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12 November 2015 @ 11:13 am
The Trans-Siberian Orchestra Interviews: Paul O'Neill - Nov 2015 Letters from the Labyrinth In-Depth  

In-depth Interview about Trans-Siberian Orchestra's New Album, Letters From the Labyrinth

The Trans-Siberian Orchestra Interviews:
Paul O'Neill - November 6, 2015

Interview, photos & videos captured by Brad Parmerter.

November is typically a busy time for Trans-Siberian Orchestra, but this year it's even more so. Not only is a new show centered around the made-for-TV-movie, The Ghosts of Christmas Eve, being premiered on their annual November-December winter tour, but they are releasing their first new album in six years, Letters From the Labyrinth.

Rather than being a rock opera as previous TSO releases have been, Letters From the Labyrinth is a collection of songs written around a series of letters sent between characters in their 2009 release Night Castle covering such topics as bullying, the banking crisis, the struggle in Ukraine, and the fall of the Berlin wall among others.

As the band convened on their rehearsal space near Omaha, Nebraska to prepare for their upcoming winter tour I spoke with creator, composer, producer and would be history professor, Paul O'Neill. I very briefly checked in for his reaction to the Trans-Siberian Orchestra/Savatage joint venture performance at Wacken Open Air this past summer, but primarily stayed focused on the new album for an in-depth discussion on its themes and dove head-first into the inspiration and details of the new songs.

Paul O'Neill: Hi Brad.

Bp: Hi Paul, it's an exciting time right now in the land of TSO so I wanted to chat in-depth about the new album, a little about Wacken, and the upcoming tour as well. So let's dive deep into the Labyrinth.

Paul O'Neill: [laughs] I love it when you get poetic.

Bp: Where did you find the Johnny Green song, "Forget About the Blame," which appears twice with both a Sun and Moon version.

Paul O'Neill: I've had it for about twenty years, I think. Somebody handed me his tape when we were doing either The Lost Christmas Eve or Beethoven. It might have been Beethoven. I thought the guy was unbelievably talented, he had a great voice, and I thought he was a great songwriter. He was a really nice guy and I told him, "One day I'm going to find a place on an album for this."

"Forget About the Blame" (Sun Version - Robin Borneman)

Bp: Why did the song appeal to you in a way that you thought it would be right for TSO?

Paul O'Neill: He wrote with a lot of passion and I liked the way he performed it.

Bp: Was anyone else in the band pegged for the female version of that song and was Lzzy brought in for name recognition to help with radio airplay?

Paul O'Neill: No. Not at all. I've done so many interviews with parts and pieces, but I'm going to give you the full story that no one else knows except for the members of the band. Let me pull back and give you the whole story. You know the TSO logo with the tiger clawing the guitar, just like the roses for Gutter Ballet, because to me the guitar is a living thing. TSO now has a second logo.

Bp: The Yin-Yang.

Paul O'Neill: Yep. If you go on Facebook you can see the official new version of it. It's basically a marriage of Eastern and Western philosophy - the Confucius idea of harmony. The red represents the sun, the male perspective. The blue represents the moon, the female perspective – looking at things from different angles and understanding it. When everyone understands the other side you have harmony and peace in the nation. That's all Confucius.

I've always loved the Phoenix from mythology, the firebird rising out of something and just the Phoenix used to be Slow Burn's logo [his band in the ‘70s]. Greg Hildebrandt, genius that he is, was able to turn the yin-yang into the Phoenix firebirds – Western philosophy meets Eastern philosophy. And then if you go on, let me see if I can go on Facebook [starts humming to himself].

Bp: Wait a minute, is Paul O'Neill navigating Facebook? [laughs]

Paul O'Neill: Can I tell you something, Brad? I now know how to text! [laughing]

Bp: The apocalypse is upon us.

Paul O'Neill: Well, as you know, I have a seventeen year-old daughter and a few months ago I texted her and she said, "How do you know how to do this?" [laughs] I said, "It's the only way I have to reach you!" [laughing]

This album was a huge wake up call for me in a lot of ways. I just bought a new car about four months ago and I asked them to put a CD player in the car and they told me I couldn't have one in the car. With all the electronics, it would screw things up to put one in.

I'm a Luddite. I love the CDs, the hard thing. But I had to face the facts, because Universal told me that in Europe none of these countries can produce a CD with more than twelve pages, so the album overseas will only have two stories in it, The Dash and Dreams of Fireflies. Everything else is going to have to be on the website. iTunes is no longer downloading all that we wanted. I realized that the industry is changing. In America we have a thirty-six-page booklet, but that's the maximum they can do. I could get fifty-pages, but I'd have to wait forever.

Bp: Coming back to Lzzy and other people being considered...

Paul O'Neill: That's where we're headed. It's like explaining how rockets get to the moon, I could just say it's jet propulsion, but it's a lot more complicated than that. Ok, so every one of these songs means something, there's a reason for it. And we decided on this album, especially since we're going to start focusing on Rock Theater later, I also wanted to bring back something more from my youth. George Harrison's most famous song is "While My Guitar Gently Weeps," the guitar solo on that is Eric Clapton. Eric Clapton's most famous song is "Layla" and the guitar player is Duane Allman. There was just this intermingling of talent. So we decided somewhere on this album I wanted to try to bring in an outsider to have artists collaborating again. It happens in the rap world, but not as much in the rock world.

Bp: You were doing that with the live shows, more so in the early to mid-2000s.

Paul O'Neill: We'd done it in the live shows, but not in the studio.

I originally wanted to bring the male-female, yin-yang perspective to another song. [We discussed off the record that originally a different song and singers had been selected, however circumstances that he learned about after the selection had been made resulted in a change in course as he didn't feel comfortable if certain associations were made, despite them being purely coincidental.]

Since we were in Europe this summer, I'd been especially watching the Middle East situation. It's just a nightmare. You know on [Savatage's] Poets and Madmen how I had that photo hidden of the buzzards waiting to eat the girl. The picture of the young boy who washed up on the shores in the Mediterranean, that just crushed my heart. It just looked like my daughter at two when she was sleeping. It just totally freaked me. At one of the press conferences there was this stupid reporter who was asking the parents, "Don't you feel like you're responsible for taking your children out in these conditions?" They said, "They are dropping poison gas and barrel bombs on our house. Do you think we wanted to do this?"

There was another question to the refugees asking who they thought was to blame for driving them out of their homes and they were arguing that it was the Iraqis, but someone else said it was the Saudis. Then there was this one woman with a look of anguish who said, "I don't care who is to blame. Just stop it!"

Bp: Forget About the Blame.

Paul O'Neill: It popped right into my head. We've talked before about my love for double and triple entendre. You can see "Forget About the Blame" as between a man and a woman, but you can also see it in what's going on in the world. All these people who are dying and fleeing the Middle East, Germany is expected to take in hundreds of thousands of refugees alone. I have a friend who is a mayor over there and his town just cannot absorb all of the refugees.

Wacken went so well, despite the storms, and the next day a German reporter asked me what my favorite part of Wacken was – was it when Jon was back doing "Gutter Ballet" or TSO doing "Madness of Men" or having both bands together. I really had to think and it was actually none of those.

Bp: Was it when you talked to the Middle Eastern men in the campground?

Paul O'Neill: Yes. The two Iraqi Sunnis and the two Shiite Iranians – their tents were about thirty feet away. And I can't imagine those guys not bumping into each other over the three days and God forbid in a few years they are in battle and meet up on their different sides. But I don't think they would pull the trigger because it's hard, almost impossible, to hate someone you went to a concert with.

"Forget About the Blame" (Moon Version - Lzzy Hale)

So "Forget About the Blame" just kept pounding itself into me. But I needed somebody who had that passion and Lzzy Hale is a passionate singer. I've been a fan and so we made a phone call. She was so sweet. They were in the middle of a tour and there was a small window, but we got together and she even had a show the next day after we'd done the first day. I said, "I'm really sorry, Lzzy, but I need you back for another day." She came and she nailed the song. And I didn't know this before, but she was a TSO fan. She had her jeans signed by the band from 2007 when she saw the band in Hershey. She was a sweetheart and her band was so kind. Here they are with very little time off and here she is doing this. We are all fans of Halestorm and we didn't know they were aware of TSO and it was one of those things where the stars lined up. So in America we're going to radio with Lzzy Hale's version. Classic Rock magazine in Europe reached out and wanted to put the Robin version in the sampler CD on their cover.

Robin nails it and Lzzy does too. It wasn't the plan for the first male/female, it accidentally happened, but it worked out great.

It's like when we did Wacken, when Andrew Ross and Zak Stevens were singing simultaneously; they were just locked! That was an accident too. Andrew and Zak both come from the Carolinas, they grew up within an hour of each other so they both have similar nuances in their voices. When they were singing simultaneously it was like a double-barreled shotgun. It was one of those lucky things.

Bp: This album is a departure in that it's your first non-rock opera. Can you explain about how the songs are separate units this time around, but all a part of a larger picture.

Paul O'Neill: We're calling Letters From the Labyrinth a hybrid, an experiment. I'm giving the very first story, The Dash, and the very last story, The Dreams of Fireflies, the bedtime story that comes after "Lullaby Night," now. All the other stories are going to arrive in between now and the next album and they'll go up on the web site as time goes by.

About fifteen years ago I received a letter in the mail that was sent to me by my grandmother before she had died. Somehow it got lost and I got it years after she sent it. So I figured, Letters from the Labyrinth. The labyrinth is where the Minotaur lived in Minos in Crete, I just thought, basically all these songs are going to go out and go on journeys and as their stories come back, we'll put them up on the web site. If the songs are hits in their own ways, then great, but as we put the stories on it will give the songs an extra kick.

There are songs that were great, but when I found out what they were about, it blew my mind. I always liked Red Hot Chili Peppers "Give it Away" and I think everyone thinks it's about sex, but it's not. He wrote it about materialistic things and I forgot where I read it, but I think he had a friend who gave up their possessions and it made their life so much easier. I liked the song before, but after I found out what it was really about I liked it even more.

It's a big experiment.

But I'll let these stories develop and as they come out and we write, the stories may change a little bit. But eventually, the letter that was sent out of the studio....like I always say, bands are like marriages and songs are like children that you send out in to the world and you hope they do well. I decided to take it a step further where the songs send back letters on how they're doing and those letters will become the story.

Paul O'Neill with Kayla Reeves in Newark, NJ. December 21, 2014

Bp: I want to talk to you about "Not the Same" because after listening to the album a dozen or so times, that's the stand-out song for me. The first minute alone shows so many new shades to Kayla's voice and she sounds stunning.

Paul O'Neill: You're not alone, other people who have heard the album have commented to me that Kayla's performance on "Not the Same" is a favorite. Kayla had been bullied mercilessly in school, so she knew what it was about.

I hate bullying and what happened to Amanda Todd. I was walking in the house this one day and my daughter was playing this melody on the piano and I said to her, "Ireland, I love this. I'm stealing this melody!"

Bp: Was your daughter's piano melody line the extent to her contribution or was there more from her in there?

Paul O'Neill: Musically, yes. [Off the record, Paul relayed a story about reaching out to someone and helping break down a barrier in their life.] I'm proud that she has compassion for other people.

I wrote "Not the Same" because the fact that Amanda Todd had moved three times and kids had watched her get beat up and nobody moved. It's amazing how bullying has gotten so out of control. All these songs have a purpose and as we've discussed before, Brad, the arts have an unbelievable power. I hate bullying. There is no need for it. The guy who bullied Amanda Todd had a mental illness, but the fact that fifty kids could stand around and watch as they see this girl who they know is hurting and see kids beat her into a pulp and leave her in a ditch. And no one stood up for her and no one went back for her blows my mind.

"Not the Same" (Kayla Reeves)

What I want to do with this album is get rid of the word bully. It's been romanticized. People say, "I'm the biggest bully on the block, I'm the biggest bully in the company, I'm the biggest bully in the yard." It kind of sounds cool. But it's not bullying, it's cowardice. Because if that wasn't Amanda Todd, if that was a young Mike Tyson, those kids wouldn't have done that, because then they wouldn't be bullies, they'd be stupid, but they wouldn't be bullies. No one wants to say, "I'm the biggest coward in the company, I'm the biggest coward on the block." It needs to be stopped.

I used to do it more decades ago, but I used to go into high schools and there was a time I was in a school and there were two high school students beating each other up and I pulled them apart. I said to the bigger one, "You need to be looking out for this guy. You're bigger than they are, you never know when you might need him." And one of the teachers said to me afterward, "Calm down, Paul, it's okay. It's better they learn that bullying is a part of life." I said, "No! It's not! It's unacceptable. Kids can't learn if they're scared."

And it's changed since we were younger. If you were bullied at school, before the internet, it stayed in school.

Bp: Now there's the potential for twenty-four hour bullying. You can't escape it.

Paul O'Neill: With Facebook and texting, it's all the time. And it needs to be called out as unacceptable. Teddy Roosevelt said in the early 1900s about bullying, "The first thing kids need to learn in school is morality and doing the right thing. If they don't learn that, then educating a child without morality, a sense of right and wrong ethics, is to create a menace to society." I agree with that.

I was reading a journal report about bullying about how important it is that it needs to be stopped, but no one is going to read it. If you put it in a song though...like we've talked about before, child labor existed all over the world, people could change it, their kids didn't have to work, people's kids had to work they couldn't change it. There were papers written about it, religious leaders worked to change it and nothing happened. Dickens writes David Copperfield, Christmas Carol, Oliver Twist and all of a sudden that little kid in the boot-flap factory isn't a stranger, it's little Oliver. Within a decade, it's outlawed in the British Empire and within fifty years outlawed in western civilization. I also go back to Victor Hugo, one of my heroes, even though you had the rule of law in the 1800s, if you were rich you could get away with anything including killing people. If you were poor you'd get hung for anything you did and even stuff you didn't do. He writes Les Miserables – on its face, a policeman chasing a convict, a love story for the romantics, and the underlying theme is injustice. The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Quasimodo throwing timbers from Notre Dame, another romantic story with Esmeralda for the romantics, and the underlying theme is injustice. We slowly see that things start to change. Abraham Lincoln, when he bumped into Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom's Cabin, he very famously said to her, "Ahh, this is the little lady who started the war."

The arts can drag attention to things that are so wrong. With "Not the Same" Kayla really brought that song to life. All it would have taken was one person to have gone up to Amanda Todd in that ditch, "Hey, come home with me. Let me clean you up. You want to know something Amanda, high school, junior high school's not the end of the world. Your life won't start until you're twenty-one. Your whole life is in front of you. Just hang in there." And that girl would have been okay. She just needed one person. There's millions of people in this world who would have loved to have been that one person. Evander Holyfield, the boxer, said that video hit him harder than anyone ever hit him in the ring. If that video doesn't bother you then there's something mentally wrong with you.

Bp: The 'someone' ["for we need someone"] is used as a metaphor in a similar way that it was used in "Believe" where it can be both about a higher power or about someone strong in your life that takes your hand and guides you through.

Paul O'Neill: It's that divine spark. Like Lincoln once said, "When I do right, I feel good. When I do bad, I feel bad." And he never went to any church. He said, "I'll go to church when everyone is welcome, no matter what." Lincoln led by example and that's what's so important. If anything, the mass media, I hate these reality shows, for instance the Real Housewives one where the husband was clearly mentally unbalanced, he kills himself because he goes into debt because he's trying to impress on the show. They said they were going to cancel the show, but they put it back on. They're so cheap to make and at one time I talked to one of these producers of these shows and he said, "They're not saying anything that kids don't whisper to each other in the schoolyard about being fat and stupid." I said, "They whisper it because they know it's wrong, but if they see someone on TV who is getting paid to say, "You're fat. You're ugly." Kid's watch and listen. It's not what you say, it's what you do.

I wrote about that in "Past Tomorrow," it's about a guy with his kid and he's dreaming and he realizes, the very last line is, "Childhood sees." We say, "Be honest in life and do the right thing. Don't steal. Don't cheat. Don't take advantage of the poor. Don't do this. Don't do that." But then everybody that stole these trillions of dollars in the greatest theft in western civilization in our time and not one person has been, forget going to jail, they haven't even been indicted. It blows my mind.

"Past Tomorrow" (Jennifer Cella)

Bp: Where did the haunting piano melody come from in "Past Tomorrow."

Paul O'Neill: Jon and I wrote it together.

Bp: What inspired it? Anything in particular or did it just come out?

Paul O'Neill: I was bumping into my usual problem of not finding a singer who was able to capture all of the emotions and the range. The same Slow Burn problem I used to have. I tried multiple singers and all of our best guys and we weren't able to get it. So I said, "The problem is obviously me." So then I got Jennifer Cella and I decided to do it like a gothic child choir. It has a gothic feel; [pausing] creepy, but in a good way.

Bp: It's haunting.

Paul O'Neill: Yes, it's haunting, thank you. Ok, I owe you a nickel [laughing]. The Brad Parmerter thesaurus. It's a father realizing everything he does his newborn will watch. If he says, "Don't steal, don't cheat." But then he steals and cheats, the child is going to notice that. Kids are little tape recorders and they watch what you do more than what you say.

Bp: Did the imagery in the song come from a specific instance in your life that you experienced while holding your daughter?

Paul O'Neill: It's multiple. There's a little bit of it in the song "Someday" as well. My father was from an old Irish Catholic family. I never heard him lie, never saw him cheat, never saw him drink. He never preached, it was just watching him. He had such a big effect on not only myself, but my nine siblings.

There are various themes that will come out as the letters start to come back. Human beings need goals, but the goals shouldn't be invading your neighbor. They should be how do we get to Mars, how do we get to Sirius – the next star. I'm old enough to remember, when Kennedy said, "We're going to put a man on the moon by the end of the decade and have him back safe." And then we did it. If you'd ever told me in '69, Brad, that by 2015 we wouldn't have a station on Mars, I wouldn't have believed you. We haven't been back to the moon in decades. I love America. I agree with Lincoln, it's a shining example. Now with the internet, the bottom line is, we're all in this together. The good people massively outnumber the bad people. These are lessons we've learned over and over again.

"Madness of Men," the story, will eventually reach back on that. It's going to be something about humans having to keep asking the same question over and over again. Basically the overall theme that is going to come out of this is it's the exchange of letters from [Night Castle's] Lt. Cozier's granddaughter, whose mother tells her how to, and she doesn't believe it, but she starts to correspond with Erasmus and he's hanging out with Lincoln, Marcus Agrippa, and everyone else. She loves this. One of the questions she gets to ask is, "What was the greatest army of all time?" They write back that it was the Warsaw Pact and NATO under Khrushchev and Kennedy. She's confused because they never fought. Winston Churchill writes back, "That's what made it great. In WWI both sides built up huge armies and then they went to war, unbelievable amounts of destruction, tens of millions dead and then less than half-a-century later, World War Two, the Axis, the Allies built up these huge armies, then they went to war, 50 million dead, and there's all this destruction. During the Cuban missile crisis when humanity came as close to Armageddon as I'm hopefully ever going to get, I'll never forget coming home, my Dad's in his Army uniform and my Mom is crying. I was too young to comprehend it, but now in the reading, I think one hundred years from now it will be considered that they were incredible great leaders. Khrushchev sent the telegram that said, "There's a rope with a knot between our two countries, the more we pull, the harder it's going to be to untie it." Kennedy and Khrushchev diffused that situation. Khrushchev at incredible risk to himself. He fought in WWII so he knew what was at stake. Kennedy's advisors were recommending war, going nuclear. Khrushchev got a call from Castro who said, "This is the time to take down the capitalists, we have to go nuclear." I'm paraphrasing here. Khrushchev said, "Fidel, you have no idea what you're talking about. If this goes all the way, in the end there's going to be a Europe, there's going to be a Soviet Union, there's going to be a United States of America, but Cuba won't only not be a country, it won't even be an island. You have no idea what you're dealing with." We have that right now with Kim Jong-Un, this kid is a spoiled brat and he has fifty nuclear weapons. It's insane. If the Martians landed, they'd wonder what we were thinking.

When I was very young I would hear songs and I would imagine stories. Do you know the song "Daniel" by Elton John?

Bp: Yes.

Paul O'Neill: I thought he had written it about Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, the two people Lenin would call, "useful idiots." Stalin personally told Khrushchev that they would keep Stalin, who up until now is the greatest mass murderer of all time. Hitler killed fifteen-million Russians. Stalin killed fifty-million Russians. The Rosenberg's had two small children and I thought the song was about how the older brother had protected the younger brother and the younger brother was watching him fly off to Europe. Then I found out it didn't have anything to do with that at all, but I thought it would be way cooler if it was about that.

I think songs are great if they stand up on their own, but I think it's great if they can have multiple meanings.

"Stay" (Adrienne Warren)

Bp: You've revived the old Savatage song, "Stay." Why and what did Adrienne bring to the track?

Paul O'Neill: "Stay" was originally from Gutter Ballet. It was written back in '78. It was just one of those songs that we couldn't fit on the album. I have a character I call, Night. Night, to me, is the protector of the people on the fringes of society, the weak and defenseless. When I was young, as a teenager I couldn't really afford rent. I lived in Hell's Kitchen and at night the winos and schizophrenics would come out because they'd feel safe. I was also reading recently that these immigrants...this is the greatest refugee problem since WWII. I was reading about one refugee who was fleeing Nigeria, fleeing the Boko Haram, and he said with his wife and kids they had to wait until night because at night they could move safely. There's something sheltering about night, so I wrote it as a character who protects the weak and helpless. The Night in Gutter Ballet protects the runaway children and you can see it in the lyrics, the winos have bottles of Crevasse – ‘cause if you're a wino you're used to Thunderbird, to get a bottle of Crevasse is like heaven.

I explained it to Adrienne and she nailed it. At the end, when Day comes, Night disappears and I said, "At the very end I need a 'Coca-Cola moment.'" And so at the end she goes, "Ahhhhh." [laughs] She nailed it. There's something sheltering and protective about the melody and Adrienne just captured the whole idea. She captured it in about two takes.

Bp: I've heard her sing countless songs, I'm a big fan of her vocal delivery, and this was a different shade of her voice that I hadn't quite heard before.

Paul O'Neill: I always ask the singers to give me everything they've recorded in case they have a side of their voice that I don't know about and then I go speaker shopping. I try to find what else they can do. There are singers who have never sang with whiskey dust, but they have whiskey dust, they've just never used it.

Adrienne's not only a great singer, she's a great actress and with that combination together, there's something calming and sheltering about her voice on that song.

Bp: "Not Dead Yet," about the world banking atrocities, is a bit different for TSO. It's got a real swagger to it.

Paul O'Neill: Oh yeah.

Bp: It's a hard rocker, but then out of left field there's a horn section. How did that come about?

Paul O'Neill: We always try to add different sounds. For instance on The Lost Christmas Eve we had the Leon Russell meets Randy Newman part that Al came up with on "Christmas Nights in Blue." So I said to Jon, "Let's get some Aerosmith meets Zeppelin rock, street riffs and the next day Jon comes in with two. He came up with the riff to "Not Dead Yet" and "Night Conceives." The riffs were so great, they were effortless. "Night Conceives" I originally wrote for a male, but Kayla was just all over it and I said, "Okay." I changed some of the lyrics and she knocked it out of the ball park.

"Not Dead Yet" (Russell Allen)

"Not Dead Yet" – all these people who have stolen all these millions, one day justice will come around. It's like the Greek god Nemesis, who is the god of justice. She follows people around and people who do the wrong thing and have their success by doing harm to others, she then brings them down. The sense of shame has completely disappeared. These guys who have blatantly stole millions from shuffling paper and meanwhile your savings is gone, but they're a multi-billionaire and they're left walking. Now they're going to get off free because the statute of limitations will be up. It has to change.

Russell kicked the shit out of it.

Bp: Did Jon come up with the bass lick that opens the song?

Paul O'Neill: Yes.

Bp: What a dirty, nasty lick that is. It sets up the song so nicely.

Paul O'Neill: That's Jon playing on it too. Jon is the best musician I've ever met in my life.

Bp: Did he do a lot of the piano on the record? The album sounds to me very piano and keyboard centric, especially the instrumentals.

Paul O'Neill: Well, I'm surrounded. Between Oliva, Wieland, Vitalij and Mee Eun, I have all these great keyboard players and they all have specific things...Vitalij scares the shit out of me he's so fucking great. The same with Derek, he's like a sane Vitalij. [laughs] Vitalij's out of his mind! But he's hilarious.

Bp: So who plays what in terms of the keys on the record?

Paul O'Neill: Vitalij and Derek are on the really hard ones. I try to go by difficulty level. On Night Castle, "Moonlight and Madness" the moonlight into Chopin's Etude 4, that's Derek Wieland. I love Derek. Anybody else if they made a mistake we would have moved a note, but Derek will say, "No, it's got to be a live full take." He doesn't believe in that. It was such a difficult piece. One of the first interviews after Night Castle came out a radio DJ who was also a musician, it might have been Greg Kihn, said to me, "You guys did "Moonlight and Madness" in MIDI, right?" I said, "Nope. That's Derek Wieland live!"

Derek was the one who wanted to take on "Madness of Men" which is based on a Beethoven piece, the first part of it, but it's so difficult to play. "Prometheus" is one my favorite pieces by Beethoven, but not very well known, and anything that takes Derek and Al more than one or two takes is...I'm just watching their fingers fly and they nailed it.

"Prometheus" (Jeff Scott Soto)

Bp: There's a lot of historical weight to "Prometheus." It's also inspiring and triumphant.

Paul O'Neill: "Prometheus" is basically about the fall of the Berlin Wall. Before the Berlin Wall fell a lot of people said Communism is here forever. I remember President Carter said, "It would be here for centuries, get used to it." And then after it fell, it was said, "It was going to fall anyway." Wrong. A great book came out called, Collapse, which explained how it all happened, it was just the stars lined up. On state television someone accidentally said that anyone could go through the Baha Brigade into West Berlin without papers. Several people heard it and started to go to the gate. One was a mother whose son was the last one shot trying to go over the wall. One was a nineteen year old girl who had been arrested by the Stasi and tortured just for holding up a sign that said 'freedom' in front of the town hall. It was several people, but one key guy was Harald Jager, who was a Stasi officer on the Berlin Wall who had been there for two decades and as the people were building up he didn't know what to do. By a freak of timing NBC had Ted Jensen on the other side and they could tell something was going on, but they didn't know what. Spiegel TV crossed over even without permission and Jager orders them to leave, but they had their cameras on and he realizes they were filming it. To make a long story short, he called his commanding officer and asks what to do with all these people. His commanding officer said, "Don't be a coward, if you have to shoot somebody, just shoot them."

It angered him so much because he knew the whole thing was a lie and he just said, "Fuck it." And he opened the gate and that was it. To me that was Germany's glorious revolution.

The fact that the cold war ended and the Berlin Wall came down without a drop of blood and without a bullet fired is amazing. If you had to bring it down to one person, I would credit it to Harald Jager. That one guy who... "There comes a time to decide, there comes a time to choose sides, for in a world in the dark, a single voice is a spark that ignites." It names all the people who changed humanity for the better: "Einstein, Edison, Tesla, Eddington, Prometheus."

Bp: I'd like to jump back to the Wacken German metal festival you headlined this summer. In your eyes, was Wacken the return of Savatage or the epilogue?

Paul O'Neill: No, it's the next chapter.

Bp: How so?

Paul O'Neill: There was a reason we never said it was closed down, we just never wanted to do it not right. Wacken was insane. I got to do multiple things. To be the first band to do two stages simultaneously. And Savatage could play songs we'd done live like "Morphine Child," "Wake of Magellan," "Hourglass," "Chance," – but we never had the massive vocals like on the album. So we realized we could have Savatage play and Savatage could borrow a bunch of TSO's background singers and we could do the counterpoint and it would be thick like the album and then later TSO can be on two stages simultaneously – and by the way, that was scary. Especially doing it without a soundcheck.

And hats off to Al Pitrelli and Derek Wieland. Those guys rehearsed that band so well. The few songs I went up for, it was weird. I never realized how much you depend on looking at the drummer or looking at someone else when you're going to make a change. We all had to be on one nervous system. Pitrelli and Derek just rehearsed it so tightly and Jon working with all the singers so well.

Also, doing this in the middle of the album was insane. I don't know what the hell I was thinking when I confirmed this.

Bp: It did give you the opportunity to test out some of the material live.

Paul O'Neill: It did, but...you know me, I like to double-check and triple-check and rehearse and rehearse and they pulled this off under fire. It was too good of an opportunity to pass up. We just had to go for it.

The other great thing was having Zak [Stevens] back in. Zak is in TSO touring with us this year. His voice sounds great. He's in great shape and it sounds great.

Bp: Knowing that you like to be in control of things, I don't think that is a secret to anyone, but knowing that I still don't understand how at the end of the Wacken show you parted the clouds and made the moon appear during your final song of the night, "Requiem." That was amazing!

Paul O'Neill: [laughing] Can I tell you something? It looks like it was CGI'd.

Bp: I know [Bryan] Hartley is a whiz with the production, but I can't believe he had a fader on the moon and clouds!

Paul O'Neill: [laughs] That was just the rock gods shining down on us saying, "Let's give these guys a break."

Some of the other bands came up to the soundboard and asked if we were doing any lip-syncing for the show and I said, "Nope. It's all live."

"King Rurik"

Bp: To quickly wrap up, last year we discussed off the record about some of the emotions Vitalij felt during recent time he had spent in Ukraine, which in turn inspired the seed for his co-writing contribution, "King Rurik."

Paul O'Neill: What's going on in Kiev is heartbreaking. He is from Kiev and so that was why it was important for us to do that live in Wacken. We had to be careful though because we didn't want to pour gas on the situation over there. The first capital of Russia was Kiev and King Rurik the first king in around 800 A.D. When you see all of Greg Hildebrandt's illustrations in this year's tour program and the album, the smoke from the fires come out of his sarcophagus. It's not about a person, it's just the idea of envy and greed and hate. And King Rurik takes it on and everyone snaps out of their trance. You'll see it when you get the hard copy.

Bp: I'm looking forward to that, Paul. I appreciate you taking the during rehearsals as I know you're busy right now putting the show together. I look forward to meeting up on the road and again, congratulations on the album.

Paul O'Neill: Brad, thank you so much. Not just for today, but for everything all through the years. You've been a prince. Thank you so much.

Bp: No problem. Thank you very much, Paul.

Paul O'Neill: Thanks, Brad.

Additional Links:
Trans-Siberian Orchestra - official site

My Trans-Siberian Orchestra Interview Series.



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