Hit The Lights: Jon Oliva: 'I Think The Afghan War Gives America A Bad Name'

artist: Jon Olivas Pain date: 03/09/2010 category: interviews
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Hit The Lights: Jon Oliva: 'I Think The Afghan War Gives America A Bad Name'
Dreams and nightmares touch each and every one of us, but while some merely forget them, others can remember them intimately. Whether they be pleasant or troubling, some dreams and nightmares can even prove to be a source of inspiration, as has been the case for Jon Oliva's Pain. Featuring Jon Oliva of Savatage fame, whose reputation speaks for itself, Jon Oliva's Pain's fourth album "Festival" favours a straightforward, hard rocking edge that doesn't really waver, more guitar oriented and at odds with its predecessor in "Global Warning". Described by frontman Jon Oliva as a mixture between Savatage's "Hall Of The Mountain King" (1987) and Jon Oliva's Pain's "Maniacal Renderings" (2006), "Festival" was released via AFM Records in February. Past albums issued through the label include the aforementioned "Maniacal Renderings" and "Global Warning", the group's inaugural studio effort being released by SPV Records. As of March 2010, Jon Oliva's Pain's lineup is: vocalist and keyboardist Jon Oliva, guitarists Tom McDyne and Matt Laporte, bassist Kevin Rothney, and drummer Chris Kinder. "Festival"'s title was inspired by the fact Jon Oliva's Pain appeared at several festivals in 2009's summer, Savatage frontman Oliva experiencing a nightmare about a haunted festival. This paved the way for the album's lyrical content, much of which was triggered by dreams and nightmares. However, not all of its tracks were lyrically fueled by dreams and nightmares. One track for example, "Lies", includes parts originally from an incomplete Savatage song entitled "Beyond Broadway", parts written by the late guitarist Criss Oliva. A group concert was scheduled to be filmed at the 013 in Tilburg, Holland on March 19th, 2010 for a forthcoming DVD, but will now be filmed on October 15th at the same venue. Avantasia's "Angel Of Babylon", due to be issued in April, will feature vocals from Jon Oliva on the song "Death Is Just A Feeling". On February 15th at 20:00 GMT, Jon Oliva's Pain's frontman Jon Oliva telephoned Hit The Lights' Robert Gray to discuss "Festival". UG: Hello? Jon Oliva: Hello. Can I speak to Robert please? This is Robert. Is this Jon? Yes, it is. How are you Jon? How are you sir? I'm ok. How are you mate? I'm pretty good. Can't complain. Would it be alright if I began the interview? Absolutely. Could you provide some background information regarding 'Festival', such as how the album came to fruition, what Jon Oliva's Pain wanted to achieve in making the album, or whatever? Sure. Basically, 'Festival' started as a record being written mainly on the road, which is the first time I've ever really done that before. I've usually been home, but it was scheduling - it's just the way it all happened. The big, major difference with 'Festival' was that we wrote a lot of it when we were on tour last year. The title actually came from the fact that we were doing a lot of festival shows last summer; at one point, I actually had a nightmare about being at a festival that was a haunted festival, and that's where the whole idea for the cover and everything came from - trying to pursue that idea. We talked to the artist, and gave him some information, and a little shitty sketch because I can't draw anything but stick people. He put it together, and it just went from there, so as far as achieving anything, all I wanted to do was just make sure that 'Festival' had a fresh sound which was a little bit different than the last couple of ones we did. I think it all worked out well. In terms of the eventual results, did writing 'Festival''s songs on the road change things? The big thing was that I wrote everything on guitar. With the last couple of records I've done, most of them were written on keyboards. Obviously, we couldn't fit a piano in the bus, so a lot of the stuff was written on guitar, which is a big difference. Usually it's fifty fifty, but with 'Festival', just about everything was written on guitar, which gave the album that little bit of a different sound and everything. I was happy about that, because I like things to be a little bit different from record to record. So yeah, I guess that was a big difference - that was there were no keyboards used in writing. The writing was more straightforward, rather than me being at home in my studio where I have eighty million keyboards, and all kinds of different guitars and things. When you write at home and you got all that stuff, you can really... ya know? This was kinda like "Here's a guitar, and an amp, and a little four-track machine that's in the back of the tour bus". Writing for this album was a bit stone knives and bare skins, like the old way - just "here you go - make it work".

"'Festival' started as a record being written mainly on the road."

So would you say that 'Festival' would appeal more to the metal fans out there? Probably. I think 'Festival' would appeal to anyone who's a fan of what I do in the JOP band (Jon Oliva's Pain), or what I've done with Savatage. I think they're gonna really like the album. 'Festival' is a bit darker and a bit heavier than the last record, but I wanted that, so I'm happy about that. 'Global Warning' was very progressive, and had a lot of experimental things on it. With this one, I just wanted to get away from that a little bit; I wanted the album to be a little bit more raw, and to have a back to the roots type of vibe. I just wanted to make a more straight ahead sounding record. I mean, I didn't really plan it that way; that's just the way it all kinda fell together with the writing, and the traveling, and the tour schedule. I really had no choice, but I'm glad it happened that way. I guess if you're a heavier rock fan, you're probably gonna like 'Festival' a bit better. Could you see yourself writing songs on tour in future as well, or will you return to writing in your studio? It really depends on scheduling, though I prefer writing at home. With the facilities and stuff that I have in my home studio, it obviously makes life a lot easier (laughs). I dunno. I guess it's just gonna depend on where I'm at, and when I'm at, and what I have to do. I'm just gonna have to adapt to whatever circumstances there are, but I prefer to do it at home. You said that 'Festival' is a mix between Savatage's 'Hall of the Mountain King' and Jon Oliva's Pain's 'Maniacal Renderings', but in what ways is 'Festival' a mixture between those two albums? I guess mainly just in its sound. 'Festival' is a much darker album - 'Mountain King' was a pretty dark album, and this reminds me of that. Plus, there's a lot of tunings on this record that I used on 'Mountain King', like some low open C tunings on a couple of songs. There was kinda that, and as far as the 'Maniacal' record goes, I meanly mainly with the vocals. I really liked the vocalizing we did on the 'Maniacal Renderings' album, and on this record, I think we took the vocals one step further. The backup singing, and things like that, were a lot more intricate on this, and we tried a lot more ideas, so that was reminiscent of the 'Maniacal' album. I guess that's why those two records come to mind when I think of this record; just the sound, the heaviness, the weird tunings, and the vocalizing. With the 'Maniacal Renderings' type vocals, is that something you could see yourself continuing with future records? Considering you seem to like that vocal approach? Yeah. I like experimenting with voices, and we did a lot of weird stuff on 'Festival' with backup singing, like having it go through tape machines backwards, and then go into the computer. We tried to put weird effects and things on it. For the first time since my earlier days in Savatage, I double-tracked a lot of the lead vocals, but not artificially. I did it for real, and that's something that, even with newer technology, a lot of people artificially do anyway. To me, it still doesn't sound as cool as when you can do it for real, and not - technology wise - double-track certain things, where you hit a button on a computer, and you have two voices. I wanna do it the old school way where you actually have to copy it, because it just gives it a more real sound than a computerized sound that's perfectly doubled. There's no way you're gonna ever perfectly double a vocal you did if you try to do it live, and that's what I think is the cool thing about it - so I did that. I did a lot of old school type singing on 'Festival', and I like it a lot. I like the way it came out. You made reference to tunings, which you've also mentioned previously, talking about how the title track, "Festival", was written in A minor. Yeah. "Festival" was written in an open A minor, which means the whole guitar was strummed openly with no hands on the fret - an A minor chord, a very weird tuning because when most people do open tunings, it's mostly a major chord, or they'll just have the top three strings tuned to something, and then the other three strings will be tuned normally. Well, this is just a whole, totally weird tuning; the two top strings are the same note - the E string and the A string are both As - and then the D string is tuned a full step high, the G string is tuned a full step higher, and then the B string is tuned to C, and the high E string is normal, so it's very weird. It's not something that people use a lot. I don't know if anyone's ever used it at all, really, and written a song based around it, but I did, and "Festival" is one of my favourite tracks on the album just because it is so weird, and when all those chords start ringing out, the overtones, it's just something you don't hear a lot. You don't hear that kind of overtone, because not a lot of people use those open tunings in the weird way that I do, having weird notes instead of the normal, by the book open tunings. I don't write anything by the book - I break the book (laughs). (Laughs) Is that a tuning you can see yourself using again, or is that tuning too unique, so that it would sound as though you're copying yourself? Yeah. I'll probably not use that one again (laughs). You can't play anything but that song in that tuning. I'm sure I probably could if I thought about it, but it really came about through an accident because I broke some strings, and I was just tuning them up. Somehow, they got to that spot where it was in open A minor tuning, and I did it by mistake. I didn't know exactly what I was doing. I was just changing strings, and when you change a string you just tune it up to something, and I just got it up to A. I was just going by ear, and it was like seven o' clock in the morning on the bus, and I couldn't really hear that well. It just happened by accident. I got it close, and then when I put some headphones on where I could actually hear, I thought "Wow. This isn't even close. That's pretty weird though. What is that?". I then just fiddled with a few notes at the end of the whole thing. I didn't even know that's what is was until my guitarist came in, and said "This sounds weird as hell. What is that?". I said "I don't know. What chord is this?", and I just strummed it open. He had his guitar, and said "That's an A minor chord. How the hell did you tune your guitar into A minor with open strumming?". I said "I don't know man. I was just changing strings". We fine-tuned it in, got the tuning right, and then I just went from there. It was one of those cool things that happen where you stumble onto something by mistake, and then after tweaking it a little bit, we thought "This is different". And there you have it. A happy accident then? A very happy accident, exactly. You said that the track "Lies" is about shady people you used to deal with early in Savatage's career. Yeah. That song is dedicated to all the people who stole from me from 1982 to 1986. Basically, everybody that we were involved with business wise from that point on until after we finished the 'Fight for the Nightmare'... I mean, 'Fight for the Rock' (1986) - we call it 'Fight for the Nightmare'. After we finished the 'Fight for the Rock' tour, the band was ready to break up because we had just found out that we had been ripped off for close to a million dollars in four years. Fucking hell. Yeah. It was kind of disheartening. The band almost broke up over it. Until we met Paul O' Neill, we were ready to break up. He came in, and said "No, no, no, no. I'll help". He got us a lawyer. He actually saved Savatage if you really wanna think about it, because we were broken up. We were finished. We thought "This is it. Fuck this". But he was a good guy, man. He came in, believed in the band, believed in me and my brother, took money out of his own pocket to support us, paid off some of our debts, got us a lawyer who got us out of our bad contracts, and kept us together. The first thing we did with him was 'Hall of the Mountain King', which I think was by far the best Savatage record at that point - definitely a lot better than 'Fight for the Rock' (laughs). He bailed us out. When Savatage was ripped off for close to a million dollars, did that really shape the way you view the music industry nowadays then? Oh yeah. I realized, at that point, that everyone was a criminal (laughs). God, it was very, very disappointing. When you're involved with all these people for four to five years, and you consider them your friends, and you turn around and you look, and you don't have a penny, you have no place to live, and these guys are all driving around in Mercedes' and living in apartments in Manhattan that cost eighteen hundred dollars a month, and the three of us are all living in a mobile home in Florida... Yeah. It just showed me not to trust anybody, and from that point on, we didn't. Parts of "Lies" were originally part of a Savatage song called "Beyond Broadway". Yes. The Criss Oliva parts were from a song called "Beyond Broadway" that was written for the 'Streets' album ('Streets: A Rock Opera', 1991). We just never did anything with it, and when we started doing 'Festival', it was one of the things that I dug up on some of the cassettes of stuff that I had that Criss and me had worked on over the years. I heard those sections again, and I thought "I never did anything with those". So we took those two sections of his, and wrote the rest of "Lies" around them. But yeah, that was based on an old track.

"The title actually came from the fact that we were doing a lot of festival shows last summer."

Are there any other cassette tapes which you can possibly dig out? Parts of Savatage songs that weren't developed into full ideas, parts that you can develop into full songs? I hope so. Criss has had material on every album I've done with JOP so far. I still have a handful of tapes left that I haven't gone through, so hopefully there'll be enough stuff on them to get him onto at least another record, and then I think that's pretty much gonna be it. It's really gonna be sad when that day comes, because we're not gonna have any more of his material to work with. So far though, it's been really nice to have that extra little thing that we have going. We're very happy about that. When you write material, or record material, or perform live, is Criss' memory always there with you in some respects? All the time. Absolutely, and especially when I'm working pieces of music I know he wrote parts of. Always. That's something that's never changed since 'Handful of Rain' (1994). His vibe is always there when I'm doing stuff, because I always try to think "What would he do here?" when I'm working on guitar pieces or anything. So yeah, he left a lasting impression on a lot of people, but more so me probably than anybody else. When Criss passed away, you obviously lost a great musical partner. Musically speaking, was it difficult to try to move on? It was very hard. You could say it changed every way I had been working up to that point, which was working together with him, and the same with Paul - when Paul came about. When he passed away, just all that whole formula that me and him had built from when we started in like, I don't know, 1982 or 1983. Whenever it was when we started 'Sirens' (1983) and 'Dungeons' ('The Dungeons Are Calling', 1984), and all those records, and the ones with Paul - 'Mountain King', 'Gutter' ('Gutter Ballet', 1989), 'Streets'. I mean, we had developed a working process - just the way that we worked together - that was very comfortable. He left obviously when he passed away. Everything changed, so I found myself being the only music writer at that time. Paul was obviously a great help because he basically took over the lyrics job for me, because I've always hated writing lyrics. That made me able to focus more on the music, which made it a little bit easier, but it was still a drastic change from what we were used to. You said that "Death Rides A Black Horse" was inspired by a nephew you have serving in Afghanistan. Yeah. I have two nephews serving in Afghanistan, actually. One got married, and I was at his wedding. My older brother, who's his father, showed me this cigarette lighter that he got from his son that's in the military. It had an insignia on it, which was a horse. I don't know how he said it, but I said "What is that?". He said "That's Death riding a black horse", and I thought "What a great name for a song". Then I just started working on it from there. He came up with the title though, which was based on this insignia that was on this zippo cigarette lighter, this chrome lighter. I don't know where it came from, or if it was from a friend of my nephew's in the military or whatever, but when I asked my older brother what it was, that's what he said - that it was Death riding a black horse. That's basically where that whole idea for that song came from. Considering you have two nephews serving out there, what is your view on the war in Afghanistan? I don't believe in any of that stuff. I respect the fact that there's people there like my nephews, but I don't think we should be there to be honest with you. But who am I? I've already said my piece in many songs about how I'm very anti-war. It's like that old saying: "Can't we all just get along?" (laughs). In the meantime, you got these kids out there who are eighteen, nineteen years old getting blown up and stuff for absolutely no reason, really. Nothing's gonna change in that part of the country anyway. They're always gonna be hacking each other up, and battling over this, and battling over that. I think it gives America a bad name, because people say things like "You guys think you're the world's police department". I can see that sometimes in a way, and our country is in such bad shape right now. There's a lot of other things we could be doing, rather than spending the millions and millions and millions of dollars a day that it costs to keep troops in Afghanistan and in Iraq and things like that. No matter what you do, this shit hasn't changed for hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of years, and it obviously isn't going. I don't know. I don't like that whole thing. I don't think a guy that's eighteen, nineteen years old, who hasn't even lived his life yet, should have to be put in a situation like that. Is it difficult for you and your family to watch the news, and hear that some soldiers have died in Afghanistan? Perhaps there's the worry that one day you and your family will receive such sad news? And you feel lucky that the news isn't about one of your nephews? Yeah. It's just a very... I dunno... It's just... It's just... I dunno... It's a really hard thing to answer... It seems so useless. I'll just move on from there, because it seems like quite a sensitive topic. Yeah... It's sad. I know people who've lost children in the war, people that I've met. It's just sad. It's sad. There's no reason for it, but they always find a reason for it somehow. Yeah. Obviously, we've spoken about the opening three tracks from 'Festival', which you touched upon in a YouTube video. Lyrically speaking, what are some of the album's other tracks about? They're basically all based on dreams that came from the festival idea. I thought "What am I gonna write about on this record for song topics? Hell, since the title came from a nightmare, why don't I just continue down that line?", so most of the songs on 'Festival' were lyrically based on dreams and nightmares. There may be one or two songs that aren't, but the majority are based around that. It just seemed to me that I had done enough factual stuff over the last couple of records. This was a little bit easier, because I could just write about what I had dreamed about, or had had nightmares about. Do you remember a lot of your dreams then? Oh yes, very vividly. I'm a big dreamer - I dream a lot. Some people can't remember a lot of what they dream about. I wake up and write them down (laughs). Ok. Are your dreams something you might use for future lyrics as well? It's easier than trying to find something to write about, because it's already there. I just have to remember a lot of them, and when I wake up, if it's something that's really intense, I'll try to write down as much of it as I can remember. I usually have a little Walkman that I can talk into, and record, and just say "I was here and there" and "I saw this and that". You can remember it easier if you have something to go by. Generally speaking, what type of things do you dream about? Nothing good (laughs). I don't know. I have a lot of weird dreams, a lot of nightmares. I don't know why, but I always have ever since I was a kid. I've had a lot of nightmares. I don't know, but maybe it's the stuff I watch on TV. I don't know what triggers them, but I have a lot of ones of being chased by... For some reason, you're running from something. The song "Living On the Edge" is about a nightmare where I was just being chased, and I could never see who was chasing me. All I could see was what was ahead of me, and it was just this dark, winding road that just didn't end, and I was going faster and faster and faster. It was just weird. I just have weird dreams like that. It's really hard to explain them, because they don't really make any sense (laughs).

"All I wanted to do was just make sure that 'Festival' had a fresh sound."

(Laughs) Do you ever wake up, and wonder "What the hell was chasing me?" Yeah, lots of times. I never really see who's chasing me. You always know you're being chased, because you're always looking behind your shoulder, and you're always in that kind of element where you're running, or you're driving, or you're flying, but there's always something behind you. A live Jon Oliva's Pain DVD release was meant to be recorded in March at 013 in Tilburg, Holland, but that live DVD shoot was postponed to October. Why was that live DVD shoot postponed? There are several reasons. It was mainly because I would've had to have thrown it together too fast, and I wanted to utilize footage from the summer festivals that we're doing this year. It would've meant that I would've had to have not used that, and the tour that we were trying to put together to do that... because it was so close to festival season, it was hard for me to get more than seven or eight shows put together, just because of the time of the year. Just looking at that, and looking at the whole thing, I said "You know what? It's gonna be better if I just move this to after festival season". That way, I can film a bunch of stuff when I'm over there, and I can utilize all of that in the package. The band'll be out on the road for a few months, and will be a lot tighter together. We can work the bugs out of the show, the kinks out of the show, during that time. It just made more sense to me than to just play five shows, and then record a live DVD. The band hasn't played and hasn't been on tour for almost a year. It just didn't make any sense to me. I thought "That's just a recipe for disaster right there", because with a DVD shoot, you have that one day, and it's not like it's cheap to do it. You have to pay for the camera crews and all that stuff, so you really only have that one shot, and I'm a superstitious guy. They weren't gonna release it until Christmas time anyway, or right after Christmas anyway, even if I did it in March. Now, if I do it in October and it comes out in January, I can utilize all the stuff from all of the touring that I'm gonna do over the summer. To me, that just made a lot more sense. You guested on "Death Is Just A Feeling", an upcoming Avantasia track. That was a lot of fun, and I really liked the song a lot, so I can't wait to hear it when it's completely finished. All I had to work with was the basic track, so I haven't heard how they put it together. I gave them a bunch of vocal tracks, so I don't know what they ended up using. I gave them different versions of it, like I sang certain ones heavier, and certain ones lighter. I left it all up to them (laughs). I said "You guys figure it out, and whatever you wanna use, here it is". I'm very anxious to hear that. How would you musically describe the basic track you were given for "Death Is Just A Feeling"? I thought it was great. It's pretty much straight rock, and maybe a little on the progressive side, but I don't know. It's really hard to explain that song, because like I said, I did a lot of the work on that in sections. I was given a map of what to do, and what parts I could sing on, and what parts I couldn't, and what kind of vibe they were looking for, so I did a lot of the stuff in sections. I probably only heard the full song from start to finish maybe two to three times, but I'd have to say, it was basically more like a straight ahead hard rock track to me. Finally, what do you feel the future holds for Jon Oliva's Pain? Hopefully some more records, and a lot of touring, and a good time. That's what we're all about; just trying to get by man, and just have some fun, and give people some good music, and some good live shows. We'll see what's around the next corner. Ok. Thanks for the interview Jon, and all the best with the group. Thank you sir. Take care of yourself man. And you as well. Bye. Bye. Interview by Robert Gray Ultimate-Guitar.Com 2010
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