Joey Vera performing with Armored Saint – Photo by Stephanie Cabral
Even though Queensrÿche and Armored Saint were cornerstones of the ‘80s metal scene neither one fit neatly into any exclusive sub-genre of that particular era. The first two records released by Seattle’s Queensrÿche in the early ‘80s were clearly influenced by the New Wave of British Heavy Metal, but by the time they got to their third record, Rage for Order (EMI, 1986), a singular sound began to emerge. Incorporating a more layered and progressive quality to their songs, along with the digital recording technologies that were beginning to emerge at the time, Queensrÿche began to separate themselves from the rest of the pack. The “Queensrÿche sound” was solidified on their fourth record, Operation: Mindcrime (EMI, 1988), an ambitious concept album regarded by many as the band’s defining masterpiece.
Armored Saint was also clearly influenced by the NWOBHM early in their career. Their debut full-length, March of the Saint (Chrysalis, 1984) and follow-up, Delirious Nomad (Chrysalis, 1985), have more in common with Judas Priest and Iron Maiden than Mötley Crüe, Dokken and Ratt—some of their LA-based contemporaries. But because they emerged from and during the Los Angeles hair metal scene, they were often, and erroneously, lumped into that category. Other times, they were inexplicably thrown in with the Bay Area thrash metal scene. In actuality, they had little to do with either. While Armored Saint never achieved the commercial success Queensrÿche has, they did carve out a similar, unique niche for themselves within the metal community. They are also held in very high esteem individually, as musicians, by their peers.
Eddie Jackson performing with Queensrÿche on the Condition Hüman Tour – Photo by Karl Pearson
Another common thread between both bands is that they feature arguably two of the best bass players to emerge from the ‘80s metal scene. Queensrÿche’s Eddie Jackson defined an era for bassists worldwide with his Spector-driven tone on Operation: Mindcrime and Armored Saint’s Joey Vera displays the kind of skillset that has earned him calls from Anthrax, Fates Warning and Metallica (the latter of which he famously turned down).
Both Queensrÿche and Armored Saint released new albums in the summer of 2015 that clearly represent just how unique both band and bass player are. Queensrÿche’s Condition Hüman is their second with new lead vocalist Todd LaTorre, a move that prompted a return to their more “vintage” sound of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. Jackson’s bass playing is as gritty as ever—his bass-only intro on “Eye9” sets the tone for a hellacious groove that melds seamlessly with the guitars once the verse kicks in. At the end of “Selfish Lives,” Jackson gets the spotlight for a brief moment, seizing the opportunity to showcase a melodic sensibility that pays homage to the influences of his youth without ever being overly derivative.
On Armored Saint’s Win Hands Down, Vera has never sounded better. Right from the opening title track, it’s clear that his tone is the muscular building block of the entire record. Both his performance and the way it sits in the mix are what every rock bassist hopes to achieve on a recording. His solo on “An Exercise in Debauchery” is a partially tapped, fuzzy/wah/phase-infused display of virtuosity. And the intro to “Muscle Memory” features a killer bass motif that bounces as much as it grinds. In addition to his contributions as bassist and songwriter, Vera is also the producer of Win Hands Down and his finesse and expertise in that area are equally impressive. One could argue that he’s finally captured the definitive “Armored Saint sound.”
This fall, both bands will embark upon a North American tour together. In the meantime, Bass Player caught up with Jackson and Vera to discuss all things bass.
Photo by Stephanie Cabral
What’s the difference between playing bass now versus when you were coming up?
Joey Vera – It’s really easy to get humbled these days scouring YouTube where you see these super young guys coming up. Some of these players now are crazy. We grew up in a different time—music and players were all so different. We’ re probably biased because we grew up in the ‘70s, but I feel like there were players that truly had their own voice and it was new and original at that time. Since then, and maybe it’s just the old man in me talking, I feel like a lot of things have been regurgitated and watered down. Not to say there aren’t any great new bands, because I really do enjoy many new bands and new players who could wipe the floor with me. But there’s something about having your own voice on your instrument and in your songwriting. It’s a little bit lacking these days. I wouldn’t say 100%, because there’s a lot of great music, but it’s harder to grasp onto new things because they are few and far between.
Eddie Jackson – Bass players back in the ‘70s came from this strange sort of melodic school. There was a lot of melody in their bass playing and it’s kind of a lost art. Nowadays you do find elements of that, but the difference between then and now, when it comes to bass lines and composition, is that there was a lot more melody back then.
Who are some of the players you find inspiring nowadays?
JV – I’m often around the stuff that I consider my own work, so I don’t have a whole lot of free time to listen to other music. If I’m traveling that’s the chance that I’ll have to check out something new. But in the end, I always grab something like my old Thin Lizzy records [laughs]. So, I’m not really listening to anything new-new, but in the last 10 or 15 years I’ve become a big fan of the band Opeth. Martin Mendez is a great player. He’s not so much up in the mix on their records, but I’ve seen him live and he plays some killer stuff—they write really interesting songs. Justin Chancellor from Tool is another and Juan Alderete from the Mars Volta. Dan Briggs from Between the Buried and Me is another. I’m not such a big fan of death metal, but they’ve really pushed out into a King Crimson-like area.
Photo by Karl Pearson
What about when you were growing up?
EJ – Mel Schacher from Grand Funk Railroad and Dennis Dunaway from Alice Cooper were two of my biggest inspirations growing up. Mel had such a great tone. There’s also something about Tom Petersson’s [Cheap Trick] tone that I’ve been striving towards for so long. He really created his own bass tone and at the end of the day, as much as I would like to emulate that, it’s his tone. All I can do is evolve from that. Colin Edwin from Porcupine Tree is another guy who created his own sound and style.
What common mistake, for lack of a better term, do you often see young players make?
JV – A lot of times when you’re in your room practicing scales and theory and dexterity, your own personality gets a bit lost. You just need to find out who you are and what appeals to you and that becomes your own voice. You kind of find that by accident. A lot of that can get lost in those sweeping arpeggios.
You’ve both been at this for quite a long time, what’s the key to longevity in this business?
EJ – Maybe it’s being true to yourself. There’s always going to be some new band that’s going to make a big splash—and whatever label gets put on it is the new genre. But for me, being in this band for all these years, it’s about sticking to our guns and just believing in what we write and staying the course. You’re going to hear new bands and be impressed here and there, but Queensrÿche created its own sound. And I would have to credit Rage for Order for that. You can hear our influences in the first two records, but from Rage for Order forward we started to create our own Queensrÿche sound. We experimented with all kinds of things—instruments, percussion and the compositions themselves. That album started to signify what we were about.
JV– Since that day Queensrÿche moved to its own island. They just said, “All right, we’re going to go here and this is where we live and there’s a body of water around us and no one else can come here. This is our territory.” That’s a pretty cool thing and a hard thing to accomplish. Armored Saint did it too, but it’s taken us much longer to get here. People keep asking me, “Why do you guys suddenly seem so relevant after all of this time and why do your fans stick around?” And I think it’s what Eddie was describing. We kind of just always did our own thing, even though we were lumped in with thrash metal or hair metal or power metal—now it’s old school metal. We have songs that are bluesy and songs that are more ethereal and artsy and some tunes have odd time signatures, so we’re all over the place, and probably to our detriment. At some point along the line, especially with the last two records, we sort of realized we were on our own island doing our own thing and I think that’s why our fans appreciate us.
Photo by Stephanie Cabral
You both play in guitar-driven bands. How do you get the bass to cut through?
EJ - It’s called a volume fader [laughing].
JV – It’s a little easier for me to have an influence on that when I’m working on an Armored Saint record because I end up being the producer. I can lean on the fader Ed is talking about. Having said that, it’s not all about me—I’m not that guy. I’m about the big picture. I pride myself more on being a songwriter than a bass player, so it’s not about my bass.
My involvement with Fates Warning is different, I’m not the producer, so I don’t have as much input and influence. But it’s still about the big picture and the song needs to be there, so I always go in there with that sort of democratic attitude. While I was tracking Theories of Flight (Inside Out Music, 2016) I was obsessed with Geddy Lee. So, I was trying to go after the Geddy Lee sound, but then I realized it’s not going to happen because Alex Lifeson is not in the band. And I’m also dealing with stereo guitars, super saturated sounds, the drums are very busy and there’s a lot going on in the kick drum. Bobby Jarzombek [Fates Warning drummer] played great on the record, but there’s not a lot of room.
I’m curious to hear what Ed says. His bass sound has been consistently amazing on every record. It’s always got its own spot. It gels nice with Scott’s [Rockenfield, Queensrÿche drummer] kick drum and the guitars never seem to get in the way.
EJ – For the most part it’s based on the engineer. He’s the one turning the knobs, he’s the one EQing, he’s the one adding compression and I think that’s a big part of how certain bands sound. Jimbo [James Barton] engineered Operation: Mindcrime, Empire (EMI, 1990) and Promised Land (EMI, 1994) and I think you can hear the difference between the first three albums and those three albums and how different the mix is and how you hear the instruments. It’s a big ingredient when it comes to hearing an individual instrument within a song.
When I heard the first Van Halen record [Van Halen, Warner Bros., 1978], I thought it was the coolest, most aggressive guitar tone I’d ever heard. And for years you kept hearing, “I’d love to get Eddie Van Halen’s guitar sound.” But everyone overlooks the engineer—the one who put the sound together with Eddie. He captured it. You have to credit those that are part of the equation.
But getting back to your question, when you are in a band with two guitars, it’s not a competition, but you are fighting certain frequencies and sounds, trying to stay within a certain threshold. It’s never been a struggle for me. Once I realized where I was when it came to the tones and sound of the instrument, I started to experiment and evolve from there. Working with Jimbo was an awesome experience. He really captured a certain sound and tone that I was really pleased with.
Photo by Karl Pearson
JV to EJ -Do you have something that’s your go-to when you’re first setting up? Like a DI and miking an amp?
EJ – I’m pretty conventional. I’m a big fan of 15” speakers. I typically like to record with 15s. I want the speakers to not only be obnoxiously loud, but I also want it to create natural distortion. I want natural distortion coming out of the amp, no effects. That’s where a lot of the grit comes from. And then you have your DI and compression. I basically stick with the Gallien-Krueger 800RB and my 2X15 McCauley cabinets and just turn the thing up until I have the sound I want to record with.
JV to EJ – You play really loud in the studio?
EJ – It’s really obnoxious. We clocked one of my bass tracks at 122db. It was so loud.
JV – That’s against the law you know [laughing].
EJ – If you were to walk into the room where the cabinet is it would sound sort of non-musical, really just distorted and unappealing, but when you get into the control room and add compression and add the DI and all the EQ with the amp and cabinet, you get the end-result that you’re hearing on the record.
JV – Sounds like an old school method, sort of the way maybe Jack Bruce recorded or early Geezer Butler or John Entwistle—super loud and natural distortion.
EJ – Plus I was using a Spector [NS-2] too, which has its own unique sound as well. You’re always reaching for that tone. You can be happy with the results, but you’re still reaching for something even better. It’s just the way we are as musicians.
Photo by Stephanie Cabral
Joey, I remember a prior interview from a few years ago you said you didn’t use an amp at all in the studio. Is that correct?
JV – On Theories of Flight there is no amp. Everything is DI. I had it split into four separate tracks and they all had completely different emulation on them. It’s all live though. I don’t use Plug-ins for that. I’m using actual outboard preamps or stompboxes and it all gets printed as it goes down. I did that on Sympathetic Resonance (Arch/Matheos, Metal Blade, 2011) as well. But the Fates record had four different bass tracks. I had them split off into a DI, a SansAmp RBI-1 and a SansAmp PSA-1. And then I had the SansAmp Bass Driver DI going as well. I had all these sounds—some are ratty and distorted, some are bright and clanky, some are subs and some are some nasally and mid-range. Then I got the mix back—it was mixed by Jens Bogren, who has worked with Opeth and Katatonia—and he perceived the songs completely different than I did [laughing]. I was like, “What happened to the bass sound?” But at some point you have to let it go. There are moments when it pokes through. It’s a tough thing. Win Hands Down was a little different. I did have an amp in there—an Ampeg SVT through a Hartke 8X10. That was combined with my SansAmp RBI-1 and a DI track.
EJ to JV – That’s a pretty ballsy tone, dude.
JV – I was really happy with it going down. To reiterate what Ed was saying about the engineer, Win Hands Down was mixed by Jay Ruston, who’s a great engineer. He knew where I was at psychologically with the mixes. I didn’t have to say anything to him like, “I can’t hear the bass on that part.” He just found a good pocket for it where it was audible and it wasn’t overpowering. For basses I used a custom built ESP and my ‘72 Fender P-Bass.
Is there anything about each other’s role that you particularly admire?
JV – Queensrÿche made some amazing records and had some great success. They’ve become a band that has lasted this long for a reason. There’s a lot of talent and substance. That’s always been inspiring to me.
EJ - We’re both super lucky and I don’t think either one of us takes that for granted. It’s so hard these days to do anything as a musician and the fact that both of us can have records come out and have fans still want to hear music from us is pretty amazing.
What advice do you give people who are trying to make it in this business?
JV - You have to follow your heart. You have to be in this business only because you love making music and for that reason alone.
EJ – Success is something that you really have no control over. You just do what you do and let it unfold and hopefully good things will happen. BP
Queensryche / Armored Saint / Midnight Eternal 2016 U.S. Tour Dates
11/16 — Sacramento, Calif. @ Ace of Spades
11/18 — San Diego, Calif. @ House of Blues
11/22 — San Antonio, Texas @ Alamo City Music Hall
11/23 — Houston, Texas @ Scout Bar
11/25 — Tyler, Texas @ Clicks
11/26 — Dallas, Texas @ Trees
11/29 — Jacksonville, Fla. @ Mavericks at The Landing
11/30 — Ft. Lauderdale, Fla. @ Culture Room
12/01 — Tampa, Fla. @ The Cuban Club
12/02 — Charleston, S.C. @ The Music Farm
12/03 — Baltimore, Md. @ Baltimore Soundstage
12/04 — Lancaster, Pa. @ Chameleon Club
12/06 — New York, N.Y. @ Irving Plaza
12/07 — Pittsburgh, Pa. @ Rex Theatre
12/08 — Chesterfield, Mich. @ Diesel Lounge
12/10 — Sioux City, Iowa @ Anthem at Hard Rock Hotel & Casino
12/11 — Peoria, Ill. @ Limelight
12/13 — Omaha, Neb. @ The Waiting Room
12/14 — Overland Park, Kan. @ Kanza Hall
12/15 — Colorado Springs, Colo. @ The Black Sheep
Hear Eddie Jackson on Condition Hüman, Queensrÿche (Century Media, 2015)
Queensrÿche “Guardian” official video:
Hear Joey Vera on Win Hands Down, Armored Saint (Metal Blade, 2015)
Armored Saint “Win Hands Down” official video: