Interview with Jon Oliva, Jon Oliva's Pain  (March 2010)

Jon Oliva's legacy is being the frontman of Savatage. He is also one of the masterminds behind Trans-Siberian Orchestra. His latest band, Jon Oliva's Pain, has just released their fourth album, "Festival," an intricate display of progressive sounds with a dark tone.
Jon's nightmares became reality with the concept and recording of "Festival," which features a song created from old recordings by his brother, Criss, before his death.
Speaking from his home in Florida, Jon talked about the differences between "Festival" and previous JOP releases, his brother and, of course, Savatage. "Festival" is a great, melodic, creative album full of memorable choruses and guitar lines. Explain how you came up with the material and the direction you were heading in while writing it.

Jon Oliva: I wrote a lot of it on the road, so I wrote most of it on the guitar, which was different than the last album I did, which was written a lot in the studio ... my home studio. I was under a little bit of a time situation, so I had to do a lot of writing on tour last summer in Europe. I think that just gave it more of a heavier edge because I was restricted to using guitar most of the time to write stuff. But it was good because stuff was coming out heavier, and I wanted this album to be a bit darker and have a little more edge than the last one I did, which was more progressive and melodic. This one, I wanted to get back to our good old-fashioned slamming. 

POM.DK: Understandably, anything you do will ultimately be compared with Savatage. But "Festival" is heavier and darker, yet more progressive.  It's probably the furthest and most creative step away from Savatage. Do you agree?

JO: In a way, yeah. Like you said, everything I do is going to have that comparison to Savatage. But that's OK because that's my legacy, Savatage. It doesn't bother me, and I'm not going try to change anything I do at this stage in my career. I just do what I do and try to have fun with it. But this one reminds me more of an older Savatage type of album, meaning the "... Mountain King" or "Gutter Ballet"  period, just because of the darkness of it ... it's a bit darker. That's what I think. 

POM.DK: What are you trying to say lyrically with this album?

JO: A lot of the songs are based on dreams. The whole "Festival" idea came in a nightmare, so it's a festival of nightmares or dreams. Stuff that's not really real ... but a bit of a darker side. That's basically the theme. I think every song on there lyrically is about a dream or a nightmare, except maybe one or two. They're not all scary nightmares, it's just not reality-based, they're all fiction. That was different because the last couple of albums were pretty factual lyrically, about stuff that's going on in the world. This one I wanted to get away from that and go into a fantasy world. Of course, my fantasy world has to be full of weirdness. Hence, the darker approach.

POM.DK: You've always had great artwork on Savatage album covers and now on "Festival." What’s the concept behind the name and art?

JO: That was part of the dream, the actual picture on the cover. I actually sketched it out in pencil. I'm a very bad artist, but I drew a big circle where the Ferris wheel went and this gate opening with this sick-looking dude with a hat on, welcoming all these people in. So the guy (artist Thomas Ewerhard) captured it really great. There's a lot more detail in the actual dream. There were booths that are usual at fairs, where they sell food or shirts or jewellery. This place had heads in jars and torture devices. It was a really twisted dream.  I sent the guy the sketch and talked to him and when he sent the picture in, I almost fell out of my chair. And that's how the whole thing started. I dream a lot and write them down and probably have three or four notebooks that I've had probably since my 20s. I dream a lot when I'm on the road because that stupid bus bouncing around, rocking you around, you get weird sleep on a tour bus. It's hard to explain. I dream a lot while on a tour bus, sleeping. I just kind of put it together and one thing led to another. Thomas has done the past three album covers for us. He's a good guy, good artist. 

POM.DK: The song "Lies" originally was created by your brother. Did you discover it on a computer file or a tape? Was it a finished song that you tweaked a little, or was it just a riff that formed the basis of the song? How did you find it and then decide to use it?

JO: It was on a cassette tape of a song that we were working on for Savatage a long time ago. It wasn't a complete song, it's just a couple of pieces. It's the actual pieces where I'm singing the verse, the first part at the beginning of the song, that whole section there is his. Then I had to finish it from there because that's all we had on tape, with the very first singing verse and then the part that comes right after it, and then it stopped. There was nothing else there. Then I wrote the chorus part where it goes "Lies, lies, all I ever hear from you," that was all new music. I took his riffs and wrote to them and made a song out of it. It was hard, but it's one of my favorite tracks on the record.

POM.DK: Not to bring any sadness into this conversation, but are there moments when you think about your brother and look up and say, "This one's for you, bro”?

JO: All the time. That's why it's very important to us that he's been a part of every record we've ever done. He's had songwriting contributions on all four of the albums. And that's great. In a way, he's kind of like a secret-weapon member of the band. Even though he's not here, his music is. We're happy about that, and we're always excited when we have a Criss riff to work on. 

POM.DK: I interviewed Chris Caffery and Alex Skolnick at a TSO show in December. And one of my questions to them is what I'm about to ask you: Will Savatage ever get back together with you at the helm?

JO: Savatage, as people know it, will never get back together. It's just an impossibility. I know certain people are upset about that, but there's really nothing you can do about it. In my opinion, Savatage was over when Criss passed away. And that's not taking anything away from guys like Al Pitrelli, Chris Caffery or Jeff Plate. 

But after Criss passed away, the band was no longer the band that it was. And we started looking to forge new territories. Savatage from "Handful of Rain" till the end was basically the Trans-Siberian Orchestra in training. We were progressing to become what we are today, which is the Trans-Siberian Orchestra, which is one of the biggest bands in America.

I'm sure you're aware of the history of Trans-Siberian Orchestra ... to do anything to mess that situation up to reunite a band that has never even broken up. All we really did was change the name and broaden the versatility of the music to appeal to a bigger crowd than just the heavy-metal crowd. And it worked. Because when we go on tour, we sell out sports arenas, two shows a day in most places. So how can you possibly think of shutting that down to do a Savatage reunion tour? To me it would be professional suicide. So as far as I'm concerned, it's never going to happen. It's just not enough time. And it would be sacrificing something that's provided a living for everybody. All those guys from Savatage included, because they're all in (Trans-Siberian Orchestra). 

If Savatage sold millions and millions of records in their career, then it would be justifiable, but Savatage was more of an underground band. It was a great band, it went through many phases, but it's time to move on. I also have four or five years with the JOP band, and I'm not willing to throw that out the window to reunite a band that's really basically still together. That's the way I see the whole thing. People may think differently, but I'm on the inside, and if I would have never seen these guys for 10 years, if we would have split up in 2001 and all went our separate ways, I would probably feel different about it. But I've never stopped working with them. We've never stopped being a working band, we just basically morphed into this band that has achieved 10 to 20 times what the band achieved under the name of Savatage. 

It's a kick in the ass, but at least we can pay our bills now. If I were 25 years old still, it would be a different story. But it just doesn't make any sense to take the goose that lays the golden egg and slit its throat. I know Chris Caffery is very passionate about the Savatage reunion thing but, in all honesty, I just think it's his emotions getting the best of him. It's just not possible to happen. 

POM.DK: Is "Festival" going to be the closest thing to Savatage that fans are going to get?

JO: If I were a Savatage fan, I would be very happy. Because you've got the Savatage band that was together for "Dead Winter Dead" and "Wake of Magellan" making this great music under the name Trans-Siberian Orchestra. And then you got me doing the JOP stuff, which has me singing and has music of Criss Oliva involved as well as mine. The JOP thing reminds me of Savatage when Criss was alive. And the Trans-Siberian Orchestra is basically Savatage from what we were doing on "Wake of Magellan" and those records, it's just a step further on down the road.

It's like Savatage all grown up, but with a different name, so we can incorporate more people into the music. And we don't want to write inside of a box or have a label on us where I can't do certain types of songs because the name of the band was Savatage where people wouldn't accept it. That was something that was starting to frustrate me and Paul.

Trans-Siberian Orchestra opens the doors for us as writers to do whatever we want. We're not a heavy-metal band, we're not a pop band, we're just a band, we're an orchestra. We got 30 to 40 people involved between the singers, keyboard players and guitar players. So we write whatever we want to write and use the people in the organization who suit that type of song, and those are the people who end up recording them. Having that name, "Orchestra," opens up a lot of doors if you're a songwriter, because it takes away any limitations as to what you can do.

POM.DK: Your involvement with TSO seems to have waned a bit since its inception. Are you a behind-the-scenes kind of guy or are you just focusing on JOP?

JO: My role with TSO is as a writer, performer in the studio, arranger and an orchestrator. And that's by my choice because I want to be able to do JOP. If I were also performing live with them, then I wouldn't be able to that. So I had to make that decision.

Do I want to go out there and be a full-time member of TSO the band we put out on the road and play keyboards, or do I want to do my own thing and travel to Europe every year and play festivals, which I love to do. So I talked to Paul about it and said I would play live in certain instances if he needed me to and have that be my involvement. 

So I'm involved in the management of the whole thing, because it was Paul, Bob and I who started TSO. They ask my opinion on decisions, but my main role is as a writer with Paul and working in the studio on the album projects.

POM.DK: The production on "Festival" is great. The tone and clarity shine through brilliantly. Producer Tom Morris always gets it right, but what type of sound were you looking for?

JO: We did a couple of things differently on this album than on the last few, as far as in-the-studio goes. I did a lot more guitar tracks than I have on previous albums, and I think that fattened the sound up quite a bit. I also went to the storage closet and dug out a lot of old synthesizers and old guitars and weird instruments and amplifiers.

I used Mellotrons and mini-Moogs that a lot of people don't use anymore. I put them through some weird effects and came up with some stuff that's really interesting. I think that helped also. It's a type of record you have to listen to two or three times because there's a lot of hidden melody lines going on that on only one or two listens, you might miss them. Once you listen a third or fourth time, you start to hear all the things you might have missed on the other playbacks, and it just grows on you. I think Tom knew that I wanted that type of sound, and I wanted a bit more spread and clarity on the mix and to sparkle a bit more ... and it worked.

POM.DK: JOP’s lineup is pretty much all Circle II Circle members. Was there any animosity toward you from Zak when all his band members joined your band?

JO: No, not at all because his band had actually just left him. I found them for Zak's band in the first place.

Before they were in Circle II Circle, I was already thinking of using them in a band. Then something came up where I had to delay that decision for a while, something to do with TSO. And Zak needed a band to go on the road with, because he was doing his first thing (after Savatage). So I said, “I have these guys lined up, why don't you just use them?" And he did. After that, it wasn't what they wanted to do and it didn't work out. After they did the tour for him, they all went their separate ways, and then the time opened up for me because I was ready to do what I wanted to do. I'm still very close with Zak, and there's no animosity. It was a very smooth transition. They were my band before they were his band, basically, but no one knew about it.

POM.DK: AFM Records is a great label for power metal and have a lot of great bands on their roster. How have they been treating you?

JO: Very well. Good guys. They're very eager and very hungry to be successful, and they have a very go-getter attitude, and I like that very much. I think they're going to do well as long as they can keep their heads above water, because the industry is a very difficult industry right now.

POM.DK: What are your touring plans for "Festival"?

JO: We're doing festival shows this summer, I think we start at the end of May. We play into June and come back to America, then we may go to South America in late August for a week. Then we go back to Europe in the middle of September for a six-week tour of our own. Then it basically ends with the week of our DVD shoot, which is the week of the end of October, and then it's back into the studio.

POM.DK: Any last words or comments for your fans?

JO: Just thank you for everything. Get over the Savatage thing, it's all OK, it's all good, everybody's happy and we're all still friends. 

Enjoy the new JOP album and I'll see you out on the road.


Interviewed by Kelley Simms
Jon Oliva's Pain - Festival

Album available on AFM Records.