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21 March 2013 @ 01:54 pm
The Trans-Siberian Orchestra Interviews: Roddy Chong - December 13, 2012  

The Trans-Siberian Orchestra Interviews: Roddy Chong - December 13, 2012
Interview, photos and videos by Brad Parmerter

Roddy Chong is a multifaceted motivator. Most notable for rockin' stages with his skillful violin playing and energetic presence, Roddy has toured with Shania Twain, Celine Dion, Kevin Costner & Modern West, as well as Trans-Siberian Orchestra. On a different stage, he has inspired thousands as a successful motivational speaker helping others reach their full potential.

Growing up in the Chicago suburbs, he started playing the violin at the age of 2. After a tour with a popular late-90s Christian Contemporary band, Roddy was on a late night drive to Nashville when he heard Dion's "To Love You More" and it inspired him to set a new goal: to play that song with that vocalist (he didn't know it was Dion at the time). From contacts he made in the Music City he auditioned for Shania Twain's band and soon found himself Rockin' That Country as part of one of the hottest shows for a couple of extensive tours (with Shania at the CMAs). While touring with Shania he met Celine at VH1's Divas Live and before too long he reached his goal of performing "To Love You More" with the French-Canadian chanteuse. Expanding his talents to TV commercials and other violin projects, Roddy would soon become a blurred fixture on the Trans-Siberian Orchestra flight deck dazzling audiences with his virtuosic violin playing, seemingly endless energy, and beaming smile.

An accomplished public speaker, Roddy has also taken to the stage to inspire others with motivational speaking engagements at some of the country's leading companies and organizations. Not limited to his presentations only, his emphasis on positive thinking was evident in our discussion.

I caught up with Roddy by phone soon after his tour bus rolled into Albany, NY on the 2012 TSO winter tour as the band was showcasing their 2004 rock opera, The Lost Christmas Eve, for the first time. We discussed hard work, his introduction to TSO, and how he feels about meeting the fans.

Roddy: Good morning, this is Roddy!

Bp: Hey Roddy, how are you?

Roddy: I'm doing well. How are you doing, Brad?

Bp: Good! Welcome to Albany!

Roddy: Well, thank you. What's the latest?

Bp: Not much, just looking forward to the show tonight.

Roddy: So are we!

Bp: DC treated you well the last few days?

Roddy: DC was awesome. I guess it was sold out and it was a really huge venue. To be able to play to a full house was really energetic for everybody involved.

Bp: The interview today will be primarily for the TSO online community so I wanted to venture off the typical high-level Q&A questions. What's your schedule on the day of show? I know you have to meet with the regional string folks, but can you run through your schedule on a show day?

Roddy: There aren't too many things because pretty much we're all gunning to get to the show. I'm a medium-early riser. I get up around 9 and then usually I try to get a few hours of work done on my own. Of course, my favorite away from home office is Starbucks. Then I eat a little bit, but I do need to get to the venue to rehearse the regional strings and that takes about an hour and a half just to go through all the music and to get people familiar with what's coming up. Then we do a soundcheck and we'll do some kind of a pre-show meet and greet, and then we'll do the show, maybe we'll do two shows, and then we'll do an after show meet and greet and then we'll do the signing line. On days off really it's for recuperation. I can actually sort of feel my body and mind recuperate during those days since we push everything so hard while we're doing the shows. It's pretty amazing. I think that people think I'm working out all the time, which I do, but on this particular tour, the winter tour, I don't work out because everything is going into what's going on energetically on stage.

Bp: I wouldn't think there's that much time, especially on a two-show day to squeeze in a whole lot of work out time.

Roddy: Yeah, some people do it, but it's not for me. I tried it the very first year I came in and it hurt my performance on stage. I'm getting enough of a workout on stage.

Roddy rips through the final chord of "Mozart/Figaro" in Binghamton on the Beethoven's Last Night Tour, May 4, 2012

Bp: With the regional strings, I know you have them usually for a couple of shows or a series of shows. What's involved with their selection? Are they contracted locally and then you meet up with them at the venue. How does that process work?

Roddy: Correct. There's somebody else who is better gifted at contacting these people than me, so we have a national strings contractor named Steve Trudell and he also has all his regional contracts and they find some of the best people. Really what's most important is a great attitude and then the talent to be able to play, to read music and then to be able to act good and to look good as far as part of the band. Usually that goes back to the first thing I said, having a great attitude to be flexible, understanding rock music and mixing that in with their classical training. I myself was classically trained so I know a lot of what they're going through and there's all sorts of different personalities. I think the best personality that I personally like when I see a strings player is someone who is willing to dig in and they're game to anything. And probably a not so great attitude would be 'I'm above this' or...I mean, that's not a great attitude to have in life. It's probably analogous to life, just being game to anything and really being able to dig in and do the work. That's a great attitude whether it's in the string section or in life. I recognized that attitude. People like that [attitude] and they think, "They're going to help move the ball forward." It's pretty simple, but not everybody has that.

Bp: Now they've had the sheet music for a while and they're somewhat familiar with what they're going to play so you're going over transitions and changes at that point, right?

Roddy: Actually they don't have the music. They're sight reading, but the music's not impossible. Most of us string players have had sheet music in front of us since we were three years old. So they are able to sight read. There are some specific things that TSO does musically: we usually slow down at the end dramatically and then we're watching Jeff Plate, our drummer, to when the cut off is. Some of those things flex so it's not so much about the music, but about Trans-Siberian Orchestra itself. We're going through the songs, but I'm also telling them what to watch out for and then we also have markings in the music and big bold letters and symbols so that we don't have to think very much, and we know what's coming up. If there's a big slow down or if we have to turn the page really fast - things like that.

"Mozart & Memories" 5/20/2011 - Binghamton, NY

Bp: I know you've worked with a number of artists in the past, including Shania Twain and Celine Dion, but where did the connection with TSO come in?

Roddy: I was in the string section myself when they were doing their shows in San Diego and Los Angeles. One of the violinists dropped out and the cello player that was doing the contracting asked me if I would join. I was open, having just moved to LA, to meeting new people and when I got there and I saw all the music I was a little intimidated, there was so much there. So what I was doing was, which is a little clue to any string players that read or catch wind of this, I actually took the book and I was practicing during dinner and during our breaks, because in my mind I wanted to keep the job and I didn't want to be let go. It was Al Pitrelli that noticed that. Most string players don't really practice above and beyond rehearsal, but I was doing that. Not to show off or anything, I was truly nervous that I wasn't going to be able to play everything perfectly. So Al Pitrelli noticed that. But outside of that, I grabbed a quick dinner, and I sat by myself and Al was headed toward that same table too. Al is one of the musical directors and he did know a little about my resume and he asked me about Mutt Lange. Mutt Lange is a producer in rock music [Def Leppard, AC/DC, Shania Twain] and we talked about rock music, Mutt Lange and that little connection there. We actually traded business cards, and I think that's really important in any interaction, we traded information and eventually TSO brainstormed and Al brought my name up to audition. The audition was awesome. I did it for Paul. It was really Paul and everybody that asked me to join, so that's coming up on six years ago now.

Bp: Hard work does pay off.

Roddy: Yeah. I mean, I would say it's not even hard work, but it's just doing the work. I want to keep everything positive so I guess I would just say that with any work situation I find that people want to do the minimum and they want to just hang out more than anything. Actually doing the work, where you do a good job - the people who are making the decisions are going to notice that. I don't think there are enough string players doing this because Al was like, "Wow, that person's going to help this organization somehow." I think that's what Al thought to himself about me. Certainly if you're causing problems that's going to get you noticed also and that's not a good thing. But if you're actually doing work, or a little extra work, that will be noticed in the right way and you'll go in the right direction.

Bp: I was going to ask you what you look for in string players and how aspiring string players can elevate their playing.

Roddy: And I said a lot of things, so I guess I could reduce it down to two: have a humility for the work that you do; and then do a little extra. That's just what a professional does, more than the minimum.

"A Mad Russian's Christmas" 12/23/2012 - Boston, MA

Bp: How enjoyable is it to be on stage with Kevin Costner & Modern West knowing that the possibility of you being blown up by pryo is so much less as compared to your time onstage with TSO & Shania?

Roddy: Blown up as far as production?

Bp: Yeah.

Roddy: Well, I'm trying to think if I've had a bad experience playing with anybody and I can't think of any. There are really two sides to my life. One is playing violin in the context of a band, and that's in the context of a team, and then I do a lot of speaking which is more my own thing. So playing violin in the context of a team or a band, I really like that. I'm like a fish in water. I'm not a lead singer. I like to harmonize. I like to riff off of other people. And I like to work with different personalities. So the Kevin Costner band, I've got to tell you, they're some of the nicest guys. Very talented, so when we're playing I really enjoy it. It's kind of raw, certainly not as much production. It's the whole enchilada. It's not just what happens onstage. Offstage Kevin Costner is a mentor of mine. I like to ask him questions. I'll ask him questions about anything and he will give me wisdom-filled answers that nobody else can give me simply because he's a blue collar guy and a high class guy at the same time. He was a carpenter before he was an actor, yet because of his acting, everywhere we go, the heads of state or the most important people in that country want to meet with him. So he really has grounded, earthy, solid wisdom mixed in with the top knowledge of the world so that's really what I like. Those guys are awesome guys in Kevin's band and also Kevin Costner is a great guy. It is a little different, but it's a different theme and I enjoy that [difference] most. Trans-Siberian Orchestra has so many moving parts that we do have to rehearse that thing like crazy just for the safety of everybody and to make the music as perfect as possible. It's a different animal, yet still the opportunity to perform a different theme in the context of my instrument.

Bp: After playing the same TSO winter tour for a number of years, what were your feelings about the switch in rock operas to The Lost Christmas Eve?

Roddy: I thought it was a great idea! It wasn't my idea, I just execute what the powers that be say. They are doing all their research and strategy to continue the health of Trans-Siberian Orchestra and give the fans what they want and when they were explaining everything I thought it was awesome. I actually do think it's awesome what's happening with this particular show. I guess what my feelings were...excited.

Bp: From the five shows this tour that I've seen thus far the crowd response has been nothing but positive, how is it being received from your perspective?

Roddy: I would say the same thing. I think that the show before was awesome and then they did little things to improve upon that. If you look at Trans-Siberian Orchestra, they started touring 14 years ago and the entire landscape was different as far as the music business, internet, social media, and the way people experience shows. The technology for the lighting and pyro...so many things have changed so they were able to take something awesome and make it even better, adjusting it, tweaking it and then taking everything to 2012.

Bp: What are some of your favorite songs on this tour?

Roddy: That's interesting. For me, one of my strengths is performing in front of a crowd. Some people are great in the studio, some actors are great at simply acting in front of the camera. I need the audience to be there and like I said, I like to riff off other musicians. I like to riff off the audience too. So if the audience is into it, then that's a unique rush that mixes in with the music to me. So for me all of the upbeat songs, [laughs] nothing against anything that's powerful and dramatic and a slower pace, but my personal favorites are upbeat and I'm smiling my face off along with the people in the audience.

Bp: The instrumental ones where you get to run around the flight deck...

Roddy: Yep, I would say that I like those. Of course, if you just did a show of all of that then you would almost just be like noise. You have to have the ups and the downs, the twists and the turns and all of the different temperatures to a show. I like it all and then the ones that are more upbeat, personally, I really enjoy those. I've studied performance and I've always tried to find out what really works. Basically for a performance if you're onstage, you should really give 110%. You shouldn't save some of it for later in the show. When you're on, you're on. And Trans-Siberian Orchestra is a great stage for me to be able to give 110%. I think people want to have that opportunity in whatever they do, and opportunities are there everyday for everybody. Mine just happens to be with one of the biggest productions touring. That's one of the joys of performance, giving 110%. And I get to do that.

"The Dreams of Fireflies" 12/23/2012 - Boston, MA

Bp: Was there a learning curve at all when you first started on the winter tour with giving the 110% on double show days where you'd expend too much in the first show and not have it for the second show?

Roddy: I think there was a learning curve as far as...for that specific question I would say this: the principle is to give 110%. To give your all for every show, so I do that. Sometimes there are four double show days in a row, eight shows total, so what I find is you expend yourself, but you find that you get a second wind here and there. So your job is to give 110%. If your body is not able to do it, you're still giving 110% of what your body's able to put out. You do find that as you push you do find those second winds. Really it's an amazing thing, this has definitely pushed me beyond anything I've ever done performance wise or otherwise.

There was a learning curve as far as how Trans-Siberian Orchestra worked period. It is different than any other touring I've done before, but now I definitely understand it and I think the principal of giving your all every time is the right principal, because some performers, not any of them with us necessarily, but some performers think that, "Y'know I'm going to hold off on this show so I'll have more for that show." It's a very intellectual thought. That's a logical solution that does not work in reality. Do you know what I'm saying? 'Cause if I try to save myself in the first show, you can't really measure that. It's either on or off. So your job is to turn it on and usually the energy and the inspiration is there for you. But if you try to manipulate it, the art of the performance is not a logical thing and it would actually backfire on most people. If you did that, your first show would seem lifeless so for your second show you'd seem more tired because of your attitude from the first show. If you give 110% for the first show, then get to eat a little, take a nap, stretch, get ready for the second show, and give 110% percent, then both are going to seem very alive. What I'm doing as a performer is expressing and inspiring, giving 110% and that's what we're all doing. Audience members get to live catharticly through us and they get that. And I'm often times in the audience for other performers so I can tell when someone is giving 110%. I love that and I'm living catharticly, inspirationally, emotionally and expressively through them 'cause they're on the stage. The audience members and the performers; it is a circular thing of riffing off each other going back and forth. I hate a lifeless performance because people pay for tickets to see this performer so even if the performer sprained their ankle, they can still be out there giving their all and the audience will love it and they'll say, "That performer is giving their all even though they sprained their ankle."

Bp: Those are absolutely the best performances when the performer is giving everything they have and leaving it all on the stage.

Roddy: That's right.

"Mozart/Figaro" 5/10/2012 - Binghamton, NY

Bp: To wrap up here 'cause I know you're short on time and Caffery is going to be calling any time, but I wanted to touch on the meet and greets after the show. As you mentioned you have some stretches of 8 shows in 4 days and coming off multiple shows in a day, seemingly the last thing you'd want to do is go out and greet people for an hour or hour and a half. I know it's extremely important to have that connection to the fans and to have the fans be connected to the performers, but how important is it for you personally to get that immediate reaction after the show from fans?

Roddy: I would agree with what you said, it's extremely important. Another EX-word for me is that I'm an extrovert. So for me it's a little easier. I might be run down energetically, but I get energy by being around people. Nothing against introverts, introverts are awesome too, but they get energy more from one-on-one or solitude. So for me it's energizing. I agree with you that it's extremely important and I was easily one of those people, I still am, who likes to get an autograph and to say hello. So I am that person [the fan on the other side of the table from the performers] and the table is turned in another situation. I enjoy meeting everybody and I think it's a little old school which is a good thing. Old school means very foundational. Old school means not trying to hack the system, but doing organically what needs to be done; which means meeting every single person who is willing to wait. Whatever they want signed and if they want a photo, they get it. I appreciate that and I appreciate that as a fan. Music is a touring business. Some people do the pay $400 to get gold circle and you get to meet the star or whatever. And I don't like that personally because a lot of people can't afford that. Like you said, as far as getting that immediate and direct feedback, we like that feedback and you can't get direct feedback that other way. So for me it's not that big of a deal and I really enjoy it. I think we all do. Think about that, think about hundreds of people every night saying, "You're awesome." What that does to my esteem, right? [laughs] It makes me feel like a million bucks! I really think that translates into my life during the rest of the year easily. I'm sure there's all these experiments about what self-thought and what words, and the power of them - what that has done in all the right ways. How that has built my esteem as a performer and as a person. Somebody that [went from] practicing in their room and had nothing before and then was able to grow in a bigger band and now to have people appreciate what you're doing, I mean that's really...I mean, I'm really blessed.

Roddy brings the "Wizards in Winter" alive in Manchester, NH - 11/24/2012

Bp: Thanks so much for your time this morning, Roddy.

Roddy: I hope you can do something with this interview.

Bp: Absolutely, you provided a lot of info and inspiration. I appreciate you taking the time and appreciate the effort that you put into the shows and afterward. I look forward to seeing you tonight and snapping some photographs and some video.

Roddy: And I just want to say a personal thank you to all the fans that you're going to be putting this interview together for and all their support.

Bp: Thank you very much, Roddy and I'll be seeing you later tonight!

Roddy: Alright, Brad. Thanks.

For more on Roddy:
Solo CD
Speaking engagements

For more on TSO:
Official website

For more in my series of TSO interviews:
Click here