Poetry in Motion
Brave Words & Bloody Knuckles
For those of you who have been living under a very large rock, a short recap of the last year in happy sava-landmight be in order. Prior to the recording of their newest opus, Poets and Madmen, guitarist Al Pitrelli and singer Zack Stevens both opted to leave the band. Pitrelli defected to the Megadeth camp, and Stevens decided it was more important that he remain with his wife and newborn child than spend most of the coming year on tour. Cool? Let us commence...
Jon Oliva - Mountains and molehills
"I've got enough frequent flyer mileage to go to the moon."
So says Savatage singer/keysman/songwriter/founder Jon Oliva on the last day of his European promo tour for Poets and Madmen. And despite the fact that he's logged seemingly countless air miles traveling all over Europe and has answered the same questions over and over, the Mountain King is in a very good mood. The new album is, for the most part, being well received, making the momentous growing pains and annoying delays that he and his bandmates have had to endure well worth it.
At the time of this interview, Oliva and Co. Had narrowed Pitrelli's and Stevens' replacements down from eight guitar players to three and ten singers to three. Two weeks later, word came out that Seven Witches guitarist Jack Frost had snagged the vacant guitar slot, and soon to be not-so-unknown Damond Jiniya had stepped behind the microphone. The personnel change within Savatage has, of course, caused some unwanted headaches - Poets and Madmen was due out last September, and May 2000 before that - but Oliva harbours no hard feelings towards Pitrelli or Stevens.
"Al's decision to leave was based on his financial situation; we're still close friends," says Oliva. "But we all kind of knew that Al wasn't going to be around permanently anyway. From the day we got him in the band everyone was telling us we should start looking for another guitar player (laughs). The fans were telling us 'Al will not be with you very long. He has played with 2003 bands, now you make 2004.'We wish him well. We love him and he knows that. I don't know if we'll work together again; that remains to be seen."
Oliva makes no bones about the fact that Stevens is going to be much harder to replace than Pitrelli.
"Al wasn't really a part of the main writing process. He was a good guitar player. The door is open for Zack to come back; he's family. We understand why he made his decision. It was a tough decision for the guy and I felt really bad for him. He was practically in tears talking to me phone about it. It's not like he wanted to leave, but he can't leave his wife and a baby on a farm for eight months by themselves. But we'll be okay."
"Savatage is the kind of band where you can knock us down but we stand up and brush the dirt off and keep plodding along." he adds. "We've had many, many setbacks, but that shows how strong the nucleus of the band is because we bounce back from them. We lost two guys on this and I think we delivered the album the band's done since Gutter Ballet or Streets."
The phrase "back to the roots" has been tossed about when discussing Poets And Madmen, but it raises some questions in this writer's so-called mind when listening to the new album. Are people talking about going back to a Power Of The Night sound, or the Gutter Ballet sound? Power Of The Night marked Savatage's first real recognition as a metal entity, but Gutter Ballet was the breakthrough in terms of the quasi-orchestral sound that made them famous. Poets And Madmen seems to be both and neither.
"That's a great question. What I think it is with Poets And Madmen is that we just wanted to have fun. The memories of doing those records, like Power Of The Night and Mountain King and Gutter, we all had fun. The last few years have not been fun for us. The Wake Of Magellan and Dead Winter Dead are great records, but we did two records like that. If you look at the career of Savatage we kind of do everything in twos. If you take Sirens and The Dungeons Are Calling, the difference between those two and The Power Of The Night shows the progression. Mountain King and Gutter Ballet led us into the first concept thing, which was Streets, so you see that with every couple of albums we try to do something that makes it new and fresh for us."
Poets And Madmen is a decidedly heavier affair than the last few Savatage albums. Whether or not that is a good thing, the fans will decide. No question, though, that guitarist Caffery put his stamp on this album in bold script.
"Chris wrote a lot with me on this record," Oliva confirms. "His influence is all over the record, and that's good. We wrote a lot of songs on guitar; we'd just sit together and jam, write riffs and put them on tape and bring them to rehearsal where we'd crank them up. We just started to piece things together like a jigsaw puzzle and everything fell into place. Chris had to step up, we all did, and I think we pulled it off."
And yes, Oliva ensures me that there are indeed some lost Doctor Butcher riffs floating around the mix.
When the band furst started gearing up to write and record the new album, there were reports that Savatage was not going to write a concept album because they felt they had done enough work in that vein. Not surprisingly, things changed, and the new album is indeed conceptually based. One wonders if the band finds it hard to distance itself from doing concept albums at this point of their career in light of the fact such works have done so well for them.
"It's a very crowded music world out there," Oliva says simply. "I think the concepts, the way we do them, kind of gives us a little niche, our own little space on a very crowded mountain. There was no concept for this when we wrote it; that's the difference between this album and the last two. Winter and Magellan were stories that were finished and handed to us and we put music to them. This, Paul (O'Neill/producer) and I didn't decide to make this a concept until we started doing the vocal tracks. We started thinking that with everything going we should give the fans a little extra."
"The other thing is, with all this Napster shit going on, you want to do something that's going to make the people buy the CD. Otherwise people are just going to download it and we're not going to be able to make our car payments next year, saying 'Yeah, but there were eight thousand people at the show!' Yeah, but none of 'em paid for your record, idiot (laughs). I'm proud of a lot of the stuff that we do; it's different. How many song can you write about screwing the chick next door or hanging out at a rave party all night? You can only go so far with shit like that."
"Doing these concepts, it takes a lot of work and a lot of patience," Oliva continues. "But we're studio buffs anyway, so we like to take the extra time on our records. We spend three months on just getting the rhythm guitars right. A lot of bands are like 'Oh, we did our record in six weeks!' and I'm sitting there going 'Yeah, it sounds like it.' We spend a lot of time in the studio to make sure that when the CD comes out it's something that's going to stand the test of time."
Although a concept had not been planned for Poets And Madmen, having Oliva and Stevens share equal vocal billing had been. In fact, the two voices were originally meant to be the focal point of the album. Having to tailor all the vocals to Oliva's voice following Stevens' departure must have produced it's share of problems beyond mere scheduling of the release.
"There were a few songs that we dropped because they were more suited to Zack to sing, and I didn't want to push that," Oliva reveals. "I know my limitations and there are certain song that I wrote specifically for Zack to sing, that are written for a more melodic voice. So two of those songs got replaced by other songs that were more suitable for me, but that was really it, and now that I listen to the finished record I couldn't hear it without the songs that are on it. It's really weird how it happened; maybe the record was meant to be done this way, and maybe it'll pay off."
While many Savatage fans will likely applaud Jon Oliva's return to the frontman position, there's little doubt that just as many will de dissapointed at not hearing Stevens' melodic croon. Oliva makes it clear that as far as he's concerned, his "solo" performance is a one-shot deal; the next album will definitely feature two singers. The dual vocal attack has, after all, become something of a Savatage trademark since 1995's Dead Winter Dead. According to Oliva, however, having two voices doing the work had been in planning at a much earlier point in the band's career.
"When we got Zack, he wasn't supposed to be the only singer," Oliva explains. "I was coming back into the band with Chris Caffery for the next record after Edge Of Thorns, which ended up being Handful Of Rain, and we were going to have two singers like we wanted. Then Criss (Oliva/guitars, Jon's brother) died and that screwed everything up, and I had to rebound from that. Eventually we started discussing having two singers full time, and on Poets And Madmen we were going to go full-blown into having me sing half the album and Zack the other half. But, you know, Zack made his decision, and rather that hold up the album another year we decided it would be best if I just did it. The fans will get a kick out of it because I haven't done a record in a long time. We'll worry about finding Zack's replacement, make sure he's the right guy, and introduce him on the next record."
When it comes to playing live, Oliva says that the new material will likely all be done by him. He reveals that there are a couple of live formats Savatage will be using over the coming year when hitting the stage.
"There are two shows that we'll do. The two-and-a-half hour headline shows will be like a history of the band show. We'll do periods of the band, and there the new guy is going to have to help out. His main job is to be covering Zack's stuff. But on the festival sets it'll be more of a greatest hits package with three or four new songs. There are a couple of songs on Poets And Madmen that are built for two singers anyway, like 'Drive'. I'm gonna work it out to where the guy isn't sitting on the side of the stage watching me all night (laughs). I'm good for an hour a night, and he can have the rest."
To say that many Savatage fans ahev been clamoring to see Oliva front and center is something of an understatement, although many die-hards will admit that Stevens was a more than capable substitute in the same breath. During the band's European tour for The Wake Of Magellan, the high point of every night was Oliva's solo medley of some of his more popular sings performed from behind his keyboard, and the vocal tradeoff with Stevens during 'Hall Of The Mountain King'. Oliva has admittedly avoided doing very much live singing for fear of blowing out his voice as he did prior to Steven's timely arrival on the scene in 1993. He now feels confident taking a more active role behind the microphone.
"I'm not worried about blowing out my voice anymore because I took some voice training lessons," says Oliva. "The reason I lost my voice in the first place is because I never took them. I never learned proper techniques of breathing and controlling my voice. I was always 120% full volume, full bore screaming, and after ten years of that it was like gargling with razor blades every morning. I'm a little concerned, yeah, but I know my limitations and I won't overstep that boundary. I just have to craft everything to go along with it."
As mentioned, Poets And Madmen sees the return of a heavier Savatage, incorporating many elements of their past on one album. There is a noticeable absence of the all-out orchestration that dominated much of Dead Winter Dead and The Wake Of Magellan, and the Trans Siberian Orchestra albums as well, in which both Oliva and O'Neill play integral roles. Asked if he thinks Savatage has taken the orchestral thing as far as it can go - thus the slightly different direction this time out - Oliva had mixed feelings.
"I don't think we've taken it as far as we can go," he says initially, "but I think we've found that we want to draw more of a separation between Savatage and TSO. That's another reason why I toned down the orchestra stuff a little bit on this, and I worked a little more like the fans wanted it, basically. That's the feedback I was getting from the tours and stuff. That way it's going to make it easier for Savatage to do other things and screw around a little bit, and TSO is already on its own roller-coaster and it's already going down the track."
A moment of thoughtful silence, then: "I would have to say no, we haven't taken things as far as they can go, but I'm very curious to see where we're going to go with it next. I have some ideas and I've talked to Paul about them, and he finds them interesting, but we're going to have to see how it works. It's tough though, man (laughs). We have no free time. But, we love it that way."
Chris Caffery - Damonds and Frost
Poets and Madmen is, to many people's ears, probably the heaviest album Savatage has done since Gutter Ballet. According to BW&BK's graphics man Hugues Laflamme, it "sounds like a laid-back Doctor Butcher". In guitarist Chris Caffery's words, it's the most "traditional" they've done in a long time. Reactions from the metal press and fans have been excellent according to the band, but there has been some negativity floating around as well, with many people having hoped for an album that continued to follow the symphonic mega-productions of the last two Savatage platters. Also, the absence of Zack Stevens is not so easily accepted by those fans that came on board after Oliva gave up his microphone in 1993 for Edge Of Thorns.
Rather that copping a "like it or lump it" attitude, however, the band went on a search for a new singer and guitarist following the recording of Poets And Madmen, finally filling the six member roster at the beginning of March. Caffery is ecstatic to have both Jiniya and Frost on board.
"There was another kid from Boston that we came real close to picking," Caffery says on choosing Jiniya. "He actually covered Jon better than Jon, which was the really freaky thing about that (laughs), but when we were sitting around thinking about it, it was like 'Wait a second, we have Jon; we don't need to replace him.' We didn't need that, especially since Jon just did a whole record by himself and everybody's been wanting him to sing more on stage over the last several years. We had to adjust our thinking back to getting someone who could cover Zack's stuff, and that was Damond."
"Damond is definitely a star," Caffery continues. "He walked into the room and I thought, 'If this kid can sing one note, he's going to be briljant,' because he just has that Sebastian Bach kind of electricity when he walks into the room. It's a great thing. He's a ball of charisma and a great singer. I got the chance to go out in the city with him and jam with a cover band, and I went up and played one song with him. We were going to do a Sava-tune but I wanted to see him in front of people, and he was amazing to watch. He intimidated all the people in the audience just by staring them down; he's got a strong look and a great voice. Damond reminds me of a cross between Sebastian Bach and The Crow, he's definitely going to be a surprise for people when he's on stage."
Caffery is brutally honest about the fact that with Jiniya firmly in place, any fears about the fans not taking to a replacement for Stevens have been laid to rest.
"Nothing against Zack, but I think this kid is briljant. I think, if anything, people are going to be blown away by him. His voice is very similar to Zack's but he's definitely a different type of animal."
It was something of a surprise for a lot of people when Jack Frost had gotten the gig as Savatage's new guitarist. Frost is known as metal's Everyman, seemingly playing with every band under the sun and having just signed a three album deal for Seven Witches with Sanctuary Records. There are some glaring questions as to why Savatage would choose someone that has a full plate already when they have a very busy year ahead of them.
"We had that situation before though," Caffery reminds me. "I heard those exact same words - 'He plays with every band under the sun' - when we first started working with Al. The thing is, Al's situation is slightly different from Jack's because Al has a wife and three kids and a house in the most expensive part of New York (Long Island), and in order to support that by playing guitar Al played with a lot of different bands. With the way business is nowadays, bands aren't loading up and touring for eighteen months anymore. Al was fortunate enough to be good enough to go out and make a goof living playing guitar."
"With Jack , it's one of those things where he loves to play. He lives in New Jersey. Seven Witches obviously wasn't touring constantly, so he filled his time playing with bands like The Bronx Casket Company and Metalium and made a living the same way. He loves Savatage; he's definitely very committed to make things work. He basically put everything he was doing on hold for five months while we were deciding because he first knew about us considering using him back in October. He turned down a lot of other things waiting for us, and this was knowing the fact that he would be coming in and, in this case, be a rhythm guitar player."
Caffery reveals that while the race for the vocalist slot was close, the majority of contenders for Savatage's lead guitar position were, in his opinion, only averga players.
"We weren't really receiving a whole bunch of great lead guitarist on the audition tapes," he says. "People that were decent, yeah, but after a while I turned around and realized that there wasn't one fucking person playing what Al did better than I could do it. So, we changed our thinking. We started looking for someone who would be the best person for Savatage instead of overplaying some guy that's got a couple of records out and something of a reputation, and then having to cater that. We wanted to get somebody who would be committed to getting on the road and touring no matter what because we want to spend a long time on the road this year."
Once the decision was made to bring Frost into the band, Caffery says he wasted no time integrating him into the Savatage world. He admits that loosing Pitrelli as as a guitar partner is not an easy thing to overcome even though he is confident in Frost's talents. Caffery is, in fact, quite passionate about the subject.
"Me and Al were an extremely unique blend; it was a special thing. It's kind of rare sometimes, when you have two people coming from as two different musical worlds as Al and I did, to make thing work the way they did. Personally we got along so well that it was able to come through on stage. The thing that sucks about the situation with Al, for me, is that it took us a couple of years to really develop a close relationship, and after a while I was closer to Al than anybody in the band. Right at the time he left to join Megadeth, our relationship as guitarist and people was really close. I was pissed when he left; it sucks. I was happy for him because Megadeth is one of my favourite bands ever, but I definitely was a little vocal about it at first."
"It upset me; I was pissed,"Caffery continues. "It affects the band, it affects the audience and everything else, but it's the other guitar player - me - that has to deal with it the most. It's lile, 'Shit, who the hell am I going to have to play with now? Are the going to have an ego?' I hate guitar players. I am one, and we're assholes (laughs)." Everything is well in hand now, however, with the band gearing up for full-blown rehearsals at the end of March, with their tour due to start in mid-April.
"I think, if anything, Savatage on stage now is going to sound more traditional," Caffery offers, "because me and Jack are approaching the guitars more like me and Criss (Oliva) used to, where it was very tight and very structured. When Jack kind of waves off what he's supposed to play, I'll just look at him and give him the evil eye (laughs)."
As for the praise that is being heaped on Savatage for the new album, which does a fair job of drawing attention away from any negative reactions. Caffery admits to being surprised even though he knows the band has done some fine work. "It's weird for me because sometimes I talk to people and they're so happy with it, and of course, being an artist, I turn around thinking we could have done this and that better. And, as far as I am concerned nothing's ever heavy enough, so I'm always thinking we could have done things a little bit differently. It's a good feeling to know that the fans are liking it, though."
"The thing I really like about the album is that the music is going to work tremendously well live," he adds. "Sometimes when you do a record you get caught up in the studio and you realize later that some of the songs just don't work live. But the stuff on Poets And Madmen, I've been playing along to it, getting it together, and it's going to be great."
And how does Caffery react to the suggestion that Poets And Madmen could well be considered Chris Caffery's Savatage album?
"I think it's the first record where I had a really big impact on the music, let's put it that way", Caffery says. "It's the first record that I had the chance, songwriting-wise especially, to bring a lot of stuff to the table. I still don't think I completely got the green light when it comes to doing what I can do as a guitar player but that's why I'm very excited about the tour. I think that after I get about a year under my belt of going out there and just having that little extra boost of confidence from the fans when I'm playing leads and stuff, that when we go into the studio next time it'll be pretty to see what I'm going to come up with."