Latest release: Punching the Sky (Metal Blade)Website: www.armoredsaint.com
Joey Vera was in the studio with one of his three ongoing musical projects when he learned Los Angeles was about to be shut down.
“I was in the studio with Motor Sister the day the news came,” recalls the affable bass player of that band, Fates Warning and, for the purpose of this interview, Armored Saint. “We all got the news as text on our phones from various people and said, ‘Wow, the city is actually closing down!’ So we all left the studio and this was about 10, 11 oclock at night, and went straight out to the grocery stores, and they were all packed! 11 oclock at night, and the grocery stores were all packed with people and lines to get out and all the shelves were empty. It was like, ‘Oh my god, what is going on here?’”
The apocalyptic vision of empty streets in one of America’s busiest cities was the inspiration behind the clip for Standing on the Shoulders of Giants, the second single from Armored Saint’s latest album.
“It was weird,” Vera says. “It was like that at first, when we first shut down in March. From the middle of March until April, it was really like a ghost town. LA, if you can believe that! Freeways in LA without any cars on them! I mean, there were some cars, don’t get me wrong, but nothing like it normally is. It’s almost back to normal now, unfortunately, with the traffic, but what are you gonna do?”
The week of this interview, Vera was preparing for an Armored Saint live stream performance to launch Punching The Sky. It’s their first in five years and the eighth full-length overall for the band since they first came together in 1982. Well respected by their peers on the LA metal scene, Armored Saint developed a dedicated cult following in the 1980s for their straightforward style. So revered were they, vocalist John Bush turned down an offer to join Metallica at one point. But the band was mishandled by their major label record company; bruised and battered, reeling from the death of founding guitarist Dave Prichard, Armored Saint recorded a final album – for Metal Blade – before stumbling to an end when Bush was recruited into Anthrax in 1992. That album, Symbol of Salvation, is still considered one of the best metal albums of the early 90s, with the band finally establishing an identifiable style of their own. Brian Slagel of Metal Blade lists it as one of his personal favourites.
“I think Symbol was a big turning point for us,” Vera says with some understatement. “Little did we know. We were just writing a bunch of songs that ended up on Symbol. We didn’t really make any conscious effort to really try to change our trajectory. But it’s kind of a cool thing having people tell me that, because all along, even from day one, that’s what we aspired to, having a sound of our own.”
That task was made easier by a common vision shared among a band that has contained the same five people for thirty years. Since the Symbol of Salvation sessions, Armored Saint’s membership has been exclusively Vera, Bush, guitarist Phil Sandoval and his drummer brother Gonzo, and second guitarist Jeff Duncan. Even after two break ups, the same five guys reunited each time: “It’s a marriage,” Vera says.
“That’s an important ingredient that I think we have,” the bassist continues. “We like to keep it intact, because it wouldn’t be the same if it was John Bush and four other hired guys. It wouldn’t be the same. So we take a lot of pride in that. It just adds to the overall picture, the overall vibe, of our band. It’s something we try to keep working at.”
Punching the Sky is as recognisable as Armored Saint for its diverse blend of metallic flavours as it is for the inimitable voice of Bush. 36 years after their self-titled EP release, the band obviously still has plenty in the tank and while they may not be as recognised as several of their old San Francisco scene buddies, Armored Saint is still a name that carries plenty of resonance to metal fans.
“I’m amazed that I’m still here, doing this, and still talking to people who care and want to hear about our music, 40-something years in,” Vera admits. “When we first started Armored Saint when we were 19, we wanted that! We wanted a long career, like Black Sabbath – but Black Sabbath was still in their infancy compared to where they are now! Then at some point we thought, ‘Shit, I’ll be lucky to make it alive past 30-35 years old. We might die off like Keith Moon or Bon Scott. We’re just going to go and do it.’ We want to succeed and get big, but a 40 year career? I would have laughed in your face!”
“It’s pretty amazing that we’re still able to do this,” he continues, “and there’s a lot of reasons for that. We have a great support system from our families, and from our fans who have stuck with us for so long, and we pick up new fans along the way. And we have a great record label [in Metal Blade] that has helped us so much. We have been with them the last 15 years and they kind of let us make records when we want to make them, and how we want to make them. They support what we do. It’s not like we’re a big commercial risk for them. These are the reasons we have the ability to do this for so long.”