An Interview With Jon Oliva's Pain Vocalist Jon Oliva
Jon Oliva’s Pain is the solo project of former Savatage vocalist Jon Oliva. While his former endeavors have stuck with the vocalist to this day, Oliva has shown over the years that Jon Oliva’s Pain isn’t just some random band that he plays with on the side. Oliva has released three albums so far with the band since its formation in 2003 and the band recently released their fourth album, “Festival,” featuring a return to more fantasy-based themes. I recently had the chance to speak to Oliva over the phone about the personal lyrical touch of “Festival,” his interesting habits at live shows and the filming of a live DVD in October.
Heavytothebone2: Could you explain the lyrical concept behind “Festival”?
Most of the lyrics on the album are based on dreams and nightmares that I’ve had the pleasure of experiencing. I think pretty much most of the songs, except two or three of them, but a lot of them came from that. I got the political shit out of my system on the last record and how-fucked-up-the-world-is vibe over with. On this, I just wanted to go back and do more of a fantasy thing. I had a couple of really wild nightmares that ended up on the album. The title track was a nightmare and the song called “Winter Haven” was another one that were full-blown when I woke up like ‘Holy shit,’ and started writing down shit that I could remember out of the nightmare and they ended up being songs.
“Living On The Edge” was another one that was a nightmare, being chased by something that I could never see in the dream, but it always felt like something was breathing on the top of my neck. I was in a vehicle and I don’t even remember what kind of vehicle it was, if it was a car or a 4-wheel. I remember I was exposed to the elements. I wasn’t encased in anything…going down this road that was just winding and all these weird trees that were hanging over the road that looked like they were trying to grab you out of the car. It was just fucked up, but they ended up being songs. You can’t make shit like that up (laughs).
Heavytothebone2: So when do you start having these dreams?
Since I was a little kid, I’ve always had a lot of nightmares and dreams. I’ve always been like that my whole life. I actually started documenting some of them maybe about three or four years ago. When I had intense ones, I had this little notebook red, I called it my Red Book, and I would just write it down if I could remember it. Sometimes you don’t and sometimes you go, ‘Oh, this was silly. I was being chased around by an inflatable snake or something.’ I started looking back through some of them and was going like, ‘Oh, I remember that,’ and kind of looked at what I wrote down and tried to make a story out of it.
The song “Winter Haven” was two dreams that I made into one. There was the part about the traveler traveling through the snow following this light and then it goes to the point where you find the light and it’s the gates of Hell. It’s Satan that’s grabbing you, that tricked you in the first half of the song to follow the light because you thought it was a safe haven, a place for rest and peace and warmth. You got there, and trudged through this whole blizzard, and there’s Satan laughing at you going, “Haha. That light I put before you was an illusion. Now I cast the flame away.’ That was the whole idea behind that, so I took the two dreams and put them together and made it one journey.
Heavytothebone2: Since the lyrics came from your dreams, did you find it easier or harder this time around to write them?
It was easier at first getting started and it was harder to finish them. That was the big difference. The lyrics have always been difficult for me to do. I’ve always toiled with lyrics. It makes me work a lot harder. These I got started on real quickly, but I ended up finding out that I used up all the ideas from the real dream in the first verse and a half and I still have a verse and a half to go or a middle part. That was a fucking nightmare man (laughs). I must have thrown away so many pieces of paper on that tour bus, it was ridiculous. You couldn’t even get through the door because of all the wadded-up pieces of paper.
Heavytothebone2: What inspired you to finish the songs? Did an idea usually come to fruition?
I just had to come to terms with it and just sit there and just get away from them for a while, for a few days, and then come back and look at it with a fresh look and go, ‘Okay, I can do this.’ It’s something I don’t really enjoy doing, so I have to kind of psych myself into it and work at it. Once you get going, then it’s different. The music part for me just comes so much easier...even what I’m singing comes to me easily; the actual notes of the vocal. It’s actually getting it into words that make sense that drives me crazy.
Heavytothebone2: Has that always been that way for you?
Yeah always. That’s why I turned all the lyrics in Savatage over to Paul O’Neill eventually. I was like, ‘Fuck it. You do it man. It’s your job now’ (laughs).
Heavytothebone2: What musical direction did you have in mind going into the studio for “Festival”?
Just a darker direction…a little bit more edgy. I played a lot more guitar on this album. Matt (LaPorte) and I sat down and talked and a lot of songs I wrote on guitar and he was like, ‘You know, your rhythm guitar style just suits theses songs better than mine or Tom’s (McDyne). We need you to do the main rhythms. We’ll do rhythm tracks also, but we want to work off of your main rhythms.’ So that’s what we did and it actually worked really well. The rhythm parts that they put on compliment the main rhythm part that I’m doing and it all worked out really well.
It was kind of rolling the dice there because I haven’t played that much guitar on an album ever in my career. This is the most I’ve ever played guitar on any album I’ve ever done. That was for me a bit different, but it was also exciting and it was cool. Last time I played this much guitar on an album was on “Handful of Rain,” when I played all the rhythm guitars and stuff on that album and Alex Skolnick came in and did some of the solos. I even think I did one or two solos on that album, I can’t really remember. That was the last time I played this much guitar or I was the dominate guitar player on an album. It was weird, but I think it worked.
Heavytothebone2: Not having played a lot of guitar on any album in over a decade, did you find playing to come easy or was it a struggle at all?
No, it came easy because I’ve been playing so much on the road and playing a lot at home. I’ve always played guitar. I started playing guitar when I was 9 or 10 years old. I’ve always been playing guitar, but Criss was just so fucking good that I didn’t want to bother. I played rhythm guitar and let him play all the lead stuff. Once we started with Savatage, it got to where I had to do all the vocal duties and the keyboard/piano stuff and I just let Criss do everything. I got away from playing for a few years there in the late 80’s and early 90’s. I didn’t touch a guitar again until he passed away. Once he passed away, that’s when I started playing because I had all his guitars and his guitars were all over my house. So I just started playing again and I’ve been playing diligently ever since he passed away.
We learned how to play together, so there are a lot of similarities in my rhythm guitar playing and in his because we learned how to play together. We taught each other how to play rhythm guitar and then he just flourished off as one of the greatest lead guitar players ever. As far as rhythm playing goes, we were pretty much even all the way through. Then I put the guitar down for a few years and of course, he was doing all the work so he just became so incredible at everything. For me, as long as he was around, there was absolutely no reason for me to touch a guitar again (laughs). Unfortunately, he was taken away from us, and then that urge for me to have to play again came back and ever since then, I’ve been playing a lot.
Heavytothebone2: How was the recording process for “Festival” compared to previous albums?
It was a lot easier because we’re a working unit now. We’ve worked now for four or five years together and this was very smooth. We had everything figured out before we even went in under the gun. We already had everything demoed up, so it was just going in and cutting the drums and doing all the overdubs. It was a very smooth process and it was a very enjoyable album for everybody to do because there was no guessing games going on with anything and there was no writing going on in the studio. It was all, ‘Ok, let’s go. You know what you got to do. Get busy.’
Heavytothebone2: What is your favorite song off of “Festival”?
It’s a really tough one. “Afterglow” is one of them that stand out to me as a really big number and I really like “Winter Haven” a lot. I would have to say one of those two, but I’m a big fan of the title track also. I really like that song because it’s so weird and it’s in that weird tuning that we used that was stumbled on by mistake. It sounds weird to me because I never heard a song in that tuning before. That one sticks out to me, but I love them all.
I was very fond of this record and I really like the material a lot. I hope people enjoy it because we really did have a ball making this record and I think the vibe comes across. There’s a lot of stuff going on; you got to listen to it two or three times before you really start to pick up on all the things I have going on in the background of every track. A lot of these songs have over 100 tracks of music on them, so you got to listen to them a few times. Everyone I talked to agrees that the more you listen to it, the more you get into it because there is a lot of stuff that goes by that on one or two listens, you’re not going to hear. That’s my advice to anyone who wants to check it out; just sit back, throw on some headphones, have a cigarette or whatever, and enjoy it.
Heavytothebone2: Do you think that kind of mentality is missing in a lot of music these days, because a lot of music seems disposable and people just listen to it once and throw it away as filler or garbage without really giving it the time or appreciation?
I think it is missing. I miss going out and getting an album and going home and opening it up and reading all the lyrics and trying to find out what the song is about. That’s what music is all about, that’s why you do it. If you just want stuff that’s fast, just go see live shows and don’t worry about it. That’s what a live show is; a quick fix. By the time you leave, you forgot how bad it really sounded in there (laughs), it’s all over. But an album, a CD lasts forever and I want people to not get sick of it after two or three listens. I put a lot of work into these albums because I want fans to get their money’s worth and have something that will keep them interested for many listens.
Heavytothebone2: Was there any material left on the cutting floor?
Not really, not on this one. Maybe one or two little things that I’m going to use on the next album, but not a lot…we knew what we were doing from the minute we got off the airplane back from Europe. We took a week and a half break and we went right into the studio and got to work. We had it all pretty much down.
Heavytothebone2: Do you vocally approach an aggressive song the same or differently as a melodic one?
A melodic one I approach very differently. First of all, I usually sit down when I’m singing a melodic song. I sit down as if I was going to play the piano. On a screamer, or I call it a hard-edge song, when I’m belting out them screams, I’m standing up as if I was singing live. Certain songs you have to create the atmosphere in the room too. I’ll have the lights very dim or I’ll have some candles burning. Some things I want orange and I’ll have all the lights on. You just want that whole different vibe. I like to create vibes because that what the vocals are all about; the emotions you put into the character that you’re performing for that three or four minutes. If it’s a melodic character, I’ll usually have it dark with blue lights and maybe some candles burning. If it’s an evil character, I’ll have them crank up a bunch of red lights, I always use colored lights in the studio, I’ll crank up a bunch of red lights and make it nice and evil-looking in there and go for it.
Heavytothebone2: Playing those songs live, do you have to do the same thing? Do you feel it’s hard to replicate that vibe?
Not really, because live people are the vibe and they get you into it. I usually try to focus on one or two faces I can see and try to really fuck with them (laughs). Try to give them some eye contact and really make them think that both oars aren’t in the water of the guy who’s on stage right now singing the song, but I’m just having fun with everybody and that’s what it’s all about. You come to a show to have a good time. You want to have fun…I like to pull all those emotions out of people. I want to make you laugh, I want to make you cry, I want to make you angry, and I want to make you happy.
Heavytothebone2: What is the band’s touring plans for 2010?
Well, we got some festivals to do in June and we’re maybe doing some American dates in September. October is all booked over in Europe. I’m filming the DVD in Tilburg, Holland on October 15th and then we may do some dates in America when we get back. That’s kind of what we’re looking at now. Our agent is talking to promoters now in America on some stuff; we just don’t know if we’re going to do it before we go to Europe or if we’re going to do it when we come back from Europe. That seems to be the thing that everybody’s trying to figure out right now, but there will be some dates put together, I’m sure of that.
Heavytothebone2: You briefly mentioned the live DVD. Can you talk about where the idea came to do it in Holland?
The venue they have there is a place called the 013 and I’ve played in it a few times. It is the perfect place to film a DVD. It’s just totally set up for it. It’s like a mini-theater that’s got a floor that raises up so everyone can see perfectly because the floor elevates as it goes up into the back sections, it gets higher and higher. It’s strung with all these catwalks up on top where you can put cameras and it also has a full operational recording studio in the basement, so they do a lot of live recordings there. I’ve used it before and the people there are good friends of mine. I’ve known them for many years. The venue was perfect and it seats 2,000 people, which is just about right, and I’m looking very forward to it.
Heavytothebone2: What do you expect the set list to look like? Any surprises?
There is going to be some. I haven’t totally figured it all out yet, but I’m working on it. I want to do a few things that I’ve haven’t done for a long, long time; a couple of surprise oldie-oldies and a couple of other things. I might do a little 10-15 minute acoustic thing in the middle, I haven’t decided yet. I’m putting it together, I just want it to be a great show and show all sides of what I’ve done from Savatage to all the way through to now. Hopefully, I can get that all crammed into two hours and fifteen minutes (laughs).
Heavytothebone2: What songs from “Festival” are you excited about playing live?
They know all of them. So I haven’t decided exactly which ones we’re going to do yet, except the title track, “Death Rides A Black Horse,” and “Living On The Edge” are three that we know we are doing for sure. When rehearsals come together again at the end of April, we’re going to give “Afterglow” a shot and a couple other things and see how they translate live and make the decision from there. I think “Lies” is another one that we’re probably going to give a shot to. I would like to do five tracks off the new album, so we’re going to figure that out and go from there.
Heavytothebone2: If you could tour with one band, past or present, who would it be and why?
Obviously, it would be the Beatles. That just had to be a fucking show…just everything that went around those guys on top of being the greatest rock n’ roll band of all time. Just what went around their daily lives had to be an amazing thing to be around. I would open up for the Beatles every night for the rest of my life if I had the opportunity to.
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