Circle II Circle are about to release their sixth studio album Jan. 29, and make no mistake, vocalist Zak Stevens is eager for fans to hear it. But Stevens also knows that many metal fans around the globe know him primarily for the Florida band with which he made his mark 20 years ago -- Savatage -- after he replaced the Hall of the Mountain King himself, vocalist Jon Oliva.
Seasons Will Fall, a 12-song disc, is a conglomeration of metal rockers and the type of majestic melodies that allowed metalheads to initially become familiar with Stevens on the 1993 Savatage album Edge of Thorns. Stevens is hopeful the music on Seasons Will Fall (click on video, bottom) coupled with the support of Circle II Circle's new label EarMusic will be strong enough to bring he and his mates (top photo, from left: guitarists Bill Hudson and Christian Wentz, Stevens, drummer Adam Sagan, bassist Mitch Stewart, and keyboardist Henning Wanner) States side this year. Including San Antonio, of course.
While looking to the present and future with Circle II Circle, Stevens, 46, reflected back on Savatage -- including the upcoming 20-year passing of guitar great Criss Oliva, who was killed by a drunk driver -- when he phoned me last week from his home in Tampa, Fla.
Q: What makes this album different, and better, than the previous ones?
A: A lot of different things. Musically, we took a little bit more time to get together on a little more well-rounded selections of music. Kind of ranking stuff. You got your basic rock-type songs like "Never Gonna Stop," then some stuff in the middle that has a little bit of a mix of everything that we like to do. So we took a little bit longer to kind of spread out a little bit, stretch the musical repertoire just a little bit. Also, we got some more writers involved, which is something I wanted to do this time. Really, what's interesting, is Mitch, our bass player Mitch Stewart, has a son that must be 19 or 20 by now. He's actually got into music and writes on one song. He got together with his dad and wrote "End of Emotion," which is kind of a different type of tune for us. That was interesting, how that came about. And then our new guitar player Christian Wentz got a song called "Diamond Blade." And a good friend of mine Craig Brockwell down here, who worked with Crimson Glory as well in the past, had done some producing in the studio mainly. He did some engineering for us on this album and basically was the overall overseeing producer. When I met him about a year ago, I knew we could get together and take things to a different level with Circle II Circle just by meeting him. He joined us writing on a couple songs: "Without A Sound" and "Downshot." All those elements got together to make it different musically, and then the production effort as a whole, getting together with Christian at his studio, mixing there, having the pre-masters going in with the help of Craig. I really knew at that point that we were going to be able to take the production level to the new level, which we needed to do. I think the last two albums were lacking a little bit in the production area, that kind of thing. I know that back in that time, I wish the music would have been a little more full-time for me at that point (laughs). As much full-time as it is for me right now. I freed myself up about a year and a half ago with different business endeavors and things I had going on that were taking my time away from music just to say, "Hey, I want to give it another five-year run where there are no distractions." And I had some of those distractions on the last two albums, on Delusions of Grandeur and Consequence of Power, and I just know that I wasn't able to give it everything. But I wanted to come back with this album, Seasons Will Fall, and have no excuses. Put it all out there, and that's what you got. I was happy, and I'm happy to be able to do this album to say that I got that one in.
Q: Any special significance to the album title and the title track?
A: Well, the meaning in the title track is really about the things, no matter what you have, every beginning has an end. Everything is destined for change. Things will change, but it doesn't mean that everything just has to fade away. Some things can come in. Let's just say the situations that we were in maybe the last five years with the band, kind of an up-and-down thing, trying to find where we could get that amazing lineup. It all didn't have to stay that way. There were things that could be done, and with a little perseverance and dedication to try to meet the goal, that's really the significance of the title of the album. It may not have been the greatest season in the world, but that season will fall. And it will give way to whatever you can foresee. Yeah, I'm glad you asked that question, because I've never been able to get that out before.
Q: My early favorites are "Dreams That Never Die" because of its changing tempos and "Never Gonna Stop" because it's one of the heaviest tunes. First time I heard "Dreams That Never Die," I thought it could be the son of "Chance" from Handful of Rain because of your echoing mix of vocals and the song's overall style. Would you agree?
A: Wow, I never really compared it to "Chance" too much in that way. To me, "Chance" is kind of a song on its own out there on an island (laughs). But it's good to hear that. That was the second song we started work on. The title track was the first song we worked on, and gosh, that was two years ago. We started writing pretty soon after the other (album), but we wanted to give it more time. We had been doing records -- the shortest span was like one year and a month, and then you'd have a year and a half span. You know, very quick. We wanted to take a little longer. "Dreams That Never Die" was the second song that really came up. It was so soon that I hadn't really had the chance to analyze it that deeply: "OK, what do we got next?" For the vocals, you can see when it goes into that little do-do-do, that is a lot like "Chance." But what it told me was, "OK, let's get some kind of cool, important vocal going here." And meaning-wise, I think there's a lot of similarities too, to "Chance." Of course, "Chance" was written about the Japanese land that hoped to free their Jewish people in the World War II era. Their meanings are very far away, but there is that theme of that you have to stand up for what you believe in. It goes both ways, too. Yeah, you've got dreams. If you even stop trying to go for your dreams, then, you'll still have that dream. I don't think it's ever going to go away. Let's say you dream of being in music, like I've been blessed enough to be able to do. If you decide, "This is too hard. I can't handle it. I'm going to go into the corporate world," I don't think that dream necessarily fades away. It'll be there, but how are you going to deal with the fact that you're heading in another direction? That's kind of where the title came from. And it also can be about you having dreams about traumatic things that may have happened to you, like soldiers. They wake up with dreams about a traumatic event out there, fighting the fight or going away for medical reasons. Biological situations. I was kind of pondering around that theme the whole time.
Q: Like a lot of bands these days, you guys enjoy more popularity outside of the States. Will San Antonio have a chance to see you guys come around?
A: You know, I really think so. I think we're getting to that point. We had to work hard to get our situation going in North America. I think this will be the kind of record and kind of label -- it's kind of hard for us 'cause like you said, we're doing business overseas: Brazil, South America, Europe. It's a challenge for us to be able to get a market saturation over here in the U.S., especially in a market where metal music is not really at the forefront. One reason that we changed our label was because our previous label definitely could not handle trying to do that over here in North America. So I wanted to make the change to EarMusic, which happened to be Savatage's European label for many, many years during the time I was in the band. It was like coming home again. I believe, with their capability, we will be able to do a lot more touring in the States. I have a lot of control over that myself, and now I think it's definitely possible for San Antonio to see us. We've got it on our radar.
Q: When was the last time you guys played here?
A: You know, it would be with Savatage. That would be, golly, like 10 years ago. It had to be. No, longer than that. Twenty years. I was thinking 2003, but I go back to '93. We're looking at 20 years. It's going to correlate with the 20th -- it's a little earlier than what would be the 20th anniversary of Criss Oliva's passing, which we have coming up this year. So we're looking to put together some special things around that. I'm talking to Jon Oliva, and we're looking to put together something special here in Tampa. I can't believe it's been 20 years.
I have on audio cassette an (Aug. 6) 1993 interview and acoustic performance you and Criss did on Y108 radio in Chicago with Scott Loftus. It was an acoustic in-studio you guys did, and you took some phone calls. I pulled it out yesterday in preparation for our conversation because I hadn't listened to it in years. You guys did "Sleep" and "Miles Away."
Yeah, I remember that.
It might have been a couple of months right before he passed.
I believe so.
Q: Here we are 20 years later when you first joined the band on that album. Much like the retrospective from Circle II Circle that came out last year, do you feel things have come Full Circle?
A: Well, it's not all the way. It's close. I think it's very close. You know, I think that's part of what you try to do. You just try to bring it together. After we lost Criss, there was a lot of openness, a lot of void to fill. You try to do what you can. You don't know where that's going to take you. It might be 20 years down the road like this, where you can even say, wow! You really tried to fill that massive hole left by a great friend and one of the best guys at what he did in the world. I hope that we can somewhere get close to it. I kept going for him. A lot of the stuff I do is really for Criss. We try to make him proud in the music that we do and try to keep these great players around. Try to do the kind of work that maybe he would approve of. I think it's good to have that kind of inspiration and just try to work for it and not ever forget. But yeah, that's a great question.
Q: It's very rare that a replacement singer, for lack of a better term, is recommended by his predecessor. But your situation with Savatage is unique in that Jon Oliva was a guiding force in you replacing him, but he also continued to write songs on the albums you sang on. Can you give me your perspective on the whole family feel that was invoked within Savatage and Circle II Circle?
A: I mean, yeah, it was definitely a family type of situation. When Criss and Jon had to come to that decision for Jon to step back into the producing role, that was a big family decision right there. That was a family band formed by two brothers, so everything was really a family decision, which I saw right away. All the guys in the band were like that too. They went with the family vibe. (Bassist) Johnny Lee (Middleton) was a guy from the South. My dad's from Tennessee, so we had a connection with the Southern roots. Just a lot of different aspects that made us a family. Jon, heck, planned on just sitting back there writing songs for me for a long time (laughs). It looked like the band was doing real good, was really on the way to do good. We were waiting on our tour with Vince Neil. But of course the accident happened, and Jon said, "Well, what do you all want to do?" At first, I don't think anybody wants to do anything. I think it was like, "We're done." You can't just think anything past that. But yeah, there's been a lot of aspects where everybody's been pulling for each other. I just saw Jon at the TSO show a couple weeks ago here in Tampa and had a big hug out there. He met my dad for the first time. He's 75, and his dad just turned 100. So it's just, wow! Celebrating life, you know? (Zak's father) said, "I finally got to meet the mountain king." He saw all my friends in the music business. He could barely handle that rock-star stuff, but they were treating him like one. Just a big family, man.
Before I let you go, I gotta tell you I was on the first 70000 Tons (cruise) with you guys.
You and I took a photo together that first night, so I wanted to thank you for that. And you ended up buying a drink for my female roommate when we were checking out Fear Factory.
Oh, I did? Oh, good! I hope that was OK. No!
Q: What did you think of the cruise? Had you been on anything like that before?
A: I had not.
Q: Because I think you guys were the very last band (out of 42) added to the itinerary, right?
A: Yes, we were. That was the epitome of the time I was talking about, where we were rebuilding. I was basically rebuilding the band from scratch, as you can see. Had a lot of great guys there helping me in the lineup at the time. I had Johnny Osborn on drums, Rollie Feldman on guitar. That pretty much rounded out the lineup. We didn't have the lineup totally all set, but these guys were great, helped me out, and I said, "Let's go play the ship and keep this thing rolling." At that time, it was just keeping the name out, try to see where the final goal could take us. I'd never been on a cruise ship before. That was the first time ever, and you're playing a show, so I'd call that a winner! We're doing another one this coming May. The Wacken Full Metal cruise. It goes from Hamburg, Germany, to much of Scandinavia. But the bands don't get to go the whole way. You come on as you play. They pick us up, and maybe about two days later, after two shows, they drop the band off at another point. So that cruise (70000 Tons) is special because the bands get to go and stay on the ship the entire circle. Coming back to port in Miami. A lot of them don't work that way. It was so much fun. The alcohol bill was way up there!
I think it was for all of us.
(Laughs) I made a lot of great, new friends, people I still keep in touch with today. And we played a couple shows.
Well, hey, thanks so much for taking the time. Thanks for calling in and again for the time on the cruise. When you guys get this tour rolling, I hope you come on in to San Antonio. We can shake hands and maybe do an in-person interview at that time.
Yes, I really hope so, Jay. I appreciate you having me, and I think it'll definitely happen. We've been really close to playing all over Texas for a few years now, so I'm pretty sure that we won't have any problems.
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