INTERVIEW BY MARKO SYRJÄLÄ
Transcription by Andy Osborn
Pictures by Marko Syrjälä and archives
The legendary singer, keyboardist, guitarist, and songwriter Jon Oliva has made a long and successful career in the 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. Jon and his brother Criss Oliva formed the band originally in 1979. In the ’80s\early ’90s, the band released several 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 considerable loss, Savatage decided to continue without Criss. The band released three studio albums: “Handful of Rain,” “The Wake of Magellan,” and “Poets and Madmen” before the band slowly went on hiatus in 2004. Although it’s been very quiet in Savatage camp since then, there has been a lot 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. At the same time, Jon Oliva’s Pain visited Copenhagen last April, and here is the latest info concerning Jon’s latest activities and plans.
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 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 going to happen?
There will be something like that, but it won’t be a tour; it’ll probably be just one show. Just to put it to rest, I guess. I don’t know about that because it’s out of my control. It seems to be 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 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 permanently done. Is it 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, the chances are that we’re pretty much done.
What’s the main reason for disbanding Savatage?
Trans-Siberian Orchestra. If you like Savatage, 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 it to play for a couple of thousand people in Europe? It’s not going ever to 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 were in charge of the whole thing, I would be an idiot to break that up. So why can’t people 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! Jon Oliva, Paul O’Neill, Bob Kinkel, Johnny Middleton, Chris Caffery, Al Pitrelli, Jeff Plate, Alex Skolnick; everyone who played in Savatage for the last ten years is in that band. Even I’m in the fucking band! Even I quit my band to be in the band that makes money. Let’s be logical.
Some songs on your new album “Maniacal Renderings” are pretty old, written by your late brother Criss Oliva. Would you tell us something more about those songs?
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 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” has a riff in there too. So, you know, he has minor parts that come in throughout the album. I think in four or five songs which is great.
I would say that the new album sounds pretty much like old Savatage. Do you agree with that?
Any album I do will sound like Savatage; there’s nothing I can do about that. I’m cursed with that. But this album 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 of 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 would do a kind of concept album that would include three albums, but at least in my opinion, these two albums don’t have too much in common. Whatever happened to 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 had never truly worked with them before. That first album was kind of just a get-to-know another 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 actual 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 worked on these songs for a long time.
Are you saying that this new album is part one of a saga that will continue from now on?
No, that was my original idea; doing three albums. Then we started getting into it, and I realized I’d probably want to do four or five, so fuck it. Do you know what I’m saying? So we elbowed that idea. The first and second albums 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 the Trans Siberian Orchestra thing originally started?
Well, TSO started to form right after Criss died. He and Paul, and I did the first talk on augmenting the Savatage sound. 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 when the whole TSO 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 the 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 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 for me. We got Zak, we brought him in to sing, and then we needed solos. We didn’t know anybody, so we called Alex, and he said yeah, I’ll be there tomorrow. He was there and cut some solos, and 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 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 significant 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 by Metropolis’s name, one of your first bands. What kind of memories do 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 in 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 a bad motherfucker, too; he could play good. Criss played bass and rhythm guitar and had this Maynard guy played the 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 the band.
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 did they all end up being in your band?
Well, things just didn’t work out with them and Zak [Stevens]. There were many 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 lineup 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, as far as its recording lineup is concerned, the band is the same as it’s been since the first record. We only added Jerry as a second guitar player for a tour about a year ago, but when we started working on new material, we realized he was insane! We had to make a move on that, so we got the other guy; umm fuck, what’s his name? Shane. Shane came in and played on a couple of songs on the album, but he’s got some issues going on, so we’ll just see what happens?
Where did he 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.
Great, that’s all I have for you this time. Thanks for your time.
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MORE PICTURES FROM JON OLIVA’S PAIN CONCERT IN COPENHAGEN !!