By David E. Gehlke
ARMORED SAINT released their eighth studio album, "Punching The Sky", in October 2020 and still have yet to play a show behind it. The band had a run of late December dates with BLACK LABEL SOCIETY lined up only to see them canceled for undisclosed reasons. Whether the ongoing pandemic or the post-Christmas malaise is to blame is anyone's guess, but ARMORED SAINT at least appears to be willing to do whatever it takes to play shows — the band will follow all vaccine and safety protocols in order to return to the stage.
At 58, John Bush remains the energetic, throat-of-gold frontman who was so highly thought of that METALLICA asked him to take over vocalist duties for James Hetfield during the "Ride The Lightning" album cycle. Bush ultimately declined in favor of ARMORED SAINT, whom he would front until 1992 when another "Big Four" band came calling — ANTHRAX. Bush accepted, taking on the difficult task of replacing Joey Belladonna while ANTHRAX pursued less thrash-oriented avenues. Bush would depart ANTHRAX in 2005 after four studio albums for a returning Belladonna and later performed a handful of dates in 2009 and 2010 before Belladonna rejoined again.
But ARMORED SAINT is where Bush's heart lays, even with ANTHRAX permanently attached to his name. In this interview with BLABBERMOUTH.NET, Bush talks about ARMORED SAINT's long-delayed touring plans, their classic 1991 "Symbol Of Salvation" album and his relationship with the aforementioned Belladonna.
Blabbermouth: Has it been hard to release an album and then not play any shows behind it?
John: "Without a doubt. Let's face it: We all know this — I'm not saying anything that nobody doesn't know — everything was affected by the pandemic in terms of how shows were going to happen. Were bands going to play? Are cancellations going to happen? What were you going to do with your career? All those giant questions were being asked after the situation was developing. For my life and ARMORED SAINT's life, we tried to go on, business as usual, thinking, 'This is what we're going to do. We're going to do these shows and this will be exciting and we'll embrace that. Then, we'll figure out what's happening at the beginning of January.' That's all we could really do was embrace what was happening at the time and that was these shows with BLACK LABEL."
Blabbermouth: What have you been doing since the pandemic started?
John: "I run a business with my wife. She's a casting director. She casts commercials. We actually just moved into a new location recently. That's been taking a lot of our time. We need to have this really giant garage sale that we're going to have this weekend because we've literally filled three garages up with stuff because we downsized our studios. We're like hoarders. It sucks. [Laughs] It's like, 'Oh god! We have nowhere to move.' That's my big thing to embark on this weekend — the yard sale to get rid of a lot of stuff. We're busy with that. It's our family's mom-and-pop kind of business. It's been pretty lucrative through the years. It provides for our family when rock and roll doesn't. Rock and roll, for me, sometimes is a supplement, to be honest. Luckily, SAINT, we put out the 'Symbol Of Salvation' live DVD that we recorded in '18. That was always the intention to get that out and doing that tour that we did was so fun and we enjoyed it. We played some great shows in the States and Europe and we were finally able to get the DVD and live record. Everything associated with that tour and doing 'Symbol' live in its entirety was great. That came out in October and believe it or not, Metal Blade [Records] is re-releasing the first three records that we had on Chrysalis [Records]. We worked out a deal with them to allow Metal Blade to license those albums. BMG [who owns the Chrysalis back catalog] was really nice. They basically forgave a debt that we had, which was really cool. Some bands have been trying for a long time to make that happen and we did. It's been a really big, positive thing, especially associated with those records. So we're going to re-release those records next year.
"It's funny, we had 'Punching The Sky' come out in '20, the 'Symbol' live thing in '21, then those records in 22, so we have things going on, the only thing we haven't done is perform live, but a lot of bands haven't and a lot of bands have been postponing things. There are some bands that have been touring and kudos to them, but we've been talking to our agent, Dan DeVita who works at TKO. We collectively think that that we want to do something that is good. We don't want to go out and do a tour because we're itching to play. Granted, we are. We didn't do anything for 'Punching The Sky' and it irks me, should I say. At the end of the day, we want to do something good. Money is something people are trying to figure out in terms of what money they have and what money they're going to have. A lot of people want to invest in something they believe in — a great show or a festival. We have this tour coming out next year, but I can't talk about it yet because the band we're touring with, they have to announce it. We're supporting them. Once it happens, a lot of people will go, 'That's going to be cool.'"
Blabbermouth: Back to the reissues: You've never been happy with the production for any of those releases. Has anything been done to make them sound better? Or is it just a new mastering job?
John: "It's going to be more of that. I'm not a big fan of attempting to re-do something. I feel like, for better or worse, that's how the records were made at that time. It's just my measly opinion, but I feel like when people try to re-do something, it's not the same because the vibe was the vibe at that time. You accept the undermixed, rhythm guitars like they were on 'March Of The Saint' and some of the high vocals on 'Raising Fear' that sounds like I was inhaling helium. I took the good with the bad with those things and figure that's what they were at the time. I'm really proud of those records. They're all kind of different. I think 'Delirious [Nomad]' is still under the radar except for die-hards. It's the record where we decided we were going to push ourselves. Look, I love 'March Of The Saint'. It's a great album for what it is, but it was a simple rock record. 'Delirious' is the record we said, 'We want to do more.' That was the beginning for us to say, 'We're going to push ourselves a little more than some hard rock band.' That even set the tone for something like 'Punching The Sky' a few years later."
Blabbermouth: When it comes to touring and safety protocols, are the five of you aligned?
John: "Good question. We're not always on the same page on that. That's all right. We don't have to be. Well, we do have to be, but we don't have the same philosophy. I'm vaccinated, but I don't support the mandates and people having to show their vaccination cards to go into a restaurant. I oppose that. I think we really have to move on from this and accept that this is part of our life and kind of live with it. But that being said, if you can do something to help prevent yourself from getting COVID. The last thing I want is COVID. I'm the singer, man. If my lungs are affected, it's going to be difficult. I did what I had to do, but, hey, people should do what they want. Some people are so unwilling to be vaccinated that they are canceling tours even though I don't necessarily agree with that, but I give them credit for having the balls to stick to it. Kudos to you. For us, when we were going to do the BLS dates, it was a fact that they wanted us vaccinated. That was what they expected from us as a support act, so that's what we had to do.
"I understand bands don't want to take a chance on a crew guy — no disrespect — having the tour shut down because he gets COVID or a support act and it affects the tour. That's why people are doing what they have to do. I think we're trying to do this thing to allow us to tour — let's face it: For ARMORED SAINT, band and crew, it's 10, 11 guys on a bus. You're in clubs, different places every single day, interacting with fans, shaking hands in close proximity. I guess I have to question sticking the mic out into the crowd and letting people sing along, although I want to do that. You do what you have to do to make it happen. That's when you have to have a collective decision on what's the right thing to do, even if that conflicts with people's personal beliefs. Hey, everyone should feel the way they want to and I support that. You just have to do what's right to do this thing, which is a tour with a large group of people. Otherwise, two weeks in and you're canceling dates. Some bands can do and still be able to make money. We can't. There's just no way. You can't lose shows. It's impossible or you're going to be in the red and you're screwed."
Blabbermouth: "Symbol Of Salvation" is likely your "classic" album — it's reached that stage. Are you surprised about its endurance 30 years after its release?
John: "I'm not. It was funny when we did the tour. It really became more clear that it's a great album because you're playing it from front to back. It's a pretty diverse album for the most part. We have the rockers like 'Reign Of Fire', 'Warzone', 'Tribal [Dance]', then you have songs like 'Another Day', 'Tainted Past', 'The Truth Always Hurts' that were kind of different. I love it. I think it's an important album for us. Obviously, it's the album that's so critical because it was the last record [founding guitarist] Dave [Prichard] was part of its creation even though he didn't actually play on it but for the one song because he passed on [due to leukemia in 1990]. He wrote a lot of the songs. We were writing those songs during a delicate time because we didn't know what the future held. We were dropped, he had his illness and we knew it was pretty serious.
"I've said this numerous times: In some weird way, it was liberating because we were able to write without feeling any boundaries around ourselves because we didn't have a label. The future of the band was in doubt a little bit. We just said, 'Let's just write songs.' We don't have anything that prevents us or makes us adhere to what a record company says or gets their two cents. We're on our own. We pushed ourselves and said, 'What do we believe in? What do we want to do? What're the songs we want to write?' We felt that anything was possible. Kind of continuing of the same philosophy of 'Delirious Nomad' to 'Win Hands Down' and 'Punching The Sky'. We feel like we can do anything. I think we're pretty honest with ourselves. If there's something so outside of the box, we'll bring ourselves back in, but we believe we can do anything. Probably, when most people think of ARMORED SAINT, they don't think of us being that broad of a band. But I think we are because we can do something bluesy, something thrashy, ballad-like and soulful. We keep believing we can do that. 'Symbol' was the exclamation point of that thought process. I don't even know if we knew it then when we look back on it. I think it's an important record for us, obviously. I'm glad people feel so emotionally connected to it. It's a nice reward based on the fact we wrote and made that album. We're really proud of it."
Blabbermouth: Is it bittersweet that you didn't get to enjoy the fruits of your work on "Symbol" immediately? Grunge hit, then you were off to ANTHRAX a year later.
John: 'If you ask me about these things, I am a pretty good guy of accepting the way life went. That's just the way I like to embrace life. I don't like to look back with regret or any kind of resentment or anything of that nature because why? What good is that going to do? How is that going to help my life? I'm pretty good at saying, 'That's the road we went on. That was the path.' It's easier to do that in years past. Of course, I didn't think that way when I was 20 years old, but now that I'm in my late 50s, it's easier for me to say. I can't speak for everyone, but that's how I embrace things that have happened in my career. That's the way the road went. It's a curvy, treacherous road at times and sometimes you're on a cool highway — not to get too metaphorical. [Laughs] Sometimes it's smooth, it's paved and other times it's like being in Poland in 1985 —it's all over the place. I'm okay with that. There are things I would do differently. Of course, it would have been cool Dave didn't pass on and die of leukemia. Everything would have been really different if he didn't die. Luckily, Metal Blade came in and rescued us. I owe Brian [Slagel, label owner] a huge amount of support for that. We're indebted to him forever for rescuing SAINT again. Luckily, 'Symbol' is on Metal Blade, which was meant to be and all the records after that. It would have been cool if Dave was present during that time and be part of that. Who knows how things would have been different? Of course, it's weird timing that we made this record. A year later, I left to join ANTHRAX, but that's the way it is. I was offered the job and at the time, it was 'Something I couldn't refuse,' like Marlon Brando said [Laughs]. It's just the way it was."
Blabbermouth: Has a John Bush solo album ever crossed your mind?
John: "I laugh when I think about it."
Blabbermouth: Why is that?
John: "I don't know. It's hard to say because I think of myself as 'John Bush'. A solo record is hard for me — it sounds a little funny, almost a little bit silly. I don't mean it in a bad way. I don't know how to explain it. I have ideas of things I want to do. I've talked about this in the press, so it's nothing foreign to people, but I've talked about wanting to do something where I did the songs that I made in ANTHRAX and did a tour in connection with that. I don't know exactly how that's going to happen. I want to do that; I think it will be a fun thing to do. I don't know when it will happen, on what level it will happen. I love those records and think there's some really killer material there. A lot of people have thought about me doing that. I don't know if and when that will happen. It's still undetermined, but I'm open-minded to it. Maybe somehow, someway, if not a solo record, it would be propelling me into frontman status that I think would be good for me because it would make me have to stick my neck out there. I think that's something that would be good for me to have to do that. It would be challenging. I like that idea of doing that."
Blabbermouth: Maybe that would propel you to do a solo album. You talk about how diverse ARMORED SAINT is and even in ANTHRAX, you made some fairly diverse music on "Stomp 442" and "Volume 8". A solo album could be that. It's a wide-open area for you to explore.
John: "There are things I would like to do, explore different things as a singer. I love old-school soul music and R&B. That's something that I would love to try tackling. I do when I'm home and on my own, singing in my room, singing to a lot of those particular artists that have had an impact on me. I love it. It's something I think that would be a possibility, but I don't know if people want to hear a John Bush old-school R&B album. I'm very honest with those kinds of things. I'm not going to go 'Hey, check it out. This is what I'm going to do. You guys follow along. Let's see if you guys love it.' That's not realistic, but using those influences, of course, would be really cool. I'm open to all these things now because I don't know — maybe the time is right in terms of doing something on my own. I haven't really done that. I was always lucky enough to rest on the laurels of SAINT and rest on the laurels of ANTHRAX. I never did something on my own. Maybe that's something I have to do. I have to have the balls to do it. Those balls are growing a little bigger."
Blabbermouth: The idea has been floated of ANTHRAX shows or a tour featuring you, Neil [Turbin] and Joey [Belladonna]. You look at what HELLOWEEN did recently by bringing in old members and integrating them with their current lineup and it's worked tremendously. Would the HELLOWEEN approach be an option for ANTHRAX?
John: "It's funny you say that because someone else mentioned that to me. It's a really cool thing what HELLOWEEN did and it's amazing they were able to make it happen where everyone is cool with it and everyone's egos are in check. The fans, obviously, love it. I've said this before: I would be open to something like that because it's a really cool idea. However, I really believe that it's Joey's call to make. I think Joey, he's the singer in the band. He should be the singer in ANTHRAX. It's all back to where it's supposed to be and that's Joey Belladonna being the singer of this band. If something like that happened, it would have to have his blessing and support. If he's reluctant to do that for some reason, it shouldn't happen. If he was like, 'Yeah, I want to do that.' I think it would be something that would be really cool for the fans. If he's unwilling to do that for whatever reason or reluctant, that's alright, too. He's re-established himself as the guy in ANTHRAX.
"Look, I'm proud of the records that I made and I think we made some really cool stuff and it seems to be getting more acclaim as time goes on because people are nostalgic and go, 'Hey, maybe those records are really good.' The reality is the '80s was the huge success of ANTHRAX. That was the time when they exploded and things happened. That was the time. They made a couple of records — I think they're making a new album, too. It's his baby, really, as far as being the singer. Of course, it's Charlie [Benante, drums] and Scott [Ian, guitar]'s baby, but he's the guy. He's the singer. It would be something that he would have to feel good about and want to do. If not, then maybe that's why I will go and do something and play some of those songs. The reality is that it would be a pretty short window and a small window for me to do that. It's not like I'm going to do a tour like that for five years. You go out and do it once. It's like, 'Cool!' Even if I have a great band, which I have some cool ideas for musicians to do it, it's not like I'm going to write records with those guys. It's a one-time thing for the most part. That's why I've opened my mind to do it because they don't play those songs anymore. I understand; I completely get it. Some people may be excited to hear those songs. When I've done it with the guys in METAL ALLEGIANCE, we've played 'Only' and 'Room For One More', and the crowd loves it. I think ANTHRAX is a little bit of a different band than HELLOWEEN in terms of — how do I say this? I think ANTHRAX is, for the most part, been this really current band no matter what era they're a part of. I think that's how they are now. Maybe by doing something like that might feel like it's stepping back, perhaps. I don't know; I'm speculating. I haven't really had a candid conversation with Scott about it. I've been in his company and I haven't been 'Do you want to do this?' It's not something we have discussed, so I only know what I've read myself. I've always been clear about this in the press and I really want Joey Belladonna to know that I respect him and it's his thing. People try to make this competitive thing between us, but, really, there isn't. Then, there's Neil and I'm sure he'd be, like, 'Let's do it!' But again, it really comes down to Joey."
Blabbermouth: Are you friends with Joey? You did [THE TEMPTATIONS] "Ball Of Confusion" cover over 20 years ago, but have you been around him much?
John: "I really don't know him that well. It's a very surface kind of relationship. It's funny because my wife and his wife have become friends. They met each other on the Megacruise [in 2019] and they ended up talking and having a conversation, which led them to exchange numbers and now they've become friends. They text mostly about unrelated stuff to the music business. It's pretty funny that they've become friends. They're closer than me and Joey. [Laughs] Even back in the day, it was never a feeling of friction. I remember when we did that 'Ball Of Confusion', they had a limo that took us to the studio and it never felt that way. It was a cool idea. Maybe that song didn't come out the way it could have, but I thought the process was cool having the two guys doing different vocal lines. It was cool having both of our voices on one song. It's fine. We don't have to be 'bros'. That's not important as long as there is no awkwardness. I don't want that with anyone. I really strive not to have tension in my life, but I've found confrontations over the last several years unrelated to music, although some have been related to music, but in some aspects of my life. I'm like, 'Why is this happening?' I blame myself to some degree because I'm the centerpiece. But I'm like, 'This is stuff that should be left for people in their 20s or 30s. I should be cruising.'"