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savatage: a band from the 90s - interview with jon oliva

from Z-Rock Magazine, September/ October 1990
by DeAnne L. Pate
transcribed by Gonzo the Silenced

Jon Oliva is an enigma. One minute he's ornery and audacious, the next he's quiet and polite. Above and beyond all, he's very pleasant and amiable. This outspoken man is the lead vocalist of Savatage, a band whose work has brought them accolades as one of the most versatile and unconventional bands of the century, but a band that has not yet attained the level of recognition necessary to become a household name. Talking with him before a recent Kansas City performance, Oliva spoke with animation, shedding some light on what Savatage has been up to.

How did the Testament tour go?

We had a good time on the Testament tour. It was a heavy crowd, but they loved us. I was really nervous when we first went on that tour - Nuclear Assault, Savatage and Testament. How come I feel like the white stuff between an Oreo here?

But everything went okay?

Oh yeah, and the guys were very nice. We spent the Fourth of July with them and [James] Hetfield [of Metallica], playing softball, alcohol softball I think it was. We all got together, hung out, played ball and got majorly hammered. Afterwards we went to some fireworks show that I don't even remember.

Do you remember where you were?

Oakland, California, but I don't remember exactly where. I think it was somewhere near water because I was cold. [laughs]

What about this tour?

It will be half clubs and half small halls and theaters. We'll be out until the end of September. Then we go to Japan. When we come back, it's possible that we might do something with Judas Priest. They called our management asking about us, so they are trying to put that together, and if it happens, it will bridge the gap between the new live album and the studio album.

What was the Dio tour like?

Hell. The schedule was hell. It was all arenas and when you do arenas, the interviews and personal appearances are triple what you normally do. Nowadays, the era of arena shows is slowly disappearing because there are very few bands who can do arenas, whether on their own or with three or four acts. It's become more beneficial financially, for the bands to do 1000 - 2000-seat places. You can get the people into the smaller halls because it's not as expensive. When you get in the big places you run into the problem of having to sell 10,000 seats... and ticket prices are retarded! Absolutely fucking retarded!!

How have you been received in Europe?

We are very big in Europe. We have like twice the recognition there that we do here, which is weird. Looking back through our career, we have never really done extensive touring before because there was always something that fucked it up. This is the first year that we have really done extensive touring and finally the U.S. is starting to kick in. In Europe we never had any problems. We play halls there ourselves. There is a big difference between Europe and America. In Europe, the kids don't have cable TV, MTV and radio stations like Z-Rock. So the only things that they really have there are magazines and shows. There are occasional video shows, but they are mostly dominated by bands like Poison and Bon Jovi, so the kids who are really into the heavier stuff never really get it. That's why over there, the kids really tend to follow the shows and the bands from America because they never get to see them. It's an event for an American band to be there.

What to you like best about touring?

The best part about touring is definitely meeting people, whether they be girls or whatever... but girls are fun. A lot of fun, actually. I like playing - the show itself. Everything that leads up to the show can sometimes be really hard. The traveling really gets to you after a while, some of the runs that you take are so long. For instance, we just drove here from Portland, Oregon, and that's like 2000 miles. It's difficult to get up for a show when there is nothing left of you to get up. Oh, and interviews are cool. I like doing interviews. A lot of bands don't, but I don't know why.

They probably become repetitive.

Yeah, they do. They become very repetitive, but it's all what you make out of it. I try to go to an interview with a sense of humour. A lot of guys will be all drunk or stoned and go, "Yeah, well, uh... we've been together for, uh, nine years... oh yeah. I wrote that I like fucking chicks." To do this job you have to have a sense of humour or you'll go out of your fucking mind. It's tough and very demanding. Everyone thinks that it's just sex, drugs and rock & roll. Well, it is sex, drugs and rock & roll, but there is a lot of other stuff that goes along with it. I mean, you can't sit there and do drugs all the time and drink all the time and get laid all the time and expect to go up to do a show. Its not gonna happen. I know that because I tried doing that on the Dio tour and I ended up cracking up.

What happened?

A couple of us... well, one of us; I wonder who it could be? [I] got a little bit too involved in certain forms of self-abuse and subsequently had to be housed for several months. I am the primary songwriter and I wasn't writing during that time. So we didn't any material. That's why it was so long between releases.

It was like something you'd see in a movie. At first they thought I had lost my mind so they sent me to the hospital with less than a full deck of cards. I did get some good songs out of it, like "Thorazine Shuffle." Thorazine is a very heavy downer. You can't even lift your feet up. All you can do is shuffle along and bounce off the walls all day until it wears off and they give you more. I'd fight them, saying, "Look, I'm not crazy!! I'm in the wrong place!!" And then they'd start with the Thorazine shit again and I'd start to think, "Well, maybe I can hang out here for a little while..."

Eventually, they gave me tests and found out that I was very sane, and they sent me to drug rehab, which was the problem. You never want ot get involved with that shit.

Whose decision was it to ship you off?

The record company's. They came to a show in New York at the highlight of my drug career, and at the end of the show I passed out, fell over the back line and knocked all the gear down. When I got up, I started throwing stuff into the audience. They called the paramedics because I was shaking, not knowing it was because of the drugs I had done. So the paramedics were trying to give me shot, and I punched them in the face, knocking one guy out and loosening the other's teeth. Kronos from Venom was in the dressing room and I threw him through the door. I was punching out guys from the band... I was out of control!! The record company was there, watching all this in horror, and that's when they decided it was time for Jon to take a vacation.

Did they give you any alternatives?

There were no options. They don't want us to leave - they love the band. The bottom line is, maybe we don't sell millions and millions of records like Aerosmith, but we definitely help their bank account. The last record sold over 300,000 copies. Gutter is a big seller in Europe, and it's starting to take off here. We should hit gold. We are hoping for that. I'd like one.

What goals do you have for the future?

I just want to continue to travel, make records, sing my ass off, and have a good time. It doesn't matter to me if I have millions of dollars.

Anything else you want to say to your fans?

What to you say to somebody who has allowed you to do what you've always wanted to do? If it wasn't for them, we'd be nothing. I love 'em all - Sava' fans rule!! Thanks... lets get drunk and have a good time...

And a good time we did have. Later that night, the [full-] capacity crowd at the Lone Star in Kansas City was treated to one of the band's finest live performances. Jon spied me amidst the screaming masses of people that had rushed to the stage during the set's intro. I smiled at him and gave him a "thumbs-up." Smiling down at me, he reached out to touch me head, his smile turning into a mischievous grin. He gave my hair a swift yank and he was off, launching into the kind of high energy that is sure to earn this band the attention it deserves. With someone like Oliva at the helm, anything is possible.