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09/12/2006 – Interview with CIRCLE II CIRCLE

Ex-SAVATAGE vocalist Zak Stevens has been outing his ideas in his own band CIRCLE II CIRCLE (official website) for a couple of years now and since mid-October album number three is out: "Burden Of Truth", inspired by the books "The Da Vinci Code" and "Holy Blood Holy Grail". You can read my comments on it at this location. With this album they are on the right path towards an own sound, since the previous ones were still closely related to the SAVATAGE sound. Needless to say that "Burden Of Truth" is the band's best album so far. I sent Zak some questions regarding this new release, the band itself, the new TSO album, and some other little things.

Circle II Circle logo

"Burden Of Truth" is very religion-inspired. What exactly fascinates you about this subject and how religious are you?

I'm more of a spiritual nature than piously religious, but what fascinates me about the subject is the "what if" factor...If these theories were to be found to be true, what a huge impact it would have on world religion. There are lots of viable theories that would have one believing it is truth. However we may never know because something like this that so dramatically goes against the grain of modern societal beliefs would surely be suppressed by money, religion, and power. So we may never know the truth.

Circle II Circle bandIs there a certain storyline throughout the album or do the songs sort of stand on their own, but still being part of the concept? Furthermore, did you have to switch the order of the tracklisting a lot?

There is a definite story line woven throughout each song. Once we determined the story's events, we found that we had only a few 'switches' that were necessary. Overall, having a story-line actually allowed the record come together more quickly than the first two.

You read lots of material for this album, but how did you commence the songwriting, the lyrics?

That was all based on the story line and the plight of the main character and related feelings that pervade throughout the story. Usually the music came first, then we would decide where the songs were placed based on the story line.

For the music, did you get together with the other guys and brainstorm about the drums, riffs, solos, ... or was this task left to Andy and Evan, for example?

All the guys contributed in various ways. Mitch and Andy helped me this time with most of the music, but Evan and Tom helped out with a lot of production details that come from their many years of musical experience as well.

"Waiting In Silence" was still very SAVATAGE-like, "Middle Of Nowhere" too but less and it seems that with "Burden Of Truth" you seem to be on the right way towards an own sound. But how would you compare these three albums in terms of songwriting, production, etc...?

Comparisons are hard to draw because each of the records has a different musical flavor. I think all three records in order simply tell the story of CIIC within the records. They show our hurdles as well as our victories. They represent the overall CIIC history and story in my opinion.

Burden Of Truth coverOn "Burden Of Truth" there's a bonus track, an accoustic version of "Into The wind". Is there a reason for having chosen that song and was this done to show that the songs can also be strong in accoustic version?

That's basically correct. We just thought it would be cool to have an acoustic version of an otherwise power-rock mid-tempo song to get a different musical flavor happening with it.

Who was responsable for the artwork on "Burden Of Truth" and how does it connect with the lyrics? Also, did you indicate what the artwork should look like or did he get carte-blanche?

The artwork is by the same artist who did the covers for all of CIIC records so far, Thomas Ewerhard. We gave him ideas to work from, as we did with all the records. He continues to do an amazing job for us. He's one of the great talents in his field of work.

What are the tour plans so far? And who will you be touring with?

We're booking a tour of Europe as we speak. We'll most likely come to Europe in February and then return home to do some mini-tours of major US cities that we are booking right now. We're evaluating several strong bill opportunities at this time with about three or four bands.

You've been out of SAVATAGE for a couple of years now. How do you look back at your time in this magnificent band? Could you give some examples of great moments and where things were going less smooth?

There were lots a great moments with SAVATAGE, especially in the studio making five records. Obviously, the most rocky period was around the making of the "Poets And Madmen" album when I had to take a leave of absence to take care of some family and personal items.

17/10 is the day that Criss Oliva left the world, so to speak. Was there a special meeting of everyone who was part of the SAVATAGE crew (members, family, friends, fans?, ...)? In addition, you made one album with him, "Edge Of Thorns". I guess it makes this collaboration even more special, no?

It definitely made the short-lived collaboration with Criss that much more special. I think I may still be in denial over losing Criss, but most everyone in the band probably still is. It's still hard to believe what happened on 17/10/93.

There are plans to put SAVATAGE to rest, but before this happens a series of concerts will be played with everyone who ever played in the band. There would also be a DVD and CD of these events. How excited are you and how's the planning so far?

We'll see what happens over 2007-2008 after the next TSO record is completed. I'm not sure how much planning has been done to date, but we have to see how Jon feels about it when it comes time for a decision to be made.

Jon Oliva recently did an interview with in which he stated that SAVATAGE wasn't really a profitable band, that the real cash-cow is TRANS-SIBERIAN ORCHESTRA. Is this also one of the reasons why CIRCLE II CIRCLE was started?

CIIC was formed basically because I needed a medium to put all the things I learned in Savatage to good use. As well, I guess another reason is because SAVATAGE hasn't done another studio album since "Poets And Madmen". The huge success of TSO is amazing, but not really a reason for starting CIIC.

Circle II Circle bandSpeaking of TSO, will you again be part of the group for the forthcoming album? If not, any particular reason?

Paul and I talked recently about me performing a few songs on the next TSO album, and I think it would be both a challenge and a great time overall if we could pull that off.

You're one of the best vocalists in the world of Metal. What's the secret behind your singing? Do you have a certain way of maintaining it, a special way of practising, ...?

I just try to sing properly so as not to harm my voice over time. I play various sports and keep in vocal shape as much as possible, especially around touring time. I've had lots of vocal lessons over the years (I still study with coaches whenever possible), so I just try to apply what I've learned and not create bad habits that could harm the voice over time.

Next to Metal, what other music do you listen to and what do you like about it?

I'm listening to lots of alternative rock lately. I've always got some classical music playing in the background at home because this is the most involved and challenging music there is. I listened to lots of classical music before starting to write Burden of truth. It can never hurt anything to pick up some new inspiration from 100s of years old compositions.

Who are the bands/musicians that inspire(d) you the most to start a career in Metal?

JUDAS PRIEST (Rob Halford), IRON MAIDEN (Bruce Dickinson plus all of his solo records), QUEENSRYCHE (Geoff Tate), Ronnie James Dio just to name a few.

Which do you prefer and which advantages does one have over the other: venues or festivals?

Festivals are nice because you play to many more people and it's more 'efficient', if you will. But I enjoy the smaller, more intimate venues the best because I can have a lot more interaction with the audience than in the large crowd festival setting where the crowd barriers make even the first row very far away from the stage.

Do you have an overview of the success of CIRCLE II CIRCLE in the US vs Europe?

With every album, the differences grow smaller. 3 years ago, I would say that our European popularity was far greater, but now, especially with the release of "Burden Of Truth", that margin is becoming less apparent in the US.

Next to making music/writing lyrics, how do you spend your free time? And how do you come to rest after a hard day's work, or a heavy night of performing?

I spend most of my free time with my family. I have two daughters, ages three and eight that I gladly say take up every bit of my extra time and for all the right reasons. I basically just try to get lots of vocal rest after performing by reading lots of books out on the road.

Concerning CIRCLE II CIRCLE, what would consider the best aspects and where could improvements be applied?

We believe we've just started to scrape the tip of the creative iceberg with our new writing formula within the band. This should prove to be very effective for us in the future. We also believe there is always room for improvement from record to record, so we're dedicated to making that happen as well.

CDs or mp3s, which do you prefer and what's your opinion on the downloading-matter? Have you noticed an affect on CIRCLE II CIRCLE's sales?

I think MP3s are great because they're compressed file data and you can store lots of them in your MP3 payer. I'm sure downloading has a negative effect on all bands that make records, but this is something that's here to stay. Making an attractive package for the consumer is the best way to overcome downloading, in hopes that people will want the complete package, and not just a plain burned disk with no artwork, etc.

You've been signed to AFM Records since the beginning of CIRCLE II CIRCLE. Which impact/influence has this label had so far? How do you look back when you signed the contract and how's the situation nowadays? In additon, for how many albums are you still with them? And if you were to seek another label home, which are on your list?

AFM has been great for our growth, and they also experienced tragedy in losing their leader and President (and our good friend) Andreas Allendorfer a few years ago, right about the same time that the "Middle Of Nowhere" album was released. They had to reconfigure the entire organization, but we all learned to work more closely during those tough times, and now the label is a completely new team and we're all re-energized by the release of "Burden Of Truth".

That's it for me. I would like to thank you very much for doing this interview and I wish you all the best with CIRCLE II CIRCLE and other projects you are involved in (or plan to be). If there's anything I forgot to ask or you want to add anything special (a scoop? ;-)), feel free to do so.

We just want to say a huge THANK YOU to all our Belgian fans for all of their support over the years. It looks like we'll be seeing all of you on tour very soon in Belgium!

Zak Stevens and CIIC

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