With the release of Carpe Noctum and a string of European dates in tow, Armored Saint are well and truly back again. Guinness in hand, Mark Freebase sat down for a chat with vocalist John Bush in the homely surroundings of Belfast’s Limelight Bar.
Interview by Mark Freebase
MM: So John, the last time you were here in Ireland was 2006 I believe, is there anything that has made this trip memorable for you so far?
JB: Actually, an interesting thing happened on stage last night in Dublin. A piece of my inner ear system came off, and about six songs in I was concerned that this would go inside my head! I was pretty worried. I stopped the show in-between a song and said look, I don’t want this thing to go deep inside my ear. A couple of people tried to get it out – it must have looked comical. There was no success and we had to resort to tweezers… thankfully someone kindly acquired a pair for me. One of the guys in the support act pulled it out for me. It was big! I thought it was a small piece, but we were shocked. I was worried, and had he not been able to get it out I would have ended up in the hospital. The ear monitor has been super glued now, hopefully it won’t happen again. So that is a memorable point, but for a different reason obviously.
MM: The last UK show was in London, only last June…
JB: Yes, we were on our way to play the Barcelona Metal Fest, and it made sense to play a show if we were coming by. One of my good friends Malcolm Dome reviewed the gig and picked up on comment I made from the stage [laughs]. I commented that the gig was a rehearsal ready for the Fest, and I meant that in the most endearing way seriously, not that the show didn’t matter, and so I was like “Malcolm… come on!” Any way it was a great show, a fun show, and then it was onto Spain, where coincidentally we have never played before in the history of the band. The last few times we have played London and we have had people saying “why are you always playing London?” so this time we said let’s not play London on this tour! That is why we have not included the city this time round. Last night we played Manchester, which we have never played before. Birmingham also we have never played, Dublin which we have never played. You get the feel? It’s exciting to reach out to those places you have never been to. The fact that Armored Saint has never played some of these places before is just stupid; it doesn’t make sense.
MM: Would you agree that the band is spreading itself now, and playing more varied places as opposed to back in the day?
JB: Well look, the first time Armored Saint ever came to Britain was Symbol of Salvation in 1991 at the Marquee. Our first record came out in 1983, so for it to take eight years is bad. It should never have come to that. I mean we were actually tailor made for the British audience, but we want to explore other places, yes.
MM: With the new live album out now, how did that come about? Was it your choice? Or Metal Blade’s choice?
JB: We had these recordings of a couple of shows we did, and they sounded great. We felt we wanted to do something for this current campaign, and also help fund the Queensryche tour that we did (through Pledge Music) and a live record was something we wanted to give back to the fans. So we mixed the songs a little and it sounded great, and then we gave it to the people who had helped pledge and fund that Queensryche tour of America last November/December. Several months later we thought the rest of our fans also deserved to get access to it, so a Metal Blade release was arranged. Metal Blade are very supportive of us, and live records don’t seem to be done very often these days. That’s a bummer for me personally as I love live records. I mean Maiden Japan and Unleashed in the East, Live Bootleg – Aerosmith and y’know… Double Live Gonzo, and I could go on and on about the live records that had an impact on us as a band. Kiss Alive! Strangers In The Night, so live records are awesome! Record sales are hurting at the moment, and I guess live records are doing worse, but it was fun to do, we wanted to get it out. I think it’s kind of hip to make a live record again, and it does sound awesome. It also helps transition from one album to another; I’m not going to lie about that.
MM: So Carpe Noctum meaning cease the night… is it a play on In an Instant?
JB: A little bit. I love that term cease the day, and In an Instant includes that yes; Joey had ideas and suggested cease the night, and straightaway I was like hell yeah! I have always felt like it was about the moment you are in, we get caught up in goals and the future of life, but hey I’m here… right now! Let’s enjoy this moment in time, hence Carpe Diem. For me it’s important to live in the moment, and I think that in society a lot of the time people forget that. Originally we were going to title the album with something in German, as the shows were recorded in Germany, but we weren’t happy with what we were coming up with, and Joey said how about something in Latin? When you think of things too much, that’s when shit goes wrong; I really like using organic ideas.
MM: Choosing the set listing, or running tracks for the record, was that a tough choice?
JB: It was two shows. One was Wacken Open Air, where we did like nine songs I think, or maybe even eight. The other was a club headline show where we played longer. We did have to find the right songs [laughs] where we didn’t hit to many sour notes, we did fix a couple of things, I’m not going to lie, not too much, but we did want it to sound good. It makes sense to be able to say “I’m happy about that” and not “Oooooo man that sounds terrible”. We wanted to try and get the songs that sounded the best, even if it wasn’t a predictable choice. Something unusual is cool. It was important that we didn’t repeat Saints Will Conquer. There are a couple of old school classics there, but a lot of new songs. Strong songs. There have been a few disgruntled comments that the record is not long enough, but unfortunately a double live album is not how it worked out. At least I can say this live record sounds great.
MM: Sitting at home, and listening to an album, note perfect, and then going out taking in that live gig experience, where sometimes things might not be as precise as some would imagine… where is your line between professionalism and fun John?
JB: Look, it’s a live show. If an artist plays a bum note, I don’t give a fuck. At this point in time I actually embrace live mistakes. I personally think that there are a lot of bands who are too perfect; there is also a lot of stuff on backing tape etc. Armored Saint are like a glorified garage band, and in all honesty what you see live is us. As long as there is not a train wreck up on stage, that live environment needs feeling and emotion. I don’t mind the honest approach, sour notes will occasionally happen, fluctuation in time… hey, whatever, it is live! After all it is rock ‘n’ roll and I like that. Zeppelin made a lot of mistakes [laughs] and yet they were still amazing. I want it to sound raw, and live and gritty, not mistake after mistake, but for tonight’s show to be different from last night’s show or tomorrows to be different still keeps it fresh. It shouldn’t feel like push play and go.
MM: So do you change the set-list much then?
JB: We change it a lot. There is a core set of songs that we use each time, but for example on the Queensryche tour, we were the support act, so we got to play on average nine or ten songs a night, but on that tour we ended up playing twenty one different songs! Now I think that is pretty awesome. Armored Saint has a great back catalogue of songs we can pick from, and sometimes when you bring back a song that hasn’t been played for a long while, it sounds real fresh. This is not a Broadway play; we are a fuckin’ rock band, a club band also. I mean I get it if you are an arena band, and there is a light set, and things need to be cued etc., but in the clubs, there is no reason why you can’t play a bunch of different songs. I don’t want it to be predicable and play the same songs and people go “yeah, same set…” I hate that.
MM: Your vocals now… you are an older guy these days John… how are you keeping them strong? Do you find yourself preparing or training in any way to be able to sustain the performance?
JB: Ha ha… well, I got to lay off that [points to the pint of Guinness], I have to get some sleep, I have to be able to hear myself – that’s why I finally started using inner ears after all these years. Last night was awesome as I could hear myself so well, and it’s less strain. I would say the majority of my career I have actually struggled to hear myself. My voice has changed, I am older and it has gotten deeper, but I do think I’m singing pretty well – I do not try to do things that I’m not capable of! I’m pleased to say that I feel my voice seems richer and warmer than it ever did before. I’m not sure what I will be able to do in ten years… I don’t know if I will be able to pull off Reign of Fire in five years… it is hard now [laughs]. I would like to think that when the time comes and I can’t do it, I don’t. I love singing, and I want to do it well, if it’s a great show and I sound like crap I would be real sad. I’m meticulous about how I need to take care of my body these days, yes I still want to have fun, but I know I have to look after myself now; and by doing so I think I sing better.
MM: So how different is touring now than it was in the 80s?
JB: The alcohol and extracurricular activities have been erased or eliminated now, for the most part. I have to take ant-acids etc.… But it’s the camaraderie of Armored Saint that is at a maturity, which makes it better than it’s ever been before. We are older, wiser, and we respect each other’s space so much better these days. There are no egos, and we seem to just get on with it. Less pressure and stress keeps our energy intact.
MM: What’s your biggest vice these days?
JB: Coffee! I love to drink also, I love Guinness and I love wine, and whisky sours. I just don’t do it that often. My wife and I went to two shows in one week not long ago, and we had a great time, but waking up the next day and making lunch for our kids etc., it can be rough [laughs a lot]. I still like to go to shows, and I want to party, BUT within reason!
MM: What’s the worst part about being out on the road these days?
JB: Being away from my family. That is the hardest thing. Without a doubt. That is why I don’t tour that long. I can’t do it for long stretches at a time. It might annoy some of my band members but I can’t do it. It gives me a lot of stress.
MM: What’s the best thing about being on the road?
JB: Playing. Interviews with guys like you. That is why we are here.
MM: Where are your favourite places to tour
JB: For Armored Saint I want to go to places I have never been. Armored Saint has never been to South America, so it would be very cool to go there. We have never played Mexico, and three fifths of this band is Mexican. But I love Japan though. I love playing Europe. There are a lot of great places we have been already and look forward to re-visiting.
MM: To wrap things up John, sitting here today, in Belfast on 21st March 2017, how long do you see yourself carrying on?
JB: I honestly don’t know. I would like to think that when I can no longer do it anymore, at a high level, I will walk away. This is really the only career I have ever known, I do help my wife with the other business we have which is great, I clean the toilets, I take out the trash, I do those regular things, I am very humble with my life, kind of like a stay at home Dad. I do feel like sometimes bands have over stayed their welcome, and I do not intend to do that! I know it’s hard to walk away, but when you’re done… you are done.
Carpe Noctum is out now on Metal Blade Records.