Interview with Zachary Stevens and Johnny Lee Middleton
on the 'Edge of Thorns' tour with Testament and Overkill.

From: Aardschok/Metal Hammer, Holland 5/93
Written by: Metal Mike
Translated and HTML'ized by: Ellen Bakvis

The announcement that Savatage singer Jon Oliva left and was replaced by a certain Zachary Stevens struck me like lightning. Eversince 'Avatar' times ('82-'83) I have been a devoted fan of this band . Okay, a shit record was delivered in '86 with ' Fight for the Rock ', but the band came back strong with 'Hall of the Mountain King' and 'Gutter Ballet' and even the superfluous concept CD ' Streets ' was bearable. But a Savatage without Jon Oliva ??? That just was not possible?
A telephone connection with Florida brings me ear to ear with bassist Johnny Lee Middleton and Zachary Stevens; Zak for his friends.

Okay Zachary, those aren't small shoes that you'll have to fill up now.

Zachary: "That cannot be denied, but nevertheless the transfer to Savatage has been rather souple for me and I got along very well with the guys right from the start and I think that on our new album ' Edge of Thorns ' you'll be able to hear a lot of the new as well as of the old Savatage."

Where are you from and how did you get in contact with Savatage ?

Zachary: " Originally I'm from South Carolina, but I was living in Los Angeles when I was introduced to the guys backstage in The Palace by Criss Oliva's guitar roadie Dan Campbell about four years ago. I was just a huge fan of the band. When Jon announced that he was going to leave the band in Sept. '92 , Dan called me and asked if I wanted to send a picture and a tape of my vocal abilities. Shortly after, Criss Oliva called me back. I had been playing in Boston in a band named Wicked Witch for a little less than three years. Before that, I had been drumming for 17 years and Wicked Witch was the first band I sang in. So I left for the audition in New York, and was hired."

Have you been able to cintribute to the song material of ' Edge of Thorns " ?

Zachary: " All of the music had already been written and the vocal lines were more or less set. Only for the song ' Scraggy's Tomb ' I have written the vocal lines and lyrics. The rest came from Jon Oliva, Criss Oliva and our producer Paul O'Neill. "

John, Atlantic gave you a recording budget of a quarter of a million dollars for ' Streets ' . For ' Edge of Thorns ' that was less than a fifth of that amount. That's why you had to do the recording in the (smaller) Morissound Studio's.

Johnny: " I think that Atlantic supported us pretty well. Any other record company would probably have thrown us out when Jon quit because he was simply irrepaceable, but Atlantic stuck with us at the time, while they dumped a whole lot of other bands 'cause of the recession. Of the original number of 30 metal bands on Atlantic only five are left. The recording budget for ' Edge...' was indeed a lot smaller, but that didn't matter to us. The smaller the budget, the less you are in debt with the record company. The choice for Morrissound had nothing to do with the budget, anyway. We just wanted to be home during the recordings, sleep in our own beds instead of in a $400 motel room in Manhattan. We also wanted to record ' Streets ' in Morissound, but Paul O'Neill could not stay away from New York for such a long time. ' Edge of Thorns ' was recorded and mixed within 10 weeks time and was a rather spontaneous product. Our goal was to create an album with the best elements of our two most succesfull records; ' Hall of the Mountain King ' and ' Gutter Ballet '. we were very happy with Morissound, it's a great studio and we will certainly record our next album there as well. ' Edge of Thorns ' sounds even better than the albums we have recorded in the more expensive studio's of New York ."

I don't know how well ' Streets ' sold in the USA, but don't you think that the idea of your producer Paul O'Neill to come up with a concept album, was rather outdated ?

(Together): " You could be right about that one."
Johnny: " Let me put it this way. We absolutely did not want to make a concept album of ' Edge of Thorns '. The concept of ' Streets ' was indeed hard to sell to the public. It came at the wrong moment and maybe we were experimenting a bit too much with our music. "
Zachary: " When I joined the band the guys did not want to work with a concept whatsoever. They wrote the songs the way they popped up in their heads and adjusted the songs to my voice and I sort of adjusted my vocals to their songs. We kinda met half way and stayed there. The songs now are more guitar oriented, more in the direction that Criss wants to go with the band. That's also the reason why there are no piano-ballads on the album. "

On ' Edge of Thorns ' Jon wrote the major part of the music. So right now you've got an excuse to deny the accusations, that state you are trying to imitate Jon in vain. But how will that be in the future ?

Zachary: " He will most certainly co-write the next album, but I don't think that my vocals on ' Edge...' resemble Jon's that much. Like I said before, the songs were adjusted to my voice ."

You may be trying to sound differently, but there are so many Savatage elements in the music: Criss Oliva's exquisit guitar sound and Jon Oliva's heavy pianoplay, that you just expect to hear Jon's voice and that his voice alone can make the whole thing sound like Savatage. Any other vocals, nomatter how well meant, just don't fit in with Savatage.

Johnny: " Whoever in the world you may be, if you replace Jon Oliva, you are bound to sound different. And we wanted to have a singer who sounded completely different and no Oliva imitator. "
Zachary: " I have not tried to imitate Jon. At some points it may sound like Jon and sometimes it doesn't and that's the way we let it be. I have been a fan of Savatage for many years and I also find it strange to hear my voice to the music of Savatage, but life goes on and we're here to rock! "