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interview with chris and johnny

from HardSide, Holland, Nov/Dec 1997
by Natasja van de Sanden
translated by Patrick "boudie" van der Horst

After their fine album " Dead Winter Dead" Savatage comes with an excellent successor, called "The Wake Of Magellan". Johnny and Chris tell more about it.

The new CD is more guitar-oriented than the last one. Why?

Johnny: It's the most heavy CD since Gutter Ballet

Chris: The last CD's were completely written by Jon Oliva. He did all the rythm-guitars on "Handfull Of Rain" and "Dead Winter Dead" and gave me just that tiny bit he wanted me to have, just like "The Final One". He's a very good rythm-guitarist, but he's not a guitarist. He writes stuff on the piano and can't interpret it on the guitar just like that, like a guitarist would do it. Al and I didn't write a lot of material for the guitarparts on this CD, but also when Jon came up with an piano idea, I changed it a bit so that it would sound better on guitar. So when it was time to mix, the guitars sounded heavier. They are mixed a bit louder so that they dominate a bit more.

Johnny: The music on the CD also needed a bit more intense, more melodic music and by brining the guitars to the front we created this intensity.

Chris: There are more prominent guitarist in the band and the live-shows are more based on them, because we have two guitarist and just one pianist. We sound more like live on the CD now.

I saw Al play at a TM Stevens concert. Does he do many side-projects?

Chris: He has three children and a house on Long Island, I don't know if you know Long Island but it's pretty expensive there.

Johnny: And we don't perform every day. He's a guitarist, that's all he can do and he has to raise his kids.

Why another concept album?

Johnny: Because we don't want to put just another 12 tracks on it. It's different, more of a challenge and more fun for us. We have been doing that for so long now. How many times can you write your girlfriend is leaving you, your car broke down, you don't have any cash, your depressed or do drugs?? It's true what everybody is writing about. A concept album gives us a chance to write about stuff people don't think of. Throwing people overboard in the middle of the ocean. It makes it funnier for us and that makes Savatage different from every other band. Because no other band does this. Everybody takes The easy way, let's write12 songs and put them on CD. We already did that!!

Chris: Plus that we are getting older and our lives aren't that interesting anymore like they used to be. You aren't so hungry for those things like you used to be. When you play and everybody lives in the same one-room appartment and you're sleeping on the floor, then you create an attitude which you can use in the music, you get the feeling which we used on this CD. If we had to write out of our emotions of things that happen to us these days it would be like: I burned my eggs and my dog puked on the carpet. It doesn't get the feeling like this. If we find something in the news that hits us, it's easier to get that feeling and energy.

What's Paul O'Neill's part in Savatage?

Johnny: We met him in the " Hall of the Mountain King"-period back in 1986. In those days we just released "Fight for the Rock". We had a bad management, a bad producer and we created a worse album. Paul saw the talent and potential of the band. He took us aside and under his wings, to put it like that. And he wanted to work with us. Paul is almost a member of the band. He writes most of the lyrics and gives us idea's for albums. He gives the fuel for our fire, to put it like that.

Chris: He proposed this concept , we were like ok what are we going to do. We had 60 songs to pick from. We wrote from september '96 till december '96. And Paul asked:"what do you want to do?" We wanted to make another concept album. So Paul searched for an idea in the papers and magazines and found perfect stuff to base the concept on. The rest is just fantasy. The stories we choose from are all mixed up in this one.

Johnny: The way we work with these stories is like: we come up with an base-idea and before he write a line we make a good title first.

Chris: We did the same thing with "DWD", Paul knew he wanted to write something about the war in formerly Yugoslavia. and came up with the idea. He went to Jon and asked him what he thought about it. I remember that the first time I heard the title I liked it rightaway. and the same goes for "The Wake.." And almost everybody had something like:"The Wake of Magellan???" It took time to get the whole picture together and I think the green light for the title was given when we first saw the cover-picture. Paul always has an image in his head and he comes to us to fill in the colors. It's not that fun, but it's mostly for the right reasons.

Does he play an instrument?

Johnny: Yes, he plays a bit of everything. Paul got hooked on during Beatlemania. He played guitars in a band that dressed like The Beatles an played their songs. That's how he started. Then he did some managing stuff and now he's writing his own Broadway musical, together with Jon.

Do you only write guitarparts or also more?

Johnny: Everybody writes the songs. We were in a studio in Florida were this CD was recorded. And Jon comes up with an idea and work further on it. and then Chris comes with an idea. Sometimes something is created by messing around a bit. We always let the tapes roll and Jeff starts a beat. The others play along and before you know it's like:"Hey that sounds great for a riff" Everybody hangs around over there and much of it is created by accident. For instance 'Black Jack Guillotine', Chris started and Jeff picked it up and I slammed on the bass. And before you know it you have a song or a part of it. Paul picks it up and writes a part, Jon does the same and a song is born. That's how it usually goes. Often Jon comes in with an idea and plays it, then we pick it up and sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't.You've got something there. It's like a puzzle you grab a piece of a song and a part of another one and you get to work it out. A song usually exists of 3 or 4 parts, a verse, a chorus, a lead and a bridge. All of that is like a puzzle. You have many parts and try to fit them together. And before you know it you have Jenny McCarthy naked. Ha ha ha ha ha.

(It's a Playboy puzzle and Chris has it, the only puzzle he ever made)

Chris: And I did it very fast.

What's your favorite Savatage-album?

Johnny: The last one, probably because it's new and fresh. But I like Streets also.

Chris: 'Gutter Ballet' and 'The Hall Of The Mountain King'.

Johnny: I have to say the last one, because it's a new start for the band. We finally have a line-up we want, a new management and all that. Everything is new, it's like a new start.

Last year you were on tour, but before that mostly not. Normally a band tours almost every year in Holland.

Johnny: During that time we did the "Handful of Rain" album and we really didn't have a guitarist for it. We hired Alex Skolnick, as a temporary replacement. We didn't tour in Europe, instead of it we toured the USA. Last year we did Holland twice.

Is it difficult to practice when the band lives in New York and Florida?

Johnny: We start rehearsing either in NY or in FL. It depends. For this tour we probably practice in NY. We have an apartment over there.

Chris: And when it's too hot in FL you can go to NY and the other way around.

Is it still fun?

Johnny: Oh yeah, it's alot of work and flying-hours. But it's greater than anything in the world.

Chris: Now the band has a fresh feeling. Everything that happens now, is quite new. The first CD we put together as a band. And after the tour we are still in the same line-up.

Do Al and you do the guitarparts or does Al do the leads and you the rythms?

Chris: What I can't play, Al does . What he doesn't want to play, I play it. Ha ha ha ha ha. On the last album we were so tight on the time-schedule. So tight, that when I was busy doing the rythm-section, Al was doing the leads.Time was running out. It was planned that I should do half of the leads, just like now on "The Wake". We were recording "DWD" in 4 studios at the same time! The engineer was mixing, Zach was doing some vocals and Al and I were also busy. As soon as it was done it was being mixed.

And live?

Chris: Al does all of the stuff off "Handfull Of Rain" and I do the old stuff. What Criss used to do. That's because Al wasn't familiar with Savatage before he joined us. He went in the studio with his guitar as if it would be another band he would be playing in for the money. I don't think he knew then what he was getting in to. Now Al is a full member. But in the beginning he was called if he wanted to come to the studios to work. To present the old music to the fans the only way the band wanted it was: I play the leads. I knew Criss and he taught me. I'm probably the only one who interprets his music in the right way.

Isn't hard for Zach that Jon's also singing, live as well as on CD?

Johnny: It's like a football-team with two good quarterbacks. If you have them both, you're gonna use them. There are people who like Jon's voice, people who like Zach's and people who like them both. It's the same as with the old and new CD's. No two people have the same taste, but using both you get to more people. Jon doesn't want to sing anymore. He says to himself:" I've been doing it for twenty years, I wanna play keyboards."

Chris: Al the old stuff, except maybe of Streets, that Jon used to sing he still sings. It's not that Zach doesn't want to sing his songs, but if your on tour and You have 5 days in 5 weeks free and sing two hours at a night, and the last song is "Hall Of The Mountain King", and Zach's voice isn't raw of it's own, he really has to go deep to get the vocals right. Now Jon sings a couple and that way Zach keeps control over his voice.

Johnny: Thanks to the the instrumental parts and Jon's singing it's possible to tour longer and do more shows. If you do this every night and sleep in a bus and wake up every day in a different city, play, get in the bus etc. I mean, I've been talking three days and now I don't have a voice. I can't imagine to be the frontman in a band and sing!!}