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07 November 2014 @ 08:13 pm
The Trans-Siberian Orchestra Interviews: Paul O'Neill - Winter Tour 2014 - part 2  
<-- Part I

Bp: I was wondering if "The World That She Sees" was written as a response to your daughter's first few Christmases?

Paul O'Neill: You just hit the nail right on the head. I always loved Christmas, but once we had Ireland it just changed the whole way I viewed the world period. Like I always said, Brad, I always loved children, I have nine brothers and sisters, and I never thought I was going to have a kid until I met my wife and we decided to have Ireland. Not only did I love Ireland more, but I loved all kids more. When I would see a child going hungry or starving to death, it always tore my heart out, but now it really tears my heart out. When I saw those pictures of the children that were killed with nerve gas or Saddam Hussein killed with mustard gas...y'know, everybody is guaranteed certain rights freedom from fear, freedom from want, no one even thinks of the ultimate freedom to take a breath of air and know that it's not mustard gas that give you burn blisters in your lungs and they burst and you drown in your own liquids. It's horrible for an adult, but for a child who doesn't understand what's happening. And for a child to look at their parents and there's nothing they can do...oh there was a scene they made me leave out of Merry Christmas, Rabbi, it's just between me and you [Paul detailed a very graphic and difficult to listen to scene]. Everybody said, "Paul, if you keep that scene in there twelve and thirteen year old kids can't read it." So I left it out. The good humans can do is amazing, but the bad humans can do is also amazing.

Bp: I feel weird going back to these questions after that....wow, that was powerful.

Paul O'Neill: No, go ahead.

Bp: There is a three-minute version and a six-minute version of "The World That She Sees."

Paul O'Neill: Yes, one has massive counterpoint.

Bp: Right. The "There on this night, pieces of light..." section. Why two version and which is your final version?

Paul O'Neill: It was basically that we were running out of space on the CD. There are literally three seconds of extra space on that CD originally. But then CDs added an extra three minutes, so I had to leave out the counterpoint to get the other song on, "The World That He Sees," which basically is the more important song. Everybody says, "What is the answer to all life's problems?" It's always been there; do unto others as you would have done to you.

And the other thing I try to drive into the other band members, not to get overly philosophical, but it's the truth. Not only is it the members that are on the flight deck, but it's also the crew who are the first ones in and the last ones out. It's not only the crew, it's the maintenance people from the building so we're not in venues that smell like the vomit of last night's hockey game. But it's also the garbage man that's picking up our garbage when we're not at home and it's everybody. Individually we're all finite. Everyone has an ideal and this is something my father taught me, there is no such thing as an unimportant job. Period.

When I was in first grade the nuns told us to draw a picture of what we wanted to be when we grew older and I drew a picture of a street sweeper. It sounded like fun to just push a broom. And the nun, she laughed, made fun of me in front of the entire class. But when I showed it to my father, he goes, "Paul, you want to be a street sweeper, that's great. But just make sure anybody that goes down that street says, "Who cleaned this street?!" I think part of the problem with America or the world, is its attitude towards work. There's no such thing as an unimportant job and I think people are distracted. A perfect example is welfare, the vast majority of people who work in the fast food industry have to get food stamps and rent subsidies from welfare to be able to support their families. But the end beneficiaries of that aren't the people getting the food stamps or welfare, it's the food chains that are able to hire these people at unlivable wages because the tax people receive it even though those companies are making record profits.

Again what's been going on recently: greed without purpose. After a certain amount of money it's just zeros in your bank account, but more importantly, again, when I was sixteen, Brad, that summer me and my friends we got in my Mustang, which was old, and we drove from New York to LA, slept by the side of the roads. We never worried about anyone robbing us or anything. You couldn't do that in Brazil or Venezuela. A country is only as strong as its middle class and the respect...this country does not need population, it needs citizens. It does not need politicians, it needs statesmen. It's not just democrats and republicans, it's the whole system. Money has corrupted it.

Back to "he knew he had things or at least he thought he did," over my life I've gotten to know so many people that have obtained things, like a yacht or this or that, they have them, don't want it, it just sits at the dock, they've used it maybe once or twice...My Grandmother Moore, "Paul, it doesn't matter how many houses you have, you can only sleep in one bed at night." She was right.

After a certain amount of money, you want to make sure that anyone who works in your organization makes a good living. But I don't understand these companies, especially when they're not even the owners, they're just the CEO's, or these hedge funds where they'll walk away with ten billion even though their depositors lost ten percent of their wealth that year. And then they don't pay taxes on top of it. And if you go back through history, it's the same mistakes over and over again. And also it gets down to ethics. Kids are smart, they learn what you teach them, but they also learn by watching and if people have stolen all this money from the banks and nothing happens to them, what does that teach them. Teddy Roosevelt had a great quote, "To educate a man in mind and not in morals is to educate a menace to society." That is so true. Money has corrupted the whole legal system, but it can be turned around....again Teddy Roosevelt, Boss Tweed once said about him, "God Damn, Teddy Roosevelt. I keep buying him but he won't stay bought!" The bottom line is I think it's all going to come to a happy ending, but in the meantime, everybody knows something is wrong, but it hasn't reached the point where it can be fixed yet.

Bp: I wanted to pull out a piece of the narration that comes after "The Snow Came Down" that I thought was pretty powerful: "In this last season of the year, this season that we trust, It's not only important to know for whom we wait, but to know who waits for us." I was wondering at what point you came to that realization?

Paul O'Neill: It happened years and years and years ago. With a bunch of rock stars we visited an old age home and it was during the holiday season. I was talking to one of the nurses...I respect people, but there are certain people that I really respect: Doctors, teachers, those are callings, those aren't jobs. We went on Christmas Eve because the band wasn't playing a show, and I was talking to one of the nurses and I told her it was so cool that she was working on the holiday and that it must be hard to be away from her family on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day and I'll never forget what this one nurse said to me. She said, "You're right, working this day is hard, but it's not being away from my family that kills me, there's so many old people here that are waiting and haven't had a visitor all year and they hope all year they're going to get a visitor, but on Christmas Eve that hope really goes through the roof. To see an old woman or an old man who might have five or six kids and not one calls or stops by to visit." She said, "I do all I can to distract them from that fact." I never forgot her saying that. We always think who we need to see on Christmas, but we don't think about those who are waiting for someone to come for Christmas, but no one is coming. I think that's very hard on the very young and the very old. We always try to visit orphanages and the orphans that we talk to are teenagers, but to be a child, three or four or five, I think it's harder now than it was in olden times because they see TV and they see The Brady Bunch and they think, "Oh, this is what everybody has. How come no one wants me."

Bp: You had mentioned Merry Christmas, Rabbi inspired "Dream Child"...

Paul O'Neill: Correct.

"Dream Child" - TSO Live in Uncasville, CT; November 16, 2014 - vocals by Robin Borneman

Bp: Did the other songs from The Christmas Attic come soon after "Dream Child?"

Paul O'Neill: Yes.

Bp: Did the story come from there or did the songs come before the story?

Paul O'Neill: I had gotten old enough and I'd met a lot of really, really rich people and I discovered I know so many people who are rich who are so unhappy it is mind blowing. And I've met so many people who just get by, but are so happy. And if anything it seems to be, to a certain degree, getting worse. Once you have all this money...and I even feel sorry for Bernie Madoff in one way. He destroyed so many lives, but to have his own son hang himself, two years to the day that he told him what he did. That's a heavy thing to live with.

Bp: So the songs came out of experiences that you had heard from other people.

Paul O'Neill: Yea, in life. A lot of the happiest people I know are not the richest. A lot of the saddest I know are not the poorest. Most people don't realize that. More than fifty-percent of the people that win the lottery go bankrupt at the end of five years. A lot of times it doesn't bring happiness, a lot of times it brings misery. I've told you that a lot of Night Castle came from two direct experiences in life I will never forget. It was the 1980's and I was in Germany. A friend of mine, one of the German promoters, told me he knew somebody who was a friend of Lenin and was an original Bolshevik in the Russian Revolution. He wanted to know if I wanted to have dinner with him. I was like, "Are you kidding me? Know somebody who knew Lenin, who knew Stalin?" So when I asked him how he could fight for Lenin, let alone Stalin he said, "Paul, Lenin had convinced us that if you kill 100,000 people there will be utopia for all humanity for all eternity. But by 1919, there was no utopia, we'd killed millions and it was a nightmare. But we had so much invested in the lie, our entire youth, millions of dead people, that we couldn't admit to ourselves it was a lie. So we just kept going."

Again, everybody makes mistakes. Ronald Reagan belonged to the Communist party at one point, but when he saw what it was, he changed direction. Everybody makes mistakes. I think it was Oscar Wilde who said, "The opposite of evil is not good, the opposite of evil is good intentions." Especially good intentions that they don't want to admit they made a mistake. People don't like admitting it or whatever, but you put it in a good story and slip it into their subconscious. It all comes down to storytelling. I love storytelling and I love music. There's something universal about it. The big thing that has changed since I last talked to you, Brad, is I really feel that I have to get this rock theater thing going faster rather than later. All the great new talent that I've auditioned has all said that they were looking for ways to get out of the music industry so I just don't want to see that. The same thing is happening to book writers.

Bp: So do you foresee less of a focus on TSO touring a non-holiday time and more of your time focused on starting up rock theater or both in tandem?

Paul O'Neill: I'd say right now, while I'm feeling fairly refreshed, I think after the next two or three albums, TSO will have so many things to do, they can keep going out, in the mean time we've got to get rock theater going sooner rather than later, while the talent pool is still there.

Bp: So those two or three TSO records – are you looking for those to be out in two or three years, five or six years?

Paul O'Neill: [laughs] Ok, I'm scared to say this to you, Brad, one will one hundred percent be out in 2015.

Bp: Which one is that?

Paul O'Neill: I haven't picked the one yet. But I've pushed Universal's patience to the end. It's now all about the timing and deciding which one it should be.

Bp: You said Romanov was the closest to being complete.

Paul O'Neill: That is true, but now I would say Letters from the Labyrinth is on equal footing. Gutter about half-way.

Bp: So you're steering towards Letters in 2015?

Paul O'Neill: I'm leaning towards Letters, but I love Romanov. [We discuss at length the logistics of releasing Romanov in today's climate]

Bp: It's been in the works for five, ten, over twenty years now.

Paul O'Neill: The rock opera about the Bolshevik Revolution is taking five times longer than the Russian revolution. Jon and I were just discussing the other day, we were laughing about it in a weird kind of way 'cause when we played Berlin on New Year's Eve the last time there was close to that many people in Brandenburg Square in a happy way was in 1914, before WWI broke out. It was just so weird to be on that stage one-hundred years later where all these different people were in the audience where one-hundred years ago might have been their great-grandparents, in the square, happy because the world was at peace. By next summer in August of 1914, WWI was starting. By the time it ended, the Russian empire was gone the German empire was gone, the Austria-Hungary empire was gone, the Ottoman empire was gone, and the Chinese empire was gone. It's amazing how many empires would collapse in the four-year period.

But it goes back to the whole idea of forgiveness and redemption. If the Versailles treaty didn't make the Germans pay as opposed to looking at them as fellow human beings that made the mistake. That's the other thing I was always fascinated about with Germany in WWII, was to me, Germany in the 1930's was the height of civilization, it was the country that gave us Beethoven, Immanuel Kant, the greatest philosopher, who said, "Human beings biggest problem is their inability to think for themselves. Don't believe in a God because this nice person told them to. Think it out. Use logic and reason. Don't go to war because someone said, 'Do it.' Think it through. You owe it to yourself. You owe it to humanity." All the great chemical advances, all the great scientific advances, all out of Germany. And if Germany could descend into insanity, any country can.

To me that was the big lesson of WWII. Also Sinclair Lewis who wrote the book, It Can't Happen Here, where he shows it happening in America.

The next five years is going to be very interesting. As my grandmother used to say, "Paul, if the world's going to end next month, someone still has to make dinner tonight."

"The Three Kings & I" - TSO Live in New York City, NY; December 22, 2001 - vocals by Daryl Pediford

Bp: "The Three Kings and I" – obviously that's going to be a tough one, like "Music Box Blues" was since Daryl [Pediford] owned that.

Paul O'Neill: Absolutely.

Bp: Especially live in the early days with the jam session. That was a pivotal point in the show.

Paul O'Neill: Agreed. And we're remixing "Music Box Blues" the Daryl version, and it is so bizarre when we're playing the tapes and we hear Daryl talking to us. "Paul, can you turn up the guitar a little bit in that." It's just so weird, the light is out in the vocal booth, but I feel like he's there. It doesn't seem like ten years since he died.

Bp: That's got to be a difficult song to get ready for the tour.

Paul O'Neill: It's so funny, but everyone is trying it right now and my wife handed me a note earlier, "Danielle wants you to call." And it's all about "Music Box Blues." That was written around Daryl's voice.

Bp: Depending on how you weave the story, if it goes back to a male voice or if as in recent years you have a female vocal on it, I would think since both Erika [Jerry] and Chloe [Lowery] have done that live already that they'd do that again?

Paul O'Neill: Erika was so cute, she was like, "I can't sing this, this is Daryl's." Trust me, Daryl would want you to sing it to keep the song alive. The people who would hear her sing it would go pick up the Attic and there will be Daryl.

Bp: I have talked to Chris [Caffery] specifically about Daryl's songs since he was so extremely close with Daryl and he said that if another male singer had sung that it would have been very difficult, but that he knows Daryl was looking down on Erika and thinking that's exactly who should be singing it.

Paul O'Neill: Erika did make that easier. The one who had the hardest time was poor Jay. He had been working in Dayton in various bands and shows, had nearly died from pneumonia after collapsing on stage with only three-percent lung capacity, which is basically the least you can have and live. So when he came to New York, I'll be honest with you, he was not quite flight deck ready, but we thought we had some time to train him. But God bless when Daryl passed away, I honestly believe, and I'm not overly religious, Brad, I swear, but it's like Daryl came down from heaven and took him to another level. When he sang, "Every child, every child, every child is ours..." you'd swear that guy had twenty kids, but he doesn't. He doesn't have one. But he cares about them.

Bp: I know you like to be cognizant of the singer's health and not straining them. On the European tour Rob [Evan] did a number of songs including "Mephistopheles' Returns," which is a powerhouse, and "Epiphany." Does that mean that there is a chance at all that we might get to see "Epiphany" on the winter tour? Ignoring the fact that it's over ten minutes and takes up a lot of time, us Stateside fans really need to see this live!

Paul O'Neill: Wow.

Bp: And how much would I have to pay you to include that in the setlist?

Paul O'Neill: [laughs] I love "Epiphany."

Bp: Then you want to see it on the winter tour!

Paul O'Neill: The only thing is, by the way, if Adam Lind ever heard this he would kill us both [laughs]. Did I tell you about the end result of the European tour about "Epiphany" - Adam told Rob after the European tour that he fought me tooth and nail not to do that song. "I was wrong," he told Rob. Rob told me that Johnny Lee Middleton said, "I gotta tell ya something, when I saw the set list in Omaha for Europe and I saw 'Epiphany' that two-hour opus of yours? I thought, "We're fuckin' dead meat. We are dead meat. Paul's lost his fuckin' mind." By the second show it was my favorite part of the show."

Rob nailed it. Every night. He was on fire. Hats off to Rob, because that's a hard song to sing! The only problem is, it's so long. Adam's like, "You've got to keep the set to at least 2:45. Do not go over 2:45." I'm torn.

Bp: It is long, but it's so worth it.

Paul O'Neill: I know. You and I have discussed the other version, the sixteen-minute version of the song. I'm dying to release that with all the counterpoint. You know Rob, you can imagine how good it is. If we'd have included it would have meant turning Night Castle into three CDs.

Paul O'Neill: At some point at one of the European festivals when I have the full band I might do it live. A moment I love from the Savatage days, we used to do the song "Chance," and the first year the band would stop before the counterpoint section. But there was a fan with a camcorder who was recording the very first show in Europe when they did it with all the counterpoint and you can hear the guy with the camcorder saying, "They're not stopping! I think they're going to do the whole thing! Yes! Yes!" That was when I just had six singers. It's one of my favorite moments with Savatage, that video. With Trans-Siberian I'd have the whole thing and it would just...I want to create that kind of excitement to do "Epiphany" live like that and then release the finished thing.

"An Angel's Share" - TSO Live in New York City, NY; December 27, 2004 - vocals by Jennifer Cella & Danielle Landherr

Bp: It's going to be a treat to see and hear "An Angel's Share" again this year.

Paul O'Neill: It's so funny because the kittens have all been working in duo's. To do that right, like "Child of the Night," the voices need to blend perfectly. Danielle and Jen's voices blended perfectly and on "Child of the Night" Alexa and Valentina's voices blended perfectly. I have to get four to have it on both coasts.

Jodi and Chloe have been working on a version for the West and there's a little pile of CDs that's marked "An Angel's Share" from Danielle. Danielle's been doing a great job. Because of Skype she's been able to work with all the singers. She takes so much pressure off of me, I don't know what I'd do without her. And also for new singers, I work with them in the beginning and then Dan works with them the rest of the way.

It's funny also, I had totally forgotten about "Midnight Christmas Eve," I haven't heard that song since I recorded it. Al is so happy because he gets to play slide guitar again. The dangerous thing about "Dream Child" is it's long. It's an emotional journey and getting the singers back in...we call it singing naked. A lot of people think the hardest songs are the rockers, but they're not, because you can sink back into the band for protection if you get in trouble. But "Old City Bar," "Dream Child," it's you and an acoustic guitar. If you make a mistake, you can't look at somebody else.

But you know who has an old soul? Robin. I just heard his version of "Dream Child" and wow.

Bp: When I was listening to it and wondering who might be tackling these songs, I thought, James – 'cause I'm an Eastie, so I tend to think first of the East – James Lewis or Russell came to mind, but then I thought that although he might not necessarily be old enough, that Robin's voice would fit very well with that.

Paul O'Neill: You're absolutely one-hundred percent correct. Even though he's in his twenties, my grandmother would say he's an old soul in that he's able to empathize in a way beyond his years. He sang "Dream Child" like a 50-year old who's been to hell and back. I love the Tim Hockenberry version which we put out. Tim went through hell with alcoholism and everything else, and he was able to capture some of that angst.

Bp: Why did you re-record it with Tim?

Paul O'Neill: Tim did such a good job with "Believe," like when I was trying to explain to him, "Tim, this is a guy who has a lot of talent in him, a lot potential in life, but he wasted his life, and now he's looking in the mirror and he regrets all the things that he's done and he's not sure there's enough time to correct it and Tim looks at me and said, "Paul, you don't have to explain this to me, I am that guy. I don't know if you know his story but he spent a lot of years in an alcoholic haze and the first year he went out with us he hadn't even been clean and sober for a year. The whole idea was just to get him to get to that point. AA gives you a white chip and I think December 27th would have been his first year and we knew he could do it.

I don't know if you and I have ever discussed this, everyone thinks the biggest problem in rock and roll is cocaine and heroin. But no, it's alcohol, far and away. I have a friend who has been in the industry as long as I have and we kind of lost him in the '80s to heroin and then later to cocaine, and then we lost him for a while to alcohol. He said once, "Paul, that was the problem, I thought there was no way alcohol would ever get me, but it's way harder. Part of my brain thought I could have one beer and then stop. And then I thought I could have one more beer and then stop. And then one gin and tonic. It's the only drug you can die of withdrawal from. With heroin you might think you're gonna die, you might want to die, you might want someone to kill you. But with alcohol it can kill you from withdrawal. It's one of the only drugs that hurts every cell in the human body and it's so sad. I always tell everyone, especially the young kids, "Trust me, no one starts in this industry saying, 'If I work my ass off and then just when I'm on top I'm going to become an alcoholic.'" I tell them, "When you're not afraid of it, is when you should be afraid of it."

Al's been clean and sober for eight or nine years. I'm so proud of him. He's very helpful to anyone who might stumble to get them back on the wagon. With Tim, since he had been through so much hell, I thought, if someone has been through so much pain and anguish in their life, I try to tell them to channel that into their art and make something special from it. A couple of times it has worked. Someone once said, "Anyone who has had a perfect childhood can't become a great artist."

Right now, I will know more by the end of August once we own our own studio that will give us some freedom to get the younger kids going and learning how to produce. One day me and Al, we're all going to be gone, I would like these kids to be trained and have the opportunities that we had.

"Appalachian Snowfall" - TSO Live in Providence, RI; December 19, 2014

Bp: Who in your mind carries on that legacy? You and Al's kids?

Paul O'Neill: Danielle I think one day will be an excellent producer. BJ Ramone, his dad is Phil Ramone, and he is now being mentored by Dave Wittman to be an engineer. Producing is an art all unto itself. You have to figure out what the band is missing and correct it. It's a difficult job, it's like herding cats, and in a little way I have it a little easier in that I'm the songwriter too.

I want it to be like Disney. Disney takes the best animators, the best storytellers, the best actors, the best directors and nurtures them. Or like Jack Warner did at Warner Brothers. Hopefully, and this was never part of my original plan, Brad, as I've seen the industry falling apart, the thing that scares me the most is ten years ago if I needed someone to fill in for Dave Wittman and I, I would send a Christmas Attic to fifty A&R guys and fifty labels and say, "Do you guys have anyone who can fill this?" Now it's down to Universal, Warner and Sony.

Bp: What do you remember about the recording of The Christmas Attic? For the band it was pretty much the Savatage core and Bob [Kinkel].

Paul O'Neill: The funny thing about The Christmas Attic was it's a blur. ‘Cause it was done very quickly, but my main gun slinger was Al. If I say to Al, "Al, I need a little bit more nicotine on that." He knows exactly what I mean. If I say, "That needs more nab." He knows exactly what I mean. Al is super-fast and the other great thing about Al is, not only is he the best guitar player I know. He's also a great teacher. You can be a great guitar player and not a great teacher, but Al has been able to teach it to all the other guitar players. I hand Al guitar players, he hands me back rock stars. Al's just had so much flight deck experience. He's a great MD and his playing ability just gets better and better every year. He's not only a great MD, but especially now that he's been clean and sober for eight years, he can keep the band...I've never drank, so when I say, "Don't drink," it doesn't carry much weight. When Al, who was legendary, says, "Don't drink." It carries a lot more weight than when I say it.

Bp: This was recorded in a very short amount of time, right? You said that you wrote Beethoven before Attic, although it was released after Attic, but Attic would have been recorded in '97 primarily?

Paul O'Neill: Attic and Beethoven, it was kind of like Abbey Road and Let it Be. Let it Be was recorded before Abbey Road, but Abbey Road came out first.

Bp: So Beethoven was recorded prior to Attic?

Paul O'Neill: Pretty much, but we were having a lot of trouble with the vocals. I just wanted it to be so perfect.

Bp: Trouble with finding people to fill the vocal roles?

Paul O'Neill: The Beethoven role itself was hard because he goes through such a journey. And I have to say, Jody Ashworth really got it. We were lucky on the Theresa role because Patti Russo is just a monster. She had all those years with Meat Loaf that had her trained. I also lucked out with Oliva, he just loves being the devil.

Bp: It's hard to get anyone who can sound more sinister.

Paul O'Neill: I agree. But Jon is charming and it's not until you get to "Misery" that he scares the shit out of you. I must say, for the live, both Soto and Ronny Munroe I thought did great jobs with that. Oliva, it's always a lot easier to do after someone has laid out the map. Jon is just a monster to this day and also Jon and Bob's piano playing come from two different schools. Bob was trained, Jon was self-taught. It was just a perfect combo. Bob's computer chops were invaluable as well. We were always pushing the cutting edge of sounds and Bob excelled at that.

Bp: Is that missed these days?

Paul O'Neill: [Pause] Derek has picked up that role and as you know, Derek is also classically trained, I love him.

Bp: Is he working in the studio with you?

Paul O'Neill: Yes, right now. Between him and Vitalij...I love Vitalij, but he's out of his fucking mind. [laughs]

Bp: I know you've told me some tales over the years. So the music for Beethoven was laid down, then Attic was worked on and the vocals for Beethoven came later?

Paul O'Neill: I would say the vocals for Beethoven were finished later. It may have actually been finished and in the can, but the pressure was to finish the trilogy first.

Bp: When you look back on Attic what comes to mind?

Paul O'Neill: The main thing that came to mind was actually that when I came home at night, my daughter was there. That was a whole new experience, because my wife would stay up until 2 or 4 am and then I would come home. Ireland and I would walk around Greenwich Village between 4 and 6 am, but then we had to get home because the Three Stooges hour would come on between 6 and 7 and we had to watch that. Ireland was so cute, she would always try to warn Curly that Moe was going to poke him in the eyes.

Paul with Chris Caffery - Dec. 21, 2014 Newark, NJ

Bp: Are we going to see the release of a narrated version of The Christmas Attic to coincide with this year's tour?

Paul O'Neill: We're definitely going to do it. The question is which comes first, Christmas Eve & Other Stories or The Christmas Attic.

Bp: Would you hold Christmas Eve & Other Stories until the 20th Anniversary?

Paul O'Neill: That's what the thinking is, which is right around the corner. That's hard for me to believe. Again it's bringing its own set of problems, the good set of problems is that the band is still going and I'd like it to be a vehicle...I think I told you this, when Ahmet Ertegan wanted me to describe the band I said, "It's easy. It's like The Who meets Pink Floyd meets Yes meets the Yardbirds." He said, "I get the first three, but the Yardbirds?" And I said, "Yea, because the Yardbirds as you know were a fairly successful band out of Britain in the ‘60s. They had some hits like "For Your Love" and "Train Kept A Rollin' All Night Long." But out of that one little band came Led Zeppelin's Jimmy Page, Derek & the Dominos' Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck...anyone that's able to use TSO as a stepping stone to what they want to do, like Katrina Chester or Rebecca [Tobin] from Glee, God bless. Alex Skolnick has the Alex Skolnick Trio now. You want to make it your home, that's great, if you want to use it as a stepping stone because you have another vision, that's great too. The only thing is when you're in TSO that you're in top form. Once the tour starts, you've got to keep your voice in shape and your playing chops in shape all year round because the openings of certain songs, like "Moonlight and Madness" you cannot play like that if you don't play for six months and just start back up again. Like Derek and Al who practice religiously every day, a lot of our singers, like Rob Evan, every day. It's like training for a marathon, you can't start it a month before the marathon, you have to be what we call FDR, flight deck ready, because these tours are grueling. You not only have to do it, you also have to make it look effortless.

Bp: There is a vinyl edition of The Christmas Attic that's coming out this fall?

Paul O'Neill: Oh, yes there is. [laugh] Ok. I don't know how you get your information, no one is supposed to know about that yet. Basically Warner Bros asked if they could release the entire TSO catalog and entire Savatage catalog on vinyl. I'm like, "Twist my arm!" The Savatage catalog was released on vinyl up to Streets, but we had to leave songs off Streets. Now they want to release everything so it's basically getting the best guys...mastering on vinyl is an art. With CDs what you hear on the tape is what you're going to hear on the CD or MP3, but with vinyl you lose certain frequencies when it goes to vinyl so you have to put those frequencies back without hearing them to get the vinyl EQ'd. That is an art. I'd say about 90% of the vinyl mastering places are gone. We're very lucky, Ted Jensen from Sterling Sound is still around, I've always used them. So he's the one remastering everything for vinyl.

There will be a new album out in '15 or my body will be swimming with the fishes. I'll know what it is by the spring.

Bp: Probably not any touring for TSO in the spring next year?

Paul O'Neill: I learned a lesson this year. The idea was instead of breaking the band down, we'd go to Europe for a European tour, but it was exhausting. It killed everybody.

Bp: It might have been different if it was the same show, but you developed an entirely different show in a few weeks.

Paul O'Neill: You're correct.

Bp: That must have been a crazy undertaking.

Paul O'Neill: Just losing those two rehearsal days going to Berlin hurt as well. Basically we went right from Berlin to Manchester and then non-stop rehearsal until we started the tour. Everybody just felt like we were run over by a herd of elephants. I learned that after the winter tour everybody needs a break.

That's another thing, there's such a good vibe within the band and I think part of the problem with rock in the old days was you would make these bands tour for eleven months, one month off, eleven months on, one month off. It doesn't matter how well you tour, a tour bus is claustrophobic, the backstage area is claustrophobic, the best jet is claustrophobic. So I think two-to-three months at a time then let everybody have a break, then two-to-three months at a time and another break...I noticed that from Broadway where they have six-month contracts and switch things up so they don't get bored.

Bp: So would you go back to Europe maybe later in the spring next year?

Paul O'Neill: Not next spring, but probably next summer.

Bp: Festivals?

Paul O'Neill: Yes. Only if it's dark will TSO go on. That's one of the rules we haven't broken, TSO will never go on in daylight. Festivals seem to be the way to go especially since Greece, Italy, Spain, Portugal, and some other countries are having financial issues and that way those kids still get to see us and it's affordable for everybody. Some festivals have offered us slots and we have to pick which one or ones.

Bp: So it would be under the cover of darkness then.

Paul O'Neill: TSO will not take the stage unless it's dark out.

Bp: So it would pretty much be your production then.

Paul O'Neill: Oh yes, we would have to have total production control. But festivals have offered us that.

Bp: That's amazing that has been offered up. [This was days before the TSO/Savatage announcement, thus I was thinking solely TSO was being offered that coveted headliner slot]

Paul O'Neill: Actually, we're amazed too.

Bp: It's not like you have a history of touring TSO over there. You've been over there twice as TSO, and you've done well, but to headline festivals is unbelievable.

Paul O'Neill: We were impressed too. All the promoters who have seen us have just been upset that we haven't toured over there more. The band is very Euro-centric in its music: The Who, Pink Floyd, Yes, Beethoven, Mozart, they're all European artists. Oscar Wilde, Victor Hugo, Robert Graves, all Europeans. Europeans love their classical and they love rock.

Bp: It's one of the few places where hard rock and metal still thrive.

Paul O'Neill: You're one-hundred percent correct. The most recent batch of singers that have made it into TSO have all come out of Europe. In the next month or two we'll see who makes it out on the road. The one sad thing, there's one girl I really love, she's from Moscow, with the political situation I'm not sure if I'm going to be able to get her out of there. We'll take it one step at a time.

"Sparks" - TSO Live in Boston, MA; December 20, 2014 - vocals by Robin Borneman

Bp: One thing I wanted to follow up on that we talked about briefly last time was about "Sparks" and John Lennon's connection to that song. He had made comments to you when you were recording that originally with your band Slow Burn that the chorus of it needed work. I wanted to know if you could elaborate on that.

Paul O'Neill: I had a totally different chorus and he said, "I love the riff. I love the way you use the open strings. I love the melody, but the chorus isn't enough of a change." He goes, "It's not bad, Paul, but it's not on the level of the verse." He was completely right. I went home and re-wrote it and he thought it was much better.

Bp: How did he hear it initially?

Paul O'Neill: We were playing it in Record Plant.

Bp: Ok. I know you've talked about that before that the environment back then was it was like a community of people listening and sharing thoughts and ideas.

Paul O'Neill: Exactly. They were just so generous with their knowledge. I remember one time...they would pay for our dinners or...again, when we did Hall of the Mountain King, Aerosmith gave us all of their outtake tapes. It saved us thousands of dollars.

Bp: To use to record on?

Paul O'Neill: Yea. They were only recorded on once and they weren't going to use them. It saved us a small fortune. They were all just very, very kind. I like to pass that on. If we were in Electric Lady or SoundTrax or Morrisound and there was a baby band and I heard they were running out of money for the mix, TSO would pay for the next two days of mixing. We'd never feel it in our budget. If you think you're out of time to mix a song and you're a baby band and then you have extra time, it's huge. It's what was done for us a million times in the ‘70s, but it's not something that really exists as much anymore.

Bp: Your approach to guitar solos is different when it comes to Savatage and TSO material. Fundamentally I understand that the bands are different, although they've morphed a little bit into one, and obviously back in the early Savatage days you were working with the amazingly talented guitarist in Criss Oliva, but for the vocally driven songs in TSO, they tend not to have guitar or keyboard breaks for solos. Is there a reason for that? Obviously you're serving the song so you're not going to throw in a guitar solo just for the sake of having one there.

Paul O'Neill: It probably will change on the first non-rock opera TSO album. The rock opera songs are drawn more in the way of Jesus Christ Superstar or Tommy, where I wanted to make it easy to follow the story so if I broke it up with a distracting great solo, I would only include if it would serve to make the story flow.

Bp: Were you able to get away with that on the Savatage rock operas because of the genre of the music? That it was intended for people who expected guitar solos?

Paul O'Neill: Yes. We were basically taking a hard core, borderline thrash metal band and developing it into prog metal which hadn't existed, but the audience was open to it. The whole trick with Trans-Siberian Orchestra is you've got people who would never go to a prog rock or heavy metal show ever. But once you get them there, they love it. And then you've got them.

Bp: Which is why you can throw in something like "Chance."

Paul O'Neill: Yes.

Bp: Because that doesn't fit in a maybe a typical TSO fan's musical library, but you throw it into a TSO show and it makes perfect sense.

Paul O'Neill: The other thing that's very important to me is music tends to be forgotten if it's not toured live. I love the Savatage catalog and I never want it to go away. Criss Oliva, it's hard to believe it's been twenty years, the only weird thing is Criss will always be young. We'll use his guitar on every album. Criss and Jon were two rare human beings.

The bottom line was I always wanted a band with a lot of lead singers, but even if I didn't, once Jon decided to stop touring and singing, it would take fourteen singers to replace Jon Oliva. He's that good. He still is to this day. He is key to helping me get the singers to certain places and everything else. Talking about hell freezing over, Jon has gone on a health kick.

Bp: That's excellent.

Paul O'Neill: I know, it is. I worry about the guy. He seems indestructible, but he's getting up there. He's closer to 60 than he is to 50. He's like the Energizer bunny. And the joke between us is that he's going to outlive all of us. Just recently I've noticed he's on a health kick.

Bp: That's great – we don't want you guys checking out any time soon.

Paul O'Neill: One thing I'd love to do is Beethoven's Last Night tour with Jon as Mephistopheles. That would be great!

Bp: Was something like that in the works for the Beethoven tour in 2011 for Europe? That was being billed originally that Jon would be making some sort of appearance.

Paul O'Neill: [We talked briefly about the family health reasons behind Jon's decision to miss the tour and remain home with his family]. He's a monster singer. I love that guy. He's going to be the death of me, but I'm going to die laughing.

Bp: Best of luck with The Christmas Attic this winter.

Paul O'Neill: A lot of people think the fans expect the first half to be the story, but we don't want to get locked in. And if we are going to change, at least we should have done all of the stories first.

Bp: This seems like a good time, because you've established with the two years of The Lost Christmas Eve that people are coming to see TSO, not just to see a specific story. So it's a good time to do something new and then if it's successful then you can go ahead with an encore presentation, or you can do a straight show for a year as well and then do Christmas Eve & Other Stories for the anniversary. And then you've done everything once and you can go from there.

Paul O'Neill: You're absolutely correct. And I don't know if I've discussed this with you I do have a little bit of guidance with that, and that is The Who. When Tommy came out and it was so successful that their manager producer said, "Tommy is bigger than the Who. That's the only thing that you guys can do." That was what began a parting of the ways and then they did Who's Next and then Quadrophenia. That one didn't even go gold out of the box. It didn't really catch on, but now it's known as their masterpiece and does better business than any of their other rock operas, including Tommy. It just might have been a little too far ahead of its time. Pete believed in it and he also didn't want The Who to become Tommy. I would never want Trans-Siberian Orchestra to become a single rock opera be it The Lost Christmas Eve or Beethoven's Last Night. That's what rock theater will be for.

In the mean time we will keep trying different paths. If we hit a dead end, we hit a dead end, but we'll turn around and try another road.

Bp: I really appreciate the time tonight, Paul.

Paul O'Neill: My pleasure, Brad.