I’ve been a Savatage fan for many, many years and when the chance arose to speak to one of the bands founding members I eagerly jumped at the chance. Jon Oliva is very simply “The Mountain King” and as leader of the band Savatage for many years, he delivered epic and influential Metal that is still relevant in today’s scene. In 1996 he co-founded The Trans-Siberian Orchestra with Paul O’Neill and is one of the group’s core composers of material that keep this juggernaut propelling forward each and every year. In 2003 he would form a band of his own design to carry his musical ideas forward. The band would be called “Jon Oliva’s Pain”, and include former members of Circle II Circle. In November of 2006 I had the chance to speak with Jon on behalf of Metal Edge magazine; the article appeared in the June 2007 edition and with this off the stands I am able to present the complete and unedited text as it happened. Enjoy.
PiercingMetal: Jon I am not sure you recall this, but you and I met a couple of years ago when you were in New York City to record some new Doctor Butcher stuff with Chris Caffery. We ended up hanging out together at Chris’ Superbowl Party in Queens.
Oliva: Oh that’s right at the bar. I remember.
PiercingMetal: Ok, so essentially we are going to do this for Metal Edge magazine and we are going to get some of your feelings on a couple of things. First of all congratulations on the new album “Maniacal Renderings” – I have to say that this record is a hell of a piece of Metal. Has the release met your expectations and approval?
Oliva: Absolutely, I am very happy with it and the response that people have been giving to it has been overwhelmingly good and for us that’s great.
PiercingMetal: You have been in the business for such a long time and you are considered a legend among most of the Metal circles.
Oliva: In my own mind.
PiercingMetal: Has this changed you in anyway based on your knowledge of this.
Oliva: Not really, I just do what I do man and am really trying to have a good time while I am here you know. Before they plant me six feet under I am going to have as much fun as possible.
PiercingMetal: Let’s talk a little bit about the recording of the new album. Was this one easier than the first record “Tage Mahal”?
Oliva: Yeah because I got to know the guys over the course of the year or two of playing with them. The first one was put together very rapidly so we didn’t really have a lot of time to work on things in pre-production. This record had twice the pre-production time, and almost three times the amount. We’ve spent like four to five months in pre-production and that’s very important for the record despite what some think. I think that is the big difference.
PiercingMetal: I definitely agree with you and this feels like the band has come together a lot more on the new record. You are also starting on a new label which is AFM in Europe and Locomotive here in the States. So I guess what I want to discuss is that this is a very, very “Tage” like album and I am wondering if this is because it is you own style and it is hard to get out of something that is ingrained in you. Have you been hearing a lot of that from the people who have listened to the album? Was it your intent to have the album hold such a strong similarity when you were in the writing stage?
Oliva: It wasn’t really my intent and of course it is what it is. I mean that anything that I write, well you know Savatage is the band I wrote for – for about twenty years so anything I write is going to have that sound to it and I can’t help that. It’s ingrained like you said earlier. I didn’t purposely go out and do it and start off saying “ok, I am going to make this sound like Savatage. It’s just that I can’t help sounding like Savatage – it’s going to go into anything that I do. It’s alright of course, and I don’t mind it.
PiercingMetal: No, I don’t think that the fans mind that either and it’s your signature sound.
Oliva: They should be happy about it.
PiercingMetal: I think for the most part they are and are loving the record. There is also a large amount of positive response that I have seen on the various sites that have discussing it. Do you think that since there is such an intrinsic feel to it that is Savatage that it is going to prompt the interest again in your doing something with ‘Tage?
Oliva: I dunno, I mean that interest is what people keep asking me about anyways, so it doesn’t – well I don’t think so at least. I think if anything it will pacify them a little bit and have them saying “well, you know we’ve got this, and this is good enough for right now”, and that’s good because that is really all that is going to happen. I mean there hasn’t been a Savatage record since 1999 or 2000, whenever it was and it must seem like, unless you’re insane, that we don’t look like we will be doing that much work. That’s just the way it goes I guess. Its nothing that you can plan that way but I just don’t know what is going to happen with Savatage or with me or with anybody. You can’t predict the future.
PiercingMetal: I had read that there was a box of tapes discovered that were featuring Criss, let’s talk about that a little.
Oliva: Yeah, the box of old cassette writing tapes. You see Criss and I used to trade tapes back and forth all the time back in the day. This was simply just two boxes full of them that my wife fortunately saved because I would have thrown them away over the years or recorded over them like an idiot. The find was very cool because there was stuff on there that I was able to use to add into the record. So in a way, Criss helped write the record.
PiercingMetal: That’s great, and I am sure that you feel his presence in every piece of writing that you do.
Oliva: Oh definitely.
PiercingMetal: It’s been a long time since we lost him and he is still missed very much in the Metal world. Let’s move along and talk about plans for “Pain” and what is touring looking like, or videos and anything else in the immediate future.
Oliva: Touring looks good and I mean that it looks like it will start up around March and I’ve got a lot of European dates scheduled and from there we are looking to do some US Dates. I don’t have anything that I can give out yet because nothing is confirmed but I am talking to several people about some Northeast dates and some Midwest dates and maybe some Texas dates and some other South dates here. So we will just have to keep our fingers crossed and hope that this all comes through. I have locked down a lot of European dates already though and that looks to have us pretty busy.
PiercingMetal: That’s good because the last time I got to see you play was at that Brooklyn club and that particular show has gone down in infamy with Chris commenting on it and Ripper as well.
Oliva: The “Tragical Misery Tour”
PiercingMetal: I have to say despite any problems it was a fun bunch of shows and I wished we had found it happening at some better venues in the area.
Oliva: Yeah it was interesting.
PiercingMetal:It is what it is, like you said earlier.
Oliva: It is what it is.
PiercingMetal: Now lets go on to some more stuff about the “Pain”; what are your thoughts about this band against some of what has been coming up the Metal scene now because you guys are bringing back a real pure sound against.
Oliva: You know, I don’t know and it’s weird because you just do what you do. I’m so sick and tired of hearing people slagging people because they’re doing a particular sound or telling them “oh it sounds like shit from the eighties”. No it doesn’t – it was written in 2004/2005 so its not music from the eighties. It’s because America is famous for labeling things and this is one of our big problems here. In Europe and places like that they don’t give a shit when you started playing or what year you formed your band. As long as you are providing enjoyment and entertainment they don’t care but here it’s constantly the notion that once you pass thirty years old you are supposed to shoot yourself in the back of the head or something. Or just go curl up and die in the corner. I say fuck that because people make music all the way up until they die for as long as I can remember and for as long as music has been around. Composers have started when they were young and finished when they dropped dead. So, as far as new stuff goes I really have not heard anything that I like that much as it doesn’t really have any substance to it to me. Of course I will probably get slagged for saying that but it’s just my opinion because I don’t hear anything that I think is great. I do hear some good riffs and good chops but where’s the next god guitar player, or when has the last great singer come out. Everybody I hear tries to sound like James (Hetfield) or tries to sound with that grungy voice – that Pearl Jam kind of voice. I don’t hear a lot of individuality or a lot of originality and it’s like you can take twenty different songs and place them on one record and I would not be able to tell you who is who. Or what band was which. So that to me is a little sad but it’s just the way the world is. Then I’ve heard some bands that were really great with some stuff that is really good but I don’t really bother with it because I figure if I start listening to it and commenting on all these new bands they will come out and say “oh you’re ripping off this one and you’re ripping off that one”. I don’t listen to it so I am not ripping off anyone. I am just doing what I do. You either like it or you don’t like it. If you don’t like it, well that’s ok and if you do like it great but I am not trying to prove anything along those lines. I think I have already done that and now I am just trying to have some fun and make some people happy.
PiercingMetal: Well, you have certainly been doing a great job of it so far in my opinion. I am totally enjoying the new record a lot. I wondered if you have noticed any of the press where many bands list Savatage as among their greatest influences for their own careers.
Oliva: I appreciate that stuff but I personally haven’t seen anything or ever heard that anybody had said that Savatage was an influence on them. Myself personally I have never read anything from any band out today that has said that Savatage was an influence but I mean if that is the case then that’s great. Savatage is a great band, or was a great band, is a great band – whatever. We definitely did some things that were very unique and very original. Stuff that is worthy of being an influence.
PiercingMetal: Definitely in the Metal Hall Of Fame no matter what we hear is the trend of the day.
Oliva: I hope so.
PiercingMetal: Let’s go back to the guys in Pain. What about them now, or more so what about them inspires you as a performer.
Oliva: I like their style, they all have a unique aspect to them. They can play a lot of different things by playing Heavy Metal, and Rock, Blues, and I think they can play just about anything. This comes from their playing so many different styles of music since they began their careers from all the clubs and the bars and stuff like that. They have been exposed to a lot of different styles of playing which is great for me because I like to do a lot of different style things. I don’t want everything to sound the same and with them it works. They can do that and bring it to the table which is a good thing.
PiercingMetal: I’m curious though, since you have been in the business for such a long time and not long ago you had some throat problems which thankfully went away and now you seem back in great vocal form. Were you concerned after doing this for so long – essentially starting something new?
Oliva: Not really. I mean I am not sure what else I could do because I don’t do anything else. So starting something new to me was just like a rebirth and it was like ok, I will take up all the years of the Savatage stuff that I have done and I will chalk it up as experience and now move on and try to do something on my own and utilize the things that I’ve learned. That’s what I am trying to do and I am just trying to get by and make a living, have some fun. There is really no master plan behind it all as it’s just what I do. Everybody else gets up and goes to work in the morning, and I get up and start writing music. It’s my job, or it’s why I was put here. That’s just the way I am.
PiercingMetal: I know you said earlier that we are not going to see another Savatage record for some time.
Oliva: Probably a year or two. I say this because I think we are getting to a point where there is going to be some time freed up to do it and to deliver something like that. I don’t know what it is that we are going to do but we have plans to do something. We will then see where it goes.
PiercingMetal: Who should be a part of the lineup when this happens?
Oliva: I think that the next thing we do is going to have us using everybody that’s ever been involved. So this includes Steve Wacholz and Zack Stevens, Johnny Lee Middleton, Chris Caffery and I. Everybody who is still alive is going to get in there and be a part of it because it may be the last thing that we do. If this is the case then I want everyone to take part in it.
PiercingMetal: You see all of these Anthologies and Boxed sets coming out – do you think you can bend someone’s ear and find something like this coming out based on Savatage material.
Oliva: Hey you never know but I am not sure that I want to do that. I definitely want to do something but I am not too sure what it is right now. Paul (O’Neill) and I have talked about four or five different ideas and of them, we are going to see which is the most practical and which is going to serve the purpose the best and that’s the one we are going to do with at the time. As of right now, we know we are going to do something but we’ve put it on the shelf right now until the time opens up for us to do it.
PiercingMetal: Speaking of Paul, let’s talk a little about the Trans-Siberian Orchestra. This thing just gets better and better every year in my opinion.
Oliva: It sure does. Bigger and bigger anyway.
PiercingMetal: Yeah I think Chris (Caffery) levitates this time around. When you guys first envisioned this, did you ever think it was going to be as big as it ended up becoming.
Oliva: No. Never and I thought they were all out of their fucking minds. Honestly, I thought they were all crazy and I told them that they had finally snapped. Then you turn around and BOOM, the thing explodes and sells out friggin’ Madison Square Garden. Figure that out. Whatever, because I think its great and the guys that are playing and everyone involved at least they are getting something out of it. Their finally receiving some kind of financial reward for their work that they’ve done for so many years. I mean with Savatage we never made any fucking money man, if anything we spent twice as much as we earned. So at least now the guys have something going on.
PiercingMetal: When this thing began as you recall there were hardly any dates and now we have two months of back to back performances spread across a bi-coastal touring company (East & West) but through all of this we don’t really see much of you with the group. I wondered why this was the case with you being one of the principal creators.
Oliva: On the Christmas Tour. Yeah I don’t perform on the Christmas tour on my own design. I’m in the studio, I record and play on every song – I write on almost every song but I didn’t want to do the Christmas tour I wanted to do my own stuff and use the time to be able to do my own thing. I did a couple of shows and I did some of the TV shows early on but it just came down to me not being into it. I don’t have an ego like that where I have to have it stroked every night. I know that the people know that I wrote most of the songs and that’s great and its doing well which is great but I don’t want to play that stuff. I want to play my own music.
PiercingMetal: Let’s talk about the writing for the new album they have in the works, and as I understand this will be called “Night Castle”. When can the fans count on seeing this released.
Oliva: We are hitting the studio about the 5th of January to try and finish that off. We have already been in the studio with that over the Summer for a few weeks and then we had to stop for the Christmas Tour and now since that has ended we go right back in to finish that up. The album should be coming out I think in the Summer.
PiercingMetal: What’s it going to be about.
Oliva: I don’t know. I have no idea. It has some great music on it but no one knows what Paul is thinking about in terms of a story or anything.
PiercingMetal: Do you think we will see another Christmas record after that one non-Christmas one comes out.
Oliva: I am sure eventually but offhand I don’t know for sure. The TSO is really his ballgame and he calls the shots on what happens. My involvement with TSO is as a composer and I try to stay out of the business side of that because if I didn’t I would definitely be out of my mind from it all.
PiercingMetal: Back to JOP; do you think we will see any live recordings from the group or some sort of DVD performance release. I’m asking this based on two albums with this band and a strong battery of classic material that’s just ready to do.
Oliva: I’ve put some stuff together, and we actually filmed the show we did a couple of weeks ago down in Florida that supposedly came out pretty good and I just haven’t had the chance to see it yet. We’re going to do something and I just don’t really know when we are going to issue something. It’s one of those things that are on the table ready to be served.
PiercingMetal: Back to some Savatage stuff, and pardon me for going all over the place here because I will end up taking the stuff apart for the magazine in better detail once we’re done.
Oliva: No problem.
PiercingMetal: You’ve talked to me in the past so you probably recall how I get. I wanted to ask if besides this forgotten box of tapes that was found, is there any unreleased Savatage music that we can count on in the future?
Oliva: I don’t think so, because while we might have little snippets of things somewhere we have pretty much gone through it all. So as a result I don’t think there is going to be anything like that, no hidden tracks or things along those lines.
PiercingMetal: OK so with the Pain and this tour that is beginning in March, do you see the group as being the headliner or working as an opener for something at times.
Oliva: Both, I will be headlining some of the shows and we have the ProgPower Europe , then it’s over to the US for some dates and then back to Europe for Festival Season. So it looks like there will be a lot of work going on for us.
PiercingMetal: Who would you want to be on the road with if you had to make a decision about it right now. I thought the last lineup was great with Ripper and his new band Beyond Fear and Chris Caffery’s “Faces” band. The whole thing worked musically.
Oliva: You know it doesn’t really matter and I will tour with anybody as long as it is going to work out. I just wanna play and I don’t have any preference one way or the other. I mean I would love to get on a great concert bill but you know when you do the festivals you are on one of those. So it really doesn’t matter to me – I just want to play and that’s about it.
PiercingMetal: Jon what do you think about this resurging interest in Metal over the past couple of years. I mean most mainstream outlets would have you believe that it is music that has gone away – now as someone who not only writes about it like I do but also enjoys it on a daily basis I wondered what you are seeing from your end.
Oliva: I haven’t seen anything (laughs), but I keep hearing about this resurgence happening and I am trying to figure where it is resurging from.
PiercingMetal: Well, Judas Priest has Rob Halford back for awhile and Iron Maiden is not stopping any time soon.
Oliva: Oh yeah well that stuff is always great but I mean as far as America goes we haven’t seen much of anything. It’s kind of like they have beaten it back underground again. In some ways that’s good though because Metal is one thing that always seems to rise from the dead and conquer the world and then die off again into the underground. Only to rise up again every ten years or so as this whole thing seems to happen. Maybe it is just a cycle but if it is resurging then I am glad to hear that since that is what I do.
PiercingMetal: What are your hopes for the immediate future Jon?
Oliva: I dunno, I have to say acceptance, peace on earth and good will toward me. All that stuff. I wish that people could just mellow out a bit and let everyone get back to enjoying life and enjoying music. I mean that’s what music is for after all, to give people enjoyment. That’s all I am trying to do I know that much.
PiercingMetal: Thanks for the interview Jon, and as always continued success in your endeavors and health in life.
Oliva: Thanks for the support.
The two releases by Jon Oliva’s Pain are hot slabs of Metal that will appeal to any fan of the traditionally based stuff and especially to the Savatage Legions. Reviews can be found by clicking the titles “Tage Mahal” and “Maniacal Renderings”. All Hail the Mountain King!!!
Official Site: www.jonoliva.net