Interview with Johnny Lee Middleton of Savatage

I spoke with Savatage bassist Johnny Lee Middleton about Savatage's The Wake of Magellan, their upcoming US tour, and future plans. Here are the excerpts.

Why did you choose to write about Magellan?

That was just something our producer Paul O'Neill came up with. He's a bit of a book worm who reads a lot. He threw it by us and we decided that would be pretty interesting. We had a whole bunch of songs written and we had to take them and fit them to the content.

How would you describe your song writing/recording process?

It has evolved over the years as the equipment has evolved. The computer industry has taken recording into a different era. In the old days, we would all be playing together and put it down on tape. These days we basically map each of our parts using MIDI, get the tempos adjusted, and then everyone lays down their tracks individually. I used to play with the band and now I'm playing to a computer. I liked the older days better.

What do you think of being called the Queen of the 90's?

That would be cool. Queen is one of our biggest influences.

Are there any plans for a tour of the US?

We'll start the tour soon. Our first show is Tuesday, June 4 at Danbury, CT. We will be spending three weeks in the US and then I go to New York and work on Trans-Siberian Orchestra--- the new Christmas record---and then we're doing some festival in Europe.

The US environment is kind of strange at this moment, not like it was 10 years ago. A lot of venues where we used to play are closed. I think interest in live music here is fading due to the fact that you don't have many good live bands, and ticket prices are extremely high. It's somewhat cheaper in Europe and the venues are larger.

What was the response to the South American tour you just did?

That was great. We didn't know what to expect. It was a bit like Beatlemania. We have a lot of fans there and we've never played there before. We did our first ever acoustic set, where we take some of our songs and slow them down, and that went over well.

The songs we slowed down included Blackjack Guillotine and Chance. Jon does a twenty-minute Handful of Rain medley that really comes off great.

What songs does Jon sing live on tour?

It depends on the tour. Jon actually sings quite a bit and we do play a two hour show. He does this medley with his piano which is probably one of the best part of the shows. Basically the songs we do are dependent on the polls we take on the Internet, but usually A Little Too Far, Tonight He Grins Again, Paragons of Innocence, I Am, we've got a big arsenal to choose from and we kind of mix it up on each show. We've worked Strange Wings into the set which Zack and Jon sing together.

Will you continue with the two-vocalist approach?

Yeah. It's great. Al has a great voice, as do Zack and Jon. I kind of suck but I give it a shot. I'm probably the weakest link in the vocal chain, but we manage to pull off The Wake of Magellan live.

Why does Japan get most items first, with plenty of bonus tracks to boot?

That's just the way the record deal is structured. We have three labels and certain people get more and get it earlier. That's just the business. For Europe, we have Edel, a German label, and JVC in Japan. It's better for us to have record labels in particular countries.

A lot of old fans really appreciate the opportunity to hear Jon sing some of the post-Streets material on the bonus tracks at the end of The Wake of Magellan. Are their others in the works as B-sides for singles or future releases?

Yeah. We have a whole tape library of stuff. It's just a matter of what we feel like pulling out of the box and if not we can always whip up something new.

Rumor has it that Streets was supposed to be a double album. Besides Stay what happened to the rest of the tracks?

Initially, yeah, that's what we wanted. But Atlantic decided to get it all on one disc. Only one track didn't make it.

What's up with Dr. Killdrums?

I really don't know. He's teaching drums at a local drum store. I don't really stay in touch with him but we exchange mail once in a while.

Often in the past Savatage has quoted lyrics from previous albums in their newer songs (When the Crowds are Gone - Believe - Alone You Breathe). This helps to link the band throughout it various lineups. Are there plans to continue doing this in the future?

We've been known to do that. It's kind of like a reprise. It's generally Paul's idea; he thinks a lot. We don't necessarily like it initially and sometimes Paul has to bribe Jon to do it, but a lot of times Paul ends up being right.

Over the years there have been many lineup changes. Do you see Savatage more as a group of individuals, a concept with revolving members, or the brainchild of Jon Oliva and Paul O'Neill and whoever they get to execute that vision?

For the first time in a long time, we've really felt like a band. We did Edge of Thorns and things were going great. Then I get a knock on the door and my best friend was dead. We had to get another guitar player. So we called Alex, and then the members started coming in and out of the band. Alex then went on his way and we decided to call back Chris Caffery. Chris took every lick that Criss Oliva did and reproduced it perfectly. He's come up a long way as a guitar player. Then we met Petrilli. Now we function collectively as a band.

What do you feel this band has in common with Dungeons are Calling-era Savatage?

We still have Jon, and we're picking that song up live. That was before I was in the band so it's hard for me to compare. I love that record though.

Why has Atlantic Records remained faithful to Savatage while purging themselves of all other forms of heavy metal?

That's a good question. We've been with them for so long and we've got one of the last nice record deals that they were giving out. We're obviously making them money. We're a maintenance free band, self-managed, with everything run by us. We run a tight ship, which I'm sure they appreciate. However, our back catalogue is selling strong and I'd guess this is the reason they still keep us.

Though you do always need your label's support and Atlantic have been working the record quite a bit. The problem with this band is that we don't write radio music which is the way the US works. It's different in Europe and other countries though.

What do you think of the current music scene, particularly the rise of metal music in the underground?

I don't like any of it. I listen to talk radio and I listen to my CDs. It sounds like one band all day long and it's a depressing sound.

Why has Jon finally decided to re-elevate himself to full band member status? He appears listed with the other band members and is in the band photo for the first time since Streets.

He always has been a part of the band. He has never stepped out. The only time he didn't come out was during the Edge of Thorns tour. He was working on a play for Broadway for years. It's called Romanovs and it's about Bolshevik revolution. The play has been in production for five years. It's almost done casting and it's a big production. I'm not sure what it's exactly all about, but it's a pretty big project and Jon has been busy with it.

Chris Caffery was a member of Savatage on Gutter Ballet. Then he disappeared for a few albums and reappeared on Dead Winter Dead. What is the story behind this?

After Gutter Ballet, he decided he wanted to do his own thing and he had some projects lined up. We kind of all went our separate ways at that time. When Alex left, he was the perfect guy to call back. He knew all our material. He's also one of my best friends and we get along real well.

What music do you listen to?

A whole bunch of bands: Sade, Thin Lizzy, Queen, Steely Dan, U.F.O., Rush, Queensryche, Tom Petty, the Beatles... I view music as something you relax to, and I don't like to listen to a lot of screaming and shouting.

What are your future plans?

Well, we have US tour, the Trans-Siberian Orchestra project, Europe, come back and do some Trans-Siberian Orchestra live shows to keep us busy through Christmas. We then plan to work on a new Savatage album and be back in Europe in October of next year (1999).

Music ram-blings || Ram Samudrala || || May 27, 1998