JON OLIVA´S PAIN - The Mountain King Speaks
The Mountain King Speaks
- Tekst: Even Knudsen, 01.10.2005 -
On Scream Magazine’s fifteenth anniversary party at Rockefeller Music Hall, Oslo October 1st 2005 I finally got a chance to meet my all time hero of heavy metal – The mountain king himself – Mr. Jon Oliva. This was actually my first ever face-to-face interview, and I was more than a little bit shaky when I entered Jon’s dressing room. The fact that the room was filled with several other band members and others didn’t exactly make things easier but that’s a different story. Jon’s hospitality was overwhelming and that of course made the whole thing easier. In the following you can read about Jon’s view on the past, the present and the future….enjoy.
What kind of set can we expect to hear tonight?
A long one. A good set, a lot of good Savatage stuff. It will be fun, you’ll like it I promise.
Do you know any of the other bands playing here tonight?
I know the guys from Destruction, but to be honest with you I really don’t know any of the other bands.
‘Tage Mahal’ is the title of your new album, what does it really mean?
Absolutely nothing! Well, “tage” is spelled like in Savatage so it has that little connection. It was a title my brother Chris had for an album that he was going to do before he died so I wanted to use it cause it deserved to be used.
How did you end up using the ex-musicians from Zak’s band on this album?
Well, the whole thing with Zak, the only guy that was actually playing on his record was the guitar player. They just did the tour. They were kinda helping him out cause he needed a band. When that wasn’t working for them they became available and I said “hey, come play with me”.
Simple as that?
Yeah, it was really no kind of weirdness or anything like that. It just didn’t work out for them with that situation so they came in and played with me….And they’re very nice!...ha,ha
Was it inspiring for you to use a completely new band this time?
Yeah, it was really cool. I was like going back, starting all over again. This record was more like the early Savatage stuff. With Savatage it’s like “this guy got to happy and this guy got to be happy, cause if he’s not happy this guy’s gonna be pissed off”….so you have to make everyone happy. With this record everybody was happy from the very beginning, There was nothing like that shit so it was a lot different. It’s tough to make people happy….We’re happy.
Several of the songs could easily have been used on a Savatage album, why not release them as a Savatage album instead?
Why not? I don’t know, cause it’s not Savatage. With Savatage, since Chris died, everybody has their sayings for the songs. Even if I wrote the primary song everybody in Savatage is allowed to say; “We’re gonna play the drum beat this way or we’re gonna do this bass part or we’re gonna do this we’re gonna do that. So it’s kinda lot of different ideas coming together, but with this stuff, when I started working on it I did it all by myself. There was no band put together at that time so it was all stuff like I want the bass line to go like that and I want this to be like that, and it was the first time since the early Savatage days that I had a chance to make all those decisions by myself so it was different. I actually think that’s why it sounds fresher breaking off that pattern. Every Savatage album started to sound the same to me. I still don’t know what ‘Wake of Magellan’ is about. That will probably give you an idea of how fucking tired I am of making concept records.
How did you come up with the idea for ‘People say….gimme some hell’, it’s basically just a reel off of Savatage song titles?
Yeah, it’s all Savatage song titles, I couldn’t think of anything else to write so…..
So it doesn’t have a deeper meaning?
Well, it serves as some kind of a tribute. I wanted to do something to connect everything. That song was actually the last song sung on the record. I couldn’t think of anything so one day I was driving around listening to the track on cd in the car, it didn’t have no singin’ on it, it was just the music and I was making shit up…and then came the ‘Sirens’ line, so I went back home starting to take titles and put them together. I figured that would be a cool little tribute. It’s a fun one.
How important are the lyrics to you in general?
Well, they’re important as long as you got shit to say. On this record there’s lots of deep stuff.
As you’ve already said you wrote this stuff yourself before putting the band together, was it like you telling these guys; ‘this is how I want it – play it!’?
Well, I had the songs demoed up myself, but when these guys came in we decided to redo the whole record. At that time I’ve already recorded seven or eight songs myself, but I wasn’t really happy with it. You know, I’m not really a bass player….I can play bass but I’m not really a bass player. I can play drums, but I’m not really a drummer. So when these guys came they took the demo’s home and worked out their parts and made sense to everything, and then when we played live I thought what they brought to the songs was a lot better. It was cool. So I said; ‘Fuck, let’s start all over again’.
I’ve noticed that Dr. Killdrums participates on a couple of the songs, how was it working with him again?
Yeah, he plays on a couple of songs. It was fun seeing the Doc again, that was like old times. We had a good time.
What is he doing these days?
He makes knives. He makes them hand by hand, its real good knives, I actually bought a couple of them myself. They’re expensive but really good. He doesn’t play that much, I actually don’t think he plays at all. Except from when he came in and did these songs. It was probably the last time he’ll ever touched a drum stick. But that not he’s his thing anymore, he has moved on….He makes a helluva knife though!
Well, lets go a bit back in time. When Chris passed away did you ever consider to give up everything and just split up the band?
To stop? Sure, that’s the first thing that comes to your mind. ‘I’m not gonna do it’, but then again what are you going to do? When you have done this your whole life it’s all you know and it doesn’t really make sense going back. What am I gonna do, be a plumber?...laugh…I would be a fucking terrible plumber. ‘I’ll fix that pipe for you’, ‘Nice crack you got there’….ha,ha…Well, so I decided to just move forward. Try some different stuff, and that was basically it you know. You just keep doing what you know.
“Replacing” such a talented guitar player like Criss isn’t exactly easy?
Well, you can’t replace someone like Chris, trying to replace him would be a stupid thing to do so instead we tried to take the band to a different area. So we started concentrating more on the keyboard stuff, we were doing a lot of that. And then there’s the big singing thing like ‘Chance’, and all the other hundred thousand songs that did have that kind of singing on it. To me it was like doing the same record for six years, cause in between those I was doing Trans Siberian Orchestra records and those are the same thing. You know what I’m saying? It’s hard to explain…Concept albums, then TSO….Well, ‘Dead winter dead’ is a concept album, then its ‘Bethoven’s last picknic cake’…then you got ‘Wake in the…toilet’….Fuck it, it was just one after another…..I was so fucking tired of that, it was like; “can’t we just do a record that doesn’t have a story”. ‘Poets and madmen’ was not supposed to be a story…It was like; ‘It’s not gonna be a story, it’s not gonna be a story’….then two fucking weeks before the album was done it was like…”We’re gonna make it a story”. I still don’t know what that is about either. It’s a good record, but I have no fucking idea what the story means….
On the ‘Handful of rain’ album you used Alex Skolnick, he seemed to me like the kind of guitar player that would fit this band?
Yeah, he fit that record really well. He helped me out cause I can’t play solos very well. I’m not slow handed, I’m like cement handed so when I play solos it’s like three notes within twenty four bars. I played all the rhythms and I kinda had the record done but we needed someone to play the solos so I called him. I had his number so I called and said; “Hey, do you wanna come and play some solos?”, and he was like; “Sure”, and he came in and did a great job. It was a rough time and he knew that too so we were tight back then.
He did the tour as well?
Yeah, he did that one tour. I don’t know how many shows, well, it was a shit lot of them…It was fun. I had the chance to go to the Godzilla place in Tokyo and that was fucking cool. I got to play with the Godzilla toys…oh dude…ha,ha…that was so fucking cool man. I just wanna go back there….well, anyway.
Did you ever try to convince Alex to stay?
No! He could have stayed if he wanted to, but he helped me out. When the tour came up I didn’t even know that he was going to be playing. The managers we had at that time put it together. Alex said he would do the tour, and I said; “Well if you’ll do it I’ll do it so let’s go”, and that how that went together. But we only agreed to do that one tour, cause he had his own things he wanted to do and that’s cool.
He’s into some jazz things right?
Yeah, he does that thing really well. That’s his thing you know. He really loves that jazz stuff. I guess he just does that heavy metal stuff to make money…Jazz guys don’t make any money…ha,ha….Neither do heavy metal guys. That’s one thing we have in common.
What did really happen to the Jack Frost story?
I don’t know, was there a story? Well, he just seemed to disappear? Well yeah, but that was just another thing in that time. That was when the whole thing was going down…all the 9/11 shit happened…and everybody in Savatage was in a weird state of mind at that time. Jack and Damon were really brought in to do that tour. Cause when we started doing that record Zak and Al decided that they were going to leave. So right there I had to do all the singing, and then we had to do the tour. I found Damon and hired him. I thought he could cover Zak’s material really well, and I would do my material. Jack was a friend of Chris Caffery. I didn’t really know him, I knew who he was but I hadn’t really hung out with him or something like that. Jack was a great guy, he just couldn’t sing well enough. His voice wasn’t working, it had nothing to do with his guitar playing or that he wasn’t a great guy….he was nice, we had a good time with him. But his voice wasn’t up to the level we needed it to be at. Our back up singing is very complicated. He just couldn’t do it, he kept singing my parts and that was fucking me up.
I saw your show here in Oslo a couple of years ago, with Jack in the line-up and that was an excellent show.
A Yeah, that was a good show. Well, if you think that was a good show you’re goona walk out here tonight with your dick in the dirt…ha,ha…
Is Al Pitrelli permanently back in Savatage?
Yes, he’ll be playing on the next thing we’ll do, whenever we decide to do it.
Will you do it?
There is going to be a next Savatage album, but I’m not really sure when. TSO has just become so huge. What do you do? That’s another reason why I’m doing what I’m doing now. I mean if I was to wait around for a Savatage album I would probably be 75 years old by the time I do it. What do you do? Come out with your cane and beat people with that….SIRENS!...you know. When I did that ‘Poets…’ record it was like waiting around and waiting around…two years, three years, four years….What do you fucking do when you got this thing selling millions and millions of fucking records…stop it? That would be like fucking professional suicide man. Check me if I’m wrong, but I would be fucking stupid to stop, or to do anything to fuck that up. Since I made more money on one song that I wrote for that thing, than I did in my entire career with Savatage combined. You know, I love Savatage. I loved it, I lived it, I loved it but Jesus fucking Christ I’m not that stupid. Well, that’s the shit that happened….what are you gonna do? Bands move on, and that band was together for twenty…something…. Years and it felt like fifty. I’ve had a lot of fun, from what I’ve been told….ha,ha..the pictures looks good. Vivid memories of torture on the road, maybe that’s what’s wrong?
After Al left for Megadeth Jeff Waters played a while with Savatage. Tell us a little about that experience?
He’s a weird dude! I love Jeff but he is not right….laugh….He’s a great guy and a great guitar player. A fabulous guy to hang around with but he is a nut bag. He knows that I’m calling him a nut bag, and he loves the fact that I’m calling him a nut bag. He wasn’t right man. Jeff was great though, great guy.
Do you have any idea of when we will see another Savatage album?
Hopefully before I’m 50! I don’t know, we been planning to do it for the last three years but something always fucks it up. I’m sick and tired of saying next year, and then three years go by and there’s “you said I was next year”…Well, I was wrong! I don’t know. When everyone decides they wanna do this 25th anniversary record we'll do it. The actuall 25th anniversary is 2007, right Frode? (asking Scream Magazine’s Frode Johnsrud who happens to be in the same room). (Frode Johnsrud: Depends on when you start to count!)….Thank you, you’ve been helpful. So anyway, I think it is 2007. At some point of time we’re gonna get together and do that because if that’s the last record that band does I want it to be special. We’ll bring back some of the guys to come in and play and have a good time and that's it.
Do you have some song ideas ready?
That record has been written for a while….since like 2001. So it’s just sitting there waiting to be recorded. Some day that will come up and go. We will do that record man.
Will there be another story?
I hope not, but who knows. I don’t know, you never know with Paul O’Neil and his twisted mind. He probably would make it a story, knowing him...just to do that. Yeah, he will make it a story. It will be a story, I guarantee you.
Will Damon be a part of that record?
I don’t think so. Again, Damon and Jack were hired for that tour. If we were going to continue working as a full time band, Savatage, we would probably have kept Damon and had him sing half the record and I would sing the other half. But it was just obvious after that tour that Savatage was not going to be a full time band. It just can’t be anymore, not with the TSO thing going on. It was unfortunate, but it allowed me to do things that I wanted to do for a long time, Chris Caffery has been able to do some stuff. Life goes on, but we’re gonna be alright.
That means that you will do all the vocals on the next album yourself?
Yes. We might ask Zak to come in and do a song or so if he feels like it and if he’s getting away from his present manager that he’s working with. Cause that guy's fucked up.
Which are your three favourite Savatage albums as you see them today?
Three favourites….’…Mountain king’, ‘Gutter..’ and ‘Streets’…That was the peak of this band, with my brother and stuff. That’s when we first started working with Paul (O’Neil) so lots of the ideas were real fresh. It was just a good period, we were in our pirmes, we were in our early twenties…..young and stupid but we were having a good time and those records have a real good atmosphere. I think you can hear the progression. I mean, I like ‘Power of the night’ a lot to. It’s really difficult for me to pick between ‘Power…’ and ‘…Mountain king’ cause I actually see them as part one and part two. The big difference with ‘Power of the night’ was Max Norman who had worked with Ozzy, so ‘..Power’ has more like a Sabbath type of vibe to it. When Paul came onboard for the ‘…Mountain king’ record we started to wander into that orchestration land which I think have become a very important part of the Savatage sound….The way pianos and strings are used to create atmosphere and I think it works. We probably wouldn’t be around if it didn’t.
What was the deal with the ‘Fight for the rock’ album?
You know, every one takes a shit. It was just a bad time in our lives. We had some bad managers that were fucking criminals. We had no money, we were in London…in a strange country for eight months. You know, everyone were ripping us off. It was just a horrible time. It’s hard to make music when you got ninety million people telling you what you’re gonna do. I just had a son, he was two years old then and I worried about putting food on the fucking table. I had these guys telling me “do this and be a fucking millionaire”. Ok, I’m sitting in their offices full of platinum records…they’re driving around in expensive Jaguars.. well, it sounded like a smart thing for me to do. If I do this one record that is really commercial I will make millions of dollars and I will be able to take care of my kid for the rest of his life….and then I don’t care. And then the record of course shit a big fucking brick and made everything just worse. But that happens, but the good bands gets up and dusts the fucking dirt off after having your ass kicked. You either run home and cry, or you stand up saying “come on motherfucker, lets go!” And that’s what we did, we stood up. It was the same thing when Chris died….I was going around in a story ripping newspaper machines off the concrete throwing them against walls and stuff….cause I freaked. So it’s like you get up and get going, you got mouths to feed. But you get stronger as you go. So they say…..that’s a good one right.
With TSO and Jon Oliva’s Pain….Savatage has become third priority right?
When TSO started to become successful Savatage was never a priority from that day forward, cause it just couldn’t be. Because Savatage is not making any money. We got our hard core fans, we do really well here in Europe and stuff like that but in America it was over. So it’s like, what do you do? It’s gonna be something like; “This things take care of people, paying the rents and enables you to do what you do”….yeah, it sucks… but we gave Savatage twenty three, twenty four years. If we wanted to break the band we could have broke it a thousand times but we kept it going for the love of the band, but it all comes down to where the facts of life are the facts of life. You got a wife, a kid…..you need money. You know, the reason why I’m here right now playing with my band is because of TSO. I’m not making any money here, the money we get from the tours here barely pays the expenses. But I make enough money doing that TSO stuff to subsidise this. If I loose 5-10000 Euro’s I can take it out of the bank. I couldn’t do that with Savatage, there was no bank…ha.ha…The bank is fucking closed motherfucker. You know, the bank was me and Paul O’Neil. Every time Savatage were doing these tours, driving around in Metallica’s tour bus and stuff, it was costing me a fortune. It’s just part of life, it’s just a band. We did a lot of records, and we will do some more stuff when everyone feels ready to do it. I don’t know how long that’s gonna work, I really don’t foresee any change in the TSO thing and in the country it’s getting bigger and bigger. That only means it’s gonna demand more and more time from people so….I’m really happy with what I’m doing now so that’s good for me. I’m happy.
But it’s not such a good thing from a fans point of view!?!
Well, I really don’t see much of a difference except if you were fan of the actual players in Savatage. The music is the same. The only things you’re missing is Paul’s lyrics. Everything else is the same, I’m not gonna do records sounding like the Bee Gees. It’s gonna sound like Savatage, you know, I write all the music for Savatage…it’s just different musicians. It’s just like TSO, TSO is Savatage with different singers. Same writers, me and Paul, same musicians…It’s just different singers. Jon Oliva’s Pain is early Savatage when I was writing all of the lyrics and most of the music with my brother. It’s just other players. But I think you will be quite surprised after tonight.
You’re involved with a musical project called The Romanovs as well!?!
A Well, that’s gonna be a TSO project as well somewhere along the road.
What about Doctor Butcher, will we ever see a follow up to that album?
There will probably be another one of those. I’m not sure when, but there will probably be another one. That was a lot of fun, a fun record to do.
Both you and Chris Caffery are out with solo albums right now. What do you think of Chris’ album?
Chris’ stuff is pretty good. For his first effort I think he did a very good job. The guy’s never sang before so he did a rally good job. He worked hard on that.
When Savatage played in Oslo a couple of years ago you promised your fans that you would come back here….Will that ever happen?
A It’s possible. I mean, if Savatge does another record I’m sure there will be a tour to follow it so if that happens I’m sure we will stop here.
Well I guess that’s all for now. Thank you very much for talking to us.
Good, enjoy it tonight. I promise you that I will not disappoint you. If you like the ‘Streets’ stuff you will hear a lot of that stuff….the set-list is right there on the table.
Ok, that’s what I got out of my first meeting with The Mountain King….I’m a lot wiser after this and maybe this interview will clear up a thing or two for other Savatage fans out there as well. No matter how much I love Savatage I must admit that Jon has a point. Jon Oliva’s Pain is Savatage with other musicians but also without that Savatage backdrop that gave me the gooseflesh just looking at it when I saw them in Oslo a few years ago. Besides from that there’s not a Savatage fan in the entire world that would have complained about tonight’s setlist. All the essential oldies goldies were there, Jon was happy, I was happy and most of the other people at Rockefeller seemed happy. I guess I just have to get used to the fact that future Savatage albums will be released under the Jon Oliva’s Pain banner….except from the anniversary record that will be released…..eventually. ….The music is the same, Jon Oliva is the same….and that’s basically the bottom line of this saga.
Finally I would like to send a huge “Thank you” to Mr. Frode Johnsrud of Scream Magazine for making this interview happen!