ARMORED SAINT – An Exercise In Winning
Armored Saint (l-r): Phil Sandoval, Gonzo Sandoval, Jeff Duncan, John Bush and Joey Vera
By roughly January-February 2014, Joey Vera – bassist for Los Angeles, California-based metal outfit Armored Saint – had penned several riffs with no specific intention in mind. These riffs would mark the beginning of what would become seventh full-length studio album Win Hands Down, which arrived in June 2015 through longtime label Metal Blade.
“It usually comes out of the blue,” Joey Vera remarks. “I had written a couple of things, and had sent them over to John (Bush, vocals). It wasn’t necessarily that I said ‘Hey, let’s start making a record now for Armored Saint.’ It was more like we had just happened to speak in passing. He asked me if I had been writing anything lately, and I said ‘As a matter of fact, I’ve just recorded a couple of little things.’ He said ‘I’d love to hear it,’ so I sent it over to him.
“He got excited by it, so I went back and kind of fine-tuned the couple of songs. Then he said ‘I wanna write some lyrics for this,’ so then he basically did that. He came over to the house, and put down some vocals. We had one song written, and said ‘Well, this is cool. This is fun. Let’s keep going.’ Even at that point, we didn’t really say ‘Okay, let’s write a new Armored Saint record.’ It was more about just writing music together. So, we wrote a couple more, and that actually went really quickly. We had written three or four songs in the first maybe a month and a half, which for us is super-fast. It was at that point where we said… We had three to four songs kind of written and completed, and so we said ‘This is great stuff. This could be for a new Armored Saint record. What do you think about that?’ We talked about it, and decided to move forward with that in mind.
“At that point, we began writing more seriously with the intention of it being an Armored Saint record. The process is always the same. Lately, it’s been the same. I’d say in the last ten years, it’s been like this, where the music comes through me. Me being the sort of musical director for the band, for lack of a better term. What happens is I’ll make a demo tape. Not a tape… We don’t use tape anymore, but I usually make a demo of the tunes (laughs). I make pretty elaborate demos; they are complete with human sounding drum tracks, and overdubs. Some of them have 32 tracks and upwards, so some of my demos are super elaborate. They sound like finished records basically when they’re done.
“When those songs are done demoing, I send them to John. Then he takes the songs, and basically drives around in his car after taking his kids to school or what not. He comes up with the melodies and the lyrics while he’s driving – he’s jotting down notes, or whatever. When he’s ready, he comes back to my house. I have a small studio here where we make all of the music. He lays down the vocals; we spend three hours or something putting down all of the vocal tracks, and at that point the song is usually done. We sometimes make adjustments after that – we change arrangements, or add things, or take things away, or whatever – but that’s basically how the process works.”
Such comments suggest guitarists Phil Sandoval and Jeff Duncan aren’t overly involved during songwriting sessions, sessions being principally handled by the rhythmist and frontman John. “In the old days, it was different,” he remembers. “We’d all get into a room and play, like ‘Hey, I have a riff’ and then ‘Hey, I have a riff. Let’s put them together.’ Songwriting was done that way. It was a super long and laborious way of doing it, so we felt like this new way was just a much more practical and efficient way of doing it, doing it on our own. The other guys contribute stuff, but in the end, the music has to go through John and myself.
“What happens is people will send in ideas, and basically we’ll try to fit into where we are at – John and I. I think that John and I have just struck on a working relationship and a method where we get into kind of a pattern and a moment, and we just begin writing stuff. It starts to snowball. The guys will send in stuff sometimes, and sometimes it’s hard for them to fit into what we’re doing. A lot of times, the stuff they send in isn’t quite right, whether it’s the direction the band is going, or the music that’s being written, or that the style of it is slightly different.
“The only song that really came together as a group is ‘With A Full Head Of Steam’, and that was a song that was initiated from a riff that Phil Sandoval had. He had this thing that was basically a chord progression, and it came to me. Again, it was something that was interesting, but it wasn’t really in the same ballpark that John and I were writing in. So, I kind of took it all apart like an auto mechanic. I just disassembled the whole thing (laughs), and then put it into a different context where it was sort of more fitting in with the stylistics of what John and I had been writing. It basically got put together, and was rearranged. I added some extra music that I had, and then Jeff Duncan had also contributed something – there was one little section that he had written that I had stuck in there. That song ended up being a group effort, but basically via email (laughs). That’s how it came to be.”
Pearl Aday – Joey’s bandmate in rock ’n’ rollers Motor Sister, as well as featuring for the likes of namesake ensemble Pearl among others – guests on the aforementioned composition ‘With A Full Head Of Steam’. “While we were writing the whole record, John kept bringing up the idea of him singing a duet with a female singer,” Joey shares. “While we were writing though, I never really felt like any of the songs that we were coming across were a good launching pad for that kind of an idea, but when ‘With A Head Full Of Steam’ came out… I believe that was the last song we wrote, if I am not mistaken. When that song came through, John had written all of the vocal melodies and all of the words. We laid it down as a demo, and once we were listening back to it, we both agreed that that was the song that was a good venue for having a duet with someone.
“Once we agreed on that – that we were gonna get a female vocalist – Pearl was the obvious choice. She’s a friend of both of ours – John has known her for a long time, as well. She’s just close with us, and also a great singer. There are a lot of other reasons. I’ve worked with Pearl on other occasions, obviously with Motor Sister, and on her own solo thing. There’s just a good connection there. We try to have working relationships with the people that we work with, so it just seemed like a no-brainer at that point. We asked her, and she was excited (laughs). She got to sing on a metal record with John Bush.”
Press materials issued in conjunction with Win Hands Down note that ‘Dive’ was the last tune written for the nine-track affair, and not ‘With A Full Head Of Steam’. “I think ‘Dive’ was written before that,” the composer ponders. “That’s a good point. It was written right around the same time, but I believe ‘Dive’… ‘Dive’ is a weird one too though, because ‘Dive’ was something that went through several metamorphic changes. That song wasn’t really final; it was written, but it wasn’t completed until we were actually recording. What I mean by that is we had the basic structure down musically and the arrangement, but we hadn’t really finalised what the vocals were doing, and how we were going to orchestrate the ending of the song.
“The bedrock of it was always there, but we kind of left it up until studio time to finalise most of the vocal arrangements, and also the string arrangements too. That was all added at the very end, but I believe the song was… We were pretty much satisfied with the arrangement of it as far as the music went, but we weren’t quite sure what we were doing with the vocals until the very end. But yeah, you’re right. It was there, neck and neck with ‘With A Full Head Of Steam’, but I think that ‘Dive’ was put down before ‘With A Full Head Of Steam’.”
Although past cut ‘Another Day’ (from May 1991’s Symbol Of Salvation) boasted a piano, ‘Dive’ marks the first proper piano led track to be authored by Armored Saint. “Yeah, and that was another thing that John came to me with,” Joey informs. “We’ve done sort of ‘ballads’ before, but we’ve never really done anything with a piano. John had mentioned to me quite a while back actually that he had always wanted to sing on a song that was just him and piano, and so once we came up with that concept, we wanted to pursue it. I began writing a few things, and a few things that I wrote I wasn’t quite happy with. Then I came across this old part that was actually written on a guitar, and I transposed it onto piano. It was just the intro, basically – the verse sections. Once I figured that out on piano, then the rest of the song came pretty naturally after that, and all the rest of chord progressions. I wrote the rest of it on piano myself, but then the idea was like ‘Well, we don’t want to just write a piano ballad.’ It wasn’t something that we wanted to do.
“We tried to make it somewhat different, so I tried to make it a little more dark and brooding – more of a Pink Floyd thing than anything else. Once we got into that head-space, the song I thought really came together well. It’s also a nice showcase for John, singing in a different range where he doesn’t have to go up and belt it out in an upper register. In fact, I don’t think the vocals ever quite raise up to that point, but that was our intention. We wanted to keep it just a really hypnotising sort of a thing all the way through, from start to finish.”
Harbouring intentions in writing the track ‘Dive’, Armored Saint harboured intentions in writing Win Hands Down’s whole collection of tracks in fact. “Once we got to that point I said about earlier, where we had a few songs under our belt and we were discussing making an Armored Saint record, we do have these conversations – we have them all the time,” the four-stringer notes. “We talk about it. We had a long discussion before we made the last record La Raza (March 2010) as well, so we always have these discussions – him and I – about what we’re gonna do, and the state of the music. We look at our past a little bit, and we look at what our intentions are gonna be. We usually have the same conversation, and it goes something like this.
“For one thing, we never wanna repeat ourselves. We don’t want to just make part two of another record that we made and at the same time, we want to experiment more. We want to push ourselves as far as the soundscapes go, and as far as instrumentation or arrangements go. We never wanna go out and just make a record that is obligatory, you know what I mean? We never wanna feel like we’re obliged to please a group of fans let’s say, where all they wanna hear is Symbol Of Salvation over and over and over. We never wanna do that. We always have to make music that’s basically pleasing to ourselves first. Now, that’s not to say that we are willing to just completely abandon everybody. We are well aware of where we come from, and what the lineage is of our group. Once we decided on that, then that’s the conversation we continued to remind ourselves of along the way, like ‘How can we make this bigger, better and more interesting? Let’s be challenging to ourselves a little bit.’ That’s usually the conversation we have.”
In authoring compositions, Joey wished to create more music sections, and not be tied to a verse / chorus / verse / chorus / guitar solo / end of song type format. “That’s the thing with arrangements,” he begins. “You can get stuck in a habit, of writing a certain way. I’m guilty of it myself. There’s certain things that I like in terms of what happens in a song, but I always try to say to myself that the song writes itself. Sometimes a song feels like it should go with this arrangement, and then it just does. Then other times, it might feel like that, but I have to say that I always question myself, like ‘Well, could it go this way? Could I shake it up a bit and make the verse that much longer?,’ ‘Does it have to go to a guitar solo now? Can I go to a bridge instead?,’ or ‘Do we have to go to a second verse?’ Those sorts of things.
“Those are things that I’m always sort of playing with, and that’s where the challenging part comes – not just doing the same thing over and over and over again. I think an interesting arrangement is in ‘An Exercise In Debauchery’, where it goes to like a verse-verse and then a verse-chorus, and then it goes straight into a solo section. And the solo section is lengthy; it’s a guitar solo, and then a bass solo, and then another guitar solo. It’s unusual (laughs). It’s something that was really done intentionally though, and that’s an example of us trying to push it.”
Armored Saint seemingly pursued whichever musical direction they wished, to an extent. “Yeah,” the performer agrees. “I don’t mean to cut you off, but there’s a balance with everything. I think everything’s gotta have balance, so part of the other side of that balance is yeah, I wanna experiment. I wanna push boundaries, and I wanna try new things. Songwriting is a little bit of an experiment for me, challenging what I know musically – my theory, as much as I try to incorporate as much of that as I can. The other side of the balance though is I’m always keeping an eye open on, like I said, where we come from, and what people perceive us to be, and what people like about our band. It makes me look back at our past catalogue, and say ‘Well, what is it that fans really like about us?’ I try to remember, and try to hone in on certain things that I think we do well. Some things I feel like we didn’t do so well in the course of our career, but there are some things that I think that we did that were unique, that were interesting, and that people associate it with us.
“To be more specific, there’s a certain thing about our rhythm section, the way that the bass and drums play together in certain instances. That is kind of unique to the music that we write, and I think that a lot of people gravitate towards that. Particularly, there’s a rhythm section thing where the drums and bass play something a little bit funky. An example might be in the song ‘Stricken By Fate’ from March Of The Saint (October 1984), and we’ve repeated that thing through our career in various, different ways. I took that vibe, the feeling of the way that we played that thing in the rhythm section, and I put it into some of the newer songs. It appears in the song that I just mentioned – ‘An Exercise In Debauchery’ – so there’s a thing that I wanted to bring from what we’ve done in the past into the songs that we’re writing now.
“Another example maybe is the way that Dave Prichard used to play rhythm guitar. He’s sadly not here any more and his style is sometimes missed, so I wanted to bring something from Dave into the new record. In my ears anyway, it appears on the song ‘Muscle Memory’; the way that the chorus is played, that’s an unabashed nod to Dave Prichard. I wrote that part, and it reminded me of something that Dave would write. That is something specific that I brought into a song, and that’s another example of me looking back on our career and saying ‘What is it that people are really attached to or like about the way that some of our older records are?,’ and then bringing them into these new songs that we were writing.”
As Joey referenced, guitarist Dave Prichard contributed tracks to Armored Saint in the early days, prior to his untimely passing. Principally handling differing instruments, this perhaps makes a difference during the songwriting process, Joey arguably approaching songwriting from a bass perspective as opposed to a guitar perspective. “Well, there’s gotta be some difference,” he concedes. “I also play guitar. I’ve been playing guitar longer than I’ve been playing bass, believe it or not (laughs), but I’m a better bass player than a guitar player. I’m not a bad guitar player, though. I’ve been writing music for Armored Saint since day one on the guitar. I would say that Dave Prichard was a 60% songwriter and I was a 40% songwriter through the years, but when Dave passed away, then suddenly it was like ‘Okay. Well, who’s gonna make up the other 60% now?’
“So, I’m doing most of the songwriting now as explained earlier, but I do have my own idiosyncrasies that are different than the way Dave approached it. Certainly there’s something different about it, for sure. I perceive things a little more… My style’s probably a lot more sort of blues-based, 70s hard rock-based, and Dave had a little more of a classical influence than I do. When he passed away, he had been getting more and more into classical sounding things. I can’t really name anything specific, but his playing was just a lot more based on scales let’s say than mine was.”
When someone passes away like Dave – as was discussed in a March 2015 Metal Forces feature with the bass musician – one always wonders as to the musical direction of a given band had that individual lived; in this case had Dave lived, one wonders what the musical direction of Armored Saint would have been. “Yeah, and people wonder that about Randy Rhoads (late Ozzy Osbourne guitarist), and a lot of people – where would they have gone,” he adds. “It’s really hard to say, but I’d venture to say that in Dave’s case in particular, he was always someone that was always very creative. He was also an artist and he liked to draw let’s say, for instance. He was always this kind of person who was making things with his hands. I think his creativity was innate and it was very restless, because he was always ready to do something else. I think that having that in his personality would’ve taken him…
“He would’ve just blossomed more and more, and become an even better player than he was. Maybe he would’ve even studied theory, because he never really studied theory. None of us did – I didn’t study any theory until I was in my early 30s. He may have gotten into that, and that would’ve opened up more doors for him. I would think that he would’ve blossomed into some guy that was always being very creative and moving forward. I couldn’t have seen him going down the route of getting tattoos and piercings, and becoming that guy (laughs). I don’t know. Maybe I could be wrong.”
Dave Prichard sadly passed away on February 28th, 1990, although 25 years later Armored Saint is still soldiering on, as the opus Win Hands Down bears witness. Nevertheless, not all of its tracks resembled typical Armored Saint numbers in their formative versions. “One of the first songs that I wrote was ‘In An Instant’, and that song almost didn’t sound like an Armored Saint song at first,” Joey divulges. “I didn’t know what it sounded like, and sometimes that’s just for no apparent reason. I have good intentions of writing music for another solo record – sort of a more progressive rock thing – but that didn’t really fit into that. I don’t know. Like I said, there’s no real intention. Sometimes I just write things, and they come out of my head.
“For instance, the intro to ‘In An Instant’; it reminded me of something King’s X might write, and I love King’s X – I’m a huge King’s X fan. The rest of the song doesn’t sound anything like King’s X (laughs). Just the acoustic guitar part reminded me of something that Ty (Tabor, King’s X guitarist) might write or something, but I don’t know. I just write basically out of nowhere, but once the rest of the song came into play, then it was like ‘Well, that sounds like it could be an Armored Saint song.’ Once John sang on it, it was like ‘Well, this sounds like an Armored Saint song’ (laughs).”
Although the bassist has written for other ventures, what he writes will always arguably be within that Armored Saint realm to an extent, given Armored Saint is a part of who the man is. “Yeah,” he muses. “I mean, I hope so. I’ve been writing for Saint for a long time, and a lot of the popular songs were songs that I wrote. Like ‘Nervous Man’ (from November 1985’s Delirious Nomad) – I’m a co-writer on that. ‘Long Before I Die’ is a song that I wrote (from Delirious Nomad), ‘Aftermath’ is a song that I wrote (from Delirious Nomad), ‘Tainted Past’ is a song that I wrote (from Symbol Of Salvation). Those are some of the songs that I’ve written a 100% musically along the way. It’s not like it was suddenly ‘Okay, now you have to write,’ so it’s something that’s been gradual and just the way things have come out. This has been a process, this thing, me being the sole musical director.
“The transition began right when we were making Symbol Of Salvation. I was the co-producer on that record, so I was the one who oversaw the making of that record, and the performances and everything. That was sort of my introduction to it, and then once we got back together in 2000 to make Revelation (March 2000), I just put the hat back on. I’m assuming that role, and again, the songs that we’re writing are just… As I said before, I feel like they’re all experiments. They’re just investigations into different ways to write songs, and what we’re capable of, and what we do well, and capitalising on that sort of thing too.”
Albeit conducting investigations into different ways to write songs, as Joey discussed earlier, he is nevertheless aware of what Armored Saint fans perceive Armored Saint to be. “I think that it varies,” he judges. “To break it down into a subgroup, some are larger than others, but I would say that for the most part – and I’m speaking in sort of general terms – most of the fans wanna hear a great guitar riff, and they wanna hear a good, funky rhythm section. I think that’s something that they are familiar with, and then mostly they wanna hear the great melodies. They like singing, and they love John Bush’s voice. They love the way that he writes lyrics and the way that he delivers them, and the melodies. Just in general, I think they like the songs that we’ve written.
“I think the people that have stuck with us for 30 years-plus have been the people who appreciate the fact that we kind of are a band in our own island. We’re not really a thrash band, we’re not really a hair metal band, we’re not really a power metal band. We don’t really fit into one category; we’re just a band that has sort of done our own thing throughout the years. Not to say that we haven’t written a thrash song or a song that could be perceived as a ‘power metal’ song, but in general as a band – as a whole sum of our parts – we’ve kind of done our own thing, and I think that that’s what people really appreciate about our band.”
Lyrical duties for Win Hands Down naturally fell to principal lyricist John Bush. “This record, a lot of it is probably John’s most personal record,” the rhythmist feels. “A lot of the songs are not necessarily about him, but a lot of stuff on the record is very close to him, and it’s personal. He reveals a lot more about the way he feels about things, more than he’s ever done in the past. There’s a lot of different things that he’s holding really close to himself. The title track is kind of him paying homage to being young and growing up with a group of guys – being young and getting into trouble, us included. We grew up in a neighbourhood with a bunch of friends who are very close to us, and we all share this same bond together, of making music, and listening to old Saxon records, and Iron Maiden, and Judas Priest. We were coming up and were just young, playing records for each other and just being in that place where you were sharing something really cool.
“That’s something that he’s very fond of. It doesn’t really have to do with being in a band – it was more about just being with friends. There was something about being young and naive at that point that was just so special, but you don’t really realise it at the time because you’re just living it. You’re in the moment, and you’re not analysing anything – you’re just there. The song is a way for him to say about how free life can be if you can be in that place again. That’s loosely what it’s about, and so that song is personal in that sense, and a lot of it is on there.
“‘In An Instant’ is close to him, too. A lot of times, we’ve had people that have come into our lives, and then suddenly they have been taken from us. We have lost several friends over the course of the years, for different reasons. It’s just re-examining how fragile life is, so there’s a lot of it that’s very close and personal to him.”
Although nine tracks eventually surfaced on Win Hands Down’s eventual track listing, a tenth could easily have been included. “There was one song that didn’t make the record; we have a demo of it, but it didn’t make it to recording,” Joey discloses. “It was a song that just didn’t quite fit with the rest of the nine. It’s in the same ballpark, but it was too much. It’s a long song; it was another seven-minute song (laughs).
“Part of the reason why we wanted nine songs on the record was because of the total running time, more than anything. It’s 51 minutes in terms of running time, and for me that’s plenty long – it’s bordering on too long. It’s not too long, but it’s not too short either. I think it was a good running length, so that’s why we decided to not put the tenth song on there. It would’ve made the record too long and I personally don’t like the long records, so that was the reason why we wanted to keep it down to nine. It’s got a lot of music on it for nine songs, and so I thought that it was a good decision.”
And although that tenth track was eventually omitted from Win Hands Down, future Armored Saint material emerging is a distinct possibility. “We love writing together,” the songwriter enthuses. “I think that as long as we can continue that love for the writing, then it’ll be fun at the very least. That’s all that matters to us; as long as we enjoy what we’re doing.
Win Hands Down was released on May 29th, 2015 in Germany, Switzerland and Austria via Metal Blade Records. General European issue occurred on June 1st, with North American issue taking place on the 2nd.
Interview published in June 2015. All 2015 promotional photographs by Stephanie Cabral.
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