Thanksgiving 2011 (phone)
Vocalist Zak Stevens first came to national attention when he become the new frontman for the prog-metal band Savatage, following the 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 & stay with the band through their morph into Trans-Siberian Orchestra. Stevens would perform on numerous tours & 4 studio albums before moving on. Savatage released one more album before calling it a day, much to fans dismay even now 14 years later. 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 as Zak's solo band. In an ironic twist of fate the original line-up of CIIC left Stevens for Oliva's solo band 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 except as he wished to bring in the old music. In 2013 CIIC released their sixth album Seasons Will Fall, 3 years after their last release & featuring a brand new line-up except keyboardist/bassist Mitch Stewart.
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 & Savatage. One of the earlier episodes featured a look at the music/career of Zak. He called in & we spent 20 minutes doing a delightful impromptu live interview, which can be read on this blog. During the interview he mentioned new music, so a few months later we talked again for a follow-up. That pre-recorded interview, shared here, was broadcast as part of the episode focusing on Circle II Circle. In some ways this interview is now more historical than relevant news, as it looks at what went into the making of the then forthcoming but now released CIIC album Seasons Will Fall. Here he talks about getting the contract from the new label, but Zak went with a different label in the end. While there also was some line-up changes not predicted in this interview. But, just the same, Zak turns in a personable & interesting interview. I thoroughly enjoyed my 2 conversations with Zak & it's ashame we've not had a reason to talk more or that he's been able to tour up in New England.
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AJ: Back again. It's been quite a few months since you & I last touched base, so maybe you could give me a lowdown with what's new or what's going on with CIRCLE II CIRCLE or anything else you've got going on?
ZAK: We are writing the new album right now. We've done a good bit of it already. Basic tracks are going down. We're going to have 12 songs. The next album will be called Seasons Will Fall, which is the title track. One of the first songs that we wrote on the album. We have a new record label & they really liked the title. We have no clue what it means, though. We've got some good art coming along. It reminds me of the original BLACK SABBATH album cover of the original BLACK SABBATH Black Sabbath album with the house & really dark. I've kinda got something like that. It doesn't look really like that, but it reminds me subliminally of that. That's coming along, so I like that.
AJ: Good, good.
ZAK: We've got the artist still working on final drafts for that. So, Seasons Will Fall is the title. We probably will be releasing it probably summer. We're just now waiting on the contract to come from the new label. So, at this time I'm going to say ... until I sign that, I'm not going to give away the name ...
AJ: That's fine.
ZAK: But, I'll say we're under negotiations right now & we've got a fantastic new label coming that you'll see. I don't really want to say anything until I get the actual contract.
AJ: I understand how that goes, Zak. Can I ask ... what spurred the move to the new label?
ZAK: Yeah, we kinda just outgrew the last label. You know, AFM Records they're kinda a small label over there in Germany. We did 5 albums with them & we grew with them. You know you grow with them, you grow with them & then all of a sudden you find that we kinda outgrew that situation.
AJ: That's good, actually, right?
ZAK: It is good.
AJ: I mean, that's essentially what you want.
ZAK: Yes, exactly. They were good for Europe, but when you move & you want some strong things to happen all over the world ... We go to Brazil all the time. Central America is coming up. We have the USA that we tour quite frequently. So, when it came to some other things, we needed them to be able to commit to those territories. They just don't have the resources. So, we have to say bye-bye & that's okay. It's good for everybody. That way they can concentrate on what they need to for their European bands & we can go into a more of a worldwide situation & be able to get a little more of a confident situation going. So, that's why we had to move along. But, it's all okay, with no cussing & bashing out people. They understand what their resources are & we understand what resources we need.
AJ: Excellent. I wish you a lot of luck with this, Zak, going through the contract signing & the typical headaches that go with that, you know.
ZAK: We are close. Basically, I have it. I'm just waiting on the hard copy to come that I can sign & fax it back. I actually have the Word document. We a little bit past the old scary parts that everybody hates, the business part. It's a little bit further than that, where you're just don't even know if you're going to get a document. Matter of fact, I was looking at the document earlier with my manager & some stuff we found, which is good stuff, how to handle certain pieces of funds.
AJ: Of course.
ZAK: I've been looking at the contract every night, which is a very great thing to be able to be looking at it & to actually dig now in it & figure out what we're going to do with little commitments, you know, here & there. That's good to say, because really a couple weeks ago I couldn't even tell you that I could even look at the document. & that's the way the business is. You hear a lot of stuff & it never comes.
AJ: & then they surprise you with something.
ZAK: Yeah, 'Wait a minute, this is nothing that we talked about.' Actually, it came & it was really really spot-on to what we had talked about & that surprised us, so that's good as well, because that's another problem in the music business. All kind of rediculous stuff that comes & you didn't discuss any of that.
AJ: That's the way the business goes.
ZAK: Publishing is another whole thing. We've got some interesting things going on with ours & it's kinda neat. I'm going to be wheeling & dealing a little bit with all that, too.
AJ: Let me just ask, Zak, is this an American label?
ZAK: Nope. They're a European label, but it's one that has big accountability to do a lot more things that we needed to get done.
AJ: Why are you going for a European label?
ZAK: Well, you know, we play over there a lot. It's actually with people that I had worked with back in SAVATAGE days. It's some of the people that were with another completely different company. A company C&M Promotions which is still in business over there. Some friends of ours. & one of the guys that worked for the company has gone on & he's the president of the label, the one whose doing this. It was kinda deal with a team with a guy who I used to go to this place ... it's kinda like a NAMM show they have in Germany, kind of a European version of NAMM, & I used to go in the same car with this guy. We'd be headed to POP TOPS to promote SAVATAGE. You know, it's kinda good to get back with somebody like that. That was another reason I wanted to go with them.
AJ: Well, he knows where you've been.
ZAK: A good old friend. They know it. They know everything about where I've come from & where we need to go. Those kinda things matter, too. You know, old relationships that you want to cultivate.
AJ: Excellent, Zak. So, have you started recording any or are you just writing?
ZAK: We have recorded a lot. We're getting lines down on basics. Now I have done a lot of vocal recording myself, but it was mostly a demo kind of thing. We actually performed the title track, "Seasons Will Fall". That was a song that we did in the studio the last time we went to Europe on tour, this past August. We stopped in a studio. "Let's just record it & we'll invite the Vice-President & the Pres on down from the label to see if he likes it." So, he saw us recording it & saw the process & stuff like that & heard it. Then we invited him in & kinda like sat in the chair & turned around & acted like he wasn't looking at anything. So, he turned around & said "I don't like it ... I don't like it, I love it." You know how they love to do that. That's really how we got signed. So, we've done stuff like that, but I don't really consider that keeper keeper because we're on the road. I like the fresh everyday stuff. Those kinds of things, there's about 3 or 4 songs like that, so I'll be going back & re-recording them. The second time you know what you want to improve on that stuff. I haven't done final vocal takes. I'll probably do that next month. I'm plenty early with it. It's not really slated to come out ... I guess I could take a wild guess. August. It comes out in time for the festivals over there, the festivals in Europe. I think that's another reasons for a European label. You think about we go places, European festivals all the time, stuff like WACKEN, big stuff like that. So, we are doing that. You know they wanted to coincide the release with some of those performances.
AJ: Of course.
ZAK: That's cool, But, I think, you still have a 3 month lead time on that, so you can't really rest on your laurels too much. You've got to get it done.
AJ: Everything takes so much time, too. Same band? Same line-up? No changes with the boys?
ZAK: As of right now, that's correct.
AJ: "As of right now." Don't say that, Zak. Don't jinx yourself, man.
ZAK: We touched base with that, though. That's the stuff that the label will actually ... that's the kinda stuff that can change, because the label starts putting in there its 2 cents worth. I've heard inklings. I don't know if it's going to result in any stuff. That's another thing about the business. I have to go through all that next.
AJ: Those outside influences. What's been inspiring Zak Stevens the writer that we might be seeing on the new album?
ZAK: You know, you meet people. I've kinda met some interesting people lately. The way they do things is inspiring. I think that's going to show up a little bit. What I'm learning from people is going to show up. You know I usually write about experiences & stuff like that. Travelling on the road & that's going to still be stuff that's going to show up. Stuff from the past tours in Europe. Went to Brazil & we're going there again for 2 tours in March & September of next year. You know that kinda stuff is going to show up. I guess I'm out there just sort of looking for a lot of inspirations & I think some of that definitely will go into the lyrics. "Seasons Will Fall" I joke & say "what does that mean?" That title could really be one of many things.
AJ: I know your style, man.
ZAK: "This is about walking the dog." Well, it may not be that solid. But, you know what that really is about? You may be in a certain place in life. You know, you may be dreaming about doing different things. You may be in a certain situation. But, everything changes, whether you want it to or not. & even if you're in a super situation things could change. But, if you are not in the situation you want to be in change will occur also. So, seasons will always change & therefore a situation does not always have to remain the same. So, that's kinda where I was coming from on that one. Or, just when you think it will never change or you're stuck in a rut, you know, change really comes at the weirdest times, the surprising times. So, that's kinda where that one comes from. & we've got one called "Dreams That Never Die." Which is a crazy song that has probably a little bit of that, what I call the ... you know it's got all the different melody lines that repeat & there's different things. We talk about counterpoint vocals. We actually have that a little bit going on again on the album.
AJ: Counterpoint vocals. That sounds like a SAVATAGE thing.
ZAK: Yes, it is. It was something I was very involved with, with Paul O'Neill [producer of SAVATAGE], in coming up with, things like that & making it really happen. So, I still enjoy doing it from time to time. That one's going to have a little bit of that on there. "Dreams That Never Die" is kinda about, hey, no matter what you're doing, the dreams you had really won't die, they just won't go away. & if it's something you really wanted that you never tried, that's not going to go away, folks, you're going to have to go ahead & come face to face with it at some point. & you've got a decision to make. Do you want to try to make some of that happen for yourself or do you want to just be okay with not doing it. On the other hand, you might have this traumatic thing happen in life & it may cause you dreams, that you keep dreaming about that horrible thing. Hopefully that won't happen, but on the other token, sometimes people want that dream to die. Yet, that might never die either. So, it's very strange. I guess I'm saying I'm going to be very strange. You know, that's one of the titles that kinda gets throw in there about dreams you might have personally or goals that you might have. What are you going to do about that kinda thing? These are my personal things, like the divorce, that I'm just now kinda healing after & I feel like things are getting a little bit back to normal. That takes awhile. Not to put too much personal stuff out there, but from my standpoint I think it could be very positive in some aspects, because I'm coming around & kinda getting back to normal, you know, or getting into this, getting into the new sides & new groove here. You know, out from the darkness & into the light kinda thing. I think some of that might show up. That should definitly show up on the new record.
AJ: I was thinking, but didn't want to ask, what have you been going through, if these are the seasons of the album.
ZAK: That's a good part of it. But, that's a good one. Because, I think there was a time in writing the other ones you could see a lot of darkness. A lot of dark stuff going on. 'God, what's going on with this guy here?' I think I was reflecting some of what was going on before that, too. I'm just happy to be coming out the other side &, you know, having the light more so than the other side.
AJ: I know what you mean.
ZAK: I don't try to hide too much like that. I think you have to be honest with yourself & say what's in your heart at the time. That's the stuff that's gonna be what people are going to believe. So that stuff is the easier.
AJ: I tell people that some of the best lyrics are the ones that are hard & angry or hateful or they're hurting lyrics, because it's like you can't fake that emotion. You can't fake pain. But, it's kinda easy to write a tie a yellow ribbon type song. My feeling is that hardcore feelings come across much more real & vivid then writing a happy song.
ZAK: That's true. & even though I'm enjoying coming out of some of that, I think that honesty is a big part of that. Be honest about what you're feeling. It might be going more towards tie a yellow ribbon more than like crap ...
AJ: You know what I mean.
ZAK: I know. Exactly. But, I think the honest approach you can still get behind that. & when you sing then the believability is there. I mean, that's a big part of it. I mean, that's something we always work from for my whole career, even with SAVATAGE. That was one of the things that Paul O'Neill would say: "I don't believe you. I don't believe it. It's time to do that one again." It's all about believability.
AJ: I'm going to throw a big question out here, as you've kinda been bouncing around with something, Zak. I'm sure there's others who might want to know. 6 CIRCLE II CIRCLE albums, some work with MACHINES OF GRACE, obviously SAVATAGE, but when you look back at that first CIRCLE II CIRCLE album with Jon Oliva of SAVATAGE, what's your thoughts? How do you look back on this whole experience or this adventure?
ZAK: On CIRCLE II CIRCLE?
AJ: Where it's come from & where it is now.
ZAK: It's been crazy. It's gone everywhere a band can go. If you want to say: "Let's go on the craziest ride possible." On the first album it started out with Jon & Chris Caffery [guitarist of SAVATAGE]. We had this outlet where we could write songs together, because that was one of the things we really wanted to do that we discussed all the time when we were in SAVATAGE. You know Paul [O'Neill] & Jon wrote most of the stuff at that time. So, I said, "We've got this outlet & it's going to be my band, CIRCLE II CIRCLE, & cool!" We thought it was going to be the one & only, one & done. & I would just be doing whatever, singing with TRANS-SIBERIAN ORCHESTRA or if they made more SAVATAGE albums or whatever. But, it kept going. You know it goes through a definite morphing of the different things. It has different line-ups, you know, & everything you could possible have happen in a band. But, you know one good thing from then to now is it's been a good learning experience for me as far as being a producer of sorts & having to grow up in that area. Songwriting. I've gotten better at it. I wasn't the greatest in the world. A lot of singers will tell you we don't like to write lyrics, but we complain & cry. But, you know, that's really been what its been to me. It's been that great way to put some of the practice you wanted to work on anyways as an artist & grow as an artist. I like where I've come from. Now going into number 6 it really feels like some of the stuff is coming together now. It really feels like everything I might have struggled with, tried to get better at & it took a few albums with this thing or 4 albums with the other thing. Now it's all kinda feeling like its in a nice little melting pot & I can just pull the ingredients out when I need it. There's still a big learning process. I think still, even going into number 6, I'm still learning how to try to be better at what I would leave out & what I would put in. It's different from album to album. But, it's just been a good ... if anything it keeps my vocal chops up. I try to stretch myself as much as I can & try to keep getting better & keep learning, especially on the songwriting aspect. I think the voice has always been there for me, so I didn't have to work too awfully hard on it. Try not to rest on that & just try to improve on the other areas that didn't come easy.
AJ: That's good, that's good.
ZAK: So, that's like the biggest thing for me, just trying to get it right, different things & big things. & now we've got the label situation. That stuff is good for the bigger things we've been wanting & now we have the back up. The pressures on more than ever. The pressure is on more than ever right now, so the pressure factor has increased with every album. You would think it would let off at some point.
ZAK: You try to go to bigger things, but then you've automatically put more pressure on. I never ran away from the pressure, so hopefully we'll rise to that this time, too.
AJ: Excellent, man. Do you have anything else in the pot or are you just focusing on the new CIRCLE II CIRCLE?
ZAK: Pretty much just CIRCLE II CIRCLE right now. That's pretty much it. Just trying to make a real doozy right here. We've got really great stuff I'm very happy with. We've pretty much laid out the way it's going to look. We wrote about 16 or 17 songs. Now I can actually envision this thing, you know how it's going to be laid out. Looking at it, I don't have titles for everything yet. Still writing a lot of lyrics, but I'm really liking the way that it's coming out & it's a little bit of everything. It's really a little bit of every album so far. & I like that. It's going to equal pieces of 1 through 5. It even goes back to Watching In Silence. We've definitely got some Watching In Silence stuff.
AJ: Every album has been a little different.
ZAK: Yeah, every album has been pretty different. But, I think this is the time to encapsulate what we began & I actually told the guys I want a little bit of everything, plus something different. So we tried to get a little bit of everything, plus the usual something different. That's a tall order. So, we've been working our butts off to get that going in the next couple of months. I just hit up Night Castle Management [of TRANS-SIBERIAN ORCHESTRA] for a few things. My daughters have to go. My youngest has never seen TSO. It was time this year to go ahead and get little Zoe into the mix with her big sister who called me tonight & said "Let me know when that e-mail comes through & we'll take Zoe." So, I said I'd check back in with her.
AJ: You'll see the guys, so that's good.
ZAK: So, I have to inform her I did sign off the e-mail for my usual set of favors.
AJ: Of course. I gotta ask you one question more, Zak, & that's the question that everybody at some point ... no, let me put it like this ... it's the question that Jon Oliva hates. Do you know the question? Is there anything going to happen, that you know of, in any way shape or form anytime in the future related to SAVATAGE?
ZAK: Not that I know of. But, they know my stance on that. I'm definietly in. They know that & that's good for them to know. & I like to look at the SAVATAGE website & see that I'm still the man on there!
AJ: That's right.
ZAK: They know my situation on that. But, I don't know of anything, to be honest with you, that's because Jon hates the question.
AJ: I know.
ZAK: He doesn't give any information.
AJ: If you go on youtube & you'll find interviews where he goes "Alright, I'll answer any question, except for about the future of SAVATAGE. So, it's just going to be a review night."
AJ: You know Atlantic Records just reissued & remastered Dead Winter Dead & Edge Of Thorns.
ZAK: Right. That's why I'm asked a lot more questions now, plus they had that release [greatest hits] Still The Orchestra Plays. They had the Live In Japan; DVD in it. I got a lot more questions after that came out. & now with the re-release of those 2 & the remastering of all that stuff, yeah, I've been getting a lot more. & I just say the truth is I don't know of anything & I haven't heard. If something brews up it would be real neat & a lot of people love it. I talk to [Chris] Caffery all the time. We're big fans of it, but you know, we got to wait for the right time.
AJ: That's been the answer for the last decade.
ZAK: We don't know anything.
AJ: I'll tell you, Zak, if I was in your court, there's 2 things I would do. I would put out product. I would love to see a live album from the later years. I love seeing you guys performing, you & Alex [Skolnick] or Al [Pitrelli], but would like to see me. & I personally don't like Still The Orchestra Plays. & there's another greatest hits out there, too. I don't think you guys have a difinitive greatest hits album, because it either ignores the first albums or it was made before your final album Poets & Madmen & neither of them in include "Sarajevo/Christmas Eve 12/24", which obviously is the big song. I think you guys deserve a box set.
ZAK: Wow, that'd be great. I'd love to see that. There might be a time where some of this might come to fruition.
AJ: You need to market the thing & then you go on tour.
ZAK: Exactly. That's not really problem now, but marketing that's going on with TSO. I hope so, man, that would be so much fun. It just takes time. Everybody is either playing in TSO or they're doing something. Everybody is still doing great. Before we get too old it would be great to do.
AJ: You're not that old, man, come on.
ZAK: I know. You know what I'm saying. You can't wait too long.
AJ: I know what you're saying. You know who I just got an e-mail from? Though, he's before your time. [Original SAVATAGE bassist] Keith Collins.
AJ: He heard one of my shows & sent me an e-mail with "AVATAR, SAVATAGE, Keith Collins" in the subject & I went shit. So, you never know.
ZAK: That guy is like an icon in Tampa.
AJ: Really? I'm really looking forward to reading what he has to say.
ZAK: I've only met him like one time & that was at a party, so I would probably need a more formal ... tell him I said hello.
AJ: I will, absolutely, now that you've told me you've talked to him. I'm looking forward to talking to him.
ZAK: Yeah, we could do some reunion type stuff. Not like full blown SAVATAGE. But, some of the bands before. Not like AVATAR, which is the same band.
ZAK: Anything that he was in before. I mean, I've seen a lot of actions to put together something, whoever they can get to do some reunions of the bands that might have been around before the guys joined SAVATAGE. I probably wouldn't be a part of that.
AJ: You came later.
ZAK: I was with MACHINES OF GRACE. So that might be some of the brouhaha you might be hearing.
AJ: I was just really stoked to hear from him. I want to know, have you ever met Damond Jiniya, your successor?
ZAK: We've talked a few times. He plays in a band here in Tampa.
ZAK: That's right. We went out & saw those guys one night & I talked to him that night Iw as there. It's was great. Yeah, I've talked to him at least 4 or 5 times.
AJ: I didn't know, because I know you left before Poets & Madmen was finished & then he joined for the tour later. Listen, Zak, I'm going to let you go. I've kept you plenty tonight. I appreciate talking with you.
ZAK: Thanks, man.
AJ: And, I need to let you know I'm doing a live interview on my show with a woman whose an erotic novelist & she wrote a short story using TSO as the backdrop.
ZAK: Oh, goodness.
AJ: I found it online & went oh shit. This woman dresses up as Santa Clause & it gets pretty raunchy.
AJ: It's so obscure & my goal is to dig into things folks don't know. But, she does not do interviews, because she's very shy. So, I have to thank you for this, because she heard our previous interview & she thought it was so great & wrote me "Aaron, I would love to talk to you."
AJ: So, I kinda gotta thank you, Zak, for making this future interview with her. I think it might shock people, though not in the way they expect. Something different, you know.
ZAK: You know, if I get lucky, in her story I can have a bit part. I think that would pretty much be the icing on the cake.
AJ: In this story she wrote there was icing on the cake.
ZAK: Oh no! You know, as a back-up vocalist we got to have a bit part.
AJ: Alright, we'll see! But, thanks for the news that I can share with everyone.
ZAK: Thanks so much for helping me get it out there. Appreciate it as always.