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savatage - ready for the festivals

Aardschok Netherlands, March 2001
by Ron van Hal
pictures by Remco van den Burg
translated by Yvonne Kluitman
corrected by Bob 'Lek' Lekich

For quite some time Savatage doesn’t need to do it for the money anymore, neither do they do it for the money anymore. The more striking thing is that despite two leaving band members, the band succeeded in making the new CD "Poets And Madmen". Aardschok left for Brussels for a fascinating tête-à-tête with Jon Oliva and bass player Johnny Lee Middleton.

The rain that ravages Brussels on this dark Sunday afternoon looks like an evil cloud keeping the Belgium capital in an immovable grip. Though we are soon to find that the sunny moods of the band’s mastermind Jon Oliva and bass player Johnny Lee Middleton are diametrically opposed to the meteorological activities going on above the gloomy buildings. As we get into the hotel where the two Sava members are staying we run into Johnny almost immediately, who is trying in vain to consume an American breakfast.

After a few bites he ceases his attempts of trying to work away the fat Belgium chips and leads the way to the room of his band mate Jon. In the hallway already the pleasant smell of burnt weed comes our way from out of the room. When Jon pulls open the chamber door for his Dutch guests, a smile stretches from ear to ear, "Oh man, the perfect remedy for a hang over!". On the table inside lies the origin of the pleasant smell in the shape of a few bags of weed. "Yesterday we tried some Belgium beers in the hotel bar", explains Jon, "Eventually I got a glass as big as a bowl. to be sure I checked if there weren’t any fish swimming in it". As he is being told that Belgium beers, especially the heavy ones, contain more than the regular 5% alcohol, a sufficient smile appears on his face. "To be honest, I hardly could imagine me having a hang over from plain beer". "I started to fear my hang over was to blame on the double vodka’s that I was drinking in between".

The contrast between Jon and Johnny is striking. The blond slender bass player only has one feature, namely a composed face with a neutral mouth. When Johnny takes place for the interview he does so by sitting down easily on his chair. His completely clothed in black colleague, on the contrary, falls with an irresponsible flop on the two sits couch. Jon’s figure looks more than ever of that of a Sumo wrestler. To maintain the archetype cliche of an "enjoyable fatso" Jon picked up a large arsenal of grins, which are convenient during his funny monologue. Especially a just played video clip of Limp Bizkit stimulates the "stand up comedian" in the guy. "At home I see this shit 8 times a day on TV", he sighs while watching from the corners of his eyes at MTV. "Rollin, Rollin, Rollin". Damn, If I have to hear that once more, I’ll shoot myself!"

It should be clear that Jon doesn’t like the "now metal". For he likes the, as Aardschok scribe René Veerkamp uses to say, "last weeks metal" more. Especially now as Jon, for the first time in 10 years, sang the entire new CD "Poets And Madmen" himself and Savatage got back the raw edge from the old days. "Streets" from 1991 was the last CD supplied completely with Jon’s vocals. After that Jon more or less operated behind screens and let Zak Stevens take his place. In interviews Jon explained the change of places because his voice had become too raw for the new (evermore symphonic and smoother) sound of the band. He also claimed that his vocal parts would limit the musical development of the band. When asked, the "mountain king" explains why he all of a sudden takes charge again of all vocal parts on the new album. " After the "Streets" tour my voice was completely ruined because of using it wrongly for years. It appears I am singing with a high volume, almost screaming. Which isn’t quite good for your voice. Because of that we canceled the tour 5 months earlier as planned, which put a ticking time bomb under the relationship with our label back then Atlantic. I rested for a long period. I felt fit enough again to sing a bit during the "Dead Winter Dead" days. Recently Paul O’Neill gave me some tips and I did a course in how to breath. Don’t forget I started singing in Savatage in the old days for the mere reason nobody else could do it, not because I wanted to do it very much !"

But you had the possibility to hire a new singer this time.....

JON: "Not completely true! Look, we were running behind on the schedule of the recordings for "Poets and Madmen" because of the Christmas things going on with the Trans Siberian Orchestra. Vocalist Zak Stevens and I decided to each take half of the vocal parts. "My" songs were already finished as well as the music for the songs that Zak would be doing. When he eventually decided definitely to leave the band, we had a problem.

JOHNNY: "Of course we could have searched for a new singer right away. But when it might appear a few months later that the new singer was an asshole, we would have to fire him again. And that would have left the fans really behind confused.

JON: "So we chose another option. I would sing the rest of the songs. But those songs were attuned to Zak’s voice and had to be adjust here and there. Which, cost us time that we actually didn’t have. But for a change we said this time "fuck you" to our label. They just had to wait. No more rush jobs!"

What will Zak be doing now?

JOHNNY: "He cut his hair and has a regular job with an insurance company. Strange change, yes. When people get kids it happens to be that their life changes drastically. They all of a sudden are getting many more responsibilities. But I do understand Zak’s decision. For the fact that Savatage planned an intensive tour for the coming year, including places that we haven’t been in a long time. Zak would hardly have been able to see his wife and little girl. And he just couldn’t deal with that. It was a huge dilemma for him, but eventually he made a brave decision."

JON: "I saw it coming much earlier. Actually I knew it right away when Zak’s wife got pregnant. I truly understand his motives and have deep admiration for him. I have a son myself who’s will be 18 this year. In all those years I saw him at the very most, 5 years, and because of that missed much, very many beautiful moments with him. I am homesick as well when we are touring. Zak will appear sooner or later with an own EP or so. I miss him already. He was my little brother in the band."

Why did John West eventually not make it to be the new singer?

JOHNNY: "He is a good friend of our guitarist Chris Caffery. He toured Europe with him in the band American Rock Live. As well, personally and musically, it hit off between him and Savatage".


JON: "But we saw inseparable business problems. John West is doing so many things at the same time, that we feared he would not be able to concentrate the full 100% on Savatage. And that was a hard demand that we put before each possible new singer."

And Now ?

JON: "At this very moment Chris and Paul O’Neill are interviewing for a new singer and a new guitarist who has to replace Al Pitrelli & Zak We have around 4 candidates for the vocal job and around 6 applying guitarists. Between the 4 singers there’s one of fame. But we can’t reveal his name yet, not until all is worked out. (laughing:) No, not even if you fall on your knees right now. By the end of the third week of February we have to make a decision which two it will be."

At this time room service is knocking at the door asking to be allowed to check the, Jon plundered, mini bar. Before the hotel guy is in, Jon quickly shoves a set of Aardschok magazines over the mind-expanding enhancements lying on the table. And with exaggerated enthusiasm he welcomes the guy in telling him all is consumed.

Between "Wake of Magellan" and "Poets And Madmen" there was almost a four year span. During that time we saw the overwhelming success of the Trans Siberian Orchestra whose third album "Beethoven’s Last Night" was released at the end at the end of 2000. Is Savatage not suffering because of this musical project?

JON: "No. Everybody thinks TSO is diverting us from Savatage. Nonsense. We succeeded to divide the time between the project and Savatage very well. Besides TSO is locked up in a season. On that we only work in winter, especially around Christmas. It’s neither a question of priorities. Actually it’s quite simple. Next to Savatage some band members also cooperate on TSO. Why? Because we make a lot of money with it and moreover it’s of tremendous inspiration for the writing process for a new Savatage album! The whole TSO project has become an out of proportion experiment. From one day to another it caused a commercial explosion. On "Dead Winter Dead" from 1995 was the song "Christmas Eve (Sarajevo 12/24)" which we released as a single under the name Savatage. That didn’t work out. All radio DJ’s saw our band name on the cover and refused to play the single with the prejudice of it being "noise". The next year we released that same single again, but this time with the name Trans Siberian Orchestra on the cover and without pictures of the band. After one DJ played it his phone was red-hot and a domino effect was created: all radio stations began playing it! And BOOM! TSO went off in the air!"

JOHNNY: "The disadvantage was that a lot of our fans thought we quit with Savatage!"

JON: "Which of course was not the case. But because we sold almost 1 million albums from the TSO debut, we released another TSO album in 1998 titled "The Christmas Attic".

Thanks to TSO you guys are millionaires now?

JOHNNY: "I wish!"

JON: "Yeah, right! (laughing:) If that were the case I was sitting at the bar right now! TSO produces a lot of money, but costs a lot of money as well. The recordings, the shows and all musicians that have to be paid. Example: we needed a mist machine for the shows. Not quite a cheap thing. We bought it right away nevertheless. And also for Savatage we have sky high costs. We tour with three busses and two semi trucks. We have 25 people working on the stage. It all has to be paid for. A lot of money is being pumped back into the live shows."


JON:"I doubt that very much. It’s a different musical company with a complete different musical style."

JOHNNY: "It appears from the audience visiting the TSO shows., a 60 year old grandmother sitting besides a 4 year old granddaughter and next to them are savage looking Sava fans, as if they are coming to watch the winter circus. Fucking weird man!"

JON: "Savatage is not making records to survive like thousands of other bands have to do. All band members can live from the things they do besides Savatage. If we really wanted to earn a lot of money we would quit with Savatage right away and exploit TSO to the maximum. But we do not want that. Never! Savatage exists because all band members want to let the band live on from an artistic and creative point of view! We enjoy it, have lots of fun and travel around the world. The revenues of Savatage don’t deliver us a Corvette. Or like Johnny uses to say: we play for free and are getting paid to travel. That’s it! The money is of complete irrelevance. When we started to work on the new Savatage album in October 2000 and plugged in our guitars, a shudder of pure joy went through me. Wonderful! Like we were writing a new "Sirens" again."

October 2000? "Poets And Madmen" was written and recorded in only 4 months?!

JON:" Yeah, thanks to Paul O’Neill, who took charge of all lyrics. At first we didn’t want to do another concept album. "Dead Winter Dead" and "The Wake Of Magellan" cost us a lot of blood, sweat and tears. Looking back on it, those two stories were probably a bit to pompous. But Paul insisted we delivered another concept album again. And so happened. He actually told it by the way, when all music was written already. The songs weren’t written with a concept story in the back of our heads. Causing us to even change lyrics in the last minute before recording the vocals."

Talking about concept CD’s. Is it true that "Streets" is based upon a story written by Paul O’Neill that had been laying around for 16 years in a draw at his house untouched?

JON:" Yes, that’s correct. Paul found it and rewrote it for "Streets". He added some elements out of my life, the bastard! The song "Tonight he grins again" is the most biographical Jon Oliva song ever. Paul is a terrific story teller. He reads a lot as well. For "Poets And Madmen" we gave him a free hand. Of certain songs there are around 7 different lyrics! We just trust Paul blindly. He’s a band member not being IN the band.

Why actually is he never on stage?

JON: "Because Paul has stage fright and because he is very shy. He rather likes working behind screens. For that matter, "Streets" is my favorite Savatage CD. When it was released the band was on at its top, creatively, as for growth and as for the cast. It was magic. Unfortunately my voice was ruined during the tour following the "Streets" album with all consequences."

Indirect it led to a crack between the band and the label back then Atlantic.

JON: "Yes. While I was telling them all those years it could not go on like this any longer. I knew my voice would give out. After the early cancellation of the "Streets" tour the label wasn’t all of a sudden doing much for us anymore."

JOHNNY: "Which goes to prove that in the music business it’s all about marketing. The music business is made out of assholes screwing bands that don’t have all their stuff in order for the full 100%. One mistake can have extremely harmful consequences. One little misstep can be disastrous."

JON:" That’s why we have everything perfectly in order at the moment. Not a single piece of the puzzle is missing. Everything is right: our new label, the management, the distribution of the new CD, the tour and even the promotion for "Poets And Madmen". We are doing interviews for the first time in our existence BEFORE the release of the album instead of afterwards in between shows. Because a good album nowadays isn’t good enough anymore. A band has to take care of all facets. I therefore look at the future of Savatage with more faith as ever."

Just the "little" problem of a new singer and a new guitarist......

JON: (Laughing loudly:) "Okay, you got me there! But that I don’t worry about. I know from experience that it will work out eventually. Savatage can look back on many band changes. And we are still here. First as Metropolis, then as Avatar and soon already for 20 years as Savatage (a cross between Sabotage and Avatar, RvH). Twenty years! As I’m feeling right now I can live through another 6 or 7 CD’s. And then I will see further."

Savatage is expected to be playing at the Dynamo Open Air, followed by the summer Graspop Festival and at the end of 2001 they will be back for a headline tour (probably true to tradition in the Tilburg 013).