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EXCLUSIVE: Interview with Zachary Stevens

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An artist who inspired many progressive metal singers from the 90s upwards. His fame rose when he started with Savatage on Edge of Thorns which kind of wrote a new chapter for the band. Without further ado, dudes and dudettes, we’re proud to have this cordial chit-chat with Zak Stevens who tells us all about Savatage, Circle II Circle, Trans-Siberian Orchestra and more.

Let's go back to the 90's. Tell us how you felt when you started working on Edge of Thorns and after its release? Did you wait for the fans' feedback, or just concentrated on the next step?

You know, after we lost Criss Oliva in the car crash – it was terrible, his wife was almost killed, too – we didn’t know what we were gonna do. Well, I’ve been connected with them a few times before that. We'd met in Los Angeles, and I went to a Savatage show at a big rock club in LA, which was a popular at the time. Somehow, they knew a friend of mine very well. He got us backstage to talk to them, and he knew the hotel they were staying at, and they invited us to come over to the hotel, so we went and partied with them all night. That was the first time for me to meet the Oliva brothers and Dawn, Criss’s wife. We also hung out with Ray Gillen, from Badlands, whose producer was also Paul O’Neil. We hung out that night, and I remember Jon telling me, “I’m tired of touring – this stuff is killing me!” So that was when I first saw Savatage on their Streets Tour. Later on, I moved to Boston, and started a band called Wicked Witch, and there I met my drummer, Jeff Plate, and he ended up being the drummer of Savatage, and later on, TSO. I winded up doing a demo with Wicked Witch with Jeff. I heard later on from a group of friends in Tampa that Savatage were looking for a new vocalist, and I was a huge fan of them, I always imagined myself singing Savatage songs. I would play their music in my garage and sing their songs. I always rehearsed my music in my garage and luckily never disturbed anyone of my neighbors!

 

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I never thought I would ever be their lead vocalist, I only practiced their music for fun. I like Jon’s stuff and I like the way he sings. After sending off the demo, they listened to hundreds of vocalists and everyone tried to sing like Jon. So, I said, “I definitely don’t sound anything like Jon! So maybe they wanna go with something different.” And it turns out that Criss’s wife, Dawn Oliva – who passed away, 7 or 8 years after Criss’ death – thought that I was her favorite demo that came in. I owe her. She said, “Criss, if you don’t take this Zak guy, you’re crazy.” And then Criss agreed and went like “Okay, okay. He’s the guy, I feel it.” I knew all that after I joined the band, as we hung out and wrote songs all night.


I lived with Criss for a year. “We want you to sing with the band but I want to get to know you, and there’s a lot of lost time we need to make up for, so you gotta live with me.” So we made up a lot for the lost time. In '92, I went to Florida, and started rehearsing. Then I found out that I needed to do a lot of changes; I need to adjust my style. Luckily, I was able to do that, cause I had the flexibility, and I got taught how to do that, and guess what? I have now a completely different voice than I had back then when I came into Savatage – you know what they call, learning and growing? Yea, it worked out! I had to get better and better. We then started working on the album.


I remember the time when Jon came up with the intro for Edge of Thorns on piano, and my first reaction was thinking, was this The Omen? At first it sounded like it came out of one of those horror movies in the late 80's. We had two completely different vocal melodies for the song and we fought between the two to begin with, but Paul O’Neil liked the one where we used “An offering of reasons…” 

 

After the release, it was very exciting, because it hit the radio big time! Edge of Thorns ended up being a huge rock hit, even though grunge was getting into the picture real quick, and metal music was leaving – 80's metal was fading away. We were touring around the country, and every time I got into the car, ‘Edge of Thorns’ was on the radio. I couldn’t get away from my voice!


There was over a 100 stations playing this single for over 6 months. It was a big impact on the American Rock Radio. That was amazing to me, I was on top of the world, I was only 26 and I made a major radio hit, the acceptance of the crowd was there, while some fans of course wanted to hear more of Jon, the majority was like “Hey, we like what this guy Zak does”. I had some luck, some talent, and just kinda went with it. Count the stars and go!

 

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Dead Winter Dead delivered a kind of shocking story – especially for the Muslim cultured people - as the album concept was about a love story between a Serbian boy and a Muslim girl. Was it based on a true story?
We don’t really know for sure! It’s probably based on a true folklore story. We came across it in an article in Reader’s Digest USA. Usually their stuff is based on facts, there could be some embellishment to it, but it definitely made a good story for the album. So, Paul ran with it, especially that there was some basis for the truth.


I think it was also the basis for the song ‘Not What You See’ – a song which I especially love.


It helped the band a lot because we started to get a lot of fans from the Middle East and your area, Egypt. Tying in that story was something we’ve never done before, and neither have any American bands. So that definitely helped in expanding our angle a little bit. What also helped was being well read on the Bosnian war, and the separation of the former Yugoslavia. One day, Paul sent me over 6 books that stacked up over a foot high, just to catch up on the story and the history of former Yugoslavia to sing the songs. He wanted to capture those emotions, so he always had us reading, mostly me, because the other guys weren’t so keen on that! But since I was a psychology graduate, I loved reading and researching. I always think, the more you know the better you can preform. 

 

Progressive metal elements in the 90's were a new trend at that time. From your point of view; what characteristics should the lead singer for a progressive band have?
You have to be able to cover a wide range, to stretch a melody. A wide range of breathing, but while also hold long notes, and having good pronunciation. You need to be very melodic, it’s not gonna be a cookie monster growl, especially in this power-progressive stuff. You need to be clear, understandable, and a pretty good vocalist.


You need to have the same elements for a rock opera, basically how Savatage was like to me; Broadway meets metal. Because the music lends itself to almost a Broadway thing. You need to have a good hold on vocals from Broadway to Whitesnake and everything in between!


Tell us more about your Wacken experience. It was your first time to perform in Wacken with Savatage and TSO, right?
It was also the first time in 26 years for a performance to use both stages at the same time. It was amazing! We had to rehearse in Tampa in a giant building with state fair grounds so we can measure the exact parameters of the stage to be able to preform side by side. The only thing we couldn’t rehearse was the lights and the pyro. Most of our people hadn’t performed with that much pyro before, but they got used to it in TSO tour in the states! Stuff would be blown up, left and right. But it was awesome! We had to be 4 days on the stage before it started, I had so much energy, I was close to a bomb ready to explode.


Wasn’t it tiring? To stay 4 days on stage and then perform affront of thousands of people?
Of course the whole thing can be tiring, but you just have to pace yourself and that comes with experience. The energy level is hard to maintain because the days before you just really wanna start the show. The waiting is very tough, and that can take a lot of energy out of you, kinda like before you have a big soccer game, you can’t play the game before the game starts! So you just try to save your energy. By the time the show did start, I had the lucky part. I was the singer who sang on both stages!

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(Photo: blabbermouth.net)

Did you have to run between the stages in order to be able to sing on both of them?
Yes! I did have to run between the stages between every song I had, because there was no time to fool around. You had to run over there, grab another mic, get in my place, go to my starting point, and everything had to be well choreographed. I had it down to science! It was very organized and a very interesting experience.


Why did you guys wait for almost 15 years before deciding to go on stage once more?
I think that’s because TSO started and that’s what Savatage kinda turned into, for it to be able to do some different things musically, and that way, luckily, we’re not in a box. We were able to use TSO to break out and do some things and become very famous in the US, and becoming a gold and platinum selling act, which was huge!
TSO also have the largest grossing tour in the US every Christmas on billboard. You can’t do that with Savatage.
I think the emphasis on how successful TSO got is now huge. It got so big that it took all of TSO's attention to be able to control the beast, so there came a time where we asked, “Okay, what about Savatage, the little rock band on the side now?” Now that TSO is so huge, and can do other things beside Christmas tours and off Christmas tours, it came a full circle to see how it can integrate Savatage back into this thing. And that’s what we were thinking, that’s why it took us 15 years to come around.


What did you come to notice in playing Wacken with your old mates?
Playing in Wacken gave us many outputs, number 1: Everyone fell in love with each other again, which was fabulous. Jon got excited cause he loves seeing all the guys getting along, he loves me more than ever, and I love him more than ever! And number 2: We’re better than we were back then! We’re better because, hey, sometimes when you’re some old dudes, you play better than you were when you were younger dudes! We became more experienced and more seasoned. We realized we were not a lot better back then. Even Al Pitrelli agreed, and when Al says we are better now, than you better believe! It got us to think there’s gonna be more.


Coming to that, what do you mean by more? What is going to happen? Another tour, a release maybe?
Well, it’s all up for grabs! We don’t know exactly right now. If you’d asked Jon a year ago about Savatage he would’ve said, “I wish it would just go away. TSO is just so huge now, I don’t need to worry about Savatage." Now in the press, it’s more like “You know, everything is open with Savatage and with everything else.” So, that’s a huge difference than what we heard a year ago and that comes from us getting together and getting along so well, and playing so well. So, anything is possible right now. There’s a talk about a new album. There’s a talk about doing a tour. It’s all there. While there isn't a fixed timeframe, everything is being discussed. The best thing is that everybody is available, and they want to do it. I’m available, Jon’s there, Chriss, Al, Johnny, and Jeff. We also have an honorary keyboardist, Vitalij Kuprij, from TSO. He’s one of the best keyboardists in the world. We just have unlimited resources. We know that the fans are excited and supportive and that’s the most important thing. There's a lot of buzz going on, it’s all going in the right direction, we just have to be patient and give it a chance to blossom.


Hey, the talk doesn’t end here. There are a lot more in part two where Zak tells us more about Circle II Circle, his other side projects and other favorite things! Don’t go away, and stay tuned for part two!


Interviewed by: Mena Ezzat, Natsky D. and NJ Bakr
Edited by: Jailan ElRafie

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