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paul o'neill - metal erudite - the bandmember who isn't in the band

Aardschok Netherlands, April 2001
by Ron van Hal
translated by Yvonne Kluitman
corrected by Bob 'Lek' Lekich

No better way Jon could have described his right hand Paul O'Neill. Due to Paul's huge importance to the band Aardschok thought it to be justified to let this "man behind the Sava-scenes" for once be prominent. A talk about the devaluation of art, drugs and William Shakespeare.

It is often the case that those who aren't in constant interest of the press, hide the most interesting stories. Make a chat for example with a roadie who is at a bands loyal service for 15 years and before you know it you will be listening the rest of the evening with red ears to (told with lots of humor) stories about the Holy Trinity of a musicians life. Also operating in the background, Paul O'Neill has enough material in one interview to fill a complete Aardschok. Whoever manages to tempt him into doing a rare interview is getting rewarded with an hour- and-a-half conversation in which clinchers, cliché's and beforehand thought out anecdotes- that-do-well-in-interviews are being tabooed. Not only is Paul O'Neill an exceptional friendly and well mannered musician, he's also intelligent and in addition has a great sense of humor. Kind of an older variant of myself......

What would Savatage's career have looked like without Paul O'Neill?

(laughing:) "In any case quite different. Savatage probably would have been sounding less symphonic and theatrical as is now the case. It's fascinating and scheming to look back on your life with the question how things would have gone if you didn't make certain decisions at certain moments or made other choices. The only sensible thing to say to this is that Savatage exists for nearly 20 years and would have done so without Paul O'Neill. Jon is the leading man, the brain, face and voice of Savatage. Of course I realize that the cooperation between me and Jon has been of vital importance for the sound of the band. Jon and I write almost everything. I'm a songwriter, musician and composer in one person. In my opinion a good producer has to be fluent in these three disciplines in order to do a good job. At the same time he actually doesn't have to do more than fill in the gaps the band leaves. I kind of feel like the father of each CD. All of Savatage s CD s are like children to me. Writing a new album I can compare best with parenthood: passionately raising a baby into adulthood. The album is being fed and therefore grows, until it's mature enough to stand on its own feet."

Considering your interest in the band it is surprising you are satisfied with a role behind the scenes.

"I can imagine very well people looking at it that way. But when the CD is finished I let it go. Then it's time to move on to something new. I don't feel the need to perform that album live 300 nights in a row. (shortly thinking) Fame doesn't do anything for me. I intentionally choose for the anonymity. I don't take the trouble of getting in magazines, don't have to be adored on a stage and neither visit fancy parties where ephemeron s pat each other on the back all evening about how great they are. When the job I do is being appreciated by people and it really means something to them then I have all the euphoria and honor I need. Appreciation is the essence for me, more than the acknowledgement from other people about me being a good musician. My anonymity has another great advantage that's of vital interest for a musician. Actually of vital interest for every artist. People that are anonymous can observe anonymously. The essence of art to me is observation. Creation of art has to come from that. Artists have to have a different look on reality than the common man. They look at details or colors with a unique view, interpret the things they've seen and translate it into an artwork. A writer can only put something on paper after studying everything around him accurately. A painter looks at an object, absorbs it and next paints his own interpretation of it on the canvas. And how can an artist observe undisturbed from a distance the best? By being anonymous!!"

But in rock music anonymity often is fatal for a long career. On the contrary creating an image that is a success does commercial wonders.

"That's right. But I reverse this thesis: artists who don't have an image aren't automatically doomed. Take Savatage. Why is it the band already exists for nearly 20 years? Because its members always put their WORK first and not THEMSELVES! Savatage is known for its music and not for some kind of silly stage show or band members telling salty stories to the press! Especially in the nowadays society (in which artistic values such as integrity, creativity and profundity are being pushed to the background by spurious and superficial stuff) a image-less band such as Savatage attracts attention. The more people at the same time have to appreciate one thing, the more meaningless and the more superficial it automatically gets. Which applies also for the trash that nowadays is being elevated as art. The nowadays artists get famous because they thought out a clever marketing plan or because they have the right business people standing behind them. Or they make up a vague but intelligent sounding explanation about their hasty knocked together sculpture. Not the work but the artist is being promoted, which results the art's devaluation. Although these modern artists have to come out with their work sooner or later. The guitar player known and loved throughout LA for his hedonistic excesses all of a sudden has to make a CD. Oops, problem! Maybe the marketing plan works for one or two CD's but then it's over, over and out. Ask the man in the street about the song title of a singer who was in the charts 5 years ago. And at the same time ask him who wrote "King Lear". Nobody will remember that song title but everybody names Shakespeare. For the simple reason Shakespeare let his work prevail over his personal fame."

But can't these things be combined?

"No. In former days the creators of brilliant art walked the streets anonymously. The 9th symphony is a masterpiece of genius! But nobody fell on his knees adoring when Beethoven coincidentally passed by. Because nobody knew what he looked like! Vincent van Gogh, Charles Dickens, Dostojewski, Steinbeck: ditto. They reached great creative heights because they could observe from out their anonymity. It's my opinion that everything that diverts an artist from his primordial creative urge is very harmful for his creative abilities! When Jon and I are less concentrated for only 5% while writing a song it can make the difference between a good and a great song."

You're apparently a great literature lover.

(spontaneously starts to recite some Shakespeare sonnets.) "I prefer poetry above prose. The Frenchman Victor Marie Hugo is my favorite poet. I'm also wild about the Russian poet Tolstoj. Further I read everything I can lay my hands on, no matter if it are papers or magazines. My desire for knowledge is frightening sometimes. I want to be informed about everything. I'm somewhere reading in every free five minutes I have. Because I read a lot myself I know how important lyrics are for a band. I prefer writing a concept story. The strange thing is that people think I do it out of some sort of laziness. Absolutely not! As if writing a rock opera is easy. Never believe that! I even dare to claim that it's harder to write a rock opera than a book or a movie script! Because you read a book once, you see a movie maybe twice. But a rock opera is being played over and over again hundreds of times. Not only the first impression has to be overwhelming but also turn 100 has to be enjoyable. Therefore a rock opera has to contain several intellectual levels, so that it draws different people for various reasons. A young girl for example can see a simple love story in a rock opera, while another listener loses himself in every little detail. It's like with a good book: every time you re-read it at a different age you see other things."

How do you look back on the rock opera "Streets"?

(a short silence) "With melancholy. And with a lot of respect."

Can you explain that?

"In the "Street" times Savatage had its ultimate cast. And with that made the ultimate Savatage record. "Believe" is my favorite song. After "Streets" the band should have kept a clear head. There was more at stake than just a brilliant album. It was of importance to keep going. Unfortunately Jon had a major drug problem back then which wasn't exactly conducive to Savatage's career. His "party reputation" even went this far that in the end we would not have been surprised when we would have gotten a phone call telling Jon took an overdose. He balanced on the edge several times, incredible! The incomprehensible and sudden death of his brother Criss eventually helped Jon to minimize his drugs use. Criss' death made Jon aware of the importance of his family. The song "Tonight He Grins Again" refers to Jon's addiction of that time. The sentence "I'm just looking for a friend/but no one seems to be around/except this monkey that I found" is the most biographical line about Jon ever. That "monkey on his back" refers to his drugs problem.

Next to Savatage, you and Jon keep the Trans Siberian Orchestra alive. Which do you prefer?

"TSO is our 'money maker'. With Savatage we earn a fraction of what TSO yields. Savatage exists by the grace of 'the labor of love'. Yet I cannot say that I work with more joy on Savatage than on TSO. To use my previous metaphor about children again: one goes to college, gets a good job and earns loads of money. The other child -Savatage- is recalcitrant, is obstructive at school and doesn't plan a career. But he ends up good because he follows his heart. He finds a job in which he can realize himself in. Although they are very different; I love both children equally as much."