It is not often that one gets to have a conversation with a music legend, especially one as pleasant, humble and down to earth as Jon Oliva – a man whose musical journey has created music of unsurpassable quality under the monikers of Savatage, Jon Oliva’s Pain and Trans-Siberian Orchestra.
Thirty years after he began writing music with his late brother Chris, Jon has created a magnificent solo album entitled “Raise the Curtain”. Though the purpose of this interview is to investigate this release, what you will also discover is information on all the exciting musical projects that Jon is planning for the immediate future. Enjoy!
By Yiannis (John) Stefanis
- Hi Jon, thanks for calling. Am I the last scheduled interviewer for today?
Jon: Thank God you are, however I am having a good time doing these interviews so don’t worry.
- I am happy to hear that, especially in view of the fact that “Raise The Curtain” is so far my favourite album for 2013. I want to thank you for releasing such an amazing piece of work – an album that I simply cannot stop listening to. I am really lost for words when it comes to describing how much I like it – I really cannot praise this album enough.
Jon: Wow, I am really happy that you like it that much as, believe me, it was a lot of work. Having to play all the instruments mostly by myself…well, I had a couple of friends which helped.
My friend Danny (Fasciano: piano/keyboards) played a lot of the organ stuff and I also had Christopher Kinder playing the drums, all the stuff that I couldn’t play. I had to do everything else pretty much all by myself: I did bring in a horn section one time for two songs which was probably pretty crazy but it came out really well so I was really happy about it. I think that it helped the whole sound because what you hear is real, you know?
- Can I clarify something with you? You mentioned that this album will be the last featuring ideas created by your brother Criss. When we are referring to these ideas what form did they exist in? Are we referring to notes jotted on a piece of paper or riffs and melodies that were pre-recorded in some way?
Jon: I had these on the cheapest cassette tapes that you can ever imagine! These old pieces of Criss’ work were mostly parts. One was a complete song with is the bonus track, an acoustic song (note: “The Truth”). That was a complete song which featured his music and my music. Before I recorded it I wrote lyrics for it and sang it as in its original form it was an instrumental.
Now, track number three I believe it’s called “Ten Years” and its whole chorus section was based on an idea that we first came up with back in 1980. A lot of the stuff is like that, songs like “Father Time”, the riff in “The Witch” and a couple of riffs in track 11 (note: “Can’t Get Away”) – those were all recorded in the mid-70s.
The “Father Time” riff is the second riff that Criss ever wrote; he was like fourteen years old! So these are the reasons that make this album really special. It is weird that the last stuff we ever released was the earliest material he ever recorded so it kind of comes full circle, you know? It seems ironic that the last tapes I had from him contained his earliest music…it is kind of weird.
- What is also weird is that, though these riffs and melodies are so beautiful they had never been used before this album. Why is that?
Jon: I know that it is weird! I was talking to Malcolm Dome (note: well respected UK music journalist) prior to calling you and I told him what I am saying to you now: I had them in a box, a box which I opened in a specific order going from the very beginning to the very end. I was literally pulling out three tapes at a time.
The first three tapes that I pulled ended up on the first J.O.P (note: Jon Oliva’s Pain) album. When the time came to record the next album I pulled out the next three and these were ideas which appeared on the second J.O.P album (laughs).
After I recorded the “Festival” album, I was left with only three or four tapes two of which would not play – they were so old that you could not hear anything properly. I was then left with the last two and when I played the first of these tapes, the first thing I heard was Criss and me talking about writing that song and he was “I’ve got this riff, so let’s play dadadatskdadada” – the main riff from the “Father Time” song! You can actually hear him say “does this sound too much like Rush” (laughs) to which I said “That’s OK, Criss”. That was cool!
It just happened that I had these two, three tapes left in the shoe box. I never sat down to listen to them all in one time; I just said to myself “I am just going to grab a handful for this album, a handful for the next album and if there is stuff on these tapes I will use it and if there isn’t I will put them away in my safe”. So I just kept going through the tapes till I got down to the last three or four and it was weird that these last tapes contained the earliest stuff that we ever wrote together.
- This full circle that you mentioned has been completed twenty years since he passed away and I know that this is a sensitive issue for you to discuss but for me as a fan, somebody who literally grew up listening to the music of Savatage, I cannot think of a more fitting tribute to him than the release of this album!
Jon: I agree! I really appreciate what you just said – it really means a lot to me and…as I said it was a very emotional process but at least I got all of his music out for the fans to enjoy, you know, and that was one thing I swore I would do before I join him up there, in the Hilton up in heaven! I wanted to make sure that I got everything out that he and I ever did together. I did that and I am very, very happy with the reception that the album has been getting from the reviewers and from the fans as well.
Actually, they told me yesterday that the album is positioned in number 108 on the Billboard 200! That makes me really happy because position 108 is a pretty good position for a solo album to be in so I am very happy…actually I am quite shocked! I thought that people were going to crucify me for putting this record together – I was very nervous because it is so different. I though “they are going to get me now, man!” (laughs).
- I believe that people who appreciate true music will always like what you do, Jon, the question is what the masses do, but the masses are a different case altogether.
Anyway, since we are talking about people and their musical preferences, what I am interested to know is what you think is the target audience for an album like “Raise The Curtain”.
It is very obvious that Savatage fans will buy it and I am sure that the same will apply to all J.O.P. fans – the question is, will all these 70s infused elements which exist in abundance throughout the album manage to capture the attention and interest of the Classic Rock fan of that era? I personally can see a fan of a band like Deep Purple embracing this album.
Jon: You know what, I totally agree with you. I mean it is obvious that the album is appealing to a larger and more diverse audience than all the previous ones that I have recorded, simply based on the fact that it has entered the Billboard 200 as high as it did. That, to me, means that there is more than just the Savatage and the J.O.P fans who have been checking it out, because I have never had a J.O.P. album in the Billboard 200 before. I have achieved that with Trans-Siberian Orchestra a lot but, for this being a solo record…it’s only been out for three weeks in Europe and only a week here in America so I am very excited. I hope it keeps selling that good, please! (laughs)
- I am sure that it will! As far as I know, the album has been released in various different formats. There is a lovely digipack in my hands and staring at me at this very moment and there is an equally stunning vinyl version which I believe was pressed only in 800 pieces, a very limited edition…
Jon: I think I am going to yell at the label for that! They should have printed more because the vinyl is awesome. The label sent me a few of them last week, so I got a couple of those and I opened one of them up. One vinyl is black but the other one is red. It is a great package – they did a great job there.
- Well, personally, I am not annoyed as a copy of that format is on its way to me as we speak but I am sure that the rest of your fans must be livid!
Jon: I am going to call the label and tell them “you guys may want to print a few more vinyl versions of the album” because I am quite convinced that they are going to go really quick. I had to practically beg to get them to send me five of them home, but I hope that they will sell out and that the label will get to print even more.
- In terms of acquiring information about you and your upcoming plans, which is the right place for your fans to look?
Jon: That would be http://www.jonoliva.net. Christopher Kinder handles all the website stuff for me because I just don’t have any time to do it – I am too busy. If somebody is trying to get hold of me or something I will get it from Christopher every time I see him or he will call me to fill me in. Yes, it is http://www.jonoliva.net and…yes, we are getting a lot of hits so check that place out as all the information you need will eventually be there, stuff like touring info will be popping up there by the end of August.
- Jon, it was exactly a year ago to the day that you came to London and performed “Hall Of The Mountain King” in its entirety…
Jon: Oh God, I remember that little place that we played in London (note: The Garage) as it was hot like hell in there, man!
- It was indeed, but the show you performed for us was so enjoyable that it was worth every drop of sweat shed. Actually I had a quick chat with you after the show during which you mentioned that you were considering giving “Gutter Ballet” a similar treatment. Is this going happen?
Jon: Yes, we are. It is going to happen but it will be during the festival season next summer. What I am doing for this record (note: “Raise The Curtain”) is a two and a half to three weeks’ worth of storyteller-type performances.
I am going to play stuff from the record but also kind of go through the whole history of Savatage, J.O.P. & T.S.O. – play a lot of stuff that people never heard when they were originally out. So I am going to dig up some stuff and make this really special.
I am going to ‘test drive’ this thing here in America right after Thanksgiving, from the 28th of November till about the 10th of December and I am going to see how it feels and how it goes. You know, if the reaction is good, I may take it and bring it over there to your area, the UK, as well as Holland and Germany, probably in January & February.
- Now that you mentioned this, you simply have to!!!
Jon: The festival things I am thinking of doing for the “Gutter Ballet” do not start until June and I believe that the first might be Rock Hard festival (note: in Gelsenkirchen/Germany) – that’s the one that we are looking to starting the whole thing from. I love Rock Hard festival, being positioned right next to a river – it’s awesome. So yeah, I think that this is what’s going to end up happening…we will see – you never know with these things.
If the record keeps selling the way it does now I might just have to be forced to bring out the show more but I want to do the storyteller thing first as I think it is more intimate, it is more personal and it is something different – something that I have never done before. I think that it will be a lot of fun and plus I will not have to pay all these people to come and play with me (laughs). Seriously now: it is only going to be me and Christopher Kinder doing plenty of things with backing tracks but a lot of stuff will also be live, especially the acoustic stuff…it’s going to be great – I hope I can get it to you guys there in the UK.
- Christopher is a very important person to you, right? He’s been your tour manager, a line up colleague and, most importantly I am sure, a loyal friend so his involvement in anything you do is somewhat guaranteed. What about additional musicians? Who are you planning on inviting to perform live with you this time round?
Jon: Well I have Christopher on the drums, I have a guy called Joe Diaz who played with me on the “Hall Of The Mountain King” tour who will do the guitars. Jerry Outlaw, he does a lot of other things and so he may not be available for this project…I don’t really know. This is something that I really don’t want to worry about (laughs).
I have enough problems now as it is so I can wait for a few things to first end before I can focus on the “Gutter Ballet” thing. I’ve got a lot of friends in the music business; I could call a bunch of different people to see if they would be interested in coming out. We will see what happens. I really haven’t thought about it yet because I have been too wrapped up in this thing that’s going on here (note: “Raise The Curtain”), so we will see.
- I totally understand. Please clarify one thing for us though; the next recording musical venture that you are going to undertake, is it going to be another solo affair or will it be under the Jon Oliva’s Pain moniker?
Jon: Well, the next studio thing that you will get is a Jon Oliva’s Pain record. We already started writing and the idea behind it is to do a very, very, very heavy, heavy, heavy record (laughs). I really want to screw with everyone’s brains (laughs).
So, the plan is to do a rally heavy record and then in between that and a J.O.P. record I might just do another one of these solo records as I’ve still got a lot of material that is in similar style with the stuff that’s on this album. So yes, I would like to also get that stuff out. As for the J.O.P. record, I want it to be ready for when I will be touring in Europe next summer.
- And in between all that you’ve got the Trans-Siberian Orchestra project going on – do you ever find time to sleep?
Jon: With Trans-Siberian Orchestra what I do is I am Paul O’Neill’s main songwriter and I play on the albums but I don’t go on tour with them – if I was to also go on tour with them I would never have the time needed to do an album like “Raise The Curtain” as things would have become way to busy.
I do things purposely that way because when they are on the road it keeps that organisation extremely busy and it gives me a lot of free time. That is when I get a lot of the J.O.P. and the solo stuff out – that is when I get the chance to do all of that. If I was on the road with the Trans-Siberian Orchestra production I would never have the time to do these records.
I have played with these guys a few times when we first came out. I did a few TV shows during which I played with them and, by the way, we will be bringing this project over to the UK in January. I don’t know which the venue that they are looking at is but we are sending the whole crew over to Europe in January. There is going to be a T.S.O. show in your area!
- I am pretty excited about the prospect of attending another Trans-Siberian Orchestra. Last time the guys played at the Hammersmith Apollo and the experience was beyond description!
Jon: Well, the shows that they are bringing over to Europe this year are way bigger and way more intense than the one that you saw which was the “Beethoven’s Last Night” album. This one is going to be a bit different. There are a lot more instrumental passages involved and both the light show and the effects are used are much bigger, so we will see what happens. That is definitely going to take place in January so you can start looking forward to that. I don’t know if I am going to be there for any of that because I think that Paul O’Neill and I are going to be in the studio.
- Well, as you said, you can only do so much at any given time, right?
Jon: If somebody could find a way of adding another eight hours in the day I would be very happy right now!
- Even under these circumstances the music that you create is always of the utmost quality, so thank you for that.
Jon: I really appreciate that, thank you.
- With all that’s being said about your upcoming music projects I am actually looking forward to seeing how your next solo album is going to sound like. I know now that there is no material left from your brother’s work to use but, having been in his presence all these years, I am sure that whatever you will create will have a little bit of his soul in it.
Jon: Probably yes. I mean, I cannot lose this Savatage style as it is deeply embedded in me. Having said that, I want to take things a step further. I want to get things sounding a little bit darker and a bit heavier also, present each song as a short story – like a mini movie of sorts. So yes, I am looking forward to this whole thing.
It is a good challenge and, though I have done some really heavy albums so far in my career, I really want to make a statement with the next one, something like “this is the heaviest that you will ever hear from me – there you have it”. Then I want to make another solo record after that. People will see that I plan on keeping the J.O.P. thing more in lines of Savatage, but try to go a little bit heavier and do one or two more solo records in the next few years which will help me put out the rest of the material that I have available right now. That is what I would like to do.
- After all these projects and albums that you have been involved in what has been left for you to achieve, Jon? You have achieved more things than the average musician only dreams of!
Jon: Thank you very much – it’s been a long road (laughs).
- I’m sure it has, but some of us have been walking most of that road together with you over the years and we will continue to do so, regardless. Thank you for taking the time to talk with me.
Jon: I appreciate that very much, thank you! Thank you for giving me your time! My best to you all over there: stay safe, thank you for liking the album and tell all your friends to buy, buy, buy it! (laughs)
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