Have you recovered a bit from your accident? Any serious damages?
Yeah I’m feeling a lot better now. It’s been a really bad couple of weeks. I was supposed to do a show in Atlanta with Doro, but my manager told me that I really needed to take a break. So I stayed home and rested.
Probably for the best indeed. So your fifth solo album, how do you feel about the final result? Happy how it turned out?
Yeah, the thing that I love about my solo albums is that I can really do the stuff that is in my heart and soul. There were so many things in my life going on in the past years, so many people close to me had passed away. So I really needed to write this stuff off of me with all this stuff going on. The best thing is, one hundred percent of the fans that have heard this record really love it. There is always the critics who are Savatage fans who are still waiting for the rebirth of their band after twenty years later and it doe not happen. So they are analysing your music and comparing it to what you did with Savatage or with the other singers. But for the most the receiving has been very good, some very positive reviews and the fans really liked it, and I am actually really happy with it. There is a lot of energy in it and that’s what I like a lot.
Yeah absolutely, I like t a lot as well. So, don’t take it as an insult, but the jester on the cover kinda looks like you! Deliberate choice?
Haha well this is the fun thing about that. I explained to the record company what was the kind of thing that I wanted on the cover, which was a jester controlling a game of chess. Kings and queens in his hands. And the record company came back with a first idea that just was not right at all in my view, it looked like a bad book haha. I wanted people to like the cover, the cover of the previous album was kind of rushed and this time I wanted something special. So I went online and searched for jesters, just to give them some images to make the jester a bit cooler, and then I found that cover. It was a piece of art from an artist from Bavaria, in Germany, and his art was right there. I spoke to him and he had the art piece for sale for a lot of money. But once we spoke and became friends, he decided to just give me the piece for the album to use and he did some smaller pieces for in the album. He is really a great artist and it was a real pleasure for me to have his stuff on my work. But it’s quite funny indeed that the actual jester on that album kind of resembles me a little bit, and he drew that while he did not even know who I was haha.
Haha, that’s a cool story! Well you already mentioned those Savatage fans keep hoping for their band to return. You kind of keep that alive too by all those historical references on the album. Historic references are found from the very start of the album. ‘Upon The Knee’ opens on the classic Savatage tunes of ‘Prelude To Madness’. And of course there is the song ‘1989’, which is I believe the year on which you joined Savatage?
Yeah 1989 was the year that I officially joined, the first time that I toured with them was on the Mountain King tour in 1987 and 1988. Some of the biggest musical influences I had as an artist were from the Oliva brothers and from Paul O’Neill. There will always be a certain Savatage influence in my music and in my writing just because of how much of an influence that was. Even the singing, Jon Oliva was one of my favourite vocalists ever, and I learnt a lot about singing from him. I was touring with Criss Oliva when I was like 19 years old and I learnt a lot about playing guitar from him. So a lot of teaching and a lot of time in my life that was provided by Savatage and the Oliva brothers and Paul, so there definitely is a relationship there between that and my music.
Can you believe it’s almost thirty years since you officially joined Savatage?
It’s crazy, I can’t even believe that the last time was 2002 that we actually played a show with the band. It’s a crazy idea that it’s been sixteen years since the last Savatage tour besides the show on the Wacken festival. So the idea that it’s been over thirty years that I had my first tour with them. I started working with Paul about 33 years ago, so a large part of my life was spent working with him and Savatage. And everything just kept being my home and my family, regardless of what happened musically.
The lyrics of ‘1989’ in fact cry about how you wish to get back to that time. Can you explain that feeling?
Well there was a lot of… just plain fun that happened at that time too. We would be on the road and we would to things that were fun. Every hour of the day we would show up in cities and take them over. Besides the time we spent on stage there was the time we spent together. The feeling in that song is really about going back to that time indeed. Every single day was special and fun, and that what I sing in that song. There were these few years that I left Savatage to work with my brother, and that’s something that I always regretted doing. I did not really know much about the business at that time, so I did not really know that I could have stayed in Savatage and have done the other band on the side. That is one of my biggest regrets, I missed the last couple of years of Criss Oliva’s life and the chance of touring with him again. The ‘Edge Of Thorns’ record would have been a part of my life too. Everytime I see that ‘Streets’ cover, which was the one where the band was pictured on, it hurts my heart that I am not a part of that cover and that record. I was in the band when that whole concept was established and that’s when I left.
‘The Feeling Of A White’ is another striking song. Because of its length of course, but also it ominous atmosphere. Maybe it’s that I’m digging for it now, but I hear another Savatage reference in the words “white witch”. What does this song deal with?
Well in 2003 I was doing some touring with a friend of mine in Japan, and I met this model. We became very good friends, she was one of my best friends. There were always moments that I heard from her and moments that she just disappeared. She would say she would was going to be with a particular kind of friends and I’d find out that she was hanging out with these other guys. I always had a feeling that this girl was always doing some form of lying to me. That’s what that song is about. I actually has this one for the ‘Faces’ thing (solo debut of Caffery from 2005 – Jori) but I felt that my vocals were not strong enough. And when I started making the current record I just tried something with this song, continued adding layers of backing vocals to it, and now I really like how it turned out So one of the older songs on the record.
Also you have this flagship song which is of course ‘Lost Tonight’, a tribute to Paul O’Neill. It features some old Savatage text lines he wrote and most striking, it features the counterpart vocals that marked Savatage classics such as ‘Chance’. Are there any more secrets in this song that refer to Paul?
That song it just showing all the prominent things that Paul has given me as a writer. I made that song to him and I think Paul would be really proud and happy, because it shows a lot of him. It was about three weeks after Paul passed away that I was at a friends house, for a party for something I don’t even remember. And suddenly his son would come home and hit my jeep. So I brought it to be fixed and when I walked to the garage to pick it up, the ideas for this song kind of came to me. So I put some lines into the voice recorder on my cell phone. The song was suddenly coming to me, and I started writing it out for Paul.
That’s tough… What was your first reaction when you heard of Paul’s passing?
It was basically a moment of shock. I started crying and I couldn’t believe it. It’s still something I have trouble accepting. If something happened in my life, stuff like my accident three weeks ago, when a friend passed away or other bad stuff, I called Paul. He was like my dad in that way. So when Paul died, I could not call Paul. That was one of the craziest things because that’s when you realise that this very important person in your life had gone.
It was not the first time you lost someone who was a mentor to you, speaking of course about Criss Oliva. What keeps you going after tragedies like this?
I guess it’s that you want to keep on going to make them proud. You do everything because it maintains their memory. Out of respect to them, and to their fans who are also your fans, and even for yourself because of what they have given to you. In my case, I went to a studio instead of going to a bar, just to try and get myself together. There were many other people than Paul who had passed away, my dad had died and after him like fifteen other people. My guitar tech had died, some old Savatage sound guys and monitor tech guys had died and the bass player of TSO died on the tour bus accident (David Zablidowsky, who died in the tour bus accident of the band Adrenaline Mob in 2017 - Jori) along with the tour manager who I knew since I was seventeen years old, my webmaster due to an overdose of drugs. It was a list of people that was so huge. The thing that keeps you going is that there’s people counting on you being around. It also makes me feel lucky seeing of what happened to me a month ago. My head was hit pretty bad and there could have been a lot more serious ends to that nobody would want to happen.
Pff that’s some tough shit indeed. So… in spite of Paul’s passing, TSO announced it’s annual winter tour, the second time without Paul I believe. You got any special things planned as a tribute to him?
That stuff always comes together during rehearsals. It’s usually something that Paul’s daughter and mother give us and they want us to represent that thing for him. The close family members of Paul are the ones giving us their blessing to keep this thing rolling and keeping Paul’s music alive, also the stuff he never had a chance to release. Once we will get rehearsing I will start to get a hold of the things going on for that, I let everybody else handle that stuff. For me it’s hard enough to even get up there and just do it. To come up with ideas about what to do is just a bit too emotional for me sometimes.
TSO will undoubtedly continue in honour of Paul’s memory? Have you got any idea if and when new material will be made and when it will be released?
There is some stuff that is being worked on at the moment. The first things that will be out is probably the Romanovs stuff and other things that Paul had written and are ready to be recorded. I don’t have the exact dates but those are the first things that people are going to hear. We’re working out with Paul’s family what will be the right time for these things to be done.
That is Jon Oliva’s Romanovs idea?
Yeah indeed, it was the first thing Jon and Paul were working on together when Jon was out of Savatage and worked on the Doctor Butcher thing with me. Jon went to New York to work on that it was actually done a long while ago. Just after the ‘Edge Of Thorns’ album and the passing of Criss Oliva, that’s when Jon started to work on the Romanovs.
Are there any plans for TSO to tour Europe again as well?
I really can’t give a “yes or no” answer to that. I’d love to see us tour everywhere and I’ sure that in TSO’s plans they are looking at all the possible things we could do in the future. At the moment we are really trying to get through every single moment and we are devoting our time to that. I would see us play all over the world. It’s not a thing we could or could not do, but if we will then it was to be done the right way. We are not going to do things in a way that Paul wouldn’t have wanted, it’s got to be very special. TSO is not a low-level production, it’s always very big to even get off the ground. That was the thing about Paul, he would dedicate so much to getting us into situations that we’ve never been in before like these European shows we did. We would play in theatres with six tour buses and three trailers, nobody does that in a theatre. It is a level that most people would take to an arena and he would take it to theatres. We have to do things that are on that level, and that’s the kind of view from where decisions should be taken.
It seems that after the TSO tour your hands will be free again in early 2019. Got any plans to play live shows with your own band?
I would like to, but also there a record coming out in January that I recorded with Tim “Ripper” Owens (Iced Earth, Judas Priest) for a band called Spirits Of Fire, a video for that is going to come out in October. There is a possibility that we are going to do some shows with that band, but I’ve also talked to my record company about doing some touring with my own thing. I would really like to go back out there and play again.
Hansi from Blind Guardian and Jon from Iced Earth are reviving Demons & Wizards, a two-person project of a while ago and finally bringing it on stage. You had a two-person project a time ago as well with Jon Oliva…
Yeah I see where you’re going with this haha. Jon and I have spoken about this, doing something with Doctor Butcher again. I have a lot of ideas that I would like to use for that. The first song on my current record has some riffs that I actually had for a second Doctor Butcher that was never done, it has different lyrics and melodies on it now. I’m always ready to do this with Jon, I’m just waiting for him to say like okay, let’s get this going.
Now to the band that made all of you renowned. Savatage played a reunion concert at Wacken 2015, playing together with TSO on both Wacken stages at the same time. I was there in the audience, spec-ta-cu-lar! What was your chief feeling during that show?
Well thank you! The crazy thing about that show is that we rehearsed it for a month. Weeks in Paul’s studio in Florida, a Savatage side and a TSO side. Then we moved to an airplane hangar and rehearsed as if we were on, but we never had a chance to do that in front of people until that night. The night before there was really bad weather and we were trying to do our sound check and set everything up. The night of the show as well there was some very interesting weather going on. But it wound up being so special and magical doing that, those two bands playing at the same time. I looked like a mile in the distance from the stage and I could see some pyro’s going off. I found out that that was one of the things that Paul had paid a little bit extra for, some extra pyro off the stage. It was definitely something that Paul had spent a lot of money and a lot of time for just for that thing to happen just in that place. When we were done Paul was like okay, we’re going to do that again one day at the pyramids in Egypt and at the colosseums in Greece. He wanted to take that spectacle to other places around the world. Unfortunately, this was the only opportunity for people seeing it like that, it was something that was very special.
Will there ever be something like a live DVD or Blu-ray to relive this magic night?
I know we have the stuff stored, it is something that will have to be decided through the manager and Jon Oliva whether that will ever be. We’ll see, it’s there, but it’s one of the things that would have been produced by Paul. It’s a crazy situation to look at doing this when there’s no Paul O’Neill. That’s his thing, he was the producer, the maker. It’s really hard to predict what is or what isn’t going to happen when he’s not around.
Since that reunion concert, anything about Savatage has been covered in twilight once again. It’s a standard question by now, but what is your guess as to the future of the band? Have you had any contact with Jon Oliva about this or other musical stuff lately?
We’ve been talking about a lot of things lately. Especially last year it was in the middle of us trying to get over what just happened to us. I do not know one hundred percent, but if it does happen I would love to be a part of it. Savatage still is the most important thing that ever happened in my life. So if it would all wind up to some reunited Savatage tour I would be very happy with that. Jon is always busy doing something. I know he is working on another Jon Oliva album too. I do not know what will happen, but if there’s anything happening with Savatage I would be the happiest person alive.
And I would be close to being the second-happiest I guess! Well that was everything I had written down to ask you, so if there is anything you would like to add, now is your chance.
Well nothing really other than thank you! It means a lot to me being able to speak to you about how you like the record. Considering the things that happened to me over the last few weeks it is good to get back to being me, and being able to talk about the good parts of my life, about music again. So thank you!