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caught by dr butcher - an interview with jon oliva

from Watt-Magazine, April 1995 (Netherlands)
by Robert Heeg
translated by Yvonne Kluitman
corrected by Adam Schifler

 

Dr. Butcher sounds more like Savatage than Savatage itself nowadays. The band is led by Jon Oliva, the man that gives, with his impressive figure, the metal insitute Savatage shape on stage for over a decade. The death of his brother and Savatage guitarist Criss, who perished on October 17th 1993 on a highway nearby Tampa, completely messed up Jon’s live brusque. After a period of mourning and reflection he decided to release as much music as possible.

"As long as I am able to I just have to", his device is. "Of course Savatage is recognizable in Dr. Butcher, but so is Black Sabbath and countless other European bands, we all threw them in the soup and still managed to come out with our own sound. The main thing is that it’s comprehensible, nowadays metal surpasses itself, it’s all so speedy you can’t even understand a word and heaviness in a way gets lost. More heavy than Sabbath just can’t be done. I love groove, a rhythm that makes you move.

Savatage was one of the first of the Tampa scene, we were, early eighties, the first metal band. The heaviest they had at that time were The Outlaws, ha ha ha ha ha. They wouldn’t even let us play, that’s how bad it was. Now take a look, how many bands are here, it has become on of the biggest metal centers in the world. Even though the South never was into metal from origin."

Dr. Butcher mainly radiates aggression. After your brother died it would be understandable that you would have made a very "mellow" album. I know you can do it, back in 1985 I saw you in the London Trident Studios behind a piano playing some Beatle songs.

"It’s like acting in a movie, Butcher is horror and Savatage is drama. They are two different worlds. Yes I can make mellow music but don’t want to all the time. In Butcher I can curse and get crazy as if I was 18 again. It reminds me of "Sirens" (Savatage legendaric debut album in 1983-RH). The last Savatage album reveals more of what I was going through after the accident. That album is calmer and more emotional. In Dr. Butcher I express my anger and impotence about the event. There’s no denial that both albums are influenced strongly by it. The Butcher songs that Criss got to hear are "The Altar" and "The Chair", those are the only two leftovers from the original demos. Every song that was written later on was far more aggressive."

It still is striking that you left Savatage because you wanted to quit living on the road, next you return to the band and above all announce a real tour with Dr. Butcher.

"That also has to do everything with the death of my brother. Dr. Butcher was meant as a project supported with a tour. My part with Savatage should have been restricted to song writing and playing behind the scenes. Me touring again with Savatage was not to foresee. I didn’t want to move on without Savatage and couldn’t let Savatage move on without at least one Oliva. Now I do both at the same time, I must be mad! (the first of the many maniacal fits of laughter sounds through the phone) When somebody so close to you dies, you reorganize your entire thoughts. All of a sudden I realized how short life is. I decided I mainly wanted to release music, as much as possible. Naturally after a period of reflection or rather a period of pure shock. At the time of the accident we were about to enter the studio with Dr. Butcher. That record could have been made a year ago. Everything was put on hold. Chris Caffery was very affected by it. We used to call him "little"Chris, because he is like family. Chris needed at least half a year to recover from the shock, this period was very intense."

Of course you agree with me that your brother never got the recognition he deserved as a guitarist.

"That’s something that really pisses me off ! Criss let everybody bite the dust, he was as good as Randy Rhoads and Edward Van Halen. His planned solo album will never be released. A crying shame ! For me there now is the task to make Savatage popular enough so people will go out and buy our old stuff as well (as I did :)-YK) and discover his enormous qualities. When Savatage would stop his work would dissapear into oblivion. To keep his memory alive I just had to go on with Savatage. It would make me very sad if we should have to quit. Everybody told me Savatage was over, but that is not true, I will continue."

Not that everybody appreciates it. On "Handful of rain" you wrote all the songs with "home"producer Paul O’Neill and above all played every instrument except the lead guitar. On the CD you are mentioned as the additional keyboardist.

"Indeed that sucks. The management took this decision because at that point I had not decided yet whether to continue with the band or not. It seemed better to them to pretend I did not exist. The one responsible in the meantime is sacked."

Your input on HOR underlines, what the fans already knew for long: Jon Oliva = Savatage.

"See, that is what bothers me. Although I put in a lot of work, Savatage still is a BAND. I think they sound good at the moment. Of course I rather would have had my brother in the band but Alex Skolnick (ex-Testament - RH) is an adequate replacement, he even has a bit of the same style as Criss. Besides that, I am a sincere lover of Zachery’s voice. We all just have to get used to things."

I can’t deny the impression that your former label Atlantic was responsible for the stylistic adjustments of Savatage. All the more when I see what joy the Dr. Butcher music gives you.

"It is two different ways of writing. Butcher is something that I wanted to do for quite some time. A bit rude, a bit risky, without rules whatsoever. We tried to bring Savatage to the middle a bit, without anybody compulsing though. It was out of our own free will, everybody involved wanted succes. Savatage had to be a more, I hate the word, mainstream rock band, like Queensryche or Guns & Roses.

That’s why we after "Hall of the Moutain King" (1987-RH) wrote more in that direction. Would I have reversed that process after two or three albums I would have been crazy. We just started to gain some ground at radio stations. Also on behalf of Zachary’s voice, that’s a lot more friendly on radio than mine. It is not something to confess easy but a band is business. I love music but a careful built business you don’t tear down just like that.

That’s why Zak’s in the band and stays in it. Never forget though that Zak is the vocalist of Savatage because I want him to be. I chose him as the man that would fit in the new Savatage the best, many don’t realize. I was reasonably satisfied with "Streets" (1991-RH) but some things bothered me. I realized my voice was too sharp and heavy for the new work and the more we followed that path the more far off my voice got. Zak took over perfectly, he has a great voice and ditto personality. His job is very hard. Believe me, I sang that shit for 12 years (again the maniacal laughter-RH). On the next album there will be a few songs especially written for my voice and on the coming Savatage tour I will climb the stage to sing some oldies, keeping everybody satisfied."

Aren’t you afraid competing against yourself with both bands?

"No, and nobody ever dissuaded me. For me it’s like the first and second team of a football club. Suicidal Tendencies and Infectious Grooves are a perfect comparison.

Which is the first team?

"It depends on what country. Dr. Butcher, just a few weeks after the release, gets a lot of fan mail from Germany and The Netherlands. I think we’ll do fine in Europe. Savatage on the other hand is appealing to the Americans. Don’t be mistaken, heavy may be popular over here but groove still is far more important. The two touring together, despite earlier messages, won’t happen though. The bands will be kept seperate for the time being. Savatage will be recording the next album in the Morrisound Studios this spring and Dr. Butcher will be coming to Europe in May.

Besides a club tour Jon tells to be invited on the Dynamo Open Air festival (Netherlands-RH). That day obscure classics as "Skull sesion", "Scream Murder" and "Rage" may be expected. Further, the huge musician is hoping the Romanoff opera for which he made together with Paul O’Neill the arangements, will pull off and become a big succes so he can buy a house in The Netherlands next to a coffee shop ( place in The Netherlands where they sell soft drugs legally-YK). A more serious goal is releasing a live double album of Savatage with recordings of "The Hall of the Moutain King" and "Gutter Ballet" tours.

"With this I will wait until the day Savatage takes its last breath, because that should be considered the ultimate homage to a masterly guitarist........Criss Oliva."