Interview by Tony CannellaJon Oliva is a man that needs no introduction, but hell, I’ll give one anyway. To metal fans he will always be known as the frontman for Savatage, Doctor Butcher and most recently Jon Oliva’s Pain. In addition to that he is one of the driving forces behind the touring Christmas extravaganza Trans-Siberian Orchestra. As TSO is currently on their latest winter touring cycle, this was a good enough reason to speak to Jon and one thing is for certain, his excitement about the current TSO show is obvious and infectious. In addition to TSO, there is also a Savatage reunion and a new Jon Oliva’s Pain record on the horizon in the coming year. This was my first time interviewing Jon and he also proved to be one of the coolest, down-to-earth people I’ve had the pleasure of interviewing. How is the current TSO tour going?
I actually went to the show this past Friday in South Carolina and it was great. I like it because it’s a different one and we’ve never done this one before, the first half of the show, the Christmas story part, we’ve never done “The Christmas Attic”. So yeah it’s really good. I was up with them for a month in Omaha for all the rehearsals and stuff, so I’ve seen the show already about 78 times (laughs), but it was cool. The crowd loved it. It was a great show.“The Christmas Attic” is being performed on this tour for the first time. The album was released over 15 years ago, but what can you recall about the making of the record?
Well, I remember that it was at a point where Soundtracks – the studio that we were using in New York – I think was going through a change over and I remember it was not a happy album to make, Paul (O’Neill) was very aggravated. I remember we had a lot of downtime. You know, when you have a lot of downtime, stuff breaking and stuff not working right, it gets to you after awhile. You’re trying to make a deadline and we’re not exactly the swiftest guys in the studio as it is (laughs), so any downtime is a nightmare. I remember it was a very difficult record but I like it, I like the material on it very much, I like the songs, especially the ones I wrote with Paul, “Find My Home”, “Snow Came Down” and “Dream Child” and that’s tearing the house down every night when they do that. So yeah, it’s a good one, I like it, but you know when you have all of that equipment problem, man it added an extra month maybe month and a half to our time. Working with Paul in the studio alone is an experience (laughs).You obviously go back along way with Paul O’Neill from the Savatage days.
I first met Paul in 1986, so we started working together at the end of ’86 and I think “Hall of the Mountain King” came out in ’87.One of the cool things I’ve always felt about TSO is that you can bring together metal fans with a more family oriented audience. What’s your idea behind how this happens?
I think the thing about TSO is it’s an open canvas. The band was designed to be something for Paul’s writing and my writing, because we do a lot of different kinds of music and we needed the proper vehicle to be able to do that with. TSO does that. That’s why it has such a big, broad audience because we cater to a lot of different tastes. There is the great instrumental stuff and the heavier stuff for the people who like it but there are also great ballads and instrumental pieces. It’s a little bit different. It reminds me of when I was a kid going to Ringling Brothers Circus, you would see people in the audience from 4 years old to people 80 years old. The other day in South Carolina I was at the soundboard for the show and I’m looking around at people and I’m seeing 70 year old people and then I’m seeing people with kids 3-4 years old and they’re just having a ball. So I don’t know how it worked that way, I think it’s just because of having that open canvas and not being boxed into a specific type of music, being able to do whatever we want to do and having the luxury of using different vocalists and different musicians. I think that’s why it has such a broad appeal, because it’s designed for that. We write songs that should touch everybody and stuff that’s musically challenging and for the people who are into great music, we have some of the best musicians in the world playing with TSO. It’s really high quality, the shows are really good. We put all the money into the production, we could cut that down by a lot, but we don’t want to do that, when people come to the shows we want them to leave going, “Wow! That was awesome!” and that’s what I’m seeing. I think that the word gets out.Does it kind of blow your mind that the fan base is that broad?
Yeah, it freaks me out. The other day I had two 6 year old kids with their dad come up and ask me for an autograph. There was a guy that came up to me who had to be 70 years old and said, “I never heard of Savatage until I heard of TSO and then I went and investigated and listened to some Savatage”, he said “a lot of it I did not like” (laughs), “but songs like “Believe” and “If I Go Away” he said he could see how the progression happened to where Savatage morphed into TSO. That’s cool when a guy like that comes up to you and goes, I hated songs like “White Witch” or something like that but I loved “If I Go Away” or “Heal My Soul” or “Believe” or “Somewhere in Time”, so that’s cool.Tell us about some of the musicians you have on this current TSO tour.
Oh god, we’ve got just a plethora of great players. Our keyboard players Janey (Mangini) and Vitalij (Kuprij) from the West Coast band are so phenomenal. When they do their duel in the second half of the show, it’s breathtaking. And Derek (Wielund) and Mee Eun (Kim) on the East Coast are great also. We’ve got great, great players. Great guitar players, Chris Caffrey is a great, great player, a great rock player, Angus (Clark), Joel (Hoekstra) is amazing, of course Al Pitrelli who I think is one of the best guitar players in the world, personally. He can play anything. He reminds me a lot of my brother, even though their styles are different, my brother could play anything and Al can too. The bass players as well, everybody. They’re all really great musicians, they have good attitudes and they love the music and it’s just working so well. I never thought this was going to last this long. If anyone would have told me this would go on for 16 years now, I would have told them you’re crazy (laughs). I’ll tell you what; I thank the lord every night that it keeps going on, because it’s a great avenue for me as a writer. I can write anything. It’s opened up doors for me as well, doing other stuff.
A few years ago you came out with the “Dreams of Fireflies” EP. Are there plans for a new TSO studio album somewhere down the road?
Yeah, actually I’m not sure what where going to call it yet because Paul is famous for having like 9 million titles and he won’t tell me which one we’re going to actually use (laughs). We have the basic tracks all pretty much done. Paul and I came back from Omaha and we’re going in the studio I believe on Monday and put together the last track which is this big epic song that we did – it’s like 11-minutes long, but it’s really special and it needs some attention. So we’re going to get all of that ready while the guys are on tour and then when the tour is over we’ll get Al and a couple of the other guys down to tidy it up then all we have to do is cut vocals and mix and we’ve got it in the can. It’s a lot of instrumental stuff, some great rock stuff; it’s got a blend of everything. I’m very excited about it. I think June or July is the targeted release date. I could be wrong on that but that’s what we were talking about. I know we’ve got a heavy studio schedule starting Monday. Paul and I are in basically every day. I can’t wait. It’s great stuff. It’s really one of my favorite things that we’ve done together so far. I think people are going to love it. We’ll see what happens.Tell us a little about the process of preparing for a TSO tour.
What basically happens for the winter tours is around summertime, like the tour will end in January, I guess around May/June we’ll start discussing what we want to do for the next one. And just try to get ideas mainly for the production because it takes a long time to do the video stuff and the stage set and all that stuff, they need a lot of time. On October 25th every year we move into the Mid-America Center in Council Bluff, Iowa and we rent it for a month. The first week is the production crew coming in and getting all of the gimmicks and stuff together and then the staff gets there, me and Paul gets there, the band gets there a few days later and we start to put it together. We get the song list together probably sometime around mid-summer so we let the musical directors know, “Okay, we’re going to do “The Christmas Attic” and here’s the song-list, so let everybody know on your side”, West Coast/East Coast. For the West Coast Al Pitrelli is the musical director and East Coast is Derek Sherinian and Joel is kind of like Derek’s assistant. We let them know and they get everybody up on it so when everyone arrives we have the East and the West Coast stage set up on either side of the arena, full lightshow. That’s when the chaos begins. It’s four weeks of living hell. I mean, I was putting in 16 hour days, but that’s what it takes. We have back up bands as well, so we’re not only working with the East Coast band and the West Coast band we’re also working with East Coast backup band and the West Coast backup band, so you really have four bands going on in different parts of this sports arena. Paul might be with the East Coast band in one room and I’ll be with the West Coast band in another room and then we got the other main band on stage at 4:00. I’ve seen this show about 90 times. I know every nook and cranny. I hear it in my sleep. But, you know what? It works. It’s a labor of love, we love doing it. Even though we bitch and moan it’s great. Paul is a lunatic, but he’s the sweetest, nicest lunatic you would ever want to meet. It’s a challenge working with that guy, there is no way you’re not on your toes when you working with Paul, it’s impossible (laughs). You better be alert, have six cups of coffee in you and ready to go because once he walks in the door that’s when all the madness begins, but it ends up being great. I don’t know how he does it to be honest with you, it drives me insane.When fans come and see the show, what can they expect?
Well, I’ll tell you, you’ve got to make sure you’re there for the opening. If people are going to come see the show you’ve got to make sure you’re there for the opening, because it’s amazing. The production is amazing, I can’t believe these guys, every year we challenge them to top what we did last year and every year I go in with doubts. Last year we had “The Night Castle” and I was like, there’s no way we’re ever going to be able to top this castle. This year they came up with this giant trunk, it looks like a treasure chest – I don’t want to say a toy box – but something you would find in an old attic, a big trunk. It’s the whole size of the stage and I’m looking at this thing and I’m like, “Where’s the band?” And the guy goes to me, “Well, the bands going to come out from inside the trunk.” I’m like, “Oh you got to be kidding me, and I’ve got to see this.” And sure enough when the stage opens up there is a closed thing there and the lid raises and the orchestra people and the drums and the other keyboards, they all rise out from outside of this trunk. It’s amazing. There are lots of things. We have this spinning thing, we put them up like 50 feet in the air, it spins around like a helicopter blade; not as fast, I wish it would go as fast but not it’s very cool. There’s a lot of great stuff. The pyro stuff is amazing. Those people are just unbelievable with what they come up with. So there is a lot of fire. So yeah, it’s great. It’s so hard to explain, because you have to see it to actually believe it.Any chance of filming it for a future DVD?
We film every night basically. We did do a full 8 camera shoot in Council Bluff the first night of the tour with the West Coast band and I think they did a shoot in Toledo. I think we’re going to film a couple more in late December and we’re going to see. We love the way the band is doing “The Christmas Attic” stuff so much, we’re already talking about recording stuff and maybe doing a live album of it, because it’s just so cool. The way the bands are doing it, it’s a little different from the album and I actually like the live stuff better than the album. I told Paul, “I like this better than the album”, he’s like “So do I.” (laughs)I wanted to ask you a Savatage question.
Sure.You’re doing a reunion show at Wacken open air in Germany in 2015. Are there any plans to do any additional dates beyond that?
As far as that goes, the whole Wacken thing came up and I was like, you know what? If we’re going to do anything we have to do it now, I don’t want to do it when I’m 60 years old. I mentioned that to Paul, he said to me, “We’re going to do the Wacken thing, but let’s just wait until the Winter Tour is over and then you and me we’re going to sit down in January and discuss what we’re going to do.” We’ve already gotten offers to do it in certain areas of the world, America being one, Greece, South America, places like that. We have to see how we’re going to do this. It’s something that Paul and I honestly – and I’m telling you totally honestly – we just brushed over what we thought we might want to do and we said, with all the chaos of getting the Winter Tour out we said let’s just wait until after the tour is over and then we’ll figure this whole thing out. We know we’re going to start with “Gutter Ballet”, that’s all we agreed on (laughs). TSO is going to come out first for I think 40 or 50 minutes doing the big production numbers, then Paul is going to bring me out and we’re going to do the Savatage thing and we’re going to start with “Gutter Ballet” and that’s where we ended the conversation and said we’ll pick this up on January 10th and we’ll figure out what we’re going to do as far as other shows go and everything like that. As of right now Wacken is the only place, but I’m sure once everything works out and we see what happens, I wouldn’t rule out the possibility of there being a couple more on top of that. I think we’re going to do a press release in maybe February or March about what’s going on and stuff like that. I think it’s cool that we’re doing it. I’m very excited about it. I’ve been on this health kick now for the last six months, I’ve dropped a bunch of weight and I’m feeling a lot better, I’ve still got a ways to go, but it gives me something, I’m like, yeah I’m going to get in shape for this and knock people out.What is the status of Jon Oliva’s Pain?
Well, I’ve got an album that is about 95% written and demoed up. I finished the demo’s right before I went to Omaha in October, and I’m going to start up again with that probably right after Christmas and finish the record. I purposely am taking my time with this because, it’s a very heavy record – it’s very heavy – I want it to be that way. I want to just make sure that every song is a 10, I don’t want any filler songs on there. I have about 30 tracks and I’ve got to condense some things down. I got plenty of great material for it and I’ve got most of it demoed up and I’m ready to cut basic tracks once I can narrow down those 30 songs into 12 or 13. I figure that should be out in late Spring maybe early Summer.We’ve come to end of the interview. Thanks for taking the time to do this. In closing, is there anything you would like to add or say to fans?
I want to thank them all first of all for many years of support through Savatage and TSO. Paul and I have a lot of stuff written that’s really exciting and we’re excited about the future. Just hang out and there’s some great music on its way.
Photos by Jason McEachern