Celebrating the 30th anniversary of perhaps their best-known album, Armored Saint have just released 'Symbol of Salvation Live'. An album vocalist John Bush refers to as Armored Saint's "cornerstone record", the original studio release came at a pivotal time for the band. We caught up with John for a chat about the making of the album, the recording of the new live set, his relationship with his former Anthrax bandmates, and how he's elated to finally see his Anthrax catalogue finally back in the record racks. Punching the sky; Eamon O’Neill.
Hi John, how are you today?
Everything is good. We’re busy, and life is kind of transitioning in ways, but we’re excited about this ‘Symbol of Salvation’ live record coming out, and we’ve some shows at the end of the year with Black Label Society, which is going to be cool. We’re playing the Wiltern here in Los Angeles, which is an awesome venue. It’s one of my favourite places to see shows and I’ve never played there, so I’m excited for that! I’ve also got a show with Metal Allegiance in Long Island.
You performed Anthrax’s ‘Room For One More’ with Metal Allegiance at NAMM Show 2019; what was it like for you to sing that song again?
Yeah, you know, those are great songs and I love playing them. I miss playing them and it feels fresh because we haven’t played them in a while. I haven’t sang them in a while, and they’re kind of hovering in this kind of ‘archive’ space right now, if you will. But I’m always proud of those tunes and it’s always fun to play them. I have to kind of prepare myself to sing them, and it’s just a little different style to my singing which is cool, to what I normally do, at least of late. Yeah, it’s fun. It’s good stuff.
We’re here to talk about the new live release, and thirty years of ‘Symbol of Salvation’; what’s it like for you to look back on that time?
Well, I had a lot more hair. What happened?! It was a great record, it was a great time for us because it was coming out of a bleak time, and that's what made it such a great time. It's funny because the studios on Sunset [Boulevard] where we recorded that was El Dorado at the time, and originally Marvin Gaye had that as a studio and he recorded a lot of stuff there. Eventually, it was [producer] Dave Jerden's studio for a while, and they made some cool records there. They made ‘Dirt’ from Alice in Chains; Offspring; and they might have even made a couple of Janes Addiction records there. I ended up making back-to-back records there, which is a trip, because I made ‘Symbol’ and then I joined Anthrax and we did ‘[Sound of] White Noise’ there.
You must have some great memories from that time.
I have good memories of that. It's a shame because across the street is a very famous English pub called the Cat and the Fiddle that a lot of people would go, to and it closed. It opened downtown Highland, which is fairly close but I don't think it has the same vibe as it did there. There was a big courtyard and people were just hanging out there, and it was right across the street so we spent a lot of time hanging out there. But it was a great time, and we were able to regroup and put those songs out that we had spent so much time writing during a very uncertain period of our career there, when and we had the combination of being dropped from the label and also knowing that Dave [Prichard, guitarist who was diagnosed with leukaemia and died of the disease the following year] was sick and not really knowing what his future was.
Armored Saint did work on, despite the uncertainty with things with Dave.
You know, the one thing I always say is that you can control this, and the stuff you can’t control; you can’t, and that was us writing tunes and coming up with some cool stuff and really thinking in a broad way, and I think that the way we wrote songs for ‘Symbol’ resembles this kind of a template for how we were going to write songs for the rest of our career, because, like ‘Punching the Sky’  is the same kind of vibe; it's like we just keep broadening our sound and style.
‘Punching the Sky’ is such a fantastic album; how is it living with the album since its release?
Well, we real fortunate that we were able to make this cool record ‘Punching the Sky’. It took a couple years to put that all together again. We don't work quickly really in Armored Saint! We know that. We’re really at a snail’s pace, and that's just the way it goes. In the end I always say it’s the quality, not the quantity of the records, and even though we haven’t made a lot of records, we’ve made some really cool records that stand the test of time. So, ‘Punching the Sky’, I feel like there are moments on that album that are really special.
You mentioned the change of label for ‘Symbol of Salvation’, and with the video for ‘Last Train Home’, it seemed that Metal Blade really got behind the band.
Obviously, Metal Blade came in and they rescued us, really. Brian Slagel [Metal Blade boss], he had been hearing those songs as we were writing them, and I think that in his mind it was like; “I'll put this out”. He knew the importance of it, and he knew the family origin that was involved in making that record. He was there, kind of on the outskirts but always there, so I think Brian always had the intention of putting the record out, and we were stoked. He was the one that pretty much made it happen.
Click here to read our 2017 interview with Brian Slagel.
Did you think that the album might push the band into bigger territory?
Dave Jerden, at the time had just signed a distribution deal with Warner Brothers, and let's just say that it never really happened as far as what was originally supposed to happen, but if you sold enough records on Warner Brothers, then through this connection with Metal Blade, then Warner Brothers was going to pick you up. It worked for the Goo Goo Dolls – it didn’t work for Armored Saint! They ended up selling a tonne of records and having a couple really big smash singles, and kudos to them, but that was really something that we were hoping was going to happen, and it just didn’t. Never the less, ‘Symbol’ came out and it was a record that got a lot of attention. I think it’s bigger now than it ever was. It stands the test of time for being this really classic heavy metal record for the time, and here it is thirty years later.
Did your joining Anthrax in 1992 have a knock-on effect where people went back to check out Armored Saint?
Yeah, for sure. I mean that's just a logical thing that you know people say; “oh this guy, he was in this band. What band was it because I really dig his voice”, so they’ll obviously do some pursuing and trying to find out a little bit more. You know, it’s funny, I often wonder how much? I mean, I really believe obviously by being in Anthrax, that help Armored Saint tremendously, To what degree? I don't know, but I’m curious, actually. We’ll never really know, but I think that it does, and to this day it probably still does.
The new live album sounds amazing; that’s got to de down to Joey Vera producing once again.
Yeah, it sounds great. Joey is the mastermind behind the board, and he did a great job of the mixing of it. He’s very meticulous the way he does things and we’re lucky for that. There was a couple of things that we kind of had to help out a little bit and fix; I’m not going to deny, but it wasn’t very much. Most of it was stuff that was pretty much from those performances, and you know the show in New York was great. I wish we were able to film the Los Angeles show because that show was really amazing as well, because it was our home town and it there was just something pretty magical about it. For some reason, the venue wouldn’t pay the price for the fee for filming, so we filmed it in New York at the Gramercy [Theatre], and it just seemed to have almost as good, as magical a vibe. L.A. is L.A. – I’m not going to deny it, it’s our home – but New York was amazing, and the theatre is cool and old.
Click here to read our 2017 chat with Joey Vera.
The live footage is unusual in that you filmed it in black and white.
The lighting wasn’t great, and when we saw it originally in colour, we were like; “oh, man!”, plus we didn’t have our own lighting director, so it was the guy kind of fiddling around with the lights. But in the end, I think that changing it over to black and white, it actually made it so much cooler, and it made it seem very classic; almost like an old movie or something.
You’ve also included the old demos from the original album; what was it like revisiting those?
Yeah, you know, those songs are funny. There’s certainly some moments, and some of it sounds a little dated, but you know there's something still kind of charming about them. Obviously we didn't think that those songs were the same level as the songs that ended up being on ‘Symbol of Salvation’ of course, but they were still written during that time, and songs like ‘Tongue and Cheek’, ‘People’ and even ‘Medieval Nightmares’; they were different kinds of tunes, and it were showing what we were willing to do as far as expanding our sound, and those songs actually really demonstrate that. Albeit, not the greatest Armored Saint songs ever written, but they’re still part of our history and catalogue, and the beautiful thing is that Dave is on them.
It must be fantastic to look back on those days and reminisce.
It automatically takes me to a time when we were rehearsing and writing tunes. All that stuff was written on a four track demo machine; that’s how those things were made then. It’s funny, like sometimes the tape would get eaten, and you’d realise; “oh no!!” Dave actually did a lot of the mixing on that, because at that time he played the kind of engineer part that Joey does today, so yeah, it’s cool memories. And even though we put a lot of them out on ‘Nod to the Old School’ , the rarities record, they never were on vinyl.
What’s strange about listening to those old demos is, although you’d recognise your voice, you sound so much younger and it's almost hard to know it's you!
Well, you know, it’s funny, people compliment me and I’m always grateful, and they say; “you always sound the same”, and the funny thing is, when looking back, I really don’t sound the same! I think I sound very different than I used to sound, for various reasons. One is, when I made ‘March of the Saint’ , and the Ep [‘Armored Saint’, 1983] I was 19, 21 years old, so I obviously sound very young. I think I was a good singer, and I was certainly learning about lots of things as a singer, but come ‘Symbol’, my voice had evolved and progressed certainly, but it still was kind of higher. It wasn’t until later on, until maybe around ‘Revelation’ , or even ‘Win Hands Down’ , when my voice started getting a little bit more full, and a little more – I’ll say ‘warm’, if you will, or just deeper. I’m 58 years old now, so the truth is my voice is going to sound different than I was when I was 25.
It’s just the way it is; listen to Robert Plant. That’s why I always admire Robert Plant, because as much as a great of a singer that he always has been, he can’t go out and do ‘Communication Breakdown’, now at this point in his life, so he doesn’t want to because it won’t be the same, and I admire that. So, I’ve just kind of evolved into my voice, and luckily, for me, I sound better than I ever did. But, I definitely sound different, as you pointed out, than I did then. So, as complimentary as it is when people say; “you sound the same”, I think they’re trying to say I sound good, but I do sound different.
It’s not as drastic as say, Steven Tyler on the first Aerosmith album.
Well, that’s a great example. I mean, what a voice! He still has it, and he still belts it out, man! It’s unbelievable. And so many people can still do it; Bruce Dickinson, and [Rob] Halford of course; all these people are an inspiration for me, because I keep thinking; if they’re still doing it, I can do it. People aske me; “how long do you think you can do it?”, and if I really stop to think about it, can I do ‘Reign of Fire’ in my sixties? It sounds impossible, but if I see Rob Halford and he’s still cranking out ‘Victim of Changes’, and he’s in his seventies, it’s pretty remarkable.
Are there any songs that you find difficult today?
Well, there is from ‘Symbol of Salvation’. We had to make a couple of changes on ‘Symbol of Salvation’, we affected some tuning a little bit on like ‘Burning Question’, on ‘Hanging Judge’; it was just so high. It was quite high for me then, so now it is thirty years later. We didn’t do anything major in terms of tuning, but we did change it to make it easier for me to do it. And I altered some parts, of course. I try to keep it as close to the original as possible, but I had to make a couple of changes in pitch, but when I listen back, yeah, that sounds great; it sounds appropriate. So, I was happy with it; I didn't think it was like it's a major difference.
Are there any from the Anthrax catalogue that you might have to alter, if you had to go out and do them?
I don't know. I went through a bunch of stuff in my catalogue of records throughout, and that's what I've been doing to keep my voice in shape, and at one point I sang the Anthrax records. I don't remember anything being too difficult to sing. I think, if anything, it’s just a lot of relentless stuff. Sometimes it's just a lot of parts. I think that would be the challenge of just being able to do it. If I had like a third lung, it would would be really easy! But I don't know; I’d have to get into rehearsal mode and there probably would be a couple of things to alter, realistically.
Speaking of Anthrax, the Bush-era has finally seen a re-release this year, with ‘Volume 8’ getting its first ever vinyl release; did you get copies?
No, I haven’t actually, and I would love to get one. I’ve got to admit, I have gotten some royalties from it, and that’s always very nice, but I would like to get some of the product too, it would be great. You know, when I talk about my time in Anthrax, what I always say is I just want those records to be available. There was a period of time when they weren’t available, and in particular that album, because the label we were with at the time – Ignition Records – they just went belly up. We took a chance putting it out through them; we were trying to be inventive and do something on kind of an indie label, and unfortunately it just didn’t work out. That record not being available was just disappointing.
‘Sound of White Noise’  and ‘Stomp 442’  also got reissued.
The first two albums when we left Electra, we basically took the masters with us, which is a great thing. Then you have to go through the process of getting it licensed and all that, and that’s annoying, so you end up benefitting from it, financially, but you have to go through the process of doing it! So, for a while those records just weren’t available, and that was disappointing. I would go to Amoeba records here in L.A., which is a great record store, and I would go through the Anthrax section, and there was just never anything available.
‘Volume 8’ is such an underrated album.
Yeah, I always liked the song ‘Big Fat’; I always thought that was a cool tune. I like that album. It’s kind of a hidden record a little bit, but whatever happened at the time is kind of irrelevant now; all I ever desired was to have the records available so you can go back and discover them and go; “wow, what a cool record!” That’s what I’ve been doing. I’ve been buying vinyl lately because my wife and I have a home up in Big Bear, which is a mountain resort area not too far from L.A., and it’s a cabin, so it’s a perfect place to play vinyl. So we have a record player, and it’s always great to just go there and put on records, and I have a lot of records! I recently bought ZZ Top ‘Fandango’ because Dusty Hill died and I wanted to honour him, and what a killer record! You forget how great it is, and such cool tunes.
Do you have a vinyl collection of your own albums?
I do. I have a bunch of stuff. It’s all in my garage. I try and keep something of anything that I’ve made. I’ve laminates, and I have a lot of merch, and I have a lot of various magazine articles. Of course most of them were in cardboard and they got water damaged so they were destroyed which is an absolute shame because most of that was from the early days of Saint; stuff that I’d never be able to get again, which is a bummer. But yeah, I want to have a bunch of stuff left over from when I’m dead, so if my kids ever want to go through it. There’s cool photos and what have you.
Are there any plans to reissue the early Armored Saint catalogue on vinyl?
The same thing is happening with Saint, actually. We just got the masters back and we worked out a deal with Chrysalis - which was our label originally - to let us be license the records. So they're going to be released on that vinyl again through Metal Blade, and that’s going to be really, really cool.
How did you enjoy taking part on the Anthrax 40th Anniversary celebrations and the documentary series which played out on YouTube?
It was really cool to be part of the documentary. I think the way they did that was really cool in the sense that they went record by record. I think that was really a cool idea. Obviously, I made some records, so it’s cool that those records got some props and talked about, so I dug that. I was interviewed and got to tell some stories and share some funny memories.
Would you have liked to have guested with the band during the live cast that they did?
The live performance, I wasn’t too concerned about that. I know there was a couple of guests, but I didn’t really feel slighted by it. They approached it the way they wanted to, and my relationships with those guys have all gotten a lot better, and I’m happy about that because there was a period of time where it was basically non-existent. Me and Scott [Ian] have always stayed in contact because he lives out here in L.A., and we run in some similar circles, but there was a period of time with Charlie [Benante] and Frankie [Bello] where we just didn’t speak, and every now and then we’ll text something funny, and then there’s banter, and the relationship is a lot better. Especially after Charlie came up and played the Metal Allegiance show that we did in San Francisco, and he came up and played ‘Only’ and that was an awesome moment. So that kind of let the waters rest, and I was happy about that.
Click here to read our 2021 interview with Charlie Benante.
That’s really great that your relationship is repaired.
And Joey [Belladonna], I don’t speak to Joey too often, but my wife and his wife have developed this relationship, and they’re friends, which is ironic! They got to know each other on the Megacruise , and they’re buds! They text, and they just shoot the breeze, and Kris is just helping Tori with some other unrelated stuff that is personal, so like, they’re always talking about, kind of ‘defusing’ this battle that people like to create, and it’s just not necessary because Joey’s great, and I have the utmost respect for him. I always say that he is the guy that should be in Anthrax – of course! It’s the classic line-up! It’s all worked out right. I yearn to not have too many enemies in my life, period, and I really don’t think I do, and I certainly don’t want those guys to be because we just have too much history.
Having recently spoken to Frank Bello, and read his book, he speaks so highly of you.
Yeah, that’s great. I stayed at Frankie’s house for those records when we were writing. I lived with them, him and his wife, and we spent a lot of time hanging out, just shooting the breeze and watching Yankee games; watching him blow a fuse when the Yankees lost! I’d be like; “dude, do NOT destroy your entertainment center over this!” *laughing* You know; Yankees losing against the Diamondbacks in the World Series. I think it was actually the one after 9/11, and that was an emotional time for anybody who is from New York, and those Yankee games were just so heartfelt. The funny story is, in that last game, he couldn’t watch the game, so he was in the bathroom and I’m standing watching the game, and then he came out and he was like; “did they win?”, and I was like; “no”, and I saw the look on his wife’s face, and I thought, possibly, the house was going to be destroyed!
Finally, I have to ask where things are at for the Armored Saint documentary ‘Armored Saint - A Band Of Brothers’ that’s been in the works for a while.
Well, Russell [Cherrington, producer / director] has been bugging us to try to write a song for the final credits, and we were working on something recently, so I just don’t know if it’s going to happen in time. He’s trying to get it into a couple of film festivals and let that lead it to distribution, which is great. I know he’s trying to get it into the L.A. film festival, which I think is a pretty tall order! If he makes that happen, that would be quite an achievement, but it’s cool that he has these lofty goals. We’ll see what happens. He’s put so much energy into this, and he got some great interviews with some pretty important people though the years with Armored Saint. The Saint story is a good story. The Saint story is a heart-warming story, and it’s a funny story, and it’s something I think people will be entertained by, so hopefully it’ll happen.
Have you any idea of a potential release date?
I think we’re looking at 2022, and I think we can make some of this happen with next year. Russell is a really talented film maker, and he’s a creative guy, and like I said, he really has some high ambitions to do something with this for Saint, and I believe it’ll happen.
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Armored Saint's 'Symbol of Salvation Live' is available now, via Metal Blade records.
"Doom Trooping over North America" tour dates w/ Black Label Society, Armored Saint, Prong
Dec. 27, 2021 - Reno, NV - Virginia Street Brewhouse
Dec. 28, 2021 - San Francisco, CA - Regency Ballroom
Dec. 29, 2021 - Los Angeles, CA - Wiltern
Dec. 30, 2021 - San Diego, CA - House of Blues
Dec. 31, 2021 - Tempe, AZ - The Marquee