Jon Oliva of Trans-Siberian Orchestra

by Greg Prato

You can't judge a book by its cover. This age old proverb perfectly pertains to heavy metallists Savatage when they first issued the song "Christmas Eve/Sarajevo 12/24," which was met with resistance from radio program directors... only to see the tune become a massive hit once it was reissued under a different band name: Trans-Siberian Orchestra. But the happy ending to the story is that it finally gave longtime Savatage singer/songwriter Jon Oliva and producer Paul O'Neill their big breaks in the music biz.

If anyone dare think that "arena rock" is a dead dinosaur, then they have never seen TSO in full concert flight. There's pyro, lasers, an expansive light show, and a string section - all to supplement the bombastic rock that Oliva and O'Neill create. The crowds continue to flock to see them year after year: TSO was certified by both Billboard and Pollstar as one of the top ten ticket-selling bands of the '00s.

And now, despite TSO's busy schedule, Oliva has found the time to issue his first-ever solo album, Raise the Curtain, where he focuses on some unmistakably vintage prog rock sounds. Jon told us about the new disc, and gave us the story behind "12/24," their perennial hit that almost wasn't. He also let us in on the complex songwriting strategy within the band (turns out O'Neill is quite the perfectionist), and talked about the legacy of his late brother, Criss Oliva, who was Savatage's original guitarist.
Greg Prato (Songfacts): From what I understand, Raise the Curtain is your first ever solo album.

Jon Oliva: 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: From a songwriting point of view, what are some of your favorite tracks on Raise the Curtain?

Jon: That's a tough one. "Father Time" has to be one, just because it's the second riff Criss ever wrote in his life, so that song holds a special meaning to me. I love the song "Ten Years." I love the brass. We brought in real horn players - we didn't use fake horns.

I love the song "Soldier." I think that's a really deep song. Man, I like them all. I love the bonus track. Track eleven is another very popular one with me, the song "Can't Get Away," because that was some older music that Criss and I had from a long time ago that I kind of modernized and sped it up a little bit and changed the key. Then we added the real horn players. So those songs kind of stand out.

But the hardest song to me on the album is the first song, "Raise the Curtain," because that was mainly Dan's song, and we couldn't figure out what to play on guitar to it. He had played it for other guitar players before I ever even heard it, and no one could figure out what to play, so they would tell him, "No, this song's no good." But I spent months coming up with the guitar part for that. That was the hardest song for me on the album to play. I was trying to figure out what the hell to play, and there was no way I was playing that riff. I was like, "I can't play that fuckin' riff, dude. I'm not that good. Okay?" [Laughing] He's like, "Well, you gotta play something." I'm like, "Well, I'm going to come up with my own part that sounds as cool as your part, but has nothing to do with your part whatsoever. How does that sound?" He's like, "Go for it." And it worked, perfectly.

It took months of grueling aggravation, but we got it to work. That's a special track.

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: I can only imagine.

Jon: No, you can't dude. I'm telling you, you can't. [Laughing] I'll have to film something for you one day if Dustin [Hardman, AFM Records] will send it to you. Because you would get a chuckle out of some of the insanity that goes on out at adventureland.

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: Something that I've always liked about Freddie Mercury and Queen is that they pretty much could do any type of style and also pull it off very well.

Jon: Exactly. And their harmonies. Those harmonies, I've studied that band left and right. I had a friend of mine who used to work for us with JOP named Greg Marchak, who was our assistant producer and live engineer. He had acquired CDs of Queen in the studio - just vocal tracks - and it was the most amazing thing I've ever heard in my life. It's just them singing; you hear a little of the music coming out of their headphones. It was unbelievable how these guys sang. It was just unbelievable.

Songfacts: If you go on YouTube, I think they have clips of that. They'll have the recordings of Queen where it's just strictly the vocals.

Jon: No, this is before they started doing that stuff on YouTube. This was probably 2002 or something, when this friend of mine started playing that stuff for me. I was like, "Where did you get this?" He goes, "Oh, I got it sent from a friend of mine." But I was blown away when I heard that stuff. Now you can hear that stuff all the time. They have that all over where they call decoded or something. Or stripped down, "Here's this song with just the bass track." But ten years ago or so they didn't really have that.

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: The only other band that may have been described that way is maybe Queensrÿche, but I really don't remember them being described like that around the time that also Savatage was around, back in '87.

Jon: Yeah, it's weird. I'm wondering when that prog base first started popping up as a new genre. I've got to check that out. That's going to bother me all day now. I want to know when the first time someone said "prog rock."

Songfacts: I think Dream Theater may have been the first band to be called prog metal.

Jon: If you really think about it, the first prog-type band was probably ELP. But I see what you're saying. Dream Theater to me, I like that band a lot. I think the drummer is amazing, just too many solos for me. I can't help it, man. They're great players. You can't take away the talent. These guys are unbelievably talented. Some of those solo sections are just like, "Okaaaay," but great band. People like 'em, so people like 20 minute guitar solos.

Songfacts: You just mentioned the songs "Hall of the Mountain King" and also "Gutter Ballet." What do you remember about the writing and recording of those two tracks?

Jon: Well, "Mountain King" was the first time we recorded anything with an orchestral type of situation, which was basically Paul's idea. My brother Criss and I thought he was out of his mind. We were like, "We just did Fight for the Rock, right. And the first time we get into the studio, he's got to go, "Well, we're going to do this song with a 50 piece orchestra. [Laughing] We were like, "We're doomed."

But it was a great idea, and all he asked us to do was try it. Just try it. And we did. He took the tape away, and it came back with orchestra stuff all over it. They put it up on these big speakers and we listened to it cranked up with the lights shut off, and it blew me away. I was like, "Wow." So that was kind of the start of it.

The song "Gutter Ballet," I was out at the Record Plant in New York and I was playing this piano that was covered with a cloth. This guy that worked there comes up, and he goes, "You know whose piano that is?" I'm like, "No." He goes, "Dude, that's John Lennon's piano." I'm like, "Get the fuck outta here." He took the packing blanket off and lifted up the top, and underneath the top cover of the piano it says, "John and Yoko," that he had scratched into the piano. I just flipped out. I remember I had to go out and have a drink.

Paul used to make us carry these little Dictaphone cassette things with us wherever we went. I just sat on this piano and the first thing that came out was the intro for "Gutter Ballet." I remember Paul and my brother coming out - they must have heard me playing it through the glass or something, or maybe they turned on a mic. They came running out, "That's great, that's great! We're going to do something with that! It's great!" I was like, "What? I'm just fuckin' around." I didn't even know what I was doing.

But they got it and we got it, and then we built a song around it. But that was another one where we brought real string players into the Record Plant. For that song and "When the Crowds Are Gone," we brought in New York Philharmonic Orchestra guys. This was intense for me. I mean, I've never played with an orchestra guy before, and now you've got these guys 60 years old who've been playing for 30 years in the New York Philharmonic Orchestra playing hard rock music. It was very intense, exciting, and it was a great confidence booster when we actually heard the final things and we were like, "Wow! This is cool."

And from that point on, after "Gutter," the gloves were off. We weren't afraid to try anything anymore.

Trans-Siberian Orchestra was formed when fickle radio programmers and record label hot shots couldn't see past the "Savatage" moniker, stylistically pigeonholing the band. TSO lists two Savatage members in its ranks: singer Oliva and guitarist Al Pitrelli, as well as Savatage's longtime producer and songwriting collaborator, Paul O'Neill. Along with keyboardist/co-producer Robert Kinkell, these four members are the creative core of TSO. In addition to the quartet, countless singers and musicians join the band when they tour the world, spreading the TSO gospel every November and December (with a sometimes deleterious effect on bands who surrender a member for a few months every winter). Over the years, many names that are well known to metalheads have toured as part of TSO, including Testament guitarist Alex Skolnick and ex-Yngwie Malmsteen singer Jeff Scott Soto. Among the creative quartet, only Pitrelli and Kinkell hit the road with TSO - Oliva and O'Neill stay behind in the studio.
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 [1995]. 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: Do you think it's possible for TSO to ever go too far over-the-top musically?

Jon: I don't know. He's constantly challenging everybody - especially me - to come up with something. He'll say, "Here's Brahms' Piano Concerto in A minor, write something to go along with it." "I've never even heard that - what are you talking about? Brahms' 48 Concerto Symphony to the 10th power, all right. You'd better give me a day on this, Paul."

I can't read music, so I have to listen to this stuff. You get the track, they burn the track and the thing's 37 minutes long. I'm like, "Where do you want me to write what? It's already a half hour long!" "No, I want you to do something between this riff and this riff and make it hard rock." I'm like, "You'd better give me a day on this."

It's very difficult. That TSO stuff is very hard work.

The 1990s had its fair share of tragic rock musician deaths, but one that tends to get sadly overlooked was the passing of Jon's younger brother: Savatage guitarist Criss Oliva. Jon and Criss formed their first band together in the late 1970s before debuting Savatage in the early '80s. Subsequent O'Neill-produced releases, including 1987's Hall of the Mountain King, 1989's Gutter Ballet, and 1991's Streets: A Rock Opera helped build a cult following for Savatage, but on October 17, 1993, Criss was killed in an automobile accident when a drunk driver crashed into his car. He was just 30 years old.
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.

September 4, 2013. Get more on TSO at
More Songwriter Interviews

Comments: 1

  • Brendan from London UkJon is one of the nicest I've met in the business and has such unique talents, 'Hall of the Mountain King' and 'Streets' are two of my all time favourites.
    Amazingly his voice doesn't seem to have changed over the decades, something that even the greats like Halford and Dickinson have conceded to over the years...
see more comments

Editor's Picks

Concert Disasters

Concert DisastersFact or Fiction

Ozzy biting a dove? Alice Cooper causing mayhem with a chicken? Creed so bad they were sued? See if you can spot the real concert mishaps.

Mike Rutherford (Genesis, Mike + The Mechanics)

Mike Rutherford (Genesis, Mike + The Mechanics)Songwriter Interviews

Mike Rutherford talks about the "Silent Running" storyline and "Land Of Confusion" in the age of Trump.

The Truth Is Out There: A History of Alien Songs

The Truth Is Out There: A History of Alien SongsSong Writing

The trail runs from flying saucer songs in the '50s, through Bowie, blink-182 and Katy Perry.

Pete Anderson

Pete AndersonSongwriter Interviews

Pete produced Dwight Yoakam, Michelle Shocked, Meat Puppets, and a very memorable track for Roy Orbison.

Martin Page

Martin PageSongwriter Interviews

With Bernie Taupin, Martin co-wrote the #1 hits "We Built This City" and "These Dreams." After writing the Pretty Woman song for Go West, he had his own hit with "In the House of Stone and Light."

Zac Hanson

Zac HansonSongwriter Interviews

Zac tells the story of Hanson's massive hit "MMMbop," and talks about how brotherly bonds effect their music.