INTERVIEW BY MARKO SYRJÄLÄ
Legendary singer, keybordist, guitarist, songwriter etc Jon Oliva has made a long and successful career in music world. Although he had already played in several bands in the seventies it wasn’t until the mid eighties that he found real success with Savatage which was originally formed by Jon and his brother Criss Oliva. The band released many highly praised masterpieces like “Gutter Ballet”, “Hall Of The Mountain King” and the rock opera “Streets”. 1993 was a tragic year for Jon and Savatage when Criss Oliva died in a car accident. Despite the huge loss, Savatage decided to continue without Criss. The band released three more high quality studio albums: “Handful of Rain”, “The Wake of Magellan” and “Poets and Madmen” before band slowly went on hiatus in 2004. Although it’s been very quiet in Savatage camp since then there has been a lot of going on in the world of Jon Oliva. He’s been extremely busy with the rock orchestra band TSO (Trans Siberian Orchestra) and his new band Jon Oliva’s Pain. The latter just released their second studio album “Maniacal Renderings”. I had the honor to meet up with the legend while Jon Oliva’s Pain visited in < ?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags" />
Transcription by Andy Osborn
Pictures by Marko Syrjälä and archives
BEING ON TOUR AND THE FUTURE OF SAVATAGE ?
You’ve been on tour for a while already?
Yeah, we’ve been all over. We’ve gone to Holland, Germany, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, England. So, yeah we’ve been bouncing around. We have a week left and then we’ll start recording again.
Do you have plans to play on any festivals on this summer?
Nope. Not this summer, but next summer. We’ve been talking to people but we’re setting up for next year.
This seems to be an important and busy year for you?
Every year above ground is an important one for me! [laughs]
There are lots of rumors of a Savatage tour next year, is that really going to happen?
There will be something like that but it won’t be a tour, it’ll probably be just one show. Just kind of to put it to rest, I guess. I don’t know about that because it’s really something that’s out of my control because it involves so many people. It seems to me pretty obvious that since there hasn’t been a Savatage record since 2000, now it’s 2007 so the chances of there being anything new for Savatage don’t look good. That’s my opinion. That could change though if everyone else wants to do it. But, if not… I don’t really know how to answer that question anymore. Nothing is going on, is all I can say. No one has come up to me and said let’s do something. They’ve talked about it but nothing has gone through?
Recently you said that Savatage is completely done, is it really like that?
Well, if there hasn’t been a record in seven years; you can’t be much more done than that. [laughs] People ask me this all the time, but if there hasn’t been an album in almost eight years, chances are that we’re pretty much done.
What’s the main reason for disbanding Savatage?
Trans-Siberian Orchestra. If you like Savatage, just buy those records because that’s like Savatage with different singers. That’s really what it is. Every guy that was in Savatage plays in Trans-Siberian Orchestra. We sell out Madison Square Garden and places like that so what logic would there be for anybody to take that thing and destroy just to play for a couple thousand people in Europe? It’s not going to ever happen. That thing has grossed millions of dollars and no one’s going to destroy it to play some Savatage shows. It doesn’t make any sense. I know if I was in charge of the whole thing, I would be an idiot to break that up. So why can’t people just realize that? It was great, we had 25 years of a great band and now they’ve finally made it, but it’s all the same guys! It’s Jon Oliva, Paul O’Neill, Bob Kinkel, Johnny Middleton, Chris Caffery, Al Pitrelli, Jeff Plate, Alex Skolnick; everyone that’s been in Savatage for the last 10 years is in that band. Even I’m in the fucking band! Even I quit my own band to be in the band that makes the money. Let’s just be logical.
About your new album.. Some songs on your new album “Maniacal Renderings” are pretty old stuff written by your late brother Criss Oliva. Would you tell us something more about those songs?
Well, some parts of Criss’s music are goddamn…some of the tapes are dated back to 1982. There were tapes of writing sections from Power of the Night, Hall of the Mountain King, Gutter Ballet, Edge of Thorns. There’s just tons of stuff. There’s a riff from a song called “Time to Die” and the middle doomy riff was one of the first riffs he ever wrote, it was from like 1981. That was really old. So we just took a few of his little riffs, and these things just pop up all over the album. In Maniacal Renderings there’s a riff of his that comes in after the solo thing, that’s his riff. “Evil Beside You” he has a riff in there too. So, you know, he has little parts that come in all throughout the album. I think in four or five songs which is great.
I would say that new album sounds pretty much like old Savatage. Do you agree with that?
Well, any album I do is going to sound like Savatage; there’s nothing I can do about that. I’m cursed with that. But, this album definitely has songs that would never be on a Savatage album. The way Savatage was run over the years, a song like “End Times” would never make it onto the record the way you hear it in this record. It would’ve been diced up, chopped up, switched around, gone over a hundred thousand fuckin times and it would have never sounded as good as it does here. There are a couple songs that could have been on a Savatage album. But, they wouldn’t have sounded like they did on this album. They would have been manipulated and destroyed.
When you started this Jon Oliva’s Pain band you stated that you are going to do a kind of concept album which will include three albums… but at least in my opinion these two albums don’t have too much in common.. What ever happened for that original plan?
Yeah we were thinking about that, but that got elbowed because….you know the first record was put together really quickly. I knew these guys but I never truly worked with them before. That first album was kind of just a get to know each other album. It had some great songs on it but you can’t compare it to this album. We spent a year on this album and you can hear it in the songs and the production. We just had more time, and we knew each other and everybody contributed. This was the first real group record. The first record was just I wrote and I gave them a CD and told them to learn these songs and they came in, played it and that’s it. On this album we had pre-productions, rehearsals, we changed stuff around, recorded stuff at home and we worked on these songs for a long time.
So are you saying that this new album is part one of a saga which will then continue on next two albums?
No, that was my original idea; doing three albums. Then we started getting into it and I realized I’ll probably want to do four or five so fuck it. You know what I’m saying? So we elbowed that idea. The first album and the second album have nothing to do with each other so we kind of fucked that up.
KISS AND TELL
In 1992 you had a project called Romanov which was going to be a Broadway musical. Will that ever be released?
Just wait. About two years from now you’re going to be hearing a lot about that. There’s some stuff going on with it that I’m not allowed to talk about. Let’s just put it this way: it’s making me very happy!
But it’s been 15 years…
Well, better late than early!
Tell me about how Trans Siberian Orchestra thing originally started?
Well, TSO started to form right after Criss died. The first talk of augmenting the Savatage sound was done by him and Paul and me. Then we were like well, we’ll never be able to replace Criss so we did something different. We wrote the song “Chance” and came up with the idea of all the weird counter-point vocals and said well, maybe we’ll do this. That was actually the first TSO song recorded. Because that was where that whole idea started. Then the next record we had the “Jingle Bells” song and from then on it’s been getting bigger and bigger every year. It’s a monster out of control.
Speaking of some of TSO members, tell me about Alex Skolnick?
Well, Alex plays with TSO, he plays with the east-coast band. He and Al Pitrelli split the band. Al does the lead guitar on the west coast now. Alex is in there because he’s a great player and he’s worked with Paul before. Paul really likes to work with people that he’s comfortable with. Alex is a great guy, a great player.
Alex is best known for his work with Testament which is very different music than Savatage. How did he originally get involved with Savatage?
For Savatage, I really needed someone to play guitar solos for me, because I can’t play solos very well. I played like one or two on “Handful of Rain” because there was nobody from Savatage on that album but me. We got Zak, we brought him in to sing and then we needed solos. We didn’t know anybody really so we called Alex and he said yeah, I’ll be there tomorrow. He was there and cut some solos, we did a tour with him and stuff. We were good friends for a few years before because we’ve done tours together. We were on the road for eight months with Testament. Eight Months! We just kept going around the United States. We went around the country four times, it was ridiculous. But, we kept selling out every venue. Every show was Testament, Savatage, Nuclear Assault.
Which year was that tour?
I think that was 1989, maybe 1990. Yeah, it was 1990. The tour we did with them was the “Practice What You Preach” tour. It was insane.
How about Chris Caffery then? How he ended up being in Savatage.
He was originally hired as an offstage rhythm guitar player for “Hall of the Mountain King” when he was like seventeen years old. He was a little goofy back then and my brother was very anti having another guitar player. Paul O’Neill bribed us to stick him behind the curtains. Then Chris was in the band for that tour and then we made him a part of the band officially for “Gutter Ballet” even though he didn’t play on the record. He just came in after the record was done and we took pictures with him and put him on the album cover. He didn’t actually play on any Savatage album until “Dead Winter Dead”. No, I’m sorry; “Live in Japan” was the first record he did with us. Anyway, he’s doing alright; he’s happy so whatever. But yeah, that’s how he came in; he was a Paul O’Neill find. Paul rears his head once again.
Speaking of Paul O’Neil, who’s been a really important person in your whole career, how is your relationship with him nowadays?
Pretty good. I’m doing Trans-Siberian Orchestra with him. I’m actually going to be in the studio pretty soon, the day after I get home.
METROPOLIS AND JON OLIVA’S PAIN…
I recently searched your name on eBay and I found a recording bythe name of Metropolis which was one your first bands. What kind of memories you have from those days?
Yeah, Metropolis, oh god. That was fucking awful. There was a song called “Take Off with the Crowd and Let’s Get Rowdy.” Oh man, that was terrible. It was awful. This was the late 1970s. I think we recorded that in ’78 or ’79. It was this guy Vinnie and he had this guitar player named Maynard. He was actually a bad motherfucker too, he could play good. Criss played bass, I played rhythm guitar and we had this Maynard guy played main guitar and Vinnie played drums. Yeah that was ’79.
Did you spend a lot of time with that band?
Well, we went through different members like crazy. Cuz’ we were just a club band. We would play little shit-holes, kind of like the one we’re sitting in right now! [laughs] But that’s how we made our living back then. Just playing clubs, bars. We had a big debut and ending. One single, it went nowhere, end of band.
Speaking about the band you have now… It’s not a secret that they all played in Zack Steven’s band Circle II Circle before so how they all ended up being in your band?
Well, things just didn’t work out with them and Zak [Stevens]. There were a lot of misunderstandings with them and they did a tour and they weren’t happy. So, they were available and I needed a band so I was like, come on! “laughs”
You did a lot of writing for Circle II Circle’s first two albums. In the future, are you still going to work with Circle II Circle?
No, I helped Zak on the first two records and then I cast him off on his own to let him do his thing. He’s doing a pretty good job by himself, he doesn’t need me anymore. He can’t afford me. [laughs]
Well, how do you like the current line up of Jon Oliva’s Pain? Is everything working well?
Yeah, well we’ve been together for four years now. Yeah, it’s been…I’m not going anywhere. I’m very happy with what I’m doing right now.
You’ve had one line up change recently when Jerry Outlaw left?
Yeah, but Jerry never even recorded with us anyway. So, the band as far as its recording lineup is concerned, is the same as it’s always been since the first record. The only thing we did was to add Jerry as a second guitar player for a tour about a year ago, but when we start working on new material we realized he was insane! We had to make the move on that so we got the other guy, umm fuck, what’s his name? Shane. Shane came in and played on a couple songs on the album but he’s got some issues going on so we’ll just see what happens?
Where did he actually come from?
It’s hard to explain where he came from because it’s all one camp anyway. Different people were allocated to do different things with different bands. It’s not like I was breaking up bands to get people, they were done so…
Great that’s all I have for you this time. Thanks for your time.
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