Savatage – Tribute To A Fallen Brother
Intervieweded in May 2000 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 “it?s a collection of live stuff that Paul (O?Neill) and I put together featuring my brother. I think it?s 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 he?s “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. We?d 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. “It?s very confusing having two projects with one label. One of them is going to suffer. Since Savatage wasn?t 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. We?re 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. “It?s definitely a full-time gig” Jon notes. “The TSO stuff is mainly Paul?s brainchild. He puts the stories together and we put music to them. We use a lot of different vocalists” adding that it?s “not one set singer”. Jon goes on to say that TSO is “really not a set band” either. There?s a “revolving door of who we can get to use to fit the song. That?s 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 Beethoven?s Last Night and it deals with Beethoven?s last night on earth” and with “his making a deal with the devil. It?s interesting” but that “you?d have to read the stories in the CD” and then it?ll “all make sense to you”. Even with it?s complexity it has sold very well. Whether this is a surprise to Jon he explains that it?s “not a surprise” but that “he?s very happy. It?s 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 it?s 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. “It?s sad to see Al go. Al?s 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. “We?re going to look for somebody” but that they?re “not running around frantically looking. Our eyes are open and we?re gonna try to get someone in there before we hit the road”. Hitting the road is a big part of getting Savatage?s music to the people. “We?re doing dates in August in America and then it?s Europe for three months. Then we?re back in the states with TSO doing Christmas stuff, then back with Savatage in January. We?re gonna be busy”.
Most bands don?t last for more than fives years while Savatage?s career has lasted almost twenty. Jon isn?t quite sure has it has lasted this long. “I don?t know?.knock on wood. I think maybe we?ve done what we?ve do. We have never strayed off or gone the image way even when the big hairspray (80?s) was in. We kinda found our own little niche and that?s where we stayed”. They?ve gained in popularity in some places. “Our success in Europe has been growing the past three years, it?s just amazing. We?re 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 it?s 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. “There?s a lot more going on” musically. “We?re a musician?s band” while with newer bands, the “quality of music that?s coming out is kind of scary. There is some great stuff but the majority is garbage. Noisy, out of tune guitars and people who can?t 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 Savatage?s future Jon notes that “we?re gonna keep doing records as long as people want us to. We?re looking forward to touring this year. We haven?t been on the road for a year or so” as they?re “all itchy. I?m sure the road will be exciting. We?re 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.