April 2011 (live broadcast via phone, The World Of Trans-Siberian Orchestra Podcast Episode #14)
Zak Stevens first came to national prominance when he was chosen to take on the frontman role in the prog-metal band Savatage, following the quasi-departure of founder/keyboardist/songwriter Jon Oliva in the wake of the death of his guitar playing brother Criss. Zak had previously been playing in Wicked Witch, who would change their name to Machines Of Grace & release one studio album in 2009. MOG's drummer was Jeff Plate who would follow Stevens into Savatage & later move into Savatage's new incarnation as Trans-Siberian Orchestra. Stevens would perform on numerous tours & 4 studio albums before leaving Savatage in 2000 to spend more time with his family. Savatage released one more album before calling it a day indefinetly, much to fans dismay, to focus all energy on the more financially successful TSO. Ironically, the song that would transform Savatage into TSO, "Sarajevo (Christmas Eve 12/24)", was an instrumental & Zak would be the only one at the time in Savatage to not join TSO, though he'd contribute chorus vocals to every album. In 2002 Stevens formed Circle II Circle. CIIC's debut album featured Oliva & Chris Caffery from Savatage & was meant only as a one-off but found itself moving into longevity. In an ironic twist of fate the original line-up of CIIC left Stevens for Oliva creating Jon Oliva's Pain. But, this mutiny would end up putting CIIC firmly into Steven's hand as his own entity away from the shadow & influence of Savatage. With a six album dropping in 2013 & Zak's career only moving forward regrets are few.
With about 100 episodes over nearly 2 years I presented a (bi-)weekly podcast, 'The World Of Trans-Siberian Orchestra', looking at nearly everything related to TSO & its earlier incarnation as Savatage. One of the earlier episodes was to feature a look at the music/career of former frontman Zak Stevens. I introduced the episode by sharing my thoughts of how if I could sing like anyone Zak topped my list. I also compared his voice to what I imagined it would sound like if the god Thor sang - deep, booming & emotional with delightful control over the nuances. To demonstrate I played the Savatage song "This Is The Time", one of my favorite Savatage songs, from Dead Winter Dead. For me the best part of the song is the ascending melody line of the chorus ... which I'd actually echoed once in a rehearsal of a past band of my own as my singer was struggling with a melody line that was all high with no range. Immediately following the song a call came through the switchboard. I didn't know who was on the line, though I'd e-mailed Zak the night before & we'd conversed a bit over e-mail. He said he might try to call in but giving him notice at last moment I didn't get my hopes up. But, there he was on the phone as promised. We'd never talked before so this was an absolute delight. The questions were all off the cuff. I didn't plan anything in case he didn't call. A later episode looked at Circle II Circle & would include a follow-up interview about the activities of Circle II Circle. This was also off the cuff as I found talking to Zak was like talking to a friend. You don't prep conversations with friends.
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AJ: Hello caller, who am I talking to?
ZAK: This is only Zak Stevens, no big deal.
AJ: It's only Zak Stevens!
ZAK: Yeah, how's it going, Aaron?
AJ: Zak, thank you so much for calling!
ZAK: You got it, man, thanks a lot!
AJ: I really appreciate you calling & everything I just said is me being humble about how great I think you are & how great I think SAVATAGE was.
ZAK: Man, I really appreciate it. I mean, I was just listening to the song ["This Is The Time"] & listening to what you were talking about & I was getting chillbumps just ... you know, I'm riding around in my car right now going from one side of Tampa Bay to the other right quick ... but, I really appreciate it, man. You know it's always exciting.
AJ: Can I ask you ... what do you think when you hear that old stuff? It's been what, a decade since you left SAVATAGE & you recorded that in '96. What goes through your head?
ZAK: Well, you know, with SAVATAGE the music is really unparalleled & that was the lucky thing about being in that band. & the thing we always need to remember is that SAVATAGE's music is many many steps above what you normally hear just from day to day. I know you have your favorite band, that's one thing, but it was just a joy being in a band that had such a high level of musicianship & writing skills & being able to learn from that everyday. I think back about the massive learning experience it was, the joy it was performing it live. Playing all over the world & letting it take you all over the world. You know the whirlwind that it was. That's a lot of thoughts, a thousand thoughts in a second. But, it's everything that it was & it was just amazing.
AJ: Absolutely. Well, I have to tell you, Zak, I'll be completely honest - I love SAVATAGE. It's a great heavy band for me. I've always been saddened by the fact that you never continued with TSO. I always wished that you had sang with them, too.
ZAK: Really it was just a strange thing, because, you know, I sing on all the records.
AJ: In backing.
ZAK: I can get into the recording sessions. But, being in CIRCLE II CIRCLE its so busy & it has just gotten busier & busier over the years & that's an 8 year old band in itself, so that's what's really just kept me from being able to be on the road singing every night at Christmas time or even right now. I'm getting ready to go see TSO here in Lakeland, Florida on the 23rd & taking my daughters with me. & I just got hooked up with those backstage passes & everything today. I still get treated like royalty from the whole family. I mean, I make one call, 'what'da need?', you know. But, you're right, I've always felt it was a little bit disappointing I wasn't able to go out there & be out there singing at Christmas a few songs a night. I know that there's a lot of singers. It would be a change for me because I'm used to playing these gigs where with CIRCLE II CIRCLE I'm singing 2 hours a night & nobody is taking the microphone from me. It would have to be a little bit of getting used to go out & sing 2 or 3 songs a night & just kind of stop. That would probably take me about 6 months to get used to right there. Other than that, yeah, my sentiments exactly. I think it's definitely gonna happen ... one day. I mean, I talked to Paul O'Neill not too long ago. He's like 'man, I just don't have anything quite...' But, he goes, 'but the one thing that's not gonna be right unless Zak Stevens' voice is on it.' Then he said, 'I'm gonna have to pull you out of what you're doing.' I said 'alright.' I appreciate him letting me have my free reigns & do my thing & my band, too. So, I know what you're saying & I definitely feel a little bit of that too.
AJ: It's funny, Zak, I've always seen ... it's like you're with SAVATAGE & you're part of that & even though you left right before the last album ... then there's TSO, but for me, when you left it makes TSO a separate entity. It's not just SAVATAGE with bigger lights & more fireworks. It really becomes a separate entity without your voice. You know what I'm saying?
ZAK: Yeah. Exactly, I think, really, astoundingly you hit on an important part - the marketing aspect. We even discussed early on ... I said 'I probably should take a step back if you want TSO to really standout as a separate entity & really try to differentiate that from SAVATAGE as a whole. & I'm sure it was a bit of a concern with all the powers that be that if I had come right out singing 5 or 6 songs on the first everybody would go 'hey, this is nothing different here.'
AJ: 'I've seen this band before.'
ZAK: You know folks can be so finicky & picky. 'There's no difference here between SAVATAGE & TSO.' So, we actually talked about that from a business angle early early on. So, the fact that you're saying that it actually succeeded in that marketing endeavor! But, then again, I get left out in the cold over here. No!
AJ: Well, that's partly true. I think also what I'm noticing with TSO over the years TSO is becoming this humongous entity that's pulling away from 'oh, by the way, here's Al Pitrelli of MEGADETH & here's this person & here's this person.' It's now just this group, you know, with people who come & go. & if you came in, now all of a sudden we have Zak Stevens of SAVATAGE & it kind of takes away from this ... almost like a circus that I think Paul, not in a negative way, it's more of a bit spotlight than individual spotlights, you know?
ZAK: Yeah & I appreciate that. I know what you're saying. You've got stars revolving into the current band. I don't know if that's good or bad.
AJ: Can I ask what you're up to now? I know that last year CIRCLE II CIRCLE you released what, you're sixth album?
ZAK: No, we're working on the sixth one right now. That was actually the fifth one.
AJ: I'm sorry, I'm sorry. I was looking at some stuff the other day on it. Well, can you tell me what you're up to now, what's going on with CIRCLE II CIRCLE?
ZAK: Yeah, we're actually writing songs for the next album already. We're gonna have a new record deal coming up. We did the first 5 albums with a record label, AFM Records, now we're off that. We're kinda graduating up to the next level. I don't have exact details of the kind right now. Next week I'm working on that.
AJ: What's your plans for touring? Are you guys ... now that you're writing you're probably not touring now? But, any future plans on that scene?
ZAK: Yeah, we just got back from the Chicago mid-west area. We did 6 shows out there. We go out for 6 or 7 show spurts here when we're not in Europe. We're going to Europe ... well, I'm going to be going to Brazil in a few months to make some personal appearances, because we had a CIRCLE II CIRCLE tour of Brazil that we just completed a few months ago. It was actually summertime over there & it was winter over there, so it was called the summer tour & everybody is going 'what are you talking about?' Well, you got to remember they have opposite seasons. So, we got that done & I'm gonna go back & open us up in a few more markets over there like Brazil, the capitol where we haven't really played before. SAVATAGE started playing in Sao Paulo back in '98 & I've just kept on going.
AJ: I've seen the videos, man.
ZAK: So that opened up the market for me to continue to be able to do that with CIRCLE II CIRCLE. So I'm gonna go do that. Then, we're headed to Europe for a festival tour. We have a lot of festivals & we're headlining 3 of them in Europe & that's CIRCLE II CIRCLE. So, we're moving up in the world on that. Basically, that's about it. We're gonna work on the next album with a new label. & I'm singing on a few things. Namely, I think Monday I'm gonna go work on Japan. There's a Japan relief project in the works that's gonna be almost like a "We Are The World" with heavy metal guys. I don't want to give too much away, so I gotta stop right there.
AJ: Nope, that's fine, man. I'll tell everyone to go on your website.
ZAK: Yes, you can do that. Circle2circle.net that's a directly site to all the social media, everything that you wanna know. There's links to everything, every site, twitter, Reverb Nation, Facebook, Myspace, blah blah blah.
AJ: All that great stuff.
ZAK: But, that's gonna be neat & I like that because there's gonna be a video involved in that. I heard the song already & it is like, wow, man! It's a great song for a lot of rocker guys to go raise money to go help that disaster of a situation in Japan [re: nuclear plant explosion]. I'm happy to be a part of that. Happy to be asked. People are asking me to do all kinds of stuff now & I just really appreciate it. & it keeps me out there singing & it keeps me young.
AJ: Do you see any plans in the immediate future reuniting with Jeff Plate [of SAVATAGE/TSO] & MACHINES OF GRACE?
ZAK: Yes, as a matter of fact I'm talking to Jeff right now & we're trying to get a few dates set aside for that inbetween what I got to do with CIRCLE II CIRCLE & all the other stuff in the fall. So, we are really working on that right now to try to get out & play a few. We really have a great time with MOG. It's got a lot of great songs. That's what me & Jeff did before we got in SAVATAGE, you know, that was the band we were in before.
AJ: I know. WICKED WITCH, right?
ZAK: Exactly. That is WICKET WITCH. We changed the name. You know that's the band I was in before I got pulled away so egregiously by SAVATAGE. No, I'm just kidding. Later on when they looked for a drummer I said 'hey, you guys got to use the drummer I had in WICKED WITCH, baby.' & they went, 'oh yeah, whose that?' The next thing, you know the story from there, he did 3 or 4 albums & all those albums with TSO. We're just waiting.
AJ: Here's the irony, Zak, you are actually an accomplished drummer yourself.
ZAK: That's right. Thank you!
AJ: I hunted around on youtube for some videos of you drumming & I know you do sit behind the drumkit with CIRCLE II CIRCLE too.
AJ: But, it's an odd thing, for someone whose played in bands, you're always looking for a drummer. There's not enough drummers to go around. & here we have a drummer & yet he's also a great singer. It's like which do you do.
ZAK: I appreciate it. Yup, drums is my first instrument. After college I really decided to pursue the frontman role & vocals. & even in all my bands I was in in high school & middle school & all that I'm the drummer, but they made me sing the whole time. I kept saying 'would you please find a singer. This is getting really tiring back here & I'm getting old.' & they go 'no, remember the last 17 auditions we didn't find anybody better than you. Remember those last 17 auditions?' & I said, 'yeah, I know, but Jesus!' So, anyway, I finally get out front.
AJ: Well, you just go into the history books with Don Henley & Phil Collins & Mickey Dolenz ... well, maybe not.
ZAK: Maybe, but I don't do enough of it. Maybe one day I'll get back behind the kit a little bit more & actually sing back there, which would put me in a competitive mode.
AJ: Excellent. Listen, Zak, I'm literally down to the last few minutes.
AJ: I can't thank you enough for calling in. It means more than I can relay to you.
ZAK: Well, you know I so much appreciate it, Aaron. The show is so exciting to me to hear that. When you contacted me & said you were gonna do this I went 'wow.' I showed my kids. I said 'look guys...' I've got 2 daughters but of course I call them guys. 'Hey guys, look, I'm a featured star on this show right here!' They came in & saw that & they were like 'wow, dad, you must be kinda big then.' They still don't really know, they still can't really fathom what I do. Which is the funny thing. I really appreciate it, man. I can't thank you enough. I'll be glad to call you again sometime.
AJ: Absolutely. We'll talk down the road sometime, Zak. I have more I'd love to talk to you about in another time or another forum. Again, I really appreciate it. As I said, I've always loved SAVATAGE because you're a part of it & your voice is just to me amazing. It's like I've never been able to get into TSO quite as much because you're not a part of it. That sounds a little bit emotional but it's absolutely being honest with you.
ZAK: Well, I really appreciate that & it means a lot.
AJ: The new CIRCLE II CIRCLE is heavy & it's great & I wish you absolutely the best on what you're writing now & what you're recording & let me know about it & I'll share it.
ZAK: You got it. I certainly will do that. We're excited about it. As it proceeds along I'll definitely be in touch. I appreciate everything. Thanks so much, Aaron.
AJ: Zak, thanks for calling. You have a good rest of your night.
ZAK: Good night, man. I'll see you soon because CIRCLE II CIRCLE we're gonna be working our way up into the northeast there, so we'll talk & share all those other stories.
AJ: I'm up here in Manhattan, so if you come to the city I'll be there.