Interview with Jon Oliva from Savatage  

From: Heavy Metal at The Mining Company
Dateline: 12/12/97

   

JO: Wow. We finally have hooked up. Itís been hell. How are you doing buddy?

MB: Good. How are you?

JO: Ah, pretty good. Iím on my way down to rehearsal. So I figured I would get you in here in between. Weíve been going like fifteen hours a day so... We are a little bit twisted.

MB: Oh, God.

JO: So if I sound like Iím out of it, itís only because I am.

MB: Which project are you working on now, for Savatage?

JO: Yeah, we are getting ready to leave for Europe on Tuesday, next Tuesday. So we start our first show in two days in Connecticut and then one in New Jersey and one in Virginia. And then we get on a plane and go to Europe. We always do a few little warm-ups, you know, just to work the bugs out. Because, you know, we havenít played for awhile, since weíve been in the studio. Weíve been in the studio for eight months. So, we really havenít played in almost a year, actuallyÖ as a band. Itís different in the studio. Itís not like playing together. Itís weirdÖ but anyway.

MB: When you guys are touring, do you sing on any of the songs still?

JO: Yeah, I sing like four or five songs. And we do a lot of backup singing now, too. So weíve incorporated that into the show. So itís a lot of stuff, man. I mean, itís not like the old days where you used to run around and go crazy for an hour and a half with a lot of stuff going on. Itís more like a job, now. We used to have a good time, now itís just insane. But, you know, itís cool though. Itís just different.

MB: So how did you first get interested in music?

JO: HmmÖ actuallyÖ watching the Beatles on TV, I think. I saw the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan show when they were playing on the roof. No, when they were doingÖ What is thatÖ "All You Need Is Love". I saw it on TV, and I was like, "Wow! That looks like a cool gig." That started it, and then from there, you know, they got me into it. I was totally into the Beatles when I was a kid. It was Beatles, Beatles, Beatles, Beatles and then as I started getting older I started getting more into some of the weirder stuff. I used to listen to all kinds of weird stuff. I mean, really weird stuff. But, you know, then I started getting into heavier stuff like Sabbath, and everything else from there. It just kept going.

MB: Cool.

JO: Now I got this.

MB: Yeah, and a few other projects.

JO: Yeah, Paul keeps me busy. Thatís for damn sure.

MB: Iíve even heard that you are working on a musical.

JO: Actually, yeah. Thatís pretty much out of my hands, now. I just wrote music for it. But yeah, itís in production soÖ Itís supposed to be coming out soon, so weíll see what happens with that. That should be a cool thing. But thatís more Paulís bag, you know. I just wrote a bunch of songs for him, you know.

MB: So itís going to be like a full musical production, then?

JO: Oh, yeah. Itís like, you know, a Phantom Of The Opera type thing. Itís likeÖ itís very dark. Its kind ofÖ itís based on the 1914 Russian Revolution. And that was a pretty dark time.

MB: Oh, yeah.

JO: So, yeah, thatís moving ahead. And then we have the Trans-Siberian Orchestra stuff, which takes up a lot of time, also. So between that and Savatage, and then my own stuff that I try to do when I get, you know, some free time, which isnít very often, it kind of keeps me busy 24/7.

MB: So, how did Savatage first start out?

JO: Well, you know, my brother and I always played together, and then we just met Steve at school. We went to high school with him. And we just started getting together. We were just a three piece, back then. I played bass and keyboards, my brother played guitar, and Steve played drums. We were kind of on the Rush trip, you know. We were going to be the next Rush. But, as time went on, I wanted to do more singing, so we got a bass player, and we kept him for a few years, until we landed with Johnny. And there you have it. The rest is pretty much what you got, now.

MB: I read in another interview that you did that you felt that the best memorial for your brother would be to continue with Savatage.

JO: Absolutely.

MB: How much does it mean to you that youíve been able to put out another three albums?

JO: A lot, you know. I mean, I thought afterÖ you know, God. I mean, after that happened I was likeÖ damn man, you know. I was like, "This is over. Just forget about it." But then, after awhile, I was sitting and thinking, "Well, okay what am I going to do?" Itís like, all I know is Savatage. I mean, Iíve done it since I was sixteen years old. So I figured, you know, that it would just likeÖ it would really kill everything if I was just to stop. And, you know, also I didnít think it would be fair to Johnny, or Chris Caffery, or Zak, or some of the other guys that have put so much time into the band. Then to just, you know, strip it outÖ I mean, my brotherÖ I donít think Criss would have wanted that anyway, you know. He would want us to keep doing what weíre doing. And that was the big decision maker. It was, you know, just sittingÖ I needed time to think about it, you know. I mean, I pretty much lived in a state of numbness. I was so numb from that happening. I was so confused. I lived like that for like six months. Just like completelyÖ just like a walking zombie. Even though, in that period of time Paul and I put together the Handful Of Rain record. Which, I think, was a pretty good record. And that was done under such an intense head-trip that was going on. It was likeÖ wow. But, I mean, yeah, it was the best thing. To keep his name alive is to keep his band alive, because people still buy those records, and we still play some of those tracks. And I think thatís the best thing we can do for him.

MB: You guys have been around for over a decade now, what do you feel has been most responsible for keeping you going while so many others come and go?

JO: Originality. I think thatís the main thing. I mean, weíve always just stuck to what we do, you know. We had one album a few years ago where we were misdirected by management people, but we learned our lesson from that. That was Fight For The Rock. And then, from that point on, we were just like, "Listen. We are just going to do what we want to do, and keep trying new things." And who cares ifÖ you know, just because this one band is platinum, or multi platinum, itís wrong to chase other peopleís success. I donít believe in it. It doesnít make any sense. If itís already been done, then whatís the point of going and trying to copy it, and do it again. Itís never going to be as good as the original. Our hope is to do what we do, and, you know, if the music is quality music, then quality will withstand a test of time. We were written off by a lot of bands that were big in the late eighties, and Iím not going to mention any names, but we were called dinosaurs and this and that, and we were over with. And, you know, I know about three of those guys who are pumping gas, right now. So you never know. We just try to do what we do, and try to keep it original. And I think thatís why weíre still around.

MB: How would you describe the way your sound has evolved from the beginning until now?

JO: Well, I mean, at the beginning it was very, very heavy, you know. Because we were a bunch of punks. We were into Sabbath and stuff like that. We were just into everything that was heavy and doomie. And we were into the horror lyrics. I wouldnít say Satan lyrics, or like devil stuff, but we were into telling stories. And, I think, as we got olderÖ you know, as you get older, your world opens up. There were so many moreÖ there were just so many instruments out there that I wanted to mess around with, you know. I was getting a little bit bored with just the standard guitar, bass, drums, vocals thing. You can only do so much, you know.

MB: Yeah.

JO: So, we started incorporating a little bit of keyboards. And then from there we started moving into it more and more, until, you know, now we are basically 50/50, guitar/keyboards set up with orchestrations and stuff. Our orchestrations, I think, are very crucial to our sound. And our vocal approach, I think, is also really important. So, I mean, weíve just grown up. And as you grow up, you need more things to challenge your mind, or youíll get bored and stale. And thatís when bands end up splitting up because nothing new is going on, you know.

MB: Yeah.

JO: So, you know, we always are trying to use new stuff, new instrumentation, and different orchestral approaches. It just keeps it fresh, you know. I think thatís important.

MB: A lot of people feel that this album is a little bit heavier than Dead Winter Dead.

JO: Itís a bit heavier, yeah.

MB: How would you compare the sound of this one to Dead Winter Dead?

JO: This one is a little bit angrier. Itís got an angry sound. I mean, the story lends to it, also. Itís just itís a more guitar heavy album this time, I think, where Dead Winter Dead was a lot more heavily orchestrated. Iím not sayingÖ thereís a lot of great orchestration on this new record, too, but we just wanted to feature a little more of the guitar players, since weíve worked with them now for a couple of years. I mean, for Dead Winter Dead, they had just joined the band. A lot of Dead Winter Dead was already recorded. So we werenít able to write with them, or get them involved with the record from the start. That was their first record. But we were able to do that this time. So, you know, we wrote some songs with Chris Caffery. We wrote a couple of songs with Al. We got them in on the writing, and it added a little freshness, since they are both whacked-out guitar players, you know. Some of the stuff is a little bitÖ you know, is more guitar heavy. But I like it a lot. I think itís the best album weíve done since Gutter Ballet. I feel really strong about this record, and itís doing great for us right now overseas, soÖ Weíll just have to keep our fingers crossed.

MB: Cool. So this album was more of a team effort? Everybody had someÖ

JO: Yeah, definitely.

MB: The album is based on two real events that are kind of woven into one story, right?

JO: Right.

MB: What made you decide that you wanted to write the album around those two events?

JO: We are always looking toÖ we like telling stories. It just makes us a little bit different from any other bands out there. But thatís mainly Paul, you know. Paul really is our words guyÖ our story ideas guy. So I donít know what really inspired him to do that. I think those stories hit a nerve in him or something, or he thought that they were worthy of writing about it. And he just ended up creating his own story around those thoughts, incorporating things from the two real events. Paul is amazing for doing that stuff. I donít know where he gets the time to do it, because Iím with him so much. Iím like, "Where do you get the time to come up with all this?" "Well, I stay up all night and work." Iím like, "Oh. Well, I go to sleep. Thatís the problem." But, you know, he is just amazing for coming up with ideas and story lines. I mean, he is a great storyteller.

MB: Oh, yeah. Iíve noticed a lot of your albums seem to have a message - political or otherwise - in them. Do you feel thatís kind of your responsibility - to have some type of message behind the music?

JO: Well, I donít know. I think maybe for Paul it is. But Iíve never, I, you know, Iíve never reallyÖ Iím not very hip on lyrics and stuff like that. Iíve always been more into the music. Iím just likeÖ I love the stuff, but I donít really analyze it, or try to find out if heís trying to say anything. Heíll say whether the story is positive, and Iíll take it for that and say, "Okay. Yeah, the story is positive. Great." Did you know this story is positive?" "Yeah, it is. Itís positive." But he always has a good thing to say. Paul is a very kind hearted person. And, you know, he cares, soÖ Iíd have to like sit down and really look into all the lyrics and the poetry and stuff in between, and see if I can figure it out. But there probably is a positive message in there somewhere.

MB: What do you think is the most important ingredient in Savatageís music? What really make Savatage, Savatage?

JO: MoneyÖ no! Actually, I think the combination of Paulís lyrics and my weird music, or whatever it is. I think thatís the secret ingredient. Weíve worked together for so long now that weíve got it down to a system. And the system works. Now weíve just added a little help from the other guys in there to spice it up a bit. And, you know, I think thatís the secret. Itís just that weíve done it for so long that weíre on like aÖ what do you call it? Itís like second nature to work with Paul. Itís very comfortable, and we end up getting the best stuff out of it. I think thatís what makes it magic. Itís that weíve got two guys who see whatís going on, and have been working together for so long that itís become fun for us to do. So it stays fresh that way. Thatís the strong point.

MB: Iíve heard from several people that on this album you didnít use your logo. They were wondering if you dropped the logo and gone for a different one orÖ?

JO: No, it just looked stupid on that painting. I mean, we still use it for our merchandise and stuff like that. But when we looked at the artwork for the record, which is a painting done by this guy Edgar, who is this brilliant artist, and they put the logo over the thing, I looked and I was like, "This looks stupid." So we just went for the name kind of written out like that, you know, mellow. Not to mellow it out, but just because the Savatage logo is a very, you know, metallic. Or itís very rough. You know what Iím saying? And it just didnít fit with the painting. It looked weird. It looked out of place, so we went with just the conventional writing like that. It just seemed to look better on the picture. We didnít want to take away from the picture, because the picture is a key thing. Savatage spelt however, with whatever logo, is still Savatage, soÖ But we still use the old logo.

MB: Whatís the one thing that you havenít yet accomplished musically that youíd most like to?

JO: Oh wowÖ a solo album. Iíve got it written, I just havenít had any time to do it. But Iíd love to get it done one day.

MB: Where do you see Savatage going in the next couple of years? What are your plans?

JO: I donít know. I guess that kind of depends on whatís going to happen over the next couple of years. Hopefully, weíll be able to keep going as long as possible. I mean, we have a good time doing what weíre doing. Itís fun for us. We all get along real well. Thereís no egos. Thereís no you know bitching or crying or moaning, you know. Thereís none of that. Everyone is just mellowing out and having a good time. Weíre making good money, and weíre getting to see the world. We get to meet our fans, and that makes it all worthwhile, you know. Even though we havenít made billions of dollars, weíve made enough to live comfortably. So thatís not a problem. Itís enjoyable just to go out and meet and greet the people. We make it a point to do that when weíre on tour. We like to hang out, and, you know, go out and walk around the town. Itís a lot of fun, man. Thatís what I do it for. Itís like a vacation - you get to jam every night. How good is that?

MB: Oh, yeah.

JO: And get paid for it.

MB: Now you guys are just about to head out on tour in Europe. How many countries are you going to be hitting?

JO: Oh, God. I couldnít even tell you. God, probably eight or nine different countries on the first run. Then we come back home for a month. Then we have another run in January where we go back. So who knows. We are going everywhere.

MB: Youíll be hitting the US, also?

JO: Yeah. Weíre working towards the US in late spring or early summer. The record doesnít come out officially in the US until January, and they usually want you to wait a couple of months after the record is out before you go out on tour. So you can figure we will probably be out in April or May in America, doing some American dates. Weíre definitely going to do some this year though. We didnít do them last year because we just had so much going on in Europe and Japan that by the time we got done doing that, it was time to go and do another album. We were like, "Jeez, did we forget something?" "Yeah, you forgot to tour America." But we had toured America a lot, you know, from like eighty-six until ninety-three, or ninety-four make that. Eighty-six to ninety-four, we toured Amercia every year, sometimes twice a year, you know, so it wasÖ we neededÖ we were not paying enough attention to our European audience. And we were ready to break over there, you know. So we just had to sit down and make a business decision, and say, "Well, weíre going to have to stay off the road in America for a year or so, so we can concentrate on getting things happening overseas." And thatís what weíve done. And itís worked. Now weíve entered the European charts at number eleven, ahead of even Elton John. So we are doing something right over there, you know. And thatís Billboard. Thatís the Billboard pop chart in Germany. So, I mean, thatís pretty good.

MB: Oh yeah.

JO: Our tourís sold out. Most of our shows have sold out. The ones that are not sold out, they stopped selling advance tickets for it because they want to keep some for the day of the show. So the tour is pretty much sold out. So things are good.

MB: Are you going to be playing the whole album live?

JO: We are playing like eleven out of the thirteen songs, but there may be a point where we perform the whole thing as a piece. Right now, weíre mixing it up, but the set is dominated by the new material, and Dead Winter Dead. Itíll be a good show.

MB: What can people expect when they come to a show?

JO: WowÖ a good time, you know. A good time, and some good music, man.

MB: Out of all the songs youíve ever written, which one would you say means the most to you?

JO: WowÖ probably two songs Ė "When The Crowds Are Gone" and "Alone You Breathe".

MB: Why do those stand out?

JO: Well, the one is about my brother. It was written for him after he died, which is "Alone You Breathe". And "When The Crowds Are Gone" was justÖ was just one that the message behind that one was very deep. It was like something I think that a lot of people can relate to. A lot of people who are in the entertainment field. Whether they are musicians, actors, whatever, you know. Thatís a song thatís very, very relatable to. You can relate to it, soÖ I just like the song a lot.

MB: Cool. Outside of music what interests you the most?

JO: Women, moneyÖ no! Actually, Iím a sports freak, you know. Iím so addicted to sports itís ridiculous. I love football. I love basketball. I love baseball. I love hockey. I mean, itís like I need eighty TVs, you know. I need two satellite dishes. Itís ridiculous, but, you know. So, I spend a lot of timeÖ when Iím not working, my time is spent either at a sports bar, at a stadium, or, you know, something like that. I just love it. So thatís how I occupy my time.

MB: Who would you say has been the most influential person on your life?

JO: HmmÖ I donít know. Thatís a good question. Probably John Lennon.

MB: If you could take back one thing that youíve done in your life and make it like it never happened, is there anything that youíd take back?

JO: No, I wouldnít change a thing with my life, you know.

MB: Cool. Are you guys on the Internet at all?

JO: Sure.

MB: How do you feel about the Internet as a way to interact with your fans?

JO: Itís the way of the future, man. Definitely the way of the future. And itís cool. I mean, we have a huge web site. Monstrous. Thatís Johnnyís, Johnny Lee Middleton, our bass player, thatís his field. We bought him all the computers and everything, and said, "Okay, learn this stuff and call us back." And he did. Actually, we just went out and bought a new laptop for the tour this year, a couple of days ago. So we are computer ready, man.

MB: When itís all said and done, how would you like people to remember you as a musician?

JO: I donít know. As an original, you know. An original. Thatís all I can think of for that.

MB: Cool. Well thatís all the questions I have. Do you have anything you would like to say to your fans?

JO: Weíll see you on tour this summer, and, you know, hope you enjoy the record. Weíll get with you guys as soon as we can.

 

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