Zak Stevens interview
By Steph Perry
June 3, 2009
Is it possible for a new band to have two decades worth of history? Take the band Machines of Grace, fronted by vocalist Zak Stevens, and you will see that not only is it possible but it will prove to be well worth the wait. Stevens and guitarist Matt Leff formed the band Wickedwitch and enjoyed a successful run through the Boston club scene in the early 90’s. But when opportunity knocked in the form of an offer to join Savatage as their new lead singer, Zak made the fateful decision to end his pursuits with Matt. Fast forward 16 years, and Zak and Matt have dusted off their Wickedwitch catalog, and given birth to a new band called Machines of Grace. They made it a priority to bring drummer Jeff Plate back into the fold, as he was also a former member in the Boston days, and the band is rounded out by bass player Chris Rapoza. The songs they wrote back in the day needed only minor work to make them new again. And how did Zak find time to do all this, while still being the lead vocalist for the highly successful band Circle II Circle? Well Zak knows that he can’t let the fans down, as he told me “the music business will just swallow you up sometimes but you just got to learn how to control it and realize you’re not going to retire until the fans say that they’re going to allow you to!” And we all know that’s not happening any time soon. Machines of Grace will release their debut album on July 7, and I had the extreme pleasure to speak to Zak by telephone recently where we discussed MOG, CIIC, Savatage, and memories of Criss Oliva.
What is the story behind Machines of Grace? How did you all come together?
Well that started in the early 90’s. I met Matt Leff in California because we both studied at the Musicians Institute in Hollywood…and we met at the school. Matt had auditioned for Ronnie James Dio and he got runner-up. He almost got it but he lost out to Craig Goldy. And they wrote an article about it in the school newspaper, so I read about him in the school newspaper. Next thing you know, he has an ad out there to do some recording in the GIT [Guitar Institute of Technology] studio and who wants to be apart of it and write some songs. So I answered it, and that’s how we met. We originally recorded one of the songs that’s on the Machines of Grace album actually the first time it was ever recorded was at MI [Musicians Institute]. So that’s how early some of this stuff goes back. Then we eventually moved to Boston, where Matt’s from, and we just started putting that together in the form of a band called Wickedwitch…So that’s what Machines of Grace is, except we have just reformed, you know finishing some old business, we got the old stuff we worked on which we’ve kind of modernized everything, really we just took the basic riffs and we got new stuff that we worked on, so the new Machines of Grace album is kind of a combination of the stuff that we played then revamped a little, plus some totally new ideas and that’s really a kind of rebirth of what we had back then and that was our main dream back then, you know that was our main focus was hey this is our chance to do good in music and what happened was, I heard Savatage was looking for a singer and they asked what demo do you have, and heck, giving them the demo for Wickedwitch ended up getting me the Savatage gig! So we never really got to finish that business there so we’re kind of just going back and finishing it now! [laughs] So I’m in two bands full time Circle II Circle and Machines of Grace, and I work a little bit with Trans-Siberian Orchestra singing on the new album and I’ve been on four other TSO albums, and we don’t really know what’s going to happen with Savatage in the future. Everybody always asks me, what about that Savatage reunion [laughs]. We just did a European tour with Circle II Circle and you can bet that every interview, I got the question, “anything going to happen with Savatage in the future?” And I’m like, I’m all for it! That’s all I really know! Note for the record that I am totally in favor!
Right, duly noted [laughs]! But that decision would have to come from Jon Oliva and Paul O’Neill. But we do get together and talk about it sometimes.
It must have been a challenge to rework the songs. What worked well and where did you find problems?
Well surprisingly, we didn’t really have to do a lot of construction work. We changed how things were laid out here or there. The main thing was looking at the arrangements. The main riffs had always been there, we had been out playing those things as our original songs way back in the day in Boston. It wasn’t really that hard at all, you kind of know what’s going on now and surprisingly you can write riffs that kind of just stand the test of time sometimes. I was astounded by how many times these things came through and thought the riff’s pretty timeless and it’s just good basic rock. We really just made some fine tuning tweaks and everything fell in. One of the songs, Innocence, we made that acoustic. So we wanted to pull a 180 on some stuff. So we took a song that was always a heavy rocker and now you’re hearing it as acoustic. So it was a number of things like that, that were pretty easy adjustments.
I am enjoying what I’ve heard so far, and I hope it gets radio play! I liked in particular the song The Moment with its positive message of “reaching out for better times”. What does this song mean to you?
That was one of the things that was new to the song, reaching out for better times, just little lyrical adjustments like that. Really that was kind of written in terms of a relationship but it was about taking advantage of the moment. It really was written out of the thought that gosh I better make sure I try everything in this business because I don’t want to look back and say you had a chance to try but you just got scared or you just wimped out [laughs]. That’s really where that song started from, that was the mentality I had going in writing it. I remember it very clearly and I had strong feeling that in rock and roll you can be a step or two away from that, from trying to pursue your dream but you don’t want to sit there one day and go, gosh maybe I could’ve done it if…And I just hated the if questions. That was our dream at the time, that band, and we all wanted to succeed. So those were some of the thoughts that come into your mind early in your career. Then more recently it’s about times are getting a little bit tough, we can see it now with the current economy and everything like that, so you gotta do what you can to still live the lifestyle you want to live and have a good time and cease the moment. But yet you’re hoping around the corner for even better times. So that’s what it’s about to me.
You and Matt are the primary writers, is that right?
So how does that work?
Matt will come up with a musical riff. I’ll help him with arrangement of the parts, but he really comes up with the musical component. I handle all the lyrics and the vocal melodies and just kind of clean up the fringes. It’s pretty easy [laughs] we know what we’re in charge of so we just kind of bring it to the table. It’s always easy, even to this day. And now he’s sending me stuff for the next album, I’m like going–Oh yea–I’m digging into that quickly because the stuff he writes makes me better. You know I write with a lot of great guitar players, you know how lucky I’ve been throughout my career to play with the crème de la crème of guitar. And to be able to work with them and write, you know I have a very special relationship with Matt because he really brings out the best and challenges me. Because the stuff he writes is strong and I don’t want to come short, you know? So we definitely challenge each other a lot!
Have you signed with a record label?
No we’re pretty much owning everything in house…we’re able to pool resources and talking about owning this thing from within, which is good. In the business sense when you own everything, you really can open up different avenues for revenue streams and stuff like that. So that’s pretty exciting right now. I’m not saying that if something comes along we’re not going to do a licensing agreement or something like that. I think we’re already entering into a licensing agreement for the South American territory. We have distribution world wide so that’s the most important kind of thing, and we’ll just see how it goes, we’re not going to say no upfront to anything we’ll always look at the situation and to see if it will benefit us, but as of right now it’s pretty much just us.
So it will be released digitally and hard copy?
That’s what we’re working on right now. We got some very interesting physical product deals that we’re checking out and there’s just so many options out there these days. It’s looking pretty good, people are pretty aggressive on distribution these days so we’ll take advantage of that too. With the digital media, we got everything covered…iTunes, FYE, just a lot of different things. We’re more interested in what to do about the physical product. Because the physical product side is always a mystery because when everybody started downloading it gives questions about the physical product. Do people want the physical product? In our genre of music, yes they do! In a lot of others they don’t care to have the physical CD in their hands and look at artwork and stuff that we, well I’m going to give away my age when I say I looked at my 28 KISS albums and I loved the covers of them, [laughs] you know? It’s interesting because we’re in that genre that people still want to get their hands on some physical stuff so it’s neat. So we get to toy around with that a little bit so we’re just trying to have fun with it and get some good physical distribution out there too.
I’m glad you guys recognize that because it’s very important to have the physical product, and for fans to be able to paw through the liner notes. I know I love to read every last word!
Are you planning any performances?
Yeh, we’re already kind of putting something together, maybe as early as August. You’re in Connecticut is that right?
Yes that’s right.
Ok New Haven. So, probably accessible because I would say that we’re gonna do four or five shows right around the New York, Connecticut, to Massachusetts area. We’re trying to do the old stomping grounds first. So that will fire us up a bit!
I’d like to ask you about Circle II Circle. Were you very happy with the fan and critical response to the Delusions of Grandeur album?
Yeh, you know it turned out to be good. We did a US tour, a European tour, and South America, and we’re going to go back to South America in September to do Argentina, Chile, Columbia, and Brazil. So that was really the first album that got the response where we could put together a full world tour, including three weeks in America. So it got a lot more attention in the States, so that’s good. You know we kind of started as a European act eight years ago. We were signed with AFM records out of Germany…so it’s been kind of fun growing with them. They’ve been good to us. Delusions really helped us bridge the gap. And I imagine the next album’s gonna be something between Burden of Truth and Delusions of Grandeur, some crazy dichotomy of that. So it’s been good. It’s really exceeded our expectations year after year. And they’ve now offered us a fifth album, so we’re going to start on that fifth album probably around the holidays.
I was stoked to see the recent Guitar World feature article on Criss Oliva. Paul O’Neill was quoted as saying, “people like Criss made everybody around them better musicians.” What do you remember most about him as a bandmate and a friend?
Well we lived together for a lot longer than people realize, working on Edge of Thorns. Because I was new to the band and Criss was the kind of guy that said “we got lost time to make up so you really just need to stay at my house for about three or four months and let’s work on the new album!” So I’m like, great! And we had a great time. The guy was just fantastic, a great person, real, you know just wanting to take care of people all the time, probably to a level that’s a fault, just wanting to make sure everybody’s happy and taken care of. I’ve always been very low maintenance but I just enjoyed that trait about him. I wasn’t very high maintenance at all anyway so I think he probably liked it. I just said, “what do I need to do better, what are we doing now” and we wrote together and really got to know each other amazing amounts in what turned out to be a short period of time that I got to work with him. I joined Savatage in August of ’92 and in October of ’93 he got in that accident. So really you’re talking about one year and it seemed like the most condensed year of my life so far. It just kind of flew by because we did so much. We did a world tour and got our first radio hit with Edge of Thorns, and everything worked out great just the way Jon Oliva wanted, saying “get Zak in here with that radio friendly voice, let’s do something, I want to expand this thing”. Some people couldn’t understand, but he expanded it by taking a little step back. So it worked out great, so I was just blown away by all that.
Thank you for that perspective.
Well he was just an amazing guy. I was just thinking about him today, which is so strange that you asked me that question. I don’t think there’s a day that really goes by that I don’t think about Criss. And I got some great pictures of me and him together, in some shots in Savatage, around my apartment that people just have to stop. I got three distinct pictures, I think one’s from Charlotte, North Carolina, one’s from New York City, and another one from like Minneapolis, Minnesota, of just people capturing moments where me and him were in close proximity jamming together. And everybody just stops and I catch people just looking at the pictures all the time.
I’m glad you have those, that’s a great memory. I know you have another interview so I’m going to let you go. Thank you so much for your time.
Thanks Zak, take care.
Take care up there in Connecticut. Thanks again and I’ll talk to you later