Michelle LaRose talks to Jon Oliva for 22nd Century Rock
Photographs by Michelle LaRose
Jon Oliva currently holds a Lifetime Achievement Award and deservedly so. Mr. Oliva is most widely known as the founder/lead singer for Savatage. He also composes for the Trans Siberian Orchestra, has pioneered Doctor Butcher and currently leads Jon Oliva’s Pain.
There are so many accomplishments in Mr. Oliva’s career that we could spend an entire issue covering his musical history. We boiled it all down to a few key questions covering the highlights, seeking to fill in a few blanks. Jon did just that for us…
Jon: That was really cool. I mean that was special to me because I showed up at that thing and I didn’t know anybody there. It was all young guys. It’s not like I’m a hundred years old but, its just guys I’ve never seen before and it was just very cool that they recognized… You know it’s weird because so many metal bands have come out of Florida but… You know in all honesty, when Savatage came out, there was no metal here. We were the only thing. A lot of people, I think, they kinda’ overlooked that. But you know, we went through getting thrown out of clubs, getting bared from places to play, just because of who we were. Because down here in Florida nobody knew what heavy metal was. The heaviest band around here was the Outlaws. You know [singing] “Green Grass and High Tides”. And then we came along and it was like “Die! Welcome to Hell!” and they were like, “Hey! Whoa!” So it was nice to see that people… we did kinda’ forge the way. We took the lumps for a lot of the metal bands that came out of this area, we took the lumps first and forged the way. Bands like Obituary are great. I see them in Europe and they come up and they say, “You know what man? If it wasn’t for you guys there wouldn’t be any heavy metal in Tampa.” It’s like some of the younger bands; I don’t think they know about all that stuff. But we went through a lot of bull shit to start the metal thing here in Tampa and it was great to be recognized for that.
22CR: Your Canadian shows for this tour were cancelled. What is the reason?
Jon: Drugs. The fact that everyone’s been arrested for it so…
22CR: You’ve been noted as being able to play guitar, bass, keyboards, drums, saxophone and cello. Are there any instruments you can’t play?
Jon: Well, I don’t know. I can pretty much dick around with anything. There really isn’t anything I haven’t tried to play that I couldn’t at least get through. I guess, no, there isn’t anything… well maybe spoons. I can’t play the spoons. Chris! Can you play the spoons?
Chris Caffery: Yep!
Jon: See, he can play the spoons.
22CR: It seems the keyboards are your first love. Have you had any formal training for keys?
Jon: Not at all. My father was a concert pianist and he played for Lawrence Welk and a bunch of big name people. He used to try and give me lessons but we were so much alike that we would just butt heads. He was trying to teach me the fundamentals, you know [singing] “Mary Had A Little Lamb.” And I was like, nah I wanna’ learn “Strawberry Fields Forever.” So he stopped giving me lessons and he was like, “Well if you want to do that, then you learn your own way.” So I devised my own way of learning how to play keyboards which was with colored tape. I would sit there with the records and find the note on the piano and then mark it with a different colored tape and then find the chords. It would take like two months to learn one song. I was a very stubborn youngster.
22CR: Savatage/Jon Oliva is not known as a religious band yet there are religious overtones in a lot of your songs. Are you a religious man?
Jon: Well yeah, I mean I believe in God, I believe in a higher power. Whether you want to call it God, Buddha, Krishna, whatever you want to call it. I think that there’s one supreme higher power. There’s gotta’ be! Maybe it’s a little bit weird saying what it is but I think in every region of the planet there are different upbringings, so you call it a different thing but it’s really the same thing. And so, yeah, I guess, yeah I believe in it. I call it God, you know, that’s my name for him [raising arms and looking upward] I hope that don’t piss you off.
22CR: Your new band is Pain. Why did you choose the name Pain?
Jon: Well I didn’t choose the name Pain actually. It was a last minute decision. Actually what I wanted to call the band was ‘Tage Mahal. Jon Oliva’s ‘Tage Mahal. I ran into the same problem with Savatage and Avatar. Two days before the record was supposed to be printed, It was Jon Oliva’s ‘Tage Mahal and the album was going to be called Pain. Then I got a phone call from my office, [in a higher tone of voice] “Ooop! There’s some guy in Europe that’s got the name Taj Mahal. He say’s if you’re using it he’s gonna’ sue you for everything you got and shut the record down and rar, rar, rar.” I was like, you know, this is un-f-ing-believable! So I asked the guy at my office, I said, “What are my options?” He said, “Well, we can postpone the record for six months or you can think of a name right now.” I said, “Take the names and switch em’ around.”
22CR: Are there any plans for Jon Oliva’s Pain to make a DVD?
Jon: Yeah. We’re doing a lot of film stuff. Especially on this new record that’s coming up, we’re going to film a lot of the actual recording. It’s actually something that’s never been done before because I’m going to make it part of the new CD where you can actually watch the guitar player record the guitar solo for what ever song you want or you can watch the drummer or whatever. So yeah, we are doing stuff like that. I’ve got some funny footage. These guys are funny. They haven’t really done a lot of national activity so to me they’re like virgins. I’m having a ball because I torture them constantly.
22CR: ‘Tage Mahal is the first installment of a three-disc set. It is labeled Chapter I. What will the title of the second album be?
Jon: Maniacal Renderings. That’s Chapter II. That’s already written and actually we’re going to start recording that when we get back from Europe. The whole thing about these solo things is I wanted three records and I wanted them very different from each other. The first record I kind of stayed in the style that I’m known for. Everyone was like, [crazy face/hands flailing] “aeyrrr!” I said, “What were you expecting me to do? An acoustic album? I’m The Mountain King for Christ sakes!” So I did a record that was more symbolic with what people know me for. Now the second record is a bit more experimental. It’s got a lot of weird stuff on it. I use a lot of instruments I’ve never used before…
Jon: [Shouting] No spoons! [Laughing] But I am using a lot of like Middle Eastern instruments on different things at different tunings I’ve been studying. Tunings. I bought a book about weird tunings and tunings for different instruments. I’ve tried to adapt some of that to regular guitar and it’s really weird. So I’ve got like four or five different songs that are tuned to things they’ve never been tuned to before as far as I know as a rock band. So that’s interesting. It’s a more progressive record, it’s more vocal heavy, it’s got a lot of Queen style backup singing. Part II is like, I’m going to take that step further and show some people some other sides.
22CR: When will Maniacal Renderings be released?
Jon: It should be out in March. That’s the target, to have it out for March 1st.
22CR: Once all three albums are complete, you’re planning on making it a box set? Tell us about that.
Jon: That’s the general idea. But you know how ideas go. They sometimes start and they sometimes fail. A lot of the third record may be acoustic stuff and some other things. I have a lot of bonus tracks I recorded that I haven’t put out. So on the box set when it comes out, it’s going to have the three records but it’s also going to have an entire disc of like seven or eight bonus tracks. So your actually going to be getting four albums plus a the DVD. It’s a bargain!
22CR: Where does the title ‘Tage Mahal come from?
Jon: The big building! No [laughing]. Actually ‘Tage Mahal was going to be my brother Chris, before he passed away, I was working on a record with him that was instrumental. That is the title that he wanted to use for it, was ‘Tage Mahal. Then of course after he passed away…I always try to do something to keep him a part of what I do. So that’s why I wanted to name the band ‘Tage Mahal. When that got fucked up I was like well, I’ll name the album ‘Tage Mahal. That came from my brother. That was going to be the title of his instrumental solo record. So I was like, I loved the title and I thought it was cool because it’s spelled ‘Tage like Savatage, and just the little connection and stuff.
Jon: Most of it is new material. There’s a couple little things where I went back to the early Savatage stuff. There’s a song called “Nowhere To Run” which was actually a song called “Target” that I recorded with Savatage but we never officially released it because Chris and I hated the other parts of the song except for the verse. And then it was just left at that. So when I was doing this record I wanted Steve Wacholz [Savatage drummer] to come in and play some tracks. I just thought it would be cool. I brought him in and I was like, “Remember that old song Target?” He’s like “Yeah, yeah.” I said, “Well, I re-wrote music to it and we’re going to do it.” So that was really the only piece of music that was old, old stuff. All it is, is the verse, “How do we feel about God” and all that stuff. That was from the Gutter Ballet record that never made it, because we hated it. We loved the verses but we could never come up with anything to make a song like that at the level that we wanted. So that was something I dug up, and that was an archive thing. Everything else though was very current. It was all after the 2001 Savatage tour. It was all stuff that I started writing from that point on. It’s all pretty current stuff.
22CR: Doctor Butcher is a project that you and Chris Caffery (Savatage guitarist) put together. The Doctor Butcher album from ten years ago was recently re-released. Is there ever going to be any new Doctor Butcher material?
Jon: Well there is a new song on that Chris and I just did a couple months ago called “Inspector Highway”. On Chris Caffery’s… [Yelling across venue] Where is Chris? Chris! Caffery! What is “Iraq Attack” on? War?
Chris Caffery: War!
Jon: On Chris’s War CD I did a song with him called “Iraq Attack”, which was another song that we did, that we wrote for Doctor Butcher back in the time. Chris and I are planning on doing another Butcher record. We have material for it. We’re just, you know, it’s a scheduling thing. We’re very busy. We have so much stuff going on with… Trans Siberian Orchestra is such a huge band right now and it does take up a lot of our time. You know, in a good way. But we still have time to fuck around. [Smiling]
22CR: You are currently on tour with Chris Caffery’s Faces. Will either band be performing Doctor Butcher material?
Jon: No. That’s something that’s got to be done special. Chris has never done a lot of writing so this is his chance to get out there and sing and write and play his songs. I don’t want to take away from that by doing that, you know. We don’t need to. If we do that, then we’ll take Doctor Butcher out on the road and we’ll do it that way.
22CR: Will Doctor Butcher tour then?
Jon: I think we probably will do that after we do another record. We’re thinking about doing that some time this spring in Greece. We’re actually going to fly to Greece and do it there. Yeah, we’ll probably put something together. That’d be a lot of fun.
22CR: We hear there are plans for a Savatage 25th Anniversary CD? Can you tell us about that?
Jon: No! Oh yeah, yeah, yeah I can. Savatage has been together for so long. It’s really like one of my children. We’re planning on doing something special for that. It’s like, I’ve been working on the material slowly. I don’t want to put out a shitty Savatage record. It may be the last Savatage record that anyone ever gets. If that’s going to be what it is I want it to be a masterpiece. I want it to be a Gutter Ballet or a Streets. I don’t need the money. If I needed the money, I’d just whip something out there and go, yep here it is, here. But I don’t want to do that. I want to make sure that when it comes out that it’s something that’s going to be special. I’m going to take my time with it. The other guys in Savatage, they understand that. Twenty-four years is a long f-ing time, man. There’s no rush with it. Like I told them, I said, “When everyone’s ready to do a record, we’ll do it.” We have until 2007, is the official twenty-fifth year. We’re going to get it done and we’re going to do it. We’ll see from there where everyone’s heads are at.
22CR: We know you’re a football fanatic. Do you have any predictions for the 2006 Super bowl?
Jon: Wow! That’s good! I think it’s going to be the Dallas Cowboys from the NFC and the New York Jets. Which is going to be tough because I’m a Cowboy fan and a Jet fan, and a Buc fan! I’m a Buc fan because I’ve lived here when the Buc’s first started so you can’t help but love the Buc’s because you’re here. I’ve always been a Cowboy fan since I was a kid and I grew up in New York and I love the Jets. When I grew up, Joe Namath and all that shit. So that’s what I think, Dallas Cowboys, New York Jets and the Cowboys will win seventeen to fourteen.
22CR: Thank you very much for your time today Jon.
Jon: Thank you. I appreciate it.