Interviews

Exclusive Interview with Zak Stevens (Savatage, Circle II Circle, Machines of Grace)

Interviewed by Denys (Site Founder/Senior Staff Writer) Myglobalmind Webzine

 

Myglobalmind: Hi Zak I wanted to thank you for taking the time to answer some questions for fans of your music and on behalf of all of our readership we can thank you for all the great music you have made throughout your career. Thanks again.

 

ZS: Thank you for the interview Denys!

 

Myglobalmind: Before we get into the more in depth musical aspect of your career, talk about your childhood, what was it like growing up in South Carolina? What kind of music we’re you into when you we’re younger?

 

ZS: Growing up in Columbia, SC was really quite amazing and a lot of fun in the 80’s. We had a lot of freedom as kids back then. A lot more than kids so nowadays because of the rise in crime against kids and the overall shitty state of the criminal mind in the US these days. Those problems for the most part didn’t exist then when we were growing up. We used to venture miles and miles away from the house and explore rivers, creeks, woodlands, and have campfires by the river and still manage to not drown in the rapids and we always made it home for Mom’s dinner! As far as the music I was exposed to a very wide variety growing up. I guess it all started with my Mom’s crazy music selection that had everything from Three Dog Night to Chicago, to CCR, The Beatles, Peter Frampton, and all types of orchestral music and classical music. I started out as a drummer when I was nine and the first songs I learned how to play were from the Eagles, CCR, and KISS. But for whatever reason funk music caught my ear very early on because it was very popular in the US at the time. So I really learned to play the drums with headphones on learning entire albums of the Commodores, Earth Wind and Fire, Parliament, and stuff like LTD (male vocalist Jeffery Osborne’s band) at that time. I think learning that style of music gave me a real feel for dynamics and funk and rhythmic drumming that has really carried over to my vocal abilities in many more subtle ways. The first concert I ever saw as a young kid was KISS in 1977 on the Destroyer Tour. So that leaves no question as to why rock is my music of choice to this day.

 

Myglobalmind: Did you always want to be a singer growing up?

 

ZS: Yes but I became a drummer because I really loved percussion and I still do. However in the first three or four bands I was in from early on, we had a lot of trouble finding a singer of course, especially when you’re that young starting out. I was able to sing and play drums at the same time which was odd because it was quite easy for me to somehow have both feet and both arms going and still sing the melody rhythm. So everyone just wanted me to keep singing and drumming and every time we tried a new singer for the band the band guys usually said I was a little better and there was always that resistance to change i guess. So whether I wanted to or not I had to keep singing (laughs).

 

Myglobalmind: What we’re some of the bands you we’re in growing up before Wicked Witch?

 

ZS: Our first band was called Black Diamond when I was nine or ten years old…(imagine who that was named after), then a band called Aries, then in middle school it was a band called Hyjinx (a female-fronted band). For a while I was in several female-fronted bands because acts like Pat Benatar and Heart were very popular at that time. I enjoyed singing back-up vocals and they featured me on some lead vocals from time to time in all these bands from behind the drum kit. Then in college I was in a band called Backstreets (also female-fronted) that played in the southern region of South Carolina, Georgia, and northern Florida.

 

Myglobalmind: Eventually you moved to the west coast and attended the Musician’s Institute in Hollywood where you met what would be the guitar player for your band Wicked Witch. What did you learn at the Institute that helped you throughout your career?

 

ZS: That’s correct I met lead guitarist Matt Leff at MIT and we formed WW together. I attended the first class of the Vocal Institute at that school so the vocal unit was newly established. Nowadays the shortest term of the program is one year but back then when it first started it was a six-month program. The curriculum was very aggressive in all areas of vocal training and they basically told us that we can go over everything and touch on most points in six the months but it may take up to seven years to fully master and digest all the concepts. That was mind-blowing to me at the time, but definitely understandable given the depth of the subject matter. And about six years later i sat there and thought wow I think i finally have this stuff pretty well mastered. So they were correct in essence.

 

Myglobalmind: What led you to move out there and take that step in your musical venture? You hear stories all the time about people going out west and trying to make it big. Did you always believe that you could make it in the music business?

 

ZS: Well based on the fact that I had been playing drums and singing for about 12 years by the time I attended the school at 21 years of age, I thought I was in a pretty good position to succeed in the business if I got a break. I witnessed lots of guys and girls go out there to LA and get frustrated and exasperated and then leave. So I saw realized right away that resolve was definitely needed, as well as the belief in yourself to survive the barrage of “No”s and slamming doors that anyone in this business is going to have to weather before anything good happens. And you also have to remember that good things might never happen. But seeing yourself succeeding is the most important thing, and meeting those who can help you is very important. So I just tried to balance my talent and intertwine that with those reality concepts and luckily things worked out for me in the long run.

 

Myglobalmind: Obviously your biggest break came when Jon and Criss Oliva along with Savatage producer Paul O’Neill heard your demos and asked you to join the band. I know you have said before that one of the things that helped you get the gig was the fact that you weren’t trying to sing like Jon Oliva and had your own unique vocal style. Is that so?

ZS: Yes I think that was an important factor because they let me know that most of the demos they received were guys really trying to sound like Jon and that mine was rather a breath of fresh air in a sea of vocal predictability. So that was a learning process in itself, that your best bet is to be yourself and not try to stretch into what you think people are looking for. Singing within your own comfort zone and trying to have the best quality tone you can is really the best way to go when you’re trying to join a band other than your own that already has its own unique identity. So adding your own uniqueness to the existing situation can actually enhance the overall situation. That’s what I tried to bring to Savatage in the best manner I could.

 

Myglobalmind: Talk about Savatage and those days coming into a situation like that where Jon Oliva decided to take time away from the band and do other stuff and take a break from the scene; was there a lot of pressure coming into Savatage at first?

 

ZS: I think if I had stopped and thought about it long enough there may have been a lot more pressure felt. But I was pretty confident I had what Savatage was looking for and something that could enhance the overall situation vocally. Also Criss, Jon, Paul, and everyone in the band was very supportive and coached me up effectively and without hesitation on anything I was lacking in any area. I had to develop and adapt a great deal in a short time coming into Savatage because the vocal style compared to WW was absolutely different. So I had to change my delivery and style and that’s not always easy, but with the training I had and the years of experience coming in I was able to make some pretty steep adjustments to my tone and style to fit what was going on with Savatage’s music at the time.

 

Myglobalmind: I know you have also said that at the beginning every day was like an audition for you even though you we’re in the band already. Did that help your performance and give you more drive until the guys we’re more comfortable with you and learning the material?

ZS: Yes definitely. Each song we worked on for the Edge of Thorns album was its own unique challenge for me. It was like the challenges were just continuous and relentless at times. But the more I sang through each song the better I felt about it and the more I could add to the equation. So practice makes perfect in some sense as the old saying goes.

 

Myglobalmind: Jon Oliva was always there in the background even when he stepped down, what advice did he give you when you first joined the band? How critical was he in the songwriting process?

 

ZS: Yes Jon was more than just “in the background”. He was very much prominent in all phases of the songwriting and decision-making in most areas. He had a real trust of Criss and he knew Criss believed in me a lot. And it was great that he trusted both of us with carrying on “his band” in some sense. That’s the way I viewed it and it was a serious situation of course. Jon joked around with me a lot and anyone who knows Jon knows he has a great sense of humor about everything he does. And i also have a big sense of humor and I like to joke around a lot as everyone who knows me knows. And Jon would often say to me “Better you than me” and “I wouldn’t wish this job on anybody” referring to me in the vocal position of Savatage. Of course there’s some truth and non-truth to those statements but we definitely took a light-hearted approach to it but we worked hard to make things as successful as we could too. It is the music business after all, and we do have fun in this business after al is said and done…I think you have to love this business because very few get to live it…So you have to love it while you can I guess.

 

Myglobalmind: Things didn’t stay golden for long the untimely and unfortunate death of Chris Oliva a tremendous guitar player and such an integral part of Savatage happened in 1993 and that had to be painful obviously. What do you remember about that time and how did his death impact you personally to this day?

 

ZS: Well Criss’ passing definitely still impacts me to this day and it always will. Of course the timing of a tragedy is always going to be bad, hard, and difficult so that goes without saying. The main thing I’ve always thought about, and still do today, is for Criss’ family…His Mom and Dad and Jon and his other brother Tony…..And the guys in the band at the time which were his long time friends. I always hoped everyone would find some peace and healing over it all someday…So hopefully this will happen but I realize that the healing process does take longer when music and the depth of the artistry that was Criss’ legacy is all involved here.

Myglobalmind: The “Handful of Rain” album was a tribute to Chris per say, just curious to hear from you how hard it had to be going into the studio to record with the actual line up of yourself, Alex Skolnick and Jon Oliva. What was the back-story behind the making of that particular record?

 

ZS: It was very difficult being in the studio at first without Criss because I saw him as a leader of the process in many aspects. But we all knew we had to step up and try our best to compensate for that huge void in many ways. Getting back to work and concentrating on making a new and different sounding album was helpful because it sort of kept our minds busy and focused on the tasks at hand. Paul O’Neill really had a great vision and drove us hard to make his vision of the overall picture of the album come to life. That helped too, and seeing songs like “Chance” and “Alone You Breathe” come to life with Jon and Paul’s incredible vision was a great learning experience for me. So i just took the good with the bad (being missing Criss) and made the best of the situation and I think we all did a good job of doing that, knowing that Criss would have wanted us to continue, get out there and work hard, and not stay in the dark and disappear as a band.

 

Myglobalmind: Do you have a personal favorite Sava album from your time with the band? I think “The Wake of Magellan” is a great concept record and the production and writing on that album are great, as well as your vocals which are as strongest as any of the earliest works you we’re involved in.

 

ZS: Well I really like as an entire piece of work the “Dead Winter Dead” album because not only was it another great learning experience again musically but it was also a great learning experience in an historical sense. The reason being is that Paul O’Neill charged me with learning the complete history of Yugoslavia and i had to read no less than eight historical novels on the former Yugoslavia and about what was currently happening at the time, the war aggressions between all of the states of the former Yugoslavia and the formation of those very states that exist today. As an American citizen I, like most people her in the US, really had very little knowledge of the background of that war that lasted from 1990 – 2000. We didn’t really know anything much at all about it unless you just happened to be a political science or history expert of that region of the world. So the media coverage of that entire situation over there was grossly misrepresented in the US press and the reporting on it was absolutely inaccurate overall. So you had to read further into the history from the beginning to really start to understand it. So once I did that with the help of Paul, I was able to really put my heart and soul into the vocal performances on the album and to help to tell the tale the best I could. So that’s sort of the overall reason that album is so special to me personally.

Myglobalmind: Zak I’m going to be honest with you and I get the same feedback as I’m sure you do as well many times over from Savatage fans, we need to have the band back together again, a reunion is a MUST. I know I’m not in the minority here. I know Jon has his own band and Trans Siberian Orchestra has been established to be huge and very profitable with Sava former players leading that entity, and we know that many of the members from Sava era are involved with many side projects like your own band Circle II Circle for instance, Caffery’s solo stuff etc, but I personally feel that is time to bring back Savatage!!! What are the chances? I know you have said in the past that you’re not opposed to that idea? What’s holding things back?

 

ZS: As far the question goes, I obviously don’t have too much control in the overall decisions on that stuff obviously. Of course those decisions will ultimately fall to Jon Oliva and Paul O’Neill and it’s hard to know exactly how they feel about the subject as time rolls on here unless you ask them personally I suppose. But yes I’m definitely not opposed to the idea and as a matter of fact I’ve always stated that i would love to take part in such a reunion if it ever came to be, most definitely. And the organization knows this so my position is no surprise to anyone by now of course. Like a lot of bands that have had reunions, it’s the fans that ultimately can make things happen more than they probably know. So if the consensus continues with the vigor in which you have stated, then I think it may naturally occur at some point. I would say to the fans if you want it then let your voices be heard to Jon and Paul and let them hear your concerns. And maybe this will all work out someday. But it would be a lot of fun to do that for sure. We’ll see what happens I guess but I believe fate has a way of working things out, I really do.

 

Myglobalmind: There’s some mystique about the quality of the band from that era, it still remains untouchable and even to this day has a big following in the metal circles. Is what they say sometimes about a good rock song, if it’s good it could have been made 20 years ago but if it’s that good it will stand the test of time, Savatage and their music is one of those bands to me? What do you think?

ZS: I totally agree. I have always believed that great music, especially great rock music, will always stand the test of time. It takes a strong combination of great songs and great talent to make a Savatage-type music legacy for a band. In this day and time, everything is just thrown together by record labels and nobody wants to take the time to cultivate great bands anymore. It’s like wine….It takes time to get this type of quality and these days labels want immediate sales results and the record done in a week in a computer by a guy named ‘Will I Am’ and people like that. So therefore most acts these days are over and lost away never to heard from again in one or two years. Either that or you get discovered on American Idol and your career is over in one year on the average. To get something like a Savatage would take too many resources for a modern day label therefore that would be impossible by today’s music label-made quality standards. Only rap and hip-hop music can fit current labels’ model of fast buck money-making music with zero budget. So rock bands like Savatage are a thing that can never be repeated again in this industry because it takes too much quality and labels don’t have time for that these days. So such is the state of music in this day and time….Poor and disgusting….

 

Myglobalmind: Looking back at it now and I respect your decision to leave the band to spend more time with your family, was that a hard choice back then to explain to fans of the band or the band itself?

 

ZS: Not really when I look back at the scope of having a newborn child for the first time in my life and knowing that I hadn’t been home much if any at all in about two years prior. And the guys really understood the scope of it as well, especially Paul O’Neill who saw his first daughter come into the world only a few months later after my oldest daughter was born. So in that sense it really wasn’t a hard sell at the time, especially since that was the time of the Savatage-to-TSO transition as well so there were many things going on in those areas as well.

 

Myglobalmind: Well I think is safe to say that you have paved your own way when you started Circle II Circle, are you still 100 percent committed to your band and can you give us an update on the new album, I know you guys are working in the studio with the new album titled “Seasons Will Fall”. Any surprises on the new record?

ZS: Of course “Seasons Will Fall” will be as different as all the other CIIC albums have been individually. I think there are some nice surprises on this one. This will be our sixth album and I think the band is just now coming into its own as everyone will see in the next five years, especially. We’re really excited about the new album and it may just be the first released on my own label for a change but we haven’t quite decided on that fully as of yet. But we will let you know as soon as we find out!

 

Myglobalmind: What can be expect musically from your new record?

 

ZS: This is really an epic record in all proportions musically. There are the 8-minute epic songs, some really good hard metal tunes, and also some nice traditional hard rock/metal that CIIC is known for. There will be really strong melodies across the board vocally and I’ll be bringing back some of that counter-point vocal stuff for all of you who like that stuff. Really it’s a deep, dark, hard rocking album but it still keep a nice melodic edge and it has some really strong radio-ready stuff on there too. I really think it’s going to be our strongest CIIC album we’ve ever released.

 

 

Myglobalmind: I read last year that Circle II Circle will be performing in this year’s Wacken Open Air Festival in Germany, and Chris Caffery will be guesting and you guys will perform the entire Wake of Magellan album? Tell me about that?

 

ZS: That’s correct. We’ll be at Wacken with Criss Caffery as our guest for a few songs and we’ll be featuring all the songs from the W.O.M. album in the performance, as well as a few of the most requested CIIC songs from our era. It should be an amazing night of music! We will be featuring our new drummer Jayson Moore and well as guest keyboardist/vocalist Henning Wanner (White Lion/Jaded Heart) in this performance and this will be the starting point for more full Savatage album performances in the future for CIIC so we’re really excited about this show.

 

Myglobalmind: Can we expect any other type of contributions from Zak Stevens in the near future apart from Circle II Circle?

 

ZS: As far as record albums no, but I’ll be doing some’ Zak Stevens’ appearances with the Brazilian band Soul Spell Metal Opera in Brazil on a few different occasions this year and performing Savatage music sets for our fans in Brazil. This seems to be becoming a nice tradition over there apart from the normal CIIC acoustic and full-band tours that we do over there on a yearly basis as well.

 

Myglobalmind: I would be remiss if I didn’t mention another tragic loss recently of another great guitar player in Matt Laporte last year; who was the guitar player for Jon Oliva’s Pain and also played for your band as well. I know all you guys are close friends and this was another terrible loss and what makes it even tougher is how big of a Criss Oliva fan he was. Your thoughts?

 

ZS: You couldn’t be more correct Denys. It was a total shock to lose Matt this past year and even more so with the fact that I talked to him only a few days before he passed. I still haven’t really come to grips with the loss of matt to tell you the truth. So it’s a bit difficult for me to talk about it still. We have a song on the new SWF album that we are writing at this very time that will be dedicated to our great friend and original CIIC guitarist Matt Laporte. Matt was such an amazingly talented guitarist and I’m just so glad i got a chance to see him wield his artistry in the studio with us so many times. He will be so greatly missed at all times within the CIIC family. it’s been a real tough year for us with his passing. We wish his family the best in their recovery from his loss as well.

Myglobalmind: Man Zak what is it about young talented guitar players gone way too soon? There has to be something odd about this, time and time again we see this happening. I like to call it “the great gig in the sky syndrome” cause you know if they are up there somewhere all these guys are having a monster jam session. That’s my theory and I’m sticking to it, what do you think?

 

ZS: I like your take on that man….I’m often so puzzled by the whole concept of why we have to lose such awesome talented guitarists so soon….That must be the most amazing jam session ever assembled up there in the sky….No doubt about it.

 

Myglobalmind: Let’s finish up with some fun questions alright? Do you have a favorite album of all time? Any band or genre will suffice.

 

ZS: I guess I still go back to “Stained Class” by Judas Priest because that just a magical time in my life as a freshman in high school and I do believe I lost my virginity to that album if I’m not mistaken ha ha!!

 

Myglobalmind: What was the biggest live venue you have ever been a part of while in a band?

 

ZS: It’s either Wacken, Germany ’96 with Savatage of the Phillips Monsters of Rock Festival in Sao Paulo, Brazil with Savatage in ’98. Both shows had around 80,000 people in attendance. Totally crazy.

 

Myglobalmind: Best advice that you have received from a fellow musician?

 

ZS: “I wouldn’t wish this gig on anybody” Ha Ha…..

 

Myglobalmind: Recent news of the congress trying to pass these bills to restrict the internet and the piracy controversy are making splashes everywhere. Obviously with the direct affect on the music industry and you as a musician yourself and the impact of illegal downloading; what is your opinion on the matter?

ZS: As a matter of fact I have already written to both my state representatives and both congressmen and sent them a nice little video synopsis of why they shouldn’t listen to the record labels lobbyists that are trying to tell them they are losing money due to downloading when the big labels actually OWN and SUPPORT most all of the so-called “bad” download services and they have been making millions of dollars on them for years!! And now the labels now want to own the internet and limit everyone’s usage and take away our freedoms on the internet….Record labels owning Facebook??? Imagine??? Are we going to let the same record labels that force us to listen to “Will I Am” and “Fergy” and “Katy Perry” and Bruno Mars” and all hip-hop music (which is the only music that sells these days) own the internet? People we’d better wise up and stop them and call them out on their “poor me” lie about the downloading services they practically have owned for years…Not good…Take back the internet from the record labels people please!!!!! Or the music business will be even more doomed than it already is!!! And it can’t really get any worse because of “Will I Am” and crew ha ha……

 

Myglobalmind: If we switched places and I was the artist and you were asking the questions, what is one question you would ask me? Why?

 

ZS: “Why do you still want to be in a business that’s totally controlled by hip hop artists and crooked labels who want to take away the internet from everyone?”

 

Myglobalmind: Alright Zak I really appreciate the time and look forward to the new Circle II Circle album.

 

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