Greg Prato of Songfacts spoke with singer Jon Oliva. Portions of the interview appear below.
Songfacts: From what I understand, Raise the Curtain is your first ever solo album.
Jon: Officially, yeah.
Songfacts: How did it come about that you’re doing a solo album now?
Jon: When we lost Matt LaPorte after the Festival album for Jon Oliva’s Pain [Jon’s side project], that was really the thing that started it all off. Because at that time it was very traumatic, I didn’t know what I wanted to do for once. I was kind of like, “Well, what do I do? Do I try to replace Matt? I don’t want to think about this shit right now.”
My friend Dan [Fasciano] had a studio in his house and I just started coming down to his house early in the mornings, like 9, 10 o’clock in the morning before I had to go to work with TSO in the afternoon. And we just started writing together. It was weird. He played me some stuff he had that was unfinished and I had stuff that was unfinished. I had the last of Criss’ riffs that were unfinished. I just figured with everything that’s gone on and if I’m going to ever do this, this is the time to do it. That’s how it started.
Songfacts: The album has a vintage prog vibe to it, especially the album-opening title track. Is that something that you were consciously going for?
Jon: I think that’s because Dan wrote that in like 1940. [Laughing] The album has that feel, and I’ll tell you why for several reasons. One is that we used all vintage equipment. I didn’t want to use a bunch of processing guitar – V-Amps and ProMaxes and all that shit. I decided to use straight Vox 31 watt amplifiers, an old 50 watt Marshall amplifier, and a Mesa Boogie style that Pete Townsend from The Who used in the ’70s. And we didn’t use a lot of effects on the guitars. The bass, believe it or not, is a duplicate 1963 Paul McCartney violin Hofner bass. That’s what I played, but I played it through an old SVP amplifier that was from the ’60s.
So the album has that vibe because the instrumentation that’s used on it was all vintage: all tube mikes, all tube amps, not a lot of gizmo toys on guitars or anything like that. Everything was old school. And I’ll tell you, I’m going to be happy with the way the album sounds. It has a very big, warm sound to it that I think a lot of records nowadays are missing.
Songfacts: As far as the songwriting in the Trans-Siberian Orchestra, how does it work? Is it a collaboration or do you come in with ideas?
Jon: Writing with Trans-Siberian Orchestra is a whoooooole different world. It’s very difficult. TSO is a very intricate setup. We have a lot of people, so you have to be aware that you’re writing within the capabilities of the people that you have. And Paul [O’Neill] is a perfectionist. And he’s also insane. So you have this mixture of insanity and perfection and we have some long sessions. I mean, we’re talking 17 hours sometimes, and then we’ll come back the next day and he’ll change everything around. “Well, nope, sorry. We’re going to try this now!” And we’re like, “We’re going to kill you! We’ve been here 17 fuckin’ hours.”
But, you know what, the man’s always right. I can’t argue with my walls; my walls have platinum albums all over them and they all say Trans-Siberian Orchestra. So if I proved him wrong one time, it would be great. But I can’t. Every time, he ends up being right. But he’s difficult to work with. He demands a lot from you. But he also takes care of the people that work with him very, very well. It’s very difficult working with a band that’s got 60 people involved in it. It’s bad enough being a band with three other guys, try 58 other guys.
Songfacts: Who would you say are some of your favorite singers and also songwriters?
Jon: Beatles, obviously. Freddie Mercury – the earlier Queen stuff I liked a lot. Man, there’s so many. Pete Townsend is a brilliant songwriter. A lot of the Deep Purple. I mean, Black Sabbath, Tony Iommi, God, he’s the hard rock riff master, he’s the messiah. I don’t think there would be heavy metal if it wasn’t for Tony Iommi and Black Sabbath. They were very inspirational to me.
Sabbath was the band that turned me on to heavy music. Before I heard Sabbath, all I did was play the Beatle records and learn. The Beatles taught me how to sing and how to play instruments, but it was Sabbath that turned in to where we started cranking out songs like Sirens and City Beneath the Surface and things like that, which were waaaay heavier than anything we had ever done. They were like the teachers of the hard rock. And Deep Purple, as well. It was a very tough competition there going on with who I liked more. Some albums of Sabbath I liked better, then Deep Purple’s album came out and I didn’t like it as much. And then they would switch, the next Sabbath album would come out, and then they’d put another album out and I’d like that one better. Not sure who were the guys that I really respect as writers. Obviously the Beatles started all of that stuff.
Songfacts: Would you agree that Savatage was one of the first ever true prog metal bands?
Jon: Absolutely. No doubt about it. I think that really started with Hall of the Mountain King, but then definitely from Gutter Ballet on, we definitely expanded. We had done three or four records that were basically the same, except for Fight for the Rock, which we don’t count. That’s like the red-headed stepchild. But yeah, we started going that route, definitely with Gutter and Streets. I had never heard of the term prog rock until a few years ago. I didn’t know what it was. Back in 1987 I don’t remember that term being around. Was it?
Songfacts: Why do you think that TSO has reached such a huge audience, but Savatage in the ’80s didn’t? Do you think it was just a matter of timing or just listeners’ tastes at the time?
Jon: Well, I think what happened with that mainly is that the name Savatage, we ran the course with it. And because of some bad mistakes that we made business-wise in our younger days before Paul O’Neill, we never could quite recover from that and get into the bigger level. I mean, we did well. We did really good in Europe. But we never got Savatage to that level, and after 20 some odd years and then losing Criss in the middle of that, we just weren’t ready to continue.
The fatal thing that happened was with the song 12/24 off of the Dead Winter Dead album . We sent the song out around Christmastime, and a station down in Florida started playing it, and it became a hit down here.
Atlantic Records sent that CD to every radio station in America and nobody would play it. They said, “Why didn’t you play the song?” It’s like, “Well, Savatage, that’s a heavy metal band from the ’80s. We don’t play that shit.” They never even listened to it. You know how we know? Because the next year we sent the exact same song and put a Christmas tree on the cover and an angel and called it “Trans-Siberian Orchestra,” and it was #1 on 500 radio stations.
So that just goes to show you that what was holding Savatage back was Savatage. It wasn’t the songwriting. It was the same, Paul and I, and before that, Criss, Paul, and I. You know, the proof was in the pudding. “12/24,” which is technically a Savatage song from the album Dead Winter Dead, has sold millions of records. I’ve got them hanging on my wall. But when it was released as Savatage, it sold 30,000.
So what does that tell you? It tells you that the name’s turning people off for some reason, and that’s what it was. Now look at what’s happened. TSO is one of the biggest bands in the world, it’s unbelievable. It’s funny to me, because it’s Savatage. [Laughing] I get a kick out of this. I’m like, “It’s Savatage with tuxedos and a bunch of other people from all around the world.” We bring in people from all around the world, which makes us kind of international, which I think is cool. But the thing that sells it is the music, Paul’s stories, and Paul’s poetry and the lyrics, and the way that Paul and I work together when we write. There’s a chemistry there.
Songfacts: What do you think Criss would have gone on to do musically if he had lived?
Jon: Musically? He would have been known as one of the best guitar players in the world, which he still is. And I think he would have shot me and Paul by now. Criss was a special talent. He’s a guy who had no idea what he was doing. Didn’t care. Was very fast mentally. We’d be playing in A and he’d be playing a solo in A flat, and before the audience could hear that he was playing in the wrong key, he would bend the notes into tune, but do it fast enough to where it never sounded like he was playing out of tune. It used to piss me off watching him do that, because I’m playing an A chord and I’m like, “There’s no way he can play there. It’s going to be a train wreck.” It was amazing. He would have been one of the best, ever. For sure.
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