Circle II Circle – Vocalist Zak Stevens
Interviewed by EvilG
Transcription by Duke
Live Circle II Circle pics from Rockreport.be
Circle II Circle’s Zak Stevens attained international fame during his stint as vocalist with metal legends Savatage. Unlike former members of some bands, Zak did not burn any bridges when he decided to take his leave from Savatage. After a short time out of the spotlight, Zak returned with his new band, Circle II Circle. He used the songwriting partners of both Chris Caffery and Jon Oliva (Savatage) for the two albums that Circle II Circle has released. In this lengthy interview, we talk to Zak about his time in Savatage, leaving the band, and the sometimes bumpy road that has been Circle II Circle.
Let’s go way back, and tell us how you joined Savatage and first hooked up with the guys?
I was living in Boston, Massachusetts, for about three years and we had a group together that was called Wicked Witch, just a few guys from the Boston area that I met when I was studying vocals out in California at the VIT vocal institute. I had been a drummer my whole career since I was nine, and at one point I thought I had to hone in on this vocal singing because I had been singing and playing drums in every band I´d been in. I wanted to move into the frontman thing but I had to hone the singing skills because I didn´t have it down with regards to how to protect it and maintain it or anything technical about singing. After I got out of school, I went to Boston and played all around the area with this band for a couple of years. A friend of mine, Dan Campbell, who is basically now the manager of Circle II Circle, as well as my business partner, introduced me to all of the Savatage guys. He and I were going to school in Los Angeles when they were doing the GUTTER BALLET tour so they came through and played a few venues in LA. That was a big time for them because of that record, the second one that Paul O´Neill produced for them. So I met all the guys, Criss, Jon, Johnny Lee, Steve Wacholz, the whole thing, it was really cool. We just hung out one night and partied until six in the morning. They were really great guys. Jon is a madman! But that´s how I first met the guys. Then I went to Boston and a year and a half or two years down the line we released the demo with Wicked Witch, which was produced by Bob St. John, the guy who produced and mixed Extreme, the band from Boston. That was cool, he´s really talented, and that demo was what got me the gig with Savatage. It was like “Hey, I remember meeting this guy, he was cool, now he´s done some more stuff, let´s see what he´s got!” That was at the time when Jon said “Hey, I want to take a back seat, I want to get out of this crazy frontman side and be more on the producer and writer side”. That was what opened a door for me to join Savatage.
Before you joined I suppose you were a fan of the band?
Big time! I had every record they ever made, THE DUNGEONS ARE CALLING, SIRENS, but I really think my favorite ones were probably GUTTER BALLET and HALL OF THE MOUNTAIN KING. POWER OF THE NIGHT is also awesome, I think those are my three favorite ones right there!
Zak (far left) with Savatage
So when you got into Savatage, did you immediately feel accepted by fans or was there a period of transition where people were kind of wary because the Mountain King himself had stepped back from the mic? How long did it take before you felt accepted?
Well, I thought it was gonna take longer. You will always have that small percentage, maybe one percent that will never accept you no matter what you do. But 99 percent of the Savatage faithful were really cool. They were really awesome and let me do what I had to do to make it happen, which was just to go there and be myself, not try to sing like Jon used to. I couldn´t even do that. It´s probably the same on my side, he can´t sing like me either. So we don´t try to be each other. It was a trip for me, they were one of my favorite bands of all time and suddenly I got the chance to sing for them! I just had to say that I gotta be myself and put all of my punch into these next six records or whatever I´m gonna do. It turned out a lot better than I thought. They were very accepting from pretty much the beginning. We started out doing a European tour for EDGE OF THORNS and even the Europeans, who have a reputation for being much more critical and resistant to change, they seemed to come to the party. I thought it was going to be much worse than it was – following up Jon was potentially a nightmare. But it worked out great and I thank all the fans for that. It was just a matter of not trying to copy or be anyone else, just go in there and do your own thing.
Looking back on the albums you did with Savatage, do you have any favorites or personal favorite songs?
I got a lot of them. There´s just such great music if you look at Paul O´Neill and Jon Oliva writing together. What I do now as a producer of Circle II Circle and continuing my career in my own band is a tribute to them really, cause they´re the teachers and the masters. I just sat back and learned from them. The more I listened and was attentive, the better it worked for me. So there´s a lot of great music, but I think “Follow Me” from the EDGE OF THORNS album, and “Edge of Thorns” itself, which I play still to this day,. Even “Wake of Magellan” is a song that still sticks out to me today with all the vocal counterpoint melodies going on. And “Chance” and… I could just go on! Those are some that stick out when I think about the question, but we did some crazy good music all through the years, I was pretty lucky.
Can you recap some of the events that led to you leaving Savatage?
It was pretty much a combination of things. At that time, I had a lot going on. I had a young child, less than a year old, who is now seven. Now I have a two-year-old daughter as well, Zoe, and the seven year old is Cassidy. I was in the process of moving and it gets kinda crazy when you´re moving a family out of a house and into another house. At that point, it had been a year since we came off the previous tour, which was THE WAKE OF MAGELLAN, and still no talk about going into the studio. With that much time going by you start thinking “Wow, how much longer is it gonna be?” and there are financial implications and all kinds of stuff. With all that going on it was better than stressing about waiting for something to happen and suddenly in the middle of a move hearing “Hey, you gotta be in New York for three months recording the new record”. It was just better for me at that time to take care of my family and the things I had to take care of. I had every intention of going back, I just said “I need a leave of absence for awhile, guys, it´s been a year already, can you hold on for two more months?” But I guess at that point the label was telling them to go ahead and get the next record done. POETS AND MADMEN was that record. I worked on all those songs and I was so familiar with the songs that when it came out I was like “Wow, I was there when we wrote that!” That was how involved I was and I thought it would just be a leave of absence.
So do you think the door is still open to someday…?
Yeah, sure! They know that I´m open to it. But then again, look how long it´s been since POETS AND MADMEN. You know what I´m saying? Once it happens it´s gotta be like “Hey, we got this record deal and we´re gonna do it now”. But that was because Trans-Siberian Orchestra took off and they saw the opportunity to make the Christmas thing huge and you gotta understand. They made “Sarajevo 12/24”, a song that originally appeared on DEAD WINTER DEAD, and all of a sudden it´s a major hit. Then Paul O´Neill, being the very smart man that he is, says “Hey, how about doing this thing and make Christmas things that people listen to every year?” They knew that song would be played for Christmas for the next 20 years. We all have gold and platinum records on our walls for helping produce the TSO records, for singing on them and stuff like that. So it´s been a great opportunity for everybody, but you can´t do everything at once so obviously the TSO priority has moved back the ability to make Savatage records as fast as we were. It´s all business really, there´s no personal thing to it.
Since POETS AND MADMEN the band has gotten a new singer who has been in the band for a few years now and they did a tour with him. Many fans still haven´t heard him unless they live in an area where they were able to see the band live. Have you seen them with him on vocals and did it feel kind of bizarre?
Yeah, I know Damond really good and he´s really talented in his own right. Everybody´s got their thing they can do. He has a Broadway background and things like that, but he can get really scratchy as well. He´s really talented. But to tell you the truth, I don’t know what´s going on with that, because somebody called me and told me that Jon had done an interview that is out everywhere saying he´s no longer in the band. I didn´t see the interview but everybody seems to have seen it all over the place. I don´t know. You didn´t catch that? Jon apparently said that either he was gonna sing himself or we would go back to working together again on the future album. He did the last record, so… That´s been in the last month and Jon has been out here so I haven´t been able to talk to him personally about that. I guess I have to read about it like you do!
Since Savatage has had a few years of down time TSO have really taken off. I always hoped that you would have a bigger role in that. Is this something you have pushed for or have they wanted to keep Savatage separate from the TSO stuff?
That was a consideration early on, when they first signed a deal with Lava Records. Since I had been the prolific lead singer, you had to create some kind of separation to the situation. That was definitely a consideration, even the label people said “Hey, don´t let Zak sing too much!” But you gotta understand that, otherwise it would just be Savatage again. You have to separate what´s going on. But I´ve worked on pretty much every one of them and I like the opportunity. I understand that I can´t go up and sing lead on three or four songs, that would be ridiculous, but I did sing one song called “The Dark” on BEETHOVEN´S LAST NIGHT, which is so far TSO’s only non-Christmas effort. And I´ve done tons of stuff, producing and doing backing vocals and producing vocal sessions and coping with everybody´s backing vocals. That´s what I do in the studio, I work with the singers and I give Paul what I think is their best performances, cut it all up in ProTools and edit it all down and see what he thinks. If there´s still a line or a word or two that he needs, I just get them back in.
So you´re still involved but it´s more behind the scenes.
Yeah, producing and singing, but who knows, after a while that won´t matter anymore and I can get in and sing a lot more stuff.
I dug out my TSO CDs and listened to them throughout December and there´s definitely a lot of Savatage feel to a lot of the music.
So I wouldn´t mind hearing you do three or four songs per album…
I appreciate that, me too! But again, what´s the business side of the thing? There´s always the personal preference and then there is what´s going to be the business decision.
I don´t think every TSO fan is a Savatage fan anyway.
Exactly, and that´s a credit to how they were able to create the separate nature and could take s song over and make it a real commercial hit, very mainstream, a crossover hit. That´s a good thing.
On to some Circle II Circle stuff now. You were out of the spotlight for a while when you left Savatage until you returned with Circle II Circle. How long did it take for you to get your band together and get the songs ready?
Probably about a year. I started working on it as early as six months after I left. To think of the concept and what I wanted to do, probably took about a year total. Those guys understood what was going on and they understood my decision to get my own record deal based on what I had done with Savatage. That would get me a chance personally to take it to the next level. It forces you to step up your game with both producing and writing. That´s what I wanted to do better. They understood that decision and said “Hey, let´s even write songs with the guy!” I really appreciated that Jon and Chris Caffery would even do that with me. They teamed up with me and pretty much wrote my first two records with me. That´s pretty cool. Everybody is out there doing their solo thing now, that´s a credit to the talent.
There´s always both sides, people miss Savatage but now we have CDs from Circle II Circle, Chris Caffery, Doctor Butcher, Tage Mahal, and TSO, so we do have a lot of material still.
Yeah, it´s kinda strange. We got all this material, but where´s Savatage? But again it´s down to the business, they had the same situation as I did. Chris wants to do more Savatage records but they don´t come as often as they used to.
The lineup that did WATCHING IN SILENCE and the tour all of a sudden quit and now are Tage Mahal. Was there any bad blood there or wasn´t it working out with those guys and Jon said “Ok, I´ll take them”?
It was probably a little bit of both really. There was some stuff going on within the band with personalities not getting along too well at the time and some talk about some of the guys not wanting to do any more European touring. So it was a little bit challenging but I think they just decided that they were a better fit for Jon and what he´s doing. At one point, a decision was made. I didn´t think they were going to get along long enough to do that but we had pretty much come to a decision that we were going to upgrade the whole situation with the band and go for a new level. We had gone local, those are local guys who have been playing forever in bands around town. When that didn´t work, the only other option is to go regional. So I got these guys from Nashville, Tennessee and Mississippi. So we did a regional search and it got a little better and I think we´re ready now to do more challenging stuff. The attitude is all there, the teamwork is phenomenal. It´s what I was looking for the whole time. It just took me a little while to get it. I don´t have any hard feelings or anything. If they want to play with Jon, great, I needed something different anyway. Now we´re good for the long haul and going for the third record here, we have a new record deal with AFM and Soulfood to be distributed by Locomotive here in the US. We have about eight more songs to go in and produce and finish and we have done four or five already. It was a pretty crazy situation but our goal is to get four or five records done with the same lineup, we´re gonna win all the battles. You just gotta overcome that first hurdle and show that stability. Everybody is totally committed, so I´m happy about that.
On the first two albums Jon and Chris co-wrote material with you. Is this going to happen with the third album as well?
I think so. The first four were actually with the new lineup. Mitch Stewart on bass and Andrew Lee on guitar wrote these first four songs with me. So we made a switch right there, going with a little bit different way of writing. There guys are great and I want to give them a chance to do what they can do, but talking to Chris and Jon we have every intention of getting together and doing it. I think we´re going to branch out a bit, sticking to the past but also utilizing the new talent that we got.
Did the new lineup help with any material for THE MIDDLE OF NOWHERE, or was that written before you had recruited those guys?
Most of it was written. They helped out on maybe three or four songs and did a good job on details on those when we had gotten together and formed the new lineup. That worked out really well, but most of it was written before everybody was intact.
Can you tell me how you put together a song? Do you come up with melodies, rhythms or just vocals? Do you play an instrument when you write, or do you work with another guitar player?
I usually work with guitar players to get some riffs. With Jon, he´ll write a piano riff or he´ll do a great guitar part. A lot of that stuff that we wrote together, when you look at the credits you´ll notice those are guitar songs. Jon is incredible; he picks up a guitar, turns it upside down and plays it left handed with the strings upside down. This makes for some unbelievable chords that are just tripping because they´re coming from the opposite way from the high string down to the low string. That´ s where we get a lot of inspiration writing guitar riffs. Also because I´m a drummer, I come up with songs based on drums. I can sit down and kinda hear a guitar riff in my head and start kicking in with a drum piece and basically write stuff based on the rhythmic feel and then the drums basically create the arrangements of the rhythmic parts. My bass player Mitch is a great piano player as well. He´s been writing a piano piece lately that I can´t wait to get down and which will probably be one of the remaining eight songs. There´s a lot of options right now. We just get together, sometimes even in my own living room, push the couch back and set up the kit and just start writing with whomever comes down. Sometimes you just start with a beat, somebody comes in with something and before you know it, you´ve got a verse and a chorus. That´s about all I need, I can take it from there.
Do you have a timeline for the next album already?
Well, we´ve turned in three new songs and one bonus track…so four songs already. Then there was a decision made by the label that they will release the rest of the record money on March 1st, so we´ll book the studio from that date forward and probably by late spring or summer, the next record is coming out.
THE MIDDLE OF NOWHERE was released in March 2005. It didn´t seem to get as much publicity as WATCHING IN SILENCE. With the first one it was “Oh my god, Zak Stevens is back!” and the second more “Oh, he´s got another album out??” and then a couple months go by. When I finally went out and bought it I was wondering what happened in terms of PR.
That´s a good question, but there´s a good business reason for everything. Our label (AFM) president got killed in a car accident, Andrew Allendorfer, who was the guy we did all our business with. He was responsible for the marketing effort for the first record, which was successful. Two months before our record was released he was killed in a horrible unfortunate car accident in Germany. It´s a small label mostly run by two or three people and when the top guy goes, there´s major change. We had so many problems after that that we thought we were done with the label under the current leadership that was left behind. It came out in Easter in Europe and then something like August 8th in North America. But the distribution side is better, now you can go to Best Buy and all the other major sites and order it. That was something we didn´t have with the first record, so some aspects improved. But that´s why the marketing wasn´t perceived as so high, because suddenly the marketing department wasn´t with us anymore. That was just unfortunate timing because that was when our record came out. The people who made those decisions were the ones left behind and they´re no longer there because the record label got purchased by Sony Soulfood Records. Since then things have turned around because suddenly you have all these additional money resources. They went ahead and admitted “God that was a completely screwed up release! But now we have new leadership, so we´re ready to do you right on the third record”. That´s where we are now. The new leadership didn´t really have much control of our release because of the tragedy. All of a sudden, they´re playing six songs from THE MIDDLE OF NOWHERE on XM Radio and US sales go back up from nowhere. Even our German record label called and said “Why are the US sales so high all of a sudden?” Well, XM Radio, world wide. I´m happy with that, they´re really rock oriented and a band like Savatage they play all the time. They play “Edge of Thorns” and I´m singing on it and all of a sudden, this guy has a new record. That just excited them and all of a sudden, you´ve got a lot of airplay all over. They´ll play new stuff from the classic artists that they´re playing, but very few come out with anything new. They get tons of requests on e-mail for all the songs, they think it´s a great record. So it´s possible to overcome anything like that. But that´s the business reasons behind it.
Will your third album have the pentagram-looking symbol on the front again?
I don´t know, we´ll probably do something a little bit different this time. It´s an artistic symbol that our artist in Germany came up with, it´s pretty cool. I think there might be aspects of it, it might not be slash, pow, right in the middle, but we gotta come up with a derivative of that, we´ll see what happens.
Are you involved in the cover art concepts at all such as The Matrix look on the newest cover?
Yeah, we get involved in everything. We looked at some portraits they were painting and some pictures with this guy and a glowing ball and he´s going into the middle of nowhere but… It was kinda cool the first time but when you go back, it´s already done. So we did this “Matrix”-y thing that has depth and is kinda cool and when you look at it, it never gets old. It´s kinda cool every time you look at it. We try to get involved in any aspect we can.
One element on the new album that is not as much used as you did on WATCHING IN SILENCE, or even in your Savatage days, is the counterpoint vocal melodies. That´s one of my favourite things that you do, I wish you´d do it on every other song!
Really? On the other side I have guys saying “You gotta STOP doing that! You´ve done it too much!” I get that too. I wanted to keep doing it, I just take all the feedback I get and when I talk to people I´m like “Ok, duly noted”. We´re trying to find a balance here, so we did it on the song “The Middle of Nowhere” but that was about the only one on there, maybe we´ll have a few more opportunities on this one.
OK then, duly noted?
No problem, I´ll work on that! Duly noted!
Did you play a lot of shows in North America for THE MIDDLE OF NOWHERE?
They´re always in Florida! But we have a booking agent now with XM Radio picking up so we´re looking to do something. We´re more prepared and now we can do stuff from THE MIDDLE OF NOWHERE which was the bigger record in America. Then we have the new one coming up so we´ll be prepared to do a lot more touring for that. It’ll be mostly a European effort again, but I think we´re well prepared to get back in the North American swing again.
There´s a potential for some dates before the new album?
Yeah, before and during. That´s what we´re trying to put together as we speak.
What do you do when you´re not with Circle II Circle or helping with TSO, is everything 100 percent music oriented these days?
Yeah, pretty much. I´ve got a family, and two daughters keep you really busy. Basically, that is a hundred percent, that´s enough to keep anybody really busy. The family with two kids and Circle II Circle are pretty much filling my calendar now. Especially on the kid side!
Do you or have you taught vocal lessons? You said you went to the Vocal Institute of Technology, have you passed on any of the things you learned there or have you never had time to bother with it?
Well, I´ve had four students in the past two years and I use a lot of that curriculum that I learned at VIT plus some other stuff that I learned from other vocal teachers. I just try to put it all together to get these people to the next level. I think I´ll get more into teaching as I get older. When you´re not on the road anymore or not making records for whatever reason, then I can get into the business of teaching and selling what I´ve learned. I enjoy teaching people how to use their voice and not mess everything up.
So who do you think are some of the all time metal and hard rock vocalists that are still out there doing things?
They´re all still out there, that´s the funny thing! Look at Bruce Dickinson, he was the guy I looked at when I first saw a Maiden show in ‘83 and I was in high school and was going “Hey, I wanna do that! That guy kicks ass!” He´s still out there! I go and see Ronnie Dio, another of my favorites, a wonderful vocalist who does things that I wish I could do. He´s still out there, and in his 60s! I was into Geoff Tate and Queensryche big time when I was going through college, they´re still out there. Just the ones that made a big impact, I was a fan and now they´re my inspirations. Those were the three in my formative years who attained what I wanted to do with the vocal thing.
Do you bother to check out many new bands or new vocalists? Has any of them impressed you lately?
Yeah, I really like Disturbed from Chicago, I love that singer. They´re mindnumbingly heavy and funky, just laying it down. I´ve got their latest record and he does some amazing stuff. Even things like Coheed & Cambria, a little guy singing wish a Rush feel, a Geddy Lee sort of style, that´s interesting, I just picked it up. They´ve got this trilogy of stuff, I´ve got to read through all these stories. That´s just a couple of the ones I picked up and found interesting. There are people out there doing it right now and I just want to be one of them. I wanna go out there and stay in the game and suddenly I´ll have this song that makes everybody go “Where´d this come from? Why haven´t I heard this before? It sounds like it´s been around for a long time from the depth of it.” That´s what people are saying to those XM DJs all the time now and that´s an impression I don´t mind creating at this point.
Do you want to see yourself in a similar situation to Dio – being 60 and being able to sing that well?
Why not? That´d be great! I´ll try to do it, I look pretty young and I´m staying that way luckily, so I´d love to do that.
Earlier in the interview, you said you went regional with new new lineup search. Do you guys get together for rehearing, jamming, and writing very often?
Yeah, as a matter of fact, they´re here now. I always have at least two of the guys in town for the last month, because we´re actually writing the new record. At any given time two out of the four are here and we´re writing. Even my drummer, Tom, he writes music too. Everybody´s got their stuff. Evan Christopher, my other guitar player, he´s bringing stuff in. It´s a real good thing right now. They´ve been in town for a solid month, at least most of them, and I guess Andy is coming in this Monday to work on some more guitar stuff so we´ve been together quite a lot lately.
Do you know where you´re going to record the next album?
It´ll probably be Mars Sound again. We´ll do the bulk there and I´ll record my drums there. Me and Tom play the drums, I do some stuff and then my drummer will do some stuff. We love this giant room that´s like putting our drums in a basketball arena. You can make it sound huge when you can have close mikes and you can put them back 25 feet and all things to absorb the sound, it´s just an unbelievable room. That´s room A. Then they have SSL, Solid Stage Logic, with the mixing logic that sets up two tracks from both rooms they have, A and B. They have the ProTools rig and for tracking it can be three different rooms for just doing guitars and vocals and stuff, but for mixing we´ll be back there.
Have you tossed around titles for the album yet?
Haven´t really done that yet, just writing some lyrics and see what evolves. I´ll just give it time and let it come to me.
Any other plans for Circle II Circle for 2006 apart from the new album?
We´ve got a tour in Europe planned for apx. February-March to introduce the new record. That will be a tour put on by the label, AFM/Soulfood over there. That will be at least 25 shows, something like that.
Do you know who you will be playing with?
No, probably some other AFM band. All Access is our booking agent and they have a great organization in Europe, they´re probably the top booking agent of rock bands. We just signed on with All Access, so that´s good. We´ll probably be out with one of their bands and an AFM band. I´ll let you know.