Jon Oliva is embarking on a solo “Storytellers” tour in a couple weeks and which will provide an intimate, in-depth and honest look at his 30 plus years of musical experience. It’s a fan friendly VIP type evening that an fan of Oliva or his legendary bands Savatage, Jon Oliva’s Pain and Dr. Butcher will not want to miss. This tour is coming on the heels of his first ever solo album, “Raise The Curtain” which was released earlier this year by AFM Records and I recently talked with Jon about the tour, the album and the holiday juggernaut that is Trans Siberian Orchestra, read on….
Legendary Rock Interviews: One of my favorite songs on your album “Raise The Curtain” is the track “Soldier” which has a lyric, “If it were up to me, there would be no looking back” but I wanted to start by asking you to do just that (laughs). I’m a big Savatage fan and remember you coming here to the Rockford, Illinois area to shoot your video at the Coronado Theatre for the song “When The Crowds Are Gone”. What memories do you have of that day?
Jon Oliva: That fucking place is haunted dude. That backstage, those bathrooms, that lobby that place is haunted! That place is haunted, haunted, haunted for real. I’m not bullshitting you, I’m telling you for real. I got chills walking through there, when you walk down the hallways and when you walk around backstage….I always felt like there was someone on my heels and there was never anybody there. It was a spooky place but it made for a great vibe and the people that were around us there in Rockford were the nicest people. The folks at the restaurant around the corner and just everyone in town was so nice to us, we made a lot of friends there. I can’t say enough of how cool everyone was to us that week that we were in town but all that said, that place is absolutely haunted, stay away from that place (laughs).
LRI: It is spooky, particularly backstage because you can’t help but think about all the old early performers that played there in the turn of the century. A lot of that magic translated to the final video though, how often did that happen during the Atlantic years of making MTV videos?
Jon: I would say most of the time, the only video that I wasn’t a fan of was the “24 Hours ago” video because it was just this very quickly shot, live soundstage thing and it just came off cheesy to me. I loved the “Hall Of The Mountain King” video and I loved the “Gutter Ballet” and “Crowds” videos. I thought the “Gutter Ballet” video was just perfect, that thing was shot in extreme, extreme weather conditions. It was 25 below zero with the wind chill and we were just freezing to death but it came out great, that cold atmosphere gave it a really cool vibe that translated just like the Coronado gave “Crowds” a cool vibe because of that old building, it just fit the whole thing perfectly. Those three videos, to me, were the best ones we did.
LRI: I think the material on your solo album has appeal to Savatage fans, Jon Oliva’s Pain fans and Trans Siberian Orchestra fans but it also has it’s own unique, 70s progressive feel. Is a lot of that as a result of using a lot of those early compositions you and your brother Criss worked on?
Jon: Absolutely. All of my influences are on the album and the roots of Criss are as well, there are compositions of his from when he was like 15 years old, some of his earliest riffs and a lot of them have that classic rock feel and those influences came through for sure. I hear The Beatles, Deep Purple, ELP, a little YES, a little Sabbath, a little of all of those bands that we grew up learning how to play to and went to go see over and over again in concert. The influences of that era of music are all over the album.
LRI: I wanted to ask you about Trans Siberian Orchestra which is always such a big deal every holiday season. When I have talked to Criss or Zak or the other guys from Savatage they mentioned that they can always see a few old School Sava fans in the crowd wearing black concert shirts amongst all the people dressed up for the evening. Obviously TSO has become a massive success and brand but does that create mixed feelings for you or shuffle your priorities when you hear from Savatage fans who wish so much for a return of the band?
Jon: No, not at all. I think people look way too much into it, music is for everybody whether you’re 4 years old or 84 years old. I don’t see why the audiences can’t enjoy it all, the music can be timeless and so can the audience. You love music as much as a kid as you do when you’re 30, 40, 70 years old, at least I do, so when I see all that at TSO that’s what I like about it. I see people at TSO shows who are in their 20s or 30s and bring their kids who are younger and I see them bring their parents as well who are 60 or 70 and they all love the music, everyone has a good time and that is just so amazing to me. To me, that’s what music is all about, it’s supposed to be a release, a way to get away and enjoy yourself and I think the TSO show provides that to a large audience across the board, it’s a positive message, it’s always a good story and it’s happy. It’s not “Let’s go slash granny’s throat and tear the block up” which was great 25 years ago but doesn’t appeal to everybody or unite everybody. I think the reason that TSO is so big and is so successful is because of the audience, it’s a HUGE audience and a huge demographic of people from 8 to 80 which is great, you can’t complain about that.
LRI: Do you think that the elaborate staging and pyro for TSO shows is something you guys always dreamed of having at your disposal during the Savatage days?
Jon: I think Paul (O’Neill, Savatage/TSO collaborator) just wants to spend all of the money (laughs). I think we realize that you have gotta keep the tickets affordable and you’ve gotta give people something to talk about which is why we go all out with the stage sets, the lighting and all of that. Oh my god if you only knew what we go through at rehearsals for weeks putting the light show together, it’s insane. We”re there from 9 in the morning to 3 in the morning every day doing light cues and changing ideas and tweaking things because Paul likes to put a different show together and a different lighting scheme together every year. Every year it’s bigger, it’s more state of the art and this year it’s going to blow people away, it’s amazing, better than any stage set we’ve had, ever!
LRI: Back to the “Raise The Curtain” record. There were rumors that you were going to do a solo album as early as 1986 and “Fight For The Rock” but this is your first official solo album. Did you ever think it would take this long?
Jon: (laughs) I never thought I would live past 40 to be honest with you but yeah I did think it would take this long because it was something I wanted to do when I was in the twilight of my career and I said that knowing all the shit I tend to accumulate over the years, I could work with that material and shape it into a solo album and put it out before I’m pushing up tulips (laughs).
LRI: “Soul Chaser” is amazing, how did that song take shape?
Jon: “Soul Chaser” began when I received a copy of McCartney’s Hofner Violin bass and I brought it down to my friend Dan’s house, Dan Fasciano who is the guy who worked on this with me. That was one of the first riffs I played on that bass, I just started playing it (hums riff) and the song took shape very quickly. That song came together in a couple hours based mostly on how excited I was to have my Paul McCartney bass.
LRI: The sequencing on “Raise The Curtain” is strong and cohesive, did you have a particular vision for that?
Jon: Yes, I did the sequencing, actually a couple days before we went in to do the mastering and I wanted it to play like a show. Like when you go into a theater, you sit down and the curtains close and then you hear the start-up music….that to me was the song “Raise The Curtain”, the lights go down and the curtain starts to raise and you hear that song and then the actual “show” starts on “Soul Chaser”. I give you that song, which is very typical of what I do as far as heavy rock and then we move to “Ten Years’ which is a totally different feel with the real horn players and the first bit of Criss Oliva music in the choruses and combine it with Dan’s music which is just unbelievable but a totally different left turn. I like the unpredictability of the record, I think that helps keep the listener from getting bored because you don’t know what’s coming next. Is it going to be a heavy song like “Father Time” or a song like “I Know” which starts off very creepy and you think it’s going to be a creepy, creepy song before it goes into this bluesy, ballad type of vibe. That’s important to me.
LRI: Was it fun for you to drag out the real horns and Hammond organs and some of these things that people wouldn’t automatically associate with your music?
Jon: Yes. The real horns were awesome. I will never use fake horns ever again, ever because all the technology in the world can’t give you the sound that we got with these horn players. Now that I’m working with Dan as a writer I have the added benefit that he’s an amazing organ player. I love the instrument and that sound but I am not a good organ player, everything I play on it sounds like you’re in fuckin church (laughs). He’s a great riff guy with that and I think he’s gonna bring a lot to my music in the future because of what he’s able to do song wise with that because I’ve done enough of the other stuff. I’ve done what…five JOP albums, twenty billion Savatage albums and so on; it’s time for something new.
LRI: The guitar playing on this album is fantastic. I know you’ve talked about how you feel about yourself as a guitar player and it has to be difficult for anyone who’s played your brother’s material since he passed. Did working on the guitar parts for “Raise The Curtain” give you a whole new appreciation for the difficulty of the task at hand?
Jon: Yes. You can ask Dan how many times I tracked each guitar solo, how many takes I slaved on, he helped with engineering and he was just floored. It’s hard and you know, I was always a really good rhythm guitar player but I never tackled leads. It was always a fantasy of mine to play lead on an album which I finally fulfilled but lemme tell you man, I can’t play how those guys play. I’m more of a melody guy and I’m not “Slow Hand” I’m more like “Cement Fingers” (laughs). I like to bend and finesse a little but I can’t play like Criss who would just amaze me. He could be playing a rhythm and then veer off into a lead break with like 90 plus- notes in a few seconds and then be right back on the rhythm part. It used to piss me off watching him to be honest, I would be like “How the FUCK do you do that??!!” and the same thing for the other guys I have played with like Pitrelli and Caffery, those guys are shredders and I am not a shredder. I am the dullest shredder ever, the butter knife of shredders (laughs).
LRI: I think your brother would be proud of your career since he left the earth and I also think he would be grinning at your song “The Witch” on “Raise The Curtain”
Jon: (laughs) The great story behind “The Witch” is that Dan had this great intro to start the song and I was going through my Criss Oliva tapes and found something. In like 1978 or something, Criss and I went out and put our money together and bought a Jimmy Page 12 string, a double neck 12 string. We brought it home but we didn’t know how to tune it so we called this friend of ours to tune it. We got it in tune and plugged it into an amp, turning it up all the way and I said, “Wait a minute, wait a minute” and hit record on my little cassette thing and the very first thing he played was that riff (hums riff to “The Witch”). That was the first thing he played with that guitar and you can hear me in the background saying “It sounds kinda like RUSH!” and he goes “Yeah, fucking cool” and he kept playing it and that was it, it was just like 30 seconds of that riff. So then, what I did was take Dan’s intro, Criss’s riff and then I wrote the rest of the music to go with it but bring Criss’s riff back into it again a couple times during the song. That’s a true story and that was the very first thing he played, that riff.
LRI: The album is on limited edition vinyl and there’s also a bonus track version available with a song called “The Truth” which, as typical of bonus tracks, is great. Tell me about that one….
Jon: That’s another one that brings back memories of Criss and again it goes back to a guitar purchase. We bought two cheap acoustic guitars, like 50 dollar guitars, to take our girlfriends to the beach and mess with. We went to the beach and sat down and wrote that song. It was our first acoustic thing and it was gonna be an instrumental. I took it and added some lyrics and stuff to it but that is the same song, just with lyrics instead of being an instrumental. It was another old piece of Criss’s music that I had forgotten about which we just kind of dusted off, updated and turned into “The Truth”.
LRI: The “Storytellers” tour for this album is going to have to be as special as the album and it lends itself to a lot of different ideas. What can you say?
Jon: It is going to be special. It’s going to definitely be different, we are hitting select places. It’s not going to be a long tour but we are taking our time to put together a really fan interactive presentation. It will be keyboards, guitars, me and Kinder and we are going to do a “Storytellers” type of show where we go through the history of Savatage, the original versions of some of those songs as they were written as well as material from the solo album. I am also going to go to do a tour in Europe next year for the 25th anniversary of “Gutter Ballet” but this is shaping up to be the focus for here in the states.
LRI: You definitely have a flair for telling stories and you have that ability to translate that to one person or to a whole room so that will be an amazing show. Last question….You have dealt with more than your fair share of pain and loss, be it the loss of your brother or more recently your guitar player Matt Laporte. Have you found that music is the best way of dealing with loss?
Jon: Yes. To me, music is the best therapy in the world because for those three or four minutes that you are listening to a song it takes you away from reality and making music is a therapy as well, that creativity helps you deal with loss for sure. I know that when Dan and I started working on this album we had just lost Matt and we were bummed out man. It fucked me up, I was like “I can’t believe this is happening again” and it was totally our way of dealing with it, Dan and I wrote like 60 songs within two months because the more we wrote the less we were dwelling on it and the better we felt. We turned around and we had like 60 songs and were like “Wow, that was a good run” (laughs). It was, without a doubt, therapy and it got us through those few months and made it easier to deal with losing Matt. That was tough but creating the music was everything to us.
SATURDAY NOV 30TH – CHARLOTTE NC – AMOS SOUTHEND
SUNDAY DEC 1 – RALEIGH NC – LINCOLN THEATRE
TUES. DEC 3 – POUGHKEEPSIE NY – THE CHANCE THEATER
WEDNESDAY DEC 4 – CLIFTON NJ – DINGBATZ
FRIDAY DEC 6 – PITTSBURGH PA – REX THEATRE
SATURDAY DEC 7 – AKRON OH – RIPPERS ROCK HOUSE
SUNDAY DEC 8TH – JOLIET IL – MOJOES
TUESDAY DEC. 10TH – DALLAS TX – TREES
WED. DEC. 11TH – HOUSTON TX – CONCERT PUB NORTH
SAT. DECEMBER 14TH – ST. PETE FL – STATE THEATER