With hair a-thrashing and guitars a-buzz-buzz-buzzing, the sounds of Christmas bells ringing would seem a bit out of place, but then again, this is the season of miracles and there have surely been miracles far more wondrous than the simple fusing of loud music with the Yuletide spirit, right? Perhaps, but if there were a time when all of us were more desperately in need of the heaviest dose of the season’s cheer I surely do not remember it.
When the opening of your mail becomes a lethal prospect any chance to lighten the mood should be cherished for as long as possible and as if they had felt the need here come Trans Siberian Orchestra on their yearly trek of musical merry making and general joy spreading. As was the case last year, there will be two companies of TSO’s touring incarnation traveling through the States, the “East” and the “West,” but only for a brief six weeks before disappearing again for another year. Bringing with them a show that emphasizes peace, hope, love and harmony to the sound of guitars, drums and symphonies louder than Gideon’s trumpet and lights brighter than the North star all that is TSO just seems so much more appropriate this year.
”I was with Ray Gillen, who happened to be the lead singer of Black Sabbath, and we are driving around and we stopped at Tower records and picked up The Phantom Of The Opera album and then we drove around L.A. for six hours going, ‘[Michael Crawford] is God, we suck!’
Of course the story of an angel come to earth will be retold by an all-star cast of singers and musicians from the worlds of rock, pop and Broadway but this year the producers promise a little something more. And who are these producers that promise relief from the news of the Taliban and Anthrax if only for a few hours? Well, they are lyricist/songwriter Paul O’Neill and composer/keyboardist Robert Kinkel, who between them are responsible for producing Midas sized quantities of gold and platinum for the recording industry with the likes of Savatage and Aerosmith, so it should be no surprise to learn that their little Christmas creation has become the season’s top ticket. And considering the band has featured auxiliary players such as Savatage’s Jeff Plate (drummer) and Chris Caffrey (guitars), and former Megadeth guitarist Al Pitrelli in the past, heandbangers around the world should find this an appropriate way to bang thy head in a yuletide manner.
O’Neill managed to find a moment and a phone to chat about all that goes into and has come out of TSO thus far as well as what Christmas means to him. So let’s throw another log on the fireplace, roast some of them thar chestnuts and sip some eggnog as we discuss heavy metal, broadway showtunes and classical music….for the kids!
KNAC.COM: I just watched the video that you did with Jewel for FOX a few years ago and I have to tell you, you truly have managed to come up with something so classic and so timeless with this TSO thing.
PAUL O’NEIL: Wow! It is really funny that you said that because I was just sitting hear reading some letters and I have this one from a guy who writes, “I have never written a fan letter before but I just had to let you know that I am 6 feet two, a Black Belt, a Body builder and the head of security for” and he names a Fortune 500 company, “and I am an ex-Marine and the reason that I am telling you this is because I am sitting here in my office with the door closed and I am listening to the song “Old City Bar” and I am crying like a baby!” So, I am thinking that this is really kind of cool, you know what I mean?
KNAC.COM: Boy do I, just brilliantly emotive and it doesn’t hurt that this time of year seems to make all that easier to bring out. Hey, you are a native New Yorker and Christmas is altogether a different thing there...
PAUL: It is definitely cool but it has changed. When I was a kid growing up in the city there was snow every year but now we haven’t seen it in a decade and you always seem to need that temporary blanket of innocence.
KNAC.COM: Well, snow or not, it is certain to be cold both in temperature and spirit unfortunately. But TSO is a very warm thing to be able to break away to.
PAUL: Well, thanks for that, it does mean a lot especially from someone else in the industry because it is so very easy to become jaded so it is really cool to hear someone from the industry say that they like it. It certainly beats getting a real job!
KNAC.COM: I am curious, are you Christian?
PAUL: Well, I was born Catholic but then converted for a short while to a Druid, no I am kidding! (laughs) Yeah, but you know everything that I believe is basically there on the albums. You can read the lyrics and read the stories and it reflects what I believe personally.
KNAC.COM: Well, I ask only because as we have grown up with stories and programs about Christmas that we watch every year and show to our kids every year, they were and are made largely by non-Christians and you wonder how it was that they managed to draw and then express such an emotion tied to a holiday that exists outside of their culture. So, in the reading of your lyrics and your stories it is obvious that there is a deeper knowledge and maybe even a passion for the things that surround Christmas. In that ramble is a question somewhere, I guess it would be, do you think that you have a deeper insight into Christmas than a non-Christian artist?
PAUL: Well, first off I think that Christmas is incredibly universal. It is the whole thought behind it, there are so many little, inner things. First of all, in America everything is “Judeo-Christian” and Christ was Jewish so it makes it all full circle but I think that there are a lot of things beyond that that everyone can identify with. It is all based on a child and everyone can identify with that. I have always thought that if you can save a child you can save the world but if you lose the children you will lose the world and I think that truth is somewhere there in Christmas. And then there is the message that Christ always brought, “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you” and “Love your neighbor as you love yourselves” and it is funny but if you follow that I don’t think that you can get into that much trouble. If I died tomorrow and I found out that Christ had nothing to do with God or whatever I would not regret having followed that my whole life, do you know what I mean? I also believe that there is obviously only one God, I mean, somebody made us all, it wasn’t like a class project! (laughs) I can’t see him, God, wanting us to do anything except to keep an eye out for the other guy. It is like if you have kids, you want your son to keep an eye out for his sister and your daughter to keep an eye out for her brother and I think that is all that it comes down to. Maybe I am oversimplifying it but I believe that there is just a core truth to the spirit of the holiday. There is something very universal and very magical about all this. When we wrote Christmas Eve And Other Stories we had just come off of writing a couple of other rock-Operas like, “Dead Winter Dead,” which was about the Bosnian war and Streets, which was about drug addiction and so I was looking to lighten up just a little bit and Christmas has always been my favorite holiday. One of my earliest childhood memories was when I was like ten years old and it was in New York City and as we were crossing the street we heard the slamming of breaks and my friends and I turned around just in time to see this Yellow cab sliding into another Yellow cab and really just give it a really good swat. Of course, the cab drivers both get out and one of them is this big burly longshoreman looking guy and the other one looks like he just got off the boat and my friends and I are getting nervous because this was looking like there was going to be a real incident here. And then the one guy goes, “Oh, it is Christmas Eve and I could have gotten this in any parking lot.” The other guys goes, “No, no, it is completely my fault let me give you some money...” The first guy tells him to forget about it and the next thing you know they are looking at pictures of each others kids, shaking hands and then they both drive off on their merry ways. Any other day of the year there would have been blood on the streets so right away and at an early age you realize that there is something very cool about this day and then you grow up and you learn in school about how during the Civil War and World War 1 and 2, how both sides would stop fighting on Christmas Eve. Even in the Korean War where one side was not even Christian they stopped fighting so there is this magic that operates on the smallest individual level and on the largest level.
KNAC.COM: So we can thank the cabbies of New York for TSO? (laughs)
PAUL: Yeah! (laughs) But then there are a lot of cynics in the world who say, “ It is very hypocritical because the other 364 days of the year people are killing each other...” but the whole point is that the hypocrisy is in the other 364 days and not the one day where every one tends to give the other guy a break.
PAUL: Yeah, it is obviously about hope and one of the guys who captured it best was Charles Dickens in A Christmas Carol. There truly is something magical about the holiday.
KNAC.COM: You mention Dickens and he has obviously become a classical part of the season. Do you see the same kind of future for TSO?
PAUL: I think that everyone likes to hope that that will happen and you keep your fingers crossed but the success that we have had with TSO thus far still staggers us. The songs have been played on every single radio format and get to be the number one requested on every single radio format, from hard rock, to Christian, to country and even metal and it is so weird to see something that you did be number one both on Christian and metal stations. (laughs) We have been so lucky with the music on these albums. Thirty percent of the music on these albums is based on old Christmas standards and these all tend to be great melodies. Well, first off, no matter what kind of music you are into, metal, punk, rap, whatever between the ages of six and twelve we all grew up on these exact same melodies so when you hear them in an opera everybody is instantly familiar with it. Then the new music has a fresh arrangement and a fresh angle so I think that gives you an advantage. The other advantage we have as Trans Siberian Orchestra is that no matter what kind of music you are into everybody loves a good story. I think that we try to give that on each album and with those two things woven together it gives you the possibility to have a much deeper impact. So far we have been really, really lucky and we will see what comes in the next few years.
”I have always liked large dynamics, like moving an orchestra with a rock band to a simple solo vocal to a piano and child choir, try to use as many dynamics and as many colors as possible to keep the albums interesting.”
KNAC.COM: Beyond the sold out shows, platinum records and all that, you have managed to attract some incredible talent to your productions. We said Jewel already but then there was Ossie Davis in the PBS special too, how did you get names like that to do it?
PAUL: They are both incredible talents, aren’t they? Well, basically Warner Television called up and said would we do an hour special for the Fox Family station and we were actually in the midst of arranging for a month and a half long tour. It meant that we had to cancel a month’s worth of dates to be able to do it but we wrote the special and cast it all in the beginning of November and then it showed on December 14th. I don’t know if you are familiar with television but that is really fast. So, basically, we gave the script to Warner's and they got all the stars. They sent it to Michael Crawford’s people and Jewel’s people and they hopped right on board. We were blown away when they came in because I am a huge Jewel fan and a huge Michael Crawford fan, as a matter of fact, when Michael Crawford came to the set I told him that a number of years before I had happened to be in L.A. with Ray Gillen, who happened to be the lead singer of Black Sabbath at the time, and we are driving around and we stopped at Tower records and picked up The Phantom Of The Opera album and then we drove around L.A. for six hours going, “He is God, we suck!” (laughs) We just kept listening to him sing these songs over and over and over so I am just really in awe of his talent.
KNAC.COM: Did you have the opportunity to give any direction to Michael Crawford?
PAUL: Oh no, it is like I wrote it and produced it and it was just so simple. I handed him the script and Michael walked on stage and was just magical. Again, the guy is just such a pro, look at he way that he goes up to the child on stage left and he makes eye contact and just lights up, I mean, with someone like that he has already done it all, he was a movie star and acted with Barbara Streisand and all of these other icons. I remember seeing him in A Phantom Of The Opera and after he does “Music of the Night” the place went crazy and then I saw it a number of years later without Michael singing it and it was just like the song came and went so the man brings magic to whatever he does, he could sit and read the phone book and I would be fascinated!
KNAC.COM: When you have TSO out on the road you have the rock and roll portion, which is kind of led by the guys from Savatage...
PAUL: Yep, our comrades in crime.
KNAC.COM: What about the chorus and orchestras, who will do those parts this time?
PAUL: Now that was a real tough decision but basically when we were first thinking about doing it we were thinking about bringing out a full 40-piece orchestra and a full choir and the whole nine yards but what happened was that after we priced it all out basically tickets would have had to have been between $100 and $250 a piece and though the promoters said that the market would bear that I kind of didn’t like it, it just didn’t make me feel comfortable because it meant that only a small portion of the population could actually afford to come and one of my pet peeves with Broadway these days is that for good seats you have to spend a hundred dollars a piece! That means that if you have two kids it is four hundred bucks before you park the car and buy everybody a hot dog and it is just not right. Even from an artistic point of view. I mean, when you create anything, a movie, a painting or music you want everyone to be able to come and see it and not just a small section of the population that has a large amount of disposable income. What we did was to use a cut down orchestra but we still have twenty-seven people on the stage and we augment it with keyboards and all the key lead singers. What this has done, with the keyboards and everyone who is playing being a singer, we have been able to completely capture the impact of the albums but we are also able to do it so that every one can come and see it. Also, we carry twice as many lights as is normal and a bunch of other stuff.
KNAC.COM: Who will be the featured players in each touring company?
PAUL: Al Pitrelli is playing guitar on the West Coast and Alex Skolnik on the East Coast. The second keyboard player is Meeun Cook Kim who is a wonderful player, she played with us last year. Chris Caffrey from Savatage on guitar, Dave Z on bass and Jeff Plate on drums. For singers we have Joe Cerizono, Steve Broderick, Daryl Pediford and Rob Evan who was the star of “Jekyl And Hyde” on Broadway and a new female singer and she goes by the name, “J-Ella.” She is amazing and she is going to be singing the child song. In the second half of the show we also have a lot of surprises, we are doing a few things from “Beethoven” that we haven’t done before. Oh, and Mark Wood on violin. He has the hardest job because he leads the string section and he has to rehearse the other seven string players that we pick up locally and so he does that, does the sound check and then comes and plays the show, it’s a long day for him.
KNAC.COM: Looking beyond Christmas and holiday themes you did “Bethovans Last Night.” Was that a conscious decision to try and move TSO into more of a group that could do its thing all year round?
PAUL: Well, no, it was just that we had to move on. Artistically, I don’t think that you want to park in any one place for too long and I have always been a firm believer that either you grow or you die. I have seen in the past where you have bands or even moviemakers who have one great thing that they do and then they just do it over and over again and eventually I just think that they drown themselves and I have always been like, do one thing, move on, do another thing, move on...” You can take a little of the past with you and add something new you know. Now with TSO because of the orchestra, I have always liked large dynamics, like moving an orchestra with a rock band to a simple solo vocal to a piano and child choir, try to use as many dynamics and as many colors as possible to keep the albums interesting. I think that one of the problems that I have with the medias these days is that a lot of the record companies are corporate owned and I think that they try and compartmentalize everything, you know, “OK, this band here you are only going to do hard rock for males between 14 and 21,” and I just don’t believe that the arts should be like that. Movies shouldn’t be like that, a great movie should be a great movie and great music should just be great music. In the past Mozart, Beethoven, whomever, music was written for everyone and it was either great or it was bad though there are obviously exceptions but in general a great song is a great song and in general I think that is how we (TSO) should try and write.
KNAC.COM: Will you be getting up on stage and performing yourself?
PAUL: We might. We have been getting up on the stage every once in a while and doing a song with the band and it is fun but in general I like the freedom of being able to run around and by that I mean we go behind the light board, we go behind the sound board, you know, we kind of watch out for the overall vision of what is going on. On the road the single most important guys are the light and sound guys because they are the bottlenecks and everything flows through them. If you have a sound guy who is having a bad night the whole band is going to suck. (laughs) Whereas on the stage if one of the musicians is having a bad night the rest of the band can probably carry him and the audience will probably not notice but that is not true if the sound man or light man is out of synch. I like the freedom to walk around and check and see how the audience is reacting and just basically have a feel for the overall thing.
KNAC.COM: Let me ask you a bit about Savatage for a minute since they and TSO are so intertwined, TSO is a successful venture for Atlantic records but Savatage ended their stay there a few years ago in favor of Nuclear Blast. Was it that Atlantic felt that they just couldn’t sell a band like Savatage anymore?
PAUL: Actually, not at all. First of all, Atlantic has been nothing but great with us. I mean, ever since the very first album, Hall Of The Mountain King, they pretty much let us do whatever we wanted. Savatage albums are incredibly expensive to make, I mean, Streets was the first 96-track album ever done! We tend to go cutting edge and we tend to be experimental and we also tend to do big things like the song “Chance” where you have huge quires, huge orchestras and huge keyboards all going simultaneously. We also have the bad habit of writing in the studio, which is an incredibly expensive habit. I mean, a drug habit would be far cheaper! (laughs) Atlantic has been really, really great but it was like a family and it was time to move on. Nuclear Blast is a young label and a very aggressive label and they were just so in touch. I mean, when they came to us and made the offer every one of their department heads knew every word to every Savatage song ever written and they were scaring me with this stuff! They were just so aggressive and had such an interesting game plan that we decided to go with them and also another reason was that because we had two major projects on Atlantic, TSO and Savatage, and it is just nice to be working at different labels, it gives you an advantage because each label has its strength and obviously TSO is the one that is going on with Atlantic but I have to say that Atlantic was always truly great and just sent us bucket loads of money and said, “Send us a post card when you are done!” (laughs)
KNAC.COM: With all the success have mom and dad stopped asking when you are going to cut your hair and get a “real job?”
PAUL: I think that they were worried originally because my parents had ten kids and, you know the Irish Catholic! But, all of my brothers and sisters went on to be scientists and Doctors. (laughs) My oldest sister was first in her graduating class at Annapolis and I was the only one who never even went to college so I think that they were a little worried but when the albums started to go platinum they were feeling a little bit better about it! (laughs)
KNAC.COM: “Its time for you to move out of the basement son...”
PAUL: Yeah, exactly! No, my parents were great. I have always felt that a lot of my story telling came from my father in fact. When we were kids we were not allowed to watch TV but for maybe a half hour a week and at the time I thought it was a major form of child abuse but every single night my father would weave these incredibly beautiful stories, he would just make them up on the spot and he would go on for hours. All of us kids would hang on his every word so I have always thought that a lot of my story telling came from growing up like that.