Interview: John Bush (Armored Saint)

It’s hard to believe it was only 48 hours ago that I stood at the fire exit of The Rebellion club, and ASheard the first strains of one of L.A.’s finest bands sound check for their first ever Manchester gig. Throughout their chequered history, Armored Saint have maintained a quality and commitment to their sound that has firmly stood the test of time. It was my great privilege to catch up with frontman John Bush, and explore their long spanning career.

Me: So it’s been less than a year since you were last in the UK, is that right?

JB: We played in London in July of last year, sort of as a one of show prior to playing a festival in Barcelona. But we purposely skipped London on this trip, because every time we came here, it seems like we only ever played London, and we had some people say: stop just playing London!. So that’s why we decided to go to Manchester, and Birmingham, and Belfast. And we played last night at the Hammerfest festival in Wales. So, we are trying to come to places that we have never been, including Manchester, and we’re excited to be here tonight.

Me: I was looking back at things, and it seems like you were quite ‘late bloomers’ in the UK. Can you remember the first time you came?

JB: 1991 at the Marquee, Symbol of Salvation record. To put it mildly, ‘late bloomers’ is a nice way of putting it. I’ve said this numerous times, but I guess I’ll say it again – even though we’re from L.A., we really modelled a lot of our sound and style on after all our favourites –

– there’s a rat right there –

(Let’s just stop for a minute – there’s an actual rodent in the room)

Me: *dramatic gasp* No!!!

JB: did you see it?

Me: Oh my God. No. Give over.

JB: it’s okay, it was a mouse. It was a mouse.

(I think that’s supposed to reassure me)

– after all our favourite British bands, y’know – Priest, Sabbath, UFO –

– there he is again! Right there! Come on dude, get out of here!

(hysterical giggles from me at this point, as John explains that he doesn’t want to murder the mouse)

– We were always a band that should’ve been coming to Britain from 1984 on, when we were touring in America, and the rest of Europe for that matter. I’ve said this a bunch, and people are going to think that I’m complaining, but for some reason there was this collective decision between our management and the label, Chrysalis Records, which is not even a label any more, to just concentrate on America. Concentrate on America? We sound like a European band, and I’m on the cover of Kerrang Magazine, and we’re in Metal Hammer and all these other big European magazines, and they love Armored Saint, and we’re not going. Everybody’s going from the States, but we’re not. I don’t have a lot of regrets in my life, I always say, especially in the music business, but if there’s one thing that probably still irks me a little bit, it’s the fact that it took us so long to get to Europe and Britain. That’s why we’re constantly making up for lost time. And other than the fact –

– there he is again!

Me: Oh sh**! Oh – he’s tiny, he’s actually quite sweet!

JB: (indulgently chuckling) yes, he’s quite cute.

– We’ve been a band pretty much since 1983, and the fact that we’re just playing Manchester for the first time is actually pretty lame. Better late than never, right?

Me: a big portion of your time in the last couple of years must have been taken up by touring. Do you get any down time at all?

JB: well, I don’t want to tour too much. Anyone who really knows me knows that I’m somebody who doesn’t want to be a road-dog any more. I have two kids, I’m married, my wife has a business that I take part in – and I hate leaving home, to put it quite frankly. But I also love to play, it’s one of my favourite things to do ever, it’s one of the things I probably do best in my life – there’s not many – but it’s just hard to go for long stretches of time, and be away from my kids. We try to juggle it so we’re still able to do some stuff, and not be away for long periods of time, and maybe the family comes out when they can-

(Joey Vera walks in with his phone out, and is paying close attention to the corner of the room)

– What are you looking for, the mouse?

JV: yeah, the mouse.

JB: yeah, he just went over there. Did you see him?

JV: yeah, I just saw him.

JB: he’s just hanging out. We have a pet.

(The situation is really quite surreal, as I’m looking at my long time heavy metal crush on all fours trying to photograph this mouse)

JB: We’ve done a lot of shows since Win Hands Down, and even before it came out in June of last year. We did some shows in the States with Saxon – and we’ve done a lot of shows in the course of the past two years.

Me: You went as far as Japan, didn’t you?

JB: Yes, we’ve done a show in Japan, we’ve done Europe a couple of different times, we’ve played in the States not too long ago for about four weeks with Queensryche, which was one of the longest tours we’ve done in a while – so, we’ve done a lot of shows recently.

Me: When you look back thirtyish years, did you think Armored Saint would still be going?

JB: I think that is one of the things that we’ve always yearned to do – to have longevity. I always say that you can’t determine how big you’re going to be, or how many records you’re going to sell. A lot of these things are just out of your hands. You’d like to say that you have control over that, but the truth is: you really don’t. What you can have control over is how well you perform, the quality of your records, and how much endurance you have – and Armored Saint has a lot.

Me: I wasn’t actually there, but I’ve seen the footage of Keep it True, 2009, and I’m just so jealous of anyone that was. What was that like – knowing that you were playing to a room of people that worshipped you?

JB: It’s always really fun to do big, cool festivals in Germany, although that one is a little smaller and more intimate. It was great – there are very loyal fans that go to that particular festival. They love old school metal, and it was fun for Armored Saint to be the headlining band that night.

We’re a band that can play wherever. Last night we played the Hammerfest and it was a big room, at a fairly happening festival, and it was great to play. And tonight, there’s carpets on stage and it’s kind of like we’re playing in someone’s living room, as Joey said earlier. So, whatever you’ve got, whatever situation it is – we’ll roll with it.

Me: Coming round to Carpe Noctum – it’s sort of like a little best-of, isn’t it? I think perhaps the only criticism I’ve really heard is that it is maybe a little bit short.

JB: Well, we didn’t really intend it to be out for the mass public. We did this campaign with PledgeMusic, which helped us finance our tour with Queensryche, and once it was done, we realised it sounded awesome and we didn’t want to limit it to just them. But we still wanted to make it at least first for them, and then have it come out a few months later.

We only had two shows to choose from. One was Wacken, where we only played eight songs, and the other was at Aschaffenburg, which was a headline show, so we had a longer set. We wanted to make sure that the performances were something we could be proud of, and be happy with as time went on. When bands put live records out as this point, they probably choose from multiple shows, and a lot of recordings. We only had two shows, and one was brief.

I think it sounds amazing, and we’ve gotten a lot of cool accolades regarding it. It seems like live records are something that are hip, in a way, because not a lot of people are doing them. Armored Saint’s home is the stage. That’s where we flourish, and so to put out something live is just right for us.

Me: I’ve heard a rumour that one of the gigs in Germany was meant to be a live DVD.

JB: We did record something in Munich, and it was supposed to be a live DVD. I don’t recall if it was either the audio or the video, but one of them didn’t work, which was a big problem. We did this performance, it was actually a street scene that they put together, and it was a very cool, fun thing to do, and there were a lot of people there. But in the end, the audio or video wasn’t functioning, and quite honestly, we couldn’t use it. That was a drag, but it was a great gig.

I think that’s the last remaining thing that we haven’t done – to do a really cool live video. And we’re talking about doing that maybe next year. From home, maybe L.A.

Me: Well, I was just going to touch on that, actually. Carpe Noctum is all recorded in Germany. Was there any reason you picked those two gigs over your home ones?

JB: Wacken recorded it as part of what happens there – they record every band. Aschaffenburg just kind of happened – we got an offer to record it and film it, and we agreed. It would be good to do a proper live video where you have four cameras and different scenes, and it’d be cool to do it in L.A., as that’s our home, and we’d like to pay homage to the people who have been with us through the years.

Me: With the last full length (La Raza, 2010), I thought that things were headed towards a more ‘rock’ sound, but with Win Hands Down you seem to have bounced back to metal. Does that reflect any events that were happening, or what you were listening to at the time?

JB: I always say that La Raza was a stepping stone to Win Hands Down, because I feel like we got a little more experimental. In all honesty, they all just sound like Armored Saint to me. I think as we’ve become older, we’ve become a band that’s willing to experiment more, do different things, and not worry about whether it’s going to be ‘metal’ enough.

In the end, we’re a hard-rock heavy-metal band – that’s what we are. That being said, I think we could do whatever we want. I always joke that we’re not going to do the Armored Saint trip-hop-coffee-house-electronica album – it’s always going to be hard rock, heavy rock, but we can incorporate lots of instruments, mess around with the length of songs, write about whatever topics, lyrically, that we want to. We just keep broadening our thought process.

Me: You must be sick to the teeth of being asked about it, but – the Metallica reunion shows – what were they like, given that you and Joey both turned down Metallica at different points in your careers?

JB: I think Joey had an offer to come and audition to try out for Metallica, I don’t know if he was the guy chosen for that position. When the job was offered to me it was actually before Kill ’em All was even recorded – so long ago. We did numerous shows with Metallica, a lot of touring in the early days, had the same management, and became friends with them. I think that friendship has lasted over a long stretch of time, even if we go through periods of no communication.

First they offered Armored Saint to play the show, to open one of the nights. They also then asked me if I wanted to do a song, and play on ‘what if this is how we might have sounded’, and I was honoured, of course. We chose The Four Hoursemen, or I think I did, and it was killer. It was a memorable night in all capacities. The way they set up that whole thing was really cool, kind of like story-telling, where they were just talking to people, introducing various artistes. On the night we played, King Diamond, Lou Reed, Marianne Faithfull were there – it was just an awesome night. It was a cool thing to be part of and we’ll always treasure it.

Me: Did you ever have a moment of ‘oh – this could have been me’?

JB: I never really think of myself as the guy who should’ve been in Metallica. I just never do. I don’t need that kind of pressure – to have affected heavy metal, possibly. I don’t need that. I just never see anybody other than Hetfield being the singer of Metallica. It never should be anybody but him. It was not my destiny, and that’s just the way it is. No biggie, it’s all good. I mean, I’ll take a little bit more of the money that maybe I didn’t get, maybe a couple of bucks? Nah – I’m joking.

Me: I have to ask – I was reading an article of your influences and number 5 was Chaka Khan. I love Chaka Khan, so I thought this was brilliant!

JB: I love Chaka Khan. If someone was to ask what I would say to an up-and-coming band, I was say it’s imperative to listen to lots of music, and to be as open-minded and broad tasted as possible. We, the guys in Armored Saint, always have been. Back when we were twelve or thirteen years old, listening to Kiss, Sabbath and Zeppelin, we were still listening to Earth, Wind & Fire, The Commodores, Stevie Wonder, Chaka Khan and Rufus. We’ve always been big into soul music and influenced by old school R&B. As much as Bon Scott, Robert Plant, Halford and Dio were influences on me as a singer, so were Maurice White, Chaka Khan and Sade. I’m sort of this white, small, heavy metal singer that really wants to be a black R&B singer.

Me: So you mentioned earlier that a live DVD might be on the horizon. Any plans for another full length?

JB: I don’t know, we haven’t started working on anything yet.

Me: Just enjoying Win Hands Down?

JB: We love Win Hands Down. We’re so proud of it. I think we made a great record. We’ve set the bar really high, so we’re going to have to push ourselves to surpass it, or at least attempt to surpass it. You know, we’re not getting any younger, and it’s not like time is on our side. That being said, it’s always about having the most quality out of a record, rather than – hey, we put out a record, we can go do a bunch more dates, and that’ll keep the momentum going. I don’t think that’s really the inspiration here. It’s really about writing material that we can be proud of, that we can say, when we’re dead and buried, that legacy will live on, and people will say ‘that’s a killer record’. I think that’s the most important thing.

Me: Well, that’s about everything I wanted to ask. Thank you very much for your time. I think we’re supposed to take a photograph now.

JB: Okay, lets take a photograph. Do you want one with me, or am I just standing here or what?

Me: Um. Shall we go for one together, and if it’s hideous I can just take one of you?

I then proceeded to choose the most hilariously hideous picture of me that ever existed, because it perfectly summed up the larger than life character that is John Bush.

Special thanks to Madhav R at www.headbangers.in for orchestrating this fabulous evening.

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