Al Pitrelli has called Trans-Siberian Orchestra home for many years, but his musical scrapbook includes a broad range of musical artists. Any synopsis of a life leaves out crucial touch points and experiences, but for the sake of brevity, a condensed version reads something like this. After leaving Berklee in his rear-view, Al got a gig playing with Michael Bolton (the rocker) which led to his first interaction with Paul O’Neill. Al would go on to work with Alice Cooper as his Musical Director, Asia, perform session work with Celine Dion and Taylor Dayne, O2’L (with his then wife, Jane Mangini), and spend a couple of years with Megadeth. Amidst all of this, Paul O’Neill brought him into the fold on Savatage’s 1995 release, Dead Winter Dead. That album featured the song “Christmas Eve/Sarajevo (12/24)” which was later re-released under the Trans-Siberian Orchestra name and the unlikely success story of TSO was born.
On the creative side, TSO consists of Paul O’Neill (Creator, Composer and Producer), Robert Kinkel (Composer), Jon Oliva (Composer), and Al Pitrelli (Musical Director and Composer). Driven by “Christmas Eve/Sarajevo (12/24),” TSO’s first release in 1996 was Christmas Eve & Other Stories, followed by The Christmas Attic in 1998. In 2000, their first non-holiday rock opera, Beethoven’s Last Night, was released and the final installment of the Christmas Trilogy, The Lost Christmas Eve, was released in 2004. The long-awaited Night Castle, a 2-CD rock opera, was released in 2009. Earlier this year Beethoven’s Last Night was re-released with full narration as a 2-CD set. In 1999, TSO toured for the first time performing a handful of shows in December with Christmas Eve & Other Stories as the central focus, complete with narrated story. The response was so impressive that they could not fulfill all the requests for shows the following Winter so the group was split into East and West Coast performing units. Al has served as Musical Director for the West Coast touring group since 2001 and also on the three Spring Tours that have featured the Beethoven’s Last Night record (in 2010-2012).
Before the Spring 2012 Tour started it was announced that it would be the last Beethoven's Last Night Spring Tour. I reached out to TSO's Management about doing some in-depth interviews with some of the TSO members and they came back with a positive response based on my previous experience interviewing musical artists and background in the industry. The interviews wound up being woven around three shows that I attended in early May. I spoke by phone with Al Pitrelli on May 3rd; chatted in person with Rob Evan the following day, before my first show of the tour in Syracuse; and spoke by phone with Paul O'Neill the day after the May 6th show in Uncasville, CT. I rounded out the unforgettable week with a third show in Binghamton on May 10th.
I have followed TSO since 2000, listening to and reading countless radio and press interviews over the years and have always been disappointed that there have been very few in-depth interviews with the members of TSO. My plan was to bypass the traditional questions that have been asked and answered countless times before and instead try to dig into topics and areas that most interviewers haven’t had time or a receptive audience for. Since this was for the fans, I asked for additional questions and topics from some of the ever passionate fans of the TSO Yahoo D-Group.
Since Beethoven was about to be retired from touring that’s where I started off the interview and we continued to discuss a variety of interesting topics including songwriting, inspiration, puke bags, setlists, Savatage, guitars, his feelings about TSO’s impact, and thick Bronx accents.
Phone Interview with Trans-Siberian Orchestra Musical Director Al Pitrelli – May 3, 2012
(Live photos by Bp - May 2012 & 2010)
Al Pitrelli: Hi, Brad. This is Al Pitrelli from TSO.
Bp: Hi. How are you doing, Al? Enjoying Reading [PA]?
Al Pitrelli: Yea. Actually I’ve been here a bunch of times over the years. It’s nice to be back. Vitalij [Kuprij, keyboards] actually lives here so it’s kind of a homecoming for us in a way.
Bp: Very nice. The interview today will be primarily for the Yahoo D-group. We’ve read the interviews, seen the shows, we’re what you call the ‘repeat offenders,’ so I’d like to dig in a little bit on some topics today if you don’t mind. Now that the Beethoven’s Last Night tour is winding to a close next weekend, what will you miss most about the tour specifically?
Al Pitrelli: I guess it would be the equivalent of missing one of my kids that goes off to college, or maybe not, depending on what kind of mood I’m in. [laughs] I don’t know, it’s like anything else, it’s a progression that takes place. The music is great. I recorded this stuff back in 19-good lord-99, I think it was, maybe ’98. We’ve been playing it as part of the Winter show for all those years as well so to perform it in its entirety, and there’s been a lot of changes that have gone on with the band and I guess the world over the last three years, so I think it’s just more acceptance. I don’t think we’re going to move on with any sense of regret or I don’t know if I’m going to miss it any more than I miss anything else in my life that we’ve moved on from because it’ll never really go anywhere.
Y’know, it’s one of those things, that if it served its purpose and it was a big part of your life then I think missing it becomes selfish. Respect it for what it was; enjoy it for what it was and what it led you to next. It kind of lent itself well because now we know that we can go out and perform in a little bit smaller venues and a little bit more intimate surroundings. It was one of the big building blocks that said, hey, let Paul and Jon Oliva continue writing these rock operas and we knew we could go out and play them. So I’m not gonna miss it. I’m not gonna look back with any kind of, “aw, the good ol’ days.” I’m gonna say, “Ok Paul, that set us up for the future.”
Bp: What does the future, specifically Spring 2013, hold? Will you still be woodshedding on Gutter Ballet and Romanov or will one of those be finished and you’ll be touring one?
Al Pitrelli: That…If I had a crystal ball, there’d be a lot of things that I’d know. I don’t have an answer for you. I know that when I get done with this tour I’m going to put my stuff away, change out some laundry, and immediately drive down to the studio in Florida and get to work with Paul on those two records. As soon as we’re done with them there’ll be an opportunity to tour, but when the completion will take place or what order Paul’s got planned, I do not know. I’m one to go, “Yea, right, cool, whatever.”
Bp: It sounds like work has been done on both, or at least one. Do you know if they’re working on them concurrently?
Al Pitrelli: From what I understand, they’ve been down there pretty busy for the last month or so, maybe 6 weeks, working on both of them at the same time. Depending on…y’know, songs are weird things. Songs are a mood. Songs are an activity. Songs are an event. So you can plan on working on something, but sometimes it’ll just hit you differently that day once you sit in the studio and you say, “Well, you know what? Let’s go this way today.” And when you have 20 or 23 songs on each album that can take a couple minutes to get them straight.
Bp: I can imagine. Can you describe the writing process a little bit? Do you come up with any riffs or ideas in soundcheck or on tour or is it primarily brainstorming in the studio with Paul?
Al Pitrelli: I think a little bit of both. There are songs that have been written that have occurred from a riff in soundcheck or from an idea in a hotel room or walking through the streets of Manhattan on the way to work or on the way from work, or anywhere. I remember “Who I Am”, Paul started writing that at 32,000 feet when he and I were flying home from London a couple years ago. Where he just had this idea. I don’t know if it was from the lightning that was going on outside the window of the airplane or for whatever reason, but he went [sings a little bit of the beginning of “Who I Am”] and I had to start writing it out in musical notation on a puke bag. Sometimes it will be in the studio. Sometimes I’ll go over there and he’ll have ideas already. Sometimes I’ll bring ideas. There’s no formula for any of this stuff. I think a lot of misconceptions are that it’s a very formulated, formal approach to it. It’s really not. I don’t know if you could write all these different dynamics and all these different ideas, these different moods into these stories by doing it at a kitchen table all the time. I think they come from a few different places; your heart, your soul, and on the planet. That’s one way to guarantee that the dynamic will always be different on these records.
Bp: Are there any interesting stories behind any riffs that came to you, as you mentioned in soundcheck, the hotel, walking around, that might be interesting to tell about?
Al Pitrelli: Well, we do that song “Tracers” that was on the Night Castle record that we’ve performed every other night or so on this tour. We’ve played it in the Winter in the past, that was an idea that Paul had the basic opening riff he had had in a soundcheck and he goes, “Why don’t you come up with an instrumental and it’ll give you a platform to really kind of showcase yourself and the band.” And he kind of went [sings the opening to “Tracers”] y’know, that kind of sound. And I went, “Alright, cool.” And we played it through a couple minutes. The rehearsal ended later that night or whatever and I remember going back to the hotel room in Manhattan. I was messing around with my double-neck guitar just sitting around the hotel room and started playing a couple of harmonics and then kind of the light bulb went off and it turned into about four or five more riffs from it. So the next time I brought it back to Paul…I think it was Paul, myself and Jane, who sort of sat down and actually arranged all these ideas into what has become the song. It’s almost like a New York City soundtrack, or an underscoring of the vibe of Manhattan, just getting out of rehearsal on 52nd Street walking down to the hotel to 70-whatever street. And all of a sudden just having this whole soundtrack starting to develop in my head. Janie had a bunch of ideas for it, and then Paul, being Paul, just put it all together and it became what it became.
You get on the subway in New York City and a couple things run through your head. One would be, “Oh my god, am I going to live to get to my next stop.” The other might be you’d come up with a good song.
Bp: It became probably my favorite TSO song.
Al Pitrelli: Well, thank you.
Bp: It’s great to hear that backstory. I’ve been waiting to hear it again for years. I think the last time it was played was on the Winter Tour in 2008. Then it came out on Night Castle in 2009 and hasn’t been in the set since. What’s been the decision on a daily basis, since you’re flip-flopping that with Toccata, as to which is played?
Al Pitrelli: Y’know, we just want to change it up on a nightly basis just because from our side of the fence it’s nice to do different things. It’s good for everybody to keep it changing and move on the fly. It’s good for the crew. It’s good for the band. It’s good for everybody involved. We’re getting to the point where we’ve got so many really good songs that people enjoy that to stick to one setlist is shortchanging everybody. It’s kind of a good problem to have. So to change it from night to night…listen, if I had it my way and Paul had it his way, there’d be even more changing, but I think this is pretty good for us. We just know now we can do this night after night and change it up. Last year on the Winter Tour the matinee and the evening show we changed a couple things around as well.
Bp: Yes, that was an extra special treat as a fan when you’re seeing a double-header. Going back to “Tracers” for a real nit-picky question, on the East during the Winter Tour, Mee Eun used to do an organ break in the early part of the song that wasn’t brought back for this tour. Was that because since you’re MD [Musical Director] on the West, I’m not sure if you guys did that on the West, was there a conscious decision to not do that this time around?
Al Pitrelli: Not really. I don’t know if it was a decision or that when that song first was being performed, again it was written in rehearsal and it wasn’t recorded until a couple years later, so I would bet that the two different bands, the East band and the West band, it kind of morphed into whatever it morphed into when they were out on the road. Music’s a living and breathing thing. By the time Paulie and I got into the studio with Jane to record that one and along with everyone else, just saying the three of us regarding who wrote that song, I think that’s how Paul decided he wanted it presented on the record and that’s what we’ve been doing out here.
Bp: That makes sense. I haven’t seen the show yet, I have three shows coming up in the next week, but I noticed from You Tube videos that you’re starting off with the double-neck on “Tracers” and then switching to the white Gibson Explorer. Is there a reason you’re switching out mid-song for that?
Al Pitrelli: I could give you a bunch of technical reasons, but I don’t really have one other than that Explorer I absolutely love and I can’t wait to get it back around my neck. We also segue into the song that comes after “Tracers” [“Chance”] and it’s just easier to do it that way. I have a little bit of a break in between two parts of “Tracers” so my guitar tech Eric [Gormley] just said, “Just swap out here, Boss, and we’ll be good.”
Bp: What’s your favorite song to perform on the Beethoven tour?
Al Pitrelli: It changes every night. I don’t know that I have a favorite song. It’s like having a favorite kid. I think I dislike each one of my children equally. Each night, one of these songs does something different that will kind of get my attention. It could just be the chemistry that goes on onstage. It could be the reaction of somebody’s eyes in the audience. There’s every so often I’ll look down and I’ll see somebody who is looking back up at the stage with a look of sheer wonderment in their eyes. Or you get a 9 or 10-year old who…there’s a story I told somebody a while ago that happened. There was this little girl and she was standing on her grandfather’s lap and there was something in the show that must have gotten her attention because every time a pyro hit would go off or one of the girls would dance or something, she would just wrap her arms around her granddaddy’s neck even tighter. She would look at him and her feet would do that little jiggly thing that little girls or little children do, y’know. And the grandfather would look up at the stage and he’d have this big ol’ smile on his face like they’d just shared the most beautiful moment together. And it was solely because of something that was going on onstage that I was partly responsible for. So that was my favorite song. I couldn’t tell you what song it was, because it didn’t matter. It was something that we were performing that was causing a moment between a couple people in the audience. That’s the power of the music. That’s the underscoring that we’ve created with this show.
Bp: That’s awesome and that’s what it’s all about. Now I know you’re a very busy guy onstage with your MD responsibilities, taking care of the flight deck and playing, but like you just mentioned with the little girl and her grandfather, are there certain points in the show where you make a point to look out at the audience to see a reaction? Whether it’s an emotional part of the song where you normally see a reaction to, for instance the first laser portion of “First Snow” that usually gets a big reaction, are there certain points where you look to see a reaction at all?
Al Pitrelli: Nah. I can’t base anything on the crowd reaction. I kind of base it on my reaction. I know that if it feels great up onstage for me, that it will probably feel pretty good to everybody out in the audience. I can’t worry about what’s going on out there, first of all, it’s too removed, it’s too far away, as far as the reaction. Visually if I can see smiles and people lighting up then that’s a bonus, once we settle in. But the only time I really wait for the audience reaction is I guess at the end when unprompted what the audience does, y’know. I just turn around and look and if they stand up because they loved it, then that’s a great reaction. If they’re sitting down and they’re like, well whatever, which really doesn’t happen, that would mean that I didn’t do my job. So I’m more concerned with focusing on what I’m doing up there, what everyone else is doing up there, than worrying about what’s going on in the audience. The magic will happen, or at least it has a better chance of happening if we’re absolutely crushing what we do up onstage.
Bp: When you’re sitting down before the Winter Tour or the Spring Tour how is the set list decided on? Obviously the first portion, the story portion is kind of set, but for the more free form second half, how is that decided? Do you go back to the previous tour and use that as a base or do you start from scratch?
Al Pitrelli: It all depends. Usually Paul will come up with an idea and then Adam [Lind], our manager, and I will beg and plead to just do something different. Paul will say, “I want to do this.” We’ll say, “Oh please, let us do this.” We’ll tag team him until we get our way. Again, everything in life is based on the family nucleus of having spoiled children. Adam and I are spoiled children. [laughs] Y’know what I mean? And that’s partially true, partially not true. Y’know what, it’s a democracy and Paul says it’s not. Our job is to protect our boss’ interest, to implement his will, and to tell him, “Hey, y’know what, we’re around for a reason. You keep us around for a reason. Here’s our opinion on things and if you bite, that’s great.” If he doesn’t bite, then our job is to go back to plan a: Paul is always right.
Bp: That’s good to keep in mind.
Al Pitrelli: You know what, it’s true. He’s one of my dearest friends, if not my best friend for like 25 years. He invented this thing. He created this thing. I tell people, the real definition of my job as Musical Director when you’re dealing with talent at this level and people that good, all my job really is to start ‘em and stop ‘em. And occasionally remind them who’s signing their check. That’s Paul O’Neill. So Adam protects him probably as much as I protect him. And Paul does the same for us. It’s been a good team over the years. It really is a good bunch. There’s a lot of compromising in this relationship. Anybody who’s ever been in any kind of relationship realizes one sided-compromise turns into resentment. There’s nothing but compromise going on around here because everybody just wants the best for what it is. Paul is really smart. He’s surrounded himself with good people and we all have his interests in hand.
Bp: How does a Savatage song get thrown into the mix as we’ve seen more and more, especially with the Spring Tours? Is that something Paul is bringing to the table, or you and Adam are?
Al Pitrelli: Well, again, I’m going to leave 99% of the musical endeavor, or the vision I should say, to Paul. He and Oliva have been busy writing stuff for years and there’s a lot of brilliant material, some of which needs to be heard and can easily be blended into these rock operas that would be Savatage. I’m not saying this or that. Adam has come up with some great ideas with the old Sava material that would work or would be appropriate in certain situations. I’m too busy keeping everything going out here, and then excited to get back to recording new stuff. Then when I’m recording the new stuff I’ll be excited to get back out here. That’s pretty much my entire existence, which I’m fine with.
Savatage (on the rooftop), 1995, Dead Winter Dead:
L-to-R: Johnny Lee Middleton, Al Pitrelli, Chris Caffery, Zak Stevens, Jeff Plate
Bp: I think for Savatage fans there’s a romantic notion that the Beethoven tour is extra special because the Savatage-4 are all on stage together. Does it hold something more special for all four of you guys to be together onstage again? I know you and Johnny are together on the West and Chris and Jeff on the East, but on the Spring Tour, is it more special having all of you together on the same stage?
Al Pitrelli: It does only because it’s a constant reminder that it’s gone back to where it began. I mean that was the band, the four of us were the center of the band that started the first show in ’99 when we didn’t know anything about anything. This was literally in its infancy as far as touring went. This is the same bunch of guys that I met on a rooftop back in the Spring of ’95 when we just completed recording the Dead Winter Dead record. I hadn’t met Johnny Lee until the photo shoot on that rooftop that you see on the back of that album cover. So there’s a lot of history between us. These are the same guys that sat around a kitchen table and couches because we all crashed together in an apartment in New York. So I’ll look up there and sort of have a smile on my face and go, “Wow. 17 years. It’s been a long, long time.” That outlasted both of my marriages.
Bp: And against all odds too, because on paper, the TSO equation does not make sense. Thankfully in reality it actually works, but on paper it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.
Al Pitrelli: Well, do you know about the problems with the aerodynamics of the bumblebee. Have you heard about that?
Al Pitrelli: Everybody knows that aerodynamically, there is no possible way a bumblebee can get his fat ass off the ground with those little, itty-bitty wings. Just don’t tell the bumblebee. Scientists know bumblebees can’t fly. Everybody knows that TSO somehow…lightning struck in perpetuity and here we are. The Monday morning quarterbacks and people all around ask, “How the hell did that happen?” And I’ll tell you something brother; I ask myself the same thing every day. The analogy that I use is the only one that really seems appropriate; it’s like having a child. My son Zak was born the day we did the photo shoot for the Dead Winter Dead record, literally. I don’t know if too many people know that. And he’s going to be 17-years old this coming July, which is exactly how old my association with these guys has been. And pretty much, if you want to think about it, where this thing really started to take shape. So the thing is that I looked at Zakkie in the hospital the moment he opened his eyes and I said, “Oh my god, look at how absolutely beautiful he is. Perfect! Ten fingers, ten toes, all those things.” Then there’s a sense of absolute terror that comes over you, “How am I going to be a good father? How am I gonna take care of this baby? How am I going to provide for this one?” And then as he grows up. Watching him when he turns into a toddler and stumbles and bumps his head, all those little things that children do, then all of sudden he grows up where he’ll be in his circle of people and I’ll be introduced to someone and they’ll say, “You have the most polite, beautiful, well-mannered, awesome kid I’ve ever met.” And I’m just so proud that he’s taken on his own personality and his own life and gone out into the world and done good so far. That’s what TSO is for me or at least my involvement with TSO. It was an accident that was just perfectly choreographed, if that makes any sense. And it’s grown up into something that people like yourself really, really like and I’m proud that it’s made such an impact on a lot of people’s lives; that it’s gone out into the world and done its own thing. Does that make any sense?
Bp: Absolutely, it does.
Al Pitrelli: That’s it.
Bp: At the casino in Hammond, IN few weeks back with the age restrictions that prevented Georgia and Kayla from going on stage, “The Dark” turned into “The Storm.” I’m assuming that was on pretty short notice, from soundcheck on probably. How did that materialize?
Al Pitrelli: I wanted to play “The Storm” really bad so I paid the security guards $1,000 a piece to keep them out of the building. [laughs] I don’t know…oh my, that would be such a good story. Ah, how did that happen? I think really well on the fly.
Bp: It sounded great. It looked great. It was awesome!
Al Pitrelli: Thanks. Y’know what, it was the kind of thing where if you’re not gonna do the song and we were trying to figure out how to present the song in a different way and you go, ewww, you’ve gotta go with your instinct and Paul trusted me. That song’s been kind of creeping up every so often anyway. I think I can say that it’s single-handedly my favorite guitar piece that I’ve recorded with Paul over the years. It was similar tempo wise and feel wise and it was certainly dark enough for that portion of the show. At the end of the day it’s an instrumentalist’s responsibility to try to get to the point on your instrument that you can present a story or tell a story with the notes that you’re playing. The problem that you have is you don’t have the spoken lyric, the word, to tell that story and a good instrumentalists job is to play the notes and let the listener understand what it is they’re trying to say. Like going to see a good opera in Italian, I don’t know a lick of what they’re talking about when they’re singing, but you can pretty much get the gist of it. That was the idea behind doing “The Storm” there and Paul’s been looking at that song to serve a purpose in future rock operas anyway because it’s such a beautiful piece that he wrote with Oliva.
Bp: It fit in so well. Was that put together at soundcheck? You didn’t have much lead time, right?
Al Pitrelli: At soundcheck. Like I said before, that band is so good I turned around and said, “Here’s our idea.” And they were like, “Ok. Show us the chords.” It’s funny ‘cause now days everyone has You Tube on their iPhones , so on stage within seconds everyone’s You Tubed it and they’re listening to it and messing around with it on their instruments and they’re like, “Ok, we got it. Let’s go.” It’s so easy being me.
Bp: You’re working with such professionals, because Vitalij, Mee Eun, and Roddy might not have been aware of it, because obviously the Savatage guys would remember it.
Al Pitrelli: Yea, they’d never heard it in their lives. They’re like, “What’s it called?” “’The Storm,’ dude, ‘The Storm.’” Within a couple seconds they’re like, “Yea, ok, we’ve got it.”
Bp: “No problem, Al. We’ll take care of it.”
Al Pitrelli: I know. I’m like, “You guys are that good? Thank goodness.”
Bp: I’ve noticed that predominantly your guitar color scheme is black and white. Is that a TSO requirement or is that your personal preference?
Al Pitrelli: My personal preference is a TSO requirement.
Bp: Good answer.
Al Pitrelli: [laughs] No dude, that’s my personality. I look at guitars, I look at my cars; everything in my life is pretty much black and white. I mean, there ain’t a whole lot of grey areas in a lot of the stuff I’ve done or am doing. So for me there is nothing more elegant, nothing more classy than a black and white tuxedo, a black and white Rolls Royce, or whatever. Y’know what I mean? If all decisions were black and white, in my little room temperature I do, dude everything would be a little easier to deal with. This is right. This is wrong. This is black. This is white. I mean, I don’t walk around with those guitars as if, “Hey, I’m trying to give you an insight to my personality.” You asked me, I said it. That’s how I see things. 80% of the tattoos on me are in black and white. It makes sense to me. It’s simpler that way, y’know what I’m saying? Fortunately Paul O’Neill has the rest of the color palate in his big brain so between the two of us, we’ve got it covered.
Bp: [laughs] This is the first time I’ve seen you with a Fender Strat.
Al Pitrelli: Yea, I own one. Now I have to go buy one in white, that’s the problem.
Bp: Is the new white [Gibson] Explorer your favorite at this point?
Al Pitrelli: Yea, it’s my favorite ‘cause it’s my newest. It was something that I wanted for a long time. I purchased it from the Gibson custom shop a while back and it took them an extra-long time to build it because they don’t make them like that. So when it finally showed up, with the anticipation of, “Ohhh, look at how pretty it is,” and then I plugged it in then, “Holy shit does that thing sound good.”
Bp: It looks great and from the video footage I’ve seen it’s got great sound with a massive growl.
Al Pitrelli: Yea, it’s pretty good, dude. It really is pretty good. I’m pretty happy with it.
Bp: I can’t wait to see it in action tomorrow night.
Al Pitrelli: Absolutely. I can’t wait for you to get there. Now you’ve got me excited about tomorrow night.
Bp: Does that mean “Tracers” will be in tomorrow night? [laughing]
Al Pitrelli: Ah, it might. Where am I tomorrow night, what’s the town?
Al Pitrelli: Bribe me. Y’know what, bring some Dinosaur BBQ and I guarantee it.
Bp: Alright. I’ll be there with some Dino right after soundcheck. [laughs]
Al Pitrelli: Yea, it will probably be in tomorrow night.
Bp: Awesome! Now I’m going to throw out some song titles and I’m looking for what comes to mind when you hear the titles of these songs, starting with “Christmas Eve/Sarajevo (12/24).”
Al Pitrelli: Thank God.
Al Pitrelli: I mean, do you want me to answer honestly or do you want me to give you one of those cushy interview answers. Good lord, I mean, if it wasn’t for that, I have no idea. Listen, I’ll make this really complicated and easy at the same time. You go through your life making a series of right turns and left turns, right? If one left substitutes one right, the entire course of your life has now changed. You take that one song, that riff, that theme, that moment out of my life, we’re not having this conversation.
Al Pitrelli: What comes to your mind when I say “Christmas Eve/Sarajevo” then? You know what I mean?
Al Pitrelli: If you’re gonna embrace art, if you’re gonna embrace all the things we’ve talked about, you have to embrace the fact that, “What if it didn’t exist? What would it be? Where would we be?” That’s both terrifying and exciting to think about. I’m just glad I don’t have to implement either one of those two. Y’know what I mean? Especially with that song. That’s become a soundtrack to so many lives including mine. Most importantly mine.
Bp: Things would be so incredibly different if that hadn’t existed.
Al Pitrelli: On a massive level. That’s something that I helped create that will live long past the time that I’m gone.
Bp: And like you said, the lives that it’s touched…
Al Pitrelli: Yea. The amount of people that have embraced it as part of their world now, I mean, look it, this isn’t like writing some song that was like a big hit in such-a-such year.
Bp: “This Christmas Day” – your thoughts on that.
Al Pitrelli: Well, the funniest thing when we were recording that, me, Paul and Tommy were in the studio in the city [laughs] and it took about an hour for Paul to get Tommy to enunciate the word “there” like it began with ‘th’ and not the letter ‘d.’
Bp: That’s awesome.
Al Pitrelli: Well, it’s the truth. The song would start and I’d be sitting on the couch behind O’Neill and Paul would be looking down at the Wall Street Journal like he normally does. Tommy would go, “Dere is an..” and he’d be like, “Stop! Tommy, the word is ‘There.’” And Tommy would go in his very Bronx accent, “Dat’s what I said, ‘Dere.’” This conversation went on for a good portion of the evening and oh my god, I was doubled over, pissing myself, because it was the funniest thing ever. That’s how that relationship began.
Bp: That’s a great story. Here’s one that you helped write, “Christmas Nights in Blue.”
Al Pitrelli: I don’t know, what comes to mind…that was just a fun song. I was sitting at the piano one day and I wanted to be Leon Russell. Pretty much, I played it and…y’know what that song symbolizes to me? That song symbolizes that Paul O’Neill has no boundaries, musically. You play him something like that, which should have been on The Last Waltz or something like that and here it is, it makes into a TSO rock opera because he’s got the vision to see it. Even though we record something by Chopin or Tchaikovsky and then you’ve got this Leon Russell riff and somehow it makes sense. It’s kind of cool.
Bp: “Flight of Cassandra.”
Al Pitrelli: Oh gosh…that represents a very beautiful time that I spent with Jane, the creative side of our relationship that will last forever. That was during the O2’L era, that we’d written that.
Bp: I know you’re pressed for time, so I’ll end here with one more song title, “Fools Game.”
Al Pitrelli: Oh, with Michael Bolton? Oh hell, again it goes back to what we talked about earlier, you take one left or right turn out of your life, your life has changed. If that song didn’t creep up on the radio and present itself as a minor hit for Michael, I would have never banged on Louis Levin’s door who was managing him and I would have never met Paul O’Neill.
Bp: Another game changer.
Al Pitrelli: Good lord, that’s a nice way of putting it, yea. And also, you take Paul out of that equation, Michael was a great teacher. It may not have been the most pleasant time in my life. I mean I’ve had a lot of bosses who weren’t the nicest people ever. Not saying Michael was or wasn’t, but the lesson learned is the part you take away. The time that you spend with somebody is fleeting. It’s what you take away from that chance meeting or that time together that can change your life or at least enhance it, or diminish it, whatever. So that in itself, he taught me quite a bit about songwriting and publishing and record companies. That was something that I walked away from with, “Talented guy, smart dude.”
Bp: Well, you’ve been a smart guy and lucky to work with a diverse roster of people through the years that have brought you to where you are.
Al Pitrelli: I’ve been so lucky, dude. Luck though, luck is a really funny thing. It depends on how you look at it or how you define it. I define luck as a very simple opportunity meets preparation. If you’re prepared and an opportunity arises you have a better chance of making something out of that opportunity than if you’re unprepared. Some people use the word luck to play down how hard they’ve worked or to justify someone else’s good fortune. Y’know what I mean, “Oh, he’s just really lucky.” Really?
Bp: It’s not just being in the right place at the right time, but also having the right skills to make it work.
Al Pitrelli: Opportunity meets preparation. Exactly.
Bp: I will let you go. I appreciate the time and I look forward to seeing you tomorrow in Syracuse, at Mohegan Sun on Sunday and next week in Binghamton.
Al Pitrelli: Alright, my friend. You take care of yourself. Thanks for spending time with me, go talk to Rob Evan for a couple minutes, and I’ll see you tomorrow night.
Bp: Thank you very much, Al.
Special Thanks to Al Pitrelli, Paul O'Neill, Rob Evan, Kenny Kaplan, Linda, Sian & numerous folks on the TSO Yahoo D-Group. As always, thanks to Cameron Crowe for the inspiration.
For hundreds of TSO performances, check out my You Tube channel.