Savatage - The UM Interview with Jon Oliva


Not blessed, or merciful
Apr 11, 2001
Sarf Lundin, Innit
[This interview was conducted for us by Krissie Anderson -- Mark]


I have been listening to metal music in its various forms for almost 14 years now. If someone were to ask me to recommend one band to them, I would have to say give Savatage a listen, you can't go wrong! Although Savatage has had a lot of changes over the years, both musically and with their line-up, they have managed to keep their music wonderful and interesting. I am hooked!

Ultimate Metal: Hi, Jon, how are you doing?

Jon: Very well, thanks.

UM: I'm very excited to have this chance to talk to you-thanks for taking your time to talk to me. I have to tell you, though, that Savatage is my absolute favorite band. You guys have been the one band closest to my heart for the past 14 years. I really like the new album Poets and Madmen, and initially I was thinking this chat would be mostly about that, but then I realized that you guys probably get asked the same questions all of the time.

Jon: Oh, always.

UM: So I want to take this opportunity to warn you that these may not be your average questions. A lot of the things I am going to ask are just things I have wondered myself.

Jon: Sure, I will answer anything.

UM: First of all, when are you guys coming to Colorado?

Jon: Hopefully August, August-September, we will be doing some West Coast. We came as far as Texas. We were in San Antonio a few days ago, so I think when we get back from the festival-we're doing a festival run in Europe-when we get back from that, we are supposed to come back out to America. We may be doing some American dates with Judas Priest. That's all in the making right now.

UM: I know the metal scene in Europe is much larger than in the states, even the larger cities.

Jon: It's huge, yeah. It's one of the most popular types of music over there.

UM: But you have to know there are a lot of us Savaheads out here who want to support you on tour.

Jon: Oh, yeah, they've been showing up to the shows in droves.

UM: I haven't seen you guys in so long now, I think the last time I saw you was, well . . .

Jon: In 1994?

UM: I'm not sure-I have seen you guys several times; it's just that it's been awhile. Do you have any choice at all of where you get to play on tour?

Jon: Not really. I mean, that's really pretty much up to the local booking agents and the promoters who are buying the shows. We put the show up for bid, and whoever is interested in taking it takes it, whoever isn't passes on it. We do have a lot of interest in the Colorado area, so I know we will be getting to there. We've done well there before.

UM: I mean, the fact that you guys have been around so long-I can't believe that you are not huge. I don't get it.

Jon: We're dinosaurs now [laughs]. Maybe in a way it's better that it has been like this. I mean, we have had an incredible run. The band's been together 20 years in whatever various forms; regardless, I've been there for 20 years. Paul not too much longer after that. We are a lot more popular in Europe, and in like South America and stuff, than we are here, but here we have a very strong and loyal fan base, you know. I mean, we haven't played America since 1997, and we played Chicago the other night and had 12,000 people in the place. Our fans are loyal; they don't go nowhere-they get a little bit older and a little bit crazier.

UM: Does your group have a say in who the opening act is, like coming with Fates Warning?

Jon: Well, Fates Warning, they're good friends of ours, and when their name was brought up we were like, yes, those are the guys we wanted. We've toured with them before, and they are just a really good match for us. Their music is kind of, well, not similar to ours, but it's in the same genre. I don't like having those Death Metal bands and such, because Savatage isn't like that. Savatage is way more of a hard rock band than it is a heavy metal band. Heavy metal to me is like Slayer, Cannibal Corpse, and stuff like that. I don't think Slayer or Cannibal Corpse have ever had a piano or a violin in any of their songs, you know.

UM: There are not that many bands out there that do that really heavy music mixed in with various instruments and different vocals. Well there is Edge of Sanity . . . Anyhow, this is a really serious question here [laughing]: Have you ever considered having a bellydancer as an opener? [both laughing].

Jon: A nude dancer, maybe.

UM: Or just as entertainment for the band while on tour? You know I am kidding; I was thinking, well, I bellydance and . . .

Jon: Do you really? That's going to be tough.

UM: I'm just joking around here; it's my silly side coming out. Seriously, though, I was looking through your Web site and I noticed a long while ago, Savatage toured with King Diamond-back in 1990. I've always wanted to ask someone this question: What's he really like? Is his evil persona for real? Because I always got the feeling that it was.

Jon: Oh, no, he's a nice guy. It's like a wrestler, it's like his thing, just like Alice and Ozzy. You get into character. I'm like that too, I'm totally different on stage than I am off stage. King was like that, too. As soon as he put that make-up on, he'd turn into King Diamond, and it was weird to watch that transformation. Everyone goes through that when you are in a band or something like that-it's like being a wrestler, kind of. Your stage character has to come out. The way you sing, or the way you talk, or the way you move becomes what people identify with.

UM: Actually, you sound way different. Your voice is a lot deeper over the phone.

Jon: Oh, yeah, everyone says I have a sexy phone voice [heavy panting]. My wife tells me that. She goes, "Jon, you have such a sexy phone voice!" I say, "Oh, thrilling!"

UM: Oh, yeah, maybe you're in the wrong line of work [both laughing]. But, speaking of weird and freaky-you know, since we were talking about King Diamond-in all of your times of being on the road or playing on stage, what's the strangest incident that stands out in your mind?

Jon: Oh, boy-that's a tough question. The strangest thing-probably the strangest thing that ever happened on stage on the last European tour that we did-Johnny Middleton, he was playing and we were in the middle of the show, and all of the sudden his equilibrium went haywire. I was playing and I looked over and he was standing there looking at me, and he had a weird look on his face, and then the next thing I knew I turned back to the piano and then looked back at him, and he was down on one knee. He was still playing, though. But then one of our crew guys came running out with a chair. He sat down on the chair, he finished the rest of the show-we had like two songs left in the show-and he finished the rest of the show sitting down. But it was just the weirdest thing, because for the next eight minutes or so that we were still on stage, everyone was like, we just didn't know what was going on. It was really bizarre

UM: That's dedication, though.

Jon: Oh, yeah, I know. He was exhausted, though. He had picked up some sort of a bug that knocked off his inner-ear equilibrium, and he started getting the spins. It was a really scary moment. That sticks out, I remember that as if it were yesterday.

UM: I just saw Trans-Siberian Orchestra recently, and he was the only guy that I recognized, though, but my eyesight isn't the best.

Jon: He was the only guy you should have recognized, because he was the only guy from Savatage there.

UM: But I thought, well, do you guys just trade off?

Jon: No. Well TSO is-well we're not in TSO. TSO is three people-it's me, Bob Kinkel, and Paul O' Neill. The people that end up playing the tours is whoever we end up getting. Sometimes it's some of the guys from Savatage, and sometimes it's guys from other bands. There is no TSO band, that's something people have to start to understand. TSO is a project and it's something we put out on tour as a Christmas rock show. The guys from Savatage are not members of TSO, it is not a band.

UM: So you guys are more behind the scenes, anyway?

Jon: For instance, if I'm doing something and I need a bass player, who am I going to ask but Johnny. I have known the guy for 20 years; it's like "Johnny, do you want to go out on tour and make $3,000 a week playing bass?" "Sure man, OK." It's not like you are going to say no. The guys from Savatage are involved in it because of their involvement with me and Paul, and since we are all close friends and stuff, it's like, so, if I'm going to put two bands out on the road, if some of the guys want to come and do it, they can do it. But it's not like, "Oh, my God, Chris Caffery was not at the show in LA, but Johnny Middleton was." It doesn't matter who's playing the guitar; that's not what it is about. TSO is about the story and the music, and it doesn't matter who's playing. Believe me, we'll make sure whoever is out there playing it, is playing it note for note on the record, or we won't put it out. But it's going to be different people-every time you see TSO there is going to be different people in the band. I promise you that, that's why we call it "orchestra," because it's a lot of different people.

UM: It's not Savatage, though.

Jon: No, it's not.

UM: I picked up Doctor Butcher, though, because anything that you guys are doing on the side I'm interested in hearing.

Jon: That's more Savatage!

UM: I love it.

Jon: I like the TSO stuff, but Savatage is my baby, I've had it for 20 years. TSO is something that no one expected to take off like it did-and were happy that it did. But I am not going to abandon what I have been doing just to go chase after some money. I can do TSO, and write for it, and make some decent money, but I am not going to give up what I have been doing.

UM: I'm really glad that you have not given up on Savatage.

Jon: Oh, and I won't. Not until I'm over it. And I'm just getting a second wind.

UM: I love that. Where's the best place that you have played, ever?

Jon: Oh, there are thousands of them. I mean, South America is incredible. Greece is huge for us. We have like 3,000 people waiting for us at the airport when we show up there. That's the weird thing for us-we go to South America and we are playing for like 60,000 people in a football stadium. We come back to our home country, we are playing in like 1,500-seat venues. But that's where we are in America. I can't make people go out and buy our records. But everywhere else we do really well-I mean, I've done well enough to keep the band together for 20 years. You know, I've never worked a different job than this since 1983.

UM: What's the worst place you've played, for any specific reason?

Jon: It would have to be when the wall was still up in Germany, and we played in what was at that time Communist Berlin. It was really intense, I mean we were there when all that weird shit was still going on. It was definitely not very cool. I mean, there were people with guns all over the place. I don't like guns, especially when I don't have one.

UM: I'm right there with you on that one.

Jon: It's like when someone's knocking on your van window with a loaded sub-machine gun, you're thinking, "what do I have here-I have a lighter and a pack of cigarettes. That's not going to get me too far."

UM: Well, you could start his hair on fire-I don't know.

Jon: Yeah, exactly.

UM: So, this is kind of a strange question, but, when you are on tour night after night, do you find that when you dream, it's about the shows or playing shows?

Jon: I don't dream on tour. It's weird, I dream every night when I'm at home; I never dream when I am on that bus. I hate that bus. I can't stand it. It's the worst part, because you don't really get real sleep on that bus. You never get to that stage where dreams and stuff kick in, because you're always bouncing around like an idiot.

UM: Do you take breaks and stay in hotels and stuff to get off of the bus?

Jon: It depends. Yeah, we get hotel rooms and stuff, but you are usually driving at night. So we get day rooms and stuff like that. But by the time you do the show, get loaded up, and get done, you are rolling out of town by like 2:30 or 3 in the morning. You usually drive straight to the next venue. You get there by noon, and it's load-in time. The crew guys are loading in, so your sleeping time is usually between noon and 3:30. That's the time you are going to have to sleep, unless you purposefully go somewhere during the day. Once you're up during the day, and the crew is working, people are showing up and you have interviews. I would be taking a nap right now if I wasn't talking to you, but I like talking to you. But as soon as I'm done talking to you, I am going to take a nap.

UM: That would really screw up your internal time clock.

Jon: Sometimes, I tell them I don't like doing interviews until after sound check. Usually during the day at this time, the singers-especially me and Dracula-we try to make sure we can get a couple of extra hours of sleep. Otherwise you're going to lose your voice. That's what keeps singers on the road is sleep, you have got to sleep at least eight hours a day.

UM: When you're on the road, Jon, do you do anything to keep your voice in good tune?

Jon: Yeah, I smoke a pack of cigarettes a day [laughing]. Not really. We have tea and stuff like that, but nothing is better for your voice than sleep, nothing. You have gotto have it, if you don't have it you will lose your voice.

UM: What's your favorite thing to do after a show?

Jon: [Devilish laughing], I can't tell you that [both laughing]. I like talking to and hanging out with the people and just bullshitting to see what they thought, you know, for a little while. We're very social.

UM: What's your favorite song to perform in concert?

Jon: I have a couple of them-Believe and Tonight He Grins Again. I enjoy doing that a lot. That's a hard question. I love doing Believe because I see the emotions come out on people's faces during that song. If I Go Away is another one that seems to get people watery-eyed. I get goose-bumps and stuff sometimes when those songs are going down.

UM: So I hear Ozzy has his own cook he takes on tour with him. But what's your favorite place to eat while you are on the road?

Jon: I like Thai food. I like hot, spicy stuff like Thai food or any kind of really spicy stuff. I also like fish a lot.

UM: I know how it is to be on the road and you have to eat out all of the time, you get gut rot.

Jon: You don't eat good on the road; you have to be careful. In certain places or parts of the world, there are certain foods that you don't want to mess with. Either that or you're going to be planting your face in the toilet bowl for the next seven hours.

UM: Oh, yeah, that sounds like fun.

Jon: Isn't that attractive.

[In the background, they are asking Jon how much longer he will be].

Jon: I will be there soon; it shouldn't be much longer. I have another interview, too. They are killing me, Krissie, they are killing me.

UM: Well, you're in such high demand, Jon. They asked me who I wanted to interview, and there was just no choice. It had to be you, because-well, to me, well, it's obvious-you are the Mountain King.

Jon: Oh, I appreciate that; you are a darling.

UM: So, you don't have to answer this if you don't want to, but what are your biggest pet peeves about your travel companions?

Jon: About the other guys?

UM: Yeah. Do you have any big pet peeves that just drive you nuts?

Jon: Yeah, Johnny is too grouchy in the morning, and he farts too much [laughing]. Dracula is quiet; he stays in the coffin most of the day. Yeah, Johnny is too grouchy. You have to give him a Budweiser, and then he's a happy camper. No-we're all like brothers. We pick on each other, we all have our faults. I've tried to change, I was very out of control back in the late 80s, early 90s. I did lots of stupid things that I regret, and I learned my lesson. After Criss passed away, it was like a wake up call for me. Up until then, we were just a bunch of young guys going nuts-well, at least I was. When you go through something as traumatic as that, it's like-you know, I still like to have a couple of beers and have a good time, but I'm nothing like I used to be, as far as going crazy and getting out of control. It's more like I enjoy playing, and I like to remember the shows.

UM: Do you have any traditions that you carry on as a band?

Jon: No. Not really. I mean, our one tradition is that we show up every night.

UM: Well, I was thinking holidays and such-I mean, if you guys are really close.

Jon: We spend so much time together when we're working. When we're not working, everyone kind of goes off into their own little world for…whether it's a month or-we usually don't have much more than a month or so off; well, at least I don't. So we're close; I mean we talk on the phone-we're kind of spread out. You've got one guy in upstate New York, another guy in New York, another guy in South Jersey, and three guys in Florida. Even the guys in Florida are all spread out. I live an hour and a half north of Johnny in Florida. Damon lives in the middle of the state. So once we're not working together everyone has their private time.

UM: So, I only have a couple of more questions for you.

Jon: OK, sweetheart, I appreciate that; you're a darling.

UM: There are certain songs that Savatage has that really touch my soul, and at times they make me cry. Songs like Believe, In the Dream, Go Away, and Alone You Breathe.

Jon: Alone You Breath is a tough one for me. I can't do that song live anymore, because I can't make it through.

UM: I almost can't listen to the whole thing myself, but I love it.

Jon: Imagine how I must feel. There are moments…that's the thing about Savatage that I am really proud of. We can take you to those different places. When you see Savatage you're going to see a heavy band, but there are moments where it becomes so tender that it can make you cry. Then there are parts of it that can scare the shit out of you. Then there are parts of it that can make you laugh. You know what I'm saying, that's the thing about our band I think that makes us different-the versatility and the different moods and stuff that we bring to the show. I mean from laughing at each other to trying to take the audience to tears, to trying to scare the living shit out of them, or trying to drive them mad. That is all that makes up a Savatage show. The ballads are just as important parts of the show as Hall of the Mountain King is. Usually by the time we get to Mountain King and Gutter at the end of the night, they are going mad.

UM: I believe that's true, the versatility of it just keeps it interesting, and the emotional side.

Jon: And you never know what's coming next. If I go to see Cannibal Corpse or Slayer I know what I'm going to hear for the hour and a half that they're on stage. There is probably going to be very little variation in what is going on. Versus if I go to see Led Zeppelin, bands like that I have such a high respect for, because they can do a song like Kashmir-which is probably one of the heaviest songs of all times-and then turn around and do something like Going to California or Stairway to Heaven that is just stunningly beautiful. Versatility is very important; you don't want to bore the people to death.

UM: It can be from any type of music or band, I know you were talking about Zeppelin, but are there any songs you have, not from Savatage, that touch your soul in the way that some of your songs do for me?

Jon: I listen to the Beatles a lot-the Beatles are my favorite band. They were my first introduction to music. I still think that as songwriters that they're probably the greatest songwriters of our time-you know, in our genre of rock music. I hear certain songs that they do that I think are just unbelievable. Like Let It Be-when I hear them do that, it just blows me away. The Long and Winding Road is another one. I'm talking ballads now, but just the lyrics. Then when you think about what you do, The Long and Winding Road is a very cool song if you're in a band. Next time you hear it, think about if you were in a band, and the lyrics. It's like If I Go Away for us. It was written before Criss passed away, but now that Criss passed away, that's why I have added the song to the show. It's kind of like a dedication to Criss. Lyrically, if you listen to If I Go Away, it is me singing to him.

UM: I listened to that song several times a few weeks ago.

Jon: Well, now that I have told you, next time you listen to it, just picture it. That song-I can barely make it through that song without losing it. It's very intense. They're calling for me through the window. I'm sorry, I feel like I am cutting you off.

UM: No problem. I will ask you just two more things here; that's it. It's been said that you have hidden something in Poets and Madmen in an effort to keep things interesting. Are you ever going to tell us what it is, or is it a personal find?

Jon: You know, you should get back to Kenny about that. People have been asking me that, and I don't know what the fuck they're talking about. I know there is the hidden picture underneath the actual black thing that the CD sits in. That's the picture of the girl dying on the side of the street with the vulture.

UM: You actually pull the thing out of the CD to look at it?

Jon: Yeah. That was the picture that inspired the whole album, that was the story. Paul showed me the picture, and he told me the story of the guy who took that picture. And that is the guy in our story that the three guys find in the mental institution.

UM: There's an insert inside of the sleeve, like a beach babe-insert.

Jon: No, that's the guy's girlfriend. You have got to read the story.

UM: No, I did read the story. I got that. But what I was going to say was, that could have been me. [laughing]

Jon: Oh, it could have been, huh?

UM: Is there anything at all that you want your fans to know?

Jon: Just that we appreciate them, and we hope to see them at the shows. Their support has been really cool and we want to thank them. And just hang with us. There's a lot more riding to do on this ride.

UM: I have something for your band, it's something I made special. I will give you a hint; it has something to do with gargoyles.

Jon: Oh, I love gargoyles.

UM: When you guys come to Colorado, I'm going to want to give it to you then.

Jon: Well, Krissie, you've got it. I hope to meet you. Thanks for talking to me; you take care.

UM: Right back at ya.