TSO's New Album Letters From the Labyrinth, and the TSO 2015 winter tour.
The Trans-Siberian Orchestra Interviews:
Jon Oliva - December 22, 2015
Interview & videos captured by Brad Parmerter, unless noted. Photos by Thorsten Seiffert: www.rocknroll-reporter.de
Born in 1960, Jon Oliva and his younger brother, Criss, started playing in bands together in the late '70s. After releasing some material independently, their band Savatage delivered their first major label record to Atlantic in 1985. Shortly thereafter, Atlantic brought in Paul O'Neill to produce their 1987 album, Hall of the Mountain King, and a songwriting partnership was born. Gutter Ballet in 1989 saw the band continue to stretch into new areas, incorporating piano and classical themes into their work. The acclaimed 1991 Streets album was the band's first experiment with an album length conceptual piece. Sales and airplay increased with 1993's Edge of Thorns, a guitar-driven dynamo, but tragedy struck when Criss was killed in a car accident by a drunk driver in October 1993. Jon was devastated and the future of the band seemed uncertain.
In an effort to continue his brother's legacy and show their respect, Jon and Paul soldiered on with 1994's Handful of Rain. The following year a second concept album, Dead Winter Dead, was released, including "Christmas Eve/Sarajevo (12/24)" which gained a little bit of airplay on a few radio stations in the winter of '95.
By fulfilling a long-time dream of Paul O'Neill's to have a progressive rock band with no limits, they re-released "12/24" under the new band name Trans-Siberian Orchestra on a concept album, Christmas Eve & Other Stories in 1996. Radio picked-up the song and quickly it became one of the most played and recognized holiday songs.
Two more conceptual albums under the Savatage name followed, The Wake of Magellan in 1997 and Poets and Madmen in 2001. At the same time, Paul and Jon released TSO's second installment of the Christmas trilogy, 1998's The Christmas Attic and the non-holiday Beethoven's Last Night in 2000. TSO performed seven live shows in 1999 and demand was so high for the following year, they split into east and west groups to cover more territory during the holiday season.
A couple more concept albums, The Lost Christmas Eve in 2004 and 2009's Night Castle, plus an EP, 2012's The Dreams of Fireflies, three spring tours supporting Beethoven's Last Night in 2010-12, and European tours in 2011 and 2014 kept building Trans-Siberian Orchestra's momentum.
Savatage had not played together for well over a decade when it was announced that both Savatage and Trans-Siberian Orchestra would play at the annual heavy metal festival Wacken Open Air 2015 in Germany. They were in the midst of finishing up the TSO non-holiday studio release, Letters From the Labyrinth, when rehearsals for Wacken began. In a monumental performance in front of over 80,000 metal fans, Savatage played a 40-minute set on one stage followed by a 40-minute TSO set and then both bands combined to play together on two separate stages a combined set including many Savatage classics done with the force of almost forty performers.
A deep-dive into this special performance is where we started our discussion.
Bp: You've gone on record saying that coming up with the setlist for Wacken was one of the longest and hardest decisions of your career.
Jon Oliva: Definitely. It was a pain in the ass actually. We must have wrote up thirty, forty different setlists over the months of May and June before we started getting all the rehearsals going. It's really hard when you've got that much material to narrow it down to 40-minutes, you know. It was a nightmare.
Bp: Do you feel like you achieved the perfect set?
Jon Oliva: I think so. For the circumstances I thought so. Because we wanted to utilize songs like "Morphine Child" and stuff like that's never really been performed live as they were recorded. With Savatage we never drug around backup singers and 4 keyboard players, and so it was interesting. It was very cool to do that. When we had both stages going on at the same time, those songs that we selected to do, the Savatage songs like "Morphine Child," etc., those were the really exciting ones for me because it was like, "Wow, this is cool. It sounds like..." Actually I preferred it to the record. I thought it was better than the record.
The actual first set, the actual opening of the show, I think it was like 8 or 9 Sava songs when it was just us, me an Zak and the rest of the guys, that was really exciting but it was very, very nerve-wracking and the weather definitely was not on our side. I mean I know I froze to death on stage. I was freezing and rain was blowing into the stage at certain times and my keyboards kept getting wet, so I was trying to play and my fingers kept sticking 'cause the keys on the piano were wet so if you watch the footage really closely you can see me in between things, I had this little cloth that I'm trying to wipe the keys down real quick before my next part came up. That was a little bit nightmarish.
We didn't really get a soundcheck. The night before, we were supposed to have a full soundcheck and it just monsooned. And you know shit was blowing over and we were just like, "Oh fuck this" and we just left. So we never really got a soundcheck. It was very nerve-wracking. You have 100,000 people out there and you haven't even done a soundcheck and you've got forty people on stage. I'm glad I wasn't Dave Wittman that night, the soundman, because he was going through living hell. But you know what, he pulled it off.
Bp: From the footage I've seen and heard, everything sounded great.
Jon Oliva: Yeah, I mean I was amazed. I was like Jesus is looking down on me, man. It has to be my brother or somebody up there is looking down going, "Give those guys a break, man."
Bp: It was a long way from rehearsing on the fairgrounds in Tampa, huh?
Jon Oliva: Yeah, the fairgrounds thing was good but it was totally different when we got there. We set up in the fairgrounds as close as we could to simulate the stage thing. We made sure we couldn't see the other side so we could set up longways. Savatage on the right, then the sound, then the monitor consoles blocked our view from TSO on the left. So for that instance it worked out really well, you know, because we couldn't see each other but it was totally, it was totally different when we got on the stage at Wacken. I was like "wow, this isn't the same. This is fucking weird." You know, that was weird. Most of all the Wacken thing is that it was weird because playing, both bands playing simultaneously and not really being able to see anybody and make any kind of eye contact, that was really bizarre.
It was also the first time in my career that I ever wore in-ears. The in-ear monitor system, you know, the little things that stick in your ears and stuff. And I fucking hated it. I hated it, I hated it. I despised it. Finally I started pulling one ear out 'cause I just wasn't used to it. And when we finished I gave my headset, which is like $1,000 thing, I gave it to the monitor guy and said, "Take this and crush it. I never want to see it again."
Bp: I talked to Al last week and he said for that kind of show and for this winter tour he actually was won over with the in-ears.
Jon Oliva: Yeah, now he won't take them out.
Jon Oliva: Me and him were the ones that said, "No. Look man..." They're like, "No, you got to use them, there's no other way." Now the bastard loves them. I'm like, "You suck Pitrelli! You told me that you were never gonna use them again." An now he goes, "I love them now. I love them!" Oh god.
Bp: He hung you out to dry.
Jon Oliva: He left me hanging, man.
Bp: You've obviously been playing a lot of the Sava material on your own since the last time you guys toured together, but what was it like when the six of you got together for rehearsals again?
Jon Oliva: It was like we never stopped playing. It was really strange. This whole Wacken thing was a very bizarre thing because when we first set up for the first days of rehearsal at the fairgrounds, it was just like we never stopped playing together. It was so weird. I mean we just played through the stuff as if we were on tour. That was strange as well just the way, you know, I mean we hadn't played, that group of guys, we haven't been on stage together or even played together since Al's last tour was what, '98? I mean we toured again in 2000, 2001, but Pitrelli wasn't with us. So '98 was his last tour so that was a long time, but it didn't feel like we...you know you would expect some rust or you would expect some mistakes or some shit like that, but it was as if we were, you know, it was as if we were playing together for the last twenty years. That's what people don't understand, but we do, we are together a lot.
Even though the Savatage thing...through all the years of the TSO stuff, I mean we work in the studio together like we used to. The only difference is that the tour is different, but knowing the person and knowing how they play, we all know each other. You know, we never really stopped being buddies or working together on stuff so it was very, it was very strange to me. I thought it was gonna be a little harder as far as getting the material together, but I was pleased and very relieved that everybody came prepared. You know we all know what we had to do and we knew the last thing we needed to do is be struggling about learning, "Oh that part's wrong dude, you're playing that wrong" or "You're playing this right." That would have been nightmarish so...but it was very exciting. I enjoyed it very much.
"Believe" Wacken July 30, 2015 - courtesy YouTube: frajita tube
Bp: Now splitting up the vocals on "Believe," that was your idea?
Jon Oliva: That was actually my idea and Paul joined in on it. All the singers were afraid to do it with me. They're like, "No dude, this is your song. You gotta do it." And I said, "No, I'm trying to introduce people that are gonna be our future." It's like guys, we're not gonna be sitting around singing when we're 70 years old. I'm not doing it. You know, Robin is a talent that Paul and I found that I'm very fond of. I think he's got a great voice. He's one of the guys for us for the future. I said what a better way to break somebody in than do the song with me. And he was terrified. The poor guy was freaking out but when we did it at rehearsals it worked. It sounded so cool and I liked the fact that it's like me passing the torch. You know I call him mini-Jon because he reminds me of me a lot when I was in my early 20s and stuff. He has those qualities about him and he's very dedicated and I just love him to death. I think he's a brilliant singer and you're gonna see a lot more of him in the future.
We've got lots of nice young talent that we're trying to develop to keep this thing going on long after Paul and I are pushing up daisies. You know I would love to see this thing go on for another twenty, thirty years. I'm not gonna be here for twenty, thirty years. I know it. Paul knows he's not either.
You know, people in our business don't live unless you're fucking Paul McCartney, who's a freak of nature. That guy's 74 and he tours and sings all those, he sings 2 1/2 hours a show a night himself at 73, 74 years old. He's fucking amazing. You know, I don't want to do that personally. I'd like to just...I want to develop the band for the future. As we get older and we decide certain guys are not gonna wanna tour anymore so we gotta look to the future and this young talent we're developing – Robin, Kayla Reeves, people like that, Dustin Brayley, Andrew Ross – these are guys that can carry this thing on for another ten, fifteen, twenty years. That's the whole idea of Robin and me doing "Believe," it was me just kinda...this is the guy that's gonna be doing my type of stuff in the future, you understand what I'm saying. He is my choice. He's gonna be the new Jon when the old Jon decides he just wants to go fishing, y'know?
Bp: That was a big discussion point online after Wacken. I remember people saying, "When you get Zak Stevens back on stage with Savatage how dare you have him share vocals on "Chance" and this kind of thing." There was a lot of hostility. Personally, I think it sounded great.
Jon Oliva: Yeah, it did. And again it's the same thing, people hate change. People don't want anything to change. They want you to stay the same, but it's not the way the world is. It's not the way life is. Andrew is gonna be our new Zak in the future, so you know what I'm saying. That's why we're still around. That's why we're doing what we're doing and succeeding at it because Paul is a very smart guy, a lot smarter than me. On the business side of things, he's like, "Jon, how can we develop this and we got lots of projects that we wanna do. Musicals and things like that." Well in order to do that you've got to develop young talent, you know. Zak's a great singer, I'm a great singer, but let's face it. We're in our 50s. We can't go out there and give a perfect performance for two hours every night. I personally don't like the fact that I see bands out there, I understand why they're out there because they need the money because nobody buys CDs anymore, so the only way you're gonna make any money is to tour. Well I don't personally, I think it rips the audience off when you see a band out there and the guys can't sing the shit right or that type of thing. To me, I'd rather go out, "Hey that guy's a great singer," not "Oh my god, he was trying to do this, but it sounded like shit and his voice was blown out." Y'know, "The guitar players looked like they'd rather be anywhere else than on stage." That to me is just going through the motions for money, and I'm sorry, I'm not going to do that. I'm not gonna be 60 years old singing ''Sirens" or "Hall of the Mountain King." I've done it for 30 years. I'd rather leave the legacy that way, "The last Savatage show I saw was Wacken and they were great!" Boom, rather than if we were to do another thing, "Oh, well it wasn't as good as Wacken, uh well, you know, the light show sucked or..." Not me, man. Nope, sorry.
Bp: What was the feeling when you came off stage that night?
Jon Oliva: Like I just gave birth. [laughs] It was just like, "WHEW, woah. Finally." Because Al Pitrelli and me were probably, we both said it to ourselves, that was the most freaked out we were before going on stage ever in my entire career. Ever. Even the very first performance I ever did when I was a kid, I wasn't as terrified as I was. If you're gonna make a fool of yourself you might as well do it in front of 100,000 people, but the fact that we didn't have that soundcheck freaked us out. We were terrified. Especially Al and me. I mean Al, I paced around that backstage area. I probably walked five miles in that backstage area just freaking out, going, "What do I do, oh what if this happens, oh what." And Al was the same way. Al sat in this one little, Al sat in the corner of the hospitality tent with his guitar and just sat and played his guitar all fucking day. All day long going over, 'cause the stuff we were playing is not easy and then to do it without a soundcheck and to do it for the first time live, you know, songs like "Madness of Men" and "Prometheus" from the new album, those songs are a motherfucker. And then playing them, both stages going, oh my god man, we were terrified. But when it was done it was like, "WHEW, thank God! Thank God! Thank God! Thank God! Thank God!" That's all I kept saying, "Thank you, Jesus." Walking back through the mud I'm going, "Thank you, Jesus. Thank you, Jesus. Thank you! I love you God, thank you, thank you, thank you!" And really that was it. And then I had the biggest drink I've ever had in my life. We had rules: no drinking, no shenanigans at all before we went on set. We were sitting and making jokes – because I call him Fredo, he calls me Sonny, from the Godfather movies, right, that's our little nicknames – he goes Sonny, "After the show is over, you and me, a bottle of vodka in my dressing room." I'm like, "You got it!"
It was a lot of fun though. It was nerve-wracking, yeah, but I'm glad we did it and I'm glad that Savatage legacy, that's the way, if I was ever to put Savatage to sleep forever, that's the way I wanted to do it. Now if we decide to do something else, which has been talked about, it has to be as big as that. It has to be at that level. I'm not gonna go back and play Bang Your Head Festival with eighty lights, you know what I'm saying? It's just like taking a step backwards. You gotta keep pushing, up the ante. And that show, people are still talking about it. And I think people are gonna be talking about it for a long time, that we dared invest that much of our own money mind you. That show cost me and Paul over a million dollars to do of our money. Not counting the money we got from Wacken, that basically paid for food and hotels. They paid us well but the money we invested because Paul and I, we wanted to do something that had never been done before. Well, what's left to do in music? Well now you have two festival stages running simultaneously, at the same time, with two bands playing the same songs, that's never been done before or at least I've never seen it done before, at least not on the level that we did it. That's what Paul and I wanted. We wanted to do something special because who knows what's gonna go on and I just wanted, I for me, I wanted to know that if that was the last performance of Savatage ever, that it was at that level and not in some shitty fucking bar in Germany or something like that, you know what I'm saying. That's the way, and I'm not saying it's the last thing we're gonna do. Obviously we're still breathing and we're still above ground so, but if it was...if I got hit by a truck tomorrow, at least in heaven I can go, "Well Criss, I took care of the Savatage thing. Where's my room?"
Bp: How do you get bigger than Wacken though, if you won't go smaller than that?
Jon Oliva: Well I mean if the opportunity...you could do, you have to set the scenario. Say for instance someone said we want you to do the Coliseum in Rome or something like that...or the Amphitheater in Greece where the Parthenon is, where Yanni did something there. It would have to be something like that. I mean, Paul was mentioning that we've got offers to do something in Asia or Paul and I have been talking about maybe doing something here in America. Something special and that's either we have to create the scenario or the scenario has to be right, to where we could do something at that level.
Bp: Has there been any talk about new material?
Jon Oliva: Um, yes and no. I mean, we've got projects that involve Savatage material that are in the near future going to be done. Yes, there would be some certain projects. I don't wanna let the cat out of the bag 'cause Paul would cut my dick off, but there are certain Savatage operas, rock operas, and everybody knows how many we had, that are being developed for stage performance. But some of them, I've rewritten some of the songs. I've rearranged them in different styles. Certain songs don't apply. We're rewriting a new song to replace certain songs that might not actually fit with doing it on stage...kind of how we did this winter tour with the video screens and the narration and stuff. It all has to work in that environment and there's certain songs on certain albums of certain projects that we have that don't fit that way. So what I've been doing is I've been going through all the Savatage material. I've been working on different arrangements and different styles of songs. I'll give you, I'll let one cat out of the bag. The song "Agony and Ecstasy" from the Streets album is part of the Gutter Ballet opera that Paul and I are doing. The actual Streets story, was actually Gutter Ballet, but we dipped our toe in the water on that album. But anyway, that song "Agony and Ecstasy" on the Streets album is very, very heavy. So I said, if I was going to do a musical on stage, how would I keep this 'cause the lyrics are essential to the story. How could I keep it? So what I did was I did a version of "Agony and Ecstasy" that is almost like, it's almost like a show tune now. It still retains the riff, but the vibe is different and when it does (Jon sings) "Tell me DT can you see, stay with me and you'll be free..." that really fast way I do it on the thing, on this one it has a walking bass tone and the guy goes (Jon sings again with a slowed walking swagger). It's fucking cool and it's got brass in it. It's very interesting.
So that's kind of what I'm doing now and I'm working on a new solo record, my own that I'm gonna have some of the guys come and play on. Who knows what the future holds 'cause Paul and I, we've got so much material and we're trying to utilize it effectively to keep it current, to keep it alive, instead of just burying it. You know, obviously an album like Power of the Night I can't really do anything with that in this stage of the game. That's just as it is and is how it's gonna stay. But a lot of the Streets and Gutter, Dead Winter Dead, Wake of Magellan, Poets and Madmen, a lot of those songs are already written in as a story song because they were concept records so it's a little work like that. The new Savatage stuff, there was talk about us doing an official Savatage Unplugged cd because there's so many shitty bootlegs out there and it annoys Paul and me to death. He goes, "Maybe what we'll do is an official Savatage Unplugged recording." So that's something that's being talked about as well so there's so many things. When you've got like thirty goddamn records you're like, what do we do, what do we do. So it'll be great whatever we do. I promise you it will get 100% of our dedication and attention and it'll be magical.
Bp: Awesome. So after you walked off the stage in Wacken and had that big drink with Al, were you ready to head out on a 3 week Savatage tour or were you feeling, "That was a nice celebration, that was good, I'm fine with how that happened."
Jon Oliva: Yeah, that's exactly how I felt. That was how...that's exactly how I felt. I was relieved that it went as well as it did. I made one mistake in "Morphine Child" in the ending. I screwed up. I lost...my earphones went out for like a second and when they came back on I didn't remember where I was. Thank god it was in the rideout where it just keeps repeating but I stopped like four bars short of where the song was actually supposed to, but we covered it up pretty good. But I had no desire to have to go and play the next night in Germany or in Austria or something like that. I was like, "Whew, we're done. Let me go home."
Bp: One and done and you were satisfied.
Jon Oliva: Very, very satisfied.
Savatage/Trans-Siberian Orchestra - first 90 minutes at Wacken July 30, 2015 - courtesy YouTube: Alan Silva
Bp: If you wrote the headline after Wacken for a metal magazine and also a headline for your own personal journal, what would they be?
Jon Oliva: For a metal magazine I would, I don't know what I would say. Something like, 'Finally after how many years, we get to see Savatage again. It was great blah blah blah.' My personal journal would be like, 'I'm fucking so happy that this is over.' [laughing] I think it was cool that people witnessed something like that where they got to see Savatage, they got to see TSO, then they got to see Savatage and TSO together on two stages at the same time. I thought that was for any music fan or any concertgoer who loves going to festivals, I think that would be something like, "Wow, we saw something we've never seen before. It was great."
Bp: In the timeline of your career, I think fans and audience members have a very defined line of "well, this was Savatage and this was TSO" but from your perspective, is it just all part of your career or do certain songs...when you think of "Morphine Child," do you say that's a Savatage song, not a TSO song. Or do you just think that it's your creation and it could be either?
Jon Oliva: Yes, that's exactly how I feel. Because one of the other points of doing the Wacken thing was to show everybody that...'cause so many fans that think that TSO broke up Savatage or Paul O'Neill broke up Savatage...that's all bullshit. Savatage never really broke up. We just expanded, and by expanding, with expansion and bringing in all these other people, we couldn't call it Savatage anymore. It just wouldn't be right. So, and that's why to me, Savatage as Savatage died when Criss Oliva passed away. Okay, this is just my personal take on everything. This has nothing to do with Paul or any of the other guys. My belief is Savatage died after the Edge of Thorns album, okay. Even though I wasn't in the touring band, I still performed on the album. It was still Criss and me. When Criss Oliva passed away, to me that was Savatage, the end of Savatage as I knew Savatage. From that point on, Handful of Rain was more like a solo album for me. It was really just me and Paul in the studio and then Zak came in the last couple of weeks and sang but no one else in the band was on the album except me. And I played the drums, I played the bass, I played all the guitars. Skolnick came and played some solos, I played a couple of solos. But it was really just me and Paul. Alex came in for a week and a half and Zak came in at the end. This is again, this is my feelings. Other people might feel differently or Paul might think it a little bit differently. But from my personal feelings, "Chance" sparked what was to happen in the future. So we were under contract. We did Handful of Rain, we were under contract for Atlantic. We decided to do Dead Winter Dead and then boom, there's your second TSO type of song "[Christmas Eve/Sarajevo] 12/24" which sparked this whole...that was like the match on the fuse. "Chance" was the fuse that linked Handful of Rain to Dead Winter Dead. When we got the song "12/24" and we did that, that was the match that lit the fuse. That influenced what TSO would become. And like over those years Paul and I were doing a Savatage album, we did Dead Winter Dead and we did TSO's first Christmas, Christmas Eve and Other Stories. The next year we did The Wake of Magellan and we did The Christmas Attic and we were doing two albums at the same time trying to cover all the different styles until finally after 9/11 happened and we were on tour...we were actually in LA and we lost a week's worth of dates because of all that and I just, that to me was the straw that broke the camel's back. I'm like, why am I doing this? I've got this Trans-Siberian Orchestra thing that's exploding and instead of nurturing that and making it grow for the future, I'm worried about playing in front of 1,000 people at a theater in fuckin' Los Angeles. It's like, what am I doing? I mean, if Savatage sold millions and millions of records it would be a different story, but Savatage was a much bigger band in Europe than they were here in America for lots of reasons. I don't think it had anything to do with the band or the music but it had to do with business. And we had shitty managers in our early part of our career and they fucked us for millions of dollars. We never had the money behind us that bands like Metallica and stuff like that had here in America because it got stolen from us. So yeah, we could have been as big as a Metallica in America if we wanted to, if we would've not been ripped off for millions of dollars in the first five-years of our career. So we had to overcome all that stuff and we still kept the band together. I kept Savatage together as long as I could out of respect for my brother and all the hard work that him and I did when we were younger and that's why, but it came to a point where I had to make a decision because we couldn't do both bands anymore and the material that Paul and I were writing was much more leaning towards the rock theater, you know, type of stuff. And so what it was, when everyone said Savatage died, Savatage never died. It never went away. All we did was we added a lot of, a lot more musicians and we changed the name to get us out of that box of being a heavy metal band from the '80s.
Okay, as soon as we changed the name, the perfect story to prove to everybody was "12/24." We released "12/24 Sarajevo" as Savatage and we got radio play on like, you know, twenty-eight stations you know, it didn't sell shit. No one really gave a crap except Cleveland and Tampa where certain DJs kept pushing it. Well, we sent it to over 500 radio stations and only twenty-eight of 'em played it. The next year we took the exact same song, sent it back out to all 500 radio stations with Trans-Siberian Orchestra in the cover and it got, it was the number one most requested song in the country on over 500 radio stations. So that just proved, that was actually the nail in the coffin of using the name Savatage because I knew I had a number 1 song and no one was playing it just because it was under the name Savatage. We asked people at radio, "Why won't you play it?" "Oh, it's a heavy metal band from the '80s, we don't play that shit."
Alright, well you're playing it now. Why? Because it's called Trans-Siberian Orchestra and look at the record jacket you idiots. I hate radio people. Look at the goddamn record jacket, it's the same fucking song. All we did was change the name and that was it for me. I was like, I have a family to support. If that's what I got to do to make a living doing what I love to do, it just means changing the name...I'm not throwing Chris Caffery out of the band or Jeff Plate, you're all gonna be a part of it. So that was the thing behind Wacken. You see guys, look, here's TSO, here's Sava, same people. You know what I'm saying. Look, here we are, you know what I mean.
That's my feeling on the whole thing. Savatage was the birth of TSO. "Chance," "12/24," and then Paul and I just ran with the ball and said, well, this is gonna work and when you've got something, anyone in the business will tell you, when you've got something that's working, don't fuck it up because it could be gone in six months. Fortunately for us it's lasted. Look, this next year is gonna be our 20th year of doing the TSO winter tour and this year we sold more tickets than any of the previous tours. So we must be doing something right I guess. I don't know, it freaks the shit out of me. I mean, I was at the shows last weekend in Tampa and I've been to every Tampa TSO show since the first one we did and it was the first time I saw both shows, the day show and the night show, where there wasn't one empty seat in the entire arena. Usually in the past the day show would be, you know, maybe 3/4 full and then the night show would be sold out. Well this year both shows. You couldn't have fit a mouse in there after that. It was amazing. I was like damn, we must be doing something right.
Bp: So would it almost be safe to say that, especially from Dead Winter Dead onward, it was Trans-Siberian Orchestra, they just hadn't changed the artwork yet?
Jon Oliva: Right. Basically, well basically, it was us developing...it was still not...Dead Winter Dead and Wake of Magellan and Poets and Madmen, there were in my opinion, they were 70% Savatage albums and 30% were songs that in my opinion, were more TSOish. Like on Poets and Madmen, the ballad I do at the end, that we actually did with TSO...what was that goddamn song called...I can't remember...
Bp: "Back to a Reason."
Jon Oliva: "Back To A Reason," right...Wake of Magellan, you know, songs like "Anymore," even actually "Turns To Me," even actually the song "Wake of Magellan," to me were more TSO like with the counterpoint harmonies and the big, big bombastic sound versus a song on there like "Blackjack Guillotine" which to me is a Savatage song. I would never...you know what I'm saying. It's really weird but I just think Savatage was expanding after Criss died. Paul and I knew you're never gonna replace Criss Oliva, it's never gonna happen. It would be like trying to replace Jimi Hendrix or Randy Rhoades. Yeah, you can bring guys in that are really great guitar players but it's not gonna be the same so we always knew from that day on when we started doing Handful of Rain that we needed to come up with a new angle. What are we going to do that's different? How are we going to expand? I don't want to live on the past and try to replace Criss or try to do that. I didn't want to do that. I wanted to grow more.
Look, Criss is gone, he's in heaven, and he's telling me in my dreams to do something different. And that's what I'm trying to do and Paul...and we bought into that whole thing of let's grow into something that's an open canvas. TSO, to me and Paul, is a big white piece of canvas and I can paint any color on it that I want. Savatage I didn't have an open canvas, I was in a box. Okay, well you can't do the song like "Remnants of a Lullaby" with Savatage. It's not gonna work, but what do I do with the songs I'm writing, this is the type of stuff I'm writing now. You know, so what do I do? If I put it out under Savatage I'd hear, "Oh, they wimped out. Oh blah, it sucks." "Fuck you." I'm not gonna even listen to that shit. I gave people fifteen, twenty years of my life doing heavy metal and I'm sorry, I'm tired of doing it like that. I want to do something different, and it's my right as a human being to want to expand and experiment and grow until the day I'm not here anymore. I don't want to go to my death regretting that, "Oh man, if you'd only done that," or "Oh man, if you only did that." I don't want to do that. And I also don't want to be like Lemmy, god bless him. I love him to death but I don't want to be out there at 70 years old playing "Sirens." [The interview was conducted just a couple weeks before Lemmy passed.] It's just not what I want to do and I get a lot of slack from some of the Savatage fans about it, "Oh, you sound great." Yeah, but dude, I don't want to sing "Sirens" anymore. You know, I don't want to do that anymore. I want to grow. I want to try different things. I want to experiment, I want to be creative. I don't want to be backed into a corner where "Well, Jon Oliva, this is all you can do. Sorry, but if you try anything else we're gonna shoot you."
Bp: Music is one of those weird things where people expect you to come up with the same sort of art that you did twenty years ago.
Jon Oliva: Right. To me an album is like a painting. Okay, so if you do a great painting like I think The Hall of the Mountain King was a great painting, okay, but I don't want to paint the same painting over again that I just painted. I mean I might maybe do a variation of the painting but I'm not...it's like having an artist paint the same picture over and over again, just every year he repaints the picture. That's how I look at it and that's not art, that's not being an artist to me or a composer. That's just somebody going, "Oh, I got a hit with 'Cherry Bomb' and I'm gonna write 10,000 'Cherry Bombs' now until my hair falls out." That's not Oliva. No, I'm not doing that, sorry.
Bp: You had mentioned you guys were pumping out Savatage and TSO records almost one every other year.
Jon Oliva: Yeah.
Bp: Since then, since Poets, it's been a TSO album every few years. Is that because...
Jon Oliva: Every decade. [laughing]
Bp: Pretty much. Is that because the winter tour...
Jon Oliva: I only have two words to say to that: Paul O'Neill.
Bp: But Paul was involved in all the other stuff too. Is it just because the winter tour takes a big hunk of time or is it...
Jon Oliva: That's a lot of it. No, that's a lot of it. And also we're spoiled perfectionists now. We bought Morrisound. We were using Morrisound Studios for the Night Castle record and we spent almost 2 years in the studio and we fell in love with it so now we bought it. So now with the last album, Letters From the Labyrinth, we recorded there and now it's our studio. Now it's not Morrisound anymore, it's Night Castle. So we have the luxury...when you have the luxury of owning your own studio – we have two studios in the actual studio, plus a demo room – so it's very convenient to have that without having to worry about, "Oh, we got 8 hours today at $290 an hour." Well we just said, "Fuck this" and we just bought the building. Paul's like, "Jon I think we're gonna buy Morrisound." I'm like, "Thank you, thank you."
And now that's why, but also it's if you listen to the material, you know some of that stuff it's very...people think that what TSO does is easy, let me tell you something 'cause I hear a lot of bands out there trying to kype the TSO vibe but you got to be dedicated and you've got to want...you can't just slap it together and throw some strings in there and say oh, it's just like Trans-Siberian Orchestra. No, if you sit there and spend a year and a half, two years on putting an album together, making sure that everything is perfect and the fact that me and Al and Paul having to write original music that goes with some of these classic songs, that shit's not easy to do man. It takes a lot of trial and error.
I mean, "Prometheus" and "Madness of Men" for instance, "Madness of Men" I probably spent 6 months trying to come up with the perfect part to come in and my part comes in when it goes into the (Jon makes sounds – the chugging of the second part). That whole ending bit was something that we didn't have and we all tried to write an ending for it. Paul did, I did, Al did, everybody...we had 35 endings for it until one day by mistake I was fiddling around with the synthesizer and I hit the tempo button and I did a couple little tweaks and all of a sudden that sound came out (Jon makes sounds) and then I started putting shit that was like, "Wow, that's interesting." Paul ran into the room, he's like, "What the fuck is that? What the fuck is that?" I'm like, "I don't know, I'm just fucking around." He's like, "Don't, don't, don't...Jon, Jon, that's great! That's great!" Then that's what happens. Then Paul's like, "Let's put a chord here" and then Al will come in and go, "That's great, what if we do this?" And then that whole thing was born. But you can't rush shit like that. It takes...we just happen to have the financial stability to take our time and do the albums the way we want to; to make sure that when they come out, they're gonna be perfect. And we've had problems in the past when we've done stuff that we weren't happy with but we were under a time clock. I'm sure you've interviewed Paul before, right?
Bp: Yeah, about half a dozen times or so.
Jon Oliva: Okay, alright. Well Paul's interviews are never short.
Bp: Oh no, they're not.
Jon Oliva: Okay. Now, if you're going to be talking to Paul O'Neill, you're going to be talking to Paul O'Neill for at least 2 hours. So it's the same thing that happens with Paul and music. Paul hates to make a final decision. He hates, hate, hates it. He hates when he has no options, okay. That was one of the reasons we bought Morrisound because we were sick and tired of having to close down at 11:00 at night because the guy who owns the studio wanted to go home. We were just like, we're not doing this anymore. We are going to own our own studio and work at our own pace under our own terms. And yes, does it take longer? Sure, but I'm very happy...as long as we're happy with the end result, that's all that matters to me.
And I'm very happy with the Letters album. I think it's our finest album yet in my opinion. I'm very fond of it, and it took over a year to do but we did it and we're all happy with it. There's no regrets otherwise from Paul or me about oh, if only we had more time or if we didn't run out of the budget money. We don't have a budget any more but that's because we busted our asses for the last 30 years to get into this financial position, especially Paul. You know, people slag Paul off a lot, but Paul does way more work on TSO than me or Al put together, because Paul is involved in all the business side of things. I am to a point, but Paul's 24/7 TSO. I mean Paul all day, all night, that's all he does. That's his thing and he leaves me and he'll talk to me for an hour saying, "Jon, what do you think if we..." He always consults me and we talk about it but it was his idea about doing Wacken and doing it that way and investing the money. I thought he was out of his fucking mind. I'm like, "What are you crazy? How much are we getting paid?" He goes, "Well, nothing really." I'm like, "Are you drunk? What, are you doing drugs and not giving me any? What's going on?" But that's his vision, he's got that kind of fucking twisted...I don't know man...I don't know where he comes up with this shit. I really don't, but the guy's smart and I'm very fortunate to be his writing partner.
I'll tell you that because we probably wouldn't be...if it wasn't for that man, you and me would not be talking right now. You'd be putting flowers on my grave and I'd be in it a long time ago. I was at...that guy has done more for me than anybody in the world as far as straightening my life out and believing in me. When everybody else, when I was sleeping on people's floors cause I had no place to live, that's the guy that came to the party, that's the guy that said, "What are you doing? Here, let's work. You need to work, you need to work. You're a brilliant songwriter blah blah blah blah..."
When everybody else was telling me back in those early days, those hard ass years, "Oh you guys are done," especially after Fight For the Rock – I mean, I thought there was a lynch mob of Savatage fans out to kill me, you know – that's how freaked out and how fucking much those fucking scumbags [management at the time] affected me, my brother, Wacholz, and Johnny. I mean we busted our asses for two years and got nothing. It almost drove me to jumping out of a window and you know, it's like that's how bad it was. You now, we were considered one of the biggest heavy metal bands in the world and here I am sleeping on my roadie's fucking living room floor. And it was Paul O'Neill who came and said when we were gonna break up and I was actually trying to get auditioned for Sabbath at this time and I think Mustaine wanted my brother in Megadeth. And it was Paul O'Neill that came down and said, "Nope, I'm going to...this is what we're going to do." And Criss and I remember the first meeting we had with Paul.
I'm kicking Criss under the table going, "Who is this guy? Is this guy crazy?" He's saying, "Well, I'm gonna give you guys 50 grand. I'm gonna buy you all this new equipment." And I thought it was a joke or something. I'd never even heard of Paul O'Neill. And then he went up to go to the bathroom or something, I leaned over to my brother, I go, "Who the fuck is this guy?" And Criss goes, "Dude, he produced Aerosmith Classics Live 1 and 2." I was like, "Okay." He came back out of the bathroom, I was like, "So..." [laughing]
But you know what, the man, and on top of that, the man never...you know what he wanted, he...we never paid Paul O'Neill a fucking penny, not for producer's fees. You know what he wanted for payment? To show you the kind of guy he is? He says, "I just want to write music with you and your brother."
Bp: Are you kidding?
Jon Oliva: "I want us to be a team, the three of us." And yes, I swear on my life. That's what he wanted. He took all of his money, his producer's fees, if he got 30-grand for an album, he would take it and give it to us for tour support, okay. And me and my brother, when we would get our publishing because, we did the same thing – Criss and I never took any publishing money – we always invested it back into either videos or tour support. You know, and that's the god's honest truth. Paul O'Neill has never made a dime off Savatage. Never took one fucking penny from us. On contrary, put millions of dollars of his own money into keeping the thing going. From Hall of the Mountain King 'til Edge of Thorns, we were broke. He was taking care of us, but we had such a huge debt with Atlantic and with other companies and people like old managers who were ripping us off trying to sue us and shit like that, we had a lot of court costs. Paul paid all the court costs. We had an attorney that worked for us that was fucking us and Paul, out of his own pocket, took the guy to court and the guy took off. The guy showed up for the first day and we realized he never showed back up again, but it still cost Paul 10 to 15-grand out of his pocket, never asked for a dime back. So all he wanted to be, he saw something in me and he saw something in my brother, just as after we wrote our first song together, Criss and I saw something in him and I was like, "This guy's a fucking genius, Criss."
We did the song "Hall of the Mountain King," that if you really wanna go back, that's really probably the first TSO-type style song because it was his idea to do the (Jon sings the main melody). Right, that was all Paul's idea. I thought he was fucking crazy. A rock band, we were listening to it, the symphony version of it, it was like, "We can't do this!" But he did it. He said, "Now you guys write a song and we'll connect them together." So Criss came up with the "Prelude to Madness" thing, the very intro, then we have Paul's (sings melody again) and then the three of us wrote the actual song "Hall of the Mountain King" based on Criss's riff, my verses and melodies and Paul lyrics, so if you really think about it, you wanna really get...that's really probably the first TSO song.
Bp: Wow. I wonder whether that's what connects the TSO show every year to Criss. Does keeping "The Mountain" in the set provide that link?
Jon Oliva: That's right. And Paul said that. 'Cause I wanted to drop the song this year and put something else in there and Paul's like, "No, we can't drop it. That's Criss." I was like, "Oh man, you're right." So that's Paul's idea, but it does, it keeps a little bit of...if you also notice that before each TSO show the last thing you hear of the music that's playing in the arena before the show starts, is "Silk and Steel" off of Gutter Ballet.
Bp: And it's the last thing we hear as we exit as well. It's always special to hear that after the show.
Jon Oliva: Right, so you know that's our way of keeping Criss with us, you know, through the whole thing and I think that's great.
"Madness of Men" Hartford, CT - November 29, 2015
Bp: Going back to "Madness of Men," you guys have obviously brought metal to kids and grandparents through TSO, but I'm not sure that you've brought metal quite so heavy as you have with "Madness of Men" on this year's tour. That's a ferocious track.
Jon Oliva: This was definitely a heavier album. We knew it when we were working on it. Paul was saying he wanted us to get a little bit darker on certain songs and I was watching the audience very closely when "Madness," when they went into "Madness of Men" and my eyes...I never looked at the band. I've been to I don't know how many shows on this tour, I've seen probably ten or twelve, but I mean I was in Omaha, watching the audience, and I was watching 60, 70, 75, 80 year old people listening to that song with their mouths hanging open. Now I don't know if they liked it or not, but they were definitely like, "Wow!" And I saw little kids...you know, that's the thing about TSO. Again it's like there's no... we're not locked into a box of an audience. We're not confined to 18 to 24 year olds. It's like we're from 8 years old to 80, and we give everybody...some songs I can see some of the old people like "Mountain," some of the older people get but that's expected. You're not gonna ever love every single second of every single movie that you see or every single dinner that you eat. You're gonna have some kinda...so that's how I feel about some of the older folks when we do some of the heavier stuff. Some of them don't really dig it as much, but they don't get up and leave. But this "Madness of Men" song, I was watching people at both Tampa shows, both Orlando shows, South Carolina show and they were like blown away. So I was like, "Well maybe it's heavy enough, but not too heavy."
Bp: And it has themes that they might recognize if they're classical fans.
Jon Oliva: Yeah I think that's definitely, that's a big part of it. They recognize a lot of these themes and that intrigues them. To hear it done in this type of version and then we throw in some of our original music like on the song "Prometheus," That's all classical stuff that we arranged in a rock form, but then when the original part comes in, which is the part that Paul and I wrote (singing) "There comes a time to decide..." It comes out of nowhere. You never would expect it to go to something like that after you hear what is before it. It goes from a very intricate, complicated fucking song that never really repeats itself once, doesn't have a repeat, the riff doesn't repeat over and over, it's a different riff each time, and then to go into something that was as simple as a GDC chord, that's all I did. I was trying to kype The Who vibe, I was like yeah, something like "Out here in the fields" that we could go into something like that and I came up with the (sings transition) and Paul just sang it, right. I didn't open my mouth. He just went "There comes a time to decide." I was like, "That's it! That's it!" And that's how it happens. It's so exciting when that happens like that and then we're like, "Oh, but now we need another part." So I think me, Al, and Paul came up with the (singing) "Time...fill in words here... Einstein, Edison, Tesla..." That was another piece that we had for something else that we ended up taking and joining to that, so that's how it happens. I think that's what some of the older folks that see us do this stuff...I think it's interesting to them. They're like, "Oh, is that in the original?" It's like, "No, it's not."