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Jon Oliva: The Maniacal Renderings of a Musical Mastermind

By Lisa Sharken, New York Contributor
Monday, November 15, 2010 @ 11:01 AM

"...we took the same mix of the same song, changed the name and slapped a Christmas tree on the cover, then it became number one in the country."

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Jon Oliva made his mark on the rock scene as lead vocalist, keyboardist and songwriter with the Florida-based group Savatage. He formed the group in 1978 with his younger brother, guitarist and songwriter Criss Oliva. The two shared a tight bond and made an exceptional team as musical partners.

Originally called Avatar, the group changed its name to Savatage in 1983 and became known for its recognizable style of melodic metal-flavored rock. The group enjoyed a string of successful albums and commercial success, particularly after joining forces with producer/songwriter Paul OíNeill on the monumental Hall of the Mountain King, released in 1987. Even with a wealth of talent and extraordinary drive, Savatage never quite reached that next plateau the group had always strived for. Criss was a genuinely gifted player and sadly, just as he was gaining recognition by the major guitar magazines for his fretboard wizardry, Criss was killed in a tragic automobile accident in 1993. He left this world far too soon, though the music he created continues to live on. Jon continues to tap ideas culled from a collection of tapes filled with ideas that Criss had recorded alone or music they worked on together but had never completed. For Jon, it is important that Criss continues to be an essential part of his music so he tries to include pieces the two had written and works to complete parts that were left unfinished.

As fans are aware, Savatage did continue on. However, without its principal members the band would never rekindle the fire cultivated by Jon and Criss. While Jon remained the primary songwriter, recorded keyboards and co-produced the group, he had stepped out as lead vocalist in 1994 and began channeling some of his effort into other projects. Oliva also formed a short-lived solo band called Dr. Butcher, which released one self-titled album that same year. He continued working with Paul OíNeill and together they established the hugely successful Trans-Siberian Orchestra, which was built on music originally written and recorded by Savatage. Over the next decade Oliva assembled a stronger and more focused group which he calls Jon Olivaís Pain, releasing the groupís debut album, íTage Mahal, in 2005. JOP recently released its fourth album, ,b>Festival.

Oliva spoke with us about Festival, explaining what sparked the albumís concept and how the tracks came together. We also gained some insight into his creative process for writing songs and how things have evolved over the years with all of the groups and projects he has been a central part of. Hereís a detailed look at the maniacal renderings of a true musical mastermind.

KNAC.COM: In addition to being one of the very best vocalists in rock, you are quite well known for your work as a songwriter. A lot of your work tends to have a central theme that ties together all of the tracks on an album. Was there a theme or one particular song that inspired this album?

OLIVA: The whole theme for this album is based around the title track. We were on tour in Europe last summer and I had a nightmare about being in a haunted fairground with all kinds of weird surrounding me. There were people with no arms and no faces just walking around. They had plain faces with no features ó no eyes or nose. There were all kinds of drab things. There was this ferris wheel in the back that I kept trying to get to, but for some reason, it just seemed to get farther and farther away. Towards the end of the dream, I finally got up to it and it was made out of barbed wire. It was a very strange dream. I woke up, wrote it all down, and then the next thing you know, thatís where it started. I went over it with my drummer, telling him I had this really weird dream and he thought it was a great idea for a song. So I just started writing and thatís how it started. Then I kind of based the rest of the album around dreams and nightmares ó some that Iíve had and some came from a weird book of dreams that I got at a flea market. It has peoplesí recollections of dreams that theyíve had and there were a couple of ideas that I nicked out of there. But most of the album was built around that one nightmare. Thatís where the whole album cover and the title track came from, and then four or five other songs were based on dreams or nightmares that I had. Thatís how it started.

To write the music, I got out my box of Criss Oliva tapes and started going through those. I dug up some little riffs and things that we had recorded, started working on those and made them part of the album. So Criss is still a part of what Iím doing. Itís important to me to have some of his stuff on there. I included some great stuff of his on this album. I was really happy with the stuff that we found and it worked out really well. So every song is about a dream and itís all a little fantasy.

KNAC.COM: You often collaborate with others, but do you prefer working alone?

OLIVA: I like to work by myself when I write, but when I get the idea I like to bounce things off of people.

KNAC.COM: So you work on the initial ideas alone and then present them to others for their input?

OLIVA: Yes. I kind of do it just like we did in the early Savatage days. Either Criss or I would write something, then weíd bring it to band practice and play it for everybody. Weíd knock it around, jam on it, and see if anyone came with something to add. I did the same thing with this stuff. Iíd formulate it, then go to my little studio with my drummer whoís also an engineer. We would just demo it up, then pass some recorded tracks around to the band. Iíll give it to the bass player to work on and tell him that this is the bass part that I have that works, but if you can take it and enhance it, change it or make it better, feel free. Sometimes heíll come back with something better, but sometimes he wonít. Same thing with the other parts. So thatís how I do it. I let the guys bring their own stuff to each song and sometimes itís good. Iíve rarely had to say, "Hey, I donít like what you did so letís stick with the original." They usually come back with something based off of my original idea thatís pretty good.

KNAC.COM: Do you typically compose the lyrics or the music first, or do they sometimes come out together, hand in hand?

OLIVA: Sometimes hand in hand, but mostly the music is written first ó the music and the melody. Paul OíNeill is a great lyricist. I like writing lyrics, but itís very difficult for me and I spend a lot of time on it because I didnít do it for so long. Once Paul come onboard with Savatage, after Gutter Ballet, I kind of turned the lyrics over to him. Criss and I would focus on the music and Paul would take care of writing the lyrics. So for a long period of time I didnít write any lyrics. I didnít write lyrics until around 2003, when I did the first JOP record. It was the first time I had written lyrics since the Gutter Ballet album. So it was a long lay off, but now Iím getting back into the swing of it and itís interesting and fun.

KNAC.COM: When you were writing the songs for Festival, did you tend to go to the piano or the guitar, or did the melodies come to you without the accompaniment of an instrument?

OLIVA: In the past, it was mostly the piano. But for this album, I wrote every song on guitar, except for the last song, which is a ballad called "Now." It was actually a bit of Criss Oliva music. The chorus for that was something that we had written back in the Power Of The Night days, or maybe even before that. We never did anything with it. I found it on one of his cassettes and itís just him playing the chorus on an acoustic guitar and me singing. We had never worked out a verse for it and just had the chorus part. That was the only song I actually worked on where I sat down at the piano. I really had to come up with a verse for this chorus. Everything else was written on guitar in the back of the bus on tour last year. I had a little 4-track recorder set up in the back of the bus. I just sat there and wrote everything on guitar. I ended up playing a lot of guitar on the album because I play different than Matt and Tom do. So when we were working on the tracks they were saying that it didnít sound the same as when I would play it, so they suggested that I play the primary rhythms and they would fill in other parts. So I ended up doing all the rhythm guitars and all the acoustic guitar parts. I even played a couple of solos for the first time in my life. My guitar playing has gotten pretty good because Iíve been playing a lot over the last few years. It was a lot of fun to be playing so much guitar on this record!

KNAC.COM: Which songs did you play the solos on?

OLIVA: I play the solo on "I Fear You" and on the two ballads ó "Looking For Nothing," which is all me. I played everything on that. And I played on the ballad at the end, "Now," which is just me and the drummer. And if you have the CD with the bonus track, thatís pretty much a solo song also. I got to play some pretty cool stuff. The song "Afterglow" was the big production number and I recorded around 12 guitar tracks myself on that. We have everything like old Rickenbacker electric 12-string that I played upside down [Jon is left-handed and can play a right-handed guitar thatís turned upside-down], and we dug a lot of equipment out of the studioís closets like old synthesizers, including some Mini-Moogs and really old original stuff that we just dusted off. We had to get some of the stuff serviced to it work again, like a Mellotron. We dug out some big old Martin acoustic guitars and 12-strings, and it was a hell of a lot of fun for a guy who doesnít get to play that much guitar. It was very interesting to get to use all of this cool old stuff.

KNAC.COM: Will different instruments affect the style in which you write and the way that you play?

OLIVA: Definitely! The first time I picked up the Rickenbacker electric 12-string, I instantly went back to the Beatlesí A Hard Dayís Night album. It looked just like the one that George Harrison played in the movie so you kind of get that vibe and it gets you hyped up to play in that kind of style.

KNAC.COM: I know that you are very influenced by the Beatles, Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin, and there were certain things on the record that were reminiscent of those artists, as well as what sounds to me like classic Savatage.

OLIVA: Yes! This is our Hall of the Mountain King album for this band. Just like with Savatage, the first three records we did were good, but it wasnít until we hit Hall of the Mountain King where we really felt like, "Yeah! This is happeniní!" I feel the same way with these guys. It took me two or three records to get to where I understood them and how they work. When youíre playing with people you have to develop chemistry and it took me a while because Iíd only been in one band my whole life. So to have a new band and start all over with different people, it took me a couple of albums to see where the guys were at and learn who excels at what type of thing and who is good at what. By the last album and with this album, Iíve finally figured these guys out. Theyíre all great musicians. Two of them are guitar teachers and when I met them they were playing in all kinds of bands doing all kinds of music from Top 40 to death metal. Matt was playing with a death metal band for a while. They can play anything and thatís what I like about working with them. I can throw anything at them and they can play it.

KNAC.COM: Regardless of how good of a musician someone is, itís also a matter of how well you mesh with them and how their style fits in with what you want you want to accomplish musically, even if you are giving them the space to be themselves as players and to contribute to the songs.

OLIVA: Yeah, pretty much. A lot of it is luck, too. First of all, youíve got to get along with the people youíre working with and I get along with them really well. Theyíre all big Savatage fans. Theyíre a little bit younger than I am by maybe five to ten years, and thatís also good because Iíve got the experience and theyíre good listeners and hard workers. They never bitch about anything. As a songwriter, itís a lot easier for me to be able to work with people like these guys. If I come up with a song like "Looking For Nothing," they can play it. Itís as easy as pie and itís no big deal for them. In the past, I sometimes used to have problems with the Savatage band in certain aspects, where it kind of felt like I was working inside of a box. I donít think the Savatage band was as versatile. We had our sound and our thing, and thatís what we kind of stuck to. Paul OíNeill is kind of a creature of habit, so once you get into something, itís hard to get him to change anything. If he likes a certain type of approach or a type of sound, he sticks with it. With this band, itís a lot different. Itís a very open situation where I can really do whatever I want. As a writer, it makes it a lot cooler because I donít worry if I have something with a jazzy part because they can play it. Steve Wacholz [original Savatage drummer] was a great drummer, but he couldnít play jazz to save his life. He was "Doctor Killdrums." He was a basher, so it was difficult to bring in a song that had a lot of jazzy dynamics to it because he wasnít that type of drummer. But at this point, there are a lot of things that I want to do and I definitely need that versatility with everybody so I can continue to dabble.

KNAC.COM: In what ways have your influences changed over time with the musicians who inspired you as you were learning to write songs and growing as a musician yourself? What did you discover from listening to each of them?

OLIVA: Patience. Thatís the biggest thing. Something I learned from the Beatles is that when you start a song, you should try to finish it. I never used to do that until I read this book about the Beatles where they were talking about songwriting. I think it was George Harrison who said that when you start to write a song, try to finish it straight away because if you put it down and try to come back to it later, itís a lot more difficult to finish it because youíre in a total different state of mind. I thought that made a lot of sense, so I started trying to do that ever since then and itís been a lot smoother. It does work and it is a lot better. I donít have a lot of things laying around on tape and incomplete anymore. Now I try to start and finish songs, even if I have to sit there for five or six hours ó and Iíve done that many a day! So thatís really a big change for me.

KNAC.COM: What do you listen to now when you put on music?

OLIVA: I still listen to the classics. I listen to satellite radio and I scan through and listen to a lot of the new metal bands. I listen to some of the stuff on stations called Liquid Metal, Octane and The Boneyard. Thereís some stuff I like, but I havenít bought a hard rock album in a while. The last one I actually went out to the store and bought was the last Heaven and Hell album. Other than that, my mainstays have always been the Beatles, Queen, Black Sabbath, Deep Purple, Uriah Heep, and bands from that era. Thatís what I listen to. Thatís the music that does it for me. From some of the new stuff, I like Opeth a bit. I think some of their music is interesting, and there are a couple of bands Iíve worked with that I think are pretty good. Paganís Mind is a band from Norway that I think has got a lot of potential, but I donít really listen to their music that much because Iím too busy. I donít really have time to just sit down and listen to an album these days.

KNAC.COM: Is it that you honestly just donít have the time to listen or because you donít want anything to influence the new music youíre working on?

OLIVA: Sometimes, yes, because I donít want my music to sound like any of the new stuff. Iíll still check out some new bands, but I wonít sit there and listen like Iíd listen to the Beatlesí Abbey Road or Queenís Sheer Heart Attack or A Night at the Opera. When I put on those albums, Iím still just as amazed now as I was when they first came out. I think the songwriting quality and the performance of certain guitar players like Brian May is hard to top. Who is the last guitar player that youíve heard of that was at the level of a Brian May or Randy Rhoads in the last ten years? I canít name any. There arenít many players at that level to begin with. Who is the last great vocalist to emerge in the last ten years? I hear some new bands nowadays that all sound like they have the singer from Pearl Jam. I donít know why that is. I miss the true rock stars. Freddie Mercury was an amazing singer. I canít name one guy from a band nowadays that I would put at that level. Yes, there are some good singers out there, but is there another Freddie Mercury out there? Is there another Ian Gillan or Ronnie James Dio out there? There really isnít. I mean someone with the same kind of uniqueness, great vocal qualities and individuality. When I put those Queen albums on, I know itís Queen. Itís the same thing with Black Sabbath. When you put on an early Sabbath album, you know thatís Black Sabbath. Thereís a uniqueness that you just donít hear anymore with so many new bands. There are so many bands out there right now that I canít tell apart. Somebody will play me something by one new band and then play me something by another new band, and if they didnít tell me it was a different band, I would have thought it was the same one. Itís just weird that they sound so similar and there isnít anything unique to set them apart.

KNAC.COM: You didnít mention Led Zeppelin. Have they dropped off your list of favorites?

OLIVA: Theyíre definitely up there in that same list of my top five or six favorite groups. I always loved Led Zeppelin. One of the things that Iíve nicked from Jimmy Page is to experiment with tunings. There was something I read where Jimmy Page was talking about making Led Zeppelin III and experimenting with open tunings. The title track on my new album is tuned to an open A minor chord, which I stumbled on by accident. I had just changed strings on my guitar and was trying to get it in tune. I usually start by tuning the A string. After I got the A string in tune, I just started messing around with the other strings, tuning them randomly and wondering what I was tuning to. I strummed the guitar and it sounded like it was tuned to a chord. I had another guitar around that was in tune and I figured out that it sounded like an A minor chord. I tuned the low E string up to an A so it was tuned [low to high] A, A, E, A, C, E. When you just strum it open itís an A minor chord. Then I started placing my fingers in standard chord positions, like what would be a D chord and C chord, and I started moving them around the fretboard until I found chords that sounded weird and I wrote them down. I ended up with around nine or ten weird chords and just wrote the song using those chords.

A guy from the studio got me a book on tunings for all different kinds of stringed instruments, like some Hawaiian and Japanese instruments. Those are just weird tunings and I started experimenting with them. So messing around with odd tunings has become one of my new interests. Now I try to do something in a weird tuning instead of just using standard tuning because there are only so many roads you can go down with the standard A440 tuning and tuning the guitar the usual way ó [low to high] E, A, D, G, B, E. So now Iím into experimenting where I just start tuning the strings to anything that sounds good. Itís exciting because itís like discovering a whole new instrument. Youíre using the same finger positions, but with the odd tunings, sometimes it works and sometimes it doesnít. You may have to alter the chords a little bit to make things work, but itís pretty cool and it makes writing a little more exciting. People should try it and have fun with it. Itís cool as hell!

KNAC.COM: What do you enjoy most and dislike most about the different environments of live performance and working in the studio?

OLIVA: I love the studio. Iím definitely a studio freak. I like playing live, but not as much as I used to, and mainly because of the traveling and everything that goes along with it. Itís a pain in the ass except for the actual performance, where youíre playing for the people. That makes it all worth it. But Iím just burnt out on the airports and the shitty buses going here and there. All that stuff just takes away from the enjoyment because you feel like youíre wasting a lot of time just sitting around while waiting to play for that one hour or hour and a half at night, even though I truly do love to play for people. But I kind of feel that when Iím on tour Iím wasting time and I should be in the studio creating new stuff. At this point in my career, the studio is everything to me because thatís where I get to create the stuff that lasts forever. The concert goes by and two days later you donít remember if it was great or if it sounded bad. Itís all "of the moment" and youíre just playing stuff that youíve already recorded. Youíre not really doing anything new. So for those reasons, it kind of weighs on me a little bit. I donít mind touring for two or three weeks, but by the third or fourth week into the tour, Iím all ready to go home and get back into the studio.

KNAC.COM: Now with all the technology we have available today, you have the ability to record on laptop computer while youíre touring. Is that something you take advantage of while youíre on the road?

OLIVA: I do have all that stuff with me, but itís still not the same as actually being in a real studio. You canít recreate certain aspects of being in a real studio. I need that. And when Iím in the studio, I know Iím going to work. So I have a different mindset when Iím going into a studio to work than I do if Iím just flipping my laptop open and throwing some ideas down in Garage Band. I mean, I think itís a great tool for writing purposes. Itís made writing a lot cooler because I can demo up a song in 15 minutes. All I need is a keyboard that has drums, strings and multiple types of sounds on it. But itís still not the same as going into a real studio, actually starting from scratch with the writing, tracking different instruments and parts, and then having a finished song.

KNAC.COM: What would you put on an essential listening list of music by Jon Oliva?

OLIVA: Probably the Savatage Streets album, this new JOP album, and the Trans-Siberian Orchestra Night Castle album because I wrote a lot of the stuff on that and itís the first "Top Five" album I had in my career. When that went to number five in Billboard, I couldnít believe it! For the variety, Streets was a very versatile album, this new JOP album is also very weird, and the Night Castle album is great for the ballad stuff. That type of music that I do with TSO is probably the best stuff that Iíve done with them outside of the first record, Christmas Eve and Other Stories, which still haunts me every day. Those are the three albums Iíd choose to show the whole spectrum of what I do.

KNAC.COM: Why does the first TSO album haunt you?

OLIVA: Because it was a Savatage song that sold that album. When we released it under the name "Savatage" no one would play it. The radio stations would say they donít program that kind of stuff anymore. So the next year we took the same mix of the same song, changed the name and slapped a Christmas tree on the cover, then it became number one in the country. To me, that was the ultimate kick in the ass! I gave them the same fucking song last year and because it was called "Savatage" they lied to us, told us they listened to it and that they didnít play heavy metal. And then the next year we send the exact same song with a different band name and itís the greatest thing since sliced bread. So there you have it. To me, it was like the ultimate kick in the ass. It was weird to have to do it that way, but in the end, Iím thankful because itís brought success to the whole organization. We worked for many years and never really achieved the level of success that I thought we should have had as Savatage, and to finally have that, itís great. Now Iíve got five platinum records hanging up on my wall. I never thought that would ever happen! The Lord works in mysterious waysÖ

KNAC.COM: Will you be touring to promote the JOP album?

OLIVA: Yes. I just played in Europe during the summer and we did a few big festivals. Iíll be back doing a five-week run in Europe during October where Iím going to be filming a DVD. Then Iím hoping to do some US dates in November.

KNAC.COM: What else have you been working on with Savatage, TSO and the other projects youíre involved with?

OLIVA: Savatage just released a greatest hits compilation called Still The Orchestra Plays: Greatest Hits, Vol. 1 & 2. I put together some new bonus tracks for those where Iíve taken some old Savatage songs and re-recorded them in kind of an acoustic show vibe. It was a lot of fun. TSO went back in the studio at the end of May to record the next project. I was in Dallas for a week in May to see the last two shows of their tour and then we rented the theater they had played for a couple of extra days to do some live filming of Beethovenís Last Night, which came out really good. When JOP did a couple of weeks of gigs in June, I had to fly back and forth a couple of times to juggle JOP and TSO. Now Iíll be coordinating everything for JOPís upcoming shows around TSOís Christmas tour. Itís a very busy situation right now with TSO having gotten so big so fast. Thereís a lot of demand for it, which is very cool. So thereís been a lot of stuff going on. It can be exhausting at times to do all this juggling, but I canít complain. Itís great to be busy working on things that I really enjoy.

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