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24 April 2015 @ 12:00 am
The Trans-Siberian Orchestra Interviews: Mee Eun Kim - Winter Tour 2014  

Mee Eun Kim Interview

The Trans-Siberian Orchestra Interviews:
Mee Eun Kim - Winter Tour 2014 - Dec 18, 2014

Interview, photos & videos captured by Brad Parmerter unless noted otherwise.

When preparation meets opportunity, wonderful things can occur. Case in point is the career of Korean born keyboardist Mee Eun Kim who rose to the occasion when called upon at a large concert in Malaysia, and then again on an ordinary day in New York City when Trans-Siberian Orchestra came calling.

From the early days of TSO's touring to the present day, Mee Eun has brought beautiful musical backdrops and quick-fingered lead lines to her performances. She joined TSO East in 2000 and toured with them for seven of the next eight winter tours (she sat out the 2003 tour). She returned for the 2011 and 2012 Beethoven's Last Nights spring tours and again for the 2014 winter tour.

I recently caught up with Mee Eun for a chat about her entire career from her introduction to music as a child to the present day. We touched on her vast musical upbringing, the early days of TSO touring, performing, a trio of TSO musical directors, her career outside of TSO, and her fabulous TSO audition story.

Bp: Hi Mee Eun, welcome back to the winter tour.

Mee Eun Kim: Hi Brad, it's nice to talk to you.

Bp: Let's start back at the beginning with your musical roots. What turned you on to music originally?

Mee Eun Kim: That was natural because I grew up in such a musical family. My dad is a singer, my grandfather studied music, and I always played in church since I was a kid so it was only natural for me to be doing this I think.

Bp: So you always had music around you.

Mee Eun Kim: Yes. My Dad was always singing. He is a known pop singer in Korea and I was always following him around to gigs. I grew up playing in the church. My Mom is not a musician, but our whole family was very musical. She's a dancer. So I think that's how I was exposed to it at the very beginning. I started playing piano when I was five.

Bp: Was there a reason you were drawn specifically to the piano?

Mee Eun Kim: My mother used to run a music school so it was natural for me to listen to all these music students playing in our school and I would pick up the music. I was also taking lessons.

Bp: Did you pick it up solely from family members or were there piano or keyboard players that inspired you early on?

Mee Eun Kim: Well, the first piano I ever touched was my grandmother's piano in her place and then I said to my mom, "I want to learn piano." My very first lesson I think was when I was five.

Bp: Your parents were obviously very supportive coming from that musical background.

Mee Eun Kim: Yes, of course. Actually my Dad wanted me to go into the classical world and become a virtuoso piano player, but I was more into listening to the radio and going to the piano and playing what I learned by ear. It took me a while to learn sight-reading because I just loved listening to music and then going to the piano to play it instead of reading the music in front of me.

Bp: So you had a natural ability to listen and pick it up. Was it more challenging to learn to read music as opposed to deciphering it on your own by ear?

Mee Eun Kim: Right. Exactly. Eventually I picked it up, I just had more fun listening to something and thinking, "Oh yea, I can do that," and playing whatever I could hear.

Bp: Was there a defining moment when you transitioned from playing for fun to thinking that this is what you wanted to do as a career?

Mee Eun Kim: I always played every day in church or in the praise group or with friends and what not. I went to college to study mass communication. I always wanted to do something creative, but I wanted to be more in production or creating a music program. My Dad is a musician so I knew how tough this business could be.

Long story short, what happened when I was living in Kuala Lampur, Malaysia in my teenage time, as my Dad is a known singer, he organized this huge concert for the Korean community. During this concert when there were some known Korean singers invited as guests at the concert, one of the singers called me up on the stage. "Oh, there's a family member, Mee Eun Kim, who is a teenager and she is here and I'm going to invite her up on the stage and I'm going to do a song with her." I was like, "What?!" He knew I was always musical and we would play at the house. So I was brought up on stage and he said, "Let's do a song in the key of F." I said, "Okay." And at the end of the concert he said, "See, what are you doing, not doing music? You should go to music college." His daughter at the time was living in Boston so she organized a catalog of Berklee School of Music and said, "You need to try and at least apply to this college and see what happens."

So, I was in college when I was seventeen. I thought, 'This is going to be a test for me. If I get accepted, then that's my destiny and I'm going to change everything.' So Berkelee was the only music school I applied to and that changed my whole life. I came to Boston and when I finished my studies I moved to New York and that's how I met Bob Kinkel and Paul O'Neill.

"Appalachian Snowfall" - TSO Live in Boston, MA; December 20, 2014

Bp: How did that meeting come about?

Mee Eun Kim: That's another interesting story. I was always lucky and very fortunate to meet so many great musicians. When I moved to New York I was doing a few gigs through word of mouth and I would play with Damon La Scott, one of the first TSO guitar players in 2000. I was doing some small gigs and one of the guys' wife said, "Can I give your number to somebody? Do you also read music? Or do you only do rock and bluesy stuff?" I said, "Yea, I can read music, I know classical music and everything." The next day Bob Kinkel called me and said he was a producer and musical director at that time in 2000, he called me up, I was walking around with my girlfriend in the city at the time. "Hi, my name is Bob Kinkel with the Trans-Siberian Orchestra." I didn't know [anything about] the band then. He said, "I got your number from so-and-so, do you have time to stop by sometime?" I said, "Yea, sure, how about tomorrow?" He goes, "What are you doing now?" I said, "I'm downtown," and wherever I was. He said, "Just stop by whenever you're done with whatever you're doing." I said, "Ok." So I went over in about half-an-hour not knowing what was going on.

He was playing the music and asked what I thought. With me growing up in the church I knew all the Christmas carols so I was just playing along and within fifteen minutes he said, "Are you free between this date and this date?" And I said, "Why?" And he said, "Would you like to go on tour with us?" [laughs] That's how it all started. I said, "Sure." We walked over to the studio to where Paul was mixing a Savatage album at the time with some of the guys and that's how I met everybody. Within a half-hour everything happened.

Bp: That's an amazing story!

Mee Eun Kim: It's incredible, right? I know. Ever since then I've been a part of this.

Bp: Wow, that's brilliant.

Mee Eun Kim: It was really quick. It wasn't even really an audition, but at the end of the day I guess it was. It took about five minutes. [laughs]

Bp: That's one of the quickest audition stories I've heard!

Mee Eun Kim: Yea.

Bp: Obviously things back in the early 2000s were very different than they are now, what can you tell me about going into the rehearsals for your first year.

Mee Eun Kim: That was very exciting! I clearly remember I walked into SIR [rehearsal studio in NYC] and there were the Savatage guys and there were a few of us who were...'cause that was the first year we were splitting west coast and the east coast, so some of us were just put together in the room and we didn't know who was going east and who was going west. We were just trying to figure out a lot of things. We'd be all in one room learning a lot of things figuring out how it was going to be for the live show. I'm so glad and honored that I could be part of the beginning process. The birth and creation of the whole live touring. It was really great.

The people, the combination of the Savatage guys and the Broadway singers, the old members like Alex Skolnick and the new members like me and the keyboard players. It was really fun, not knowing what it's going to be like. That was a thrilling thing in a fun way.

Bp: What a brilliant story how a quick reference led to all of this in such a short period of time. It was a case of being in the right place at the right time with the right experience.

Mee Eun Kim: Bob used to tell me what was more important for him was if there were two great players, they would always go for the person who had good chemistry, good energy, who would bring the positive into it. It's a long tour and a tough tour. You want to make sure you're surrounded by people you feel good with. Maybe that's part of it, the connection needed for everybody. It takes only one person to bring the good energy, but also the bad energy so that's why we all feel like we're family. It's a given that the musicality has to be great, it's a must, but what makes this group of people so special is that people are here because they want to be and we care about each other.

Bp: That shows on stage.

Mee Eun Kim: Yea, we have a lot of fun. We're all so comfortable and we read each other's mind and communicate on the stage.

"Piano Duel 2007" (snippet) - TSO Live in Detroit, MI - courtesy DetroitDan2 YouTube

Bp: How were those first few tours?

Mee Eun Kim: Every day was so fun. It was a little different because it was a little more intimate. It was not as big. It was more theater shows. It was good in those ways, but it was so intense.

Bp: TSO was at the point where you were still winning over and educating people as to what TSO was, whereas now people know a bit more of what to expect.

Mee Eun Kim: Right. We didn't know how people were going to react. It's like how we feel when we go to Europe now. We feel like we're newbies there. It humbles us and brings back a lot of those old memories of how we used to be back in the day, in a good way.

Bp: Can you compare and contrast a little bit between the first tours and current tours?

Mee Eun Kim: Well, I was away for three years too, so when I came back it's gotten so much bigger and there are a lot of new people, so I feel like I'm a new person in a way. I had to be introduced to a lot of great, but new singers. It has become a huge company and people feel a lot more responsible. There are a lot of high expectations to deliver. I'm just really proud to be part of it. I'm also honored and proud that I could be part of it right at the beginning, but also part of something that keeps growing. I take pride in that.

Bp: You toured a number of years with Christmas Eve and Other Stories and now this year with The Christmas Attic as well as a couple of Beethoven's Last Night tours, how do each of the stories speak to you?

Mee Eun Kim: Each story is so different. Obviously Christmas Eve and Other Stories was something that I did for so many years, it became so natural. It's always refreshing to do something new I think. Also with Beethoven's Last Night, you take it as if it's another concert, almost with another band. Also with Beethoven's Last Night I was playing with different members of the band so it keeps me excited and it keeps it fresh each time. Actually, even when you do the same album or same live show, each day should be different. It sounds like we're doing the same songs, but we actually do things different each day depending on the crowd, depending on our moods, what was going on that day before soundcheck…every day is fresh and different. And I think it should be that way. It shouldn't become just a routine.

Bp: You've had the privilege of working with a few different Musical Directors with Bob in the early days, this tour it's Derek [Weiland] and also Al [Pitrelli] for Beethoven.

Mee Eun Kim: Right. I think I'm one of the few who has worked with all three. [laughs]

All three of them have different colors, and different styles, and they're all very, very professional and perfectionists. They're all very warm and caring people. They're protective of their band members and I'm really, really privileged. I didn't know what to expect this year and I'm really enjoying the tour very much. Everything is going smooth and very well prepared.

Bp: What have you learned from each of them and how are they different from one another in their approach?

Mee Eun Kim: Personally, okay, because Bob was one of the creators, he approaches it in a way like it is on the album and how orchestrated the keyboard and the guitar and everything is separated and at the end comes together. He approaches from the creative side and how it was originally made to sound.

Al is more rock and impromptu type of person. He wants each day to be very different and thrilling, sometimes even challenging.

Derek I think is the perfectionist who prepares everything and things have to be just perfect. It has to be the way it should sound.

Conjuring Beethoven - May 21, 2011 Poughkkeepsie, NY

Bp: Shifting to the show itself, what is your warm-up routine before the show?

Mee Eun Kim: As far as keyboard? I do a lot more than just the keyboard warm-up. I do a lot of working out to make sure my body is warmed up and moving around. Then I have my keyboard set-up in my dressing room every day. It varies, sometimes when we have a double-day I don't do too much warming-up because the whole show is very long, but I do have my keyboard in my dressing room all the time.

Bp: What do you play as part of the warm-up routine?

Mee Eun Kim: Every day is different, but I try to do something that's completely different than TSO music to get out of it and then come back and do the show.

Bp: Original compositions?

Mee Eun Kim: Yes. Whatever comes to my mind. I wouldn't go crazy with scales and stuff because that would just make my arms tired which wouldn't be good.

Bp: You took some time off from touring with TSO in 2008 and returned for the 2011 Beethoven tour – can you tell me a little about how it felt for you coming back into the fold and bringing that show to life for the first time in Europe.

Mee Eun Kim: It was really exciting in a different way. It was exciting because I had been away and to come back and be with those guys again. To come back to smaller venues, along with the new music and to be playing in Europe, which is where I live now, it was very special to be a part of. I was grateful that Paul asked me to be a part of that since I live in that territory. I was really excited to be part of it and I was honored that he invited me back to take part in that. Musically I love it because it was the same group, but a different approach to it. It's non-Christmas, so it was really different and fun to be part of that group, where I was able to work intensely with the original members. And I love the instrumentals that combine classical and rock that TSO does. That was a lot of fun for me.

Bp: And then you were back for one of the more intimate TSO shows, the Berlin New Year's Eve show.

Mee Eun Kim: [laughs] Yea. That was the largest audience I've ever played to. It was really cold outside, but it was incredible. [laughing] That was exciting.

Bp: What can you tell me about that day and meeting up with the band who came over from Buffalo?

Mee Eun Kim: Oh, that day was crazy! I was already in Europe so I didn't have to deal with the jetlag or anything like that, but the rest of the guys were just flying in right after their two-shows, exhausted. But as soon as we started, sparks went off and we were just rocking the stage. A lot of the people had never seen us and they were just blown away. Nobody had done that. Two shows, fly a few hours, land, do soundcheck and do an outdoor performance in front of two million people? Who does that?

Bp: In those temperatures too.

Mee Eun Kim: Oh my God, and I was freezing in the outfit I had to wear for the show. For those ten or eleven minutes I was performing I forgot that I was cold. It was only after we finished performing that I came off stage and I said, "Give me my jacket!" [laughing] It was worthwhile.

Bp: They haven't designed thermal stage wear for TSO yet.

Mee Eun Kim: [laughing] No.

Mee Eun and Bach - Jan. 4, 2015 Hartford, CT

Bp: Fast forwarding to this year's winter tour, there are a couple of images projected on the screens behind you during your part of the Piano Tribute. Can you tell me about why you chose to incorporate those particular musical inspirations?

Mee Eun Kim: I thought it was a perfect combination to do that kind of tribute for TSO because that represents TSO, the rock and the classical world coming together. We're only given a few minutes to do that tribute so I thought it was a great idea to incorporate Bach and Jon Lord [of Deep Purple].

Bp: It's a nice, touching tribute to them and gives you and Derek a little room to shine.

Mee Eun Kim: I'm glad. We're hoping to do more of that. We have so many wonderful songs to play and the show is really long, if we did a five-hour show we could do more. But it's a lot of fun.

"Piano Tribute/Requiem" - TSO Live in Albany, NY; November 30, 2014

Bp: A five-hour show would be fine.

Mee Eun Kim: There wouldn't be double show days anymore. [laughs] We'd do ten-hours a day.

Bp: Sounds good to me! Is the piano tribute one of your favorite parts of the show?

Mee Eun Kim: Oh yes, of course. It's a lot of fun. Especially with Derek, he's just killing it. I wish we had time to do more.

Bp: What are some moments from this year's tour that are special to you?

Mee Eun Kim: Of course, besides the tribute...I love it when we have communication between the band members. I also like playing the organ very much as well.

Bp: The organ just fills the venue on "Music Box Blues" – that section is a highlight for me.

Mee Eun Kim: That's great. All these new singers coming in, they're blending in as if they've been there for a long time. We have so much good talent in the band and it's amazing to watch every single song to see how each person brings different colors and it's exciting. It's been great to be a part of it. To watch everyone sing and everyone's so different.

Bp: Do you have any favorite songs on this particular tour?

Mee Eun Kim: No, I like them all. I don't really have a favorite, to be honest. It's really hard to say which one I like the most. I like the keyboard turning part, that's a fun part. But I'm actually getting sore turning this keyboard around the whole show. [laughs]

Bp: And this is the first time you've been elevated on stage.

Mee Eun Kim: Yes! That's exciting. It could be one of my favorite parts actually.

Bp: You get to see everyone else from a different vantage point.

Mee Eun Kim: Yes, I have the best view. I see every single thing that's going on in the arena. I'm at the highest point.

Bp: You've also had a successful career outside of TSO with your own compositions as well as on the production side of things. Can you tell me about that?

Mee Eun Kim: Besides TSO I'm always writing for Korean artists, in Europe for TV, and I've done a couple of different projects: a spiritual album with Tina Turner, which was like a Tibetan/Christian prayer singers together with Tina; and the other one was an album of German lullabies. So whenever I'm not doing this I'm doing writing and doing other creative work in the studio.

"Schlafe, mein Prinzchen" - Der Mond ist Aufegegangen; Mario Adorf w/ Mee Eun Kim on vocals

Bp: You also enjoy the creative process where you're in charge of the direction.

Mee Eun Kim: Yes, very much. But it's a lot more responsibility. It's a lot of fun to present more of your work. Here, it's a different kind of work, I just have to work hard and be disciplined to project what Paul wants to put on the stage. So I feel a little less responsibility in that way, so it's a little easier in one way. You just have to be ready and prepared and give a rock out show.

Bp: There are some musicians who don't want to be on the production side, staying on the creative side only. What drew you to both the creative and the production worlds?

Mee Eun Kim: Writing has always been a bigger part of me, I actually went to school for it, production and writing. So, that's kind of natural. And playing, it's only natural for me to do both.

Bp: Who are some piano or keyboard players that inspired you when you were younger?

Mee Eun Kim: There are too many, way too many. It'd be hard to name a few, to be honest. I listen to everything from jazz to classical to rock. I don't want to narrow it down to just a few.

Bp: Are there any albums or pieces in particular that have inspired you through the years?

Mee Eun Kim: I listen to electronic music to jazz to classical so it's very, very difficult. When I was a kid, my very first jazz CD my Dad bought for me was Louis Armstrong and then the pop music he brought me was Abba. I listened to Michael Jackson and Herbie Hancock to Chopin, you name it. Since my Dad is a musician I grew up listening to all kinds of music. I never thought that I'd be in a rock band, I was more driven by classical and jazz music. But look at me now, playing rock Christmas music every night.

Bp: I was thinking earlier what must have gone through your mind when you mentioned meeting up with Bob and then heading over to see Paul in the studio producing what I'm assuming would have been the Savatage Poets and Madmen record.

Mee Eun Kim: Exactly. I walked into the studio and here again, the studio was kind of dark and all of these guys having hair longer than mine and all tattooed looking at me like, "Who is this girl?" [laughs]

Bp: Thanks so much for your time. Let me wrap up by circling back to the tour. From a fan perspective the signing line is a great opportunity to give feedback and impressions of the show and it means a lot to the fans, what does it mean for you as a performer?

Mee Eun Kim: It is so rewarding. It's already a blessing to do what we're doing, but to meet them and get all the kind words, compliments and love, it's a real blessing. Of course, we're tired after the show, but it gives us so much energy and feedback to let us know, "Ok, this is why we're doing it." It's very important to us to get a good reaction from everybody. I would sometimes get a letter from a little girl about how wonderful we are, how we inspire them, and it makes it all worthwhile.

Bp: That must be wonderful.

Mee Eun Kim: It really, really is.

Bp: Thanks again for your time, Mee Eun.

Mee Eun Kim: Thanks so much, Brad, I enjoyed it.

Additional Links:
Trans-Siberian Orchestra - official site

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


Jan. 4, 2015 Hartford, CT