Interview with Jon Oliva
Interview conducted by Adam Kohrman
Date online: May 22, 2010
Adam: This is my first interview on a cell phone, so bear with me if I have any technical difficulties.
Jon: No problem, brother. Do whatever you gotta do, man.
Adam: I want to talk about your new album, Festival. Like a lot of the other albums from Jon Oliva's Pain, in particular, Global Warning, I think it's hard to pinpoint. It doesn't really fall into one metal genre, and it's not easily classifiable.
Jon: Good. That's a good thing.
Adam: Yeah, it certainly is. (laughs) What were some of your influences for the album and what were you directly trying to accomplish with it?
Jon: Well, Global [Warning] was very experimental, and I let everybody know that's what I was gonna do after I did the Maniacal album. I was like, I'm gonna mess around a little bit on this Global Warning thing and try a bunch of things that I've wanted to do for a long time. That album, a lot of it was written in the studio with a lot of keyboard equipment available. I did a lot of weird taping things and all sorts of stuff like that, where with this album it was written on the road in the back of a tour bus driving around Europe, and I wrote a lot of the stuff on guitar, so versus the last album which was written almost entirely on keyboards or piano, but there were a couple of guitar things, but this album every song except the last song at the end was written on a guitar. I wanted it like that. I wanted this album to be a bit darker and a bit more of what people know me for. I was doing an interview just a little while ago, and told him that one similarity to me was that when Savatage started, the first few albums we did, we were kinda learning what we were doing. I've been with these guys for five years, and on our first few albums, I was feeling them out. You know, what am I gonna get out of this band? What can these guys do, and blah blah blah. So this album to me, is kinda like our Hall of the Mountain King.
Adam: Wow. Cool.
Jon: Because when Savatage did Hall of the Mountain King, we finally had a system, and we were comfortable working together. You know, we just had everything figured out. It took us a few albums to do that, and it's the same thing with this band. I've been with them for five years, and I was looking around the first couple of albums to see what was going on, and this album to me is kinda like "we got it." Everything was very focused and very together. I think it shows. It's our best work that we've one as JOP [Jon Oliva's Pain].
Adam: Were you a fan or had you listened to Circle II Circle before you found the guys?
Jon: No, I mean I knew the guys. Circle II Circle was a band I helped. I helped Zach on the first Circle II Circle record. He needed a band to go on tour, and these were guys I had seen. They were playing in a club together, and they called themselves "That 80s Band." They were playing everything from Prince to Deep Purple. They were playing all kinds of stuff. I was impressed with them as players. They would go from genre to genre so effortlessly, from Judas Priest to like I said, "Purple Rain." Or they would play Melissa Ethridge.
Adam: Oh wow!
Jon: And I told them that Zach needed a band to go on tour, and I got these guys to play with Zach. Then things just didn't work out with them. When they came off the tour, they weren't happy with the manager Zach had at the time. They had a very difficult time with him and they decided that's not what they wanted to do. They billed them for the tour. They were gonna be in the band, but it just didn't work out. When I got back from New York, and I decided that I wanted to do what I wanted to do, I remember calling Chris just to ask him how everything was going with Zach! He was like "dude, we're not even playing with Zach anymore, didn't you hear about that?" I was like "no." How was I gonna hear about it. I was in New York at the time. I said, I've gotta do some stuff, why don't you guys come and jam with me? Then they did, and everything worked out and that's how it started.
Adam: Well, we've talked about the experimentation on the album, and at least to my ears, it's something new for you. Do you feel like you're finding new inspiration with age? Does maturity affect the creative process for you?
Jon: Yeah I think so. I think I just understand how to write songs now.
Adam: (Laughs) And you didn't before?
Jon: Well, after thirty years you pretty much have to have that down, if you're a writer. If you don't have it down after thirty years then you're probably in the wrong business. It's just easier for me to get things happening. I don't know. It was a lot harder when I was younger to write songs. It's a lot easier now for some reason. It's not easy, but ideas come to me easier than they used to. Maybe 'cause I'm not running around like a nutcase like I was when I was 27. You know, things have mellowed out a great deal as far as that's concerned. I spend a lot more time at home. So I'm a lot more relaxed. Maybe that's what it is.
Adam: Were things pretty crazy with Savatage?
Jon: Oh yeah. Savatage was just a whirlwind of all kinds of crazy things. Good things, bad things, tragic things. It just never stopped, especially in the 80s. I mean, the 80s were like I don't even remember half of the 80s. That's how bad it was. It was just on the road all the time. That one tour we did with Testament on the Gutter [Gutter Ballet] thing, we went around the country four times before we stopped. That's how much touring we were doing. We did the whole USA four times. We were on the road with Testament for almost eight months.
Adam: Ugh. That's gotta be draining.
Jon: We'd have those long tours and then we'd be in the studio with Paul for like five months or a year. On Streets we were in there for a year. It was crazy. It's a lot easier for me now. TSO is doing great and that's giving everybody security financially, at least.
Adam: DO you consider either TSO or JOP your main project?
Jon: TSO is my living. I mean that's my job. I write songs and work on the albums in the studio and the production and everything like that. That's my job, you know. JOP is my passion because it's the stuff that I want to do. TSO has enabled me to do that.
Adam: Do you approach the projects differently creatively? They are so different.
Jon: Oh, very differently. With TSO I work with Paul exclusively. I may write stuff at home but I basically work with Paul on a one to one basis all the time when it comes to TSO. So the approach is different, because I don't have to worry about song topics or anything like that. He has the storyline and the lyrics already together. He also writes great melodies, great vocal melodies. So I just kinda hang out with him and play stuff and he says "I have an idea for this" or sings, and with JOP it's basically me going like "okay, I have this riff from 1981 that Criss and I could never do anything with, so let's see, what can I do with it?"
Adam: That's really cool.
Jon: So I'll pull that out and I'll work on that for a couple weeks and see if I can make a song out of it. That's what I've been doing on the last four albums.
Adam: How did the idea of TSO first come about? Was it something you just had...
Jon: It was something that Savatage was turning into anyway. I mean, the first TSO hit was on a Savatage album. It was on Dead Winter Dead. Basically, TSO is the lineup that was on Savatage on Dead Winter Dead, Wake of Magellan, Poets and Madmen. It's basically that lineup. That nucleus hasn't changed. The name has changed, really. And we just expanded into a much broader category by calling it the Trans-Siberian Orchestra and having the capability of having as many musicians as we want. There's no limit on how many people can be in an orchestra. And that makes you write things like...I wrote a song on the new TSO album called "Remnants of a Lullaby," which if it weren't for the TSO vehicle, no one would hear that song, because Savatage wouldn't have been able to play it and JOP wouldn't have been able to play it. So it gives us that thing, that broad marketplace. At a TSO show, you'll see people there with their kids who are six, seven years old and you'll see people in their seventies at the shows. It's kind of a Ringling Brothers crowd.
Adam: Well, TSO has become a family affair. It's become what families go to see at Christmas time instead of going to see Handel's "Messiah." How of your fans do you think know about Savatage, that the members were in this 80s heavy metal band that kicked ass?
Jon: I don't know what people think. When I go to the shows, a lot of people know who I am. I kinda stay in the background, but I'm always out at the soundboard. A lot of people come up to me and say "hi" and stuff, and a lot of them have Savatage shirts on, and there's other people I meet that don't really know much about the Savatage thing. The funny thing to me is that it's all the guys from Savatage; it's all the same people. You know, it's me and Paul writing. Since Criss passed away, it's exclusively become Paul and I writing. From Handful of Rain on, it was Paul and I. That hasn't changed in TSO, except Al [Pitrelli] contributes a little bit here and there, or Bob Kinkel. He does a bit here and there. But even Bob Kinkel, he's been working with Savatage. His first album with us was Hall of the Mountain King. He's been around for the whole time, too; but he was just in the background when it was Savatage stuff. But he played on every Savatage album, also. So we're all still together and we're all still working together. It's just that the name has been changed! [laughs]. I don't know but look what happened. It was obviously the right business move to make.
Adam: I think so, yeah.
Jon: Yeah. Well, I think we gave Savatage its fair number of years for breaking into the big time, and it just never did, whether it was because of the name or whatever, but as soon as we changed the name and started going down these other avenues, I mean, now we're selling out coliseums two shows a day.
Adam: Wow. That's gotta be really rewarding.
Jon: For me, it's even funnier because I stand there and look up there and it's Savatage. It's Savatage and they're wearing tuxedos. Like, whatever. Whatever makes people happy is all I care about.
Adam: You've mentioned Criss a few times. Do you feel his memories and legacy have a lasting impact on the music you make now.
Jon: Sure. Absolutely. Yeah, definitely. His music is still around. I've got lots of tapes of his and I've been utilizing those over the last couple of years. It's always very exciting when we have a Criss riff to work on. I know when I bring them to the JOP rehearsals and I'll be like "well, I got a Criss riff" and the whole room lights up. You know, it's like everyone is really into that. It makes him like a part of the band. He's got contributions on every JOP album. So if you're a Savatage fan and you don't have the JOP albums then you're really not a Savatage fan because you're missing out on a lot of Criss Oliva music that me and him wrote during those Savatage years.
Adam: I remember I first heard of Criss Oliva my freshman year of college, where I was a metalhead, but not an "elitist" metalhead I guess you could say. The guy who lived next door to me was telling about how Criss Oliva was his favorite musician of all time, and how wonderful he was. I had heard of Savatage, and I think even had Handful of Rain, but was just listening to Pantera and didn't know any better yet.
Jon: Well, Pantera was a great band.
Adam: They were, and they get a lot of unnecessary backlash, I think.
Jon: Yeah, I agree with you. I met those guys when they used to wear spandex, before they became the Pantera everyone knows. They were some of the nicest guys to hang out with, man. They took us all over Dallas. They were really, really cool guys, man. I was heartbroken when we lost Dime.
Adam: I was too, and I didn't even know the guy.
Jon: He was such a sweet guy, if you knew the guy. It's not like we were great friends, but when we saw them, whenever we saw them in Dallas. They were always at our shows and were always the coolest guys to hang out with.
Adam: Another question I have for you is spawned from a documentary I was watching on Lemmy last night. They were talking about how so many musicians have faded away...people who have been around for as long as you or Lemmy have. Well, Lemmy's been around for a really long time.
Jon: Lemmy's got me by about ten, twenty years!
Adam: [Laughs] But yeah, a lot of people have faded away, whether it's due to drugs or whatever. How have you been able to continue going and to keep making music after thirty years? What's your strategy?
Jon: Desperation, I think. It's just what you do. I think a lot of people would love to be doing it as long as I've been doing it or he's been doing it, but they've let some of those other things come in and derail the train. I've had stops on my train ride, but I haven't let it become derailed to the point where I had to stop doing what I'm doing. Life would be pretty boring if music wasn't involved in it, for me. Some people say "aren't you too old to do this?" Well, no! Who said suddenly that there's an age limit on music now? What's next. Some of the greatest composers of all time wrote their best stuff in the last years of their lives, when they were much older and stuff. So I don't know, man. People analyze things too much and it is what it is. I've been around for as long as I have because I've been honest about myself, with myself, and to myself, and with my fans and the people I meet. I am what you get. If you like it that's great. It's the same thing with Lemmy. There's no bullshit in us. Here we are, man. We may not be pretty, but this is what we do. I think people appreciate that.
Adam: Is it hard to balance two projects at the same time with TSO and JOP?
Jon: Aw, it's a fuckin' nightmare! It's insane. But it what I have to do. But with TSO, the work I do with them is so much more home-based because I'm in the studio all the time, and at least I can come home every night and go to bed. So that makes it a lot easier. All the guys I work with in JOP live within a half hour of where I live. I don't have to fly people around for rehearsals and put them in hotels. You know, make sure they have cracked crab and lobster and champagne in the evening, and all that stuff.
Adam: When did you have to do that?
Jon: The whole thing with Savatage. We had to get together for rehearsal. Certain people who will remain nameless used to get the whole rock star thing going on. It was like "You mean I don't have a bar tab at the hotel?" And I'd be like "No, you don't."
Adam: [Laughs] now you've been going on for so long now with a lot of successful projects. TSO has become just huge, a ritual for many families, even. What goals to have left?
Jon: Oh, just to make as much music as I can before they plant me, before they plant me in the Earth, and to have as much fun as I can while I'm still around. Life is short. You only live once, and I just want to keep making music.
Adam: That's good. This is a dumb question. Do you have a legacy you hope to leave on the world or on metal?
Jon: Ah, maybe just that patience and dedication will prevail. If you're patient in this business, and you've got the dedication and really believe in what you're doing and if you stick it out long enough, eventually success will come to you. It took me 25 years in the business before TSO became successful. I struggled for many many years with Savatage. It was a struggle for us just to keep the band together. But we did it because we believed in each other and we believed in what we were doing. We knew that one day, you know, things would turn around, and they did.
Adam: Well it's great to hear that, and Jon, I'd like to thank you for this interview.
Jon: Thank you very much man. You take care of yourself and hopefully I'll see you on the road sometime.
Adam: I hope so too, man. Take care.
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