October 30, 2012
Formed in those halcyon, hard-rocking 80s, Armored Saint wasted little time carving their mark into the arm of the L.A metal scene. Built atop heavy riffs, ambitious songwriting and gritty, soulful vocals, Armored Saint battled through the death of guitarist and founding member Dave Prichard, the unpredictable and ever-changing tastes of the music scene, being dropped from a major label and ever-eluding the critical acclaim that their body of work so richly deserved. Yet in the face of one punishing challenge after another, Armored Saint has defiantly soldiered on, recording multiple albums, cultivating a loyal fan base and converting their three decades of making music into one of west coast rock’s most enduring legacies.
I was in the 9th grade when I first heard Armored Saint, buying their EP at a small record store in Victorville, CA. From the first crushing note of that platter, I was all in, relentlessly dropping the needle on such Saint classics as “Lesson Well Learned” and “False Alarm.” It was tasty preview of even bigger things to come: from the young and determined sound of March of the Saint to the thoughtful epic delivery of Symbol of Salvation, to their latest effort La Raza (2010)—which contains such highlights as “Left Hook from Right Field” and “Loose Cannon”—Armored Saint continues to boast one of the most hard-hitting lineups in modern music, and at the helm is vocalist John Bush—not just a metal vocalist, but a pure vocalist. The range is there. His sense of melody and hooks are there. His lyrics tell stories. He’s the real deal. Ask Metallica, who wanted him to join the band back in the day. Ask Anthrax, who knocked on his door to sing for them and record, in my opinion, the best Anthrax album of all time. Gone were the linear thrash progressions and in was a more sonic and ethereal metal experience. Sure, it smoked like the blues and the melodies rang high and clear, but it hit like a brick sailing through a plate glass window. The difference? John Bush.
Laid-back, funny and philosophical, John Bush was kind enough to sit down and chat with me on a dusty desert day about Armored Saint, El Sereno, and the momentous upcoming event this November that celebrates both his storied past and his untapped future.
I see you guys are headlining the Metal Blade 30th Anniversary show. How does it feel to be celebrating such a huge landmark for so many people?
Well, we have such a history with Brian Slagel (Metal Blade Founder), obviously we’re honored to be a part of it. Our career goes back to the early days with him. Technically, because we started doing shows in ’82, it’s our 30th anniversary as well. So to do that with Metal Blade in correlation with their anniversary is pretty cool. We’re entrenched in the world with one another, so we’re excited to play. It’s our hometown. We have a couple of ideas in store to celebrate the night and hopefully they’ll come off without a hitch (laughs).
Looking back on the last 30 years, is there one moment or one event that stands out as particularly special to you?
You know, I don’t know if there’s one particular thing in all honesty. Which is a good thing because I don’t want to say my career is based on one event. There’s many things that have happened through the course of me making music in Armored Saint that I think were cool. Making our first full length record March of the Saint which obviously was a big thing that we were able to accomplish in life. Making multiple records was an accomplishment. Some bands don’t get the chance to do that. Maybe one record and they’re done. Obviously, the relationship that we had with Dave Prichard – who’s no longer with us – is something that I treasure. And the fact that we went on after Dave died was quite an accomplishment as well. And to record Symbol of Salvation – which was a record that almost didn’t happen. There were so many things. Multiple shows, tours. Our first tour with Metallica and W.A.S.P – which sort of stands out as one of the classic heavy metal tours of the early 80s. I can name numerous things that I’m proud of. The fact that we were able to make La Raza after all this time. I can’t narrow it down to one thing and that’s a good thing.
Clearly you don’t survive three decades without overcoming a few challenges. What has been the biggest challenge you’ve had to overcome to get where you are today?
Well, I’d probably use the same answer that I just did. It hasn’t been just one thing. There’s been a few things, you know, to continue to make music. Obviously, overcoming Dave’s death was a big thing – which we did do and I think he would have been happy and proud of us for doing that. Being able to make a couple of records on a major label and then being dropped and still continuing onward is something I think was a big accomplishment. Especially at that time – the 80s and early 90s. So that was a big challenge. We rose up and trudged on. Starting off so young, we made the EP when we were roughly on average around nineteen years old. So we were fortunate to start young. Like I remember someone telling us that we were done and we were like twenty-four years old, you know? And it was like “Fuck, man, we’re just kids.” Knowing what I know now I’d laugh going ‘done? we haven’t even got started.’ If I see someone that’s twenty-four I’d think of them as a pup. By then we already had three records under our belt. We faced a lot of challenges as a band. We were never really a band that kind of fit in perfectly with the type of genre. You know we weren’t a thrash band. But we weren’t a hair metal band. At some point we were put into this area of like power metal. But we always were a band that I thought were bluesier than a band like that. Even bands that were deemed power metal. I don’t think they’d be able to write a song like “Over the Edge.” So we always had this bluesier side to our music as well. So we overcame that. We weren’t just riding this wave of some trend. We were in some kind of limbo state. But we were still able to muster on and make records and tour and make music. And it wasn’t like we made boatloads of money at all. If you did that then sometimes it’s a little bit easier to keep doing things because there’s a big incentive and you have the luxury to fall on – and that’s having a big wad of money. But we didn’t have that and never did. You know, that’s what I keep trying to convey everybody in the band. It’s like you should really do it for the primary reason and that’s to have fun. Because it’s not like Armored Saint puts out a record and everyone’s going to be socking away a couple hundred grand. That’s just not reality. So the primary aspect on what you do should be based on enjoying it. And if that’s not there and if that’s overridden by other things then that’s when you should – in my particular opinion – call it a day.
We have something in common: I come from El Sereno and I know that Armored Saint comes from East L.A…
No, bud, El Sereno. Not just East L.A, El Sereno.
Ok, let’s do that again: John, I know Armored Saint comes from El Sereno. In what way did your experience growing up there shape your music?
Well, four of us, including myself, grew up in El Sereno which is pretty much a lower middle income neighborhood. Primarily Mexican. So we knew what it was like to grow up in a rough neighborhood. There were a lot of people that were into music, but I definitely think that our group of people which was the band and some friends of ours were people that were very adventurous – seeking out and finding out about a lot of new music at the time when we were growing up when music was really connecting to us in junior high and into high school. So I think that we were leaders when it came to that with the people that we knew. So I think that was really exciting. I remember a lot of people in El Sereno were into disco and stuff and we were into Judas Priest, man. We certainly were the minority. So it was fun to live that kind of outsider life that we had. Then we met Dave when Gonzo and I transferred high schools to South Pasadena. He grew up in a totally different neighborhood which was a middle upper class neighborhood. But we shared a lot of the same views on music and had some of the same wacky and zany thoughts about life. So that was pretty exciting to meet someone from another neighborhood and still have the same kind of mentality that you did. And I think we learned a lot about loyalty and friendship because Joey (bass), Gonzo (drums), Phil (guitar), and myself have known each other for forty years. Obviously, Gonzo and Phil are brothers, but we all met each other when we were about seven or eight years old. We have a long history of a friendship. And that says a lot. That’s what I say about Armored Saint is that these are the same guys. This isn’t some watered down version of Armored Saint. It’s not Joey and four other dudes or John Bush and three other guys. These are the same dudes. And if Dave could be here he would be, you know, but he’s not so what can you do? Even Jeff (guitar) has been here since 1988. He’s been here twenty-four years. It’s the same group of guys. So we learned a lot about loyalty and that probably takes us back to our upbringing and growing up in El Sereno.
That leads us to this question: What was the band listening to back in those early days?
We were listening to all kinds of music. We always did. Metal was the type of music that really connected with us, but we always listened to lots of music. I mean we were listening to pop music. Bands like Sweet and Looking Glass – “Brandy.” We were all into Earth, Wind, and Fire, The Commodores. We liked a lot of music and think that helped shaped our view towards metal. Look, Iron Maiden and Motorhead and Judas Priest, UFO, and Thin Lizzy – those were bands that were in our stomachs. Those were bands that were super important to us. But we also like different types of music, different types of styles. Even jazz. We were listening to Jean Luc Ponty and things like that. For us it depended on where our heads were at the time. But we certainly were very diverse in what we liked. We liked metal and other types of music. I think it helped shape us as writers and songwriters and all things we’ve become in Armored Saint
Personally, Armored Saint was a huge influence on me as a musician, but also to many others. Now that you’ve made your mark, do you feel an obligation at all to the other musicians and fans coming up behind you?
Well, obligation, I don’t know if I’d use that term. I mean, I have my opinions about things, but they’re not greater than anyone else’s. I’m a music fan as well as a musician and songwriter. But as a fan my opinions are my opinions. I certainly don’t think they’re any more important. I certainly like talking to people about music I like or bands that I discovered or finding out about groups and music that other people are excited about. I would go that way. I don’t think my knowledge of music is like I’m over here on a pedestal saying ‘listen to me, I’m a purveyor of all knowledge. You should listen to what I like in music.’ It’s just what I like as a person, really. I would just say that if you’re a musician, my biggest advice would be to listen to lots of music. Because the more diverse and broad you are, then chances are, the better you’ll be. I think Scott Ian said this one time and I thought it was pretty profound. It’s like you wouldn’t eat the same meal everyday. You know? ‘I eat pasta everyday. That’s all I eat.’ It’s like, no, man, you want to eat Mexican food today and then maybe tomorrow it’s Chinese food. The next day maybe some barbecue. You always want to mix it up because that’s what gives you flavor. I think that’s what makes you more of a diverse person – let alone musician. That’s what I would suggest. Always branch out when it comes to music. Don’t just say ‘hey I listen to metal and that’s it.’
Symbol of Salvation is a seminal metal album that garnered a lot of critical acclaim. When you were recording it did the band realize there was something special happening?
There was certainly something special in regards that most of those songs were written with Dave. He actually wrote most of those songs. And once he died we weren’t sure exactly how we were going to accomplish doing it. As a matter of fact, it was such a low point I wasn’t even sure if I wanted to do it. It was actually Gonzo and Joey who were more determined to make the record than I was at the time. Maybe I was distraught at what happened and just not really sure. But we knew if we were going to do it then we it had to be a family. That’s why we said let’s get Phil back – he was part of the family. Let’s get Jeff back – he was part of the family. He was even there for a lot of those songs in their early stages. He was on the demos on a lot of those songs. So that was the way to do it. We couldn’t like go and get guitar players to fill the void. We needed it to be a family. That’s why when it finally came into fruition you felt it, you felt the bond there. It was weird because Dave was there. His spirit was there. And ironically enough I just feel that’s he’s always there. I always feel like even with La Raza he is there. His vibe is there. He’s just always there. Which is a cool thing. You know I’m not the most spiritual guy in the world. I’m actually quite agnostic when it comes to beliefs and religion. But I feel he’s there. I think that Symbol of Salvation was the record that almost didn’t happen and then it did. Songs like “Another Day” and “Last Train” – they’re real inspirational tunes. They’re very hopeful sounding songs. They’re optimistic. That’s another thing about Armored Saint, that we were just a little bit different from other bands that were playing similar types of music. We weren’t a negative group. We were never negative in terms of lyrics and the aura of the band. We usually tend to be a little bit more on the optimistic side, the hopeful side. Maybe that’s why we never completely connected. We never had the devil imagery and all that. We didn’t care about any of that. It was hokey to us. We wanted to write stuff that’s really trying to dig deep into people’s souls and make them think and make them feel. That’s certainly one of my goals as a lyricist. I think that’s the thing with Armored Saint is that we always had that kind of vibe and Symbol was probably the pinnacle of that as far as hope. And it came through and it happened.
Do you have any particular story or incident that you fondly – or not-so-fondly – remember from the Symbol sessions?
Recording with Dave Jerden was pretty fun because he’s an eccentric kind of guy. He was pretty funny and had some quirky ways of looking at life. And I think he kept things loose for us in the studio. So that was a pretty interesting circumstance working with him. We did some cool things where Joey was able to fly in the guitar solo from “Tainted Past” from the demo version that we had made so Dave is playing on the record. And that was on cassette! So this is way before Pro Tools. So we had to take the cassette and fly it onto a reel-to-reel tape and then fly that into the song. It was a pretty tall order and we made it happen and it was awesome. So Dave is actually on the record. I remember at one point the guys in Metallica came down to the studio and partied with us during some portion of the recording process. They hung out and drank and listened to some songs. We blasted them in the control room and it was inspirational to have those guys there. Lars was actually a big fan of Symbol of Salvation and helped us out with management after that. We went back to Q Prime Management – who we actually had at the beginning of the band, and then went back after Symbol for a little while. So there was some cool things associated with that record, in addition to the obvious, and that was getting those songs down on tape and having that record come out.
That’s interesting. I didn’t know Dave was on the the record.
Yeah, he’s on “Tainted Past.” His solo is the first one on the slow section of the song.
A lot of fans found you when you were with Anthrax. Where does that band fit into your overall legacy?
It fits importantly. I was in Anthrax for a long time. From ’92 to 2005. Basically thirteen years. We made four records of original material. I did a lot of touring. And I think we made some really cool albums and some cool music. It was a change in the way things were going. The face of rock and roll was changing, and I think Anthrax embraced that and I’m proud of that. For a long time it seemed like we were a band that tried to convince people that we were the same band. But in a weird way, I think we did morph a little bit in the 90s and grew and went with the times and in retrospect, I think it was the right decision. You know, Sound of White Noise was a record that sounded advanced. It sounded like an Anthrax record in the future and I think it was a cool thing to do and I think it was the right thing to do, for the band at the time. I’m proud of everything I did with the band. I think we made some great music. It was hard because Anthrax was such an important band in the 80s and made their mark in the 80s and it was kind of difficult to compete with yourself in a weird way. I think it was hard for the other guys – let alone myself – to try and overcome what the band did in the 80s and say that this music was equally important. But I think it is and I think in time people will give it a more objective view point. But, yeah, I’m really proud of all my time in Anthrax. I think we did some great stuff.
Like many people, I loved Sound of White Noise. The first time I played it I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. It was so different hearing your voice singing over a completely different sound, a different vibe. The first time I heard “Only” I was blown away.
Yeah, it’s a great song. In fact, next year will be twenty years since Sound of White Noise came out. I can’t even believe that. It’s amazing (laughs).
You’re quite a prolific songwriter. Why haven’t you recorded a solo record?
(Laughing) I’m not the best musician when it comes to writing music. I’m more of a lyricist and singer. So maybe that’s a reason. Sometimes I have ideas I’d like to do that wouldn’t be connected with either one of the bands. I was lucky enough to do something with this group called Long Distance Calling – which is a German rock band that’s an instrumental band. They put out a record last year. All their records are instrumental except for one song where they get a vocalist and I was able to do their album last year and that was really fun and exciting because they were different people to work with. It was really cool. I just recently did some stuff for a video game. I don’t know when it’s coming out, but I sing a couple of songs. And that was really fun and an unusual project, too. So I have some endeavors in my mind that I would like to accomplish as far as songwriting. Will it happen? I don’t know. I don’t know if I would want it to be my solo record, but I think it would be fun to work with different people because I think working with different people brings out different things in you. I think it would probably embellish me as a singer and as a writer. But I don’t have any plans at the moment to do that.
If a young musician was looking to follow in your footsteps, what’s the one secret to survival you could pass on to him or her?
I just think love what you doing. The music business is pretty rough. It’s a pretty tough place to be. You’re putting yourself out there. You’re kind of naked in the sense that people are able to determine what they thing of you and your music. Sometimes people are pretty ruthless. Sometimes people are super loyal and supportive. But you have to believe in yourself most importantly and you have to do it for the real reason and that’s because you love music. It’s hard to make a living in this business. It really is. More than ever now with the way the record business has developed. So I think that if you’re going to do this – and you’re serious about doing it – you should do it because you love it. You shouldn’t be doing it because you want to make money. You should probably pick a different line of work. Certainly one that is more steady (laughs) than the music industry. As a matter of fact, if you want to make money in the music business it’s best to become the guy that’s in the business in contrast to a musician. But just love it and believe in what you’re doing. I think that’s the most important thing.
Artists tend to be creative most all of their lives. Where do you see your music in ten years?
I don’t know. That’s a good question. You know, I’m a realist and try and stay within the terms of reality (laughs). It’s easier for me to live that way. Some people live in a world of fantasy and they do pretty well. It’s just not me. You know, I’m forty-nine years old. What am I going to be doing when I’m fifty-nine years old? Am I going to be making metal screaming into a mic? I don’t know. I really don’t know. It is a physical thing making hard rock music. You need to be physically fit. I certainly am. I think I’m actually in great physical condition. Ten years? I don’t know. Where’s my mind going to be in terms of making music then? I think that I want to develop in a natural way as a person and see what happens. I do know that in my mind I’m probably a better singer than I ever was. I’m certainly a better singer now than when I was twenty-two years old. I think that I would love to keep singing. Sometimes it’s difficult to sing the way I do sing. It becomes kind of stressful, because it’s not easy to do when you’re my age. And that’s probably one of the reasons I don’t like touring too much because I wouldn’t be able to do it at a high quality that I’d like to – so I’d rather not. But you know, we’ll see. I’ll just roll with it and see what happens and hopefully whatever I’m doing is quality music.
Well, you can always to the ballad thing, so if you ever wanted to go the Fleetwood Mac route you certainly could…
(Laughs) I don’t know if age necessarily has to be associated with being more mellow, per se. Because I do have a certain attitude as a person. Sometimes I think the only way I really do know how to sing is to be aggressive. That doesn’t necessarily mean it has to be a ferocious song, but just sing with as much energy as possible. Even if it’s in a ballad. That’s the funny thing because people say ‘dude, you don’t have to push so much.’ But it’s like this is the only way I know how to do it, man. It’s a quandary (laughs). I do love to sing and I’d be really sad if I wasn’t making music. It would be like losing a limb if that happened and I don’t want that to be the case. And I’ll do that until they lower me in the ground.
Thank you very much for your time, John. It’s been my pleasure.
No problem, man. Thank you. Good questions. I appreciate all your support and we’ll see you November 30th.