With their career spanning almost four decades, the California traditional metal institution Armored Saint surely deserved their place in the annals of heavy rock history. They slowed down a bit after the initial output of their four classic records, but, as the group's frontman John Bush explains in our interview, they've always been following the "quality over quantity" approach, and it seems to work for them quite well. Their latest album titled "Punching the Sky", which was released in Autumn last year, is an enjoyable collection of hard 'n' heavy tunes you would expect from Armored Saint these days. It's also the main topic of our chat.
Your last three albums were released five years apart from each other. Is it just a coincidence, or is it a thought-out plan because it doesn't make sense for you to release albums more often than once in five years these days?
No, it was never the plan, we just work really slow, and that's the fact. You know, in a perfect world, especially when you're a guy in your mid to late 50s, releasing records every five years is probably not something that you strive to do. But it's just the way it works. You know, we kind of juggle Armored Saint with other aspects of our lives. I'm a father, I have a business with my wife, I have two kids. Joey has a kid, Phil has two kids, including a toddler at this point. So, it's just a way to do those things, to spend time with your family and do other things, and also to play rock and roll and write heavy metal songs. In a perfect world, it would be great if we could put records out every couple of years, but what I've always said, quality over quantity. And I have to say that, because I guess three records in 15 years is a long time, ha-ha! But you know, in the end, when our number's up and we're finished as a band, I want to look back and say, "We made some really great records," you know, instead of saying, "We made 20 records and half of them were OK." I'd rather say it's all about the quality of the music.
When I first saw the album title "Punching the Sky", the first thing that came to my mind were fans punching the air at a gig or festival, but I don't think that's the idea behind the title?
I mean, that's actually pretty accurate really. I mean, I'm a big sports fan, and you know, when people are victorious, whatever sport it is, they raise their arms in celebration. It's a fine line because I don't like arrogant athletes, I don't like arrogant people, let's just put it like that. And I think, you know, one thing that's kind of not happening currently in the climate of the world these days is humility. I think we're really in need of a lot of humility internationally throughout humanity, I think that's something that's lacking. I aspire to be that way my whole life because I want to be humble, you know? A lot of people are just having arrogance and attitude and think they're better than others, and I hate that philosophy quite honestly because everybody has something to contribute. I think you respect people more when you have some humility. So, I don't like arrogant actors, you know, the NFL for instance, somebody scores a touchdown and there's like this giant celebration and I just think it's absurd, I can't stand it actually. And especially like you're losing the game and then you're gonna do that? It's just dumb. I mean, maybe if you wanna do that at the end of the game, I would get it, but still, then that would be kind of rubbing it in your opponent's face, and I don't think that's, again, humility. But that being said, I do like sports. I do think that raising your fist like, "Hey, I accomplished that," whether it's at a concert, whether it's at a sporting event, if it's done with some form of respect for your opponent or your fans, whatever, I love that kind of feeling because it feels like jubilant, like you've accomplished something, and I think that's important. And also, you know, punching the sky through barriers I think is another kind of metaphor, you know, no ceilings. We kind of take that approach when it comes to writing songs and being a rock band, you know? We're always going to be labelled a metal band, which we love that, however, we wanna be more than just that. We don't wanna just be limited to that and by punching through ceilings that kind of keep you in, and punching through barriers, I think is a really important kind of way of looking at how we approach music, and how we approach being a band and songwriters.
I think you were quite lucky because you had finished all the recordings before the whole lockdown situation started. Is that correct?
Yeah, we were fortunate. Sometimes we haven't had the best luck in our career, not that I'm complaining, it's just a matter of fact. But in this case, we did have some pretty good luck, because we were finished with all the actual recordings. So we just gave the record to be mixed to Jay Ruston, who did a spectacular job again as he did on "Win Hands Down" in terms of mixing it and I'm sure he didn't want us to be present in the studio with him anyway, because we'd be just a distraction, ha-ha! And that was fine by me. So, you know, he just mixed it on his own terms, on his own time, probably in his own studio, wherever he does it. I don't actually know, I think he has a home studio, I presume, and you know, we didn't need to be present. So, we had some good timing on that one.
Did you consider postponing the release date to be able to promote the album on tour?
You know, I think that's something that would be a little bit more viable to do if we were a much bigger band and we had some big arena tour planned in conjunction with this. I would get that if we were like the Foo Fighters, I would understand postponing a record, but for us, it just didn't seem logical. As we've pointed out here, it's taken long enough for us to put the record out as it is, so to postpone it would just mean we're really kind of withholding it from the fans. And as far as I'm concerned while Covid was happening and people were asked to try to hunker down and stay home, and you're not going to play shows, you can't go see live performances, the last thing you should do is kind of prevent people from hearing music. I think giving them music is an escape and I think that was really important actually. So I opposed that completely. Not that it was ever really discussed because I don't think anybody really wanted to do that, but I guess maybe at some point it was brought up, and I was very opposed to that simply because, like I said, people want to hear music. You're home, you're inside, you know, you want to have a beer, crank the new Armored Saint record on some headphones and escape, you know? Especially with what was happening in the world, and it was at times very frustrating. So it would have been a bad decision to postpone the record.
It's been over three and a half decades between "March of the Saint" and "Punching the Sky". The recording techniques have changed a lot, and it's much easier to record these days, but I'm interested if your songwriting process has changed at all over the years?
Well, it has. You know, back in the early days in the ‘80s, when we were all in our 20s, we would go to a rehearsal studio for several hours in the day or in the evening and kind of work together as a band, writing songs, sometimes from start or sometimes, you know, somebody had a riff and then we kind of built from there. A lot of the times I used to kind of just mumble, you know, they weren't even lyrics, they were just kind of melodies that I was just trying to get over the music to try and get an idea, and then I would go back and write lyrics from the melodies that I created. And it was funny because sometimes I would even mumble a word, and then I was like, "Hmm, I could use that word. I don't know what I even said there, but it sounds like this, and maybe I could utilise it." It was a great time. It was fun. I don't really remember, looking back, if it was more productive than how we do it now. I think it was just different. I think that now what we do, we utilise technology in a way. Joey, who is one of the key writers of the band musically, creates these very elaborate-sounding demos that actually almost sound like records. So they're really fun to work on, especially for me as a lyricist and a singer. So I'll work on these ideas and then I'll go to his house, he has a home studio, and then we take the time to kind of work on the songs. And sometimes time is limited because, you know, I do have another job, most of the guys in the band do, so you have to kind of juggle your schedule, writing and doing that at the same time. There would be times where I would go to his house after dropping my kids off at school at say 9am and then jet out to his house, which is about half an hour, 40 minutes from where I live, and then maybe work for an hour and a half, just trying to get this down on tape and then come back to work. So, we were very productive in that way, and maybe it created a kind of urgency of knowing we had to hurry up and work. And you know, it's the most productive way to kind of work, with our life and the things that we got going on in our world now. Again, there's something nostalgic about everyone being in a room and working on ideas, and if time permitted it and money permitted it, we might try to do that here and there. But for the most part we kind of work this way now, making demos, listening to demos, coming up with vocal ideas and then going back and singing on them.
You have made three video clips to promote the album and I've got a question about each of these songs. Most bands put the longest number at the end of the album, and you decided to open with "Standing on the Shoulders of Giants", which is almost seven minutes long. Why?
Yeah, it's true. It's very observant of you. We all knew it was a great tune, we thought it was a great tune, but I really didn't think about it being the first song on the record. But then Joey said, "I want this to be first." And I said, "Really, the longest song?" And he said, "It just has it." You know, it has this feeling, especially with the intro with the Uilleann pipes, it really kind of sets tone, it just kind of entices you that something is coming, and it really has this big build-up, and I said, "Alright, why not? Let's do it." It kind of felt like going against the obvious trend, like you said, putting a long song last or later in the album, but just to do something different, we said, "Let's do it." The video is cool, it was very different from the first video "End of the Attention Span". It just created a different feeling, a different vibe and was a nice counter to "End of the Attention Span", which was intense and, you know, different lyrical topic. But yeah, it came out great, and I'm really stoked about all three videos that we've made, we're very fortunate actually.
"Missile to Gun" is my fave tune from the new album, along with the opener. Who are the girls who are fighting in the video clip? Are they some stuntwomen you hired or some martial artists?
Yeah, I think they did both of those things. They were brought in by the director Robert, and they did an over-the-top amazing job. He told us that he had these girls that he wanted to put in there, and we cut out the basic idea of the video, and they just did a stellar job with it, you know, their battle scenes were amazing, it's like watching the video game. And it was a lot of fun as well. You know, the general topic of that song kind of deals with the divisiveness that's happening in the world between people's different ideologies and my perspective is, no matter how different we may think of things, the end result is, we should try to work together to try to come to a better cause. And that's the basic premise of the song. So, in the end, where the girl goes down on the ground and the other girl looks like that was the opportunity for her to basically end it, she goes and reaches her arm out and pulls her back up and that was kind of the theory of, "we did this together", you know, can we work together? And like I said, that's kind of the general theme of that song because yeah, I think that's a big problem that's happening certainly is the United States, nobody disputes that, but I think it's a problem everywhere, you know, there's certainly issues in Europe, of course as well. But in the end, to get to a place where society benefits, I think we have to work together. We're just not going to go anywhere if we constantly are at each other's throats. So the quicker we can try to come to a resolution about whatever case it is, I think the better off society is. So that's kind of the meaning behind that. Hopefully, it gets across in the video.
"End of the Attention Span" lyrics seem to be about us getting too much information every day, to the point where we stop caring about what we hear or see. Is that correct?
Yeah. I mean, I think technology is an amazing thing and it certainly benefits our lives and helps us out tremendously, without a doubt. Look at us, we're here, having a Skype conversation, you know, and it's something you would see in a science fiction movie 30 years ago, you know? And here it is. So, you know, I'm not going to dispute that, there's amazing things that technology offers, but at the same time, I think it sometimes dominates our lives, rules our lives. Everyone's glued to their phone, and you can be in a room with 10 people that are not even communicating because everyone is looking at the phone. And I think that's very detrimental to society, especially as a parent and somebody who has teenagers now, I get concerned about the future. So, you know, it's about trying to find the balance using it and not letting it use you. And that's kind of the basic premise of that song. It's a title Phil actually came up with, which I thought was great. It was easy to write to, and the song is super powerful. It seemed like the first song that we wanted to come out of the gates with on "Punching the Sky" and you know, it's a great tune.
I've got a question about "Unfair", the slowest song on the album. It seems that the lyrics are about someone's life unexpectedly coming to an end for some reason. Is there are a real story behind those lyrics?
The song is inspired by a tragedy that happened. We knew two children, they went to school with my daughter, my daughter is now 16, this was about two years ago, and the son was 14 and the daughter was about 16 at the time, and they were killed in an automobile accident due to a drunk driver. They both died. Both parents were in the car at the same time, both parents experienced their two children dying in the car at that time. It was one of the most unsettling things I've ever experienced in my life, especially the memorial for them. Usually, I can find an optimistic spin on most things in life, but that one was really hard to find something optimistic. It was just two lives snuffed out way too early. I was reluctant to write about it because I certainly didn't want to do something that would be benefiting from a tragedy. But it was such an intense situation, that ironically enough when Joey gave me the music to that and the music was very dark, but at the same time there's this kind of optimistic feeling about it, you know? It was a challenge, and so I felt like I wanted to do it. I gave the song in demo form to the parents, who I respect tremendously, and they were complimented, although saddened by the song at the same time. I love that song and it means a lot to me personally.
Whose idea was it to use this weird sounding flute in "Never You Fret"?
It was Gonzo's, and he played it, and he did a great job. It has a really cool sound, and again, using different instruments, especially on a heavy metal record, I think just kind of makes the sound deeper, broadens the style. I encourage all of that stuff on Armored Saint records, and we never really are reluctant, especially on the last few records, to try different sounds and different instruments. They just set a different tone, especially when you use it as an intro. He played it, and it sounds great. And then you don't really anticipate that song coming in, "Never You Fret" almost has this like a Ministry power behind it, at least in my opinion. But yeah, it was great, it was fun, and he did a good job. And like I said, utilising different instruments, I just love it, I think it really kind of makes our sound even deeper.
OK, the last question about the album. How was the release show at Whisky a Go Go? Wasn't it weird for you to play to an empty room?
It was weird. It was not something that I'd say is one of the most fun things I've ever done in my life. Don't get me wrong, I enjoyed it, I knew fans were watching, I was appreciative of the fans that purchased it and were watching. We certainly tried to give them as best performance as we could. It was kind of like a combination between a glorified rehearsal and a video shoot. So you're playing to the cameras ‘cause you know people are watching, but obviously, a heavy metal band like Armored Saint and like all the others, bounces off the audience so tremendously, that without people it's just really weird. It's like I said, you're kind of rehearsing, but yet you're rocking out because you want to give a good performance. So it was unusual, but I enjoyed it. It isn't something that I would want to do many times in my life if I could avoid it, I just wouldn't want to, but that being said, as I said before, we're grateful for the fans who came in to watch us, and they seemed to have a good time. We tried to play some different material, we didn't want to just play the same tunes as always, and that was fun to play some different stuff. And obviously, our record was just coming out, so we played several new songs, and that was also great. The thing you want to do when you make a new record, is to perform those songs live, and that was the one and only time we've done it. Obviously, I'm optimistic that concerts are going to resume here pretty soon, it depends on the territory. We've got a couple things in the mix, you know, we're hopeful that stuff will happen come December. You never know. I mean, I'm hopeful it could happen sooner, but that's what we're shooting for.
I'm not going to ask about the early albums, which have been covered in interviews countless times. But when you came back after a 10-year-long break with "Revelation" and then after another break with "La Raza", those albums were more experimental and quite different to the early stuff. Why didn't you just want to continue where you left off with "Symbol of Salvation"?
Well, "Symbol of Salvation" was a very unique and special record, and I certainly wouldn't want to try to duplicate it. I don't want to do that with any of our records quite honestly, I never want to try to make the same record twice, and I never want to try to look back in our past and say, "Oh this worked well, let's redo it, just a little differently." I think that's a little too safe, and I don't want to do that as an artist,. And not to be snobby or anything, but I just think that's conservative. I don't want to do that. I want to make every record different from the previous one. And to write "Symbol of Salvation" would have just been impossible, Dave was such a key part of it, and he's obviously not here, and it was just a moment in time. And the times that we were going through during that time, I think it determined a lot of the songs on that record. And "Revelation" was a great kind of step into Armored Saint sounding like a more modern metal band, with of course not losing the roots of what we are, which is heavy metal hard rock group, that's what we are. It sounded like a kick into the new millennium really, and I thought we did a good job with that. Ten years after that "La Raza" came out, and I think it's just as simple as that's the kind of songs that we were writing, and that's what came out. I don't really think there's a lot of premeditated thought into what we want to do. I think what happens is you kind of start getting things going, you start writing a couple songs, and then the record kind of starts to write itself, and you kind of let it dictate the path in an organic way. I think that's the best thing to do. I don't want it to be too thought about like, "How do we want this record to sound? How do we want it to be different?" you know? I think you just write it and then it kind of forms its own kind of identity.
I've got an Anthrax related question. What was the fan reception like when you joined the band replacing Joey?
Well, that's not an easy thing to do, you know? Replacing a lead singer in a band is a tough task, and whether somebody dies or whether you just are replacing somebody to change the band personnel, anybody new in a band has got to make an adjustment. Obviously, changing a voice is a big thing in a band, and Joey's voice is extremely distinctive, and mine is distinctive as well, and they're very different from one another. So, not an easy thing to do. I embraced it, of course, you know? Once the band gave me the job and I was in, I had the attitude of "let me make myself kill it", you know, and I wanted to do the best I can do, and that's the attitude I had. But you know, like I said, replacing a distinctive voice is not an easy thing to do. I'm sure it was the same for Sammy Hagar, I'm sure the same thing for Brian Johnson, Ronnie Dio… Not that I'm putting myself necessarily in that same category with those guys, however, I utilise the knowledge of knowing that these guys had to do that, and so I wanted to have the same amount of confidence, of course. And you know, Dio's voice is so different from Ozzy's yet, you know, the Dio records are amazing with Sabbath, and of course, the Ozzy albums are amazing as well. So, what I was trying to tell people is that you don't have to pick the best record. You can love "Among the Living", you can love "Sound of White Noise", you can love both records, you know? At least that's what I say now all these years later. I mean, you could have a favourite, but you don't have to dislike one genre because you like this one, you know? I mean, I love Bon Scott, but "Back in Black" is a phenomenal record, that's kind of how I see it.
You recently re-recorded Anthrax's "Packaged Rebellion" with Charlie Benante playing the guitar. How did it come about?
Oh, I sent a text to a couple of guys in the band because somebody had told me on that particular day that it was like the 28th anniversary of the record coming out, I didn't even know it, so I just said, "'Sound of White Noise' came out this day, this is so cool." And then the next thing I know he was, "Would you wanna do this?" and then he sent me the clip. I was like, "Wow!" I was actually in a park somewhere with one of my kids during a practice of one of their sports, and I said, "Well, I'm not home, I'm out here in my car, but when I get back, I'll work on it." The funny thing about "Packaged Rebellion" is that we didn't really play it live too many times quite frankly, so I know it of course, but I just hadn't played it many times. So I was like, "I kind of have to learn it. Let me get home, let me practice it, and then I'll send you the clip." And it was only like the verse and the chorus, you know, half the song and so that was easy. It was really fun. You know, I respect Charlie enormously, as a musician, not just a drummer, but he's an incredible writer, he's actually a great guitar player and you know, it was good to do that. Charlie and I had some time where we didn't speak very much, things were a little awkward for a while and I'm glad that we rectified that and you know, I missed talking to Charlie because we'd always talk about music and bands and you know, the different topics of life. When we weren't speaking, you know, I missed that friendship, but sometimes that's what life does, you have to kind of go through a period of time before you can resume, and that's not abnormal, that sometimes happens when relationships end or take a turn and that's okay.
I'm not sure if the band is a full-time job for all of you. If it is, what have you kept yourselves occupied with over the last year, with no gigs or tours?
Well, like I said, we supplement income with different things, you know, every guy in the band does something differently. I have a business with my wife, we have a casting studio, we cast commercials, and I assist her and other people who actually work here as well. And you know, it's been a tremendous help for our lives, for my wife's and my family. I know that Jeff was playing in something kind of like local cover bands in Las Vegas. He relocated to Las Vegas. And since he was doing a lot of work as a session guy and as a guy who played in cover bands and really enjoyed it, probably one of the best jobs he had in his life, and Covid actually really shut that down, so that was a big shame for Jeff. Joey obviously, you know, he produces stuff for various people, and I think he was able to still do some things in the studio because he has a home studio. But everybody kind of supplements their incomes a little bit, because Armored Saint is not a giant cash cow, so that's just the way it is, which is OK. But you know, Covid affected everybody differently, and I think most of us actually collected some unemployment, which is fine because we've probably been paying into that for years and years as people who were having jobs in different capacities. You know, my first job I had when I was 16 years old, working at a liquor store. So I was paying unemployment then, so I had no problems receiving some unemployment money to get through it.
The Armored Saint documentary was supposed to be released last year I think?
That was, I think, wishful thinking. We want it to be great before it's actually released. Russell, the director is doing an incredible job, but I don't think that there's any urgency in getting that out. We want the story to be done right, we want to make sure we got the right interviews. He's still working on it, it's kind of his pet project. Certainly, we're involved but we're kind of letting him run with it. When he tells us he feels like we're ready to take that next step, to maybe see like a close-to-finished version, then we'll welcome it. In the meantime, it's like I said, there's no urgency per se I think for it. We just want it to be great. In the meantime what we're doing is, we did the "Symbol of Salvation" tour a couple years ago, we played the record in its entirety, and we filmed a few shows and we are going to hopefully put that DVD out sometime around October, it's what we're striving to do. And we've seen some of the footage, and it's really cool, and the audio is awesome, and you know, it's the whole record and I think that's going to be a really great thing for the fans.
OK, that's us. At the end tell me, when everything gets back to normal, will you be doing a headlining tour or maybe a co-headlining tour like last time with Metal Church, or maybe some support-slot shows? Is there a plan at all, especially for you to visit Europe?
We don't have an actual plan yet. I think we're open-minded to anything. If we could get a good support slot, opening for somebody bigger than us, we certainly would take it, as long as we could make money enough to justify us being out there, obviously. Headlining is something that we'd welcome because it's fun to do your own shows of course, no matter how big or small they are. Festivals are always welcome because we love playing festivals, throughout Europe in particular. Co-headlining like we did the thing with Metal Church was also really fun, and they were great guys and easy to work with. So we're open-minded, it's just a matter of what comes our way. We have an agent, his name is Dan DeVita, and he works really hard finding things for us. We're probably annoying him at times because it's not like he just says "Here!" and we go, "Great!" We're a little bit more picky about things. But we also want to have fun, I think that's really important to us. We're a different band, we're not a bunch of guys in their 20s who just want to go out there and get in a van, and they don't care what happens, you know? We want to enjoy ourselves because touring is quite demanding, as any band can tell you. And it could really turn for the worse if band members are unhappy because of travelling circumstances, and that could affect everything. So yeah, I can't overemphasise enough how important it is to have fun. I think that's really a big part of it, and to know that you're going to do that when you're going on tour. That's a key element. And of course, you want to make money not to lose money because then you're losing money. So, you know, I think that's the whole key component, we just want to make sure those things are going to be achieved and if they are, then we're all for it. It doesn't really matter, a support slot is great, it makes you work hard because you got to kind of win over people, and headlining shows are fun too because you can play more songs. But we certainly want to come to Europe. I mean Armored Saint, I really kind of feel like we are from Europe, even though we're not because the British sound of the various bands from the ‘70s and ‘80s and European groups, they had such an impact on us. We always really wanted to be from Britain, it really was a motivating factor and how we wanted to shape our sound. And we've been fortunate enough to do a lot of shows throughout Europe, but there's still a lot of territories for Armored Saint to play that we've never even played, let alone going back to familiar places like Britain or Germany that have always been very supportive of us.