Catching Up With Jon Oliva
It’s hard to believe that over three decades have passed since Jon Oliva and his brother Criss founded the band Savatage leading Oliva to a successful career in music with future endeavors like Trans Siberian Orchestra and Jon Oliva’s Pain.
Oliva’s career has seen both highs and lows – both on a musical and personal level, including the loss of his brother Criss in 1993 and more recently the passing of bandmate Matt LaPorte in 2011. However, the loss of Matt propelled Oliva into the studio where he completed his very first solo disc Raise the Curtain.
TWRY recently caught up with Oliva to talk about his latest solo disc, his full body of work, and what the future holds.
Interviewed by: Roger Scales
It’s hard to believe that in 2013 Raise The Curtain is your first truly solo album. Were you fearful going into the project and upon its release that there may be some non acceptance to the album from long time Savatge/Jon Oliva’s Pain fans?
Not so much going into the studio to record but when the album was finished and we were mixing it and getting ready to press the cds and records I was very nervous about how my long time fans would accept it. There was a period of time where I was very much in doubt but since its release the response has been overwhelming and all of it positive. I’m blown away. Everybody loves it and it’s selling really well. Last I checked it cracked the Billboard top 100 album chart. I can tell you this I’m relieved and happy about it.
The album is very reminiscent of vintage sounding Savatage material while at the same time holding to the standards of today’s modern technology. Was this intentional from the beginning of the recording sessions?
Actually what was intentional was I made a demand upon those who would be working with me that I wanted to use vintage instruments, vintage amplification, vintage microphones. I didn’t want to use any processed C amps or crap like that on the guitar. I used AC30 boxed amplifiers that were made in the early 60’s. I also used a 50 Watt Marshall from like 1972. All tube amplifiers. I used all classic guitars such as a Fender Stratocaster, Telecaster, Hofner violin bass, real Hammond Organ, real horn players. I think that’s what gives the album its magic. These are real sounds. There is no faking going on. Hell even the accordion is real.
Raise The Curtain contains what is the last of your brother Criss’ guitar work and musical contributions to recordings. This must have been extremely emotional for you?
It was very emotional yet very satisfying when it was finished. It was also very sad knowing that there is nothing left. So it was a real double edged sword on Raise The Curtain. Some of this material is some of the earliest known work that I can remember. This is before Sirens, before Avatar (pre-Savatage band). I don’t think we even had a band name when we started writing this stuff. These tracks really hold a special meaning for me because this really shows the fans where we started. This was the stuff we were playing before we wrote any of the early heavy Savatage material. That evolved from the material you will be hearing on this new record.
How old were some of these guitar parts of Criss’ for instance on the track “Father Time”?
That’s the second riff he ever wrote! I think he was about 14 when he wrote that.
With the passing of Matt Laporte, was Raise The Curtain a similar therapeutic experience as Handful of Rain was after the death of your brother Criss?
It was an exact carbon copy. The day before Criss died I spoke to him on the phone. The day before Matt died I spoke to him on the phone. The next day they were both gone. When Criss was gone after I had a few nervous breakdowns Paul (O’Neil) drove me into the studio to record Handful of Rain. Nobody showed up to record in the studio accept Paul & myself. We told the guys where & when we were going to record but nobody showed up. Jim Morris showed up. I did the entire album basically by myself. Paul was able to convince Zachary (Stevens) to come in and sing. We got Alex Skolnick to play about half of the solos. Other than that it was just me. It was almost the same thing with Raise The Curtain. Matt’s gone. I kept thinking what am I going to do? I have to try and find another guitar player and I really didn’t want to deal it again. I was devastated. I knew I had to do something to keep my mind busy. That’s when I brought in my friend Dan (Fasciano) who was also close to Matt and we just started working together. I would come to his house early in the day before my TSO (Trans Siberian Orchestra) sessions at night. I asked him if he would help assist me go through the guitar riffs I had leftover of Criss’ because I really wanted to do this but I knew I needed some help. Everything just sort of went from there and fell into place like it was meant to be. The idea of my first solo album came out of tragedy.
Was there an abundance of material to work with Jon joining forces on this project with Dan Fasciano?
We started off writing and in like two months we had close to 60 songs. It was pretty exciting let me tell ya! My fingers still hurt. We had to condense down from there. We just want on a huge writing spree. Dan had just lost his mom in addition to being close to Matt. Danny lost two people in a very short period of time. I was like an older brother figure to Matt and really kept him under my wing. A lot of this came from two guys who really needed each other & we spent a lot of time together and turned this pain into work. We just started hanging at first because there was nobody else to hang out with.
The album has a live concert performance vibe to it. Do you envision performing these tracks in order in a live setting?
It’s amazing you just said that because my vision of this was that you walk into a theater and you sit down, the lights go down and the song “Raise The Curtain” starts as the curtain goes up and just then the imaginary Jon Oliva band runs out on stage and kicks into “Soul Chaser” and then you go though the rest of the show. I really held a conscious decision throughout the recording of this album to make sure I could perform these songs live. The cd is really the performance. Close your eyes and imagine a Jon Oliva playing bass, guitar, drums and four or five Jon Oliva’s playing horns and there you have it. Some of this stuff I will do live. Most likely in a different guise than a typical rock concert set up. Not a ton of this was really meant to be played live because there is just too much stuff going on in each track.
Are there touring plans for 2013 & beyond?
Right after Thanksgiving I’m going to go out and perform in a “Storyteller” type setting in the States. I will be up your way into New England that I can promise you. Me and Chris Kinder on drums and we are going to go through my entire history. This new record, plus Savatage material performed in a way that no one has ever heard before. Really different.
I have a question that has bothered me to some extent over the years. When I first heard “Edge of Thorns” and saw the video on MTV w/Zach Stevens I didn’t quite understand what was going on within the Savatage ranks. Pre-internet days of 1993 and with a lack of information that was available only through the written press was it tough for you not to be out on the road and do you think Zach felt the brunt of the confusion on that first tour with fans seeing a show without Jon for the first time?
First off there was no way I could tour. I blew my voice out on the “Streets” tour. The original idea was to bring in another singer because I had told Paul and my brother that I didn’t want to be the only fuckin singer in this band. It’s killin’ my voice. Doctors told me 6-8 months off from any type of singing whatsoever. Then I said this is the perfect time to find a guy who has a voice totally different from mine. More melodic, more smooth. Let’s do an album (Edge of Thorns). I’ll write and play on the album but I won’t sing. The band will go out and tour and that will give me time to heal. The next album I’ll come back into the band & we’ll have two singers. I’ll sing the heavy stuff. He’ll sing the melodic stuff. We are all ready to go. That’s what Handful of Rain was supposed to be. Then Criss died. When Criss died that whole idea of how we were keeping this concept quiet and really ride the wave of the success of Edge of Thorns into this next record just collapsed. What do we do now? If he had not died it really would have been interesting how the band would have gone on with Zach and myself singing different types of songs. Paul and I had figured this all out and it was going to be very special.
Do you ever see a day where all the surviving members of Savatage and I mean anybody who ever played in the band get on stage even for one night and play a mammoth show full of material from every record?
It probably will not happen just because of the success of TSO. With the exception of Steve Wacholz, most of the former members of Savatage are pretty much a part of TSO. If anything you may get a 5 or 6 song thing from everybody while we are doing the TSO stuff. To shut down the mighty train that is TSO just to do one Savatage show or a short tour it just doesn’t make any sense. It would be great but TSO is how we make our living now. I would love to go fuck the blonde across the street but I’ll end up divorced. You’re going to lose your house, your kids, your wife, your money because you want to get off for an hour or so playing with some 20 year old hot blonde. Same analogy with TSO vs. Savatage. Stay home and be faithful or go and bang the blonde.
Jon is there anything musically that you still want to accomplish maybe outside of the metal or hard rock community?
Maybe. I would love to try and compose a symphony just once. I think that would be cool and something I would love to do. I’ll do that when I cannot play or sing any longer. If I’m still alive when I’m 75 or something! That will be the last thing I do before I go.
A very early happy 53rd birthday to you on July 22. How do you envision celebrating it this year?
Thank you. I celebrate every day when I open up my eyes. July 22 will be no different. But I appreciate the sentiment. Roger you take care up there in Boston land. I remember The Channel very well. I’ll be back this fall.