SAVATAGE - Hard Times
an interview with Criss Oliva
|"When the going gets tough, the tough get going". That certainly goes more than ever for Florida's undisputed power metal masters, SAVATAGE. Not only are the Sava boys still in pursuit of that one big break that's eluded them despite having made mostly brilliant albums over the last ten years or so -for about the last six months the band has also had to make due without their trademark, singer Jon Oliva's unmistakable voice ..|
Jon's exit can't be all that surprising considering Oliva had been struggling mightily with drugs for years, which took a serious toll on his health. Still, the news of his leaving the band came as a shock for many and the thought of Savatage carrying on without Jon's characteristic vocals was unthinkable. An opinion the band themselves never seemed to share - giving up apparently never crossed anybody's mind even for a second. Within a very short period of time the band located a replacement for Jon Oliva -Zack Stevens,a previous unknown from the Boston scene. In the meantime, SAVATAGE have completed work on their eighth album, "Edge Of Thorns", which should be available by late March. No wonder guitarist Criss Oliva comes across rather confident as I call him at home to get the scoop on what's been going on with SAVATAGE.
"I couldn't be happier - so far everything is going great withour new singer" (well, now that's a collective weight off our shoulders ). "As you can well imagine we've been getting tons of tapes from guys who wanted to audition, and most of them tried to sound exactly like Jon. But we were like, "well, if we're gonna have to get a new singer, we might as well get someone who sounds completely different". Zack's tape really impressed me right off the bat. Here was a guy who could sing his ass off and come up with some great melody lines; his potential was undeniable. Jon and Paul O'Neill have been working with him on his vocals, and Zack has already turned into a real Sava dude. Playing with us has been like a dream come true for him because SAVATAGE has actually been one of his favorite bands for years - and now all of a sudden he's fronting the band. Compared toJon, Zack probably sings a bit more without losing any of the aggression. He's a great singer in every aspect and he fits in perfectly."
It remains to be seen whether the fans share Criss' enthusiasm for the new guy when "Edge Of Thorns" hits stores and the band gets back into the swing of things on the live front. Meanwhile it'd be interesting to find out how Criss feels in hindsight about his brother's decision to leave the band after all these years.
"Well, Jon left us because he was simply burnt out and had it up to here with the whole touring thing. It's not that he doesn't like the performance aspect or interacting with the fans, but everything else started to become a bit too much for him. I knew that a split was only a matter of time -the possibility of that happening was thoroughly discussed following the"Gutter Ballet" tour. Now it's happened even though Jon will continue to work with SAVATAGE. For "Edge Of Thorns" we've once again written all the music together. Aside from that, Jon is planning on collaborating with Paul O'Neill and myself writing for other artists. He also wants to get his solo project, Dr. Butcher, off the ground; it'll probablyonly be a studio thing without any touring involved. Jon is happy with the situation as it is now. He's doing better health wise as well now that the pressure has been lifted off of him. That's worth something, too."
Other than the fact that Jon will now be taking over the role of"coach", as Criss puts it, everything is still pretty much the same with SAVATAGE. The band continues to be on the Atlantic roster even though it was feared for a while they might be shown the door following a big internal housecleaning at the label - as happened with Vicious Rumors. And for "Edge OfThorns", Oliva and Co. have once again utilized the services of producer Paul O'Neill who has developed into something of a fifth bandmember over the years. What can be expected musically from the new album given the constellation involved?
"Compared to "Streets", "Edge Of Thorns" comes across as more guitar oriented and in-your-face as it were, and the album isn't centered around some big story line. It was my intention to pull back on the more pomp-type stuff we had on "Streets", mainly because we have Zack in the band now who's a newcomer. I'd say "Edge Of Thorns" is pretty much a cross between "Hall Of The Mountain King" and "Gutter Ballet". It's definitely turned out to be pretty heavy even though there are a couple ballads. One of them is just vocals and guitar, the other one is a "When The Crowds Are Gone"-type thing. Jon plays all the piano parts by the way. There's no orchestrated stuff on "Edge Of Thorns" though - it's very much a guitar album."
And what exactly is the meaning of "Scraggy's Tomb"? Word has it the song is basically about Jon Oliva's past excesses
"Well, "Scraggy's Tomb" is a synonym for the bottle, of course,and yes, my brother was the inspiration for the lyrics. The song was mainly Paul's idea and he also wrote most of the lyrics - Jon just added a few things here and there. All of us think it's pretty amusing - even Jon- otherwise we would've not put it on the album. By the way, the thing you hear in the beginning before the songs kicks in - that's Jon popping open the bottle and jugging down, haha!"
Let's change the subject here: Whatever happened to the idea of turning" Streets" into a rock opera for Broadway, which was being talked about fora while?
"The possibility is still there. The problem is finding the right people with enough capital to finance a project like that, which isn't exactly cheap. I'd say chances are pretty good that it will happen once Paul, Jon and I finish up this project we want to get started on very shortly."
Would you mind clueing us in here?
"Well, the plan is to write a real Broadway opera. I'm not really sure yet what the music will sound like but there will be orchestral parts as well as rock elements. Writing together with Jon, you just never really know what's gonna come out anyway. But one thing I know for sure: It will be nothing like what we're doing with SAVATAGE."
The more immediate focus will be on SAVATAGE however, who have a lot to make up for with "Edge Of Thorns". "Streets" did by no means badly but, in the US more so than elsewhere, the band got confronted with quite a few negative reviews. And for the first time ever the album sales didn't top the figures of its predecessor.
"I'm still convinced that the possibility of SAVATAGE breaking through here exists. It's mostly a matter of timing really; you have to make the right album at the right time and get the proper promotion from the label. Everybody has to pull in the same direction at the same time. I have to admit though that I'm a bit disappointed we still haven't conquered the States but this is the most difficult market after all. Our last American tour didn't exactly go smoothly either. It seems as if we had this dark cloud of doom hanging over our heads the whole time - safe for the two days in Hawaii. In L.A. we were barely into our set when the power went out and it took forever until everything was back up and running again. As you can well imagine the fans got pretty pissed off and when we finally got back onstage the place was half empty. To top it off, Westwood One were there to record the show for a future broadcast. The whole night was one big disaster, and we want to make it up to the fans as soon as possible."
It was quite another story when SAVATAGE subsequently paid a visit to the land of the rising sun. There the band performed for the Japanese metalfans for the first time ever and won over audiences in a big way just as other US power bands such as Vicious Rumors and Riot had done before.
""Streets" got a great response over in Japan. The album was voted among the top 10 albums of the year by the readers of Burrn! and the whole thing almost took on Beatlemania proportions while we toured overthere. It's kinda cool to experience something like that once in your life. In Japan they treat musicians almost like royalty, the hotels are all topnotch, people invite you out to eat and they are generally very courteous. We've made similar experiences in Europe, too, where we've always been well taken care of. For "Edge Of Thorns" we'll probably tour Europe and Japan first, which should be early summer, before we get busy in the States."
And since we're already on the subject: SAVATAGE have made seven studio albums and done numerous tours and yet there's still no official live album- not counting the promo-only "From The Dungeons To TheStreets", which contains both live as well as studio tracks. What's it look like in that regard, Criss?
"We've recorded a whole bunch of shows through the years and I have a ton of stuff sitting at home that would make for a great live album. The whole thing is a question of timing and the fact that we have a new singer now complicates things even further. There's a possibility of doing something after "Edge Of Thorns", in which case Zack wouldn't have anything to do with the live album. As far as that "From The Dungeons To The Streets" CD is concerned - that's a compilation Atlantic put together for radio about a year ago. It contains songs from all our past albums including live versions of "Sirens", "The Dungeons Are Calling", "City BeneathThe Surface", "Power Of The Night", and "When The Crowds Are Gone". The recordings are culled from a few different shows, like our Cleveland show with Megadeth from the '87 tour."
There has also been talk of re-issuing the first two SAVATAGE classics,"Sirens" and "The Dungeons Are Calling", which were supposed to come out on Metal Blade along with a live album a while back but for whatever reason never surfaced.
"As of right now Combat still own the rights to those albums but there now is a CD with both "Sirens" and "Dungeons" on it. Actually,we're currently in the process of buying back both records from Combat so we can re-issue them. We'll probably add a few old unreleased SAVATAGE songs as bonus tracks to make the whole thing more interesting for the fans."
And since we're already digging up the past, we almost have to mention the legendary AVATAR EP, of which there now exists a worthless bootleg. Also from that same era is a lesser known compilation of local Florida bands. AVATAR is featured with not one but two songs, "Rock Me" and"Minus Love", which sort of sound as if Poison covered a SAVATAGE tune.
"Oh my God, you got that thing?! (what did you think, my dear Criss?) Poison meets Savatage, huh? Hahaha! Well, what can I say ? Those were the early days. It was our first time ever in the studio when we recorded those songs and we had no idea which direction we wanted to goin musically. The songs on the AVATAR EP were written around the same time as "Minus Love" even though the difference between them is like night and day and nobody would even think they're from the same band."
The times when SAVATAGE played their asses off on the Tampa clubcircuit for next to nothing are definitely a thing of the past for Criss Oliva and the Sava dudes even though things are still a ways off from being a bed of roses. Either way, Criss seems pretty content with what the band has accomplished thus far.
"When I look around and see how much of a struggle it is right now for a band to make any headway, I consider myself pretty lucky. I mean, how many people in this world can claim to be making a living playing music? For Jon and myself it really all started back in Escondido,California where we used to live for a few years. That's when Jon and I put our first band together and began playing all kinds of backyard parties. Ofcourse we ended up getting into trouble over it on a frequent basis because we'd skip school so we'd have more time for music. Yeah, I guess you could say we weren't exactly saints, and our parents were called to Jon's high school all the time because of it. And at home we constantly got to hear "when are you boys gonna cut your hair already!?" -typical stuff worried parents tend to say. But once they saw that we were really serious about doing music and things began to look up for the band they gave us their full support, and nowadays I think they're pretty proud."
As you should be, Mr. and Mrs. Oliva