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Circle II Circle



Cracking The DaVinci Code



Prologue
The solo-career of ex-Savatage singer Zak Stevens got an impressive start, as the first album of his new band Circle II Circle, Watching In Silence (2003), featured songwriting contributions by his former bandmates Jon Oliva and Chris Caffery. However as time went by Zak felt the necessity to stand on his own feet, and the bands third effort Burden Of Truth is composed entirely by Circle II Circle members. This is a concept release based on the famous books The DaVinci Code and Holy Blood Holy Grail, and even though Zak himself does not expect the CD to cause as much controversy as the books did, we still found it very interesting to get in contact with the singer and discuss the new release, as well as some highlights of his career
Burden Of Truth is your third album in four years, which is a very rare thing nowadays, as very few bands are working at such a high pace. Are you trying to kind of compensate for the time you were away from the music scene, or are there any other reasons for working so fast?

It seems like its fast, but its kind of the norm. As were moving into the next five years, youre gonna see the time between records being shorter and shorter. This is pretty much what the label has requested, and we have lots of material, so its OK, and I dont mind putting out more music in a shorter amount of time when theres a reason. It was just over a year between The Middle Of Nowhere (2005) and Burden Of Truth, so I dont think its that quick.

Burden Of Truth is a concept album, and many musicians say it takes them much more time and effort to make a concept record than a regular one. Was that the same in your case? Was it indeed a more difficult album to write and record than The Middle Of Nowhere?

I would say it was a bit more difficult, just because you have to do the research, think out the story and where songs stand, put the puzzle together, etc. But it wasnt as hard as I thought it was gonna be, it was more of an enjoyable process to me. I would often think about how might my life change if someone walked up to me and said, We have proof that you are in the blood line of Jesus Christ, heres the background, and you are directly related? How would your life change from that moment on if that were true? Thats just a thought, but the whole album braced out from there, as the thoughts inspired a lot of music.

Why didnt you involve Jon Oliva and Chris Caffery as songwriters this time? How did their absence change the writing process?

Surprisingly it didnt really change that much. It became a little more interactive, which I like. With Jon and Chris, we had some bits of base working, but there were also times when we were just trading CDs here are some riffs, why dont you work on them and see if they do. At least when youre writing within the band, theres a lot more base time with the guys in the same setting, you have to work on songs over a longer period of time, and I think that could give a little more cohesion in the end. That part I liked. We thought it was time to go ahead and write a record with just the guys in the band, so we could go on working like that in the future. When I first started with Circle II Circle, it was a great medium for the songs that I could write with Jon and Chris, and we had always wanted to do that together while we were in Savatage. It was a great medium for us to be able to enjoy doing that again, we thought that was exciting. But over time the goal has changed, and now its just to have a self-sufficient band so we can be unlimited in what we wanna do.

The new album is inspired by the books The DaVinci Code and Holy Blood Holy Grail, but you obviously know about the controversy that The DaVinci Code caused in many countries, and the problems with religious organizations that the movie had. What made you base the album on such a controversial theme? Dont you think that this polemics may affect Circle II Circle a bit, too?

No, because were just looking at the whole thing and saying, Hey, what happens after the movie ends? What can happen at that point?" And that just kind of intrigued me, so I wrote the record kind of like a movie each song leading a different theme, but together building the whole picture. Im not really worried by the controversy, its already out there, and what were doing is just a reaction and maybe a what-if scenario - what if all these things came to light. Were just kind of looking into it a little bit further.

What kind of impact did these books and the movie have on you? Do you think that what Dan Brown says is the truth, or was it just a great idea, believable but still fictional?

I think its gonna remain fictional until proof is found to back up the theory. There must be hardcore proof, and its interesting how it could twist the priorities of the modern day. And thats what intrigued me right there what are the modern-day implications if some of these theories are true?

Could you tell me a bit about the songwriting process in Circle II Circle? What do you start with the music or lyrics? How much input does every band member have?

Everybody has a lot of input. We bring forward everything that everybody has, its a very collaborative thing. We start with music, and when I hear the stuff I like I try to come up with vocal melodies. Then we arrange it, come up with needed parts, kind of enhance the idea that we started with, we just kind of build from there.

How did you get Bernd Aufermann from the German band Running Wild as a co-writer for some of the songs on The Middle Of Nowhere?

I met Bernd on tour five or six years ago. He plays in several bands, I was out there watching him play, and I just got to know him as a friend. We met each other backstage, said something like, Hey, hows it going?, and introduced ourselves. And one day he said, Wow, Ive got a few things that I came up with lately, and theyre really like what you do. I said, OK, lets work on the stuff together. In the end, me and him did a couple of songs on The Middle Of Nowhere, which was maybe the first time I worked with anyone besides Jon and Chris. Bernd is a very talented, great guy, and he felt fine about writing the stuff we did.

The line-up of your band changed completely from the first album to the second one. The official statement cites problems with the management as the reason for the breakup. But you also said that you wanted to bring the band to a higher professional level. So what was indeed happening in that period of time?

Well, a few of the guys were thinking about maybe not touring as much as we had talked about in the past. And theyre all good friends, so if one goes, they are all gonna be changing. And I think they kind of felt they were better fit for Jon Oliva, so they just said, Hey, well go there! I said, No problem, I need to do a few different things for going forward. It worked out good for both parties.

Was it easy or difficult to put together two different line-ups in a period of just a few years?

The first line-up was very local, all those guys were from Tampa, but it was a crazy thing to adjust everybodys schedule. What I did was going on a more regional search, and now all the guys in Circle II Circle are from around Nashville, TN, and Mississippi. It actually turned out to be good, because we get together, these guys drive in or I drive up to Nashville, we work on stuff, and its been really great, theyre really great guys, and we enjoy working as a band.

Could you tell me a bit about each of the current members - their musical background, how you met them and stuff like that?

I met pretty much all of them at the same time. They were playing in a band, or rather they had two or three bands each, but the one that got me interested was touring around the Southeast, doing some shows in the Mid-West of the United States, like Oklahoma, Nebraska, then coming back and doing Tennessee, Georgia, South Carolina, Florida, just various tour stuff. It was an AC/DC cover band, they played all AC/DC songs, and they were very popular. I met most of them because of the work they did in that. I saw their other bands, I heard them playing, and I was like, Wow, what a tight unit! Luckily it worked out great, and here we are, two records later.

Circle II Circle has been with AFM Records since the very beginning. Why did you choose this label, and are you satisfied working with them? Do you have plans to sign to a bigger company?

Right now you really have no way of knowing whether all thats gonna hold in the future. The guy who signed us, Andreas Allendorfer, the president of the label, unfortunately was killed. He was like 41 years old, and his life was taken away in a car accident in Germany. At that point there was a complete transformation of the label, because it was bought by Sony Group under the umbrella of Soulfood Records, so now its called AFM/Soulfood. It grew quite a while in that respect, but things were in a turmoil because of Andys death, because he was the one who ran the whole thing, he was the president. What Andreas did was great, well always appreciate
it, he was like a friend of ours, and all of a sudden hes not here anymore, its very sad and tragic. That was kind of crazy, the organization moved completely, and The Middle Of Nowhere was affected by that. Our release was a week before Andy got killed, and he was the one who worked our record. After his death there was nobody working, and The Middle Of Nowhere didnt quite get the attention it deserved, it was like a blimp on a radar. It sounds familiar, because I went through the same situation with Criss Oliva all of a sudden we didnt know what was going on at all. But in the end it turned out great, theres a lot more resources now, more money and things to do. Everybody in the organization has made a great strive forward to be able to push Burden Of Truth, so its gonna be pretty exciting.

Burden Of Truth is coming out 1.5 months after the second album by Jon Olivas Pain, and people will obviously compare these two releases. And what do you personally think about Maniacal Renderings?

I like it a lot, I have it right here, and I think that Jon went in a way back in time. Its really cool, its almost like the Twisted Little Sister era, way before I first learned about Savatage.

Watching In Silence was very close to the music you did with Savatage, and the next two releases were getting a bit different. Was it your intention to move away from Savatage a bit, or was it just a natural development of the music?

It was definitely natural progression. Im not really trying to force anything, what comes that comes. Its funny how many people say that The Middle Of Nowhere was a different step. In fact, it was written with the same people, Jon and Chris Caffery, and you can easily see the progression. But people say, Wow, it was a step away from Savatage! Who were the guys who wrote it? Well, thats the guys who were directly involved in Savatage, thats how interesting things turn out. One great thing about The Middle Of Nowhere in America is that it made its way on satellite radio, we have about six songs from that record that were planed on satellite radio all over America. It was a huge step forward, even though we had the tragic loss of Andreas at AFM.

I remember talking to Jon Oliva, and he said that when they were choosing a new vocalist for Savatage, they went through many tapes, and you were the only contender that was not trying to sound like Jon. Do you remember what kind of tape it was? Were you singing Savatage songs or anything else on that?

I gave him a demo of the band called Wicked Witch that I was in in Boston, Massachusetts. We had a demo that was produced by Bob St. John, the guy who mixed all the records by Extreme. He made us sound great, and I just used that demo as an audition tape. It wasnt anything like what Jon would have done, but it was a good showcase of me.

Do you remember your first live concert with Savatage? You said you never had a stage fright after the first concert you ever played at the age of 10, so what feelings did you have when you entered the stage with Savatage for the first time?

Im glad I didnt really get a stage fright. I had been playing live quite a lot with other bands like Wicked Witch before Savatage, so I was quite used to it. I was nervous, but I think thats OK, and after two songs it was completely gone. Our first show was in a club called Anal Chasers in Clearwater, Florida, we did a warm-up show for the Edge Of Thorns tour in Europe. We did Anal Chasers, then we went to Europe, and when we came back, we played the Rocky Club, and Anal Chasers again, and both of them were sold out. It was a good time.

You are still singing some Savatage songs live with Circle II Circle. Can you name a few of them? How does your current setlist look like?

Weve just played a show at the ProgPower festival, with mostly European bands, I think we might be the only band from the States there. What we played on that show was Edge Of Thorns, Handful Of Rain, This Is The Time, and the Sarajevo intro off Dead Winter Dead (1995). That was a kind of surprise, I threw them a curve ball on that one, they werent expecting it, and they all went like Wow! We do stuff like Follow Me
from Edge Of Thorns (1993) sometimes, Turns To Me off The Wake Of Magellan (1997) is a good one just various stuff that I performed with Savatage through the years.

Are these your favorite Savatage tracks, or do you mostly choose the stuff that people would like to hear?

I think its a combination of both. I choose my favorite ones, and I want to make sure that this is the stuff everybody knows as well.

When did you start writing music and lyrics yourself? Was it before Savatage, in Savatage or after that?

It was before Savatage. That band Wicked Witch was probably the most intensive thing I have had to do putting together all those original songs and playing all around Boston, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New Hampshire, all over the places out there. That was the biggest practice I had. In Savatage Paul ONeill was the main lyricist, so there wasnt so much room for me to practice in lyric-writing. And of course, with Circle II Circle I put it all in the place.

Could you tell me a bit more about the music you played with Wicked Witch? Did you have any official recordings at that time? Is there still a chance for a fan to get hold of any of those recordings?

You know, theyre pretty rare. I saw them on E-bay, I did a search on E-bay one time and found a CD, its definitely of a high quality. Its melodic hard rock, good guitar playing, pretty crunching guitars right in your face. (The drummer of Wicked Witch, Jeff Plate, later found his way to Savatage, too ed.)

What singers do you consider your influences? Are there any young singers on the current metal scene that you really like?

On the current metal scene I like the singer from Disturbed, I like his voice a lot. And when I was growing up, my influences were Black Sabbath, Ronnie James Dio, Geoff Tate from Queensryche, Bruce Dickinson from Iron Maiden, and also Rob Halford from Judas Priest, but he probably influenced every metal singer.

Honestly I was quite surprised when you mentioned Disturbed, because its totally different music. Does it mean that you follow the developments on the nu metal or modern metal scenes?

Yeah, I listen to everything. I listen to all the new stuff, my wife really loves the current hard rock, so she goes out and buys all the CDs, and its easy for me to keep up with it. I also have an eight-year-old daughter who starts to kind of like music as well. Theres always new stuff around, and I dont have to try hard to get familiar with it. (laughs)

Counterpoint vocal harmonies were among the trademarks of Savatage in the 1990s. The first song in which they appear is Chance from Handful Of Rain (1994). Can you recall your impressions about recording this song?

I thought it was great from the beginning. I could hear it in my head, I could hear that it was gonna work, it was a very bold idea. Paul ONeill did a great job thinking out the overall picture, and I had a great time recording it. It went very quickly, I knew exactly what to do, so you go in there and just do a lot of tracks. There are probably 48 tracks of just vocals, you can get crazy while doing them. On the Circle II Circle records I use more like 32 tracks when I do that, but it was a little bit more stacking with Paul ONeill there. Hes usually composing four or five different distinct melodies, and Im probably just using three or four, so there are some technical differences.

I remember Jon saying that when he worked with Paul ONeill, he had to do about 200 vocal takes for many of the songs

We didnt do quite that many, probably about 30 or 40. Sometimes we would just do six, and then Id cut it down myself and give Paul the best out of the six tracks for all the different lines. It was a different way, it was easier Really I think he would have made me sing 200 tracks, but I would just say, Hey, I cant sing anymore. Im dying over here! (everybody laughs) We worked that hard, I tell you, to get the best performance.

What was your reaction when Trans-Siberian Orchestra, the band in which you were not involved as much as Savatage, got much
bigger than Savatage in the United States basically overnight?


Well, it was good, we all got gold and platinum records, we all got paid pretty good, so it was a very happy time. I was talking to Paul a couple of weeks ago, and I want to try to sing a couple of songs on the next TSO record coming out soon. Were just gonna try to do that and probably perform live on stage with a couple of things here and there, whenever my schedule with Circle II Circle will allow. I still stay involved in TSO, and it was a great idea. My hats off to Paul ONeill especially!

A lot has been said about your reasons for the departure from Savatage. But how was it like to switch over to a completely different lifestyle? Did you start missing tours and recordings immediately, or did you feel a sort of relief when you quit?

There was a kind of relief, just because there was so much going on. I had a newborn daughter, my first one, and I was moving, so I just couldnt have the time to make those recording sessions for Poets And Madmen (2001). I decided to take a few months off, but it turned into more time, and there hadnt really been a Savatage record for a while, so this decision just had to be made. But probably after about a year from that I was like, Well, OK, I can do that again. That was just the situation of that time, I just needed more time for my family, but kids grow up quickly, so I could move on and make records with Circle II Circle.

Was there anything special that prompted you to return to the music scene? Did you just think one day, I cant take it anymore, I gotta get back to singing!? Or was it pre-planned, something like, Ill wait for three years when my kids are older, and then Ill make a comeback!?

It wasnt really all that long, pretty much right away I started talking to Jon and these guys trying to get a band together. Music is always gonna be with me, its not gonna be too far away. When things got to a better position, I immediately started to write songs.

How do your wife and kids react when you have to leave home and go touring with Circle II Circle? Have you ever taken them to your gigs?

My kids havent done it yet, theyre still pretty young three years old and eight years old. They have a pretty busy little life. Its always sad when you have to go out on tour, I dont like that part, but you have to go and play, you have to do what you love. If you wanna do something that you really love, theres gonna be some sacrifice here and there. And I think thats probably one of the major ones.

There have been a lot of speculations about the possibility of you rejoining Savatage for at least a few songs on the next album. But the Savatage website has been silent for over a year, so probably you could tell me a bit about whats going on with this band

I have heard them say that theyd like to do a reunion-type tour, get us all together next year, which should be great. But I dont know whats going on with the planning of that, because Im not involved in the actual planning. I just have to step back and see what happens.

OK, and now the final question. I read on the Internet that you have a Bosnian origin. Do you think that your roots have any influence on your singing or lifestyle?

Thats interesting, because Ive been asked this question in two or three interviews, but I dont have any Bosnian ancestors. Im Dutch, Irish, English and Indian, and I dont know where that came from really. The whole thing with the Dead Winter Dead album (where the action takes place during the Bosnian war ed.) was just that we wanted to educate people. mostly in America, who didnt know a lot about the history of Bosnia and had no clue about why there would be ethnic cleansing and why Yugoslavia would split into all those little republics. People in America didnt know that so I think we wanted to put the record out as a kind of educational piece. People in Europe and you guys probably know a lot more about it. Media didnt cover it here, it was just strange, and you have to know the history to understand why all that happens. I was highly intrigued by that, even though it was a horrible thing in a lot of aspects.

I can tell you theres an Internet encyclopaedia called Wikipedia.org, and the entry on you starts with the line saying that you have Bosnian origin

Well, I have never told anybody that. (laughs) Im sure that if I was of Bosnian descent, then the album would have meant a lot more to me.


Special thanks to Irina Ivanova (CD-Maximum) for arranging this interview

Roman Maniac Patrashov
October 1, 2006
13 2006
the End


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