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sarajevo story - spinning a chilling tale on dead winter dead

from Metal Edge Magazine, February 1996, Vol. 40 No. 9, pgs. 48-50
by Gerri Miller
transcribed by Christopher "Toph" Morris
rockgtrist@aol.com

The devastating, tragic civil war in Bosnia is brought into focus and put to music via Savatage's eleventh and latest release, a concept album called DEAD WINTER DEAD, set at Christmastime in the Sarajevan war zone.

This powerful-sounding and powerfully moving effort marks yet another lineup change for the nearly 15-year-old band, which lost guitarist Criss Oliva in an auto accident in October 1993; guitarist Chris Caffery, who played on GUTTER BALLET, has returned to the fold, and axemeister Al Pitrelli (Widowmaker, Alice Cooper) has joined vocalist Zachary Stevens, bassist Johnny Lee Middleton, drummer Jeff Plate (who came abord on the last tour and played on the LIVE IN JAPAN disc and video), and keyboardist/vocalist Jon Oliva in the lastest incarnation of the band. I talked separately to Zachary, calling from his Tampa, FL home, and to Al as he took a break from adding a porch -- in the rain -- to his Long Island, NY home.

G: How did the idea for DEAD WINTER DEAD come about?

Z: During HANDFUL OF RAIN we sat down to write a song called "Watching You Fall" about a girl in Bosnia, in Sarajevo. It was at the beginning of the siege, now it's going on for three years. When it broke out, we were watching the news, and they're killing children. Anyone's fair game. A kill is a kill. It's sick. We thought about the good friends we have in Europe and how the American media weren't paying much attention to it. We thought that this story -- whole villages being wiped out, the atrocities, concentration camps -- there was a lot to explore. It's an agressive approach to take, making another concept record.

G: You've done it before, with STREETS. How does it work -- did you come up with the story and lyrics or the music first?

Z: We wrote like we wrote every record since I've been in the band -- it starts with a riff and I start singing. We said, "What part of the whole story is this song appealing to?," and we tie in what we want that song to represent. Then the lyrics fall into place. It's like a puzzle.

G: Is it more difficult when you have the structure of a story than when you're just doing a collection of songs?

Z: Not really because what we try to do is make every song stand on its own.

G: Who wrote the lyrics?

Z: I wrote some, [producer] Paul O'Neill wrote the majority, Jon wrote some, we kind of worked together, and I worked with Paul on the vocal melodies.

G: The lineup has changed again on this record. Can you explain?

Z: We found out Chris Caffery wanted to come back to the band and we immediately invited him back. No hard feelings, Chris had always been like family. Jeff played with me in Wicked Witch, in Boston. Steve [Wacholz] had been trying to work his way out of the band for the past two years. He got into some other business ventures and wasn't really into doing the tours. Alex [Skolnick, who played on HANDFUL OF RAIN and toured with the band for it] called and said he wanted to concentrate on his band Exhibit A. We were like, "Hey man, go for it." We were happy that he came in and helped us get through a tough time period. When we started recording and looking around, Al's name came up. He's awsome, he's a great guy. We're a blue collar rock band, hard-working, and he fit right in.
A: I came in at the 11th hour. Paul O'Neill got a hold of me and said, "Are you interested in playing on the new Savatager record?" Yeah, it's work. I didn't know anything about it the first night I went to the studio.

G: You didn't know it was a concept record?

A: Paul didn't get into it too deeply with me. All the tracks were recorded at that point, all they needed was some solos and half the lead vocals weren't done. I went down there and that's when they explained it to me. It kind of struck a chord with me because I'd been there with Alice Cooper. We played Zagreb and Belgrade, soccer stadiums. Six months later the war broke out. Probably a fair amount of the people who were at those concerts are dead now or they're out there with AK47s. One of the venues we played became a triage hospital. I saw it on CNN. I had become friendly with a lot of people there because I'd done a clinic in Yugoslavia when we toured and I'd started writing an instructional column for the country's only rock magazine for about six months. I'd get a bunch of letters but the letters stopped coming in when the war broke out. It's always tragic to watch something like this going on, but when you've been there and you've become friendly with people it hits home. I went down there like any other session but when Paul started explaining it to me I thought it was kind of special 'cause I'd been there.

G: Were you familiar with Savatage? Had yoet any of them prior to that?

A: I'd been familiar with the music but not the people. I didn't know any of them but Chris. Zach and Jeff came in and introduced themselves but I didn't meet Johnny till the photo session. All his bass was in the can and he was in Tampa. I finally met everyone at once at the photo session. At the beginning, I was just there to play guitar on the record but as we got deeper into it they asked if I'd be interested in getting involved on a more full-time level. The situation was a little funky at first, but when we finally got together and had a few beers, everyone got along great, they're a great bunch of guys.

G: Did you play all the leads?

A: Probably 90-95% is me. Chris played all the rythym guitars, one or two solos.
Z: Chris played the leads on "Dead Winter Dead."

G: What was the studio experience like?

Z: At the end we had five studios going at once. We were doing overdubs at the same time as mixing the record. Al was doing the leads, I was doing vocals for "One Child." Caffery was doing overdubs in another, fixing rythyms. Paul was mixing in another room. There was a lot of pressure from Japan and Europe wanting it before it was done. We got it turned in as fast as we could. Pressure's good, we did some good stuff under pressure.
A: Paul would say, "That's really good, but..." That's when I knew we'd be there till six in the morning. Paul doesn't sleep. The mad scientist? That's him. I like him 'cause he's a musician. He can play guitar and sing and understands harmony, he communicates in musician language. He's real anal, more than anyone I've ever worked with. He always wanted to do it again. I was a little resistant at first but nine times out of ten when he would push me it was amazing. The one time out of ten when it wasn't I'd go, "Look, we got it in the can seven hours ago. There's no spark left." Sometimes he got me so pissed off that I'd drink a beer, smoke a cigarette and grab my guitar and play and that's what he was looking for. It's a very powerful album, it's not a pretty message or a pretty story and sometimes I felt he was trying to get me into that mindset so I would play a little angry.

G: What equipment did you use?

A: God. Paul drove me crazy, he had me bring practically every guitar I own to the studio. I brought about 15 guitars in. He made me try a bunch of different amps. But what worked for the entire record is a 1960 Les Paul and a 5150 head.

G: Have you learned the older Savatage music yet?

A: No, they have so many albums. They need to get me a list of songs. I'd like to listen to the stuff and acclimate myself for a while before
I dig in and play it. I remember playing with Great White, I had a day's notice. All I need is a full-time job one day, and I'd be okay.

G: How do you feel about being a guitarist-for-hire?

A: I used to get real defensive about it. Now I look at it, "I play my guitar. This is how I make a living." As a kid I wanted to be in a band, I had a poster of Led Zeppling on the wall, not Steve Lukather as a session player. Nobody aspires to be a hired gun. It's the hand I've been dealt. Is this the way I wanted it? No, but I'll take it. How do I feel about playing with everybodyand a lot of different styles? I thank God that I'm fortunate enough to work all the time. I'm not just playing heavy metal or rock 'n' roll. The worst thing is playing a piece of music that you can't stand, but if that's as bad as it gets I'll take it. It's a whole lot better than saying, "Would you like that order supersized, ma'am?" A lot of guys do construction or whatever to make a living. I could never hold a real job, and I have responsibilities. [My wife] Donne doesn't have to work, the kids have everything they want, we have a real nice lifestyle, I just have to work. I've never had that real intense high or terrible lows. It's been even ground. I'm chugging along doing what I'm doing. But I think it's f-cked up that the major labels won't let certain bands make music. Very few bands -- Aerosmith, Bon Jovi, Van Halen -- have transcended from the '80s to the '90s. It's scary to think you can sell three million records one year and the next have no deal. The whole music business got turned on its ass. But the business has always been cyclical.

G: Where do you think it's going?

A: I don't know, but it's certainly moving to foreign territories. At least they're open to whatever's good, no matter what style it is. From '84 to '91 you had all these bands, you couldn't get out of rock's way. I think it oversaturated and some of the integrity may have been watered down somehow. Too many hairspray and cheekbone bands. I think people got turned off ot the whole style of music for a while. But I think tere are bands who are really doing it now -- Biohazard, Soundgarden, White Zombie, that band kicks ass. Pantera, Type O-Negative. The Chilli Peppers.

G: Would you like to put your own project together, generate it yourself?

A: I enjoy putting projects together, like what I did with the Place Called Rage band, my blues band with [drummer] Joe Franco. We wrote songs and demo'd them in my home studio. I loved soing something start to finish as opposed to sideman stuff when it's, "Here, learn these songs and play them." There's pros and cons to both of them. If you want to create something from the ground up and try to get it happening, you won't make any money at first but you'll be an artist and be creative. The other way you're playing music but you're playing someone else's stuff.

G: You have to leave your ego at the door.

A: I did that a long time ago. I love to play and I want to keep working. I did a Taylor Dayne record. It isn't the type of music I'd stay and home and bang my head against the wall listening to but it was great playing with Taylor. I stopped worrying about a lot of crap. I'm gonna stop and smell the roses more, watch my children grow up, enjoy myself. Jesse's gonna be 10 soon, he's in fourth grade. At the beach this summer, he's trying pick up this 16 year-old little hard body in a bikini. My middle one is five, Jamie. Zak was born in July. Jesse comes home from school the other day asking me about homosexuality, guns, drugs, AIDS. Nine years old! When I was nine years old I was trying to figure out how GI Joe could f-ck Barbie. All I cared about was, "Dad, can we go to the Yankee game? And where's GI Joe's dick?" Jesse's asking, "What's 'gay'?," and I'm still trying to figure it out! I've got three kids I'm trying to raise properly and to get caught up in everything else is not a priority. Ten years ago it was, "Where can I get laid? Where can I get high?" Now it's like, "Where can I get lumber cheap?" Fortunatly I keep working and trying to make quality music. I'm trying to ride that fine line between being a complete whore and being a pragmatic businessman. I've fallen over to the whore side more than I'd like sometimes but whatever, that's part of the game.

G: Any video plans?

Z: We'll probably do "Dead Winter Dead" for Europe and Japan, but it may be a different single for the U.S. We can get a lot of footage from the film archives, some of the harder core stuff that hasn't been seen, that would sum up the feeling of getting caught up in this web of genocide that's all around you. We tried to capture that in the song and will try to get that across in the video.

G: Didn't you consider doing the video in Bosnia?

A: Yeah, but being shot would be a setback. Donne got antsy because life insurance is null and void in war zones. I would have liked go back if I could find people I knew there.

G: What are your tour plans?

Z: Probably we'll start over in Europe, U.S. second and Japan later.
A: There maybe be some one-off dates here and there, like Tampa, the band's home town. Get the album out, let it do what it has to do and hit the road in January. MTV and radio isn't as we knew it so it almost has to develop as an underground thing.

G: You talked about the songs standing on their own -- will you take the same approach to them live?

Z: We're gonna wait and see. If there's enough response, we may play most of it in a clip, more together than apart, but we have a lot of material to cover. The songs that stand out over the years are pretty obvious. I think we'll be oug there for two hours. That's cool with me. We have a lot of things to cover.

G: Will you do any benefits for victims of the war in Bosnia?

Z: Probably as part of the European tour, get a lot of bands together for a big outdoor thing.

G: Do you think the record will increase awareness of the situation there?

A: I don't know. I'm a 33 year-old who watches the news every night. But a 17 year-old kid in Mississippi, maybe he isn't as clued into what's going on. When I was growing up and the bands I was into had something political to say, that's where I probably heard about it first.
Z: I kind of blame the American media for not focusing on it -- hre, the O.J. trial was at the forefront. We want people to listen and think about it. If it brings some awareness, great.

Captions under the photographs read: "It's not one side or another, it's telling a story about a guy and a girl on either side and a cello player who has an overview of the whole situation," Al says of DEAD WINTER DEAD. "It's terrible what's going on over there." He picks "Christmas Eve" as his favorite track, and Zachary chooses "One Child."

With Chris, Johnny Lee, Jeff, and AL here, Zachary, who took over on lead vocals from Jon Oliva on the EDGE OF THORNS album, stresses that the ex-frontman is still very much a part of Savatage, now as keyboardist and backing vocalist, though due to legal disputes with the band's former manager, "We have to leave his picture off the album here in the U.S. or there could be a lawsuit."

Al slugged it out for three years with Dee Snider in the now label-less Widowmaker, whose last CD STANDBY FOR PAIN didn't do as well as they'd hoped. "The diehard fans adored it but the numbers weren't so great that we could afford to stay out and support it. Me and Dee, we have responsibilities," says Al, referring to their three sons each. The band is on hiatus now, but they don't rule out working together in the future. "I'm hoping Widowmaker gets another deal and Dee gets something happening 'cause I'd love to do another record. But in the meantime, this Savatage thing came out of nowhere and it's really worked out well. I'm looking forward to working with these guys for a while."

Zachary is a newlywed -- he married Tina, his girlfriend of three years, on July 30. They met at a tour-ending gig in Tampa on the EDGE OF THORNS tour.