After a couple of albums that didnt’t do that much to me, “Win Hands Down” was a fine return to form from Armored Saint, one of the real veterans of the Los Angeles-scene. As I didn’t get a chance to speak with the band back then, I grabbed the opportunity with both hands when the band’s record label, Metal Blade offered me the chance to chat with bass player Joey Vera. What are his feelings about the previous album “Win Hands Down” about five years after it was released?
– I think it was really great, and I am proud of the record. It’s a good representation of the band and like all of our records, it stands on its own and is a snapshot in time about where we were musically and everything. I love the way the record came out. It sounds great, and the songs and the performances are great too. We have kind of been touring for it for the past five years, and got a chance to play a lot of the songs live. It’s been a lot of fun.
Did you approach the new album, “Punching The Sky” differently?
– Not really, we kind of do the same things when we start writing and we really just let things come naturally. You know, it starts with a couple of songs and normally it just evolves and snowballs into a record. And we don’t really think about it too much, and we don’t really talk about it too much either. You know, we don’t have conversations like: What direction should we go in? What kind of songs should we write? We don’t really do that. The writing just started and it snowballed and I think the first couple of songs we wrote were “Bark, No Bite”, “Standing On The Shoulders Of Giants” and Missile The Gun” and so that kind of set up what was gonna come after that.
There is no title track on the album, but the title, “Punching The Sky” is part of the chorus in the opening track “Standing On The Shoulders Of Giants”. Why did you name the album “Punching The Sky”?
– Well, we talked around ideas and you know, we were gonna call it “Standing On The Shoulders Of Giants”, but we already did that on “Win Hands Down” where the first track was the title of the record. We didn’t want to repeat ourselves in that way. And I like the idea of taking a lyric and using that as a title. That particular line really just kept standing out to me, and so I just brought it up to John (Bush) one day and I said: You know, what about “Punching The Sky?” It’s very visual, it conjures up some really cool visual things on you, when you read that, or when you see it. It could take on a lot of different meanings. It also sounded appealing to me because it could be used as some kind of allegory in a lot of different ways. For me personally, it kind of represents the band as a whole and what our goals are and what our intentions are. We’ve always been a band that wanted to grow and evolve and take chances musically and become better songwriters, better people, better fathers and husbands and whatever. And so, “Punching The Sky” kind of represents pushing through boundaries, getting beyond what is in front of us, including the sky. You know, they say the sky’s the limit. But we’re sort of saying beyond the sky, there is no limit. So that’s how I was perceiving it. I thought that it had some connection to us in that way. So that’s why I felt like it was a good title. I mean, I like to have things that have some meanings. I don’t like to just throw something out there with no meaning at all. I like to leave some things open for interpretation too. And John writes lyrics like that. I think that it’s good to have some connection with titles and titles of records and things like that.
With the internet, the first song that you hear from an album is very important. Joey seems happy over the fact that I find “End Of The Attention Span” a very good choice as the first single. It’s very catchy, energetic and it sounds like Armored Saint.
– That’a nice compliment. I am glad it sounds like Armored Saint. It took us a long time to come to this place where we have people that say that to us, you know, that our band has our own sound. And we’re, glad for that. Obviously, we always wanted to have our own sound and we’ve been trying to do that for a long time. So it’s nice to hear that, that we have accomplished that. “End Of The Attention Span” has a little bit of everything and it represents us as a band. It also is kind of a broad introduction to the rest of the record even though I find the record to have a lot of diversity.
How difficult is it for a band like Armored Saint to get new fans these days? The old fans, myself included, will always check out and probably even buy the albums, but do you feel that you, with the later releases, have managed to reach out to a new audience as well?
– Well, I think in some way we are and I don’t really know how that happens. I mean, we certainly don’t work in a in a normal way. Some bands put out records more frequently than we do and they tour more frequently than we do. So we do have our own timeframe, make records every five years and we don’t go on long tours and things like that. But I think the fact that we’ve been kind of consistent since about 2010, putting records out every five years and doing touring and stuff, has helped. Over the course of that time, you pick up younger people because they have heard of you or they’ve seen us on tour with another band like Queensrÿche or Saxon or something. Maybe they’ve heard our name, but they don’t know what we sound like. I’m aware that the majority of our fans are older, and I think that some of those people are now parents which perhaps brought us to their kids.
What is the motivation to do yet another album about five years after the last one? Is it to see the result of your own creativity? Is it to please the fans, or perhaps to be able to tour and do concerts?
– Well, you know, I think we kind of just do it for ourselves. We got to a point where we felt like we were exhausted. We were playing out a lot for “Win Hands Down”, and we never were a band that did any writing while we were on tour. So, we just took some a little bit of time off, and I think that I maybe wrote a couple of riffs for no particular reason. And then I said to John: Hey, I have a couple of riffs. I think I’m gonna finish them and see how you feel. So I d sent him some demos and then as usual, we started working pretty quickly, and from there we just decided let’s keep going. So again, it wasn’t like we were on some kind of schedule, we didn’t have to make a record. We just truly felt like writing music again. John and I have a really good writing relationship. And it’s fun too. It’s very enjoyable for us. So once it got to that place, it was like: Okay, let’s keep going. This is going great. Let’s keep going, keep going. And it lasted a long time. I mean, we don’t write very quickly, and it took us about 18 months or something to finish writing the record, but the process of it is really satisfying. So I guess the short answer is that we do it for ourselves first. And then hopefully, the fans come along with us and are willing to wait and appreciate it when it comes out.
According to the press release, the goal was to write really good music. Nothing new there really, but how do you sense that your music is good? Do you have an inbuilt quality control?
– Yeah, I think between John and I, we both bounce stuff off each other. I think our main goal is to just make things and write things that really make us both kind of look at each other and go: Wow, that’s cool, that’s a little different, that feels epic or what a great chorus. That’s the thing that sort of is the gauge for us. And it’s not to say that every single thing we write has that, but most of it does. So at least for us, that’s the gauge, that’s the sort of quality control that we look for.
Joey says he is usually quite surprised at how a song turns out when John’s lyrics are in place.
– .As you know, John writes almost 100% of the lyrics. Sometimes some of us contribute small things. Phil contributed a lyric for instance. When John and I work together, pretty frequently I’ll go through them with him and just make suggestions along the way about how to say something, but John is the one who comes up with the premises, the story, the line and the execution of it. And, you know, it’s like when I’m writing the music, I can hear his voice in my head. So it’s almost like a lot of it is kind of expected when I hear it, but there’s been a lot of times where he will come up with things that are totally unexpected and even better than what I imagined. I very rarely give him a starting point. He always comes up with his own starting point. And sometimes he’s not 100% clear what he wants to do, but he has some ideas and I help him get there with that.
Do you sometimes miss the old ways of writing songs when you were in the same room altogether? Or are you okay with sending files back and forth and working that way?
– I’m okay with the way that we do it now. It’s fine. I find it more efficient, and I find that I am able to focus better. You know, there’s something special about getting together in a room. And I would say that there’s a small aspect of that, that I do miss. Sometimes things are born out of jams and spontaneity. It would be stupid to not recognize that, of course. When you’re alone, it’s just different. It’s not really better or worse, it’s just different. However, I work better and I work more efficiently myself when I’m alone. That’s just me though. But, you know, collaborating live in front of another person, also has its merits and its benefits. It’s just that I prefer to do that in smaller doses and I prefer to work alone in larger doses.
You have produced “Punching The Sky” yourself, what exactly does a producer do these days?
– Haha! Good question! There’s this organizational and the administrative part of it. That means spending the money. I have to take care of the budget and I need to know exactly who’s getting paid. I have to set up everything, find the studios and find the people to work with. Then there’s booking the preferred rehearsal rooms or the production rooms, and I also have to hire the person who’s mastering. There are other logistics too, handling budgets for supplies, like strings, drum sticks, drum heads, whatever. And then I also have to manage the account money which comes in from the record label. There’s a lot of boring stuff that goes along with being the producer, but the fun part of producing for me, is having a vision and something in my head about how I want the end result to sound. I’m the one that basically makes decisions along the way. This guitar part should sound like that. The drums should sound like that and the vocal should sound like this. Let’s double the vocals here. Let’s make background vocals here. It’s like a painter who is making decisions, first blending the colors he wants to use on his painting, and then he’s making decisions on which colors go where. So that’s, the kind of way I can visualize the explanation. I am also making decisions on the songwriting and on what songs go on the record and, and what the sequence of the record is. Everything aesthetically involved with what you hear as the end result of the record, is basically made by the decision making of the producer.
You are still four out of the five members that performed on the very first EP, how important has that been when it comes to keeping the band alive through all these years?
– Well, it’s been important for us. We take pride in the fact that we have all the original members in the band and that includes Jeff. He was here even when Dave was here, in the last couple years of his life, so that sort of thing is important for us. We think that it helps our integrity and how people perceive us as a band. It’s not like, John bush and four other guys, you know. This is Armored Saint, we’re a collective unit. Some of us have known each other since we were seven – eight years old. So we have such a long history and that connection is something that we try to maintain. The thing that’s mattered most for us, has been the music. Each one of us has a part in presenting that music. So we feel like, if you bring different players in, different people, suddenly you, you have different personalities. Then it’s a different thing. A completely different interpretation of what it was. So, that’s been important for us to maintain for those reasons.
Speaking about Dave Pritchard, it’s 30 years since he passed away. How does Joey remember him?
– Well, you know, he was pretty multi faceted. In general, he was always a really fun loving guy who was really fun to be around. A total jokester, he liked to pull pranks pranks on people, and he had a great sense of humor. He loved to party, loved to have a good time. And he will always be remembered for that. But he was also a very creative guy. He was great at playing guitar and he could also play piano. And he was also a great artist, he was really good at drawing. And so, you know, all around just a really cool and creative person. Like I said, just really fun to be around. In general, he’s still part of our psyche, he was a big part of what our sound was like back in the day on our first three records. He was a big part of that sound, he plays a lot of guitar on those records, and a lot of the ways that he played riffs was his own thing and his style. Dave has had a stamp on our sound that I never want to let go of. Now look, I don’t want to just rewrite our whole history, you know, just over and over again. It’s very important for us to feel like we’re progressing and trying new things, but at the same time, I never want to lose sight of a little bit of that Dave’s presence. When I wrote the song “Never You Fret”, and was finished with those first couple of riffs. I said to myself, Oh shit, this feels like a Dave Prichard thing. I held on to that inspiration while we finished the song. So, that’s just an example of how Dave is always there.
You have said that at this point in your career, you feel a sense of freedom. Does this mean that you feel that you can do whatever you want and still release it as Armored Saint?
– I don’t think we can do whatever we want. I mean, I do think I’m well aware that there is a small amount of expectation from fans. But I don’t want to be bound by those expectations, as little or as big as they may seem. I need to have a sense that we can push the boundaries and try things and experiment with different influences we have and things that we want to do as songwriters. Take some chances here and there. I was describing this a little bit earlier when I spoke about how we got to a place where we felt like we were creating our own sound and feel like we didn’t have to really look over our shoulders at what else was happening around us. And this is what I mean, when I say this comfort zone is where we realized we’ve always been making our own music all along since day one. It just took us a while to realize that. Now I feel like we’re in this place where we’ve found the thing we should do. This is Armored Saint, and we can we can take chances, we can try things within reason. We’ve always had affinities for like say bluesy, hard rock. So we can explore that even more. We’ve always been influenced by rhythm and blues and things like that, even things that are slightly funky. So yeah, we feel comfortable exploring that further, even more so than we did on the last album. So this is what I mean when I talk about this comfort zone. I don’t feel like I’m in danger of ruining something. Because I think I’m pretty aware of what our parameters are, what range we can work within without pissing people off or turning people off. I’m also aware of the fact that you’re never going to please everybody all the time. So that should not be a concern or should not be a driving concern anyway, so I shouldn’t worry about that. We have to feel like we’re making honest music that comes from the heart.
I really love the song “Missile To Gun” from the new album. It’s a pretty much straightforward, heavy metal track.
– Again, that I don’t know where that came from, but after I wrote it, I heard that it had an old school thing about it. It actually reminds me of a band coming out of the New Wave Of British Heavy Metal. I mean, it kind of goes back to that feeling of early British heavy metal. It’s really up tempo with a great, great guitar riff, really simple driving stuff. I think it came out great.
As always, I’m also impressed by John’s voice. He still sounds incredibly good, and must be putting in a lot of work to take care of his voice.
– Yeah, he’s been doing that for quite some time now. I’d say at least for the last 10 to 15 years, he finally realized that he was getting older and that he, couldn’t just jump out of bed and start singing like he used to when he was younger. So he really has a very strict regime when he’s touring or when he’s recording or writing music, which means he’s very strict about what he does, and he has this whole ritual that he goes through. He gets out of bed and the first thing he does, is a warm up. And then he has, you know, his breakfast or whatever. And, you know, he takes time off and changes his diet. Sometimes when he’s on the road, he doesn’t drink coffee and he won’t eat dinner past eight o’clock at night, all kinds of things. He warms up for a good 30 minutes before we even hit the stage, sometimes longer. All of those things really have made an impact on the way his voice sounds. I think on the last two records, he sounded better than he’s ever sounded his whole career.
Let’s speak a little about the COVID-19 situation. You have done a couple of things, first you did a re-recording of the song “Isolation”, and you’re also doing a record release show that can be watched online. Do you think this whole thing will leave permanent marks on the metal scene?
– Well, I hope not. Hopefully it will just be a memory, and we can look back in the future: Remember that year 2020? Oh my god, what a nightmare! I hope it doesn’t have any lasting effect, for the sake of, working musicians and working technicians, people that are in the industry, but also for fans. And, I mean, I’m a fan of music too, I can’t go see any bands anymore. That sucks, it’s such a big part of all of our lives. It would be a travesty if it was permanent. I don’t think it’s going to be though. Yes, I think it’s going to take some time getting the psychological confidence back. So being in the same room with 600 people with 1500 people or with 15,000 people, it’s gonna take some time probably to gain that confidence back. But I’m really hoping that it turns around and you know, in the meantime, these virtual gigs are the only thing that artists and bands can do right now. So we’re embracing it. The record release show is going to be bizarre little weird happening, playing in a club with an empty venue It’s streaming on October 10. And it’s streaming all the way until November 8. So you can watch it on demand anytime you want for a whole month, and, it’s only 10 bucks to get in. We’re playing a full set with four brand, new songs from “Punching The Sky”. We intend to just go out there and rock out like normal. We also plan on answering questions at the end of the show. People are going to submit questions on our Facebook page, and then we’re going to take some time and answer a bunch of questions and it’s just a way for us to connect with them. We can’t go on tour. We can’t even play a local show, so we feel the need to reach out and have a connection. Also, our record’s coming out and we want to have a party.
Speaking about live stuff. There was this live album released a couple of years ago called “Carpe Noctum” Do you feel it was an appropriate live document from a band like Armored Saint? A live album from a band with your catalogue should at least be a double album and certainly not contain just eight songs?
– Well, you can be right about that. You know, I guess we need to do a double live album, something in the vein of UFO’s “Strangers In The Night”. It’s funny, because we’ve released just about every song that you would think would be on a live record, but their all on different records. There’s “Saints Will Conquer”, “Lessons Not Well Learned” and then there’s a bunch of live tracks on “Nod To The Old School” too, but I guess putting them into one package would make sense at some point yeah.
Joey is having a bit of a hard time naming his three favorite Armored Saint albums.
– My favorite three? That’s tough! Well, “Win Hands Down” for sure. I am gonna go with go the recent ones, so “La Raza” and “Symbol Of Salvation”.
“Symbol Of Salvation” needs to be there. That’s album is so timeless. You can listen to it and it’s still as good as it was when it was released. It’s like it almost hasn’t aged. I think that’s an all time classic.
– Yeah, that one has a special place for all of us. The album was a turning point for us. It was also a kind of rising from the ashes, as that’s where we were at that point, both as people and as a band. So that record, certainly had, and still has a lot of emotional meaning for all of us that will never go away. So yeah, that’s why that one stands out for sure.
It seems like you also had a very, fruitful period at the time because you did some demos with lots of great tracks that didn’t make the album too.
– Yeah, it was a long writing process, before Dave passed away. I think we had written 24 songs or something. And, you know, it was just a very productive time period, and also, I think, speaking about where we were musically, where we are musically now, it was an important thing for us to be dropped from Chrysalis. I guess in hindsight, to be able to write all those songs, it kind of forced us to experiment a little bit. Some things didn’t work, but some things did work well and, and we were able to grab onto some things that I think we still carry with us till this day. So it was a it was an important learning period for us.
Metal Blade is the label associated with Armored Saint, because you started there and you’re on Metal Blade again now, but how were the years on Chrysalis?
– Yeah, we started with Metal Blade, and then spent the following three or four years with Chrysalis. And you know, it was a lot of fun obviously, because we got to make three records with different producers in big studios. We also got to do a lot of touring, but at the same time, it was challenging for us because we were very young. When we got signed, we were all 20-21 years old. “March Of The Saint” came out and we didn’t know anything about the music business. The first year was probably a big slap in the face. It’s all fun and games, but It’s also business, you know. And suddenly we felt ourselves starting to lose a little bit of control of our career. You have managers and you have the record label asking you to do things that maybe we didn’t agree with, and suddenly, we felt like; Oh, this record label thinks we’re something else. They wanted us to be a little bit more of of a commercial rock or metal band. We explained that we loved the first Def Leppard record, but we weren’t gonna go the way of “Pyromania”. And because we were an American signing, we suddenly felt ourselves feeling a little bit trapped. The label would never pay for us to tour Europe. They always said that it was too expensive and it wouldn’t be worth it. We told them that our biggest influences were from Europe, and we needed to go there and play. The label kept us from going there for four or five years. That was a really big mistake. And we were really pissed at them for doing that. So, a lot of good things came out of being on the major label, but also a lot of bad things. A lot of mistakes were made, and there were a lot of things that we would change if we’re given the chance again. But we were young, and we didn’t understand that we probably could have taken more control of our own career at the time. And those are just lessons that you learn.
So you don’t regret anything?
– It’s kind of a hard thing to say those things are regrets, because sometimes you need to go through those things in order to become better on the other side. You need to learn, you need to fall down, you need to know how to get up. You’re stronger, and you’re better when you come out. So it’s hard to say I regret them. It’s hard to say I would change things as well. Because then I’d make some other mistakes. I mean, who goes through life without making mistakes? Nobody. So, you know, those are things that sometimes you need to go through, and maybe part of it was luck? Bad luck, if you want to call it that.
You have played in different bands with lots of great musicians and also acted as a producer, you have a pretty unique competence and knowledge that can perhaps be used also when you retire as active musician?
– I never really considered seriously retiring. I mean, there’s many days where I feel like: What am I doing this for? But no, I’ve never really thought of that. I mean, I just I really enjoy what I do, and I enjoy the people I choose to work with. I don’t work with everyone. I make choices, and I like to work with people that I can call friends and people that I have something in common with. I wouldn’t like to do it in a way where it was only work, where I had to work with somebody just because they hired me for my knowledge or something. I really have to have more of a connection than that. And that’s one of the reasons why I never really became a hired, sought after producer or engineer, because then I would find myself in a situation where I’m just taking work because I need to work. And I’ve been lucky enough to be in a lot of different bands and different situations where I never had to do that. So that’s one of the reasons why I never went down that route.