1:00 Comparison of 'Raising the Curtain' to 'Handful of Rain'
3:00 Inclusion of Criss's riffs and work in 'Raising the Curtain'
4:00 Writing process with Criss in the early days
7:00 Discovery of the writing cassettes and their history
11:00 Introduction of Paul O'Neill to Savatage
13:00 Paul O'Neill as father figure to Jon and Criss
14:00 'Raise the Curtain' - recording, writing, influences
19:00 'Raise the Curtain' - Jon on guitar
20:25 Early history - division of instruments between Jon, Criss, and Steve Wacholz
22:00 'Raise the Curtain' - Jon on drums
23:00 Forthcoming 'Storytellers' tour (USA - late 2013)
27:00 The Beatles - influence on Jon
31:00 Jon writing an autobiography
32:00 Savatage history - moving to Florida
33:00 Mortality as motivation for making music and preserving legacy
35:00 Future of JOP - making the heaviest record he can
36:00 Inspiration - classical music and soundtracks
38:00 Thoughts on the current music scene
41:00 Appreciation of classical music
44:00 Jon's introduction to classical music through Paul O'Neill
48:00 Future of Savatage
54:00 Future of TSO (3 new albums)
57:30 TSO: Romanov Project
58:45 TSO: Gutter Ballet
1:02 TSO: Future of Beethoven's Last Night Tour
1:04 Thoughts on the Music Business
1:06 Guest Appearances: Avantasia, Kamelot, Soulspell
1:08 Savatage History: writing and recording 'Handful of Rain'
1:12 Savatage History: individual songs on 'Handful of Rain'
Interview Highlights (listen to the full interview above - I couldn't type everything!)
On doing a solo album: It's really just a break from Jon Oliva's Pain. It was when Matt passed away. It screwed me up, man. It was like reliving the Criss thing all over again. I talked to Matt the day before he passed away. Everything was fine, and blah blah blah. It was just like when Criss passed away. I had talked to Criss the day before from Paul's house, and boom, the next day they're gone. I got really depressed, and I was like, 'I need a break, man.' I had these last few riffs of Criss's left which were actually the first songs we ever wrote together, and I was like, 'Before I end up croaking, man, I've gotta put this stuff out.' And I said, 'I'm gonna do this. Now is the time to do it. I need a break from the band thing.' I didn't want to think about replacing Matt right away. I didn't want to think and deal with any of that shit. I gotta do something to keep busy. It was kind of like living 'Handful of Rain' all over again after Criss died. 'Handful of Rain' was almost as much a solo album as this was. I had a couple people help me out. I had Paul obviously, and Zak, and Alex Skolnick. But other than that, everything else on Handful of Rain was me.
Criss Oliva's tapes: It's on crappy old K-Mart cassette tapes. The hardest part of them was getting some of them to play, because some of them were so old that they were stuck. I had to put them in the oven for a few minutes because the tapes were so old. They were stuck to that pad, and they wouldn't play. So I had to kind of decipher stuff, and then some I had to break the cassette open and actually take the actual tape out and spool it on to a whole new empty cassette thing. It was hard work getting them. And I would find, like I said, the riff that opened 'Father Time.' That's the second riff that Criss Oliva ever wrote in his life. The first riff he ever wrote was terrible. The second one he wrote was that riff that starts that song. Stuff like that is special to me. The chorus in 'Ten Years' - that was something Criss wrote when he was like 16 years old. It's just stuff like that, it was very cool, but it was a pain in the neck trying to get that stuff audible to where I could decipher what it was and then learn the part and then try to write stuff to it. Most of Criss's things are just 20, 30-second blurbs of him playing riffs. They weren't songs. And he would always say, 'Hey butthead, here's this riff I've got. See what you can do with it.' And he would play for 12-15 seconds or so of the riff and then stop and call me an asshole and say, 'I'll see you tomorrow at practice. You better have something.' And that's what it was. It was weird hearing his voice again. That's always the weird thing about working with those tapes. We would always talk to each other and cuss each other out on each other's cassettes. Before we would trade them off, we would cuss each other out, call ourselves every name in the book as a joke. I'm sad that it's all gone now, though. I'm just sad about that.
Paul O'Neill's involvement with Savatage: He saved our lives. Fight for the Nightmare -- I mean, Fight for the Rock -- was the end of the band. The band was pretty much broken up. We were done. You find out that you've been ripped off for all the money that you worked the last 4 or 5 years for, and these guys just burnt you like toast and then have you do a crappy album and totally mislead us, and it was just heartbreaking, man. We were devastated. And then this guy Paul O'Neill shows up at our final concert, and the next day he gave us $50,000 and never asked for a penny back, just said, 'Here, you guys pay all your bills for two years. Let's get some new equipment, let's get into a rehearsal place, and let's write a real Savatage album. All I want is to be a part of it. I want to write with you and your brother.' And I'm like, 'Who is this guy?' But it was true, and you know what happened. Mountain King was great, and it did really well. And Gutter and Streets, I think, were definitely the three of us working together at our peak, at the peak of that lineup, that band. Those two records, I'm extremely fond of.
Paul was always like a daddy to us. He was like our father figure, and that's how it was looked at. Criss and I used to sneak off and do bad things, and Paul would come chasing us down, trying to find us, and we'd be in the tape room smoking or something like that. He'd come knock on the door - 'What are you guys doing in there?' 'Nothing, nothing. Walking the parapet.' It was fun, we had a great time together. It was very sad losing Criss. Paul and I still miss him every day. When I'm with him, we talk about him every day. It's so weird. Hopefully he's saving me a good seat up there somewhere, Criss. I want front row seats!
The recording of 'Raise the Curtain' and his vision of the album: We didn't really use keyboards that much except for strings. Everything else - pianos were real, the organs are real, and the horns are real, and all the vintage instruments. People don't understand how much of a difference that makes. Drums are all live drums. No sampled drums, they're all live drums that had to be tuned after every take like in the old days. And that's why the album has that kind of prog, but nostalgic prog type of vibe to it. It's very versatile, and I looked at it as like a performance. You walk in the theater, you sit down, the curtain is closed, and the lights go out, and the curtain starts to raise, and you hear that opening track, 'Raise the Curtain.' And in my mind, it was an imaginary band of four Jon Olivas. And then when the 'Curtain' song was over, and the first song of the show is 'Soulchaser,' and the four imaginary Jon Olivas run out on stage. One grabs a bass, one grabs a guitar, one grabs a mic, and one gets on the drums, and that's how the show starts. 'Soulchaser', 'Ten Years', so on, so on, until the very end, and then the exit music is that first acoustic song that Criss and I ever wrote together is that bonus track. And that's the first acoustic song we wrote together, and the next one was 'Out on the Streets'. So that song is the predecessor to 'Out on the Streets', but nobody ever knew that because I had totally forgotten about the song. So that's cool, and that's how I looked at it. So the album was done like a performance, as if you sat down and you watched this performance of this imaginary band and they played different music. They come out and kick your butt in the beginning with 'Soulchaser' and then the horn section comes out and they do the 'Ten Years' thing, and it gets a little creepy for that one little 'I Know' thing. And it just goes through the very different variations of the influences from bands that I've had through my whole career. You hear Beatles, you hear Deep Purple, you hear Sabbath, you hear ELP, you hear Queen, you hear all those bands I grew up with. All those influences come in and out of all those songs, and that's how I wanted to do it. I figured do it like a performance. Not meant to be played live, but listened to as an imaginary concert that you can go to in your head. Put your headphones on, and just picture that, and it works. So that was my idea.
Jon playing guitar: I've always played guitar. It's just that when you have Criss Oliva, there's no sense in ever picking up guitar except to write with or jam. Actually, I started out playing lead guitar, and Criss was the bass player. This is when he was like 14. Then it switched around. He just got so much better on guitar. Then I said, 'Okay, I'll play bass and keyboards and sing. You play guitar, and we'll be like Rush.' Then we got Wacholz, and then it was like the three of us, and we were kind of in the Rush thing. That's how it started.
Forthcoming 'Storytellers' tour: I'm going to do some stuff in late November/early December. I'm doing a 'Storytellers' type of thing where I'm going to do some tracks from this, and I'm going to go through my whole history from Savatage all the way through to JOP. I'm going to do 4 or 5 tracks off of this album. I think the first show I'm shooting for is the day after Thanksgiving. I'm going to go up the East Coast, probably cut across, try to do something in the Cleveland area. I did one already, and it went over very good. I just did it as a testing, I just did it at a listening party we had. I did a half-hour set just to dip my toe in the water and see what kind of reaction I would get, and people loved it. I started getting calls about it. I put together a show about an hour and a half, and it goes through our whole career, how some of the stuff on this album is the earliest stuff that Criss and I did. I go through all of the Savatage stuff, how like the original version of 'Out on the Streets' was written, which isn't the version the Savatage fans have heard. There was never any drums or anything in the original 'Out on the Streets'. It was just Criss and I playing acoustic guitar, and it had a different part in the middle. I'm going to perform that and say, 'This was the original 'Out on the Streets' as it was written. I've got some tapes I'm going to bring along that have Criss talking on them. Stuff like that and do it like very up-close, intimate, small place, 300 seats at the most. And it's a sit-down thing, it's not a rock concert. It's an up-close thing where I sit and talk to everybody and tell some great, funny stories. I have some great stories to tell, all true stuff, and go through the whole history up to when Criss passed away and then after, through the formation of Trans-Siberian and JOP. I think that will suit it better, and it will be a lot of fun, and I know I'm going to enjoy it a lot more than trying to go play a club on a Monday night with a band and all that. This album doesn't really fit that. To me, it's more like people have to understand what this is all about, and this is the best way to do it. Plus, I can show people, now that Criss's stuff is done, go back and show these other versions of songs, like stuff from 'Power of the Night' and some tracks we had written for 'Fight for the Rock' that we never even recorded, that people never even heard before. Never existed on demos - they were only on these little writing cassettes that Criss and I had that never got out to anybody, so no one's ever heard this. It's not stuff that I could re-record, because the songs all came out, but it's just the way they were originally presented is different than what the people have heard on the albums, and I think it would be very interesting for people to hear them. And I'm going to mix in a couple covers of some of my heroes. Maybe a couple Beatles tracks, maybe 'Planet Caravan' or something from Sabbath. I'm going to mix in a couple things, just have a good time, do a little question-and-answer thing, tell some stories, and just have some fun.
The influence of The Beatles: As far as what these guys could do with the equipment they had to work with is absolutely mind-boggling to me. I use more tracks on my cymbals than these guys recorded the whole Sgt. Pepper album with. It's insane that they made this kind of music with the limited amount of space on tape that they had to utilize…They were given this incredible gift of melody that revolutionized the music world.
Progress on his autobiography: I've already started writing one. I started about a year ago, and I've got about two chapters so far, and I'm doing it in a group of like a 4-year period. It starts in '68, '69, to like '72, then '72 to '75, and I just kind of go through how we grew up and our first gig we ever played. Our first show that Criss and I ever played together lasted 11 seconds - I got electrocuted. That was the end of the show. Stuff like that, and going through when we moved from California here to Florida, how we built our chicken coop rehearsal place that we used to call 'The Pit'. And how we met Wacholz, and how we used to have these big fruit rats that used to come in to the chicken coop at night and eat and chew up Wacholz's drum gloves. He used to have the gloves he'd wear on his hands, and he'd come in and they'd all be chewed up by these rats. Then he started setting these rat traps all over, and we put big X's on the wall for every rat we killed. Crazy stuff like that, just funny stories that happened through the years, and I think people are going to enjoy it. It's very funny.
Mortality as motivation: You get this sense of urgency. I guess it comes with getting older. That stuff, 'golden years' - they're full of crap. There's nothing good about it, because you start thinking about stuff like that. When I was younger, in my 20s, 30s, even early 40s, I never thought about that stuff, because I was really busy. Once you get a little bit older and you hit 50, that's when all of a sudden, and your friends start passing away, you get this sense of urgency. I guess I have got that. I don't know why. I just know that while I'm here, I want to put out as much music as I can and make sure that I get the story out for whoever. Mainly for myself, though, just so I know that I did all I could do. Now, when it's time for me to check out of this hotel, I'll be ready to check in to the next one.
Future plans for Jon Oliva's Pain: I'm working on the new JOP record right now, and my goal for that is now I want to do the heaviest album I've ever made. That's my next thing I want to do.
Keeping up with new music: To sit and listen to the albums - to me, it's wasting my time. I should be writing instead of sitting there listening to something that I'm not going to utilize for anything. It's just weird. When I was younger, I used to listen to albums all day, you know, when I was 15, 16. Shit, I'd listen to every Black Sabbath album every day. It drove my mother crazy. She knew Black Sabbath songs better than Black Sabbath knew them. As I started getting into the business and then being a writer, I don't have the time to sit and do it anymore.
Future of Savatage: In my opinion, Savatage died when Criss died. To me, after Criss died, Savatage wasn't really Savatage anymore. It was basically Trans-Siberian Orchestra in training, because we knew when we lost Criss we had to go somewhere else. We had to go down another road, and that's when Paul and I started going heavy with the rock operas. Dead Winter Dead, Wake of Magellan, Poets. It's sad, but that Savatage after Criss died and we put the Dead Winter Dead lineup together, that band has never broken up. We're still together today. We're just not called Savatage anymore, but every album we've done since 'Poets and Madmen' with TSO is the same guys.
I see the guys, I talk to the guys, I text them all the time, I see them at the rehearsals, I travel on the road with them. When we're in the studio, everybody's there, pretty much the same as it was when we were doing Dead Winter Dead and Wake of Magellan. To me, we never really broke up. We just kind of said, 'This name is not working. We've got to put it on the shelf, because it's not working.' And that's the bottom line. The bottom line comes down to, perish the thought, but it comes down to making a living. We're not 21 anymore. We gave the best years of our lives to Savatage. When people sometimes actually get snotty with me about it, and I'm like, 'Where the hell were all you guys when we needed you to buy the record?' If Savatage would have released Dead Winter Dead and it sold 2 million records, we wouldn't be having this conversation right now. Somebody else explain to me how I could release the same song the next year and it sell millions. And then I walk around and I've got 6 platinum records on my wall, and not one of them says Savatage on it, folks. So what am I supposed to do? I've got a family to take care of. I've got responsibilities. I gave it as much time as I could to break. Now I have something that's become very successful. It's paid the bills for everybody, it's provided a living for all the guys from Savatage. We're still a family, we're still together, we still love each other. Why would I want to do anything to destroy that? Why would I want to put a monkey wrench in that to rehearse a week and go put a Savatage thing together? It doesn't make any sense to me. Now I'm up for maybe doing some recordings, maybe put together a 4-song or 5-song EP or something, but I can't shut down what provides a living for so many people, the Savatage guys mostly. It just doesn't make any sense to me. I think a lot of times Chris (Caffery) and Johnny and those guys just miss those days, and believe me, I miss them, too. I miss them probably more than any of them do. Johnny and Chris have been around for a while, but I was there for ten years before Johnny and Chris Caffery were around. So if anyone understands it, I do understand, but we just don't have the time to do both. That's why we had to make that decision - is it going to be Savatage, is it going to be TSO? The numbers don't lie. You can't fight the numbers. TSO sells out 40,000 tickets a day. I've done whole tours with Savatage in America where we didn't play in front of 40,000 people in 6 weeks, and people still argue with me about it. It drives me crazy. I'm like, 'I don't get it. I don't get it, guys. I don't get it.' I understand, but Savatage was a great band, and I want it to live on its legacy. I don't want to just slap something together real quick and cheapen the name. If I was ever going to do that, it would have to be big, at the level of TSO, the production and everything. I'm not just going to slap it together. That wouldn't be right, and I don't think it's necessary. Maybe we'll do some recording, though, maybe do an EP and put it out as a special thing.
New Trans-Siberian Orchestra material and impact on Savatage activity: We're working on three TSO albums at one time right now. We've got Romanov we're recording, we've got a 'Gutter Ballet' thing that we're working on, and we've got this new thing called 'Letters from the Labyrinth' that we're working on. So that to me, three albums that are backed up right now, that's at least, in the Paul O'Neill world, that's at least four years worth of work. So when do you do it? Is it worth cutting the foot off of the goose that lays the golden egg so everyone can go get their ya-ya's out? I don't know. Maybe I'd feel different a year from now. Right now I think the most important thing is to get these TSO projects done, get Romanov out, which is going to be a monstrous album. It's by far the best TSO stuff ever. And then play it by ear and see. I think it's more realistic for us to record because we're going to be in the studio for the next few years anyway in between tours with those guys. It'd be a lot easier, a lot more feasible for us. Let's write like 6 new Savatage songs and do something special for the fans and call it 'Final Curtain' or 'The End' or 'Goodnight' or 'Thank You' or whatever and put it out, and that I think would be more realistic.
I would love to do it as long as it didn't interfere with what we're doing that's actually providing a living for everybody. You look at the want ads - there's not a lot of opportunities for musicians in their 40s and 50s to go out and make the kind of money and play the kind of shows and stuff that we're doing with TSO. There's not a lot of opportunity out there. So when you have something that's working and you have something that is bringing a lot of joy and pleasure, obviously, to people, because they keep coming back every year, so we must be doing something right - I don't see why we'd want to destroy that or do anything that could possibly harm it.
On TSO's forthcoming 'Romanov' album and other work: It's brilliant. I can't wait for the Romanov thing to come out, because it's dark. Paul and I wrote the majority of this stuff right around when Criss died. That's actually why I didn't go on the Edge of Thorns tour with them. I decided to stay and we were going to break in Zak, and I was going to write this thing with Paul, and that's what we were doing. We were writing Romanov during that period. It was very fresh, and the music that we were writing for it was a lot darker and a lot more maybe Savatage-ish sounding than the stuff we ended up writing later on for TSO. So that's why I'm excited about it. Al Pitrelli and me, we're putting a lot of the basic tracks together down here in Florida over the last few months, and it comes out really good. Some really great songs on this album, I think. My personal opinion, it's by far the best TSO album. It will be the best TSO album in my eyes. It's very, very, very cool, and I'm very happy about it. It's coming out great, you know. We're working on it. We're working on the 'Gutter Ballet' stuff, which is the 'Streets' thing with its original title, which was 'Gutter Ballet'. And I've been working on some different versions of certain songs for that that are coming out great. Paul and I, let's just record everything, and whatever we get done first will be the next record. We're on 120 mph every day, 'Boom boom boom, let's do this, let's do this', and we're just piling it up, getting as much done before this whole Christmas thing kicks in again. It's going to be quite amazing. You're going to enjoy it. So the future is very busy.
The Romanov stuff is very dark, but it's got some beautiful ballads. It's got like two just tears in your eyes ballads, but it's got some great dark stuff as well. It's got some great hard rock on it. And different sounding. It's different. I can't wait for it to come out. That's probably the most exciting project that I've done with TSO that I've been the most worked up about, because I have a hunch that it's gonna do really well.
On the future of TSO's 'Beethoven's Last Night' tour: I'm not sure what he [Paul O'Neill] wants to do with that. We've had offers to put that out in casinos all over the place. I don't know what he wants to do with that. He hasn't really talked about that much. I know his priority right now is Romanov and this whole Gutter thing and getting these things done so it doesn't take us 5 years to do them. Night Castle did take a long time to do, and he doesn't want that to happen again, I think that's why the sense of urgency. I'm not sure about the Beethoven thing, what he actually wants to do with that. I'm sure it will probably go out again if the right situation comes about. You never know with Paul.
His role in TSO and his view of the music business: My job with TSO is I'm his main writer. I write. I'm his left hand, right hand guy with the writing. I'm a terrible businessman. I mean, my history alone with Savatage should prove that to everybody. When I was in charge, we lost 2 million dollars, so I don't think I should be in charge of anything. But it does distract me, and I hate the music business. I love being a musician, and I love being in music, but I hate the music business with a passion. I can't stand it. I think it's backstabbing, cutthroat, full of crap, and I hate it. I hate every aspect about it, and so I stay away from it and just write. That's my job, is to write, and I love it. I love writing, and that's what I do. I let Paul and the guys up there in New York worry about all that stuff, because I'd be in a rubber room by now if I had to do that stuff.
Thoughts on Soulspell's 'Arc of Time', a track that featured both him and Zak Stevens on vocals: That track was pretty good, man. I thought it was interesting. The thing that was interesting about that to me was that's what Handful of Rain was supposed to be like. If Criss would not have died, the idea was after Edge of Thorns, I was only supposed to take the year off, and I was going to come back in the band, and we were going to do Handful of Rain, and we were going to have the two lead singers like I always wanted. I never wanted to be the only singer in Savatage. I ended up being the only singer because no one else could sing. But I always liked the fact of having two voices, the John Lennon/Paul McCartney vibe. I never wanted to be the only singer. I made sure when we found Zak that he was someone with a totally different sounding voice than mine, a smoother, more melodic voice, and I had the really rough, heavy voice. The idea was Handful of Rain was going to be half the songs, Zak was going to sing, and the other half I was going to sing, and maybe we'd do one or two together. And when Criss died, of course, that just threw a monkey wrench in the whole thing, because then the whole band kind of just never showed up. When we went in to do Handful of Rain, it was me and Paul. There was no Zak, there was no Wacholz, no Johnny, no nobody. It was just Criss's equipment and his guitar tech and me and Paul O'Neill and Jim Morris. That was it. We didn't have any songs or anything. We were writing songs in the morning on the Morrisound's back porch and then recording them that afternoon. That's how Handful of Rain came together. And then Zak showed up the last week we were there to sing, and Alex Skolnick came in a week after that and played a few solos. He didn't play all of them - I played a couple. And he played some guitar, and that was it. There was no band. It was just weird.