In a long illustrious career as a powerhouse vocalist covering heavy metal, hard rock, symphonic rock, and prog rock, Jon Oliva (ex-Savatage) released Raise the Curtain this summer — Oliva’s first true solo album.
Raise the Curtain became a break from the work that Jon Oliva had been involved in — TSO (Trans-Siberian Orchestra) and JOP (Jon Oliva’s Pain). Raise the Curtain gave him a different outlet for his creativity.
The death of a mutual friend [Jon Oliva Pain’s guitarist Matt LaPorte] brought Oliva into collaboration with keyboardist Dan Fasciano. It was then that the two of them decided to expand on Oliva’s current songwriting and create Raise the Curtain. Oliva then added guitar riffs, taken from demos recorded years earlier by his brother, Criss Oliva (Criss died in a car accident in 1993).
The result is a solid full-length of amped-up progressive rock. The classic sounds of ELP, Yes and Kansas juiced up with power vocals and Criss Oliva’s electric riffs.
The following is a recent interview with Jon Oliva.
Why wait all this time to do a solo album?
Jon Oliva: It’s just that the time was right. After we lost Matt (LaPorte) it was a very difficult time. I didn’t want to think about a band at that time. I didn’t want to think about replacing one of my best friends. It’s like how I didn’t want to think about replacing my brother (Criss Oliva) when that happened. It just seemed like the right time. I got a real sense of urgency. After Matt passed away I had these last few riffs of Criss’ and I said I just don’t want to think about a band right now. I don’t know what I want to do. And I started working with my friend Dan (Fasciano) down in his studio. He was also very close to Matt. And I think it just started from a couple guys who had [experienced] loss. Dan just lost his mom shortly before that. Then we lost Matt. It was just a very traumatic thing, and I guess that everybody we knew was always busy during the day, except me and him, because I think we’re the only ones rich enough not to work (laughs). So I would just come to his house at 9-10 in the morning before I had to go out to Adventureland — which is the TSO studio. I call it Adventureland. And I would have to 4 or 5:00 until I would have to be at that TSO session.
So it just started, and Dan’s a guy who a great writer and isn’t really a band guy but had a lot of stuff that was really good. He asked me if I would listen to some of it and I did and I thought it was really good. What was really strange is I had a lot of stuff also that was unfinished and we kind of combined them. And once we brought Criss’s stuff in there, there was a chemistry that definitely happened. We went on the writing spree. We wrote like 60 songs in two months. And I’m glad I decided to do it now. We were very happy with the way it happened but it was definitely a lot of work, you know.
Sounds like serendipity. It just came together.
Oliva: It was weird. In certain instances it was a little creepy. Especially with Crriss’ stuff. When we were trying to put in Criss’ riffs — where a lot of his riffs were only 20 seconds of something that I had on a cassettes … thirty seconds at the most. And there were just little pieces of things that he had. The riff that starts “Father Time,” that’s the second riff Criss ever wrote in his life. I mean, he was fourteen years old. The first riff he wrote was “Smoke on the Water” backwards. And it sucked. And I told him. I said, “Dude, that riff sucks.” And he goes, “Fine. Fuck you, man.” And he comes back the next day and said, “I wrote this other riff last night. Does this sound too much like RUSH?” And he started playing and I was like, “Fuck RUSH. That’s great. Let’s use it!” But we really never did anything with it until now, when I recently found it on those lost tapes of his.
Does every song on Raise the Curtain have Criss’ riffs?
Oliva: No. There are five of them that do and they are “Ten Years,” track 3, which the whole chorus section is his music; “Father Time”; The Witch, track 10; “Can’t Get Away, track 11; and, of course, the bonus track, “The Truth.” That’s the song I had the most of. And that was the first acoustic song we ever wrote. The second one we wrote together was “Out on the Streets.” Just shows you how far back the stuff goes. Before Sirens or Dungeons Are Calling or any of that stuff. This was the first batch of songs of us trying to be songwriters — and a lot of that stuff we wrote sucked but there were a few things that were pretty good. And I’m glad I was able to get them all out before I’m pushing up daisies.
How did you find Criss’ tapes?
Oliva: I’ve had these tapes since about … I think it was about 2002. I was moving from one house to another house. I had a big wardrobe case in the garage. It said ‘Savatage.’ It was an old. It was an old Savatage wardobe case that we took on tour. Wew ere moving. We opened it up and we were cleaning it out and it had clothes in there that were, like, green (laughs). And at the bottom of this wardrobe case there were these three drawers and we opened up this one drawer and there was a shoe box in there that had duct tape around it. It said ‘demos’ on it. Pulled it out and we opened it up and it was full of like 40 K-Mart cassette tapes of stuff that went all the way back to like 1976-1977. And through all the JOP (Jon Oliva’s Pain) albums, I’ve started going through these tapes and I found little pieces. So I made sure Criss was a part of every JOP album. What’s ironic though is that I got down to the very end and the last two tapes I had were the oldest ones and I what was weird is that the stuff on it was the oldest stuff we had. It’s just kind of weird that the last stuff we had was actually the first stuff that we ever wrote.
One of my favorite songs, to tell you the truth, was “City Beneath the Surface” — that was a great riff with “Hi, welcome to hell …”
Oliva: Well, you know, I was infatuated with the devil for a day or two.
You have to play that again, live.
Oliva: I do. I play it sometimes live. It depends how heavy the festival is. I usually just do festival shows now, so … depending on what the lineup is. I love doing that song. Great song live.
I’m doing this storyteller’s thing for this [solo] album. This is a sit down storyteller’s thing and I’m gonna go through stuff on this album and go through the whole history of Savatage, JOP, TSO and play a lot of versions from certain songs from Savatage and things like that that people have never heard before. Ot they’ve only heard the recorded versions. I think it’s gonna be very fun and I’m gonna tell a lot of funny stories that happened to us on the road … the great bank robbery, the escape from London, fun in Finland, and it’s going to be very entertaining I can promise you that.
The solo album [Raise the Curtain] reminds me of the really good prog rock of the ’70s. It also reminds me of Kansas a bit. I don’t know how you feel about that comparison.
Oliva: I like Cincinatti a little better (laughs). No, that’s Dan’s fault. I blame Dan for one thing right now. All this Kansas, ELP, Styx shit — that’s all his fault. My friends know I play piano but know I’m the worst organ player in the world. Everything I play on organ sounds [makes a sour face] and [Dan] is playing all these killer riffs and I’m like “This is Kansas-y in a way. Or ELP-ish, or Yes.” I love that.
A song like “Stalker,” for instance [off Raise the Curtain], sounds like Kansas.
Oliva: Now that’s one I wrote on my own. But Dan added that twisted Kansas organ. I remember that song I said, “There’s probably not going to be a lot of keyboards or anything in this, Danny.” And he’s like “Well, just let me mess with it over night.” And I come back the next day and this fucker’s playing all this shit to it, and I’m like “Where the fuck you come up with that from?” (laughs). And it worked great. It was awesome.
There’s a lot of prog rock out there, and this is a lot more focused. One thing to dislike about prog rock is that it meanders sometimes.
Oliva: I think we do that with TSO a little bit sometimes. We get too … you know, the seven-eight-nine- minute songs are a little much for me, but that’s okay. But I agree with you. Sometimes the prog stuff gets a little bit too solo-oriented.
Was prog rock a main staple for you while growing up?
Oliva: I didn’t even know what it was. And then Paul O’ Neill (producer) said, “Well, you guys Savatage were kind of like one of the first prog rock bands whether you know it or not.” I’m like, “Were we?” I’m like, “What the fuck is prog rock?” And he’s like, “You know, progressive hard rock.” I just thought we were a rock band. I didn’t know any of that shit. The first time I heard the words Heavy Metal was when my friend brought over the Motorhead album, Ace of Spades. He’s like “These guys are fucking metal.” I’m like “They look like flesh and blood to me. I don’t see any metal.” (laughs) I didn’t know what the fuck they were talking about. And then: Oh, I see. It’s a new thing like punk was. Or disco. It’s just a new name. But what it really was, was just hard rock music. Rock music played with a harder edge of faster tempo. I still don’t get the ‘heavy metal’ thing, but whatever. It sounds good.
When you were doing Avatar, you didn’t think it was heavy metal?
Oliva: That term wasn’t really around when Avatar was around. I think the first time we started hearing that was around Sirens (1983). When we were recording that’s when the friend of ours brought over the Motorhead Ace of Spades, and a Samson album with Bruce Dickinson. A brilliant album, it was one of my favorite hard rock albums of all time. And then Iron Maiden. He said, “This is heavy metal stuff.” And I remember looking at Criss and saying “What the fuck is heavy metal?” And that’s when we were first introduced to the term. And that’s when I guess, yeah, we wanted to follow suit and that’s when we started writing heavier stuff around that time, like “Yeah, we can be heavy metal, too.” Even though we were from Florida (laughs). And that’s what happened. I think “City Beneath the Surface” was the first heavy metal song that we wrote, that Criss and I wrote together. And then from there Sirens and Dungeons followed. So for a few years we were all over the heavy metal thing but honestly, by Power of the Night (1985) I was getting bored with it. I was like “Dude, we did Dungeons, we did Sirens, we did Power of the Night. It’s all the same stuff, man. We need to expand.” And, of course, Fight for the Rock (1986) was a tragedy nightmare but the idea of trying to do something different was okay. It’s just that the people who we had been working with us at that time were criminals. They led us down the wrong road where it went overboard. It was when Paul O’Neill came into the picture where he saw the talent in the band. He was like “You guys are more than just this. You guys can do so much more.” Like Queen and stuff like that. “Jon, you write great piano songs.” Who said the rule was in a so-called heavy metal band you can’t have a piano onstage. You know what I’m saying? It just doesn’t make any sense. So we progressed from that into the prog world with O’ Neill mainly pushing us down that road saying use a real orchestra. We were like “We’re not paying for a real orchestra. You better have some money, Jack!” (laughs) But he did it. He had the balls to take the money out of his pocket and do it. And when we did Gutter Ballet and “When the Crowds are Gone,” we had a real orchestra playing with us. This was far out shit for me. I thought “this is fucking great. We’ve got the NY Philapmarnic orchestra in the Record Plant in NY. I’m playing John Lennon’s piano and I have guys from the New York Philharmonic Orchestra playing strings. That was pretty heavy.”
One of the problems of a band getting boxed into a genre: a lot of the fans of that genre aren’t very open-minded sometimes.
Oliva: No, they’re not. They’re very close-minded. People forget that a box will eventually — with the more shit you put into the box — it will eventually rip open. It’s true, right? So after about twenty years of doing shit, that fucking box is all over the floor. And that’s how I look at it. I feel a sense of freedom in my writing now. I’ve done enough of that stuff, and now when I do a song like “Soul Chaser” on this album that harks back to what I’m known for, it’s fresh to me again. It’s exciting. It sounds new again rather than a re-hashing.
I think O’ Neill was right when he said that with your voice, you can sing any genre. Look at the song “The Truth.” One of the best songs on the album. In fact, I don’t why it was a bonus track.
Oliva: Well, that was the first acoustic song that Criss and I ever wrote together. That was written on the beach somewhere when we were on summer vacation with our parents, like 1977. It never had words to it. It was supposed to be an instrumental. Criss was going to play a bunch of flamenco guitar shit over it but I changed it. I took the music and I put lyrics in and melody to it. I really like that song a lot.
Is there a vocal style you haven’t tried yet.
Oliva: I think I pretty much sang everything that I think can sing. I don’t think I’d be a very good opera singer (laughs) but I’ve tried different things. I like where my voice is at right now. Because I can still get the real gritty, nasty stuff out but yet I sing in a lot of different styles, which is also good for your voice because you don’t burn your voice out on one particular thing. Keeping it different, keeping it changing.
But I can hear you singing standards, or something totally different.
Oliva: I like singing Beatles tracks. I like singing Elton John stuff. When I’m home playing my piano I’ll do “Rocket Man” or something. I like singing that stuff. You know, that’s a very good question. Maybe I should try something like that for my next thing.
What do you think about these vocal judge shows like The Voice?
Oliva: Nah. Never
Steven Tyler did it.
Oliva: He probably needed the money.
With Savatage, it’s going to be 30 years, right?
Oliva: 30,000 years, actually (laughs). Oh, Jesus Christ, has it been 30 years? Yeah, Savatage came out in ’83, right? Jesus, I’m old.
Do you need to do an anniversary thing for Savatage?
Oliva: I think the thing with Savatage, as far as anything goes, would be to do some studio stuff together, maybe. Because just the schedules … and the fact that the guys from Savatage are still together. We just don’t call it Savatage anymore. But the guys are still there but … to do something where you would harm the progress of TSO would be stupid.
I mean, you can just celebrate it doing your solo stuff.
Oliva: Exactly. Like I’m going to do the 25th-anniversay of Gutter Ballet next summer in Europe. And I still fly the flag, you know. I love playing those songs and it’s a big part of my history, and I’ll always play them. But it’s like since Savatage hasn’t done anything since … 2001. I thought people would finally get a clue (laughs) that not much is gonna go on.
Back to the solo album. How did you meet Dan? You said he had been a friend …
Oliva: Well, he was in jail for rape and murder, and I got brought in there (laughs). No, I met Dan through a mutual ‘supposed’ friend but he ended up being a criminal. He cost us a lot of money to meet. Actually, Dan paid $30 grand to meet me and I paid $7,900 to meet him. And that’s the truth. That’s no bullshit. We had a guy who used to work for Savatage — who will remain nameless, because I don’t want to get sued for that, too — and he basically took Dan for $30 grand but in the process introduced me to Dan. And after he introduced me to Dan and cleaned out Dan, he worked on my shit when I was working on the first Circle II Circle record (2003). He was involved in that and collected all the publishing for the songs I wrote and just decided that it would be better off if he didn’t pay me. And he took the rest of the money and bought drugs with it. And that’s basically what happened and how the meeting started. And then we’ve been friends since then and actually working together really came about two years or so ago. Like I said before, he’s a nice guy, great writer, very easy to work with, and our stuff just gelled for some reason. I don’t know, maybe he was someone I should have met 30 years ago. Who knows.
So I guess good things do come from bad experiences.
Oliva: That’s the thing. Take a negative situation and at least come up with something positive. And the positive thing that came from us losing Matt [LaPorte] was that it got me and Dan closer and got us to start working together. Because before, when Matt was still alive, I was doing a lot of work with Matt. I would come and hang out with Dan and stuff but it wasn’t on a business type thing. It was just hanging out and jamming and having a good time. When we lost Matt, I like having someone to work with to bounce my ideas off of. Up until that Matt was the guy. Chris Kinder [drums on Raising the Curtain] a little bit, but Chris Kinder’s a little bit more on the engineering side. Because Chris isn’t really a songwriter. He’s a great drummer and a great guy but he is more of an engineer-type of guy. Dan reminded me more of my brother. He plays organ instead of guitar — but his writing style is very similar to Criss’. It’s got a lot of great fluent riffs and runs and pieces of things that were really good. I found myself attracted to them and I knew I had a lot of stuff that would just mesh together, and it happened that way. And Criss’ riffs also just fell into place. I mean, we had to work hard on it.
And you said you had written like 60 songs?
So you can do two or three more albums.
Oliva: We can do like five solo albums and still have shit left over.