Original link: manifestinginspirado.com
Joey Vera: Explorations In Creativity
I recently had the privilege of sharing a lengthy chat about the creative process with Joey Vera, chief songsmith for the mighty Armored Saint. Joey plays bass for the band, as well as for Prog Metal titans Fates Warning, the rocking LA outfit Motor Sister & Pearl Aday, among his many projects. With such a hectic schedule, there was no time to waste. I dove right in.
Naia: What are you working on currently?
Joey: Right now, I’m working on the Arch/Matheos record. I have two more songs to record and I just finished playing on Brian Posehn’s new record.
Naia: I was thrilled when I heard there was going to be a second Arch/Matheos album.
Joey: Yeah, Jim just sent me the first couple of tracks. I literally, just a few minutes ago, finished the first track that I’m doing for Jim.
Naia: What’s it like working with Jim Matheos?
Joey: The way it works is Jim is the songwriter. It’s all in his head and he has these ideas and has his vision. He knows how to get from a to z and he does it. It’s not that he’s not open to ideas, but sometimes there are specific things that he’s written as the composer where he’s hearing the overall big picture. So he’s hearing what the drums would be doing and what the bass part should be in that. So at times like that, he writes something that’s very specific. When I get the tracks, I often get them in a demo with a demo bass on it and he says to me, “In this section, this bass part is specific to the other parts happening at the same time.” It’s like a big orchestra. So, I adhere to that, because that’s the composer’s call. The composer’s got it all in his head. So that’s what happens.
One time a section that he wanted was sort of specific. So I did it specific and then, he said, “Okay that’s too specific.” (laughs) “Can you put in more of your personality in this section?” I said “Oh! no problem.” So I went back and just put in some little things that break up the monotony, of the same part over and over. At this point, I’ve worked with him for so many years that he trusts me for the most part. He can say to me, “Just go ahead and have fun with it.” I usually am pretty close to what he’s looking for in the end. This is something that’s learned over years of working with somebody. So I get to have a lot of freedom and I get to interpret what he’s doing as a writer. Jim knows he is not a bass player. He’s primarily a guitar player. He can play bass, but he’s not necessarily a bass player.
Naia: It’s a different sensibility.
Joey: Yeah, my sensibility is unique. At least I think it is, in the sense that I love to play with the drums. I adhere to the drum patterns and I’m very conscious of groove and rhythm. My sensibility can be pretty funky at times, sometimes too funky for Fates Warning. Jim knows this. He knows when to reel me in and say “Dude, that’s just too funky.”
Naia: I think you bring a lot to what they are doing. Some of that progressive stuff can get really cerebral and I really appreciate that funky floor you bring. It brings me into the music more fully then just being up in my head.
Joey: I’m glad for that. I mean, that’s my intention — to connect with people. Good to hear that it is working. I think that I’ve gotten pretty good at doing side projects. I guess you could say, since Armored Saint broke up back in ’92, I have had a great opportunity of working with a lot of different people, not just Fates Warning. Over that time, I think I’ve gotten pretty good at knowing my place in a group situation and knowing what is my part to play, when to not overstep it. Knowing when to speak up, when to shut my mouth. It’s been a good practice for my ego. (laughs)
It’s an unusual thing, when you work with a group of people. Maybe a lot of people don’t get to participate in a group situation like that. Most people’s work is very solitary. What we do as musicians is unique. They’re marriages, but with five different people – that are both husband and wife. I think I’m a pretty good team player at this point, because I’m aware of the situations within personalities and group contexts.
Naia: It feels to me like working with Fates has had an impact on how you play. It’s like it’s giving you this field in which to explore a whole different way of bringing your bass playing.
Joey: Absolutely. There’s two things that happened during the ’90s for me. The first was all impacted by Armored Saint basically calling it a day. When John [Bush] left, I began to explore working with other musicians. I was in a couple of cover bands and all kinds of things between ‘92 and ‘95.
I began to study music for the first time. I was pretty much a self-taught player until that point. I took some basic lessons when I was really young. I knew some guitar chords and some basic theory just by using my ear and understanding a few things. But it wasn’t until about ‘94 that I got involved in this group with a bunch of LA musicians that were all much more experienced and older than me. It was an 11-piece group — a world music kind of a group. The singers were from Cameroon and other parts of Africa. It had a horn section and two keyboard players, a percussionist and guitar players and stuff, so it was a full of a lot of people. I don’t even know how I got this gig.
I was this totally unschooled guy. I could hang with them, because the music was very repetitive. I could find out what the groove was and just play the groove all day and night. I was good at locking in with the drummer and that was enough for me. But I wasn’t like a jazz guy. These guys were doing solos. They’re doing these long sections and I was like, Oh I can’t hang with that.
So a couple of the guys were like, “If you just learn a little more theory, you’d be so much better.” I befriended one of the guitar players by the name of Giovanni Lombardi. He’s a guy that moved here from Italy and he went to a MI, Musicians Institute, here in LA. He graduated with honors in Jazz improvisation and harmony. So he was this super well-schooled guy — a really good guitar player and super cool. We got along great and we had a lot of common. So one day he said, “Let me teach you what I learned at MI.”
I said “Alright, let’s do it!” I paid him for weekly lessons. I studied with him for a year. I basically got the same program that MI offers for Jazz. It was a harmony and theory class. I didn’t become like this virtuoso. I was never interested in becoming that guy – that shredder guy that plays everything really fast, but I did want to know about harmony and theory. And that’s what I got out of it. So I had all this sort of brain stuff where all these doors are opening inside my head of like, Oh that’s why that happens. Oh, that’s why I hear that. Oh, that’s the connection between this and that. All these lightbulbs were going off. Then in late ’95, Jim asked me to play on A Pleasant Shade of Gray.
Naia: And you got to use what you’d been learning in Jim’s sophisticated world.
Joey: I completely started to understand the way Jim was writing.
Naia: It sounds like you guys found each other at a time when you were both adventuring into more complexity.
Joey: Yeah, absolutely, and all the years since then I’ve been able to apply things and it made me a far better bass player than I was before that — not only a better bass player, but a better songwriter.
Naia: I’d love to hear about your songwriting process. How do you create conditions that allow creativity to happen? Where does your inspiration come from?
Joey: In a perfect world for me, it strikes when you least expect it. When you’re trying to fall asleep or at the most inappropriate time. (laughs) But usually there’s two ways I go about it. One is that I will physically start opening myself up to let things come in. In other words, people need to understand that I don’t sit around with the guitar in my hand like 365 days out of a year waiting for stuff to happen. I’m not that guy. There are times where I finally have to say to myself, Hey, I have to have some quiet time.
I have a term I use: free form thinking time. Sometimes it happens when I walk my dog or sometimes I’ll say, I don’t have shit to do right now. I’m gonna go sit in the backyard and just fucking stare at the trees. And that’s what I’ll do. I’ll go out there. I’m not going to look on social media. I’m not going to do anything. I’m going to open a beer and I’m just going to sit here and think about nothing.
I just let everything quiet down around me, meaning my mind and all the things I have to do. That’s when I can pull out a guitar and just start noodling without any preconceived notion as to what I’m doing noodling about. I’m not trying to get to anything. I just start noodling and in those quiet moments sometimes it happens right away or it takes a couple of weeks or sometimes longer. During that quiet time is when you can just be free. I can play Bob Dylan songs all day and that’s all I’m doing. Sometimes that’s when inspiration comes.
When something comes up, I’ll quickly grab my phone then jot down a quick riff or an idea. That’s my preferred way to write. Other times for instance right now, I have a window of time, where I don’t have anything to do. During that time, I’m going to force myself to go back to the writing block and re-visit what I’ve worked on. Or re-visit some riff that I have and write a new song or just go back to the grindstone. I think that you do have to force yourself sometimes. I don’t think that you can wait around forever for your muse to show up.
I really think that good art comes from a good work ethic. I mean this is a craft. This is a work, so you can’t sit around and wait for it to happen. When it happens naturally, it’s a beautiful thing, but most of the time it’s work. You have to work at it and it means setting aside time to do it.
Naia: Is there anything particular you do to help quiet yourself, to quiet your mind?
Joey: I don’t meditate or anything like that. I have meditated in the past, so I know how to meditate. I never was very good at it. My parents divorced when I was growing up and my dad moved to Mexico City. At that time in Mexico City, there were all these ex-Pats that went down there during the Vietnam War and he had this huge community of Americans that they hung out with. There was a neighbor of ours, who was this super cool guy from what I remember. I was pretty young. I think I must have been six or seven years old. Basically he was teaching me to meditate. He sat me in front of a wall, literally 12” from the wall and just told me, “Just look at the wall. Just stare at it. Just keep your eyes open and just look at the wall.”
I was a kid, I thought it was a little unusual at first, but I did it a few times. I was 7, so I got bored and went on to something else, but it’s something I never forgot. I always found a sort of strength from looking at something and just being able to stare and just let my mind drift.
Naia: What’s happening internally? If we could get inside you, what would that be like?
Joey: I would say that the spark of it’s very internal for sure. It turns into this sort of … I could only really describe it as this sort of an obsession. It’s not like I turn into this obsessive freak where I don’t shower for a week, pursuing something. (laughs) But more than a few times I’d forget to pick my daughter up at school, because I’m deep into finding this thing, this muse inside me. It makes time just completely stand still when that’s happening. So I’d say that part of it is just something that’s really internal. You could maybe define that as inspiration.
That inspiration comes from so many different things. That’s just never one thing that sparks it. For me, it’s super varied. It comes from a lot of different places. It’s usually coming from something artistic such as a movie or another song or a TV commercial or a riff that I’ve heard or a riff that I’m reminded of or a simple drum beat or some kids playing something on a toy. It could be anything, but it usually comes from something like that and then it’s just the internal thing.
Now sometimes that internal thing gets put on hold, like I put it in a place to come back to and then I start to put the process on the other side of my brain that’s more logical. I start to think about schematics or I start to think about a practical approach to something rather than letting it be completely like throwing it against the wall. So sometimes I will run into things that I almost view as a sort of a problem. So then how do I get out of the problem. Oftentimes, when I get to that place, I’ll go back in and research. I mean, I’ve been pretty unashamed that I will go back to the music that I grew up on or music that I like. I’ll listen to it and I’ll dissect it and I’ll say, Why does that work? Now what is happening here?
I want to know why those chords are moving me so much. Then I’ll figure out what the chords are doing with the harmonies going through it and I’ll say, That is amazing! How can I reproduce that in a different way? There’s a reason why things work together. There’s a map, there’s a map to everything. Once you dissect the map and you find the clues in there, you say, Oh that’s really cool. I like the way that sounds and this is why it sounds like that to me.
Naia: So it’s like you’re mapping a pathway based on precedent.
Joey: It’s also theory and then applying that to a new creative act. I would say that’s a portion of it. I would say some of the time. I mean, there’s plenty of times where there’s no thought process at all and I have a song that gets written literally in 5 minutes or like 15-20 minutes. The songs that are super visceral and there’s no logic. Something I just start playing and the song’s done in 10 minutes. It happens that quick. Those are the ones that are like a fire that just starts burning and it just gets out of control and you just go with it.
Naia: And what would be an example of a song like that?
Joey: Well, I would say that Win Hands Down is probably that song. The only thing that I probably went in and sort of scientifically sutured would be the middle section, the sort of weird jazzy section that. That song was a bulldozer. When it came into my head, it just wrote itself.
So that was cool, but I think that sometimes songs don’t write themselves and you do need to write the song. I think, in the early days, when we were younger, we got married to songs we were writing so quickly that it didn’t benefit us. I think you need to be objective and take your emotions and your ego completely out of it and look at it like Okay, how can I make this a better song? What does it need? Then you need to sort of pragmatically make it work for you as the songwriter.
John has this problem, when we make demos together. He gets married to it really quickly and I try to tell him, “Don’t get married to it, because it’s not done until it’s actually on the record.” We might be driving around in the car two months from now and think that one thing has always kind of bugged me. Then you realize something needs to be fixed, so you need to be able to look at it objectively in those instances. If that’s what it needs, then that’s what you have to do: take the engine apart, replace the spark plugs, change the fan belt and put it back together. Some of the best songs I think, in the world, just write themselves. You don’t need to do anything to them. An idea will come to you and the parts just fall into place, but it doesn’t always work that way.
Naia: I think some of the most pure creations are like that. It’s like we reached up into the ethers and pulled down something from the collective consciousness or from a higher point of inspiration and it just flows out of us. I experience that when you perform, like inspiration is just flowing through you.
Joey: Yeah, I’m actually a pretty private, shy person, but in the last 10 years or so I’ve really started to feel completely comfortable in my skin. And now for me being onstage is like a safe place, even though it’s pretty chaotic. To be honest, I’ve gotten so comfortable in allowing that energy to come to me that I’ve got to the point where I’m losing control over it. Part of the joy is giving up the control to just allow my body to react the way it wants to react. But I have to be honest with you. I’m 55 years old and there’s been times where I feel like I might hurt myself, because I don’t think my body can take it for so much longer. So it feels dangerous sometimes. I’m bummed a little bit, because I don’t want to stifle it, but I also don’t want to break my neck, you know. (laughs)
It’s not so much when I’m with Fates Warning. It’s really when I’m touring with Armored Saint. I think that there’s something else probably going on, because I have such a very close bloodline. My heart is so close to Armored Saint, because they’ve been my buddies from grade school. There’s something really, really deep there and I don’t feel like I have anything to prove anymore. I’m over that. We did that when we were younger. I feel really comfortable about where we are.
I think after everything we went through, there was a large part of our career was sort of clouded by some self-doubt, you know. And that is totally detrimental and damaging to any artist. We just didn’t have the ability collectively maybe… maybe we could have individually, but collectively, we didn’t have that ‘til so much later in a life and in our careers. But at some point, you really have to put a lot of trust in your collective consciousness and your individual consciousness and whatever guiding light is coming to you. You can’t second guess it or you’ll ruin it.
It’s the learning process you have to be willing to learn about yourself and about mistakes you made or the successes you’ve made and the things you did right & the things you want to do better. You really have to be aware of all that stuff, otherwise you won’t grow. I think that our band functions now in a complete 360° difference from how it used to function in the early days.
Naia: So what do you see as those differences?
Joey: Well, the main difference is that we have a leader of sorts. In the early days we had none, we were just five guys — knuckleheads all wanting to be the boss, but all of us not wanting to be the boss. So it was just endless indecision — about everything. We just weren’t mature enough to know what we wanted and how to get it and it didn’t matter either. I just don’t think any of that stuff mattered. We were just living in the moment and not thinking about much else.
Dave Prichard was sort of the musical guy. When he passed away, I took it upon myself to be that guy. I was just in this place where I felt like I’m gonna stand up and we’re gonna go that way. And this is how I think we’re gonna get there. That was during the recording of Symbol of Salvation and it was a big turning point in the relationship between the five of us, because finally somebody stood up. I don’t even know what possessed me to do that. I’m probably the most reluctant of all of them, but I was the one who stood up and said, “Alright guys, we’re gonna go that way. Let’s go.”
I was the one who sort of corralled everyone and said “This is the team. You do this. You do that. This is everybody’s job. Let’s go!” At this point, it’s not about me. It’s just about the group and the group needs someone to be a director — not the leader or the be all, end all — but someone needs to be the director.
That’s the chief difference. This role that exists in the group, now — it did not exist from 1982 until 1992. It wasn’t there. It’s made the band feel a lot more comfortable. We know where we are and what we are and where we’re going and how we get there and what our intentions are on stage or making music. It’s a much friendlier and more pragmatic way to work. It just works better.
Naia: Well, it certainly seems to be working for you. The music is great and it feels like you guys are on a triumphant tear. You’re having a renaissance.
Joey: I really think it’s that people can see that what we’re doing is honest and we’re just doing it because we love it. We truly enjoy what we do. I think that that translates to people.
Naia: Definitely! So I’m curious about your writing partnership with John. How does that work?
Joey: John’s part of the equation is bringing the lyrics. He usually has total freedom to express himself. It’s not something that he’s always really had. He always kinda had people looking over his shoulder. But since we’ve been working together again in the last ten years or so that’s all changed. What happens is I’m usually pretty anal about when I make demos. Before I even give them to John they sound like a finished record. I mean they got drums and the drums aren’t just boom chuck boom chuck. It sounds like a real drummer’s playing it and the drummer’s kicking ass with all these rolls. (laughs)
I program all the drums and I play the bass parts. I play all the guitar parts, sometimes keyboards. I just play everything. I’ll make it sound like a record, but without any lyrics or words or anything. Then, at that point, I send it to John and he takes it and he drives around in his car. Usually, that’s where he gets his inspiration … after he drops the kids off at soccer practice or whatever.
He has a lyric book that he’s had for years and he jots down lyrics and ideas. Then he doesn’t really have everything totally worked out. He just sort of has a rough idea in his head and then he comes to my house. I have a small studio space where I can record vocals. He comes over and it’s pretty much like “What you got?” Then I roll the tape – roll the computer. (laughs) Then he just runs through the song and lets me read the lyrics. From there, I either know right away that it’s great or I know right away that it needs work. It’s just an instinct thing at that point.
I’ve known him for so long. I know what he’s capable of and I know what his strengths are as far as his vocal style and his tendencies. I know where he has struggles, so that’s what I mean by when I’ll know right away that instinctively, “That’s great. That’s John Bush. That’s fucking perfect!” or “That sounds like you’re trying too hard to be something you’re not. I understand you want to push your envelope, but let’s develop this a little better, to pull it back and be a little more John Bush.”
So at that point, we hash out the song and we work out all the parts and then a lot of times things get changed later. Most of the vocals that you hear on La Raza are actually his first takes of the demo versions. Sometimes he just hits on something that’s like “Holy shit!”
Naia: Do you ever have input on the lyrics?
Joey: Yeah, I try to help him. I think once in a while he has trouble making a point. I’ll try to say, “Is there a different way to say that?” Or sometimes he writes a phrase that has too many syllables. I’ll be like “Dude, that’s a mouthful. Can we figure out a way to make it more witty and short and to the point?” I’m not saying that I’m always right, but I try to help him to hone in on what he does best. I don’t want to stifle him. This is who he is and sometimes he needs to have too many syllables in a line, and so, I want to let him shine. But I just want to try to be critical in the way where it helps him to shine in the best way possible. It makes songwriting fun.
Naia: So are there things that you find challenging? What are some of the stumbling blocks or things that you feel are your creative growing edges?
Joey: I think the biggest thing — and this is a maybe a really broad stroke — but I never want to repeat myself. I think that it’s important for us to keep moving in a direction. It’s away from where we… the last record we made. I think it’s unique for us that no two records are really alike.
Naia: You guys have opined in the past that this was sometimes a problem for you commercially, but I think it’s a part of your creative triumph really.
Joey: I think so too. That took a long time to realize and then accept it. I think that’s our strongest point now. We are a band that’s on our own island. I think as long as we can stay that way, we’ll be okay. So I think maybe the hardest part is getting started to write music, the sort of looking at a blank page like, Okay what do we do now?
Naia: Is it a little challenging that you had set a high bar with your last album?
Joey: I’m really proud of Win Hands Down. I think that a lot of planets aligned in that record, but I can only look at it in a way of moving forward. I don’t want to repeat ourselves. I don’t want to feel like I need to live up to something either. I sort of look at it like: It’s not going to be better. It’s going to be different. That’s the only way I can really go about it. I still have a lot to do, because I still really enjoy playing with arrangements and being creative in the songwriting process, rather than just the standard formula of first verse, first chorus, second verse, second chorus, guitar solo.
Naia: The song structures on Win Hands Down were sophisticated without losing Saint’s signature directness.
Joey: Yeah, I’m striving to do that, so I feel like I have more to explore in that area. I still have a lot of desire to pursue those things in songwriting, so I’m not too worried about it. Every time we make a record, there’s something about the record that is slightly going outside of our comfort zone and I intend to do that again … within reason.
As a longstanding Armored Saint fan, I’m eager to hear that next record. History has taught me to expect music that ventures into new territories without ever losing its continuity with the long arc of Saint’s career and their authentic Spirit. Where will they venture next?