By Ryan Ogle
On Sunday, May 16, BLABBERMOUTH.NET conducted an interview with current ARMORED SAINT and former ANTHRAX vocalist John Bush. During the chat, Bush spoke about the passing of legendary heavy metal singer Ronnie James Dio, John's perspective on ANTHRAX's recent reunion with Joey Belladonna; and the brand new album from ARMORED SAINT. The question-and-answer session follows below.
Q: Do you mind sharing your thoughts on Ronnie James Dio?
John Bush: No, not at all. Ronnie was a huge influence on me as a singer. I did a couple of tours with him, both in ARMORED SAINT and ANTHRAX. He was just a real humble, normal kind of guy. It was weird. Joey Vera [ARMORED SAINT bassist]and I were talking about this earlier. He was somebody that could have been pompous, but he wasn't. He was sure of his ability and he was just a confident guy who probably didn't need to be anything but sincere and honest. The guy spent like 50 years making music if you go back to his do-wop band in the 1950s. When you spend a half a century making music, you leave quite a legacy behind.
Q: Was he one of your earliest influences?
John Bush: I love RAINBOW. I thought they were a great band. That was the first band of his that I really go it into. There was ELF, but they were a little before my time; a 60s band. RAINBOW was a band that I discovered and just loved them. "Rainbow Rising" was a spectacular record and so was "Long Live Rock And Roll". Both of those records were just awesome. Then he went on to join BLACK SABBATH and of course "Heaven And Hell" was a legendary record. "Mob Rules" was incredible as well. He went on to do his solo thing, which was huge in the '80s. Obviously, as far as guitar players and musicians go, he gave a lot of people a lot of exposure and made some great records. The funny thing about Ronnie and his voice is that you knew he was going deliver live. He was almost flawless. It was weird how he was so good. It was almost annoying [laughs]. I'd think, "Jesus, I wanna sing that good." He was pretty special. I heard he had cancer a month or two ago, but I didn't realize how bad it had gotten. I did an interview [Saturday night, May 15] with Diana DeVille of KNAC.COM and Diana worked for Wendy [Dio, Ronnie's wife and manager]. She told us that he was back in the hospital as of [that day]. We didn't know the severity of it and then today we heard he died. I just went, "What?" It's cool because Yahoo! put it on their front page, calling him a metal legend and I just hope he gets the recognition he deserves. He definitely gave a lot to heavy metal. A lot of people were influenced and inspired by him and he pretty much single handedly created the devil horns. He contributed a lot to heavy metal and wrote a lot of killer music. He was an incredible singer and I'm sad to see him go. It's been kind of a rough day.
Q: A friend of mine made a comment today when I mentioned interviewing you, calling you the "heavy Dio."
John Bush: I can kind of relate to Ronnie in a sense that he was a singer that kind of replaced people. Obviously, he replaced Ozzy [Osbourne] and although RAINBOW was an original band, Ritchie Blackmore played with David Coverdale and Ian Gillian; who were both awesome singers and Ronnie had to follow in their footsteps. I can kind of relate a little on that level, where you have to come into a situation and hold your own. I did follow Joey [Belladonna, ANTHRAX vocalist] at the height of ANTHRAX's popularity and that's not easy. I kind of used Ronnie for inspiration in that respect. I was just listening to "Rainbow Rising" recently because I did this thing for a web site where I picked my top 20 favorite singers. Before a tour, I don't want to sing the songs I'll be singing for the whole tour, so I practice on some of my favorite albums. "Rainbow Rising" is one of those albums I sing, or try to sing to at least. Killer record.
Q: Do you mind delving into the topic of ANTHRAX?
John Bush: I don't have any problems talking about ANTHRAX. There's some stuff to talk about there. It's funny, because I've always kept kind of a low profile on my opinions and perspective of the whole thing. I don't know, it's just the way I am, I guess. I never put out an official press release or anything like that about it. I would do interviews and be frank about what happened, but it would just happen when it did. Friends would tell me to put out a press release, but nah, that's just weird to me. The way I sum it all up is that when I came back the show in England, the tour where Dan [Nelson, former ANTHRAX vocalist] left — a situation where I still don't know all the details on. I'm sure Dan Nelson has his own perspective about things. I never got his, I just got theirs. In any case, I came in and did that show, which led to that show in Japan a couple of months later and that led to the Soundwave shows we did in Australia back in February. In all honesty, I never really envisioned myself coming back to the band permanently. As a matter of fact, we talked about that at great length numerous times and I told them why I had apprehensions. Primarily it was because I'm somewhere else in my life now. When I left ANTHRAX in 2005, I didn't want to go on the road anymore. My daughter was just about twelve months old at the time and I started for my wife and her business doing voice-overs, which has been really taking off over the last three and a half years. I've been very fortunate in that respect. During that time, I had become used to the idea of not doing music anymore; at least not for awhile. I really didn't know if I was done with music. All I really knew is that I wasn't in a band. I think it was a good time for me to figure some stuff out. I never really thought that I had to put something out because people expect it or if I don't I'll feel insecure about it. I never really felt that way. I just felt it was a good time to take a break. I was sure that I would find my way back one day. That's what led to the ARMORED SAINT record because eventually Joey and I started writing songs. It wasn't really from the perspective of trying to write a record. We just wanted to write songs. That was a couple of years after I left ANTHRAX. What I'm getting at is that when I came back for those shows, I never really envisioned myself coming back full-time. I always thought I would help them out or be involved for awhile and then the band would take the next step. Primarily because they have a record, but they won't put it out. I understand that, but it's finished; completely. There's some mixing and mastering to be done, but the fact that they're just sitting on this thing allows them extra time to get work done. For me, the idea of just re-singing this record just wasn't something that appealed to me. I didn't feel comfortable with that. I just felt like it wasn't my record to make.
Q: It just wouldn't have been you. I mean, you helped to completely reinvent that band when you came in for "Sound Of White Noise". I'm sure just stepping back in with a finished album in front of you, that you had nothing to do with, would have been a little awkward.
John Bush: "Sound Of White Noise" was a whole different time and circumstance. A lot of things were changing in metal and the band was obviously looking to expand on their sound and their style. It all made sense at that time and the end result was a really cool heavy metal record. Now, I just felt like since I wasn't involved in the writing process, which I have been on every previous record, I was completely detached. It felt like to come in and redo things or to write or rewrite stuff, even those guys gave me the green light to be creative, it wasn't something I felt like I had in my soul. I entertained it at one point. I thought maybe there was some money to be made there, but those are the wrong reasons. It wouldn't have felt right to do it because of that. Doing the shows was easy. We obviously all know the material and know what to do on stage. The stage is home to me. The stage is pretty easy, but the whole writing and recording another record is a whole different ball of wax. In all honesty, I think that these are the right circumstances for ANTHRAX. When they did the reunion in 2005, I think a lot of people anticipated they would make another record Joey Belladonna. At one point they even said they were entertaining the idea and a lot of people were waiting for it. Now, that's the plan and I think it makes sense. It's been twenty years since Belladonna did a record with the band. For me, it's only been seven so it hasn't been that long. I think a lot of people are interested in hearing what it sounds like and I think this is the perfect time to do that. It all makes sense to me. I was very open and candid to Scott [Ian, ANTHRAX guitarist], Charlie [Benante, ANTHRAX drummer] and Frankie [Bello, ANTHRAX bassist] about. I wanted to those shows this summer and I had committed to them, but I had also given the green light if they wanted to bring somebody else into the band and they did. It's all good.
Q: You had finally decided that it was time for John to be John and not the singer for ANTHRAX.
John Bush: A couple years ago when Charlie asked me back into the band, I said, "It hasn't been long enough since I've been out of the band to come back to the band." Time has to go by. People have to miss it. Look at HEAVEN & HELL and how long it was, for the most part, until they put it together. I'm not saying that to conjure up something, but people have to miss me more before I can really come back to that band and say, "I'm back." It wasn't that long ago. I think that the records in the '90s were records that, for one reason or another, didn't get the same exposure as the records in the '80s. Whatever. The '80s are when it all happened and I completely understand. During the '90s, things were changing and everything was in flux. I think though, that as time goes by, people are going to look at those records and go, "Those are really cool records." I mean, I'm taking a chance by stepping out of it, but it's something that I'm willing to do. It's been twenty years since Joey Belladonna made a record and I think it's time for him to make another one with them. People are curious about how it will sound. It makes sense.
Q: It sounds like you're somewhat open to going down this road again sometime in the future.
John Bush: I'm the type of person that never says never. I don't know what's going to happen in life. I really don't. I try to embrace things as they happen and ask myself if the situation really feels right. It took ten years to do this ARMORED SAINT record and I remember saying I would never do one of those again, so I don't know what's going to happen in life. I try to maybe think about what's going to happen tomorrow. That's about as far as it gets sometimes.
Q: ANTHRAX shares something in common with a band like VAN HALEN, where there's a line drawn between a lot of the fans. On one side you have the Belladonna-era fans and Bush-era fans on the other. How do you react to the faction that has been clamoring for your return?
John Bush: I'm flattered and I'm grateful and appreciate anyone who enjoys anything I've ever done. I'm honored, quite frankly. I think that people who just like ANTHRAX songs in general, whether I'm singing them or Joey is, are beneficial to the band as a whole. Hopefully they'll start playing some of the songs I sang on. I think it's time for Joey to step up and play some songs from my era. I played songs from the whole catalog, including Neil Turbin's stuff. I think fans should still get to hear songs like "Inside Out", "Room For One More" or "Only". There are lots of amazing songs and they should play them. It would be weird if they didn't, quite frankly. Like I said, I'm grateful for the people who support me, but it's all about the timing. The timing is right for him now. Joey has been nothing but nice to me the times that I've met him. He's a sweet guy. I think all he really wants to do is be in ANTHRAX and it's a good time for him to reassume the position. I wish him luck.
Q: And after listening to "La Raza", it seems the time is right for you to be in ARMORED SAINT. Let's talk about that record for a bit.
John Bush: I'm really happy with "La Raza". I think it's a special record. The best thing about it is that it came together in a real non-traditional way in the sense that we didn't set out to make an ARMORED SAINT record. It was really as simple as Joey suggesting to write some songs. In retrospect, I was probably asking, "What for? What are we gonna do with it? What's your plan?" Joey Vera and I have a friendship that goes back to when we were nine years old. We're working on 40 years here so this goes beyond the band. I think it was just, "Hey, I miss working with you. Let's write some songs." The first couple of songs that wrote that ended up on the album weren't really songs that followed the traditional ARMORED SAINT sound. They were based in the blues and the backbeat. They had a little more adventurous riffing. I think that kind of got the ball rolling as far as us not being too concerned with what people might anticipate. The whole concept of the ARMORED SAINT record is that we stretched all of the boundaries as wide as possible and it felt like as long as were doing something that we thought was honest and sincere. If we could just be a hard rock band and do something that was hard rock, then let's see what happens. We tried to be as bluesy as possible and I tried to be as soulful as possible. There were times when we'd go, "That's not black enough. You gotta black it up." I really put as much soul into it as I could and all of us have a lot of roots in the old R&B stuff. In the past, we would put walls around that somewhat. The great thing about "La Raza" is we didn't have those walls up.
Q: I really caught some of the same vibe as I did on "Symbol Of Salvation", but that was more an example of a thrash band with those blues and R&B elements, versus how you just described "La Raza".
John Bush: "Symbol Of Salvation" is a really special record too because that one was on the verge of not evening happening. Dave [Prichard, guitarist] dies and we had all of these songs, but lost the guy who created a majority of them. There was a huge question mark as to how we would make it happen. We obviously did and that lent to the record being really special. When it comes to making a record, I always say that you should never repeat yourself. Always push yourself and be creative. Don't play it safe and do what people expect. Stick your neck out and do something that you want to do. You always have to push yourself as a musician or an artist and see what you can pull out of yourself. Sometimes that can be confusing to fans and sometimes they'll go, "Ahhhh, what are they doing?" I always make the joke that we're not putting out our trip-hop/bluegrass/punk record. It is what it is and it's a hard rock record. It's Joey making a lot of the music and me singing on it. The thing is, you still have to push yourself to do something that's not safe and not obvious. I think that's what we did here.
Q: That's got to feel better than just sitting down and trying to recreate and capitalize off of what you did back in the day.
John Bush: Well, you could try and I'm sure plenty of bands do, but that's not what I want to do. That's regression to me; walking backwards. "Symbol Of Salvation" was made in 1991. Nineteen years ago. How can you possibly go back and say, "Let me feel the way I was feeling at that time." The way I sum it up, you don't go backwards in life as a human being, you move forward. That's how you grow as a person. Screw music, this is how you grow as a person and how you become better. You learn from the errors and successes along the way. That's not to say you can't look back and be proud of what you've done. You can even take some of the things you did as motivation, but I certainly wouldn't want to look back and ask, "How did I do this and how can I do it again?" I don't see how you could do that. It just doesn't make sense to me.
Q: When you sat down together as a band, how long did it take to recapture the chemistry you guys shared?
John Bush: It was really quick. Joey gave me some music and once I knew I could work on it, I was astonished by how quickly I could write the songs. The lyrics, melodies and vocal ideas came pretty easily and that was good for me. Like I said, when I left ANTHRAX is 2005, I had put it in my mind that it was possible I would never play music again. I just wasn't sure. After I left ANTHRAX, I certainly didn't want to go right back to ARMORED SAINT. To me, that would be like breaking up with one girlfriend and automatically call my old one. I didn't want to do that, but what I did want to do once we started working on things is do something that felt right. Most of it was just Joey and me demoing songs, but trying to make them sound like records. He's very meticulous about how he does that and it's always been that way. Going back to "Raising Fear" and "Delirious Nomad", we would make these four-track demos and put as much into them as you would a record. I would sing on these demos and just pour my heart into and get as much as I could on the demos. The goal was to keep as much as we could, because sometimes when you go back to redo something, you don't get the same drive as you did the first time. This time, we did the demos again and put as much into them as we could. We wound up keep, I'd say, about forty-percent of the vocals for the album. In fact, we kept all of the background vocals and even some guitar nuances. We redid the rhythm guitar and the bass and obviously Gonzo [Sandoval, drums] came in and did the drums, but we really kept a lot of those original demos for the actual record.
Q: Were you at all surprised with the end result?
John Bush: I am and I think that Joey did an awesome job on the production end of it. It's a very epic-sounding record. When we got into the studio and really got to the point where we were finishing the songs up, we started drawing inspiration from the bands that influenced us and wanted to make an epic-sounding record. One that sounded big and had had a lot of depth to it. I think that Joey did tremendous with that. As a singer, it's something I'm very proud to be a part of. At the end of the day, what we do or how we sell is kind of irrelevant. I do get excited when I read good reviews in magazines and people seem to like it, but ARMORED SAINT is what it is. It's a band in the heavy metal world that does have some credibility even if we weren't a band that sold a ton of records. Throughout the history of the band, I think we weathered a lot of storms and turned some really quality music. "La Raza" is a nice exclamation point on all that. I'm really proud of it.
Q: What about the reaction the album received? After ten years, were you surprised to see the fans get into as much as they did?
John Bush: To tell you the truth and I'm saying this with nothing but sincerity, one of the things we thought about when we were creating the record was that we really didn't care so much. We weren't really doing this to reestablish ourselves. I always joked that I wasn't in this to go out and buy a new Jaguar. It is what it is. It made us feel loose with what we were doing, which made it better. There wasn't this big objective with what we were doing. So in a sense, we didn't care and that's what allowed it to sound the way it does. I'm obviously happy that people responded positively to it. I don't want people to not like. Where it goes from here, who knows? The cool thing about making records is that they're immortal. Look at Ronnie; he's the perfect example of that. I never knew how sick he was and I sure didn't know he was going to die today, but I remember saying awhile back, "When Ronnie dies, his voice is going to live forever." By that I literally mean his voice box. [laughs] The cool thing about music is that it's immortal; you can always listen to those records. I think that's the great thing about what I've done with my life and what I'm most proud of. Shows are another thing. They come and go. You can have one gig that was amazing and one that maybe wasn't so amazing. Those are just moments that come and go, but a record is forever.
Q: Do you feel like this is one you can live with forever?
John Bush: I do, but ask me again a year from now when I have more clarity about it. It always takes about a year to give a real honest and clear perspective on a record. When you first finish it, you'd better think all ten songs or twelve songs are amazing. If not, you shouldn't have finished it. Right now, all the songs are awesome. We'll talk in a year and I'll tell you how I feel about it then.
Q: You've got to let all sink in before you nitpick yourself to death.
John Bush: Right, well I think there's a point as a musician where you've got to just let it go. The people that are overly meticulous, for lack of a better of a better example, look at Axl Rose. You could probably pick at it until you're blue in the face, but at some point you've got to call it good and just let it go. This might sound stupid, but it's a bird and you've got to let it fly. People will sit there and want to change this or want to change that, but what happens is that a lot of records become over-thought. It's music, man. You've gotta let breathe. I never wanted any of my records to sound flawless or sound like it was over-thought. I wanted to hear imperfections because that's real.
Q: So what are the long term plans for ARMORED SAINT?
John Bush: I don't really know. To be honest with you, the thought of taking this out on the road and hammering out for a year or two just doesn't appeal to me very much. Joey and I are pretty careful about this fitting in with everything else we've got going on in our lives. That's another reason ANTHRAX wouldn't work for me at this point, because ANTHRAX dominates somebody's attention. I don't mean that in a bad way, but it's something that consumes a big part of your life and I don't really want that right now. With ARMORED SAINT, it fits in with everything else I have in my life; my goals, career, family and so on. I do want to play some shows if they feel like the right shows. As of right now, we've got one that we're playing here in L.A. Aside from that, I don't know. If it feels like the right thing to do, we'll do it. Fun can't be over-emphasized because I really want to have fun with this. In the past, this band used to put a lot of pressure on ourselves, especially in the early days. I don't want that to be the case now. I want to do this the very best I can and I want it to be fun. This can't start to feel like a grind, because it can't be lucrative if it's like that. Plus, we've already given that to ARMORED SAINT so now it's time for ARMORED SAINT to give back to the band and make it fun. If there are moments where we can do some shows, obviously we want to get paid and make it worthwhile, but we're realistic about how big we are and what we can do. If things are able to work out and it's possible that we can get out there and play some shows, then we're all for it. When and where that will be, I couldn't begin to tell you.
Video footage of John Bush performing with ANTHRAX at U.K.'s Sonisphere festival in 2009 can be viewed below.