Zak Stevens is used to living under the radar. Both his new band Circle II Circle and his former one, Savatage, have a strong fan base, but neither has been played much on metal-phobic commercial radio stations. Even so, both bands have a strong fan base that appreciates the quality of their songwriting. Savatage, formed in 1979, has released 17 albums. Beginning with a thrash metal sound, they have evolved into a progressive metal band with an operatic touch. Members of the band, including Stevens, have also contributed to four Trans Siberian Orchestra releases with Christmas themes.
Circle II Circle continues the Savatage dual-guitar driven sound with a slightly more melodic edge. “The Middle of Nowhere” begins with the personal lyrics of “In This Life” (“I could never change the world in this life / Everything is hanging on a thin line / Standing in a different place ... among this madness I’ve chosen”), and ends with the ballad “Lost”. In between are eight tracks with clear, driving rock and soaring vocals. Circle II Circle could be one of a handful of bands to break out of the metal ghetto. They combine strength and emotion with driving arena rock that avoids the murkiness and basement grind of too many metal bands.
The group has done 160 shows since the release of their first CD, “Watching In Silence” in July 2003. Their latest CD, “The Middle of Nowhere” has Stevens on vocals, Evan Christopher and Andrew Lee on guitar, Paul Michael Stewart on bass, and Tom Drennan on drums. There are traces of acoustic work and power ballads, but it is mostly straightforward hard rock featuring Stevens’s vocals.
PopMatters recently spoke with Zachary Stevens from his home in Florida.
PopMatters: How did Circle II Circle come together?
Zak Stevens: I had to take a little bit of time off from Savatage in 1999. There was a lot going on. My wife and I had to move, and we just had a baby daughter. I wasn’t able to commit to too much. I had been in New York straight through for all the other records. Jon [Oliva, Savatage keyboardist] said, “I’m singing the whole record, and we’re getting a new singer for the tour”.
After six or eight months I was ready to make records. I never wanted to be out of the music business. I was ready to start writing. Jon and Chris [Caffery, Savatage guitarist] were still supportive and we started writing songs.
My first lineup didn’t work out. They had been together for so long, and I thought they would be a better fit for Jon’s band. They didn’t want to tour in Europe anymore. They had businesses outside of music, and we had an aggressive tour schedule. Jon Oliva’s Pain is basically guys from my first lineup. It was a turnover that worked out.
PM: Your music seems to be more positive than a lot of metal.
ZS: In our lyrics bad things might happen, but there is always a way out in the end. I don’t look for a doom ending.
On “Middle of Nowhere” we talk about reaching a crossroads in life where you have to make a big decision. Anything you decide won’t be great for a lot of different reasons. But all you can do is pick a direction and keep going. Fortunately, that wasn’t about my personal situation.
PM: Were any of the songs about things happening in your life?
ZS: “Hollow” is straight from our life, about working real hard. We’ve been close a couple of times to getting that big break. It’s about how close things have been. But we don’t intend to give up.
PM: Why do you think that metal has stayed around where many other types of music have come and gone?
ZS: Power. It’s like classical music. It’s docile, but before you know it, it builds up and gives you little goose bumps. Metal emulates what classical music does.
PM: What parts of the US have big metal scenes?
ZS: That’s hard to say. Chicago has a big scene, and Dallas, Texas.
PM: Is it bigger in the middle of the country that on the coasts?
ZS: Yes. When I was with Savatage, I was always astounded by the crowds we would get in these small Midwestern towns like in Nebraska.
PM: Is there a theme to the new CD?
ZS: It’s not a concept album, but it plays like one. It’s about things that are going on in the world. We were still reeling from 9/11 when we went into the studio. “Open Season” is about the war. There is a longing for a world where none of that shit is going on.
PM: What is a Circle II Circle live show like?
ZS: It runs the gamut in dynamics, from soft parts to fast metal riffs. People will hear melodic metal where you can hear all the vocals. You won’t hear screaming or death metal grunting.
PM: What are your fans like?
ZS: They’re very smart and very picky about what they like. They demand more out of their music. I’m that type of fan, too. They will come up to you and tell you what you didn’t do right on the last album. They are a lot like Savatage fans, and I see fifteen year olds who we think are the sons of Savatage fans.
PM: You said you used to be a drummer. How did you become a singer?
ZS: I started playing drums when I was eight years old. In high school I would be the lead singer and drummer for the bands I was in, which is hard to do, but I got it down to a science. I’ve been a drummer forever, so when I sing I can feel the music rhythmically.
I went to California to the Vocal Institute of Technology. I went through the whole curriculum. It took about three years after that for it all to sink in. It changes your life. Then about that time I joined Savatage.
PM: What’s next for the band?
ZS: We have quite a lot of material amassed, and we are starting a European tour at the first of the year.