As part of our coverage of the great Dokk’em Festival in the Netherlands, we met up with the legendary Jon Oliva.
While Jon is well known for his work with Savatage, the ending of the band didn’t mean the end of his music, as he continued with his own project, Jon Oliva’s Pain and, of course, the band that is considered the successor of Savatage, Trans Siberian Orchestra.
Jon Oliva’s Pain is in the middle of a tour playing the classic Savatage record “The Hall of the Mountain King”, an album that is considered a fundamental part of rock and metal history. Jon took the time to let us into the tour bus to talk about not only the present and future, but also to take a walk down memory lane and revisit the story of Savatage. You can see the video at the bottom of the page.
MB: Why did you decide to do a tour focused on Savatage’s “The Hall of the Mountain King”, instead of playing material from Jon Oliva’s Pain?
Jon Oliva: It was an idea that Chris [Kinder; drums] and our tour manager came up with and they told me about it. I thought about it and I was, like, ‘You know, that would be fun.’ Because we haven’t done a new JOP record since Matt [LaPorte, guitar] passed away. We really didn’t know what we wanted to do, but we wanted to come out and play a little bit. I thought that since the old albums are just reissued by Edel, it would be good to give them a little kick in the butt. Plus I’ve never done it before. I’ve been doing this a long time, so it’s something I’ve never done before, and that was kind of exciting to me. I was like, ‘Wow, this is different.’ And the fans have been loving it. It’s been going over really good, so I’m really happy about it.MB: Savatage is considered a very important band in hard rock; did you ever even think that Savatage could become this?
JO: Not really, we were just happy to be able to survive back in those days, because we didn’t really know what was going on. Until we hooked up with O’Neil and did Hall of the Mountain King, it had been very hard, we got ripped off by everybody… it was just sad, really.
Mountain King was the turning point, it was our “comeback” record and, from that point on, things went very well for us. This is also another reason to do this concert… a little sentimental thing.
MB: Speaking of hard times, there was an album-
JO: Fight for the Rock… yeah, we call it Fight for the Nightmare. That was the lowest point we were ever at, because our manager stole all of our money. We were stuck in London with no money… we had spent two weeks doing Power of the Night with [producer] Max Norman from Ozzy, and now suddenly we’re told “well, you only have money for three weeks”.
The album stank because we had three weeks to do it, the material was all wrong, we shouldn’t even had done that material. Still, you know what? That’s is how you learn in this business… that was our one big fuckup. Sorry!
MB: The story behind that particular album is rather sketchy and everyone tells a different version. Basically the label wanted something more commercial?
JO: Our managers wanted us to be the next Journey. They knew that I wrote a lot of different types of songs; I put out a demo of songs that I had written to shop for other artists, and then they called a meeting where they said “no, we’ve decided that you guys are going to do these songs, and we’re going to make you the next Journey… you’re going to be big, huge!”. Now, when you tell 4 guys, who are living on peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, that they’re going to be rich [if they record this album]… well, what do you do? You do it!… and we fucked up; we should have never done it, but we learned our lesson and we haven’t done it ever since.
MB: Were there a lot of moments in Savatage, especially in the beginning, when it was all about falling and standing up again?
JO: Oh yeah; we were knocked down constantly, we should have had a sign on our faces that said “Welcome”, like a doormat!
We were very young when this happened; I was the oldest one and I was only 22 or 23, and I didn’t know what the fuck was going on. I thought it did, but obviously I didn’t, and I ended up paying for it, dearly. Millions of dollars! We were ripped off for early 3 million dollars over a 6-year period of time.
MB: Could you elaborate as to how that happened?
JO: Bad managers and crooks and criminals. Just every body who could scam money off of you would do it. If you weren’t sharp and knew how the business worked (like they did), they took advantage of you, that’s how it was in the early 80s in the music business in America. Talk to any of the bands that have been around since the early or mid 80s and they’ll tell you the same thing, that everyone got fucked. These people should have just had a mask and a gun.
MB: For quite a few years now you’ve been working on a musical called “Romanov”…
JO: Yeah, we’re doing it now. I’ve been in the studio with Trans Siberian Orchestra (TSO) (and thank God I got this break to come and do this or I’d be crazy already!). We’re working on that in Florida, so that’ll be a project for TSO that should be out in the next year or so. Finally!
MB: OK, so it’ll be a TSO thing and not a musical.
JO: I don’t know what they have in mind. They’ve talked about doing many things with it, so I don’t know exactly what they’re going to do. All I know is that we started recording the material for real; I’ve been laying down tracks for the last month, with pianos, drums and all kinds of stuff. Paul has some kind of an idea of what he wants to do, but he can never make up his mind, he always waits until the last second… but he’s right all the time. I’ll just shut up and do my job.
I don’t know how they’re going to put it out, whether as a show, a theater show, a Broadway show… all I know is that the record company said “let’s get the soundtrack done”, so that’s what we’re doing, and they’re figuring out what’s best. There’s even been some talk of doing it as an animated movie… it’s just so many things that I try to stay away from the whole TSO thing because otherwise I’d be in a rubber room by now.
MB: Isn’t it hard or frustrating to prepare the material and then go “here it is… now try to make it work” ?
JO: The things that Paul and I do sometimes take years to develop, because you want it to be right. His ideas to convey the story live are very expensive, so I think that one of the reasons why we’ve waited is because now we’ve built up a band to such a big level… I mean, in the US we were selling out two coliseum shows a day, that’s 40,000 people each day. Now the finances are to the point where we can experiment a bit more, we have a bit more slack that allows us to try to do this and invest some money into some new technologies and stuff, and he’s looking into that. My main gig with that is to write music and I let the business thing to him, because from my record as I business man I’m a complete failure, I was 3 million in the hole! It’s probably not a good idea to take business advice from moi.
This is the thing about Paul (and it goes to what you said about Savatage) that he’s not going to cheapen the audience. The name Savatage means a lot to him and to me; sure, we could take a one-month break and put some crap together, rehearse for two weeks and then come over to play and make a fortune, but unless we can do it right, we’re not going to do it.
Unless we can come here and be really like “WOW!”, something like TSO-level… once you get to that level you can’t go backwards, and that’s the big problem with Savatage, because to us it’s just as big and important as TSO, because it’s all of us, all the Savatage people. It’s just as if you painted your house: it was white for 25 years and now it’s blue and white. That’s all we really did.
MB: In the writing of the music for the material of Jon Oliva’s Pain, do you have an input in everything?
JO: Yeah, I play a lot in the albums. I play guitar in every song and probably in the next record I’ll play even more guitar, but it just depends on the song; there are some songs in JOP in which I’m the only one playing, except for ChrisXXX, the drummer, like “Fly Away”. The songs that are more mellow, more “Pink Floyd-ish”, I can play that style of guitar well, but I’m not a good shredder, I can’t shred…. I’m “shredless”. I can play slow melodic stuff really well, that’s my thing.
I enjoy playing and I’m getting more into that. That’s what I love about JOP, I get to play bass, some guitar, some leads which I never had the opportunity to do in the other things I’ve done, because I was always with people who were better at it than me.
MB: Is Savatage now really over?
JP: Everyone keeps saying that, but what I don’t think people realize is that SAVATAGE is still really together, it’s just a different band [TRANS-SIBERIAN ORCHESTRA] with more people. But if you look at it, it’s Jon Oliva, Paul O’Neill, Al Pitrelli, Chris Caffery, Johnny Middleton, Jeff Plate… I mean, everyone from SAVATAGE is there on all the records, and on the road, most of us are there. And [TRANS-SIBERIAN ORCHESTRA] is doing so well, it just doesn’t make sense to stop it to do a SAVATAGE thing. If you wanna hear SAVATAGE stuff, come see me, because I’m the original singer, so me doing SAVATAGE is gonna sound more like SAVATAGE than anybody but SAVATAGE. That’s why I come out and do it; it’s for the SAVATAGE fans. I play the SAVATAGE stuff because I love to play it, and don’t really see a SAVATAGE thing happening, just because of how popular the [TRANS-SIBERIAN ORCHESTRA] has become and the time that it takes to do this stuff. It’s just really not feasible. Unless you’re gonna do an album and then do a tour, but there you’re talking about a year. ‘Cause we’re not just gonna throw something together just for the money, because we don’t need the money. SAVATAGE, believe me, was never about the money, and neither is JOP about the money. It’s about the love of playing and for the people and playing the songs. I’m not making any money out here — I’m losing my ass. But I don’t care — I’m smiling and I’m having a good fucking time.
MB: There’s one part of your life that actually influenced the music you wrote, which was your rehab period after your tour with Megadeth…
JO: That was just a bunch of young guys that never went to college who were making believe that we were in college. We were bad, dude, I’m telling you, it was ugly. Savatage, Megadeth, sometimes Testament… we were crazy, but we were having so much fun, we were all on our prime, just loving to have a great time. Back then you just got caught up in it; before you even realized you had a drug problem it was already too late, because everywhere you went people were giving you pot, coke, a drink… I mean, I never went anywhere from 1984 to 2001 when someone hasn’t tried to give me drugs or alcohol, NEVER, and I’ve been to a lot of places since then.
It’s hard; I could be out there getting hammered right now, but I’m sitting inside this bus… all by myself… lonely.
MB: Do these experiences still influence your life or your writing style?
JO: I don’t really party like I used to… I mean, I’m 50 years old, I’ll drop dead tomorrow. I smoke though, because everybody I know who’s in this job (and there’s a lot of tension here) takes Valium or Xanax, and I don’t wanna take that stuff. If I have a smoke, I’m fine, and that’s it. I just stay mellow.
MB: Doesn’t smoking affect your singing or make it harder to sing?
JO: No, actually it makes it better. I can’t figure my voice out. It shouldn’t work, but it’s working.
MB: Doesn’t it make it harder to breath?
JO: I’m sure it does, but nothing that I’ve noticed.
MB: What’s in the future now for Jon Oliva’s Pain?
JO: We’re gonna do an album, but I’ve got some weird ideas that I wanna try. I just don’t wanna do ‘another’ JOP record, I’ve done four of those already. I wanna do something different. I’ve got some material that I’ve wanted to put out for a while that I’m gonna have a talk with the record company about, maybe putting something out quickly, like in the next four or five months, to give me more time to do this next JOP record, because I want that to be special, and I’ve got some guest friends from other bands that are gonna come in and play on certain [songs]. I’m gonna do a double… I’m gonna do a regular JOP record and then a bonus disc with guest stars, kind of like the AVANTASIA thing but not like a whole story and all that. [Tobias Sammet] does a magnificent job, but I don’t have that much fucking time [laughs] to write a whole story, so I’m just gonna have some friends that I’ve talked to from various bands come in. (( Jon was a guest singer in Avantasia‘s “The Wicked Symphony” on the song “Death is Just a feeling” )
MB: You mention Avantasia, a band that is much “younger” than Savatage. Are there any other “new” bands that you like or at least listen to?
JO: No one really stands out that I’d say is a “brand new” band, because I really haven’t heard any bands that have come out in the last year or two, because I’m just too busy since I’m working all the time. I don’t really time and when I do have time the last thing I want to do is listen to music. I’m in the studio from 11 A.M. to 2 A.M., pretty much 6 days a week, and when I’m not doing that I’m touring… so I don’t really have time to listen to stuff.
I like the classics, give me Queen, Black Sabbath, the Beatles… and I’m a happy camper.
MB: Speaking of Black Sabbath. Ozzy or Dio?
JO: That’s tough. Probably Ozzy.
To me there are two different Black Sabbaths: the one with Ozzy had more straight melodic and hook lines, while the stuff with Ronnie was a bit more progressive, instrument, metal and riff wise, there was more going on. That’s not fair… you’re not allowed to ask that question!
I’d have to say Ozzy because of the history and because it was the first concert I ever went to. I can remember Ozzy standing there doing the peace sign and I was hooked from that point on. Although I’d have to say Ozzy, both of them were brilliant.
MB: Any final messages for your many fans?
JO: I love you, peace, love thy neighbor, have a good time, God bless you all. Good night and have a pleasant tomorrow.