BY: MICHELLE PEREZ-VEGA
It was a busy day for John Bush, vocalist for the legendary Armored Saint. Bush was in the process of winding down a marathon of interviews while watching the clock, knowing he had to soon drive his children to their individual after-school practices. And California was getting drenched with rain after a near-record drought, so Bush knew sandbagging his garage to protect everything that was in it was also in his foreseeable future.
Such is the life of a heavy metal rock star, right? And maybe not quite the one he had in mind when Armored Saint began in the early 1980’s. But to Bush, life has been good, both professionally and personally. Bush went so far as to state that if everything ended for him tomorrow, he would be pretty satisfied with his life overall.
“The other day,” Bush mused, “someone asked me what my goals were in life. My wife Tori and I just looked at each other and laughed. We don’t think about goals, and I don’t mean that in a negative way at all. Sometimes, I’m just trying to get through the day, man! I deal with tomorrow when it comes. I like to live in the moment, to seize the opportunities without thought. It’s probably why I’m not the best financial planner in the world!”
THE SAINTS BEGIN THE MARCH
Armored Saint began as a Heavy Metal band in 1982 in Los Angeles, California and was formed by brothers Phil Sandoval (guitar) and Gonzo Sandoval (drums), along with guitarist David Prichard. Bush and bassist Joey Vera soon filled out the ranks. The band eventually recorded a demo that later morphed into the band’s self-titled EP on Metal Blade Records in 1983. After signing with Chrysalis Records in 1984, Armored Saint rode the Heavy Metal wave with March of the Saint followed by 1985’s Delirious Nomad. After the release of Delirious Nomad, however, problems soon began for the band – guitarist Sandoval exited the group, leaving the four remaining members with the task of recording Raising Fear.
When grunge began to further emerge its little head, Heavy Metal was pushed in the background and many bands were released from their major label contracts. Armored Saint was not immune. The band immediately returned to Metal Blade in 1989 and released its first live album, Saints Will Conquer. Jeff Duncan, formerly of the L.A. club band Odin, was recruited as Armored Saint’s second guitarist.
Tragedy further hit home when Prichard was diagnosed with, and unfortunately succumbed to, leukemia in 1990 at the age of 26. (Sandoval opted to return to the band before Armored Saint released Symbol of Salvation in 1991.)
Further complicating matters was the unknown need to keep the band on American shores. Armored Saint especially did not receive the chance to tour the Heavy Metal continent of Europe until it was too late to capitalize on the audience enthusiasm for the genre.
“We had this big buzz in Europe,” Bush recalled, “and we didn’t go there until 1989, seven years after the band formed! We were watching all our peers going to Europe and here is Armored Saint, staying at home. For whatever reason, whether it was our management at the time, no one was supporting us going to Europe. That was a very frustrating thing for us and it really changed our careers. I mean, I’m not saying that we would have blown up into an arena band by going to Europe, but I think it would have changed our careers in some way positive. It’s kind of lame,” Bush added, “but it’s water under the bridge now. It’s not something that keeps me awake at night, but it was definitely a mistake.”
All this and more cast uncertainty and doubt in Bush’s mind about the future of Armored Saint.
ANTHRAX COMES CALLING
In 1992, Bush made the decision to join Anthrax as its new lead vocalist after the departure of Joey Belladonna. Saying it was “too good of an opportunity to pass up,” Bush also realized the hardship it would cause Armored Saint. The band decided to break up. For the next several years, Vera went on to play with Fates Warning, Lizzy Borden and Chroma Key. He released a solo album in 1994 and started a second career as a producer and engineer. (Vera also briefly joined Anthrax in 2005 when bassist Frank Bello left the band.) The Sandoval brothers formed Life After Death, and Duncan formed DC4 with his brothers, Shawn and Matt, and former Dio guitarist Rowan Robertson.
Many mourned the demise of Armored Saint, especially its members. But Bush said when he joined Anthrax, his heart was entirely in Anthrax.
“I was there, I was giving it everything I had,” he stated. “It was where I was supposed to be. I never felt like, ‘Hey, I’m in Anthrax but my heart belongs in Armored Saint.’ I felt like Anthrax was my band, a band I had to be loyal to. And I was. It was exciting and fun. I was always happy about my time in Anthrax, it was meant to be. And we made some killer records.”
Bush recorded the critically acclaimed Sound of White Noise with Anthrax, followed by Stomp 442, Volume 8: The Threat is Real, We’ve Come For You All, and The Greater of Two Evils.
To make an arduously long and complex story short, Bush left Anthrax twice: in 2005 and then 2010, mostly due to the band’s desire to reunite with Belladonna. Bad feelings increased between Bush and some members in Anthrax over business dealings that were made public on social media in 2015.
Despite the animosity that ensued, Bush said he has attempted to mend fences with the members of Anthrax: he is now on good terms with Scott Ian and his wife, Pearl, and have friends in common, including Joey Vera and his wife, Tracy, who is the Chief Financial Officer and General Manager at Metal Blade Records.
“I actually did call Charlie for the first time a couple of weeks ago,” Bush said. “I haven’t heard back from him. I wanted to extend an olive branch because I don’t want any weirdness between us. I have interacted with Frank Bello a couple of times by email. I thought he was going to come to the Armored Saint show in New York, but he didn’t make it, which was okay. Maybe he had something else to do.”
Bush said he is hopeful contact will be made.
“Sometimes time has to go by for people to be okay with each other, and I think that’s the case here,” Bush stated. “There was a little dissension at the time I left and it didn’t sit well with everybody. Things have been said over the years that maybe shouldn’t have been made public. Hopefully we can all be cool again. Some people had a harder time with it than others. Whatever, it is what it is. I’ve always been proud of the music I made with Anthrax. We wrote some killer songs. It’s part of my life. It’s there.”
THE RETURN OF THE SAINTS
Back up a bit to 1999: Anthrax was briefly on hiatus and Bush and Vera decided to resurrect Armored Saint. The result was Revelation, and the band did small tours with Dio and the Lynch Mob. After releasing Nod to the Old School, Armored Saint went into hibernation again while Bush fulfilled his duties in Anthrax. After Bush left the band for good and resurrected Armored Saint, the band released La Raza, followed by Win Hands Down in 2015. (Carpe Noctum, which was recorded at the band’s 2015 Wacken festival set, as well as their headlining show in Aschaffenburg, Germany, is expected to be available worldwide February 24, 2017.)
Win Hands Down showed a different direction for the band, with critics labeling it between the realms of Alternative Metal and Groove Metal. Bush, however, maintained the band has always been what it set out to be: a hard rock, bluesy Heavy Metal band.
“Armored Saint is a band that is constantly showing progress and growth,” Bush said. “As much as we always stay true to the roots of what we are, we always feel that we have to push ourselves as writers and musicians. I feel like sometimes a band records what they think the audience wants, not what the band wants. I don’t ever want to do that. And that is not to say we don’t stay true to what we are, but it also doesn’t mean we can’t show how we’ve grown and progressed. That’s essential. If you have followed along from our first album to our most recent, you’ll find that we are the same band…just better.”
Bush attributed the success of Armored Saint to the members knowing their roles in the band.
“I think that’s critical as far as musicians go,” Bush stated. “I’m a big sports fan – it’s the same with a sports team. The New England Patriots are a great example. Not everyone is a Tom Brady, but everyone has a critical role to make that team great. In bands, when those roles become undefined, that’s where you’re going to have conflict. In Armored Saint, everyone accepts their roles. That’s not to say that anyone’s role is less important than else’s. We just know what makes the machine known as Armored Saint work.”
Armored Saint has also been blessed with loyal fans that have stayed with the band since the beginning. Bush knows that the band’s loyal fans are quite older at this point in the band’s career, but said new ones are constantly being made and that the music is still being appreciated by all ages.
“We just completed a tour with Queensryche for four weeks,” Bush said. “There are a lot of people who have never seen us before in their lives! We met a lot of them. It was cool to have conversations with people and to feel the love they had for the ‘Saint. So many were apologetic, saying ‘Oh, I’m so sorry! We never knew you guys existed before seeing you!’ And I was like, ‘You don’t have to feel bad about it! That’s a good thing! New fans are awesome!’”
And Bush equally holds love for Armored Saint’s diehard fans.
“We are grateful to them,” Bush stated sincerely. “They feel this band, they take us to heart. We saw people who were fans of us in the early days bringing their own kids! That was pretty exciting and cool, that they were passing the torch to them.”
THE LONG AND SHORT OF IT
Bush said that he is grateful that Armored Saint is still able to say that the band is associated with a record label. He gave props to Brian Slagel, the founder and CEO of Metal Blade Records, who has always supported Armored Saints’ efforts.
“This is a guy who has been around for decades, and he still wants to make records with us,” Bush marveled. “Trust me; this is not a financial windfall for Brian Slagel to make an Armored Saint record. It’s not like he’s going to buy a new house in Miami Beach. He is doing it for the labor of love, for the love of the music. We’re honored in regards to that. We’re lucky, and we’re super fortunate.”
Longevity, to Bush, is the key word he goes by.
“In the 1980’s, everybody thought they were going to be the next Metallica,” he said. “The reality is, there’s only one Metallica. The one thing I realized that I do want is a long career. If I haven’t always had a financially successful career, at least I was always able to make music and connect with people. I think that’s the important thing, and it humbled me.”
Since he already openly admitted that goal setting is the last thing on his mind, Bush hesitated when asked what the future for him – and Armored Saint – holds.
“Life has given me some killer opportunities,” he reiterated. “I’ve been in two great bands that made great music. Music has been this awesome part of my life. I’ve never truly had that much success with it, certainly not financially. And yet I trudge on. As far as Armored Saint goes, we’ll just keep going, try to see what the future holds. I’m not sure, to be honest. We’ll just do our best and go from there.”