squintyt4e (squintyt4e) wrote,

The Trans-Siberian Orchestra Interviews: Paul O'Neill - May 7, 2012 - Part I

Trans-Siberian Orchestra's Producer/Composer/Lyricist, Paul O’Neill, began his early years in the music business as a producer and then an assistant at one of the most influential rock management companies, Leber-Krebs. He went on to promote major rock tours in Japan and in the mid-80s he started working with a Florida-based metal band, Savatage, where he would find a lifelong writing partner in Jon Oliva. Jon, along with his guitar-slinging brother Criss, had formed Avatar in the early ‘80s (later becoming Savatage) and when O’Neill came on as producer, for 1987’s Hall of the Mountain King, they hit their stride and introduced a bit of classical and dramatic flair. Most producers’ role on a project is to oversee the recording sessions and depending on the artist, either assists in composition and direction in varying degrees. In the case with Savatage, O’Neill fast became a collaborator and his effect on that Hall of the Mountain King is easily felt compared to their previous effort Fight for the Rock (which the band would refer to as Fight for the Nightmare due to record company’s intense desire to turn them into a pop-metal band). O’Neill pushed them to a new level musically and not only did they start to release their most successful albums in Gutter Ballet and Streets, but they started to explore concept albums, classical influence and artistic freedom in a way they weren’t able to previously.

Savatage had started to experience some personnel changes when in October 1993, Criss Oliva was killed by a drunk driver; a crushing blow to the band. Jon and Paul worked through their pain to deliver Handful of Rain in 1994. For the next two albums, Dead Winter Dead (1995) and The Wake of Magellan (1998) the band kept a consistent line-up and moved even further into the conceptual rock opera area. Their last album in 2000, Poets & Madmen, was also a concept record, but much darker and a return to their more metal roots.

There has always been a somewhat blurring of the lines between the Savatage and the genesis of Trans-Siberian Orchestra. Both Jon and Paul have gone on record that they believe that within the prog-metal confines associated with the name Savatage, they had achieved all that they could with that band. Factual evidence seems to also support that theory as “Christmas Eve/Sarajevo (12/24),” a Savatage song from the Dead Winter Dead album, was first released to radio under the Savatage name and received almost no airplay as it was by what programmers perceived as an “80s metal band” and from an album entitled Dead Winter Dead. The following year it was released under the Trans-Siberian Orchestra name in support of their first release, Christmas Eve & Other Stories, adorned with a small child and Christmas tree. The same radio stations that dismissed the single the previous year added it to their playlists and listeners responded to the song; it was the most requested song of the holiday season that year. Over fifteen years later it is still one of the most requested and popular holiday songs.

Jon and Paul, along with long-time contributors on the Savatage projects, Bob Kinkel (keyboards and orchestration) and Dave Wittman (studio engineer), plus Savatage guitarist Al Pitrelli, started work on Paul’s first Christmas rock opera which became 1996’s Christmas Eve & Other Stories. The Christmas Attic followed in 1998 and in 1999, the first Trans-Siberian tour was scheduled in a handful of cities. The tour featured the Christmas Eve & Other Stories album presented with narration and a then a few songs from The Christmas Attic and their upcoming non-holiday rock opera. The following winter found the demand so high for TSO’s show that they split the band into an East and West division and toured November and December across most of the country. TSO’s first non-holiday release was in April 2000 in the form of Beethoven’s Last Night (re-released in May 2012 with full narration).  The holiday trilogy was completed with the 2004 release of The Lost Christmas Eve and the long-awaited non-holiday release, Night Castle saw the light of day in 2009. O’Neill has discussed recently two projects as works in progress for upcoming albums: Gutter Ballet and Romanov: When Kings Must Whisper. The former being a blues-infused rock opera penned by O’Neill in the 1970s which in-part became the Streets album with Savatage (as they’d already used the Gutter Ballet title previously); and the latter a rock opera about the Bolshevik revolution that was originally intended as the first Trans-Siberian Orchestra release.

TSO has continued to tour each winter moving from theaters to arenas and in most cities they now perform a matinee and evening show to accommodate demand. In the spring of 2010 TSO brought the Beethoven’s Last Night rock opera to the stage to critical acclaim. In addition to the North American leg in 2011, they performed in Europe for the first time. The 2012 spring tour was billed as Beethoven’s last outing.

As that tour was winding down, I had the pleasure to talk with Paul O’Neill by phone and we dug into a variety of topics. Having read and listened to hundreds of articles and interviews with O’Neill and other members of TSO I found myself surprised by the depth and detail that he went into particularly about what his vision for Rock Theater is for TSO and his Disney-esque long-term goals. In our 2 hour conversation he went into greater detail than he has previously in other articles and discussions. Unlike most interviews I’ve done it wasn’t as much about where I wanted to direct and move the interview, it was about holding onto the kite rope and trying to move with the wind. Taming the wind was not an attainable option. I was able to run through many of my pre-prepared questions, however there was a great deal of topic jumping. I hope you enjoy the ride. We covered a wide breadth of topics including the future of TSO, Letters from the Labyrinth, Savatage, Stormy Weather, the recording process, TSO members past and present, upcoming releases, what Rock Theater means to him, live DVDs, and what art forms he wants to save from extinction.

Paul O'Neill - live in Orlando, 2011
Photo by Brian Dupre

Trans-Siberian Orchestra - Paul O’Neill Interview: May 7, 2012

Paul O’Neill: Hi, Brad. This is Paul O’Neill from Trans-Siberian. How are you, sir?

Bp: I’m doing very well. The interview today will be primarily for the Yahoo D-group and online fan communities. 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.

Paul O’Neill: No problem. My 14-year old daughter, I just talked to her, she knows who you are. She said, “He’s really, really cool.”

Bp: Wow, I appreciate that.

Paul O’Neill: There are so many people who talk about that mysterious D-group. You’ve created your own kind of mystique. It’s pretty cool. Where would you like to start, sir?

Bp: Now that the Beethoven’s tour is wrapping up, you filmed some footage in Texas back in 2010 for what might have been a live concert DVD and/or the Beethoven movie. Will we see that surface at some point in the future?

Paul O’Neill: Definitely. It’s so funny because someone else in the office said, we get so many thousands of fan letters, etc. They said, “Take the fan letters with questions and answer them with Brad, because that will get them to everybody who really cares.”

That’s a complicated question. I guess I can let it out at this point. We started filming the live sections of the Beethoven movie in Texas and we were going to do the story sections, like The Ghosts of Christmas Eve, in Michigan. But in Michigan, for every $100,000 we spent filming in Michigan, they were going to give us a check back for [a healthy percentage]. So we picked out the locations in Detroit that fit perfectly. Everything was going great, but then Michigan started to get into economic trouble. They aren’t paying major infrastructure bills. Pharmacies and everything are behind on their bills, so we decided temporarily not to do it in Michigan. For two reasons; number one, for a state that is struggling with massive unemployment, cutting police and fire departments and stuff like that, the last thing they need to be doing is giving money to a rock band. We can make it work on our own. So we’ve pushed that to the back burner and we’ll find somewhere else to film it. Again, we just want it to be right. Bryan Hicks is great. I’m not worried about Rob Evan. It’s about getting the right people in the right place and the right location. It was pretty much all set up and Michigan’s economic state became apparent. I believe government should be responsible to keep people safe, the borders, helping out in emergencies. But filming movies, I don’t think the government should be involved in. When times are good, it’s not as much a problem, but Michigan is hurting too much. We’ll eventually do it, but we’ll do it when it’s right and there’s too many people who need help right now for us to be taking money for a movie. Does that make any sense?

Bp: It does.

Paul O’Neill: We have it all in the can. We just have to pick a new location to film the story section of it.

Bp: Is there a Winter Tour live DVD on the horizon at all?

Paul O’Neill: Again, it’s…one of our biggest problems, Brad. Everything happened backwards. Basically, Jon [Oliva] had left Savatage before the Edge of Thorns album, and Romanov: When Kings Must Whisper was done and recorded. Atlantic paid for everything, and that was going to be the first TSO album, coming out in 1994. And in 1994, Romanov: When Kings Must Whisper made a ton of sense. The Berlin Wall just collapsed, the Soviet Union just collapsed, and it was just a very timely piece. But when William Morris heard it, they said it was too good to be a rock album, it has to go to Broadway. They sold it to Pace Theatrical which was bought by Clear Channel for way more money than we wanted. But Owen Laster got me something that he simply should not have gotten me, which was total artistic control over everything. We had a lot of experience in rock, but none on Broadway. I was glad they did just because…I don’t know if you heard about it, but Dance of the Vampires, by Jim Steinman, is a masterpiece. I think it’s still running in Germany and Japan, but when he came over here he didn’t have artistic control and what they did to his show was they ruined it. Broadway simply doesn’t understand rock. What they think is cutting edge rock, and what they think are special effects…that was another problem we had, what I envisioned for Romanov, Broadway simply could not produce. They don’t have the infrastructure. They don’t have the electrical needs. They don’t have the fire suppression systems. I ended up pulling the plug on it. I’m sure it would have done well. I just didn’t want it to be done where it just nagged at me, where I’d eventually have to go back and redo it. The first version of The Christmas Attic I rushed a little and I didn’t like it. What we made I had Atlantic bring back and we destroyed it, remixed it, and then put it out. I swore I would never do that again.

With Trans-Siberian Orchestra life is what happens when you have other plans. When I first started TSO, Brad, there were two things I didn’t have on my radar. One was the complete meltdown of the music industry at a pace that was mind-boggling. In 1995 it was worth over a trillion dollars, now it’s worth less than one percent of that. I worry about the movie industry because when MGM went bankrupt a little while ago…the library you’re talking about with every James Bond movie, Amadeus, the copyright of The Hobbit. The stockholders completely walked away with tens of millions of dollars and the only ones that were left were the bond holders, they were willing to take fifty-cents on the dollar and they didn’t get one offer, because nobody knows what any of it is worth.  With Trans-Siberian, the albums cost a couple million apiece, and they all re-coup, but if they didn’t you have the live touring. You do a three-hundred million dollar movie and some kid is streaming it free from Uzbekistan, what are you going to do? As you know, Barnes & Noble and Borders are all in trouble or under, newspapers too. I think the industry made a humungous mistake; they were like luddites when the internet piracy took off. They were fighting it and charging 12-year old kids. They should have embraced it.

Number one, the old model is gone. When I started in the mid-‘70s, Brad, the label system in America was releasing between twenty-and-thirty thousand albums per year. Of those twenty-to-thirty thousand only four-hundred recouped. Of those four-hundred, only fifty made real money. But, they made so much money, y’know one Pink Floyd or one Led Zeppelin could undo ten-thousand mistakes. And back when I was younger the label got the majority share of the royalties, but again, they had to pay for the album, print the album, ship the album, promote the album, and if it didn’t sell, it would come back. As a friend of mine once told me, “There are two warehouses at Warner Brothers. The happy warehouse which is for albums that are selling, and there’s the sad warehouse, which is twenty times bigger, which is for albums that are coming back.”

So the original plan was to do the six rock operas and eventually a trilogy about Christmas and then one or two regular albums. Basically, when Criss Oliva died, that threw everything into the sepulcher. A couple of weeks before Criss died…the funny thing about Criss dying, which Jon and I both laugh about this all the time, Criss was the rock. No drink, no drugs, he was the keel of Savatage. Jon lived life on the edge. I used to tell Jon, “Jon, I’m going to completely prepare for the call that comes saying you’re dead. I’ll put the money aside for your funeral. You’re driving me out of my mind.” I was never prepared for Criss. Drunk driving, I think it was his sixth conviction for drunk driving, and…we lost Criss.

About a week prior to Criss dying, I went to pick up an album I was looking for [by one of my favorite prog rock bands] and found out it was out of print. And I’m thinking, “Wow! If they can take that out of print!” As far as I’m concerned, they invented prog rock along with others. I now thought as soon as the Savatage albums sold such and such they would drop the catalog. So Jon and I, even though there were no original members left we realized the important thing was to get a new Savatage record out quickly. So I told Atlantic I was going to turn in a new Savatage album. They said, “Who’s in the band?” I said, “I don’t know, but I’ll tell you when we’re done.”

Savatage - "Alone You Breathe" (Dedicated to Criss Oliva) from Handful of Rain

Jon and I went in and we were writing and recording it simultaneously. Jon played guitars, drums, keyboards; everything. Except for a few solos that Alex Skolnick did. Then Zak came by, heard the songs and he wanted to rejoin the band and then everyone else came back. It wasn’t until after Handful of Rain had really done well and Dead Winter Dead did well that Savatage was secure enough; because [Savatage] was one of the first bands on a major label to have no original members in it. Tony Iommi was always in Black Sabbath, there was always somebody, usually just the drummer, but it worked and we got away with it. The whole idea with Savatage was…when I first met them, back then they were a thrash, heavy metal band, but Jon and Criss were so great, especially Jon Oliva’s voice. That guy has a real four-octave range and more than just the four-octave range, if you asked him to sound like Freddie Mercury you’d swear Freddie Mercury was in the room. If you asked him to sound like John Lennon you’d swear John Lennon was in the room. If you asked him to sound like Joe Cocker you’d swear Joe Cocker was in the room. He has that Mel Blanc/Rich Little gift of being able to mimic and I’ve never seen those two talents in one person. I remember when we did “Hall of the Mountain King,” I said, “Jon, in the middle I need you to jump the octave here.” Jon jumped it and then jumped it again! It wasn’t falsetto, it was full voice. Just having Jon around is just great. I had this band called Slowburn in the ‘70s. We recorded at Electric Lady, and now a lot of songs have been recorded by Savatage and TSO now. But the problem was me. The vocals were three octaves in range and we couldn’t find the singer to sing them. Then we found Jon. And with Trans-Siberian Orchestra because we had so many singers, especially people like Rob Evan, who probably has three-and-a-half octaves, we’re able to get it.

But Trans-Siberian’s mission has changed. The original mission was to push the boundaries of what could be done by a progressive rock band both live and in concert. When Greg Lake did the encore with us doing “Karn Evil #9,” after the show he said, “Paul, you really get progressive rock.” I said, “Greg, I have no idea what you’re talking about.” He goes, “Progressive Rock is the ultimate form of music. If you’re in a jazz band and you do blues, it’s no longer a jazz band. If you do blues in a reggae band, it’s no longer a reggae band. If you’re in a blues band that does a Strauss waltz, it’s no longer a blues band. In prog rock you can do anything. It comes with the name, progressive rock. You’re always pushing the envelope. Which is why bands like Rush, can go, on “The Spirit of Radio,” from rock to reggae and back to rock again and nobody says ‘boo.’” I said, “Wow. I never thought of it like that.” Then Greg goes, “Paul, you also get the ticket.” I said, “Greg, I have no idea what that means.” He said, “The ticket is like a check. Like an IOU. Somebody gives you money and on a future date you promise to give a great concert and if you don’t, that check bounces.” I’ve always said that Greg is the Aristotle, the Obi-Wan Kenobi, of rock. Every time he opens his mouth you feel like you should have a notebook and be writing everything down.

The other thing we were trying to do with Trans-Siberian Orchestra was again to make the best albums for the lowest possible cost and the best possible concerts for the lowest possible cost. I’m probably going to show my age here, Brad, when I was growing up in New York City in the ‘50s and ‘60s, the first time I saw The Who it was $5. The first time I saw Led Zeppelin it was $7.50. The last show I saw at Madison Square Garden the floor seats were $2,000, the nosebleeds were $300 and I’m like, “Where’s the money? It’s not on the flight deck.” It just seems to have gotten so out of control where we’ve got a lower economic middle class, even if you’re upper middle class, with two kids at $250 a ticket that’s $1,000 before you buy overpriced milk duds and popcorn. People need music entertainment any time in their life, but they really need it during rough times. Which is also why we didn’t do Night Castle the last three years, we did Beethoven’s Last Night. It just seemed more appropriate. It doesn’t matter what troubles you’re going through in life, your house is under water, half of your stock portfolio is missing, it’s better than being a deaf piano player in the 17-1800s in Vienna.

Bp: It’s got that eternal hope that runs through it.

Paul O’Neill: That’s exactly it. The other thing I love about it is kids that normally would never listen to Mozart or Beethoven, they get exposed to these great composers and then they go check out the real thing. And adults that are familiar with it see it in a different light…I have the same problem with philharmonics and orchestras, Mozart and Beethoven are like fossils. They play them exactly the same. But if Mozart and Beethoven were alive today they’d use electric guitars. They’d use electronic keyboards. Back then they were always looking for the most cutting edge instruments. I gently explained to Warner Brothers, I forget the year, either ’98 or ’99, the biggest movie of the year was Titanic, which basically is this 18-year old girl who gets proposed to by the richest guy in the world, he gives her the biggest diamond in the world as a pre-engagement gift and she’s so depressed she wants to kill herself. In 1999, Brad, that was romantic. In 2012, that’s “Lady, give the diamond back. Get a real job. Get a life.’ It doesn’t resonate now.

And Romanov is ready to go, I’m just a little bit nervous about it because the story is basically about the ruling family, the government, completely out of touch with the people. The rich are just trying to get all the money they can out of Russia and it’s too close to what’s going on in the real world right now. So we’re working on Romanov, Gutter Ballet, in the original rock-gospel-blues format, and there’s a third album that’s just been written and up for being recorded called Letters from the Labyrinth. We’ll decide on which one we’re going to do in the next couple of months. I’m sure you know why Night Castle was held up so long.

Bp: It was Rob.

Paul O’Neill: It was. It was Rob. I wrote the role of Tran-Do around Rob Evan; Mrs. Cozier around Jennifer Cella; Erasmus around Jay Pierce. But in Beethoven there’s Mephistopheles against Beethoven and in Night Castle Tran-Do, a good man who’d been seduced by pure evil, and Lt. Cozier, a good man. I just figured between the other eleven male singers somebody would be able to be Lt. Cozier. Wrong!

"Epiphany" w/ Rob Evan - from Night Castle

Bp: It wasn’t until Al brought in Jeff [Scott Soto].

Paul O’Neill: Yes. Al saved the day. It would have never crossed my mind because with Yngwie [Malmsteen] Jeff was singing high tenor, with Journey that’s ultra-high tenor, but Jeff is just naturally a baritone with amazing range. The minute I heard him, I went, “Will you be in the band?” He said, “Ok.” Six weeks later his five songs were done we turned in the album.

Bp: So you mentioned that you’d written songs on Night Castle with specific singers in mind. It sounds as if Letters from the Labyrinth is a relatively new composition. Can you reveal any of the TSO voices that we might hear on Letters from the Labyrinth?

Paul O’Neill: This is what I’m learning. That sometimes there’s a singer where I’m positive they’re going to be perfect for the song and they’re not.  And then there’s sometimes where I think the singer’s never going to be able to sing it and they’re right [for it].  The best way to describe it I think is with the movie industry. The Maltese Falcon was released twice as a movie. It totally failed and they finally did it with Humphrey Bogart, Sydney Greenstreet, and Peter Lorre; a classic. The original Wizard of Oz was supposed to star Shirley Temple, they couldn’t get her released from her movie company, and it ended up being Judy Garland, thank god. Ronald Reagan was actually a great actor, with Kings Row, he was actually supposed to be starring in Casablanca, but they couldn’t get Ronald Reagan so they had to go with their b-choice which was Humphrey Bogart. He and Ingrid Bergmann make that movie. So basically, we’re also multi-tasking right now. We’re in our late 50’s, approaching 60. Dave Wittman, who’s over 60, is my indication of what happens when I get older, I’m like, “So Dave, how do you feel today?” [laughs].

Bp: He wasn’t on the Beethoven tour. Is he down in Florida working on new material with you and Jon?

Paul O’Neill: Yes, correct. Plus, Adam’s smart, he’s like “Paul, you have to multi-task.” In the old days I used to knock out one-to-two albums a year. He wants me to get back to that. By multi-tasking…and this is what’s scaring me, the music industry is caught up in a perfect storm and between the internet eviscerating the entire music industry so that it can no longer afford to do artist development. Because in the old days Atlantic used to write blank tour support checks for us because they knew they’d eventually make it back in the records.  When Emerson, Lake and Palmer, which was probably the biggest touring band of the ‘70s, when they toured Brain Salad Surgery in the late ‘70s with a full symphony they sold out every arena, but lost millions. In the ‘70s that was a lot of money, but they didn’t care because the record royalties would eventually fill up the well. We had one of the same accountants as Pink Floyd and when The Wall first came out they were only going to do three shows in New York and three shows in LA. This was decades later when I was talking to one of their accountants, and I thought that was one of the most brilliant marketing moves. They had Dark Side of the Moon out, they had Wish You Were Here, and I said to him, “To only have six shows for all of America, what a brilliant marketing idea to make that a hot ticket.” He goes, “Paul, that wasn’t brilliant. The album was so over budget and their shows were so over budget that if that album hadn’t taken off they would have been bankrupt.” And I was unaware of that. But then again, back then the first Pink Floyd tour lost money, but they didn’t care because the record royalties filled up the well. I love prog rock, Brad, because it’s the one form of music that anything you want to do, you can try.

Also with touring, the top of the food chain, Pink Floyd and Emerson, Lake and Palmer were just legendary for doing these huge outdoor shows with unbelievable production. Gilmour and Waters were just geniuses. Also with Trans-Siberian Orchestra, when Atlantic called and said, “Instead of writing with other bands, why don’t you start your own.” I just wanted to take the best of everybody I worshipped: four guitar players: Lynyrd Skynyrd, The Outlaws; two drummers: the Grateful Dead, the Doobie Brothers; the four keyboard players. And the 24-lead singers, I was trying to correct what I saw as a fault in the music industry. Like I said before, because so few bands broke, when they did break, the label system expected you to tour. I mean, 11-months on, one month off, 11-months on, one month off, back in the studio. It was fifteen, maybe twenty ago, a friend of mine from a supergroup was going in to have a node operation. I’m sure you know what those are, Brad, it’s when you get a callous on your vocal chords. It’s a scary operation for singers because it’s 50/50, it’s like flipping a coin; you’re either going to get your voice back or you retire early. He got his voice back, thank god, but while we were waiting for him to come out of anesthesia the doctor told me, “Paul, your industry is insane.” I said, “What do you mean, Doc?” He goes, “It doesn’t matter how big the guy is, your vocal chords are thin like tissues, they’re like Kleenex. They’re not designed to sing high tenor on top of Marshalls for an hour-and-a-half, two hours a night. It’s not a matter of if you’re going to destroy these guys’ voices; it’s a matter of when. And if you manage to not destroy it, you’re a freak of nature.” And I realized they were right, which is one of the reasons in TSO we have so many lead singers because I always have the right voice for the right song and no singer has to sing more than five songs per night. And that you can do ‘til you’re 80. So the first rule is: Do no harm to the lead singers. And also, we’ve been doing this for 38 years now, Brad, there’s been a lot of times when I’ve seen singers with that ‘show must go on’ [mentality]. The show’s sold out, they have a sore throat, sometimes even strep, and they’ll go out and sing even though they are doing permanent damage to their voice. In Trans-Siberian Orchestra the singers are never put in that position. We have somebody to go on in their spot there, and if it doesn’t get better really quick, we’ll get another singer out.

When I was once describing the band to Ahmet Ertegun [Founder and President of Atlantic Records] it’s kind of like Emerson, Lake & Palmer and Queen and Yes meets The Who with Pink Floyd’s production, meets the Yardbirds. He goes, “Paul, I get everybody except for the Yardbirds.” I said, “The Yardbirds had a couple gold albums, but out of the Yardbirds came Eric Clapton with Derek & the Dominos; Jimmy Page with Led Zeppelin; it gave Jeff Beck to Rod Stewart; and one of the nice things about TSO is seeing some of the young kids blossom. The teenagers to 25-year olds, I always ask them, “If you could be doing anything you wanted in five years, what would it be?” Some of them get it. Katrina Chester who joined us near the start said, “Paul, I always wanted to do Janis Joplin on Broadway.” And when Love, Janis came up she asked if she could try for it and if she didn’t get it could she come back? I said, “Go! We’ll even hire a publicist to help you get it.” And she got the role. I’ll never forget the day she left a message on my machine, she said, “Paul, you’re not going to believe this, I got the role! They’re actually going to pay me, do you hear me Paul? Pay me to stand onstage, smoke cigarettes, drink, and sing Janis Joplin!” And she’s pretty much doing it to this day.

Bp: With that philosophy of keeping the number of songs per vocalist down, how do you come up with the setlist from tour to tour? Obviously the first part of the show is somewhat set, but with the more free form second part, do you work from a base of the previous tour or wipe the slate clean?

Paul O’Neill: A really good question and a really complicated one. We found ourselves accidentally…it’s a great position to be in, but it can also be somewhat of a nightmare sometimes. In rock, Brad, there’s a rhythm that I’ve had my whole life, you write an album no matter how long it takes, then you record it no matter how long it takes, and then you tour it for one-to-two years. Then you close down and go back to the studio for the writing zone, the recording zone, and then the touring zone. In the industry, again, anything to do with Christmas is the Holy Grail. A book, an album, a painting, a movie on any other subject and you’re competing with the best of that generation or the last two generations. But anything to do with Christmas you’re competing with the last 2,000 years and you’re also competing against bards, which has to get past the ultimate critic, the only critic you can’t fool, which is time.  Every century should only answer to the very best of the next. If you’re a painter you’re competing with Botticelli, Michelangelo, Norman Rockwell. If you’re a writer you’re competing with Charles Dickens; a movie maker, Frank Capra; a musician, it’s Tchaikovsky, Mendelssohn, Bing Crosby. As someone at William Morris said to me, “Paul, you’ve lucked into a Tchaikovsky-Dickens.” And I knew what he meant. Tchaikovsky considered the Nutcracker as just another ballet, just like the beauty of Swan Lake. The problem with us, is when you’re right in the middle of an album, Brad, and in September you’ve got to close it all down, move to a coliseum, build this Pink Floyd-like production…and the other normal thing in rock’n’roll is, productions of these sizes you have to tour them for one-to-two years so you can spread the cost over several years. We just get to do it during the holiday season, but we also have to keep the ticket prices down, and it gets more and more of a challenge.

Bp: Speaking of William Morris, that leads to a question I had about the Winter Tour. You’ve mentioned that The Lost Christmas Eve is your favorite of the Christmas Trilogy and that you wanted to feature that a few years back, but William Morris was reluctant to break that tradition of Christmas Eve & Other Stories. Are you bound by tradition to do Christmas Eve & Other Stories or will there be a time when The Lost Christmas Eve has its day in the sun?

Paul O’Neill: Ok, a very good question, Brad. And we try to study…I’m a huge fan of history, because if you want to predict the future you study the past. The only one you can have the comparison to really, who had a similar situation, is Dickens. When Ahmet Ertegun first asked me, “Paul, I understand the multiple rock operas, but why do you have to do three about Christmas?” I said, “Dickens wrote five books about Christmas and when a journalist asked him why he said, ‘It’s too large a subject for one book.’” So I told Ahmet, “If it’s too big for Dickens in one book, it’s too big for me in one album, let me do it in three. He said, “Ok, but how are you going to divide it?” I said, “The first one will be how it affects people, the way they treat their neighbors, how they should treat each other the same; the second one how we’ve been doing it for 2,000 years; and the third one is how it allows you to undo mistakes that you never thought you could undo.”

And I’ve always wanted to do The Lost Christmas Eve, but in 2008 with the economy crash, William Morris was nervous and they also looked at Dickens. Dickens wrote five books about Christmas and he made his biggest money while reading his books live in November and December. But every time he tried to switch to one of the other four books, everybody said, “A Christmas Carol.”

Bp: So, is that a “no,” that we won’t see The Lost Christmas Eve at all?

Paul O’Neill: Brad, y’know something…can I say something off the record and we can revisit it at the end of the conversation, Brad?

Bp: Absolutely. Anything you want can be off the record.

[We then discussed, off the record, some of the intricacies and nuances involved with the Christmas Eve & Other Stories vs. The Lost Christmas Eve decision.]

Paul O’Neill: We would need to re-do The Lost Christmas Eve so it would fit in the first half. The problem is that it’s a very complicated story, like Beethoven’s Last Night, and we have to adjust everything depending on the venue. Whether it’s a coliseum or a theater affects everything differently. The Lost Christmas Eve, it’s probably the darkest of the trilogy, but I also think it has the happiest ending because he goes so far into the abyss and this guy makes it out; it has the biggest reward. I know William Morris has always been a little nervous about it, but many of the classics…I mean, It’s a Wonderful Life, he’s going to throw himself off the bridge and kill himself. A Christmas Carol is not exactly light fare.

Bp: Christmas Eve & Other Stories is such a great tradition, but it would be special to see something new at some point as well. Will we ever see a live DVD of Christmas Eve & Other Stories?

Paul O’Neill: Again, that is also something that…we will be…

Bp: You filmed down south a few years ago, right?

Paul O’Neill: Yes, we did. And what I have to do now is film the outside of the arena stuff. Like The Ghosts of Christmas Eve...

Bp: So it wouldn’t be a full-on live concert video?

Paul O’Neill: Right. It would be more like The Ghosts of Christmas Eve with the story interwoven into the concert. You know, you really can’t capture TSO on a video or on a screen. Because not only is live TSO 3-D, it’s actually 4-D and 5-D. The heat rolling across the arena is part of the effect. You can’t get that from your screen unless everybody has little propane things in front. Again, Brad, if you went on a trip to the Brazilian rain forest and you saw that orchid that only opens once every ten years open in front of you, it would blow your mind and take your breath away and be way more magical than seeing it in IMAX or whatever. If you had friends with you and you all witnessed it together, it’s more magical.

The hard thing Trans-Siberian Orchestra has…as opposed to when I started in the mid-‘70s, a rock band’s main competition were pinball games, movies and baseball. Now it’s the Internet, video games; kids demand so much input per 60 seconds to keep their attention. And also originally we were trying to bring back two forms of art that have kind of disappeared. The first one is, I mean, I grew up in New York City, never took dance, had no interest in dance, and never realized how great good dance could be until the early-80s. I got an invitation to the Soviet Union and as part of my deal to go over there I wanted to hang out at the Bolshoi [Theatre] backstage. These guys and girls didn’t move they glided.  They didn’t do it for the money because they got paid whatever, 100 rubles a week. We went to dinner afterward, and you know that Russian dance where they put their arms and they squat and kick their legs out from the squatting position?

Bp: Yes.

Paul O’Neill: I don’t know what they call it. I don’t know a single American that can do that for 60-seconds. One of the dancers dared another Russian dancer to do it for 15-minutes. And the dancer says, “I will do it for 30-minutes and while eating!” And then he did it! I was…wow! Dance in America…America used to lead in dance: Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, Gene Kelly, Judy Garland. I first started to rediscover it when we did the video for “Requiem’s Fifth” [2000] and I just realized that dance is this whole art form that completely died in America. If you’re a girl and you say you’re a dancer for a living they automatically think ‘for pleasure’ or a guy they think Chippendale’s. But you can’t make a living as a legitimate dancer. You’re basically a starving artist. When I was a kid, it must have been on PBS cause I can’t imagine where else I would have seen it, there was a movie called…I saw this guy that I thought was great and I told my Dad. I said, “Who is that guy.” My dad said, “That’s Cab Calloway.” The movie was from 1942, Cab Calloway was at the height of his powers and at the very end of the movie these two brothers come out of the audience and they do this five minute dance routine that blew my mind. I’m six years old, I have zero interest in dance.

Nicholas Brothers dance scene in Stormy Weather

Bp: That’s the one you have the singer/dancers watch when they join, right?

Paul O’Neill: Yes. It’s the very end of Stormy Weather with Lena Horne. In the mid-‘70s I got out to LA and I said, “When I was a kid I saw this movie with Cab Calloway and these two brothers came out at the end and did this dance routine” and this guy looks at me and goes, “Stormy Weather, Lena Horne.” I said, “Can you get me a film copy?” He got me a 35mm copy, I bought a projector, but now it’s out on DVD. Fred Astaire said before he died that that routine has never been beaten. Every time I see it, it keeps getting better. The dancers, which are just girls right now, are required to watch that because I say, “You see that? That’s 62-years old now and it has never been beaten. One day, we have to beat that.” Dancing in America has died out as an art form and I really worry about the kids. When I told my parents I wasn’t going to college, I was going into music, they’re like, “No. First you go to college, then you get your doctorate, then you get a real job, then you can do your hobby.” And this was when the industry was a trillion dollar industry. When a kid tells his parents now he’s going into music you can’t blame them for saying, “No, we don’t want you to starve to death.”

So we’re multi-tasking and by that I mean the following: We have to keep Trans-Siberian Orchestra going, but we lucked out because Trans-Siberian Orchestra is a prog-rock band, but as I always say, it’s an idea and an ideal. Anything great in life are ideas and ideals. There’s the evolution of material things, quarks and the h-particle, etc. becoming atoms, the solar system, the earth and then there’s the evolution of life, and then there’s the third evolution which is the evolution of ideas. And anything great in this world can’t be a single individual or single thing. Rome was an idea. Athenian Greece was an idea. America is not a land mass of North America, it’s not a bunch of people, it’s an ideal, written down in the Federalist papers, the Constitution, Declaration of Independence. And when Americans die, or the next generation, it still stays America because they all cling to those ideals. And in Trans-Siberian Orchestra, those ideals are to make the best possible music, charge the lowest possible price and also be musically driven.

I think it was in the ‘80s, music became more and more celebrity driven where you just wanted to see a certain individual, it didn’t matter if you could sing the song or not anymore.

Bp: The advent of MTV.

Paul O’Neill: It really took off during MTV, but then besides being a huge fan of music, I love history. I really love the early Greek philosophers who said, “Use logic and reason and you will eventually find the truth.” In the mid-‘70s, Brad, every CEO of every label I knew…the prevailing wisdom in the industry, which was never questioned, was that when the artist reached a certain level of financial success that they lost the drive to create. Which is why so many bands, if you thought about it for five minutes you’d come up with a dozen at least…

Bp: They’d peak and creatively die.

Paul O’Neill: Yea, and haven’t turned out a great record in decades. But it didn’t make any sense to me, Brad, because Beethoven was a household name in his lifetime, he was super rich. Dickens, a household name, very rich; Victor Hugo, household name, very rich; but not only did they write great works early in their lives, they wrote great works in the middle of their lives, and they wrote great works as they were dying. Beethoven wrote the 9th symphony, etc.  So I thought, “How come they could do it in the 1800s, but not in the 1900s?” My own pet theory: mass media. Everybody knew Beethoven, Victor Hugo and Charles Dickens, everyone knew their work, but they didn’t know what they looked like. So Dickens could walk down the street, see somebody arguing with a pawn broker and get an idea for a story. Victor Hugo could walk down the street, see a criminal being condemned and get an idea for a story. Beethoven could see a pastoral scene and get an idea for a symphony. But, I’m going to use Michael Jackson, just because, God Bless he’s now dead and in Heaven. Just say ten years ago Brad, you and your family decided to throw a fourth of July party and you invited thirty friends. One of your friends say was a little arrogant, another was a little condescending, and your friend from first grade was a practical joker and would always tie everybody’s two shoelaces together. The minute Michael Jackson walked into your party, the condescending person wouldn’t be condescending, the arrogant person wouldn’t be arrogant, and your friend from first grade probably would not tie his shoes together. Michael lost the ability to observe humanity because the minute he walked into a room, the world revolved around him.

The band to me that actually broke the code, and the one that we follow, was Pink Floyd. I worship Pink Floyd, Brad. I try to follow their rules, like trying not to sell behind the stage, putting the money on the flight deck, and I also don’t think they ever wrote a bad album. Their last ones I thought, I mean “On the Turning Away” I thought was a masterpiece. I think here was the advantage they had, Brad, if you and I were ever to get together for dinner one day and you called up and said, “Paul, I’m going to bring two friends.” I said, “Ok.” And it was Gilmour and Waters when you guys walked into the restaurant, I would have no idea who they were. When you pick up The Wall, there are no pictures of the band, it’s all about the music. Besides the fact of not having the ability to observe life, I think it messes with your psyche. Michael Jackson, it’s a beautiful mansion, but really it’s a beautiful prison.

I kind of knew I was right when, this was over ten years ago, I was crossing the street in New York City and there’s these two girls who were waiting at the light with me. [They were] 25-ish, and one of them goes, “Y’know, my boyfriend came home the other night so drunk he slapped me. And I just grabbed a can opener and ripped his chest open and all of a sudden he was crying like a little baby on the floor and I’m like, ‘Hey tough guy, where’s the big tough guy now? Ya wanna take another punch?’” I wanted to go, “Whoa! Can you go slower? I want to write all this down!” But if that had been Michael Jackson standing next to them she never would have said that. I think it’s also healthy for the band members, when they go on the stage they’re rock stars, but they can also have a private life.

Also, getting back to the bigger problem, originally we’d been desperately trying to bring back dance as a major art form where it’s cool. I don’t mean Las Vegas dancing or Broadway dancing, I’m talking shock and awe dancing. If you ever get a chance to watch the end of Stormy Weather you’ll see what I mean. I’m still in awe of it. I’ve watched it over and over and over again.

"The Mountain" - Live in Albany, NY; Dec 26, 2010 - featuring Chris Caffery on guitar
Includes a TSO dance routine near the end

Also once when I was in Russia, this was in ’84, we slipped our handlers and I went to an auditorium that was empty because it was the weekend and there was a guy…the Soviet Union, I used to think it was a joke when they said the only thing on TV is tractor shows. The minute I get into my hotel room, I turn on the TV; tractor show. I thought, “Oh my god, they’re not kidding!” I felt so bad for the people that lived there…anyways, Pushkin’s one of my favorite poets from Russia and this guy was reading Pushkin in original Russian, but he wasn’t just reading, he was like an orator. And oratory is a whole different art form that’s totally died away. In Greece, they ‘d read The Iliad or The Odyssey it’d be one person who’d do all the characters and somebody would read The Aeneid by Virgil, one person would be all the characters. And Bryan Hicks to me is not just a great actor, having done everything from Shakespeare to The Sopranos, he’s become a great orator where he’s able to capture all the characters and put the pictures in his voices.

Bp: He really shines on the Beethoven tour. Even year over year, I’ve had the pleasure of seeing it all three years, and he’s taken it to a whole new level this year.

Paul O’Neill: He really, really does. And the West guy Phillip Brandon is following. They’re reviving…both Bryan and Phillip put pictures in their voices. The musicians have to put words in their notes like Al Pitrelli does on “The Dark” and stuff like that. And the musicians, as I always say, “Your delivery has to be so nuanced that it lines up all the synapses in the brain so [the audience is] not in that theater, they’re back in Vienna.” Time is the hardest screen to project onto, but if you do, it cuts the deepest.

Bp: With the albums you have upcoming, that you’re still deciding on which is coming next, are you considering releasing them initially with the narration as you have now with the Beethoven’s Last Night re-release? Maybe in multiple-configurations; a single disc with just music and then another as a deluxe edition double-disc with narration?

Paul O’Neill: And you can even say this, I will now release every album with all the poetry read in between. Again, Bryan did such a great job on Beethoven, I said, “The minute we have some time off Bryan, [laughs] back in the booth.” And the other thing I like about it is, so many community colleges, schools, and theaters do it…you see, Bryan is Shakespearian trained out of Julliard, so he picks up the meter which changes every other line so it doesn’t sound nursery rhyme like. Now I love the fact that Bryan’s is out. I love the community theaters when they send a copy of it, but I’m always like, “They have the meter wrong.” Now they’ll be able to pick up the album and have the correct meter.

Bp: It’s tough to sink into correctly. While we’re on the subject of Beethoven, why was “The Moment” the only song that didn’t come back this year when you designed the Casino setlist?

Paul O’Neill: Everything has to do with time. If you go overtime in the arenas the overtime bills can literally be hundreds of thousands of dollars; in the casinos, the same thing. We lean towards the casinos as we’re getting ready for this thing we’re calling Rock Theater because they have the electrical pull, the safety devices to put on better shows. The problem being…like in Indiana we were kind of blindsided by…we’re used to [the casinos] not allowing the teenagers either onto the casino floor or into the bars, but we’ve never had it where they’re not allowed on the stage! It was a Sunday night and that was the law. Kayla was backing up Georgia, Georgia was backing up Kayla, and they both weren’t allowed in the building!

Bp: Chloe did a great job on “A Final Dream” from the You Tube footage that I saw. And the insertion of “The Storm” for “The Dark” – the band picked that up really quickly and it turned out awesome.

Paul O’Neill: Basically what I said was, “A Final Dream” could be Theresa singing to Beethoven and I said, “Al, you’re going to have to be…your notes are going to have to be the muses.” He said, “Easy to say, Paul, hard to do.” I said, “Al, you can do it.” But he did a brilliant job of it.

Bp: They absolutely did.

Paul O’Neill: When you look at Al, he’s not on that stage, he’s somewhere else. I’m in awe of him.

"The Storm" - Live in Hammond, IN; April 22, 2012

Bp: It also goes for the rest of the band as well. I was talking to Al about this last week when we spoke, Vitalij, Mee Eun and Roddy had never heard the song before soundcheck. Obviously the Savatage guys knew it, but those others didn’t know it. They picked it up really quickly and it sounded amazing!

Paul O’Neill: Those guys are just so great. And Al is such a great MD. I’ve seen him call changes on the spot. One time when Paul Rodgers was in Houston with us, in the middle of the show he wanted to change songs, and he looks to Al, and Al took the whole band and changed on a dime. He’s just unbelievably great.

But now I’m worried about something else, I’m worried literally, Brad, about great musicianship dying out as an art form. I know that everybody laughs and says that’s impossible, but I can think of two examples. Number one: Dance, which used to be a major art form in America, has died out and we’re trying to bring that back. And sculpting. I remember going to the Met about 10 years ago and someone showed me this blob of clay, and they said, “You see that? That’s a father, a mother, and their kid.” I said, “No, it’s not. It’s a bunch of blobs of clay.” The art of sculpting stone that’s so real it looks like it could step off a pedestal and come to life has died as an art form. When I was growing up in New York City they had this museum they were building called St. John the Divines and when you’d go up there, there’d be these 50-year old Italian men carving the stone. You go there now, there’s these 90-year old Italian men carving stone. The art of sculpting stone so well that it comes to life with a touch has died away. There are probably less than 10 people in the world who can do it anymore. It’s not that the talent is not in human beings’ fingers. If you tour through Europe you literally see hundreds of thousands of stones, be it on the Parthenon, be it Michelangelo’s David, be it Venus de Milo that are so lifelike even thousands of years later. That talent is still out there, but once people found out that you could make bowls, pour plaster, pour concrete, it died away as an art form. But poured concrete and plaster is not the same as Michelangelo’s Pieta, Michelangelo’s David, etc.

With rock, I think it’s in a perfect storm. By that I mean, when I was younger you had rock and disco. I was never super into disco, but you had to know how to play if you were in those bands. I mean, those guitar sections, those horn sections were great. Rap is dance driven like disco was and Grandmaster Flash I love, but sampling as I always try to explain to the kids, it utilizes turntables, but you need to know how to play an instrument because using these samples you need someone else to play it before you can do it as opposed to if you can imagine it, then you can play it on the piano, you can play it on the guitar. I always kept an eye on Manny’s Music on 48th street and guitar sales and keyboard sales were all going down, down, down. So what we’re trying to do is the following. I didn’t even really want to start to talk about Rock Theater until, actually just the last couple of months, because I wanted to have at least two dozen rock opera/ musicals ready to go. Meaning [I wanted] all the music written, all the dialogs written, the books written, and the rhyming pentameter is written for a lot of them. And I didn’t want to start to talk about it until I had the musicians. There’s no point in getting the army together if you don’t have the uniforms and the weapons for them to do their job. There’s no point in me getting all these young kids together and not have the albums ready for them to record and then go take them out on the road. And the other advantage I think we have, Brad, is, again being a lot younger, the disadvantage again is the internet, etc. etc. that there’s so much pull for the entertainment dollar, but the advantage is, we have these friends who are really into…I’m a luddite when it comes to computers. If you offered me a billion dollars to text you, “Hi, Brad” I couldn’t do it. I have no idea how it works.

Tags: #9, interview, paul o'neill, trans-siberian orchestra

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