One of the most underrated bands of the late 80’s/early 90’s, Armored Saint has experienced a resurgence in recent years. Released in 2015, their album “Win Hands Down” was a welcome return to form, and yet another clear evidence that these Californians should have had better luck in their heyday. On their current tour they are playing what is arguably their best effort, “Symbol of Salvation”, in full, along with other highlights of their career. Having just finished a successful trek in South America, they are now playing a handful of dates in the US and Canada. Lotsofmuzik’s Rodrigo Altaf witnessed their show in Toronto and was able to catch up with their legendary singer, John Bush. Find the interview and concert review below.
Part I – Interview with John Bush
Those who say “you should never meet your heroes” clearly haven’t met the guys in Armored Saint. As I stood inside The Mod Club in Toronto waiting for the interview with John Bush, I was able to watch the soundcheck and the meet and greet. The lucky few who paid for this experience were greeted by the band, who patiently signed every piece of memorabilia brought in, shared stories, posed for pictures and were genuinely interested in the fans’ perspectives. I even shared a story with their guitar player Jeff Duncan about another one of their concerts I witnessed – their show in Perth, Australia in 2009, where John Bush got so sick that he had to miss it. Jeff and bassist Joey Vera shared vocal duties on that show, and that is still remembered as a dramatic occasion in the band’s lengthy career. If you’re used to meets and greets where artists seem disengaged and in a hurry, the experience with Armored Saint will change your views completely – these are genuine and down to Earth guys, who have a genuine appreciation for the fans’ interest in the band.
After the soundcheck and meet & greet I was led to John Bush’s dressing room, and chatted for a few minutes:
Lotsofmuzik: Welcome to Toronto! So on this tour you’re playing Symbol of Salvation in full – what kind of memories does that album bring to you?
John Bush: Wow, lots of memories. You know, recording it was a lot of fun. We worked with Dave Jerden, whom I ended up doing back to back records with, because he did the Sound Of White Noise album with Anthrax when I joined them. He’s a great guy, an amazing person and he’s very dry and he had done a bunch of records before that – with Alice in Chains, Jane’s Addiction. So we were really excited to work with him, and his engineer Bryan Carlstrom, who has unfortunately passed away since then was awesome as well. And so it was fun to be in the setting with them. The Studio Eldorado used to be Marvin Gaye’s studio way back in the day. So that was really cool. And we had regrouped by then and we were feeling really confident about the material and the record. I don’t think we thought it was going to come out as cool as it really did, but it was just a fun moment of recording, and knowing that no matter what we went through with Dave [Prichard, guitarist] dying and everything else that we were kind of on our way.
Lotsofmuzik: Almost 30 years on, and that album still has tremendous punch – I dare say that it doesn’t sound dated even after so much advance in recording technology. To what do you credit the lasting power of those songs?
JB: Well, I just think it’s the songs, you know what I mean, because sound changes, but the songs are eternal. So I think that that’s probably the thing that keeps it going. When Dave wrote the bulk of those songs and we wrote them we knew about him being sick. So the future of the band was always kind of in doubt at that point and his life was in doubt. So I think it allowed us to really dig deep the material and kinda take chances. We always took a lot of chances as a band really – Armored Saint has always been a very diverse band. At that point we had no record company and when we started writing those songs we just were like “it doesn’t matter, let’s just do what feels good to us and have fun with it!”. So I think that those songs kind of reflect that carefree feeling and attitude.
Lotsofmuzik: Almost like Rush’s 2112 because similarly for them it was do or die at the point they made that album, right?
JB: We were free at that point. So for us it was fun to just experiment and if you listen to some of the demos and stuff that were done during that recording, those were even more diverse stuff we had sent out. A song like “People”, for example, which we later released in the “Nod to the Old School” album of rarities probably shouldn’t be on the record, but you know, we always were willing to take chances. I think that’s good.
Lotsofmuzik: Would you be able to pick a favorite song off the album?
JB: [long pause] Ummm no…[laughs]. No, because it’s always changing for me. But I am enjoying playing some of the deep tracks that we didn’t always play. “Reign Of Fire”, “Last Train Home” and “Tribal Dance” we of course play those all the time. But “The Truth Always Hurts”, “Burning Questions” and “Hanging Judge” for instance, we haven’t played those songs in a long time, so it feels fresh and fun to play them on this tour.
Lotsofmuzik: The Symbol of Salvation era was a time of change for the band, in more ways than one – not only Dave Prichard would soon pass away, but also with the music industry taking a huge shift, right?
JB: Well, yeah, sure. The whole scene was changing dramatically. So you know, we were probably caught up in that change as well. For Armored Saint, you know, the conundrum always for us was that we weren’t a thrash band and we weren’t a hair metal band. We were from L.A. but we didn’t sound like, you know, Poison or Warrant and those bands. We’re powerful and heavy, but we probably weren’t as heavy as Metallica and Slayer. So we were always this kind of band that had some identity issues, believe it or not. Eventually we finally said “okay, let’s just do what we do and that’s it and that’s all that matters”. But it took a while for us to figure that out. Especially in our twenties.
Lotsofmuzik: Would you have done anything different in your career from the time Symbol of Salvation came out and now?
JB: Well, no, because I felt like my life went the way it was supposed to go. I joined Anthrax and made some really great music with them and it was sad Armored Saint to end back then, but then we came back and we showed resilience and we’ve been together since then. And we’ve made some really incredible music, especially with “Win Hands Down”. We think it’s amazing record and for us the key component is the family unit. That’s the thing that drives us and we’ve known each other since we were eight, nine years old. So it’s a long history of friendship.
Lotsofmuzik: It must be a bit of a strange dynamic having two brothers in the band. Did they ever gang up on you when it was time to make an important decision for the band?
JB: Not really, but one brother was fired at one point, so there’s that! [laughs]. That was weird, you know? I’m sure Gonzo [Sandoval, drummer, brother of Phil Sandoval, guitarist] was never really too happy with that decision. Of course Phil wasn’t! [laughs] But again, it was all part of the way the story goes, and Phil’s great. He’s such a mellow, easygoing guy, and he’s a pivotal part of Armored Saint.
Lotsofmuzik: The last album “Win Hands Down” received a lot of praise, and for me, it’s surely one of the best in the band’s career – a huge step up from the previous one, “La Raza”. It’s been reported that you’re working on a follow up, with four or five songs already in progress – how’s that progressing?
JB: I think there wouldn’t be a “Win Hands Down” if there wasn’t ‘La Raza”. That was a step to get to “Win Hands Down”. That’s my personal opinion. And to follow up “Win Hands Down” is not going to be an easy feat because we think it’s really one of our best records. At the moment we’re writing songs and we think they sound great. We just got to really, you know, without taking an eternity like Armored Saint does, we’ve got to make sure it’s great before we say “here it is”.
Lotsofmuzik: And you’re preparing a live DVD for this tour – any idea of where it’s going to be recorded?
JB: We recorded in New York and Boston so far. We’re going to do a little recording in LA, and we also recorded outside of Philly. We are capturing the audio every night and for the video we’re going to use those shows I mentioned. But I don’t know, it’ll probably be a combination of things.
Lotsofmuzik: You in particular have been known for doing things at your own pace, especially since 2009, which was the last time you sang with Anthrax – do the other members travel at the same pace, or do they wish you guys were a bit more prolific?
JB: I’m sure everybody would probably rather work a little more than me. I have the most invested outside of the band because I have two kids. Phil has two kids now too. But you know, it’s hard for me. I love touring and I love playing shows, but I hate being away from my family. I really loathe it. And I miss things and my kids are growing – I’m sure Joey [Vera, bassist] feels the same. It’s a hard decision to make. So I think that in a perfect setting we’ll do things the way we’ve been doing: a couple of weeks here, three weeks there, and being more selective. I think it keeps the hunger for Armored Saint and makes people excited.
Lotsofmuzik: Fans have noticed that your voice has been much stronger and you’re singing extremely well over the last several years. Have you changed anything in the way you take care of your voice, such as vocal training or different techniques?
JB: I have! I changed my diet a lot: I stopped drinking coffee, I haven’t been drinking any alcohol. It only gets harder! This shit’s demanding, you know, so I’m just trying my hardest to sing as well as I can. I know at the end of the day that all that really matters is to sing good. So any extracurricular activities, I’ve done all that – I’ve done it all. So I’m a little raspy right now, but whatever. I’m just digging down deep and pulling it out of me and I think my voice sounds pretty good right now. So I try to keep it up.
Lotsofmuzik: After so many years in the music business, you must have many of stories to tell – would you consider writing an autobiography at some point?
JB: Well, we have an idea to do that with somebody. We have somebody that actually wants to do a documentary with us, so we’ll see if that comes to fruition. We have a couple of guys in mind that we’ve done things with – a couple of guys from England who want to do it and they have a bunch of footage. So who knows. I mean maybe if it really happens, it’d be really cool to actually do a movie or a documentary of Armored Saint. Because the story is actually really cool and there’s a lot of interesting aspects of it. So we’ll see what happens.
Lotsofmuzik: And there’s been talk of a tour where you sing the Anthrax material from your era, or even a joint tour with Anthrax and Armored Saint, which would be amazing to see. Since you mentioned this in the press, there are probably many calls from promoters already to discuss this, right?
JB: Well, there aren’t too many calls, which is funny…but one day it’ll happen. I don’t want to do a ton of shows. I would like to do just maybe a handful of shows where that happens, but I’m not sure with whom or how that goes down. I don’t know. I’m not too concerned about it. Really, it’ll happen when it’s supposed to happen, is the way I look at it.
Lotsofmuzik: Do you have a song or two from your time in Anthrax that you really miss performing?
JB: Well, I always loved “Catharsis”. I always thought that was a rad song and we didn’t play it that much live. It’s probably with the one record from my time in Anthrax that people think of the least, but I think there’s some really great songs – “Inside Out” is another one too.
Lotsofmuzik: Thanks so much for your time, and have a great show tonight, man!
JB: Cool, thanks buddy!
Part II: Concert Review
The night started with Act of Defiance, the band formed by ex-Megadeth members Chris Broderick (guitar) and Shawn Drover (drums) after they quit Dave Mustaine’s band on the same day. In true do-it-yourself form, vocalist Henry Derek and bass player Matt Bachand fixed their setlist on the stage floor and helped roadies put together their gear. Their show kicked off with “M.I.A.”, and Henry instantly won the crowd. Chris seemed way more relaxed than during his time with Megadeth, and looked genuinely happy to be on stage, fist-bumping many excited fans. The brutal assault of “Overexposure”, from their most recent effort “Old Scars, New Wounds” came next, with great drumming from Shawn. “Lullaby of Vengeance” followed, with Henry putting his vocal chords through an extreme workout, with incredible growls. Chris’ arpeggios were impressive throughout, and on songs such as “Birth and the Burial” and “Legion of Lies”, they proved to be a force to be reckoned with. By the time that the last note of set closer “Reborn” was played, one could tell a lot of people in the crowd were won over, and willing to check out their catalogue.
Armored Saint hit the stage with the classic and summoning chords of “March of the Saint”, followed by “Long Before I Die” and a blistering version of “Chemical Euphoria”. They soon kicked into “Symbol of Salvation” in full. One would think that playing the songs in the same sequence as they appear on the album would take out the spontaneity, but that certainly wasn’t the case here. And as mentioned by John Bush in his interview, they seemed really excited to revisit the not-so-obvious songs from that album. The funky rhythm session of “Dropping Like Flies”, for example, gained a completely new lease of life on this tour. And after being absent from Toronto for eighteen years, it’s no surprise that the crowd was hungry for them. The almost AOR classic “Last Train Home” was sung in unison, as well as the syncopated chorus of the latin-tinged “Tribal Dance”, where Gonzo showed all his percussion prowess.
On the bluesy groove of “The Truth Always Hurts” they proved their versatility, and before the duo of “Half Drawn Bridge” and “Another Day”, John mentioned the absence of Dave Prichard, who passed away of leukemia during the writing sessions of the album. And if anyone needed evidence that John’s voice is at its peak, his performance on the title track more than proved that he’s still got it and then some.
After the heavy title track, two deep cuts from the album were played: “Hanging Judge”, with an almost hard rock vibe, and the Gulf War-inspired “Warzone”, where Phil and Jeff’s fretwork cut the air like a knife. The dynamic bass lines of “Tainted Past” and the thrashy “Spineless” closed the revival of Symbol of Salvation, to unanimous acclaim from the raucous Toronto crowd. And without leaving the stage, the band went straight into the encore, comprised of “Left Hook From Right Field”, one of the best songs off “La Raza”, the title track of “Win Hands Down” and “Can U Deliver”. Some of the fans looked puzzled at the omission of “Madhouse”, but other than that, no complains. Here’s hoping the band really takes advantage of the momentum now gathered, and doesn’t take too long between albums and tours like they did in the past.
Act of Defiance Setlist:
Lullaby of Vengeance
Legion of Lies
Birth and the Burial
Rise Of Rebellion
Armored Saint Setlist:
March of the Saint
Long Before I Die
Reign of Fire
Dropping Like Flies
Last Train Home
The Truth Always Hurts
Half Drawn Bridge
Symbol of Salvation
Left Hook from Right Field
Win Hands Down
Can U Deliver
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