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25 February 2016 @ 10:44 pm
The Trans-Siberian Orchestra Interviews: Zak Stevens  

The Trans-Siberian Orchestra Interviews:
Zak Stevens - Winter Tour 2015 - Dec 17, 2015

Interview, photos, and video captures by Brad Parmerter (unless noted).

Zak Stevens may have been a fresh, new face to some seeing Trans-Siberian Orchestra's east touring group in 2015 as he joined the annual winter tour for the first time, however Zak's association with the band members leads back to its inception.

In 1995, Zak was lead vocalist for the band Savatage. It was Savatage's song, "Christmas Eve/Sarajevo (12/24)" that launched the Paul O'Neill side-project prog-rock group with no limits, Trans-Siberian Orchestra. He sang a bit on TSO's 2000 release, Beethoven's Last Night, but had not performed onstage with them until the summer of 2015 when Savatage and TSO joined forces for the Wacken Open Air festival in Germany.

While in the midst of his first TSO winter tour I caught up with Zak to discuss in-depth his start in music, introduction to Savatage, Jon Oliva's departure, memories of Criss Oliva, decision to step aside during the peak of their European success, the Wacken reunion, becoming involved with the TSO tour, what he's learned on the road with TSO, the importance of staying in touch with fans, and more.

Bp: Let's start at the beginning when you became interested enough in music to start playing and then when you realized you had something special in regards to your voice.

Zak Stevens: Well, I don't know. I started playing drums at about nine. And then I was in a band and we had these three dudes; me and my brother and a good friend of mine on guitar, David. He was my age and David's big brother said, "Well I want you guys to start playing some music 'cause I want to put you together in a band," because he had a band. David's big brother was in the high school I went to in Columbia, South Carolina, and said, "You guys oughta get together and jam." He kinda pointed at everyone and said, "Okay, Nick," my little brother, "You look like a bass player, get on the bass. David already plays guitar, that leaves drums and we gotta find a singer." So I was taking guitar lessons at the time and really hating it. I don't know why, I just really hated guitar. I could play but it really wasn't my thing. My fingers were hurting and it just seemed like something wasn't jiving so he goes, "What about drums?" And I said, "Well, alright." He assigned me to a teacher, my first teacher named James. He was also in high school at the time that I was ten and he goes, "Play the drums a little bit" and just started beating it and boom, right away I could do that. So he goes, "Alright, now we gotta find a singer." I said, "Don't worry about it. I think I can sing from back there."

So that's how it started with vocals along with the drums. We went and did the talent show in 5th grade and we won and I got the bug. Later on, two months later, I went to see my first concert which was Kiss' Destroyer tour 1976 at ten-years old. From then it was like, "Oh gosh, what do you do now?" So I mean, I had the bug big time but I started singing right away and was able to sing from behind the kit and I did that all through high school and college and everybody knew me as a drummer. It wasn't until after college that I went and said, "You know what, I gotta come out from behind the kit. I gotta do the vocal thing, be a frontman, because all my favorite vocalists like Bruce Dickinson and Dio and all these other singers were frontmen. So that gig looked pretty awesome. That's really how I got into it. Now, it wasn't like it was sounding amazing and everything in the beginning because you have to learn, but you know, by the time I got done with all my teachers and some other vocal schools I went to after college even, after getting my degree in psychology, I went, "Hmm, alright I still want to sing." So I still went and studied some out there, but I was in bands in Boston and got the Savatage opportunity. I still was studying because Paul O'Neill was sending us to various Broadway teachers that taught the Broadway stars on Broadway even when we were singing on the records and stuff like that. We would go and have our various lessons and he would say, "Here, take this cash and go down to 54th Street, and that's where Liz Kaplan's at and you're gonna study with her this week." And I'm like, "Wow," you know. So I get on the N train from Queens and take it over there to Manhattan and hit her lesson before going to the studio. There were a lot of great opportunities out there and I think all that, trying to learn the technical side as well as having just some talent that you can develop that was, that you were born with, you know that's the key to doing it. You gotta take advantage of all of it.

Erie, PA - November 18, 2015

Bp: How did the first introduction to Savatage come about?

Zak Stevens: Well, I met this guy who I worked with for a little while in the music business, Dan Campbell. He had actually been guitar tech a little bit for Criss Oliva and he happened to be living out in Los Angeles in the same building that I was living in when I went to MIT, at the vocal school out there, VIT. I went to the first year the school had a vocal program. I was in the first class of VIT. It lasted 6 months. Now I think it's something like a year and a half, but back then it was six months 'cause they weren't even accredited, but I knew the teachers were amazing so I said, "Alright, let's do this." So Dan said, "Hey, I know all the guys in Savatage and you can meet them some time." So Savatage played The Palace on the Gutter Ballet tour in Los Angeles and he said, "Let's go to the show." He got passes and everything and they said they wanted to meet me so we wound up meeting them at the show and also going back to the hotel which happened to be right around the corner from where I worked at the time. I worked at the Holiday Inn, Hollywood as my job trying to get through school and everything like that, just trying to land a gig or something. You go out to Hollywood, you don't know what's gonna happen. Anything can happen, you just put yourself in positions.

So we hung out and even Ray Gillen stopped by, the late Ray Gillen, on the first night that I met Savatage. Of course he had sung "Strange Wings" on the Gutter Ballet album, and Paul O'Neill was producing Badlands at the same time as Savatage. I think even Greg Chaisson even came by and we had a few guys from Badlands and Savatage and me and everybody just kinda hanging out meeting everybody. So that was pretty cool, but that was just the first time meeting them. Now the way that it came about was I went to Boston after a little while in Los Angeles and played in a band with Jeff Plate as you probably know, Wicked Witch and we played all around this area. Providence was big, Boston, New Hampshire, Connecticut, quite a few places in New England but we did demos and basically those demos, through all of our channels of friends, they got in the hands of Criss Oliva and we were able to get that done just by meeting them in the past and it was weird cause the first night that I came to Boston for the second time to give the band Wicked Witch another round a try because it had a little different membership in the beginning and the second membership with Jeff Plate on drums. That's when things got a little bit more serious. You know, 'cause we wanted to have a really solid lineup. So we came and picked – Jeff and Matt [Leff], our guitarist in Wicked Witch, came and picked me up at the airport and then it just so happened that Savatage was playing The Channel which was a club right on the channel there through in downtown in Boston. So we said, "Let's go by The Channel and see Savatage."

So we went by there and talked to everybody. That was the Streets tour and that was like the last show of the Streets tour and Jon mentioned something to me at the bar. He said, "How you doing?" "I'm alright," I said, "What's up?" He goes, "I'm about done with this." He did! And that was the last show of the tour and he looked at me and was like, "You know what, I'm done with this. I'm so glad it's the last show. I'm going home. I wanna forget about it." You know he was just tired of touring. And that was a hint and I didn't realize what that really meant. You know, you don't know at the time. I said, "Everything's fine man, you'll love this stuff in another couple of months. You'll be doing another album." And he goes, "I don't know, whatever."

So shortly after that they got the demo and liked what they heard. I mean I was probably the only demo that wasn't the one that sound like Jon, that wasn't somebody trying to sound like Jon. That's what they told me. They got 100 demos that everybody was trying to sound like Jon except not mine and they went, "Huh, that's different." That's pretty lucky. Heck, and in '93 in August, no, in August of '92, I found myself in Tampa, put up in a hotel, starting rehearsals for Edge of Thorns. And still really at that point you don't know that you got it. You know there's nobody, there's nothing for sure. When you get out there you're still auditioning. I had a few auditions with Paul O'Neill where I drove down from Boston to his apartment in Queens and sat there on his couch, and looked at about seventeen or eighteen gold and platinum albums that he already had at the time and getting really intimidated. I'm like, "Oh god." He goes, "Sing some–what do you like." So he would just play some Aerosmith and some Beatles and whatever. He goes, "Alright, that's pretty good. That's pretty good." So you still, you never really know where the solid ground is and everything, but it was crazy. That's pretty much what the process was. I mean, then I got down there and everything started going good in rehearsal and I had to change my vocal style because what I came in with is not what you hear. I had to have a pretty drastic twist on my style which is much smoother, you know, '90s melodic metal kind of thing to try to get it – so, but I was able to make the transitions and stuff like that. So that was kind of the beginning of making a lot of different transitions in my vocal style to fit Savatage and now TSO. It's been quite a journey but you have to be able to make adjustments and to be able to alter your style here or there just a little bit and that's something you can learn to do to adjust but yeah, that's pretty much it in a very short - I might have to write a book one day, but I think that was a very short synopsis of that one question.

Savatage: "Edge of Thorns" official video - courtesy EARmusic

Bp: What were those early days like making the Edge of Thorns record and that first, and final, tour with Criss?

Zak Stevens: Well, you know, Criss was just amazing. He said, "Well, we got a lot of time to make up. You need to come live with me and we're gonna sit there and write what we can for the record." "Skraggy's Tomb" and stuff like that we wrote together and a couple of other little melodies and things that weren't done yet. Maybe a little "Conversation Piece" melody, you know, just whatever. We had pieces to fit in. A lot of it was of course already written 'cause the writing team was Jon and Criss and Paul at the time. That was cool 'cause I was just gonna try to come in slow and you know, over time and that kind of thing but - it was really cool.

It was still a lot of upheaval that people didn't know about at the time 'cause Criss is making this move with the agreement with Jon to move to the producer position and he, like I said, that omen he told me, "Eh, I just don't like this frontman thing." That really was true because he wanted to get out of that position and that's what allowed me to be able to come into the band. So they were still going through a major transition, you could kind of feel that, you know. It wasn't the most comfortable time in the world because everybody was still like, "Is Zak gonna work? What are the fans gonna think? I don't know." So it was kind of like anything when you do a change in business, you're always gonna have a little, I think trepidation is a good word. I mean you don't really know what's gonna happen so I'm sitting there just going, "Hey, I just gotta do my best cause everything's kinda hinging on me." People said, "Hey, what about the pressure? What about the pressure?" The only pressure was to make the business move work. I didn't feel much pressure on the vocal side because I knew I'm so much different than Jon, I don't really have a lot of pressure on me. My vocal style is so different that I didn't feel vocal pressure. I felt pressure just to do good and be the right guy and somebody they liked and everything. That part worked out good. I knew we could probably win people over, but at least I didn't have that vocal pressure where you're coming in and you're just like, "Ugh," and you don't know what to do.

So that was the biggest part, but I'm glad that I saw how everything kinda worked out in the end and like I said, nothing was for sure the entire time. Anything could happen at any time so I just wanted to come in there every day and make sure that the team was working good, the music was great, I'm doing my part, and it had some magic to it. So by the time we got in the studio to record Edge of Thorns we knew that it was something special going on and I just wanted people to sense that I'm singing from the heart and there's this feeling there, it's not something contrived, it's not something brewed up to try to sound like Jon or something like that. We really had to make that the specific instrument and make it something special. Luckily we came out with the first single "Edge of Thorns" and it was the biggest single they ever had on radio. We had something like about 150 rock stations in the country that played it over 500 spins. All through that tour we were on radio, radio, radio, every day. I mean it was tough because I had to sing on the radio in the morning and play the shows at night and it was pretty taxing, but for good reason and that was a long running single. At the time in '93 it ran for 6 to 9 months and that's a pretty long running single for back then, especially when metal was on the way out and giving way to grunge.

Bp: Sounds like it was a pretty special time.

Zak Stevens: It was a magical time. Everywhere you'd go in the United States, I'd be in Denver, you couldn't get in and out of the car without hearing your own song. I mean it was unbelievable. Everywhere I go, "Hey, that's me again." You get in the car, "Hey, who is this?" and they'll turn it up. You'll be riding with people to the radio stations or just meeting friends on tour or something like that, here we go again. That's pretty wild and pretty rare. Especially these days to have that, it's very rare. You've got a very short window to have a radio song. Maybe it's a little better on satellite radio and stuff like that, but you know, it was real magical at the time.

And then of course I lived with Criss the whole time and it was just when I had just moved out, I was only moved out maybe about ten days and moved in with my future wife at the time, Tina, and we were just kinda hanging out around October waiting to go on tour with Vince Neil and his solo band and that was looking like it was gonna be the next run and everything was looking good and all of a sudden I got that call [that Criss died]. Johnny called me, "Oh I got some terrible news." That's when we found out that the drunk driver guy came across all those lanes and crashed [into Criss' car] and it was horrible. Dawn [Criss' wife] was barely alive and my whole family rushed down to Tampa and it was like, "Oh my god." And I think I just sunk into a corner and I didn't really move for about, I don't know. Tina was like, "Are you gonna be alright?" I just sank into a corner and didn't even move for like eight hours.

Bp: And then you got the call asking you come to work on the Handful of Rain tracks which must have been a tough experience on many levels.

Zak Stevens: Right. That's true because when we first got the devastating news, I think everybody had the opinion like, "Oh, we're done." You know your first thought is, "We're destroyed. This is it." And I think everybody had that opinion at first but you know, as time passes, some healing began and stuff like that. Dawn got better and was able to pull out of that miraculously for all the injuries and everything. Then we thought about, "What would Criss want?" And then we started getting it in the proper perspective knowing Criss as great as everybody does and knowing how he was as a person and how he loved the music and he always put the music first, what would he want us to do? And we just right away knew if he thought we were gonna quit he would say that we were a bunch of losers. We just knew that. I could just hear him right now, "Get in there, what are you doing? Make another album!"

So we kinda felt bad and that's how we, you know, I think that's how the impetus to come in and do Handful of Rain was started. So yeah, we did get the call that we were gonna do it and that was awesome. We got Alex Skolnick to come in and do guitars and we went on some tours and went all over the world and it was good. We picked it back up and then before you know it, you got Dead Winter Dead, the story that spawned TSO with "Sarajevo 12/24" as part of the story about the breakup of the former Yugoslavia and then after that you get Wake of Magellan and then somewhere around Skolnick time you get Live in Japan '94. So things do roll on and things march on. As much as you think they wouldn't go anywhere when you first hear that kind of news but that's what makes the situation, you know, so interesting.

Bp: As a band you guys then kind of hit kind of another peak with Dead Winter Dead and Wake of Magellan. That was the height of your popularity in Europe.

Zak Stevens: Yeah.

Bp: And then you decided to take a break to spend time with your family.

Zak Stevens: That's right. Exactly. Yup. I had the little baby Cassidy, who is eighteen now, she was just a little thing. And then the first year we were touring quite a lot and it was tough. Tough for one parent to have to handle all that and then six years later here comes Zoe. So for a good time period there I had the two babies. One was six and the other one newborn. They still were little and needed just a little bit of more stability in my opinion and I think it was a good decision now that I look back on it, the way they've come along and not having to miss me the entire time. I was happy to get back in there and be there at an important age in their development and everything worked good. I still continued in music. It wasn't at the level that I'm doing it now. I got to a level about three or three and a half years ago I told Paul and the guys at Night Castle, "Hey, I'm at a place now where the girls are a little older. I really want to get back into this." And I told them three years ago that I had a three year goal to be back in TSO. They said, "Oh, alright. That's cool." So I left my other job in the health care industry that was taking up a lot of my time. Of course, I still had Circle II Circle rolling along. I had enough time to do albums, I did an album every year and a half or two years and did tours. It was a little bit hard putting all that together and it was a little bit taxing trying to do the music business full blast and still have another complete career more geared to my college degree. But that's kind of how it rolled around to where we are right now which is a chapter I don't think I've talked about too much. I told them, "Three years I'm gonna be in there." "Oh really, okay." And guess what, I'm here. [laughs] And Savatage had a reunion. And I got to play with TSO and Savatage on two different stages. And I might've been the only singer that got to go do that so it's been kind of neat. And then all of a sudden you have a year where you've played in Circle II Circle, Savatage, and TSO in the same year. I never thought that would be part of the goal, but things happen. So it's been an unbelievable year. I mean this has been one of the best years in the business for me that has ever happened. I'm so stoked.

Bp: You put out an excellent album with Circle II Circle, Reign of Darkness.

Zak Stevens: One of our best albums ever this year, which is not an accident. I think we could see things coming. Even when the reunion was first announced it was such a secret that even the guys in the band didn't know about it. They did such a good job - but you have to keep it a great secret, you can't have information flying all around. I understand that. It was actually well done, but it was a little bit scary cause like, "Uh oh, I didn't know about this, what does that mean?" But everything was cool. It was amazing and it took all of us to pull it off that good. I mean it took everybody, plus wanting to work hard and it was awesome. So I think the way that the guys in Savatage came back together it was amazing 'cause we learned a couple of things.

Number one, we were all so happy. It looked like we were back in our twenties again. We found out that everybody fell in love again, big time. You know what I mean. Me and Jon, we always were close the entire time all through all these years, you know. People might think different things but at any time, pick up the phone and say, "Hey!" So playing a show like this and coming together and me and Jon kinda said, "Hey, we're the vocalists, let's just lead the charge here. Let's just lead this thing the best we can and let's take a leadership position and let's rock this thing." We decided that right away so we really did take it on us. We put a little bit more on ourselves, me and Jon, to make sure that we were catching all the details and of course along with Al, being the music director for TSO, we had a good eye on the situation. There's nothing wrong with having more leadership type stuff happening and that was a cool deal. And then everybody, Johnny, Jeff, Al, Chris Caffery, myself, Jeff, you know, everybody - just having that rekindling, the fact that we used to love to play together and be together. We were a great family. We always got along great, compared to a lot of bands, and that's what kept us on the road. So that was a rekindling of all that.

And number two, we actually agreed that we're better now. We're better now than we were back then because we've been around longer, we're older, we're more seasoned, we're tight, and you know, I hope to see more stuff happen with it. You know, I think we can certainly see that. We have that whole chapter we can explore too besides TSO.

Bp: I would love to see Savatage on stage in person.

Zak Stevens: Yeah, I think that we're gonna be okay.

Savatage: "Dead Winter Dead" Live Wacken, Germany - July 30, 2015 - courtesy ZDF-TV

Bp: The footage from Wacken was amazing. How was being back on the Wacken stage with these guys?

Zak Stevens: It's just hard to explain really. I don't know if I can even explain that. It was just unbelievable. Having all those people out there – there is some stuff out there, extended footage that people can get a hold of where you can really see the true production of what would be if they ever decide to do a DVD or something like that. It's just unbelievable. I was watching a little bit the other night and I got a little bit choked up on some of that stuff. To tell you the truth, I sat there and said, "Oh my god, I'm getting choked up over here." It was just a pinnacle. I think you can say pinnacle really of the whole thing. And you just wanna do more and you just can see the possibilities and you just wonder. There's just so many different possibilities of where things can go when you look at it. You can imagine other productions. It might not even be Savatage, you can imagine other things coming from that when you see the interaction between the TSO guys and the Savatage guys on the same stage. It makes you wonder, "Wow, what could O'Neill possibly have in his brain that he could glean from that?" So we're gonna find out.

Bp: I'm sure it's in his brain. It's the timetable that's the question.

Zak Stevens: Well, right. Well I don't think it'll be too – I don't know but I don't really think it'll be too awful long.

Bp: Yeah?

Zak Stevens: I don't know. I'm thinking in a year, two years, I don't know. I have no idea exactly what he's thinking, but we tend to think alike and the stuff that I'm thinking it wouldn't be that much of a time frame so I'm pretty excited about what stuff might spawn off of that. And like I said, you never know, it might even be some more Savatage stuff too, which Jon himself does not rule out at all at this time, so that's good.

Bp: That would be great. What was your initial reaction to sharing the vocal duties with Andrew and did that evolve as you worked with him on it?

Zak Stevens: Yeah, that evolved in rehearsals because what we found out was – I really thought it should be a duet because you had two stages going at the time, that are a hundred something feet apart, so in order to make the show cohesive like that, you need to have a duet going where you have a singer from the one stage and then a piece of a verse and then you know maybe another piece of the verse from the other stage. So I figured it was gonna go that way which makes a lot of sense. But then we found out that we sound quite a lot alike if we sing unison with each other. It's a scary chorus effect that Paul really fell in love with because we have a lot of similarities to our voice. I mean he's different, I'm different yeah, but when you put us together it has this pretty crazy resonating tone to it which really kinda cuts above everything. So we found that out in rehearsal and then that's when we decided to do a lot of unison stuff together like in "The Hourglass." And we would have harmonies. I'd sing a harmony with him. We had "Chance" that we did like that and I would add some harmonies here or there or we would do stuff together. Really it was unbelievable that we just worked out together at rehearsals like, "Hey, how about this?" Boom, good.

It's real easy working with Andrew. He's amazing. He's kinda like the little brother up there and I'm like the older brother. There's a lot of great acting that can go on because in the story of "The Hourglass," it worked out great because I become the older brother who's basically giving over the ship to him, you know, as I might even be dying. In some way you can interpret that. And if you look at Wacken and the way it was acted out between me and him you can actually see that story so it was like that's the kind of stuff I'm talking about, that who knows what that might evolve into. So we've discovered a lot of great stuff. But yeah, like you've mentioned, a lot of that stuff kinda came about in rehearsals as we start to see how the singing sounds and how we can interpret the story and how the story can be integrated into the performance. It just gives a wide variety of different things so we didn't even have time to touch on it. I mean it could've been so many other things. So that's why it's kinda exciting to see what might come out of that, at least analyze that. There were so many things we couldn't even get to because there's obviously a lot of songs you can't get to and we played two hours and there's another two hours of songs sitting out there that we couldn't even do. And then there might be another two hours after that. So it's crazy but I think you know, we can get crazy here.

Bp: There's a rich catalog to mine.

Zak Stevens: I know. Yeah, it's like unlimited mining. It's crazy.

Bp: And now you're on stage with TSO which must be special.

Zak Stevens: Oh man, yeah. It's kinda like – I say full circle and everybody goes, "Ha ha, you're trying to put Circle II Circle in there." But no, it's true. It's almost like coming full circle. It's like alpha omega. I kinda have a joke about that at the signing line sometimes. I go, "Wow, it's good to finally see you guys today. I'm Mr. Alpha Omega." I had to come from kind of the beginning and scoop around in the end. It's awesome. It's just good to have that journey. I feel like there's been a journey completed out here and everybody's so happy. It's really great because the Savatage guys have – I think it completes something for those guys too because now all six of the latest lineup of Savatage are in TSO for the first time.

And I know that's important to Jeff and when I've talked to Chris about it. And of course we've got the other two in the West coast plus Jon would equal to six. Al and Johnny Lee and Jon would equal the six guys in the latest lineup of Savatage before we took the fourteen-year hiatus or whatnot but you know, it's cool because that does complete stuff for the guys and that's an important thing to have, for the first time, all six of the Savatage guys in TSO divided between the two coasts and having Jon as the co-creator doing his role that he does.

Jon and I talked about it too and it's like, "Yeah, it's good. It needed to happen." It kinda completes the lock. It completes the cycle. So now we can start, now that we've come together the circle is completed now we can go on to other things and that's the stuff I'm looking forward to.

Bp: When you walked into rehearsals in Florida for Wacken for the first time, since for the first week or so it was just the Savatage guys, what was the feeling in the room when you walked in for the first time with the other five? Any trepidation? Was it as if no time had passed?

Zak Stevens: No, I really felt – I just felt really, surprisingly I felt very at ease. I felt like it was a little bit like coming home 'cause we were in the studio down there, which is now Night Castle Studios, which we had done at least two or three Savatage albums we recorded at Morrisound and Paul bought the studio. So I went down there to the studio and it had a big new security gate on it and it was like, "Oh god, " I didn't even know if I was at the right place. Everything was in such high secrecy at the time even the Wacken show and everything kinda under lock and key and I had to call the office at Night Castle and go, "Is this the same studio that I thought it was?" They go, "Yeah. It's right there." And I'm like, "Okay. I'm here but it just doesn't look the same 'cause it's got that – " He goes, "Oh, I forgot to tell you the code." "Oh thanks a lot."

So I go up there, punch it in, and okay, everything's good. Who drives up behind me? Jon Oliva. So everything was cool 'cause the minute I got there the car right behind me was Jon and it just felt like the old days. We used to somehow line up to come in anyway and we were right on time. From that point I felt totally at home. I wasn't nervous, it was nothing. I felt like, "I'm gonna come in here and kick some major ass and I'm gonna take names and everybody better be ready to do it and I'm gonna raise everybody's performance to another level." And that's what Paul told me. He goes, "Damn, Zak, thank you. Thanks for coming in here and making everybody better." And I went, "Yeah, that's what I wanted to do. That's my goal. That's what we have to do. We gotta make each other better."

So everything was unbelievable from the very beginning. We all had the same vision in mind and it was great. I felt totally at home. It was probably the most relaxed I've felt in my life. 'Cause you could think that you could come in there and feel nervous around that big thing and everybody's trying to get this three week thing rehearsed and it takes a huge amount of time. Three weeks, ten hours a day is what we did to do Wacken and you have one shot at glory. And after all that, you've got one shot.

That could make a few people nervous, but not us because it's twenty-something years and we're supposed to be that good, you know. I had one of my most perfect shows of my career up there because I was well prepared and I was relaxed. There was no reason to forget a lyric. There was no reason to do anything wrong because I've been singing that stuff for twenty-something years. It's not that hard for me, you know, it was actually joyful. I was savoring every word and every minute of it. That's basically the way it was.

Bp: What did you guys do in that first night at Night Castle Studios? Did you guys run through the set? Did you just hang out for a little bit before going through it?

Zak Stevens: Well, I had already had a few studio trips before that to tell you the truth. They brought me down one time in April and another time in May just to run through and get in the studio and run through my possible songs, which increased as we went along. It started at 2 or 3 and I think it got to 5 as we went through and as we started finding out the duets were working good. Me and Russell [Allen] had a good one too on "Turns To Me."

We just got right to it because there had been a couple of trips so we kinda knew what we were going to do so we just started going straight through the songs. There were a few variations on the setlist which did change things up 'til the very end. Everything's subject to change, but we started getting on the core list and just knocking them out one by one. We felt with the guys in Savatage, the plan was talking about leadership that we were gonna be the ones in charge of learning everything completely and if there were any questions coming from anybody else we were gonna be the guys that knew it down pat and we were gonna be, let's say, the consistency team. In other words, if there is a question about a part, it comes to us because when it starts with us and that was Al's plan which I think was great. He said, "Look we're gonna be the core band. We're gonna get it down so that we have consistency and if there's anything where there might be a little bit of change or somebody learning something different in the past or if TSO learned a Savatage song and had played it differently or sang a different lick, we have to be the ones who say, 'No, this is gonna be the part.'" So you've got to have consistency like that because there are little changes, things have been played a little different here or there. Not to say that that's wrong, but just we just had to be consistent as the parts that we're gonna play as this double band so that's what we did for the beginning and it worked great. That was a great plan by Al.

Bp: And obviously you'd been playing a number of these songs with Circle II Circle.

Zak Stevens: Yeah.

Bp: For some of these songs, "Gutter Ballet" for instance, when the guys were rehearsing that, you had the unique opportunity of watching them since Jon was handling all the vocals for that, and you're watching your old band back together again after about fifteen years. What was that like for you?

Zak Stevens: Well, yeah, it was just – you feel great because the fact that we had been playing with Circle II Circle and putting them in and just trying to satisfy the crowd, "Hey, we wanna hear this song from Savatage." "Well I guess I can give that to you since I sing on there." That helped me out because it kept me fresh on all of the material. Any time I came in, they were like, "Here's the lyric sheet." "I don't need that, why do we need that? Really? No, throw that in the trash." And I think that they were a little bit surprised but I'm like, "You don't need to be surprised, I sing this stuff all the time." So I don't need a lyric sheet and I come in there and go, "Blah blah blah blah blah" and rap it off and they're like, "Dang, how do you know all those tongue twister lyrics that Paul O'Neill –" "Because I sing it."

You gotta keep current so that was a great thing about being able to play with Circle II Circle was that I just knew it right off. It's good to practice you know what I mean? It's good to play it. Now stylistically I think that's what you're saying, were there stylistic differences between the way we did it and Savatage, yeah. Certainly, but you know what? Not much. We tried to keep it true with the versions we played in Circle II Circle so it was just great hearing it again from the source. That's what I call from the source. So that was exciting and yeah, it was all amazing.

TSO: "Christmas Dreams" Live, Albany, NY - December 13, 2015 - multi-camera mix

Bp: Since this is your first TSO tour – obviously you've been involved in the organization for twenty-plus years, but what was it like walking into rehearsals in Omaha to see how far this thing has come 'cause obviously it's a little different than walking into Savatage rehearsals?

Zak Stevens: Yeah. Well I had been coming to see TSO with my daughters for a long time and maybe it would skip a year here or there because of traveling with Circle II Circle. Many times we would have winter tours and for many years I would be actually touring in November, but I would make it home in December in time to hit the Tampa show. That would be somewhere in mid-December historically and it would be the west coast band or sometimes it would be the east coast band. So really I had seen the productions and obviously been pretty familiar with everything, but it still doesn't prepare you because every year is bigger here so I was just overwhelmed. Coming in this year – nothing really prepares you because Paul makes sure that this show just goes bigger and better every year and you just don't know what to expect so it was really exciting to see all those screens up there. I think we're running 35 screens from large size to small size and we have this big triangle flame thrower thing that looked like a major tripod barbecue thing from hell that could be shot from a different planet.

Bp: That's a great description. [laughing]

Zak Stevens: [laughing] The new Saturn barbecue grill! And then it goes up, it's got the triangle thing and it's a pod, it opens up so it looks like a spaceship will take off. We were all in there like me and Jon Oliva were going, "What the hell is that thing?" And he goes, "It's something built specifically for us." I went, "I wouldn't doubt it."

So it is always a mind blowing thing. It doesn't matter what year, so that's the one thing I knew for sure. No matter what year you come in here, it's gonna be better than last year so this is 2015 and a great year to join. It was amazing and they gave me a list of three or four possible songs and we all have our backup songs that we are prepared to do in case somebody doesn't feel good or something like that. You rarely have to do that. So I really didn't know what song I was gonna land on. I think the most intriguing part was now I'm coming into songs that are not Savatage. So these are TSO songs so it is a different planet to be on because I don't know which TSO song is gonna be the one that's magical for me and so we had to kinda weed through and have singing sessions. Paul would call us into the office with Jane Mangini on keyboards just to work with us playing it and seeing what really rings home. "Christmas Dreams" right away just had a real spark to it even though there's other songs that I love to sing and would be great. We'll be seeing stuff like that in the future, different stuff, but "Christmas Dreams" for this tour was just magic. The way it's sung on the album, is very similar to my characteristics in a lot of ways so it just was a great fit. I just want to do the best job I can do to do the album version justice and to make and do the best job I can on it. I think it does fit my style pretty good. The rock and roll, the rock Broadway kind of thing, it's working so that's kinda how we landed on it, but it is different coming in when you, it's not one of the songs like for the Wacken thing, it's not a song that I sang in the past or a piece of, so it is different and you just have to wait and see which one you land on and has that magical spark.

Bp: Right. It sounds great and it's been nice over the past few years because Jay Pierce originally brought it to life on the East stage, then Russell did it and now you're doing it. It's been nice to have a different flavor each year with it.

Zak Stevens: Yes. It is good and I've been enjoying that too hearing the various vocalists sing it and it's cool. It's kinda like a baby that says – it's kinda going through a metamorphosis, there are different mothers carrying it. I'm happy to be pregnant with it this year. I'm ripe with babies. [laughing]

TSO: "Prometheus" Live Newark, NJ - December 12, 2015

Bp: And you're doing "Prometheus" occasionally too. That seems to fit you well.

Zak Stevens: Oh thanks. Yeah, it's on the new album and Jeff Scott Soto sings it and I think I have the most similar voice to Jeff as far as this company so that's why Paul wanted me to sing it once in a while. He throws it in there once in a while. He put it in there when he was there the other day in New Jersey because he wanted to hear both my songs the other night so he popped that one in there. It's not an everyday song, it's an alternate. I think it's great. Paul really likes the way I do it so that's cool.

Bp: There's a powerhouse lineup of male vocalists on the East this year. How's the camaraderie with the rest of your singers?

Zak Stevens: Oh, way too good. It's too much fun. I mean it is unbelievable. I love these guys. I mean that's just all there is to it. It's a new family and I told every one of them that I'm crying after the tour. And they know that.

Bp: Chris has said by the time he's at the end of the tour, he's just getting into it and wants it to keep going.

Zak Stevens: That's true. I can see it happening that way and I'm trying to slow the path of time down because it is just one of the best things ever. They'll tell you in the band, it's a close group of pirates that we have in the male vocalist section. It is unbelievable tight. And it's just become an unbelievable close group. I mean I love that. It helps us be good, it helps us get better, it helps us be the best we can. Everybody's getting along really great and I couldn't even ask for it to be better. Like I said, it's better than I ever thought it would be on the bus. We are on the same bus with Bryan Hicks, the narrator, and that's our bus. So if you could just imagine – it's a great group and it's been way too much fun. They all know I'm gonna cry after the tour. Everybody already knows that.

Bp: With such a strong vocal lineup, you guys have to be pushing each other.

Zak Stevens: I'm learning so much. Well, you know what it is? We're learning a lot. I told them, "You know guys," I mean one of the first things I told them when we first got together before we really got real close over time and grew together as a unit and all that stuff, I said, "Number one, it's TSO. You got this amazing gig. Not only that, but you get to watch you guys and learn every day infinite vocal lessons. That's sick. Nobody should be that spoiled."

I feel guilty. I do, I feel guilty sometimes. Not only do I sing in TSO, one of the most sought after gigs ever, but I get to be infinitely spoiled and learn every day. I'm doing stuff vocally I wasn't doing before the tour because of these guys. And so that's one of the first things I told them and they were like, "Man, you're one of us." You know. We've got a total love affair going on here.

Bp: It's a bromance. What are some of the things you're learning from, from the other guys?

Zak Stevens: [laughing] Well when you get to this level of these guys I can just learn so much technique wise just by watching and observing and listening. It's not only the ear but you've got visual, auditory stuff to learn, different stuff with range. I think I'm improving my range by watching the technique of these guys, especially Russell the way he can get up there and we have a lot of similarities that I really didn't know that are similarities but now being able to work close you can see those things. I've learned a lot from Rob, I've learned a lot from Dustin, and I'm learning a lot from Robin. I mean everybody's learning, especially Robin. Robin comes to me every day going, "God, this is amazing!" 'Cause he's the young one and he's telling me how much he's learned. I said, "Good, at your age, that's amazing. You know, keep on building and keep on growing." I'm the oldest vocalist in the East and you can print that I reckon. No you can, I'm just kidding. Yes, I'm the oldest vocalist of all of them.

Bp: Think of it as experience, not age.

Zak Stevens: I'm the shortest male vocalist. I might possibly have the longest hair, I don't know. Maybe Russell's is but I don't know. But it's kind of funny that I'm the shortest male vocalist.

Bp: Well you've got some Paul Bunyan's out with you.

Zak Stevens: I know they are giants so I feel like – and it was a joke, even from Wacken, 'cause all the other singers in West are brutally tall as well. So I was the shortest of all of them. So I went, "Wow, the first thing I notice about all you TSO singers is you're all a foot taller than me. Thanks a lot."

Bp: But you've got a mighty punch.

Zak Stevens: Yes, I just had to go in there and give it my all. Short, oldest – I'm oldest by two years on the up side over Rob and I'm the oldest by twenty-six years over a couple of the girls! "So thank you girls for coming in at twenty-three. I love ya!" [laughing] But yeah, so it's kinda cool. I don't mind that. They look at me as the elder statesman, you know. I like to give everybody everything I know and everybody's having a great time. You know on the girls side and the guys side, they come and say, "Oh man, you know we love your energy, you're always looking to teach." I said, "That's my job." I'm like the ex-Savatage guy, what am I gonna do? I've got to be a leader, I've got to come in looking for things. I don't really tell people what to do, but if somebody needs some help or some suggestions on how to feel better out there vocally or take care of yourself or what to do or what not to do or what's bad or what's good, they know they can come to me. And they do 'cause I will share my knowledge. That's what I'm here for. If I don't do that then I'm not doing the job. So that's what Paul calls me, I'm the elder statesman. That's a Paul O'Neill original. "Zak, you, Rob and Russell are the elder statesmen. You must lead." "Thank you. Black Knight out" [Black Knight exit whooshing sound].

TSO: "Christmas Dreams" Live Acoustic - Erie, PA - November 17, 2015

Bp: [laughing] How do you take care of your voice? What's your vocal routine to warm up?

Zak Stevens: Don't talk and do interviews during the day. [laughing] Actually that is one, just don't talk. I blew that today, didn't I? Oh, I've just blown that one. No, this is good.

Bp: At least it's a single show day today.

Zak Stevens: Yeah, that's right. I'll take it. Yeah, keep it low. Don't talk and holler too much during the day. Just relax. Drink a lot of water. Water's the best thing. I go with what my doctors say and try to stay away from some of those deadening type things like Vocalzone and things that have all this feature of myrrh and eucalyptus and menthol in it. 'Cause all it does is just deaden you. Like Halls, you know, when they reach for Halls I go, "Ugh, no don't be doing that." You need to feel what you're doing. If you're damaging stuff, you can't feel it after you do that.

So I stretch out, warm up if necessary. I do more of a physical type warmup. I'm more like from the Linda Ronstadt school. She never had a vocal warmup but she stretched a little bit. And she was amazing back in the day. I know it changed due to illness and unfortunate stuff, but back in the day – you know, you can either have a technique where you actually do physical vocal warmups and vocalises it's called, or you can do the stuff I learned which was more the physical stretch out, loosen up, get rid of the vocal tension, make sure you've got a vocal platform that's supporting using your diaphragm correctly and stuff like that. You can go in and I really don't do – everybody will tell you I really don't do any. You don't hear me over there [sings a scale]. I don't do that junk. I go [vibrates lips], "Okay, let's go." A little bit of face loosening. You know, tiger face, that's one, you just stretch your face to look like a tiger [growls] and you're gonna get your facial muscles all stretched out, that's a good one. Stretch your back out, there's all these specific stretches I do. There are different schools of thought, but it all equals the same thing. What works good for you and then everybody's different so each person is gonna have their own routine and that's totally fine. There is no one set routine for a singer. You'll never know everything, that's for sure. It's a lifelong learning process. You will never be perfect or know everything in vocals. You might as well just try to learn something every day.

That's why I'm so happy I'm out with these guys. It gives me the perfect opportunity to keep learning. I told everybody I was going back into vocal lessons, which I am. When I get home I'm gonna find another good teacher and I'm gonna continue this learning because nobody's above continuing to learn and it really inspired me to go back into vocal lessons when I started working with the guys in TSO. That really solidified that decision. And I told them all already. They all know this and they're like, "Wow, that's really awesome. You wanna do that Zak, you? Why do you need to do that?" And I went, "Because I want to." You know, there's a lot more learning left to do and anything you can do to take, to make it where you protect your voice and take it easy on your voice and improve your technique to where you're not tearing something down that you might not even know about yet, you gotta try it. I mean that's my school of thought on it so I'm excited. It's all good.

Bp: When you announced that you had made the tour and you were gonna go out with TSO there was some reaction to your Facebook post saying, "Well sure, wasn't he a shoe-in for TSO. He was with Savatage." But it wasn't necessarily that cut and dry, was it?

Zak Stevens: Well it really had to do with, like I said, the way that my career went you know, after I took time off for the family thing, and then looked into other career things and got interested in science again and all. It was a lot of things and they know that I was busy and that I was kinda looking at different things and still keeping my music going on the back end, so it was quite a few factors. If I woulda said, "Hey man, I wanna come right back in." I don't know. TSO had to be different so I probably wasn't gonna come in right away anyway because I'm the singer for Savatage already and you wouldn't have anything new.

With TSO they wanted to bring in quite a lot of the Broadway style singers so there's a lot of factors. Maybe even ten or twelve factors and maybe even stuff that I don't even know but there's reasons for everything. So that's one of the reasons, it's just not gonna be an automatic, nothing's automatic. What matters is that everything comes together at a certain point and works out and everything just has a great way of coming together and I think it was a great year to be able to do the Savatage reunion and TSO and come in the same year. I think that's good and I'll take it.

Circle II Circle: "Victim of the Night" official stream - from Reign of Darkness

Bp: Let me wrap up here with the post-show signing line, I know from the fan perspective how important it is to get a little bit of interaction with the performers, but how important is it, especially on those tiring 2 show days when you're tired and such, how important is it to have that interaction with the fans from your side of the table?

Zak Stevens: It's massive. Number one, it's great talking to everybody and I feel so much support. So many people come to the line and say, "Great to finally see you out here Zak. Wow this makes it – " So I get a lot of great support from everybody. They're very happy. I get a lot of overwhelming happiness from Savatage fans who have been long time Savatage fans that come through the line. That's been very nice and we have a connection, especially with those that have followed Savatage and know the whole history of TSO and that's been real special there. It's just been great. Those two components plus just meeting all the new people and the kids and seeing the wide age ranges at a TSO show. It's just been awesome shaking their hand, seeing what their name is, introducing myself to kids who might not know. Some kids know 'cause their parents are – you've got kids whose parents are big time Savatage fans who know me and are all starstruck to meet Zak. And also it's a perfect example, Alex.

Bp: Yeah.

Zak Stevens: That's a great example. Your son, whose favorite song is my song and I'm his big star. That's awesome. That's another huge part of it, the children, the kids the whole thing really. I mean the signing line has just been, I love it every night because you get all that plus more.

Bp: Well, I can tell you Alex was over the moon. He got a pick from Bill who visited him mid-song, got drumsticks from Jeff, and Robin, Rob and some of the girls came out and took a picture with him after the show. But as we're leaving he looked so sad and I asked him what was wrong. He said, "I really wanted to meet Zak and give him my note." I was thinking that with all this other stuff and the show, how could he still be disappointed? It was so nice that we ended up connecting. He was over the moon. It made his day.

Zak Stevens: Yeah, and we were walking straight through and that venue did it because it had the crazy design where you have to walk straight past that exit to get to catering. I'm walking with Jeff and we see Alex who thought he couldn't meet us and was sad. But nope, here comes the Black Knight going to catering to get his warrior food. [laughs] Yeah, that was awesome.

Bp: Thank you so much for the time today.

Zak Stevens: You got it Brad. Hey, it's been great meeting you finally. Everybody talked about you. We're gonna see Brad so I'm just glad we met and everything's been awesome. Hey, I appreciate the interview too brother.

Additional Links:
Circle II Circle - official site
Trans-Siberian Orchestra - official site

More in my Trans-Siberian Orchestra Interview series -> here.

Hershey, PA - December 18, 2015


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