Heart of Steel: Interviews

CircleIICircle  Interview with Zachary Stevens

Interview by Rick

Zak Stevens was the voice of Savatage for almost 10 years and in that time established himself as one of the great voices in metal. When he left the band before the recording of Savatage's 2001 album POETS AND MADMEN the story was that he needed time with his family. Earlier this year Zak resurfaced with a new unit called CircleIICircle and a new CD entitled WATCHING IN SILENCE. Though this interview is less than 2 weeks old, the news of the last few days is that all the members of CircleIICirlce (except Zak) have quit the band. Stevens has said that he will continue on with all new members. In my conversation with Zak there was no inkling of trouble and I had the opportunity to ask him about everything from the new band and album to his reasons for leaving Savatage and his work with Trans Siberian Orchestra.  

Hey Zak, I heard you and your wife just had a new baby. Congratulations man.

Thanks man, a little girl. Shes only 4 weeks old.



It must be hard trying to juggle a music career and a family with small children?

Sure but that's what life is all about. I also have another girl who is almost 6.



Zak, you are back, just a couple of years after leaving Savatage, with a new band and a new CD called WATCHING IN SILENCE. When you left Savatage many of us were under the impression that you would be out of the scene for a little bit longer. Why did you initially quit Savatage and why the quick return?

The whole thing with Savatage was originally I left for a leave of absence to do family stuff and some other stuff that I had put on the back burner. Just get a lot of stuff in order in my life. I figured I would go away for 5 or 6 months and then join back up but it turned out they wanted to make a move to get another singer in for which I totally couldn't blame em. What were they gonna do, wait around forever? 5 or 6 months after that I said why not just put together this new band and see how things go and it turned out well. We got things in order, got some songs written and it was a lot of fun doing it.



If the Savatage vocal spot again opened up would you step back in?

Its hard to comment on it because you never really know if that is gonna happen. I basically just concentrate on what I can have some effect on which is CircleIICircle and our schedule and everything I could do to get the band out there. That's keeping me real busy now and if that day ever arrives it is something I will have to think about. It would be fun. We just got together on stage Oct 17th for the 10th anniversary of the death of Criss Oliva at the Memorial Concert to raise money for Kids Against Drunk Driving. We had the almost original lineup on stage. Steve Wacholz on drums, Johnny Lee on bass and Chris Caffery on guitar, Jon on keyboards and me up there singing. It was pretty wild. That was on of those things where you think. "Man, that might never happen again". I was just happy to be a part of it. We sang like 5 songs mostly from EDGE OF THORNS. We really wanted to get it close to that music that Chris was involved in. It was great and really gets you thinking of old times. I'm lucky enough that I get to jam with those guys and with the guys in my band all the time. I'm pretty lucky.



How did the rest of the show go?

Great. It opened with the Savatage tribute band Streets. The singer sounds just like Jon on the early records. Then Jon came up there with the guitar player and drummer from CircleIICircle an another guy on bass and Jon on keyboards they played some new music from Jon.



Matt Laporte had auditioned for Savatage a few years ago before joining you in CircleIICircle.  Did you remember him from his Savatage audition and how did you go about choosing members for your new band?

Me and Matt were the first ones. We did some auditions and after 6 or 7 months we finally got everyone together. At the time he auditioned for Savatage he was great but had probably less experience than some of the other guys who tried out. The playing was awesome. When he plays the old EDGE OF THORNS stuff he plays it scarily close to the record. He pays total homage to Criss with his playing on those old songs.



How do you handle the break up of the live material? Obviously you are CircleIICircle but since you were the voice of Savatage for so long its only natural that the fan will want to hear some Savatage songs in your set. How do you handle that live?

That's fun part of the night when we play the Savatage stuff. It all goes to the next level. We play about 4 or 5 songs from my era. We throw em in there and I am so glad I am able to play that music and it so great that the guys put their special touch on the songs.



You obviously have remained very close with Jon Oliva and Chris Caffery from Savatage as one or the other helped write every song on the CD. Can you tell me how it came about that you worked so closely on the songwriting with Jon and Chris on this CD?

In the beginning it was really just me and Jon saying hey.. Lets just get together and write some new stuff from scratch. No old rehashed material and write stuff for me and I will form this band and we will write music together. I will do all the lyrics and the vocals and he will come up with the music and riffs etc. I will just chime in ideas from there. A 2-way approach that we never really got a chance to do a lot of before. That's the way it was, that basic.



When you were in Savatage, you didn't write a lot of the material…

That was fine because what I got to perform was great. Jon Oliva and Paul O'Neill mainly wrote all the material and I knew that coming in but I got a lot of experience from those years to help me in writing my own material and make my own record. I appreciate them for giving me that experience. Paul and Jon and all of them.


"Fields of Sorrow" is one of my favourite songs on the CD because of its powerful vocal performance. What are some of your favourite songs on the CD and why?

I like that song because of the counterpoint. I am going to take that a bit further the next time on the next record, hint hint… Even stuff like "Face to Face" or "Watching in Silence". Its hard to choose..



You have probably heard the CD so much and are so close to it that its hard to choose?

Yeah, my opinion shouldn't count. I'm the one who made it. It reminds me of all the trials and tribulations of the studio when I listen to it. Maybe we should have done this or done this different. Its hard to look at it in a normal way..



When you listen to the record do you sit back and say "I could have done this better" or " I should have done this differently?"

That tendency is always there. That will drive you psychotic (laughs). I try to avoid it at all costs. That tendency is always there unfortunately. I just like the stuff like the solo on "Face to Face'. Caffery plays that one. He wrote a great solo and that was on the demo we did. It was a 4 track and was pretty important to visualize the final project. So when the time came to record it he had done such a good job on the demo that I said to him "If you do it any different than on the demo I'll Kill you!!" (laughs) He had such a good one so I said play it exactly the same. I love that solo. It takes me places!



The band filmed a video for the title track. Why did you choose that particular song and has the video gotten any airplay?

It was chosen by the label in Europe AFM.



When you are recording do feel that your vocals are the focal point or is the whole band brought into the process?

The whole band is brought in and work together on the music but when I get up to do the vocal track there is so much that can be done with that track or 20 tracks as I sometimes have been known to use. I think that counterpoint stuff was 20 tracks so we can get crazy. It really only takes one track as I usually don't double everything. Some singers completely double everything. You don't need to do that if you have a certain amount of power. You don't need to double verses etc. But you can do little pieces to enhance like a prechorus but the verses are completely one track and I am trying to blow the capsule out of the fucking mic!! (laughs) That's the kind of power that probably people like in what I do so I go in there saying "alright, put it on out!" because the mic will be able to translate this and people can detect what you are trying to do and the power of the music. I do have a role saying that this will be the focal point when I am done. Not that I am the focal point of the band but that when the vocal track is done it will be a focal point. I can say that much.



You also share a producing credit with Jon Oliva for WATCHING IN SILENCE. Was this your first time producing and how did it fell producing your own material with the help of Jon?

I have been kinda doing the same thing for a while but it was the first time that I had a final decision type role. For the most part it was kind of when everyone got together and it was a full agreement. We pretty much went with that. Other than that it was pretty amazing. It's the first time I have been there for every track that went to tape or went anywhere, fully recorded record plus mastered it because we did the master at Morrissound too. That's pretty wild. It is different when you are there for everything that hit the tape and you know whats in there. I never really did that with Savatage because I didn't really have to oversee everything. It is a lot different. I love it, a great experience. I need more records like that.



So you think you are going to produce the next record yourself?

Yeah, I think I would like to have Jim Morris and the whole team back again. It was a fast process we worked out and Jim is such an amazing engineer. Our process is quick, effective and pretty painless. In there with that group of guys, the band, our manager Dan Campbell and Jon Oliva and myself just producing and mixing. Works out real well.



Though Jon and Chris were important parts of this CD, In your opinion how does CircleIICircle differ from Savatage and what do you think of the criticism from some people that CIIC is only Savatage the second or Savatage junior?

The sound comes from the members who are in the band but knowing the creative side of Savatage is different than me, Jon and Chris so you could say we are related to Savatage. I didn't try to hide that. I go one on one writing with Chris and the same with Jon. The band is definitely its own band absolutely. We have established that by going out and playing. Its related I guess as a piece of the Savatage Family, of people who were in Savatage. Theres a lot of different things going on out there with Jon and Paul O'Neill with TSO for example. That's Paul O'Neill's baby Trans Siberian Orchestra. Very successful and they are multiple platinum. I got em on my wall, I worked on every album.



Did you work on the T.S.O. Christmas DVD?

The music I worked on is on there but I am not on the film singing.



Have you ever toured with the touring company?

I would like to if I had the time but its tough right now. But they start touring Nov 14 for 50 shows. My Mom is actually going to see them when they hit my hometown. A 5000 seat venue.



The music of T.S.O. cuts across so many age groups from teenagers up to people in the 60s and 70s and its great to see one group, you included, could find some common ground to bring so many people together.

Yeah, that's what we are doing. CircleIICircle is kinda like that. Going out looking for great players to make the kind of stuff I like to perform. There is still room to get that kind of music from Jon and Chris out to the people. Is there room for more of that sound out there? I think so. There is plenty of room for that style out there. So lets keep writing songs and doing that type of thing.



I think you proved that there are lots of people who love your style as you opened the Wacken Open Air Festival this past summer and you had a surprisingly large crowd to see you play. What did you think of the great attendance for your set?

They were a great crowd. They said to us that we would be up first. There are a lot of other bands who would be disappointed in having to be the first band but I have been around long enough to take it as an opportunity and we did our best to bring in as many people for our set as possible and have the largest crowd for an opening band ever. And we did that! It turned out to b a good spot for us. When we go back in 2 years it will be great. I appreciate those guys for having us.



I see that the band will be touring with Saxon. What are the plans for the tour and how does it feel to be touring with one of the legendary bands of metal?

Its incredible. Biff Byford is a great guy. You met people in the strangest ways. I had already met him in Europe. One time we met when I went to our label, another time at the Rock Hard 20th Anniversary Party. We played that show and Saxon was there also. They were the last band of the night and had the big eagle up there. It was wild. So I got to talk to Biff and he said "You guys should try to come out and do the tour, you did a really good job". So we were talking quite a lot. At Wacken their trailer was right next to ours so we got chatting about kids and he had twin daughters just 2 years ago. They are getting up there age wise but they are still rocking into their 50s. That's amazing!! I have to keep up with that. That's the pressure of doing shows like that, me in my mid 30s; I have to make sure that the generation up there doesn't do too much damage. I have to hold my ground! (laughing). But he is awesome! We are doing 13 shows with them in December starting in Greece.

Thanks Zak!


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