Jon Oliva Interview: Poet & Madman

Jon Oliva is a true master in the pantheon of American heavy metal. Being a founding member of the legendary Savatage, the larger-than-life Trans-Siberian Orchestra, and the hard-driving Jon Oliva’s Pain (among other projects) means that he has been responsible for helping shape the metal-minds of thousands of headbangers all over the world. So it’s no wonder that the man has taken a shot at releasing a grandiose solo effort under the simple moniker Oliva. That album, entitled Raise the Curtain, also features the last unreleased work from Jon’s late brother: legendary Savatage axeman Criss Oliva. We were fortunate enough to be able to catch Jon on a brief respite from writing, rehearsals, and promotions to talk about his new music, his current projects, and life as he knows it.

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Jon Oliva - King of Mountains, Master of Ivories (Courtesy of TampaBay.com)
Jon Oliva – King of Mountains, Master of Ivories (Courtesy of TampaBay.com)

You’ve mentioned in some of your recent interviews that the process of writing and recording Raise the Curtain was started on something of a whim just after the loss of (late Jon Oliva’s Pain guitarist) Matt LaPorte. Did you have any intention of writing a solo record before that?

I’ve always wanted to do something like it. Handful of Rain was kind of a solo record, in collaboration with Zak [Stevens] and Alex Skolnick. They’re the only people who performed on that album other than myself. So I’d already done it once as a Savatage album and this was something different. This included the last of Criss’ music that I had on cassette. Ironically it was the earliest stuff we ever wrote together. It all came from before “Sirens” and “City Beneath the Surface”. So that coupled with losing Matt and not being sure what I wanted to do with JOP, I just thought that now was the time to do it. Losing Matt was very traumatic for me, almost like losing Criss again. It took me a while… I got very depressed thinking “I can’t believe this, all my friends are dying”. I just needed to take a break. Of course, my version of taking a break is to do something to keep my mind occupied. So that’s when I started thinking about doing the solo thing.

Raise the Curtain (Cover image courtesy of Amazon.com)
Raise the Curtain

So it was pretty cathartic in the wake of all of that turmoil?

Yeah, because I’ve lost a lot of friends over the last couple of decades. It started with Criss, who was of course my little brother. From that time on it seems like, every year or two, someone I’m really close to goes. I mean before Matt it was our producer Greg [Marchak], who was a really good friend of mine for many years. But therapy for me is to get myself busy doing something that occupies my brain. Otherwise I just sit there and start drinking and we don’t know where that leads. So instead of getting wasted and feeling sorry for myself I’m going to get myself immersed in something to keep me busy. You know, I wanted to take care of Criss’ music and get the rest of it out. When you lose somebody it makes you think about how precious life really is and, you know, I’d hate to think if something happened to me and I didn’t get all of his music out to his fans. That was something I swore I would do is make sure the fans got to hear everything that he ever wrote and a lot of the stuff on this record is his earliest stuff. The riff in “Father Time” is probably the second riff he ever wrote in his life. The song “Ten Years” was originally written when he was 17.

It was ironic that the last stuff I had from him was the earliest stuff we ever wrote. Everything else I’ve done on the JOP, Savatage and [Trans-Siberian Orchestra] records. This was the last of it and it wasn’t heavy metal. I knew it wasn’t heavy metal and I had to make that decision. That’s another reason I decided to do it as a solo record. I just felt it would be cool to do it. I got to play lead guitar on an album, which had always been a big fantasy of mine. Y’know when you have guys like Criss Oliva, Al Pitrelli, Matt LaPorte and Alex Skolnick around you don’t really want to play lead [Laughs]. So it was cool. It was challenging. I put a lot of time in to it, about a year and a half. That is really why I did it, it was therapy. And I thought the time was now to make sure I got his music out.

From Conception: Avatar [Left to Right: Keith Collins, "Doc" Wacholz, Criss Oliva, Jon Oliva] (Courtesy of Encyclopedia Metallum
From Conception: Avatar [Left to Right: Keith Collins, “Doc” Wacholz, Criss Oliva, Jon Oliva](Courtesy of Encyclopedia Metallum)

It’s interesting that you mentioned the time frame of Criss’ contributions to the record, the fact that it’s some of his earliest work. I guess you were still called Avatar back then…

This was even before Avatar! This was back when we called ourselves either Tower or Metropolis, back when we were in bars and doing Kiss, Alice Cooper and Bob Seger covers. That’s when we wrote this stuff. Avatar came about when we wrote “City Beneath the Surface”, about two or three years later.

The material impresses me as sort of Prog Rock-y. I get a little bit of Yes…

Yeah, you’re right. Those were my biggest influences, bands like Queen, Yes, The Beatles, stuff like that. You hear it on this record. I throw my heavy tracks in there to let people know I can still crank it. Tracks like “Soul Chaser”, “Big Brother” and “The Witch” are all very symbolic of what I’ve done with JOP and with Savatage. But I just wanted to weed out this proggy stuff like the opening track. It reminds me of ELP meets Yes. And then the Criss stuff kind of comes in and out. I like the way it flows. It shows a bit of everything and no two songs sound the same.

It also surprises me that you said that the material was from so early on because my first reaction was “This sounds a lot like Gutter Ballet or Streets”.

Some of it does. But that’s what’s so cool about it. That’s why it has that sort of classic rock sound because most of the stuff was written in the late seventies, early eighties. Those Criss riffs are from before we started getting into the heavy stuff. That’s what we were playing in the bars, bands like UFO, Alice Cooper, Rush, Queen, Deep Purple. Those were all the cover tracks we were playing so that was our influences at the time.

So it’s almost like a musical homecoming…

It’s a circle. It shows everybody where it started. Everyone has heard the Avatar stuff since Sirens, but no one ever heard anything before that. I mean the bonus track [“The Truth”] was the first acoustic song that we ever wrote together. It was before “Out on the Streets” [the final track on Sirens] and I’d totally forgotten about it before I found it on the cassette tape. I made a few little changes but it’s still basically the same song. So it’s cool that I came basically full circle.

I guess that was why you made the choice to include the rose-wrapped guitar on the cover?

That was done because that’s what the record is about. Criss has got contributions on more than half the album and I just wanted people to know what it’s about without any kind of bullshitting around. So if you look at the cover you see his guitar, my piano, and what I did as a little subliminal thing is, if you hold the cover back a bit and look at the mic-stand, and you look how it crosses the keys on the piano, it makes the sign of the cross. Only one person has picked that out so I’ve decided to start telling people [laughs] and that was intentional. We also put a great little collage together of a lot of pictures that no one’s ever seen. It’s got about 60 pictures from the entire history of my brother and me.

You mentioned the sign of the cross on the album cover. Christianity has played into your music, whether it’s subtle themes in the earlier Savatage recordings or the broader, more overt themes in the TSO material, through your whole career. From your perspective, what has the role of religion been in your music?

I think it’s powerful as far as… when you’re singing lyrics as if you were talking to god or something like that, it opens up a dynamic. A lot of the lyrics are written by Paul [O’Neill, long time Savatage/TSO composer/producer], but even the stuff that I write on my records, where I refer to religion a lot, it’s because it’s sort of like the ultimate person to talk to. It’s really hard to explain. I don’t like doing it because it’s not like I’m trying to say “Oh I go to church everyday” and I’m not trying to preach the bible to anybody. For me though, it gives me a dynamic. It gives me a place to go with my emotions. And it’s not about a girl or drugs anything like that. It’s deep. However you believe, and everyone believes differently, it’s still a dynamic that opens up when you refer to those things, especially when you’re singing. It just strikes a big chord with people when you go [sings] Jesus! Show me the answer! versus referring to a specific person. That’s how we’ve all been brought up. It’s a powerful statement. “Jesus” is a powerful word based on how we’ve been brought up with it. That’s the way I feel about it. It’s a dynamic.

That makes total sense because even atheists are rooted in Christianity largely because that’s our cultural heritage…

Exactly! They become atheist because they personally decide they don’t believe in it. No one comes out of the womb going “I don’t believe in shit!”. You know, a song like “Believe” [from Streets: A Rock Opera], that could be taken as a religious song, but it’s not. It’s really about the character, D.T. Jesus. Words have lots of different meanings. Some people take it in a religious context and others take it differently.

Dreams of Fireflies: the latest release from Trans-Siberian Orchestra (Courtesy of Encyclopedia Metallum)
Dreams of Fireflies: the latest release from Trans-Siberian Orchestra

The last time that you spoke with us, you had mentioned that you were working on the Romanov material with TSO. How is that coming along?

It’s awesome! We’ve been working on it for about six months actually putting the tracks down. Actually as you and I are speaking Paul is at the studio working with one of the vocalists on some of the stuff. We’ve got two or three TSO things going on and we decided a few months ago to just start recording everything. At this point they’re all almost done, we just have some writing to flesh out here and there. We started the Romanov stuff, we’ve started the Gutter Ballet stuff, and we’re just going down the list. We have certain singers that we want to use who are available and this week we’re going to have them start working on some stuff. These aren’t even keeper vocals, we won’t be finalizing them until after the Christmas tour. We just want everyone to know the songs like they know how to wipe their butts.

What is it that you’re doing with Gutter Ballet?

We’re doing a production, and it’s basically the Streets album, but the original title for that was supposed to be Gutter Ballet. When we did the Gutter Ballet album, it was supposed to be a concept record but we weren’t confident enough at the time to make that leap. So Paul said “well let’s do a piece of it and see how it goes”. So we did “Gutter Ballet”, “Temptation Revelation” and “When the Crowds are Gone” on that album, which sort of said to us “okay, we can do this!” after which we started working on the Streets album. So the idea now is to take those songs from Gutter Ballet album and the original versions of songs from the Streets album and put them together to do sort of like a Beethoven’s Last Night kind of thing. So I’ve recorded several different versions of songs like “Agony and Ecstasy” and things like that. It’s very exciting, there’s lots of stuff going on with that and we’ve put a bunch of tracks down already, we’ve put a bunch of the Romanov stuff down already, and we’re just going down the list. We’re doing as much work as we can before rehearsals for the TSO Christmas tour starts in October. But knowing Paul we’ll probably still be working on the same two songs we’ve been working on for the past six weeks [laughs].

Where do things stand at the moment with Jon Oliva’s Pain?

Well, that’s a good question [laughs]. I’m going to go out on my own in the States for about 3 weeks in December or January doing a storytellers thing. I’m going to do this thing where I do some stuff from the solo record and kind of a history of Savatage, and it’s just going to be me and Chris Kinder [JOP Drummer] and that’s it. It’s going to be done at guitar centres and places that have a performance stage. We’ll have a couple hundred people, we’ll sit down, relax, and we’ll go through the whole thing. There’s a lot of stories to be told. You’re definitely going to have a laugh because there are some great stories. I’ve worked on some of the material with Chris and it’s really fun. It doesn’t do me any good to go out and play “Sirens” and “Hall of the Mountain King” anymore. People know the songs and I’ve already committed to going out in Europe next year for the 25th anniversary of Gutter Ballet. For now I want to do something that’s fun. So we’re going to go out, just Chris and I, and a few crew guys, to do this storytellers thing. It’ll be fun.

The original, Par Records cover for Sirens
The original, Par Records cover for Sirens

So I’m guessing that there’s not going to be anything happening for the 30th anniversary of the Sirens album?

Never. [laughs]  I can’t do it man, that would kill me! It’s just, you know I’ve done “Sirens” every. Fucking. Show. I’ve ever played, and I’ve done thousands. This way I can go out under the pretense of the crowd knowing that I’m not going to play that song.

So no commemorative re-issues of the album or anything like that either?

I don’t know, I haven’t really thought about that. Enough is going to happen this year I tell you that. What if I celebrate the 31st anniversary next year? To be honest with you I didn’t even know that this year was the 30th anniversary. Oops! [laughs] What’re you going to do man.

Recently you and Zak guested on a single from Syrian band The Hourglass. How did you get hooked-up with those guys?

I don’t know. I think Zak actually called me about that. Chris [Kinder] and I went out to Morrisound studios and they had sent us the audio files. So I recorded my part and, at the time Zak hadn’t recorded his parts yet so I heard their singer [Bassem Deaibess] doing Zak’s parts. He was going to do it later as he was out of town at the time.

With a Global Warning: Jon in concert with the late Matt LaPorte (Courtesy of metal-rules.com)
With a Global Warning: Jon in concert with the late Matt LaPorte (Courtesy of metal-rules.com)

What does the near future hold for you? The next month?

Everything possible to keep from beating myself with a club [laughs]. Actually I’m in TSO mode again. I’m also writing the next JOP thing. Actually right after we’re done I’m on my way out to the studio. So I’m really busy. Writing and working with TSO is the priority right up until we go to Omaha for tour rehearsals. There’s nothing to do up there, you’d rather be stuck in a sandbox. It’s just cornfields and this sports arena dumped in the middle of these four casinos and one of the biggest truck stops in the world. So we rent out this arena for like three weeks, and we set one band up on one side, set the other band up on the other side, and from 10 AM until 3 AM I’m sitting in the middle watching rehearsals. It’s a barrel o’ laughs [laughs]. It’s insane. I watch that show six times a day during that period, but it’s what we’ve got to do to get it all happening.

Any final thoughts for your fans about Raise the Curtain, TSO, JOP, Savatage…?

Enjoy this album. It’s the last of Criss’ music and it was a labour of love. And the TSO stuff that’s coming out, you guys are going to be blown away. Especially the Romanov stuff. It’s very dark, certainly not “happy Christmas music”. There’s some great, great songs on Romanov. Just enjoy it all.

With Savatage, we never know what’s going to go on with that. People keep asking if we’re going to do something, I keep saying “I don’t know” because I really don’t! I’m not saying it’s out of the question but by looking at our schedule and what everybody’s got goin’on, the TSO touring schedule, I just don’t see where we’re going to have the time to do it. That’s the problem. So maybe two or three years from now we’ll get a hair up our butt and say “hey, let’s go do it.” Maybe we’ll do it, I don’t know. We have more of a chance of doing a three or four song EP I think because we’re all in the studio together doing TSO stuff anyway. I think that would be more of a realistic thing than a tour, but you never know.

As I said, I’ve started writing the JOP stuff, it’s going to be a very dark record, very heavy. My goal with it is to write the heaviest record I’ve ever done in my career. I’ve done the solo record with the last of Criss’ stuff, got my fantasy of being a lead guitar player and everything was just a ball. Now it’s time to see just how heavy I can make it.

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We here at Metal Blast are very excited about the new record and will be posting our review in the coming days. In the meantime, we highly advise everyone to go back and dig in to the back catalogue of this mountainous metal legend. You can purchase albums from Savatage, Trans-Siberian OrchestraJon Oliva’s Pain, and even pre-order Raise the Curtain, at Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk.

  • Frank

    Matt, this is an excellent, in-depth interview. You asked Jon thoughtful questions. Keep up the great work. You would be a great candidate to interview Rob Halford or Glenn Tipton on the new Priest recording.
    Frank from Hull, Quebec

    • Matt Miller

      Frank, I just saw this comment now. Thank you so much for your kind words! It was a real treat for me to talk to Jon about his solo album and all of his different musical ventures. I actually did get a chance to interview Ian Hill back in July about the new Priest album! Check it out here!

      http://www.metalblast.net/interviews/never-satisfied-an-interview-with-ian-hill-of-judas-priest/

      Thank you so much once again. I actually live in Ottawa right across the river from you so if you ever see around town don’t hesitate to come say hi!