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In Words: Circle II Circle

- Zak Stevens - Feb. 2011 - Claudia Ehrhardt -

Circle II Circle: Zak Stevens - live in Zwolle 2009
© Claudia Ehrhardt

Zak Stevens - February 26th 2011 (by email)

It's been many years when I first met Zak Stevens for an interview, it was while he was doing promotion for Dead Winter Dead with Savatage bassist Johnny Lee Middleton. We met many times while he was still a member of Savatage as well as while he toured in Europe with Circle II Circle. Occasionally we had a chit-chat, but somehow never did an interview. Last October we wanted to change this - and again had to postpone it. So we talked about an email interview and as it's the first interview since he started CIIC it's a bit of a recap.

Consequence Of Power is your 5th album with CIIC, but even if you had some line-up changes you managed to release albums and tour frequently. Ozzy was in your touring band when you toured with Doro and Saxon in Dec. 2003. Now he's back, why didn't he joined back then? Do have found the perfect line-up now?

Back in 2003 Ozzy (John Osborn) was helping me through what turns out was the only major line-up transition we've had in CIIC. So at that time he was actually playing with two bands - Metallium and X-13. So at that time it was quite difficult for him to commit to CIIC full-time with both of those other bands in the balance. So this time around with Tom Drennan's departure it was the right timing and Oz was available and we were very happy about that. We knew that oz was the right fit since the 2003 European tour, so it was great finally getting him back in the fold again, this time on a permanent basis.

At the first albums you got a little help from Jon Oliva and Chris Caffery - and some criticized you to sound like Savatage and wondered why starting your own band. Looking back, would you change something?

No, I wouldn't change anything. These were important albums for CIIC in terms of getting a start post-Savatage, and also in the learning process of producing my own albums and just everything that came along with the territory of having my own band. Since then we've obviously been through changes and evolved over time like most all bands do. We just continue to try and offer something different on each album while still retaining our core CIIC sound, and I think we've done well in that regard.

Burden Of Truth and Delusions Of Grandeur were the first albums without outside songwriters. But it seemed you needed to find the right mix... Especially Burden Of Truth was an album which fans weren't getting into easily while Delusions Of Grandeur offered some catchier tunes. The albums were connected lyrically, why no double CD?

With Burden Of Truth being a concept album based on themes from the movie The DaVinci Code, it was really intended to be a 'musical sequel' to that movie. So the music was directly derived from the feelings and emotionally driven content of this movie, which we viewed together as a band and we were quite amazed by. So we wrote B.O.T. with all this in mind and allowed the concept to drive the musical content of the record. With Delusions Of Grandeur on the other hand, this album was not musically driven by a central concept. So the two albums differ greatly even on this one point. As far as lyrical content, there may be some underlying lyrical similarities, but in writing the lyrics for Delusions I didn't consciously refer back to the emotional content of B.O.T. but I'm sure if you look closely enough you may see similarities in that sense.

Lyrically the albums were loosely based on the ideas of Holy Blood, Holy Grail. What has been so fascinating about this topic?

Just the whole idea of Jesus Christ possible having a direct living, breathing, walking relative on the earth in modern time is itself fascinating to us. And the story of B.O.T. really emphasize the infinite realm of possibilities that could come about if indeed this relative of the holy deity were among us, and especially if they had some form of immortal power to change modern-day situations on our planet. That's really the point that fascinated me most about the entire concept.

Some criticized you to pick up the idea of The DaVinci Code is based on as well, and which is a bestseller and that time the movie was in the making resp. already released. Kind of jumping on the bandwagon... Did the book / movie inspired you too?

Yes it did, absolutely. And the books were even more intriguing than the movie depictions in my opinion. We knew that the movies had either been made or in the case at the time with Holy Blood, Holy Grail were in the works, etc. However we also knew that there probably weren't going to be any bands taking on this subject matter either, which indeed did turn out to be the case. So even if this was a hit movie at the time, the idea was definitely yet to be explored in an album-only / audio format, so we decided to give it a go and the rest is history.

Now it's Consequence Of Power, another conceptual album. What's so interesting in telling stories over the length of an album? And not doing an album full of 'short stories'?

Looking back in the case of Delusions Of Grandeur, that's exactly what that album was.... A synopses of short stories with an album that possible could be housed in a concept, but just were not, for the sake of the stories told in the individual songs on that album. In the case of C.O.P., this concept derives from the border 'war' between the U.S. and Mexico that is today a central news story almost daily here in the U.S.

Tell us about Consequence Of Power! Any specific event / news which gave you the idea for the story?

The concept story of C.O.P. takes place on the border along the states of Arizona, California, and Texas. It's a story within this whole power struggle between the two countries in trying to deal with the cartel-driven drug trade and all the cash that's generated in this so-called war / business. As you can imagine there is most likely a lot of corruption on both sides, and this story examines the personal struggle of the main character Aaron Power and his relationship with the cartel and the FBI (both good and bad sides) once he is discovered overhearing a conversation of a deal being struck for cash between the cartel bosses and the FBI. One can only assume there are immense resources to be obtained is deals such as this can be achieved. So the story begins with the cartel offering to spare Aaron's life if he becomes a street soldier for the cartel, which he does of course. As the lengthy story evolves, he meets Jessica from the FBI in his travels / work for the cartel. She is also featured in the artwork / CD booklet for C.O.P. so you can see where the story leads when you view the material.... She does end up getting killed in a gun battle between good and bad FBI forces and the cartel and, for example, this is where the song Blood Of An Angel was derived. So you can see how the concept drives the music of this album as well.

Would you like to tell the story in a comic book? Or an expanded booklet? Visualize it somehow?

Our ultimate goal is to perform the entire album live with the movie version of the story being played on four pixel screens above and on the stage during the performance. So as you can see there are aspirations to bring this story to the 'big screens' above the stage. And I believe this story will have credence for quite a few years to come because it doesn't seem as though either side is doing too much to resolve the 'border war' problem any time soon at all. So I imagine we have a lot of time to continue putting this production together unless some miracle happens on the border any time soon.

Last fall you toured at the same time as Jon Oliva's Pain in Europe and even play a show with them in Pratteln which wasn't planned that way. The first part of the tour was with Primal Fear, but you got off that tour earlier. What happened?

The way that worked out was that we saw a few opportunities to branch off early from the tour we were doing with Primal Fear and start our headline tour a few shows early. One of the opportunities for leaving a few shows early was that we could join J.O.P. in Pratteln, CH in an opening slot for them. So of course we did that and we had a great show that night with those guys. We're always looking to play shows with J.O.P. anytime we can, so this was a wonderful evening for us and we really enjoyed being a part of it.

Afterwards you played some headliner shows. Satisfied with the way it turned out?

Absolutely. We hadn't toured Europe in about a year and a half and these days you have to stay out there as early and as often as you can. So we knew we had some distance to make up on this run and overall it was a great turnout considering the time lapse between CIIC tours. For the first time since CIIC started releasing albums in 2003, we have been touring full-time for five months now, since that tour in October 2010. So things have changed dramatically for the band since we've gone 'full-time' I guess you would say. And I wanted to go full bore after the release of a fifth CIIC album and here we are and so we have done this.

In Essen many were surprised about the cover version Stranglehold. And that Mitch did the lead vocals while you replaced Ozzy on drums. Can we expect you to do something like that again?

Oh yes. We do this at every show with different 'jam tunes' that Mitch sings while I play the drums. This is actually a mainstay of every set that we do now, every night. So we will definitely continue to include this into each show at the end of the sets every night. It's a lot of fun and a real challenge for me since I have to play the drums after singing the entire show up front. This is a definite physical challenge for me that keeps me in good shape, so I really enjoy this part of the set now.

At the end of 2010 you did a short tour in the US. How was the tour? Is the situation for bands like CIIC getting better?

Yes, we toured for two months concentrating on just the Midwest in the US in places like Illinois (Chicago), Wisconsin, and Minnesota. It was awesome. We reconnected with a lot of fans and we're actually going back to that area in March 2011 for a few months. On this run we're also going to include Tennessee in Nashville and the Carolina, including North Carolina in Winston-Salem. Overall the situation for bands like CIIC is getting much better. Audiences are hungry for original hard rock and metal because they've been so starved for it since rap music took over the airwaves four years ago. It's ridiculous, but it only takes one show to win a crown over with heavy rock in the US these days even if the audience only slightly knows about your act.

There was talk about another tour in Europe last fall. Any news to tell? Will it be another headliner club tour? Or are you trying to tour with a bigger band? You are announced for Headbanger's Open-Air, can we expect to see you on more festivals in 2011?

We are coming back to Europe in July 2010 to play some festival shows as well as some club shows in between. We have five festivals booked so far starting with Vlamrock in Belgium as headliner and then appearing at Headbanger's Open Air in Germany. We'll be announcing the others on our regular show listings at as soon as the any shows or festivals are confirmed. Right now we'll be headlining the club shows with local opening acts as far as we know now.

Last year you sang on Soulspell's second album, a metal opera. Have you heard the finished album? What do you think about it?

Yes, it was a blast singing on the Soulspell Metal Opera album. Jon Oliva and I actually appear on the same track called Into The Arc Of Time. During our recent Brazil tour Soulspell joined CIIC on stage and performed this song in addition to their rendition of two Savatage songs; Gutter Ballet and Wake Of Magellan at their request. The songs turned out great and the crowd was very happy to see one of their own bands from Brazil join us onstage. It was a great evening and quite the musical adventure.

As far as I remember there was some talk about doing some vocals for Avantasia while you were in Savatage. But it never happened... Would you like to be involved in such a project?

Yes, I would. At the time in Savatage the timing didn't quite work out with me singing on Avantasia and the logistics was a bit more complicated than it is nowadays. So maybe that can work out for us in the near future.

You were part of the 70,000 Tons Of Metal cruise. How was it? Have you watched some of the other acts?

The cruise show was amazing considering for me personally it was the first cruise ship of that kind I had ever been on. And to play a show on my first real cruise was just fantastic. There were concerts going on simultaneously as all times so you really had to plan which shows you wanted to see because it was impossible to be in attendance at all the shows in this case. I watched so many bands including Saxon, Sonata Arctica, Testament, Moonspell, Epica, Blind Guardian, and Gamma Ray just to name a few. It was the best time I've had in a long time, and the party was non-stop. I even sang the official last song of the cruise at 6:30AM the morning after the last night. We docked back in Miami at that time and I sang the last karaoke song at the last party. The whole event was awesome.

Did you record something while on this cruise? Even if 'just' for YouTube? Btw, even German TV stations showed short features of the cruise.

Well we know there are plenty of YouTube videos out there of CIIC playing our two shows on the cruise. I'm not sure if German TV featured any of our sets, but I did see 'Viva TV' cameras filming various events on the ship.

It seems video clips get more important again. Which song(s) would you have chosen for a video?

Our first videos appearing in 2011 from the Consequence Of Power album will be Take Back Yesterday and Out Of Nowhere. We'll be collecting live footage for both of these videos on a full time basis as we continue touring in support of the new album. Plus we'll have some other types of footage thrown in there as well. We're going to get started on these videos in March 2011 and we're really looking forward to the finished product on these vids.

Besides CIIC you released in 2010 a Machines Of Grace album. As far as I know it's an old project of you and Jeff Plate. Why now?

Jeff and I have been asked a lot about throughout the years about what we did before Savatage. Well, M.O.G. is the answer to that question. We really wanted to go back and release the material from the band, which was originally called Wicked Witch back in the early 90's when we played for about three years all around the New England club circuit. Recording M.O.G. was a great way for us to re-release our best songs in the high-quality studio environment that fans would not have had access to up to this point.

And what about something new of Machines Of Grace?

We've talked recently about making a new M.O.G. record, but we don't have any really solid plans in place as of yet. We hope to work on this in the near future and try to solidify these plans.

You also sang a track called Solitaire on Chris Caffery's last album - which isn't a big surprise. Looks like you work together well... More co-operations in future?

I would really like to collaborate more with Chris, because we've always had a great time writing songs together. Hopefully we can work that out at least for his next studio album. He's very busy with T.S.O., who will be coming to Europe for the first time in March 2011, so we'll have to see how all of this plays out going forward.

Already an idea about the next album? Another conceptual album? Or will you go on tour again?

For the foreseeable future CIIC is going to stay on the road in support of the new album. It was released in late September 2010 so it's still very early in the album cycle and a lot of exciting things are happening with CIIC on the road. We do have material we've already written for the next album, but we're going to keep collecting ideas and keep the touring plans going. I'm not sure if the next album will be a concept album per se at this point, but we'll have to see how the material plays out.

Now as we talked about his past and present we can look forward to see / hear more of Zak Stevens and CIIC. And next time we can focus on recent developments and future plans. Personally I'm looking forward to our next chit-chat!

Claudia Ehrhardt


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