EXCLUSIVE: One of the most respected singers in metal, John Bush has been on the march with Armored Saint since forming the band with his high school friends back in 1982. Along the way he’s been courted by Metallica, and fronted Anthrax, releasing four original studio albums with the New Yorkers between 1993 and 2003. Preparing for an assault on Europe with his original outfit in time for the release of their new live album ‘Carpe Noctum’, we caught up with John to discuss his long career. Delirious nomad: Eamon O’Neill.
How are you today John?
I’m good. I’ve had a busy morning already. My daughter had a school presentation that I didn’t want to miss, but I was able to go see it before these interviews began, and so here I am, another busy day!
You’re gearing up for the release of the new Armored Saint Live album ‘Carpe Noctum’.
That’s right. ‘Seize The Night’ is what it means. We liked it, its sounds immediate.
It’s quite an ‘old school’ live album, in that it’s relatively short, containing only eight tracks.
Yeah, there’s been some complaints from some fans about that! We did this whole campaign with PledgeMusic, and it was for funding the [November / December 2016] Queensrÿche tour, and the campaign went much bigger than we anticipated, in terms of generating interest. One of the things that we had for the campaign was to release this live record for the Pledge campaigners, and we realised; “why are we going to limit it to them, why don’t we just make it available for all our fans?”
How many shows did you record for the album?
We only had two shows, and as much as Armored Saint’s not a band that needs to be flawless live – as a matter of fact we are far from it - we also didn’t want to have something that sounded terrible, and when you only record two shows, and one of them was an opening show at Wacken [festival in Germany], we didn’t have a lot to choose from, so that was also a factor.
‘Carpe Noctum’ is only the second ever live release from Armored Saint, coming after ‘Saints Will Conquer’ in 1989.
That is correct. I think one day it would be cool to actually do a full-blown, properly filmed DVD, and that’s maybe the final piece of the Armored Saint puzzle, in terms of things that we should release for our fans. But we haven’t got around to that quite yet, or figured out where we’re going to do it. But I think the record at least sounds amazing; I’m super proud of the production of it, and I think it sounds probably better than anything we’ve ever done as far as a live recording goes. So, it is what it is, and we’re proud of the record. We’re sorry that it’s a little bit short, but it still sounds great.
The live album comes on the back on two strong studio albums, so it’s probably the right time to do it, isn’t it?
Well, we love ‘Win Hands Down’, the last record we put out. We think we made an awesome record and set the bar quite high, in our personal opinion. And ‘La Raza’, I guess, there were some people that were a little uncertain about it. Some people thought it was a bit of a departure for Armored Saint. I mean, I don’t really quite see it that way, but for me ‘La Raza’ was a stepping stone to get to ‘Win Hands Down’, so that’s why I think it’s critical.
‘Saint’s Will Conquer’ was recorded on the ‘Raising Fear’ tour, so since then we’ve made four albums; ‘Symbol Of Salvation’, ‘Revelation’, and then the last two. So the old school days of ‘Strangers In The Night’ – one of my favourite live records by UFO, Thin Lizzy ‘Live And Dangerous’, Kiss ‘Alive’, these are all double records, and I would have loved to have it be a double record, it’s just not the way it developed. But like I said, we are proud of it, and we think it sounds great. There’s a lot of fire behind it.
You could argue that you’re in good company – the likes of ‘If You Want Blood’ by AC/DC is a single disc live album.
One of the best! And ‘Unleashed In The East’ [Judas Priest], technically there are only nine songs on that record!
Armored Saint are making a proper return to Europe in March, with some British and Irish shows.
I’m always excited about playing places that we’ve never played. We have played Belfast, that was on the ‘Revelation’ tour, but we’ve never played Dublin, Manchester, Birmingham, and we’ve never played in Wales. So, four out of the five shows we haven’t ever played as a band, Armored Saint. The Belfast show was in 2000, so that was seventeen years ago now, so, it’s exciting. I’ve played all those places with Anthrax, and had amazing shows there, so it’s exciting to come there with Armored Saint. Dublin, it’s an awesome city, and it’s exciting to come to Ireland; it’s a special place on the earth, and it’s cool for Saint to finally come, and I know the guys are real excited. It’s always fun to come and play places that we’ve never played, taking nothing away, obviously, from cities that we have been to.
Armored Saint weren’t regular visitors to Europe, even back in the early days?
People don’t really remember that we never actually came onto European soil until 1989, and that was when we played the Dynamo festival [in Holland]. So we had made the EP, ‘March Of The Saint’, ‘Delirious Nomad’, and ‘Raising Fear’, and never came to play anywhere in Europe until that show. We didn’t come back again until ’91, and we did some shows in Germany, we did London at the newer Marquee, and a couple of other places. I don’t have many regrets in my life as far as my music career because I just don’t want to live with them, but I think that one of the things that probably still annoys me is the fact that Armored Saint never toured Europe properly until ‘Revelation’ . That was really lame, really poor decision making, bad business, you name it. I remember being on the cover of Extra Kerrang!, where I was cutting the head off a doll or something goofy, but Armored Saint’s buzz all through Europe in 1984 was enormous and happening, and we saw all our peers; everyone from Metallica to Anthrax to Slayer to a lot of the hair bands; Ratt, W.A.S.P., all these bands were coming to Europe and Britain, and we weren’t! We were like; “What are we doing! Why aren’t we going?!” This is where our favourite bands came from, and what our sound was modelled after. I don’t want to blame particular people, but that was just a bad, bad decision.
Is it good to be back with Armored Saint, coming full circle after your years in Anthrax?
Well the cool thing about Armored Saint is that it is the same members, other than [original guitarist] Dave [Prichard] who died in 1990. There’s an investment in the band emotionally, and we probably get along better than we ever did. It’s not just a bunch of guys and Joey Vera, it’s not a bunch of guys and John Bush; it’s people that really have a connection, and I think that’s one of the greatest aspects of the group. Our friendship goes before the band even existed, and Joey and Gonzo [Sandoval], Phil [Sandoval] and I, we’ve known each other since we were eight or nine years old, so we have a long history of a connection even before the band began.
It must have been a tough decision for you to leave the band to join Anthrax in 1992.
Yeah, it was a very difficult decision, because there was a lot loyalty in Saint. I probably felt that I was kind of leaving them out to dry. It was a tough time, because we had such high expectations for ‘Symbol Of Salvation’, and we didn’t quite achieve probably what was in retrospect, unrealistic expectations, and I think the camaraderie around the band was not so good at that time. I think there was some distance, and a little bit of internal fighting, so it was the right time. I’m sure it was tough for the guys – it was tough for me, but the reality is it was part of my fate to go and join Anthrax, and it was the right decision to make. In the end, I went away for twelve years, and I made some great records that I’m super proud of with Anthrax, and it was just part of the Armored Saint story. Maybe the guys in Saint might have a little different interpretation of it that I would, but I think in the end, it was just the way the story was supposed to go.
It was a completely different Anthrax that emerged after you joined in 1993; did that help, in that you were less likely to get compared to Joey Belladonna?
I think that it’s difficult enough in the world of entertainment where you are competing with everybody else and your peers, but when you’re competing with your own band, that’s really hard. Certainly that’s what happens when there’s a serious change like a singer. It does change the sound, because the voice is the voice, and unless you’re able to sound very similar to your predecessor, then you’re going to make the band sound very different, and I sound very different than Joey. I think the band was ready for a change in sound, and that’s why they brought me in, for that matter. So it was just a natural progression for that band, and it was the way it was supposed to go. I think we made some amazing records - some better than others, obviously. But it was the way that Anthrax was meant to go in the nineties, and I think everybody, and the band members included, would say that it was the right way for that band to develop.
How does it feel looking back at that time now, and your Anthrax catalogue?
I think ‘Sound Of White Noise’ is an awesome record. I think that all the records were pretty cool in their own way. Some might have been a little bit more focused, and certainly ‘Sound Of White Noise’ was. It didn’t take a long time to mix that record, I remember that. I thought ‘Stomp 442’ was a really cool record, but it came on the heels of a major change at Electra records, where the head of the label Bob Krasnow - who basically created that label - was fired, and they brought in a new president who told us right after we had recorded ‘Stomp’ that she would have never made the deal with Anthrax. And so we were thinking as we were in that meeting; “that doesn’t sound like it’s going to be a good thing!”, and it wasn’t! So, that sucked, and then we left and we made ‘Volume 8’, which I thought was a cool, interesting record, but we were also on an upstart label and took a chance, and that didn’t fare too well. And then we made ‘We’ve Come For You All’, which seemed to be a little more focused, the most, probably since ‘Sound Of White Noise’, which I thought was a killer record.
‘Volume 8’ is the most varied Anthrax record you recorded with the band; was the band struggling a little with its identity back then?
Not really. I think that Anthrax was always a band that was willing to take chances. Remember, this is the band that put out ‘I’m The Man’ way before that was cool, hence ‘Bring The Noise’ followed that. They always did things that were possibly considered obscure and / or challenging or risk raking, and sometimes they would fly, sometimes they wouldn’t. But I think that’s admirable. Playing it safe, which I think a lot of bands in metal do, to me it’s almost ‘un-metal’, because who wants to be conservative with this particular genre? This genre is supposed to be as edgy as it can be, but yet I think some bands play it safe. Anthrax never did that, and I think that’s something that should be commended. Sometimes things work, sometimes they don’t; that’s the beauty of being an artist. When you have a long career, you’re not always going to hit the bullseye, but taking chances, I think is the best thing.
‘Volume 8’ also contains your favourite Anthrax song ‘Catharsis’, which you played with the band at the infamous Sonisphere UK show in 2009.
I love ‘Catharsis’, that’s a really great song, it just sounds real emotional. That was a great gig, and it was an emotional night. We almost didn’t make it because the bus driver chose to take this route through London and they were late picking us up, and it was super busy traffic. I think we got there literally twenty minutes before we were supposed to go on! I was warming up in the van, and this was our first show with me back in the band in several years. It was stressful, but it worked out to great.
Have you thought about going out and doing some of those Anthrax songs on a tour as ‘John Bush – Only’, or ‘Sound Of White Noise’?
I’ve entertained it. I haven’t done anything to actually put that into motion, but, I think it would be cool to do maybe a handful of shows. In what capacity, I don’t know, in what time frame, I don’t know. I’m pretty honest with my age, even though I feel like my voice is better than it’s ever been, and I certainly feel extremely youthful and exuberant on my fifty-three years of age. But I’m also getting older, so it’s not like this is something I’ll probably want to do when I’m sixty. But in terms of actually doing that, putting it into motion, having a discussion with those guys? I think they’re in a place where their band is comfortable, and I know Joey doesn’t want to have me come in and disrupt that, and I don’t want to do that; he’s a nice guy and that’s not my intention whatsoever. I couldn’t be happier with my place in Armored Saint; these guys are my brothers, and I love what we did with ‘Win Hands Down’. That being said, would it be cool to play a show or two and play some of those songs? Yeah, but I don’t know when / how / why. I haven’t thought of that, quite honestly.
Have you heard ‘For All Kings’ and ‘Worship Music’?
Yeah, I have, and think that they’re great sounding records, and I think that Joey making ‘Worship Music’ was the right decision. It was not the right decision for me to make that. I had just made ‘We’ve Come For You All’, so even though I was out of the band and then they brought this other guy in and recorded the record, for me to re-record it was not the right decision. It was something that Joey should have done, and I think the fan base was excited about something new, and a record with Joey after all those years. So, that’s the way it should have been. That was the right call.
Back to Armored Saint, and that’s the right place for you right now.
Yeah, I couldn’t be happier. We’re a close group of guys and we still have a pretty strong bond, which is astonishing after all these years. Even (guitarist) Jeff Duncan, I’ve known Jeff since Odin opened for Armored Saint at the Troubador (in Los Angeles) back in 1983! Our relationship goes back thirty-four years now, so we just have a long history of boding, and not a lot of bands can say that. We like each other; there’s an investment in this band which is about more than making money, because we’ve never really made much money. We’ve always just been able to make it fly and keep it a little bit above ground, and it’s more for the love of it.
Finally, I have to ask for your take on the Metallica story, and their asking you to join.
It was actually before ‘Kill ‘Em All’ was recorded, and I can’t even really remember completely to be honest, because it was a long time ago. I think it was perhaps they still entertained the idea of another singer after ‘Kill ‘Em All’ and before ‘Ride The Lightning’ was made, but I think that they were already riding such a high. I’m not just saying this to kiss ass, but to me there’s no singer in the world of hard rock and heavy metal who progressed as much as James [Hetfield]. From ‘Kill ‘Em All’ until the latest record, his voice has progressed so incredibly. Maybe it was just an uncertainty with them, but I think they made the right call!
You did however get to sing with Metallica during their thirtieth anniversary shows in San Francisco in 2012.
It was ‘The Four Horsemen’, and that was incredible; it was the highlight of my life. That night itself was just incredible. The way they put that whole thing together was just so fun with storytelling and just honouring all these people that played with them. Lou Reed who’s now passed on, and Marianne Faithful was there, Merciful Fate, it was just awesome. It was just a really neat night, and to be on stage with those guys to do that, it was one of the highlights of my career.
'Carpe Noctum' is released on 24th February via Metal Blade Records.
Armored Saint UK and Ireland 2017 tour dates:
20 Mar - Voodoo Lounge, Dublin
21 Mar - Limelight 2, Belfast
23 Mar - HRH United, Gwynedd
14 Mar - Rebellion, Manchester
25 Mar - O2 Institute, Birmingham