Everything a matter of taste?  

RockHard Germany, April 2001
translated by Yvonne Kluitman


Of all magazines it's Savatage's "battle-mag" Rock Hard that collectively makes a clean breast of the Florida-boys' new album. It ended up just in the upper middle part of the Richterskala (Rock Hard charts/YK). We still hardly can believe it ourselves and also the congenial guy Jon Oliva was more than slightly surprised when our delegation brought him the bad news.

Normally chaotic scenes arise in the Rock Hard madhouse when a new SAVATAGE record is due to be released. The mailman not even dares to deliver the package inside but lays it in front of the door, rings the door bell and makes himself scarce, because he doesn't want to get crushed by the yearning mob that rushes out to get the package. The envelop is being torn open, the CD's are being extracted with trembling fingers and divided among several editorial players. Next for at least two weeks every idiot who is trying to put in another disc even for 5 seconds, is being cursed. Some kneel in front of their player, others are jumping up and down with joy through the corridors but they all agree on one thing: SAVATAGE once again delivered a masterpiece.
With the new album "Poets & Madmen" it was quite the same until it came to the point of the two weeks of play in several players. Although many pressed the eleven tracks over and over again through their ears, nobody got really exited. The final judgements stretched from "hmmm, actually it's quite a good album" to "the weakest album since 'Fight For The Rock' ". And in last months Sound-check (album reviews/YK) the Florida guys did not even reach the Dynamite section (first 10 places/YK), which according to the bands scene-status is a little catastrophe. With heavy hearts the die-hard-SAVATAGE-fans Breusch & Rensen packed their recording gear and left for Cologne to confront vocalist/keyboard player/songwriter/Mountain King Jon Oliva and bass player/tour manager Johnny Lee Middleton with some quite unpleasant questions.

The Hotel in which our conversation partners are being lodged fits to the strange, unusual interview setting. Formerly an old respectable convent, the shanty nowadays is a mix between a typical degraded Rhine-land third-class lodging-house (tasteless Art-Deco furnishing, glass floors), a prison (super heavy elephant big doors, high (painted deep gray rooms) and a futuristic church. The plastic priest standing next to the reception desk completely confused the overtired Jon Oliva when he checked in ("Hey, where the fuck are we?!"), for he thought the guy was quite alive. The giant painting of a medieval nave on the opposite wall of the café (including electric candles) could, together with the cast iron spiral staircase, be the ideal place to tape a video clip of the Doctor Butcher song "The Altar".
Among the electric candles and industrial staircases are Jon and Johnny who welcome us so heartily that it only becomes harder for us not to give the expected cheering over the new CD. A last deep breath and off it goes with the bad news that "Poets & Madmen" had a hard place in the Rock Hard Richterskala.

"I am almost happy that at least one magazine has something to complain about because up till now every journalist, without exception, were delighted" Jon Oliva laughs, although we feel the criticism hurts. His laughter is a bit too bright and his gestures a bit too vehement in order to cover up his unease about it completely. "We have never met with this many good responses on an album before" he tells us, to keep up his courage.

But isn't "Poets & Madmen", considering the songwriting and the production, an unsatisfying compromise? The record is sounding like a constructed split between the bombast of the last albums and the heaviness of the late eighties/ early nineties period.

"'Poets & Madmen' is way better than 'The Wake Of Magellan' ", explains Jon and Johnny unanimous before the Mountain King (who makes a physical quite fit impression) continues: "the last two SAVATAGE CD's and the three Trans Siberian Orchestra albums were refined concept albums but at a certain point we had enough of it and wanted in any case to make a straight forward rock album again. In the previous years Paul O'Neill (Savatage producer/manager/mentor/co-songwriter/story teller....) came up with completed stories around which we made the songs. This time we didn't want to work that way. While waiting in the studio for the violinists to get their work done for the TSO Beethoven's Last Night record, we just grabbed a few acoustic guitars, jammed a bit and wrote down every idea we liked. When Paul suggested with the first recording sessions: "Hey boys, lets make another concept album again", we just said: "No Paul, not this time!" We wanted a story to the music, not music to a story. The utter joy finally was in the limelight once again. This joy had to do a lot with heavy guitars. On the last albums most songs had arisen on the piano, this time we composed almost everything on the guitar. Often we just sat in front of the Tele, drinking beer, watching baseball games and played on our guitars. This way uncomplicated songs arose.like 'Awaken'."

Did you ever consider that Paul, despite his fantastic and perfectioned devotion, might not be the right producer for the band anymore? Poets & Madmen' is quite straight forward but it sounds quite smooth and over produced.

'"Paul is our fifth Beatle", Jon says leaving no doubt about it at all whether or not Paul should be an issue to be discussed. "We wanted a guitar orientated sound and we got it" Jon adds and lights one of the very few cigarettes of the day. But the Doctor Butcher CD, of which the basic production style you wanted to use as reference, definitely sounds way more brutal than 'Poets & Madmen'. "There are just certain SAVATAGE guidelines which can't be altered" Jon tries to say diplomatic. "Paul never would allow us to release an album in the style of Doctor Butcher under the name of SAVATAGE. A song like 'Don't Talk To Me' would be way too..hmmmm, immoral to him. He just has certain images of how the band should be sounding. To a certain point he leaves us free but when we go over the edge he uses his right of veto. My God, with how many songs we had to fight hard to even get them on the album! He hated them like poison, but we just wanted to have some fun and not that many 10 minutes epics that need 96 tracks. Okay, songs like 'Commissar', 'Back To A Reason' and 'Morphine Child' have a high orchestral percentage, but we definitely didn't need more of these tracks. On the last tour I talked to a lot of fans and noticed that most of them wanted a heavier album. With 'Poets & Madmen' we got exactly that. Extensive rock operas we still can release enough, but in between, it really needs to crush again as well. In my opinion the sound is way better than that of 'The Wake Of Magellan'. The old drive is back again at last."
"And this time even my bass is to be heard", Johnny says in the short breath pause his bandleader takes. "Besides we wanted more simple lyrics, that not only can be followed by a fuckin' professor", Jon rages on, "To hell, until this very day I still don't know the meaning of the 'The Wake Of Magellan' lyrics! Many kids have the insight, I don't. The story is just too complicated for me. What the fuck is this record about? I like the loose 'Poets & Madmen' concept much more. Johnny, Chris and I are wrapped up as characters in a story, told without much frills. We get us some beer, break into an old empty house where we find some articles and pictures, from which the rest of the songs arise."

Although many tracks are compact, often they give the impression they are not quite finished, like if the many TSO obligations influenced the writing process in a negative way.

"No, certainly not", Jon vehement refutes. "There were rumors that we should have pressed left-overs from the Doctor Butcher project on the CD, but besides a short passage in 'Man In The Mirror' (indeed coming from a Doctor Butcher demo) all compositions are brand new. And we had all the time in the world, even sprang two deadlines in order to be able to work on the album some more. Eventually it will be a matter of taste whether you like the record or not. Maybe it just needs a lot of time before it settles in completely. There are hundreds of albums that I ignored completely at first which later on appeared to be terrific. The only ones that always played straight into my heart were the Beatles. Those guys were melodically spoken simply inimitable. You can't beat the Beatles, man! But even with Queen, one of my favorite bands, it often took some time before I really liked the album. It took me months for example to like 'Jazz'. Eventually everything is to be brought back to taste. But when I tell Paul about your criticism it's going to break his heart." devilishly smiling and happy as a little child that he embarrassed us.

Definitely not a matter of taste are your vocals, that at some points is sounding very thin and fragile. Your famous insane falsetto scream almost completely disappeared.

"Hey I'm 10 years older than during the 'Streets'-times, I can't scream like that anymore", Jon answers with a disarming honesty. "I therefore tried to experiment in another vocal register. 'Poets & Madmen' is the first album since a decade, that I sang alone. In the beginning that was not quite easy, to pull it through with my vocal restrictions (which I have without any doubt). I just can't go as high as I used to go..." (Staring, a bit sad when saying this, and you can feel the silent sorrow of a man that had to fill a gap that could not be filled.) "Of course we do miss Zak", he continues with a tormented grin. "When things would have gone our way, he would have sung the CD, but you can't force somebody into doing things he doesn't want to do. Zak chose for his family, and we respect that. Whenever he wants to come back he can, at any time."

Was it hard to do the vocal melodies you actually wrote for Zak?

"We rearranged some songs, because my timbre just didn't fit in. Zak has a very melodic voice, my voice is hard and sharp. Some tracks just don't function with my vocals. Zak left at the very last minute of the production and I would have loved to have more time for my vocals, but eventually I'm pretty satisfied with what I did."

Wasn't it possible to talk Zak into staying with a part of the TSO revenues?

"It's exactly what I tried. I wanted to pay him more money than he earns with his regular job, but it wasn't a money problem. He probably would have sung the record, but he just did not want to tour anymore. Eight months on the road are just too much for him since he has a baby. Maybe I even was a bad example to him, that eventually fortified his decision. My son is 18 years now and I probably spent three years of his life with him.
Well, we just didn't have another option other than to carry on without him. We overcome the 'Fight For The Rock'-disaster and the death of my brother Criss, so we will overcome this set back as well. We also can cope with the departure of Al Pitrelli. He had been with us for many years, longer than with any other band, although we all predicted him to be leaving quickly from the first show we did together.
We look ahead, as we always did. SAVATAGE is my big love, and this, even when we never made any money with the band. Everything we earned we put back in two or three times as much. Thousands of dollars were spent on exceeding studio time and on expensive video clips. I could have bought myself a house from it. But I don't care. To me it's the music that counts, and the next challenge with the band."

If this would have been said by any other musician it would have been just words, but you just have to believe every word Jon Oliva says. Being ripped off by his managers this often and having experienced some heavy ordeals, you get the feeling he just must be musically possessed when still, after 20 turbulent years, he talks about his band as if it was founded just this week.

Is it known yet who are going to replace Zak and Al?

"Paul and Chris are currently testing three guitar players and two singers who made it to the finals. Chris let one of the possible candidates (at a god-forbidden early hour) sing 'Edge Of Thorns' through the telephone and it sounded great. He should be looking like a big kind of Ronnie James Dio, which we can handle, somehow." Jon laughs loudly.

Is there a chance that Alex Skolnick will be taking the lead guitar again?

"No, Chris did a super job with the recordings and should be more in the center finally. For the second guitar we are searching for somebody who can sing and take over some keyboard parts as well. I'm very excited and hardly can wait to go on the road with the new line-up", enchants Jon and in his enthusiasm (laughing wildly) knocking a packet of cigarettes out of Johnny's hands, with which the bass players has been playing for some time. The blond guys not getting a chance to speak while Mr. Oliva is hardly to be stopped in his enthusiasm. "No matter whether or not you like the CD, live we are going to crush everything. We haven't been playing live for two and a half years now; which makes me quite insane. But from the middle of May on it goes through the USA before we are going to play on some festivals in June in Europe and next fly to South America and Japan. In fall we will come back to Europe for a headliner tour, next another TSO Christmas tour and another trip around the States."

And what will the set-list be like?

"I am on medleys nowadays, we are considering to put the three stages of our history into 20-25 minutes long pieces. The first act will be handling the old albums until the 'Power Of The Night' album, the second part will be covering all from 'Hall Of The Mountain King' till 'Streets' ,we will leave out 'Fight For The Rock', and next will be summing up the period from 'Edge Of Thorns' to 'The Wake Of Magellan'. In between we will be playing songs from the new album. You can be prepared on a lot of stuff we never played live or didn't do in a long time."

Are there any plans yet for the fourth TSO CD?

"We are going to release a third (yet last) Christmas album. Next we are going to maybe record our Broadway Opera 'The Romanovs' which still hasn't been done yet. The people that bought the rights, have renewed the contract every time for 5 years running and pay a big amount of money, but never seem to do anything with the songs. Next year the rights are completely back in our hands again and we can do whatever we want with it. The TSO project can be continued endlessly. The first album got the platinum status, every show is sold out. If somebody would have predicted this two years ago, I would have declared him crazy. But TSO isn't hampering SAVATAGE. The last TSO tour proved that the project can do without the SAVATAGE musicians. Mozart stays Mozart no matter which orchestra plays his work.

The next months are completely for the band, and after the tour we want to release a DVD. We are going to tape some of the festival gigs and we also have tons of old material laying around at home -video clips, history-sequences, home videos from the time my brother was still alive. One of the highlights is the scene in which our very big sound guy Gary Muchmore, at a short stop, sits at the side of the street and wants to shit." Johnny sounds, who is playing again with his pack of cigarettes. "When he saw us coming with a camera he tried to quickly get away. On the tape you see him rashly running of, with half a roll of toilet paper hanging out of his pants. These kind of anecdotes we have a lot on tape."

What ever happened to your old cover artist Gary Smith?

"The guy is ultra chaotic", Jon passes over laughing. "He needed seven months for the 'Handful-cover' and never responded to our phone calls. Two albums were delayed just because of him. Personal problems, drugs and alcohol, have mixed him quite up. We just can not rely on him. It's a pity because Gary is very talented. But here it is again, the old SAVATAGE problem: nice people come into the band-camp, but eventually you can't work with them. But it doesn't bother us that much anymore. There's no obstacle big enough to stop us after all that we've been through the last years."

Jon can't help but to be overwhelmed by his tiredness, that makes him rush to his bed after the one hour interview with us. After all, Chris Caffery maybe calling again at some God-forbidden hour tomorrow to let him hear of another miracle singer or wonder guitarist of who to convince the Mountain King through the transatlantic line about.

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