October 20, 2020

Joey Vera is an old school legend – nothing less. Pulling the fat strings in Armored Saint since 1982, and also being a central figure in prog veterans Fates Warning for the last 23 years is an impressive CV, to say the least. We have new albums coming out from both his main bands (Armored Saint’s Punching The Sky is released October 23rd and Fates Warning’s Long Day Good Night – November 6th, both by Metal Blade), which is a perfect moment to reach the guy on the phone. After assuring Joey it is safe to interview him while driving on my way home (Bluetooth switched on), it is time to ask how the hell did he fit a new Armored Saint album in his busy schedule. “Haha. Yeah, it’s something I have to juggle with a lot. Sometimes I feel I’m doing too many things at the same time and it is driving me crazy but I’m trying to deal with this the best way I can”.

Punching The Sky, the band’s eighth studio album, is one of the most uplifting albums released this year, in contrast to the overall mood in 2020. So, one wonders what was the band’s approach to it or whether the music and lyrics started to shape out before the pandemic. “Yeah, we started working on it at the end of 2017, early 2018. We usually take our time writing and it was no different this time. We’ve been working this way for the last fifteen years or so. We didn’t follow any schedule or something like that, we are waiting for the right moment when we feel inspired to do some writing. Right after the tour we did with Queensrÿche, we took a month off and after that I started putting down some early ideas I had at the time, like Bark, No Bite, Missile To Gun and Standing On The Shoulders of Giants, which was also another early one. I demoed these ideas and turned them to John, and kind of waited for his inspiration to come back. He really loved what he heard and we started snowballing from there. Our process is quite natural, we tend to not talk too much about what direction it is gonna go in. It is a very organic way for us to do it and it helps us, because we all have families and kids. After dropping them at school or at a hockey practice, we just try to find those few hours to work. It is a long process and it took us probably 18 months before we finished writing, so that’s the general overview of the process”.

Joey is using the same word which came to my mind while listening to the album: “organic”. Listening to the new songs is like reconnecting with an old friend, the sound and production (which Mr. Vera is also responsible for) are really warm. “Being the producer of the record I tried to make sure first of all that the performances are organic and have good feelings and grooves and emotion coming through. I enjoy producing and the production value of the songs and the music. I sometimes put too much into it. There are times I appreciate the wall of sound and there are times I appreciate things that are sparse and empty. I think in the end I try to present something that has a lot of dynamics and all along that way I make decisions that affect the instrumentation, the performances, overdubs and tracking. I may spice it up a bit but the aim is the make it sound very live. I have to give credit to Jay Ruston, who mixed the record as well as our last one Win Hands Down. He knows we are a rock band first and we are not trying to be a super polished, commercial band. I like big production value, but we also like the band to sound more natural and I think Jay helped us achieve that”. It is amazing that Armored Saint, one of the oldest pure heavy metal bands from LA, have persevered for almost four decades and are still going strong. What is even more deserving respect is the fact that this band has been through a lot of hard times. “Well, speaking about me, and Armored Saint specifically, there was a period in the nineties when Armored Saint was not even a band. It was also a hard time when we were signed to Chrysalis Records, which was a big deal at first, but we weren’t ready. We didn’t know a thing about business, we didn’t really care much and that resulted in us losing control over our career at some point. By the time we made Raising Fear in ’87-’88, we were getting pressure from the label and we didn’t know how to manage that. It created a bad taste in our mouths and ultimately we got dropped, and we didn’t have a label for two years. During those two years we we struggling because we didn’t have any income, we had to go back to our day jobs – it was a slap in the face. We thought “oh, we’re gonna get another record deal, not a big problem”, but we couldn’t. So, later in that two-year period, our guitar player Dave Prichard found out he had leukemia, went though an operation that wasn’t successful and later passed away. So, certainly that period between ’87 and ’91 was the darkest time for us. Having to deal with all that stuff – the hard work not paying off, the disappointment, then losing your friend – that was a tough time to get through”.

Just listening to the the man answering is hard and Armored Saint, definitely, have struggled, but ultimately have returned as strong as they have been in the eighties. The last few albums, even if released with great pauses, are all worthy of their legendary brand. Having an even more legendary label as Metal Blade behind their backs is helpful too. I wanted to get Joey back on the new album discussion to cheer the conversation a bit. Punching The Sky has a lot of strengths, but the guitars’ sound is obviously one of the highlights. So, was any special attention paid to the way Phil and Jeff recorded their parts in the studio? “I’m actually always pushing the players to get the best out of them and I think I am pretty good at doing that. But what is different this time is that both Jeff And Phil took it to themselves that they have to step up their game. They really put a lot of thought into their solos as a contribution. There was a lot more of a head-start approach this time than relying on their experience. They had a clear idea of what they wanted to do, in particular their lead guitar parts. We are a guitar band and I am a huge fan of Thin Lizzy – those double guitars. I wanted to explore more on that part and kind of show their playing off and they both really came down to the party and did a great job”.

More than forty years of experience talking on the other side of the phone cannot be missed as an opportunity and we take our chances to ask Joey Vera about the band’s very early days and the shows with another LA legend like W.A.S.P. So, it is interesting to know if Joey has fond memories of these times and of a personality like Blackie Lawless in particular. “Hahah. Yeah, we played with them a few times in the clubs, before even one of us got signed to a record deal. After both bands were signed, we also did a tour together in late ’84, early ’85 and we spent even more time with them on that tour. They were a bit older than us, so we were not really friends. In the early days, however, we had a friendly competition between ourselves, trying to outdo each other every night. Even back then, they were doing a lot of theatrics, so I have a funny memory. There was a show at the Troubadour and we were there watching their set. Blackie used to put this big wooden torture rack on stage and cut pieces of raw meat with a knife and throw it in the audience. He was doing this to try and get a shock value reaction out of people. So that night, when some of the pieces fell near us in the middle of the audience, we took the meat and started throwing it right back at him, haha. People were not necessarily doing that, it was just us that night that we started it. And he couldn’t see us because of the lights pointed up at him, haha and we were just hiding over there laughing. That is a nice memory I have from those days”. It is inevitable that we go back from good memories to bad ones – the interview with Joey is scheduled on September 11th. “Well, the night before I was out late – I actually went to see Savatage, they played the House Of Blues. We are friends with those guys it was a great show, a great feeling, we had a few drinks and everything. The next morning, waking up with the hangover, we turned on the TV and we were standing there stunned, like, we couldn’t believe what we were looking at. We thought we were in a dream – completely unreal. It literally took many minutes before we thought this was actually not a joke – it was real! And then, of course, the sadness started kicking in after the shock. Certainly, that was one of the most tragic things I’ve seen”.

We, at Velvet Thunder, having done our homework, cannot miss the chance given and ask Joey to reveal some details about the other major release with his participation coming up shortly – the new Fates Warning album. He was certainly not surprised being asked: “I don’t want to give away too much stuff, but speaking from my personal perspective and point of view, it is a great record, once again. It is a bit different than the last one, but not crazy different. Jim and Ray wrote some really beautiful songs, there are some great melodies that Ray came up with. There are some long, epic tunes like you would expect and everybody played great on it. The mix by Joe Baresi sounds great. I am biased because I’m in the band. The last several records were unique unto themselves, but these guys just keep getting better and better and the new album is no exception”. OK, the man is polite enough to bear with our off-topic questions, so let’s ask if there’s any news on Mercyful Fate, which he will perform with live on the yet-to-be-rescheduled tour. Is there new studio material being recorded? “They are doing some writing and I’ve been asked to play on some demos. If they are in a situation where they need me to be in the studio, I said “yes”. But right now we are not at this stage, I’ve only heard maybe two songs. It is too early, but if it happens – I will be on board”.

In these hard times, true artists like Joey Vera and the great bands he is involved with, are to be thanked for bringing some joy in our homes, through their art. “We are glad that in this crappy time, at least we have new music. We are glad that we are connecting to people and hopefully it gets all of us through this”.

Punching The Sky can be ordered in different formats from HERE