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the wake of magellan - interview with chris & johnny lee

PopKomm 1997 in Cologne

by Claudia 'FC' Feldmann
from Invader, Germany
The Metal e-Zine
http://www.invader.de

On a late spring day an old sailor walked along the beach of a small Spanish town, contemplating the many years behind him and the numbered days remaining. His name was Hector Del-Fuego Magellan and he claimed to be, though very few believed he was, a direct descendant of the famous explorer Ferdinand Magellan, the first man to circumnavigate the globe in 1527....

O a late summer day two young musicians are sitting in a small office right in the center of Cologne, looking a bit tired after having done countless interviews this day. Their names are Johnny Lee Middleton and Chris Caffery, which everyone knows by know, and they came to the Popkomm fair in Germany in order to promote their latest album The Wake Of Magellan, which is not - as some of you may suggest - a record about a lonely, sad old man walking along the beach of a small Spanish town, but rather something that can be seen as a representation of various aspects of life, whether it be the good or the bad ones...

Are you enjoying the fair so far? It seems to be a lot of work though ...?

Chris: Talking is work? Good, every job is that, no, I don't mind. No, I enjoy this. (Thinking a lot) No, it's this is the time when you've kind of created your little baby and you're gonna go talk to people about it, so I hate when people consider what we do work. Even playing music in general is like: 'Uh, I gotta go to work', I am like: 'work'? Jon (Oliva - v.) always says when we're on the phone: 'I gotta go to work', I am like: I am like: 'Work? You're going into the studio to watch TV'. Instead of watching TV in the apartment, we go to the studio to watch TV. And when John leaves, he goes: 'Time to go to work!'... you know like: 'yeah, we've a different television'.

Johnny: ...different TV...

You really seem to be interested in other media stuff, as well, like the...?

Johnny: Have you seen our Website?

Yes, it's one of the best. We spent a lot of time on it.

Johnny: What happened was, we had two computer science majors at the university of Minnesota, they started it, so we got it built for free. They used it as their theses to graduate. Then the one kid told he graduated and he handed it to his friend Nathan Bradley. Well, Nathan made it even better. Well, when Nathan graduated from college, it was like, we were using the university site, you know, the provider for free, while we had to buy our own spot. So we went to Winternet which was limited at what we could do, it wasn't fast enough, that wasn't a very good server. So then, what we did, is we moved it to our own server, we bought our own thing and now we're upgrading it and we're gonna be doing a lot of merchandising through it, lot of fan club stuff. And, I get a lot of email from that damned thing. As I get first, it was like: 'Yes, this is gonna be great' then I get, turned on the computer and it's like: 'You have mail'. It goes: 'woosh' and I: 'my god, shit!'. A lot of mail...

So you take care of your site yourself?

Johnny: I don't maintain it, no, I help him feeding him info, but he does all the HTML and all that. And he works at Intel in Arizona, so when he's working, he's working on our stuff.

Chris: We stayed very closely involved with the fan club, Johnny especially, so that's when we first got the computer down in Florida: 'Sure, I put my email address on Internet, I get some mail'. First it was like two here, five here, maybe on a busy day get ten, now Johnny goes away for like a week, he comes back and there's like three hundred of them.

Johnny: My wife answers a lot for me, she helps me out. But I run the whole fan club and everything which is a lot of work in itself.

But I think it's great if you sort of get an immediate feedback from your fans?

Johnny: Oh, yeah, and being on the computer, if people don't like you, man, they fucking tell you! 'You suck'!

Chris: SAVATAGE fans are very vocal, they are very vocal. The SAVATAGE fans are great, I love our fans.

What's also quite cool is that it doesn't take too long to download the whole site...

Johnny: Nothing's worse than waiting, and sitting there waiting and watching the thing go (staring at a non-existing screen): 'Oooh, 20% done...'. You know, that's why we changed the server and it just makes it faster and it's more accessible and we have still a lot more room to grow with it, and we're working on doing that. And we have a guy named Tommy Dougherty who basically should be a computer scientist, who I met trough the Internet, who helps out a lot with... We're running a bulletin board, we've been running that now. I had to get taken off of it cos' I was getting three hundred e-mails a day, to the point when I click on, the screen would just like flash and shudder and then all of a sudden it would be a screen filling list. And it would be a people's conversations which, you know, I only have so much time in a day, I mean, I like to stay in touch with the fans, but it really gets to be a lot of work...

Maybe we should talk a bit about the album now. You haven't done a studio album for quite a while, you toured for a long time, you released some live stuff and you had your two side projects...

Johnny: Well, we did the Dead Winter Dead record, we did the Dead Winter Dead tour, and then after the tour we released a live, you know, Ghost In The Ruins and then we released the From The Gutter To The Streets and that's why we haven't put out a new studio record due to the fact we have released so many - In the past two years we have released five records, if you count TSL, as well...

Chris: ...we're getting sick of ourselves (laughing)...

Johnny: Yeah, I mean what inevitably happens is you wind up having one record competing with your other record. And the record company wanted us to wait because we had so much stuff out, it's like 'OK, guys, let's just hold off a little bit' and that's what we did.

Chris: And actually the TRANSSIBIRIAN ORCHESTRA record that was released, that kind of was 'the studio album in-between' just, you know, it...

Johnny: ...under another name...

Chris: ...worked on it and went under that name. But that was specifically recorded because the Christmas song of the Dead Winter Dead had a tremendous amount of success on US adult contemporary radio, so much that it took everybody by surprise. And Atlantic wasn't prepared for the amount of people that wanted to buy it. So the next year we were discussing: 'Well, we could re-release it'. But if they were going to push of a Christmas song under the name of a band SAVATAGE, that might be kind of...

Johnny: ...that wouldn't work...

Chris: ... so that's why the whole TRANSSIBIRIAN ORCHESTRA thing came up. Just like a vehicle to help launch that song. And now, eventually, we can do other records with it, too.

And this DR. BUTCHER thing is still going on?

Chris: Well, I mean Jon kinda found enough work with SAVATAGE now, to where we really gonna concentrate on. At the time... I mean when John left SAVATAGE for the first time after Streets, when he was out of the band, we weren't even planning on doing anything. I had broken up with my brother in the band, and we were doing - when I was stupid enough to leave the band - and we sat in Florida, me and Jon together and we just started writing. And then eventually we went into the demo and the record came out, but Jon never really intended to go out and rip his voice apart again live, so we did the album. And we have other material but now I'm writing with SAVATAGE and I'm playing a lot. So I'm really... I'm not looking for anything to do. So we may do one one day, but right now it's... you know, I've committed myself to SAVATAGE and I love it. I'm happy, I'm really happy. Everything feels right in my life right now, so that's good.

As far as this DR. BUTCHER project is concerned - would you say that after such material it was more appropriate for you to concentrate on an album like 'The Wake Of Magellan' which is very contemplative in my opinion?

Johnny: Yeah, there's a lot of thought into the new one...

Chris: Oh, we did DR. BUTCHER, I think Jon also, when he was out of the band, after Streets, I think a lot of people were questioning whether or not he could sing like that anymore. So I think he really had something he wanted to prove to himself. You know, that he could still... he was still 'The Mountain King' like that kind of thing, he went out and did that. That kind of frustrating thing came out of it in that record, and me, too. It's like I've spent so much time and we just sat down and we were angry when we did that record... don't know why (laughing).

Johnny: ...angry record...

...so did the new album turn out even more contemplative because of this 'angry' record you did before?

Johnny: The thing about us is we've been doing this for so long, we had to come up with something new to keep it fresh in our eyes, in our minds. And I think we're kind of like the 'thinking man's band'. It's like someone who's, you know, could actually visualize and read a little bit, know what's going on in the world.

Chris: It really, it mixed every record special, too. Cos' when every record kinda comes out, it's like it's own little movie. It's not just like: 'All right, here's the next throwing some mag on the table), we call the record SAVATAGE 15'. And you put the thing on and the first song is like 'I crashed my car - life sucks!' and the next song is like 'My girlfriend fucked me over - life sucks!'. It's not like that. We have something that helps us express ourselves as musicians, and something, like Johnny said, that helps us to think. And I mean, after all these years of being on the road as a rock'n'roll band, it's like everyone some....

Johnny: ...you gotta use your brain...

Chris: ...you gotta use your brain. What's left of it anyway?

Johnny: Whatever we have left (both laughing)

Johnny: Yeah, I mean its a challenge to do a concept album. We could put together a record in no time, if we didn't have to think about it. You know what I mean, musically it's very simple. But to do something where you have to tell a story in music and have it all make sense in the end, this is really hard, and that's why we like to do it like that. And now I think, we're hooked on it...

Chris: ...we're addicted to concept...

Johnny: We're thinking on the next concept, what could it be? How about 'Lost in space', ugh, stuck on the MIR satellite...

Chris: The next one is gonna be a culinary concept. We are calling it the 'The steak of Magellan'...

Johnny: We have to keep it fresh for us. And Paul (O'Neill, producer, song writer) and the others are good at getting that out of us. Because we presented him with a box loaded of tapes, said: 'Here's our new songs', and he kind of came up with the idea of what to do with it. At first, you know, we're gonna like 'mmhm, yeah, yeah...', and as he kept explaining it, and we were like: 'Yeah, this would be cool.' 'If we could pull it off, that'll be great'. And then as we started getting down the road, we figured out that we can pull it off, and I think we did. It came out and I like it. And the story, once you get the CD, it has the poetry that ties all the songs together, so that it becomes even more obvious of what's going on. But in the same breath you can take it and put it into your car and drive down the road, and you wouldn't even realize it was a concept record, you know, unless you've listened to every word...

Chris: ...but eventually you might here the ocean for like the seventh time and realize something is going on (lacht)

Johnny: The weather channel is there, definitely. It's got the definite nautical theme to it.

Paul eventually came up with the concept of it?

Johnny: He brought it to us, he kinda presented it to us. It's like: 'Here's a pizza, eat it. If it tastes good, eat it all' kinda deal, you know. And we took a bite and we 'Yeah, next thing was: 'There's no Pizza left, we liked it', we liked what he said, you know, what he came up with, and it makes it more fun for us, and more challenging.

Why did you choose these two stories...?

Johnny: Didn't you get the 40 page one, yet???

No, unfortunately not...

Johnny: I got a 40 page one, I should have brought it. No, but it has all the poetry and the lyrics, which ties it all together. But that's the way Paul is and he's a very intelligent man. And, we're a bunch of dummies.

Chris: Hey, Mr. Hanson!

Johnny: Well, I did graduate!

Chris: (laughing) Yeah, I graduated, too!!!

Johnny: He brings out the intellectual side of the band.

Chris: He makes us look a lot much smarter than we really are...(laughing)

There are really a lot of distinctive aspects to it, and everybody may focus on various parts of the concept, but one very interesting detail is like the psychological part of it. There's this boy who walks down the beach with his mother, and when he wants to go up to the old man, when he sees him crying, his mother tears him away from the old man...

Johnny: 'Just get away from him', that's crazy...

...exactly, and it's like this educational part, for example, that you have here, this sort of conditioning that starts in childhood...

Johnny: Basically, yeah...

...yeah, that kids are taught not to care about other people...

Johnny: Yeah, that's true. I think Paul gets a lot of that from living in New York. And if you've ever been in New York City, you see people with no legs and no arms with a cup in their mouth, begging for money. And people just walk by. Life is weird and life is short and its just a... The concept itself is twisted. It deals with past, present, and future.

Chris: ...and all involves around death...

Johnny: ...Yeah, and some of it is real and some of it is fiction. So it really is a weird twisted concept, that once you've figured it out, it's almost like a puzzle that you have to put together in your mind. Because, like you said, everyone, I could read a book and he could read a book and we'll both get something different out of it. And that's the whole thing behind the record it's just an added bonus. The concept's an added bonus. The record is not... it's based around the concept but it's not tied to it. You can listen to it and not even realize it's a concept record. But you get the added benefit of maybe sitting down one day and listen into and go: 'Ugh, yeah, this is pretty cool'

But if you have something like a concept - which not a lot of bands focus upon ...

Johnny: The last great concept record that I've heard from the another band was Operation Mindcrime. That's one of my favorite CDs of all time. And that's a weird concept, you know. It's a little more simpler, ours is a little more complex, but it's a very... I think that's we kinda started us on all of the concept thing. Cold have been a little bit of QUEENSRYCHE influence. At least a little bit, not a lot. But they were one of the first bands that really did a concept record, and then we went on to do Streets which was called a 'rock opera', you know, which we don't really like the term 'opera' because that brings images of the old ladies up in the balcony with the little things listening to Pavarotti sing you know, crap like that.

Or The Who...

Johnny: Yeah, the THE WHO, yeah. WHO's Tommy was great. That mean undeniably is one of the best records of all time. But it's fine to take music and make it different. And that's what we try to do.

But why did you choose these two sorts of stories ...?

Johnny: There's million of stories...

Chris: It was kind of one of those things that stuck with you. And that's kind of also the same way we picked Dead Winter Dead, we picked that wars, that's the reason, because that stuck in us. Because war was always there, it wasn't go anywhere. And nobody paid attention. And in America you read in the newspaper, on the front page, you know: 'Pitbull bites man in foot' and then in a little tiny paragraph about this big (shows a quarter inch spot with his fingers): 'Thirty thousand people got killed yesterday when a battle broke out', you know, it's like that kind of was the real inspiration for us. You know, no one really knows that this war is going on, basically, and there's hundreds of thousands of people dying and we wrote the record about it.

Johnny: And like in this, for instance, you probably would have never known that there was three men, three young men from Romania fed to the sharks from some jackass time when he is captain, who is afraid of losing his job. You would have never known that, nor would half a million people that will buy this record, but now they will. And if we can shed a little light on something that's very wrong in the world, then I think we did a good job. And I'd like to see the bastard hung. But it's not my job and we're not a political band, we can't do anything about it, but maybe shed a little light on and let some people know, that 'hey, this occurred and this isn't right'. And I really wouldn't want my kids thrown to sharks.

Chris: I mean, you really have people that, you know, their lives and their countries are so bad. All they want is to go somewhere where they can get, try to be...

Johnny: ...be free...

Chris: ...be free. And they get on the boat, and - like Johnny said - somebody used to throw them overboard...

Johnny: ...even in the days of Magellan they wouldn't do that. You would wash the deck, you would have to work, then you get your ride, you know. Granted, you weren't the most popular dude on the boat but they wouldn't feed you to the sharks. And they wouldn't kill you. They wouldn't do that.

Chris: I mean, nothing really is closer to God than a captain at sea boat. But what right does this guy have to play God. I mean that's not the right thing either. He was not being treated like the Romanian society where the kids... - you know, they can do anything. This guy is out sailing the world. It's his boat ,he's the captain, you know, it's like he can't understand what these kids were going through and the he threw them from overboard.

Johnny: He's afraid of losing his job, that's what it was. He's the youngest captain in the freighter company and the freighter company had a stowaway insurance which if, you know, like say they come to Florida and there are stowaways on the boat, the freighter company gets find. Anywhere from five to twenty-thousand dollars depending on where you are. The company had insurance for stowaways, there was no need to take away lives. And that kinda bugged us. It still does. It's a story to write about.

Something that really stuck to your mind?

Johnny: Some things stick to your mind...

Chris: It wasn't something that lingering around for a long time, I mean really, luckily for us, Paul happened a stumbled upon this article first to read right at the time when we were deciding, actually we were thinking: 'Are we gonna do a concept record or not', and then Paul read this and showed it to us and we talked about the story and he came up with the name The Wake Of Magellan, and that's where everything started. So it just happened, it wasn't lingering around for so long as say Dead Winter Dead...

Johnny: ...yeah, like the Bosnian war, that really pissed us off!

Chris: I mean, that was something that the men hadn't noticed in the studio doing him full reign, and then a year later this thing is still going on...

Both: ...and nobody cares

Johnny: So that's why we wrote about that one.

And I think it was quite surprising to have an American band writing about topics like that, becuse if you take into account the war in Bosnia - the American media had their story about it and they only gave limited space to it as far as the news is concerned. That's why I found it very surprising that you wrote about a subject like that since the news in the U.S. didn't really focus on that war...

Johnny: No, well, it wasn't in our backyard. Had that been going on in Canada, that would have been big news. Had that been going on in Mexico, It would have been big news. If it's going on on the other side of the world, the average fanass American whit this channel changer doesn't give a shit as long as his air-conditioning is working and his beer is cold.

Chris: I don't even think it was like until we got over here, when we were touring, that we realized just how important it was to people in Europe because that the record was so successful here and people who talked to us about it, we were like: 'Wow'. And I think when we realized what we did at the time as far as that one, I mean, it was very special, especially some of the people that live in Bosnia, that have contacted us...

Johnny: Oh, yeah, we have got letters from a lot of people who lived through it and expressed the gratefulness that we brought to light. And actually we got letters from people who joined the military, to go to Bosnia, after listening to our record, which I found really weird. And I got letters from people who where in Bosnia and friends send them our CD and they listened to it on a daily basis just to get through. Because it wasn't easy for our troops over there...

Chris: ...they are still over there...

Johnny: ... and we're still there now, and I mean, when we got there it was Dead Winter Dead and of course being the dumb Americans, we set up camps in the flood zone, you know, three days later our camps were washed away. We had a really rough time dealing with it.

Chris: Oh, Paul was funny. He, you see he's going: 'Look, you know what? I'm thinking of having you guys sneaking to Bosnia'...

Johnny: yeah, we were going to play there...

Chris: ...and actually if... 'cos we wrote this record and it came out and then like two months later the US moved in, and he was like planning it for us to go, and it wasn't until the day that the Americans decided to move in that Paul came the idea, 'cos all of a sudden we weren't allowed to. We could have gone in before the Americans were there but it would have totally been just completely suicidal.

Johnny: They couldn't guarantee our safety, so we didn't go.

That's what a lot of bands did, like BRUCE DICKINSON for example...

Johnny: Yeah, he was crazy.

He played on a truck where all his equipment was hidden so that they were able to rush off if something had happened, so that surely was dangerous but he said it meant so much for the people over there...

Johnny: Yes, and that's what we wanted to do but the State Department basically told us to stay out of there as they were not sure what was going to happen and, you know, we can't shoot back with guitars, so they're like: 'You can go, but if you don't come back alive, it's not our problem.'

Chris: Eventually, I think, it would be really neat if everything gets together and we go play there some day...

Johnny: ...that would be great...

Chris: ...I think that would be special. That would be one of these things were I could guarantee you, we'd play the whole record in its entirety if that happened.

Johnny: That would be totally cool! If we could, we would.

I think the troops are supposed to leave next year but the situation is still quite precarious over there...

Chris: It's still a little bit hot under the collar over there. Just people that are mad that the war had to end. Just people that like that war was what they had to do with their life which is so funny sometimes 'cos I think a lot of wars are built out of that. A pent-up anger and boredom and people just decide to start killing each other, so just because they had nothing better to do. And all of a sudden their fun was gone. They can't go around and shoot people anymore because Americans moved in. And that's the main reason why we didn't go there, because here we are, 'what a better price to get than the American band that wrote the rock opera about the war that they didn't want to end'. 'Right sure Paul, we'll be right in Bosnia next week!'

Yeah. But it's not really interesting for the media anymore because nobody gets killed, there are only a few SFOR troops attacked or something but no children who get killed and which the news could actually present on TV. But still, there's no peace and people don't want to become conscious of it...

Johnny: It's easy to look away...

Chris: I still care. I've such a hard time understanding the whole contents. I know that war was necessary in the steps in history and whatever, but in a time like now I really find it unbelievable that people would still want to kill people and carry that out and even on massive levels. And, you know, right know that there's brains somewhere in this world that would love to be in a war. And that's just such a weird concept, I cannot understand how of course being... I was not raised though to hate like a lot of these people are. They're programmed from when they were little kids: 'This person, you don't like! This person is the enemy!' and that's really scary.

Can't do much against it, I guess...

Johnny: Whatever you're raised to be that's what you're gonna be.

Chris: In America there's like anything always to hate is like deal the sports teams form the other cities (laughing). Usually your friends and your friends' dads, if you walk in the house with the team hat on and they like: 'Take that off in my house!!', and that's as far as it goes over that. I mean but still, we got our problems...

Johnny: ...we got our problems...

Chris: We got our problems there, too, with the racial tension that happens in our country

Johnny: ...it's in-between the drugs and everything else to going on in the States.

Chris: It's hard, like I said, it's hard to understand. Life is so precious as it is and then you get a turn around...

Johnny: ... and shoot somebody, because her skins have different color or you believe in a different god, that doesn't make any sense.

Chris: I mean this story has got a lot of hope in it if you look into. And I mean it does have its very dark sides to it but there's hope in it if you read into it. This record, I think, is definitely one of those things we're... it might help people, somebody might read into it and I can see somebody getting something out of it.

Okay, turning to another thing now. What I always wanted to ask you - since your fans are well-known to be very enthusiastic - if you see any difference between your fans in the different parts of the world, like the fans in the U.S. are probably...

Johnny: ...lazy! (both laughing)

Johnny: It takes a lot to impress the Americans. I mean, you got to stand on your head, whistle, and spit quarters, you know, that's like... America is so spoiled, you know, that's like: 'Yeah, we've seen that...yeah, we've seen that...'

Chris: ...There was a time when it was very trendy and cool to go to rock shows and like rock bands. Now it's like...I don't know what it's like. It's weird.

Johnny: And then you go to Greece and you get off the bus in Greece and all of a sudden there's twenty kids running up to you, pulling on you and: 'Can I just... Sign my cigarette pack! Sign my back! Sign my face!', you know, that's like... And then you go to Japan, you get to your hotel, there's fifty people waiting in the lobby for you, but they were very...

Chris: But they're sitting and drinking coffee and they will peek through the bushes...

Johnny: ...yeah, but they're very polite, I mean, and the Greece people are very, hmm...

Both: ...aggressive...

Johnny: ...and the German people are a little laid back, they love the band and they will patiently wait and they won't be rude. Most of the Europeans are like that. Now, the Greeks, they don't give a shit. They'll just fuckin' open up your hotel room door. There's a difference...

Chris: ...I was stupid, I used to stagedive a lot. I was dump enough to go into it in Greece...

Johnny: ...it is dizzy in Greece... and they tried to tear his shoes off...

Chris: ...I left and I looked like spent a night with like eighteen porn stars when I got out from the audience becasue my back was just completely scratched off.

Johnny: They were trying to get his shoes off.

Chris: It was like, I jumped in and usually they lift you up and throw you back. In Greece, I jumped in and then they pulled me to the floor. It was like - like Schwarzenegger says - 'Ugh, bad idea..'

Johnny: I was like, I'd seen what's going on and I was like: 'Oh shit, HEY! Get 'em!'

Chris: And I'm sitting there and going too: 'Please, lift .. me .. back!' and they were going (gestures of tearing and ripping something apart)

Johnny: They ripped the shirt off...

Chris: And I'm like: 'Leave... my shoes... alone!'

Johnny: They are trying to take his shoes. I mean, they just wanted a piece of something, you know, and it's definitely different.

But what is it like then to come to Germany, for example, and have more lazy than enthusiastic people in the audience?

Both: Oh, no, I thought Germany is pretty cool, yes...

Chris: ...there are getting a lot better, I mean.

Johnny: Germany and Europe itself is real responsive. The Greeks and the Italians are little more intense, the Japanese are very responsive, but in a polite way, and the Americans, they just don't give a shit about nothing. They just want to know who won the football game Sunday night. But it all depends on where we play, I means, you hit pockets where it's almost like being in Greece. It just depends on where you're at.

Chris: Yep, I've noticed that we definitely have a larger spend in age in audiences now. You'll see like fourteen year old kids and you'll see forty year old people, and I've noticed that, you know, it's not like it was in Europe, especially back in 1990 and stuff. But we were already used to it in the eighties, when we toured, it was primarily 95% male audience. I noticed now it's getting to be make more like 60/40 ...

Johnny: ...yeah, now we have girls coming out. It used to be a sausage feast in the old days, like: 'There's not a girl in the audience, what are we doing?!'. Now, and it's weird, you can see a mixture of people, old and young.

One final question now (while the promoter is already trying to get us out of the room) - how do you see the development with some bands to whom image seems to be more important than the music they create ...?

Johnny: Yes, we're not much on image.

Chris: Yeah, but that's weird. It used to be like 'grow you hair and look like you're in a rock band', and now it's like 'shave your head and look like you're in a rock band'. This suck.

Johnny: We just stay away from scissors, you know...

Chris: Yeah.

Johnny: My stage outfit consists of maybe a baseball jersey, a pair of jeans and some shoes. We don't give a shit about image, you know...

Sad evolution kind of...

Johnny: Yeah, it has... Not to us