Heart of Steel: Interviews

Savatage - Tribute To A Fallen Brother

Interviewed by Keith McDonald

Savatage was formed by Jon and Criss Oliva in 1981. They quickly became one of the premier metal outfits to come from a decade known for creating legendary hard rock and heavy metal bands. They released City Beneath The Surface in 1983 and have continuously released albums that some may call masterpieces. They have sold millions of albums worldwide and gathered a loyal following of fans around the world. But their success did not come without heartache. Lead guitarist Criss Oliva will killed in a car crash leaving the band without a huge piece of the puzzle. Instead of calling it quits they felt the best way to honor Criss would be by continuing the music. They have just released Ghost In The Ruins (A Tribute to Criss Oliva), a collection of live recordings to honor his memory. I had the chance to speak with Jon Oliva who let me in on the new release.

About releasing the tribute Jon explains "itís a collection of live stuff that Paul (OíNeill) and I put together featuring my brother. I think itís the best representation of him live we could come up with. We did it a few years ago and just got it released here in America". It was previously available as an import because it "was released in Japan two years ago and in Europe. We never put it out in America until now" because we "just renegotiated our record deals and things got tied up" adding that it "kinda got shelved until we figured out what we were gonna do. Now that we got everything, business-wise, straightened out we went ahead and put it out". It is not an entire live show but bits and pieces from live shows from 1987 through 1990. "We just wanted to get the best stuff of him. We went through 200 tapes of live shows" and that "we narrowed it down to the stuff that sounded good". Also material "that we could work with that we felt was Chris at his best". Jon sums it up by saying that heís "very happy with it and (it) sounds great".

Savatage has found a new home at the independent label Nuclear Blast America. Landing there was quite simple for the band. "Actually Paul put that together. Weíd been with Atlantic with Savatage for a long time". Jon also notes that "we have Trans Siberian Orchestra with Atlantic that is doing very well in America". TSO is a different style of music that features members of Savatage. "Itís very confusing having two projects with one label. One of them is going to suffer. Since Savatage wasnít doing anything with Atlantic here in the states we decided to move Savatage off that and go with a younger, smaller label" that will give "more personal attention. Weíre still at Atlantic with TSO and now at Nuclear Blast with Savatage". The TSO project has been a huge success for the band, but also takes up a big portion of their time. "Itís definitely a full-time gig" Jon notes. "The TSO stuff is mainly Paulís brainchild. He puts the stories together and we put music to them. We use a lot of different vocalists" adding that itís "not one set singer". Jon goes on to say that TSO is "really not a set band" either. Thereís a "revolving door of who we can get to use to fit the song. Thatís the concept behind TSO, kinda like a whole bunch of musicians doing stuff Paul and I and Bob Kinkle had written. The new album just came out and is called Beethovenís Last Night and it deals with Beethovenís last night on earth" and with "his making a deal with the devil. Itís interesting" but that "youíd have to read the stories in the CD" and then itíll "all make sense to you". Even with itís complexity it has sold very well. Whether this is a surprise to Jon he explains that itís "not a surprise" but that "heís very happy. Itís made life a little easier for some of us, giving us a little bit of a cushion. I always thought Paul and I were doing quality music". Besides selling a few albums itís also "opened doors for us getting airplay and attention on TV shows" that Savatage would not receive.

Savatage has recently lost guitarist Al Pitrelli who has joined Megadeth. Jon commented on the departure. "Itís sad to see Al go. Alís always been a journeyman guitar player, playing with a lot of people over the years" notably Alice Cooper, Asia and Widowmaker. "I always knew Al was not going to be around forever" adding that "I was surprised he stayed around that long. Things in life change and (Megadeth) was a better move for him and we support Al" while Jon "hopes everything works out for him". As for a new guitarist Jon will not rush into anything. "Weíre going to look for somebody" but that theyíre "not running around frantically looking. Our eyes are open and weíre gonna try to get someone in there before we hit the road". Hitting the road is a big part of getting Savatageís music to the people. "Weíre doing dates in August in America and then itís Europe for three months. Then weíre back in the states with TSO doing Christmas stuff, then back with Savatage in January. Weíre gonna be busy".

Most bands donít last for more than fives years while Savatageís career has lasted almost twenty. Jon isnít quite sure has it has lasted this long. "I donít knowÖ.knock on wood. I think maybe weíve done what weíve do. We have never strayed off or gone the image way even when the big hairspray (80ís) was in. We kinda found our own little niche and thatís where we stayed". Theyíve gained in popularity in some places. "Our success in Europe has been growing the past three years, itís just amazing. Weíre playing sold-out shows that are sold out two months in advance. In Brazil we played a 40,000 seat soccer stadium". Jon would like to attribute the longevity of Savatage to their music. "I hope itís the quality of the music. We work very hard" adding that "we spend countless hours" working on their albums. "We try to improve the ideas". The band is not your run-of-the-mill commercial band. "Thereís a lot more going on" musically. "Weíre a musicianís band" while with newer bands, the "quality of music thatís coming out is kind of scary. There is some great stuff but the majority is garbage. Noisy, out of tune guitars and people who canít sing. I miss some of the classic bands" referring to artist like Queen and The Who. "Our music is very intricate and we spend a lot of time getting everything right". Influenced by "the Beatles who got me hooked on music. As I got older I heard my first Black Sabbath album". Jon mixed the two bands to form the sound you hear with Savatage. "I saw how you could mix the two. They both put no limitations in the studio" adding that "Queen also became a big influence".

As for Savatageís future Jon notes that "weíre gonna keep doing records as long as people want us to. Weíre looking forward to touring this year. We havenít been on the road for a year or so" as theyíre "all itchy. Iím sure the road will be exciting. Weíre just gonna see what happens and how the cards fall. We have three years worth of work between Savatage and TSO. Hopefully everything will work out"" I'm sure they will.