John Bush: Not Joining Anthrax Would’ve Been Bigger Mistake Than Declining Metallica Offer
Armored Saint's John Bush was the latest guest on Full Metal Jackie's weekend radio program. The singer was on hand to discuss the band's new album, Punching the Sky, which will be out Oct. 23 on Metal Blade.
In the interview, Bush addressed his approach to writing lyrics in which he strives for a timeless quality while simultaneously speaking to topics centered around the current day. His growth as a songwriter comes with the benefit of age and experience as he explained it took about three decades for Armored Saint to truly define their identity.
In the '80s, Bush said Armored Saint didn't fit well within the scenes happening around them — hair metal and thrash. He acknowledged the band could easily fit on a bill with bands from either style, but that his own group didn't have that same stylistic sticking point for fans of each scene to flock toward.
Elsewhere, the singer looked back at his one-time offer to join Metallica around the Ride the Lightning era, which he declined, electing to remain with Armored Saint. Still, he does not regret the decision and even said passing on the opportunity to later join Anthrax would have been the bigger mistake.
It's an interesting time to release a new album both in terms of marketplace and also lyrical subject matter. What overall statement did you feel compelled to make with Punching the Sky?
Wow, you are going to just dig right in! You are not even going to hesitate at all! Funny.
Well it's a funny time as you put it, there are a lot of things that you can write about. It's endless what's happening in the world and, for songwriting purposes, it's actually a great thing. I could probably write a whole other record at this point.
Lyrically, a lot of the times the way I approach songs — and I have the last couple of records — is to reign in certain ways that I am saying something and I want people to kind of read between the lines. I don’t want to be reluctant about taking chances about what to say, but at the same time I don’t want songs to be kind of pigeonholed in a time capsule.
Sometimes the best, most amazing records and songs are ones that feel timeless. When you are listening to them, whatever year it is, it can still be right on the money as far as what's happening. Sometimes my lyrical approach is a little ambiguous and I do it in a way that I want people to think about what I said, but read between the lines.
It's weird, sometimes after writing and recording a song, even the lyrical concept that I was maybe approaching at that moment, a few months later it almost pertains to something else. So the song almost creates a new identity for itself as time goes on, which is a trip.
My answer is probably a little bit roundabout and vague but, like I said those are the most fun topics to write about. I just don’t want it to be too specific, I want things to be able to have different meanings in different times of life.
Armored Saint, "Standing on the Shoulders of Giants" Music Video
John, maintaining familiarity while exploring creativity is a challenge musicians and artists in general all face. What makes Armored Saint particularly well-suited to find that balance?
Our primary goal is to really just be ourselves. I'll say with a lot of honesty, we're a band that through the years, especially through the '80s, we probably had an identity crisis at times. We were not really connected with a couple different genres that were happening, especially in the '80s when hair metal and thrash metal were really big. We never really fit in either place too easily. You knew our band could play with Ratt and W.A.S.P. and these types of groups. We could play with Metallica and Death Angel and these types of groups, but we still never really felt we were a part of that genre. For a while, that was a problem for us because it created this uncertainty and probably a little bit of insecurities.
As time has gone on we have become more comfortable with our own identity and just really focusing on our own style. With every record that passes, we hone in on that in a clearer way. Now we just sound so strongly like ourselves and that I believe is the thing that we always really wanted to do. It probably took like 30 years to find it, which is weird to say, but I think we have finally done that.
We keep focusing on what we do best, all the things that we do just make our sound and style specific to ourselves. Then we just keep going, whatever happens — the music climate is weird. People don't buy records like they used to and now you can't even tour with the coronavirus. You just roll with it. Music and making records is the one thing that you can kind of control, so you do it to the best of your ability and just believe in what you're doing. I think we're doing that pretty awesomely.
Armored Saint is a band that doesn't adhere to the continual grind of an album and tour cycle. How has that benefitted you as a musician and songwriter, and also as a person?
Good question. For a while, especially after I left Anthrax, I was kind of involved in different things in my own personal life. I was helping my wife with a business that she has, had a couple of kids and I wanted to be there being with them while they were growing up and to raise them.
So it kind of pushed me away from saying, "I am going to be in this cycle," maybe even to the chagrin of my band members [laughs], but it was a decision I made to be at home a little bit more than the usual musician. Some of that has changed a bit in the sense that my kids have grown-up and that I do love to perform live. Finding that balance is not easy.
The world is such a giant place and we can go to so many different places to play. Armored Saint hadn’t been to Japan or Spain and we got to go there for first time on the last record. It was the first time we have played in Japan and Spain which is pretty lame after 30-35 years, but that is the way it is sometimes.
I can only speak for myself, but sometimes overplaying can have that grinding feeling and I think it's something that can take away some of the freshness.
Touring is hard — it is a difficult thing and I am sure every musician can agree to that and you don’t want to be in the position where you’re like, "Where am I? What city is this? How many days in a row are we playing? I want to go home." I think some adhere to that and that philosophy. You want to keep it fresh so that you want to play, you want to tour, you want to play shows and be in front of people who have never seen you, but you don’t want to burn out. If you do that, you will stay fresh and every day will matter. That is my approach.
Armored Saint, "End of the Attention Span" Music Video
You have had a prolific career with both Armored Saint and Anthrax as well as other music ventures. What's different about your aspirations now and how do you define fulfillment?
My approach when making a record at least is to give everything I've got — to push every boundary possible. The guys in the band completely agree. We don’t want to just mail it in or make a record that sounds like a follow up to the previous record. We don’t want to seem like we're looking back into our catalog and saying, "What did we do that did well? Okay, good, let's revisit that." I don’t think we want to do that.
We always want to make every record have its own kind of identity and that is the thing that pushes us as songwriters. Every time we make a new record, you’re just solely focused on that time. Taking those chances are the kind of things that my heroes and the people that I really love the most did that instead of just recycling what they did.
Some people might look at it as a consistency thing — the fans want this, let's give it to them. I think you still have to push yourself a little bit harder as a singer and a songwriter/musician to not just do that and to do something a little bit more aggressive.
That's what we do so every time we make a record, I feel completely fulfilled actually. Then about a year later I say, "Ask me again and I'll give you an honest assessment of it."
But in the end, the important thing is that you've got to let it go. Once you make the record and once it goes into the mix/master mode, you've got to let it go. You never want to look back and go, "Ah, if I would have done that differently... Nah, I wish I would've changed that..." I never want to feel that way. I may feel that way years later, but when you finish a record I never want to feel that way. I always feel like it's great, I love it, and I'm letting it go.
You famously turned down an opportunity to join Metallica. Given the benefit of hindsight and maturity, what do you recognize now about the wisdom of that decision?
[laughs] Well, I don’t know how much wisdom was involved in it, to be honest. As much as I feel like that was the ultimate compliment by the guys in Metallica — going back to like 1982 here, maybe even before Kill 'Em All was even recorded — I don't think it was my destiny to be in Metallica. I just don't.
I could have literally had a hand in jacking up heavy metal in a complete way because that really was just not my destiny. My voice instead of James Hetfield, in that band, it could have just thrown the planets completely off. Because of that, I just don't think it was my destiny.
But again, I'm grateful. They're the biggest heavy metal band in the world, bar none. I respect those guys to the utmost and I know that not only do they think highly of my voice, but they think highly of Armored Saint and I think that through the years we always felt a compatibility with them as far as just being really close with those guys.
We may not talk to them for a long time, but we can always get in a room and kind of reminisce about the early days and just a lot of the things that we've accomplished. A lot of cool music that was made through the years. I'm grateful, and I always say it might have been a bigger mistake for me not to join Anthrax. That was later in time and I was meant to go there. I think that would have been a much bigger mistake in my career.
Thanks to John Bush for the interview. Get your copy of 'Punching the Sky' here (as Amazon affiliates, we earn on qualifying purchases) and follow Armored Saint on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Spotify. Find out where you can hear Full Metal Jackie's weekend radio show here.
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