The Man Behind The Enduring Success of Savatage Establishes Himself as a Composer
from JAM:Florida's Music Magazine, Jan 19,1996
The Christmas season always seems like the appropriate occasion to renew bonds with family and friends, sharing old memories and singing familiar songs.
One of the most striking and often repeated tracks during this particular holiday season was a rock adaptation of the traditional Christmas carol motet, "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen." An intricate blend of snarling heavy metal guitar and intense orchestration, "Christmas Eve (Sarajevo 12/24)" by the Florida-based band Savatage, was a molten adaptation of familiar themes that will be repeated during the holidays for years to come.
Surprisingly, the song was issued for radio almost as an after- thought by Atlantic Records-- a label that has struggled for years to break Savatage's progressive metal sound into the mainstream market. A stunning instrumental segue, "Christmas Eve (Sarajevo 12/24)" occurs during the closing moments of a longer conceptual work, a story based on the war in Bosnia and Serbia. Atlantic Records has reinforced the tie-in by promoting the band's Dead Winter Dead album as "a heart wrenching rock opera inspired by the real-life events in Sarajevo."
"A gut wrenching rock opera..." Jon Oliva's forehead crashes with a clunk onto his kitchen table after tersely emitting the words like an epithet. After a few moments of silence, the last remaining original member of Savatage shakes his head in disbelief and then looks up, as if asking for guidance from above.
"I'm gonna kill that guy when I get my hands on him," he mutters, appearing very annoyed at the crass marketing tactic. "It's a sticker that (the record label) put on the goddamn CD-- I let them pick the cover, I let them do everything! All I asked from them was that I didn't want the word 'rock opera' anywhere on the CD, right? Then Johnny (Savatage bassis Johnny Lee Middleton) calls me yesterday after he saw a copy in the stores and tells me, 'You're not gonna believe this...'
"That figures," he says taking another drag off a filtered Parliament, obviously piqued about his request that had been ignored.
"That's okay," he says, as a sly grin creeps across his face, "The cover could have me sticking my tongue out and it will still sell," he says cynically, chuckling a benign version of the evil laughter most listeners associate with the band's leader/writer/vocalist/keyboardist.
While Oliva still spends most of his time in New York writing and producing various musical projects, he's back home in Florida this winter on a hiatus-against-his-will. It's only a few weeks before Savatage leaves on a headlining European tour (with a postponed Sarajevo date due to "instability"), but Oliva has planned to use the short time to record a second album by his side band, Doctor Butcher. To Oliva's dismay, the studio financing has been held up, delaying the project until sometime in late 1996.
But just as if Jolly Ol' Nick himself had stuffed the band's stocking, the unexpected reception to "Christmas Eve" has elevated the often moody Oliva into good spirits.
Normally a self-imposed workaholic, the free time gives Oliva a much needed afternoon of breathing room. With a keyboard placed upon his kitchen table, Oliva is at home working on some transitional music for a musical he's been commissioned to finish before the start of Savatage's tour.
Sitting behind a picture window, Oliva appears relaxed and talkative-- a comfortable setting that sharply contrasts with the reflections of his often-stormy musical career and his tenuous relationship with Savatage-- one of the most unusual bonds in rock history full of atrocious business deals, perplexing line-up changes, and personal tragedies.
Savatage began in the late 70s as Metropolis, and then Avatar-- an aspiring Tampa Bay area trio with Jon on bass, his younger brother Criss Oliva on guitar, and Steve "Dr. Killdrums" Wacholz on drums.
"When we started, we were one of the first heavy metal bands around here," Oliva remarks about Tampa's early hard rock scene. "You had Romeo, Boot, Stranger, and White Witch and then there was The Outlaws-- but when we came out, no one wanted to book us because we weren't Southern rock.
"Then about 1979, we started getting serious about working with our music-- we knew that playing Ted Nugent songs in bars just wasn't where we were going."
Around that time, bassist Keith Collins had joined the band to allow Jon Oliva more room as a writer and vocalist. Collins was considerably older than the rest of the group and was an outspoken advocate in the metal community-- attributes that Oliva credits Collins for using his business contacts in booking club dates and supporting the band. It was this association that led to Savatage's first pair of albums on the Tampa-based Par label.
The band's early recordings were quite an achievment for an independent metal band of the era. The 15 songs used for both Sirens (released in 1983) and The Dungeons Are Calling (1984) were recorded in a three day period for around $2,500.
"Those are still our best selling albums," Oliva says with a shrug, "you figure it out, man. We once told a snooty British record producer about it and he just roared, 'that was just for the dinner check, right?' "
By 1984, Savatage were critically acknowledged as the (Tampa) Bay area's most promising metal act. On the premise that some record label executives would be in attendance, Savatage raised $500 to pay a promoter to open a concert with Zebra (touring behind their lone radio hit, "Who's Behind The Door?") at St. Petersburg's Bayfront Center. The show made quite an impression. In one of the last sweetheart deals cut before the music industry's mid-80s recession, the label signed the band for ten albums. But what was once promised as the band's long-term security quickly became a financial burden.
"We were kids when we started Savatage. We thought that when we signed that contract that we were going to be rich," Oliva says, recalling the brief contract talks. "We had absolutely no conception of what the business was like. We spent our first four or five years not making any money. We were working harder but were continuously getting deeper in debt. Between managers and attorneys, we were giving away 50% of our gross revenues. Things were moving so fast, so chaotic in those years-- it was a nightmare. It takes a long time for a band, that's smoked pot and jammed their whole lives, to understand that they are a legitimate business that's generating over a million dollars of revenue.
"We had a standard recording deal but, unfortunately, it has taken around (our sixth album) before everything was getting even and we began making money. Savatage has never made millions of dollars for the band, but we've grossed something like $10 million worldwide-- and that's not a scratch," Oliva remarks with a bit of pride.
It was around the debut of their Atlantic album, Power Of The Night (1985), that the group voted Collins out and brought in bassist Johnny Lee Middleton. Oliva now admits the first replacement was a tough decision, but depending on recording and touring circumstances, Savatage has had twelve different members (including Testament's Alex Skolnick briefly) with a different roster for almost every album.
Along with the quick succession of band members and money woes, the members of Savatage were also losing control of their music. Oliva regards Fight For The Rock (1986) as their weakest album made at the group's lowest ebb.
"I wrote a bunch of poppier songs that were supposed to be recorded by other artists-- at the time, we shared management with John Waite who was supposed to be interested in them," Oliva says, explaining his change in songwriting direction.
"Unfortunately, our record label began saying that they wanted more 'sellable' songs and our managers-- seeing the quick paycheck of a popular AOR album that they could up the publishing deal-- talked us into doing those songs. It was like taking Savatage and turning us into Journey. It was terrible. They had us work with a producer that had all these mellow guitar sounds. We knew we were getting ripped off, but there was nothing we could do about it.
"But the worst thing (our managers) ever did to us was that they left the whole band stranded in London without any money-- just plane tickets to get back to New York. We couldn't pay our hotel bill and we actually had to escape by throwing our luggage out the windows and then leave, pretending that we were going out for breakfast. We jumped into a friend's car and took off for the airport."
Once touted as a rising influence in metal circles, critics and insiders wrote the band off after Fight For The Rock. Crushed by the reaction, Oliva began binging on alcohol and cocaine while alienating himself from the other members of Savatage.
It was during those darkest hours when a couple of music industry folks called Oliva. Producer Paul O'Neill, a skilled but uncharted lyricist, was looking for a heavy band to convey his conceptual ideas. Likewise, David Krebbs, a former Broadway booker responsible for the success of Beatlemania, was looking for a fresh incentive after managing Aerosmith, Ted Nugent and AC/CD to stardom.
After restructuring Savatage's recording contract, both O'Neill and Krebbs persuaded Oliva to begin work on the elaborate, prog-metal album the young writer had always dreamed about making.
Oliva acknowledges that the rebirth of Savatage occurred during sessions for Hall Of The Mountain King (1987). The trademark Savatage sound - booming rock epics drenched in multi-layered keyboards with Criss Oliva's wicked guitar frenzies-- finally began to take shape.
"It was an amazing turn around," Jon Oliva says of the band's transformation. "We came out with Mountain King and blew everyone away. The year before, we were escaping from a hotel room and the next year we're playing the Nassau Coliseum with Megadeth and Dio on New Year's Eve."
Arguably, these were Savatage's most fruitful years, recording a pair of albums (1989's Gutter Ballet and 1991's Streets) that have come to be regarded as some of the most lavish, symphonic metal bombardments ever recorded. There were headlining tours in Europe and Japan where the band's album sales still hover near gold status. There were successful American dates shared with White Zombie, Kiss and Fates Warning.
But there was also Oliva's dark side creeping back in. Even though he had checked himself into a Minnesota rehabilitation clinic, the pressure of touring became too much for him. Now in his 30s, Oliva grew restless with the routine.
He became more interested in developing his own side projects, like maniacal metal of Doctor Butcher, rather than repeating himself in Savatage. Although he still played occasional keyboards and co-wrote all of the band's material, Oliva worked as an absentee member with the band.
With more and more outside writing projects developing, he turned over the shared responsibility of Savatage soley to his brother Criss. Touted as a completely new Savatage, with new vocalist Zackary Stevens, the band seemed very eager to tour behind Edge Of Thorns (1993) when the unthinkable occurred.
Early in the morning on October 17th, 1993, Criss and his wife Dawn were traveling on U.S. 301 to attend the final day of an outdoor Livestock festival in Zephyrhills. A drunk driver was attempting to pass a semi-trailer in the oncoming traffic when it struck Oliva's car, killing Criss instantly and severely injuring Dawn. The drunk driver was convicted the following year of DUI manslaughter, sentenced to five years in prison and 10 years probation. Criss's death is still being felt in the music community.
"Definitely the lowest point in all of this was when Criss passed away," Oliva says somberly, with his hands folded in front of him. "I was so shattered when that happened. That whole period of time was like a dream. There's not a day that goes by that I don't think about him.
"His death was easier for me to deal with than I expected, but I also knew that he wasn't a very happy person. He was having a lot of personal problems during the last few months of his life. He wasn't really happy with the way Savatage was going at the time-- he didn't know how to handle all of the authority that he'd been given. It was sad because I was stuck up in New York, having a guilt trip. If I would have been here in Florida, Criss would have been with me that night and maybe all of this wouldn't have happened.
"Not that anything would have changed, but I get this weird feeling occasionally that maybe it was his time. He got to see more and do more in thirty years than most people get to see in two lifetimes. It's not like he didn't live. Even though all those years weren't blissful and showered in riches, he did get to a certain level of success and respect.
"I know he would have never wanted me to put an end to everything. Both of us worked so hard and sacrificed so much to get the band where it was. He would have wanted me to push it as far as I could push it. As long as I keep Savatage going, that keeps his memory alive for me-- it means the back catalogue is out there and that people can still buy the records and listen to him."
Jon recently mixed several Savatage concert tapes, recorded on the 1987 tour with Dio, for a live tribute album to Criss, entitled Final Bell, that should be available in America late this spring.
"I think Criss was an incredibly underrated guitarist. In my opinion he was better than any of them. I've seen them all, heard them all a thousand times, and there was no one that was as natural-- not trained nor schooled-- to make the guitar sound like that. It was a shame because I can only imagine what he would be doing now since he was getting better with each record," Jon proudly says of his songwriting partner-- but in a few brief moments of sadness, sounding more like an older brother, "I sure wish he was still around today."
Jon Oliva recorded the depresssing Handful Of Rain (1994) as a tribute to his brother during a peculiar period of Savatage history. Oliva played all of the drums and most of the bass tracks-- a puzzling performance that even had band members wondering if Savatage existed anymore.
It took O'Neill's and Oliva's conceptual tone about the armed conflict in Easern Europe for the band to regroup. Dead Winter Dead features Oliva in his current behind-the-scenes writing, arranging, producing, and keyboards role (although he does lend a lead vocal on a couple of the album's tracks) along with the current incarnation of Savatage, featuring bassist Johnny Lee Middleton, vocalist Zachary Stevens, guitarists Al Pitrelli and Chris Caffery, and drummer Jeff Plate.
Once a former raging frontman, Oliva's relationship with Savatage is rather anonymous now-- he's not even pictured on American copies of Dead Winter Dead's CD booklet. What was once the pride of hometown Tampa folks, several members of the band now live in New York and North Carolina. Once toasted as the area's most successful, long-standing national rock act, the off-again/on-again status of the band also sets up an interesting financial arrangement that's as complicated as anything else concerning Savatage.
"Savatage has always been my brother and me, and then when Paul (O'Neill) came in, it was the three of us-- that's the corporate set-up. Savatage the band is Johnny, Zack and I as the main three. Our drummer Jeff was a "hired hand" for the first year or so, but is a member now. But you can't walk into a band that's been together for 15 years and expect to have an equal cut of everything," Oliva says about the band's money matters, "people would be killing each other. And since Chris has been in the band before, he gets a little more than Jeff. On the road, we basically take the same amount of money and split the merchandise. I don't have to do that-- I could keep all of it-- but you have to draw the line somewhere. And even though he's a equal member, Johnny doesn't put the time into Savatage like I do. When I start working on the record, it's about three months before the band knows we're even doing a record."
Now that the constraints of working with Savatage full-time have been lifted, Oliva is free to pursue more writing projects. He has devoted most of his time to finshing a Broadway musical, but Oliva has also found a special outlet in his alter ego band, Doctor Butcher-- an angry thrash band that fans think sounds like the original Savatage.
"Doctor Butcher is like being 15 years old again," remarks Oliva, grinning a broad smile over his indulgence. "I'm screaming 'fuck you' and no one cares. If I tried to do that on a Savatage album, people would go ballistic on me. Paul O'Neill says we're classy. Why do we have to be classy? It's perfect-- in Doctor Butcher I can do whatever I want. It's so totally opposite of a Savatage recording-- we plug in, we turn everything up as loud as we can possibly make it, we plow through it and have a good time."
Putting a copy of Doctor Butcher's debut disc into a nearby CD player, Oliva beams as the twisted riffs boom out of the speakers. "It's like early 'pre-record' Savatage, before Sirens," he says. "You can only get it through import stores, though. I tried to get a deal for some American distribution, but the label I'd been pursuing had stalled on this contract for a month. They just kept coming back with less money. It was kind of disappointing because we were planning on a new album (with a working title, The Good, The Bad, The Butchered) in December, but now I've got to put it all back. I would do this for nothing, without an advance, just to get it out there. The record company has nothing to lose-- it's already finished-- all they have to do is duplicate it. Even if it only sells 10,000 records, they will more than make their money back."
But if Oliva sounds frustrated over his pet metal project, he can barely contain his enthusiasm for the music that has consumed most of his life over the past couple of years.
After the release of Streets: A Rock Opera, MCA Publishing approached Paul O'Neill and Jon Oliva about writing a musical for the Broadway stage-- specifically for the new generation of theatre crowds that have accepted rock-based works like Tommy, Chess, and Phantom Of The Opera.
O'Neill and Oliva spent nine months working on a production, (tentatively titled Romanovs) about the final days of the 1914 Russian Revolution. There was a lot of shared skepticism about the project, except when some of the biggest developers on Broaddway loved the idea and threw their weight behind it. Both the William Morris Agency and Pace Theatrical have put O'Neill and Oliva on retainer for the musical-- one that has caused a bit of a bidding war recently for the publishing rights.
Oliva sounds in awe of the vastness of this project, saying, "This thing is way over my head. At first, I didn't believe Paul when he said that we were signing to William Morris-- it was only then that I began to realize that this thing was for real.
"Paul and I were very nervous when we performed a preliminary run-through of the show for all of these executives and investors. Here we were alone-- Paul singing and me playing keyboards-- but these guys told us to relax. It took us two-and-a-half-hours to go through it and these guys in suits never moved a muscle. I was really tense until this 60-year-old man stood up at the end, turned to the others, and said, 'I love it. I think it's brilliant.' I just started wondering if this guy was on the best drugs in the world," he says, as he lets out a huge roar of laughter.
Currently Romanovs is in pre-production. The music is finished, the backers are auditioning singers, and work has begun on developing the sets. Although there is no guarantee that the production will ever open on Broadway (there are strong rumors that it will open regionally either in the Washington, D.C. or the Chicago areas in late spring), but there has already been a substantial amount of money spent and work set in motion.
For someone used to the insanity of the rock music world, Oliva sounds a bit frazzled about the pressures of the Broadway stage. "It gets crazy," Oliva says of the manic pace. "Once it gets announced in the trade magazines and goes into the production, the publishing (for Romanovs) goes from nothing to being worth a quarter of a million dollars overnight. I personally turned down a $175,000 offer, which is more money than I've personally seen on two Savatage deals put together.
"Right now, they don't know if it's going to open or not-- it could come crashing down. But if this thing gets big, I would be in such a state of shock, you would have to peel me off the walls."
Playing a cassette of the director's working tape, Oliva's score for Romanovs sounds a lot like Savatage's heavily orchestrated rock work, but without any heavy metal embellishments. Oliva cues up a track called "Red Star Rising," a very militaristic anthem with a insisent beat and grand chorus. While Oliva plays along to the score on his kitchen keyboard, the music seems like a natural development for a musician who has always enjoyed exploring grand themes and large productions-- a far cry from touring with Motorhead.
"What's metal? What's Broadway? It's just music," Oliva declares, shunning any criticism that metal fans may feel he has abandoned them. "If they're really your fans, you would think that they would want the best for you. I enjoy writing different things in my free time. I wrote a children's song for a children's video that's coming out this year.
"It's refreshing to write different things because I think it makes my heavy music better. People have got to understand that I don't want to be doing the same thing all of the time-- that's too restrictive.
"When people ask me what I do now, I tell them that I'm a composer. I don't want to be up on the stage screaming Sirens every night for the next twenty years."
Would the success of Romanovs mean he would leave Savatage? "As much as I love Savatage, if you were to tell me that I had to make a choice, I'm going to go Broadway all the way. Jesus Christ! I'd be an absolute fool not to do it. I'm looking at being able to do Broadway music into my fifties and sixties.. I'm talking about longevity and this is something I really enjoy doing. I can write Broadway and still go out and do Doctor Butcher."
It's a dilemma that most working musicians would love, having to decide between successful ventures. Oliva only wishes that his followers wouldn't pigeonhole him so much as a metal madman.
"I've never considered Savatage to be a metal band. We've gotten these awards for the Best Metal Album-- it's nice, but I don't think we deserve it. I think we are a contemporary rock band. The band I compare Savatage most to is Queen-- we get really heavy like them, but now we're relying more on vocals. We're totally different than bands like Morbid Angel, Kreator, and the like.
"It's so totally...," Oliva concludes, crushing the butt of a Parliament in the ashtray. "I should have called it 'The Year of The Worn Out Shoe.' That's what Savatage means in French. Maybe it's the shoe curse."