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InterviewsChris Caffery-Savatage and Trans Siberian Orchestra Guitarist Goes Solo

Posted on Tuesday, August 03 2004 @ 21:02:02 CDT by Pete Pardo
Heavy Metal Since the late 1980's Chris Caffery has been a perennial member of metal legends Savatage, as well as an important cog the last few years in the seasonal and chart-topping Trans Siberian Orchestra machine. Now, the talented guitarist is set to release his first solo album, which not only displays his considerable instrumental talents but also his new found vocal prowess. Sea of Tranquility Publisher Pete Pardo joined up with his former High School classmate recently to talk about and listen to the exciting new double CD set, Faces/God Damn War, as well as the current status of both Savatage and Trans Siberian Orchestra. This is an interview that you will not want to miss!

Sea of Tranquility: Chris, long time no see! Can you tell our readers a little bit about the upcoming solo album?

Chris Caffery: The Faces record is about me personally, and the other record, God Damn War, is about the modern wars going on. I'm trying actually to put it in all one package, which will be Faces, with God Damn War being a bonus CD inside of it, so it may not have to be an additional title, which might have given me trouble given the name of the record.

SoT: So it will be basically a 2 CD set…

CC: Yes. In the first place I had 65 songs written, and I wanted to release 20 for the record plus bonus tracks, but I couldn't narrow it down to anything less than 24. I had it to 24 and it was like putting pins to columns, and I had all sorts of different kinds of songs, but I noticed that I had a lot of metal songs about the war in Iraq. After putting them all together I noticed that they all seemed to tell a story, based on things I was hearing about in the news. So I thought that maybe I could add a couple more and make a bonus disk, kind of what Iced Earth did with the their new release. I called my International label from Greece (Black Lotus Records) and asked "Can I do this" and they are like "Well, what's it going to cost us?" and I said, "I'll pay for it."

SoT: Are they going to be your label here in the US?

CC: I haven't chosen who I want to release it in the states with yet. With the Trans Siberian Orchestra audience, I want to make sure I can maximize the commercial potential, so I didn't want to just pick a label who's going to put it out and have the CD just sell to my fans and a few others. I really want to find a label that is going to work it, because a tune like this (plays a new track off of the CD) really has a huge potential here in the US, although I will probably need an edited version for radio! (laughs)

I mean, TSO has sold 2 million albums, so if I sell to 2 percent that's 40,000 units, if I sell to 5 percent, that's 100,000 albums. I can't ignore that, and I want the records to be in the stores if people want to find it. If I'm out on a TSO tour, and my record is out on a small label that doesn't get it into the stores and nobody can buy it, that would be the most frustrating thing ever. Imagine sitting there signing autographs on the tour and people coming up to me saying, "I can't find your record…" I would probably kill someone if I heard that, so I'll have to make sure it gets out. (laughs, then nods to the CD player) This is the musical version of me losing my mind! (laughs!)

SoT: So when is the official release date?

CC: September 24 I think.

(Chris then plays "Pisses Me Off," a very heavy cut from the new album, and sings along with the lyrics)

SoT: Killer guitar riffs on this one! I get a vibe similar to the stuff from the first two Savatage albums-it's angry, and heavy…

CC: …but it's funny enough to hit the masses now. Everybody is pissed off right now…this is not a happy time!

SoT: I could see you doing a video for this song, and it would be great to see this kind of relevant angry topic push some of the garbage they play on MTV2 off the air.

CC: It's funny because throughout the song I just keep contradicting myself lyrically. I'll say one thing pisses me off, and then the exact opposite pisses me off, and it keeps running a circle. It's real family music! (laughs)

SoT: So who else plays on the record?

CC: Jeff Plate played drums, Dave Z did most of the bass (I did a little), and Paul Morris from Rainbow played keyboards. Dave Eggar played cellos on a couple of songs.

SoT: Are there any instrumental tunes on the CD?

CC: A few things, including a REALLY long, overindulgent guitar solo…

SoT: Well, you have to have at least one.

CC: Right…

SoT: How did the TSO tour do last winter?

CC: Really, really well. It just keeps getting bigger every year.

SoT: You guys are basically playing larger arenas now right?

CC: We did a lot of hockey arenas. One weekend in Pennsylvania we did two shows on Saturday in one town, and two shows in another. Two days in front of 36,000 people.

SoT: That's great. With the TSO gig you get such a wide variety of fans coming to your shows, not just metal fans.

CC: Yeah, it's insane. I think in the beginning nobody new what to expect with it, and each year it just keeps getting bigger and bigger. I think last year we sold over 400,000 tickets in the US between the East and West Coast.

SoT: Wow…Al Petrelli is still involved in the project correct?

CC: Al does the West Coast gigs. I think we are planning a Beethoven tour for next year's non-holiday record, but I don't know who is playing with me. I'm playing guitar, but I don't know if it will be Al, or Alex Skolnick playing guitar with me. It's Al's first choice to do it, but if he has something else going on then I don't know who else will be involved.

SoT: I didn't know Skolnick was involved with TSO.

CC: Alex did three tours so far with TSO, but not last year. He may do this year again but he hasn't confirmed 100 percent yet. It's neat with Alex and I because he has gotten so true to his jazz music and our styles are a lot different, so we play really well together. I mean we both have the metal roots, but now his style is so true to jazz…he's a great lead player.

SoT: So what's going on with Savatage?

CC: It's really hard to say right now. We were supposed to be releasing a record this year and doing the summer festivals, that obviously didn't happen. Now the plan is for us to get into the studio at some point in time this year or early next year and do a 25th anniversary record, which I think everybody would probably be on. I did my record, which I had been planning on doing for years, and Jon had written his music then decided to do this 'Tage Mahal thing, so, it's basically up to Jon Oliva and Paul O'Neill, when they decide to say when we are officially going into the studio working on another Savatage record. It hasn't happened in a very long time. I needed to get this music out now, and I wanted people to hear what I had and what I could do. Every year that went by without a Savatage record was another year a bunch of music I had written was sitting on tapes in my room. I just went out and bought ProTools and I sat at home and started the demo process and started selling songs, eventually started scratching melodies down and singing. I'm at a point now where I want to play what I want when I want. With Savatage it's very difficult to get that done on the road because everybody is living in different places, people have families, and it's about a certain amount of money and time that everybody needs to put aside from their lives-it's not simple to get Savatage to tour when we want. With us it wasn't about "let's go out and do a non-stop tour", this band needed a record out, it needed to get this very involved process going to go out and tour. I wanna play!

SoT: For this festival in the fall in Georgia (ProgPower), you are not even calling yourselves Savatage correct?

CC: Right. I believe what originally was going on was Circle II Circle played there last year, and the guy who puts ProgPower on is a big Savatage fan. Jon was going to have 'Tage Mahal play, and the guy wanted them to do some Savatage music. So we did this Chris Oliva memorial show in October that was pretty cool. I hadn't played with Steve Wacholz in a long time, and it was great to see Zakk again-he and Jon still work together on his records. The guy said, "why don't you get the guys together who played that October show and have them play a few Savatage tunes?" They asked me if I would come down and play a couple of songs and the next thing I knew I was hearing 'Savatage is headlining this festival" and I'm getting calls from my manager going "Savatage is doing what???"

SoT: (laughs!)

CC: I said "we're just doing some songs", it's a business thing. Then I hear it's called Weapons of Mass Destruction. I guess that's Wacholz's doing-he has a deep- rooted war thing going on somewhere!

It's going to be me, Jon, Steve, Zak Stevens, plus a few players from John's band, and it's really one of those things that we are just doing to have fun. I didn't realize that us having fun was enough to headline a festival! (laughs) I guess it is, cause tickets sold…

SoT: There are some other big bands playing as well, like Pain of Salvation, and from what I hear tickets did go fast.

CC: So I guess what's going to happen is Jon is going to play a set of Taj Mahal stuff, then we are going to go out and play some old Savatage songs with just Jon singing, then Zak will join us for the more recent stuff.

SoT: Whatever happened to Doctor Butcher?

CC: (groans)

SoT: Sore subject?

CC: Not necessarily…

SoT: That first album kicks ass…

CC: What happened with Doctor Butcher was that Jon and I put it together, and we wanted to tour it, but Jon's schedule never allowed it to happen after the first record was done. We released the record and were booked on some festivals in Europe, but Jon had commitments with Savatage and Broadway projects here in the US and couldn't leave. So we pulled out of the shows, and the label got pissed at us, and the next thing you know is it's ten years later and we still haven't done another record.

SoT: So much for the momentum you guys had with that album.

CC: Yeah, basically. I mean, I have tons of material written if another one was ever to be done. I have three or four Doctor Butcher records sitting around doing nothing.

SoT: This song you are playing now reminds me a little of the Doctor Butcher material.

CC: The God Damn War stuff will remind you even more of that.

Even the Faces record has a little bit of a story to it. It goes through what I was going through last year, which was a really weird year. Savatage was supposed to be in the studio then. We finished that one tour in 2002 and as soon as we got back from Europe we were supposed to start the next Savatage record, but then winter comes around, TSO tour, next year starts, no Savatage record. I helped Zak with Circle II Circle, and his record came out and did well, and after seeing him tour I got a little frustrated. I felt like I was kind of left sitting by myself. I started getting a little self-destructive, although I was writing a lot of music. Then, I started to sing it, and the singing is the thing that got me through this dark time. All of a sudden it was like "wow, I have this weapon that I never knew I had." I always wanted to sing, but never knew how to record vocals. I heard tones in my voice that I really liked, but because I didn't know how to record my voice it didn't really sound right on the demos. So when I started playing the stuff for people I knew they would be like "the stuff sounds really cool-maybe you should get a singer?"

SoT: Not what you wanted to hear…

CC: Exactly. And it was from a lot of people who are really close to me. I really didn't get a lot of support on the singing part of it in the beginning, which really sucked. But I just kept on doing it, cause I didn't care. I knew what was there; I heard it when I was singing. I was wondering why people where not liking it…I mean, certain people did, and girls especially loved the vocals!

SoT: So, what are your expectations for the CD?

CC: It's hard to say, it really is. I'm hoping that everybody who bought our records in the past will buy mine. There's a lot of emotion in my record that is real, and with the right luck, I think it may surprise everyone, even the sales figures. It's honest, it's real, and that's something that's missing these days.

SoT: Based on everything that I'm hearing here today that's obvious. These songs don't follow any trends at all, and are pretty organic sounding.

(Chris then plays a more commercial, acoustic track)

CC: The fact that I did every vocal on the album is weird because it doesn't sound at all like it's just one singer. If you go from song to song it sounds like there are six or seven different singers here. You have a song like this, and then a song like this (switches to another track, a raging metal piece) is pretty cool. This is a tune about going against corporate rock. A lot of people are going to be surprised at the vocals on this album. I use it more like an instrument than anything else.

SoT: The casual listener might hear this tune and thing that this is Jon Oliva on vocals.

CC: Oh yeah! That's why I don't want to put any sound clips up on the website. I can't put one clip on there, cause it won't be representative of the whole album. You gotta have all 28 songs to get it! Once you hear the whole thing you'll understand me-until then you don't get it!

SoT: Now that this is pretty much completed, what's next?

CC: I might be doing a significant amount of guitar work on the next Circle II Circle record.

SoT: Really? Zak is basically putting a new band together for that correct?

CC: Yes. So, rumor has it that I will be doing a decent amount of guitar on it. His last one is a good record. I love Zak.

SoT: He's a real good singer.

CC: In one year Savatage lost Al, lost Zak, we lost a lot of momentum in Europe. Damon's a great singer. We had a great time on the Poets and Madmen tour but I definitely saw us take a step backwards in the fans eyes cause we lost a few key members. The fans really liked that band. It was a really good band. We didn't really know what we were doing, we were drinking, having a good time, doing what we were doing, but watching some of the videos and listening to some of the recordings we were a really good band. I miss that now. Who knows what will happen in the future.

SoT: What else is in the works?

CC: I need to get my live band together. I really want to get another guitar player. Not that I think I am going to have trouble playing and singing, but I think it will take a tremendous amount of pressure off me, at least on the first tour. If I had someone really laying into the rhythm so I could fumble around with guitars and sing, cause I've never done it before. I'm not really worried about the voice live; I think it's going to work out OK. I was a bit nervous about it before I got into the studio, but when I did this record sometimes I was singing ten hours a day, six nights a week. It was brutal, but I lasted through it for three weeks doing vocal stuff. If I can do that, I can easily make it through a 30 minute set a night. I lived through singing my God Damn War stuff in the studio-I can do anything! (laughs!)

This record is basically all me. I played all the guitars, sang all the vocals, wrote 98% of the songs, and produced it. Not that it is a bad thing, but I want people to notice me for me, not just compare me to Chris Oliva. I love Chris, but it's time for people to start comparing Caffery to Caffery. It's like former 49'ers quarterback Steve Young. At one point in time you get a chance to play in the Super Bowl and win it, and show people that you won the game. That's what I want to do with this record. I want to show people that, yeah, it was Criss' songs and solos a lot of times, but I was the one playing them.

SoT: Whose decision was it after Chris passed away to bring in two guitar players?

CC: Well, basically what happened was, certain business people didn't think that I was big enough of a name to step in and take over that role on my own. Alex Skolnick came in and did a great job of being Alex, but Alex wouldn't have been true to himself if he had stayed in the band because he really wanted to do his jazz thing. The band wouldn't have been true to itself if it had stayed that way because it was missing that connection to the past. I had that connection because I played with Chris, and I wanted to do it. When I came back into the band for Dead Winter Dead there was still that "you guys need someone else" thing. There seemed to be this block that I always had to climb over. I started working with Savatage as a teenager, and it was just one of those things. Al was brought in, and that's when it was decided that Savatage would have two lead guitar players. It really worked great for the new Savatage material, not that I couldn't have done all the parts for myself, but really nobody ever offered to give me the chance. Sometimes I wondered "what am I doing wrong?" No matter what I did, to certain people it was never good enough, and got really frustrating.

SoT: It's breakout time.

CC: Yeah, it's time. On this record your going to hear all my influences, like Dio, Jon Oliva, Halford, Schenker, Morse, Criss Oliva, but most of all you're going to hear me.

SoT: What kind of guitars and equipment did you use on the new CD?

CC: I used one guitar, my Jackson Randy Rhoads guitar with the Santa Claus on it for every electric guitar track. It's a great sounding guitar and all the different sounds I get come out of my amp. With all the technology around these days you can make anything sound like anything.

I was really amazed at how well my voice held up in the studio. I had no idea what to expect really. Originally I thought, "well, if I can sing for two nights and then take a week off, I should be OK." My vocal teacher was like "no alcohol, no caffeine, tons of sleep, no dairy products!" I was in the studio sixteen hours a day, every day, getting maybe three hours of sleep a night. The second day into doing vocals I got a bottle of Johnny Walker, a case of diet Pepsi, and ordered a pizza!

SoT: A junk food lovers delight!

CC: At that point it was like "it doesn't matter!" Darryl Pedaford, the singer from TSO, told me to drink warm water and scotch, which works well for singers with raspy voices, which I have. I said "Oh yeah, yet another excuse to drink!" But it really worked after a long day of singing. My voice just got stronger actually!

SoT: Where are you living these days?

CC: I live in the Greek section of Astoria, Queens. It seems everything I am involved with these days involves something Greek! The Greeks are great. I learned a lot about music from hanging around them. They sit there and listen to people jamming for hours and hours, and loving it. I had someone here in the US once tell me after listening to my music that there are too many guitar solos in it. I was like "that's really fucked up when you tell me there's too much guitar in a rock & roll song." I mean, wasn't rock born on the electric guitar?

SoT: I agree. The last ten years or so there hasn't been enough.

CC: That's because people can't play them! But if I was to ever single out a band and name people who I don't think can play I would be crucified.

SoT: You can't do that these days.

CC: I know. Well, I'm sorry, but the heart of "lead guitar" has died. I don't know why or what point in time, or who's to blame, but it just did. Everybody de-tune your guitars and play one finger chords…

I seriously think a lot of these modern players just pick up a guitar and a year later they are on stage. It was never like that back when I was younger. You would never pick up a guitar and learn Eddie Van Halen or George Lynch and be on stage a year later. Didn't happen, couldn't do it. You might have heard some notes that you were playing that you thought were close to the real thing, but you weren't playing…. even Warren DiMartini's stuff, who was a great guitar player. There was a whole slew of great guitar players in the 1980's. Now there are a whole slew of very adequate guitar players.

SoT: It is positive though to see, for instance, a huge amount of young kids at a Dream Theater concert, which is a band that, for the most part, is not very commercial, and the music centers around music virtuosity.

CC: I think that metal is changing for sure. It may never be what it was, but who knows. I know for me, I'm no less pissed off or frustrated then when I was 16 back in the early 80's. In my case it may be more so now, because I have given so much to this business and I feel perhaps that sometimes I haven't gotten enough back. Some of the emotion that is coming through in my new music is as raw as it would have been when I was 16, now 20 plus years later with all that experience under my belt. I like this business so much, that I never want it to stop. Playing music for me is just like breathing-when I can't make music or tour, it's just like I ain't breathing, plain and simple.

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