It is not every day you get the chance to meet someone like Jon Oliva, inspired singer and songwriter of Savatage and a multi instrumentalist who has no doubt put his impact on many lives, mine included. So here I am at ProgPower V in Atlanta, 5.000 miles or so from home, sitting in the locker room basement of The Earthlink venue, while across from me, chilling out on the couch is none other than Jon Oliva, among fans also known as The Mountain King. He is obviously ready to talk and I want to make the most of the time I was lucky enough to get, so I jump right into it.
Solo Albums and 'Tage Mahal
Asking whether he and Chris Caffery, both with new solo albums under their belts perhaps are converging towards a new Doctor Butcher album, his reply is a sly smile and "You never know what the future will bring". Well, I am here to talk about the present, past and everything so we go into his latest pet project, the first Jon Oliva solo album, 'Tage Mahal. At the time of this interview it had not yet been released and I had only heard a few notes of it the night before in the Earthlink bar. So obviously I was excited to hear all about it.
"Well, I've been wanting to do one for probably the last ten years. I think what really spurred it on was the Trans-Siberian Orchestra stuff getting so busy. I just write music for the orchestra so I don't normally participate in a lot of the other stuff and suddenly I found myself with a lot of off time. A lot of the Savatage guys work with TSO so that ties the Savatage thing of too, so I was just basically sitting around getting old and I was just like 'This is fucking stupid!' If I'm gonna sit around I might as well do something and as I've always wanted to do this I just decided that the time was now because I'm not getting younger and there are things I wanna get out. I have a lot of music catalogued and stuff that I haven't recorded yet and this is a good avenue to get that music out to people, so that's how it all started. I just told Paul, well you know the Savatage thing isn't doing anything right now because everybody have other stuff going on so this is the perfect opportunity for me to go ahead and do this, and he said okay, and there you have it."
Turns out that Jon has been working away on solo songs for the past couple of years and the hardest thing was actually picking out the songs to put on the album because there were so many of them. Knowing that with Savatage it was not unusual to record several completely different versions of a song I ask Jon if that is still the way he works. "I record a song three or four different times until I get it right, the way I like it. Different versions, different speeds, different tempos or different tunings, you know. I also spend a lot of time on the lyrics, since I haven't written lyrics for a long time." Asking how Jon and Paul split the lyrics duties after he "joined" the band Jon tells that he really hasn't written any lyrics since the Edge of thorns album and on.
"Well, before Criss passed away, it was the three of us and I was still contributing a lot of lyrics and stuff to the band. For Mountain King and Gutter Ballet I wrote 50%-60% of the lyrics and when we did Streets that was a story that Paul had already and he had a lot of lyrics already done before we put music to it, but I still helped him a lot with the lyrics on that record, but then when I left and Edge of thorns came up, I just wrote music, songs for them and then from after Criss died it was just like I had so much extra work to do, because Criss and I used to work on the music together and then when he passed away it just left me having to do it. Then to think about lyrics I just said, 'Well, I like Paul's lyrics', so I was like 'You do the lyrics and I'll take care of the music' and from that point on that was how we did it. So when I had to do this record it was hard because I hadn't written lyrics for a long time, so I had to work at it a little bit, but I enjoyed it.
A Peak Preview
Last night at the bar the late night hangouts were treated to their first listen to the solo album, but unfortunately the sound was way too low and the bar shut down half way through, but with a laugh Jon promises me that it will be loud enough tonight. Jon's record company SPV are putting a lot of effort into this solo thing, with a forthcoming European tour in January of February, a live DVD and two additional solo albums. I was interested if Jon already had the material for the next album. "Well, I've got half of the next album already. Like I said, I write a lot. No shortage of songs."
And people wonder why I drink
Throughout the interview there are a lot of interruptions and this time manager/Security guy, Dave hands Jon his mobile phone with his wife on the line. "Always fucking something, whenever I go away..." Jon mumbles. Turns out she has had an accident and broken her foot. "And people wonder why I drink, right." It is obvious that Jon has a funny comment for anything. It is also apparant that Jon has a special kind of relaxed coolness to him that makes one feel right at home.
We go on to talk about the forthcoming tour and I ask if there are any plans to make a package tour with bands like Circle II Circle or Savatage.
"No. Well, Chris Caffery and I have been talking about the possibility of me and him putting something together and maybe getting another band, but that is something that we gotta see how it works out. It is so difficult to tour nowadays, it's so expensive and you gotta do what is best for the whole thing. Who knows, I may get an offer to be on the support slot with someone like Priest or something like that and I would be an idiot not to do it, but I am planning on getting out there as quickly as I can with whatever kind of setup I can do. So we'll see what happens."
The Savatage Family
Having first discovered Savatage back in 1990 and followed them ever since it seems to me that Savatage is like one big family that just keeps on growing and asking Jon if he feels the same way he says "We've been together for a long time man. But it's like it's just harder to do things with Savatage now that there are so many people involved. They've got so much stuff going on in their lives now. It is hard to explain to people who know us as being together for 23 years but we were together for 5-6 years before that, before anyone knew who we were. I mean Steve Wacholz and me and my brother Criss started playing together in 1978 and that was fucking a long time ago. And it's not that we don't love it. We love the band and that's why we never broke the band up. It's like when it is time for us to do something we all get together and you never know when you might get a Savatage record."
Circle II Circle
We both agree that every new Savatage album is a nice surprise and the fans now at least have something to keep them happy for a while. Getting more into the family thing I ask about the fact that all the former members of Circle II Circle are playing in this band and if there are any hard feelings between them and Zak.
"Well, I just added a new guitar player just the other day so not every member is former Circle II Circle, but yeah, well things didn't work out with them and Zak for whatever reasons. I was in New York when they all decided to part company and when I came back I was sitting at home and I was bored so I called up Matt LaPorte who was the guitar player and said 'I wanna do a couple of shows around town, you wanna play?' and then he told me what happened and well, I felt bad for them, but it was an amicable thing, you know they got involved in the Zak thing on a temporary kind of basis and they were going to see if it was something they wanted to do, but it just didn't work out and so they were all available and I said, 'Well come and play with me for these two shows' and we rehearsed a little bit and we played and it just sounded really good and I was like, ''Fuck, you guys wanna play?' and they were like 'Yeah!!'"
Criss Oliva's Solo Album
The title of Jon's solo album, 'Tage Mahal was originally supposed to be the title of Jon's brother and Savatage guitarist Criss Oliva's solo album, which was never released because of his untimely death. I was of course very interested in knowing if Criss ever got to record anything for it.
"No, he never did. I mean it was just, ok here we go... It was actually an idea I had. I told him, 'Man you should do an instrumental record, I'll help you write the songs and stuff'. Cause at that time if I remember, a couple of guitar players did that, I think Steve Vai had a solo record out and he was just like 'Yeah man, I'll call it Tage Mahal!' and it just stuck in my head, it was great. He said 'Spell it like Tage as in Savatage' and I was like, 'Okay'. So I was thinking up a title for the record and that was the first thing that came into my mind. It keeps a little link there with him.
The Savatage Vault
On the question of whether there are a lot of unreleased Savatage songs lying around Jon tells me that most of it has already been released in some way or form, mostly as bonustracks on the three!!! different versions of the savatage back catalogue. "That's the music business. That's record companies man, they are greedy bastards."
"Well, we don't have much stuff left that is recorded but I have a lot of stuff that is on cassette tapes that we rehearsed, that has never been recorded, but I'm saving those for the 25th anniversary Savatage album. We will pull out a couple of these songs that Criss and I wrote around the Dungeons, Power of the night era. There are like three or four of them that are really cool but we never recorded them. I don't know why, but I guess we just liked the newer stuff better at the time, but they were great songs and I dug them up a few years ago and I was like 'wow! We could do this one and this one. That would be cool'.
Streets: A Rock Opera - The Lost Version
The 1991 masterpiece, "Streets: A rock opera" was originally thought out to be a double album with 22 songs and spoken segments between each song. Only the first segment survived to the actual album and several songs were left out due to pressure from the bands' record company at the time, Atlantic. Over the years several rumors have appeared on the internet of the full Streets recording actually having been recorded and available on the master tapes which were kept at the Atlantic offices. Unfortunately these master tapes mysteriously disappeared at some point and with them also the hope of ever seeing a re-release of Streets in its full version. This being my favorite album of all time I could of course not resist asking if Jon has personally been down in the Atlantic cellar looking for the tapes. The answer is no, but Savatage producer Paul O'Neil hired two guys to go through their whole warehouse and they came out empty handed. I could not describe the situation better than Jon when he says "They are fucking gone man, it's unbelievable. It's so fucked up."
I tell Jon that I managed to find one song on the Internet called Larry Elbow which was one of the songs cut from Streets and his face lights up with recognition as he starts humming the song "Great song man. Forgot all about that one. Maybe one we should ressurect." I can only smile and nod most appreciative.
The 25th Anniversary of Savatage
Going further into the 25th anniversary and the possibility of a whole new Savatage album Jon explains "We've got material put aside for it. We've got a lot of home video stuff that we've been compiling. It's going to be a big package to do and the way we are doing it is probably going to be double length cd."
I tell Jon that it would be cool with a DVD chronicling the entire history of Savatage and he replies "Yeah that's something that is going to be part of it too. We're going to have all the videos on there too. We have a lot of live footage that people have never seen, stuff with Criss Oliva and we're going through all that stuff. It's going to be a great package. We're going to bring in all the guys that played in Savatage. Steve's gonna play some stuff, Alex skolnick, Al Pitrelli, Zak and everybody who has ever played are going to come in and tribute, cause it might be the last one. But it's the 25th anniversary and if it is going to be that last one and we are going to move on and everyone is going to do their own thing then I want it to be special. We'll see what happens. I'm not a guy for 'ohh, we're not doing...' because as soon as you say that you are not going to do it something comes up and you do it. So I just take things day by day and when time comes to do a Savatage record I'll do it and when Paul O'Neil rolls out the red carpet and tells me it's ok to jump I'll say 'How high?'
Being very impressed with the new Savatage vocalist Damond on their 2002 tour I was interested to know if he is still in the band. Jon tells me that he is and that he will probably also feature on the 25th anniversary as well. "Yeah, he worked hard that year when he was on the road with us. He did a great job."
Saying that Savatage has some of the most devoted fans I have ever met Jon agrees, "They're insane!" And the fans are also a motivating factor. "Yeah, it's great man, they have personality and all that I have met are all very knowledgeable musically too. It is nice to talk to people who like music as much as I do. Yeah I have some crazy fans. You guys are all nuts."
Going back in time
I decide to head further back in time and get a little more personal so I ask Jon what his favorite childhood memory is... "My favorite childhood memory?... Probably the first time I got a blowjob." Dave cracks up in the background and shouts "Childhood!" while I ask for further details. Unfortunately, or fortunately Jon appears only to hear Dave... "Oh, childhood... Ahh, you know a fond memory I have is of going on vacation to the beach. We used to live in northern New Jersey, right outside of New York City. I think I was 11 or 12 and Criss was 8 or 9 and we used to go down to the beach with my dad for vacation for three to four weeks every summer. We go to this place called Seaside heights and they had the boardwalk with all the rollercoasters and shit like that. I used to love going there, they had a drive-in movie theater and we used to rent a house there so we had a nice house and we used to go to the drive-in all the time. It was around 1970 and I remember seeing all kinds of weird movies coming out, Kelly's heroes and James Bond movies. My dad was a big James Bond freak. I remember going to the drive-in seeing Goldfinger. Me and my brother made a fort in the back of the station wagon. You know, clothes, big blankets and stuff, it was cool. So I used to love going down to the shore for the summer. Those are fond memories. Jumping around dressed like Batman. I was Batman and Criss was Robin."
If seeing The Mountain King dressed as Batman is something you would die to see, then don't hold your breath just yet. "I would never show anybody those pictures. I actually don't think I have any of us dressed up as Batman & Robin. But we used to do that, kids stuff. We used to have a lot of fun when we were kids. We were very lucky because we came from a good household. You know we had both parents and there was no divorces or that crap going on, so we had a good childhood, a secure childhood. My dad made a lot of money when we were kids, we were kind of upper class which was cool."
The path to Savatage
Having read many biographies and other articles on Jon it seems like he always knew that he wanted to become a musician. Telling him that, he laughs and remembers when he made that decision "Oh yeah, the minute I saw the Beatles on TV I was like 'That looks like a good job'"
So what made you take the Heavy Metal path?
"Ahh, well, actually the first concert I ever went to see was Black Sabbath and up until then the heaviest music I had ever heard was The Beatles. Up until then I was a full blown Beatles freak and then we moved from New Jersey to California. I have an older brother that's six years older than I am. We were driving across country and my first memory of listening to anything that was cosidered Heavy Metal was "Deep Purple", "Machine Head", "Highway star" and "Who do we think we are" albums because he had them on 8-track tape and I was riding with him and we were following my parents. We had a trailer and all this shit. Then when I got to California I met some friends and for my thirteenth birthday my older brother got me tickets to see Black Sabbath."
"All I know is that a guy came to my house and showed me the album cover with the witch on it and I was like 'That is pretty cool' and so I went to see Black Sabbath. I had second row seats and they came out and changed my life from that point on. I was like 'Wow!!! This is fucking heavy man!' They came out and opened up with War pigs and they just blew me out of the fucking arena. It was at San Diego sports arena. That was it and that was when I started getting into the heavier shit. But I always loved the Beatles and even when I was listening to Sabbath and stuff like that I would still always go back to the Beatles. Then Queen came out and they were like right up there with the Beatles and Sabbath and a little Pink Floyd. I like them a lot because I went to see them in concert and I thought their show was really cool. I started getting into them and then as the band started to develop more bands came out, like Rush and then I was into it all. If there was anything that was heavy I was like 'Yeah!'. But I always reverted back to The Beatles. That's where I think I got my songwriting. My songwriting style was developed from them, more so than the heavier bands. Just because I like heavier music everything I play sounds heavy, so I think the mixture of all that is what gives me a little bit of a unique sound."
Telling Jon that I'm a monster Beatles fan we both agree that there is indeed something very special about that band. "Dude, I can't go more than a day without listening to the Beatles, even to this day. I have to listen to the Beatles or I'll go crazy. They make me happy and put me in a good mood. They were magical. A once in a life time thing. It's funny cause when I tell people that my favorite band is The Beatles they look at me like I'm some kind of a lunatic or something. I'm like, 'Well, they didn't do anything to change the face of popular music!'. On the question of whether he has ever done any Betales covers the answer is Yes! "Oh yeah, I've done them live, I've done 'A day in the life', 'Hey Bulldog', I've done 'Let it be' a bunch of times. It's tough because if you are gonna do a Beatles cover you'd better do it right. But we do a great version of a 'Day in the life'." This being one of my top three Beatles favorites I look forward to the day when I hear this one live.
It sounds like Jon Oliva keeps himself pretty busy and the fact that he doesn't have any spare time is not a surprise "I write a lot, that's my passion. So it's like I enjoy that and that keeps me happy. I love sports too, I'm a big football freak. Football season is back which makes me very happy and that's really it. I don't really do much because I'm usually either rehearsing, recording or writing and if it's not with my thing it's with TSO or Savatage. I keep myself busy. But I've had some time of lately so....."
Soundcheck and goodbyes
At this point Dave has been going in and out of the room for a couple of times and now he pops his head in the door and tells us that the soundcheck is happening right now. I assume that the interview is over but Jon is nice enough to ask if we can wrap it up after the soundcheck. I of course happily agree and hope to get to ask the second half of my questions later. This also gives me an opportunity to watch the soundcheck which was an experience in itself. As with most things in the world of Savatage not everything goes exactly as planned, so the soundcheck draws out and when it's finished Jon has to rush to another appointment, leaving me with a quick goodbye standing kinda dizzy in the parking cellar under the Eathlink venue. I hail Jon and Dave for their time and effort and I hope to meet you guys again somewhere in time...
Click here for the ProgPower V festival report.
Written By Steen
Online: Sunday, January 6, 2013