Savatage guitarist Chris Caffery talks about the Oliva brothers, the power of Sava and his solo work
Q: Savatage shot the video for “When the Crowds Are Gone” here in my area here in Rockford, Illinois. It’s been a while but what do you remember about that shoot?
A: Wow…yeah that’s been a while! I absolutely have memories of it though, that was a pretty long video shoot. We shot there in Rockford and we also used some footage from a Savatage show we did in New York City from Club L’Amour in Brooklyn. So, in actuality that video took about four days. I remember the Coronado Theater there in Rockford because it was a little run down and perfect for the theme of the song. We just played there recently with T.S.O. and that place was just amazing and newly renovated.
Q: You got started playing guitar at a pretty young age, not just practicing but ACTUALLY RECORDING and playing out. After all this time do you still have the same passion towards the instrument when you pick it up or is it impossible to capture that feeling?
A: I still get the same kind of buzz when I pick up the electric guitar. There’s a lot of things about the business that I know now that I didn’t know then. You’re a little more bright eyed and optimistic about EVERYTHING when you are at that age. I do love traveling and I love the music and that’s something that hasn’t really changed but as you get older you get a little more tired. You get time away from home and you start to miss your animals and your family. It seems like the days go faster, time seems to move faster when you get older. I think its because when you’re younger you’re just so reckless and not paying attention. I think that’s the biggest difference for me personally is that I really appreciate that time before and after I go on the road, whereas in the past it seemed like all you ever focused on was getting out there and playing and you were just at home waiting.
Q: You were in a band that had a bit of success called HEAVEN. They were managed by David Krebs (Aerosmith, Angel) and Paul O’Neill (Savatage, TSO). What were those years like?
A: Paul also produced us. Paul was my very first producer, I basically met him when I was seventeen! David managed so many bands and they had a video on MTV and a big tour and all that. There was something cool about just being a teenager and being in a signed band. It was pretty cool for me, I got to go on an airplane for the first time. I got to go to California and do the whole Sunset Strip thing. It was a cool time for me for sure. I got into the studio and recorded and got my first experience learning how Paul puts together a live show. I remember that was crazy even back then. We were playing clubs and theaters and getting paid but Paul just kept putting the money back into the show and the lights (laughs).
Q: You’ve of course done interviews and talked about SAVATAGE for years now but it’s something that never really goes away. If the story of the band was ever put into book form it would be one of the craziest, up and down, rollercoaster stories of a band in some time. I know you’ve mentioned that the early days for you were really frustrating for the most part, did that get better as the years went on?
A: So true. That would be one helluva book. I think the major frustration for me came at the beginning of my first tour for “Hall of the Mountain King”. I was a huge fan of the band and I just really wanted to be a part of what was all going on. When I first joined the band I was hired as a side man, literally. I wasn’t allowed to interact with the band or the audience, I was on the side of the stage or even offstage so there was a high level of frustration for me even though I was happy to be involved in the band. As time went on in SAVATAGE of course that changed but I still had some business musically and personally with my brother. I’ve said before, not that I wanna look back in regret, but one of the things I wished I could have done differently is to have just stayed in SAVATAGE and did what I did with my brother on the side but you just don’t see things the way you should when you’re younger. You don’t have the best judgement or perspective. Everytime I look at that cover for the STREETS album I realize that the only reason I am not on it was due to my own decision. That is one of the most frustrating things in my entire career.
Q: How did you come to get involved with the band officially during the “Gutter Ballet” era?
A: What happened was I was in the studio doing a Dirty Looks record in New York City at the same time as they were doing the Savatage album. GUTTER BALLET was about 95 percent finished when I parted ways with Dirty Looks. Jon (Oliva, Savatage vocalist) and Criss (Oliva, Savatage guitarist, R.I.P.) phoned me a couple of weeks after I left Dirty Looks and asked me to join Savatage officially. Once again, the decision to not play on the GUTTER BALLET album was my own. Criss had told me “Look, it’s pretty much finished but we can go in and open up the tracks and have you play on it if you’d like”. Criss played a pretty similar rhythm style as I do so it’s not like it would have been that big of a deal for us to go in and add me to the album. They had deadlines though and it was already done and they wanted to get it released so I basically said “Hey, I have no problem with it, go ahead and let’s get it out”. I just wanted to get the record done and be a part of the band going forward, I didn‘t want them to back in and open it up JUST to have me technically be on it. Being in the band was good enough for me at that point. The funny thing is that I got the credit for Savatage but played ALL the basic tracks on the Dirty Looks album and got NO credit (laughs). So, there IS a story to how all that happened and once again it was by my own choice. To this day I will still get the occasional person who’s like “You didn’t even PLAY on that album!” I just wanted to get out there and play and be in the band.
Q: In that in between phase between the “Mountain King” tour and “Gutter Ballet” were you occupying yourself mainly as a session player in New York?
A: What happened was when the “Mountain King” tour was finished the band didn’t really want a second guitar player. I was on the outside for a while at that point and was doing some projects for Atlantic Records, Dirty Looks was one of them. At the time that they asked me to join Savatage in February I was actually in the process of speaking with Mustaine and Ellefson about joining Megadeth. Jeff Young was gone and they were looking to replace him but they weren’t going to be making a decision until the summer and I didn’t wanna pass up the chance to join the Savatage guys again so I went with Criss and Jon again and I was back in the band. The only real decision I was making at that time was whether to stick it out through the spring for the Megadeth auditions which ended up going to Marty Friedman. I was more than happy to go with Savatage for GUTTER BALLET.
Q: I’ve often wondered what happened when Jon left the band and Zachary Stevens was brought in to sing. Was there a power struggle between Atlantic and the Oliva brothers as far as you could see?
A: I think Jon was at a point where he just needed to step away from things for a while in terms of fronting Savatage. The STREETS record had come out and they had toured it but there was a lot of pressure on major label bands in those days. Pressure about sales, image on MTV and it was not what Jon was about and that end of things was just exhausting to him. He and Paul kept on with the partnership and kept writing, they wrote the EDGE OF THORNS album together and Jon was working on a Broadway play. Neither Jon nor I were EVER that far away from Savatage at any given time. Paul was always working with Jon and I was always hanging out with Criss and Jon. Jon and I began working on the Doctor Butcher album also around that same time. Looking back on all of us and all of those projects I think you’re right it is a pretty involved and complicated story going on.
Q: The Doctor Butcher album has become a bit of a cult classic over the years. Is it available officially again?
A: Yeah, iTunes has it and it’s on my website and all the other digital mediums. You know, that was something that Jon and I truly did at that time to blow off steam and have some fun (laughs). He was in between Savatage and I was in between working in the band with my brother and we both just had a lot of frustration at that exact moment. The business was going through a lot of shakeups at that point as well. The Seattle thing had really taken over. Atlantic was gonna take on the Butcher album but then they had to choose between us and Savatage and Savatage had the history so they went with that. We did it all ourselves. We wrote heavy music for fun and only for fun. We wanted no rules, no format other than heavy and fun. That was what we set out to do with Doctor Butcher and it was seriously done first and foremost to make ourselves happy and laugh. I listen back to the songs and I can hear how much we enjoyed making them. Me at that point, I was kind of tired and then a year later the incident happened where Criss Oliva was killed. That was a really, really shocking thing and I was just numb for a long time. Like I said John….I left SAVATAGE by my own decision and I ended up missing the last few years of one of my best friend’s life. I was pretty down on myself and angry with myself at that point in time when the HANDFUL OF RAIN album was recorded. We had gotten the European deal for The Doctor Butcher album and it was being dealt with around that same time. That was very therapeutic for me to let out some of that anger and for Jon too. Just like I think it was very therapeutic for Jon to work on the HANDFUL OF RAIN album, he did so much of the work on that album, that was Jon sinking himself into that concept. We had to cope with the loss of Criss and we really did that through writing music, the music really helped.
Q: Didn’t your friend Ray Gillen (Badlands, Black Sabbath singer) die around the same time?
A: They died within a month of each other.
Q: Do you think a lot of that loss and pain also ends up getting expressed on your solo albums.
A: Oh absolutely. A lot of emotional pain and frustration ends up on those albums. That’s always what heavy music has done for me. I think that’s where that music comes from. When I was growing up, we didn’t have a lot of money but the hard rock and metal music was always a safe place for me. I turned to the heavy music as a release, it always did that for me. Some of the happier, more jock-rock type bands I just didn’t appreciate, they weren’t appealing to me or my emotions. I needed something more aggressive I picked up on that and it really help me. It sort of pacified me through the aggression in the music and lyrics (laughs).
Q: I can’t imagine joining one of my favorite bands and yet you’ve gotten to do that as well as make these really guitar heavy solo albums. Is it more satisfying to play in Savatage or to have that total creative freedom in your solo projects?
A: There’s something magical about Savatage. I can’t put an exact reason or word on it or say what it is but there was something about that time and the Oliva brothers. There was just some special thing about that name or that band and being a part of the Oliva brothers as they created those tunes and lyrics with Paul. It’s great to do your own solo projects but in a lot of ways it is a huge pain in the neck because when you’re doing solo work you are by yourself, as the name implies (laughs). All the business, all the details, all the finance falls on you. When you’re in a band it’s like a little ARMY, when something goes bad for one member, it’s felt by everyone and you’re all in it together, you deal with your problems together. In Savatage we were best friends, we ALL loved our band. I don’t even think that any of us at that time realized exactly what the band WAS, we just did what we did. I don’t think Jon or Criss or even Paul had any notion of how legendary their music was going to become. Twenty plus years after they’ve recorded those songs, ten years since the last Savatage album we’re still talking about this band. There was none of that “better than” kind of attitude to the band, there was a humbleness, a HAPPINESS to us. The band was just a bunch of goofy singers, musicians and friends and I think that’s what drew Paul O’Neill to it in the beginning, not just the incredible amount of talent that the Oliva brothers had but just the genuineness that existed inside those two. That genuineness infused the rest of the band and the spirit and the music we were doing. Jon’s voice and Criss’s playing is something that is really unique and special just doesn’t happen very often and Paul picked up on that and recognized that and said “Look, we’re gonna do something with this”. He guided the Oliva brothers and has really been Savatage’s biggest fan and best friend for all these years. Again, like you said it HAS been a crazy story but as time goes on I realize that I was and still am a part of something that was extremely special to people. Thousands of people and more everyday are feeling that music and appreciative of what we’ve done and that’s pretty cool to continue to be associated with. To have been able to work on these Savatage albums and put them down in metal history and to be able to continue to tour the world and bring music to people with these guys is pretty special.
Q: I can imagine there would be a lot of work involved in releasing your own solo album but yet you’ve done just that THREE times! Do you still have plans to do that again or are you just wayyy too busy with all of your other projects?
A: Yeah, I will do another one. There’s actually been four albums total because I did two Eps before doing my first album FACES. Then W.A.R.P.E.D., Pins and Needles and House of Insanity was the last one in 2009. I think when I did the first one I was totally unaware of how much work it was going to be and it quickly became exhausting and overwhelming. The cover art, the pressing, the promotion not to mention the actual recording and rehearsal for live gigs which is a little more what I expect. I was actually thinking of doing an album this summer but I just didn’t seem to have the focus or the energy. I think I needed a break this year. I started writing some songs and stuff but everything just started sounding the same to me (laughs). This spring I was kind of writing myself around and around and trying to see what my emotions were right at this moment and really the answer was TIRED. So I decided to take this past summer off and enjoy things before the winter heats up again. I definitely wanna do another record once I figure out what it is I wanna do (laughs). I love all of those records probably because I tried to do so many different things on them. You mentioned PINS AND NEEDLES….I think that was one of those ones that went right over everybody’s head. I pulled it out and listened to it the other day and that is thick. There’s a lot of stuff on that album like the song “The Time“ where it’s like albums’ worth of riffs on that particular track. I think there’s so much going on within some of those songs that people didn’t really catch it all when it first came out.
Q: How much touring have you done for your solo albums?
A: Quite a bit, when I have had time. I did a couple of European tours, a couple American tours. We did a tour with Doro, Jon Oliva’s Pain and Ripper Owens Band here in the states which was cool, I did some of my own solo dates mixed in there. In Europe I went out with Metal Church on a tour and also hit some festivals. Again, it was totally fulfilling but also exhausting to take that out on the road without the support of a Savatage or TSO machine. Everything from backstage passes to load in to interviews to sound. It can be a grind when every little thing goes to one person rather than a band.
Q: What was a bigger surprise in regards to the Savatage camp, the fact that the band finally had a bit of a breakthrough hit with Zach and Edge of Thorns or the fact that this whole other world opened up with the Christmas Eve song which led to even bigger things?
A: I don’t think any of that necessarily surprised Paul. Paul always envisions things on another level. For instance, before we even put down the first notes on a Savatage album Paul was always thinking about the upcoming tour production. I think that huge vision kind of gave us some perspective to work from the ground up in a weird way. I know that sounds crazy. To me PERSONALLY, it is all surprising, I just look at my life and my career with Paul and it is so amazing and surreal. I think the biggest surprise for all of us is just the fact that all these years later we are still running into all these younger bands that mention us as an influence. We all collectively hear from these musicians, some of them REALLY successful who tell us how much we mean to them, how much the SAVATAGE catalog means to them. To me, that is one of the greatest rewards of any success we have achieved because it transcends anything you can put in numbers. To know that you have affected people with your music and performances the same way you were influenced by the bands that you grew up on is really priceless. We hear a lot of individual stories about how a certain element of SAVATAGE or a certain album really encouraged an artist to go down a particular path. You can’t underestimate the power of someone telling you that you’re one of their favorite bands or that your art changed their life. Paul wrote lyrics and stories that truly had that kind of impact and power on people and I am just honored to be a part of it to this day. Like I said before, even the BAND members as young rock and rollers were really not aware of the impact of what Paul was setting forth lyrically. We still have people coming up to us crying and talking about how those songs affected them personally and changed their life. There’s no way to put a price on any of that.
Q: I heard KISS was a big influence on a young Chris Caffery. Is that correct?
A: Totally. KISS was one of the reasons I ended up getting into any of this. The first time I ever went out and actually bought albums with my own money was when I went out and got KISS Alive and the first Boston album. I don’t think it’s possible to walk into a record store and hit that much of a home run! I loved everything about KISS, I grew up listening to the Beatles and somehow it all made sense. I loved KISS’s agression and intensity. You look at that cover of KISS Alive and it speaks volumes about what you can expect from that music. It wasn’t JUST the makeup, it was an attitude and the makeup conveyed that just like the songs and the personalities did. To be able to have that heaviness and still create these timeless, magical rock and roll songs is special. I just saw them this past summer and they were great because those songs are just classic. They just work.
Q: Do you think that Jon Oliva is celebrated or applauded as much as he should be for his involvement in all of the projects?
A: I think that Jon is exactly where Jon wants to be. Jon is making his music and doing his stuff, he knows how much people love SAVATAGE he knows how much people love what he brought to the band and how important his musical ideas are. I think is Jon is pretty happy and comfortable with how he is regarded and he is still active and relevant musically. He still does his own band and does Festivals and he still tours with us and is involved with everything. He is absolutely proud of our orchestral project and has every right to be since he and Paul wrote those songs together. They created a LOT of that material, a tremendous amount of that piano/classical feel is directly related to Jon. There are certainly moments there that recall “When the Crowds Are Gone” or that Freddie Mercury/John Lennon piano ballad thing Jon does so well. That is just a part of Jon Oliva’s soul, his dad was a piano player and he would sit and watch him play in restaurants. It sounds crazy to compare but they really have like a Lennon/Mccartney partnership and have been together as long. They have written as many pieces or more as Lennon and McCartney did (laughs). It’s really a magical combination with Jon’s music and Paul’s vast knowledge of pretty much everything. You name it, politics, music, life, Paul can speak on it. There’s not any specific formula but it seems like whatever they do just clicks. It’s crazy to watch them work together and bounce ideas off each other and it has translated now to great success. Jon is VERY proud of all of the accomplishments he and Paul have made outside of SAVATAGE. I will say though that Jon is one of those people who is going to be mentioned and applauded more and more as time goes on just like his brother Criss. I personally KNOW how much people love Jon Oliva because I have spent the better part of the last 25 years with the guy. Trust me when I say there is no lack of love or recognition for what that man has accomplished.
Q: That new success has you busy so I’m wondering how you’ve gotten involved with Steve Seabury from HIGH RIVER SAUCES. Is this something you can concentrate on during down time?
A: Actually, It’s keeping me busy in a really good kind of way. With a lot of my music projects there’s a lot of traveling involved whereas with this food project it’s something I can do and not have to travel too much. Cooking and gardening is something I’ve always done so working on this has been kind of relaxing in a lot of ways and the response so far has been great. The really cool thing is that I can do it myself and keep an eye on it with out too much traveling although I have done a couple of Conventions and its pretty cool. It actually reminds me of a lot of the old school heavy metal radio conventions that used to go on with a ton of people and everyone checking out everyone else’s cool stuff and having a great time. It’s incredible to see just how big that whole “FOODIE” world is.
Q: Steve seems like a pretty cool guy and the sauce is available through his HIGH RIVER SAUCES company but this isn’t your typical “hey, let’s slap someone’s name on something and sell it” type thing. This is actually your own personal pet project isn’t it?
A: Yeah, this is my personal recipe. Steve’s story of how he got into all this is actually pretty interesting. He was doing all these “heavy metal food show” pilots and he had a TV show that he was going to do called “Mosh Potatoes” and he was working on his book of the same name. I had a recipe in the book and wrote the foreword. He was having meetings for the show and I walked into one with my friend and one of my hot sauces. Steve tried it and it was one of the things that really got a bug into him about wanting to start a sauce company. I’ve heard some stories of bands saying someone walked up to them with a recipe and saying “Hey, we’re gonna put your name on this and get rich” or whatever. This is 100% my recipe and the new ones I am coming out with are all mine, it’s just always been something I have been into. There are some similarities between this and music, you’re trying to create the perfect blend, the perfect recipe of ingredients or sounds. You still have to put it out there and see what people think and get opinions or reviews. You still have to do packaging, it’s really odd in some ways how MUCH it’s like the creation of a musical project and how many similarities there are in releasing it.
Q: I’d like to try it. Hot Sauce makes food more interesting and TEARS OF THE SUN is a perfect title. What is gonna be different about the next few sauces you come out with?
A: There’s a second one in particular that a lot of people who have tried it are really getting excited about. It’s significantly hotter than TEARS but still has a lot of flavor, we’re going to call it LOS CIEN. I like the idea of it having a Latin name because I did the recipe using 100 Habanero peppers. It’s like a Bar-B-Que chicken wing sauce and that should be out in the new year. We’re also working on a TEARS OF THE SUN EXTREME which will be a red label version of the original but about 3 or 4 times hotter.