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Interview with Jon Oliva of Jon Oliva’s PainInterview with Jon Oliva of Jon Oliva’s Pain
Interview by Orpheus, posted on 2006/11/09
If there’s a person out there who always has A LOT of interesting things to say, it’s usually the always friendly mastermind of Savatage, Jon Oliva. I rang Jon up on behalf of the Greek Rock Hard magazine and Metal-Temple.com since Jon Oliva’s Pain was releasing a new album, "Maniacal Renderings" (AFM Records). The things Jon had to say expanded far beyond the few questions I had prepped concerning JOP. This interview might be most revealing to many people, to others it may just be one of the same stuff they’ve probably been hearing for some time now. Truth is, I can’t be the judge of his statements. Who can? If you’re a fan, read on and figure it out for yourself...
Read the interview with Christopher Kinder

So, what’s it like, through the eyes of the "mountain king", nowadays? You know, second album for Jon Oliva’s Pain; how easily did this come? What emotional pathways does this album depict on?

I don’t know if you’ve heard about the Criss Oliva music that we found; actually my wife found. So he’s got writing credits on - I think - five songs on the album, which is really special. When that happened, we were halfway through the preproduction of the album. And I wanted this album to be really, really good; I put a lot of work into it.

The first album ["Tage Mahal", 2004 - SPV Records] was done very quickly and I had a lot of the material already together, demoed up and stuff. With this record I took ideas and dropped them into rehearsal to beat them around with the band. Kind of like in a lot of the ways, generally how we used to do Savatage records. We would just come with riffs and jam on them, practice, you know, take them home... And I did a lot of that, I did a lot of experimenting with the guys and pushing their limits, see where they could go. It was a lot of fun and then when we discovered the Criss Oliva music, that was just the icing on the cake. Everything went really well after that because we were missing some pieces and some of the stuff we found just magically fit in, like it was meant to be. That was really weird, you know, but it was weird in a good way!

So, the new album is on a totally different level, creativity wise, than the first one.

Yeah. A lot of the original one was stuff that I’d been working on and some songs were Savatage songs that were going to be on the next Savatage album. I’d already demoed those songs myself and the guys [in JOP] didn’t really have much input, they just kind of came in and played. And I only did play with them for a couple of months when we went in and did that record. Thing is with this [the new album] that I challenged them to come up with ideas. I’d always tell Chris Kinder (drums) "well, this is the beat that I hear but let me see you put together a couple different patterns that you think are cool and we’ll check them out". So I was encouraging them to contribute, to try things! Because it’s like I say, if you don’t try things, you’ll never gonna know unless you try! So, I opened those doors and everybody was very creative during the whole process of the record. I know they were psyched [laughter]!

Bringing in the Criss Oliva music which is stuff no one’s ever heard before - I couldn’t even remember the stuff in there. There were so many little pieces and snips of things that I found. I mean the box had like 35 cassette tapes in it so I only went through like 6 or 7 of them and just was finding all these things. And I was like "why didn’t we ever use that?" A lot of it was stuff that we ended up using with Savatage but there were lots of little things where I guess he was just noodling around, you like, you’d hear like a riff come out and then he would never play it again. So I was scanning through these things and I found these little riffs like the one on the song "The Evil Beside You" [Jon sings the riff]. That riff, that was one of the riffs that was on there! It added to the song - I mean, I had the rest of the song, obviously but not that riff...

So it fit in perfectly!

I had to change the key that it was in but that was it, the notes were exactly what he had on the thing, I just to make it into the key of the song. That was no problem and boy, when I heard that, I was "oh my God, we discovered a goldmine here". So it was cool and then I started finding other little pieces and stuff. There’s one piece in a song called "Time To Die", it’s a middle part, a doomy sounded part. That was on a cassette dated 1980! It was a very simply riff but it was very doomy, very Sabbath and I loved it. We just took it and plucked in the middle of the song and it seemed to work so perfectly again, I was like "oh my God, let’s try this again" and then on 4 or 5 songs we ended up using little pieces of his music which was really exciting. It was kind of like working with him all over again because I couldn’t remember any of these riffs.

What was the feeling that instantly hit you the moment that you came across that box?

A shock! Because my wife walked into the studio with this huge box full of shoes, boots and everything. It was like a big giant box and at the bottom of that box there were shoe boxes that also had shoes in them but one shoe box had duck tape around it, rock n ‘roll tape all around it and it said "Work Tapes". She just walked out and handed it to me and went "is this important?" I was like "whoa, what is this" and I like opened it up and I almost shit my pants. I was like "you’ve got to be kidding me!" I started looking at the tapes and there was like, you know, there would be dates on them - it was like the law, we always dated our work tapes. That’s what we would do because he would record riffs on cassette tape and I would do the same thing and when we saw each other at night at practice, he would give me his tape and I would give him my tape. That’s how we would finish each other’s things, we would work on each other’s parts.

So these were tapes he had been giving me throughout the years and as I was going over them I heard riffs and stuff that ended up being songs that we did. But in the middle of all those, there were these other things that he had written some stuff out and we had never used that stuff. So it was like no one’s ever heard it before and even I didn’t remember any of them. So it was really cool because it was kind of like he came back from the dead and dropped all these! Like "you have to finish these, asshole!" [Laughter]

I was about to ask you if you felt that it was some kind of a message from your brother...

You know what? You never know! But it was just really weird how it all happened. It was just very strange because we were at that stage of the preproduction where we were stuck on a few things and some songs were going to get elbowed off and replaced with other things because I wasn’t coming up with anything to finish them and none of the guys had anything. Some of these songs were going to be pushed aside and finished at a later date and then when that happened it was like all those songs that I didn’t really want to push aside, because I knew they were good, became better when his music popped up and we were able to fit it in. It was very strange!

May I ask you this now: by the time you went on this mini-Tour in Europe this summer, were all these songs finished actually or did you still have adjustments to make?

When we started the Festival tour, we were pretty much done, except for some of the singing and some of the lyrics and stuff. When we got back from that leg, we spent two more weeks in the studio and then we mixed. And we finished the mix when we got back [from the second leg]. It was a long process. The whole record took close to a year to make, be it counting the preproduction - meaning just rehearsals, working on songs - and we were doing that for 4-5 nights a week, for a good 4-5 months before we recorded one note. Towards the end of that was when we found the Criss stuff; it was like in the 6th or 7th month around when we found the Cris stuff and then we went back and added another 3-4 weeks of preproduction because now we had all this other stuff to look at. But it was good because I needed to spend the time on the record. I wanted the record to be special, to be good and I wasn’t gonna rush it, you know, to put it out until I made sure it was right.

Does that explain in a way what I personally observed at one of your stops in Europe, at the Earthshaker Festival 2006, in Germany? You actually played only two Jon Oliva’s Pain songs, only... And they were both from the debut album. It made me wonder why no promotion of the upcoming album at all?

We had songs ready but the record company (AFM Records)... we talked to the record company about it but it was decided that... because we had another tour planned for this winter plus the people at the festival... I only had 45 minutes to play and I just wanted to give the kids what they wanted to hear. And they wanted to hear "Gutter Ballet" and all that and the first [JOP] record is done and over and the only reason I played those two songs was because I thought those were the two best songs on the album. But I didn’t want to let go of any of the new stuff yet. I wanted the first impression of that stuff to be what they hear on the record and then we’ll be playing a lot of it on the road, I can promise you that when we come back over.

So there’s going to be a more extensive tour?

Yeah, we’re scheduled to come over there 3 times, I think October, November... We were scheduled to start on the 30th of September actually and I think that’s got pushed back at the end of October. But we’ll be over there for like 4 weeks and we’ll come back [to the US] for the holidays and then we’ll come back there in March. We’re doing the ProgPower Europe and we’re going to string some dates along with that and then we’re going to be back next summer again too!

That sounds good!

Yup! We’ll be around! [Laughs]

Since you mentioned the record label, I’d like to ask you why you left SPV Records and how better do you feel it is with AFM Records now?

The SPV people are very nice people but I think what happened there is the top people there who are people whose acts we’re not really associated with... You know, we’re kind of pissy about the whole Savatage thing. When I did my record, they just took it and dropped it out, they didn’t do anything to promote it or anything at all. A lot of kids were complaining that they couldn’t find it. So I was like instead of doing this, I’ll take it to a smaller label, the guys from AFM and I like those people; I got to hang out with them already when I was writing songs for Zach’s [Stevens - Circle II Circle singer] record. I got to meet them back then, I got to talk to them and we had a relationship with them for a year before we made a deal. They actually paid me on time [laughs]! I like their attitude. The people there are all young and hungry to make a name for themselves and they treat the bands with respect!

I wasn’t feeling that with SPV. I was feeling like a little fish in a big ocean. They have so many bands and I was just getting ignored because it wasn’t Savatage and all they cared about was Savatage. I was like "well, I can’t give you Savatage but here I’ll give you this which would have been the next Savatage album" The first JOP record was the next Savatage record. The only difference is that it’s a different name and different people playing the material but the material would have been the next Savatage record so... They just didn’t get that, they just didn’t understand.

Wow! But by saying that, Jon, you do know that there’s a lot of your fans, a lot of Savatage fans who wonder what’s going on with Savatage...

You know, I’m glad you asked that because I can put that whole thing to rest. There’s nothing going on. The situation is very simple. You’ve got the Trans-Siberian Orchestra which is a multi-platinum, selling 30,000 tickets a night, band that is actually Savatage with a different name and different singers, that has become successful. And you’ve got Savatage which has a loyal core audience that is a lot smaller. You’re talking worldwide about maybe a couple hundred thousand people where you know, I’m sitting here, talking to you on the phone, looking at my wall and I’ve got 5 platinum albums and not one of them says Savatage. And that’s not saying anything bad about Savatage.

We all loved Savatage but we gave Savatage its chance to get to the level where it was supposed to get to and it never did, for whatever reasons, you know - we had tragedies, everything like that. But to me Savatage was never Savatage after Criss died. All these other lineups of the band that people heard from "Edge Of Thorns" (1993, Atlantic Records) on, to me was more like Trans-Siberian Orchestra actually than Savatage. "Dead Winter Dead" (1995, Atlantic Records), "Handful Of Rain" (1994, Atlantic Records), "The Wake Of Magellan" (1998, Atlantic Records)... those were the albums that spawned the Trans-Siberian Orchestra. Because we knew we had that sound, especially with "Christmas Eve Sarajevo 12-24" and going in Savatage we were getting no sales and no interest!

People don’t understand that whether they want to accept it or not, it is a business. I have mouths to feed, I have a family, I have bills just like everybody else and it’s kind of asinine for people to sit there and argue with me about why I’m not doing Savatage when Savatage never made us any money. I mean we spent far more money of our own, keeping the band together and putting the band on the road than we ever earned. And we did that for a long time! A lot of bands would have cashed it in after 3-4 years of not making any money. We kept the band together for 15-20 years without making any money! And it just got to the point where it was like well, what do you do? Do you go play a club in Greece for 2,000 people or do you play Madison Square Garden in New York for 25,000 people?

Yeah but doesn’t it touch you that so many fans around the world miss Savatage? And not only fans, I know people with whom you’ve spent your life with...

That’s the thing! What do they miss? The only thing they’re missing is the name because the records I’m making right now would be Savatage albums if Savatage was a working band and there was no such thing as a Trans-Siberian Orchestra; this would be the next Savatage record! The only difference is that you’ve got Mat Laporte playing guitar instead of Chris Caffery for example... But on the "Handful Of Rain" album I play all the guitar except for what Alex Scolnick played. So there wasn’t anybody from Savatage on that record! A lot of people tell me that’s their favorite Savatage record... And the only person on that record is Zach singing. Every instrument on that record except for certain guitar solos are played by me, by myself.

So, you know what I’m saying? To me, once Criss died, that was the end of Savatage. And all we did was we tried to keep it together to keep his music alive because no one wanted to say "let go of the thing", but this comes to a point where enough is enough and if they’re truly Savatage fans then they should be into what I’m doing right now because basically it’s the same thing. It’s just a different name because I do that out of respect for the name and the band. I won’t call this Savatage because it’s not Savatage. It’s different guys. It’s not Criss Oliva and Steve Wacholz (drums) and it’s me with different guys. But it’s still my music and my sound and my voice. And of course on this record [new JOP] you’ve got songs co-written by Criss so in a way this is the closest thing that Savatage fans are going to get to a Savatage album that they could possibly hope for. They’ve got Criss Oliva music with Jon Oliva music, Jon Oliva singing... I feel bad because I thought they’d understand it by now...

Yeah but couldn’t you for example have at the same time the Trans-Siberian Orchestra, Jon Oliva’s Pain and Savatage even if Savatage wasn’t as often as people would want it to?

You know why you can’t do that? The Trans-Siberian Orchestra is so busy right now that it’s a year-round job. So the only way to do anything with Savatage is to shut down the Trans-Siberian Orchestra for however long period of time you would need to do this Savatage thing. Because the two can’t co-exist at the same time. That should be obvious to everybody since there hasn’t been a Savatage record since 2001. It’s because the Trans-Siberian Orchestra takes up everybody’s time! And the only reason why I have the time to do the Jon Oliva’s Pain is because I don’t tour with the band [TSO]. I just work in the studio and write the music and I don’t go on the road with the band for the Christmas tour and stuff like that.

That whole Christmas thing is 4 months out of every year and then the rest of the time of the year is studio work , TV things, it’s just chaos! Trans-Siberian Orchestra was the 8th biggest grossing band in the world last year. It’s just a huge freight train that’s run out of control and it’s rolling down this track and it’s just run over everything that was in its way. There’s nothing I can do about it because I can’t tell the guys in Trans-Siberian Orchestra like "hey guys, let’s stop the Trans-Siberian Orchestra now and let’s go do Savatage record". I’d be laughed out of the room! It’s not that they don’t like Savatage; it’s just business, you know? If you’ve worked for 25 years in the business to finally get to the level where you’re actually making a living, you’re not going to jeopardize that by doing something that was never a proven selling thing!

Savatage never sold a lot of records. We have a core audience that was maybe worldwide 250,000 people but it was never enough record sales from Savatage to define a living for anyone in the band. Everybody except for me all worked regular jobs when they weren’t playing with Savatage. Trust me, no one’s working regular jobs anymore.

But all of you did out of your heart, when you did it...

Of course we did it! Because we weren’t making any money. We loved the band, we wanted to play, we wanted to keep the band together. That’s why we did it. We just got frustrated when we did the "Dead Winter Dead" record, when we knew we had a No. 1 song on that record and no radio station in the world would play it because it was Savatage!

And the next year when we released the same song - called the Trans-Siberian Orchestra - it became No. 1 in America! And it sold millions and millions of records which is the ultimate kick in the ass because it’s a Savatage song! It was just that people had a problem with Savatage; the business people. It was like we couldn’t get any radio play, we couldn’t get any MTV play, we couldn’t get on any tours, we couldn’t do anything! All we could do was put our own tours out and lose money but go out and play. And that’s what we did - after Criss died - that was it man, everything we did from that point on cost us money.

We never made a dime. And we kept it together for as long as we could until that whole thing happened with Trans-Siberian Orchestra taking off. We were like "wow, we know it’s Savatage, all the guys know it’s Savatage but we don’t call it Savatage because it’s the Trans-Siberian Orchestra" That’s what we had to do to get our music listened to by the masses. And it worked! Unfortunately at the cost of Savatage but what was I supposed to do? I’m not 25 years old anymore. I have a family to take care of and stuff. Savatage owes me personally over 1,000,000 dollars and I will never see that money.

Really???

That’s money that I paid out of my pocked since 1985 and I’ve invested into Savatage for tours, videos, over budget records, tour buses... They owe me over 1,000,000 dollars. I know if somebody owed you 1,000,000 dollars you’d be banging on his door going "hey mother fucker, where’s my money?" [Laughs] And if people don’t understand that shit then that really bothers me! They expect me to just eat the million and just keep playing so they can go see a Savatage show... Guys, I have to live too!

I understand what you’re saying but you do know that always the real persons who are dying to know about what’s happening are the fans...

Oh, man, I love them all. Don’t get me wrong! I love all the Savatage fans. I can’t thank them enough for all the support they’ve given me through the years. I just wanted to let them know that I’m doing everything I can to give them music the best possible way for me to do it right now, you know? The reason right now I’m not calling it Savatage is out of respect to the fans and out of respect to the guys in Savatage. But I don’t think have to do that because if you’re a Savatage fan, you should be listening to what I’m doing because that’s unfortunately what you have now. That’s it.

Jon Oliva’s Pain is the new Savatage basically. Without me calling it Savatage but that’s the only way that Trans-Siberian Orchestra can co-exist along with the guys from Savatage being in that band and I can do this because I don’t tour with the band. It gives me time to do this which would be Savatage records without calling it Savatage but I’m not going to do that so...

A few years ago, in a private conversation we had, you had mentioned there’d be an anniversary tour for Savatage?

Yes. That’s being talked about and negotiated. I’d say that probably within the next year or two that’s going to happen. Paul [O’Neil] wants to do it really big and he wants to design a whole show for it. It would probably be the last Savatage thing. We want to make it special and we want to do it the right way. That’s something we’re looking to do in the next year or two.

So do you think everybody from the band’s past would be willing to be part of it?

Oh yeah, everybody’s already committed to it! Even Alex Scolnick is gonna come play the "Handful of Rain" stuff. Steve Whackolz is going to be a part of it. Everybody that’s had something to do with the band is going to be a part of it. We have some special ideas. We have a lot of video footage that we want to use...

And theatrics and stuff?

Yeah. Paul wants to go out with style.

Just one minor question now. I’d like to ask you what your relationship is right now with Stevens. I’ve heard a lot of people say that JOP is cool but his band used to be Zachary Stevens’ band...

Yeah. What was with that was that Zach needed a band to go on tour with back when he was doing the first Circle II Circle record. None of the guys were featured on the album, none of them except for Matt [LaPorte]. They were people that I knew and Zach needed a band and I got these guys together and they went and did a tour with Zach. And you know, their personalities clashed. It didn’t hit off like they thought it would do and Zach had some different ideas about what he wanted to do and when they were done with the tour they came to me and they were not really happy. And I started playing with them. And Zach’s happy and I’m happy. There’s nothing other than the fact that they just didn’t get along well. They just moved on and Zach moved on. When I made a band, they were available and I was "well, come play with me if you’re not gonna play with Zach" and that’s how we came together.

So there’s no bad feelings because of that.

No, not at all.

I mean, you guys talk and stuff.

Yeah, I see Zach occasionally.

What do you think of his new stuff?

I haven’t heard the new one yet. I heard a lot of the first two. I wrote a lot on the first two albums. I thought they were really good! But I haven’t heard any of the new one yet.

What’s going on at the Trans-Siberian Orchestra camp by the way?

We’re recording a new album right now. It’s going to be called "Night Castle" and it will be out next spring. We’re also going to be gearing up for the Christmas tour, Rehearsals for that should start in the beginning of October. September and October is very busy for us, preparing and then the tour starts, I think the first week of November and it goes up until Christmas night. And then after that we’ll come back into the studio and finish the "Night Castle" record and then see what happens from there!

Well, Mr. King, you sure are a busy man!

Yes sir [Laughs]! Always!

That’s a good thing of course! Is there anything you’d like to say to all your Greek fans?

Just that I love all you guys down there! Be safe, God bless you and I’ll see you soon!

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