Conversation Bits and Pieces  

My Interview with Savatage
by Vadim Astrakhan

 
 

The following are the chunks of conversations with four out of six Savatage members after their concert in Detroit on 6/8/1998:

Chris Caffery (CC - guitars)
Johnny Lee Middleton (JLM - bass)
Jeff Plate (JP - drums)
Jon Oliva (JO - vocals, keyboards)

Al Pitrelli (guitars) left with some chick, and Zak Stevens (vocals) went straight to the bus and to sleep with the flu. I spoke to Savatage members one at a time, and sometimes asked them the same questions, so the following is not in any particular order.

Thanks for the show, you have been terrific. Definitely one of the greatest concerts I've ever been on. I haven't felt that great since Judas Priest concert in February.

CC: Thank you. We tried hard.
JLM: Thank you.
JP: Thank you.
JO: Thank you very much.

How's the tour going so far?

CC: It's been alright. The advertising could have been better. You see, We just returned from Europe, and it's different there. Bigger venues, bigger audience.
JP: Not bad. Naturally, we expected to see more people.

I have heard, Savatage is popular in Germany.

JLM:Not just Germany, all over Europe. We come to Europe and see maybe several thousand people at the concert, and then we come back to the US, it feels a little weird, maybe a 150 people. Actually, I just saw the advertising campaign figures, and now I see why we did so poorly…
JO: It's still a shame we cannot get to the larger audiences, and it's not because people don't like our music! Damn it, "Christmas Eve" from the Trans-Siberian Orchestra project was the most requested song on the radio last Christmas season! When I've heard that, I was laughing my ass off, it was like: "You, cocksuckers, you didn't want to hear that same song on "Dead Winter Dead" album just because it had Savatage name on it, and now TSO album actually goes gold, after we change the title!" It really shows the stupid trends nowadays.

Do you really care for the Red Wings? (referring to Jon's comment off stage "Go Red Wings!")

JLM: Yeah, we follow the sports on the bus.
CC: By the way, anybody knows how Bulls did?

Do you miss Criss Oliva?

CC: Oh, yes.
JLM: I do indeed. We've been together for so long, and we were best buddies, really. And I think a lot about him. I do think, however, that Savatage is better off with two guitars. Works better live.
JO:The whole thing with my brother was very, very tragic. I already said that if it wasn't for his death, I don't know if I still were an active member of Savatage. But, you know what? Let me tell you something. I have in my house, in my closet, seven songs, with Criss playing all guitars. I swear to god, I do. And I will release them one day.

Yes, please, don't hold anything back. What is the songwriting process in Savatage like?

JO: Right now, it's mostly Paul (O'Neil, a producer and a songwriter)writing lyrics. I write music and give it to Paul, who then writes lyrics to it. But, before he is finished, he runs lyrics for every single song through me.

But I thought you were writing most of the lyrics.

JO: Not since "Dead Winter Dead." I used to, but now I'm more interested in arrangements: sounds, orchestral arrangements; stuff like that. Besides, I really love Paul's lyrics. You might not realize it, but some of them are really deep. The last album is somewhat deep, I think. Before that, we were writing with my brother, but then we did not write together much. On "Streets," for example, some songs were mine, and some songs were his.

You know, Savatage influenced my own songwriting a great deal. I am a lyricist myself, and I was always writing songs, ever since I've heard rock music for the first time. First in Russian, then, after I moved to the States, in English, but Savatage has really turned around my perception of rock poetry. Thank you very much for that.

JO: Thank you. This is one of the better compliments I have heard.

Is there hope for metal?

CC: That's a good question. I think, there is. I think, if people still are buying the records and coming to the shows, there is.
JLM: I think so. But then, again, I don't know if we are metal anymore. Doesn't quite make sense,comparing to the other metal bands nowdays. We are just going to keep doing our stuff.
JO: I honestly don't think we are metal anymore. Not since "Gutter Ballet" album. To me, metal was always like bands like Slayer and Sepultura. I think we are just progressive rock. Hell, I don't know.

Whatever you wish, Jon. To me, Savatage is and will always remain progressive metal. Also, very nice song choice. I really loved "Chance" and "Edge Of Thorns," I was surprised you played those two. I really wish you did "Damien" though. And what's up with no songs from the "Dead Winter Dead" album?

JP: Well, that's a problem Oh, you wanted "Damien," huh? That's a good song, I also like it a lot.With having 10 or so albums, everybody's got his favorite song, and we can't play all of them.
JLM: As for DWD, it was actually a mistake. We had two tunes from the album on the list: "This Is The Time" and the title track. But Jon wanted to include "Tonight He Grins Again" or something, so we had to cut it down, and only now we realize that we have cut both songs off the DWD. Had we noticed it before hand, of course, we wouldn't have eliminated both songs from that album.

What is your favorite song to play, right now? "Hourglass"?

JLM: Uhm…yeah, that would be "Hourglass." I like the bass line to it, and it's a nice tune.
JO: From the last album, I like "The Wake Of Magellan" and "Hourglass." "Hourglass" has a very good first chorus, and Zach does it very well, you know that: "Runaway reasons, runaway seasons." But, actually, "Tonight He Grins Again" is my favorite Sava tune. It's very personal to me. "Once again, I play the clown, use my friends and let them down. Walk the streets, staring out, in the dark the strange come out. Time, time, time again, I'm still looking for a friend. But no one seems to be around, just this monkey that I found. Seems he is my only friend, and tonight he grins again." Very, very personal to me.

Yeah, what's up with that monkey? I have heard different interpretations.

JO: It's drugs.

I can't believe you pulled off "Chance" so nicely. It's my favorite Sava song, and I really did not believe you could pull off that whole multi-voice harmony. That was incredible!

JO: That ain't half of it. If you noticed, that was a second song in the set, and the monitors weren't adjusted properly yet. So, we really couldn't hear each other all that well. So it was even harder than it looked. We got it better by "The Wake Of Magellan."

And when you were singing together with Zach on "Gutter Ballet," that was really awesome. Actually, one of the reasons I wanted to see this concert so badly, was to see how well he could sing the old tunes, like "Sirens" and "The Hall Of The Mountain King." He was amazing!

JO: He's got good voice.

Jeff, how did you join Savatage?

JP: I played in the Boston band, Wicked Witch, together with Zach.Then he was invited to sing for Savatage, and, naturally, Wicked Witch, broke up. A few years later, he told me about the opening in Savatage, that's how I got in.

Johnny, you have been in Savatage for years. What is your least favorite song to play? The one you are absolutely sick of?

JLM: That's a darn good question… Let me think… Uhm, give me a minute… "Sirens."

Is there a band you haven't toured with, that you'd like to tour with?

JLM: Metallica.
JO: Probably, Metallica and Dream Theater.

What do you listen to, when you are on the bus?

JLM:. No music. It's like, when someone turns something musical on, I'd go: "Turn that shit off!" Is there something in the world worth listening to, in the lines of progressive metal?
JO: Not a whole lot. I like Pink Floyd. Dream Theater, perhaps.

Ever heard of Skyclad?

JO: Never heard of them.

You guys have to write a Broadway musical. They could use some new material.

JO: You think you are kidding, don't you? Well, there will be a Broadway musical by Paul, me,and Savatage, coming out, supposedly, by 1999.

???

JO: Did you say you were from Russia? Then you will really poop in your pants now, cuz it's going to be about Russia. Once we wrote a bunch of songs about Russian Revolution, and soon Paul told me to come meet this dude who produced "Cats." So he came, in a $6000 suit, in a mile-long limo, you know… He has listened to the first song and said: "I take it." Then he left. And a week later I got a check in mail, for $125.000. I nearly fainted. So I called Paul and told him I got a check for hundred-and-twenty five grand. And he was like: "So what? I got one too." So I went out a bought a house. That same day. A nice house, with the built-in pool, and everything… The musical is called "Romanov" and it's going to be about Russian Revolution.

Is Savatage going to play on the actual Broadway show?

JO: Probably not, but we compose all the music and will perform on the soundtrack you buy in the store. He promised it will be out by 1999. So, look out for it.

I will, and good luck! Come back soon. I know, Europe is more metal-oriented then MTV-destroyed US music scene, but still, you guys are greatly appreciated here.

JLM: We plan on returning to Europe, and then going back to the States again.This is a very short tour. We should be back. Thank you.
JO: We will see. Thank you.

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