Jon Oliva is one really difficult guy to get a hold of for an interview. Though I did manage to meet him for a signing session when touring the UK for the promotion of the album “Maniacal Renderings” back in 2006, my then allocated interview time with him was spent chatting to drummer Christopher Kinder instead. With Jon coming to London to perform a celebratory Savatage set, including the all-time classic “Hall Of The Mountain King” in its entirety, I made a new attempt of catching up with him for an interview. Early signs were not promising but, half an hour after the show, the few remaining journalists gathered were told that Jon would accommodate us all in a press-conference style format. What originally felt unpromising turned out to be one really enjoyable event, with Jon providing much insight into special moments of Savatage/Trans-Siberian Orchestra history, his relationship with Paul O’Neill and the sad passing of both his brother and also of guitarist Matt LePond. This interview proves, more than anything else, what a great artist and human being Jon Oliva really is – a man who cannot help wearing his heart on his sleeve.

By Yiannis (John) Stefanis (GRTR).

Metal Church - The Present Wasteland

• On the subject of the tour for the celebration of Savatage and the performance of the album “Hall Of The Mountain King” in its entirety.

Jon: Well, it’s over (laughs). Actually it went really well, we did some really good shows and as a result we are very happy. This idea came up and we said “ok, let’s try this and see how the fans will like it” so we only booked fifteen shows or so. I did not want to book something like forty shows and then half way through think “oh, I am not sure about this – fu*k, what am I doing here”. So we said “let’s see what happens” and it’s gone really good. Tonight’s show was just OK as we had none of our own equipment on stage and it was haunted up there like a motherfu*ker. All I could say was “is that drugs? No” (laughs). But we had a good time and we made it work and we all seemed to have fun and that’s all that matters! It’s all about having fun and that record was a very special moment for us – for me anyway! It saved my ass – I would be dead if it wasn’t for that album!

• On the subject of re-working/re-learning old material for the tour, the difficulties in achieving that and the new colleagues who helped Jon bring these songs back to life.

Jon: It was tough but I really have to give all the credit to the guys in the band, especially Chris (Kinder: drums) who’s right here and I told him, because I was very busy this time with Trans-Siberian Orchestra, “Chris, if we’re going to do this I really want you to buckle down and get this started”. So, Chris and Jerry (Outlaw: guitar) and Joe (Diaz: guitar) and Jason (Jennings: bass) they…I didn’t show up for rehearsals until like a month after they started. I was like “I know how the songs go, trust me” and I was like “you guys need to get this together as there is no way that I can do both”. And so these guys, in their own time, busted their asses and put the show together and so I owe all that to all the other guys in the band – especially Chris. You know, he gets no credit for being the drummer but this guy works so hard for me; if it wasn’t for him I wouldn’t be here right now! I don’t need to be here to make money…(note: Chris says something to Jon to which he replies “I know you twisted old fu*k” (laughs). I don’t need to be here for the money, I don’t need the money, and it’s not about the money! I want to play these songs; it keeps Chris (Oliva: his brother and deceased Savatage lead guitarist and co-founder) alive, keeps Matt (Lepond: deceased Jon Oliva’s Pain guitarist) alive and its fun… (note: at this point tears form in Jon’s eyes). I am not here for any other reason; I am just playing to have fun, man! You know, these guys all busted their asses to put the show together and I showed up three weeks before we left saying “alright, I am ready to rehearse now” and they were all like “wow” – I was like a freight train! (note: Jon makes the sound of…a freight train) I was just looking online to find the lyrics to songs like “White Witch” trying to remember how they go (laughs). I wrote it – how embarrassing is that (laughs)? The guy who wrote the fu*king songs is sitting there thinking “how does this song go” and they all know! So, it was tough and it was fun. You know, I am going to do this for the album “Gutter Ballet” for 2014.

GRTR: I was just about to ask you that question!

Jon: You see; I know all the questions that you guys are going to ask me (laughs).

• On the subject of why a similar approach would not be taken for the album “Fight For The Rock” – an album that both the Oliva brothers always described as a mistake, and on Paul O’Neill’s involvement in Savatage.

Jon: (addressing the journalist who asked the question) Do you really want to be beaten right now? (everybody laughs) I’ve told that story. Come on, everybody knows…I mean hey, what kind of album would you have made if the guy goes “oh yeah, by the way, you are missing 3.2 million dollars, have a nice day”! Me and my brother were like “what” and then the guys go “oh, by the way, you are leaving tomorrow to make an album” and “oh, by the way, you are not doing any Savatage songs; you are going to do those demos we made for all these other guys” and we went like “what”? And he also went “oh, by the way, we also stole your recording budget so you only have twenty seven thousand dollars to make the album with”. We were pretty fu*king pissed, you know, it was fu*ked up, but we were just kids – we didn’t know! Everybody, every band goes through that learning curve where you get the big ultimate smack down and you either get up, dust the dirt off you, put a steak on your black eye, lick your wounds and go back into it and say “fu*k you; you are not going to do this to me you motherfu*ker – I worked my whole life to be a musician and you criminal bitches will get the fu*k out”.

GRTR: at this point I mention that, though he does not support it, “Fight For The Rock” is the kind of album that many bands at the time would have liked to have released for themselves…

Jon: You know, the music on that album…these were actually really good songs but they were not written for Savatage! The managers that we had at that time knew that I wrote a lot of different styles of music and, at that time, they managed John Waite from The Babys, the managed the New Edition and a lot of other people. They put a demo together with some songs for us to play from these other guys, make a cover of their songs. Chris and I said “sure” so we went in and did a demo quick and nine hours before we went into the fu*king aeroplane to fly here they go (deepening his voice ironically) “oh, by the way, this is the album that we want you to record” and we went like (note: Jon screams from the top of his voice) “oh my god”!!! and that’s what happened. So, when we did this album we were pissed. I mean, we were told that we were supposed to be millionaires and we were broke! We were living on peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, I was sleeping on my friends’ floors in their living rooms and I had sold like a million records with Savatage! It was heart breaking, you know, and we were “what the fu*k” and Paul O’Neill came in and said “listen; I know that you’ve been ripped off, you lost your deal with Atlantic Records, I am going to fix all that, here’s fifty thousand dollars”. Meanwhile my brother Chris and I (note: looking toward the heavens)…I love you, you fu*king bastard… we are looking at each other thinking “who is this guy”? So, we took the money, obviously, but he was like “you never have to pay me back”. I am looking at his once more thinking “who is this guy”? But, he bought us equipment, paid our bills, gave us money, looked me and my brother in the face and said “I want you, and you, to go with this new equipment and write a real Savatage album and all I ask is that you let me write it with you”! So Chris looks at me and goes (note: Jon screams out loud, mimicking Chris) “say yes you fu*king asshole” and I am like “yes”. The first song we wrote was “24 Hours Ago” together and I was like “this guy is pretty good”. Then we wrote “Strange Wings” together with me thinking “I like his words” and then comes the time to do the prelude track and he goes “by the way, guys, I want you to play this opera shit” so I hit Chris and I go like “I told you there was going to be a catch here. Opera; what the fu*k is he talking about”? That’s when Paul went like “listen…” (note: Jon sings the main melody of the “Prelude To Madness” for us) to which I think “my God, is this guy nuts.”? Talking to God in thought “I get it, thank you – you give me the money and now you send me this fu*king lunatic – great” (laughs). But we tried it. Paul said “listen, try it. If it doesn’t work then we don’t have to do it, but let’s just try it”. So after that we made him bribe us, to give us money in order to do it – that is a true story! Chris is going “I want two grand to do it – what about you bro”? Paul went “what is it going to get to get you guys to work on this idea” and we went like “two grand each” to which he was like (note: Jon makes the sound of cash being counted and handed over). I thought to myself “I like this guy; I think that we can work with this guy” (laughs). Well, as you know, we did it and it was brilliant! After that I actually felt guilty for taking the two grand but that was only for like an hour or two as then I hit the bars thinking “I like this Paul O’Neill guy” (laughs). But, he was the guy that saved the band – I have to give credit where credit is due! What I described before was the lowest of the low, the hardest blow, when somebody says “by the way, we know that you have been working hard for the last seven years but we think that you are a loser” – that is a tough one to recover from. Three million dollars, I don’t care where you are from, is (note: screaming his lungs out) a lot of fu*king money, right? Most bands would have said “fu*k it”- they would have been dead or jumped off a bridge or something. As for me? Well, I hate needles, so I am good with that, I am afraid of heights, so I am good with that too (laughs), so…what’s next?

Metal Church - The Present Wasteland

• On the subject of a new Jon Oliva’s Pain being released sometime in the near future and the evolution of Savatage after Chris Oliva’s death.

Jon: The plan right now is…when Matt passed away it was kind of like when Chris passed away (note: tears form once again in Jon’s eyes) – I didn’t know what to do with Savatage! I was like “fu*k; I am never going to replace Chris Oliva and Paul and I had a long talk and he was like “we are never going to replace your brother” to which I replied “I know, so what are we going to do”? Paul goes “we’ve got to move it towards a new direction”. So, when we did “Handful Of Rain” (1994) and a song like “Chance”…actually it was since the release of “Handful Of Rain” that the base of Savatage became The Trans-Siberian Orchestra” in training! That’s because we knew that we were never going to get back to…Savatage ended the day that Chris died! That Savatage was never coming back! Me and Chris had long talks about this band; everybody thought that I was going to die first, because I was a lunatic! We had such talks in the back of the bus like “what happens if one of us dies” to which Chris would always reply “well, it’s probably going to be you” to which I would reply “Oh, thanks bro but we will have to keep this band together man”! “If something happens to all of us, our mom, dad, my wife, your wife or Nicholas my son, whoever, we’ve got to keep the band going no matter what”! When Chris died, it was Paul the one that told me and I was like, you know, I went crazy! I beat up newspaper stands in New York…it was ugly! I was so angry, you know? If I was to stop and shut it down, in my mind, that was like nailing the coffin closed! I was like “alright”; I thought about all those conversations that we had in the bus and I was like “I’ve got to keep this band going because it will keep his music alive” and for me that keeps a part of him alive! Tonight…I have four Jon Oliva’s Pain records – I did not play a single song from them tonight because it’s not about that! It’s about Chris and it’s about Matt! And then I went through it again when Matt died and it’s the same thing when you ask me what I will do with Jon Oliva’s Pain – I don’t know! This idea came up and I thought that it was a fitting tribute to both of them, as Chris helped me write the “Hall Of The Mountain King” while Matt had been with me since 2003 and was a student of my brother. Matt used to come and watch us practice when he was fourteen years old and was wearing baseball hats and didn’t know what the fu*k a G chord was. My brother would sit there and go “no man, you’ve got to do it like this”. I remember all that stuff and that’s why when Chis died, Matt came to me and said “I am the only one who can do this job”, and he was right! And Gerry, who was very close with Matt, they are from the same school and they both went through this with me and that is why Gerry is the only one who can do this now. He’s the only one who gets it! He’s the only one who understands the Chris – the Chris and Jon technique on guitar! I’ve had some of the greatest guitar players like Alex Skolnick, Al Pitrelli and they are brilliant musicians and I am not trying to take anything away from them but they don’t get Savatage! It’s all in this part of your hand (note: Jon shows to us how a Savatage classic riff is performed by waving his hands over a hypothetical guitar). It’s something that we simply stumbled on because, back then, I was playing upside down and he was like “why do you always have your hand over the strings like that” to which I would reply that “if I don’t have my hand over the strings the way I do then all the high strings would go like wow (note: Jon screams out loudly, much to our general amusement and his). Chris went like “oh man, this is fu*king great”, then he took the guitar, turned it right side up and puts his hand the same way and he goes, gets a metal pick, a quarter actually, and goes(note: Jon makes the sound of a simple heavy riff) and we both go wow, sh*t – we just found it! And all this is, the secret to that, is that part of your hand just rests over the strings and you only lift up…all the other guys…Alex, I love Alex, he would try to play “Sirens” using his own approach but I would say, no it has to sound as heavy as we did it. So it was all down to a specific way of holding and playing the guitar which we stumbled upon by accident and only Gerry and Matt, and Chris Caffery to a certain extent gets it, but it is Gerry and Matt really studied it! I sat with them for hours watching videos with Chris playing saying to them “see what he does there, see how his hand goes off and then it goes back on”? And that was the secret and no one gets it – that, and the fact that he could play that fast with a slid metal pick which just drove me fu*king crazy because I play with those really thin plectrums and he was like “you’re a fag” (laughs)! I was like “why” to which he would respond “that’s just cheating man”! “That is like we are taking part in a race, you’re wearing roller skates and everyone else has to walk backwards”. I was like “what are you talking about” and he would say “use this and listen to the difference”. We compared the plastic pick to a metal pick playing like this and we were like “oh my God”! The plastic pick made a light sound whereas the metal pick was giving such a massive sound.

Metal Church - The Present Wasteland

• On the subject of current and future plans with Trans-Siberian Orchestra and their attempt to bring “Gutter Ballet” on Broadway.

Jon: I recorded all the “Gutter Ballet” project before I came here. I was in the studio for three weeks by myself with that lunatic that I work with and he was like “Jon, this is what we’re going to do, we have the “Gutter Ballet” project to do and “Romanov””. When I asked him “Ok, what are we going to do” he replied “we are doing both of them right now – we–will record all the tracks”! I was like “dude, I’ve got to leave in like twelve days” to which he responded “do it all and I will give you a bonus”! So we did it all together! When we decided to record everything we have and now there are so many offers for us and T.S.O – animated movie offers, we have that ‘thing’ in the new “Men In Black” 3D movie, we’ve got a song in there! All these things are coming and it’s all about weighing them and decide what is the best thing to do, so I don’t know. All, I know is that I get home tomorrow and I have to be in the studio with “rainman” on Wednesday!

• On the subject (GRTR) on why Savatage never enjoyed the same success that Trans-Siberian Orchestra do, when both projects are pretty much run by the same core/team of people.

Jon: This really pisses me off too and it’s simply has to do with the name! I mean T.S.O… on “Dead Winter Dead” (1995) was the first platinum T.S.O song we got with “Christmas Eve (Sarajevo 12/24)” but when we first sent it to the radio stations with a Savatage label on it they were like “oh, we don’t play Heavy Metal”! I was like “oh yeah”? So, next year, we sent them the exact same song, changed the band name, put a Christmas tree on it and it became No.1 in America on 580 radio stations! I made 780.000 dollars in less than two months – that is more money than what I made in my entire career with Savatage, ever! So I was like “hmm, there may be something to this Christmas thing after all “(laughs). “Now, what do you want to do Oliva; do you want to wallow in sorrow, get arrested for being the biggest drug dealer in Florida or are you going to roll with this Christmas sh*t”? I had the devil on one side of me and the devil’s going “you don’t want to be known as the Heavy Metal Santa Claus, do you” while the ‘other guy’ was like “listen asshole; you’re broke, OK – get a life. This guy wants to pay you” and so I said “I am doing it”! And I did it and that record became the first T.S.O album. I sat down and wrote songs for this album for like a week and I sold thirty million records! I spent years on Savatage songs, grinding, sweating, slapping myself, beating myself into oblivion and what did I get? Nothing! I spent a little time with this guy on this Christmas sh*t and I am looking up at the Lord going (note: shouting at the top of his voice): “thank you” to which he replied “no problem; I will see you in about thirty years you motherfu*ker and we are going to talk”! But it worked and I am happy! Do I look happy to you guys (laughs)?

• On the subject of the two DVD projects that were advertised earlier in the year and which have yet to materialise and Matt’s passing away funeral arrangements.

Jon: All the DVD sh*t that we recorded we found that it became corrupted. The record company hired this bozo company so when we got home me and Chris Kinder watched it and went “what”? It was all like fu*ked up! I am sitting there thinking “on my God”. Then we had the cameras mainly targeting people’s knees and feet so I thought “alright; obviously this is going to cost us a lot of money in order to fix – bail out”! Then Matt passed away and when that happened I lost it all man – I didn’t know what to do again! It was just like re-living this whole Chris thing, you know? He had no money, his mom did not have any money so I paid for his funeral from my own pocket. I went to her and I said “Sharon, I’m going to pay – I have to do this” and she said “Jon, you cannot do this” but I said “I have to do it”! I did it and, you know, I cried for weeks after Matt died – it was sad! It was very sad for me because I tried to save him. I knew the road he was going down because I’ve been there before and I saved myself. My ‘halo’ has a lot of Rock n’Roll tape around it but I was smart enough to get away from it, you know? Matt, he just fell into this whole ‘thing’ and I sent him text message after text message “Matt, call me”, “Matt, I love you”, “Matt, what are you doing” and next thing I know, the bass player that we have now, Jason, calls me and says “Jon, it’s too late”. I am like “what are you talking about” and he goes “paramedics are here now – he’s gone”! Jason, the bass player I have now, lived with Matt…and I just lost it man! I couldn’t believe that this was happening to me again – it’s not fair, but it’s live, you know! Life goes on, that’s true, and all I can do is what I think makes people happy! So, I try to go out, I don’t try to put up an image of someone who’s better than anybody else because I’m not – we’re all the same! I sing, (note: pointing at me) you’re a reporter – that’s what we do but it doesn’t mean that we can’t be, that we’re not on the same level! These guys who look down on people like you guys really piss me off because I would say to them “you’re a loser dude; these people spend their time to come and talk to you and you cannot be nice to them”? “Who raised you, fu*king Satan and his Devils – whatever the fu*k”? So, you know…I don’t know – I just like what I do and I like talking to people like you guys because I don’t want you guys to think that I don’t look at you on the same level. We’re all the same; we’re all here for one reason – I don’t know what but if I get up there first, I will save you all a good seat! I love you guys – God bless you guys. Drive home safe!

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Josh Taerk’s latest Sunday Session was streamed on Sunday 20 March 2022 at 21:00 GMT (16:00 EST). Josh’s next session is Sunday 22 May.

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