» Jon Oliva - Jon Oliva's Pain
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Interview conducted April 08 2010
Interview published April 21 2010

I have always been a strong supporter of Savatage, and the incredible work of the Oliva brothers; especially, under the tutelage and guidance of Paul O' Neil.

Recently I was blessed with the chance to speak to the mettle maestro: Master Jon Oliva. He just released his new album - 'Festival' - which truly pays savage homage to the classic 'Tage malhavoc and madness. There is no doubt that the Doctor Butcher of sabotage has dealt with a handful of pain; evidenced by his maniacal renderings.

He was inundated with a plethora of interviews to promote his latest accomplishments worldwide, but our conversation really sparked his interest, as we spoke of the past, present, and future of all things in transit; bearing orchestrated beauty, attitude and global mourning.

MettleAngel: Hello there Jon, I am so grateful that you agreed to do this interview.

  • Jon: Yeah, I have been going non-stop since 9:00 a.m., but hey, I have a new album to promote.

MettleAngel: I know you were also doing press days on Tuesday, but I could not commit, as I had the Overkill - "Killfest Tour" with a number of bands to promote.

  • Jon: Yeah, it has been crazy! I just finished all the main Euro interviews, and now here I am focusing on America. Hold on a sec...(He has his wife fetch him a cig.)

MettleAngel: Well, given the fact that you have probably been asked the same questions 100 times over, ad nauseam, I will do my best to liven things up, and not bore you with the same old nonsense.

  • Jon: I appreciate that Man, but it is all good. So what do you want to discuss?

MettleAngel: Man, there is just so much, so let me begin by telling you my history with Savatage. I was still in High School when I first heard "By The Grace Of The Witch" on Metal Shop. Honestly, I was more concerned with figuring out those lyrics, more so, than doing my Math homework.

  • Jon: So you go way back then, huh!

MettleAngel: Definitely! Then, when I moved to Cincinnati, I met a dude with a Record Store who introduced me to the band Seduce from Detroit. He hooked me up with a bootleg tape of a show where they opened for you at Harpos. I think the show was a Radio broadcast. 'Power Of The Night' was not released yet, and I had 'Sirens' on vinyl. The live set consisted of quite a few new songs from 'Power' though. It also included some Savatage demos like "No More Saturday Nights". I still have this tape to this day.

  • Jon: Wow! That is awesome!

MettleAngel: I have always loved that song. I was surprised when it was not put on the 'Power' album.

  • Jon: Yeah, for some reason that did not make the final cut.

MettleAngel: It seems a bit unusual. I would much rather that be on there, than say, the cliche' "Hard For Love', or bizarre "Necrophilia". I mean, that song is goofy, and Slayer had their "Necrophiliac" at the time which was far superior. I was miffed when it was not even included on the Savatage 2002 remasters.

  • Jon: Yeah, well, those were not always up to us.

MettleAngel: I assumed so, but I was so pleased when you re-recorded it with the 'Global Warning' sessions. Sadly, even though the song fit the concept, it was only included as a bonus track via the digipak. I still have not heard this version, and would really like to. Perhaps you could send me a digital song file.

  • Jon: Man, I do not even have the song anywhere.

MettleAngel: You have got to be kidding!

  • Jon: I am sure you will find it somewhere on the net.

MettleAngel: I guess! You did however include a new updated version of "Before I Hang" on 'Global'. Now, on your new album, I see you have redone - "Living On The Edge Of Time", another classic 'Tage demo.

  • Jon: Yeah, that was left over from the 'Gutter Ballet' sessions. Criss and I never got a chance to finish or perfect that song. When I sat down to write this new album, I was really returning to the 'Tage style. I wrote the whole thing on guitar, and when I was given a chance to revisit this cut, I finally found the sound and tone which I had been striving to achieve. My guitarist Matt LaPorte really helped me to rework it and make it more modern, and to fit in with the whole vibe of 'Festival'.

MettleAngel: I have the original demo, and I do notice the nuances and changes in the new version. Overall, I really do like 'Festival'. I must admit that it did not hit me right away. It took about four solid revolutions, but now I am really getting into it.

  • Jon: Yeah, this is not an album which can be glossed over with one or two casual listens. I worked my ass off on the thing. There are over 100 tracks for only 10 (11) songs. I worked very hard to find the right tuning sound.

MettleAngel: I noticed the songs have a very eerie feel to them. I hear a little bit of the 'Maniacal Renderings', but no so much of 'Global Warning'. I also hear some of the late '80s Savatage riffs.

  • Jon: The whole album is about dreams and nightmares. The titles track is taken from a very vivid dream that I had. I felt that I said all I could politically with the last album, and now I want to do something different. 'Global' was very keyboard oriented, but with 'Festival', I worked out the guitar parts in the same fashion my brother had 20 years ago. Many people do not realize that I write the majority of the music, even before I work on the vocals.

MettleAngel: No doubt! You are a regular King Diamond in the studio. Honestly, I never even knew you could play guitar. I must admit that 'Festival' is like the Beatles 'White' album, meets Jefferson Starship - 'Surrealistic Pillow', with just a touch of early Pink Floyd.

  • Jon: Well, I will take that compliment any day. I was also listening to a lot of Queen.

MettleAngel: There are some real slow songs on there. I also like the jazz fluidity on "Afterglow". You have written some incredible ballads. I see you recently redid "Out On The Streets" (again) for the release of the 'Still The Orchestra Plays: Greatest Hits Vol. 1 & 2' Box Set.

  • Jon: I am always being asked to do something with Savatage, especially when a certain labels wants to re-release something.

MettleAngel: Songs like "The Evil Within" or "Now" really sums up the essence of 'Festival'. Although, with every repeated listen, I do find that the instrumental intro for the song "Lies" does remind me of Ozzy's "Mr. Crowley".

  • Jon: You think so?

MettleAngel: Yes, then again I have been absorbed by the ozzmosis of Ozzy as of late. While I was playing 'Festival' which I burned onto a CD-R once I got the music digitally from my AFM Podcast, I was voraciously reading the new Ozzy biography. Have you read I Am Ozzy!?

  • Jon: I cannot say that I have, is it any good?

MettleAngel: I was very surprised, and I do recommend it; especially, for the early Black Sababth stories. I was a bit disappointed when he skipped the majority of the '80s work from 'Bark At The Moon' up to 'No Rest For The Wicked'. He omitts some key points, but this is probably because he does not really remember. I was also surprised to discover that he has only been clean for four years, ever since his near fatal motorcycle accident.

  • Jon: I have my own Ozzy story, I can relate to you.

MettleAngel: Oh really, please do tell....

  • Jon: Well, this is quite a few years ago, mind you. It was during the 'Diary Of A Madman' Tour, if I recall correctly.

MettleAngel: I read about that tour in the Bio. Man, that sure sounds like it was pure mayhem. I imagine seeing Ozzy back then was quite a spectacle. My first time seeing him was on 'The Ultimate Sin' Tour with Metallica.

  • Jon: Yeah, he had the best line-up then with Rhandy and Rudo Sarzo. Anyway, I had won this radio contest with like ten or more other attendants...

MettleAngel: So, this was even before the days of Avatar?

  • Jon: Yes, and no, as we were in a band, but, Criss was not able to go back stage with me. The show was amazing with all the theatrics, and even Ronnie the midget.

MettleAngel: I read all about Ronnie the midget and the guillotine. Perhaps this is why you used a midget in the "Hall Of The Mountain King" vide a few years later?

  • Jon: Hmnnn, no that was Paul's idea. So anyway, the deal was we won free tickets to see the show, and passes for "Dinner With Ozzy". So there we are after the show, waiting to meet the band and Ozzy himself. We got to meet the musicians briefly, but we waited forever for Ozzy to show up.

MettleAngel: You mean he forgot? He was probably so hammered that he neglected to attend.

  • Jon: Well, after about 20 minutes he finally burst through the door swearing and puking. There we were sitting around this table with a feast prepared for us, awaiting our guest of honour. He belched, grabbed a whole piece of chicken, wolfed it down, then walked out without even saying a word.

MettleAngel: Man I imagine the fans were pissed?

  • Jon: We did not know what to think. After all, he was wearing this teal green lady's gown with these really long finger gloves. We were shocked, but confused. It sucked because we did not get anything signed or any pictures taken. His management company apologized and just claimed he was feeling ill that night.

MettleAngel: As if! He was probably blasted out of his mind on booze and coke. Not to change the subject, or dismiss such a earth shattering image, but last year while I was listening to 'Hall Of The Mountain King', I carefully listened to the lyrics for "White Witch", and realized that this song was also about cocaine. Then, on the 'Maniacal Renderings' album you had the song "Push It To The Limit" dealing with the nose candy. I assume you also had you private dance with the "white lady'"?

  • Jon: We all did, you have to understand that cocaine was easier to score than cigarettes back then. I have had my share of crazy nights, I can assure you.

MettleAngel: In Ozzy's book, he talks about the prevalence of coke being easy to obtain. He says that they all wanted to call the album 'Snowblind' based on their personal experiences, but the Record Co. forced them to use a less referential notion; hence they dubbed it 'Volume 4'.

  • Jon: That sounds about right. Man, I guess I will have to check out this Ozzy Biography.

MettleAngel: Another question I have for you is about the Savatage album 'Fight For The Rock'. I really like that album, but when it first came out, after the amazing 'Power Of The Night', back then we were like, "Whiskey, tengo, foxtrot! (WTF!).

  • Jon: Yeah, you have to realize that back then, we were fuckin' broke!

MettleAngel: Really, I thought by then, that 'Tage had hit its stride, by signing with Atlantic Records. I assumed you were gaining some success.

  • Jon: We were still struggling as a band, even when we moved from Combat to Atlantic. At the time, these asshole record executives, were telling us to ease up on all the metal references. They wanted us to cut our hair, loose the spikes, and become like a heavier version of Journey.

MettleAngel: This explains why you re-recorded "Out On The Streets", and did the Free cover of "Wishing Well", and the Badfinger cover of "Day After Day". I guess they did not want Savatage to become the metal warriors you were imagining?

  • Jon: Yeah, and those fucks ended up robbing us blind. It turns out they stole millions from us!This is why on the new album, the opening track is called "Lies" as it is dedicated to all those who nearly ruined our careers.

MettleAngel: That song also contains some old Savatage demo material, correct?

  • Jon: Yes, in fact it does. You do know your Savatage. There are some notes in there lifted off some unfinished 'Streets' demos. This is why Paul O'Neil really saved our asses back then.

MettleAngel: You mean when he agreed to work with you and Morrisound in the recording of 'Hall'?

  • Jon: Definitely, we were totally busted, and all set to disband, and Paul stepped in to save us. He felt we were the right kind of act to experiment with some Classical and other musical approaches. Criss wrote the whole "Prelude To Madness", under his guidance, employing the work of Grieg for the title track, and later video.

MettleAngel: I have to admit, that after 'Hall', I became frustrated with the band, back then. I hated 'Streets' when it first came out, and the video was so lame.

  • Jon: Yeah, the old fans could not understand our new direction, and blamed Paul on us wimping out. Paul is the one who helped us write "24 Hours Ago", but also "Beyond The Doors Of The Dark", and "Legions". Paul was grooming us for a whole new career. Sadly, after Criss died, so did Savatage.

MettleAngel: I imagine that it is still difficult dealing with his loss?

  • Jon: Yes, but all I do now is a tribute to his lasting memory. Also, after Criss passed, Paul once again saved the band. I was once again ready to call it quits, but he helped shape Savatage into TSO. All these gold records on my wall are not from Savatage, I can assure you.

MettleAngel: I too am grateful for Trans-Siberian Orchestra. After becoming a fan, I was able to really get into those Savatage albums, recorded after the death of Criss.

  • Jon: The first TSO song we really wrote was "Chance" off 'Handful Of Rain'. By then, we knew the band was going to evolve into something much bigger. Now when I attend TSO shows, I am blown away; because of the diversity of fans. You will have a well dressed man, standing next to a 70 year old woman, standing in line with a dude wearing a 'Sirens' shirt!

MettleAngel: No doubt! I have not seen TSO live yet, but I have heard what the audience is like. The most recent TSO album 'Night Castle' was quite good, even if not appreciated by critics.

  • Jon: Fuck the critics, it debuted at number five in the Billboard Pop charts! This is probably because critics did not like it!

MettleAngel: I saw that in 'Rolling Stone". I was so grateful! I imagine with as busy as you are, you seldom have time to tour with both versions of TSO, East and West?

  • Jon: Man, if I toured with TSO, I would be insane! Trust me, Paul is a great guy, and I love him like a brother, but I just cannot tour with the guy; especially, if I want to have my own solo career.

MettleAngel: I can understand that!

  • Jon: You have no idea what it like working with him in the studio! We have to go through over a hundred different vocal parts, and agree, and choose who does which part the best.

MettleAngel: I guess the main criticism was that TSO was recycling older Savatage songs, and running out of original ideas. Also, it was not a Christmas album, which so many have come to expect.

  • Jon: Critics are never satisfied!

MettleAngel: I guess they forgot about 'Beethoven's Last Night'! I really dug the story on 'Night Castle', as it was not what I had imagined from the artwork or booklet. My only complaint was the choice of Tom Hockenberry as vocalsit for the new version of "Believe".

  • Jon: That is one thing you have to give Paul true credit for, as he is an awesome storyteller.

MettleAngel: Yes, indeed! Now, I do not want to drill you all day on 'Tage, or TSO, but there is one question which I have always been curious about. Whose idea was it to combine "Savage" and "Sabotage" to create Savatage, when you were forced to change the name from Avatar?

  • Jon: What combination? Criss and I were being sued by this UK act called Avatar for copyright, so we had to think up a new name, or else.

MettleAngel: That sure was a big deal back then, now there are over seven acts who call themselves Overkill, and five Slayers! Anyway, you changed Avatar to Savatage, but how did you come up with the name? I always assumed the name was a combination of 'Sabotage' - named after the awesome Sabbath album, and the word "Savage".

  • Jon: Wow, now I see where you are going, and actually no, that was never the case. This is the first time I ever thought of it that way.

MettleAngel: You have got to be kidding me! This is what I have assumed for over 25 years!

  • Jon: Funny how that shit is! Here is the deal. Criss and I wrote the word AVATAR on a big billboard. Then we began to play around with the word. It all started with my putting a big "S" in front of the word. We were both huge Kiss fans, and loved the "S" font. From there we began to mess around with the letters.

MettleAngel: WOW! Now this is beginning to make sense!

  • Jon: The first name Criss decided on was "Savage Star", but the name did not sound right, as we were still very much Metal, before we let the Record Companies misguide us. We already had 'Sirens' recorded under the name Avatar, but knew we could not release it under that name.

MettleAngel: Which is why it was released under the name Savatage?

  • Jon: I really wanted the word "Savage' in the title, but knew of the other Italian band, and did not want to go through that shit again. At one point Criss was ready to throw out the whole idea and just call the band Taj Mahal, hoping the Blues and Jazz act would not even catch us on their radar.

MettleAngel: Wait a minute, is this why you wanted to call Jon Oliva's Pain 'Tage Mahal?

  • Jon: Yeah, once again honoring the memory of Criss.

MettleAngel: I always loved that name, and it sucked that the dude from Taj Mahal would not let you use it. After all, his band is named after a famous location!

  • Jon: Well, all that bullshit aside; because, he was such a pain in my ass and neck, the band helped me to decide on Jon Oliva's Pain. I liked that name, as it is abbreviates to JOP, just like ELP or TSO.

MettleAngel: I can tell that you are a fan of ELP, and I clearly hear that style on 'Festival'. So after you and Criss messed around with the AVATAR letters, you kept the word "Savage", and created the word Savatage?

  • Jon: And the rest is history....

MettleAngel: In discussing the new album, which is ultimately why we are here, you mentioned that the title track dealt with dreams and nightmares, but what inspired the eerie and creepy musical vibe?

  • Jon: A number of things actually. Al Pitrelli really helped me write the guitar parts, and achieve that special tone. I really get lost in the music. The song before it, called "Death Rides A Black Horse' also has that haunting vibe, but there is also a message inherent in that one.

MettleAngel: Yeah, for some reason when I play the album, that is the song that always sticks in my head.

  • Jon: I know I wanted to get beyond all this politicking, but this song is about a cousin currently in Afghanistan fighting. He actually calls his troop the "Black Horses".

MettleAngel: I really like the song "Winter Haven". I noticed that you also just recorded with Tobias Sammett on the new Avantasia album 'Angel Of Babylon'. The song you did on there "Death Is Just A Feeling" is awesome. It is as if he wrote that song with you in mind.

  • Jon: Yeah, well sort of, I guess. I am very proud of that song. I only just heard the final version a few weeks ago, and it turned out real well.

MettleAngel: I am actually playing this CD while we speak. How did you hook up with Tobias for the Avantasia project?

  • Jon: Well, we were both stranded together in an airport in Spain. He mentioned wanting to work with me, being a fan of all my work. I expressed interest, but then lost touch with him for a few months. Then, my guitarist, Matt LaPorte really urged me to get in touch, and pursue this opportunity.

MettleAngel: Tobias is known for working well with his talented ensemble. The song "Toy Master", off of the 'Scarecrow' album, which he wrote, and then subsequently asked Alice Cooper to sing on, was brilliant.

  • Jon: Yeah, I really liked that one. He gave me carte-blanche with my track, and when I submitted my vocals, he only had me make a few adjustments, until we achieved the final product.

MettleAngel: I assume he knew what to expect when he composed the song, and knew the flavour which you would contribute to it. For his latest achievement, he could not be content with just one new album, so he has released two separate titles. With 'The Wicked Symphony', he works well with Klaus Meine on the "Dying For An Angel" track, and with Tim "Ripper" Owens on "Scales Of Justice".

  • Jon: This is what I hear...

MettleAngel: The new Scorpions album is killer, and I am sad to see them retire. I understand you will also be working on the new Soulspell project, which will also feature "Ripper", and Blaze Bayley, who also released an amazing new album.

  • Jon: We just made the press announcements about the Soulspell. I imagine that will be appreciated by fans of Avantasia, as well. It is great to reach a point in my life, where I am being asked to contribute to foreign projects, which have nothing to do with the bands of whom I am normally involved.

MettleAngel: I can only imagine. As a way of honoring your loyal fans you now have JOP. I have always wondered what inspired you to write the song "People Say - Gimme Some Hell". Was that your way of honoring the past, or did you feel the need to one-up Dave Mustaine?

  • Jon: What! You mean Megadeth wrote a song about Savatage?

MettleAngel: Oh no, nothing like that! On the 'Youthanasia' album Dave had a song called "Victory" which mentioned previous Megadeth songs. This is what you do on "People Say - Gimme Some Hell", right?

  • Jon: Yeah, but it all came together in a weird way. I had all these songs playing in my head, and I though it would be fun to write a song which mentioned Savatage songs. The chorus came together quite well, actually.

MettleAngel: I like how you mix the older and later 'Tage songs together in the chorus, and bridge. It almost seems as if you are going in chronological order, until you reach the chorus.

  • Jon: I guess I was just having fun with album and song titles and this is what came out. I have not really thought about it for years.

MettleAngel: I would assume this was a fan favourite, which you always played live.

  • Jon: Actually, it has not been in the live set for quite awhile.

MettleAngel: Wow, again I am surprised. I know you like to always play a few 'Tage tracks in your live set.

  • Jon: Indeed we do, but then we mostly focus on new material.

MettleAngel: I know you have come to the US with JOP, a few times. I saw you in Cleveland a few years ago, when you opened for Therion. That was a great show, as "Ripper" was there promoting his new band Beyond Fear, and Chris Caffery was celebrating his birthday and new solo album.

  • Jon: Ahh, I recall that show at the House Of Booze!

MettleAngel: I missed you last time you were in Cleveland, with Manticora, about two years ago. My friends in Eternal Legacy opened that show. You were playing some off shows while preparing for Prog Power.

  • Jon: Yes, that Cleveland show was a far better gig, at the Agora, right?

MettleAngel: Yeah. So will you becoming back to tour the states soon?

  • Jon: Time will tell, we have two dates confirmed thus far, and I am sure we will add more. We are going to be filming for a new DVD, and I think it would be a good idea to throw in some oldies. I will take your advice and include "People Say - Gimme Some Hell" back into the set.

MettleAngel: That would be killer!

  • Jon: Yeah, man it really has been fun speaking with you, and learning a few things. I hope to see you next time we come back your way.

MettleAngel: I will never forgot the first time I saw Savatage in Cincy at Bogarts. There were less that 50 people there, while you toured for 'Hall Of The Mountain King'. I do not think the conservative audience knew what to think of you. I was loving every minute of it. Unfortunately, there was some chick who kept hitting on me, and threw my ass into the pit, which back then was like 15 people. She held on to my wrist, and spun me 'round real fast, until I was so dizzy, that I let go and went flying into the banister.

  • Jon: Man, it sound like you had a good time, eh!

MettleAngel: Once I picked myself up, I began raging as you ripped into "Devastation", then "Sirens', and "Power Of The Night"! It was such an honur to watch Criss play.

  • Jon: Those were the days....

MettleAngel: I will leave you with this in closing. My wife and I have been married for almost a decade...

  • Jon: Congratulations...

MettleAngel: Thanks, but the point I want to make, is how after two years together, we finally were able to take our honeymoon to Florida. While we were in Orlando, we went to the Hard Rock Cafe. Apparently, since we were both wearing Helloween T-shirts, the busboy, who we later discovered was Kelly Conlon the dude who played bass for Death on 'Symbolic', gave us a private tour...

  • Jon: Oh I can see wear this is going...

MettleAngel: Yeah, he found out we were Americans, assuming we were from Germany, as why else would we be wearing Helloween shirts, right? Anyway, he led us to this room reserved for weddings and banquets, which was all closed off, to the public. We were the only ones in there and he showed me the Criss Oliva shrine. He let us take pictures with Criss's guitar, and pose under all the Savatage memorabilia. This was quite an honour, and I even began to weep. I still have those photos on my wall in my Mettle Room, even unto to this day. Is was the high point of our honeymoon.

  • Jon: I must say Michael, this has been a real blast. Thanks for making this a fun time. You would not believe the bullshit questions which I get asked by ignorant press agents. Hell, once they find out I was in a band called Avatar, they think I somehow know James Cameron!

MettleAngel: I know, I hear this all the time from bands. Back then I am sure the only thing on James mind was "The Terminator". Jon thanks for a very funa and engaging conversation. I am recommending the new album to my friends, and I am amazed how much it did grow on me.

  • Jon: I am very pleased to hear that, as we worked so hard on it.

MettleAngel: I have my burn of it in the stereo right along with 'Power Of The Night'. After revisiting that album after all these years, I have different feelings about it. Some of the songs are a bit strange, and too sexual. I just wish you had put "No More Saturday Nights" on there. I guess someday, I will hear the JOP version. Anyway, thank you for this wonderful conversation.

  • Jon: You are most welcome, and hey brother, stay in touch. Visit our My Space to find out the latest info on the band, and our touring schedule. All the best!

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