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May 16, 2000

If VH1 has taught us anything, it's that behind every artist is a story. If Savatage had been bigger, they would have been fodder for one hell of a 'Behind the Music' episode. Few artists have acheived a combination of power and drama in their songwriting and performance so consistently as Savatage. At the same time, the drama has been not only musical but behind the scenes as well. In 2000, Savatage return to the underground after years of major label output and prepare for their first Nuclear Blast release, tentatively entitled 'Poets and Madmen'. To mark the occasion, the Metal Update caught up with the heart and soul of Savatage, Mr. Jon Oliva, to explore the past, present and future of one of heavy rock's (see below) most enduring acts.

Metal Update: Is Savatage a heavy metal band?

Jon Oliva: I don't think so. I never thought we were.

MU: How could you not?

JO: I always considered Savatage power rock.

MU: Why take the pains, Jon, to redefine it, when the truth is you know you're raising "the fist of the metal child"?

JO: Yeah, I know what you mean. A heavy metal band, to me, was - the way I categorized them was different. I considered Slayer and stuff like that heavy metal. I consider Black Sabbath hard rock. OK? I consider, like, KISS glam rock.

MU: What about Judas Priest?

JO: Judas Priest - hard rock.

MU: Iron Maiden?

JO: Hard rock.

MU: So, in that sense, Savatage is hard rock.

JO: I would say so, yes.

MU: That makes sense.

JO: Lyrically, everybody uses the words and stuff like that. But, I mean, especially recently, the Savatage of that last five or six years, I don't think can be put in the heavy metal category at all really.

MU: Metal has gone through a siege mentality. The 90s was a tough time for the genre.

JO: Yes.

MU: So it's one of these, you're with us or against us, kind of things. And you hate to see the leaders of the cause sort of disowning the label.

JO: Well, it's like, we never asked for the label. (laughs) Cause I think that's the death of someone. I think what we're doing is rock with a heavy edge. If you keep that classification, it keeps you from being classified with, like, punk bands. Say, for instance, punk rock. There is no punk rock bands anymore. Same thing with, like, disco and stuff. There is no disco bands anymore. There's always been rock. Rock from the 50s, 60s, 70s, 80s - rock and roll, or rock - we call it hard rock, or whatever, has always survived.

MU: What were you guys trying to do back in the early 80s when you put this thing together?

JO: I don't know. I mean, we were 19 - 20 years old..

MU: Well, what were you listening to?

JO: We were listening to Sabbath, and Iron Maiden, and Samson, stuff like that. But we were also listening to bands like Queen and Pink Floyd. We always listened to a large variety of music. We were never focused in on just one particular thing. We liked a lot of stuff.

MU: What's the connection between the Savatage of 1982 and the Savatage of 2000.

JO: Me! (laughs) I don't know. I mean, our sound is a very distinct sound, I think. I think our sound has pretty much remained the same. The way we use instruments together and stuff the that. And the way we do vocals and everything like that. That's pretty much stayed the same. It's gone through different phases and stuff, but I'd say that's really the closest thing. Those early records were made very cheaply. We spend more money on getting the cymbals to sound right (laughs) than we did on the whole first three albums we did.

MU: Can you listen to 'Sirens' now?

JO: I can't listen to them. I hate them. I love the music, I love the songs, but I hate the production. I want to re-mix them so bad! (laughs)

MU: What's a good song on 'Sirens'?

JO: Oh, God, there's lots of them.

MU: Do you like "City Beneath the Surface" or the song, "Sirens"?

JO: "Sirens" is good. I like "I Believe" a lot off of that record. And "Holocaust" a lot.

MU: Great stuff. What about "Dungeons"? Now, that song, the song "Dungeons are Calling", that sort of is the first foretelling of where you might have been going with some of the drama.

JO: Yeah, the theatrical type of thing. The intro - I remember that intro, me and my brother could never figure out a song to go with that intro. We had that intro for years! (laughs) And then one day, boom! It popped out. That's when we started thinking, - "Wow, it's cool with these eerie keyboards" and "Hmm, maybe that's something to look at down the road".

MU: Let's fast-forward a little bit to the 'Mountain King' era. What changed? It seemed there was something more focused with the band then.

JO: Well we got Paul. Paul O'Neill started working with us at that time. We always lacked focus. When we were on our own, we tended to skip around a lot. We never really focused in on one thing and worked it all out. We would just get bored with it and we either shit-canned or move on to something else.

MU: What do you mean? An idea or an image?

JO: An idea for a song, or something like that. If we'd get stuck - we could've had a great song but because we got stuck, we would end up canning it. We were just not very experienced, you know?

MU: How did you hook up with Paul?

JO: Actually, Paul came to see us at a show in Florida, at the request of Jason from Atlantic records. Jason was looking for a producer for us, for the 'Mountain King' album, after the 'Fight for the Rock' disaster that we had. He suggested Paul, and they sent Paul down to see us do a show, and Paul came backstage after the show. He was just completely blown away. He was just like, "I've never seen anything like this". And he stayed down in Florida with us and we started writing a little bit together. He started going over some of the songs with us and he had us go back on some cassettes that we had of older stuff that we had canned. And a lot of those songs ended up making it on this record - "Beyond the Doors of the Dark", "Strange Wings".

MU: "Strange Wings" is a great hit single track.

JO: I love that song. That's one of my favorite Savatage songs of all time. I think Paul brought out, like, three or four songs and riffs and stuff that we would have never used . He got us into a great working attitude, and showed us how to do things and how to categorize things. You know, label all your tapes! Don't do stupid things like this.

MU: He brought a new kind of level of professionalism.

JO: Exactly. We were just kids. We were just having a good time, we were getting drunk every night.

MU: Do you think Paul O'Neill's joining the band was one of the things that got you to where you are today?

JO: I think that was the turning point. Paul encouraged me to write in different styles and try to incorporate more instrumentation into the band and to try to grow. It was very good for us - 'Gutter' and 'Streets' and 'Edge of Thorns' and 'Handful of Rain' and stuff like that. All those records are the result of us developing a working relationship with Paul. It's worked out well.

MU: What was the 'Hall of the Mountain King' tour like? You went out with Megadeth and Dio?

JO: It was complete chaos! (laughs)

MU: You had fun?

JO: We had a blast! I probably never had more fun in my life than that eight month period.

MU: You guys were on MTV, you were playing hockey arenas...

JO: We were doing everything. Yeah, it was great. And we had a great time and, believe me, we took full advantage of the party atmosphere, and we went nuts. We were like college guys. That was our going to college and getting drunk every night. It was going out on tour instead. That's how we did it. We were drinking every day. We were drinking at 10 o'clock in the morning. (laughs) It was ridiculous! But we had a great time. We had a blast. And you never can replace that. It was so much fun.

MU: 'Gutter' was your next album. First of all, what were you going for when you were writing songs like "When the Crowds are Gone" or "Gutter Ballet"?

JO: Well, that was really Paul. Paul pushing me a little bit to try. You see, I've always played piano, but the songs we were writing on the earlier records ever really called for piano. And it was like, I was just singing, and I was getting a little bit bored, to be honest with you. I wasn't playing anything and I was just sitting there screaming my ass off every night. I was like, you know I want to do some different things, use some keyboards and if we do it our way, it'll be cool. And we started experimenting a little bit heavier. "Gutter Ballet", and "When the Crowds are Gone", and "Summer Rain", and "Revelation" are things that, two or three years ago, you know, 'Power of the Night' era, we would never have dreamed of playing.

MU: What bands were you listening to that inspired the shift in that direction? Queen? The Who?

JO: I've always listened to a lot of Queen, The Who, Pink Floyd, the Beatles. I mean, you can hear a lot of Beatles in our music all over the place. Those are CDs that wherever I go, I always have with me seven or eight Beatles CDs, three or four Queen CDs, Black Sabbath's first four or five records. I always have like thirty CDs with me.

MU: What should the goal of a rock band be? Is it an artistic thing? Is it just to have fun?

JO: It's whatever they want it to be. If someone wants to be in a band just to have fun, then have fun.

MU: What kinda band did you want to be in?

JO: I don't know. I mean, when we started out - I gotta admit - things happened to us really quickly. We went from working street jobs to playing the Meadowlands. It was really intense. Things happen to you at a young age like that, and you're not really prepared for that, you get caught up in the whole thing. Like, "wow - we're gonna be like the Beatles now." And it doesn't happen that way. You have to come back to reality. If this is what I'm gonna do, I have to make a living so I can pay my rent at home and take care of my kid or whatever.

MU: What were you trying to communicate with 'Gutter Ballet'?

JO: At that point in time we were starting to try to do different things, and that was probably where we were at.


MU: What is the song "When the Crowds are Gone" about?

JO: Basically Paul wrote the lyrics for that. It's pretty self-explanatory. It's just about a guy who basically is just old, and wants to rock one more night. He's just like fadin' out. Actually "Crowds Are Gone" was supposed to be part of the 'Streets' thing. Basically 'Streets' spun off from it. That guy just wanted to be up there. He was up there really huge, then his career died, and all he wanted was one more show.

MU: No parallel to Savatage?

JO: No. Not at all.

MU: Do you feel that way at all?

JO: No way. Our career's continuously gone on the upswing since then.

MU: You yourself stepped out of the spotlight a bit.

JO: I had to take a year or so off. I got burnt out. And I had really serious bad throat problems. I needed to take like a year, year and a half off from singing completely.

MU: Do you think you would feel happy and fulfilled in life if you were not doing this?

JO: No, not at all. I don't know what I'd do with myself if I wasn't doing this. I mean, this is just my whole life - I live it every day. It's all I do. I don't do anything else but music and it's how I make my living, it's how I support my wife and my son. It's tough, man. Some years you have good years, and some years you have not so good years. But the bills never go away. (laughs)

MU: Why did you shift your vocal style away from the high pitched stuff?

JO: It was just getting; harder and harder to do that. I really killed my voice. from 1982-1986 or '87, I just shredded my throat. I mean, we were doin' a lot of shows. We were touring constantly then. I really just beat the shit out of it.

MU: Can you sing the end of "City Beneath the Surface," those little screams?

JO: Oh yeah, I can do that stuff. My voice is back to the point where I can do that stuff, I just can't do it for two hours a night, twenty-eight nights out of thirty nights. I can go for a good hour a night of what I call high octane singing. And then, that's it, man. If I push it any more than that, I won't be able to sing for two or three days. So I know my limitations, and that's another reason why we have the two singers and stuff. I don't think any one guy could cover a two and a half hour Savatage show.

MU: What do you think of the 'Streets' record?

JO: That's my favorite Savatage record by far.

MU: Why?

JO: That was Paul, myself and my brother working at our best. That was our most enjoyable time, the three of us working as a trio, writing and producing and stuff like that. It was just a very satisfying time, a lot of very fond memories of my brother from that period . . .

MU: Probably your deepest record.

JO: It's a very deep record. There's some great songs on there.

MU: What is your favorite?

JO: Oh god, I've got so many. I love "Tonight He Grins Again," and "If I Go Away." I love "Can You Hear Me Now?", one of my brother's songs, which I thought was one of his most brilliant songs, actually.

MU: I like "St. Patrick's".

JO: That's another - that actually was one of Paul's. Paul wrote the main musical theme behind that song. I thought it was brilliant.

MU: Who wrote the lyrics to that?

JO: Paul O'Neill.

MU: Paul has a bit of an interest in religious faith, I suppose?

JO: I guess so, yeah. (laughs) Paul's very deep.

MU: Do you enjoy singing that stuff?

JO: It's cool. It's very deep. You can really get emotional with it, really get your emotions out and stuff. You can get much heavier singing "hey there Lord, it's me," than you can singing "hey baby squeeze my balls." (laughs)

MU: Did Paul have to sell you on singing this stuff?

JO: No, not at all. I read those lyrics and I was like, "wow, these are great." You know, I wrote some lyrics on that album.

MU: Which?

JO: I wrote most of the stuff for "Tonight He Grins Again," mostly my lyrics. "If I Go Away" I had a lot of lyrics in that. "Believe" I had lyrics in that.

MU: Whose idea was it to quote lyrics from "When the Crowds Are Gone" in "Believe"?

JO: That was my idea.

MU: That was really neat stuff.

JO: That was cool. It just connects the song.

MU: Then you did it again.

JO: I think I did do it one more time.

MU: How come you don't keep it going?

JO: I don't know, you never know. It might pop up this album. (laughs)

MU: Stuff like that makes it fun.

JO: Something like that might pop up on this record.

MU: Do you feel like 'Streets' never really got it's full due?

JO: I think so. I think Atlantic dropped the ball on that record completely.

MU: They were good to you though, hanging on for a while.

JO: They always hung to us because of the writing, and the songwriting and stuff like that. They knew we weren't just a flash in the pan type of band, that we're developing songwriters and we're getting better at what we do, even now. I still don't think that Paul and I have reached our peak writing together yet. I still think we've got a few years left of working together before we really come up with our masterpiece.

MU: Did you get to do much touring for 'Streets'?

JO: We did like five months of touring for that. We did some European stuff. We did some stuff with King Diamond. Then we came to America, and that is around the time when my voice started going. It got worse and worse and worse as we were routing our way back towards Florida. I think my voice finally went out in North Carolina somewhere and I just couldn't even sing anything. And that was it, we just packed the truck up and drove home.

MU: Where did the band go from there?

JO: I went to the doctor's. And they told me I had some bad vocal nodes. I had really severely strained some muscle in there. I don't remember what the hell they call it, but they said I needed to take some time off. Problem was, we had an album due, and uh, the band was on an upswing. We were doing really well.

MU: Did that album do OK commercially?

JO: Yeah, it did OK. It didn't do brilliantly. But it was doing very, very well in Japan, and very, very well in Europe. And the demands for stuff was coming and I just couldn't sing. My voice did not even start to get back to normal for like six to eight months after that happened. So we had to make a decision, and I was kinda burned out anyway. I was like maybe we should just get somebody else to sing.

MU: How difficult of a decision was that?

JO: It was terribly difficult. It killed me. I didn't want to do that. But it was either that or the band was going to break up. So I had no choice.

MU: And you stayed involved anyway.

JO: Absolutely. I still wrote with them, rehearsed with them.

MU: What did you do for 'Edge of Thorns'?

JO: I wrote mostly all the songs, played all the keyboards, and directed Zack in the studio. I worked with Zack on the vocals as best I could. I kinda coached Zack along. The thing that a lot of people don't know is that I was coming back to the band after the 'Edge of Thorns' tour was completed. 'Cause I was getting back to where I was gonna be able to start to sing again. I didn't want to take over. I wasn't gonna come back as the full-time singer because I had wanted to play a little guitar and play more keyboards. I would sing some of the stuff. And then Criss got killed. That threw a monkey wrench into everything. But it never was planned for me never to come back to the band. It was just that I needed some time off to get my shit together, get my throat back, get my voice back.

MU: Who selected Zack?

JO: Criss and I did.

MU: How do you think your voice compares to his?

JO: I wanted someone who was totally different sounding than me. So I think maybe I picked Zack 'cause I knew in the back of my mind that eventually we would be singing together.

MU: Who do you think the fans like better?

JO: I don't know. It depends what they're hearing the guy sing. If you're playin' "Mountain King", they would rather hear me sing it than Zack, and vice-versa. If they were doin' "Edge of Thorns", they'd probably like to hear Zack sing it better than me because he sings it better than I do. I go back to the Beatles. They had three lead singers. You had John Lennon and Paul McCartney. If Lennon sang a song, McCartney sang a song or they sang something together, it was still the Beatles. It's still magic. I like the way things work now with both of us singing. This new album is more fifty-fifty vocal-wise.

MU: Are you singing any ballads, Jon?

JO: Only half of one song on the record is a ballad, and Zack sings that. Then it turns into a pretty hard and heavy ending. There aren't really any ballads on this record. It's a very heavy record for Savatage. Fans are going to be quite surprised. If they're expecting anything like 'Wake of Magellen' or 'Dead Winter Dead', they're gonna be surprised, 'cause this record falls more in the 'Streets' / 'Gutter Ballet' type of heavy, heavier sound.

MU: When your brother passed away, there must have been a thought that the band was over?

JO: Oh yeah, absolutely.

MU: Why the decision to continue?

JO: I don't know. What are you gonna do? It was the only thing I knew how to do, and me and my brother had talked a long time ago. We had drunken talks on the tour bus and stuff - "if I ever die man, just keep playin'." Brothers. We always have had that kinda thing - what would you do if, and what if this happened. I know Criss would have wanted me to keep the band together. I know that's what he would have wanted. That's what I would have wanted if I had died. I would have wanted him to keep playing and be happy. Savatage is our life. It's all we've done since we were teenagers. We never went to college.. We never had regular jobs. This is all we've ever done. So what are you gonna do? I still was under contract for three more records, so I had to make a decision. I was very depressed, obviously, at that time, and the 'Handful of Rain' record was kinda like a therapy for me because it gave me something to do. It gave me something to focus on. And Paul and I had written that song for Criss and we wanted to put that out anyway. That was really the inspiration behind doing the whole album - just to put that "Alone You Breathe" track out.

MU: That song quotes from "Believe."

JO: Yes, that is the one. But that 'Handful of Rain' album was more like a solo album, because no one showed up. That still was only five or six months after Criss died. And I don't think Johnny was emotionally ready to deal with it, and Steve wasn't into doing anything. I basically was down there in Florida with just me and Paul and Zack. We had to pretty much talk Zack into coming in and singing because he didn't know what was going on, and wasn't into doing anything. Everyone was really, really seriously affected by what happened to Criss. The impact was indescribable. It took some of the guys a longer time to get over - not to get over, 'cause you'll never get over it, but to deal with it. So I was finding myself in the studio every night by myself with Paul, and we just recorded the record. I played everything. I played the drums, the bass, all of the guitars. And then we hired Alex to come in and play solos.

MU: How do you think that worked?

JO: Well the guy came in like the last week of the record. We took a tape to the hotel room and I sat with him for a couple of days and figured out where he was gonna play solos and what. He went in and blew right through it. He was really great. Then Zack came in and sang and then we mixed it. That was kinda like my therapy record.

MU: What happened next?

JO: Well to tie it all in, after the 'Handful of Rain' record was finished and Johnny heard it - at that time I was talking to Chris Caffery a lot more. We all got together one day down in Florida and said let's just all get back together and go and do this. And we got Chris back in the band.

MU: Chris was involved earlier also.

JO: Yeah. He was involved earlier, and then he left to do his own thing, but that never really took off or did anything and we ended up taking him back after Criss died. I did the Dr. Butcher record with him, which we had a lot of fun doin'. So we also remained in contact. My brother's death seriously affected Chris Caffery. It pretty much shut him out for a year or so. He did nothing but stay up at his mom's house. He didn't go anywhere. He didn't do anything. It was a very, very hard thing for Chris to get over. And finally we all got together and we said look, Criss O. would have wanted us to stick together and go ahead and do this. So that's when we all got together and did the 'Dead Winter Dead' record and we've been goin' at it since.

MU: How do you rate 'Dead Winter Dead' versus 'Magellean'?

JO: I like them both about the same. I mean they're concept records. It's a different . . . when you're doin' a concept record you're writing music to a story. You have to write the music according to the ups and downs of the story. So,it's like writing to a guideline. Which is great, and I like doin' it, but I think I'm just a little burnt out on 'em 'cause I've done so many of 'em over the last - between that and T.S.O. I've done like five of them in the last five years. I'm so concepted out. (laughs)

MU: So the new one . . .

JO: The new one is just like, we wrote all the music, but we don't even have a word written yet. Which is the best thing because the music just came out fresh and aggressive. It's a very aggressive record.

MU: Who is writing the lyrics?

JO: Paul and I are starting on the lyrics. Actually, we've been dabbling with verses and choruses here and there. Even the lyrics that we've come up with so far are very aggressive. The songs are very aggressive so the lyrics are coming out on a more aggressive type of approach because we're writing the lyrics for the music.

MU: Is the album more metal?

JO: I wouldn't say it's more metal, I'd say it's definitely more of the heavier Savatage sound. There's definitely more in there than there has been over the past couple of records. Mainly, it's a lot more guitar heavy than the last two records. Of course, again, the last two records being concept records, orchestration was very much a part of those two. Most of these songs Chris and I wrote on guitars, so it's a very guitar heavy album. There's a lot of quick-paced stuff, some fast things, double-bass stuff that's goin' on that's really cool. Just some weird stuff. It's just a really aggressive record for Savatage.

MU: One last topic. Trans-Siberian. How did that come about?

JO: Paul and I write a lot of material. We wanted another avenue to get material out there that was still under our control, versus writing songs for other people to do. You give them the song, and then they go in the studio, and however it comes out, it comes out. We wanted to do something we can't do under the guise of Savatage, or stuff that we wouldn't do under Savatage. We didn't want any one particular voice. We wanted to use however many voices we want. That's how it started. The name Trans-Siberian Orchestra was a name that Paul came up with off of the Trans-Siberian train line. And that was it. We can write whatever kinda song we want to write. We can get whatever kind of singer that best suits that song. Sometimes it's me. On 'Beethoven's Last Night', I ended up winning the role of the devil.

MU: Does TSO pay the bills?

JO: Oh definitely. Trans-Siberian Orchestra is a gold act here in America.

MU: What is the top priority: Savatage or TSO?

JO: Everything we do is top priority. We have everything scheduled out where we have certain months dedicated to this, certain months are dedicated to that. Savatage is doing huge numbers in Europe and South America and in Asia, so Savatage is a priority over there. TSO here in the States right now is more of a priority than Savatage is. I think that's gonna change with this new Savatage record with Nuclear Blast and stuff. Savatage is a priority at their label. I think good things are gonna come from that.

MU: Were you on the Fox Family Channel special?

JO: No, I was not on that. You know, I did so much work with that. I didn't want it to look like - I mean, if I'm there, it's Savatage.

MU: But Johnny Lee Middleton was up there.

JO: Yeah we had Johnny and Chris and Jeff were playing, and Al, and me and Zack and Paul tried to like stay out of the picture. And I may do some of the Christmas shows this year. Some of the touring stuff.

MU: Is it strange with Savatage leaving Atlantic while TSO is still there?

JO: Not really. It's been a pretty good run with Atlantic with Savatage, and they are very into the TSO thing. It is just easier for us, it's less confusing. I don't want Savatage to be on the back burner at a major label because nothing will happen, and I'll just be wasting my time. I think even the guys at Atlantic understand that. I mean, they just have so much goin' on over there. Savatage needs more personal attention here in the states.

MU: When can expect that new record?

JO: Early September. The working title is 'Poets and Madmen.'


review of Savatage's 'Ghost in the Ruins: A Tribute to Criss Oliva'







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