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1st February 2010
METAL DISCOVERY: How you doing?
JON OLIVA: I’m doing very well, thank you very much.
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(Jon Oliva on the JOP moniker and alternative names)
"I had every right and every intention to call the band Savatage, and I was gonna call it Savatage Phase 3...I’d like to end my career using the name Savatage."
Jon Oliva's Pain - uncredited promo shot, 2010
Photograph supplied by, and used with permission from, Mike Exley at M.E.P.R.
Interview by Mark Holmes
A veteran of the scene, legendary Savatge frontman Jon Oliva is set to turn fifty this year and returns with Jon Oliva's Pain's fourth studio album, 'Festival', a pleasingly diverse set of recordings that sees the band both progress and regress their metal aesthetic to incorporate old school influences with modern, innovatory songwriting. Spending a pleasant half hour on the phone chatting to Jon, I initially enquire about where and how the 'Festival' concept was born, and the change of direction into darker musical territory...
MD: Good. The new album sounds awesome. I understand the ‘Festival’ concept came from a nightmare you had in a Dutch hotel room?
JO: Yeah, actually yeah. I had a freezing cold nightmare and I woke up, and just not thinking because I was half asleep, I shut the windows and turned the heat up all the way and then went back to sleep, and went into this crazy nightmare. Pretty much if you’ve seen the artwork of the front cover, that’s kind of where I was. The guy caught it so…when he showed me the artwork, I almost passed out! But it was basically that type of a thing and it was just weird. There were lots of other little things that popped in and out. A lot of the songs on the record…lyric-wise, have all come from either dreams or nightmares that I’ve had over the past couple of years. So that whole idea - the festival, the kind of haunted nightmare - I’ll just write about some of my dream experiences. You know, at my age I’m running out of shit to write about!
MD: Because the lyrics were born from nightmares, does that explain why the material’s predominantly darker in atmosphere on the album?
JO: Yeah, that also, and the fact I like to make my albums different. The last album, ‘Global Warning’, which I’m very fond of, was a very keyboard heavy album and it was a very experimental album for me. I had a lot of older material; pieces from my brother and me that I wanted to get released. So, this album, I wanted to go back a little bit. I wrote most of it on guitar…and I just wanted to get back to more my roots, and get a little bit darker, and a little bit eerie. Just to have a little bit more fun, you know.
MD: Yeah, it works brilliantly; it’s fantastic. I understand a lot of the material was written while you were on tour in Europe last summer - would you say that explains the more straightforward approach and kind of raw energy in the song writing compared to the more experimental ‘Global Warning’?
JO: Yeah, well, basically a lot of the writing was done on the tour bus and I couldn’t fit a grand piano in the back lounge, so I settled for a…we actually had a couple four track machines and a little practice guitar rig back there so a lot of the stuff just ended up being written while we were driving all over Europe last summer. I’ve never done that before. I’ve always…especially on ‘Global..’, I wrote a lot of that in my home studio where I’ve got pianos, and harpsichords, and everything. I was kinda limited to an electric guitar and an acoustic guitar, and occasionally, at soundchecks or something, I’d be able to fiddle with my keyboard a little bit. But only one song was really a keyboard written song and that’s the last one on the album.
MD: I gather there are some more previously unused Criss riffs in some of the songs on ‘Festival’ - is it important for you to always have his song writing presence on each of the albums?
JO: Well, as long as the tapes last. The sad thing is…I’m down to the last eight or nine cassettes. When I started JOP, I had about fifty of ‘em. I’ve gone through pretty much all of ‘em and I’ve got about eight or nine left, so hopefully there’ll be enough left to have Criss part of the next album and maybe the one after. But, unfortunately, that’s gonna be coming to an end soon and that’s gonna be a sad, sad day for me because, in a way, it’s kinda like Criss has been a little member of the band for the last four albums. You know, his material’s been on every JOP album, and that’s really important to me and the guys. The guys…they always ask me, “you got anymore Criss riffs?”, and I’m like “I’m looking, I’m looking!” [laughs] It’s a very exciting thing for us and I think, on this album, he’s on four or five songs. ‘Lies’, which is the first song, that’s a lot of his music. Actually, the whole verse section I sing is Criss’ music. ‘Living on the Edge’ is kind of a remake of a Savatage demo that we had back in the ‘Gutter Ballet’ period, and there’s a lot of his music in that song. The ballad at the end is kind of half his and half mine. His part is the chorus section and my parts are the verse section. There are a couple of other songs where he has little riffs in there; I can’t remember which ones they are now to be honest with you. I think ‘The Evil Within’ is one and there’s one other one where there’s just one little riff that I grabbed. But those other three songs, he’s got significant writing in all three of those - they’re basically half his and half my music, so that’s great, and that’s always a positive for me. You know, it’s good for the fans they get to hear stuff that they would never have heard. If there wasn’t a JOP they would never have heard this music of his.
MD: Definitely. I think I read ages ago, during the ‘Maniacal Renderings’ era, you dug out an old box in your attic or something with the old tapes in…
JO: Actually, my wife found it in a box of boots! It was in a box of old boots that we had in a wardrobe in my attic, and she was cleaning up and stuff, and pulled out a shoe box that had fifty cassettes in it. She says, “is this important?” [laughs] I almost had a heart attack right there and died when I opened it up and saw what it was. It was very exciting and, you know, it’s weird how things happen like that because ever since we’ve found that box he's been our little secret member of the band.
MD: Yeah, and a very emotional time, I imagine, discovering those tapes.
JO: Very much, yeah.
MD: I was actually going to ask if there are many unused riffs left for you to draw upon, but obviously you said you’ve not got many left now.
JO: Yeah, that’s sad, man. That’s gonna really suck when those run out. But you never know, because I only grab a handful and a couple of ‘em might not have anything on it - it’s just stuff that we’ve already done before, in Savatage. But, you know, on some of ‘em, I’ll find five or six things could be on one tape. I never know because I have to go through them one at a time and you have to listen to every second of it because, in between stuff, he’ll just say “listen to this riff, asshole!” [laughs] And that’s emotional when you hear him talk. That’s the thing which makes it really difficult for me because, all on those cassettes, he’s talking to me. I would do the same thing on the cassettes I gave him and that’s how we used to write together. When we weren’t actually physically together we’d trade cassettes. He would say “well, I’ve got a riff and a verse on this and I need a chorus and something - see what you can do, asshole!” You know, we’d swear at each other, and call each other names. It’s weird hearing him talk - that’s the thing that freaks me out.
MD: Definitely, I could imagine. Hopefully your wife will uncover another box of shoes or something, and…
JO: Oh, I have her in the attic still! She’s been in there for three years now looking for stuff!
MD: I’m sure that’s not true!
JO: No, she’s actually in the basement!
MD: There’s a video on your website which was published a couple of days ago where you’re talking about some of the new songs. The thing I found quite interesting was the open A minor guitar tuning for the title track of the album. Because JOP’s regarded as a progressive band, do you always try to experiment with different sounds and tunings to kind of maintain your progressive credentials?
JO: You have to, you know, nowadays…and a lot of it comes from just messing around. That A minor tuning came from a total accident. I broke some strings and I restrung the guitar, and if you’re familiar with restringing a guitar, you know, you’re tuning it up and I just stopped when the phone rang and I got back, and then just started, and all of a sudden I was like - “wait a minute, this isn’t right!” All of a sudden, it ended up being a chord and I was like, “what the hell’s this?!” I grabbed my other guitar and I started to try and find where it was and what it was, because I’m not musically trained so I do everything by ear. So I was like, “wow, this is cool”, and I just started messing around, putting my fingers in different places with that tuning and came up with the chords that eventually became the title track. Then, when I got it electric, and I actually figured it out, I had Matt, my guitar player Matt who’s actually a teacher, he teaches guitar, he was explaining to me - “okay, well this is what you did, and if you tune this string a little higher, this is an A minor”. I was like, “ahhhhh, it’s cool!” Then that whole song came out in one day. Stuff like that is cool, you know, trying different things, because you never know what you’re gonna stumble on. That song is really weird because you listen to it and the chords, they sound like guitar chords but, if you’re a guitar player, they don’t sound like guitar chords that you play every day. It’s weird, and they ring the overtones of the other strings. It’s just a different sound and I’m into that now because I’ve written a lot of songs in my career…and I don’t want to rehash stuff that I’ve already done. So I’m trying to dig into whatever I can dig up.
MD: I guess if people are trying to work out how to play that song and don’t realise it’s an open A minor tuning, they’ll have a pretty tough time!
JO: It’ll take ‘em a while! [laughs]
MD: You play a lot of guitar on the album yourself - do you think that will surprise people that it’s not all Matt’s playing, and is it a fact you want people to know so that Matt doesn’t get credit for your guitar work?!
JO: Actually, Matt was the one who pushed me to play more guitar on this album, because I was writing a lot of the songs on guitar and my rhythm style of playing is very similar to my brother Criss’. We learnt how to play together at the same time so, you know, our playing technique, as far as rhythm playing goes, is almost identical. He said “it sounds better when you play it”. There was a couple of songs where I didn’t play on which was ‘Living on the Edge’ and ‘The Evil Within’ - those two songs Matt did all the guitar on. But, all the rest of the album, all the rhythm guitars are basically me. I even play a heavy metal guitar solo for the first time in my career! [laughs] That was cool - it was a song called ‘I Fear You’, and I play all the lead guitar on that apart from one little section in the middle where we have Tom McDyne, the other guitar player, comes in and does some harmony stuff. But, you know, it was a lot of fun and my sound is different, and it just fit the songs, I guess mainly because they were written on guitar. I think it gave the album a little bit of a different sound. Matt came in and did tracks also so, I’m the primary rhythm guitar but Matt’s guitar’s in there with me as well. His solo playing…he wanted to spend more time on that on this album because there’s a lot of stuff we wanted to try. It was a lot of fun. Everybody worked very well together on this record; it was very smooth and happy.
MD: So Matt wasn’t making himself too redundant then, in the band, by encouraging you to do all the rhythm guitar?!
JO: It’s just lazy, really! [laughs]
MD: He’s a phenomenal guitar player - I’ve never seen anyone play a Telecaster like he does.
JO: He’s brilliant, man. And he’s been a big help to me as a guitar player because I’ve always been able to play guitar, but I’ve learnt a lot more. My brother Criss taught me a lot of stuff too, believe me, but he used to just laugh at me and go - “I’m not showing you shit!” [laughs] Matt’s a teacher anyway, so he’s got the patience. He’s shown me a lot of things so far as understanding chords better because, like I said, I just put my fingers in places until it sounds right to me, and then he‘ll go “oh, that’s a D augmented 8th”…“oh, really?!” [laughs] I learnt all the chords that I needed to know, like the basic chords, and the minors, and the 7ths, and any of the other stuff, diminished or augmented, I have no idea what they’re talking about! [laughs]
MD: You just do what sounds good. And you can teach him about the open A minor tuning now, of course!
JO: “Yeah, that’s an X Y Z chord to the tenth power of 12!” I’m like - “Really?! Great, there you go!”
MD: When you started JOP, was there any part of you that was ever tempted to perhaps take a quicker route to success and call yourselves Savatage or was it always important for you to have a completely separate identity for the new music?
JO: I had every right and every intention to call the band Savatage, and I was gonna call it Savatage Phase 3 - you know, the third basic period of the band. You had the Criss Oliva period, then the non-Criss Oliva period, and now this period, but I didn’t know, at first, if I wanted to be in a band again. For the first one I did the ‘Tage Mahal’ record - it was kinda like a test. I was gonna see how it went and how people accepted it, and see if I was happy being back in a band situation again, and as time went on I got comfortable with the guys and I was like, “you know what…let’s build the band ourselves and then see what happens in another two or three years and, if I decide I wanna do something like that, I’ll make the change properly where I’ll do a big record and I’ll have some of the guys from the old band come and play on a few tracks, and pass the torch on to the new phase of it.” It’s something I toyed with the idea but, you know, the JOP thing has been growing very, very strongly over the last two or three years and I’m happy with that. I’m just gonna ride it out and see what happens. I’d like to end my career using the name Savatage. The chances of a Savatage reunion with the guys from the ‘Dead Winter Dead’ period happening is so minute to next to impossible that it might be something I decide to do in another couple of years. So, I don’t know, I’ll just have to see how things go.