Jon Oliva has never been someone that shies away from the issues of the day so I was honoured to get the chance to interrogate him about the fascinating subjects raised in 'Maniacal Renderings', the new album from Jon Oliva's Pain, as well as discussing his experiences with Savatage and the Trans-Siberian Orchestra.
You're in the process of releasing 'Maniacal Renderings'. Was it a good record to make?
Jon: Yeah, it was a lot of fun. It actually just came out I think about a week and a half ago. And it's sold out of its first pressing already which is really good. So yeah, it was a lot of fun.
Your lyricism is thought provoking, for example 'Playing God' from the new album raises issues about the current global political climate such as the east/west conflict and propaganda. I guess that's something that concerns you, particularly as an American citizen?
Jon: I guess it could be. It's really just from how I see everything. Whether it's America or elsewhere, but I think there's problems everywhere when it comes to politicians and stuff like that. Because I think a lot of them are just lying. So many times you watch the news and listen to the news shows and talk shows - I listen to a lot of that stuff when I'm driving around - and there's so much bullcrap you know? And the people like us are really just victims of these lunatics. That's really what that's based about. It's just based about how I feel about how everybody's running their countries, whether it's America or what. I think it's all pretty much a bunch of bullcrap really. This is my view though, you know.
And what about from, say, the Christian viewpoint? There are tensions in today's multi-faith communities. How do you follow your own faith while respecting others' beliefs?
Jon: I don't really know. I don't know what I believe in any more. So many bad things have happened. I'm born Catholic so that right there, with all the stuff with the priests and abusing children and all these money scandals going on. I think so many bad things have happened in the name of God that it's hard to really believe in anything any more. I think you're better off just believing in yourself and getting through this part of existence as quickly as possible with your head still on. I really don't know what I believe in any more to be honest with you, it's very very confusing to me. You know, you start to believe in something and the next thing that you know, you turn around and you find out that they're ripping off all these poor old people for all their savings, and they're abusing children. And they're protecting them too, that's the other thing - they get caught doing it, and then instead of bringing the hammer down on them, they hide them out. It's just really twisted. So I don't really know what I believe in any more. I believe in me.
Fair enough. It's the safe option I think! It's obvious that you get lyrical inspiration from the world around you. Is that what drives you as a musician? Do you have a need to express your thoughts?
Jon: I think so, yeah. You could very easily sit down and write songs about dungeons and dragons and stuff but I think that's kind of been over-done. Everything's been done but I just feel for me it's satisfying to write something that says something, that has meaning behind it. Maybe it might be views that everybody doesn't agree with, but I'm just speaking from where I'm coming from, and just relating in my own way I guess. It's a little weird.
You're still having fun with it, like you've already said?
Jon: Oh yeah, I'm having a ball. If I wasn't having fun any more I'd be retired and be a manager.
Having been over 25 years in the music business, have you seen it change much in the way things are done from a technological point of view?
Jon: [laughs] It's gotten bad! It's like any business I guess. It's got its ups and its got its downs. Unfortunately we went through a lot more downs than we did ups. But things now are starting to look really good for everybody. We've got some successful projects out there. We've got Trans Siberian Orchestra here in America and that's multi-platinum and selling out 20,000-seat sports arenas every night. Which is very nice and very good. It's just everything changes with time, and I think technology has changed things, it's made it easier and cheaper to do records.
I remember back in the early days (oh god) we would spend six months, seven months doing an album and spend $150,000 to $200,000 in budget. Nowadays, people are doing albums for $30,000. But I don't think they sound as good personally. I think that technology is great, but I think it's like MTV. It was great but it also damaged live performances. Especially I don't know so much for Europe but in America it did. And it took a lot of mystique away from the bands.
The same thing with recording and technology and all that, it's taken things away from a lot of hands-on recording in the studio where now you can do everything with a computer. If you make a mistake you don't even have to re-play, you can just change it in the computer and 'oh, there, it's fixed now'. So from that aspect it's not as good but everything changes will time, and I'm sure everything will work itself back out.
I miss the old days of tape machines and cutting tape and actually playing. So when I record my albums, I go back old-school. I record everything to tape and then I only transfer it back to digital when I mix. So I try to keep it as old-school as possible.
It's nice that you have the option to do that though, that's cool. Is the recording process something you enjoy or is it more of a necessary evil?
Jon: Yeah, I'm a real studio nut. I love it, I love everything about it. It's because it's like painting; you get to see it grow and develop, and I like to take my time and try different things, so I'm a big studio freak. I love playing live too, but there's a lot of things that go along with live performing that isn't very enjoyable, you know - the travelling and the hotels and being away from your family. The only thing that's really worth it is when you're actually on stage and when you're meeting the fans, and talking to the fans. That's really the only thing about live stuff that I like. Everything else, airplanes and all that stuff - I'm terrified to fly now. It's like, who knows, you know? So I prefer the studio - it's a lot safer.
Do you keep the enthusiasm when you play each live gig or do you sometimes think 'oh my god, I've had enough' when it's night after night of the same thing?
Jon: I never feel that way when I have to play. You might wake up in the morning and think 'oh shit, I've got to fucking do this again today', because everybody sometimes gets tired or you're in a bad mood, but once you get around the venue and the fans start showing up and you do your sound check, then it all goes away and the excitement of actually playing starts to build up. For me that's how it works and I get psyched up two or three hours before we actually play. By the time it's time to play nothing else matters to me until we're finished. And then the only thing that matters to me is a shower! [laughs]
You've played a few festivals with Jon Oliva's Pain this summer, such as Graspop in Belgium and Bang Your Head in Germany.
Jon: We did a bunch, I think we did, like, ten of them.
And you're booked as headliners of the Progpower festival in the UK next year. Are there any other concrete dates booked at the moment?
Jon: We're working on dates following the March prog show. I think that's going to be the first show and then we're going to string some dates on after that. And we're going to go back over for the summer and some of the festivals that we didn't do last year, we're going to play this year. So we're going to be playing a lot from March on.
I notice you do quite a few acoustic sets. Is that something you prefer or is it just something different?
Jon: I love it because it's just a whole different world. After being around for 25 years and talking to so many people, people know that I'm a big Beatles fan and I love acoustic music, and they would always say 'why don't you do acoustic shows, or do some acoustic tracks?' and I'd be like 'yeah yeah yeah yeah' and then finally I was like 'you know, I feel like doing this'. And because we do the festivals there's a lot of down-time in the middle of the week so we started booking acoustic shows and I did a string of them - I think I did about 12 of them or something like that. And they were really enjoyable. The fans loved them.
I thought it was going to be a little bit weird but the fans really dug them, they were going crazy, they loved it. It's cool, I like it because it's a whole different side. I can do things that I wouldn't normally do in an electric show. I mean, I covered some Beatles tracks, I did kind of like a storytellers acoustic set where I would talk about songs, I would be able to do some different versions of Savatage songs. You know, we used to record stuff and do different versions of all these songs. So there's lots of songs that people knew but they'd never heard played that way. So it was very enjoyable, I'm going to continue to do them, I think I'm going to do more next summer.
You've been quite lucky I suppose, because although you've had your problems during your career, you've been able to stick with what you believe in. I guess a lot of bands have that pressure to produce an album, they've got contracts with record labels, and they feel almost that they have to put anything out.
Jon: Yeah, I don't like that. I have a record deal with Jon Oliva's Pain, but I've made it specific that I'm only going to put records out when they're ready. I don't want any time line - you know 'you have to give me a record in six months'. That's when the creativity gets damaged because you can't force creativity, it has to come naturally, and sometimes it takes a little bit longer and I hate deadlines and I hate budgets. And with the success of Trans-Siberian Orchestra, it's given me enough extra money to where I don't really have to worry about it.
I'm really not doing the Jon Oliva's Pain thing for money, I'm really doing it because it's just something I really want to do. I don't really perform with the Orchestra stuff so the Jon Oliva's Pain thing was basically formed for me to do the Savatage thing and stuff like that since the Savatage guys are too busy with Trans-Siberian Orchestra to be able to do any Savatage work so it opens it up for me to go out and have some fun again.
So there's nothing in the pipeline for Savatage at the moment then?
Jon: There's a project in the planning. It just all comes down to, again, we don't want to just run in there and throw something out there and say 'okay, here's a Savatage record' and put out another fight for the rock. We'd rather just, when the schedules are agreeable and we can work it out, we can do something. But when that is actually going to be, I couldn't really say. Probably within the next year or two I'd imagine.
And with Pain you have six band members and I understand that you all have input on the writing process. How does the composition work in that sense? Do you jam together or do you each come to the studio with some material?
Jon: No, we jam. I kind of went back with this record - I didn't really know the guys that well when we did the first record, so they were pretty much directed by me on the first record. On this record I wanted to get back more to a band type of thing like we used to do with Savatage so we rehearsed every night, I had the majority of all the songs together but I had bits and pieces that were missing and I left bits and pieces out. And I was thinking 'okay, well I need something here, I need something there, let's see what we can come up with'. And some of the guys came up with some great pieces and they all just worked. So I'm just trying to bring them in a little bit and get some outside influence. And it all just seemed to fall together really well. I was really happy about that.
The album also features some old material that Criss wrote. What it a difficult decision to use it?
Jon: Yeah yeah, that was magical stuff. Boy, it was really spooky in a way, because there were tapes that my wife found that, they were old write tapes which by luck, thank god, she had saved.
Because she's a pack-rat, she doesn't throw anything away. And they had just been missing. They were in boxes full of shoes, in a shoe box, in a big box, then they were covered with boots and sneakers and we moved and she just happened to empty out this big box that we'd been lugging around for ten years and found this shoe box full of tapes and in there were all these writing tapes and some of the riffs in there was stuff that we'd used with Savatage but then there was a lot of stuff that we never used and those are some of the riffs that I just said 'wow, that's a great riff', and I'd just pull it out and say 'wow, that might work with this thing I have here'.
And it was weird because it was kind of like writing with him again. Even though he wasn't here, his music was here and that‘s how we used to write anyway. He would give me riffs and I would give him riffs and we would trade cassette tapes, and he would try to finish my stuff and I would try to finish his. So it was kind of like I made believe that he'd just given me these riffs so I'd better fit them into these songs.
A couple of them were hard to do - 'Timeless Flight' was the hardest one because the whole middle section that starts on a soft piano was actually played on a Spanish guitar. So I had to transpose it to piano and then the key was different so I had to change the key and then there was one piece, and I had to put a piece of my stuff in the middle to get them to meet. And that took me a few weeks of aggravation and several weeks to figure out how to get it to work. But it did come together and having him as a part of the album was like the cherry on top of the chocolate sundae, so it was very special and it gave the record and all the guys that were playing a great vibe. It was very exciting and this was stuff that no-one's ever heard before. And I was like 'yeah, this is really cool'. So it was definitely a big part of the album.
In your experience do different countries have different tastes in music? For example are you aware of being more popular or better known in some countries than others?
Jon: You know, it is weird. Europe has been very good to me. Actually the UK is the place where I've had the least success in Europe because I haven't really played there that much. But all the rest of the countries in Europe we've done very well, so we're pretty strong in all of them really. Germany is very good for us, Holland, Italy, Greece is incredible. South America, Spain, we did very well in Spain. I find them all very similar, they just speak different languages.
And as a variation on a theme, American power metal has its own sound which is different to European power metal. I imagine a lot of the bands would cite Savatage as an influence. Is today's scene anything you're aware of? What sort of music do you listen to yourself?
Jon: I'm not really aware of it because I don't get the chance. I work so much I don't really get that much time, the only time I really get to hear any of the new bands is when I'm playing with them. So I'm really not aware. I notice a huge difference in European power metal bands and American ones. I think the European ones are, in my opinion, more Savatage-like than the American ones. The American ones to me are more Dream Theater-like, where it's more about the guitar solos and all that type of stuff, where what I've found with the European ones is that it's more about the melody lines and operatic type of singing, a lot of those types of things. You know, so that to me is the big difference. But I actually prefer the European metal to the American metal myself.
You've got a lot of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal influence in your earlier work?
Jon: Yeah. Oh definitely. I was very influenced by Sabbath, Deep Purple as far as heavy bands go, Motorhead - I remember when I first heard about Motorhead it was like 1980, I was like 'who are these guys?' - but Sabbath and Deep Purple, and Queen obviously, those are my big hard rock type bands. Sabbath definitely for heavy metal. They were my first exposure to hard rock, and then Deep Purple was next. My older brother turned me on to Deep Purple. When I first heard Queen they kind of reminded me a bit of Black Sabbath, a bit of Deep Purple and a bit of The Beatles. So I instantly fell in love with them and they've been my number two band behind The Beatles. It's always been The Beatles, Queen and Sabbath, those are my big three.
And with this latest recording it's still metal and heavy isn't it?
Jon: Yeah. It's still heavy. It's got a little more of the edges knocked off but it's a dark heavy. But I did do a lot of experimenting on this record, I did some things that I haven't done before, you know different types of singing and things. And it was really cool because none of the guys in the band have every really sung back-up vocals before so that was really a challenge. Getting in there and doing all that singing is all the guys in the band with me doing it live, track by track. And they'd never done it before so we were doing it kind of in unison. It was quite an experience but the end result was really cool and I love the back-up singing on the album, I thought it was really really good. It was a lot of fun.
That's all I have to ask you, so is there anything else you'd like to say?
Jon: Just everyone be safe, god bless you all and I hope to see you in March at the prog show, and be careful out there, it's a nasty world.
Interview © October 2006 Amanda Hyne