Armored Saint – Punching AheadSunday, 11th October 2020
When it comes to the heavy metal genre, a steady presence stateside that never achieved ‘breakthrough’ status despite an incredible discography would be the band Armored Saint. Receiving attention for their solid work ethic and songwriting mechanics (to the point that both singer John Bush and bassist Joey Vera were in the running for joining Metallica during the 1980’s), albums like Delirious Nomad, Symbol of Salvation, and Win Hands Down receive accolades from ardent critics and their fervent fanbase alike. Their latest studio album Punching the Sky gives us another reminder of the great ability to create memorable songs with additional influences outside the ‘metal’ bar, yet keeping things 100% Armored Saint.
We reached out to bassist Joey Vera who was happy to enlighten the readers on the new record, how he handles the role of producer for the band, specific highlights in his career, and a fair amount of talk of the great freedom the band has on Metal Blade.
Dead Rhetoric: Punching the Sky is the eighth studio album. Coming off a previous tour a couple of years back when you were performing Symbol of Salvation in its entirety, do you believe that record may have had more impact than ever when it came to the writing and recording sessions this time around?
Joey Vera: Well, I don’t know really to be honest with you. I didn’t really have that record per se on my mind when we were beginning to write this record. I tend to try to wipe the slate and my brain clean before we start writing for records. If anything that influenced the songwriting or the process at all, was when we did the Symbol record in its entirety tour, we did songs we never played live, “Burning Question” for one, and it was interesting to feel this new life for these songs that we never played before. We had been playing “Reign of Fire” every show since 1991-92, so that song doesn’t have quite the luster that it used to, but to bring out a song like “Warzone”, the deeper cuts, (we) have never played or haven’t played in over 20-30 years, it gave us a shot in the arm. Inspiring kind of feelings, and it was an encouragement. It was a fun thing to do – we did it in the US and we did it in Europe. Having done both of them in different territories was really satisfying, and encouraging.
In that aspect, it inspired us when we were writing. I don’t think necessarily aesthetically though.
Dead Rhetoric: Since you also wear the recording and producer hats for the record, how do you remain objective when it comes to the final outcome – as it has to be difficult to accomplish considering the effort you put into Armored Saint from the musical and songwriting standpoints?
Vera: It can be pretty difficult. I tend to go into things with a fairly clean vision, at least when I am midway through a project I know how I want things to end up. I’m pretty good about knowing how to get there. It’s not that I don’t have the occasional bout with doubt or second guessing the decisions I’m making sort of thing. Part of the process for me to get around that is to work with other people that I trust. When I started this project and get to the recording stage, I hand over the hats to other people. We recorded the drums with Josh Newell, and he’s the engineer who recorded the drums this time. I worked with the same team that recorded Win Hands Down. I did that on purpose. I didn’t want to micromanage Josh- I sat there and bounced ideas off each other, but I wanted his opinion and had to relinquish certain powers at certain points. I did the same thing with guitars, which we recorded with Bill Metoyer. I don’t want to micromanage the mix- I let Jay Ruston do it. I don’t give him too many specific notes in the beginning- I just want to hear his interpretation of the songs. And then at that point, I rely on my gut instinct.
I need to make decisions at that point because I’m the producer. Is this right or wrong, does this feel like what I wanted at the beginning? Sometimes (Jay) surprises me, and it’s not what I expected but better than what I expected. At that point, I just try to follow my gut instinct. I can get to a point where if I have some real doubts I bounce ideas off of John Bush – he’s my co-writer and I will go to him. I may not be 100% sure about this, what do you think? There are a lot of ways of me to work. It’s a team effort in the end, but it is true that the decision making comes down to me. I have soundboards that I can go to with all the other members of the band, engineers, and people that I work with. I’m pretty lucky that I have that.
Dead Rhetoric: Each time you record a new Armored Saint record, is there any specific game plan at hand, or do you just let the riffs and songwriting flow and then know from there the best direction to take? Were there any songs that came easier for instance this time than others?
Vera: Yeah, I would say that we just kind of go with one or two songs and then it snowballs. The first song that we wrote didn’t even make the record. It was a very long song, and I kept struggling with the arrangement. It never just blossomed into what I thought it was going to be. We beat it up for a long time, almost until the very end, a two-year process that was rebuilt several times. I just ended up having to wave the white flag and say this isn’t working. The second song after that was “Bark, No Bite”, and that song although going through a metamorphosis of sorts through the end, the initial song was written pretty quickly. I don’t really have a game plan – my only game plan, John and I have a very brief discussion not to over think what we are doing. We wanted this to be a representation of where we were at musically at this stage in our lives, what we’ve learned in the last five years since the last record. Our evolution, we want to embrace where we are at the moment so we don’t want to think too much about having to live up to Win Hands Down, it has to be better than Win Hands Down, or different than that album. We don’t have those conversations at all. Let’s just write really, really great songs.
The only thing is that I will say is this time around, I was more conscious about making an effort to not have the songs be so long in length. I wanted to see as a bit of an experiment in writing music, I’m a scientist to try if the outcome can be a little different. So this time, I wanted to see if I could make the same impact of a six-minute epic song, can I get that same vibe and attitude across in four and a half or five minutes? It was an exercise in my abilities with arrangements and songwriting, can I do this, can we do this? Look, we have one of the best singers in the planet in our band, John Bush – and my goal is to make him shine as best as possible. Sometimes I’ll approach things in a simplistic way, as I just want to hear John sing right now on this section. Don’t convolute it – make him take the reigns and make something out of this blank canvas, let John turn this into something really special. It’s a holistic way that we really work. We do make attempts at taking chances, we discuss that and doing that. Not to the point of freaking people out including ourselves. It’s not house dub music or polka music – we are aware of parameters that we are working within. But we really want to flex muscles and spread wings, bring in some of our r + b influences in little ways, can we do it? Those are the things that are consciously working towards. Everything else we want to come naturally.
You asked about other songs that came naturally and quickly. “My Jurisdiction” was a pretty fast song that came really quickly. I can’t think of too many others, it was a long process, two years of work.
Dead Rhetoric: What traits make Armored Saint special and unique when you are all able to get together? Because it really appears that the band in 2020 embodies passion and true camaraderie versus feeling like you have to punch in obligations when it comes to recording and touring?
Vera: There are a few things. Let’s start with this freedom and ability that we have. We are very blessed and grateful that we have the support from our record label Metal Blade Records and Brian Slagel, and had it for quite some time now. He’s a big fan of the band and we are also friends, but the label and him allow us to have this freedom to put out records when we want to or feel like we want to. We work at our own pace, and as you pointed out we don’t have this clocking in and clocking out situation. Sometimes other bands get caught into this because you become a big liability for the label when somebody is spending a lot of money on you, you are selling records, well they want to keep that machine going. You go out, do a tour cycle, and you immediately go back in the studio to record a record as soon as possible and the machine keeps rolling. Hopefully your fanbase grows, each year you are able to make more money, and everybody is happy.
We don’t work in that way. That’s not so much a concern for us. We want to reach people, we want to sell records, you want to have that sort of ‘success’ in that sense, and of course the label does too because they are investing money- but it’s not make or break with us or the label. It’s not like if it doesn’t happen, that’s it – we are giving up. We are lucky to have that. The fact that we have that freedom, we have a great sense of weight off our backs. It allows us to work from our own muse- and when the muse comes, we don’t need to search for it too hard. This gives us a sense of comfort, and allows us to have that passion that you describe for what we do. It isn’t something that we have to do, we really want to do this. We do it when we want to do it. That honesty is something that people started to realize and hear in our music since around 2010 with La Raza. That was the first time that we looked around, and me personally, our perception of our band that has always been on an island, never really fit in anywhere. We never fit in with the thrash crowd, or the hair band and glam crowd, we certainly weren’t the rebirth of metal in the early 90’s, we were our own thing. We were almost a band like UFO or Thin Lizzy, the records have a lot of diversity and you really couldn’t pigeonhole us specifically. We do a little bit of everything.
To be honest with you, without going too long about this, we were plagued in our early part of our career with this thing I’m describing to you. This inability to fit in to the genre specifically. It was a problem for us that created a little bit of doubt during the mid-80’s into the early 90’s. It affected our writing a little bit, we overthought things too much. When we did La Raza, we were a band that was reformed but we did a handshake kind of deal where we weren’t going to get back together and try to conquer the world again like we did when we were 19 or 20. We are going to do this because we love this- the same way we did back when were 19. We love the music, we love playing together – let’s leave it at that and all this other noise, radio singles, chart positions, promotions, blah blah blah, by the wayside. It just gets in the way of why you do this in the first place. Since we were able to do that, this door just opened up. We can write music and be ourselves. The fans start feeling the honesty in that, and they feel it in the music. That’s important to us to maintain. I think we feel pretty proud in that fact.
I’ve had people in the last couple years just tell me that we just sound like Armored Saint. I take that as a really good compliment.
Dead Rhetoric: Do you believe you’ve been able to make up for lost ground in terms of respect and your fanbase especially touring overseas more than you did in the 1980s?
Vera: Yes I think so. I don’t think we felt disrespected necessarily, but it was more like that we didn’t tour Europe in the beginning of our career, it was the biggest travesty ever. I think that really hurt us, and we lost a lot of ground during that time. It’s unfortunate that that happened, we can point fingers at management didn’t push for it, Chrysalis our label at the time didn’t want to spend money on us to go tour Europe. We partially allowed that to happen. The fact that since we’ve regrouped, we’ve played a lot in Europe. We’ve built our fanbase up there, and people came to see that we are good live band – entertaining, high energy, hard rock band. We are not super technical, we aren’t perfect, or streamlined – but we put out when we play live. That is something people appreciated. Since Win Hands Down came out, we’ve done more touring on that cycle than in our whole career. We did more live dates on that (record) than any other.
Dead Rhetoric: What do you consider some personal landmark or benchmark moments in your career as a musician – be it specific albums, tours, festival appearances or other things that just stay forever embedded as special and memorable to you?
Vera: I think, the first one is the fact that we are still doing this almost forty years later is a pretty big accomplishment. When I was younger I didn’t think I was going to live past thirty years old – so that I’m 57 and talking about our eighth album is pretty big to me. Of course I love travelling and touring, it’s been a dream to tour outside of the United States. We’ve seen and met lots of people, the exotic people – we played Mexico City, a metal fest there and it was a massive festival. We also did a big festival in Japan – never going to Japan before. We went over great, we were blown away, people had been waiting 35 years to see us. Playing Greece is always a treat, we can play venues there that are as big if not bigger than our hometown, and that’s crazy. How is that even possible? There are many others- Italy, Germany, the UK. There are still some places that we haven’t been, so there is still some work to do. Those are things that stand out.
Dead Rhetoric: You are also going to be a part of the Mercyful Fate reunion shows in 2021, replacing Timi Hansen. How did you get this opportunity to be a part of this reunion, and how will you juggle your responsibilities there as well as what you have going on with Armored Saint and Fates Warning?
Vera: (laughs). The latter part of the question is a very good question, and I don’t have an answer for that. I just hope it can all work out, I don’t want to piss anyone off, and if it can work within reasonable schedules I will certainly make every effort to make everyone happy. I know that you can’t always do that, so I’m prepared to cross those bridges when I get there.
I’ve been friends with King for some time. Armored Saint did a tour with King back in 1988-89, we have been friends and labelmates forever. And so, he came to see me when I was on tour with Fates Warning supporting Queensrÿche in Dallas where he lives. He came to see the show, Brian Slagel was in town. King pulled me aside backstage and told me the story of Timi going through chemotherapy, and had a summer tour booked and wasn’t sure he was going to be well enough to do it. If he wasn’t would I consider stepping in and helping out. Of course I was flabbergasted and honored, yeah! I didn’t have anything else going on, it was supposed to happen this summer. To honor Timi and help them out, thank you for asking me.
In the back of my mind, I was thinking Timi would pull through, he would get enough energy to make it. I was sadly mistaken, and it was devastating. They still wanted to do these dates, and I said of course. Then COVID hit and it got cancelled until next year. We’ll see if it actually happens. It seems like we will have some kind of medical breakthrough before the end of the year comes around, but the jury is still out on customer confidence and attendance as far as who will go to a show. How many people are still going to feel confident after getting a vaccine? Are promoters and artists going to be willing to take a hit? I really don’t know what’s going to happen. I was already learning halfway through the set, and I have to go back to refreshing my memory and learning the set.
Dead Rhetoric: What can people expect from Armored Saint, Fates Warning, Mercyful Fate and anything else you have going on for the rest of 2020 into 2021 and beyond?
Vera: Armored Saint is working on a second single and video. We are also doing a livestream event, since nobody can tour at this moment. We will play in Hollywood, but no fans can come to the show. We will have a video and sound crew, and we will live stream the show. It will be available from October 10th to November 9th, and we are playing a full live set with four new songs. It’s a paid event, only $10, and you can watch it from the comfort of your own home. You can get more information at www.armoredsaint.veeps.com . This is the only way we can connect with fans in a live setting, as live as we can get.
Fates Warning has a new record in November, on the 9th. We have a couple of videos in the works as well. Mercyful Fate, they are starting to write some new music. They are asking me to play on the demos. They are concentrating on getting the live show together.