By Carl Begai
The band’s music is alive and well thanks to the existence of Jon Oliva’s Pain, Circle II Circle and guitarist Chris Caffery’s solo career, but as a recording / touring entity Savatage will only ever exist from this point on as a pipe dream. For vocalist / founder Jon Oliva it’s an ongoing battle trying to convince the diehards that the band won’t be making a return in spite of the fact he’s released four albums with Jon Oliva’s Pain in six years. The release of a Savatage compilation entitled Still The Orchestra Plays, issued earlier this year, hasn’t helped matters. So it goes that as Oliva settles in to discuss his new JOP album, Festival, he’s forced yet again to snuff the rekindled rumours of an impending Savatage comeback.
“That compilation is something Paul (O’Neill / producer, Trans-Siberian Orchestra director) helped put together, I didn’t have much control over it,” says Oliva. “I just wanted to get something out there to kind of cap things off because I’ve moved on. Those reunion rumours… some people have been saying things they probably shouldn’t have. There was talk about doing a show to kind of give Savatage a send-off but the logistics of doing so just made it impossible. The guys have the Trans-Siberian Orchestra, I have my JOP stuff, there’s a lot of other things keeping us busy. It’s pretty aggravating, though, with people always asking about when it’s going to happen and pushing to have one. I mean, Savatage hasn’t done anything in almost 10 years! It’s just a small group of people, but they just won’t let it go and I can’t figure out why. You have the Savatage guys in the Trans-Siberian Orchestra, which was spawned from the Dead Winter Dead (1995) and Wake Of Magellan (1997) era of the band, you have Jon Oliva’s Pain doing a lot of the old Savatage material, what more do you want?”
“Don’t get me wrong. I love Savatage and it’ll always be dear to my heart because that was my start, man. I still play the songs, I love playing those songs, but I’ve got a whole new career now. I’m on my fourth record with JOP for crying out loud! It’s like, to the people that keep pushing for a Savatage reunion, just let it go. I’ve got the rights back for the Sirens and Dungeons albums, so I might do something with those in a few years, but JOP is my focus now and I’m hoping people will finally catch on that I have a new band (laughs).”
Ironically, that “new” band’s latest album Festival – their fourth – is reminiscent of early Savatage, the Gutter Ballet record from 1989 in particular. The albums share a similar vibe, they are equally as dark, and they sink in slowly rather than making an immediate impact on the listener.
“Yeah, I definitely hear that,” Oliva agrees. “A lot of people have said there’s a certain Gutter Ballet / Hall Of The Mountain King atmosphere on the album, but that was never planned. None of it was by design. After playing together for six years there’s a comfort zone that we go about in production and the whole way we get into writing a record. It’s very reminiscent of how we used to make records.”
“On the last record I wanted to do something different just to see what would happen,” he continues. “I called it my grand experiment because it was so big, so dense, and we tried so many different things. On this record there was more of a focus on trying to blend a little bit more of the old school Oliva brothers and Maniacal Renderings sound and attitude. There are more rockers on Festival than there are on Global Warning. We kind of knew when we started doing pre-production and mapping things out where the songs were going to go. We knew it wasn’t going to be for the AC/DC rock crowd (laughs), but had the plan to put out a record that people can put on 10 years from now and it’ll still sound as fresh and interesting as it did when they bought it.”
Festival’s atmosphere can be credited in part to Oliva once again using old Savatage rehearsal cassette tapes featuring his brother and original guitarist Criss, who was killed in a car accident in 1993. Discovered accidentally prior to the recordings for JOP’s second album, Maniacal Renderings in 2006, the tapes have been part of the songwriting process ever since, effectively making Criss Oliva a member of the Jon Oliva’s Pain line-up.
“Which makes me wonder why people bitch so much about a Savatage reunion,” Oliva says. “I mean, come on, we’ve had this conversation before, that Jon Oliva’s Pain is more Savatage than Savatage was as of Dead Winter Dead (in 1995). Criss is a part of this band; you’d think it would make those people happy.”
“Criss is on four songs on the new album,” he adds. “The song ‘Now’ is actually an old, old song we wrote when we were teenagers. And the song ‘Lies’, that’s classic Criss Oliva; we built the songs around his verses. Unfortunately we’re running out of material on those tapes. There might be a 45 minute tape and only 30 seconds or a minute or two of new material we can actually use. Hopefully we’ll get at least one more album out of them.”
The buzz on the heels of Festival’s release was news of an exclusive DVD shoot in Tilburg, Holland due to take place on October 15th during the band’s European tour. In our interview for Global Warning back in 2008, Oliva mentioned that some Savatage songs would eventually be retired from the JOP set, and the DVD seems like a good way to say goodbye to them.
“That’s a small part of it,” Oliva admits. “I’m not trying to run away from my past, because we play a lot of that stuff at every show and we love doing it. We’ll continue to do that long after the DVD is done, but there’s no real live video release featuring music from when Criss was still alive. I’d like to document that era somehow because it’s never been done and this seems to be the best way. It’s also an introduction for people who never saw Savatage and might have discovered the music through Jon Oliva’s Pain. I mean, in spite of the bitching and complaining about Savatage there are actually a few people that discovered JOP first (laughs).”
“The way the DVD shoot initially got set up is that we would have been doing it in March. We thought about it and the record would have only been out for a couple of weeks, and we plan on playing six or seven songs off it at every show on the tour. The last thing we wanted to do was have a DVD locked into 40 minutes of new material and seeing a lot of blank faces in the crowd. It’s important to have it done right, especially since the label has to pony up the cash to get it done. The whole thing seemed rushed, I was having problems with the pyro company, so we couldn’t bring it all together . In the end we decided to push it back and I’m glad we did.”
Kinder is particularly proud of Festival because he played a large role as co-producer once again alongside Oliva and veteran producer / engineer Tom Morris. He says making the new album was a much different experience from the Global Warning sessions due to the entire band being able to contribute to the music this time out.
“On the last record a lot of that was a timing issue. The way our tour schedule went and how it mixed with the Jon’s schedule working with the Trans-Siberian Orchestra stuff, we didn’t have the time to sit around and jam on the songs like we did for Maniacal Renderings. We had more time to do Festival so there was more of a balance. Jon was the main composer but he tried to get the demos done early enough so that the guys were able to take them home and bring their own ideas to the table. Matt (Laporte / guitars) has a lot more influence on this record, for instance, like that whole Pink Floyd-ish breakdown in ‘Evil Within’. There are a number of different parts that everybody was brought in on. There was a total ping-pong thing going on, with ideas going back and forth all the time.”
“If you can get to a point where you’re open to listening to intelligent music and you can tell it took a lot of time and a lot of thought to put it together, you’ll have more appreciation for the people that made it. That’s the kind of record where you put it on and it’s a show. That’s what we were really trying to go for on Festival.”
“The thing that’s a real shame is we don’t have the budget to have a camera following us around and filming our recording sessions because we could easily put together the funniest reality TV show ever (laughs). It’s absolutely fucking hysterical, the shit that goes on around here.”
Beyond Oliva’s trademark maniacal vocal performance, the guitar work on Festival provided by Matt Laporte has been getting a great deal of attention. The previously mentioned Gutter Ballet / Hall Of The Mountain vibe is in large part due to his playing, which is reminiscent of Criss Oliva in places right down to the guitar tones.
“For people that don’t really understand guitar players, Matt is one of the really good ones,” says Kinder. “You can pretty much plug him into and reasonable-sounding decent sounding amp, and 90% of that tone comes from his fingers. It was the same with Criss; he had a very distinctive guitar tone that nobody else really had. Matt doesn’t focus a lot on his guitar processing or trying to get that perfectly awesome amp sound because he realizes that you can put just about any guitar in his hands and he’s going to get that Matt Laporte sound. And yeah, that sound is strikingly reminiscent of Criss.”
“What’s really funny is that a lot of what you hear on Festival, believe it or not, is Jon. His guitar skills over the last couple years… it’s absolutely astonishing how well that guy plays guitar. He plays a lot of guitar on this record. There are moments where you might think it’s Matt and it’s Jon (laughs). He plays rhythm guitar on three songs, I think, and even played lead on one song. Jon and Criss were basically identical rhythm players. Same style, everything. So as Jon becomes a better guitar player he starts to sound more and more like his brother. And then there’s Matt on the other side, so when he gets tired he just passes the guitar over (laughs). It’s really great.”
Wrapping things up, Kinder offers his thoughts on Jon Oliva’s Pain carrying on the Savatage legacy. They are not a Savatage cover band, and the message is simple: Fans who whine about the lack of a reunion would do well to simply shut up and listen to what Jon Oliva’s Pain has to offer.
“We all grew up with Savatage, I used to rehearse two warehouses down from them when I was playing in other bands, so the music and the mindset and the history of the band is firmly entrenched in our heads. It’s an honour for us to get up and play that stuff every night. Jon wants to make his brother proud, he wants Criss’ music to carry on. There’s no doubt about it, Jon misses his brother terribly, so Jon Oliva’s Pain is the right way to keep Criss in the forefront of people’s minds.”
— live Jon Oliva photo by of Carl Begai.
— live Chris Kinder and Matt Laporte photo snatched from the band’s official MySpace page.
Go to this location to pick up a copy of Festival.