Straight talk about


From: Players, Sept. 1991
written by: Richard Proplesch
Contributed by: Incubus
HTML by: Ellen Bakvis

"I think it's our best work, personally. It's definitely the most intricate - I mean, we use everything but the kitchen sink on this thing. Actually, if the kitchen sink had made some noise, we would have put it on there", Jon Oliva ( lead vocalist , lyricist and strategist for Savatage ) laughs.

Jon has been patiently fielding questions all day from the European press about Streets: A Rock Opera, Savatage's forthcoming release. Streets is a challenging almost 70- minute conceptual piece about the life of a fallen rock star, "D.T.Jesus ". The music is intricately complex and diverse, yet patently Savatage's own brand of progressive metal. Even more surprising is that Streets is largely linked by piano/vocal cuts and features soft passages throughout.

Realizing that the rock parable will be a curiosity to many listeners, Jon explains "The thing about doing a rock opera, it was something we always wanted to do. I guess from the success of 'Gutter Ballet' ( their previous album ), the record company gave us carte blanche on this. I'm exited about it; it's definitely very interesting."

Along with his brother, guitarist Criss Oliva, bassist Johnny Lee Middleton and drummer Steve Wacholz, Savatage have been in Clearwater rehearsing the work with local keyboardist John Zahner (of Drama) preparing for a European tour beginning next month. In between the endless shuffle of rehearsal and preparation, the band spoke to Players about the album and the nine months of work involved in the project.

Steve points to the acceptance of Gutter Ballet as the impetus for Streets by nothing, " It definitely was the next step for the band. We said, 'How in the hell are we going to top this one, guys?'. Then our manager said: ' Well, no one's done a rock opera in about 15-20 years. Why don't you guys think about it ?"

Criss Oliva wasn't initially excited. " I thought it would be impossible to do. All I thought was: Tommy, and stuff like that. All I thought was ughh. But with Savatage, I knew it would be totally different. Even though it was intense and hard work, it was still a lot of fun to meet the challenge and pull it off."

"'Gutter Ballet' was actually going to be the rock opera, but we chickened out at the last minute", Jon admits. "We felt some of the material wasn't strong enough, and we had a different storyline. we said, 'Let's just dabble with it on this record and see what kind of reaction we get '. Well, the response was great. We picked up a lot of new fans and sold about three times the amount of records as ' Hall of the Mountain King '. Then with this one we said: ' Okay, let's jump in with both feet."

Clearly, Savatage look at Streets as a turning point, the watershed event in their careers and a bid for worldwide recognition. Savatage clearly lay claim as one of Tampa Bay's most commercially successfull bands. Streets is their fifth major label release for Atlantic Records. Gutter Ballet brought them a new legion of fans interested in their brand of classical-tinged heavy metal. That album sold 400,000 copies worldwide - just shy of gold status in several countries. But it has taken awhile for Savatage to find their distinctive niche in the crowded market of heavy metal bands.

The band, formed in 1979, played to the small southern circuit of hard rock bars as Avatar.Their agressive presentation earned them a loyal following but they never got much further than being regarded 'hometown hopefuls'. \they placed a couple of tracks on the 95YNF Pirate Album, a 1983 compilation of then-current Bay-area bands. However, group momentum was lost as the station underwent personnel and programming changes- and the album was forgotten.

A slender thread of opportunity for the band appeared when a young Dunedin enterpreneur, Dan Johnson, approached the group to record for his fledgling Par Records.
Now christened Savatage, the band recorded it's debut album at Tampa's Morisound Recording. Sirens was a rough sounding document, but it was an aggressive statement that set it apart from other albums in the burgeoning New Wave of Heavy Metal. For a local release with limited distribution, the album was considered a modest success. But Savatage was still only known to a few hardcore metal fanatics.

They had withdrawn from the club circuit when a fortunate break occurred. The band was tapped as the opening act for a 1983 Bayfront Center concert by Zebra ("Who's Behind the Door?"). A label representative from Atlantic Records at the show was impressed by the crowd's response and expressed an interest in the band.

After protracted negotiations and several demo sessions (including one with Rick Derringer), Savatage signed with Atlantic a year later. Late in 1984, they entered the studio with veteran producer Max Norman to record the major label debut, Power Of The Night.

Dan Johnson, seizing his opportunity, rush-released an EP of remaining tracks ( entitled The Dungeons Are Calling ) to take advantage of the band's rush of success ( both albums were subsequently sold to and released by Combat Records ).

The band, given a shot at national exposure, were very assured about the results, but radio programmers balked. The album was released to the public just as heavy metal was coming under the microscope of public scrutiny. Backward masking and Senate censorship hearings were suddenly more important matters to record companies than breaking debut albums.

Sensing a changing musical climate, perhaps, Savatage enlisted Stephen Galfus to produce their next album, Fight For The Rock (1986). The band ( now wiser to the business end of the music industry ) tempered their music for a more commercial , accessible hard rock sound. Fight... was more successful sales-wise , but the venture into pop music gave their previous fans mixed signals. The band's cover version of "Day After Day" ( recorded on the same grand piano Badfinger used for the original ) gave them more radio exposure, but this change in musical direction was curious to critics and fans alike.

Savatage slowly realized its real strength as a performing band. The excitement of their live shows and the regimen of constant touring led them to re-examine the heavy metal form they had largely abandonedon record.

They chose producer Paul O'Neill ( a working relationship that continues today ) for their return-to-form album Hall Of The Mountain King (1988). The songs were road tested and recorded quickly - resulting response and sales were strong.

The band was both relieved and confident that they had discovered a correct mixture of creative elements to satisfy themselves and their audience. Termed 'progressive metal', Savatage use a powerful foundation of 70-s inspired metal, incorporate some occasional gothic elements, and add their unique flourishes-complex song structures, off-beat time signatures, and classical-tinged keyboards.

Savatage's experimentation within a genre that is usually quite limited paid off in the success of last year's Gutter Ballet. Gutter Ballet allied Savatage with a growing legion of fans not satisfied by simple hardcore thrash, death metal, or the posturing of mousse-metal bands.
Savatage found their niche.

The band added second guitarist Chris Caffery to broaden their sound, but his tenure was brief. Jon explains: " When Chris joined, it was basically on a temporary basis. We were always close to Chris and his brother Phil. They played together in a band called Witch Doctor, but Phil injured his back, so Chris started playing with us. But once his brother healed up, they put it back together. I can't blame him; he's a writer and a lead guitar player - in our band he was just playing rhythm guitar and jumping around every night. He left on good terms."

Of course, conversation turns to the new project...
The storyline for Streets was finished long ago. It was originally a rough idea that producer Paul O'Neill had for a movie script several years ago.

Steve summarizes the story of Streets by saying: "It's about a burnt-out rock star, who used to be popular. He falls prey to drugs and his career fails. He cleans up his act for a comeback, bu in the midst of that, old drug debts haunt him and he loses his best friend, his road manager. Eventually, an old bum on the street touches him emotionally. He decides to clean up his act and start all over again - to become the rock star that he once was. That's it in a nutshell, " Wacholz laughs. " Sometimes I'm not sure what the damn thing is about".

Jon clicked with the idea immediately. " Paul gave me the storyline to read. I read it and said, 'Hey, y'know, this guy reminds me of me.' We sat down to put it together, names started popping up, things just started happening; it kinda fell together like magic."

The main character of Streets is D.T. Jesus ( alternately 'Downtown' Jesus and 'Detox' Jesus ) - a composite of people the band has known. Jon says , " We just use him as the centerpiece, it's really about life in general. The whole moral of the opera is , 'Anything is possible if you believe in yourself '. We just use this guy as the vehicle to get that message across ".

The storyline leads to an obvious observation. Is it about Jon Oliva himself? Jon discounts that, " All the interviews have been asking if it's autobiographical. I'm like ' Well, I didn't think of it that way, but now that you mention it, it could be.' I mean, it's pretty common knowledge that I had some drinking and heavy problems. It wasn'tr like we were writing this about ourselves, but you look at some of the things we've gone through - you may take it that way."

A rock opera is an often maligned thematic device to link songs in a long-running concept. It began with the pretty things S.F. Sorrow and The Who's Tommy, but the concept is mot remembered for spawning the career of Broadway composer Andrew Lloyd Webber and his Jesus Christ Superstar. The basic idea has suffered through some very week attempts at rock 'art'- critics have been quick to paste any grand-scale project with labels like 'pretentious' and 'pompous'.

Savatage are certainly aware of the backlash that may occur by resurrecting this dated art form. Jon counters by saying, "I'd be lying if I said that it didn't cross my mind. I wouldn't come out and say I worry about it everyday, though. I just think it's different than what's been released over the last few years. Queensryche's Operation Mindcrime is the only album I could draw a parallel to, but even that was a single-length album and the storyline was very, very difficult to follow. Once you read the prologue on Streets, you'll be able to understand and follow what's going on."

Steve offers that Operation Mindcrime is "One of my all-time favorite albums, but these are two different entities. It's not like we're trying to follow in Queensryche's footsteps by any means. But it did give them the critical recognition that they needed. Maybe Streets will do it for us. While Rolling Stone wouldn't normally pick up a Savatage album, they might if it says 'Rock Opera' on it."

Criss says of potential backlash: "I'm sure it's crossed all of our minds, but a rock opera hasn't been done in a long time. It's definitely going to be different with us doing that, and no one's expecting it."

Steve adds, "I'm not sure this generation knows what a rock opera is. This could open a lot of people's eyes. A lot of kids can probably relate to the main character. I mean, D.T. Jesus reminds me of somebody very close to me".

Jon's perspective is "You have to satisfy yourself, and if the fans are really fans, they're going to be there. You can't really mould your career around the kids who like Sirens and Dungeons are Calling. You can't work that way.
This is going to be a real love/hate album. I really doubt that the people who listen to Slayer, Death and Morbid Angel will be listening to this record. The people into that music are
just that - into the music and nothing else. it's very narrow-minded, but that's the way it is nowadays. We picked up a new following with Gutter Ballet , and the feedback I'm getting about Streets has been great ".

The band's excitement about the album is also echoed by their record company, Atlantic, who were very determined in their promotional push for Streets. Steve remembers:
" In the past, our management company used to have to ask for print ads. Now the record company is hustling. 'We're doing this and we're doing that'. It's really good to see that everybody came to the ball game. It's a good feeling".

Jon adds: " The buzz is really big. The record company is renting opera houses for listening parties in Europe. They're very into it. I mean, we went $100,000 over budget and they didn't get mad! they're very excited. It's a challenge for them to make this rock opera break".

Due to the difficult task of recording a thematically-structured project, the band has to alter their studio regimen. Jon reveals:
"Our biggest struggle was to condense 50 songs down to 19 songs. It was a nightmare! To make everyhing work lyrically was the hardest thing. We fought like cats and dogs for weeks and weeks. No one could agree on anything, until we finally sat down with Paul one night for 37 hours straight and hammered it out. We made some adjustments, some compromises, added some things - we're happy with it.
I started working on the record back in October. We rehearsed here in Florida, then went to New York after New Year's to work in the studio with Paul, until February. We recorded basics, did overdubs, and mixed until July. So basically, we worked on the project from October to July.
We were doing 20-hour days because we recorded close to 50 songs. It justgot so intense. We were working in shifts. I would come in with one set of engineers at nine in the morning, Criss would come in at three in the afternoon, Paul would come in at six and carry the session untilthree or four in the morning."

Laughing, Jon shares: "Those poor guys in the studio were happy to see us leave. I remember on the last day, going into the control room to say goodbye - and all three engineers were asleep at the console, completely burnt-out. We killed 'em. We ruined 'em", he suggests with glee.

Criss adds: "It was like doing three Gutter Ballets. It made the work we had done earlier seem like kindergarten. To keep it going, we'd never work on a song more than 20 minutes. There was so much material that we kept switching around. It was very organized, you gotta be".

Steve says his input was different. " I was in California on buisiness when Criss and Jon called from New York. They said: ' We wrote all these songs - you gotta record them next week.' So I had a weak to learn and record them, so the material was fresh in my mind. Personally, I laid down better tracks because I wasn't over-prepared - no overkill in playing songs ten million times ".

Jon reveals: " We used everything. We recorded things falling off the roof, I went out and recorded 42nd Street sounds at two in the morning with a portable DAT to get sound effects, we used the Harlem Boys' Choir, real orchestra, sampled orchestra - you name it".

This attention to detail may be the pay-off for Savatage. With an over-abundace of hard rock and heavy metal bands, it's hard to distinguish many memorable individuals traits or characteristics.
Jon remarks: " I think the thing that separates us is that, one - we're not a Poison- type band, what we consider a girlie type band, and two- that we're not a fad band, like all the Gun's N Roses sound- alikes. We've always been ourselves. We don't look or sound like anyone. I can listen to Warrant, Winger, - a number of bands- and if I don't see the video, I couldn't tell them apart. If you've heard the band - you know it's us. If you haven't, then at least you know it's somebody different. And I think the industry is in dire need of something different.

"We've always felt that we were highlyunderrated. I think we've been overlooked a lot of times because we're not some flash-in-the-pan type band. I get very annoyed when I see a band that can't perform their songs live onstage and have studio musicians come in and play their parts for them, or to see an album go platinum because the lead singer has peroxide blonde hair and blue eyes. And it's not just Savatage - there are hundreds of talented bands that deserve a break but just don't have a gimmick."

"I dunno. We've been around a long time. I've seen bands come and go that everybody's said were going to be huge. I remember when Twisted Sister had their album out and the record company was ignoring us, saying ' Twisted! Twisted! Twisted! " Then, all of a sudden, Twisted Sister died. But Savatage still went on. It happened with Hurricane Alice. Everyone again was ' Hurricane Alice !'. We outsold in two weeks what they sold in a year. And Savatage was still there. You know what I mean?," Jon laughs. " We gotta be doing something right."

While the members of Savatage are dedicated, there has been some free time to pursue outside interests.
Singer Jon Oliva admits: " I've been working on some solo stuff for the future. I write a lot of different types of things. My solo stuff is like Genesis a la Robert Plant. I look forward to doing that one day. I'm actually in New York more than I'm here in Dunedin, but I like to call Florida home. Our families are here. I have a nine-year-old son here, so I'm here as much as possible."

Drummer Steve Wacholz (affectionately known as 'Dr. Killdrums' ) works as a behind-the-scene promoter for metal showsand the Tampa Bay Music Awards. But he also has an interest in a drum rack manufacturing company. He explains: " I hooked up with Tom Falcon two years ago. He's a fabricator and designer. I had somew ideas for a drum cage that he eventually made. We submitted the design and were accepted at a drum show. The response has been good, so we designed a standard set-up. It's state-of-the-art drum rack systems - making metal components for drummers. We've done racks and risers for Living Colour, XYZ and White Lion ".

Shy guitarist Criss Oliva is reserved outside the band as well. He says:
"I'm pretty much a family man. I'm the only one married in the group, I spend a lot of time at home. I'm very quiet and laidback, and my wife and I are to ourselves. It gives me the time to write, practice and recuperate."

But what about absent bassist Johnny Lee Middleton? Away on a foreign promotional junket? On a sabbatical before another grindling Savatage tour?
Jon lets out a belt of laughter. " Naw, Johnny just likes to fish! Play bass and fish- that's just Johnny."

Jon concludes that in spite of all this separate activity, there still is a common goal. He says: " I just want to feel that we've taken Savatage as far as we can take it. Savatage has been around since 1979, and we want to see it through. We've gone this far and accomplished a lot, now let's see it through to the end."
Jon playfully pleads, " We're too burned-out to be burnt-out. "