Spirits of Fire – Enjoying the Roots of MetalTuesday, 22nd February 2022
As a musician Chris Caffery has achieved acclaim and respect for his body of work since the 1980’s. Fortunate to be a touring guitarist/keyboardist for Savatage as a teenager on the Hall of the Mountain King tour, he would eventually join the band on a permanent basis – leading to future work for Doctor Butcher, Trans-Siberian Orchestra, Metalium, and his solo records. Now developing records in the Savatage/Doctor Butcher vein with Spirits of Fire, the second record Embrace the Unknown features Fabio Lione taking the vocal helm from Tim ‘Ripper’ Owens, ensuring a premiere powerhouse in a different light compared to past acclaim with Angra, Vision Divine, and Rhapsody (Of Fire) among others.
We reached out to Chris via Zoom, and he was happy to bring us up to date on the singer switch, differences between albums, video and artwork, thoughts on music festivals and scenes in the US versus other countries, plus lots of talk about Trans-Siberian Orchestra, Savatage, and memories of Criss Oliva and Paul O’Neill.
Dead Rhetoric: Embrace the Unknown is the second Spirits of Fire album – and first with Fabio Lione on vocals. What circumstances took place for replacing Tim ‘Ripper’ Owens with Fabio, had you been a fan/follower over the years of his work – as it definitely feels like for this release he used more of his metal/belter register compared to some of his other bands/projects over the years?
Chris Caffery: Actually, I can’t even answer the first part of your question. I really don’t know exactly all the details as to why Ripper and Frontiers decided to part ways. I was contacted by Frontiers to do another Spirits of Fire record; I was into doing it and then I found out a couple of weeks later that Ripper and Frontiers had parted ways. Fabio was actually in the list of singers they brought for me to consider. First, they had brought me Todd Michael Hall from Riot V, he was busy on The Voice at the time, and he had some other personal and musical things come up. He started writing with me and I liked what we were writing, but as a true gentleman he came up to me and said, ‘Chris I don’t have the time you need for me to put into this record.’ So, Fabio was one of the people on Frontiers’ list, and with all the guys in the band we thought as long as he’s going to sing with the music, we would be fine with that.
We listened along with Aldo the producer, and he performed in a way with this record that I don’t think I could possibly be happier. He did go into something that Paul O’Neill would say into a different character with his voice than you are used to. When I was finished with the record, I let friends and people like yourself hear the record, people who are aware of different bands, and let them guess who the singer is. Nobody could guess it was Fabio, which proves to me that he did something special. Not only is it a great performance, but he was able to fool everybody, brought out this metal part of him that you are not used to hearing all the time. A really brilliant metal performance with vocals on this record.
Dead Rhetoric: Where do you see the major differences in this release compared to the debut? How was it to work with Aldo Lonobile as producer versus the work of Roy Z – given the fact that you are a veteran musician with a solid understanding of what you want from your work on record?
Caffery: I think with this one I laid out the fact that I was going to write all the actual music on this one. Roy had written a few of the songs musically on the last one. I just wanted there to be a cohesive sound through the whole album. I knew we would have a tremendous amount of pressure replacing Ripper. He is one of the most amazing vocalists in my generation of metal singers. It wasn’t my choice not to use Ripper, it wasn’t my choice not to use Roy Z. We had a record to make. I like the work that Aldo did with Zak (Stevens) on the Archon Angel record. I listened to some of the music he had written for me for Spirits of Fire. This record is going to come under a lot of critique for me, because of the different major character. I want to sink or swim on my music. I wanted to write the music for this record. That was the one thing I laid down. I don’t want to have to be the one to write lyrics and melodies like I did on the first one. I can do that, but it starts to feel like I’m doing more of a Chris Caffery solo record, with a different singer.
I really like the fact that I love Roy, but Aldo knew a little bit more of what the Savatage world was. He really connected with that in the vocal sense to get that feel out of the performance from Fabio. This record as a whole to me sounds more cohesively like a band. We all had a little extra time to work on our stuff because of the pandemic. This time I let Mark Zonder record his drums before I did my final guitars. The first time Mark did his drums to my final guitars, Mark is an artsy drummer and there are ways that he plays that would have made my guitars different. I had his drums, so I attacked them and re-write my rhythms to compliment the drums. It came across more like a band than in a rehearsal room. Steve threw his monster bass on top of this. We have this wall of sound that has great metal songs – and I’m really proud to have these members on this.
Dead Rhetoric: The first two videos have done very well as far as promotion before the record comes out. Is it an easy choice for you to decide what are going to be the first singles to represent the record – and how do you feel the video shoots went?
Caffery: Considering we are all on different sides of the world when we did the videos, they turned out as good as they could have. I knew we needed to do videos, I had five songs that could have been great songs for video and we picked these two. I never like to be the one to pick what people need to hear because a lot of times I like the movie that the critics hate. I let the label pick, and after I listened back they picked the two best songs to hit out headfirst I think. I was happy about that. The thing I am excited about, the fans response to these songs, I don’t see the amount of… flame war about Ripper fans versus metal fans, it was metal fans that listened to this music and liked it. Ripper is a good friend of mine, and I don’t want this kind of drama for not doing this record. I just want to create a great record. That made me the happiest, the drama was not coming along with people listening to this music.
Dead Rhetoric: I would imagine that’s one of the things you’ve always had to worry about – your work with so many great singers in bands between Jon, Henning, a lot of great singers. That has to be a natural worry with every new record you put out…
Caffery: Yeah, and that goes to everything we’ve ever done. Even Zak, Russell, Jeff, and the other people I’ve gotten to work with in the TSO (Trans-Siberian Orchestra) world. Even as a guitar player, I need to live up to the playing of the people around me. I sit there and work on guitar solos at home. I will see Joel (Hoekstra) does a guest solo for someone and think I suck. (laughs). It makes me want to play better. I am around some of the greatest musicians ever in my career. It always pushes me further. Paul O’Neill always had this thing about listening to a guitar solo or you writing a song. And it’s not that he ever thought you weren’t good, but if Paul thought there was a chance you could do something better, he would have you try it twenty times to get that better performance one time out of that twenty. He would do the same thing with singers. Sometimes your guitar part would be take one or two. The possibility of him thinking you could do something maybe better, put into my own music I do throughout the years. That goes to lyrics, music, everything. I never took it for granted, he was one of the greatest lyric writers in the history of rock and roll, ever. He taught me how to approach songwriting in a different way and put that into things musically as well. He was always trying to take things to another level. I always try to push myself a little bit more.
I always try to imagine what Paul or my peers would think when they hear this record. It makes me happy to make people enjoy what you do with your work, and it makes me work harder to do it.
Dead Rhetoric: What can you tell us regarding the cover concept this time around? The artwork certainly embodies the moniker of the band as well as trademarks of what one would expect for a heavy metal cover…
Caffery: When we were doing the first record, I didn’t even know what the band was going to be called. That name of the band came out off the list of song titles. Frontiers said they like when the band names themselves after a title of the song. The only song I saw was “Spirits of Fire”. I wrote that based on history, religion, and art. The fire spirit is the strongest spirit in the good world, as I am not a fan of the evil side of the world. I’m one of the people that believes in the good side of the world. I tooled around online, this thing popped up already done online for the first album. We got the rights to use it, I liked having a character. Spirits of Fire to me is like my modern Doctor Butcher. A metal band I get to have fun with. This fire spirit is like my Eddie – I have this thing online where I am trying to get people to name him and animate him.
With the new record, Frontiers had the art done and married that. We’ve got a roll going, I’m going to start writing a title of a song that would make for a cool art for the third one. This is my little heavy metal release I can do. I would have done twenty Doctor Butcher records by now if I was able to. I like metal music, it’s what I am, it’s where my roots are.
Dead Rhetoric: How would you say you’ve evolved as a songwriter and guitar player from your early years to today?
Caffery: It’s funny. In some ways I try to go backwards to find where I was. I find cassette tapes of stuff I wrote when I was fourteen or fifteen, and there is an attitude and a mentality that was there that was like music being born then. That was the birth of Metallica, the birth of Megadeth, we were all the same age. All of us as guitar players were writing music with that mind frame, seek and destroy sort of thing where it wasn’t necessarily speed metal. I had the anger that flowed into me through the music, the aggression of being a metal fan. I was kind of a dork and geek in school, and metal provided that release. Just knowing how to formulate songs more, write music that is better to throw vocals over to separate better what will be the instrumental parts from the vocal parts. I have learned as a lyricist to write better – I think at that age I never understood what half the lyrics were (laughs).
Paul told me anyone can write a song about a car and a girl. It takes a lot to write a song that could change someone’s life. I like to write lyrics that go a little deeper than the surface, with multiple meanings in the lyrics. That’s evolved as I’ve gotten older and had more experience as a songwriter.
Dead Rhetoric: Have you heard incredible stories about songs Paul has written and how some of the lyrics have touched the fans in special ways?
Caffery: Absolutely – which is where I first came in contact with taking that- the words- even more seriously. The first time Savatage did Europe with me in the format with Zak and Al, I was there before with both the Oliva brothers. When we went over for Dead Winter Dead, in Europe they just had experienced the war in Sarajevo. We had fans flying in from all over to see the shows, and some of these people were coming from places that weren’t even in that war: Egypt, Brazil, the Middle East. These people would wait outside the tour buses, trying to say hello to us. They would tell us our music saved their lives. That was a direct response to Paul’s lyrics – we were all good guitar players, but I never wrote a riff that saved somebody’s life (laughs).
These lyrics saving people’s lives, what Paul wrote in “Believe”, at the time, those other Savatage songs, they were affecting people in a different way. When you look at a band like Queen, you saw a guy in Freddie Mercury who sang from his soul 99.9% of the time. The songs he wrote were from his soul – not the one about the car, that was by the drummer. When you had a stadium full of people singing Freddie’s lyrics, in their hands with him, those 70,000 people are in Freddie’s soul- that’s something Paul also always did. Paul would write about the single acts of kindness that changed the world. It makes you act differently as a person. I watched how Paul treated the homeless people, deep things and little things. He was a father figure to me as much as a producer and an artist.
Dead Rhetoric: What have been some of the best memories you’ve had either on record or on stage in your lengthy career as a musician? Benchmark moments that will stay forever embedded to cherish and reflect upon when you knew something special was taking place…
Caffery: Oh man. I could go on for three hours on this one. The very first time that Savatage went to Brazil. Parts of the world that you’ve never been, these people were waiting for you to create these memories. The third time we went to Greece, myself and Jon were standing on stage and oddly enough I’m going to mention Queen again. We were playing this basketball arena, and we used to use “The Show Must Go on” as our five and dime song, the song you play when the light goes out. This crowd of probably five thousand people were singing that song lyric for lyric, it was loud and powerful, then we broke into our song “Commissar” off Poets and Madmen, these kids were singing with the recording at the beginning. I looked at Jon and thought everything I did as a kid to be a musician was worth it for this one moment, seeing this crowd of kids that were one giant voice for that entire show. They were singing Criss Oliva’s guitar solos note for note. It was super special.
Every time we have gone to Europe is special. Even when TSO and Savatage did that Wacken Festival together. Every time I step on stage with TSO in an arena, it’s that feeling. I played guitar to be a rock star, I walk on stage in an arena and people are waiting to see a band that you’ve been with since day one. It’s always very surreal for me to be a part of that creation that Paul had. Every single moment of that is special to me – from the first note to the last note.
Dead Rhetoric: Years back I interviewed Jon and asked him about TSO – he mentioned that he never thought it would be an annual event that went this many years strong. Did you have similar feelings about this lasting so long and going so well?
Caffery: I think I had a tendency to listen to Paul more than Jon at times about this. Paul would tell Jon that something was going to do something, Jon would look at Paul and say, ‘you are out of your mind, O’Neill’. I knew how brilliant Paul was at making the impossible happen. We had not released the first record yet, and Paul and I were talking in a phone conversation – he said when TSO headlines arenas, and we hadn’t even put the first record out. Here’s the guy when we headline arenas, and when the first record came out, he started talking about headlining stadiums. If we do two shows in Dallas at 14,000 people a show, that day you are playing a stadium. TSO did get to stadium level. It’s amazing.
Being the annual thing, it didn’t surprise me. Once the train got rolling, I knew it would always keep going. To keep his legacy going, the music happening. He created something that was really special. It does relate to everyone; it brings people eight to eighty together. Families that have been separated come together, friends and family that haven’t seen each other in a long time come together, make it a part of their tradition every year. Had it been anyone else other than Paul, I don’t think it would have surprised me – but in the end, there was nothing that surprised me about Paul.
Dead Rhetoric: Where do you see the major differences in younger musicians and their craft, playing abilities, and songwriting skills compared to the ways, means and people you grew up around and learned from?
Caffery: I think kids are lucky nowadays. We didn’t have the internet. When I wanted to learn Van Halen and Randy Rhoads, I had to put that record on over and over, screw it up. Now you can put on the net and there are twenty people playing it exactly like Eddie, slowing it down. You have to practice to get that good, so I give kids the credit for practicing and getting that good. I’m sorry, you have help that none of us have. You can turn on the internet now and see a thousand amazing players, and when I was kid there was five. Because there were only five people that had the time or the effort to really figure it out, develop it on their own. We were seeing these guitar players develop these styles more when I was a kid. The Criss Oliva’s, George Lynch’s, Yngwie Malmsteen’s, people that were developing their styles. People are now playing faster now than ever.
Nowadays, sounds are easier to get. When I got an amp and guitar at five years old, the guitar sucked right away. Sounds couldn’t come out of it the way they can today. Instruments now, there are advantages. I listen to people nowadays are brilliant, above skills I haven’t reached. I think it’s awesome. I still tend to be that person that wants to hear who is going to be that next thing, the next one. I think we were blessed in the times I was growing up to get Dimebag, Randy Rhoads. We just lost a brilliant guitarist with Alexi (Laiho), from Children of Bodom. There are newer generation guitarists that are going to be insane to watch, important for the current generation in the history of music and guitar. I look at some twelve-year-old kids and which one is going to be the new Stevie Ray Vaughan. You wonder which one is going to rise up and take that over.
Dead Rhetoric: Did you feel like a sponge taking everything in on the first Savatage tour you joined as a teenager for the Hall of the Mountain King tour?
Caffery: The funny thing is, I heard every song on every Savatage record as a rhythm player before I auditioned. Criss and I were very similar with our influences as rhythm players. I already had that technique in me, I was a schooled player in general for my age and what I could do as a player. Criss Oliva as a lead player, I sat back and absorbed those techniques. He taught me, when I went to play his music as he passed, I was the only person who knew exactly what he was doing. I watched a lot of people cover Savatage. He was my brother, and he was a teacher for me. He would walk over to me on stage, and he knew I couldn’t play it, he would walk over, watch me play the lick, laugh and walk away. He would rub it in my face, this little change to be better.
He watched me in Doctor Butcher play live, I was 23 at the time, he came up to me and he told me I got better. He knew I was playing the middle part of “Sirens” wrong, the clean part. He saw a video of it. When we went on stage, he walked on stage while we were playing “Sirens” and said, ‘give me it!’. He played the part and said ‘that’s how it goes’ (laughs). That’s how I had my guitar lessons from Criss Oliva. It was a lot different than other people.
Dead Rhetoric: Where do you see the state of heavy metal stateside versus globally in terms of interest and support? What would you like to see changed (or improved) if you had access to the proper resources, time, energy, and finances to do so?
Caffery: I don’t know really necessarily how you can change that. There’s a ton of metal fans in the United States. The things they have to do overseas are more. We have Rocklahoma here, but they have more. If you look at every state here like a country over there, every state would have two or three different festivals. If you go to Germany you have the Rock Hard festival, Wacken, Bang Your Head. And Germany is not much bigger than a large state, so I think that’s the difference. I don’t think we gather our fans as much. You have to have the people willing to put the finances together. It’s hard in America, those things are tough. It’s tough to get people into one spot. It takes a lot of money, a lot of guts, and a lot of time to make it work. I think that’s the big difference there.
Dead Rhetoric: Do you think there are more media opportunities in other countries too? Especially with in print magazines, radio coverage, it was very strong in the 80’s and 90’s here compared to other parts of the world, and that’s subsided a bit…
Caffery: Yeah. Especially in the metal world, there was more over there. When we had Hit Parader, Creem, and Circus over here, those were in every grocery store. When my parents would go shopping, I would get baseball cards and those magazines. Now there is Cosmopolitan, but even Rolling Stone as a magazine doesn’t have as much music coverage in it. It’s hard to go through genres, and Europe still has a lot of those magazines. Kids still like picking up the print art. We may make a lot of life disappear without print – we may lose generations of history and news keeping it all digitally. Books and libraries are things we need to cherish a little bit more. I was happy when there is more of a book reading world now.
Dead Rhetoric: What’s left on the bucket list for Chris Caffery to accomplish on the music front? Are there specific areas you’d love to play in, musicians you want to work with, other styles/ fields you would maybe like to explore?
Caffery: Unfortunately, a few of the people I would love to work with have passed away. One day it would have been cool to see Paul produce one of my solo records. It would have been awesome to have him bring out that part of me. He never did work with me as a singer. Ronnie James Dio was another person I wanted to work with, and we had spoken about it several times, I worked with so many great musicians. I want to keep creating. Being a fan of Savatage, I’d like to see another record and tour come about. Just want to tour the world one more time, see the Savatage fans and thank them. My whole career came about with them. Give a global thanks and see the older and newer Savatage fans.
Dead Rhetoric: How do you believe your side business ventures are going these days with the hot sauces, clothing, and jewelry? Do you enjoy these different creative outlets to help fuel your personal drive?
Caffery: Yeah, I do. The only time it gets to be a problem is when I have too much stuff to do. I’ll create some art stuff that needs my musical time, then some music stuff that needs my art time. I take care of my mom in a large house. I don’t sleep a lot. People think when I go on a TSO tour, they think I’m excited to go back to work. I’m excited to go to sleep. When I go on tour, I wake up in the morning, and it’s just the morning. I might have a 3 PM show, but other than getting up in the morning, I have nothing to do outside of taking a shower. I sleep four hours on these other days. It’s all great to do, I love making art, I love doing the hot sauce, I wish I had a stunt double and more time.
Dead Rhetoric: How does the next twelve to eighteen months shape up for music activities related to Chris Caffery as far as shows, touring, recording, promotion, etc.?
Caffery: The next TSO tour, I already have heard where we are going to be this year in November and December. It gets booked a year in advance, the production is already being done. Until then, I will do some shows with Jimmy Sturr and his orchestra, it’s a local thing. Playing rock songs. I don’t know what else will happen live. I will write another solo record, do what I am doing here. TSO will work on releasing some of Paul’s unreleased music, Savatage has the vinyl re-releases finishing. I want to try to do some form of vinyl for my solo stuff. Piece some things together. I will do some hot sauce conventions around the country, keep doing what I’m doing.