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11 January 2016 @ 10:47 pm
The Trans-Siberian Orchestra Interviews: Jon Oliva - Dec 2015 part II  

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Bp: Now Paul had mentioned, when I talked to him in depth about the album, he had mentioned he had asked you to go away and come up with a kind of a dirty riff for "Not Dead Yet" and then you brought back that and "Night Conceives." Where did those two riffs come from?

Jon Oliva: Right. Basically I went to the jungle basically, in Florida. It's a river that's this place they call it the Jungle because you feel like you're in a tropical rain forest and they have these little efficiencies that you can rent for the weekend for a couple hundred bucks right on the Homosassa River. And I went there for I don't know, four or five days, and I brought my collection of classics with me. And the first day I sat down and I just sat alongside the river and I had a bunch of CDs and I was just listening to stuff. The next day I go out there with my little portable amp, and sitting along the river watching manatee go by and alligators and it just came out. I think it was more influenced by Zeppelin and Aerosmith, both of those riffs, because I was listening to Physical Graffiti. I listened to Toys in the Attic. I was also listening to Black Sabbath "Paranoid" and, you know, I was just going through my classics collection that I call my essential albums. And that's where those riffs were born out of.

"Night Conceives" Boston, MA - December 20, 2014 - captured by Bp & BH, edited by KissGuy73

I think the "Night Conceives" riff was kinda me kind of kyping "Black Dog" in a way, just kind of that sleazy riff that you would hear in a smoky bar. And I think the other, the other riff for "Not Dead Yet" I mean, to me, is definitely Aerosmithish. Aerosmithish and kinda maybe Mott the Hooplish in a way. So that's kinda how I did it and I brought the riffs back. They weren't really complete until I got with Paul. I never really write anything complete unless I...I want Paul to hear it first before I finish it. And then sometimes I'll be stuck on something, and he'll always 9 times out of 10 he goes, "Oh just go do that," and I'm like, "Oh, why didn't I think of that? Thanks, asshole."

But that's how "Not Dead Yet" and "Night Conceives" came. I had the major riffs but Paul. Naturally me, Paul and Al...Al not on the writing side of it, but definitely in the arrangement and the way that the riffs were played, we crafted those songs, you know, the three of us really together. Paul and I wrote them but Al was very important in those songs as far as the way the riffs were played. First of all, he's a much better guitar player than I am, but it was cool because he brought his style of playing into the riffs. We all did them a little bit differently. If you listen to the demos, I'm playing guitar on the demo. If you listen to the album I play some guitar on the "Not Dead Yet" song but on "Night Conceives," Al just played it so much more sleazily, I guess that's the word I'm looking for. He just has that, Al Pitrelli has that cigarette hanging from the mouth vibe when he gets into a riff like that. He turns it into that smoky bar room (Jon imitates guitar sound). I just love it. So that's how those were formed.

Bp: "Past Tomorrow" is a good example of how TSO allows you to do different things that might not fit on a Savatage record. How did that come about?

Jon Oliva: Well I had a song, originally a ballad, that we were calling "Past Tomorrow" that was recorded in its entirety with several different vocalists. We tried several different people and it just wasn't working 'cause it was more like a Savatage type of song and we wanted something very haunting. And I left. I was actually very frustrated this one night and I actually left the studio early and left Paul and Al there and I just remember waking up and having a bunch of text messages on my phone from Al saying, "Dude we, we fucked with your song last night after you left. I hope you like what I did to it." So I went to the studio. I'm driving to the studio going, "Oh man." So I get in there and all they did was they took the chords that I had and Al just played them on piano and he just played them in a different way, a different style completely. It was very drony and very haunting and then that sparked the idea in me, I got on the strings. I got on cellos and violins while Al was playing, the way he was playing it on the piano and I just added these string things to it and Paul was just, he levitated to like 10 feet in the air, he was so happy. You see, that's how it works. Sometimes Paul will give me a riff that he wrote and I could barely understand it, but I interpret it the way I interpret it and bring it back and he goes, "Yep, that's exactly what I wanted." [laughing]

We have a weird writing relationship really. Now we've drug Al into it too to torture his life a little bit more, but it's cool the way the writing nucleus is basically me and Paul and Al. That's how it's been for the last few years now. We're developing a chemistry and it's really nice. It's really refreshing and it takes a little bit of pressure having Al being a big part now of that is a pressure off of my shoulders that's greatly appreciated and it also brings another style into the stuff. I mean Al's written some great songs for TSO. "Christmas Nights in Blue," "Flight of Cassandra," stuff like that. I mean that shit is great stuff. Al's got it, and since Al is more sane than me and Paul, you know I'm a little more sane; Paul's a madman, he's crazy. I'm right behind him and Al is now catching up to me going, "Wow, I know why you're so out of your mind." I'm like, "Yeah." But lovingly.

Bp: Who sings on the demos?

Jon Oliva: I do, Paul does. A lot of the melodies come from Paul. If I do a demo, I put what I call scratch vocal on it which is just whatever melody ideas I have. I just go (sings various scatting sounds), I never really say any words and then Paul, I'll play it for Paul and then Paul will listen to it and he may change one melody line to make it go with another one and then he starts getting the syllablizing together and that's where the lyrics start to be born or else Paul will have just a whole sheet of lyrics and he'll just say, "Well here's the lyric sheet and you know blah blah blah blah." And I'll read them and put those words into something that I hear and then between the two of us we actually hammer out the melodies and then the lyrics.

I'll give Paul suggestion on lyrics every now and then but I always hated doing lyrics. I've never liked it. It's very tedious work to me and with my attention span, I end up running off on tangents. Paul is a great storyteller. When you got a guy who writes great stories and poetry and stuff liked that, why am I bothering? It's like, I can play drums, Paul can't. It would be like Paul trying to show me how to play the drum part, you know, so I just say, "Yeah." He'll say, "Well Jon, I have twenty-seven different versions of the lyrics for this one song, would you read them all and tell me which one you like better?" [laughs] So I go home and I read them and then goddamn, he'll have four different words in one, then he'll have like a different verse in another and then I'll go, "Paul, they're all great. What one do you like better?" "Well, I'm leaning on number two." I'm like "Two it is. Let's go."

Bp: So, Romanov. We're approaching, or we've actually passed the 20th anniversary of it being written and not released. Is that...

Jon Oliva: It's been recorded but it's not...it's been 50% recorded, okay. All the songs are mapped out and there's demos of, there's proper demos of every song. It's the vocalists that we don't know what keys we're gonna have to change, but it's basically ready to go and it's in the frying pan as one of the upcoming things we're gonna be doing here in the next 2 or 3 years so it's going to come out. Finally.

Bp: Has it changed a lot from the inception? I know there are some leaked demos exist out there from way back in the day...

Jon Oliva: Oh it's changed drastically. From those leaked out demos, that was just me and Paul in his kitchen. You know, and me with a four track, or a couple of four tracks, and us just like scratching out ideas but frankly I don't know how people got a hold of those, I mean I know I never gave them to anybody. But when we decided to start tracking the songs so we could use songs to audition singers, Al and I basically re-recorded all the Romanov stuff from scratch. Based on the ideas on the original demos but we put them into, you know a lot of the stuff on the demos didn't have endings or they didn't have solo sections or they didn't have proper intros or the arrangements weren't right. So that’s what we've done already. Romanov is basically ready to go as long as we have to cast, we have to cast the vocalists. 'Cause there's I think 5 or 6 different vocal characters in the thing so to go any further before you have the singers so you know what keys everything is gonna be in, it's ready for that. It's at that stage where it's ready to be finalized once we do get the right singers for the right parts. And it's in the soup right now as something...Actually Paul and I just talked about it the day before yesterday, you know, about how we're going to approach that and he's got several different ideas how he wants to do it. You know, possibly maybe, maybe releasing three or four songs over the course...you come out with the opening, maybe two, three, four songs and release that with the storyline and then you wait a month and then the next month you release the next...'cause there's 23 or 24 songs so we were talking about maybe we could do that or maybe we should do it as an animated TV thing or maybe we should do like this, or maybe we should do it like that and there's a lot of ideas for that project we're tossing around.

You know Paul came up with an idea and he's like, "It would be great if we could have a gargoyle be the narrator. You know, like the gargoyle comes out or comes up, appears on this high pedestal and starts telling the story." I was like, "Wow, that's great. It would cost millions, alright. Ex the gargoyle." [laughing]
But the Romanov thing is at that stage where we're shooting, we want to do it, we want to get it out in the next few years, but we want it to be fucking killer. So right now we're discussing different ways of how to present it. Present it as a full cd, double or it'll probably be a triple cd, or do we wanna just do it over the internet a little bit at a time. Release the first part, like do it in chapters. Chapter 1 would be maybe the first four or five songs and then Chapter 2...do we wanna do it like that do we wanna do it as a live thing with the talking gargoyles or flying gargoyles or do we want to do it with video animation or...so it's at that stage now where we think we've got it pretty much most of the singers cast for it except maybe two or three. It's in the baby stages now of actually coming out. Eventually.

Bp: Speaking of gargoyles, the gargoyle guitar of Criss' is on every album. Who typically plays that and how special is it to have that on each album?

Jon Oliva: It's very special. It's a part of Criss. It's a guitar that Criss modified himself. We never touched it. It's Criss' sound kind of. And Al plays it, I've played it. That's the guitar I used on the whole Handful of Rain album. And Al's played it. Caffery's played it. I think every guitar player that's played with us has had to play that guitar in the studio. It's one of our, it's one of those things that it's more, I don't know, it's like, it's a good vibe. You know, it's got that little bit of Criss in the sound, the way he sanded down the neck and he worked on the pickups and stuff all himself and it's got a very unique sound to it. It's got a very big bottom end crunchy, but it's crunchy, it's not whoopy sounding it's, it's not, it's just got a big bottom end sound and he sanded that. I remember he used to sandpaper that fucking guitar so much you know and then he had, they did the painting on it after he was happy, then they did the painting. This is going back before, even before we even had the gargoyle thing. The gargoyle thing came, we used to call it the gargoyle guitar 'cause I think Criss had a sticker or something of a gargoyle, or something like that, but that's how it got the name. The actual gargoyle artwork didn't come out until Criss was long gone, but it was the guitar itself that was so special and it's on every single TSO song except obviously the acoustic stuff but, yeah, it's very special to us.

Bp: Switching over to the TSO winter tour, your rehearsal space is in Omaha, tell me about your role in Omaha. Can you walk me through those couple of weeks?

Jon Oliva: Do you really wanna go through that? [laughing] Well, I'll tell you what. It's 24 painful days for me. It's very difficult. In Omaha my day starts at 7 in the morning and it ends at 2 in the morning. I work with the singers along with our vocal girl Danielle [Landherr]. She works with the dancers. I work with the singers. We both work with the singers in the mornings and then the run-throughs start. You know we have, the first week we're not in the big arena. The first week we're basically set up in 7 or 8 different locker rooms because the crew's still erecting the two stages. So it's usually like the first week is us fine-tuning stuff from the little rooms and working with the vocalists going over how we're going to choreograph, this is what we need to do and how we're gonna do it this way and blah blah blah. Then when we get them out on the main stages, it basically runs one day the East coast band will be on the main stage and the West coast band will be back in the locker rooms. And then the next day West coast and we go back and forth until the last week when we have the East coast play the morning show which usually kicks off around 12, 1:00. Then they'll break for dinner and then the West coast will go on and play the night show. Then the next day it'll be opposite. The West coast will do the day, the East coast will do the night. Or we'll keep it day to day. Monday's East coast, Tuesday's West coast and so on and so on. But I have to be there for every one of them, so believe it or not, by the time that is over with, I hate the show 'cause I've seen it 45 or 50 times in those 24 days.

My job is, like I said, I'll sit out in front, right in front of the stage, and I work mainly with the vocalists and the lead singers...where they're going, what, okay, while this is going on, what if you were to go up far stage right up on the platform and blah blah blah. Or, well we need you to stay stationary really because there's a lot of other running around going on and lighting cues. A lot of times because I play drums and I do all the drums on the demos, all that we do before we record the songs is all me, so Jeff and John just copy the beats that I have done that Paul's approved and then they just add their thing in it, so I know where all the cuts are so sometimes the lighting guys will say "Jon, you know Paul said he wanted the lights to go right..." and I'll count them in, "Okay, roll is coming up on 3, 2, 1" (drum sounds). You know it's stuff like that so I'm kind of all-purpose.

Then when you've got that many people around, you've got people who are, you know, get bummed out or get depressed and so I'm kinda like the psychiatrist, vocal, [laughing], fuck it. I was like, "What if I charged you guys for each job I do. I'll get a separate fee for psychology sessions, psychological sessions, you know, confidence sessions, you know back-up singer parts, harmony parts..." There's a lot. It's a lot of work. I hate going to Omaha, I fucking hate it.

Bp: You like the end result though, I mean you've got...

Jon Oliva: Yeah, I love the end, that's the best. My favorite thing in Omaha is the West coast band always opens the tour in Omaha. So on the last week, like 2 or 3 days before opening night, the East coast's band stage is gone, they're out of there and the arena is set up. My favorite day is the opening night of the West coast because I know I'm leaving at 8 in the morning. [laughs] And I get to see the result of all the work with a live audience and so Paul always flies out and goes to the East coast opening night and I always stay with Pitrelli in Omaha for the West coast opening night. So this year I did that and then Paul went to Erie. I stayed in Omaha and then Paul left Erie and flew to where the West coast was, I left Omaha and went to South Carolina to see the East coast. It was kind of like that. I got to see the end results of both bands that I worked with. Then I drove home to Florida and slept for a week.

Bp: What are you looking for on that first opening night show with the audience in the venue? What kind of notes are you taking and what are you observing?

Jon Oliva: I watch the people. Yeah, I watched the people's faces. That's all I do. I focus and I stand at the soundboard and from the minute the show starts, I am scanning, scanning everybody. The younger people, the middle aged people, the teenagers, the senior citizens. I'm just watching. And it's a lot of sound tweaking too. Like I have to work with the soundman a little bit. The sound is totally different when there's people in the building, so like certain things...Micci is our sound guy on the West coast so, "Micci, I need a little bit more of the organ, I'm not hearing organ. Or the drums need to come up a little bit or this needs." And I'll do that and then by the end of the show it's right where I want it. I'm like, "Great!" I have Big Dave pack up the dressing room and I'm out of there. [laughs]

"Requiem/Sarajevo reprise" Philadelphia, PA - December 19, 2015

Bp: Removing the tuxedo from the equation, is there any part of you that would want to tour as a singer or keyboardist with TSO?

Jon Oliva: On the winter tour?

Bp: Yeah.

Jon Oliva: No.

Bp: On the spring tour?

Jon Oliva: The reason being any tour really. I mean now maybe if they did Beethoven, I wouldn't mind coming out and doing my two devil songs, but you know what, I'll be honest with you, man; I'm sick of the road. I've been doing it since I was 18 years old, I'm 56. That's a long time. And I'm just, you know, it's like I don't want to be fake. Yeah, you know what, if I had a huge ego, I could stand up there on stage every night and fake that I was playing the keyboards but I'm a realist. I'm not that good. I'm not as good a keyboard player as Vitalij or Janie or Derek or Mee Eun. They're in a totally different league. You know again, it would be like me trying to teach Paul O'Neill how to write stories. I'm not gonna go up there and fake it just to satisfy my ego. I want the best. I want my music represented the best way as possible by the best musicians. If it's me singing something better than somebody else then I would do it, but again, it comes back to you've got to keep your life in order. I've had my glory as a lead singer. I'm very satisfied with all that but my voice is different now. It's a lot different and I don't want to go out there and try to do something that I know I'm physically...or my voice isn't capable of doing or my musicianship isn't at that type of level. You know, I could write a lot of the stuff but there's a lot of shit that this band plays that I've written that I can't really play. I mean I can play through it, but I can't play it like Al Pitrelli plays it or I can't play it like Vitalij Kuprij plays it. It would be a joke. It would be like Paul wanting to go out and play the guitar solo for "Eruption." Paul and I play guitar, but we're like rhythm guys and riff guys, we're not fluent guitar players like Al Pitrelli is or Chris Caffery. It's just not our thing. We're more writers than that. I think we've always been like that, even when I was performing on stage. I always considered myself more a writer than a musician. I'm a musician 'cause I can play a lot of different instruments. You know, I think my strongest instrument is my voice and my piano playing, the style piano that I play. I don't play classical style piano like our guys do.

We've got, in my opinion, the four best keyboard players that I've ever heard. I mean these guys, you know, any guy who can kneel down with his back to the piano and play "The Minute Waltz" in 40 seconds is pretty fucking good. That's what Vitalij did and that's how I met Vitalij. He kneeled down in front of a piano with his back to the piano, okay, and turned his hands around and played "The Minute Waltz" while he was talking to me and Paul, he played it. I was like this guy, "Who the fuck is this guy?" I mean you're hired until the day you die dude. And it's amazing. Janie is like, oh my God, Janie is...her jazzy style or blues style that she plays is, she plays rhythm piano a lot like I do. That's why I love her a lot, but her, she's just as good as Derek and Vitalij and Mee Eun. They're all like incredible players. I mean shit that I couldn't...I could have five arms and not play what they play. I would love to play with them, but I did get to play with them. I did two of the TV shows. I hated it. And the tuxedo thing doesn't really bother me that much, it's more the fakery, alright, because I would be faking it. I would be playing some stuff but it would be like if...

I think my worth to the organization, as Paul's is, is more as keeping material coming, keeping ideas coming. Now that I've gotten all this experience, working with the musicians and trying to develop our young talent so that our music can live on for another 30, 40 years, even long after we're dead. If you get the right people and you build this right organization, who knows how long it can go on. I mean look at the Rockettes. They've been going on since the 1800s or something like that. So I don't know, it's just I don't have a huge ego and like I said, I want this stuff to sound great. I don't want to be up there faking it and not enjoying myself and just because I have to be on stage. I don't have to be on stage. You know, everybody that's a TSO/Savatage fan knows what I do. I'm at the shows, I'm where I wanna be right now. I'm at the sound desk making sure that our, Paul's and mine and Al and everybody's music is performed perfectly and that's it. And I'm very happy with that.

Bp: I hope flushing this out helps people understand that because it seems there are still a lot of passionate Savatage fans who, while amazingly passionate, only want a return to the old days.

Jon Oliva: Yes, they're very loyal. Yeah, they're very loyal, but what, really, what kind of bothers me or upsets me is that if...I'm so thankful that people love what I do and I'm really thankful of that and I can't thank everybody enough but you know it's my life and it's my decision. I didn't get shoved off stage because I wouldn't wear a tuxedo or anything like that. I made my choices because I'm looking long term. I'm not looking to have my ego stroked. I don't need that in my life anymore. I need to, I wanna create something that's gonna last for a long time, long after I'm dead. You know, and that's what I'm trying to do. I gave all the Savatage fans the best years of my life from the day I turned 21 to the day I turned 40. That's all I did was Savatage. That was the best years of my life. I lost my, I lost my house, I lost my cars, I got divorced. Thank god my wife forgave me and remarried me, but I sacrificed everything for that band and you know, people don't really...it kind of bothers me a little bit people don't really understand that. How much that, how much I went through to keep that band together. And I would think people would be happy that I'm happy. You know, and to say, "Jon gave, if this is what he wants to do great, he's writing great stuff and blah blah blah..." And that's how I want it, you know. I wish the Savatage fans would feel that, you know, this is my decision.

It's nothing that was forced on me or anything like that. This is what I want to do because I want, I want to push my limits until the day I'm dead. I want to keep trying to come up with different things and new ideas and I gave you guys 25 years of my life with Savatage. You know, the best years of my life. You know while everybody else was living their lives I was sleeping in fucking vans and buses and traveling around playing in front of 200 people in a beer bar and doing all that shit in the early days and then legging around Europe and all the stuff that we went through and the, you know, all the chaos and the, you know, the tragedy of losing Criss and everything like that. You know it's just, it was time for me to take a step back and say look to the...what do you want to do when you're in your 50s and 60s. Obviously it's not running around singing "24 Hours Ago." You know, it's not gonna happen. So, this is my decision and I'm very happy right now. I'm a very happy guy. I've worked with brilliant people, the office staff is fucking amazing, my crew people, my engineers, our sound engineers, all the musicians that we work with, all of the vocalists that we work with, all the people behind the scenes like Danielle our vocal girl, our vocal coach and trainer and stuff. There's so many people and they're all great people and we're building this organization that I think is going to last for a long time as long as Paul and I keep our vision going and keep working hard like we're doing.

Bp: And it's keeping all that music that you worked so hard on, it's keeping the spirit alive.

Jon Oliva: Yes, exactly and doing these Savatage things, you know, if we end up doing a version of Wake of Magellan or Dead Winter Dead or Gutter Ballet for like we did the Beethoven's Last Night thing, if we...then that'll keep, that keeps the Savatage thing going. And it keeps a part of Criss going and it keeps that stuff to where it means something where it doesn't vanish off into nowhere. So, you know, we've got a lot of great ideas. Paul is a very great ideas guy. Frankly I don't know where he comes up with half of them. I wish I would. He's amazing for that. So I'm just, I...we all have our responsibilities with TSO. Paul has his, I have mine. Al Pitrelli has his. My office staff, they have theirs. You know, Kenny and Adam, they have their responsibilities and all of us working together is what's making this thing work. Everybody checking their egos. Check their egos and let's do this right. If we're gonna do it and we're gonna dedicate the rest of our lives to it, I want it to be perfect. And that's how we're doing it.

Bp: It's been an absolute pleasure talking to you today, Jon.

Jon Oliva: Thank you so much. It was a pleasure talking to you, man. You have a very Merry Christmas and a great New Year.

Bp: Thanks. Enjoy the holidays.

Additional Links:
Trans-Siberian Orchestra - official site

My Trans-Siberian Orchestra Interview Series

Audio excerpts: one, two, three


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Crush Everything on January 19th, 2016 08:53 am (UTC)
Amazing interview with an amazing artist
This is absolutely the best interview with Jon I've ever read. Fantastic job, man, seriously! I also want to say how refreshingly candid and down to earth Jon is, to this day. Success hasn't gone to his head in any way and he's still the same humble guy I was lucky enough to get to know around the time of Dead Winter Dead and Magellan. He's like the All-Pro quarterback who gives everyone else on his team all the credit after every game. In my opinion, the man is a bonafide musical genius, as was his brother, Criss. The two forged a sound that is thrilling millions across all demographics and growing every year. I appreciate the way Jon continues to honor his little brother, from playing Criss' guitar on the albums, to using Criss' archived riffs from decades ago in his Jon Oliva's Pain songs. I also understand and appreciate Jon's approach to growing older with dignity. To me, there's something kind of unnerving about someone like Mick Jagger strutting around shirtless, singing, "I can't get no satisfaction", well into his 70s. I mean, he has every right, certainly, but I would never choose to do it. As a Savatage fan from the very beginning (I bought the first pressing of the Sirens album on Par Records), I can honestly say I'm grateful to Jon for how hard he worked to get Savatage on the map, for all the great metal tunes and for the genuine kindness he showed me when we first met and bonded over each of us having tragically lost a brother in a car accident. There really aren't many like him in the music business. I've met quite a few of my musical heroes and, in more than a couple of cases, wound up very disappointed. Jon was just the opposite. In fact, his unwillingness to accept any kind of "hero status" thrust upon him by fans, makes him all the more deserving of it. While I will always adore Savatage, I totally get why he chose to committ to TSO; in all seriousness, he'd be an idiot not to do exactly as he's done. Honestly, how could he even begin to fathom Savatage without both himself and Criss? Jon has conducted himself with the utmost class and dignity in dealing with the unthinkable loss of his brother and musical partner. I, for one, am tickled pink by the fact that the band Jon started with his kid brother, while they were both still in high school, has morphed into the monster that is Trans-Siberian Orchestra and made him a wealthy man. I imagine that, to Jon, the best part is having the freedom to create without boundaries and to reach a large, multi-faceted audience, which is really every artist's dream. I'm here to say it couldn't have happened to a more deserving person.