With the third album in a row of biting, contemporary metal, Armored Saint are clearly punching well within their weight when it comes to releasing quality music. It’s a confidence that has been hard won, but has affirmed the band’s status, so says front man John Bush when we sit down to chat. "We’ve realised “okay, we can do anything”, he says, confidently. Talking ‘Punching the Sky', reconnecting with Charlie Benante, and hopes for a solo tour celebrating the best of his Anthrax era, we get in-depth with John Bush. In a zone; Eamon O’Neill
Hi John, congratulations on the fantastic new album ‘Punching the Sky’. It has to be asked however, how strange is it to be releasing it in the time of coronavirus?
Yeah, it’s a little weird. We’re lucky in the sense that we were basically done with all the recording process, so we just handed off the - well, back in the day it would be the tapes to somebody to mix, but obviously now it’s just a file that comes off your computer; “here’s our tapes!” But we gave then to Jay Ruston who mixed the record, and so he was able to do his thing in his own home studio, and he probably doesn’t want us around anyway to be meddling in the mix process. So we were already in that mode when the proper shutdown happened. I think I’ve said it in a few interviews, but we actually had pretty good luck; Armored Saint usually have a tendency to have bad luck, and this time we had some good luck, because we were done, and the mix didn’t require any movement or getting together.
You have had some bad luck when it comes to album releases; Electra dropping Anthrax after ‘Stomp 442’, and Ignition going bust after the release of ‘Volume 8’, for example; does that compare to releasing an album and now being unable to tour behind it?
Well, that’s a very accurate way of looking at it. When ‘Stomp’ came out, the whole label went and just basically had a whole turnover. They even got rid of Bob Krasnow, who was like the guy who ran Electra Records for years; I think he had a hand in signing The Eagles. So they brought in a whole new staff and a lot of new people, and the person who ran the label was this woman by the name of Sylvia Rhone. She came in and she basically told us in a meeting; “I would never have signed this band, if I was here”, and this was after we gave her the record. So like; “here’s our record”, and then she came back with “I never would have done this deal”. So, we’re looking at it; “so what does that mean? It doesn’t sound good. What is going to happen now”. So the response to the record, it was marred, if you will.
And then you move to a new label, and suffered another setback.
The thing with Ignition, we figured; “okay, let’s go to this indie label, let’s do something a little different”, and then that just backfired as well. So the bottom line is, you’re only as strong as your weakest link, and if your weakest link is your record company, that’s a really big hindrance, let’s face it.
Were you tempted to put the release of ‘Punching the Sky’ on hold?
There was talk about holding the record back, and I never wanted to. The thing that’s important with what’s going on is, you need music. You can’t go see live music, so why should you deprive people of listening to music? That makes no sense; it would be compounding the problem, to me. So, at least we can give people music, and we can listen to music, and put on your headphones and escape the madness, and to me, it was a no-brainer to put the record out. And the good thing is, when shows happen and we get to play, people should know the record very well.
You know, as much as I’d like to pretend that Armored Saint is this massive mega-band, we’re not; it’s not like we had some giant arena tour that was scheduled all over the world in contingency with the record release and stuff – we’re not that big of a band. We have a schedule, and we have a lot going on, and we’re doing our best to promote the record, but it wasn’t like we had some big tour that was going to happen and was going to propel us to No.1 on the Billboard charts, so put the record out, let people enjoy it and escape from what’s going on.
‘Punching the Sky’ is the third Armored Saint album since the band got backed together, and it’s arguably the strongest one yet.
You know, I always say, give me like a year, and I’ll probably have a better assessment of what I really think. When you first make a record, you should love it; it should be the best thing you ever made – it would be weird if you didn’t! So of course you believe it’s ‘Dark Side of the Moon’ and ‘The Wall’ combined, kind of thing! But the reality is, I do think it’s a very strong record.
I think that we’re on a good groove, but I think that every record is like a stepping stone to the next one. There was a big gap at the time between ‘La Raza’  and ‘Revelation’ , but ‘La Raza’ was an experimental record, to some degree, so it was a step, and it opened the door to take another step, with ‘Win Hands Down’ , and then when ‘Win Hands Down’ came out, and we were so happy with that, it kind of gave us this really strong confidence, and we realised; “okay, we can do anything”.
That sounds empowering.
I think in our minds we’ve always thought that, or at least we’ve always wanted to, but maybe we didn’t have the complete conviction about it. But I think we do now. I think we’re just saying we can do whatever we want; we can try to be experimental, we can be just a slamming metal band on a song; it doesn’t matter, but we can take any song and propel it forward and make people realise that it’s definitely a part of the Armored Saint umbrella.
In the press release which accompanies ‘Punching the Sky’ Joey Vera says; “John and I really put an emphasis on writing great catchy choruses”, which is evident in tracks like ‘Standing on the Shoulder of Giants’.
Well, you know, back in the early ‘80s when we were pups, Ron Fair - the guy who signed us [to Metal Blade] – he was like; “that’s a great song! This is not a great song!”, and of course we took it personal. I think years later, as times pass, I really get what he was saying. But I don’t think every song has to have this big, giant anthem chorus to it. Obviously some of these do, and a lot of Armored Saint songs do. Some don’t. You know, a song like ‘Never You Fret’ has a great chorus, but it’s not a big, giant, epic chorus. It depends on what the song feels like it should have; you just kind of roll with it.
But I would say that we feel way more confident in our song writing than we ever have, and it’s just an internal thing at this point of just believing, and having the conviction to be in the song, and if you have that, you can do whatever you want. I think that’s the most important thing; the sincerity of it; know that whatever you’re singing or whatever you’re playing, you believe in it. I think we did in the ‘80s, but we were young, we were just trying to find our way, so it took some time.
There’s a great contrast on the album between the heavier tracks, and one of my personal favourites ‘Unfair’, which has an atmospheric, moving vibe. It reminds me a lot of ‘Chilled’ from ‘La Raza’.
I’m glad you say that. ‘Chilled’ is a great song. It was a really kind of revealing song, especially lyrically; being honest about time and where we are in time, and our age, and trying to just… I aspire to chill! It’s funny because I’m not the most chilled guy in the world. I can have a hot head at times – my wife can attest to that, and so could my kids! I’m not the most mellow dude in the world; I’m a nice guy, but I can have moments where I’m a dick, there’s no doubt about it. But, I think that it was a song to say; “hey, you can chill”, it doesn’t mean that’s who you are, but you can have moments where you can just unwind. Like the one line; “my favourite time of day / watch the sun drop and dusk fade” – I love that! Going out for a walk or something; I wish dusk was for like, six hours.
Does that experience of writing a song like ‘Chilled’ lead to something like ‘Unfair’?
To write a song like that does set up a song like ‘Unfair’. It is a stepping stone. ‘Unfair’ was something that Joey [Vera] had this music, and I don’t even think he was really intent on us using it. And then it just coincided with a personal thing that happened. Some kids I know that actually lost their life in a car accident, they were killed, they were murdered by some drunk driver, and it was such an intense circumstance that I just wanted to write about it. But I was still kind of reluctant to write about it because it was such a tragic situation, and then I just listened to that music that he gave me, and it just happened.
With Anthrax, you recorded ‘Black Lodge’, which is another one of those dark, moody pieces. What can you tell me about the writing and recording of that one?
Yeah, that was a great song, and that was a big, adventurous leap for Anthrax, I think, at the time. Prior to that, they had that ‘NFB’ – they would make fun of the ballads, and I guess at that point, Charlie [Benante] was willing, and he just wanted to write a song like that. They were really into the composer Angelo Badalamenti who did all the music with David Lynch, and then we ended up getting him to play on that, which was really cool. That was awesome, because he really made the song that much darker. As a matter of fact, I can’t remember who did it, but there was a remix at the time that we put on as a b side, and it was just music, there was no drums or anything, and then at the very end it came in, but I always thought that that would be a cool version to perform live, because it was just the music and the vocals, and I thought that was one of the better versions of that song. It’s almost even better than the original version.
But, you know, metal is a funny thing, because it’s this intense, image-driven, dark, very unapologetic, scathing; it has all those kind of things associated with it. And at the same time, sometimes it can be almost conservative, because it’s like; here it is, and that’s it, and it takes a certain band to say; “okay, we’re going to branch a little bit out of that and take a chance”. Even in Anthrax, we did that on ‘Sound of White Noise’; stuff like ‘Hy Pro Glo’ almost had this industrial trip to it at the time, which was probably inspired by Ministry, and it’s taking those kind of chances and doing something that’s a little out of the box than what you’re normally used to doing.
You recently reconnected with Charlie Benante for a lockdown version of ‘Packaged Rebellion’; how did that come about?
Yeah, it was a mutual friend of ours, he actually texted me to say; “it’s the anniversary of ‘Sound of White Noise’, it came out today, 28 years ago!”, and I didn’t even know! So I just texted Charlie and Scott, and I said something like; “Hey, I was told that this came out today, so hey, kudos to a cool record”. And then a couple of hours later, Charlie sent me this version that he did, and he was like; “do you want to sing on this?”, and I was like; “oh, wow!” At the time I had taken one of my kids to their sports practice, and I was sitting in my car in the parking lot, and I said; “okay, I’m into it, but I’m not home, and truthfully, I going to have to re-learn it, to some degree”, because ‘Packaged Rebellion’ was a song that we just didn’t play live - if we ever did, it was not more than a handful of times, ever. So once I did, I sent it to him, and he just posted it, and it was cool because during this lockdown, a lot of these kind of things were happening.
How did you enjoy seeing the finished piece put together?
It was cool because it was just him on guitar, and then me singing – no drums, nothing – and when you do things like that, you’re kind of a little naked out there. Recording something on a computer is not like the greatest quality in the world, and my set up is certainly not, but it was cool; it was raw, it was stripped down, and it was something that him and I just did. And me and Charlie, we had a lapse of time in communicating. I always knew that one day we’d talk; I just think we had to kind of get over it. He was the last guy that I really had any communication with in the band, and it was a bummer that that was the case because I really enjoyed hanging out with Charlie and always really respected his views on music. He’s an incredible musician, and I feel like we wrote a lot of rad songs together, so it was disappointing, but I think just time had to go by, and that’s the way it is. Some relationships just need some time, and it did, and now everything’s fine.
It was during our last interview that the idea of a John Bush solo tour featuring your Anthrax era was first talked about, and that blew up, and now it seems that guitarist Paul Crooke was set to be involved?
Well, I said something about wanting to do it with Paul if I did it, because I really love Paul; he’s a really great guy, he’s an amazing player, and he was involved in those couple of records. He played on ‘Stomp’; he did some leads on it, and he did the tour of that, and then he also recorded, he engineered a lot of ‘Volume 8’, and certainly did a lot of my vocals, and then played some stuff on that. So the reason I thought it would be cool to have him involved if I did something like that is because he was involved in two of the four records of original material. And I just like him as a person; he’s just one of the nicest guys and fun to be around.
It appears that the project did almost get going?
We talked about it, and then nothing really happened, really because I don’t think there was enough of interest at the time, and I went back to what I was doing in life. It was really just my agent throwing out some feelers. But you know, one day maybe that can happen. Again, I don’t think it’s something that should happen in some kind of grandiose way. If it happens it would be at maybe a couple of select festivals or a few headline shows here or there. I don’t know, it has to be the right time, and there has to be enough of a desire for people to want to hear it. I mean, hey, all of these things are challenged by my age at this point; not that I fell that old – because I really don’t – but I’m also honest with my age, and I think that this material, it’s not easy when your older, so you have to be ready to tackle those things, and I don’t know, we’ll see what happens.
It’s a long time since you sang those songs, but have you any idea what tracks you’d like to do?
Well, I think that you would probably do ones that were the bigger songs off the record, obviously. I think we could get to, easily a headline set of at least fifteen songs. We could combine all the songs from the various albums, and then maybe even play a couple of deeper tracks. But there’s obvious songs like ‘Only’, ‘Room For One More’, and songs like ‘Inside Out’ and ‘Safe Home’ and stuff, ‘Fuelled’, whatever. There’s songs on the records that would probably surprise you of what I really like more than even the others. Like, ‘Catharsis’ is an awesome song, and I always liked the song ‘Big Fat’. ‘Riding Shotgun’ is a really cool track; certainly ‘Potters Field’, ‘Hy Pro Glo’; those are all great tunes. I love ‘Black Dahlia’, actually, and ‘Nobody Knows Anything’, and of course ‘What Doesn’t Die’ was a big song. So there’s a lot of songs that you could play.
A lot of fans would love to see that set.
You know, there is something cool about, well, ‘White Noise’, I guess in 2023, that would be 30 years [since its release], so you know, who knows? Maybe something in conjunction with that, at that point. And ‘White Noise’ came out in ’93, and ‘We’ve Come for You All’ came out in 2003, so it was 10 years later, so there’s an anniversary of both of those albums, because they both fall on the same year. So, I don’t know.
Back to the present day, and with touring plans not possible currently, you must really be looking forward to the Whisky a Go-Go live stream show to launch the album.
It’s the only gig we’ve got! It’ll be peculiar because playing in front of nobody is closer to doing like a rehearsal, but then there’s cameras, and you know people are watching, so it’s really going to be uncharted territory. We’ve never really done anything like that, other than making a video, perhaps. It’ll be fun, because we’re going to play some deep tracks and we’re going to play a bunch of new songs. So I think it’ll be great. I love the Whisky; it’s a famous club, and it’s been around forever, and you know, The Doors started there and we played many shows there, and it’s just a great venue. And you know, there’s these bundles in association with it; you can buy the ticket for the show, or you can get the album, which we want people to do, obviously, and you can get a t-shirt.
When do you think the band will get out on the road?
2021? I’m optimistic; I feel like if we can get this thing under control and get a vaccine that a large group of people will be willing to take and just kind of move on from it, maybe we’ll see the return of some shows soon. Concerts are probably one of the last things because there’s big gatherings of people, obviously. But I want to be optimistic, because I don’t want to think that’s there’s this period of time where we don’t know what shows will happen, because I want to go to shows; I miss even going to gigs. So, I just want to get over it and move on, and hopefully we will. I’m sure everybody does.
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Armored Saint's 'Punching the Sky' is released on 23rd October 2020 via Metal Blade records.