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Interview: JON OLIVA

Rock Stars...

Jon Olivas

Jon Oliva is an artist who needs no introductions. During a career that spans twenty five years, the Mountain King, as he is referred to by most fans of Heavy Metal, has been responsible for the creation of some of the most groundbreaking and heartfelt compositions ever to grace our beloved music.

The latest breathtaking instalment comes under the moniker Jon Oliva's Pain and it is entitled 'Festival' so it was understandable that my long conversation with him was focused on this release.

Having said that, Jon also had some very interesting things to say about his other project called Trans-Siberian Orchestra before explaining the situation regarding Savatage and what we should and should not expect from them in the future. Darkness reigns!

Jon, it is both an honour and a pleasure to be doing this interview here with us, so thank you for taking the time.

Jon: No probs, let's start whenever you're ready.

Let me start by saying that I believe that 'Festival' is the best album that you have released under the Jon Oliva moniker - no offense to any of the other three albums that you have put out under that name, of course.

Jon: Well, thank you very much - I really appreciate that!

There are elements in your music that have been constantly there throughout your career, however, one thing that I found in 'Festival' that is unique in that release is it's ability to become instantly addictive while being a very varied and multi layered album - something than only 'Maniacal Renderings' almost managed to achieve to the same extent in the past.

Jon: 'Festival' is the kind of album that you need to listen to a few times in order to understand it. There is a lot of stuff going on, you know?

A lot of the songs have well over one hundred tracks of music, so there is a lot of stuff that on the first time listening to it you don't really pick up, you know? You got to listen to each song two or three times to really hear all the melody lines and things that are going on in the background there. It's one of those records that will hopefully grow on you.

Jon, that's what I am trying to say here; it already has! I cannot physically stop listening to it!

Jon: Oh, that's great then (laughs).

That is what I find to be really impressive! Even though each composition has so many different layers of guitars and keyboards and even though there are so many things happening in the background, it was very easy for me to 'translate' all those complicated musical 'equations' and enjoy this album.

Jon: That's good news for me! I am happy that 'Festival' has such an effect on you Yiannis.

Jon, even though these ten new compositions of yours are such a joy to listen to, they will certainly give you a hard time to perform in a live environment. How do you reckon you are going to deal with such an important problem in the upcoming shows that you have already booked for the band?

Jon: Vey carefully! I don't know to be honest. I'll figure that out as I go along. We'll see what happens with the songs in rehearsals, that's a big thing, to see how everything's going to work out once you start doing it in a rehearsal situation. So, we'll have to see which ones work and which ones don't.

Do you have any idea, at this moment in time, which are the songs that are more likely to be included in the set list of the upcoming shows, or is it too early to tell?

Jon: Oh, well, certainly 'Death Rides A Black Horse' and 'Festival' will be included and probably also 'Living On The Edge' and 'The Evil Within'…maybe also 'Afterglow' if I can get that one to work, because that's what I would really want to do.

Those are the ones that I am pretty sure that they will work out, but we are going to try every song. We always do that in rehearsals; we try every song and then see how it sounds and what we can work out in a live situation. Those ones that I mentioned are the ones that we will definitely try to do.

What does the rest of the band think about your decision to incorporate all those different guitar and vocal layers in each song, which are undoubtedly making them so difficult to perform live? Are they happy or scared in that respect??

Jon: They will have to do what I tell them to do live! (laughs)

Jon Olivas

Fair enough! The press release I got from AFM Records which accompanied 'Festival' mentioned 'Death Rides A Black Horse' as one of the highlights of the album. Now, I personally agree with them on that matter as it is one of the very first songs that I instantly fell for. Do you mind telling us a few things about this song, what's it about and how it came to life?

Jon: Well, this song has definitely many instruments on it. It has well over a hundred and twenty tracks of music, there is a live brass band in it, there are some strange choirs along with keyboards, pianos, organs and synthesizers. It really has a whirlwind of stuff.

The idea for it actually came from a riff that just appeared in my head one day. I was thinking about something and it was just born from there. It's in a weird tuning, which is another thing that I did a lot on this record.

So, this one is in an open 'c' tuning with a different note for the high 'e' string. This gave it a little bit of a unique sound and that's really the main thing behind it - the tuning situation.

Also, the main riff is very catchy, the counter melodies that are going on - there are kind of two different melodies that are going on at the same time…actually, there are three different melodies going on at the same time!

There is the actual riff and there are two more melodies that I've added on top of it, so it is one of those songs that you've got to listen to a few times cause there are many weird things happening in the background there that might pass you by on the first listen or two.

It's definitely one of my favourite tracks on the album and definitely one that we are going to be doing live, so yes - this song started with a couple of riffs and things grew from there.

Jon Olivas

Correct me if I am wrong here, but I believe that 'Festival' is the first JOP album that features so many keyboards in it. I mean, keyboards always played an important role in this band, but this time round they are quite dominant.

Jon: Yeah, we went crazy. We had a big closet at Morrisound Studios that was filled with old keyboards, some of which hadn't been used in years and years.

One day that I was feeling bored we started dragging them out. We found all kinds of keyboards from the seventies and the early eighties which we put through on Marshall amplifiers and cranking them up and in doing so we came up with some really weird sounds, a lot of which I ended up using.

There is indeed a lot of keyboard playing on the album even though it does sound as being a lot more guitars based; there is a lot of stuff going on.

That is indeed very interesting, considering the fact that you started your musical career as a young person by playing the piano, and if what I read about you in the past is accurate, you were not all too keen to practise the piano, right?

Jon: Well, I actually started my involvement in music by playing drums and then I moved to piano and stuff. I've learned a lot.

I never took any formal lessons to learn how to play, so I kind of taught myself how to play. I play in a very unique and weird way. When I play for other keyboard players that I worked with who were actually trained musicians, they all look at me like I am from another planet, because I don't play keyboards the traditional way that the keyboard player learns how to play them. That kind of gives me my own identity I guess because I play things differently. I do not use the same chord phases that they use - I play everything backwards.

Jon, you've been around for absolutely ages, having started your career from a time when computers were not even part of the picture. Now, we are at that stage in musical evolution that these machines are deemed as necessary, right? How much of the end result in 'Festival' is attributed to digital and how much to analogue recordings?

Jon: Well, I record everything old school. I don't use electronic drums, I don't use electronic basses or anything like that.

I use real drums and I mike them exactly the same way like I did twenty years ago and all the music is played live; none of it is programmed. I do not use programmed computer music or anything like that.

However, when it comes to the recordings, you have to use computers as that's how all the studios are now. No one uses analogue tapes anymore unless you are looking out for a place that is actually specialized in it.

It is very difficult, especially here in America, to get any analogue studios, so even though I record my stuff live and with real instruments, it still all goes into computer tracks as this is the way that everybody records today.

However, when I am working at the general console with the engineer, I do everything by ear and I am turning knobs with my fingers. Computers are mainly used for editing purposes and things like that, but I don't use things like auto tuning vocals.

Everything is live, everything is played, everything is sung and it all goes into the hard drive and then comes up on the mixing desk and instead of mixing it to a tape, you mix it on another hard drive. If you want to have a record done efficiently and sounding good quality wise, you are almost forced to have to record in that process.

In order to put the material together and, assuming that you have everything ready song wise prior to entering the studio, do you guys send each other files of music or do you meet and practice together? What was the process that you followed with 'Festival'?

Jon: Well, we work everything out in our home studio first, you know. I usually record the demo of a song with Chris Kinder as we have our own home studio together where we rehearse.

I demo all the songs up, I play all the instruments and do a rough demo of each song and then I'll have all the guys come in to sit and listen to them. We will then talk about them and I will give each guy the option, like, in the case of the bass guitar I will say 'this is the bass part I came up with and which I hear. If you can prove to me that you can come up with something that works better, let's hear what you've got'.

We know that this part which I've got is going to work, so if they cannot come up with something better then we will go with what I have. So I give everybody the option, the opportunity to contribute their own ideas to the songs once they are ready to be worked on and then we go through each part and as long as we are all happy with everything then we go to the studio and we cut it for real.

I am not a musician so maybe the next question I am going to ask may sound strange to you. I assume that every song that you eventually record has to go through numerous different changes throughout its 'birthing' process. When do you know when it is the right time to stop 'messing' with an idea? What is it that helps you to manage to draw the line?

Jon: A lot of alcohol (laughs)! No, actually, some songs are like that when you've got a lot of ideas and you will do that, but for me that doesn't happen that often.

Usually I can get a song that will go through one or two changes, add one piece here and remove another from there. I kind of mostly write them out very close to what they end up sounding.

Maybe one or two songs in each album I will always go back to and make changes to. On this album it was the song 'Afterglow'. I spent a lot of time on this one and also on the song 'Winter Haven' - those were the two monsters on this album for me as far as writing goes, where songs went through many different demos.

I demoed each song probably seven or eight times each, constantly changing the arrangement in order to make them better till finally I was satisfied with them.

The time came when I felt 'yes, this is going to do me, this is what I was looking for'. You kind of know it when it happens, when you hit on something that kind or rings little bells in your head and makes you think 'Ok, that's it'.

I believe that I detected the sound of the mandolin in 'Afterglow' - did you indeed use that instrument there?

Jon: I used everything on this record (laughs).

You know, being a southern European makes me detect such sounds better than most people who did not grow up in that part of the world.

Jon: Yes, we indeed used the mandolin. We also used hammer dulcimers, we used harpsichords, we used … God, we used everything!

Twelve string electric and acoustic guitars, sitars - you name it and it's on this record somewhere. I used more instruments on this record than on any record I have ever done so far in my career. We try everything out - everything but the kitchen sink is there. (laughs)

Jon, the fact that the band enjoys a healthy relationship, a solidarity of sorts, really comes across in your music. You have worked with countless different musicians throughout your career, some of whom are quite famous and well respected by fans and journalists alike.

Do you find that this bunch of guys that you are working with at the moment give you all it is you need in order to unleash all your creative demons?

Jon: Yeah, I am very happy with the guys in the band. They can play anything, you know, and that was important to me when I decided to form this band.

It was important to know that these guys can play many styles of music. These guys really can and that is not a knock on any of the guys that I played with in the past!

Savatage was a very one dimensional band, you know? We did what we did and that's what we did. With this band there's a little bit more freedom for me.

As a writer, I can experiment a little bit more and I don't have to worry about having to stay inside a perimeter that I was with Savatage, so it makes it much easier for me to write music.

One thing I really remember when I saw you guys at the Progpower UK festival a few years ago is my conversation with to your drummer Christopher. During our discussion I was impressed as to how much love and respect that this guy has for you - quite a unique thing nowadays.

Jon: Chris is my right hand man right now. He does a lot of stuff for me, he handles the website stuff and all the Internet crap and he engineers and co-produces with me in the studio. He's got a great ear and he's very knowledgable with that stuff and that helps me out a great deal.

I was checking your website earlier to see whether there is any announcement for a gig here in the UK but there is nothing there yet. Are there any plans for you guys visiting us for a gig?

Jon: We are talking to somebody about the prospect of coming over sometime late September.

Now, that is what I call great news!

Jon: This is definitely something that's in the works, so it will be either September or early October.

Before that time, though, you have arranged to participate in some of the most prestigious festivals in Germany according to your website, one of them being Bang Your Head.

Most interesting than all that, however, is the Triton Power Cruise event that you'll play in, which to me sounds a really cool thing to do. How did you guys end up on the bill?

Jon: The cruise thing actually is going to be very interesting because I get seasick!


Jon: Yes, this should be very interesting. I was under the impression that I would come in, do a show and then would leave the boat. I had no idea that I was going to be off to sea and having to play. I don't know;

 I don't know how that came about. Somebody contacted Chris Kinder. He asked me about it and the money was really, really good which I was very surprised about so I didn't really ask any details about it - I just assumed for myself that the boat is docked when you play the concert. It was quite to my surprise that it's actually not docked, that it's actually out floating around the ocean. So yes, that will be interesting since I have a seasickness problem.

Jon, what is happening with Savatage in general? Is there any chance that we might see another album coming out sometime in the future or is such an idea completely out of the question?

Jon: It is never completely out of the question because as soon as you say something like that, then something happens, you know?

There are no plans of doing any kind of live stuff, I mean. There is a compilation that's due to come out called 'Still The Orchestra Plays' and that is kind of 'we're moving on' thing.

Everybody that was involved with Savatage is now playing for Trans-Siberian Orchestra, so the band is basically still together, only under a different name.

Obviously, there are other people that are also involved there, but the nucleus of that band is the same since Savatage released 'Dead Winter Dead'. All the same guys are playing on the albums; it's the same writing team with Paul O'Neill, myself and Bob Kinkel.

Al Pitrelli is contributing a little bit, even Chris Caffery has contributed some writing, so it's all the same guys doing the same thing only under a different name which now has become quite successful here in America.

There are plans to bring this project here in Europe in a year or two and we'll see what happens. You know, to do a Savatage reunion show or something like that would mean that everybody would have to stop doing what they are doing.

This would include me and my band, TSO and Chris Caffery's solo work, Zak's Circle II Circle work - basically having everybody shutting everything down to do one show to me is silly. I mean, this band has never officially broken up - we changed our name and the name Savatage was put in the past where I believe it belongs.

To me, Savatage died the day Chris Oliva died - as far as the Savatage as I knew it and loved it, from the 'Streets' album and backwards! Everything basically after that was just done for having to make a living, you know?

When Chris died that was obviously a very difficult time and after that I had contract obligations to fulfil and I also had to make a living. I have a child to support and a wife to support. I kept trying my best to try to keep the band together, though it never was the same for me.

To me, we were basically turning into the Trans-Siberian Orchestra anyway because the sound of the band was becoming totally different.

We were doing the big Rock Opera albums, the concept albums that TSO are so famous for or whatever and so we were heading towards that direction anyway. I think that we couldn't do everything that we wanted to do under the name Savatage. We couldn't do a song like 'Remnants Of A Lullaby' which is on the new 'Night Castle' album under the name Savatage with a girl singer singing it.

We understood that once Chris passed away, things were going to be different, that we had to find a new direction and the direction was to have a lot of different types of music with a lot of different players and the guys from Savatage as the basic band.

We decided to bring people in from different countries, different male and female vocalists and that we should have no limitations as to what we can do. That is what I always wanted to do anyway and that is basically what happened.

So, to do anything to go back to the past…the past is the past and I think that it's time to move forward and let that all be put to rest. Now you get great music from Trans-Siberian Orchestra, great music from JOP, you've got Zak's stuff that he's doing which I think is really good and Chris Caffery stuff, so you've got way much more music coming from the people now than you would have if there was only one band together.

With only one band together you would have only one record every two years but now you've got everybody involved. You've got what I am doing solo and with TSO and you have the work of all the other guys, so I think that in general everybody should be happy for getting so much great music to listen to.

I totally understand where you're coming from. Last time you played in the UK you gave us a really special treat by performing Savatage's 'Streets' in its entirety. Will you ever consider doing the same thing for another Savatage release?

Jon: That is something that I've thought about - you never know. The 'Streets' thing was something that I did on that tour and it was indeed quite cool. I may do it again sometime or I may not; you never know when it comes to that stuff - it all depends. I never count anything out!

I tell you what - if you do something like that with 'Gutter Ballet' and I am in the audience, I will have a heart attack for sure!

Jon: Ok! (laughs)

There are a few interesting things happening for the bands in the months to come, one of which is the recording of the first Jon Oliva's Pain DVD whose recording date has moved to October if I am not mistaken. Now, you've chosen Tilburg/Holland as the location for the shooting - why that particular place?

Jon: Because there is a venue there that I have played to many times in the past and which is perfectly designed for a DVD shoot. That's really the main reason.

The venue itself is rigged for cameras to be hung and it's got a recording studio downstairs so I can do all the stuff there without having to bring in a truck full of equipment.

In financial terms, it means that I will not have to spend half my budget having to bring equipment into the building - it's already basically set for the show, you know?

The stage is a big size, the acoustics in the building are perfect and like I said they have a full studio downstairs so I can do the audio and the video all at the same time. It was the best and most economical choice to do it and do it well. That is definitely the place to go to.

Apart from the actual show, what other extra features are to be included in the release?

Jon: We are going to do some weird stuff but we haven't decided what yet. We are going to film a lot of stuff, there will be a lot of backstage footage and tour bus footage I'm sure. We are also going to add some interviews and things like that, so, yes, we are going to fill it with many extras so as to ensure that we present you with a nice package.

Jon, I have already taken full advantage of your time and kindness, so thank you once again for taking the time to do this interview. I wish you all success for any endeavours that you might undertake, as I believe that you are one of the few real artists out there.

Jon: Thank you, hopefully I will see you soon in person in the UK. Take care, my friend.


Interview © January 2010 John Stefanis

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