By Carl Begai
"So Jon, what's up with the SAVATAGE reunion?"
It's a question uttered in jest in this particular case, but you could argue it's in poor taste given that Savatage frontman/co-founder Jon Oliva is on the line to push one of the most important albums of his 30+ year career. He's been hearing it since launching JON OLIVA'S PAIN a decade ago instead of following up Savatage's last album, Poets And Madmen, in 2001, but Jon's no dummy. As inevitable as taxes and death, he's well prepared for the Savatage question when - not if - it comes up in interviews.
"Every interview I do, that's usually the first question or the last question, but I understand," says Oliva. "It's been a long time of hearing it, but that's okay because I spent most of my life in Savatage. I have fond memories of it and I love all the guys, and maybe we'll do something someday, who knows? It's just not in the cards right now because we've got so many projects lined up."
Jon's latest project is Raise The Curtain, his first official solo album released under the OLIVA moniker for reasons that will become readily apparent. It's an album that's come out of left field in that everyone was expecting a follow-up to JOP's Festival album in lieu of a Savatage reunion. Jon credits his decision to step away from JOP and go in a different direction to the passing of JOP guitarist Matt Laporte in 2011, which left him "very upset and depressed."
"Matt's death brought back a lot of bad memories; it was like Criss dying all over again," admits Jon, referring to his brother and former Savatage guitarist Criss Oliva, who was killed in a car accident in 1993. "People don't realize that I knew Matt for 20 years and he was like a brother to me. Obviously not as close as Criss was but the next best thing, and I worked with Matt for so long that he reminded me of my brother. It was crushing and I didn't know what I wanted to do."
"I started going to a friend's place - his name's Dan Fasciano - and he's a keyboard guy. He's got a really nice home studio in a big house, and he was also very close to Matt. I just started going down there and we'd just hang out and talk because he was really depressed as well. One day he asked me to listen to one of his songs and it was fucking great. I asked him what he'd been doing with the stuff and he was like, 'Oh, nothing...' At the same time I was going through my Criss tapes and I got down to the last two, and ironically they ended up being the earliest stuff that Criss and I ever wrote. This is before 'Sirens' and 'City Beneath The Surface'; it was probably the first real group of songs we ever wrote, and that's what have me the idea to do a solo album. They weren't really heavy metal songs, they were different. I decided that because Criss and I learned to play together, I really wanted to do this myself."
To recap, the "Criss tapes" are a collection of lost cassettes Jon found in a shoebox featuring hours of riffs and musical ideas the Oliva brothers recorded long before Savatage was born. The tapes have been used extensively over the last several years for the Jon Oliva's Pain catalogue.
"I want to take care of one thing before I croak, and that's making sure everything that Criss and wrote together gets put out. This was something special to me. It's also very sad because I have no more of his music to work with."
With that, Jon takes a short trip into the past...
"The funny thing is that the songs Criss' music is on for this album - it's five songs in total - 'Father Time' is based on the second or third riff Criss ever wrote. The rest of it comes from an old song we wrote called 'Minus Love' that we did way back for a radio station album. I took the two things because they were unfinished and made one song out of them. That riff was written in 1979. That's when we were discovering VAN HALEN and the SCORPIONS. We were really into Uli Jon Roth's playing on stuff like 'Sails Of Charon' and 'Polar Nights', and I think the guitar sound on 'Father Time' sounds like Uli. It's got that little-distorted sound but not too distorted."
'The Witch' is another great song with a great story," he continues. "Criss bought his first 12 string guitar and it took us four hours to string it and get it in tune. We finally got it tuned, I turned on the cassette player, and the first riff he played was the one you hear in the song. This stuff is all his earliest work, and I had to fucking do this record."
And in spite of the fact Jon has a noteworthy inner circle of musician friends that would have been happy to step up and give him a hand, he opted to do Raise The Curtain almost entirely on his own.
"I chose to do things that way because of the musical direction. I didn't think that any of the guys I play with in JOP except for Chris (Kinder/drums, producer) would get it. Chris is an all around drummer and he can play anything. The guitars, bass and keyboards had to be played the way Criss and I play. I love the guys in JOP and they're great players, but they're shredders. And to be honest with you, I always wanted to be a lead guitar player (laughs), so this was a way to fulfill that goal. I always said that one day I was going to play lead guitar on an album, and that's what happened with this. Okay, it kind of happened with (Savatage's 1994 album) Handful Of Rain, but I only played two or three leads. Alex Skolnick (TESTAMENTt/guitars) came in and played most of them. The Oliva album was a lot like doing Handful Of Rain in that I did all the demos, I played rhythm and bass and acoustic guitars, the piano."
"I also didn't want to have to teach people the songs," Jon says of putting his multi-instrumentalist skills to the test. "Everyone brings their own thing to a song, and these songs are very personal to me and I wanted to make sure that I kept them true to the way they were written. I must have demoed these songs a hundred times each. I spent over a year on the record. I played so many guitar solos for these songs it would make your head spin, and I eventually got things to where I wanted them. I'd never been a lead guitarist before. I had Criss Oliva, then I had Al Pitrelli and Chris Caffery and then Matt Laporte, so there was no sense in me ever thinking about writing a solo (laughs). Now, all of a sudden, it was like 'What are you going to play?' and I had to come up with melody lines and stuff. I busted my ass on this record, especially on the lead guitar stuff. Chris Kinder and Dan were both very patient with me (laughs)."
For some diehard Jon Oliva fans, Raise The Curtain features some of his best songwriting since the Savatage glory days. Stack it up against the lighter and more experimental JOP material of the last 10 years and it's fair to say - or at least some of us dare to - that the Oliva album is far superior.
"That's okay; I wrote the last two JOP records, so maybe I'm getting better (laughs). Seriously though, the JOP stuff is a different side of me. Every JOP record has had Criss Oliva music on it, so that's the same, but JOP is more of a band like Savatage was. I let the guys bring in their own interpretations of stuff, and then I'll show them what I've got. I've always given the guys the chance to do something better than what I did on a demo. Sometimes they did and sometimes they didn't. I didn't have to do that with this album except for the drums, where I came up with the parts and Chris Kinder learned them."
"I gave people a little bit of everything with Raise The Curtain, "he adds. "The song 'Soulchaser' is a lot like the stuff I've done with Savatage, and then I branch off into some other stuff for a few songs. I brought in real horn players, which was a lot of fun. And then it gets into the creepy stuff with that ALICE COOPER vibe. I gave people stuff they're accustomed to and then tried to throw them off a little bit (laughs)."
Which has resulted in high praise and kind words across the board. Almost.
"The response has been great after a week of interviews. I've only had one person that didn't get it (laughs). He was stuck on the Mountain King tour that I did last summer, and he was disappointed that I didn't use the JOP guys on the album."