In 1992 Zak Stevens was brought into Savatage (a name that combines two words Avatar and Savage) to replace former creator and Master mind singer John Oliva who went onto pursue his solo career. Edge of Thorns was released and somehow Savatage was reborn soon after, unfortunately and under strange accidental circumstances Criss Oliva, guitarist for the Band died, yet the legacy was already set in the mold of one of the most influential and original bands in the History of Rock music. Interesting enough the Band formed by brothers John and Criss Oliva in Florida USA had have an earlier tenure as power Metal speed kings, in fact the band’s 1983 full-length debut, Sirens, mixed classic hard rock and metal with elements of thrash and speed metal, but they've always maintained their own particular style. Today the band has gone dormant into hiatus living us followers with the side projects of each members past and present, which includes de TSO (Trans Siberian Orchestra) that features former Savatage members Alex Skolnick, Al Pitrelli and of Course singer leader John Oliva. Zak Stevens stayed with Savatage for Four Studio recordings between 1993 and 1998. He added his own particular strength to the band's material, his well directed and original vocal lines are now immortal. As of right now Zak Stevens has a few projects going on, his legacy it's still been written but his influence is undoubtedly powerful and unique.
In 2001 Zak putted together Circle II Circle, a heavier and darker version of Savatage, with them he has released 4 albums, and currently working on a new one, toured extensively in Europe and now he’s back with one last project, the Machines Of Grace a new incarnation of his former Hard- Rock band previously known as Wickedwitch which includes former Savatage Drummer Jeff Plate and old pals Chris Rapoza and Matt Leff, bass player and guitarist respectively.
And there I was on a phone-web conversation with one of the most amazing and original singers in the history of Rock Music, who shared a few good memories past and present openly for MEP exclusively! (to post this anywhere else is prohibited)
MEP: - Hey (laughing) what’s up?
Zak: Not too much, very good!
MEP: - Ok let me pull out the interview for you:
Zak: - Ok!
MEP: - Let’s go straight onto this, Hi Zak how you feeling?
Zak: I’m felling pretty good a little bit tired, we had a 4 day press trip to New York City just this past weekend and we just got back just a few days ago for machines Of Grace so we got quite a few very important radio shows (pauses): some…you know like Eddie Trunk Live on Sirius XM Satellite Radio we covered that and three or four other
Stations that are up in the New York area and did some rehearsing so (pauses) we’re getting ready to play a few shows next weekend so we are trying to get our energy back from that (pauses) you know that kind of (pauses) you know a little bit of an energy draining press trip but you gotta like it, people seem to like the album a lot so we are talking about it to a lot of people, we are gonna go play some shows next weekend in Endicott New York and Brooklyn New York and then we are gonna go back and do another two shows on the 24th and the 25th of September with Stryper, Michael Sweet has invited us to open up on a few shows in Cleveland and Detroit, so we are going to go and do that, and that will probably be about it for… you know first four debut shows for Machines Of Grace ‘till the beginning of next year, but at list we have a few in and we are pretty happy about that (Laughs).
MEP: - Very interesting, man thanks to accept this request of talking to me directly, to me it’s an amazing honor…you know?
Zak: - Thank you!
MEP: - And I have a few questions here ( Pause ), you can hear me well right?
Zak: - Yes I can
MEP: - Ok, First of all Zack a pleasure to be talking with one of the most unique singers in Rock History, Your low range voice is dissimilar to the other vocalists and singers of that genre in which there were usually high pitch range voice singers featured on the Heavy Metal-Rock scene mold music particularly the time you were set up with Savatage, they are and influential and original Band and your voice fits perfectly that conception or concept of originality, can you tell me your origins as a Musician as far back as you can go, also influences and when did you start singing please?
Zak: - Yeah…(Pauses) well I was started singing when I was about nine years old, just when I started playing Drums and we have trouble finding vocalists, so they always had me doing all the vocals from behind the Drums (Laughs), so my…you know as far as early influences we are talking about…you know if you want to talk about the records that my Mom had…what I found when I was a kid, it goes back to things like; Credence Clearwater Revival, Three Dog Night (Pauses long), Chicago, (Pauses Longer)….wow, Manfred Mann…..let’s see (thinks a little bit), that’s probably the earliest things, and the first earliest records she bought me was Peter Frampton comes alive, then when I was getting started on my own, things I liked it was Kiss, you know!...first concert ever, that was the first concert ever I went when I was ten years old, the “Destroyer Tour”, well that was pretty, I don’t even know if I have ever seen a better show since then, it’s kind of a funny thing to think about.
MEP: - Of Course!
Zak: - Now and then you know of course what really got me into Metal singing was just those early…you know like Iron Maiden records with Bruce Dickinson and Ronnie Dio and his work with Black Sabbath and his solo project Geoff Tate with Queensr¥che were all huge influences, Metallica coming along…(takes a deep Breath), you know growing up in the eighties and that’s probably you know a full range of different influences, through the years and then I had of just kind of try develop my own style like you were saying, so that’s when…all that started when I started…you know my career with Savatage and since that I’ve gotten, see I’ve done ten albums in sixteen years so it’s been pretty lucky!
MEP: - Nice! I will go straight then onto Savatage: I read that Criss Savatage's lead guitarist and long-time producer Paul O'Neill heard demos of you? (Stevens) and wanted you to sing for the band. After an initial audition, you were considered to be the right man for the job and joined Savatage in 1993. Is this how it happened do you have brief memories on this?
Zak: - Yeah well really what happened I was living in Boston at the time playing with the Band Machines Of Grace, that was the first Band that I was fronting and now we’ve come back and we’ve putted back that together again under Machines Of Grace, so I was actually playing with that Band back at that time in Boston, it was under another name Wickedwitch, was the name of the band then, so when I was playing there, that’s when I got noticed with those demos that we’ve made that early Demos from that Band, the I had to go by car, I traveled to Paul O’neill’s ( Savatage’s producer and composer ) apartment and sat there with him playing guitar and him just saying: Hey just sing me some on the couch, you know?, I’m gonna play guitar so sing me some… what do you know, some Beatles? And stuff like that, and I would go…well yeah, play something, so really that’s how the real audition went down, me singing to Pau O’neill on his couch, it’s about as intimate as you can get and the other thing that it was in my big favorite it was, Criss Oliva’s Wife at the time Dawn (Pauses), who also recently passed away, its very sad she really liked me a lot and she was really big I really give her a lot of credit on getting me the gig too, cause she kept telling Criss; this guy is the one then really do it!, she loved the Wickedwitch stuff, you know back in the time, it’s kind of funny! She was really a big fan of mine so that help me out a lot and you know the guys liked it too so. That’s kind of the way the audition process went and they finally said come and live in Tampa in the summer of (Pauses longer and talks inspired) about this time of the year right now, right at the same time in 1992.
MEP: - Amazing!
Zak: - So I stayed in a hotel for about three or four weeks when I first got there cause (pauses and Laughs), its kind of like being in like you know you are hired on as a coach of a Football Team? You don’t pick up a house right away, they gotta see if you are gonna work out for, so you stay in a Hotel to see if your really the right guy (Laughs), so luckily I was able to get a house (Laughing) soon after that and I’ve been living here for sixteen years now, I never left.
MEP: - Ok! Then you liked it a lot then (Laughing), interesting, wow that might have been a great experience then. Next I would like to name each Savatage album you sang for, and if you can please just bring up a brief important memory from those moments maybe while recording?
Edge of Thorns 93:
Zak: - That was great because we were kind of writing the songs in rehearsals soon after that we were in the studio “Morrisound” cutting the vocals I just remember everybody being very supportive Criss Oliva you know, I’ve got into working with Him for about a year and getting lucky enough to be able to, you know , performing in that album with him before his passing, him (Pauses), you know I remember him in the studio saying go for it Zak you’re doing great, you know? And it was a lot of work we used to have many many takes of every song so, you know? It was just quite a lot of work going through that what’s Paul O’neill does he likes to get a lot of singing that he needs and then he concentrates on picking up the best performances so I just remember you know, working really hard on that one you know in that regard, that was the same way we did all the Savatage albums.
The song Sleep has a special meaning to you, the fact that it was re –recorded for Wake of Magellan with a slight change in the Lyrics?) was it dedicated to someone in particular?
Zak: - I think it was going out to Criss, you know Criss Oliva again! That was a video actually we did on the Edge Of Thorns Album too! So that was special in regards and the fact that we made a video too that actually you can go out and find as well too, so I always liked that song, nice acoustic song.
MEP: -Yeah one of my favorites slow songs too.
A Handful of Rain 94:
MEP: - tell us about the experience recording the Counterpoint vocals on the song “Chance”, were you involved on this idea?
Zak: -Yeah, me and Paul worked together with it, he came up with the fact that we can layer this different vocal melodies, my main thing was making sure that they worked well together and the main thing I brought in was I always brought that Harmony part in the second time you know kind of bring the Harmony in there you know the second time around and just kind of keep it going while the other part starts You know and just you know my main job was saying what do I need to double here, what needs a double track, what can survive? You know with me coming through with a strong single track and mainly my part was on the technical side? He came up with the concept of what we call counterpoint vocal, but my job was mainly on the technical side of it just making sure everything worked and come up really with the cool parts so just kind of keep it going
Dead Winter Dead 95:
Zak: - Hmm! Yeah that was great cause it was a concept album and we got learn about the former Yugoslavia and I just remember studying a lot, Paul handed me three large books and said: “you need to study about the history of Yugoslavia to be able to do a good job on this album” so I had to read a bunch of books where I came out pretty knowledgeable about the hole history of Yugoslavia going back way before Tito (former Socialist and politician) so it was like (laughing) Jesus we got to go way back!, buy it was great it kind of help me understand the war, it was a war that no one in America really understood, the ethnic pieces of the war, you know and the fact that the blame was throwing around when this certain aggressions happen it was such a very strange thing but I was glad to learn so much about it, and I even did a tour recently over places like Belgrade, there in Serbia, we played recently with Circle II Circle as well as Slovenia so we got to go back to those same countries and speak with the kids about their opinion about all that too, and I learn, you learn a lot more talking to the people from there that you even will in all of this so called Historical books of reference, so it was kind of cool.
Wake of Magellan 98:
Zak: -another concept album had many different kind of little stories in it, based on a shipping incident that happened with a (Pauses) I think with a north Korean vessel were there some sort of crazy things going on the boat and a guy trying to survive in this big ship were kind of like people kept just disappearing! So, that was neat too, getting the feel of been on the ocean, creating this hole ocean feel on that album so feel kind of from the very beginning you hear the waves and everything when you are kind of in the water? It was kind of neat to keep the feel of where every song that you are the captain or the first mate and you are on a boat (laughs), there was a lot of good things specially the song Wake Of Magellan with all the counterpoint voices again, so you have that, they have that recurring theme from time to time you know they are all a lot of fun a lot of hard work! But you get a lot of good efforts when you work really hard!
Circle II Circle
MEP: - Of course I bet there’s a lot of hard work involved when you are in a studio recording a classic album like that.
Then we’ll move on into CIIC, Tell me a little bit about Circle II Circle, you went into Hiatus for a little while right. I have just discovered the Band I had spent the whole day listening to the mp 3 samples on the official web. I’m blown away the songs Revelations and Evermore are great, very Heavy I noted Heavier riffing, sharper sound, very interesting seems a natural continuation on what Savatage was all about, but it sounds still with your signature…to put it some how! It’s not Savatage completely, maybe the first album but then the transition from one to another seems to get better and better amazing musicianship!
MEP: -Do you write mostly all lyrics to your songs, where do you get the inspiration, mostly from books maybe?
Zak: - Well some books, most of it are personal experience how I fell that day I kind of spend time kind of analyzing my thoughts and things that I see maybe stuff that I read through the paper meeting interesting people telling their story trough a song and I kind of sounds like its coming from me but is really someone else, that can happen sometimes, yeah I write all the lyrics in Circle II Circle really more of them come from personal experience then books even though there’s certain components that come from the stories that you might read in like the reader’s Digest or something like that but mostly personal introspection for the most part
MEP: - Circle II Circle will continue right?
Zak: - Yes we’re waiting and getting the word on when we can start album No 5 that kind of talking about that right now with AFM, we are just kind of waiting on the news on that
MEP: - Awesome! I believe there’s some dates booked already, for next year and you came back from a tour in May this year where and how was it? is the Band still the same personnel?
Zak: - Yeah we only had one change from Evan Christopher he was our rhythm guitar player? we added Bill Hudson a Brazilian guitarist who’s actually a lead guitar player too, so we have that strong you know both two lead players type situation Circle II Circle with Andy Lee just been a monster so the guitar situation right now is what I call a ”monster” its just unbelievable and we are gonna continue that trend on the next album and live it was really neat seeing this guys trade off on the leads and everybody performed really well we did, by the end we did sixteen countries twenty shows in twenty four days and everybody made it through Ok! and they played better every show so that’s all you can really ask, the band really jelled together it’s a strong unit and we are gonna keep Circle II Circle together and Machines of Grace and I’ll have my two bands and that’ll keep busier than I could probably and possibly wanna be (Laughs).
MEP: - that’s just awesome its awesome a lot of work! I just discover the Band as I told you before, I don’t know why I didn’t hear about it before and I like it a lot .
Zak: - Thank you
MEP: - it’s just (pause) and it’s heavier I love Heavy Music if you take a look at my blog I like all kinds of stuff!
Zak: - Yeah I want check that out I just saw that!
MEP: - Then I won’t bother (Pause) cause time is running I wanted to go trough every CIIC album but you already explained a few things about it, so what do you think if we would move in to Machines of Grace, is this Ok with you?
Zak: - Yeah that’s fine
Machines Of Grace
MEP: - Moving onto something more straight up Hard Rock as it is Machines of
Grace your new Band how do you feel with the Band, what are your expectations you’ll be performing a couple of shows (I think we talked a little bit about this earlier) and then continue next year right? Mainly due to Jeff Plate’s commitments with Trans Siberian Orchestra?
Zak: - Yeah! That’s true we wanted to get our show now in before he goes on with a TSO tour (pauses) you know we had pretty high expectations this was just the first group I was ever a lead vocalist with finally we just had a chance to kind of talk about: Hey! Let’s try to do this thing for real, never got a (pauses) we didn’t had the resources back then and really record the way we can do things now, so we just decided as a group, let’s come back together again let’s reform this thing under a new name Machines Of Grace let’s do it right this time and let’s show people all this great songs we had back then, this are the songs that were able to kind of get me the attention of Savatage so they weren’t weak you know? So your talking about some pretty strong material and really surprisingly its taking off pretty well looks like its gotten a little bit bigger quicker than we thought so that’s a good thing but its also a crazy thing cause we weren’t really prepared for that so we are gear up you know the records are selling quite well so we just want to keep the momentum going and this is the reason we wanted to do it, its just the first band that I was true lead singer of it is one that you want see any Savatage influences in this band because this all happened before that so that’ll be the one that it’ll be different than everything I’m doing so far even though I love the Savatage influence the way that kind of melted into CIIC I like that but this would be the one that you won’t see that in of course because all that stuff was kind of pre- Savatage days
MEP: - How do you perceive the fact that mostly everything is done through the Net and many Record Stores are gone, do you think the answer is Play live to the audiences in order to keep your Art alive, besides selling records on line of course?
Zak: - Yeah! I think so you go out a play live and you try to get the stuff played on any kind of way you can do it I mean a lot of people really prefer to have the physical product like me I’m the kind of guy I want my CD and I want to play in my truck Stereo very loud I don’t like mp 3 I don’t like things you know you’ve got your I pods and by the time you get everything downloaded you have gone down to 16 bits but you may have recorded the thing 24 bit so you loosing quality I don’t like the quality loss of all the digital downloading, so I’m kind of old school like that so I will always have my physical records so actually I would prefer to go and by a CD and play it, you know kids this days they don’t know that the quality can sound so much better if you listen the way you suppose to do it you know? (Laughs) and that’s also why we keep talking to you guys and playing some shows here and there and doing it right and stay playing out there and sell your art, records are not just like in the old days, walk in a record store and depend on the hard copy of the record to sell it’s a strange industry that’s continuing to change in mayor ways even as we speak we don’t even know the mayor changes in Music business that are happening so its very strange so we just have to be prepared to roll with whatever challenges comes our way.
MEP: - I love LP records too I’m Old School too so I understand! Do you do something on the side also not only as a musician, I read you are a Psychologist, and a Drummer how you combine this with your passion for Music?
Zak: - (Laughing) well (pauses) it’s a thought filled drumming experience No! (joking)
I think it’s a (pauses) yeah I keep playing drums to keep in shape as far as the psychologist stuff been the Music so predominant I didn’t have the chance that’s what I went to school for I never had chance to open up a practice to become a full blown practitioner I’m not that far into it all I do is use the science just to you know ad onto the other scientific thing I had to study in order to get the bachelor science degree that went along with it I love science and History so I’m always on the History channel learning about scientific breakthroughs that’s about it and that can result in lyrics and kind of helps me out in that regard that’s how those two things kind of work their way into the music I put out
MEP: - Finally can you bring back a special memory when playing Atlanta Prog Power Fest? how many times were you there performing?
Zak: - It’s been three or four times I won’t be able to go this year I was going to go this year and help Crimson Glory do a tribute to Midnight cause you know we lost Midnight just recently he died, the old singer of Crimson Glory band.
MEP: - I didn’t know that is very sad news
Zak: - Yes he passed away about a month and a half ago very recently I was going to do a tribute to him but instead we are gonna go and play those shows in NY with Machines Of Grace. As far as memories I had great memories one time I putted Kiss make up on and went out there and sang Strutter and I was surprise how much I sounded like Paul Stanley I didn’t really realize that till I came off stage and I went God! I think I sounded too much like Paul Stanley (laughs hilariously) you really have no idea but like you said with my vocal range you gonna probably have that, but there’s been good performances on pre- parties, CIIC last year playing the pre- party to maybe thirteen hundred people in this little Bar location in the facility and that show was really good and playing the one we were filming the two videos you were probably checking out that came out from Atlanta Power Fest and its been great and really good to us Glenn Harvison and all the guys that book Prog Power USA are been very good through the years to us so yes there’s been great memories from that, very well organized hope it continues we’ll see what happens in the next coming years.
-Gear Microphones of preference, Drums:
I use Premier Drums, they have appeared in all CIIC (Circle II Circle ) albums, I only played in only two albums myself before we had Tom Drenning (Drummer), I had to play a couple of albums it was a lot of fun and kind of cool. I played Ludwig when I was a kid but I have changed to British made kits.
Microphones I use Avalex if its cord, I was endorsed with those guys in the past, if I have to go with the wireless I use Samson wireless units with true diversity receiver with a Sure SM 58 beta 58 cartridge and beta 58 that I Use when I’m corded, I will probably sing mostly corded for the next couple of shows cause we are not going to have a lot of room, we are not the headliner so we are going to have a little room in the front there’s a little bit of reason to come out with wireless mikes when I will have to move 4 feet away it sounds better with the chord you are not dealing with a radio signal? So you are dealing with the actual very clean signal directly to the mike, I probably go with the chord instead just for this shows on a big tour I used my wireless in Europe on this last 20 show Tour so if I do something extensive were we are the headliner were we are using the stage all the time then I’ll have the wireless because you work the stage a lot easier but as far as sound we are talking about old school so we’ll make a decision on that it’ll be a close call…good question!
-Five Best albums (Rock Heavy)
Iron Maiden Piece of Mind, Judas Priest Stained Class, Molly Hatchet an older southern Rock band the album Flirting with Disaster, let’s see I will go back to that Frampton comes alive I use to like him a lot when I was young, he needs to have a bite in there and Journey (Laughs).
-Five Best albums (different format)
I Can’t name the albums I would go with the Artist: David Bowie, Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson he was kind of a big influence when I was a little kid, The Commodores they reached me big time I learned all their songs on drums, Earth Wind and Fire.
-Favorite Musician right now, any new suggestions?
Wow…well that’s a good one (thinks for a little while) I would say Dave Mathews I think they are all virtuosos that’s a lot of talent in one band, specially form the drums.
-Favorite Book or Movie:
Da vinci Code the book, we had that Burden of truth album with CIIC inspired by it!
Chicken casserole with cheese.
V8 kiwi, beer. I can’t drink too much cause my voice would suck!
-How do you keep your voice in shape, do you practice?
As much as I can, be healthy drink a lot of water, don’t beat yourself up stay way from the Flu no crazy stuff keep natural well hydrated, warm up before the show stretching stretch out.
MEP: - Zak Thanks a lot this will be on MEP exclusively appreciate your time, do you mind if I use random pictures of you? do you have Facebook?
Zak: - yes I do I’ve got some pictures in there you can use some pictures out of my albums.
MEP: - Cool My name is Rodrigo Trupp thanks a lot! very very much you are the best, I wish you the best on your Musical Projects too and also say hello to your family,
Zak: - Thanks to you too Rodrigo we’ll talk to you later good bye!
Interview by: Rodrigo Trupp for Música en Progreso
Zak and Circle II Circle photos courtesy of Zak's Facebook albums