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Jon Oliva (Savatage)

Interview with Jon Oliva from Savatage
by Stathis Giannakopoulos at 26 February 2001, 2:00 AM

I can't really tell that this is an interview. It's more like a chat between two friends. However Jon knows more things about Savatage than we do, so here you will find important information concerning the new album, the band and not only. What's the story behind Poets and Madmen? Do they love more Trans-Siberian Orchestra than Savatage? Read and learn!


After almost four years, you’re back with a new album. Can you tell us how do you feel about that?

First of all i am very very excited. This record means a lot to me, ’cause it’s a record we did of a fan input. During the Wake of Magellan and the Dead Winter Dead tour i talked to the fans. All said Jon you must sing more. I said Ok, i know this and i told Paul that i’m gonna sing half of the new record and Zak the other half of the record. And when Zak had his thing and he decided to leave, Paul came to me and said Jon, the fans would probably like it better if you just sing the record and don’t worry we’ll get someone for the tour and if it works out we’ll move on. This record is made for the fans. This is what they asked for, from the things i gathered while i talked with them. I’m very happy.

Can you tell us about the music direction of the new album.

Heavier! I can describe it as heavier because we wrote different. We wrote the last two records at Paul’s house. You know Wake of Magellan and Dead Winter Dead, he had a big story and he said: Jon here’s the story of Dead Winter Dead, now we need music. Let’s start with the first song which is gonna be called 1990. That’s how we did the last two records. This time Paul told me: Jon, this time i don’t have a story for you and i said Paul, good! (laughs). He said i want you guys go and write a Savatage album. You and Chris go put some music together because he (Paul) was wrapped up in other things we were doing. In a way that probably worked better. Because what he did is to let the dog out. WHO LET THE DOGS OUT! That’s the song. I play that every time Paul comes and shows up. I have a little sample thing on my keyboard and all i have to do is hit a key and it goes.. WHO LET THE DOGS OUT WHO?-WHO? That’s what he did. He said go! Me and Chris Caffery were so happy. We had all the songs. We said.. WOW! We wrote them all in the guitar except one or two which we wrote on piano. That’s the big difference. We were pissed off about everything that happened. We were pissed off about Al. We were pissed off about the record company we had because they screwed us around and we were because it took us so long to make a new Savatage album. The record company wouldn’t let us out of the contract. It took us 8 months to get out of that and to get signed to SPV. To be able to start to negotiate with them. The thing is cool about them is that they signed us for FIVE albums. It’s a great company.

You said that you’re pissed of with Al. Do you think that he let you down?

No, Al just took more money. I’m very good friend with Al. We have a great relationship but cut the bullshit aside Al left us because Dave Mustaine offered him 500$ a week more than Savatage. We run Savatage like that. The longer someone is in the band the more money he gets . If you are in the band for four years you can’t get paid as much a guy who is in the band for fifteen years. Al wanted more money that i get! I said Paul nobody gets more money than me. I’m in the band for 20 years. I said Paul:  Nobody gets more money than me you can ask anything but nobody gets more money than i do .. Dave gave him the money and that’s ok. All the fans knew he is gonna leave anyway. Al’s leaving didn’t affect us or this record at all. It was something we were prepared for, since the day we hired him. Everyone we knew told us: We got Al Pitrelli as a guitar player and they replied Start to look for a new guitar player Jon ’cause i promise you he won’t be with you for more than two years. He lasted for four.

What about Zak?

Zak is a whole different thing. I was with Zak before i came here. I invited to my house to watch the superbowl together in Florida. He was crying talking to me. He doesn’t want to be out of Savatage. The problem with Zak is that he bought a new house, a big house during the Dead Winter Dead and The Wake Of Magellan period. It’s like a farm house. That requires constant care. He’s got a new wife and he just had a baby during TWOM. He told me i want to do the record but i don’t want to tour with you. I said Zak, you can’t do that. If i’m gonna tour you’re all gonna tour. That was the main thing. He couldn’t follow on a 8 month tour. I understand. You know Zak left in tottaly good terms. He’s got an open door if he ever wants to return in the music bussiness. I told him: Zak if you ever want to record a solo album or something like that, i’ll help you. I’ll do whatever you like. I love Zak, he is like a little brother to me. I was the one who picked Zak. It’s just a shame that things -because of my brother died and stuff- didn’t work out the way we originally have planned back in the old days. I don’t think they would be like they are now but i’ve got to be realistic. People grow up, people have babies, people’s life change and different things come around. You’ll see it for yourself. Everytime someone is gonna put something in front of you. It’s like chess. You are going to walk around and knock it down or it will knock you down. It’s the same thing with a band. When that thing happens you try to knock the shit out and go forward.


Is there any possibillity that Zak will come again to play on Savatage?

I don’t know if i can say that we’ll work with Zak again whether it be Savatage or another project or Trans-Siberian Orcestra. (At the same time some cars BEEPING really loud from the road next to the hotel and Jon screams SHUUUUUUUUUUUUUT UP.) Zak was more stable in the band. Al was a hired gun. We knew that he had played for 2000 bands before Savatage. Zak was different. I think maybe when Zak deals a little bit more with his life.. maybe then… Zak is going through some taugh shit. And i understand ’cause i have a kid and i think Zak have seen what i went through. My son is gonna be eighteen years old in July. In his entire life i have spent maybe four years with him. Zak would see this. He is not blind. He would see that i’ve been bumped down. I’ve been talking with my kid on the phone and sometimes when you leave the phone there’s a tear in your eye… It sucks but i’m a musician and this is what i do. My son has accept that, my family has accept that. I can’t do anything else. Well, i can drink pretty good but i’m not gonna make money drinking! (laughs). That’s the main thing. Zak has other attributes. He has a good job, a good position, he’s very smart, very intelligent guy and he is a new father! That changes people’s life. Maybe in a year from now it might hit Zak and he’ll go like Fuck what did i do?. But i’m not gonna take a year off and wait for Zak to decide whether he wants to be in the band or not.

Now, lets go back to Poets and Madmen. In the beggening it was not meant to be a concept album but know we know that it is. Can you link us the songs with the album and tell us the story which is hidden behind Poets and Madmen?

I can make it very easily for you. And you guys are gonna think it’s very cool ’cause we put some little twists in it. First of all the biggest twist in the story is that me, Johnny and Chris Caffery are characters in the story. Paul gave us different names. I’ll explain the story thing for you. You have three guys. Darrel who is actually Jon Oliva, Joey who is Johnny and Tommy who is Chris Caffery. I’m the leader of the group, Paul made me the leader. I get the beer, i get the cigarettes, i get the who know what and we are gonna go look for a cool place where we gonna have a party and have a good time. We get in my car and we drive up throught the mountains and we look and we see this building up on this mountain… and it’s raining and we say Wow, that’s cool.. We must go there. We go to this place and we park the car, we get out and we walk up close to the building and we realize that it’s a abandoned mental institution. You know home for the mentally insane type of place. So as been the intelligent people that we are we brake into the place. It’s all gated and closed up and we brake in. And we are like WOW! This is fuckin bad maaaaaaaaan. We are drinking and we start to find shit as we are looking around. Magazines that have been left there, newspapers and stuff. That’s where the songs start to happen. Like i find this magazine, one of us finds a magazine. It’s a newsweek with a story on the cover about the Russian take over in South Africa.. Where Russia was fuckin’ around with South Africa. That’s what Commissar is about. Chris Caffery finds a newspaper and he looks and there’s a picture with some guys with a Jeep. One of the guys has a camera on his souldier and there’s one other guy with a gun aims right him. That’s what Drive is about. Some of the songs deal with the items that we find in there. It’s like an adventure story in a way. While this is going on, i have a jacket. That’s got cigarettes, car keys which is very important to the story and are in my jacket. Out of nowhere something runs by and grabs my shit and takes off. It’s a person. We are in an abandoned place, there’s no one there so that scares the shit out of us. But then we realize Fuck he’s got my fuckin’ keys, we are stuck here now. So we chase after this guy. To make the long story short we end up communicating with him. We chase him into a room he locks hiself in and he is talking to us through a little cage in the door and he starts to tell us who he is and he only wanted a cigarette thats why he stole my shit and he give my shit back, he push it under the door. And he start to tell us who he is. He clailms to be this guy Kevin Carter who was an unknown photographer in America and he went to Sudan and took some photos. And he ended up taking one particular photo. It was a three year old girl that was trying to make her way to the feeding station and was dying. She was lying on the of the road. I’ve seen the picture. It’s the scarriest thing you’ll ever see in your life.. You can see her eyes rolling on the back of her head and there’s a fuckin’ volture like standing over her waiting for her to die so that he can eat her. This is real life. This is not part of a fiction. This guy took the picture and went back to America and he won the Pulitzer prize, which turned him into millionaire. So the guy instanlty became from an unknown photographer into a millionair from this picture but the vision of that girl dying haunted him and this is for real. In real life he went to psychiatrist nothing, he went to drugs nothing, alchohol nothing. Eventually they institutionilize him. They put him away. He ended up hanging himself. That what happened in real life. In Paul’s version of it he never hung himself. He just took off and we ended up finding him and he tells us the story. The other songs, Morphine Child is about the picture that he took, the Rumor, Jesus is about how pissed off he is with god and how god let something like this happen. Surrender is about when he finnaly gives up and he starts doing the heavy drugs. Man in the mirror is also about this. The whole meaning behind it, it’s that there’s a lot of fucked up shit going on out there. Paul likes that. He wants you to take something away. When you put the cd and you read the lyrics to say Oh man, wow.

Is this place real? The mental institution?

No, it’s fictional. The place is fictional. The only thing it’s real, is that guy Kevin Carter. He is real. He really did take that picture, he really did kill hiself but i think Paul maybe in the story - he won’t tell me ’cause he wants to leave something for you guys- is that maybe that it’s not really a real person. It might be the ghost of Kevin Carter. So that i think it the twist thing. He won’t tell it to me if it’s a ghost. (Now he immitates the voice of Paul) I’m not saying , we have to leave tha fans to have something to discover when they buy it . You tell this much about it and that’s it. I’m like Paul it’s a ghost right?, (Now with the voice of Paul) I’n not telling you. So he won’t fucking tell me, so i don’t know.

I heard that you have record 30 songs but only 11 make it on the album

Well, we wrote thirty songs but we recorded i think sixteen. The ones that we did music for Zak i couldn’t sing . I wrote them for Zak to sing. There were only a few songs that Zak supposed to sing that i ended up singing. Morphine Child was one, The Rumor (Jesus) was one. Yes, there’s a few left overs but we write a lot of music anyway.We are always writing. I mean i wrote on the plane today. I was pissed off and i still wrote something down! We always write..

There are two things we noticed in this album. You don’t have a title track and some like an interlude or an instrumental.

Oh you know the instrumental, that’s me. I said no instrumentals on this record because i’m trying to seperate Savatage with Trans-Siberian Orchestra. If Trans-Siberian Orchestra is gonna make their way doing what Savatage is already done, i don’t want to be doing the same thing. People like stuff like the instrumental things that we’ve done, what they have to do is to pick up a Trans-Siberian Orchestra record and they’ll get six or seven. I want Savatage to be a band again. For a while we starting to get too confusing. Trans-Siberian Orcestra sold millions of records in America. That’s huge to do in American.

Sorry that i have to interrupt you but i have a serious question. Many fans believe that you have put aside Savatage for some years and that you don’t really care for Savatage anymore. Will you give an answer to them?

You know what i have to say to those fans? Trans-Siberian Orchestra made me more money in the little time than i did in my entire career with Savatage. I spent the last year shuffling things around making it possible for Trans-Siberian Orhestra to exist with other musicians so i can come and do some Savatage. Now if i didn’t care about Savatage there would be no Savatage record right now, because i can make more money being in Trans-Siberian Orchestra than i can ever dream of making with Savatage. We are here because we love our band. We don’t need the money, i don’t need to be in Trans-Siberian Orchestra. I’ll hire someone to play keyboards in Trans-Siberian Orchestra because i am Savatage. I have to be here. If i’m gonna keep my band alive i’m gonna keep my brothers name alive, i’m gonna keep things going. I have to be here. I’ll take the hit, i don’t need the money. I’ve made the money i needed to take, to take care of myself. I’m here because i want to be here. I flew nine hours today on an airplane and come talk to you guys, because i want to talk to you, because i want to come in Greece and play, because i love you guys down here and you guys love us. (Ok that was a little bit private but i guess Jon love us all! ;-) )

I think Criss will be very happy!

Yes, my brother will be very happy, because i’m doing what he wanted us to do. People have to realize that if we didn’t care about Savatage and all we cared about was Trans-Siberian Orhestra then Savatage would cease to exist right now. The reason why we keep Savatage together is because we love it!

Mentioning Trans-Siberian Orchestra, how did Beethoven’s Last night did?

Very well! What we did was to put Trans-Siberian Orchestra out on tour right before Christmas. Three weeks in America with two bands. Because i have to show the fans , Trans-Siberian Orchestra is not Savatage with a different name. I said Paul we are gonna put two bands out with whole different guys. Johnny was the only guy in one band from Savatage and Chris Caffery and Jeff Plate were the only guys from Savatage in the other band. One band to the West coast of America and the other on the East coast of America. They sold out every single show. It was a complete success and now Beethoven’s Last Night sells like crazy in America because they played a few songs on the tour. We have to make people undestand that Trans-Siberian Orchestra is a project. It’s an Orcestra. Orcestra means multiple musicians. There are seven - nine different singers and myself included. I sung on Beethoven’s Last Night, i made the part of the devil but i didn’t sing on the other Christmas ones while i could. What we do in Trans-Siberian Orchesta is to write a song and we find people best suit that song versus having a band writing and song and have to make the guys in the band adupt the song. Having an orchestra means you can use anyone you want. That gives me the whole open thing and when we come back to Savatage it’s like all brand new again. It’s fresh. It’s us.

What about the touring plans with Savatage?

Lots!

Yeah, but some people in Usa, they want you back there.

May 16 the American tour begins.

Will you return to those states you haven’t been for years?

Well, i’ll tell you what will happen. May 16 we start in America. We tour in America from May 16th to June 16th. June 16th we have one week off. After that week we fly to europe and we do festivals whole down in Europe.

Wacken?

Well, they are scheduling them now so i don’t know on which ones we are gonna be doing. Every festival contact us ’cause they know that we are ready to tour. So we do festivals in the summer. Then in the end of August for three weeks, we go to South America and we do a three week tour. Argentina, Chile and Mexico. Then we go to Japan for one week and then we return to europe do to do our headline tour. It would be two and a half hours long. Eight weeks throughout europe.


Who will support the headline tour?

I don’t know.

Any wishes?

I wish the Beattles!!! (Laughs) Well, it doesn’t matter to me man. As long as they are good and they are not assholes. I hate dealing with assholes. I have low tolerance for assholes.

Now what is going on with the hunting of new singer and the new guitar player?

I had a conversation with Paul last night from Portugal. I called Paul and Chris Caffery. We started with like ten guitar players and fifteen singers. They cut down and now we have three singers and two guitar players. Paul is very happy with all of them but he won’t make a desicion until i go back. So, i don’t know who they are. He said i have three great singers, three very good guitar players . One guy sings better than the other guy and one thing guitarist must have is to be able to sing. On friday i go back to America, i go home for three days and then in New York. We will announce the desicions in the end of the month. On our webpage. On March we rehearsh and we are ready.

How many songs will you sing?

A lot.

No, Jon i mean YOU! How many song are YOU gonna sing.

Well, again the headline shows and the festival shows are different. On festival you get and hour or an hour and fifteen minutes so i don’t know. On the headline show we are gonna do a history of Savatage. It’s gonna be the name of the tour. The history of the band. We’re gonna take real quick, Sirens, Dungeons and Power of the night. We are gonna do a twenty minute medley of those three records. Do some new stuff between. We are gonna open up with Commissar this year. It’s gonna be the opening song. Like i said those three albums in a twenty minute set, do some new stuff and next Hall of the mountain king , skip Fight for the rock (coughs and laughs). I was vomit. Mountain King, Gutter Ballet, Sreets. Next medley fifteen-twenty minutes incorporating a lot of the songs. You know, we are gonna do it right. With some some new stuff. The end one is gonna be Edge of Thorns, Handful of rain, Dead Winter Dead and Wake of Magellan. What are gonna do is take the new stuff and put it between this medleys. Then the encore is going to be the title tracks. Sirens, Hall of the mountain king, Gutter Ballet and i want to end the night with When the crowds are gone!

YES,YES,YES OF COURSE!! (ops,where’s our proffecional approach on the interview???) Ok, now what is going on with The Romanovs?

You know that pisses me off, i’m glad you asked me that. I’m gonna get this out. I spent the fuckin’ year writting that godamned Romanovs thing and it got bought by a company in New York. A company in the states that produces Broadway plays. They bought it from us. They gave us a lot of fuckin’ money. We sold the rights to them. So that means they have five years from when we signed the contract to put it up on Broadway. Every year they have the option whether to drop it and not give us any more money or keep it and put it out. Every fuckin’ year Paul calls them and goes like Guys, what are you doing with the play, are you gonna put it out? and they reply We are looking for the right director and they give us another check and i’m like What it’s going on here? You give us money every year! (Jon gets closer to the microphone and says) WE TAKE YOUR MONEY AND WE PUT IT INTO THE SAVATAGE RECORDINGS YOU IDIOTS! (Laughs). As long as you want to keep giving us the money, we will take it. Thank you. I don’t know. I can’t answer that question. It’s tottaly out of my hands. I sold it. All they have to do is to give me a check once per year to keep it. That’s how Broadway works. It’s like Tv show. Once you sell it, you don’t get it back unless they tell you they want to give it back to you.

What style is it? Like Savatage or Trans-Siberian Orchestra?

It’s more for Trans-Siberian Orchestra but it’s more theatrical. It’s very Broadway. I mean, there’s some dark stuff on it. That’s why i was hired. They wanted something gothic and dark. I wrote a lot of songs for that. I wrote some instrumentals with full orchestra and they sound really heavy. God, i wish it could come out but… You wanna pay me? Thousand of dollars per year to sit on my ass and do nothing? I think you are all idiots but fine.

Are you gonna sign a label for Trans-Siberian Orchestra in Europe?

Yes! We actually gonna try to get a Trans-Siberian Orhestra performance here in Europe for Christmas. But it might don’t happen the coming Christmas. Maybe the next one. All the deals are now starting to put together. In American when something starts to happen if you don’t jump on it and make it see through, you lose it. Trans-Siberian Orchestra is mainly Paul’s call. He said we got platinum in American now it’s time to become platinum in Europe too.

About Paul now, is he a regular member of Savatage?

He is a regular pain in the ass! No, he is a great guy! He’s like a band guy. He doesn’t perform but he is as important for the band as i am.

Has he ever performed with you on stage?

(LAUGHS) We did a tv show in America with Trans-Siberian Orchestra (He said the name of the Show.. but i can’t understand it clearly) He is terrified to be infront of people.

What about your future plans?

Play, play, play, play, play concerts! We want to play man! It’s like you are a druggy and you don’t get any drugs for three years. Imagine how bad is it. We have a good record, we all like the record a lot and we want to play it live now

Maybe a live album?

A lot of live stuff is going on this year, we are recording six or seven shows and we are filming a lot of things. We are gonna try between this album and the next Savatage album, we want to release a home video like DVD of the history of the band. We want to put a lot of old videos and some backstage. We have great old footage and no one has ever seen it. When Criss was alive..

We have never seen him playing live. (I bet many of you too)

Oh you’ll see him on this video. I have great footage with my brother playing. It’s unbelieveable. We have some really funny moments. The whole DVD we are gonna do, the whole live it’s gonna be more of a comedy than anything else. We’ve got shit that it’s fuckin’ funny! One scene is the best, you’ve got to hear this. We hired a light guy and we ordered all this moving lights and the fuckin’ guy couldn’t get them to work. He was really pissed off. He was kicking things around. We were in Paris. He was like Fuck the lights man. His name was Taz. We went to see the Eiffel tower so he could take a video of it. We went at the Eiffel tower and it was lighted. It was beautiful! We jumped out of the car. Taz come out!. Get the camera come on. He gets and and runs with the camera, he put the camera on his shoulder and he focus on it and…. All the lights of the Eiffel tower went out… He got the camera and went away. Fuckin’ France. Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck. We have many of this stuff man. Like the escape from London. We had to escape from the hotel and we threw ouf lagguge from the third floor.

You didn’t have money to pay the hotel?

Yeah, someone stole all our money. And we were in London. Someone stole the road managers briefcase with all our money in it. We had a flight to America the next morning. We had no money. It was like 4.000$ (laughs). Some guys came with their cars and we threw our stuff from the window to get out of the hotel. We called it the great escape. You got to see this guys, we were at the airport and we were like THEY ARE RIGHT BEHIND US, RUN (laughs) We paid the bill when we went back to America.

What have you earned as a person from the past and the recent members of Savatage?

What have i learned from them? That they are all a bunch of dirty bastards! No i’m just kidding. Well, i learned to make sure that i’m sure with what i want to do now. Not to listen to other people anymore. To make sure that i called the shots because i know what i’m doing. I’m tired of people who keep telling me that i don’t know what i’m doing. Because i know what i’m doing. You i learned a lot from having guys come in and out. I learned not to trust anybody, and i learned three things. Everyone understands English, every microphone is live and what you say for somebody will get to him. If you do an interview and you say something about somebody, this person will eventually learn it. So becareful with what you say. Those are the most important things i learned. Oh, and never hire Al Pitrelli as your guitar player. (laughs) He’ll probably leave you for a higher check.

What about a new album? It’s very early but with the stuff you’ve got..

Are you kidding me? (laughs) The plans are before a new album to make this DVD, home video stuff with live concerts and stuff from my brother. That’s what i want to do. Then a new album, yes i already have music.

Now a message to the fans on the internet!

I didn’t do it, she was over 18.. (LAUGHS) I love you all and we will see you on tour. Come out to the show. And bring money! (laughs)



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