Ex SAVATAGE vocalist Zak Stevens talks about TSO, SAVA and his current band Circle II Circle

Ex SAVATAGE vocalist Zak Stevens talks about TSO, SAVA and his current band Circle II Circle
January 15, 2012 | By More

Zak Stevens truly appreciates his talent, the people he’s worked with and the places it’s taken him.  As a member of SAVATAGE from 1992-2000 he worked with the band and original singer Jon Oliva to start a whole new chapter of history for the group.  He and the band endured the tragic loss of Jon’s brother and lead guitarist Criss Oliva and the rebirth of the band after his passing.  Along the way, he’s seen the surprising rise of Trans Siberian Orchestra that all started with a song written for and released on a SAVATAGE album and charted the course for his new band CIRCLE II CIRCLE who continue to tour and record.  I talked to Zak about a lot….including all of that.  Read on…..

Legendary Rock Interviews:  Thanks for talking to us Zak.  Love all of your work and your voice.  I usually never ask anyone any tech type questions about their guitar rig or any of their instrument preferences but I’m always interested in people who approach singing so seriously.  What was it like attending Musicians Institute out in Hollywood?

Zak Stevens:  It was really cool actually John.  I attended VIT, the vocal institute, when it first started.  I think I was in like the first or maybe second class ever.  It was the first year back in 88 or 89.  It was a lot of information to cram into a really short window of time.  The curriculum is about 4 or 5 inches thick, the notebook.  They warned us that they were gonna cover it all but it would take a good seven years to actually internalize the information, which was true.  You can try to take it all in, the theory, the diction, the styles, the breathing but it really is a lot to learn and you never STOP learning.

LRI:   I have talked to many singers who either train and take lessons or even give lessons.  I’ve also talked to ones who haven’t but who at least understand that their voice IS an instrument.  Not to sound dismissive to anyone but did you find that there were two trains of thought among vocalists out in Hollywood back in those days?  The ones who really felt it was a craft and the ones who just got onstage and winged it?

ZS:  Yes.  I definitely wanted to be one of the guys who used my voice as an instrument and take care of it like that and understand it like that.  It is important if you want to have some longevity in the business and if you don’t know what you’re doing you can have the greatest gift in the world but definitely have no longevity.  There’s a lot of screamers and a lot of people out there who wanna be rockstars which is certainly a part OF the business but the other part is being a true professional vocalist.  You have to try to view those two different worlds together and PUT them both together.  That’s always been how I’ve looked at it during my career.  I wanna be a rockstar and I wanna entertain but it’s always in the back of my mind that thought of my voice being my instrument

LRI:  Paul Stanley was on the newswire this past year because he was having surgery and he really did an amazing, amazing job of explaining not only why he was having the surgery but how it is necessary to take care of yourself as a singer and take your job seriously.  He’s a guy who has avoided all the usual bullshit of drugs and alcohol beating on you but it just proved how complicated the whole thing is to me.  He said a real singer knows how to get rest and respect their voice and their audience.

ZS:  He’s so right and such a pro.  It isn’t easy even if you do everything “technically” that you’re supposed to.  I had a lot of growing and learning to do when I first joined SAVATAGE.  I wasn’t at all near the point that I needed to be as far as learning all of that.  I had a lot of vocal pain, a lot of stress understanding what to do if there WAS a problem or WHY there might be a problem.  I was lucky that I hooked up with a good ENT doctor, actually several good ones that really helped me.  You have to know when someone might be able to help you.  I had a condition where acid reflux was stressing my vocal cords so badly that I would sing for a week and my voice hurt like I was singing nonstop for months.  People hear that and go “Oh you mean heartburn? (laughs)”  It was such a big issue I cannot explain.  Your vocal cords are supposed to be white but mine were bright pink and long story short I had been misdiagnosed by my primary doctor and had been taking the wrong medication.  Paul is 100% right in the fact that you really have to keep your eye on the ball and know when something isn’t right or doesn’t feel good.  Medical things can pop up for anyone and if you just keep singing through them you are more than likely going to cause yourself even more damage.  I’ve actually been really lucky since then and my voice has really improved as a result.  The one thing I also think is that a lot of singers have OCD or perfectionism and you can beat yourself up worse than anything as a result of that.  You have to end those thought processes because they will hold you back.  You are always going to be changing and evolving and you’re never going to be the “perfect” singer.  You will never be as good as you really wanna be, every day can be different out on the road and your voice will go through changes.  The best thing you can do is just learn to go with the flow, be aware, get your rest and make the adjustments you need to make.  It is a never-ending learning process when your instrument is your body, it sounds crazy but it is.

LRI:  Your pre-SAVATAGE band Wicked Witch actually reunited in a sense under the name MACHINES OF GRACE.  Was that satisfying?

ZS:  Yeah.  We really wanted to get together and actually be able to record and release some of that old material properly in a nice, modern studio. Some of the arrangements and performances are stepped up as well as the actual studio quality which was interesting and fun.   That was the primary reason for that.  We had always wanted to redo those songs, for years and years and that was a great chance for us to be able to do that.  It was cool for us to be able to do them properly and hang out again and do some shows and stuff.  We haven’t really been able to do that many shows because Jeff (Plate, Savatage/TSO drummer) and I have been so busy with other things, namely Circle II Circle and TSO.  Now that we are doing both Christmas and Spring concerts it is even harder to find that availability.  We are really happy with the way MACHINES OF GRACE turned out and glad that those songs are finally seeing the light of day after spending what felt like forever in dormancy.  To be able to get that material together and released in one volume of music is really satisfying to us.

LRI:  How much of an influence was SAVATAGE on your early music with Wicked Witch?

ZS:  I think the first time I got into SAVATAGE as a kid was probably about 85 around the POWER OF THE NIGHT album.  That was the first album I ever got from the band.  They were really one of the many bands that I paid attention to and followed as far as when they put records out and stuff.  I don’t think they were that huge of an influence like DIO or Maiden was to us or even Whitesnake.  When I listen to the original, old stuff we did I can really hear those things.  It’s hard for me to explain, but I know it when I hear it.  I guess, speaking from a vocal perspective I just don’t hear it because I don’t think I sound like Jon Oliva at all so his lines weren’t something that logically popped into my mind when I was writing vocal melodies.  I think that’s one of the reasons I got the SAVATAGE gig was because everybody was trying to sound like Jon Oliva during the audition process but I really didn’t at all.  I think it helped me stand out and the guys were like “You know what?  I think we’d rather go with a guy in a little different style who doesn’t really sound like Jon rather than trying to find someone to replicate him”.  I mean, I LOVE his voice but who else really sounds like that?  I knew I was nothing like that so I didn’t try to be.  That turned out to be real lucky for me that they were looking for something that wasn’t in that same vein.

LRI:  One of the misconceptions casual fans have is that you just stepped in and Jon was out of the Savatage scene when in fact Jon was always involved with SAVATAGE even if it was behind the scenes.

ZS:  That’s right.  Jon was always still there.  He kind of wanted to get out of the frontman spot and give his voice a break so to speak, he was always involved in writing and producing and all things SAVATAGE.  He’s been a monster songwriter for years and years and lives and breathes music but the grind of being the frontman for a band has a toll that it takes.  He’s also a phenomenal producer and writer now with TSO.  Jon and Criss were both involved in the audition and selection process to find a new SAVATAGE singer, the audition process was a pretty long process it wasn’t just one and done.  Even once I got in the band I still felt like I was kind of always auditioning for a while because it took a while to get up to speed.  I realized I was going to have to make some adjustments to be able to make that jump from Wicked Witch to SAVATAGE.  That was a HUGE challenge for me and the biggest challenge I have EVER had to rise up and meet.  I did have to work hard to make the cut for that band vocally but it was very beneficial and cool because I think it really prepared me for my time in the band and everything since then with TSO and Circle II Circle.

LRI:  Were you impressed by the music that ended up being the EDGE OF THORNS album and are you still impressed?

ZS:  Oh yeah!  I was really fortunate to be right there and be a part of the writing for the album rather than being thrown into the fire and just asked to sing on a finished album like some vocalists are asked to do.  It was an amazing time for us all just writing, rehearsing and creating those tracks which really helped ease my transition and comfort level with joining the band.  Having all that time and luxury to get acquainted with the band and the material really helped me have the perspective I needed to get the job done.  We did EDGE OF THORNS mostly in Tampa and then the subsequent albums were done mostly in New York City.  I feel like I was able to even improve more on the next few albums because Paul O’Neill knew I was always wanting to learn and hooked me up with some of the greatest vocal teachers in New York like Liz Kaplan who handles all these Broadway stars.  I really appreciated being able to grow and expand even more due to lessons with her, that was really nice to be able to do that DURING the album making process.  It really, really helped my confidence level to be able to feel like “Wow, I can really master this now and really hit this note or go to this level without feeling anything.”  It was a real eye opener and helped me tremendously.  I felt like I could take leaps with confidence and as a singer that feeling is awesome.

LRI:  I talked to Chris Caffery  who has done so much and accomplished so much but still sounded legitimately emotional and pained when talking about Criss Oliva.  The pain for everyone, including the fans, still feels too fresh.   I cannot begin to even imagine what he feels or what any of you in the circle felt.  The kicker in addition to such a tremendous personal and musical loss is that his death seemed to happen at such a crossroads for SAVATAGE.  After so many classic albums it felt like the band was finally getting mainstream exposure and breaking into new territory and I am NOT just attributing that to you joining the band of course.  It just felt like EDGE OF THORNS was really building up steam, things were finally clicking for one of the hardest working metal bands ever and then the unthinkable happens.  Do you sort of understand what I mean?

ZS:  I totally agree, yeah.  You are dead on about all of that John.  Basically, we had just gotten home from a European tour that was really successful and were waiting to go out on the road here with Vince Neil Band for his first album, which at the time was a big situation and we were getting exposure on MTV which was unheard of in the Grunge era.  We were doing something very different with metal and were gaining steam despite the alternative wave.  It was phenomenal that radio, MTV and people were very receptive to it and we truly felt that the breaking point was coming, on the horizon so to speak, in terms of mainstream success.  Then of course we all got that fateful call that Criss had been killed on highway 301 by a drunk driver with prior convictions.  The car hit his car head on and he was instantly killed and……it just ended everything for quite some time.  Criss was family and we were devastated, we prayed for his wife Dawn and nobody really did anything for a long while.  I was with my soon to be wife and just slumped into a corner and barely moved for about 48 hours.  It was something you just cannot comprehend, losing someone who was such a great friend, such a great talent and on the cusp of so much at only 30 years old.  I can understand Chris Caffery still feeling it, I talk to him a lot even very recently.  I am just grateful that Criss and Jon Oliva gave me a chance and I still feel dedicated to honoring Criss to this day even with Circle II Circle.  I feel the best way to keep him with me is to keep that music alive and onstage in front of fresh ears.  It inspires me and inspires the audience and he would be happy about that.  I know he would be happy that Jon continues as well, despite the odds.  Jon recently lost Matt LaPorte, his guitar player in Jon Oliva’s Pain and our guitarist on the first two Circle II Circle albums.  Matt was a good friend and a great talent who helped me out considerably with my band and was very special to Jon Oliva.  We all try to be tough but Jon Oliva is TOUGH.  He continues to carry on under tremendous adversity and it is because of his undying love for music.

LRI:  To many fans Jon’s ultimate achievement amidst adversity was the HANDFUL OF RAIN album that followed his brother’s death.  He played such a mammoth role in the making of that album as did Paul and yourself.  How difficult a task was it to produce such a heartfelt tribute to Criss?

ZS:  Well, like I said, for a long time we didn’t really feel like we were going to go on at all just because it was such a profound loss.  A few months of that went by and then we sort of realized that Criss wouldn’t really want us to be sitting around and discontinuing music or quitting SAVATAGE.  The band was his life.  That wouldn’t be good for his legacy, to me it wouldn’t be good and furthermore to be honest…..knowing him like I did, that was just NOT his attitude.  Criss Oliva was the epitome of a “Don’t quit, never surrender and keep your head up” attitude.  I knew that we couldn’t go that way and I knew that Criss would feel the same way if he could just somehow talk to us.  We all got together and decided that same thing and started writing HANDFUL OF RAIN and it was incredible.  We worked hard, I know Jon and Paul were working VERY hard, to make it the best possible tribute that it could be.  I love those songs.  I sing the song “Alone You Breathe” EVERY night in Circle II Circle which was kind of the pinnacle moment of the whole tribute to Criss.  I think we all felt that album had to be special, Johnny Lee (Middleton, bass) really contributed and hit it out of the park and Alex Skolnick helped us out with all the guitars despite being really busy on his own.

LRI:  You guys had a successful tour for HANDFUL OF RAIN.  As difficult as it had to be to step onstage with Alex in Criss’s place that had to also feel good to have the band back.

ZS:  It totally did feel good John.  That is kind of documented on the Live in Japan DVD/CD which is part of the Greatest Hits package STILL THE ORCHESTRA PLAYS.  It was a great show in front of a LOT of people in Japan and the tour also did very well in Europe and the U.S.  Things were still going well for the band.  Was it going to be the same without Criss?  No, but it was still going well and people need to remember that we truly were doing it as a TRIBUTE to him.  I thought it was a very good thing for the band and especially for Jon to get out there and do those shows.

LRI:  I plan on blitzing our page with the clips from that particular show because it is probably one of the greatest live shows I have ever seen in my life.  It is just magic to see you and Jon onstage together trading lines and the whole band performance is spectacular.

ZS:  Thank you.  I really think it is a great show as well and it’s really cool that all these years later I am seeing and hearing so much appreciation for it.  I think it was really a good thing to include that in the package because I think so many people missed that show the first time around are just now absorbing it.  I went years not hearing anything about it and now all of a sudden with this release I have been hearing about it from everyone.  It was before the days of HD but it still looks amazing and sounds fantastic, we spent a lot of time mixing it.

LRI:  You’re part of a LOT of pivotal moments in the band and the DEAD WINTER DEAD album was definitely a crossroads for the band once again, mostly because of the way the rest of the world reacted to the song ” Christmas Eve Sarajevo”.  So many people who had never even heard of SAVATAGE picked up on that song which probably is as strange as it is good for a band.  Do you consider that album a career highlight?

ZS:  Yeah, I think so.  It is definitely a true concept album having to do with all of those changes going on in Eastern Europe involving Serbia and Croatia and all the different regions that now of course have separate currencies and separate governments.  Paul O’Neil had a lot of deep feelings about that and about ethnic cleansing which is a term mostly created by the media over here.  You can read all the books and everything but you really have to go over there and talk to people to truly understand what was going on.  My band Circle II Circle was over there and I got to talk to a lot of people when I was riding back and forth between both sides and it was unreal how they know things by communicating with each other about things.  They would know when there was about to be a confrontation and say to us basically “Hey, in three days, get out of here because there’s going to be a conflict”.  You don’t really read that stuff in books and even Paul who is a HUGE reader would tell you that.  He would always hand me things and say “Ok Zak, read these books but just know, you’re only getting half the story, you’re never going to know the REAL story, this is just what they’re writing in the books you know.  In order to really understand it Zak you would have to be able to read their language and read those tracts and actually meet them and talk to people”.  He would give me just massive stacks of books and tell me basically that I had to know what I was singing about and what we were writing about.  Know your history before you try to go up there and be the man on the mountain which I totally agreed with, understood and enjoyed because I’m a big history buff anyway.  So after that experience with Paul and SAVATAGE it was really amazing to have had the opportunity to take my band over there and actually see those things.  I’ve been to Serbia, Slovenia and Croatia so far and I really have learned so much about what has happened over there and it WASN’T in the books and it IS crazy.  That album is really special to me because we really did sink into that topic and Paul was very accurate in feeling that the American media didn’t really pay attention to what was ACTUALLY going on and the reasons behind that Serbian/Croatian war.  There was a lot more going on than what you caught on the news and if the American people really knew what was going on they would have been much more interested and intrigued.  We really wanted to make an album that touched on those topics.

LRI:  Were you guys all taken aback by what happened with CHRISTMAS EVE SARAJEVO which eventually paved the way for Trans Siberian Orchestra?

ZS:  Yeah, we were taken aback because we had this rock record, this SAVATAGE record and all of a sudden these two DJ’s, one in Tampa and another guy in New York City got ahold of that song and said “This is a major hit” and just leapt on it and played it.  TSO was pretty much born at that point in 1997.  That’s what I think about when I think about 1997 for sure.  It really created a strange situation because the rest of the album is such hard rock and metal stuff that you really aren’t prepared to have a follow up single for something like that.  It really just BECAME this massive Christmas hit and at that point Paul said “Hey, we can make a spinoff and form this Trans Siberian Orchestra and really be prepared in case something like this happens again and we can re-release something every year and be ready.  All that good business stuff was very well-considered as you can see from TSO’s 13 year history it really  has paid off and worked great which we have all gotten to enjoy and are thankful for.  At the time that song took off though it was VERY strange because we were all just looking at each other like “What next single? (laughs)”.  It was very unexpected and very weird and to be honest I still think it’s even stranger that hardly any of the majority of TSO fans realize that the Sarajevo song was initially released on a SAVATAGE album that came out in 1996.

LRI:  That initial period of TSO becoming huge must have been really interesting for you as the singer of SAVATAGE.  When did they approach you to get involved in TSO?

ZS:  Well, when it first took off I was one of those people who had to understand that as the singer of Savatage I was not going to be able to come out right away and sing with TSO (laughs).  First of all, you’re not going to be able to differentiate the product if I come right out the gate on the first thing TSO releases because people would just go “Hey, wait a minute, that’s not TSO , that’s just nothing but SAVATAGE” (laughs).  They really tried to draw a clear line between SAVATAGE and TSO so therefore I was told initially that I had to take a backseat.  So, alright, that’s just the way it goes in the business sometimes.  Knowing that and understanding that I kind of decided at that point that I would form my own band mainly to give myself something to do in the meantime between when Jon and Paul would need me again.   I started thinking about that and continue to do that but it wasn’t TOO long before I was able to sing a song called “The Dark” on the first Non-Christmas TSO album, Beethoven’s Last Night.  Getting to do these Non-Christmas TSO tours, the SPRING tours is pretty cool because we not only do that song but we actually do some SAVATAGE songs which is really cool stuff off of DEAD WINTER DEAD and WAKE OF MAGELLAN not that the majority of the audience is aware of that (laughs).  It is neat to be involved with TSO on the Beethoven’s Last Night tours, that’s really where my involvement will be in the band’s live shows.  I finally found a niche to get in and I love it, I love the shows, they are so much fun.

LRI:  You did the WAKE OF MAGELLAN album with the band before quitting the band in 2000.  It’s been said that it was mainly due to you having a young family but it also sounds like you really wanted to get going with Circle II Circle and Sava was pretty busy with TSO.  Was it kind of all three of those things that led to you leaving Savatage?

ZS:  Yeah, it was but it really was mainly due to the family reasons that were cited.  I had my first kid, who is 14 now, but she was just a baby then during the making of what ended up being POETS AND MADMEN.  At that point I had just been away from home so much for the past 8 years and it was time that I needed to be there.  I just explained to Paul, “Look, I need to take a leave of absence for a while” and he was just about to have his first newborn child as well, his daughter is just a little bit younger than mine so he kind of really knew where I was coming from with that.  He just was really cool about it like “Ok, man” and even alluded to the fact that Jon had to take a leave of absence and was like “Well, that’s  how you got into the band to begin with Zak” (laughs).  It happened and it was mostly driven my the family thing but yeah, as time went on and the whole TSO thing was brewing I really wanted to get some things going and form my own band.  It was kind of hard to explain back then but I think people can see how it all worked out and makes sense now.

LRI:  Some fans have kind of said that WAKE OF MAGELLAN was one of the best albums of the latter era of SAVATAGE and it’s a shame that the band isn’t more active.  I think it’s great that Jon has his band and you have your band because you both sound VERY dedicated to keeping the music alive.  If people come out to see CIRCLE II CIRCLE they are not only getting your tunes but a very healthy dose of much-needed SAVATAGE.  Will that continue to be the plan in 2012?

ZS:  Definitely.  To a major extent.  We went out recently this past year and did a lot of the festivals in Europe and we went out with a SAVATAGE tribute set.  If that answers your question (laughs).  It is definitely a LEGACY thing and I am comfortable and ok with that and the fans adore it and I am happy I can play those songs and keep that alive.  The fans wanna hear it.  I go on Facebook and Twitter and just straight up ask them “What is it you guys wanna hear on this run of the tour?” and they responded “More SAVATAGE…jeez man, you can do it, come on, let’s celebrate, let’s celebrate, let’s pay tribute.”  Those two words came around, celebrate and tribute and I thought “Wow, that’s EXACTLY how I feel” so we had a set that was probably (laughs) 85% SAVATAGE and 15 % Circle II Circle really just playing all the CIIC songs that are more familiar and that’s it.  I basically listened to the fans and said “Fine, you’ve spoken, I’ve listened and we went out and had a great time with the SAVATAGE set.”  We even did a press conference where someone asked me “Zak, we love all this SAVATAGE stuff but what do you think of it?” and I said “It’s my job, the people told me what they wanted to hear and I agree with them and am doing it”.  I got a standing ovation (laughs).  I guess because I said, it’s my job….but it is my job, my job is to be an entertainer, my job is to please people.  As far as WAKE OF MAGELLAN goes, I do agree with some of those fans that feel it is one of our better albums.  It was REALLY, REALLY challenging.  Paul O’Neil did a great job of working me and getting me to do a few things that I hadn’t done on albums there in SAVATAGE and always pushing and reaching to the next level.  I really do love the record and I can definitely agree with those people who feel that way.  One of these days I would like to play the WHOLE thing!  I’m actually thinking about picking the right venue and playing that entire WAKE OF MAGELLAN album front to back.

LRI:  Did you feel like the band did enough touring for WAKE OF MAGELLAN?

ZS:  Yeah.  I am thankful that we finally got to tour Brazil because that has been really important to my career.  I am getting set to go back with CIRCLE II CIRCLE and play over there again now in the new year and that is definitely because of the groundwork we layed going over there all those years ago.  I now get to play to two generations of fans there and it is really special, actually that is true for all over the world, anywhere we play.  We get to play for the parents who loved SAVATAGE and the kids who have been turned onto CIRCLE II CIRCLE and SAVATAGE through the years and probably through their parents (laughs).  In Europe and Brazil it seems to be a really big thing that the parents bring their kids to the rock shows.  It’s kind of neat that I am getting to that point in my career that i am able to play to two generations.  I really can’t complain.

LRI:  Do you think that the hardcore SAVATAGE or CIRCLE II CIRCLE  fan gravitates towards those kinds of concept albums versus a more straightforward metal album?

ZS:  I think so.  There’s a lot of people who appreciate the other type of non-concept album, one song after another type thing, explosive rock album but over the years of doing this I can kind of gauge what it is they are asking for and see how the stuff we play goes over and tell by that.  We play a lot of stuff from DEAD WINTER DEAD, WAKE OF MAGELLAN and I am seeing a lot of appreciation for the songs off of those types of records.  I don’t know if it’s because it’s fairly recent history for the band or if it’s just the mood of the concept album situations and the feel of that.  It’s probably a combination of both of those things John.  I have noticed that people really do gravitate towards that stuff, especially WAKE OF MAGELLAN and I think it’s because they haven’t heard that stuff in a while or at all.  We come out with a song like “Anymore” and I just see this hush come over the audience and by the end of it when it builds up into the powerful part you can just feel the audience getting so into it.

LRI:  The fans that might not be aware of your continued relationship with the SAVATAGE guys and their involvement with your band CIRCLE II CIRCLE.  Jon and Chris Caffery both played and sang on your first couple albums and co-wrote with you and Jon produced the album in fact.  Do you think that was important to you personally to involve them or do you think you would have just driven on to do the band regardless of their involvement?

ZS:  I still wanted to do my thing and make the band happen no matter what but it definitely made things better that Jon Oliva and Chris Caffery were involved and it was something we all wanted.  We had all kind of wanted something that we weren’t getting at that point, some type of outlet that wasn’t SAVATAGE, something that was  just the three of us for a change.  We wanted to see what would happen if we played and wrote that way, what would come out.  It just turned out to be that CIRCLE II CIRCLE was that vehicle.

LRI:  How did you decide upon the name?

ZS:  Well, we were tossing around all kinds of names and we started talking about the fact that this was a group being formed by a circle of guys, a circle of musicians and friends called SAVATAGE that had played together for almost a decade and now I was going to have a new group, a new circle of players and new opportunities but still sort of keeping that same intertwining of two circles because of Jon working with me and Chris working with me and so that’s how it came about.  It’s a circle that shares some of the old circle but it’s still a new one.

LRI:  Do you think that those first two albums were really kind of a breather for you guys to rock again in a normal band setting due to all of the success you guys and Paul were having with TSO?

ZS:  Oh yeah, it was a project and a side of us where we could be a little more carefree, have a little more freedom to be a normal rock and roll band and just put it out there and jam some.  It was a little more freedom and riffing involved as opposed to something that had such an established structure as the other projects.  With TSO you are dealing with a very big boat that holds a lot of people and you can’t really push it around in too many directions.   With Circle II Circle it is a much smaller boat and we could just whip it around in any direction we felt inclined to and anytime you wanted.  You spin out and flip the thing out if you wanted to (laughs).  Which we have in some respects, we didn’t really intend to change lineups of the touring band but we have now grown into a set lineup these last couple albums of Mitch Stewart (bass), Andy Lea (guitar) and me writing  and growing together.  Really what happened was, Jon Oliva said, “Hey, I’ve got this band I’m doin called Jon Oliva’s Pain and I think the guys you have playing here in Circle II Circle would be a little better for me and I know you kind of wanna go with these other dudes so do you wanna so a little switcherooski and I said “Ok, Jon, you’re right actually, the direction I kind of wanted to go down probably would be better if we switched lineups”  and I did realize that the guys we had before that probably would be happy with Jon and had always wanted to play with Jon and you could just see that it was the right choice at the right time.   Even Jon said “Cool….that makes it a LOT easier on me because now i don’t have to go around searching for musicians and all that”.  It’s a kind of strange thing how we have this family of guys around us and we all are familiar and have played with each other in some way, shape or form.  It’s not every day a band swaps lineups like that but at that point in our career we were just getting the second album out and I didn’t think it would be the end of the world to shake things up like that.

LRI:  Nowadays it is hard for any band to break or have a hit and the most you can hope for seems to be to have a loyal following.  Metal fans are overwhelmingly loyal and you seem to have built CIRCLE II CIRCLE up now to where your next album can just keep building on that.  You have a large following outside the country so I guess your passport will continue to fly around the globe.

ZS:  Yes, we do.  We love playing South America and Europe and all over the world and this new label we are going with is going to be a much bigger distributor and much better label for us and they are also based out of Europe.  Things are going very well, the new album is going well and the new label has a much higher capacity to get us out there.  We kind of outgrew our last record label in some respects, their ability to promote and distribute the music and the videos was just really limited.  It is  fantastic that we finally found something to make sure that we are getting that push.  The new album is shaping up to be a good one, the songs are very strong and this new year is shaping up to be a good one.

LRI:  Do you feel that you have had a good relationship with the fans over the years in both SAVATAGE and CIRCLE II CIRCLE?

ZS:  Oh without a shadow of a doubt and when I look back over all these years now of course the reason I have what I have with CIRCLE II CIRCLE is due to SAVATAGE.  We have made a lot of new fans which is good and surprising and all but we have carried over SO many fans from SAVATAGE and they are so amazing and so loyal.  I meet so many people who say “Wow, Zak I know you from SAVATAGE but I didn’t know about all these other albums” and I just go “Wow, ok” and then there’s the younger kids, we met some of them in Europe and they were like “You know we just heard about you music and albums in SAVATAGE” and again I am just like “Wow (laughs).”  It’s never too late.  We answer all the emails that come into our Facebook and Twitter and we try to meet as many people as possible face to face.  I do all that social media stuff.  I am really proud of our community service project www.rockstarsuperstarproject.com which is an organization I help with that deals with drug and alcohol addiction.

LRI:  I have to ask.  With the entire catalog being remastered and the DVD/hits package out what would you say to putting SAVATAGE back together for another album or at least some special show dates?

ZS:  Yeah, definitely John.  People have been obviously asking me that question for a long time and the guys in the band know my stance on that.  I am always in favor of SAVATAGE doing any type of project.  I would love to do it again just for all the memories and to be able to look across the stage and see the guys again.  It would be unbelievable after all these years and of course the fans would just love it.  I don’t know how much of a chance there is of that happening because I don’t know all of that inside business and the talk of how that’s going as much as Paul or Jon do.

LRI:  Chris Caffery has told me that despite the success of TSO he misses SAVATAGE

ZS:  I know, as do I.  We talked about it about a short while ago on the phone and it’s funny (laughs)…….It seems to me that every time we play a show as TSO it makes it that SAVATAGE is a little bit further and further from going away completely so it’s actually working the opposite as some people might believe (laughs).  The funny thing is I would LOVE to do it, they can depend on me for that, hopefully something like that could work out someday like you said, even if it were for a few little things it would be a lot of fun.  There is not a question whatsoever about whether I would do it and they know that.  It would only take ONE phone call and I’m in.






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