SAVATAGE/TSO – Al Pitrelli, Chris Caffery and Paul O’Neill

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INTERVIEW BY MARKO SYRJALA AND ARTOLEHTINEN

Savatage and Trans Siberian Orchestra literally blew the two stages away by offering a huge visual spectacle at Wacken Open Air this August. The whole show was beyond  normal human comprehension and understanding. Seeing this one of kind spectacle can’t be compared to any other show in the music industry. After gasping some air we sat down with Al Pitrelli, Chris Caffery, and the mastermind of both the outfits, Paul O’Neil, to discuss the return of Savatage to Wacken and above all Trans Siberian Orchestra, whom enjoy tremendous success in North America.

THE WACKEN SHOW

First of all, congrats for your Wacken show. It was just pure magic and one of the best shows I’ve ever seen.

Chris Caffery: Thank you. We are glad that you liked it “Laughs”

The obvious question is, how this thing came about? I’m not only talking about the long-awaited re-union of Savatage but also the show itself which was just unbelievable with two bands playing the same set simultaneously on two different stages. Who’s the one to blame behind this spectacle?

Paul O’Neil: Thomas Jensen from Wacken gave us an offer that we just couldn’t resist. He said; “Paul, what if I give you both headline stages? What would you do?”

I said; “you give me both headline stages and this fellow too.” Number one, I love Jon Oliva. But he’s like my brother, my best friend. Al and I love him.

Al Pitrelli: To death.

Paul O’Neil: To death. But Al and Jon; do we not… You and I, first, do we now like, go down?

Chris Caffery: I lived in the same place with Jon Oliva for 15 years, 15 years.

Paul O’Neil: Over the years, the drinking and the weight, and I was just getting so scared he was going to die. Two years ago Al, Jon and I were doing a photo shoot and he was having trouble walking. So I called Jon, I said; “Jon, if I confirm Wacken 2015, will you promise me you’ll quit drinking and try to get in shape?”

He goes; “Paul, if you do that I promise I’ll stop drinking tomorrow.”

Chris Caffery: And he did it.

Paul O’Neil: When he did it, he weighed about 440 pounds. He lost over 140 pounds.

Chris Caffery: That’s me by the way.

Paul O’Neil: That’s more…

Chris Caffery: That’s me now. “Laughs”

Al Pitrelli: That’s us, that’s all of us together “Laughs”

Paul O’Neil: If I lost that I would disappear. But he did it, he cut down his weight and he quit smoking and his voice came back with a vengeance. So basically, with TSO, when we build our shows, after we are done with the tour, we destroy the set and build a new one. So after every year we get rid of the set, but this was the first time when… I said; we want to do something completely different. So I said; this is what we’re going to do. We’re going to come back with Savatage, we’re going to re-unite. I called Zack Stevens. He got back on board, he quit drinking and he started running to get his voice together. Then we decided to do 40 minutes of Savatage and then we’re going to switch to other stage, and do 40 minutes with Trans-Siberian Orchestra. Songs from NIGHT CASTLE, BEETHOVEN’S LAST NIGHT and some songs from the upcoming album. But then I wanted to do something that had never been done in the rock history. I wanted to take the full TSO band, because the original band we did with Atlantic was four guitar players, two drummers, four keyboard players, 24 lead singers, a string section. This way, anything we can do, anything musically, there is no limit. For it to appear on just one big stage would be insane, but I had seen Wacken before and, it’s like really spread out. If you’re in front of the true metal stage, the 10,000 people from that stage, they can’t see the black metal stage and they can’t see that and then there’s the other 70,000. So I said; after the second half of the show, TSO is going to unite into the full band with everybody. Al and I basically went to an Arena in Florida and we practiced where both bands couldn’t see each other. Usually everybody is so used to being able to see the other guys, so you are all tied. Al just rehearsed the band until everybody was part of the same nervous system. You didn’t see the others, you just sensed it. Then we designed the whole production and everything else, but it was all designed on paper, tested on computers and then built. Normally we spend four weeks in an arena testing it, but instead we didn’t have time. It just got loaded it up and shifted it over here. We’re talking just for this one show, which needed over 530 flights, over 2,000 hotel rooms. The logistics were insane for one show! The stage manager gave me a book, things that could go wrong. The only thing that was good was if it worked, wow. Al, were we petrified?

Al Pitrelli: That would be an understatement.

Paul O’Neil: Honestly, I was the most scared I have ever been in my life.

Al Pitrelli: I’ll just to go along what Paul was saying. I’m fortunate, the opportunity I have to be his MD. But when you’re surrounded with talent like these guys, I’ll never say that in front of any of them. Don’t tell them. “Laughs”

Chris Caffery: I couldn’t hear you anyway Al. What? “Laughs”

Al Pitrelli: In order to have a good orchestra, it starts and stops the piece, the kind of position. The musicians that you have, they’re the best in the world. So as long as I can control the tempo and the pacing and keep everybody calm, in case something goes really, really wrong. That’s really my job, but I’m surrounded by incredible talent from above and below and from side to side. I think our road crew, probably, they are the true heroes.

Paul O’Neil: Those guys are second to none.

Al Pitrelli: You obviously have the privilege of good weather conditions this year. So I want you to think about bringing all this gear overseas on a boat, unloading it and bringing it here. Setting everything up and then testing it here first time and…

Paul O’Neil: That was the scariest part, but Wacken was really kind for us. They said; Wednesday night you guys can take over in all the bands, you can test all the gear. Then a huge windstorm came through and knocked all the gear down. I was like; my God! So when it finally was all over and all worked, the stress was gone. I just felt so great.

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REHEARSAL STUFF

Like you said, you now did the show with two bands playing the same songs on two different stages without seeing each other. Al, how did you manage to make that work?

Al Pitrelli: That’s my secret.

Chris Caffery: The magic of music industry.

Al Pitrelli: It took me four months, literary, four months.

Chris Caffery: I wasn’t able to brush my teeth without hearing Al Pitrelli go, one, two, three, four, go.

Al Pitrelli: When Paul first said; we’re going to play Wacken. I’m like; cool dude. TSO at Wacken. I said; which stage? He goes; both. I haven’t drank in a while. I thought that would be a good time to start again “Laughs”. If you strip away all bullshit, the truth is right there. There is an obvious solution; you just have to give it all. Of course, everybody had their own ideas how to make it work and I’m like “stop it!” If I’m on that stage and he’s asking me to take this fleet and take it out to storm and bring it back without a scratch, I have to be confident in the way that it’s going to be done. Because I’m the only one who is going to understand it when we’re on that stage, and something goes wrong, it’s my call. I thought. and I thought about it, I thought about how we’re going to make… First of all one band without, that you can’t really see each other. That one was dangerous; especially you don’t know that well some of the material that we play. The Savatage catalog is fairly complex, when you get it to the TSO catalog…

Paul O’Neil: It’s insane.

Al Pitrelli: The Mozart and Beethoven are all great but… Then I got a feeling that just wanted to play Allman Brothers instead “Laughs”

So what kind of click’s did you use to help this show happen if I can ask?

Al Pitrelli: It’s simple, it was TD10. But the sound, that wasn’t the hard part. The hard part, we’re not playing a Ramones song. I happened to be a big Ramones fan. But you don’t go “ba ba-boom”. One tempo the whole song, you know how Mozart’s 21’st Symphony goes.

Paul O’Neil: This goes from 5-4 to 9-8.

Al Pitrelli: The velocities of tempos are changing, so it’s like; how do you create it so the audience would…? It’s not like everybody plays to a click, that’s the easy part. The hard part is to let the click breathe when it’s not sounding like a click, and Jon, Paul and myself along with Dave Wittman our engineer and B.J. Ramon. Once I came up with the idea they were; alright, give it a shot and we recorded the whole show in the studio. We just demoed it, to see if it could work. So it took four months to make it work. One thing that Paul was talking about and I want to talk about, when we did the TSO tours. We rehearsed the show musically, and then we bring it to production for at least a week. We’re on that stage and we rehearse with everything…

Paul O’Neil: A week?

Al Pitrelli: No, after the two weeks of doing it musically we do a week on the stage; full lights, full sound, full pyro. We do everything for at least a week, and then we go into the arenas. We start to tour with and we do a run through and we know exactly where to be, what to do but this show was like… We had to be in that mind frame like we’ve been on tour for months.

Paul O’Neil: It’s like going to the moon, with no experimental test rockets. Just make sure you get home safe, and it was just about it.

Chris Caffery: That’s what Al was saying, came and he made a solo, I don’t want to say a program. But we were so comfortable with the way the music flowed, the clicks and everything. It was in our ears. That we were like; okay. By the time we played, we had 18 days straight, we played this music. We were like; why are we doing this? When we got on that stage last night, that was why, because that was the last thing we were thinking of. The click was there and we were playing with it, the music was there. But as the rain fell, as this wasn’t working, that wasn’t working. Then naturally, we were relaxed musically, and we just let it all out. That’s what made it happen, the fact that we were so prepared for anything.

Was this show just a one-off thing, or do you have plans to do something more like this in the future?

Al Pitrelli: If I have to do this again, I’ll quit. “Laugh”

Paul O’Neil: This was a one-off show; this was once in a lifetime show. But now we’re going to find another new once in a lifetime that will be even bigger and better.

Chris Caffery: This is the only time we’re going to play Wacken – July of 2015, that’s it.

What kind of ideas do you have for the next step?

Paul O’Neil: We have like 20 different things. We have guys, engineers working all out. It’s just like everybody is really happy with Forces, but then you had the Wright Brothers invented the plane like; this is good. But then you have something…

I think that Al would like to have this kind of traveling circus and make shows like this five times in a week? “Laughs”

Al Pitrelli: Sure. “Laughs”.

Savatage/TSO press conference in Wacken
Savatage/TSO press conference in Wacken

PHILOSOPHY OF MUSIC AND LIFE

It seems that Wacken was the right place to arrange this kind of special show.

Paul O’Neil: You know, it’s amazing when you are in Wacken because there is something magical about the heavy metal feeling, it’s phenomenal. There is this whole thing of trust and when the gear knocked it down, we had like an hour and a half before anything else could work. I walked over to the camp site, and two kids come up to me and like; “Hi”, we came. They had come all the way from Iraq and they were basically, I think, Sunni Muslims, and we talked for a little while. Then about 15mins or half an hour later, I bumped into two other young men in their early 20s and they were from Iran. They were like Shias and we talked and they both are huge TSO, Savatage fans.

Isn’t it interesting to have fans from such exotic countries?

Paul O’Neil: Yes. But I really, really believe this. If those four young men bumped into each other during the concert, and God forbid, two years from now they’re like in two different militias in Syria, and they are about to shoot each other, they recognize each other and one goes; “wait a second. Were you at the concert with us in 2015 in Wacken, Germany?” He could go; “wait a second, I know you.” I would bet a million Euros that they wouldn’t pull the trigger. They would unload their guns, they would talk about the concert, and they would both go their separate ways. Once you get to know someone, you talk and you had music at a concert in common. It’s hard to hate them, it hard to kill them. It’s hard to believe there is a God saying; yeah, go kill each other. Music is this thing that pulls us together, but it’s always been like that. Like in America, it’s required to study World War I, because it’s one of the most brutal wars, especially No man’s land in France, where it was just brutal, that was where over a million people died in one battle. But then one Christmas Eve, there was a peace treaty for two days. One German soldier started to sing “Silent Night”, and then a British soldier on the other side started to join in. Then an Austrian solder joined in and then a French soldier joined in. The next thing you know, they’re crawling out of their trenches. They meet in No man’s land. They exchange gifts, tobacco, and food, and then they play a soccer game. Which by the way, every time I tell the story. The German soldier remind me, the Germans won. The Germans beat the British. Then the generals on both side said; you guys do that next year? The next year they did it again. So it wasn’t politicians or generals or diplomats, it was musicians that brought sanity and ended the killing. It was just only for a couple of days but that is the power of music and there is a magic to that, and I’ve always been fascinated by it. Does that make any sense?

Yes it does, especially when the world is nowadays really unbalanced…

Paul O’Neil: Lots of musicians just have to get together and say; okay, stop it. Because of computers, in a 100 years we could be out of our solar system, exploring the universe. Find out; why we’re here? Who we are? What we’re supposed to be? War, because of idiots like Kim Jong-un, who has no idea how to build them, but knows how to set them off, the atomic weapons. I really believe the arts are the key, because every time Western civilization falls apart it’s obviously arts that bring it together. When Greece fell apart, the Iliad, the odyssey kept all those ideas going about honor and trying and using your mind. Then when Rome fell apart, the Aeneid about duty and perseverance and doing the right thing. I really believe, the number one thing I think we managed to move ahead was trust. But then after that I really believe it was the arts, story-telling. Sitting around the fire, telling stories like; this is how we were able to kill this battle. As a band, our first job is to entertain. It gets people together and it just transfers knowledge, and it’s… That’s why gestures, comedians say things to kings that their prime ministers can’t.

Chris Caffery: Even in the civil war when the battle fields come down, someone would grab a fiddle and there would be music. Like you said, it pulls people together in way I don’t think anything else can. I grew up listening to heavy metal. I grew up listening to like all different kinds of… As a guitar player, especially when you’re young and you never really listened to lyrics in an entire. When you’re 16 years old, you’re a guitar player listening to Randy Rhoads, you listened to his licks. When I started working with Paul O’Neil: and when I went out on the road with Savatage, we would go… The first time I came to Europe, I would have people come to me like; “hi, my name is Marcus. I’m from Italy. I’m from Greece.” They would come to me and go; “I listened to the song “Believe”. You don’t understand, it saved my life.” I hear those words, and the more I heard that, throughout time, I just understood what that meant. People literary have told me countless times how much these lyrics and these stories have changed their lives. When we did tours in America with the Trans-Siberian Orchestra, like countless times I hear people go; I came last year and I went and I called up, I hadn’t spoken to my father in 20 years. I called him up and I said; dad, you have to go see this concert. Then they comfortably went from two people to eight people, to 24 people buying tickets to see the show. It’s like there is something powerful in music, but when you connect it with the messages that can be involved with it. Because like he said, it connects everybody. Now if you can make it like it’s a newspaper with a really good meaning, and everybody reads into it. Then it grows and it grows, that’s where the tears come in. That’s where the emotions comes in and I’m not going to pat this guy in the shoulder anymore, but that’s what he does. But he always told me this, Chris goes; anybody can write a song about a car and a girl. It’s like, they do. But if somebody writes “Believe”, it’s completely different.

Al Pitrelli: By the way, the next year, solo record is called CARS AND WOMEN “Laughs”

Chris Caffery: Al wrote it “Laughs”

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SAVATAGE TALK

Going back to the Savatage thing. Am I right in saying that the band actually never split?

Al Pitrelli: No, it never split.

Chris Caffery: It’s funny. We walked here and we walked into this festival, we stepped on that stage and it felt like we never left. We’ve worked together with the best of friends, we just played again.

There’s a great line of different line-ups in Savatage’s history. How did you end up to this current version which is actually the same which did the albums THE WAKE OF MAGELLAN and DEAD WINTER DEAD?

Chris Caffery: This is the lineup that connected with Europe the most. We came over here; this is why we had this “Return to Wacken”. That was, we’re returning, this is the lineup that headlined Wacken in 1998. We wanted to return there and bring that lineup back: me, Al, Jon, Zak, Jeff and Johnny. We came over here, and the German people, they were a family. We first came over here with DEAD WINTER DEAD. We had no idea what to expect, every single show was sold out. Only a turn around and six months later, we’re headlining, the next year we’re headlining a festival. They embraced us like this was our second home. So “Return to Wacken” that was the lineup, this was the family that came here and embraced us was this band. I have been in Savatage for almost 30 years, but this was that family that played Wacken before and now we returned to Wacken with the band that started going here.

Paul O’Neil: Songs, if you’ll hear them on an album or whatever, live is where they count the most, because you pick up the energies of people around you. To me, it’s not how many songs you write or how many books you’ve written, a list you’ve read or how many plays you’ve written. Unless somebody is performing, it doesn’t matter. Unless we have people out there singing the song. One of the driving force of we did “Carmina Burana”. The lyrics of that were written in 800 AD, and the music was written in 1930 and the first time I saw it was 1970. In the ’70s, mid ’70s in Germany with a full symphony and basically older richer people. Then in 1980, I saw Ozzy, and before they came on stage, they played “Carmina Burana” and all these kids went nuts. Then I saw the Ratt band in the ’90s, and before they came on stage they played “Carmina Burana”. I don’t know about you guys, but once again, I would bet a million dollars that very few of Ozzy’s fans speak with Latin. But the music is about feel, you feel it and the intensity, and also to me, Carmina just screams for heavy metal guitars. So it was just great doing it, but again it’s just working. Like I was really nervous about; is the Tiger going to lead over to the other stage, is everything going to work?

Al Pitrelli: Did that work by the way?

Paul O’Neil: Yeah.

Al Pitrelli: That’s good “Laughs”

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THE SUCCESS OF TSO AND…

What we have learned and understand is that TSO is a very huge thing in the States. You’re playing big arenas and venues, but to be honest, the band is not that big here in Europe. Why is it like that in your opinion?

Paul O’Neil: But you know if it falls out, that’s our fault, because it exploded here so fast in the United States because we had radio. Like with Savatage, it took us decades to build here from touring, touring. With Trans-Siberian Orchestra, everyone thinks it happened overnight but it really didn’t. The first album really didn’t sell, but it was like, if you want something to keep going. We turned the next one, then we finished BEETHOVEN’S LAST NIGHT. Then we started to tour and then it exploded, but it exploded so fast. It blindsided everybody.

Chris Caffery: Yeah, it was crazy. You have no idea.

Paul O’Neil: We were just like; what the fuck?

Chris Caffery: It was like theaters sold out, two shows, theaters sold out. All over sudden like within four or five years, Paul was like starting to do Arenas and all summer in the Garden. It was like; we’re going to do… We’re going to play two shows in arena in the same day. We were like; what? We did a show for 60,000 people in Cleveland in two days. But you know what? Also though, the first time we ever played Switzerland, the first time Trans-Siberian Orchestra played in Europe, it was in Switzerland. We stepped to this place, sold out 4,000 people. No offense to Savatage, we never had 4,000 people for Savatage. We came over, the very first show, it’s like Trans-Siberian Orchestra is one of these things that I think has a lifetime. It’s just going to keep going. When the music can carry on through the generations, it’s going to be fine. It’s like only so far that even myself, so far I could go, Jon can go. But TSO can go, I’m not saying 99 years from now we’re all going to be here. But it’s going to go.

Paul O’Neil: Anything great in humanity is an ideal.

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I totally agree what you’re saying and I understand the financial side of, there’s lots of money in this business when you’re doing great. But people in here, in Wacken, they’re now speaking about a Savatage reunion. But actually, I also understand there is never going to be a full Savatage reunion, because it doesn’t make any sense in a financial way. Maybe you can one do one-offs maybe with TSO but Savatage will never come back as a fulltime band?

Chris Caffery: The bottom line with that is as far as anything goes, Criss Oliva passed away. Unless he rises up from the grave, we’re always going to be playing and when that white guitar comes up we’re…

Paul O’Neil: You know what people really want? They say and then there is what they really want, because I’ve seen this at a million concerts. You see a band reunion and everybody comes and like; they can’t sing this anymore, why are they on stage?

Chris Caffery: You are trying to go, the guy walks on a stage and it’s like; that’s him? Is that him? It’s like…

Paul O’Neil: They want to do is reclaim their youth and get that memory, they want to hear the music as they remembered it. So with Jon, with Al and me, the bottom line is that it’s our job to make… We owe to make the music right. MTV made music celebrity driven as opposed to musically driven. It’s the music that’s the important part. It’s funny because Savatage is literary the first band to tour with no original members, and we put out an album with no original members. Now bands like Foreigner, all these bands are doing it regularly. But when we did it, everybody… Here is the other key thing; everybody thinks, because when we started to play with TSO, it really wasn’t selling. But Atlantic, especially Ahmet Ertegun. This is the guy that signed Ray Charles, Led Zeppelin, Crosby Stills & Nash, and Genesis. But also Warner Brother’s prog rock is the top of the food chain. Like in the ’70s the biggest band was Emerson, Lake & Palmer, in the ’80s it was Pink Floyd, bands like Rush. So Atlantic is the expert of prog rock and prog rock is unbelievably expensive to tour, so we needed like million dollar tour checks. But Atlantic just kept writing them. So we were able to put bigger and bigger shows out and as the show got bigger, like normally a band will play at theatre with like maybe a small track worth of gear. Our second tour, we had six trucks of trailers. You guys aren’t making a dime on the show, because that’s the other thing we do; we keep the tickets very affordable.

Al Pitrelli: What’s the saying that you taught me about following the art?

Paul O’Neil: If you only worry about the art, everything else will take care of itself. If you worry about the money or trying to follow trends. Our whole lives, everybody in this room we only do what we want. When grunge came, when punk came, when new-wave came. We were like; no, Savatage is a prog metal.

Although grunge was ruling the music scene in the middle of the 90’s there was still a strong underground scene. There was a lot of new bands coming out with power metal and progressive sounds and those bands did great.

Chris Caffery: Yeah, if you ask those bands. If you ask them; who was their influence? 90% of them will say; Savatage.

Paul O’Neil: But also this, the difference was this; we were with Warner Brothers. So Warner Brothers was the one, the big labels had the multi-million dollar checks to make the Pink Floyd. To make the Emerson, Lake & Palmer, to make the Trans-Siberian Orchestra. They were just writing check after check, after check. So I could afford to take six tractor trailers out to do a theatre and everybody was like; wow! So the next year we came back, went Colosseum. Then when that sold out, the problem was like; you’re sold out, can we sell the seats behind the stage?

But again … if the money is there, and you’re doing tons of more with TSO why don’t you don’t just make some Savatage shows in the future just for the fans if nothing else?

Chris Caffery: That’s why Savatage is here, honestly.

Paul O’Neil: There will be, because we love all these songs. But it has to be great; I don’t want it to be like something special like this Wacken thing was.

Chris Caffery: What’s supposed to happen will be… and this is one of these things like you said, this was the right way to do it. You stood up there and you watch the people and the respect. I walked around, just to give an example. I walked around backstage today I saw Mikkey Dee from Motorhead, he was talking about the show last night. I saw the guys from Dream Theater going, I heard the show last night. I walked in and I said hello to the guys from Queensryche and they were like Chris; I heard the show last night, it was great. I saw Tobias from Edguy, everybody I saw. Andreas from Sepultura. Everybody said; my God, I heard that last night was amazing. Every band that’s playing on the main stage today, every place I went was like; Chris… I know a lot of them from playing these shows. But they were like; I heard that last night was amazing. I can’t believe I missed it. They see that huge welcome back Savatage thing, it’s like; that’s the way it’s supposed to be done.

That’s all for now. Thanks for your time guys!

Savatage: Thank you!

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