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30 June 2014 @ 06:28 pm
The Trans-Siberian Orchestra Interviews: Paul O'Neill - January 2014 - part 2  
<-- Part I

Bp: So when you release Gutter Ballet as TSO, will that be a combination of the Streets and Gutter Savatage records?

Paul O'Neill: There will be some that will be practically identical, they will be totally new recordings, but some will be like they were on the Savatage [records], some will be radically different, like "Jesus Saves." The gospel version and the metal version, even though they have the same lyrics, they're very different songs. And obviously the ones that have never been released will appear. So it will be...the influences of one band definitely spill back and forth. Just like if we ever reunite Savatage, the TSO influences will spill back. You can't help but be affected by the other musicians surrounding you. Just like a lot of the people that George Harrison bumped into, you start to hear sitar everywhere. Trust me, if Harrison hadn't gone to India and learned sitar I don't think I'd even know what the word meant.

Right now, I'm massively multi-tasking and by that I mean, I want to keep TSO going, because without the massive label system I'm not sure you could ever build a prog rock band to this level again. That's number one. Number two, I was very lucky, when I entered the industry, the bands who'd come before had left such a great system to nurture and develop musicians and singers. That system no longer exists and a new system has to be invented, which is what we're desperately trying to do; one where young people wanting to get into the arts, can make a living out of it their entire lives. When I told my parents I wanted to go into rock they were like, "No, first you get your college degree, then you get a real job, then you can do your hobby." That was when there were thirty-thousand record deals a year, now a kid tells his parents he wants to get into music, it's scary.

Bp: You want to create an organization where you can nurture young talent and keep them within that organization and keep them throughout their career.

Paul O'Neill: We're basically...like again, Brad, I never had to do a real job. A lot of bands today the musicians all have day jobs so they can do music. The great thing about the label system, was not only did they give you the money for the equipment, the recording studio, etc. etc., they took care of the business, they took care of the advertising, they took care of the shipping, they took care of everything else so that all you had to worry about was writing the music and then getting the music out as you envisioned it. That simply doesn't exist anymore. It's not only from a musicians point of view, I'm sure you've heard me say this a million times, we consider the crew band members. People like Eliot Saltzman [Tour Director] and Jeff Boguski [Production Manager], Bryan Hartley [Lighting Director], Dave Wittman [Sound Engineer], the people that can take this aircraft carrier and tear it down, move it hundreds of miles, set it up in time to do two shows the next day, it's an art. In the '70s, '80s, '90s we'd rate all these big rock bands and they'd rate us as well, but there's not a lot of bands touring with this kind of production anymore.

Bp: Definitely not a lot of younger bands.

Paul O'Neill: Yes. And I talk to some of these younger bands and it's sad...

"Wish Liszt" (2-camera mix) - TSO Live in Boston, MA; December 22, 2013 - courtesy squintyt4e & BH, editing by Kissfan1973

Bp: If I can roll back actually, 'cause I want to be cognizant of your time, if I can roll back to the European tour, can you describe the successes you're having over there and is there a plan to make the European trek an annual thing after the North American winter tour?

Paul O'Neill: Yes. But as you and I discussed before, my single biggest problem is time and honestly I love writing and I love recording, but I also love the flight deck. It's fun. It's a blast.

Bp: The Europeans didn't seem to miss the fact that it wasn't a Christmas show, they seemed to be embracing TSO any way they could get them.

Paul O'Neill: Yes, and again that's classic TSO doing everything backwards. As I'm sure you're aware, you don't do a Christmas album until you've done several other platinum albums. Emerson, Lake and Palmer didn't do "Father Christmas" until after they'd done other albums. Mariah Carey, the Kinks, whoever, they waited until they had x-amount of success and then did a Christmas album. We did it backwards. You don't look a gift horse in the mouth and Christmas Eve & Other Stories was hugely successful, honestly with The Lost Christmas Eve I was mentally prepared to take up to 20% decline on average in ticket sales per show, when it went up 12%, especially in this economy it really...I was like, "Ok, it's beyond the one rock opera." I was really happy because unlike Dickens I wasn't caught with just the one and so now we'll let them rotate.

Europe was so important to me that TSO never gets locked into a box. Last year I realized we had painted our own box, by the way, it doesn't seem like fifteen years, Brad, it has just blown by. Just like I never intended to do Christmas Eve & Other Stories for thirteen years in a row, I never planned for every single concert to start with a rock opera in the first half and the second half be a regular concert. That just kind of accidentally happened too. So when we were going over to Europe I figured what better way to start the sixteenth year than make Europe be the first place we try doing a straight concert as opposed to a rock opera. I wrote a little bit of poetry...Europe gave me a lot of great opportunities, number one it gave me the chance to try TSO as a straight rock concert, and it works! That's number one. Number two...

Bp: Before you get to two, would you entertain the notion of bringing that same show over to the U.S. in a non-holiday setting?

Paul O'Neill: Off the record?

Bp: Sure.

[We discussed the possibility of this in the States...which led us around to touring in general]

Paul O'Neill: By the way, Brad, you swear you're not on Adam Lind's payroll? [laughs]

Bp: I'm not, but I'd love to be!

Paul O'Neill: [laughing] Trust me, he's like, "Paul, what is [this Winter going to be]?" I'm like, "I don't know yet." The European shows were such a rush. It was a radical...we've gotten so used to it that it just flies by. Two and a half hours just doesn't seem like two and a half hours. The other thing I like about it is, because we're going to develop rock theater, which is this thing outside of TSO, where these things are going to become theatrical pieces of themselves and we intend to dive back into the Sava catalog because, The Wake of Magellan, Dead Winter Dead, and Poets and Madmen, all have great stories to them. But I learned a long time ago that it's important for songs to be performed live or they fade from memory. That's why when we did Europe this year with TSO it was so important to bring out some of the Savatage songs, just to remind everybody of the past and pay homage to Savatage, but it also keeps those songs alive. If songs aren't performed live somewhat regularly they just seem to fade away.

The story is out there that Jon and I were doing Romanov: When Kings Must Whisper in '93. Jon was out of Savatage, Edge of Thorns had a top 40 single on it with "Edge of Thorns." Everything was going great. Then Criss died. Basically, everybody including Atlantic Records assumed Savatage was over because Criss Oliva was the last original member. In '93, no rock band had ever continued on without at least one original member. It might have been the drummer or the bass player, but there was always one guy from the beginning. But it just had happened two weeks earlier, I had gone out to pick up an album by a band I loved [He didn't want to publicly disclose the artist] because I wanted to play something for Jon. When I went to Tower they didn't have it so I asked if they could order it for me and they told me it was out of print. It wasn't their highest selling album, but I couldn't believe that one of their albums was out of print. In the '70s this band was at the top of the food chain, they were selling out night after night, arenas, headlining festivals, they had so many hits, but meanwhile in the early '80s AC/DC had just broke with Highway to Hell, and if you had asked me in '81, in 2014 who would be more viable for ticket sales, AC/DC or this band, I would have said, "That's a no brainer. They were already headlining baseball stadiums and have so many huge hits all over the radio." But then they stopped touring for a number of years and AC/DC never stopped touring. They would take a couple years off every once in a while, but they would get the machine together and tour. Number one, it gets you into towns, it gets you in touch with radio and it doesn't give it a chance to fade away. So when I came back, I said, "Jon, if Savatage doesn't put out a new album, Atlantic will eventually drop the catalog once it sells through." That's when I told [Atlantic] that we'd be turning in a new Savatage album really soon and they said, "Who's in the band." I said, "I don't know, but I'll tell you when we're done." At that point nobody was in the band.

Paul O'Neill: Brad, do you do journalism as a living?

Bp: Not as a living, but I did a lot of journalism work in college.

Paul O'Neill: Because when we do interviews...when Kenny called...normally we're incognito for a little while, but I told him, "This guy is the best prepared interview I've ever done." So many journalists don't do their homework and your questions were insightful, I just wish there were more journalists like you out there. Even though it's rough, as I'm sure you know, the magazine world is in big trouble as is the book world as is the movie world as is everything else. You can tell it's more than a job for you and it reflects. You're not just looking for a sound bite or whatever, you're in depth journalism.

Bp: The nuggets are in the nuances and the stories not often told.

Paul O'Neill: You also take a lot of videos too, don't you?

Bp: I do.

Paul O'Neill: Remind me what you're called on YouTube.

Bp: Squintyt4e.

Paul O'Neill: Yes, ok, that's it. At some point in time I owe you a great deal of thanks. We used your footage to reference back to previous years for a few particular performances. You had captured it and it was a great shot. I think it might have been from Connecticut. Again, it was beyond help. It was blatantly because I had your videos. As we were going through the different videos, looking for different videos and yours always stood out. Are you a professional photographer/videographer also?

Bp: No, I used to shoot professionally and have taken photography courses as well as having spent some time behind the video camera back in college. So the eye is there.

Paul O'Neill: It definitely, definitely is. Yours stand out.

Bp: Thank you. I appreciate that.

Paul O'Neill: You have one big I.O.U. so feel free to collect on any time. One day we'll have to get you down there with your camera where nobody is messing with you. I owe it to you. Again, I cannot tell you how much it saved the day on doing The Lost Christmas Eve, it really, really did.

Bp: That's awesome. I'm glad I could help. Moving to the 2011 winter tour, maybe this was a premonition of what was to come, but John Brink's "Back to a Reason" was a highlight every single show I saw of the '11 tour on the East. It was nice to hear him reprise that this past winter.

Paul O'Neill: I agree. Brink knocked it out of the ballpark this year. And he's so young. Going head-to-head with Rob Evan, that's pretty intense competition. The other good thing about it is Rob doesn't look at Brink as competition, he looks at it as a young kid that he can mentor. It's so healthy. A lot of rock bands they tend to keep the other kids down, but in TSO you're expected to mentor the younger kids and make your age a strength. As you get older and your voice changes, this that and the other thing, we'll adjust the parts around you. That is another reason why I think TSO works so well. Again, other lead guitar players would say, "I'm the lead guitar player, nobody else or the other guitarist gets one solo a night." Al Pitrelli gives half the solos to the other guitar player and doesn't think twice about it. I've worked with enough bands, trust me, that is not the norm. Rudolph Schenker [Scorpions] was like that, he would always look out for the other guitar player. What's next there, sir?

"Handful of Rain" - TSO Live in Frankfurt, Germany; January 21, 2014 - courtesy Mega Galaxxy

Bp: While we're talking about vocalists and getting in the zone, watching some of the YouTube footage coming out of Europe, Erika [Jerry] on "Handful of Rain," she sounds amazing! Who came up with the idea of having Erika take that?

Paul O'Neill: I love Erika. She has such a great smokey, whiskey-dust voice and she has a rasp switch which she is able to turn on and off at will. I said, "Erika, you've got to do this song." She said, "I can't do this song." I said, "Erika, you've got to do this song." The first time she sang it, it was a no brainer. She puts you in that old dive bar and you can see the smoke in the air. She prowls that flight deck and...the funny thing is, I knew in my mind that she could do it, but there's been times in my life when I've thought, "This singer will be able to knock it out of the park." And then I've been wrong. Then there are times you think they won't be able to do it, but I want to see them try. Erika loves "Handful of Rain" and "Handful of Rain" loves Erika.

Especially the vibe on the European tour between her and Pitrelli, she scats over what he's playing on the Chet [Atkins acoustic guitar], it's just old school and she is a monster. I love her. She's another one who is very humble for her talent level, but she's very classy, she's a lady. The other thing I love about people like her, Mee Eun Kim, and Luci Butler, they set such a good example for the younger kids, especially the girls. I'm sure I'm paraphrasing it, but that movie with Mark Wahlberg, Rock Star, to me there is no movie that has ever been made that captures the insanity of what it's really like to be in rock. The Rose with Bette Midler was close, but even that's not true because she dies in Kris Kristofferson's arms of alcoholism and the reality is you drown in your own vomit with whatever...but the scene in Rock Star where the singer of the cover band becomes the singer of the band he's covering, before Wahlberg takes his position he goes, "Kid, if you think you'll be out there partying every night, getting drunk, this that and the other thing, after a show I'm in my bunk, getting my sleep, staying hydrated so the next night I can give a great show. That's my advice to you kid, good luck." You always see Mee Eun and Luci rehearsing and taking care of themselves. They're keyboard players, but with singers it's even more important to guard your voices. When the young kids join they look at them and see, "Ok, this is what they do." They lead by example. As do people like Al Pitrelli.

Bp: That group of female vocalists that first came to the stage on the east in 2010, Erika, Georgia, Natalya, Kayla, and Autumn, that was a really successful unit that was brought on. Five new vocalists all at once and they've stayed pretty consistent throughout these past four years and they've been a great addition.

Paul O'Neill: It's kind of been built into the system, a lot of credit I have to give to Danielle Landherr, because Dan and I have worked so long together. Dan's a great singer and she's also, I didn't realize this until well into TSO, but she's also a trained dancer.

Bp: Not to take anything away from the new group of five we were just talking about, but she's missed on stage as well too.

Paul O'Neill: She is. Massively. The one thing that drives me crazy about the girls is they get pregnant. [laughs] Dan's happily married, she has two kids, and I was really sad about losing her. In TSO I call it 'going to the other side of the fence,' [moving to] the management or production end. It's a particularly great score if I get someone to go to the other side of the fence who's been on the flight deck because when they talk they're respected more...Dan has toured forever. She knows what it's like. She just has all this wisdom and the girls respect her so much and they listen to her.

"Queen of the Winter Night" - TSO Live with Danielle Landherr; 2008 - courtesy TSOVids

Bp: Dina [Fanai] as well.

Paul O'Neill: Dina as well. The big difference is that Dan is just so hands on. Dan was the one who found Robin. Here's the weird thing; Dan is insane. When she was nine months pregnant she was up in Omaha, because she does all the choreography, and she's dancing. I'm like, "Dan, you're nine months pregnant. Stop! I don't want to be screaming 'Boil water! Tear sheets!'" And then she had the first baby and three weeks later she's back and ripped. Then she just had her next baby and I was really overloaded in Manchester [for the start of the European tour] because the band was starting a whole new show, but Dan had just had the baby four weeks earlier and somebody from management told me, "Dan wants to come to Manchester to train the kittens" [an affectionate term used for the female vocalists/dancers] and I said, "You're kidding me!" They said, "No." I said, "Hallelujah!" Honestly, if I hadn't had Dan, because she took the girls and the harmonies and I went off and did other stuff. She's just great at that other side of the fence.

And as time goes on, that door is always open. As we've discussed before, I always like to see Night Castle Management be like MGM or Paramount or Disney where MGM in the '30s, and '40s had the best writers, the best actors and singers and cinematographers and it just nurtured to make great art. I think this is still true, a lot of great directors are people like Ron Howard who was an actor and then went to the other side of the fence, or Mel Gibson. They're such good directors because they know what it's like on the other side. The bottom line is, it is a team. It's self-correcting because as the world changes, we have to change.

And the next two years are going to be really, really interesting, Brad. In the next two weeks I'm going to decide what the new tour for '14 is going to be, and until the economy does turn around, at this point I'm going to assume that it's not so I've got to agonize over that and keep ticket prices low. Everyone thought we were insane when we made the show bigger this year, but you just need something where people can just escape. Again, as Adam Lind...Adam and Kenny are a team too, those guys work their asses off. We all have our own little sayings for TSO, but Adam's is, "TSO's worst night still has to be better than any other band's best night." That is our standard and if you bump into a problem, just improvise, adapt and overcome. We have so many people on the team like that between Eliot Saltzman, Adam and Kenny, Al Pitrelli in particular.

Bp: And a lot of these people have been with you since the Savatage days...

Paul O'Neill: A long time, which is a great thing because we kind of know how each other think. As long as the northern star for TSO is quality, quality, quality. And rethinking it, rethinking it, rethinking it, that's one of the things with the recent tour we had triple redundancy where one hydraulic thing goes down the second one kicks in, the second one goes down, the third one kicks in. I knock on wood as I say this, but the ultimate nightmare would be that a moving truss is stuck down at the ground level as it's moving, but the people working on it, especially...unfortunately we lost Craig Redden, the guy who used to build all these things. His new replacement, Burton Tenenbein, is already up to speed. A lot of these guys are the unsung heroes. Designing these systems, it's easy to think them up, but to design them so they fit in the trucks and you can move them...and by the way, you're right, another key part of the thing is trying to keep the same team, but a healthy amount. If you need to leave and try something on your own, God bless, go and if you want to come back, come on back. Considering the size of the organization there is staggeringly small turnover in the crew. These are from the A++ world. We try to take great care of them and it's not just a saying, they're considered band members.

Bp: As far as the day-to-day, being a crew member for a normal tour is a hard job. Being a crew member for a TSO tour is a ridiculously hard job. For a normal tour you're trying to get everything set for soundcheck at 5pm, but for TSO on a double-header day it's Noon or 1pm soundcheck.

Paul O'Neill: That's correct. I think one of the things in rock, it's called 'bragging rights' a lot of bands do not believe until we show them that we don't have leapfrogging systems, and that it's the same system that's put up and torn down every night. U2, the Rolling Stones, they've all used leapfrogging systems, but you couldn't keep the ticket prices low without it and that I credit to Eliot Saltzman. When in '08 we went to moving trusses and I said, "Eliot, we're going to have to go to leapfrogging systems." Eliot's like, and he's been with me since the '70s, "Paul, if you go with leapfrogging systems there's no way you're going to be able to keep these tickets under $60 or $70, or whatever it was. I can't remember when we moved to $70." He said, "Paul, trust me. Just trust me. I will rehearse this crew so well, so tight, that we'll be able to do two shows in one day, tear it down, move it hundreds of miles, do two shows the next day and do it night after night after night." I'm like, "Eliot, your hubris..." He said, "Where's the trust? I don't hear any trust." I said, "Alright." To Eliot's credit, he did it!

Bp: There was an awesome crew shirt that I saw from this tour which listed out the two touring groups and a bunch of technical stats, the number of buses, trucks, rigging points, miles, pyro, etc. and at the bottom it said, 'Failure is not an option.' I loved that shirt!


Paul O'Neill: I can't even imagine what it's like. It's insane. Especially when you consider not only do you have to rig for the stage, you have to rig for the stage in the back, which I know doesn't sound like a big deal, but it is. You've got a lot of electric back there, points back there, power back there. Also TSO is used to...we'll come up with different things and then a year or two later all the other bands are doing it. I was always surprised that nobody took our idea of putting the stage behind the sound and light board, just because it makes it great for the people at the back of the house. Actually I said to one of the production guys once, "How come nobody's ever stolen that idea from us?" He said, "Paul, nobody else is dumb enough to kill that many [floor] seats." Not only do you have to kill seats for the staging, but because we have pyro back there you need to put the pyro safety zone around it. It wipes out a lot of seats, but it looks killer. We're always trying to find ways to make it bigger and better.

Bp: I want to hit a few specific points in time to get your feelings or perspective on them. When I talked to Jeff Plate a few weeks ago we discussed his trepidation walking out for the first show in '99 and how nervous he was not in the ability to perform the show, but in how it would be received. I was wondering about your feelings on that first show in '99.

Paul O'Neill: I wasn't nervous at all for the very simple reason that there weren't any expectations. It was just so off the wall, what we were doing was so different, nobody knew what to expect. So we had the gift of no expectations. As time has gone by it's gotten harder because of the band's reputation. These next words I say will probably be heresy to some people, but when I was younger there was a Broadway show, leaving the name off, it was A Chorus Line, at the time held the record for the longest running show on Broadway. I hadn't seen it, though it had been on seven years or whatever, and so I went to see it and I said, "Meh, this really isn't that great." Then I didn't see Star Wars until about three years after it came out, but then when I went to see it I wasn't blown away. I'm not sure if it's because it was just a personal taste thing or if my expectations were so high that I was expecting to have my mind blown. As opposed to when I first went to see Alien I was expecting a B-horror movie and I was like, "Oh my God!" Alien and Aliens, those two movies, made every other science fiction horror movie passé. It completely changed it. Expectations were low, nobody knew it.

The nervous ones for me were basically doing Beethoven's Last Night in Vienna made me nervous and quite honestly doing the first non-rock opera show made me nervous. You never want to be coasting on your reputation and you don't want to meet expectations, you want to blow them away. Which is hard to do, but...by the way, Jeff is a great drummer. Very underrated 'cause he's way in the back, but he also has the job of holding back the horses. When you're onstage it's very hard to judge tempo and the band tends to get excited and rush and it's Jeff's job to hold them back. He does a great job of it.

Bp: In 2004, Madison Square Garden, Daryl's tribute.

Paul O'Neill: Oooh, yea. That was hard. It was the only time we've ever used a tape and the reason I did that was because Daryl was like me, he grew up in New York City and growing up in New York City you grow up in the shadow of Madison Square Garden. Even though he'd been in Kool & the Gang, he'd never played the Garden. He was so excited about playing the Garden. When he died, God bless, right before we were to start rehearsals that's when I decided we would put a click on his vocal track and the band would play live but his voice would come out. His wife and his kids were there and I know it sounds a little bit overly philosophical or whatever, but in my mind he played Madison Square Garden. His wife and his kids got to see it and...I get choked up about Daryl, just 'cause...what a talent. Did you get to see Daryl?

Bp: I've seen every tour since the 2000 tour, so I got to see him a few times.

Paul O'Neill: Oh, ok. Kid Rock [real name: Bob Ritchie] was watching the show with me in Detroit in '99 and when Daryl came out, within four measures Bob looks at me and says, "Who the fuck is that guy?" His voice was just...when I had Daryl on the flight deck I would just shut down the entire production. The special effect was Daryl. Also Daryl was very important, 'cause when we first rehearsed in '99 the band didn't really know each other that well because it was all done in the studio and the first full rehearsal and Daryl walks in and opens his mouth and everyone's jaw just hit the ground. Daryl was just so humble and it wasn't a façade, it was the way Daryl was. He set the tone and he still does to this day. Losing Daryl was to TSO what losing Criss was to Savatage. It was just definitely a big hit.

"Three Kings and I" - TSO Live in New York City, NY; December 22, 2001

Bp: He was an electric performer.

Paul O'Neill: And we had one more...the band's biggest problem occasionally is people thinking that we're lip syncing, including the instrumentation. When we were playing Beethoven's Last Night in one of the casinos, it might have been Caesar's, the manager goes, "Man, your band is great at making it look like they're really playing the instruments." Adam Lind was there and he goes, "They are!" The guy goes, "No they're not. That whole thing is taped." And Adam goes, "Come on down to the board, put on the cans [headphones]." He wouldn't believe us until we basically proved it to him. This is a guy who is in the business.

Keep going forward, keep going forward. The band is at a really key turning point right now. Fifteen years is a long run and honestly Brad, I'm stunned how fast it's gone by. But now the whole key is making sure that...and as you know, Walt Disney is one of my heroes, just creating an entity where artists can come, be nurtured, grow and become great and be protected. Again, God willing, long after I'm gone, this thing will keep going. Very much the way after Disney was gone, it kept going. And following Walt's ideals, always keep it affordable, give people great value for their money...I don't know if we ever talked about when he took his daughters to an amusement park in the '30s. I want that for rock concerts.

Bp: I know Ireland went up on the lifts in 2012 with you in Tampa...

Paul O'Neill: I snuck her up there.

Photo courtesy Brian J. Dupre

Bp: Kind of a two-part question, how was that having her on the flight deck with you and secondly, is she the natural heir to your vision for TSO?

Paul O'Neill: Oh, God. Okay. I just want her to be happy. I want to wrap her in bubble wrap. I'm very careful to...it varies from state to state, but if you ever use your kids through a promotional situation they become public domain, but if you don't then you can stop it. Which is why when People magazine wanted to do a six-page spread, but they wanted the family, the house, the kid, I said, "No," because once you allow that to happen the paparazzi can then follow her to school. It should just be kids wrapped in bubble wrap until they're sixteen. In '08, Oliva came over and there was a story on my writing desk and Jon read it and said, "Is this a new rock opera?" I'm like, "That's not me, that's Ireland." Her writing's on that level, her music writing scares me. I just want her to be happy. I never thought of her going into the business, but she might. It was a blast having her up there, she was pretty fearless too, 'cause some people get nervous on the robotic arms because they bounce around quite a bit.

Bp: When I talked to Georgia a couple months ago and she said she's a daredevil, loved all the lifts, but didn't like the arms.

Paul O'Neill: I would say about fifty-percent of band are nervous of them. Now, they're entirely safe, 'cause I'll never ask a band member to do anything that I won't do, and I went up, no safety harnesses, no back brace, just went all the way up and all the way down. I'll never ask a band member to do anything I won't do three times. If they have to be fifteen feet from the pyro, I'll go five feet from the pyro, because it is safety first. That is the most important thing. And I have pulled the plug on the pyro when I thought it was too dangerous. And trust me, pulling the plug on the pyro is emotionally scarring, but worth it in case somebody makes a mistake.

Bp: Going back to some more specific moments, in 2008 when Al started off the tour with breaking his leg.

Paul O'Neill: [laughs] I heard that. It was, "Ow." I wince when I remember that. Did he tell you how he did it? He did it the same way I did it. When we were playing with Paul Rodgers, I jumped over Paul Rodgers from the upper truss, over him, and landed on the flight deck. I didn't tear it, but I nearly tore my Achilles tendon. It was fuckin' painful. If I'd made my way to physical therapy for thirty days it would have been better, but since I didn't, it took up to nine months. But the first show Al jumps and he pulled a Pete Townshend where you kick yourself in the butt as you are up in the air. When he landed he locked his leg as opposed to with his knees bent and I don't think it's in my imagination, I heard that bone go from the soundboard. And Al fell on the stage, didn't miss a note. I'm not kidding.

Bp: That's incredible.

Paul O'Neill: It really was. He played the whole thing through. As you know we always have backup players and Jon Bivona was on a plane and Al goes, "Go back home, Jon, unless I'm dead!" Al finished the rest of the tour in a cast! He's definitely got that John Wayne thing going. He leads from the front. Also Al is in unbelievable physical shape. He runs five miles a day. He leads from the front. Dave Z is like half his age and tried to keep up with him one day in the gym and Dave's like, "Holy shit, this guy is in great shape." That's why Al is able to run around all night and not break a sweat.

Bp: What were you feeling on opening night of The Lost Christmas Eve tour in '12 when it debuted?

Paul O'Neill: That I was nervous about too just because, "Was this a humongous mistake? Are the agents right? Had it become such a tradition where there's going to be a backlash from changing it?" But right away...people always fight change. There will always be a backlash. I'm old enough to remember the backlash against Bob Dylan when he first played an electric guitar. People called it sacrilege. But now it's obviously accepted. Change will always spook a few people, but you have to grow, you cannot keep doing the same thing over and over again. It's not fair for the audience and there's no way to improve.

This one would have been difficult any time, but to throw the economy on top of this, it's definitely scary, especially because of the cost of the live productions. Again, it's not like the Allman Brothers or The Doors where if the tour goes bad it's just not that much money into the productions. As people have said, "Paul, if I've got a hotel and nobody comes, I've got the building, the land, I'll get something back. If you build this and nobody comes, you've got air." I'm painfully aware of that. But it's just worth it when you see the looks on people's faces and the kids, especially the kids. Actually, if you don't mind me asking, Brad, especially since you've been around since 2000, does it seem like fifteen years to you?

"Beethoven/Requiem" 2-camera mix - TSO Live in Boston, MA; December 22, 2014 - courtesy squintyt4e & BH, editing by Kissfan1973

Bp: No. It's gone by really, really quickly. And to see the progression from the 2,300-seat theater, and then moving to two-shows in the theaters, and up to the arena, then two shows in the arena, etc.

Paul O'Neill: This was in Albany?

Bp: Yes. To watch the progression has been really interesting. And as I was coming up with questions I was thinking that about the 20th anniversary in 2016 and that leaves two years before the opportunity to bring that back in a big way, and I was wondering would you do the other part of the trilogy for two years?

Paul O'Neill: By the way, when I was having dinner with Daltrey one night, I've seen the Who a million times, especially when I was young, and I've never seen a bad Who show, I'm just in awe of them. I told Roger, "I've seen a million of your shows, but I've always been very unlucky because I've never seen my favorite song." He goes, "What song is that?" The song is 'The Song is Over' from Who's Next. I love that song. But I never got to see them do it live. Roger goes, "Paul, you weren't unlucky, we've never done that song live." I'm like, "How could you not do one of the best songs off one of your biggest albums live?" Roger goes, "Paul, too many songs." TSO is starting to bump into that problem. We try to give the full song.

Bp: What has been your proudest moment with TSO so far?

Paul O'Neill: No one's ever asked me that question. Wow. [long pause] There's so many of them. A lot of times it's when they overcome...like there was one time when they were playing one show and the electric went down in the building and Al got up there with an acoustic guitar and just started playing and he kept the entire arena amused until everything got back up and running. It's a lot of the can do attitudes. It's a lot of the selfless acts. When I did "Child of the Night," Valentina [Porter] sang it, but she said, "Paul, I could do my own harmony, but I think it's better if Alexa [Goddard] does because her voice flatters mine. And a lot of singers would just be, "Me, me, me, me, me." But she wasn't. They look out for each other. There'd be times when Jay Pierce would sing a song and the place would go nuts and Jennifer Cella would be going up, but Jay wants Jen to get the biggest roar, it's those kind of things. The way they look out for each other. Or if someone is having trouble with a part, the way some of the other singers will stay up with them all night until they get it down. The easiest thing would be to say Brandenburg Gate or when we did this show or that show, but it's really the small little things, the way people really get the vision and just look out for each other and check their ego at the door, and do what's best for the audience and what's best for the band and put their own personal things to the side. Like I always said, just like America's an ideal and it didn't end when Ben Franklin and Alexander Hamilton and [James] Madison died, hopefully the ideals of TSO will get into everyone's DNA and we'll keep making great stuff, just like Warner Bros. and Disney did. They just got their ideas embossed into enough people that it lasted way past them. It's millions of the little selfless things that...or I'm recording a singer trying to find a singer for a song on an album and they'll say, "Paul, you should try this person, I think they could do it better." You normally don't see that shit in this business, but you do with a lot of our guys. Those are the magical moments. Or sometimes in the signing line...I once saw a kid, very very sick, maybe 19, I wasn't sure if it was muscular dystrophy or cerebral palsy, he was so twisted up, and the way the band hopped over the signing desk and embraced this guy. I'm in awe of people like that. I'm not sure what his disease was, it might have been what Stephen Hawking has. But imagine having a normal brain like the Elephant Man or Stephen Hawking and being trapped in a body that doesn't respond. The way the band responded and was so nice to this kid...the kid was kind of Elephant Man-ish, he was so deformed that you could actually see other people stepping back from him, but the way they not only didn't step back, but the way they went up and were so good to this kid and after the signing line was done they let him stay late and brought him back. Everybody thinks they have a rough life, but you look at people like that, not only am I in awe of him, but I'm also in awe of his parents. I always say, every human being is entitled to moments of pure, sheer joy. Not hard to do. What the band did for this man was great, but it can be as simple as seeing a cleaning lady is having a rough day and giving her a smile, saying, "Thanks for everything you do to keep this place clean." If you have a couple of bucks, especially if it's someone you'll never see again, just give it to them.

Bp: And you've given those random acts of kindness to countless people through the years.

Paul O'Neill: It sounds corny, but it's more fun to do it than to have it done to you. I've been really lucky in life, God has been very good. God knows he's yanked my ass out of trouble more times. And I'm not overly religious at all. My mom's in heaven so she knows how many times I've not gone to church, "Sorry, Mom."

It's especially magical if it's someone you've never seen before and you'll never see again and they don't know where it came from. Someone did it to me when I was younger and there were times in my life when I was starting out when people were really kind to me. It's just fun. I've been lucky enough to do it...like you and I, Brad, are very lucky in life. We live in western civilization, we get to do what we love for a living and we've never gone to bed worrying if there's going to be food in the morning. But there's people like that out there and the other thing is, we try to keep the art affordable. You can charge $1000 for VIP seating, but it just means that regular people are never able to afford it. I don't know if you and I have discussed this, the last shows at the Garden were really horrible. The best seats were thousands of dollars and the first twenty rows were pretty much empty. The tickets were sold, but they were all corporations so they're all in the bars doing deals. The uber fans, the people who would really appreciate being this close to the band, they can't afford it. There's just something not right about it. Don't get me started on baseball stadiums and coliseums.

Bp: Now you haven't been back to the Garden in many years.

Paul O'Neill: No, 'cause they can't do full pyro. I accept that. It's New York City and we carry enough propane, so that I understand. But I just feel like we're ripping off the audience if we're not giving them the best show possible, but we did it the two years in a row.

Bp: There were some restrictions at some of the venues over in Europe with the pyro, correct?

Paul O'Neill: Yes. We spent hundreds of thousands on just the permits. The other nightmare about touring Europe is that every country has different laws and then at the last second the pyro got pulled completely from Paris, because some band had gone in and done it on their own and some people were hurt. Permits got pulled at the last second, but that kind of stuff happens.

It was right after 9/11 and one of the shows we had to use cut-down pyro in one of the cities and it was about 60% of the [normal] show after the show I said to Eliot, "Eliot, I felt like we ripped the audience off." He goes, "Paul, you're the only one that noticed that it was partial pyro." Mee Eun Kim was walking right by and the show was just over and she goes, "Eliot, wuss pyro." [laughs] I said, "See!" It feels great when you feel the heat and it just rolls across the stage. I love it because it adds that fourth dimension to the show. I'm sure you've felt it from where you've been sitting at times.

Bp: Oh, absolutely.

Paul O'Neill: It's best in the nosebleeds in the very back, 'cause it usually doesn't hit there until about ten-fifteen seconds after it hits the stage and when you're back there you hear people go, "Oh my God. If it's like this back here, what it must be like on the flight deck!"

Bp: What's cooler for me, since I've experienced the pyro heat so many times, is the CO2 chill. That wave of cool air that descends after the CO2 jets stop and it's a wave of cold air that drops on you. That's pretty awesome.

Paul O'Neill: [laughs] I forget what year it was, it was one year when we had the pyro and the CO2 going off alternating pyro/CO2/pyro/CO2 and you would see the band members rush over to the CO2 for the instant air conditioning – it was kind of funny.

We just use all the senses. When I say it's like an aircraft carrier, there's no person in the organization that's more important than anybody else and everybody has to be on the money and it's everybody's job to know the job of the person in front of him and the person behind him and be able to go on with a moment's notice. And the same thing goes for the crew. If a rigger goes down, another rigger or the assistant rigger has to be able to take over that position instantaneously 'cause the bottom line is that old cliché that has kind of faded away; the show must go on.

Bp: A good example of that was this year out on the west coast when Jeff Scott Soto jumped in for Brink.

Paul O'Neill: Yup. And you're 100% correct.

Bp: On about a minute's notice.

Paul O'Neill: Pretty much. We've had that happen a couple of times. I always tell the band members it's Murphy's Law, if you know the songs, you won't have to go on. If you don't know the song, something's gonna happen. Jeff definitely saved the night that night. Even though I have to say, Brink's performance of "Back to a Reason" that night was, wow, so in the zone. That's the other thing, protect the singer's voices...

"Back to a Reason, part 2" - TSO Live in Portland, OR; November 24, 2014 - courtesy Stacey Porter

Bp: Going back to that performance in Portland from Brink, that's the danger of your songs, that they are so powerful. That's not the first time someone has been emotionally overcome on stage with your lyrics, between John and Chloe, they're that powerful.

Paul O'Neill: If you're getting emotionally involved on the stage and it can slip...Rob Evan was really great with Chloe that day. Everybody looks at Rob as John Wayne, the poor guy, he's a huge puppy, and Rob said, "Chloe, there's times when I'm literally fighting back going over the line and bursting into tears, 'cause I'm thinking of my kids or whatever." The bottom line, to take the arena there, you have to go there yourself, but you've got to not cross that line. That's an art. In some way or another all of the great singers I've ever worked with have accidentally crossed that line at some point. And then you basically work up little tricks of the trade that you notice when you're getting too emotionally involved in a song and there are ways to...Chloe and John are perfect examples, you could see that they are on the edge and the emotions are like a tidal wave and hats off to John Brink. On "Back to a Reason" he hung on for the whole song and it was just gut wrenchingly powerful. It's funny you mention that because I got a call from one of the guys from Clair Brothers in the middle of that song and he goes, "Brink is on fire. You could hear a needle drop in this arena." Like Chloe after she did that "After the Fall," her Theresa's took a leap, they were so much better, performances after that were always so, so, so, so much better.

I love Chloe. She's got a monstrous voice. It's finding the character. You've got to find the character within yourself and then making the audience identify with you. Like when Rob Evan was singing, "What is Eternal?" Rob had to make the audience believe these were Beethoven's chips you have to make them care about them like they were theirs. Which is also why I have Brian Hicks set up Rob Evan on Beethoven's Last Night setting up the audience when he has to think, does he give up his music the poetry all...before that, should I keep my music or keep my soul. Bryan's last part, "For of our faith they are so insistent, with gods who are so inconsistent, and if we are to further delve, into this night and find ourselves, might we discover in our past, what in our lives might one day last." Basically even though it's about Beethoven, by slipping in those two lines, it makes it about everybody. One day, hopefully God's going to make an exception for you and me, Brad, but everybody else [laughs]...but you wonder what it's going to be like. It's the whole idea each year, you can enjoy the show just as a fight between good and evil, it makes people think.

I know I went off on a million other tangents on you, Brad. Am I being any help here?

Bp: Absolutely. I don't want to take up too much more of your time here, we were talking about the twentieth anniversary of Christmas Eve & Other Stories, but there's another twentieth anniversary which was last year and this year, Romanov.

Paul O'Neill: Oh, man.

Bp: The twentieth anniversary of not yet hearing it.

Paul O'Neill: Yep, yep.

Bp: Will we hear that before the twenty-fifth anniversary?

Paul O'Neill: Romanov in a way has become a blessing and a curse. It's been out there so long, that now when I do release it, it has to be god. I don't want people to go, "We waited for this for twenty years?" It has to be...I don't know if you saw the movie The Man Who Would be King with Sean Connery and Michael Caine. It's one of my favorite books of [Rudyard] Kipling's. John Huston bought the movie rights for it from the Kipling family and it was originally supposed to star Humphrey Bogart and Clark Gable but Humphrey Bogart was very inconsiderate and died on Huston. The movie company was just like, "Replace him and get somebody else." But they didn't get it, there was a chemistry between Gable and Bogart and he canned the whole project. It wasn't until the '70s when Sean Connery and Michael Caine became old enough to play Danny and Peachy that he did the movie. And it's Sean Connery's favorite movie that he ever made, Michael Caine's favorite movie and John Huston's favorite movie. That says a lot. I always loved the movie, always loved the book, but I think it was in the 1990's...you know the basic story, it was about two British soldiers who go to Kafiristan make themselves king and then go back home. Somebody bought a farm in Pennsylvania and found an old trunk and in the trunk there was a diary from an American who went all the way to Kafiristan, made himself like a local king, and eventually came back home to America. And that guy would have had to have gone right through the junction where Kipling was working and the story is great as fiction, but when you realize it's based on a true story, it's even more amazing. I just love little stuff like that. Not to mention it has the "Minstrel Boy" in it and I love that song. That's why I put it on Night Castle.

Bp: If I could, let me get four one-line answers and then one more to sum up and I'll get out of your hair.

Paul O'Neill: Not at all.

Bp: The Beethoven's Last Night movie story portions were shelved due to the financial troubles that fell on Detroit, has another location been scouted out or is that project indefinitely shelved?

Paul O'Neill: It's shelved until I can turn in...as far as priorities, getting the next TSO album out is the priority. And then after that I can decide if the next thing should be the theatrical production, or the Beethoven's Last Night movie which is very different than the Beethoven's Last Night album. Just because, just like The Ghosts of Christmas Eve was similar to Christmas Eve & Other Stories but also very different than Christmas Eve & Other Stories. What makes a great concert doesn't necessarily make a great Broadway show, what makes a great Broadway show doesn't necessarily make a great TV movie, etc.

"Tracers" - TSO Live in 2008, from The Birth of Rock Theater

Bp: The Birth of Rock Theater documentary included some amazing live footage, but the audio that was synced up to that live footage was primarily from the studio versions and I was wondering why the decision to not use the live audio for some of it?

Paul O'Neill: No, actually...oh...some of it is from the live, some of it is from the studio. I honestly forget. About five or six songs from the live tour were done, mixed and ready to go. I'm not sure what Jeff [Richter] did when he cut that whole thing together. That was kind of done on the fly. What year did we do that, I don't even remember?

Bp: It came out in 2011 with footage from Texas on the 2010 Beethoven tour.

Paul O'Neill: Ok. That's another part of the problem, we've got so much stuff filmed and recorded, every single TSO show that has ever been played has been recorded in multi-track. No exceptions.

Bp: Have you ever thought of releasing that? I know some bands do post-show releases where you can go to the merch stand and for $15 get an audio copy of the show.

Paul O'Neill: Never even thought about it yet. I just did it so I'd have it all. The single biggest problem is time. Right now I'm trying to...it's a double thing, get a new TSO album out, try to get this rock theater thing out.

But also at the beginning of your life you kind of find out what you want to do, then you follow your passion... and I really feel that I'm at the point of my life now where you just want to start to mentor the next generation and pass all that knowledge on like people did to me when I was younger. And to start now while I still remember it all. Just like Roy Secala from the Record Plant, really helped me how to mix, or with Dave Wittman it was Eddie Kramer who mentored Dave. It's just basically getting an esprit de corps for the whole organization to make the best stuff possible, keep it affordable and also do it so it's self-perpetuating. And the key to that is keeping egos in check, including your own...the Three Musketeers, everyone looks out for everyone else, it will always turn out ok. I'm starting to see that now, Danielle has really stepped up to the plate. Al Pitrelli and Derek Weiland are invaluable. They are both gods as musical directors. And just because you're a great musician does not mean you're a great musical director. Like Vitalij Kuprij, I love Vitalij. He's a god keyboard player who is out of his mind! He's funny as hell. The only way to describe him is like Beethoven and Curly Howard from the Three Stooges had become one person. If you were hanging out with Vitalij at a barbeque you'd think, "This is a nice, lovable class clown." Then when he sits down at the piano you're like, "Who the hell is this guy?" It's quite a collection of people. Bob Kinkel was always, not just a great musician, but his computer knowledge was just killer. Just the way everybody nurtures everybody else along. Everybody has their place. The rough thing this year, and it was very rough, James Lewis. He said, "Paul, I'm just not at one hundred percent and I don't want to go out there at ninety-five." I said, "James, it's totally your call." He's on full salary whether he goes or not which makes it 'cause I don't want people to feel backed up to the wall, they were expecting this and [then not to have it].

Bp: Now I had heard that he went to Omaha with plans to head to Toledo for the tour? Is that true that he tried to go for it?

Paul O'Neill: I think he went out to try and then...when you're by yourself you can convince yourself that you're there, but when you're on the aircraft carrier you know if you're not. I really respect James a lot. In my opinion he could have gone out there and I don't think anyone would have complained. James just didn't feel it was...he wanted to give the audience his best and stepped aside.

Bp: He's had back pain for a number of years.

Paul O'Neill: Yes, but he had an operation and it went away for a while. He's got that John Wayne gene. I don't think it was the pain that kept James from doing it. I think it was that he wasn't able to give it the best show humanly possible.

Another perfect example of what we were discussing earlier, Russell [Allen] had just joined the band and he was brought in to do "Christmas Dreams," but he was told to learn every single song that you can back up and thank God Russell did his homework, because I'm like, "Ok, Russell, not only are you the storyteller on Fifth Avenue talking to the kids, you're the storyteller in the bar." Also credit to, at least in my opinion, you might not 'cause you know everybody so well, but "Christmas Dreams" and "Christmas Nights in Blue" are back-to-back vocals and Russell by just changing his mannerisms and everything else it was like it was another singer. You don't really quite pick up on it. It also worked for me in the story in that the storyteller telling the story to the kids could easily stop at a bar and be a storyteller there.

Bp: It was fun from the first shows in Toledo and through to the last shows in Buffalo and many in between to watch him coming into the role and developing over the course of the tour.

Paul O'Neill: I would agree with you. The more time he was on that flight deck the more comfortable he got, the more at ease he got, the more he tried different things. A great guy, really, really nice and even James said afterwards, James was so glad he sent a note to Russell saying, "I hate not doing it, but I just feel so good the song is in your hands."

A lot of decisions are to be made in the next four-to-six weeks. I wish I had more definitive answers for you, Brad. We're figuring them out as we speak.

Bp: I'd love to circle back in a few months...

Paul O'Neill: Consider it a done deal. "When we last left our intrepid heroes..." [laughs] what's going on and we'll take it from there.

Bp: What album is "Time and Distance" slated for?

Paul O'Neill: Letters from the Labyrinth.

Bp: And my last question, what is the five-year, ten-year plan...I know you said the next two years are going to be busy, you have four albums and some stage shows, maybe a casino residency...what does the next five years look like for TSO?

Paul O'Neill: The next five years is basically, you just have to re-adjust the entire Night Castle Management and TSO to changes in the industry. And also in part to prep, especially the people on the other side of the fence so that this thing can keep going, again it's an idea that's not dependent on a single individual, as long as everybody gets the vision, and sticks to the vision, and part of the vision is to keep double-checking yourself, "Is there something you're doing wrong? Is this getting boring? Is it old hat?" And over the next five years what I'd like to see is the next TSO album come out, the first rock theater show get going...

Bp: What show would that be?

Paul O'Neill: There are so many to pick from. They all have ups and downs. The good thing about Gutter Ballet is it would not be expensive to mount. Some of the other shows, the production would be twenty to thirty million to build the set. That all has to be figured out. But that's not what's driving it. What's driving it is, can I find the right person to .... People say they understand it, but to make sure they really understand it. And by that I mean, you have to be able to read your audience. You have to be able to have a song come across and adjust, somebody has to be adjusting the show to the times, and also putting the right people...again...The Godfather, in the original it wasn't supposed to be Al Pacino it was supposed to be James Caan. Whatshisname saw that it was wrong and switched it at the last second. Sometimes that happens from management, "Oh these people should be switched," but sometimes it happens from the artists themselves. A singer will say, "They might be better." Going back to some of the times when I'm most proud of the band, it's moments like that. Where a singer gives up a song because they think someone else can do it better.

Bp: So when you're talking about the five year plan and you're saying the next TSO album are you looking at the four you're working on to be out in five years or one or more?

Paul O'Neill: One to two to be out in five years, but the other thing is, rock theater is becoming more and more important because...

Bp: And is that physically mounting a show within a theater?

Paul O'Neill: Yes. And then letting it tour. Because TSO only gives work to so many musicians and so many singers. If I can get rock theater going, and again, the rock world is still caught up in the how many times can you open Oklahoma or My Fair Lady or whatever. And Broadway does not understand rock. As I've said in interviews, if you went back to 1914 we could open up most of the shows on Broadway and have most of them look the same as they do in 2014. You can't go back five years and do a TSO show, just because the technology doesn't exist. They are just trapped in this Byzantine past and to me Broadway should be massive cutting edge which is why we're tending to lean more towards the casinos because they have the infrastructure for it. The important thing for rock theater is again, you can't download it...and I just worry, there's literally twenty-seven thousand less record deals a year, that's all those bands that don't have record deals and the ones that do, the money is so much less than what it was [phone rings] Uh, oh, you know what this is [laughs and takes call] The studio is like, "Where the hell are you?"

Bp: Give them my apologies. Sorry for keeping you.

Paul O'Neill: No, Brad, we're out the door, and I know I'm not giving you an answer to a lot of the questions, because I don't know them.

Bp: That's understandable.

Paul O'Neill: Once the stars line up and I know what's happening I'll tell Kenny to track you down and you'll be the first to know.

Bp: I look forward to it. Thanks so much. I appreciate the time today, Paul.

Paul O'Neill: Brad, thank you so much. Take care and again, thank you for saving the day again.

Bp: Any time, I'll do what I can. Thanks, Paul. Take care.

Paul O'Neill: Bye.

"Christmas Eve/Sarajevo (12/24)" - TSO Live in Toledo, OH; November 13, 2013 - courtesy Squintyt4e

Additional Links:
Part I of Paul's interview
My 2012 interview with Paul O'Neill
Trans-Siberian Orchestra

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