You may have heard this question many times, but we're hoping you won't mind one more time. In 2000 you left Savatage "for family reasons" according to references. A year later, you formed your own project - Circle II Circle - and Jon Oliva co-produced the band's debut release. Why didn't you and Oliva put the same contributions into another Savatage record?
At that time I founded CIIC, Savatage was not active.When we made the initial line-up for CIIC, a few of the guys had a dispute with the CIIC manager at the time, it was a situation that was beyond my control. It was very unfortunate because the line-up disbanded, and I had two weeks left until the scheduled tour in Europe, so I had to scramble up a new line-up, which was the basis of the line-up we have today. The new line-up was pictured in The Middle of Nowhere (2005) because all that happened right before the album release. But it worked out good from there, we didn’t have too many changes. In the last 4 years though, there was only one change in my line-up, so it’s getting very stable as the years went off.
We still have Mitch, the bassist, Christian, the guitarist, and some of the guys have retired, or played different gigs, like Andy Lee, former guitarist, who plays in casinos now. CIIC is not an easy thing to do, and we’ve lost some dudes just because it’s so hard. You have to be really dedicated, and you gotta be wanting to travel the world, plus, not being the biggest band in the world is pretty tough. It’s a label of love.
Back then, Jon was starting Jon Oliva’s Pain. He had a whole band coming to him and saying “Hey, we’re gonna be your band, and you don’t have to go out looking for guys,” so it was a lot easier. He just had them kinda falling into his lap! Which was good for him, and we all laughed about it.
As you performed twice in the UAE, what's the difference you've found between the audience and venue in the Arab countries and in the States or Europe?
I think that the Middle Eastern scene is close to falling apart. It’s not improving in Dubai because they have some pretty strict laws. You’d have to submit all of your lyrics to the government for them to read, to make sure you’re not offending religions in any way – which is fine for my lyrics, they never do.
As for “Naughty Metal”, like black metal with the satanic lyrics, it's the stuff the audience really wants to hear. All the goodie-goodie music I play is like “meh, okay. That’s nice, but let’s get some other stuff,” which is fine, because that means you still have a variety to chose from.
But unfortunately, it’s just difficult to have over there, because you start looking at those lyrics and you go “What? That’s not gonna fly with the UAE government.” So I think that’s a problem.
There also is a promoter’s problem. You got specific two or three promoters there and they’re battling amongst each other. Someone gets a show and the other promoter wants to get that promoter in trouble for their show.
It’s a very small crowd of people who follow metal over there. It’s a societal thing. The first time I played there, I talked to a lot people from Dubai, so I know all about it. Hopefully it can improve. But I don’t know, because now I hear laws just got stricter over there.
It’s not gonna improve as long as you have all of that envying going on in the promoter’s world. I don’t know when is the next time I can go there, because this all affects the ability to do a show.
We probably have to come to Egypt now! I heard of a little venue down there in Egypt called The Culturewheel. So am I gonna play in The Culture Wheel? *laughs*
When you were in Dubai, you played in a small venue called The Music Room. How is it different from playing in a huge open-air venue?
There’s a huge difference. There are good bad phases to each one. With the open-air, you really can’t feel the crowd, cause it’s just so huge and they are so far out, that you sometimes can’t feel the energy; you’ll have to depend on the energy from the band to carry the performance. When you say “Let me hear you,” there’s a four seconds delay until it reaches out!
I actually like small pubs, playing for 400 or 500 people. You get really close to them, and usually the sound is good and the intimate setting is pretty cool. I don’t compare at all. A show is a show. I don’t care if there are 200 people or 20,000. You’ll still have to do the same thing.
Many cannot wait till October to listen to CIIC's new album Reign Of Darkness. Share with us what's new about this album and what's the new addition that it will give to CIIC?
Well, it’s number 7, so we’ve pretty much done things differently. We wanted this one to be different, dark, and aggressive, showing a new side of the band. So we definitely got that done, and it’s cool! It sets the tune for the future, as well as gives a nice change of whats been going on. It's really right up our alley.
We got a new drummer, that’s the only change in the line up in 4 years. Marcelo Moreira from Brazil is a great drummer, he can play anything! He’s also a great writer; we’ll be utilizing his great composition skills in the next album, more so than this one.
We didn’t get a chance to dig his skills too much in Reign of Darkness because we got him during the making of the album. I played some drums in it too; it was kind of a committee.
One of the final tracks, ‘Solitary Rain’, is a very different orchestral ballad, and it has some Latin vocals, which is something I’ve never done before.
We have a lyric video coming out soon of the song ‘Ghost of the Devil’. And then we’ll do another video for ‘Untold Dreams’ and ‘Sinister Love’ – 'Sinister Love’ has something to do with Fifty Shades of Grey! You’ll like it, don’t worry. Not so Fifty Shades of Grey, maybe a little S&M. Just a little. It’s not anything too crazy, but you know me, I always like to keep the theme fun. What else? Oh Gosh, there’s a lot of good stuff. It’s very deep. This album is like a psychological medicine that everybody needs to bridge the gap to wherever we’re going. And it has some kickback to some Savatage in there. I can’t wait.
As it happens these days, what if you heard that the album is leaked, what would your and earMusic's reaction towards that be?
That would be tough! We’ll just have to be careful when the album comes out, because we handed it in, in January, and it’s not coming out until October 16th. We did a pretty good job on our security so far. ‘Sinister Love’ came out as a single that was released through our clothing company, Rock N’Roll Gangster, which provides awesome stuff that we wear on stage. They did a compilation CD, so when you buy stuff from their online store, you get a CD. Other than that, there were no releases or leaks so far from the album.
Securing against album leaking is like when the mother lays the eggs on the beach, but they get eaten up and only a small portion of them lives. That’s what it's like these days, a baby turtle trying to make it to the ocean. It’s nature, someone is gonna eat you up before you get there. It's a terrible thought; I don’t want the baby turtles to get hurt! Please, leave my baby turtles alone, you must buy the baby turtle!
Side Projects/Getting a little more personal
Most of your projects were based on Orchestral/symphonic elements; did you listen to classical music at young age? And do you think it shaped your direction in metal music later?
Well, I didn’t listen to too much classical music, I listened to a lot of metal, like Black Sabbath, and it’s all based on classical music, so basically you're actually listening to classical music and you don't know it. As for Iron Maiden, there is classical music in the early albums; if you listen closely you can hear some Bach, Mozart, Beethoven and more. It definitely shaped my direction.
And you’ll hear that more in ‘Solitary Rain’. It’s a requiem about the death of a guy who had such a tough life as an addict and now he doesn’t know if he’s gonna make it anymore.
When we heard you with Oliva in Soulspell'sInto the Arc of Time, we though, what the hell, are we listening to a Savatage imitation? Give us more details about your experience with this awesome band.
I did a little tour with Soulspell in Brazil in the past, and we played in a place where bands don’t play a lot. Most of the touring is done in the southern part of Brazil around Sao Paulo. We spent some time together, we played some Savatage and Into the Arc of Time, in addition to other songs that I helped doing vocals on live. At that time, they had 2 female vocalists and a couple of lead male voices. They had some unbelievable singers in this band like Leandro, I call him the Opera singer cause the guy is just amazing! There’s a great talent in Brazil, they have some great musicians over there, all over the place. I think if the government does a better job in cultivating the talent, things would be better for them.
I did some touring with them, and me and Jon sang with them. They are just great people. When I heard that he agreed to do that, I said okay, I’ll do it.
I believe that you get many invitations to be featured in many projects. What made you choose to contribute with Empires of Eden's Prognatus Ut Obscurum?
After they called me, I heard the song and kinda worked it out. It’s not a big deal, it’s very easy. You just go to the studio, whether in Florida, or in South Carolina, and pump it out. Same this happened with ‘Mighty Roar’ with Stardust Reverie. This gives us a chance as singers and artists. I do these sides projects for two reasons: Number 1: It’s different. Number 2: I always learn something; I push myself to get better. The money doesn’t matter either way, but I do it because it’s worth my time and I’m gonna learn something, and I’m doing something different. When you get to work with these artists you go “wow, I never looked at it that way. Okay, this is a little bit challenging here. Can I even do this?” and it really kinda stretches you.
There is no info nowadays about your hard rock project Machines of Grace, even the Facebook page is kind of inactive since last year, does this mean it’s still a running project?
We were called Wicked Witch back in the day and it became Machines of Grace when we did the record in 2009.
It was one album and we haven’t done anything else especially because our guitarist, Matt Leff, has been battling brain cancer then lung cancer. So that really is a serious situation but he’s still with us. He has battled through chemo and all kinds of stuff, and he had a brain operation. It’s just crazy what Matt had to go through, and it was a real struggle for the whole band. We aren’t doing anything without Matt, so hopefully he’ll recover soon. He wants to do something. Until then, we’re keeping it for hope and praying for his recovery.
Since you've been fully interested in progressive metal bands since the 90's, how do you think the progressive metal scene changed from then until now?
It’s been good. Kinda heavy I think, and kinda dark. Progressive has a wide range of definitions. The most successful ones are the really heavy ones like Lamb of God. I think they are progressive because they’ve done the best they can. Remember, we’re not a metal world anymore. Everything you do, you gotta take a chance, it’s not the same as it was in the 90's or the 80's, as far as everything being metal. I don’t think people like to use the word metal music anymore; they’re scared they’ll get pinpointed into a corner.
I just think everybody is doing a good job, they are just doing what they can to sell a record, and its so weird now, because everything and anything is out there through the social media, so, anything you end up doing could end up selling big or might fall flat. You never know.
What new progressive bands are you currently listening to?
I'm not sure if they count as progressive, but I like Korn, as well as Children of Bodom. I wanna say Celtic Frost but I guess they are on the heavier side; as well as Amorphis. I know you’re wondering why I am listening to all this growly stuff. It’s just different.
I was raised on Metallica, Iron Maiden, Dio, Black Sabbath, and Queensrÿche, these are the stuff I came around to in college. I guess I moved away. I like Alter Bridge's Myles Kennedy has a unique voice. I like Tool as well. If you enjoy them, A Perfect Circle are kinda similar, so check them out.
Is there any story that from fans that inspired you and your music?
That's a good one. I can say all kinds of stuff. We see a lot of people with disabilities coming to the shows, and that’s very inspiring. I know there’s a girl and a guy who follow Savatage and CIIC around Europe. They show up every show in a wheelchair, you don’t know their story but they got so much love for you and what you do. That’s pure inspiration right there. That’s a dedicated fan who has a tough life, and yet they are always there. They always are surrounded by a bunch of people who point and shout, “Look who’s here!” They affect everybody around them positively and that is outstanding. The fans that show me that anything is possible.
Tell us the other way around! Has a fan come to you and told you that you've changed his or her life with your music?
Luckily, that happens a lot! And that’s why I do what I do. I get messages on Facebook or tagged in posts that go, "Zak, you might not read this, but I just wanted to let you know that your music, whether Savatage, or CIIC, got me through really tough time I had”. I’m just so lucky to be getting personal with my fans. If you think about it, you make music so that someone will listen. You do it so that someone can get through a crisis in their life, and that's when you know you’re doing a good job. Especially with Savatage music. Its tough to hear the stories, but if you think about it, you’re helping someone out.
Which has been your proudest moment to date? Can you describe it for us?
Definitely Wacken, the one we just had. It symbolizes a lot of years of hard work, it simply shows that we can still do this and can do it well, even if we get older. I knew it was gonna be the biggest show in my career, but I never felt I’d be so proud. I felt I did a good job and I’m proud of it. How bigger can you get from that? We made up for a lot of things.
And by this, we come to an end with this worthwhile interview. Rock Era is honored to have had this chat with Zak Stevens and can’t wait to know what Savatage has hidden for their fans!