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07 November 2014 @ 07:14 pm
The Trans-Siberian Orchestra Interviews: Paul O'Neill - Winter Tour 2014 - part 3  
<-- Part II



On November 1st, as the 2014 Winter Tour drew closer and the east and west coast bands were knee deep in production rehearsals at the Mid-America Center in Council Bluffs, IA (Omaha) I circled back with Paul to catch up on how preparation for the tour was coming.


Bp: How do things look now that you're out in Omaha?

Paul O'Neill: Well, Brad, it's coming together! Nat Nat, Natalya [Rose], was working out this summer and thought she pulled a muscle, but since she's not just a singer, but also a dancer, she went to have an MRI to make sure she didn't do any damage. It turned out to be a blessing from God because, I don't know how much you know, I know she's been very open about it...

Bp: Yes, I've been following her progress since the diagnosis of Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma this summer and was very happy to hear that she beat it. It's amazing.

Paul O'Neill: It really is amazing. She called me as soon as she found out and I told her, "Nat Nat, you are going to beat it. You are going to be in Omaha and you will be dancing."

Bp: Will she be on stage this winter?

Paul O'Neill: I'm a firm believer in western medicine, but I'm also a super firm believer in the healing powers of sleep and endorphins. If you believe you're going to get well, you are going to get well. I don't know if I've ever told you this, but if I didn't go into music I was going to become a doctor. In my teenage years a doctor was really nice to me and let me trail him a little bit over the summer and I remember one thing he said to me as we were going through the intensive care unit, "Paul, during my lifetime I've seen so many people die, who shouldn't have died. And I've also seen so many people live who should have died, but because they had a reason to live, they did."

Nat Nat has a very, very strong spirit and so when I talked to her, I told her, "You're still in the band. You're going to be in Omaha, period. I will see you there and we'll take it from there." God bless they caught it early enough and they were able to remove the tumor. Being so young, being healthy, she is through all the chemo, is out here now, and is kicking ass. I just believe that your brain goes, "I'm going out, I'm not sitting at home," and it gives you that rush of endorphins every day and helps the body heal.

As I still get all the medical journals from when I thought I was going to be a doctor, there was a study I was reading once where they took 200 people who had the exact same disease in a control group and then 200 people where they put them in rooms where they were watching comedy shows and movies and the other people had entertainment, but not comedy. The people who had the comedy entertainment healed in a massive way, because laughter really pulls that through.

Nat Nat is back and people like her and Kay Kay [Kayla Reeves] set a great example of overcoming odds. So right now Natalya's out here and last night's rehearsal she was on the flight deck kicking butt.

Bp: When we talked this summer you were hoping that Gabriela Guncikova, a singer from the Czech Republic, was going to be able to tour. It looks like that is happening.

Paul O'Neill: Gabriela is great and very talented. It's difficult to do our songs in general, but I have the upmost respect for anyone who tries to do it with English as a second language.

Bp: She will be on the west?

Paul O'Neill: Yes, she will. As you're aware, Brad, like Anna Phoebe was German and British, Georgia is British, Vitalij is Ukrainian, Mee Eun is Korean, but the difference between Gabriela and Vitalij compared to all of the other international artists we've had is they didn't grow up in the west. Growing up under communism is a totally different thing. By the time Vitalij joined TSO, he had been in America so long he was basically an American with a Ukrainian accent.

With Gabriela, it's hard to comprehend what communism does to artists, what it does to people. We're going to be showcasing at least one new song, actually multiple new songs from the upcoming records, "Time and Distance" which we did last year from Letters from the Labyrinth, we're only playing half of it, and there's a new song that we're going to showcase that's called, "Night Conceives" and she will be singing that.

Bp: Who will be doing that on the East?

Paul O'Neill: Kay Kay.


"Night Conceives" - TSO Live in Hartford, CT; January 4, 2015 - vocals by Kayla Reeves



Bp: When we last talked you were still a little on the fence about The Christmas Attic.

Paul O'Neill: The rock concerts went so well in Europe that it was my plan to do a straight rock concert for the winter tour this year, with the best of the trilogy being the first half and the rest of the albums in the second half. But as you probably know more than anyone, I was fighting the barbarian horde when I tried to change from Christmas Eve & Other Stories to The Lost Christmas Eve. But after thirteen years I just had to change and get out of the Dickens trap.

Bp: It worked out well.

Paul O'Neill: It worked phenomenally. So much so William Morris pulled a 180, they went from, "Don't you dare change a good thing" to they wanted The Christmas Attic to be done live as well. Then all three rock operas of the trilogy would have done successful arena runs.

Bp: Is a new album still on target for landing prior to the TSO/Savatage double bill at Wacken 2015, and is that new album Letters [from the Labyrinth]?

Paul O'Neill: As of now, that is on track. As of now, that is Letters.

Also one of the things I'd like to be doing when the band is on the road and Admirals Al and Derek are taking out the fleet, Jon [Oliva] and I stay in the studio and speed things up. If I can keep recording while touring, that will allow us to move at a quicker pace.

Certain other people are starting to become more and more important. Joel Hoekstra came out of left field and that guy is a monster. If Derek Weiland is the MD, Joel is unquestionably his first mate. If Derek is overwhelmed with things to do, I'll go to Joel.

And now the next thing I need to do is train producers to capture the Trans-Siberian Orchestra sound.

Bp: Have you done that on what you've recorded thus far for Letters?

Paul O'Neill: Not yet. It's important that everyone within the band knows the concept, everyone within the crew knows the concept, to keep TSO going.

Al and Derek are just God MDs. They're not just great players, they're great mentors and great teachers. Because you're a great player, does not mean you're a great teacher. Al doesn't care if the best solo is played by Angus, he just doesn't have an ego that way. Derek Weiland is the exact same way.


"Wish Liszt" - TSO Live in Boston, MA; December 22, 2013 - 2-camera mix



Bp: If you're not on the road, then you are focusing on rock theater and other albums?

Paul O'Neill: I'm looking at the studio to make the albums that make the sound that are the calling cards for the live concerts; to set the standards. Here's the problem Brad, the easiest way for me to make sure that it's perfect is for me to be there. But the danger of that is, 'cause I am getting older and if I get sick or something, then I won't have the time to pass this on. So I have to start doing it now. These people are emerging and the whole team is [starting to mentor younger members].

Next year is going to be even more insane. Playing Wacken, reuniting Savatage, and getting out the new record.

Bp: So TSO at Wacken will be more like the European shows earlier this year?

Paul O'Neill: Yes. And Wacken has two headline stages so it works out perfectly. I'm just so happy that we have the studio because while we're still working on recording I can just pop next door and they'll be rehearsing. And also at Wacken, TSO will be showcasing a lot of the new album. I haven't decided if we're going to do this yet, but Jon and I have been discussing a couple of surprises.

Bp: Any update on the release of Savatage vinyl – is that US or Europe? And when?

Paul O'Neill: I don't know where and I think it would be sort of like TSO was, here and there.

Speaking of Savatage, the cello player from "Sarajevo" came to the shows in Britain in January. It was so nice meeting him. At one point in particular he said, "When the bombs were coming in, I know those cowards that were bombing the innocent women and children wanted me to fall like a mouse, but I was like, "Fuck that! I'm going to be out here with my cello in my best clothes playing music and they can bomb all they want. If I'm going to go down, I'm going to go down like a fucking man, not like a mouse." That's easy to say in a movie, that's not easy to say in real life. The odds are that anyone would have heard that story were astronomical. The fact that he lived and survived is amazing. He is now living in Ireland and hopefully will have the rest of his life in peace. It was really, really cool meeting him. He gave me a ring that he was wearing one night when he was playing and it's now on my writing desk to inspire me when I write.

Like a lot of my stories there are stories within the story. Very much like "Old City Bar" to me is the axis on which CE&OS turns and "Ornament" and "This Christmas Day" are the two counterweights on either side of it. The Christmas Attic, "Dream Child" is the axis on which it turns. But I had to be very careful. The thing I was worried about and the reason I separated it from the album was even the version that came out in print was edited. Merry Christmas, Rabbi gets so heavy that it's simply not appropriate for a ten year old kid. So the way we do the Attic is you can bring your kids and enjoy it, but if you wish to dig deeper then you can get Merry Christmas, Rabbi, which takes it a step further.

Bp: What did you end up having to cut from the live presentation of The Christmas Attic? Obviously the children's choir is not making an appearance.

Paul O'Neill: That is true.

Bp: Is the rock version [of "Christmas Canon"] going to replace it?

Paul O'Neill: Yes, we're going to push it to the end. There's a reason for no choir, to me kids should be kids until they are at least sixteen or seventeen. They shouldn't be on a tour, it's too grueling. The Princeton Boys Choir is phenomenal, they are monsters. To get them on the flight deck to do their thing, it would be magical. But it's just not right to do to kids. I've read so many things, like one of the recent gymnasts who won gold and her childhood was a living hell. It was so bad that I think when she was fifteen she sued to be emancipated. To be a champion tennis player, to be a champion gymnast they start these kids so young. And I'm sure you know there are parents who live vicariously through their children. I'll use them in the studio, but not on the road.


"The World That He Sees" - TSO Live in Toledo, OH; November 22, 2014 - vocals by Rob Evan



Bp: Will we see both World songs, "The World that He Sees" and "The World that She Sees" make the cut?

Paul O'Neill: We're doing them both, but we're either going to alternate them or cut it down to one. I'm leaning towards "The World that He Sees," we're not a religious band, although I am Christian, but it's important because of what's going on right now. With Ukraine, North Korea, and what has happened in the last month with Isis is mind blowing. There's a little part of me that wishes the media would not cover it the way it does because Isis loves to be in the spotlight. We have a lot of disenfranchised people from Europe and America going over there and then in a year or less they're coming back, that is crazy. Who cuts the head off of a person who donates his life to helping people? It's just sick. That line, "And he dreamed of another time, in another place, where no man has to wear a sign saying where he's from, saying what's his race, and He wants us to believe." It goes back to ‘do to others as you'd have done to you' – it's so damn simple.

Human beings need goals. It's built into our DNA. We want that challenge. But that challenge should be getting to Mars or ending war. When I see countries like North Korea where such a large percentage of their people are starving to death, but they're spending millions on nuclear weapons, it just boggles my mind.

Bp: Were there any other songs that had to hit the cutting room floor for the live production of Attic?

Paul O'Neill: Basically the band has learned them all then as we get further and further into rehearsing the show we will figure it out as we go along. We still have almost two weeks to go so we're still pretty early into the process. A lot of the work I'm doing right now is with Jeff Richter and Nick who are my video guys. At the new studio I'm going to develop a section that's devoted to building up a video arsenal. We'll be taking it from there.

Bp: So at this point in Omaha, you're working on the visual aspect, Al and Derek are focused on getting the band locked in together with the music and Danielle is with the kittens working on the vocals? Is that how things are shaking down right now?

Paul O'Neill: Yes. Dan is so important to the band. She's been working with me since she was a kid. She came back to the other side of the fence after being on stage and has been able to get the depth of emotion out of the singers like I do because she's seen it so much. Also the choreography is great. She has become one of the rocks in Trans-Siberian Orchestra. Like Al, she's unbelievably generous with her knowledge and the girls just completely trust her. A lot of them have gone through some rough times, Jodi Katz lost her father this year, it's been a wacky year. Dan helps to hold it all together. Jodi's going to be singing "Ode to Joy" this year and I heard her last night and she sounds monstrous.

Keep building, keep building and basically I'm hoping in the next few years that TSO can continue on and I can get rock theater launched. Rock theater is super important because you can't download it and it gives these people a living for the rest of their lives.

Brad, when you see live there's a magic to it that is slowly disappearing from other bands. I've lived the majority of my life in hotels than I have at home, at some point you start seeing more and more artificial flowers in hotel lobbies than real flowers and it's just not the same. Yes, you have to replace the real flowers every day and yes, it's easier to put plastic flowers around because there's less care involved, but it's not the same as the real thing. I was with my daughter the other day and we saw this poor bumble bee landing on a plastic lily of the valley and you could see the frustration as he kept looking around for the nectar.

Bp: I wanted to change gears and talk guitars a little bit. You've mentioned that Criss Oliva's guitar is used on every album. Is there anything you can pinpoint that it's been used for? Or is it used for rhythm tracks on all songs?

Paul O'Neill: If there are electric guitars on it, it's there. The only songs that it's not on are the acoustic songs.

Bp: I know Al's Cherry Sunburst is the go-to for you, what makes that particular guitar so instrumental to the TSO sound?

Paul O'Neill: Guitars are funny things. You can have the exact same model of the exact same year and for some reason one guitar will stand out. Back in the day, for Les Paul's we'll just say, when the humbuckers were wound by hand a lot of it was just luck of how the winding was done. Now they're wound by machine. A lot of it has to do with the density of the wood, of this, of that. I love Martin's as well. In the old days on 48th Street at Manny's, the guy in charge of the guitar department would call me up whenever a guitar would come through that was extra special. The two basses I've used on every album, one is a Fender Jazz Precision and the other is a Spector Active bass. The Fender I got from a girl at Sam Ash on 48th Street called me about and I went down there and said, "This is the best non-Active bass I've ever heard in my life." That's been on every album since.

Johnny Middleton picked up a Spector bass, the Active basses have the battery in it, and Johnny's Spector bass was one of those, like a Stradivarius. I used to say to him, "Johnny, please explain to your wife that God forbid you die before me, of course I will be there to offer my sympathies, but the first thing I'm going to say to her is ‘Where's the Spector bass?'" [laughs] One of the kindest things Johnny ever did was about ten years ago he sent me the Spector bass, so I own it. I sent him a check and I paid him for it, but I would have paid him anything for that bass. It was that great. Johnny knew how much I loved it and when he sent it to me it was an unbelievably kind and gentle act. It's been on every album since.

Bp: Where did the Cherry Sunburst come from?

Paul O'Neill: That was a gift from Al's dad to him. I could be wrong, but I think his father bought it at a pawn shop. And this is not unusual, parents will buy their kids a Les Paul or some guitar, but the kid is not interested in it and it makes its way to a pawn shop or a guitar store and people just don't know what they have. Al ended up with it and I have a black Les Paul that I used to use on every album and that Les Paul sounds like God, but when I heard the Cherry Sunburst I thought, "Holy shit!"

      Paul takes another call and answers the phone, "Hey, Mountain King..."

Paul O'Neill: Ok, Brad, they are coming to get me. Oh, right, Bart is back and it's great having him back, he is kicking ass on "Dream Child," Robin sounds great on it too.

Bp: And "Epiphany" is in for the second half? [laughing]

Paul O'Neill: No, but that's one of the reasons why I want to do a straight concert. So I can put "Epiphany" in. Adam Lind is probably twitching somewhere right now just because you and I are saying this. I am dying to do the full counterpoint "Epiphany" and we will someday.

With a little luck I will see you in the near future, Brad. This is my favorite day of the year, the clock goes back an hour on the day when I need it the most!

Bp: [laughs] Good luck with rehearsals and I can't wait to see the show in Toledo and you soon after.

Paul O'Neill: I look forward to it. Thanks again, Brad.


IMG_1272

End of the tour curtain call - Jan. 4, 2015 Hartford, CT

Additional Links:
Back to Part I
January 2014 interview with Paul O'Neill
2012 interview with Paul O'Neill
Trans-Siberian Orchestra - official site

More in my Trans-Siberian Orchestra Interview series -> here.