Monday, July 4, 2016

A New Flight: Joey Vera on Fates Warning's Latest Opus

An active musician for nearly 35 years, renowned Metal bassist Joey Vera is a crucial part of three of the strongest records released in the last 18 months – Armored Saint's Win Hands Down, Motor Sister's Ride and Progressive Metal giants Fates Warning's much-anticipated 12th studio album, Theories Of Flight.

Released on July 1 via InsideOutMusic, Theories Of Flight finds Fates Warning (completed by founding guitarist Jim Matheos, longtime singer Ray Alder and former Riot/current Sebastian Bach drummer Bobby Jarzombek, with guest appearances by current touring guitarist Michael Abdow and sporadic member Frank Aresti) delivering their most intriguing collection of music in years. The album strikes a perfect balance between the ambitious Prog explorations of 1986's classic Awaken The Guardian and the smoother songwriting of 1991's legendary Parallels, giving longtime Fates Warning fans much to enjoy. The limited edition two-CD digipak first pressing of Theories Of Flight adds six acoustic bonus tracks – three reworked Fates Warning originals (“Firefly,” “Seven Stars” and “Another Perfect Day”) and three surprising covers (Toad The Wet Sprocket's “Pray Your Gods,” Joaqui Rodrigo's “Adela” and Uriah Heep's “Rain”).

For Vera, Theories Of Flight represents the latest victory in a career that has produced some of the genre's greatest moments. In addition to his 20-year involvement in Fates Warning and decades-long membership in the perpetually solid Armored Saint, he is a part of Motor Sister, a Mother Superior tribute band fronted by former Mother Superior singer/guitarist Jim Wilson and featuring Anthrax's Scott Ian, The Cult's John Tempesta and singer Pearl Aday. (Vera also served in Anthrax in the mid-2000s, recorded with Ray Alder in the band Engine and released a highly recommended solo album, A Thousand Faces, in 1994.)

I recently had the pleasure of catching up with him just a few days prior to the release of Theories Of Flight.  

Theories of Flight had kind of a quick turnaround by Fates Warning standards, since your last album, Darkness In A Different Light, took about nine years. In the case of Theories Of Flight, what allowed the band to keep the momentum going this time and turn out an album in three years versus the amount of time it took for Darkness?

I don't really know, to be honest wish you. In a nutshell, nothing was really super calculated. I just think that right after the cycle was done with Darkness, some idea came up relatively quick, and I think Jim was open enough to act on them. The ball just kept on rolling. Once he realized that he was on a roll, he just let it all go and take shape. Perhaps in the past, there may have been some reasons that stopped that creative process from happening. There could have been distractions from the possibility of working with OSI, or the John Arch solo thing was in the way. That was another project that came up that he was interested in working with. This time, I think maybe there was just nothing that was there. It allowed for that process to just happen organically.

Bobby's been with the band for a while now. How has his involvement impacted you as a bass player, and how do you think he's impacted the band overall?

I love Bob; he's a great guy and we get along with him great as a person. He's also an amazing drummer, as everybody knows. He gives us as a band a lot of energy; he can be a high-energy player. He's super creative, and he's a very integral part of where the group is right now. I think he's allowed us to sort of take things to a high-energy, progressive level. He keeps me on my toes as a bass player, for sure. He's made me a better player all around just having to keep up with him. He can be challenging, just in terms of the parts he's playing and writing. It really challenges you to think independently and also think along with him. It's good exercise for me to be able to use two sides of my brain. As I'm getting older, it's hard to remember all these things. (laughs) But he's definitely made me a much better player.

Because I have the opportunity to go to the source and ask you instead of relying on what might be said online, what can you tell me about Frank's status with Fates Warning at this point?

Frank is always going to be a part of the band. Unfortunately, he's not able to do as much touring as he would like. He has a very lucrative and important job back home in Northern California, where he lives with his family. He works for a major manufacturer of musical equipment, and it's very good position for him to be in. But being in that position doesn't afford him to be away from home for too long of a time. We may see him out on the road at some time in the future, but it would be for a very short period of time. He plays on the record; he plays some leads, and we're glad to have him involved on there.

You've been with Fates Warning for a good 20 years now. What keeps that experience fresh for you? What keeps you coming back to the band?

The fact that they want me to stay there! (laughs) I've known these guys for a very long time, and I'm actually blown away that I've been playing with them for as long as you've mentioned. I have the best time with these guys. For me, this isn't my baby that I'm incubating, maybe the way Armored Saint is. It's just so close with Armored Saint, and there are a lot of blood ties with them. With that comes a lot of stress and a lot of emotional fragility, and baggage comes with it. There's just all kinds of stuff. With Fates Warning, although I feel like I'm family with everyone, I don't have that sort of pressure. The stress never really enters that equation for me. For me, being involved in Fates Warning is really a lot of fun. Everyone in the band gets along famously. That's not to say that we don't have our hurdles to conquer. Everybody does; that's just life. But for some reason, this group is a lot of fun; we just have a great time together. Musically, it's very satisfying and challenging. Aside from Bobby making me a better bass player, Jim Matheos has made me a better bass player as well – and a better musician all around. The music that he writes is intricate; there's a lot going on and it forces you to think and evaluate what's going on and how to fit yourself within that context. It's very interesting for me. There are a lot of reasons for me to remain in Fates Warning. It's making me a better musician with each record and each tour. I'm super grateful and humbled and honored to be a part of this thing.

Joey Vera (right) with Jim Matheos 

I wanted to mention another project you're involved in, Motor Sister. Why did that situation appeal to you? What was it about Mother Superior's music that attracted you to wanting to make the music alive again?

I'm a child of the '70s, much like most of my peers that I hang out with. I grew up listening to so many different kinds of music. I grew up listening to Earth, Wind & Fire; I grew up listening to early Yes, Genesis and early Jethro Tull. I grew up listening to Aerosmith, British Rock, early Heavy Metal. I don't know if I would have that same experience growing up in the 2000s or even in the '90s. The '70s had such a broad blanket, and it was a wide open area of music that was available out there. It was all just so good.

I met Jim basically when I first got introduced to Mother Superior, sometime in the early 2000s. He was just a kindred spirit that I gravitated to right away. We had a lot in common musically. He's younger than I am, but he's influenced by basically everything I grew up on. This guy Jim is like a sponge; he's like a musical encyclopedia. He's got the biggest record collection I've ever seen in my life, and he truly is just a huge, gigantic fan of music. He's also an excellent musician and a great songwriter to boot. Once I got turned on to Mother Superior, it was like, 'Oh, this is just so up my ally!' It kind of took me back to my childhood, but I never felt like Mother Superior was a retro band, like the way some of these bands that came out in the mid '90s dressed like hippies and played like hippies. I never really thought that Mother Superior was anything about that; it was more about just a celebration of music and great songwriter and good songs – and that's it. That really appealed to me.

After becoming friends with Jim, we started playing in different scenarios. Sometimes it was something with Pearl Aday, and sometimes it was just jamming in a living room. So when the Motor Sister thing came up, I just felt myself being swept up in it. When they asked me to be involved, I was like, 'Sign me up! I'm totally into it!' That group is just a lot of fun; we do it because it's just a group of people who love hanging out. We're on the same page with music, and we know exactly what it is and what it isn't. We just have a great time doing it.

You've been in two bands with particularly solid histories – 30-plus years with Armored Saint and 20 years with Fates Warning. Both bands have put out really great records in the last year. For you, what has been the key to longevity for both bands in this industry?

That's a good question. Both bands have been able to maintain a life on their own island. Although Armored Saint was caught up in an identity crisis early in our career, when I look back on both bands in hindsight, both have been able to do their own thing and do it honestly without trying to appeal to a trend or a situation or to fans. I think both bands make music for themselves first. As a result of that, both bands have been able to maintain a life. I think both bands were fortunate early on to attract a super loyal following of fans all over the world that have been gracious enough to follow along with us through our ups and downs. In the long run, the fans who stick around have been there for a very long time, and they support us through thick and thin. Some of them have favorite records more than others, but in the end, they've been very loyal and supportive of everything that both bands put out. With those two different groups, I can safely say that we're very lucky to have all of those fans who've followed us all this time. We can't do any of this without them, and we're able to live on those islands because of the support from the fans. I think the key, really, is that both bands have been super honest with themselves and have made music pretty much for themselves.

You mentioned an early identity crisis with Armored Saint. Are you specifically referring to the major label era and the mid-'80s period?

We went through an identity crisis during our years with Chrysalis [Records]. We had a hard time 'fitting in.' If you remember in the early and mid '80s, Heavy Metal was splintering. In the beginning, Heavy Metal was just Heavy Metal. It was just one branch, but then that branch started splintering off into smaller branches. We found ourselves caught between the Thrash Metallers and Hair Metal. In America, we had a hard time relating to one or the other or both. Sometimes we were too heavy for the Hair bands or the Hard Rock/Heavy Metal bands, and we weren't heavy enough for the Thrashers. We found ourselves trying to appeal to both. In the end in hindsight, it was maybe the wrong thing to do, because we just sort of kept doing our own thing.

My biggest example of that is the record Raising Fear [1987]. We had a lot of pressure from Chrysalis at the time. They hired a songwriter to work with us, and we actually agreed to do it. It didn't last very long, but we actually were working with a songwriter for about a month. It was like the worst experience ever, and we ended up firing him. I'm glad we did. (laughs) It was one of those confusing times where we didn't know what to do; we were getting pressure from the label and even management. But you know, you've got to go through those things. I think it was good for us in the long run, because we ended up doing our own thing in the end anyway, for better or worse. I look back on our whole catalog and where we are now, and I say, 'Well, we still don't really fit in anywhere, but that's actually what we really wanted all along.' (laughs). It's a funny thing, but sometimes it takes going through all that to get to where you want to go.

*Portions of this interview were edited for length and clarity. 

Fates Warning 2016. Left to right: Joey Vera, Ray Alder, Bobby Jarzombek, Jim Matheos

(NOTE: Due to the high volume of emails received, a response is not guaranteed.) 

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