"No Pain, No Gain"
Interview with Jon Oliva by Colonel Angus

Jon Oliva may not be a name many people recognize but in heavy metal circles he is loved and revered as one of the founding members of Savatage. Even though Savatage is on hiatus, Jon has been keeping himself busy with Trans- Siberian Orchestra and more recently, Jon Oliva's Pain. While Trans- Siberian Orchestra has little to do with Savatage, Jon Oliva's Pain is very much entrenched in heavy metal tradition.

I had the pleasure of speaking to Jon right before he finalized his European tour dates for the Pain this spring. Speaking from his home in Florida, we caught up on a few of his most recent projects. Somewhere between the box of Chris Oliva tapes, his love for Black Sabbath's Born Again album, and the fate of Savatage, one thing is for sure: Jon Oliva eats, breathes, and loves music.

Colonel Angus: The new album Maniacal Renderings seems a bit different from 'Tage Mahal in that some of the songs are more theatrical. Was this a conscious decision or did it just come out like that?

Jon Oliva: You know what it really was, Greg? On my first record, I didn't really know the guys that well. A lot of the material on that record was stuff that was going to be used on a new Savatage record that never materialized. But it was more like we only spent a short period of time recording it and I wasn't really used to the guys so we look at that record as kind of pre-season. And then this record, I was like, after I toured with them and got to know them, I was like "oh OK, you guys can do this, and you can do this and this". I actually spent more time on this record than I did on the "Streets" album by Savatage which was the longest studio session for one record that I ever did. I actually beat it by a week and 2 days. I spent a lot of time on pre-production. I knew if I'm going to do this, this next record has to be special. We gotta buckle down. This is what I want to do.

Half way through that we found, my wife found this box of lost Criss Oliva tapes which was kind of like a gift from God in a way. It was like "wow, look at this stuff”. Some of the songs we were working on had question marks on certain areas. All of a sudden, I started listening back to the cassettes, some of them dated back to 1982-83. When Criss and I used to work, we used to trade cassettes all the time. That was the way we worked. He would put his ideas on cassette, I would put mine, and then at practice that night, we would swap cassettes. And my wife is a pack rat. She took all these cassettes, put them in a shoebox and taped it closed. In the process of us moving around, cause I move a lot, we had this big huge box that just said "shoes" on it. We were going through it and throwing stuff away and at the very bottom, we came upon these shoe boxes and one of them was taped closed with duct tape that said "writing tapes”. She pulled it out and brought it to me while I was working in my studio. She goes "hey, is this important?” I was like "what is this?"

We opened it up and I looked and I swear to God, that was the closest to death I was in my entire life. I almost fell off the chair. Then I started going through them and it was really weird. I just found little pieces and blurbs of stuff that we never used with Savatage. I would mark them and say "this is cool". I wanted him to be a part of what I do so this was great. It was like he was a writer on 5 or so of the songs on the album. I took pieces of stuff we never used with Savatage and worked them into the stuff that I was doing on this record. He was kind of like our silent partner which is great. It was kind of creepy at first, but it was in a good way. The vibe was just amazing and it was almost like it was meant to be. It was meant to happen this way because I've had that box for probably the last 10 years and it never surfaced until last year. So that in itself was weird.

Colonel Angus: It’s like you were writing with your brother.

JO: Yeah. The best example I could give you is the song "Timeless Flight" where it does 2 verses and all of a sudden it comes to a breakdown where it goes into this little piano thing. That whole middle section up until it comes back to the 3rd verse was something I found on a cassette that was dated 1984.It was Criss playing that music on an acoustic guitar. The whole part, the little piano thing all the way to the solo section, the riff that's going on in the solo section, I transposed it onto piano because I'm not good enough to play it on guitar so I had to learn it. I said "this will be great". I just fit right in the middle of that song. At the end of it, it goes right back into my song.

Colonel Angus: Are these new songs or were some of them from the 'Tage Mahal session?

JO: This album, they were pretty much all new songs except for the Criss Oliva music that was inserted into it. They were pretty much all new. I’m trying to think really quick if I'm lying to you or not. Oh,"The Answer" was actually a song I wrote after 9/11 happened. I was going to put it on the first record but I was a little bit weird about the lyrics. I wasn't quite sure if people were going to take it the wrong way but the guys were telling me "man, we gotta do this song”. Everyone who's heard it loves it, and yadda, yadda". Well, I said OK. My grandpa used to say "no guts, no glory”. So I said "OK, let’s do it”. We did it and it kind of fit in with everywhere else I was going on the record. I’m trying to explain things on the record like things I see in religion, politics, and all that stuff. That was really the only song that was an older one and the one bonus track "Reality's Fool" which is on the digipack. [It] is also from that same period.

Colonel Angus: Do you have any ideas for the next Pain album?

JO: Yeah. I've been going through these Chris Oliva tapes and when I did this last record, I'd only gone through 6 or 7 of them. There’s like 40 of them in the box. I’ve been going through that and I found a couple of things I want to finish that he had done. I’ve already started writing stuff for the next one. Yeah, I like this avenue for me. It’s good because I can do the kind of Savatage type stuff that I'm known for but these guys, now that I know them so well, they're very versatile musicians. They play all kinds [of music], from jazz to orchestral rock. They can play anything which is great. So I'm going to push them on the next one. I’m going to get a little bit more experimental. I’m going to feature more Criss Oliva stuff that no one's heard before. I’m looking forward to it. It’s going to be a lot of fun. We’re already starting to dip into that a little bit now.

Colonel Angus: Will you be touring the US?

JO: Yes, we've actually been contacted by...where are you located?

Colonel Angus: Chicago.

JO: Oh, well we're definitely coming to you because I've already talked to a few people up there. I have some friends up there in the Chicago area. I’ve always done well up there. We are definitely going to be coming up there. I think they were talking about us maybe doing a weekend up there in January or February. It’s going to be cold as shit up three-Year, I know we're doing something up in your area for fact because I know people have contacted my man down here in Florida and they've already been thinking about it. I’m just not sure on when it is but it's definitely going to be right after Christmas.

Colonel Angus: What is next for Jon Oliva's Pain?

JO: Chapter 11 probably. Hahaha. We're working on new material and we go back out on the road at the end of March which is for Europe. We may be doing some shows, some spot weekend shows in like your area. New York, New Jersey area, putting together these weekend jaunts where we go out for 3-4 days, hit a region and then come back. Because, you know, in the States, it's not like it used to be, so I have to go to wherever my hotspots are. In Europe this year, we have a huge touring schedule. We're headlining Prog Power in London at the end of March and then we've got 3 or 4 weeks worth of shows tailed onto that and then we go back over for the festivals again this summer. Because we did so well last summer that a lot of them want us back again. So that's really good. So, we're gonna be busy.

Colonel Angus: I heard about the possibility of Savatage 25th anniversary concerts. Will this be the end of Savatage or a continuation?

JO: I don't know. That's a great question because so many people have asked me this. The thing about Paul O'Neill, if you know about Paul at all, is he really loves Savatage. It's like we could very easily take 3 weeks and go run in the studio and slap something together and throw it out there and say "OK, here you go; now everyone shut up and leave us alone". But we won't do that. A Savatage project is a minimum 6 months. When you have the Trans-Siberian Orchestra selling out sports arenas all over the country, and all the guys in Savatage play in Trans-Siberian Orchestra, it's just kind of hard to get everyone together to do something like this because you don't want to kill the goose that laid the golden egg. What we want to do is, we want to do something special. We’re talking about doing a record where we bring everybody back in that's played in the band; Zach, Al Pitrelli, Alex Skolnick, Chris Caffery, Steve Wacholz, John, you know, everybody and do something. Whether it's going to be a live record or it's going to be a studio, we don't know. I personally have been working on a DVD to accompany this for the last 2 years. It’s just compiled of thousands and thousands of hours of footage and stuff that we have that I'm about ¾ of the way done with. It’s going to be part of the package. I don't know if it's going to be the last thing we do or not. I don't know. It all depends on what happens. We’re not going to settle and do something cheesy. If we're going to do something, we want to do it the right way. We want to make it special. There is something that's going to be done and exactly what it is, I'm not sure yet whether it's going to be live or recorded but I know it's going to happen in the next year or two. That’s all I can really say about it. Until then, the JOP thing for me; that's like my thing for Savatage fans saying "look, I'm going to give you something that even Savatage can't give you right now, which is stuff that's co-written by Criss that's never been heard before". That right there, I'm hoping that what I'm doing is enough to pacify everybody until we decide to do this next thing and do it the right way. What happens after that is in the lap of the gods. You just don't know. We've never officially said that the band is going to split up or anything like that. That conversation has never come across anybody's lips. It’s been "we've got to attend to this right now because this is what's going on right now" but the love of Savatage is there with everybody, it always will be. It was a very special thing. No one wants to see that go out, especially not to go out without going out in style. That's what is going to happen.

Colonel Angus: What was the last CD you purchased?

JO: The last CD I purchased believe it or not was a CD I've been looking for many years which was "Born Again"
Black Sabbath with Ian Gillan. I finally found it and I was like "that's mine". I love "Disturbing The Priest". To me it's one of the greatest heavy metal songs of all time. "Keep It Warm" is great. The title track "Born Again" is great. That’s my wife's favorite song. She likes that. I think the lyrics in "Trashed" are great. I love that song too. That's probably one of the best driving songs ever of all time. If you can stay in your car and not be doing 90mph by the time that song is over, then you're a better man than me.

Colonel Angus: What was the last concert you attended as a fan?

JO: As a fan, it was Paul McCartney.

Colonel Angus: Was that recent?

JO: I think that was a year or so ago. That’s like one of my gods.

Colonel Angus: What is your favorite Spinal Tap moment from your career? I spoke to Zak Stevens and he told me the "Hello Cleveland" story so you have to tell me a different one.

JO: My classic moment with Savatage had nothing to do with the Spinal Tap movie but was "the bank robbery". We were on tour playing, we were going to play Jaxx in Springfield. We were coming down from New Jersey and everyone was asleep in the bus except me and Al Pitrelli. We were up at the front lounge of the bus watching "Caddyshack". The driver was driving and then all of a sudden the driver goes "holy shit" and turns right really hard. We see this car whip by and there's like 25 cop cars right on his ass. So, we're going down this road and all of a sudden the guys in the car, they lean out the window with these garbage bags and they're all full of money, they just start letting it fly out all over. We’re like right behind this. It was a wet drizzly morning and all of this money starts sticking to the window of the bus. The bus driver couldn't see so he locks it up and skids off the side of the road. I remember Al Pitrelli just going back to the door, opening up this door to where the bunks are, and going "there's money all over the fuckin' place, get up now! "It was like a fuckin' stampede. Guys were running out in their underwear. There was money everywhere. It was all over the fuckin' place. Guys are picking up money and stuffing it into their shirts. All of a sudden, I'm looking [and thinking]"there's something wrong here". There were no other cars coming from behind us. There was us and this Chinese guy in a little Datsun pick-up that was just shoveling money into the back of the pick-up truck.

It was very foggy and misty. I'm looking and through the mist down the road I see a line of cops walking arm in arm. There were probably 40 of them just covering the whole road. So I tell everyone and they are running in. Everyone gets back in their bunk. Guys have money stuffed in wherever they have it hidden. My road manager didn't see the cops; he was way down. He’s walking up to the bus straight up to the front window. He can't see this line of cops coming down. It looked like he was carrying a baby. He comes to the front of the bus and I'm watching through the rearview mirror of the bus and I see the cops are coming. He comes around the corner to get in the bus and the cops are right there and he's like "here, officer, I picked up all this stuff for you; here you go". Hahaha. He turns it over. They go "did anyone take any money?" and we were like "nope, everyone's sleeping". Meanwhile, some of the guys were like "I've got $1, 800; I've got $1,700".They went over to this Chinese guy's truck. He was so busted. His whole back cab was full of money. His front seat was full of money. That was the funniest moment with Savatage.

Jon Oliva's Official Website