by Ryan Meehan and Blade Mancano
Joey Vera first broke through onto the metal scene back in 1983 when his band Armored Saint released their first EP on Metal Blade. Shortly thereafter, the band was inked to a deal with industry giant Chrysalis where they released three records: March of the Saint, Delirious Nomad, and Raising Fear. For the next several years the band continued to tour and release albums until singer John Bush left to replace Joey Belladonna in Anthrax in late 1992. After a seven year hiatus, Bush and Vera reformed Armored Saint and at the turn of the century they released “Revelation”. Joey’s production and engineering skills have been in high demand in the metal community as he has worked with Seven Witches, Steel Prophet, Mother Superior, and Anthrax. The band’s last album “Win Hands Down” was released on Metal Blade in June of 2015, and we are very excited to have Joey Vera as our guest today in 10 questions.
BM: The latest Armored Saint LP is a freaking beast, and there are so many layers and interesting structures crammed in a piece of art that only lasts just under an hour. Yet one of the most surprising talents the Saint has in its arsenal is the ability to take a rock riff and throw in dual – almost neoclassical – solos and melodies, but still have the result sound catchy and non-pompous. Is that intentional, or is it a by-product of those that influenced you and this is how it manifests itself in your writing?
JV: Yeah I guess you just answered that. We are mainly influenced by blues based rock bands from the 70’s but even those bands had some neo-classical influences, bands such as Scorpions, Judas Priest and Thin Lizzy. But add that with Sabbath, UFO and Motorhead. The only intention I have when writing is to write songs that I think are good songs, and music that will serve John Bush’s voice best.
BM: John Bush sounds better than ever – and that’s no understatement – but on the newest album songs like “Muscle Memory, “Up Yours”, and a few others have very noticeable backup vocal lines. We’re used to hearing layers of John’s vocals on previous offerings, like “Chill”, or “Den of Thieves”, but the backing vocals seem to be coming more from the rest of the band. Why more of these now than on “La Raza” or “Revelation”?
JV: I guess it’s been a growing period of exploration with that. Most of the voices on WHD are me. Jeff Duncan also sings on La Raza and Revelation. It was our attempt to make these songs on WHD sound huge and epic and part of that was to come from vocal parts.
RM: Heading into the band’s first hiatus, was there any possibility whatsoever that perhaps yourself and the rest of the band were interested in auditioning lead singers when John Bush left to join Anthrax before “Sound of White Noise”? How did each band member feel about his departure at the time; and looking back on that period were there any positive ramifications that occurred as a result of Armored Saint taking a break?
JV: In my mind there was absolutely no way we were going to replace John. At that moment in time, the band had gone though a tough period, having lost Dave Prichard to Leukemia. After we regrouped and came back with Symbol of Salvation, we were pretty spent. It took a lot to get there. The record, although receiving critical acclaim, didn’t sell very well at all and this caused a lot of tension within the band. It was the right time for us to take a break (in hindsight) when John left. If he hadn’t taken the Anthrax gig, we would have imploded. I’m certain of that. He and I discussed him leaving before he decided and it was me who gave him the first blessing to do it. He’s my best friend and I could tell in his heart that he felt like it was the right thing for him to do. Strange to hear really, but I was very relieved. The other guys didn’t quite take it so well. There was some animosity that lasted several years, which we’ve completely resounded by the way. It was just a hard time we all had to go through and we did.
BM: The last four Saint albums (especially La Raza and the new LP)… are exceptionally well produced, and have managed to avoid the “wall of sound” thing where all instruments are peaking at ten. For example, the latest Queensryche album – as good as it was – the production manages to be overly thick. You produce these records, so how do you go about managing to use similar equipment and have it sound warm, but crisp with a real grasp on depth and separation of instruments?
JV: I’m am fan of that wall of sound by the way! But I think it has to be in the right moments. My main goal is dynamics. To me, that’s what makes music exciting to listen to. Don’t get me wrong, I have my Motorhead days. But when making our own music I like valleys and peaks. So within the parts I write, I try to keep in mind that space has as much impact as the power of that wall of sound. Growing up, I listened to a lot of Jazz Fusion, and those records, you can hear every instrument pretty clearly. There’s a lot going on sometimes, but you can still hear every instrument. On a technical side, when I’m recording all the different parts I try to mix up the sounds such as use a different mic or mic pre for each part, or just mess the sound up each time so that all these parts have their own little unique flavor. After that, it’s about placement in the stereo field.
RM: In 1994 after you released your solo album, you put a band together in which you played guitar and sang. You also stated that you absolutely hated that role in a live setting…What was so troubling for you when it came to being the central focus of a metal audience’s attention? Could you ever see yourself doing that again if you attacked that format with a different approach?
JV: Maybe, but I don’t have any long term goals in that area. I’m just not interested in being the “front man”. I have ideas about performing live music in some kind of setting, but not in the usual rock band setting.
BM: It’s been documented in the deluxe version of “Symbol of Salvation” that you specifically recorded many of the other members takes, giving guidance, laboring over it, and Dave Jerden came in more for the vocal takes and mixing. Is that where you feel that your talent of producing music started, or had you worked your way up from four tracking demos?
JV: Working with Dave was a great lesson in producing. Truth is that Dave got the ball rolling. After we tracked all 10 songs, he came in one day and said, “It’s not right yet, let’s do it all again”. We were floored. But we trusted him and we did it again and we got better takes. During guitar overdubs he saw that I was able to guide the guys in a very efficient way and Dave eventually got bored. So he would leave, sometimes for days and let me work with the guys. He’d come back and be blown away by the work myself and Engineer Brian Carlstrom had done. Then the same thing happened with vocals. Dave recorded about 8 songs with John, but John wasn’t happy with his performance. So, I asked Dave if I could track John and he graciously left again. I was able to push John further and we got great vocal performances. Dave saw that someone in the group had a connection between the band members and the point in time where we all wanted the music to be. He trusted me to take his ship sail it around the murky waters and get the project to a place where he could regain the voyage to take us home. He came in to mix and that’s what he did. I learned how important trust is when recording a record. I wasn’t always that guy, but I was filling a leadership void after Dave Prichard passed away. It became my mission to help these songs we had written with Prichard get realized.
RM: Other than the technological advances that have been made in the fields of recording and streaming music, what are the biggest differences between the way the industry is run now as opposed to thirty years ago when Armored Saint was first getting its start?
JV: Well speed is one big thing. Information travels much faster than it ever has. And the downside to that is: News becomes Old news very quickly. Attention spans are super short these days, more than ever. Information gets thrown at us from every angle 24 hours a day. This goes for music too. Tons of people making music. I guess everyone should get a shot, but it has become very difficult for new artists to stick out through the fray.
BM: Armored Saint are one of the minority of metal bands that have continued to mature and progress without having to “return to form” because the song writing just continues to deliver. What do you honestly feel David Prichard would have thought of the last four albums? Do you think he’d be a fan of the way the band straddles both hard rock and metal with ease?
JV: Good question. I don’t know. I mean Dave was always aware of good song writing for good songwriting’s sake. And we all went through that thing in our youth where we just wanted to write music to impress people. But towards the end of his life we gave that up. The only thing I wonder sometimes is how he would have incorporated his guitar talent into the “song”. He was on the cusp of going outside his box as a player in his last years and I know he would have became a force to be reckoned with. He was becoming concerned with how the music could be better to help showcase his guitar playing, and rightfully so. But without him we changed a bit. I am more of a blues based writer than he was so the music has taken a bit more of a nod to our upbringing than anything else. But I’ve said this before, I intentionally grabbed some elements of our past, including Dave’s influence on us, in the writing of WHD. So yes, I think he would be happy about that.
RM: Which track off of WHD was the most labor-intensive with regards to getting the takes you wanted and why? Was it equally as challenging to mix that particular track?
JV: Well first of all the record was mixed by Jay Ruston who did an excellent job of helping us realize the record. It was the first time I literally handed the record over to someone else and let them give us their interpretation. Back to the trust thing I learned from Dave Jerden. I had to practice this trust in Jay. Nothing really comes to mind as particularly hard to track. Our drummer Gonzo may have a different answer to that though! I think I may pushed him to a couple of limits a couple of times, but he rose to the occasion.
RM: How much does Armored Saint experiment with the sequence of the songs on the album after the recording and mixing is completed? Is that aspect of the process something that you feel like you have a pretty good idea about before you begin laying any of the tracks down, or do you leave that portion of the procedure to be decided as close to the end as possible?
JV: John and I record these pretty elaborate demos. So by the time we’re going into the studio we’ve literally (well, almost) already made the record. We have a pretty close idea of sequence by then. One exception was the tune “Dive”. We purposefully left the song unfinished until the very end. We wanted to leave that song like an open ended letter. We had started it but we had no idea how it would unfold. So I changed the arrangement at the very end and he wrote lyrics as we sat together recording the final vocal takes. It was a great sense of freedom.
RM: What’s up next for you in the remainder of 2016? Anything big in the works that we should know about?
JV: Yes. We will be touring in June with Metal Church on a short run of the west coast. In July we go over to Europe to play Rock Fest in Spain (our first time playing Spain), a headlining show in London and 3 festivals in Germany. Then in Oct we are playing Japan for the first time ever at the Loud Park Festival in Tokyo. Really looking forward to all of that. Also, I just finished the new Fates Warning record which is coming out in Summer so I expect I’ll be touring with Fates at some point before the end of the year.
Official Website: http://www.armoredsaint.com/
Armored Saint on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/thearmoredsaint
Armored Saint on Twitter: https://twitter.com/thearmoredsaint
Joey’s Official Website: http://joeyvera.com/
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Blade and Meehan