The name Jon Oliva is synonymous with classic heavy metal. The singer/musician is one of the founding members of Savatage, Trans-Siberian Orchestra, Doctor Butcher, and now Jon Oliva's Pain. With a recent album out called Maniacal Renderings, Oliva and his band are delivering melodic metal much in the style of 80's Savatage. Sea of Tranquility Publisher Pete Pardo caught up with 'the Mountain King' Jon Oliva shortly after the release of the latest CD, and talked in depth about the album, live shows, the music business, and the state of both TSO and of course, Savatage.
Read on for the complete interview...you won't want to miss it!
SoT: What's new with you?
Jon: I was out with the Trans-Siberian Orchestra for a bit a while ago, both the East Coast and West Coast. Basically I just go and hang out with the guys when they do the tour.
SoT: So you don't perform?
Jon: No, I won't do the Christmas stuff on stage. When they do the non-holiday stuff I'll join them onstage, but the Christmas stuff is not really for me. I'm a rock guy, and I like to play loud. The TSO thing is a very controlled situation with a very wide audience. We have people from 6 years old to 70 years old in the crowd, and I just can't get into it. For me, it's not the type of stuff I like to play onstage. I like the heavy loud stuff.
SoT: Well, at least you are honest about it.
Jon: It's the way it is.
SoT: Let's talk about the latest Jon Oliva's Pain album; Maniacal Renderings…very good stuff by the way.
Jon: Well thank you!
SoT: I understand you found a shoebox full of tapes from your late brother Criss?
Jon: My wife actually found them, the darling that she is. She walked into my studio one day and said "hey, I found this box of stuff, do you think it's important?" (laughs) and I cut the tape off the box and it's full of writing tapes of my brothers from the early days. These were tapes of riffs and noodles of things we never used. So I was going through some of the stuff and was like "wow, that's a fucking great riff, why didn't we ever use that?" so I figured I'd salvage some of this stuff as it really fit with what I was writing and one thing led to another and there you have it.
SoT: How much of the new CD is made up of riffs and ideas that came from Criss?
Jon: He's got credit on I think 5 songs. The songs that he has the most music on are "The Evil Beside You", "Time to Die", and "Timeless Flights". Plus there's also a little riff of his on the title track, so he has quite a few little pieces there, but that's only after going through like 8 or 9 tapes…there's still like 40 left.
SoT: So you probably have ideas for another couple of albums at least?
Jon: I've already started working on a couple other ones. It's very time consuming because they are old tapes and you have to try and hear what's going on as they were recorded on a shitty old ghetto blaster of him just playing riffs. A lot of it was used at various times but there are still lots of little trinket's floating around on these things waiting for people to hear.
SoT: Before I even read about the story regarding the finding of the tapes, my first impression on hearing the new CD is that a lot of the material had that Hall of the Mountain King or Gutter Ballet feel anyway.
Jon: Cool. That's great and what it's all about. I just want to make people happy. I've spent a lot of time on this record and I'm extremely proud of it. It's almost like I was working with my brother again without him even being here, but he was here musically. For the true Savatage fans, this is a special thing and sort of a little treat for them. Here's some stuff you never heard before. OK, it's not called Savatage, but that's because that's impossible right now. I figured I was just going to do that and the response has been great and people really seem to love it. I'm sure Criss is smiling up in Heaven.
SoT: How many months did it actually take to put this album together?
Jon: We spent about 5 months in pre-production, which is a long time, but I kind of went back to the way we did things the old days in Savatage, which was spent doing a lot of pre-production and rehearsing, trying the songs in a different ways. Every song went through a few week period of being chopped up and tried a few different ways until I was satisfied with the final result and then we would do it that way for the album. I think Streets was the last time we did an album like this, so this was kind of a throwback for me and it really had a vibe that came across that a lot of time and work went into the album. The first album was a little different as we did it in 3 months and I really hadn't played much with the guys before. After touring with them and working with them on the new album, I've gotten to know them and all their strengths and weaknesses. The first album was our getting warmed up, but we seem to be going good now so we'll see how it goes.
SoT: When the band came over to join you, was it kind of strange, seeing as they were playing with Zak Stevens before?
Jon: Not really. When Zak needed a band, he got a hold of me and I got the guys together for him. They were guys I knew, and they were good players, and he needed a band to tour with so I set them up with him. They did the tour, but they had very serious problems with Zak's manager, so at the end of the tour they wanted to move on. When it first happened I didn't even know about it, and one day I called Matt on the phone and asked how everything was going and he was like "well, we all quit after the tour!", and then a couple months went by and I had decided to start to do something, so I called them and asked them to play with me. They said sure, and we got together and started to jam, and it all worked. Zak's got his band and he's happy with them, and I've got my band and I'm happy with them, and everyone's happy and we are all talking and all friends, so there's no problems. That's what really matters, that everyone's happy.
SoT: Which brings me to the inevitable question-what's going on with Savatage?
Jon: We have plans to do something for the 25th Anniversary, which falls in 2008, and we've talked about several things, but haven't decided on anything yet. It will be something, and if that's the last thing we do, then it is, if it isn't, then it isn't. I don't know, I can't predict the future, but I do know that we will be doing something.
SoT: What do you think it is about the legend of Savatage that just refuses to go away?
Jon: It's just one of those bands where the fans are just so incredibly loyal, and I love them all for that, I really do, and I feel bad for them, but the only thing I can do to soften the blow is give them what I am giving them now. In my opinion, what I am giving them now is more like Savatage than Savatage, because you have music written by me and Criss, and me singing, and it's not like Savatage after Criss died. After he died, Savatage became a different band and it was never the same again, it actually became the building blocks for the Trans-Siberian Orchestra. Dead Winter Dead and Wake of Magellan, you could take half those records and put them on a TSO album. In fact, the one song that broke TSO was actually a Savatage song (Chrismas Eve-Sarajevo 12/24). It was definitely different. What I'm doing now with JOP is more like Savatage when Criss Oliva was alive, and for some people that is more important than Savatage doing Dead Winter Dead, "Sarajevo 12/24", which TSO does now. At least we all know that it was a Savatage song that started the whole thing, and all the guys in Savatage play in TSO, so it could actually be called Savatage Trans-Siberian Orchestra. All of us play on the albums, Paul O'Neil and I do most of the writing, the musicians are all Savatage, I sing a little on the albums, but other than the guest singers and the music being a little more symphonic and less metal, it's basically the 90's version of Savatage. With JOP, we've taken the style of the Hall of the Mountain King, Streets, and Gutter Ballet period in the history of the band. I probably could have called my latest album a Savatage record, but I couldn't do that out of respect for the other people in the band because it's not Savatage, it's Jon Oliva from Savatage with different guys playing. But the writing is Savatage, the voice is Savatage, so it's just as much Savatage as the Handful of Rain album was, I'll put it to you that way. The only people on that album were Alex Skolnick, Zak Stevens, and I. No one else played on the album. I played all the drums, the bass, all the rhythm guitars, all the keyboards, and sang backup vocals. Alex came in at the end and played guitar solos on like six or seven songs, I did the rest. Zack came in and sang the lead vocals. The fact that Maniacal Renderings had me and Criss Oliva writing together on it, to be honest, it's more of a Savatage album than Handful of Rain was.
SoT: I've been a fan of the band since the Sirens days, and I've gotta be honest with you, Handful of Rain has always been my least favorite Savatage album…
Jon: That album was more of a therapy album for me. Paul was very worried that I was going to lose it, so he wanted to give me something to do. We started doing that record only about two and a half months after Criss had died. I agree, it's not my favorite either, probably my second least favorite after Fight for the Nightmare (laughs), I mean, Fight for the Rock (laughs), but I think it yielded some great songs. I think "Chance" is a great, great song, and I think it was the start of what TSO would eventually be doing, so that was our first dabble in symphonic, orchestrated rock. I thought it had some good songs on it, but for me, Streets, Hall of the Mountain King, and Gutter Ballet was the band at it's peak.
SoT: The pinnacle…
SoT: Those 90's albums are excellent for what they are, but you are right, it was a different band, and when Poets and Madmen came out, for me, it was like 80's Savatage again, and with Jon Oliva's Pain, we seem to be as close to classic Savatage as we are going to get right now.
Jon: Right, this is as close to classic Savatage as you are going to get right now.
SoT: It was good to hear you singing on that one track on Chris Caffery's solo album a few years back. A lot of his solo material has that classic Savatage vibe at times.
Jon: That was a lot of fun. Sure, we met Chris when he was 17 years old, and he used to sit with my brother all the time. Chris Caffery will probably be the first to tell you that he learned an awful lot during the time he played guitar with my brother, so I think a lot of that rubbed off on him and his records.
SoT: What's the live situation looking like?
Jon: We are looking to play some gigs in the States the first half of the year, and we also have some festivals lined-up in Europe during the summer months.
SoT: It must be wild playing all those festivals over there…
Jon: It's a whole different ballgame in Europe. The fans are out of their minds over there, it's refreshing. It reminds you of the America in the early 80's. The excitement to go and see concerts over there is still very strong with these people…they really love it. They are not as easily sucked into the technology state of mind that we are over here in America. They'd rather go see the band than watch the DVD. It's a personal experience for them-here, we're fucking lazy, and we go "ah, I'd rather just go buy the DVD and see the band" or "I don't want to get busted for DUI driving home from the venue, so I'll just stay home". We don't really have venues for shows like this, they are all bars and you have to be over 21, so a lot of the younger fans can't even get in. There are not a lot of other places to play in the US other than sports arenas or House of Blues. You wind up playing these shitty little bars, and honestly, I'd rather spend the money to fly over to Europe and play in front of 70,000 screaming fans out in a big park listening to some great music and being around people who are into being there.
SoT: You bring up a great point Jon-I go to a lot of shows, both metal and prog, and it seems like so many of the metal fans here in the US go to shows and really don't pay a lot of attention to bands. Instead, people are hanging around, drinking, talking, and bullshitting, and not really getting into the show or listening to the music. It never used to be this way back in the 80's and early 90's.
Jon: I know, it's really sad man….
SoT: When did this start happening in your opinion?
Jon: The state of live music in America is at a critical stage. I don't know when it started or if it ever is going to change or not, but you have to experience going and playing in Europe and the response, attention, and excitement on peoples faces, then you come back here and play a show and people are like "meh", if they even come out, and they just don't seem to give a shit. It's like no one can have fun here, they have to drive so they can't drink and enjoy the show, 'cause nobody want to get a DUI and go to jail so a lot of people I know that are drinkers don't go to shows or bars because they don't want to get busted going home. So they just sit home and watch the DVD or download live videos off of YouTube and watch the live stuff there in their living room, drink their beer, smoke their pot, and not have to worry about going to jail.
SoT: In the end though, they are missing out on the experience. It's not the same.
Jon: It's weird, but it is what it is.
SoT: What can fans expect as far as a live set?
Jon: This year we will be doing a lot of classic Savatage stuff as well as songs from the new JOP album. Expect some rare and obscure stuff as well, which the fans should really dig.
SoT: Sounds good-hope to see you then Jon!
(Click here to read our reviews of Maniacal Renderings)