<- Part I
Bp: Speaking of advances in technology, we talked about not having out a strict live DVD, but you’ve mentioned that success and ticket sales in Europe you thought was spurred by live footage of TSO on you tube, what is your feeling on fan filmed video of shows?
Paul O’Neill: I love them. It drives me crazy that…we tell the buildings to let the fans film, or take pictures. I think the buildings are so trained by so many other bands ‘no cameras, no pictures’ that no matter how many times you tell them, you’re always going to get one person who’s overworked.
Bp: I got that guy last night actually at Mohegan Sun.
Paul O’Neill: Argh. It drives me crazy. They just go on auto-pilot. I believe like the Grateful Dead believe, the fans are your fans. If the fan wants to take a picture of the band, then great, let them take a picture of the band. It’s not going to be the end of the world.
Bp: Now I know a number of venues post the TSO Photo Policy from the tour rider that states point and shoot cameras with no flash are okay. Would you ever consider including that you can take “pictures or video,” including that addition of the “video” on that page?
Paul O’Neill: 100%. But here’s the problem and where the argument goes back and forth, sometimes you’ll have someone come in with a really strong flash that blinds everyone around them. We want the fans to be able to take pictures, but we don’t want them to…
Bp: To detract from other people.
Paul O’Neill: Right, exactly. Once we learned the hard way. I said something on the air at a radio station that people could bring any cameras they want and someone brought this camera that was the size of a small refrigerator and was blocking the view of so many people. We talked to him and he said, “But you said.” “But I didn’t mean this!”
Bp: You need to have some parameters in place.
Paul O’Neill: Yea. So we got him a little corner behind the board and let him film.
[We side barred about this topic for a few minutes, off the record]
Paul O’Neill: Going back to the multi-tasking, Trans-Siberian Orchestra is going to continue as a prog rock band, but it was built to breathe. As you get older, your voice lowers, so you lose range on the top end, but you pick it up on the low end. When we did The Ghosts of Christmas Eve, it happened really fast. We were getting ready for the tour and Fox called asked if they could film Beethoven’s Last Night for one hour at 8 o’clock on December 2nd, and I’m like, “Why?” They said there was a TV show that just dropped out, so I said, “You give me an hour, I’ll give you a movie.” They said, “Do you have a script?” I said, “I’ll write it tonight.” I realized to just play the show straight, it wouldn’t have the impact. So we just shortened the story to the runaway, scared to go home, and Richard Harris and Ossie Davis were both up to be the caretaker. But Ossie was in his late 80s, early 90s, Richard was in his 70s…I had dinner with Richard Harris. What an amazing man. From the ‘50s, ‘60s, ’70s, ‘80s, ‘90s…I never tell my mother about anything, but I called her and said, “Mom, Richard Harris wants to have dinner with me.” She’s like, “Why?” I go, “I’ll call you back, Mom.” It keeps you grounded [laughs].
But he comes in, number one, his hair is as long as mine, white, he hands me his resume. I’m like, “Sir, I have all your movies.” He says, “Well, y’know, I’ve done albums too.” I said, “Sir, I have all your albums.” He says, “Well, y’know I’ve done Broadway.” I’m like, “Sir, you know I saw you in Camelot.” We ended up going with Ossie Davis because, both Ossie and Rich were both legends, but Ossie was much older. But as fate would have it, as you know, Richard Harris passed away first. Near the end of the dinner I was asking him, and I wish he was still alive because he wanted to do the reading of the poetry in between on the albums, but I started to pick his brain. I asked him, “Sir, why do think you’ve been so successful in the ‘50s, ‘60s, ‘70s, ‘80s, and into the ‘90s?” He said, “Paul, let me tell you my secret. When my agent sends me a script for me and my 18-year old girlfriend to save the world from chaos, I send it back and say, “I’m in my 70’s, send me something that’s more appropriate for my age.” And when you think of his last performances, the Wizard in Harry Potter or Marcus Aurelius in Gladiator, he had no plastic surgery, but when he walked into the room it was like magic. You could hear the whispers, “Is that Richard Harris?” There was one girl, she had to be about 19, she walks up and she says, “Mr. Harris, all your drinks tonight will be on me.” And he goes, “Ahh, you’re a beautiful lass. Tell you what, you should marry me.” She was melting in his arms from his Irish charm.
Michael Crawford, whom I worship, he was originally in Hello, Dolly with Barbra Streisand and Walter Matthau; A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum back in the ‘60s and by the ‘80s he would have just been happy to make a living. But then he did Phantom of the Opera, the next thing you know, a huge star. Rock would have never given him that opportunity, because rock is just so youth obsessed. So we’re starting this thing called Rock Theater and I didn’t really want to get it going until I had enough musicals written that when I found the right voices I could just, “Ok, this one’s ready to go.” It’s easier to write than it is to find the right magicians or enchantresses to do the album for me to bring the songs to life. The other thing I like about it is it’s very rare that you can find an artist that can sing the same song over and over and over again and not lose any of the passion. There are a lot of bands, over the decades, we can tell they’re only on the stage for the paycheck. And I’ll tell you the truth, I’ll tell you an exception to that rule, one was Yul Brynner when I saw him in The King and I, I saw him for about the billionth time and it was like the first time he ever did it. The other was Steven Tyler, when he did “Sweet Emotion” and “Dream On” with us. It was like the first time he ever sang it; the same passion. But those are rare talents.
One of the things that we’re doing with Rock Theater is every three months or every six months if someone is getting bored with doing the same part, they can switch it to another Rock Theater production so it doesn’t just become robotron like. And more importantly, we’ll give jobs to guitar players, drummers, singers, where they can make a living their entire lives. We’re trying to set it up like a little MGM meets Motown meets Disney. If you think of the studio systems of the ‘30s and ‘40s, you didn’t have billionaire’s like Arnold Schwarzenegger, but Errol Flynn, Betty Grable all became millionaires and you have tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of people that made their living in the movies their whole life. With movies and music right now, it’s feast or famine. If Rock Theater can develop into what we want to, young kids will have someplace to go to get a job and earn a living. And Brad, when I was growing up in rock and roll in the ‘70s, there were over 100 major studios in New York City, I don’t think there’s five left anymore, and the major studios tended to have 5, 6, sometimes 10 rooms and you also had SIR [studio]. It was in those rooms that you’d bump into John Lennon who would go, “Y’know, Paul, the verse is great, but you need to rethink that chorus” or “That riff is good, but it doesn’t really hand off well to the bridge.” Basically the studio was where the older generation passed on all the little tricks of the trade to the younger generation. The problem is now with Pro Tools, you have a better recording system than The Beatles would have ever had, but Pro Tools won’t tell you that your new song needs to be rewritten.
Bp: I know you’ve stated that this is the last year for Beethoven, does that mean that a spring Tour in 2013 is up in the air based on how things go this summer with the recording of a new album?
Paul O’Neill: Excellent question and a complicated one…I remember the first year we were moving Georgia to Fate for the Spring Tour, you know that Georgia plays the mother on Christmas Eve & Other Stories, and Fate is a lot more of an intense character. So we’re on the road…
Bp: She handles both amazingly well, by the way.
Paul O’Neill: She is scary great, the way she morphs.
Bp: There was a legendary status almost…I mean, everybody loved Jen Cella. And for the first couple of years after Jen, with Jodi and Adrienne they had some very big shoes to fill and many fans had a hard time getting over that Jen wasn’t on stage. I think time has helped, but also Georgia has helped it because she is just so powerful up there.
Paul O’Neill: I would agree. To me, I feel so lucky with her at this point. We found her at 18 and I just felt, “Wow, I just found a young Jennifer Cella.” And now, Jen has two little babies and good for her. If Jen ever wants to come back we’d love to have her.
Again, as I always say to everybody, I can’t remember who wrote the book that was written in the 1930s, Letters to a Young Writer, where the author said, “In the dead of night, when it’s just you in the bed, just you your soul and god. In the core of your soul, if you’re being completely honest with yourself, if you don’t want to be alive if you can’t write, then don’t be a writer. If somebody offered you ten million dollars to be an architect or ten million dollars to be an engineer and you would take it, don’t be a writer. Only be a writer if you don’t want to be alive if you can’t write.” I always say to everybody in TSO, only be on that flight deck if you don’t want to be alive if you can’t be on that flight deck. And all those musicians are like that.
This goes to just how great Georgia is by the way, when she first joined she came on to play the Mom, and everyone in TSO is supposed to back up everybody they can and at the last second we were having troubles with “Queen of the Winter Night” and Georgia, who I didn’t even ask to learn it, had learned it, backed it up, and nailed it.
Bp: Speaking of Georgia’s songs: “Promises to Keep,” obviously you’ve released “Christmas Canon Rock,” are there plans to re-record and release “Promises to Keep” as the power-ballad version we’ve come to love for the past 12 years on the Winter Tour?
Paul O’Neill: 100%. I love it as a power ballad. I love child choirs. I’ll use them in the studio, but I’ll never take them on the road. From 7 and under you’re supposed to be a kid, being in the Olympics they start them as early as 3 and 4. They say in gymnastics if you’re not well on your way by the time you’re 6, you don’t have a chance. That’s too young to be doing that to a kid’s body, they should just be playing and running around playing tag, hide-and-go-seek. The Olympics and that kind of pressure I just don’t think it’s healthy for children. I love the magical sound of a child choir. I love the Vienna Boys Choir. My favorite is the Princeton Child Choir, which is the one we’ve been using on recent albums. But it’s just unhealthy to take them on the road. Not only do we pay them, we always give them Game Boy’s and Sony PlayStations. They sing for the fun, the money they have no comprehension of, but a Sony PlayStation, that gets their attention.
"Promises to Keep" w/ Georgia Napolitano - Live in Hartford, CT; Nov. 26, 2011
But we love the power ballad version of it and it’s only a matter of time, which I know with me…and you can quote me on this, but all the TSO albums are going to be released with all the poetry read by Bryan Hicks in between…
Bp: Will they be on vinyl as well?
Paul O’Neill: Oh, I love vinyl.
Bp: I know you’ve talked fondly of the Night Castle and Beethoven vinyl editions, I was wondering if the Christmas Trilogy might get the same treatment.
Paul O’Neill: It will get the same treatment, the thing with Night Castle and the story in between is it’s already 4-vinyl, 8 sides, if I tell them we have to do it in vinyl I think it’s going to be 16-sides, 8 vinyl LPs. Warner Brothers is going to look at me like I’m insane. But, it’d be really cool!
Bp: Are you planning on taking Night Castle on the road like you did with Beethoven at some point?
Paul O’Neill: Yes, Night Castle will, I mean, they’ll all eventually go on the road. What we’re also starting to do now is, and again, not an original idea, Brad, is follow in the footsteps of The Who. The Who toured Tommy for years and years and years and then put it on Broadway. The only difference I think between us and The Who is that you need a very coherent, easy to follow story and it needs to be…we have multiple versions, we have the album version of every rock opera, the coliseum version of every rock opera, and then there’s the Broadway version of every rock opera. And we have the story already done, all ready to go, and Beethoven’s Last Night now will at some point go to regular theater. But TSO will continue as a band. Just like when Tommy went to regular theater and The Who continued as a band. The only thing we intend to change is you take the coherent, easy to follow story telling of Broadway, like if you go see Phantom of the Opera it’s easy to follow the story. There are so many rock operas that came out in the ‘70s, ‘80s, and ‘90s that even when the band members would explain the story to me I’d be like, “Huh?” I love Genesis. I love “The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway.” I bought it just for the title. I still don’t get the story. [laughs]
Again, this way the kids can go into music, play in the theaters, make a living in it their whole lives, y’know I just really worry for the future. I would hate in fifty years…I think it’s also really important for America because America’s single biggest export is not Boeing, it’s entertainment. It’s movies, it’s music, it’s books. It kind of scares me. The last few years the Oscars were won with by foreign pictures with no American money, no American actors, no American directors. I love Rome from HBO filmed in Italy, James Patroon, based on the book, filmed in Northern Ireland. America’s got to get the cutting edge back there. And we can.
I know a lot of people were confused, or some might have been, with the opening to last year’s show, “Who I Am,” but basically…[pauses]…
Bp: Hope springs eternal.
Paul O’Neill: That’s exactly it. So many people think we’re in this downward spiral that we can’t get out of it, but look at the past. Churchill should not have been able to win World War II. And I love Churchill, not because…he wasn’t fighting for the British, he wasn’t fighting for the Americans; he was fighting for the Germans that had to live under Hitler. He was fighting for the Japanese who had to live under Tojo. Jonas Salk, I love that guy! Salk discovered Polio, decided he was going to cure it, and when his lawyer told him, “You’re going to be the richest scientist ever born after you patent it.” He says, “I can’t patent it. Every kid needs to be able to get this.” And it’s so scary that if you ask any 8th grader to name all The Simpsons characters, they can, but if you ask them who Jonas Salk is, they don’t know who it is. But hundreds of thousands of children each year don’t get Polio because of this guy.
Bp: When and if you bring The Lost Christmas Eve to the stage how will you handle “For the Sake of Our Brother?” I know there were parts of Christmas Eve & Other Stories that never made it to the stage, but when you brought back “Music Box Blues” with Erika performing it, it was extremely powerful. Especially for those of us who had the great pleasure of seeing Daryl perform it. But how would you handle, “For the Sake of Our Brother?”
Paul O’Neill: We’d have to find the right singer to do it or we will write around it. We won’t do it unless it’s 100% perfect.
"Music Box Blues" w/ Daryl Pediford - from The Christmas Attic
Bp: Was it that you wanted another song for Christmas Eve & Other Stories or was it that you found Erika’s voice was right for it and enough time had passed that you could bring back “Music Box Blues?”
Paul O’Neill: Number two. And also I didn’t want that song or Daryl to die away. By performing it live people will go back and check out the album and Daryl was such a great singer. He was the guitar player in Kool & the Gang and for some reason they wouldn’t let him sing, which I will never understand to this day, because the first time that guy opened his mouth I’m like, “Oh my god!” When I got the demo tape I thought, “He can’t be this good live.” And he was. It was an amazing loss to the band. Especially two weeks prior to the tour starting, the band reels from that loss. We were really lucky with Jay Pierce.
Bp: Another phoenix from the ashes. It was very difficult that first year without Daryl onstage, but up through 2010, Jay had grown so much and we still thought of Daryl with those songs, but Jay shone so brightly and really made them his own. Hopefully we’ll see him back soon.
Paul O’Neill: Jay is amazing. Jay lived in Ohio, in Dayton, and he played in wedding bands, and bar bands, and did local theater. Jay’s an only child and his Mom, God bless her, said, “Jay, I know you want to make it in the entertainment industry, let me tell you something, Jay, New York and LA are not going to come to Dayton, OH to find you. If you want to make it, get on a bus and go to New York.” So Jay got on a bus and went to New York and auditioned for the TSO development band. Then all of a sudden the [2004 Winter] tour is a week and a half out, [Daryl has just passed away] and Jay gets the call, “Your [training] just turned to ‘Get on a plane. You’re in the band tomorrow.’”
We started working with Jay and right in front of my eyes he improved so much. And I’m not overly religious, Brad, by any stretch of the imagination. God Bless, my Mom went to Heaven last year, but now she knows how many times I missed church [laughs]. If she knew when I was alive I would have been dead. I really feel like Daryl came down and said, “Jay, you can do this,” and just stood by his side. Jay was so great. Like my sister once said to me, “Paul, every time Jay sings ‘Prince of Peace’ I feel like I have to write a check for all the money in my checking account walk up the stage, give it to him, and walk quietly back to my seat.” Jay has no children, but when he sings “Every child, every child, every child is ours,” you believe him. You’d think he had twenty kids at home.
Paul O’Neill: But Jay cares about children. That’s why it’s so believable.
"Prince of Peace" w/ Jay Pierce - Live in Albany, NY; Dec. 13, 2009
Bp: Not only does he have that amazing voice, but he’s such a wonderful person too.
Paul O’Neill: I 100% agree with you.
And again, the reason we did Beethoven’s Last Night was it’s so filled with hope and overcoming the obstacles. And I keep looking back to The Great Depression, in 1929, I think the biggest stars were Greta Garbo and a couple others. In the 1930s the biggest star was Shirley Temple, the little 4-year old girl going head to head with Bojangles for several years; it was inspirational. After that it was Mickey Rooney, Judy Garland, and a friend of mine said, “Paul, that’s a no brainer, The Wizard of Oz, she’s a huge star.” I’m like, “No, Wizard of Oz was ’39.” I’m talking ’33, ’34, ’35 and Mickey Rooney, Judy Garland, all those ones. They’re all the same, they all lived out on the farm, “Hey, my dad’s got a barn, my dad’s got some lights, hey, let’s make a play! Hey, there’s a Broadway producer driving through Idaho. Guess what, we’re on Broadway!” People need entertainment as a place to escape. They don’t need to be reminded of the economy. I think they just need inspiration. And I think, our infrastructure’s still in place, yes, the ship has listed a little bit to port, the founding fathers built a self-correcting system in there and I think we’re going to turn it around. I just remember as a kid seeing Kennedy go, “We’re going to put a man on the moon and have him back safely by the end of the century, and Brad, if you’d ever told me in ’69 that after Apollo 17 no human would ever step foot on the moon, and by 2012 we wouldn’t have a space station on Mars, I wouldn’t have believed it.
Another good thing about the live concerts and if I’m going too far off subject you can always call Kenny and tell him to up my medication [laughs], just this whole ‘can do’ attitude that made America great. I think we need to do what FDR did which was, we don’t need more unemployment, we need the Civilian Conservation Corps or the Works Program, build the Hoover Dam, build the Tennessee Valley Authority electrical system; build the infrastructure of the country. Don’t give trillions to these bankers who blew it in the first place. Sometimes once people wake up, we all tend to pull together.
Bp: With what you, Dave and Jon have been working on for the past couple months and now that the tour is ending in a week or so, I’m sure you give Al and the band a couple days off before you call them back to Florida, but what’s going to be the focus when you get them back to the studio? Is it a set of songs from one of the albums? A group of random songs from all of the projects? Are you going to be focusing on one or all? What’s the ‘to do list’ look like?
Paul O’Neill: The ‘to do list’ is the singers that are perfect for certain songs we’re going to record those songs now. I’ve learned the hard way, I’d written a bunch of songs specifically for Jennifer Cella, forgetting that women get pregnant and then pregnant again, [laughs] so I’ve learned my lesson. When you have the singer and you have the song, record the singer and record the song. And then when they’re all together then release it. But again we’ve never allowed time-tables to affect us.
Bp: You mentioned The Christmas Attic earlier, feeling rushed to complete that. Was that a time when you felt pressure and were not happy with the results?
Paul O’Neill: Not initially, no, I wasn’t happy. I told Warner Brothers, “You need to pull all those CDs back. You have to destroy them all. You’ve got to show me a video of them being destroyed and I’ll remix the album and turn it in.” And that’s why I did it. “The World That He Sees” is a little shorter. We were still mixing the album as we were putting together the tour and it was just too rushed. Also, Beethoven’s Last Night was recorded and that was supposed to be the next record, but my ex-manager promised the label that I’d deliver the second part of the Christmas trilogy and I just totally wasn’t ready for it. So we kind of wrote it on the spot and turned it in.
Bp: Is that a reason we haven’t heard a lot from The Christmas Attic on recent Winter tours?
Paul O’Neill: Basically, I try to do it like The Who, like Pink Floyd, where the first half is one rock opera and then songs from the other albums, and then Christmas Eve & Other Stories just became such a tradition that everyone was petrified of messing with it.
Bp: If the time ever comes to switch over to The Lost Christmas Eve, what would you keep from Christmas Eve & Other Stories for the back half, obviously “Sarajevo”…
Paul O’Neill: Yea, obviously “Christmas Eve/Sarajevo,” “Mad Russians,” the ones that tend to have a lot of radio play…and it’s funny. When Roger Daltrey did those shows with us, we were having dinner and I told him, “Roger, I’ve seen you guys so many times, but I’ve always been very unlucky. I’ve never seen The Who do “The Song is Over” which is one of my favorite Who songs.” He goes, “Paul, you haven’t been unlucky. We’ve never done that song live.” I said, “Roger, how could you not do “The Song is Over” live? It’s so great!” He goes, “Paul, too many songs.” Trans-Siberian Orchestra is starting to run into that problem where there are so many songs that it’s simply impossible. And also I have a very bad habit writing songs over ten minutes. The original “Epiphany” is 18-minutes long.
Bp: Oh my…I want to hear those other 8 minutes of Rob singing!
Paul O’Neill: It’s a massive counterpoint ending.
Paul O’Neill: Yea, everybody was rolling their eyes. Dave was like, “Paul, it’s not the ‘60s or the ‘70s where they’re going to play the whole “In a Gadda da Vida” drum solo.
Bp: Will we ever hear “Epiphany” live?
Paul O’Neill: Oh, absolutely. Rob Evan is a monster on that song. It’s so hard to sing because he’s playing Tran-do. In combat your body is constantly fueled with adrenaline and I’d be like, “Rob, this whole thing is like afterburners on from beginning to end with all the little nuances.” I honestly used to lower the temperature of the studio to 40-degrees, Rob would go in and run one take and come out drenched in sweat. That guy is such a great singer, such a great actor, such stage presence. I just feel so lucky. I saw him in Les Miserables doing Jean Valjean and the funny thing was, I thought he was sixty years old ‘cause he was in so much make-up. And then when I met him I’m like, “Whoa! You’re young!”
And the other great thing is having Greg Hildebrandt who is such a great artist. I would like Trans-Siberian Orchestra and also Night Castle management and Rock Theater to go on, like Disney continued. I worship Barry Gordy [founder of Motown Records]. I think he’s a genius…
Bp: Let me roll back for a moment since we were talking about Night Castle, you’d mentioned before Night Castle came out that there was enough material for two or three CDs. Was that actually recorded and in the can?
Paul O’Neill: Recorded, in the can. Some of them just the basics were down. We always tend to record way, way more than we need. We’re also starting to learn our lesson in life.
Bp: Were “Tracers” and “Believe” originally part of the Night Castle story?
Paul O’Neill: No. “Believe” was always part of Gutter Ballet, the original version from the 1970s. “Tracers” was always supposed to be part of the Night Castle story, hence the name “Tracers,” it was going to go into the battle scene. But Al Pitrelli’s solo on “Toccata-Carpimus Noctem,” which means ‘we own the night,’ originally I had all sound effects for the chain-gun, the howitzer, sidewinder missiles, the turbo-props revving up, but Al did every one of those on his guitar. It’s actually cooler when he’s revving up the turbo-jet by the whammy-bar then the actual turbo-jet revving up on the sound sample. Again, Al Pitrelli is just great rock, great jazz, he sight reads, and in my opinion he’s the best Musical Director I’ve ever seen. Not only is he a great guitar player, he mentors everybody under him. I hand Al good rock guitar players and Al hands me back rock stars. No ego, obviously he plays lead on all these albums, but live he’s like, “You do this lead, I’ll do that lead.” And he leads from the throne. He leads by example. Every day he jogs his five miles ‘cause to work that flight deck for 2 hours 45 minutes a night, sometimes two shows per day, you’ve got to be in great shape because it’s a lot bigger than it looks. When you’re running back and forth and back and forth and back and forth you can never look tired. Al’s in that kind of shape.
Vitalij Kuprij I’m in awe of. He’s from the Soviet Union and there’s only three ways to get out of the Soviet Union: chess playing, ballet, or piano. He picked piano. We lucked out.
The road keeps changing, things keep changing, and the key right now is as changes keep happening; improvise, adapt and overcome.
Bp: You talked earlier about recording Jen when you have the song, is that what the focus is for you when recording, the vocal performance. Then you build the band around that?
Paul O’Neill: 100% correct.
Bp: So are they laying down their vocals to scratch demos?
Paul O’Neill: No. We’ll record the whole song and then we’ll do it with the singer so they feel the whole band’s power. But then if we realize if we change it a half-step or whole-step, we’ll recut the entire song, because the guitar players or keyboard players they can easily change keys. For the vocalists, their sweet spots are their sweet spots. So it’s basically all built around them. And we will never release anything that we think is sub-par.
I think in ’99 Savatage recorded Live in Cologne, but something went wrong with the lights. The lighting company didn’t show up, they had a problem, and Warner Brothers was like, “We’ll give you [a sizeable sum] to release it in Europe.” And I’m like, “Can’t do. It doesn’t represent Savatage.” So basically we have them in the vault and we’ll eventually destroy them. If we put it out, I know people would buy it, I know Warner’s would make money, but the fans wouldn’t be getting the best product.
Francis Ford Coppola was one of my heroes. I worshipped him. Apocalypse Now, it’s not historically realistic, but it’s a great story and Coppola had filmed over half the movie with Harvey Keitel as the Captain and halfway through the movie he realized Harvey’s not right. God bless him, ‘cause I don’t know how you tell Harvey Keitel, “You’re not in the movie anymore.” He replaced him with Martin Sheen, who was basically an unknown, but it was the right move. The final result was a masterpiece. It’s all about getting the right person; the right song; the right part; and if you make a mistake you don’t just swallow the mistake and release it, you go back to the drawing board and you do it right.
Bp: Where does Savatage sit in your mind at this point? Obviously you have way too many balls in the air with TSO and not enough time, but I think for some of the older Savatage fans they’re always hoping that there will be a reunion show or a small reunion tour, which is obviously tough when you’re already on the road six months out of the year, but where does Savatage sit in your mind? And is the Savatage catalog fair game for TSO at this point because it’s all part of you and Jon’s history?
Paul O’Neill: Oh, absolutely. Number 1, Savatage is very close to both Jon and I. You love any band, any album that you do, but Savatage is kind of like our first born. There’s a really deep connect. There’s two things: number 1 with Savatage we kind of did what we wanted to do which was make the first prog-metal band. And also both Jon and I are now, Jon’s in his mid-50’s, I’m close to 60, and Trans-Siberian Orchestra is going great. It’s kind of done what we wanted to do, which is push the boundaries of what a prog-rock band could do and also develop a band that breathed like a living thing. It wasn’t locked into…to me [it] would be like once George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams died that America would be over. No, the ideals that they founded for America continued. As one by one we exit stage left which I hope that our kids, Al Pitrelli’s kids, etc., and kids we don’t already know, will continue the [TSO] tradition going on. This actually brings me back to one of the heroes that I try to emulate with the company, is Walt Disney. When the Great Depression struck in ’29, the biggest thing the Disney brothers did was three-minute black and white shorts. But right in the middle, Walt borrowed $150,000 from Bank of America, which back then was like $150 million. Every other movie company is going, “Less frames per second.” Walt’s going, “No! More frames per second.” They did the first full color, full talking, full singing animation cartoon which was Snow White. And in the middle of the Great Depression his accountants wanted him to charge double because of how much it costs, but he said “No, we’ll charge the same.” In the middle of the Great Depression there was a 10-week wait in some cities to see that movie. It was escapism.
The other thing I worshipped about Walt was during the Great Depression he went to an amusement park with his daughters. It was dirty. It was filthy. And he saw some kids wanting to go on a roller coaster, but their parents said, “We can’t afford it.” So Walt had this vision of building an amusement park so clean, so safe, that if you lost your 3-year old you wouldn’t worry about it, and once he’d paid back the bank, that once you’d paid the admission to get in, every ride was free. So no parent would ever have to tell their kid, “No we can’t afford it.” No guy would have to say to his girlfriend, “I can’t afford that.” Disney was such a great visionary. I don’t think any man from the last century brought more smiles to more faces than Walt Disney.
You’re going to love this part, when he’d finished Snow White he realized the end was wrong, that he made a mistake. So he asked Bank of America for another $25,000 to finish it. They said, “Let me see it.” So they all came and they saw it and said, “Walt, it’s perfectly fine, release it as is.” You’ve gotta love Walt Disney, he went back to the studio, found the negatives and burned them. He told Bank of America, “I just burned the negatives to the ending. Now can I have the $25,000?” They had no choice so they gave it to him and the rest is legendary in history. But Walt was always very smart. In the beginning he drew the pictures, did the voices, wrote the stories and then one by one he replaced himself so by the time he passed on, Disney had become this great factory of great musicians, great artists, great animators, and has gone on to create great films and so on. Motown, I love Barry Gordy, when asked why he didn’t move to LA or New York he said, “Why? So I can pay outrageous rent? This way I can pay my artists more.” He had the Funk Brothers who were the backup band for all those hits from The Temptations, etc. But I never realized that Barry was a songwriter and producer so by the time he retired, Motown’s legacy is in the past.
It’s just really, really important that Trans-Siberian Orchestra keeps going and also Rock Theater keeps going so that great live music…oh the final point is with computers. So many kids, there’s a survey done recently that some kids spend up to 20-40 hours a week on their iPhones, the Internet, TV, whatever. I actually know friends who have imaginary farms on Facebook, where they grow imaginary corn, imaginary carrots and they sell them at imaginary stores. I’m like, “Why don’t you go outside and grow real carrots and real corn.” There’s also something magical about the live concert. When you see a great concert where the band’s on fire, it’s great just for yourself, but you feel the vibe of the entire arena around you, it makes it even better. Not just for the people in the arena, but also the band.
Bp: Speaking of the concert venue, when a song’s tempo is slowed down on stage for the live performance, is that to help the audience follow the lyrical message, to increase the emotional impact, increase the drama, or all of those? Or something completely different?
Paul O’Neill: All of the above. Basically I learned a long time ago, you don’t force the people to adjust to you, you adjust to the situation. Which is why when we did The Ghosts of Christmas Eve we didn’t just film a bunch of musicians playing, we added the dimension of the story. Theater speed is different than coliseum speed. With the coliseum, it all goes down to the human brain. When a Trans-Siberian Orchestra concert is going on, there’s so much going on visually, audio-wise, etc. that the brain can only take it in at a certain pace and it can distort your perception of time. There’s many times when they debrief a fighter pilot after they’ve been in a dogfight and to the fighter pilot it seems like it went on for 10 minutes, but when in reality it went on for 20 seconds. But because of the speed of the missiles and this, that and the other thing…I don’t know if you’ve ever been in an auto accident, unfortunately I was once where I was in a van where some guy, a drunk, came down the wrong way on a divided highway and there was no way I could avoid him. He slammed into the van and everything went into slow motion. I can remember the entire window breaking into little chips of glass and then disintegrating.
In a concert when the lights and this and that, for the rock opera part, it’s just very important that it’s easy to hear the story, hear the words, savor it, and move on to the next one. Since they are rock operas it’s important that they’re able to hear the story because if it goes by too fast, you can’t pick it up. Hence why for coliseums we take it back.
Bp: For the song, “Someday” – there was a Tim Hockenberry radio performance in the Fall of last year that was done on the West Coast. Now I know that Tim wasn’t going to be on the Winter Tour, but did that song change from being a male-centric song into a female-centric song with Kayla on the East and Dari on the West, or was it not that set in stone?
Paul O’Neill: It really wasn’t that set in stone. As Mark Twain once said, “I don’t know why, but when I became 30, my father became so much smarter.” I’ve just got the one kid, but Desi says, “Paul, you better pray I never die, because she’s got you wrapped around her little finger.” And she does. Listen to me, if you think you’re aware of time going by, it feels like yesterday she was born.
"Someday" w/ Kayla Reeves - Live in Tampa, FL; Dec. 11, 2011
Bp: And I’ll be honest with you, for the first five years that I saw the Winter Tour I got it and I enjoyed it, but ever since my daughter was born, I’ve cried every time I’ve seen it and I’ve seen it now 25 times. It has so much more impact now, with James Lewis coming out and doing “Ornament” and then “This Christmas Day,” when you actually have a child.
Paul O’Neill: Yes. I think Francis Bacon said it in the 1500s, “Those who have children can have it so great and your whole life can be going perfectly, but the moment you don’t know where your kid is…” Like Bob Dole, the senator, ran for President, wife had bouts with her health, but his daughter died an alcoholic behind a bar. He’d give up the senate, the presidential run, the medal from World War II, just to have that kid back.
And we are going to release “Someday” very soon. Just because time does fly by and there’s so many people that we all owe thanks to. I never thought I’d live to 50. I never thought I’d live to 30.
Bp: Well, we are all glad that you have because you have changed our lives in immeasurable ways. Is there any rhyme or reason as far as to what cities you appear at on tour?
Paul O’Neill: Actually, none. Basically Adam and Kenny just call up and go, “You have to go to this city to do this press. You have to do this. You have to do that.” I keep asking if there’s any rhyme or reason what they’re doing to me.
Bp: And is there any reason that you haven’t had Rush guest on stage in Canada yet?
Paul O’Neill: It is definitely in the consideration group. This is the sort of problem we have, they need to be iconic guests. You bring out Steven Tyler, everyone knows “Dream On.” Actually, one test is my daughter. “I Love Rock’n’Roll” she knew that. I remember the first time we had Greg Lake, I said, “Do you guys know Emerson, Lake & Palmer?” They’re like, “No.” “Greg Lake?” “No.” I go, “Welcome back my friends,” they go, “…to the show that never ends.” I’m like, “In!” So you need that universal recognition. Rush is like the borderline National Anthem for Canada. I would love to have them on stage in Canada. That’s something we have to do. But we’re definitely running out of iconic prog rock and rockers.
We’re just going to keep pedaling away…You can release that we are eventually going to re-release all the albums with narration. Oh, there’s also now with downloading from iTunes, etc. I think we’re going to do it so you can download two versions the one with the whole album and one with the album with the narration so you can just take your pick which you want to listen to. In other words, make computers helpful as opposed to a nightmare. Basically within the next 8 weeks we’re going to figure out what the next [new studio] album is going to be.
Did I get to most things, Brad?
Bp: Yea, I believe you did.
Paul O’Neill: This has been an unbelievable pleasure. If I missed anything just get back in contact with Kenny and please say ‘Thank You’ to everybody on the Yahoo group. One day Kenny was showing me…one thing I have to say, the way that you treat each other and look out for each other. It’s quite a cool group of people, honestly just good people. One that I was reading, someone was sick and everyone was just wrapping their arms around her. It was very cool to see. You guys have been going on for a long time too. I’ll never forget the first time I heard it referred to as ‘the mysterious yahoo d-group.’
Bp: Well, a lot of it has to do with Sian who keeps us in line and it’s the spirit of the bartender in “Old City Bar,” to pay it forward and about being nice to people. We are a reflection of what you’re writing about.
Paul O’Neill: Again, it’s…honestly, Brad, you just gave me goose bumps. It’s how we got in this industry and hopefully it’ll be going on for a while longer, ‘cause god forbid I have to get a real job. It’s been a real pleasure, Brad. Hopefully we’ll talk again in the near future, and one of these days we’ll bump into each other and have dinner.
Bp: Sounds great, Paul. Thanks!
Paul O’Neill: Thanks, Brad. Take care.
Check out my interview with Al Pitrelli of TSO.
Special Thanks to Paul O'Neill, Kenny Kaplan, Al Pitrelli, Rob Evan, 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.