Interview with Photographer “Iron” Mike Savoia
Seattleite Mike Savoia sees things through different eyes. He has been taking photographs almost his entire life, finally making the transition to full-time professional photographer this past year. Mike’s easy-going, fun attitude and stellar shots have garnered trust (and increased his workload) from a multitude of bands. It started off with shooting local favorites Alice in Chains, Queensrÿche, Metal Church and Duff McKagan’s Loaded, but that’s just the start. He recently shot Black Sabbath and coming up this December he’ll shoot Pearl Jam. In between the shoots, Mike took time to answer some questions for One Louder Magazine.
One Louder Magazine: Hi Mike, thanks for doing this interview! How did you get into photography? What was your introduction?
Mike Savoia: Photography has always been in the Savoia household. My Grandmother had this Argus-75 she bought in the mid ‘50s that used cool 620 format film. She shot with that for years! I was always fascinated with it since you look down into the view finder. Everything you see on the right is on the left and vice-versa looking into it, so it takes some getting used to. I still have it and shoot with it today! The side flash is like one of those old-school 1920s looking deals. I have to buy film from New York, though, and get it developed in Colorado, ha! Then in the 1970s, my Mom and Dad had everything Kodak put out. My Dad bought this Canon body and big lens combo that was cool. When the ‘80s came around I started buying my own stuff. Kodak Disc 4000 might have been the first camera I bought with my own money. Then I got a real 35mm camera kit with the Minolta 8000i.
OLM: How and where did you learn to shoot? Did you go to school or learn by experience?
MS: I learned from experience. I didn’t take any photography classes until I got into high school and had Photography 101 where I learned how to develop my own film, etc. I’m glad I don’t have to do that anymore, though, because those chemicals sucked! When cameras went to digital, that changed everything and film is nearly obsolete now. It’s kind of like watching the music business tank with file sharing.
OLM: When (and how) did the transition take place from hobbyist/amateur photographer to full-time professional photographer? Was there a moment in time when you knew you would no longer be doing this as a hobby, but as a profession?
MS: Well let’s say this…it’s been a life long journey. This past year it was evident. I owned a Bowling Pro Shop [PBA member and bowler as long as I've been shooting photos] down in Olympia, WA and it got to a point with all my regular and music photography business and the possibilities of touring with bands, that it had to be done. I sold the business earlier this year before I went insane trying to manage both! I still have a long way to go with the level I want to be, but ya gotta start somewhere. It was at a time when it was financially doable. I’m just luckier than most ‘cause I have a 110% supportive wife and that little pebble has learned well over these past years and she is now also shooting events and various other forms of photography when I can’t.
OLM: It seems to be that you are the “go to” guy for all of the Seattle-based rock ‘n roll shoots. Why do you think that is?
MS: I think my passion for what I do shows. I’ve been the ultra Seattle rock/metal music fan for over 30 years now. I’ve lived and breathed it in some form or another over the years. My first concert was KISS at the Seattle Center Coliseum on November 21st, 1979. Since then, I’ve supported bands locally and nationally, either with my photography or writing [Loud Magazine, The Rocket, Bikini, and even my own fanzine, B.T.R. Music, to name a few]. My #1 rule is having fun with what I do. Who wants to go into a photo shoot all stressed? I want everyone to have fun and as of late that’s the first thing I’ve heard bands say is “wow that was fun”, that I’m easy to work with and I’m told I have the eye to see things others don’t.
OLM: It looks like the majority of your work is based around rock ‘n roll events. What is the allure about capturing rock ‘n roll pictures?
MS: I just remember growing up seeing concert photography from the ‘60s and ‘70s and being intrigued by catching a moment of a show. I studied angles, timing and the moments that make a photo stand out with emotion. I have books of classic rock photos I catalog in my head in hopes of remembering them when I take photos in similar moments. Now with digital, I can take it to other places like never before.
OLM: Do you only shoot rock ‘n roll events or can someone hire you to shoot their wedding, family photos, nature, etc.?
MS: I shoot everything: weddings, kids, nature, events, etc. The only thing I really don’t enjoy shooting is models. Actually, I like shooting them…it’s that I’m not a huge fan of the over-processing looks and body manipulation of the photos. Then watching people on Facebook praise them for how beautiful they are. Excuse me, but they were beautiful before and now you see a fantasy mirage. It’s something I think has really messed up the psyche of females themselves. I crack up at all the magazine covers; girls really think those gals are seriously that perfect? Go search ‘celebrities before and after Photoshops’ on the net. You’ll like yourself better.
OLM: Do your clients have an idea of what they want in a shoot, do they leave that completely up to you, or perhaps a mix of both?
MS: Most of the time it’s all me, but every so often clients have a great idea and we run with it.
OLM: How important is it for you to like the artist/band that you’re shooting (personally and musically)?
MS: It’s always nice to like the artist/band you are shooting, but to me that doesn’t matter. It’s photography and I know what I have to do. Photography has no attached emotions until the shot is taken. What I mean by that is that I focus on the subject at hand with no strings attached in my mind.
OLM: Do bands come to you when they need photos, do you seek that work, or perhaps a mix of both?
MS: Funny you ask because after I quit my day job, it’s been bands coming to me. I haven’t really done any advertising yet which is a little scary, ha! One band I’ve tried to work with on their past couple albums has been Queensrÿche. Their band promo photos were dead or unfocused to me. Then when the band broke off from singer Geoff Tate last year, I got the call and was asked to do the band’s first promos with their new singer [Todd La Torre] and I haven’t looked back since. We did some pretty amazing looking promos recently that had the label, band and (especially) the fans excited. I couldn’t have been more honored and proud! Queensrÿche’s new [self-titled] album just came out at #23 on Billboard featuring all of my photography. A defining moment, especially knowing that famous music/tv/movie illustrator Craig Howell designed and created the album art around my shots.
I recently did album photo work for Dokken, Adam Holzman, The Nixon Rodeo, Death Angel and wait ‘til ya see the new Metal Church album coming out at the end of September, 2013. There’s a band shot I did that was actually a 2-day composite vision of bringing back that eerie early album tones with an idea I had from the back of the classic debut Metal Church album in 1984. I haven’t told the band or even my wife about this so I guess One Louder Magazine gets the first scoop on this. I had this weird vision while scouting the shoot location. While walking around thinking about Metal Church’s legacy I turned around to view this huge object and in my head I hear the late, great Metal Church singer David Wayne’s voice say “THERE!” I stopped, kinda spooked myself out looking around and – SHAZAM! – the band promo image appeared in my head. So yes, I’ll take the credit, but give props to David’s spirit still lending a hand to the band today! Without giving it away too much, imagine the church on the back of the debut album in war ruins! I took a test shot the day before the band shoot and ended up using the sky from the first day because there weren’t any cool clouds in the sky the day of the band shoot.
OLM: What band(s) and/or event(s) would you like to shoot? If you had your choice to shoot any three events in the world, what would the three events be and why?
MS: I’m to a point now that I want to do tour photography. I want to document bands on the road and handle their daily social media updates. That’s what keeps these bands alive on the road today; it’s not record sales…it’s keeping them in touch with their fans and making them feel like they are connected. Some bands still don’t get it.
I’ll have fun with this.…how about I give you three past events and three current events?
Three past events: 1)Woodstock, 1969 – I always imagine what I could’ve done with all those classic bands and the people there.
2)The Beatles at Shea Stadium, 1965 – the energy of all those girls screaming must have been mind-blowing.
3) The Plasmatics Live at Pier 62, September 12th, 1980 – The Plasmatics made New York City history playing for thousands on the pier with the show ending when [singer] Wendy O. Williams drove an explosive-filled Cadillac into the concert stage and jumping out landing on the bare concrete before the car exploded. Wendy O. Williams was the greatest punk rock chick ever!
Three current events: 1) Pearl Jam – Would you believe I’ve never photographed them live! Mike McCready [Pearl Jam guitarist] and I recently spoke about that and it looks like December 6th, 2013 at the Key Arena [Seattle, WA] might be my day…unless, of course, I’m out of town again which might happen with some tour possibilities coming up.
2) Rammstein – I’ve always wanted to shoot their show but with their ridiculous photo contract I’ve never given in to sign it.
OLM: Ridiculous photo contract? That sounds juicy! Can you share the story?
MS: Well, their contract at the 2011 show I went to basically said they own the rights to the photos and photographers were prohibited from placing the photos in online media, and/or distributing them using these medias. Rammstein’s contract also mentioned a line that said “subject to the laws of Germany.” That was the final straw so I went in the audience with my pocket camera and took photos and some kick-ass video. When the band came back to town recently I was out of town and I heard they backed down on some of their demands. Still not 100% sure though. I would still love to shoot a whole Rammstein show sometime.
3) Black Sabbath – August 24th, 2013 at The Gorge [WA]! Crossing my fingers on a full show request! [Editor’s note: he got it, see below!]
OLM: Do you have time to enjoy events that you’re working? How are you able to balance work and play?
MS: My number one rule is to always have fun at what I do. Always make time to have a laugh. It’s one of the reasons bands like being around me. Part photographer and part comedian, ha!
OLM: Do you ever shoot “just for fun”?
MS: Lots of time I’ll go out and just shoot bands for the fun of it. I have a lot of stuff on hard drives that have never been edited or viewed. In June, 2013, after working with Queensrÿche in Los Angeles, CA for two days, I took a 7-day, 7-state drive by myself and shot certain cool locations. That was pretty amazing!
OLM: What are some of your favorite shots and what are the stories behind them?
MS: We could be here for days talking about them on that question alone, but I’ll tell you two. The first was a photo of KISS’ Gene Simmons in Spokane, WA in 1996. At the time, tour manager Tommy Thayer invited me back into the pit to shoot the encore. I was so excited that I forgot to put a new roll of film in my 35mm Minolta camera. I start shooting during the song ‘Rock and Roll All Nite’ and nothing, so I figured I have to put a new roll of film in. As I’m doing this at the edge of the stage looking down I get lunged a little forward; it happens again and as I raise my camera up to shoot, Gene Simmons is right there! He was putting his boot on my head, so then I get two shots: one of his boots in my face and the next shot of him looking at me laughing! As a lifelong fan that ruled!
Another favorite of mine is when Duff McKagan’s Loaded opened for Axl Rose’s Guns N’ Roses in the packed Key Arena on December 16th, 2011. Per Duff, I was the only photographer allowed to shoot the whole show, so I knew anything past the 3rd song was gonna be exclusive. Waiting for a moment to remember, Duff left the stage and went crowd surfing while playing. Luckily I had my 16mm fisheye on one of my bodies and put everything down but that camera and lens and went right with Duff on the crowd. The moment was incredible! The photo says it all!
OLM: Let’s talk gear. What equipment do you have? Do you have a dark room or is that too “old school”?
MS: No way in Dodge I’d have a real dark room anymore with those chemicals and the cost nowadays. My dark room is a huge red/black mothership-looking CPU. My digital science lab for sure! I call myself an image technician. I’ve created tons of presets over the years that maybe one day I’ll release for sale. Equipment-wise, I have two Nikon D700 bodies, one Nikon D80 body that I converted to shoot Infrared (equivalent to Hoya R72 Filter) for amazing outdoor sky photography, Fuji 3D camera, old Argus 75, Minolta 8000i 35mm and recently a friend gave me a Polaroid 225 Land Camera! Lens-wise I use my Nikon 2.8f 24-70mm, 2.8f 70-200mm, 2.8f 60mm, 2.8 16mm the most. I’m super excited on a steampunk lens purchase I just did that will be coming from Russia in early 2014! Imagine shooting digital like it’s the mid-1800s! Nikon speedlights, Cotton Carrier, Dayflo-FX soft boxes, backdrops, green screens, etc. All kinds of toys not mentioned.
OLM: What equipment goes with what kind of shoot?
MS: Depending on the shoot I’ll bring whatever is needed. A lot of the band photographs and other stuff I love uses natural light with processing afterwards. I think it gives my photos a little different edged look compared to the regular stuff ya see out there all perfectly lit up, etc.
OLM: After a shoot, what’s next? Photoshop or other software? Do you ever not touch-up a photo?
MS: After a shoot it’s downloading and looking through all the shots. I know the ones that will make finals just seeing it once. I’m very picky and always looking out for the artist, band or individual. A lot of photographers release everything – even ones not obviously in focus – which is ridiculous and I think degrades their work. Mainly I use Lightroom and Photoshop with various other little programs I mix for the secret sauce look people try to emulate. It’s taken me years and countless hours developing certain presets and ways. Yes, there are plenty of photos that I release right out of the camera. Those are pretty special, but usually I tweak something because it’s the mad scientist in me. It’s my art and I want to create reaction and emotion on the epic level with all of my photos.
OLM: Can the public purchase prints of your photos?
MS: Yes. Very soon my website will have prints for sales. There will be photos from my travels to music. I just got the ok from Mike McCready to sell this cool shot of him on metallic print. Can’t wait! The Duff shot will be next. I’ve had many requests for that!
OLM: It seems these days that everyone is on Instagram and shooting photos and video with their smart phones. What are your thoughts on that?
MS: I wasn’t on Instagram until this past June (2013), just before I went to Canada with Alice in Chains. They have their own account so I needed it to stay connected and supply some shots. I actually enjoy Instagram the most now. I make sure my pictures have copyright text, though.
OLM: You have worked with some of the biggest names in rock ‘n roll. I’m sure you have some great stories…..but can you share any of them?
MS: You’ll have to wait for my future book for those, ha ha!!!
OLM: Did you ever have the “rock star” dream? Would you like to be a musician and have other people shooting you?
MS: Oh yeah, if I was in a band I guarantee ya, I’d be the photographer’s favorite dude to shoot! Sometimes I wonder why some musicians are so not camera friendly.
OLM: You’re based out of Seattle. Why Seattle versus a bigger major metropolitan city such as New York or Los Angeles?
MS: Born and raised here, adds to my connection with all the people I’ve known over the years.
OLM: Have you been hired to do shoots outside of the Pacific Northwest?
MS: Yes, I actually love traveling when I can to do work.
OLM: Do you only do photo shoots or do you do video shoots, as well?
MS: If I was smart I would look into doing more video work/shoots. I have a pretty creative mind, but I know the countless hours of work editing a video can take and I’m not too interested in adding that into my already busy life right now. I was asked to direct a video recently, so maybe I will. I know my next big camera purchase will have all the video bells and whistles on it. I do my own little pocket camera live concert videos when I’m at shows or onstage which I post on my YouTube channel. The amazing thing is I’m nearing one million views on the channel.
OLM: What does a typical day look like for you?
MS: Most would think from my Facebook page that I don’t sleep. Balancing family/kids time is always something I take pride in. Ask my wife. I don’t allow the camera/editing time to overrule my life. I’ve seen too many photographers thinking they need to shoot every show, every event, everything that moves in hopes of something. I’ve seen too many people burn out, guys losing their wives, jobs, etc. I always eat breakfast, lunch and dinner, make sure the house is somewhat clean, dishes done, laundry going, grass cut, etc. Pretty normal, actually, but the wife and I are always entertained with what’s next each day.
OLM: What is your favorite part of the job? How about your least favorite part?
MS: Easily, the end result of my editing is my favorite part. Seeing what others don’t and making that emotion jump out of the picture. I have this weird other sense in that if the photo doesn’t move me, it’s sure not gonna move anyone else. The least fun is the time it takes to edit stuff at times.
OLM: You write a blog for Seattle rock station 99.9 KISW. How did that opportunity come about?
MS: Back in 2007 I got invited to shoot RUSH at the White River Amphitheatre [Auburn, WA] from a contact I knew at Atlantic Records, whom I was employed by through the band Sugar Ray. I really wasn’t doing anything for a couple of years before this and bought a new digital camera [Nikon D80] for this show. I was so excited with what I got and could do with post-processing. I contacted KISW and asked if they wanted to post some of the photos since they sponsored the show. Reaction was positive on both sides and with the KISW.com website and social media deal starting to blow up with Facebook, etc. We built a relationship and six years later still kicking it, covering their events. It was really awesome when they gave me my own outlet blog to babble about my rock ‘n roll life with the stars at shows and around town.
OLM: What local bands do you think are on the leading edge of breaking out of Seattle?
MS: Funny you ask, ‘cause as of today I don’t think I’ve ever seen in all my years so many great bands in the Seattle area right now. It’s really sad with the state of the record business ‘cause if this was 10 years ago we’d be having another Seattle musical explosion like we had in the ‘90s. I’ll give ya five bands/artists (in no order) I’d sign in a second if I had a label:
Windowpane – plainly the best rock band in Seattle; toured with Five Finger Death Punch, Queensrÿche, etc.
Jason Kertson – You won’t believe that this kid is only 16 years old. He doesn’t sound 16, plays guitar and writes songs like a veteran! With his band The Immortals it’s only a matter of time before they go rocking worldwide!
The Crying Spell – Alternative modern day new wave rock. MODWAVE! Gotta hear it!
The Fame Riot – These wacky brothers are gonna be all over pop rock radio before you know it! Drawing influences from all forms of rock, pop, electronica and disco, their music is gonna move ya!
Mechanism – Melodic heavy hard rock metal at its best! New album Shadows & Dust is amazing!
OLM: What are some of your hobbies? What do you like to do when not working?
MS: Well, like I said before, I’ve been bowling for many years. I’m a PBA member and love doing tournaments. I’ve won at every level, but have never won a PBA title. I will one day when I have more time. Might be the Senior Tour by then, ha!
OLM: The desert island question: if you were stranded on a desert island and could take the collected works of five artists, who would the five be?
MS: This is easy! NOT!
2) The Beatles – no explanation needed.
3) Raven – the Kings of the NWOBHM [New Wave of British Heavy Metal]. If you know Raven’s music, the insanity, the energy, the crash, the bang and the wallop you know this is me in music format! Listen to the last minute of the song “Chainsaw” and that’s me when I wake up every morning in my head. Never had a cup of coffee in my life!
4) King’s X – The greatest American rock trio ever. Imagine The Beatles having dinner at a gospel gathering with Sly & The Family Stone, Jimi Hendrix & then having Metallica & Rush crash the party!
5) Judas Priest – 40 years’ worth of the Metal Gods is a must. Interesting that 4/5 of my band picks are from England. Born on the wrong continent I guess, ha!
OLM: Who are your guilty listening pleasures?
MS: I don’t consider anything really a guilty listening pleasure, but to the normal public eye of me they might be surprised that some of my favorite all-time bands are Devo, Plasmatics, Elvis, Black Oak Arkansas, etc.
OLM: How can people find out more information about you and everything you’ve done (and are doing)?
OLM: Last question! “Iron” Mike Savoia. There’s gotta be a good story behind the name, right?
MS: Yes there is. Ask my wife, ha ha! The real story is that I worked many years with the band Sugar Ray. Singer Mark McGrath and the guys had this song on the first album called ‘Iron Mic’. At shows I’d attend they’d write “Iron Mike” on the set list, so its kinda stuck over the years. I ran the band’s website and fan club in their hey day. When I was featured on VH1 ten years ago for my work with Sugar Ray, that blew up the nickname big time. It’s been with me ever since. Plus, in this competitive business, it’s nice to have a nickname to separate ya from the pack. Marketing is everything.