Madness Reigns... Again  

from Music Forum, July 1994
by DJ Justice
contributed by Incubus


In the early morning hours of Sunday, October 17th, 1993, while en route to the Livestock music festival in Zephyr Hills, Florida, Savatage guitarist Criss Oliva was fatally injured during an auto accident. As sunlight broke later that morning at the event, news of the tragedy filtered throughout the crowd. Shock, dismay and the loss of an amazing talent was the initial response. The apparant demise of Tampa Bay's most prominent metal commodity soon followed.

With a history dating back to 1979, Savatage (then known as Avatar) have experienced a literal 15 year excursion to hell and back. Preceding their major label signing in 1984, Savatage released two independent outings on Par Records: Sirens and Dungeons Are Calling. Following a fateful gig with Zebra at St. Petersburg's Bayfront Arena in l983, Savatage was signed to Atlantic Records and subsequently released their major label debut, Power Of The Night.

Further releases Fight For The Rock, Hall Of The Montain King, Gutter Ballet and Streets: A ROck Opera continued to establish Savatage as an effective recording and touring metal act. Along with brother Jon Oliva (lead vocals), Johnny Lee MIddleton (bass) and Steve Wacholz (drums), Criss Oliva toured with the likes of Megadeth, Dio and Testament.

Anticipating the release of Edge Of Thorns in l993, major changes were made in the Savatage camp. Leaving the vocal spotlight behind was founding member Jon Oliva, replaced by newcomer Zachary Stevens. Also, longtime drummer Steve Wacholz opted not to tour for the release and handed over his sticks to Andy James.

Despite the shift, Savatage quickly generated a higher level of success than they had ever seen in the past. Over 100 radio stations were playing the "Edge Of Thorns" single, larger crowds were attending live shows, and the record was selling faster than previous efforts.

It was on the verge of their second national tour in support of Edge Of Thorns that tragedy struck and the band lost Criss Oliva. Although initially reported that Savatage would end following Criss' death, plans to revitalize the project surfaced within months. Indeed, Savatage - a band that had endured a tumultuous career for well over a decade - would make their return.

In his first interview following the loss of his brother Criss, founding member Jon Oliva explains why Savatage is a band that must live on.


MUSIC FORUM: I think a lot of people will be surprised to see that Savatage is still around.

JON OLIVA: Well. it was tough to go on after everything that had happened, but we worked so hard at getting Savatage to where it was, I thought it would be such a waste to let the whole thing go, and I don't think Criss would have wanted it that way either. People might be surprised, but it's like a new birth of the band.

At what point was it decided that Savatage would continue?

Actually, first I went to see if Zak (Stevens) was into doing it. Once I found out he was, everyone else sort of came to the party. When I got ahold of Alex (Skolnick), that really put it all together. I wasn't worried about the songwriting, only about who was going to replace Criss on guitar.

So what is the actual line-up ?

It's Johnny (Lee Middleton, bass), Steve (Wacholz, drums) , Alex (guitar) and Zak. We're looking at a couple of guys to play rhythm and keyboards, but nobody's been confirmed.

Maybe we should clarify your involvement with Savatage at this point.

My involvement is strictly in a studio capacity, and I played a little bit of everything on the record. I played some drums, some bass, a lot of the rhythm guitar, all of the acoustic guitar, some back-up vocals, all of the keyboards and I wrote all of the songs. I'm just as much a member of the band as anyone else when it comes to the studio, but with all of the other things I'm trying to do I can't be a permanent member of the band. It's impossible to be a full-time member of a band and do different things. I just want to expand into the business end of things more.

You obviously feel comfortable with Zak as your replacement.

I think his voice better suits the style of music that the band is playing now more than mine and is definitely more radio friendly. For the older stuff my voice was better, but for the newer stuff the current line-up is the strongest it could be.

How did Alex come to be involved?

It's weird... the first guitarist that was actually up to do this was Michael Schenker. We were trying to get that to happen but things didn't work out. One day when I going through some old pictures and I saw one of Criss and Alex together and it hit me in the head like an anvil. So, I gave him a call and left a message on his machine. That night he called back and said he'd love to do it.

So is he a permanent member of the band?

He's like a guest member of the band. He's going to be in the video and he's doing the press. Hopefully the relationship will develop more and he'll be around for a few.

He obviously had some tough shoes to fill, replacing Criss.

I had one talk with Alex about Criss. I just told him that no one was ever going to replace Criss and that's the way it was. I never told him one thing to play. He came in and learned the songs and he formulated his own stuff. I know he was feeling a little pressure, but actually he was known better in the press than Criss. I think it was weird for him but Alex is a pro. We tried to make him as comfortable as possible and it worked out really well. Playing-wise he was the perfect choice to fill in for young Christopher.

You mentioned some projects you had going on outside of Savatage.

Well, I'm finishing a Broadway musical with Paul O'Neill and a couple of other people in New York. We signed a deal with William Morris and we're working with David Krebbs who did Beatlemania. we're trying to get that out in the ext 18 to 24 months. I've got my band Doctor Butcher which I'm finally going to get into the studio. That got put off after everything happened with Criss, but I'll be doing that record in late July.

What is Savatage's current relationship with Atlantic Records ?

That's a good question (laughs). They are the American record company, but all of our business deals have been restructured. They are the American record label, but there's two other labels involved. We have a Japanese label, Zero, and a European label, EMI. It's all three labels working on the thing together. Atlantic's distributing and we're still an Atlantic act in America, but we just have some other outside companies involved.

Will the record be releasd in the U.S.?

Yes, the record comes out on the 28th of August.

Any concerns that people might view Savatage as more of a financial opportunity now as opposed to a band that will be around for a while ?

I can sum that up very simply. I put 15 years of my life into Savatageand it's very unfortunate what happened to my brother. Believe me, it affected me more than anybody else on the planet. Yes, to an extent it is a financial decision. I personally have invested over 15 years and almost 1/4 of a million dollars into Savatage. To just throw it out the window when I have the opportunity to try and make some of the money back or bring the band up to a higher level...I think it's unfair for people to think that. Believe me, Savatage was never big enough to where it was a financial waterfall (laughs). Most of the reasons that Savatage stuck together for 15 years was because the guys in the band cared enough to put money back into the project to keep it afloat. It's a business. You work for 15 years in a business and because somebody passes away or somebody leaves you don't close the business. I love Savatage and if I didn't I wouldn't have put the money or the time into it that I have.

I think people assumed that after Criss passed away that it was the end of Savatage.

I understand that. I thought that for the first month or so after it all happened. I know if the situation was reversed and it had been me I wouldn't have wanted them to pack everything in. I mean, we talked a lot about what was to happen if one of us was to bite it. At that time we always thought that it was going to be me because I was the lunatic. We always said we would keep it going and that's what I'm doing.

It would seem that there would be a lot of personal investment in this on your part as well.

Definitely. If it was up to me we would dedicate every song on the record to Criss. We did one song about him that is on the record. Yeah, I thought for me to sit down and try and write an album a month after my brother died was insanity, but I used that as a motivation. Believe me, from my standpoint this record was done mainly as a tribute to him.

Let's talk about the music. What's the new material like ?

The record is very versatile. It's got some great classic Savatage, it's got some new experimental songs, and it's even got a little blues/grunge sound in a way. It's Savatage. That's the only way I can explain it. If you were a fan of the Edge Of Thorns album you're going to like this. If you were into Sirens and Dungeons Are Calling I suggest they don't buy this record (laughs), because it's not anything like that. It's the next progression of the band.

For years it seemed that Savatage was caught between the older, more traditional metal and more commercial material.

It's like that. I'm sure a lot of people into early Savatage aren't into it anymore. But there's a lot of people that weren't into that early stuff that are into it now. It evens itself out.

Are any of the new songs from the old Savatage catalogue ?

Actually, there's a couple of riffs that Criss and I were working on a long time ago like the song " Castles Burning". Some of the acoustic stuff was stuff that Criss and I were working on. But no, most of it's brand new.

The Edge Of Thorns tour was actually a peak point for the band.

Yes, they were doing very well. That's another reason why we decided to do this. I mean, these guys were selling out clubs and were picked up by over 125 radio stations. Savatage had never done that before. The sound of Edge Of Thorns obviously worked.

Do you have a song in mind off of this record that will accomplish the same thing that "Edge Of Thorns" did?

Actually, there's four or five targeted single' on the record. The first single is called "Handful Of Rain" which is the title track of the record. I think that's the song that's going to open everybody's eyes. The songs that will follow have a lot to offer and every song is completely different. We'll just have to wait and see how everyone takes it.

Anything you'd like to say in closing ?

I just want everyone to give the band a break. This band has been through a lot of s--t, from near drug overdoses to death...and we're still here. That's got to say something.

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