I always think it’s important. I wanna hear a great song and a great singing. We have one of the best singers, I think, in the genre [chuckles]. So I need to make it a good spotlight for him [laughs].

John, you mentioned the duet that you do with Pearl Aday, Scott Ian’s wife, on the song “With A Head Full Of Steam”. How was it? Actually it almost sounds like a fight between you two, it’s very rock n’ roll!

John: That’s funny! I did like the idea of doing a song with a female vocalist, it’s just something that we had never done and I thought that would be cool. I like the idea of singing with other people. Joey also did a couple of vocals and he sang great! Incorporating these kinds of different voices, I think it just embellishes everything. I did want a female voice on a song, I had a couple of people in mind but Pearl just was the right person for it and she sang amazingly! There are times where she really blues out her voice and rock it up really well, and she kicked ass! It’s funny that you say that it sounds like a little fight, it’s good! That’s a good thing. I haven’t heard that from anybody and that’s neat!

For the first time you have a piano driven song called “Dive”, which sounds very emotional, with choir and orchestra arrangements towards the end. Can you tell me more about this song that seems to be a bit special?

Joey: When we made La Raza, John and I talked about writing a song together that was piano driven but it never came to fruition on La Raza and we brought it up again this time. I always wanted to do it and John also wanted to do it. Again, it’s something that will showcase another side of John’s vocal abilities. We don’t get a lot of opportunities, especially in Armored Saint, to write music that’s a bit toned down, a little bit mellow. We’ve certainly done a few ballads in the past, “Another Day”, from instance, from Symbol Of Salvation, but we didn’t want to write a “ballad”, you know, [chuckles] we didn’t want it to be just a “ballad” with a piano, then the drums come in and a big ending with big guitars and everything… So I took a different approach and we did a few things… What kind of ended up happening was that I had this piece of music that was actually written on guitar that was super moody, and I said maybe I can transpose this on the piano. So I did and it’s basically the verse parts of the song. From there I wrote the rest of the song on piano. Once I got to that point, I decided that I just wanted to keep it just sort of brooding and dark. I probably was pulling from my Pink Floyd influences. I love Pink Floyd, so I wanted it to be more of a Pink Floyd song than sort of a “eighties ballad”, you know [chuckles]. From there we kind of took it off and I wanted it to be really sparse and I asked a friend of mine, Eric Ragno, who’s a great keyboard player here in Los Angeles, to help me out. I have very limited piano skills, so I asked him to actually perform the parts on the record and he also wrote the string arrangements for us. That’s basically how the song came about. And John came in with a very somber sounding lyrics and chorus, and I thought that everything fitted great. I think it’s a good departure but it also fits well with the rest of the record, I think.

Do you always put a lot of thoughts like that into your songs?

Joey: I think it depends on the song but most songs for me, they write themselves, they really do. As soon as I write one part, the next part just writes itself and it just falls into place. Usually I’m writing songs fairly quickly. Literally, they’re done in an hour or two. When I get on to a roll with something, it usually happens pretty quickly. The arrangement of the song is something maybe that I fall with sometimes after the fact. Again, when I first started writing, I really wanted to challenge myself as far as arrangements were concerned. So I took some time and I would play with the arrangements, make attempts to let the music play and play out. My purpose was to have more musical sections in this record rather than just a verse with singing and then pre-chorus with singing and then a chorus singing and then a guitar solo and then back to the verse… My intention was to experiment more with bridges. There are a lot of songs that have bridge sections on the record. And also there are sections that are just musical sections where I wanted to showcase, you know, not just the performance of the band but also some musical interludes or whatever. So, I do put a lot of thought onto how I’m writing music, for sure.

Armored Saint - Win Hands Down

« I don’t always live according to the things I even write about […] I’m certainly a human being, with flaws, which is fine, you know, it keeps me grounded. « 

You two are the main songwriters. John you handle the lyrics and Joey you do the music. Can you tell me more about your collaboration and working relationship?

John: It’s a great one! Joey and I, we’ve had such a long friendship, we’ve been the best of friends for years and years. It doesn’t mean we always see everything eye to eye, we have our own little conflicts. Joey’s kind of a control freak, which is a good thing for Armored Saint. He sees things in his way. I can be antagonistic at times and sometimes we don’t always agree on everything, but what’s weird is that when we actually work on music, we actually settle our disagreements, which is cool, we’re lucky! I know there are people out there that go: “Oh, turmoil in bands are good for the bands!” No it’s not! I don’t agree with that! I don’t need turmoil in a band to make great songs. That’s not what I’m looking for. You certainly balance off one another different ideas and viewpoints but I don’t think that we need to be at each other’s throats to make songs. I don’t think this to be a good environment and luckily we don’t have that. Joey makes really great sounding demos, that’s what he did on the last couple of records and they’re always fun to work on. I wrote a lot of the lyrics for the last couple of records in my car! Like I’ll play a CD in my car and I’ll just drive around going from point A to point B, and I’ll get an idea, I’ll pull over, I won’t keep driving trying to write things… A lot of the ideas I came up lyrically and vocal wise, I did it in my car! It’s a productive way of working. We have a great camaraderie between the two of us.

Joey: There’s method to the way it works. The method is usually that, like I said, I will write the music fairly quickly. Within a day I’m already writing and making a demo version of a song, and what I do is that I create these very elaborate demos, complete with very human sounding drum parts with rolls and little subtleties that an actual drummer would play, I play all the guitar parts, all the overdubs… By the time I give John the song, I’ve spent a lot of time making these demos, sometimes with up to thirty-two tracks or more. So when he gets these demos, they’d sound like full produced records! [Laughs] So for him, he gets it at that point and basically absorbs it for a little while. And then the way that he writes, is that he writes in his car! So he’ll drive around in his car, taking his kids to school and so forth [chuckles]. Driving back and forth, that’s how he writes his lyrics, thinking of melodies, humming along and then he drops it down on a piece of paper. When he gets home he usually writes all the lyrics. At that point he hasn’t sung anything yet, he’s just written all the parts, he’s got the melodies in his mind and maybe he sings a few things out loud on the car on the freeway, but then he comes to my house, having never sang the song before, I setup a mic and then I basically just run the song for him and he sings to the demo. He sings many of these things for the first time. I’ll give a little bit of a secret: I would say about 80 percent of what you’re hearing on the record is John singing in the demo versions at my house at ten thirty on the clock in the morning! A lot of the times he’d come in, just singing these things for the first time, we’re working out making sure the melodies fit within the music, the timing, the tuning and all that stuff but once we get to a place, we usually spend about, maybe, three hours tops singing a song from front to back. So once he gets into a groove and a headspace, we’re literally recording the real takes! We don’t really know it at the time because it’s a new song, we don’t know where it’s gonna end up, we don’t etch it in stone until sometimes it’s six month later… We often go back and we say: “Should we try to re-sing this again?” But a lot of the times the performance that he had that very first day, just the vibe of the sound of his voice and the way that he sang and the way that he expressed it, we can never outdo it! [Laughs] We’ve tried to redo it but the vibe was just completely different and not as good. More cases than not we ended up keeping the vocal tracks. So what you’re hearing on the record is from our first times recoding those vocal tracks! It’s pretty incredible if you think about it! That’s the way that we work.

John and I have a great working relationship. Him being a singer… Singer are very vulnerable and they have to be in order to open up their expression and be soulful, you know. I’ve known him since we’re ten years old and sometimes it can be a little bit… I forget about that. I know him so well that I have to be careful about not hurting his feelings [chuckles] or pushing him too far. But I think we’ve done this long enough and we know each other well enough that I can push him far enough without ruffling his feathers too much and he knows not to take me too seriously either. He knows that if I’m being very short or opinionated or stubborn, he knows that I don’t mean it personally. We’ve just gotten into this place where we have a great time working! Literally, every time when we leave, it’s like we give each other a hug, and it’s like: “Dude, that was amazing! This is so much fun!” It’s a cool way to work! Again it goes down to this thing about us not having a schedule or a deadline, we just really kind of get together when we feel super inspired about what we’re doing. Sometimes we’ll work and we’ll write five or six songs in a two month period, and then we’ll have like four months when we don’t do anything! It’s just the way it is. It’s very unusual maybe but at the end of the day, we just have a great time working together.

How did you two ended up becoming the main songwriters from the Revelation album in 2000 and on? There seemed to be much more contributions from the other guys before the breakup in 1991…

Joey: Yeah. I think it’s just something that happened naturally. I think it really started happening around Symbol Of Salvation when the dichotomy within the group changed when Dave Prichard passed away. The thing with Armored Saint, to begin with, was that we never had a leader in the band. And that was a bit frustrating, I have to admit, looking back. A funny thing about our band was that we all wanted to be the leader but none of us wanted to be a leader, if that makes any sense to you. No one would ever want to take charge but then everyone would want to take charge. During our career, during the eighties, that created so much confusion and so much inertia, we had a lot of times when we just couldn’t make decisions, sometimes we made the wrong decisions, sometimes we didn’t make any decision, and I think that that really hurts a band in the long run. I do think that it’s better for groups to have one or two people that have a clear vision of where they’re going and are getting everybody on board to see the same destination and to also live happily within that world. It’s a very difficult thing to do. But when Dave Prichard passed away… I would say that, if any of us had any kind of leadership in terms of the music itself, the songwriting, I think it was coming mostly from Dave. Even though I was, I would say, maybe a forty percent songwriter, Dave was a sixty percent songwriter during the early part of the career, because Dave was just a better guitar player than I was. He could write more elaborate things back then. But once Dave passed away, there was a big hole in that kind of musical director sort of position. So when Dave passed away and we made Revelation, I was the person who sort of just took that seat and started making musical decisions, especially during the recording of Symbol. So I worked closely with Dave Jerden the producer and basically kind of co-produced the record.

During those years between Armored Saint splitting and Revelation, I had gone on this journey that I felt like I really excelled further. I studies with jazz musicians for a year and a half and I‘ve learned a lot about music theory and harmony. That opened up this whole area of music that I didn’t know existed. I feel like my songwriting improved and I became a better player. I got involved with Fates Warning. I did a record with Kevin Moore. My abilities as a musician I feel like started to excel during the nineties. And when it came time to do Revelation, when we came back together, it was just sort of understood that John and I were going to be the main songwriters in the group. We always welcomed contributions from the band but the decision that were being made and the directions that were being decided on were gonna come from one or two people and that would be John and myself. It’s just slowly morphed into that situation. There were some more contributions that were on Revelation, we worked a little bit more as a group but again, those decisions in the end were being made by John and I. When we were doing La Raza, for instance, again, John and I began writing and we got into this situation where we wrote a lot of music together, and then we were asking the guys for contributions but a lot of the time the music that was coming in wasn’t really fitting with what John and I were writing. It was a little bit too outside of what we were going. So at that point it became understood and the guys sort of took a step back and went: “Okay, you guys are going down this road, just keep going! Don’t worry about us making contributions…” The same thing happened on this record, although there is one song, “With A Full Head Of Steam”, that initially came from an idea that Phil Sandoval had. The music was completely different than what’s ended up on the record but there was something on there I thought was really interesting, so I pursued it and kind of took it all apart, put it back together, and then Jeff Duncan had this one little section and I thought that would fit here too, so I put that in there, then I had other parts that I had written, so I put those in there, Gonzo had a little drum part and we put that in there… That ended up being sort of a band collaboration on this record. It’s not like it’s a dictatorship or anything like that but it really does help a group, I think, to have a better focus when there’s one or two people within the group that act as a sort of spear head, at least for the direction and say: “Hey, let’s go down this way guys!” And then hopefully everybody’s on board and you can all contribute to go that place.

Armored Saint 2015 by Stephanie Cabral

« I think we all wanted to have the success of Metallica, then we all realized that only Metallica’s gonna have that success [laughs] »

Do you think that, as a bass player, you have a special or different approach to music composition compared to guitar players?

Joey: I don’t know about that. I mean, I’ve been playing guitar for a very long time as well. I’m a pretty good guitar player. I’m not a great lead guitar player but I’m a pretty good guitar player on the side. I write everything on the guitar too, by the way. I don’t write anything on the bass. I think being a bass player though, when it comes time to writing a rhythm section part, I think that helps me tremendously because I have my own style or preferences to how I hear rhythm sections. The way that I play my bass parts with Gonzo and his bass drums parts and his drums part, I’m very conscious of that, I’ve always has been since day one. So I try to capitalize on that a lot, with Gonzo and I, and I try to make some of the sections of the music feel like… I don’t know, the way I think it should be! [Laughs] And I think being a bass player certainly helps me accomplish that.

John, you were quoted saying that “a lot of what [you] write is reminding [yourself] how to live.” Can you further develop what you mean? Is writing down your feelings a way to see clearer what’s important in your life or in life in general?

John: I think sometimes there are some particular topics of songs where I’m telling myself how I would like to conduct myself and my thoughts. For example “Muscle Memory” or even “Mess”, you know, that song’s talking about the environment, the world, the amount of garbage that we accumulate as human beings is just astonishing, but you know, I’ll throw away something that I didn’t eat, and I’m like: “Oh, man!” So you know, I’m not perfect! I don’t always live according to the things I even write about and my sometimes wife points it out to me, like: “Hey!” I’m certainly a human being, with flaws, which is fine, you know, it keeps me grounded. But there are things that I write in the lyrics that remind me how I want to live my life, and I like that. It’s funny, it’s just a reminder sometimes.

You also said that you strive to be a good human and, just like you mentioned, that this is a reminder. Does that mean you sometimes forget to be a good human or that without songwriting you would forget it?

John: I make mistakes every single day! I’m always trying every day to keep my composure in regard to things… You know, I’m Italian so I can be shouting sometimes, sometimes when I talk I’m barking because maybe it’s just in my genetics. But you know, I try to be a nice guy and have a good heart. Sometimes my kids think that, when I’m talking to them, I’m like yelling, but I don’t really mean it that way… But you know, I try to be motivated in all aspects of my life. And sometimes I have an aggressive tendency on how I live, but with a big smile on my face [chuckles].

Joey: John’s a very emotional person, he doesn’t hide his expression. He doesn’t hide the way he feels. He’s a very passionate guys when it comes to a lot of things and he lets you know about it [laughs]. And it’s not a negative thing. It’s not like he’s ever been malicious or anything. He’s not a malicious person at all! In fact he’s quite the opposite! But you know, [just like he said] he’s got some Italian blood in him. He’s also got some German blood in him. So when he’s passionate about something, he has a voice. I think that’s why he became a singer! And that’s why he has a great sounding voice. He knows how to put what’s in his heart going through his vocal chords, whether it’s speaking or singing!

The song “Muscle Memory” is a reflection about one’s legacy and leaving something good behind. Is this a worry that you have about yourself?

John: It’s really a worry but I wanna make my life count. When I’m gone and maybe my family reflects back on me, I just want to feel like I connected with people. I was with a bunch of friends the other night, Joey was one of them and a couple of others friends that we grew up with since we were ten years old, and we went to go see Mad Max, but before that we just went having drinks and just laughing about all the shit that we’ve done in our lives, that was kind of us connecting. Human connections, I think, are imperative for me. My mom past away last year and it was weird, I didn’t even mourn that much after she passed on because I think I felt at ease with the relationship that we had. Mother’s day here happened in the United States last week end and it kind of kicked me in the nuts and it made me think about my mom again, and I kind of had a melancholic moment for sure. Those kinds of things make you feel having a connection with people, you kids, your wife, friends, bands, whatever, I want it to feel very real. It’s not that I worry about it, I just think, again, it’s a reminder how I want to live my life and these are the things [that I care about]. So I write about them. It’s cool. It’s neat.

There a couple of songs are a bit societal related, like maybe “An Exercise In Debauchery” about people’s fascination with pornography. Do you actually like to observe society?

John: Of course, I’m always reading the news all the time, good or bad. I feel it’s my duty. Bringing kids in the world, we can be oblivious to what’s happening in the world and I think it’s extremely important. Plus I just like it. There are things that come up, whether it’s something I read or a conversation I’ve had with somebody, and I’ll use it as a catalyst to write about it if I want to. For that particular song, I saw the movie Shame and it kind of had an effect on me, I don’t even know if I liked it to this day but it was disturbing. There’s an obsession with porn in the world, and it’s like: “Jeez, man!” Don’t get me wrong, it’s part of our… We’re human beings and I’m not different from anyone. But sometimes, people’s obsessive personalities trip me out and that’s something I wanna write about. I’m not necessarily looking down on people, I’m not jugging people, that’s not what I’m trying to do. I’m just trying to make an observation. This is my take on it. People don’t have to agree with what I say. The beauty of being a singer in a band is that I have a little soapbox that I can stand on and talk about it [chuckles].

Could the title of the album be a metaphor for the band, meaning that you really nailed it musically on this album, that you consider it a real artistic success according to what you had in making while making it?

John: Part of it, a little bit. It’s kind of a reassurance to one another. We’ve got into a lot of trials and tribulations in our career and we still are, kicking ass! So it’s just like: “We’re here! You can’t take us down! We win hands down, we deliver something that is positive and powerful.” So yeah, I’m sure there’s some of that in the title of the record and that’s why it sounded like the right title. That song was kind of inspired just by the music. I kind of go back to my young days as a little kid or the days when Armored Saint was starting and all the bands that had an impact on us. Thin Lizzy, UFO, Judas Priest had a big impact on shaping our style of music and our love for music, even today when I see a band like Queens Of The Stone age, I wanna be inspired by these bands… So it all comes back to the music for me.

There are actually a couple stuff on the album Win Hands Down, more specifically some song intros, that can remind a little bit like Queenrÿche or Rush…

Joey: I’m never afraid to tell you whom I’m influenced by. I mean, I’m certainly influenced by Queensrÿche and I’m certainly influenced by Rush. I’m also influenced by Mastodon, Tool, Porcupine Tree, Opeth… All of those bands have had a lot of influence on me. I’m influenced from a lot of place! [Chuckles] I’m influenced by Miles Davis and John Coltrane… Motörhead! A lot of different kinds of music! Thin Lizzy, I mean, hello?! There’s Thin Lizzy all over this record! [Laughs] I’m not afraid to say that.

Armored Saint 2015 by Stephanie Cabral

« We were never in the right place at the right time. […] So we just had to accept that, that it wasn’t right for us, that we weren’t meant to be there, that it wasn’t part of our destiny. »

Armored Saint never had the success it deserved. On the other hand, the band’s career seems to be a bit chaotic looking at the big picture, with at least two periods of hiatus and spaced out releases. Do you think it’s the lack of a greater success of the band that caused this somewhat chaotic nature, or is it actually the other way around?

John: I don’t think about it too much. You know, I joined Anthrax, and I was in Anthrax for a long time, just about 13 years and in that time we still made an Armored Saint record. I left Anthrax and then I don’t feel like I was ready to just go right back to Armored Saint, I think that would have been a mistake. So that’s why there’s some time lapse there. Then we eventually made La Raza and now we’re here with this. When we started, I think we all wanted to have the success of Metallica, then we all realized that only Metallica’s gonna have that success [laughs]. When I look back on my musical career, I think I always just wanted to have a longevity, saying: “I wanna make music for a long time!” Well, 30 years later, here we are! So I did that. So, yes, we certainly never had the massive success that a lot of bands have, but that’s life, man. Very few bands do [get this success], do you know what I mean? If you think about all the bands out there… I remember when I went to our record company Chrysalis, or even at Elektra when I was in Anthrax, you go through the file cabinets of all the others bands on the label, I’d say 80 percent of bands you never even heard of! And you might stubble on some cool music but it just shows how many bands actually make records, and then out of those bands that get a chance to make a record, get a record deal and all that, how many actually have success out of it?! So, there’s a very small percentage… I mean, there are some great musicians that I know that never even had a chance to come close to doing the things that Armored Saint did! I feel lucky, I feel grateful. It wasn’t the cash cow that we hoped it would be but, hey, that’s the way it goes, man! That’s life! You can look at it two ways: you can look at it in a negative way with animosity, like “I never made it!” And I’ve heard plenty of people like that, or you can say: “Man, look at all the records I’ve made! I’m lucky!” I choose to look at it that way because I don’t wanna be the bitter dude. That’s not what I wanna do.

Joey, you said: « When we first got back together and decided to make Revelation back in ’99, we didn’t get the band back together to conquer the world. That was Plan A, and Plan A didn’t work out. Now, we are doing this for the same reason we started making music to begin with – the right reasons. » Do you think that conquering the world is not a good reason to make music?

Joey: [Laughs] No. The point of it was that when we first started when we were kids, you know, you go out there and you just think like: “I wanna make it! I wanna be big and I wanna be in a band! I wanna be like my favorite bands! I wanna be like Queen and Led Zeppelin!” But, you know, the harsh reality of that is that not everybody gets to be that [chuckles]. There are only a few bands that are able to do that. You know, there are a lot of different levels of success, as we all know, but the thing that we realized was that we were never in the right place at the right time. People didn’t want what we wanted and what we were righting at that moment. So we just had to accept that, that it wasn’t right for us, that we weren’t meant to be there, that it wasn’t part of our destiny. So when we regrouped and got back together, we reminded ourselves: “Look, let’s not take this too seriously.” Because when you do take it too seriously… And believe me, I know from experience because there were times during our career where we felt like we were taking it too seriously, it mattered too much! Like “those record sales didn’t reach this number” or “we didn’t get that tour” or “the radio adds didn’t go on the right stations”… When all those things matter too much, you really set yourself up for so much disappointment and you end up feeling very confused, frustrated and unhappy. Suddenly you lose what you started doing this for. You don’t start doing it to make it big. You really start doing it because you like playing! You like drinking beers, smoking pot and playing music with your friends! That the whole reason why you got in in the first place. Certainly it’s hard to have that now. We’re so much older now, we’re in our early fifties at this point and we’ve done so much. We don’t wanna be in that situation again, where everything mattered so much, like: “We’ll do it sweat, blood and tears no matter what we’re doing to make it, to rekindle a career!” We already did that. We don’t need to go back there. We really have to keep reminding ourselves that: “Look how freaking lucky we are!” We’ve been doing this for thirty some years! So we actually did it and we’re still doing it! We’re still making record after so much time and I’m still on the phone with you, having an interview and you actually care about the music and you’re asking me questions about what we do thirty years later! I mean, there’s a lot of people and a lot of musicians in the world that never gets this chance to do this! So we actually feel super fortunate, super lucky that we have a huge fanbase that gives a shit about what we’re doing thirty years later. And we have a good label, Metal Blade Records, that lets us make music and lets us work in this capacity that we wanna work, support our band and makes our music available worldwide. The record comes out today, as a matter of fact today is our release date, and right now we’re number one on the iTunes metal/rock charts! I mean, we have nothing to complain about! We’re super lucky and fortunate. We’re glad that we can still have a smile on our face and actually make music at the same time! [Laughs]

On the other hand, the band’s line-up has practically never changed over the course of the history. What kept you together throughout the years?

John: Probably because we’re friends. Joey and myself, Gonzo, and obvious Gonzo and Phil are brothers… I mean, we’ve known each other since we’re about nine or eight years old. So even before Armored Saint we had a pretty solid friendship and then that carried on into the band. Even Jeff who joined the band officially in 1989, that was 25 years ago! And we knew Jeff because [his former band] Odin used to open shows for Armored Saints at the Troubadour[, West Hollywood], in 1983. So I’ve known Jeff for over 30 years myself. Obviously David [Prichard] died [of leukemia], it was horrible and a shame, and we certainly miss David all the time, but I think there’s a cool factor of it being the same guys in Armored Saint. I always emphasize that, I really dig that actually.

Joey: We’re all childhood friends, at least John, Gonzo, Phil and myself. We were just a group of friends that have known each other since great school, so the band was put together on those terms and then it stayed that way. Phil left the group for Personal reasons after March Of The Saint but the core group remained the same basically until 1991 when Dave passed away and we had to sort of regroup to make Symbol Of Salvation, that’s when Phil came back in the band and we got Jeff Duncan in the group. But it’s always been important to us to have the same members in the band. We feel like there’s something about us, in the way that we are, musicians, the personalities, that means a lot to us and we wanna do whatever it takes to keep that together. We didn’t want to turn in a situation where there just one or two guys that are original members, I just don’t think it would be the same at all. I think even the fans really appreciate that we have the same members that we’ve had for twenty years [chuckles].

John, what is your relationship to the Anthrax guys now?

John: You know, it’s pretty good. Everything for the most part is pretty good. I talk to Scott fairly often. We had a function just not too long ago where he had a birthday party for Pearl, his wife, and he put together a bunch of jams with all these different musicians and I played with them, it was cool. I see him more often. I haven’t really seen the other guys. I reflect always positively about my time in Anthrax. I feel like we made some really cool records, maybe under the radar, I mean, maybe they didn’t get the proper view point of the typical metal listener or even Antrhax fan, but I’m always feeling pretty good about the music that we made, I thought that we made some really cool records, some great songs along the lines… You know, it is what it is!

Joey, you mentioned how you “have one of the best singers in the genre.” so you actually think Anthrax have been crazy to have let him go? As a matter of fact, at one point, just before Joey Belladonna fully came back, Scott himself spoke openly about how he preferred John’s voice…

Joey: Well, you know… [Laughs] They had to do what they had to do and they think they were in a position where they needed to make some sort of a change for their career. I suppose it was the right one that they made. They seem content and happy with their career that they’ve rekindled. I’m friends with them and I wish them well. I think they’ve made the right decision for their particular case at that time. I mean, I wasn’t really thrilled at the way that it happened but that water under bridge, it doesn’t matter anymore. But you know… [Chuckles] I’m glad that it happened that way because now John came back to Armored Saint and I’ve had the opportunity to work with John on two great records since then. I’m proud of both of the records that we made. We have a great time working together, it’s been a lot of fun! We’re all good with everything. John and Scott have a good relationship as well these days. The three of us all live in California, not far from each other in fact. We often spend time together. So it’s not a bad thing anymore.

John: I think everything was meant to be right now where it is. Joey is an important part of Anthrax, I think his voice is synonymous with that band and I think it’s supposed to be that way right now, and I’m supposed to be here. I always tell people that you can like both eras of the band, you know, you don’t have to choose one or the other, you can be a fan of both! Although sometimes it seems like people feel they have to have their allegiance, one or the other, which is funny because I love Ozzy with Sabbath and I love the Dio records with Sabbath too! I think that maybe at the time, Scott had a preference of me being in the band and was showing loyalty to me, I’m happy for that but I think that as time went on, it shows that he’s loyal to Joey, and Joey’s right for Anthrax now. It’s just all meant to be. This is the way I see it. I don’t think of it any other way than: “This is where we’re at now and that’s how it’s supposed to be!”

What would it take for you to come back to Anthrax? Or are the doors completely closed?

John: Who knows if anything is completely closed? But I certainly don’t think that’s something that’s in the cards at this moment. I just made a record that I love with Armored Saint, Anthrax is making another record. I think that they have reestablished themselves as this line-up. Anything else would be just a weird monkey wrench, you know, I don’t really see that happening… I mean, I do love the songs that we made with Anthrax and they don’t seem to be playing them, and I understand that because they have enough material with Joey and they’re making new material. I think they could play songs of mine, I really wouldn’t have any problem if they did that. I would actually like if they did! But if they don’t, I understand why. One day it would be cool to sing those songs. I’m not thinking about that today. I’m not thinking about putting something together for that, but I am proud of a lot of the songs that I made with Anthrax and it’ll be cool to sing them one day, but I don’t know under what circumstances. I don’t know, it’s not like I’m gonna go put some band together and go out and tour or anything with that. That’s not in my mindset.

About the gig that was offered to you by Metallica to join them a long time ago, you recently said: “It just wasn’t my destiny to be in Metallica. I would have changed the face of heavy metal, and I don’t need that pressure.” Do you actually have a hard time living with pressure?

John: [Laughs] My wife is here and maybe you should ask her the question! Actually, she is the one that lives with a lot of pressure! She takes a lot of responsibilities in life! I just kind of go with the flow a lot of the time… It’s not like I feel like I’m overwhelmed with pressure. I feel like I have a pretty good life [chuckles] and I remind myself of that all the time! I’m not any different than anybody else who lives in the modern world, who have kids, who’s trying to make it [in life] all the time… I think we all do! You probably have some problems yourself, Nicolas. We’re all the same. It’s not like I have any more pressure than anybody by any means. I’m actually reminding myself how cool of a life I have all the time! So trust me, I don’t forget that.I mean, I was making a joke about the Metallica thing because, I mean… Metallica! The biggest band in the world! I can’t imagine a singer in that band other than James! So if I was that guy and I ended up becoming the singer, it would be like: “Wow!” It would change everything! So, I’m slightly joking, but not really. I honestly don’t feel like I can imagine myself being the singer of Metallica. It was just never my destiny.

Joey, Fates Warning is your other main band. Jim Matheos is obviously the mastermind behind the band. But how would you describe your working but also emotional relationship to this band compared to Armored Saint?

Joey: Well, it’s a little bit different obviously. I’ve been in Fates for seventeen years now, so I have a super special place in my heart for Fates. They’re a group of guys that I’ve know for a very long time. We have a great time together. We all get along super cool. Our personalities are very much alike and I have a lot of fun just being with those guys. Let alone being challenged by the music. The music that we make is super gratifying, in that sense as well. My position in that band is a little bit different obviously. It’s Jim’s thing, much in the way Armored Saint in a way is my thing. So my position in that band is a lot easier to be in because I don’t have so much at stake, making those sorts of decisions that Jim makes. I make the same decisions for Armored Saint, so it’s closer to me emotionally and I have a lot more writing. My emotional involvement in Fates in a little bit less intense, shall we say. My job is just to be a really good team player and also be a contributing factor in that sense. It’s not all me, you know. Jim is making decisions and Jim asks me quite often for my opinion on many different things, not just music but also a lot of other things, sometimes business decisions, money decisions, and I appreciate that and I’m very grateful that he considers me for those sorts of input. But in the end he makes the final decisions. So my role is very different in that way, where I’m a team player and I do my part, but in the end I step back and I say “okay”. That is the limit of my involvement. Sometimes it’s a little easier and sometime it’s even more fun to be in that situation [laughs] because I get to stay out of the really, really heavy decisions! But when it comes to Armored Saint, it’s a lot more intense and it’s heavier, and there’s a lot of things that are a little bit more emotionally at stake. It’s a little harder, in that sense, to be in that position. I get so much gratification out of being in both of those situations. I wouldn’t trade either one for the world!

Armored Saint 2015 by Stephanie Cabral

(About John’s departure from Anthrax) « You know… [Chuckles] I’m glad that it happened that way because now John came back to Armored Saint and I’ve had the opportunity to work with John on two great records since then. »

You’ve also participated to one album by OSI with Jim Matheos and the two Arch/Matheos albums. It sounds like when Jim needs a bass player he just calls you…

Joey: Well, I don’t know if it’s that but I think Jim and I have a really good relationship, even just as friends. I’m glad if I’m the first person he thinks of. I’m super honored and glad about that. I think he likes my playing as well. I love collaborating with him. I think we have the same musical tastes and the same ideas about how music’s made and artistically and stuff like that. We’re a lot on the same page. I hope he keeps calling me for stuff [laughs]!

Have you actually learned things by playing with Jim, with him being the mastermind behind the music and you having to step back a little bit more in this context?

Joey: Oh yeah. Like I said earlier, getting involved in Fates in the nineties was part of my sort of growing and awakening. Being in the band with Jim for so long, I’ve learned a ton of stuff from him. He’s been experimenting with and delving into songwriting in a much more theoretical way than I have, so he has showed me a lot of different things when it comes to theory and also challenging your mind and your abilities as a player, even to think in terms of odd time signatures, counter melodies, counter rhythms, etc. That whole thing with being in Fates Warning and playing the music that Jim writes is super challenging. It’s super-duper challenging! And it’s made me a far better player than I would have been having not been involved with Fates Warning. And a lot of this stuff have rubbed off on me. I mean, I feel like I’ve incorporated some little things from Fates Warning, even in the new Armored Saint record. Some people are interpreting it as slightly progressive. I don’t think it’s progressive but there are certain things, like a few odd time signature things, that have certainly rubbed off on me from being in Fates Warning [laughs], no doubt about it!

It took nine years for Fates Warning to release a new album, Darkness In A Different Light. Do you think the wait will be shorter this time? Do you have any news from the band?

Joey: I can tell you unofficially that we are actually writing a new record and we have a few songs already written, and there’s still some things that are gonna be close to being done. We’re taking a break from writing and we’re actually doing a short tour in the US in October and then we’ll go back to writing in November. The goal is to be recording before the end of the year, believe it or not! I think you can expect a record in 2016, I’m hoping. But I can’t tell you how it’s gonna sound like, that’s a secret [chuckles].

You’re now part of Scott Ian’s new band, Motor Sister which started by doing Mother Superior cover song with the singer of Mother Superior, Jim Wilson. Have you also been a fan of this band?

Joey: Yeah, I’ve been a fan of Mother Superior since Scott first turned me onto them around 2005 when I was filling in for Frank Bello in Anthrax. That’s when Scott first told me about Mother Superior. I went to go see them play in a small club in Los Angeles and I was totally blown away by the band. So I became friends with the band, Mother Superior. They’re also from Los Angeles. We have a lot in common musically and I would go see them whenever they would play, and then slowly I started working with them. I mixed a few songs on a couple of their records during 2006 to 2008. We even recorded an entire record at my house that never got released! So I have a record of Mother Superior songs that never got released. And I mastered a few things for them. During the mid-2000s until late 2000s, we became really close friends. So when this opportunity came up, I was just psyched, I was playing all the songs that I already knew! [Laughs]

Do you think this album that never got released will see the light of day in the future?

Joey: I hope so because I think there are some really good songs on it. I don’t know… We’ll have to work it out because Jim had a split with the bass player and it wasn’t always very amicable. So it may depend on some legal issues. But if we ever could reconcile all of these issues, I would love for the world to hear it because there are some great stuff on it!

Couldn’t you guys in Motor Sister use some of these songs for your next album?

Joey: Well, that’s a good point. That’s a good question, very good question. I don’t see why not! Yeah.

Interview conducted by phone 18th, may and 2nd, june 2015 by Nicolas Gricourt.
Retranscription: Nicolas Gricourt.
Promo Pics: Stephanie Cabral.

Armored Saint Official website: www.armoredsaint.com.

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