The Face of the Human Race. An Interview with John Bush of Armored Saint

By Charlie Steffens aka Gnarly Charlie, Writer/Photographer
Tuesday, May 25, 2010 @ 6:16 PM

"Well, Iím like the anti-lead singer, believe it or not."

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Armored Saint is, and has always been, more of an enigma than a household name. Itís hard to comprehend that the Los Angeles-based band never really got its due. For my money, they are one of the most underrated acts in rock or heavy metal today. If you take an album like March of the Saint or Symbol of Salvation and play it for a metal-loving kid whoís unacquainted with the band, you have just made an Armored Saint fan. Of course, success doesnít always equate with record sales or popularity. For singer John Bush and his band mates, itís about staying true to themselves by making great music.

La Raza is the much-anticipated album that most fans will agree, without any doubt, was well worth the wait. The ten-track masterpiece was recorded with engineer Bryan Carlstrom, who had worked magic on the 1991 epic, Symbol of Salvation . And just as he had done on Symbol alongside Carlstrom, bassist Joey Vera produced and co-mixed the material on the new release.

Frontman John Bush has written his strongest material to date on La Raza . I recently had the pleasure of speaking with the singer about the making of the new record and being back in the front of Armored Saint.

KNAC.COM: You recorded La Raza with Bryan Carlstrom and Joey [Vera], who teamed up just as they did for Symbol of Salvation . Were you trying to replicate that same sound with the analog process and by putting the two of them in the studio again?

BUSH: No, I donít think so. I think the whole thought process between the analog thing was to try to get a warm sound. Nothing against Pro Toolsówe definitely used some computers as far as doing certain things. They werenít omitted from the process of doing this record. However, we wanted to try to keep something that was in tune with the origins of the band. Weíre old school, so we kind of wanted to do something that made it sound that same way, kind of warm and kind of more akin to the way we originated as a group, so to speak. Symbol of Salvation is on its own. I kind of look at records as their own thing. I surely donít want to try to duplicate anything that was done on a previous record. The current thing should be what youíre focused on. Bryan suggested he wanted to be part of doing something with us, and we do have tons of respect for him. He has a new studio now, so we thought it would be fun to go and work with him again. He gave us a great deal. A lot of the vocals I did with Joey and cut them almost like demos, although I never really looked at them as singing demos. I always approached them as singing as best I could in case we did make a record. We kept fifty-percent or so of the vocals we did originally. The whole process was one where we just wanted to make it sound real honest.

KNAC.COM: The demos on the Symbol of Salvation reissue sound excellent.

BUSH: Those were done on the old four-track board. Youíd put a cassette in and make them that way. Yeah, those were cool, because they were done in a rehearsal room. They were pretty down and dirty. We always did that. We always had fun with the recording aspect of things when we made demos because we thought of them as like, "Letís make them sound like album quality." Of course they didnít a lot of the time, but that was our aspiration, and I think it probably goes back to March of the Saint. When we look back on that record we think it kind of got glossed over in the end, and the original rough takes of that were really good. We kind of lost control (laughs) as it went on, and it got a little too slick my personal taste. So I think that was our thing that made us want to maintain control.

KNAC.COM: During the Chrysalis label era, did you lose a lot of your say?

BUSH: No doubt about it. You know that when you go in with a record company, a major record deal--especially back in the Ď80ísóthat was everybodyís objective. Use the indie to get on a major. Iíd say most bands were striving to do that. We kind of lost a little of the essence of what we started and that was we were just like this group of guys who were in control of our own little destiny. I mean, look, thatís what happens. We had this big management company; we got a record company deal on a major label. You hope that youíll still have creative control, but most of the time you donít. You still hope that you can have a lot of say in it and we did. And we made mistakes, too. You take that chance and when you enter the big league, so to speak, and you hope for the best. Hey look, Slagel, whoÖweíd be nowhere without him, quite frankly, he has his say as well. Heís a powerful CEO of his label (Metal Blade) and he surely has a huge opinion about things, so just because weíre on Metal Blade he has a huge say in what we do. But I think in this case he believed in us. He wasnít even really involved as far as the writing. I think he just said "Alright, you deliver the record." After all this time and maybe we merited him having all this beliefónot that he didnít before, but he was a little more involved in Symbol of Salvation and even Revelation .

KNAC.COM: You came up in an era that was chock full of these preening, pouty, spandex bands and such. You didnít garner as big of a following as those bands because you didnít have the same kind of gimmick.

BUSH: Well, we had a gimmick in the beginning. Remember our outfits. So we did have that in the early stages. The armor we couldnít shed it, so it was a skin that just stayed on. But, I think our area of biggest uncertainty and confusionóand Joey and I talk about it all the time--is that we were from L.A. but we really didnít sound like an L.A. band, when you think of Los Angeles bands in the 80ís for sure, heavy metal or hard rock. We were aggressive and we were powerful, but we werenít a thrash band, either. We werenít either one, and to a lot of fans who were into hair metal, so to speak, we were too aggressive. And then, for a lot of the thrash fans, we were not aggressive enough. So we had that kind of quandary and it was hard for a while, because I think fans of both (kinds of) music liked us, or some did, but we still kind of struggled with maintaining the right reputation. Itís not something I lose sleep over, but I think that we were stuck in this limbo, so to speak. Itís not like something that I regret. Iím glad that we didnít try to do one thing or the other. We stayed true to what we did. We had our influences and we were definitely more influenced by British bands and European groups, although we loved Aerosmith and we were huge fans of early Kiss, obviously, and Ted Nugent. So we kind of had this bluesy element of rock. We displayed that in "Over the Edge" and even "Last Train Home," but we werenít doing silly ballads like "Heaven." So wee just had to do our thing and do it the best we could and really focus in on that, and sometimes that focus was a little bit distorted. We did make questionable decisions based on that but again what are you gonna do? I think that Armored Saint has a lot of great songs through the years on various records and they stand pretty tall. I donít know if we ever made a flawless record. People always say ĎWhat do you think of your new record?" and I say "Amazing." But I say, "Hit me up in a year." You should, at least when you finish a record, feel super gung-ho about it. Say, about a year passes, youíre able to have a little more clarity and you can be a little more honest, and you can say, "Well, maybe that song wasnít quite good enough." Iím pretty honest with the material Iíve made in Armored Saint in saying that.

KNAC.COM: I would define Armored Saint as accessible and understandingly bitchiní power metal from East L.A.

BUSH: Cool! You put the bitchiní part in there. It kind of gives it that L.A. vibe, too.

KNAC.COM: As you were writing the material for La Raza , did you know you were on to something really, really good?

BUSH: The original way it began with Joey and I, is that I had left Anthrax and I wasnít doing that much music. Well, no music. I was kind of doing other things. I put my hand in a couple different worlds, different jobs and things. Joey said "You wanna just write some songs?" I donít remember exactly how it went, but I probably said "Well, what for?" and he said "I donít know. Just to write. Make some music." Maybe I was even a little guarded at the time, who knows? But I said "Alright. What do you got?" He said "I got a couple things I think are really cool." We didnít go into it saying "Okay, letís make another Armored Saint record." It had nothing to do with that. It was simply him saying "Letís write some songs. I have a couple things I think are cool. See what you come up with." He gave them to me and I probably chose one and said "Ah, this oneís cool." I probably wanted to figure out how my writing ability was at that point, and then I just started working on stuff. And to my surprise, or happiness, I felt like I had a lot of ideas, both vocally and lyrically. I enjoyed it. And because it felt like such a casual thing, thatís what gave it so such sincerity. We just started writing. It wasnít until about six songs in that we said "Okay, well, what are we doing now?" Now we have a bunch of songs that we think are really cool." And thatís when we said "Well, itís you, itís me, itís hard rockÖwhat are we going to do here?" I entertained the idea of doing something completely different, just because I thought it would be liberating. But at the end of the day I wasnít going to try to convince the public and the heavy metal fans, particularly Armored Saintís, "Well it Joey Vera and it is John Bush, but itís not Armored Saint. Itís something different." I didnít give a shit that much about it.

KNAC.COM: "Right Hook from Left Field" seems to be pointed at evangelicals. Would you give your spin on what the songís about?

BUSH: There were a couple people in my life, who will remain nameless, who try to talk to me about organized religion and what am I going to do now that Iím a father? Isnít it enough that Iím a good dude and a good guy and a loving father? I always just crack up at that, thinking, especially when it comes to organized religion, which I can talk about for hours. I just find it amusing that if you donít think a certain way it almost negates how you live your life other than that. To me itís just ridiculous. It just doesnít make any sense, especially every day when some new development happens with some preacher or priest or political figure that gets revealed. Donít get me wrong, I havenít lived a pristine life, by any means. But I think that Iím a good guy. That should be enough. At the end, if GodóIím somewhat agnostic, so Iím not saying there is or isnít. Iím not sure. But if he said "Well, dude, you did do some drugs and you did this and did that, and you were a good father and a good husband, but Iím sorry you canít come in." Really? Youíre not letting me in? I canít get in to Heaven? Obviously, thereís a sarcastic, kind of comical viewpoint of it, but thatís kind of the origin of the song. I always gotta have a little humor behind it. At least, a lot of the songs this time had that sarcastic humor to it. Iím really proud of the lyrics. I was willing to just let it out. Some songs are less serious than others. Thereís some deep topics and I was proud to just be able to just reveal it. Thatís the great thing about writing songs. I felt like I was writing stories for maybe for the first time in my life. I was digginí that.

KNAC.COM: Is "Chilled" your introspective?

BUSH: Itís the song that I should probably listen to every single day of my life. I should wake up with that song because it was a real pivotal song to write, because I struggle every day, and I think most people do, to just be happy. Obviously, everybody is trying to get that on their own terms. A lot of the timeóyou could look at it two ways. "Yeah, fuckiní this and that, the traffic, my kids are screamin,í my job sucks," whatever. Or, you can look at it on the other side. Iím not saying that Iím the eternal optimist, at all. This is a song thatís trying to make me go that way, but itís the one Iím kind of asking myself, "How you gonna look at it?" What are you going to do? How are you going to view this? Your lifeís pretty good." And there are a lot of people whose lives arenít. So, be grateful. Thatís kind of the origin of that song. Itís cool. I dig it. At times itís got this Robin Trower-y, like, classic rock feel to it. Itís like the song you should play loud, in a car with the windows down, with the wind blowing. It feels like itís really cerebral in that way.

KNAC.COM: Definitely Trower-esque. It sounds like "Bridge of Sighs," with a stepped-up tempo and a lighter message, obviously.

BUSH: Itís an honest song. Itís just about trying to make the decision everyday to be positive. Thatís all it is. Itís a struggle. Itís a struggle for most people, I think, especially, in the United States. Weíre a funny nation. Weíre like this wealthy nation, but there are so many people who are going through rough times with depression and so many people on pharmaceuticals to find this happiness, and we work our ass off. Itís funny because I sometimes strive to live like those Europeans do, where they can sit in a cafť for like five hours and drink coffee or wine and just talk. That can never happen in the United States. You just canít do it. Itís like weíll feel guilty, like weíre being lazy. Smell the roses. Thatís something Iím constantly reminding myself. Because I donít want to look back and go, "Well, fuck. You know, if only, or what ifÖ?" I canít live like that. That, to me is such a waste of time. I donít want to do it. But again, Iím not saying Iím always achieving that, and thatís why I think I wrote it.

KNAC.COM: But youíre willing to strive to live a better life. I like at the end of the song where you say "Itís all pretty good. Itís all pretty good. It ainít bad." Thatís fuckiní bitchin! I love that song. Donít you hate hearing that? You know, journalists that like your shit?

BUSH: Well, dudeÖitís funny. At this point, people ask, "What do you want to do with this?" And you know what? Iím being completely sincere. My expectation levels are on the ground. I have really none. Iím under no illusion to the band, thatís not even a real band, hypothetically. Weíre not a working group. We donít do the typical things. Sales? Iím sure Brian doesnít want to hear that, but I donít know. It doesnít really matter. What matters is touching certain people. And itís funny because journalists actually matter right now to me. Not that they didnít in the past, but maybe a little more than ever, because people like you are peers of mine. Obviously I want people to like that. I donít want them to dislike it, but I think that to me feels like achievement. Itís really for the enjoyment of making music, writing songs, and going back to the essence of why we wanted to do this in the first place. Itís kind of nice.

KNAC.COM: "Blues" sounds really different for Armored Saint.

BUSH: "Blues" was the first song we wrote. It was the first one we did. Itís funny. We did kind of rework some of those verses on that. That was the one we thought we could make better, and we did. That song almost has this alternative rock vibe to it, almost. Itís number nine on our record, and itís so perfect to be in that spot, but Iím like "This is could be a hit for some alternative rock band, because it really has a huge chorus and it has pretty melodies to it." So itís just an album track here, but if it was played by a different band in the right setting, it might be like a hit.

KNAC.COM: "Bandit Country" is interesting, lyrically. What inspired that song?

BUSH: "Bandit Country" was one of the last songs we wrote. "Bandit Country" was cool because it had this cityscape vibe, almost like a "Living for the City" song by Stevie Wonder. I think Joey got inspired by that. Itís funnyóI wrote that song about this guyóthis bumówhoís just always in my neighborhood and the guyís just out of his mind. He probably should not be walking the streets.

KNAC.COM: Is he a schizophrenic?

BUSH: Well, I never really get close enough to really find out. Iíve seen him in different moods, where one, heís just walking in the middle of the streets screaming at the top of his lungs and there are other times when heís a more sedate. And I came up this idea of what would it be like if he had a partner? And then there were these two people who were living this life of that. Thereís obviously so many homeless people in L.A. Thereís this whole underbelly world that exists. I kind of created a little fictitious story to go along with this guy. It was kind of fun.

KNAC.COM: What about the title of the album?

BUSH: La Raza means the race, or always referred as the Mexican race. Thatís the slang term the Mexicans use when referring to themselves. Joey gave me that song, but I didnít want to write a song that was the obvious thought behind the lyric, so I gave it a twist. It had this huge, epic sound to it, so I said "Let me write a song about the human race: our struggles and our challenges." Especially as a fairly new father--somebody who brought two people into the world--wanting to do the right thing by them and leave a better planet if I can, in any capacity that I inherited. I wrote a song about our struggles and trying to do the right thing by our environment. Thereís a few lyrics that are a little bleak, but then at the end thereís a lyric of "youíll get through this." Because I think, that no matter what happens as humans, we seem to persevere. You hear people say "Man, Iíd never bring kids into this world." Man, think about if people thought that way in the 30ís and 40ís when you had The Depression and World War II and millions of people dying around the world. Millions. The beginning of the whole nuclear world that we were embarking on. That wouldíve been a time to go, "Iím not bringing anyone in," But we did and people do, because thatís what we do. Donít get me wrong. Iím not saying that everyone should procreate. There are plenty of people I wish wouldnít procreate (laughs). I did, so I want to do the right thing by them. Thatís the whole premise of that song. I think thatís one of the best songs weíve ever written. The song really moves me every time I hear it. Itís just huge. Itís massive.

KNAC.COM: It is a great song. There isnít a dud on the whole album.

BUSH: Well, dude, thanks. Youíre making me smile. I appreciate that. Itís all about putting out something that you like. I think Joey and my intention was to really please ourselves. Not in a narcissistic way, but if we think itís cool, logic says that others will. It was really that simple. Iíve surely gotten to a place in my life where Iím not trying to figure out what the public likes and how I fit in. Itís irrelevant.

KNAC.COM: You donít seem to be torn from the same cloth as other musicians I interview. Thatís what I like about your band, too. "This is who we are. Fuck it."

BUSH: Yeah. Well, Iím like the anti-lead singer, believe it or not. I think itís probably worked against me in my career. Donít get me wrong. I can play the rock guy and the rock star, and I do enjoy it at times, but I never really felt that I wanted that to shape me. I wanted more for that to be just a part of me. Thatís just the way I live my life and it probably keeps me in check. At the end of the day I just want to be able to go, "Youíre you, dude." Youíre not dealing with your kids like youíre the rock and roll guy. They donít give a shit. Youíre Dad.

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