OK, I have to admit I feel like an idiot. Savatage has been around for a long time but although I had heard a couple of cuts, I never felt like checking them out. Then I heard their ex vocalist Zak Stevens put together a new project, Circle II Circle. Same thing. Never checked them out either. Then I had their latest record Burden of Truth and I just about popped an artery. As most of the Zak Stevens fans already know, this is an awesome record that has some of the best hard rock songs of recent memory --- with an emphasis on songs. Not just a vehicle for one hook or a bunch of riffs. This whole record is excellent and Zak's vocals are just amazing. I spoke with him recently about the new record and had to come clean about my ignorance. Zak was one of the nicest, friendliest guys I've ever had the pleasure of interviewing. Here's what he had to say:
antiMUSIC: Hey Zak, How ya doing? I have to admit something off the top. I never really listened to Savatage early on and Burden of Truth is my intro to Circle II Circle but I've got to say, Holy crap. I'm absolutely blown away by Burden of Truth. I love this CD.
Zak: Thank you man.
antiMUSIC: "The Black" is just phenomenal!! Along with "Heal You"!! And your vocals are absolutely amazing. So now I feel like an idiot for not checking you before and I'm definitely going to be going back to your older stuff.
Zak: Thank you very much. I appreciate it. It ought to be a pretty interesting journey. So yeah, appreciate it.
antiMUSIC: OK I'm done kissing your ass now (laughs).
Zak: (laughs) No problem. I do appreciate it though.
antiMUSIC: I understand that there's quite a background story on this record in terms of this being a concept album. I'm told there's a contest of sorts connected with it so I can imagine you're not at liberty to reveal everything. But what can you tell us about it?
Zak: Well, I mean, the contest is just we are looking for someone to put the pieces together based on researched links that we are providing on our MySpace site. You have to be a registered forum user, to come on, you know, just to register for it. You don't really have to go on there and talk to people. It's for people, you know, if they go ahead and register for the forum you know on the MySpace site which is a link off our regular circle2circle.com. Then you're eligible to go compete and take the research links and just go and, you know, do a little research. We're pretty much going to lead the horse to water so to speak and get every body close with the information they need to put together this thing we're looking for. It's just a piece, basically it's just a, I guess I can say, it's an observation we want people make. And nobody's won yet, you know. I think we're going to probably…we have taken submissions. Somebody could have. But I don't think we're actually going to go in there for a couple of weeks to actually pick the winner because I'm going to let it run for another couple more weeks. But you know, we're going to…you know, it's like every week we'll come out with a link that will lead someone closer and every week that'll go by they'll just be extra stuff to read. So that's basically it. We'll gonna away a signed Jackson guitar, a couple of them for some winners, and some signed stuff from Circle II Circle, you know, and that oughta be pretty nice, you know. I don't know how we gonna have to ship it but we'll have to see what happens. (laughs) So you know, we're just letting it go for, you know, a month or so, a month and a half after the release of the record. So that's about it. Otherwise it's the concept is basically you know, takes from the Holy Blood, Holy Grail, da Vinci Code type thing. And it picks up, our record basically is, a musical, you can kinda consider it a musical sequel to the da Vinci Code movie, if you want it. I mean, it's not, you know, it is definitely a story that we made up about kinda taken up where that movie ended you know. Once Sophie discovered that she was of the bloodline of Jesus and Mary Magdalene, then she would then be able to look further in herself to see who she really was, and then maybe gain power from that, you know, you never know. We go all over the place with it. You know, good and bad. And then very good in the end. You know a good positive ending and twist. And you know, you know just went nuts. But it was just an interesting angle from which to write a concept record. It drove me because it was an interesting angle. It's not like everybody in the band sitting there: this is what we believe now. Let's go out and preach this and you better believe it. No, not, you know, it's not really what we, you know, some people may find it intriguing, but I can pretty much tell you across the board it's not we were going to sit there and go: this is what we believe, you know. It was just an interesting angle from which to derive a piece of work. And sure it's intriguing, but that's what made it able to drive the work in such a direction where the music, which is really the focus of the whole thing, we shouldn't take the focus off the music. You can get carried away with political preferences and (funny voice) this can be controversial, which I hear sometimes. But really it's not really like that, it's just that, you know, it's an angle from which to let the work live and breathe. And that's just what we try and do.
antiMUSIC: When did the idea first take hold to make this a concept record?
Zak: I mean, I first read, Holy Blood, Holy Grail back in '98. The book came out in like in '82. Like 25 years this has been around. It's not like you're rehashing sliced bread or anything. So I think when the da Vinci Code came out it really got my attention, it kinda got my interest because it was like, oh look, you know. But you know, of course we all read da Vinci Code stuff and we all saw the movie, you know. We went as a band to see the movie, as cheesy as that sounds. Pretty much four out of five of us were there. And you know, we kinda sat there and went: okay, let's see what's going on with the film. And it pretty much was what we thought it would be. A lot of people said it fell short but it's pretty hard for a film to capture a book a lot of the time. You know, and capture that same suspense and you can't wait to turn the next page, you know. A lot of that is kinda hard to do, as we've seen through the years. Jaws was probably the best movie to me of movie that captured what the book had, and that's going way back. But that was pretty intense. I saw that as a kid and I'm sure I was traumatized for like seven years. I was in a lot of therapy and…no I'm just kidding. But it WAS scary. (laughs) That was back in the day when a kid got traumatized, only a kid, but the dad would go: "Ah walk it off, you'll be all right. Walk that off there. Okay. Good." These days it would be: "Should we consider child psychiatry." And then you mess them all up in my opinion. I even have a psychology degree so I'm safe in saying that. (laughs)
antiMUSIC: It seems like a comparable band to yours, Queensryche, was successful with Operation Mindcrime. Based on records like that, were you confident that your fans would get into a meatier project such as this?
Zak: Well I mean, Operation Mindcrime, that happened to be one of my favorite records of all time. That came out like when ii was in college, so we were like kids. I think we were college kids who acted like middle school kids when the record came out cause it was like: "Oh, it's finally in. let's go get it". Just to get my arms around it. I felt like it was important for me to get my arms around that thing and understand it musically. And being a musician and I was a huge fan of Queensryche and I still am. That record, you know, now that you mention it, I immediately went you know that was probably an influence, a huge influence and reason I made Burden of Truth, you know.
antiMUSIC: So how did the writing process work for it? And how does the writing happen in your band in terms of responsibilities?
Zak: Well, it's all, you know, I produced, you know the last 2 records. I've actually gone as far as producing it, and co-producers like Jim Morris at Morrisound Recording Studios in Tampa Florida where we produced all three sets of Circle II Circle records. And did several Sabotage records there too. You know, in writing the lyrics and you know, all the vocal melodies and you know getting involved in the music when we need a part, you know, kinda finding, writing that part if needed, arranging of music, that's kinda pretty much what I do. There's guys in the band, they come up with riffs on their instruments, and you know, what's cool about Tom Drennan, my drummer, is that he writes stuff on guitar. He gives me whole demos that he just makes on bass guitar and drums, so when you've got something like that, you know, that's just one guy. And then you got, Andy Lee, lead guitar, Evan Christopher some leads, mostly rhythm but a great lead player too. Kinda do a little Maiden thing going back and forth. We do that live you know, where you have dual leads. Then we might split off, go stage left, stage right to Evan and Andy. And Mitch Stewart on the bass, great singer, great keyboard player who played keyboard on my record, performs all the, you know, anything to do with keyboard driven sounds, and stuff, including piano and grand piano. So that's nice. There's a lot of help (laughs), you know. There's help at every turn, so it's really fun doing record. And really we just kinda have a riff here. I play drums too so sometimes I'll be in there early and get on the kit. And start writing a drum riff and I'll say this is a really good groove to me and they may put something to it. But more often than not I'm just getting a CD with riffs that Mitch and Andy and Evan write and Tom sends me mpgs through email. And we just build from there and we just go finish the songs. I think my main thing is just finishing songs with them, you know.
antiMUSIC: Did everything flow together once you started writing or were there parts from the story you had outline that you had trouble adapting musically.
Zak: Yeah, well, you're always going to have a few of those, I think. And to me it's not even a great challenge unless you do have a couple of hurdles. I mean stuff like one of the songs you mentioned: "Heal You", that was a place in the story where to me it was hardest, it needed a very important transition song there. And you know, it needed to get over that thing, and that's where "Heal You" came from. To me originally the music for that, I would have told you there was no way that's going to make the record. (laughs) You know, I'm the guy who said that. "Hey, you got to be one to go: 'hey, you know, I was wrong on that.'" When you're making records you've just got to have the ability to go, okay I can be right or wrong and we're all good. You just got to do the best you can out there. But after it started to come together, I went; yeah, this is good because that groove I really liked. It's almost like a Motley Crue type groove now that I think about it. I don't know, what else would I liken it to? (laughs) You know you're constantly comparing yourself to …and trying to say: has thing been done? Of course it's been done. No..(laughs) But we done twist this thing up. Now let me think, what did we say…anyway I'm drawing a blank, but you know that riff, that beat, I'll think of it in a minute. But I like the way that came out...and the chorus and the melodies and all that, it was really cool. That was probably a little challenge point but we wound up with something good. And then later, you know maybe one other thing, but other than that it pretty much, whew, as soon as we figured out the story and what would happen in the story...we wanted the songs to be the scenes in a movie. So if we were going to write it, if we're thinking like a movie, then it's kinda easy to be able to go: this is the kind of music we need for this thing. It was very interesting, because it was like, this is what's happening in this scene. How about some music? And they'd go: here you go. So it was fun.
antiMUSIC: Were there any parts of your concept that took longer to get locked down than others?
Zak: Mostly that came in the form of songs we didn't use. You know for the record. Because I think most of the parts, you know, the way we recorded, we put all the drums down first, and here comes…and we used scratch and bass guitar while we were recording the drums, me and Tom. And then we just build bass on that. And once it started with that perfect drum track you know, then you just do it on that. And once you start the song that was no problem. It was more the songs we decided to fit in the end, I think, that was more…this isn't going to work here.
antiMUSIC: So you've got material we might see down the line?
Zak: Yeah …maybe later. I don't know. We'll see. If it fits in good with what we're doing down the road, sure.
antiMUSIC: So how long start to finish did the record take to write?
Zak: Well we…what we have been doing on records is go in and get the drums recorded. Get my basic tracks done: bass and drums. So I have, I probably only had about 40 songs of lyrics written out of the whole record when I started doing that. So to me it's a chase. You know, now my basics are down, and now I'm going to start going in and singing these songs, one by one, so right before I can go in to sing it, let me have the lyrics ready. And that pretty much…you know it took about three, a month or something, but we were recording the whole time so really there wasn't a separate sit down and write the lyrics and go in. I had a lot of work I had to do while we were in the studio so it's just three or four months' time did it all. Three months and maybe a little extra, few couple weeks to mix it or something.
antiMUSIC: So coffee was your best friend during that time?
Zak: Sure. We worked at night. That's what we always did. Go till three or four in the morning. And just knock off and try to get in there. Before we were mixing we had to do a little bit of that. But recording wise, we don't want to push it. If we start getting tired at 11 o clock. See you later. Use the time, but don't waste it cause everybody ends up burnt. (laughs)
antiMUSIC: I think I was told there's clues in the artwork as well. Who did the artwork and what can you say about how these things relate to the contest/puzzle?
Zak: I think we've established that a cover art wasn't really going to be as helpful and we said in one of our clues earlier: do not look for what we're looking for in the artwork. Go to the research links that way. Yeah that was originally something where…it came from a question I think more so than what we wanted to do. The question was: (funny voice) will there be clues in the artwork and stuff? Which is cool but not enough to get people where we need to. This is a pretty in-depth...you know, the answer is going to be pretty in-depth and it's going to take some thought. It's not easy, so, we'll conjure a winner up if it takes too long. But you know what I'm saying, it's not like it's what you need is all going to be found in the artwork.
antiMUSIC: There's no Paul is dead stuff in there?
Zak: Nooo. And you know. Not with the old ink that da Vinci used to use that doesn't show up till you used some special chemicals, no. (laughs) You know we used a special ink on some stuff that only shows up when certain chemicals are introduced to make it show up. Nah… you have to have the album now to finish the story. No only kidding. (laughs)
antiMUSIC: Concept records are a cool thing to do but sometimes it throws a wrench in the way they can be presented live. Obviously Mr. Tate and company presented the two records in order this year. Will you be doing something similar or are you just playing selected cuts from this one?
Zak: I'm sure we will. It's not like it's awful difficult to do without our stuff. At one point I'd hope to do it right away when I first start touring…we've got the month of January in Europe and we're going to come back and start doing the shows in the states. Right away I'm just going to play like a greatest hits thing, you know, a few songs from the first two, you know, most stuff from Burden of Truth and a middle, a Savatage set right in the middle of stuff I did, my favourite stuff from my era in Savatage which always is really fun for everybody. (laughs) So we just have that little thing where we do a little medley there and go through as many as we can hit. and then you know, I'll finish off with something big, at one point, then we'll do that first, then when I come back, if we come back for the big festival shows in Europe which I 'm sure we're going to get a few of them. And that's springtime, summertime stuff and then we 're talking about coming out there and maybe playing you know, whatever the time allows us. Maybe doing that kind of thing where you play the whole record straight. We're already going to be doing a good start of that, I'll give you a hint on this coming up tour, because really I think I'm going to crank out the first five songs on Burden of Truth. You know what I'm saying, as for the part I'm going to have in the set. That's pretty much what I'm thinking right now to do on that, so it will give you a feel of what it's going to do because I'm going to go crank, crank, crank right down the order, bud. You know what I'm saying? And they'll I'll get to a certain point where I'm saying, oh right, that's for next time. Sorry guys. And they start throwing fruit at me. I got tomatoes coming up. I get out of the way at that point. (laughs)
antiMUSIC: From what I'm find out about you, you stepped back from Savatage a few years back to spend more time with your family. Obviously, I'm sure you felt and still feel it was the right was thing to do. Was there any point later on, however, where you went, "What did I just do? Did I just train wreck my career?" or were you confident that you would be able to resume where you left off at a later date?
Zak: Yeah, well you know….it's pretty much what I had to do. Cause I had a young baby at the time who's now my eight year old daughter. When you have your first kid you just know you have to do the right thing and stuff. And then I was moving at the same time, where I'm actually moving homes and having to get all this stuff. And it's just an unbelievable amount of work. I just needed to take a little bit of time off. And it was right in the middle of while we were working on Poets and Madmen. And I went out there to work on all that stuff and all of a sudden couldn't do the record. that's a time frame it hit. So, no everything's fine, really, you know. What it did, you know, it pretty much forced me to go; you know what, I'm going to go get better at everything. I'm just going to go ahead and get back in Savatage and wait for records. You know I still enjoy working with TSO, I'm going to hopefully do a couple of songs on this next TSO record, the non-Christmas record. And I just went and saw TSO the other night in Lakeland, Florida, the first show of the tour with the west coast company, with their only east coast show, which was interesting,. And they gave me third row centre. And all access passes and everybody's treating everybody like a king, and everybody's respecting each other. And I saw John, Johnny Lee, Al Pitrelli, I mean, you know, all the guys who participated in that company who were with, that is the ones that were with Savatage. The other company would have Caffery and Alex Skolnick, the guy who played on the second record that I was on in Savatage called Handful of Rain. So really it's one big family again through that huge success you know, in the United States. And everybody's got their gold and platinum records on the wall for it, you know for their work on their record, you know. Really it's good. I'm happy for Paul and happy for everybody for their success. Because I'm going to enjoy working on that stuff. So in other words, you know what, they were never going to, it was never going to be a thing where my career got train wrecked because I'm not going to be able to do stuff with Savatage plus we have to work, you know. I knew I kinda was lucky because I knew that just was never going to be the case because we talk a lot and Paul was like, "Hey you just had to do it. No problem." It's the last...we just did Poets and Madmen and we really hadn't done another one so, you know now that's what we had to focus on after this next TSO record or whatever. If we're ever going to do a 25th anniversary, you know we're talking about doing a 25th anniversary big concert with everybody who's ever been involved get up there. Everybody who ever made a record with Savatage, get up there and go nuts. Do a little DVD and just kinda do the right thing. No matter what happens after that, if it goes on or it stops, that'll be the right thing to do. We're going to be focusing on that after that…the TSO thing. So there you go, there never was a problem of not being able to do that again, just had to wait till the right time again. Other priorities came up and I'm glad I got to do Circle to Circle. It's awesome now. You just have to start at record one, sure. I had to start over. But I had a great time doing it and I knew it was going to be positive in the end for everything. And if I wanted to go do other stuff, it would be open. I'm pretty open in that regard.
antiMUSIC: That's all the questions I've got for you, Zak. Is there anything else you would like to tell me about the record or the band I didn't ask?
Zak: Well, we're going to do some shows in the states, after we do that January month and cover Europe. And then I hope to come up north your way. Are you very far north?
antiMUSIC: Near Ottawa, Canada.
Zak: Waah. Great. I've never gotten to play Canada quite yet with Circle II Circle. It's so far up there. But you know what I think it's going to very possible. I've done quite a lot of press in Canada this time round. Very surprising. Twice as much as I've ever done. People are listening, they're buying it. This is really good. I'm going to check out both your sites, I hear they're amazing. And I want to thank you for your help and also for the interview.
antiMUSIC: It was my pleasure and all the best with the new record. I love it and I hope it does really well for you.
Zak: I appreciate that man. Thanks again. I'm glad you enjoy it. Keep on enjoying it. Have a good week and the rest of your weekend.
antiMUSIC: You too Zak. See you.
Zak: Thanks Morley. Talk to you later.