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29 March 2016 @ 10:02 pm
The Trans-Siberian Orchestra Interviews: Al Pitrelli - Winter 2015  

The Trans-Siberian Orchestra Interviews:
Al Pitrelli - Winter Tour 2015 - Dec 18, 2015

Interview by Brad Parmerter

Trans-Siberian Orchestra's long-time west coast tour Music Director and guitarist, Al Pitrelli, is no stranger to making magic happen both in the studio and on stage. In the summer of 2015 he was presented with the challenge of a lifetime: two bands headlining two stages simultaneously in Wacken, Germany for 80,000 concertgoers. As he spoke about preparing for that show I remembered a quote from our last conversation, "If you're prepared and an opportunity arises, you have a better chance of making something out of that opportunity than if you're unprepared."

In addition to that monumental show, the band was also working on Letters from the Labyrinth which was released in November of 2015. Meticulously crafted with TSO creator and producer Paul O'Neill and Jon Oliva, Pitrelli conjured some of his finest guitar work to date on the album.

A brand-new winter tour production capped off a very busy year as their multi-platinum selling film, The Ghosts of Christmas Eve, was performed for the first time across North America.

During the tour I caught up with Pitrelli to discuss both his emotions and technical details about Wacken, how the magic was created in the studio on Labyrinth, his go-to studio guitars, the current tour, in-ear monitors, reacting to issues that arise during a performance, his gear rundown, musical goals and why you shouldn't tell him he looks tired.

Bp: How is Little Rock treating you today?

Al Pitrelli: Well, I got up early and did a little bit of radio this morning. Then I went down to the TV station and now I'm looking forward to speaking with you for a bit. How's everything? How's the family?

Bp: Awesome. Congratulations on the nuptials earlier this year.

Al Pitrelli: [laughs] Ah, thanks so much. Everything's great in my world. It's been a great year to say the least.

Bp: It's been a busy year too.

Al Pitrelli: It's been a busy year! Between, good lord, finishing last year's winter tour, working on the new record all year, getting married, what came next – Wacken.

Bp: Oh, that little thing.

Al Pitrelli: Yea, that little bar-band concert we put together in Germany. It's been absolutely terrific, dude. This year's tour's going amazing. I've got nothing to complain about, brother.

Bp: Awesome. I want to dive in-depth into a few topics today including Wacken, Labyrinth, MD'ing, and also this year's tour. When did the prep start on Wacken for you?

Al Pitrelli: I would have to say probably late February/ early March. That's when Paul first told me we were going to do it and headline and then both bands were going to headline. At that point I thought, "That sounds like fun. Awesome." He kind of left out of the initial conversation that both bands were going to headline and play simultaneously. That's when I had an anxiety attack.

Bp: A minor detail to leave out.

Al Pitrelli: Yea. It's the little things in life. What're you going to do? 'Cause, I mean, in all actuality it was a logistical impossibility. How do two bands play at the same time with about one-hundred yards in between the two stages and no sight lines. It was time for me to scratch my head and think, "There's got to be a way to do this." Myself and BJ [Ramone], one of our engineers, it took us the better part of four months to design a whole program that was going to work out. We kind of tested it in rehearsals and it worked there. But when we got to Germany and our soundcheck got rained out, the crew was setting up stereo imagery of pyro and lasers and the trusses and the video screens, that's when I got scared for the first time in a long time, because we hadn't tried this and it's raining, it's windy, it's cold. Well, we're here, we might as well do it.

It went off without a hitch, thank God, but I really don't want to do anything like that again very soon at all.

Bp: You've said that choosing the setlist for Wacken was extremely difficult. Can you explain the process you guys went through?

Al Pitrelli: Well there's a lot of material, a lot of catalog for both bands. Savatage has an enormous catalog as does TSO now. How do you pick the songs? I did the smart thing, I stayed out of the conversation. That's exactly what I did. I just said, "Yea, no." Too many people have too many opinions. You have Paul and Jon Oliva who have the right to say anything they want. Then you have some of the guys in Savatage who have been there for quite a few years like Johnny Lee, Jeff, Chris, and Zak Stevens, so they all had an opinion on what their favorite Sava songs were. When it came to the TSO side I said, "Listen, we're introducing the band, really for the first time, to the entire European press corps and eighty-thousand German folks in the audience, let's keep it to the darker, heavier side of TSO. I think that's what they'll enjoy. There are such rabid music aficionados over there and they're so well versed in the classics, so let's go over there with our strengths and really dig into that side of the TSO catalog." Paul agreed with that and we were in pretty good shape there, but for the Savatage stuff I just threw my hands in the air and said, "Tell me what you want to play."

"Carmina Burana" live in Wacken, Germany - July 30, 2015

Bp: You were the Musical Director for both stages, but were you also MD while both stages were playing simultaneously? How did the MD responsibilities breakdown when both stages were going on?

Al Pitrelli: Yes. I kind of MD'd the whole thing regardless of which stage I was on because I was able to communicate with both bands – at the end of the day, look, let's clarify one thing, MD just meant that I went in and kind of rehearsed the band – everybody in Savatage knew those songs better than I did. At the end of the day I knew how it needed to sound in that situation. I knew the technology that we were performing with. So in rehearsal I ran both bands and by the time we got to Wacken we were very well rehearsed. All I had to do was start and stop the songs and if there was a problem, communicate throughout the band and crew – I had my own little communication world that went on. There were one or two little technical glitches that no one in the audience knew about, but that's because the band was so well rehearsed and they're such amazing players that they knew exactly what to do.

Once we got to Wacken, I wasn't worried about the band's performance, I was worried about all the technical things that had the possibility of going really wrong quickly.

Bp: Would you care to share what the technical glitches were?

Al Pitrelli: At one point in the show – I was wearing in-ears and basically I got a message from one of the guys in the crew and he had said something to me and I'd just started a song and I immediately had to stop the song. Everybody on both stages, they do what they do, they know if I say, "Stop," they freeze. That's it. Don't move. Don't do anything until I find out what's going on. And then I said, "Ok, let's do this one more time and as I'm doing it, I was asking Oliva, "Play some piano. Play something pretty to fill up the dead air while I find out what's going on." Jon started playing his little thing, the audience didn't really know what was going on, it was just a long pregnant pause between two songs. But that's the kind of thing that if you couldn't communicate from one stage to the other, that's where a massive, massive train-wreck would have occurred. That's what we rehearsed. We rehearsed so many different scenarios in rehearsal, "What if this happens? What if this happens?" You just try to run all these drills. Paul and I both come from military backgrounds, everyone in my family is in the military, so I'm used to that way of thinking. I'm used to, "If everything is going great, let's throw a wrench in it and see what happens." We did that in rehearsal time and time again. It was good, it really was.

Bp: Is there anything you'd do differently, other than not do it at all?

Al Pitrelli: No. I would repeat exactly what we did. Everybody worked really hard. Everybody knew how important that show was. Everybody knew we had one shot at doing this, you can't push rewind and do it again. If it ever came up again I don't think it would be any problem whatsoever. I think we would just go. Everybody's such a pro and such a good player – have Paul and Jon's interest and legacy at heart and do the best job ever.

Bp: What was the feeling like just before going onstage?

Al Pitrelli: For the first time in about thirty-some-odd-years I've been doing this, I sat with a guitar in my lap and just put my head down and practiced. I just kept playing and playing a couple songs over and over and over again. I got really quiet and Oliva's like, "I've never seen you like this." I said, "Well, we've never done anything like this together." That was just an hour or two before the show. As I walked to the stage it was raining and it was kind of cold and I was trying not to concentrate on that, but to focus on the task at hand. Then I remember [laughing] it was really funny, we had – the song that was playing before we started our show was "Karn Evil 9" by ELP [Emerson, Lake & Palmer] and I remember having a big raincoat on with the hood up – I felt like I was getting into the ring before a fight, with the robe on, and I remember that song started and I remembered the first time I heard that song. It was in 1973 and how my heart started to pound when that song came off my father's stereo. And then all of a sudden I realized that I had three and a half minutes before probably one of the biggest shows of my life and certainly, hands-down, the most important and the most difficult and I just remember sitting there chain-smoking for three minutes. I didn't give a shit if I could smoke on that stage or not, dude, I went through half a pack of Marlboro really quick and I took the raincoat off and I stretched. My guitar tech, Moby, put my Les Paul around my neck and he looked at me and said, "Go kill this." I remember as soon as "Karn Evil 9" ended I walked up to the microphone and I said, "Here we go, let's dance!" And it crushed. It was so awesome!

Bp: To have been in that audience must have been a magical thing.

Al Pitrelli: You know what? They were such a gracious bunch of people, dude. They didn't care if it was raining or if they were cold or knee deep in mud. They were just there for a good time. Not a fight, not a problem, everything about it – it couldn't have been more perfect. I don't mind talking about it, but if you asked me to relive it, I'd be like, "Yea, no." [laughs] Just let it go exactly how it went.

Bp: It's amazing that with everything that could have gone wrong, that more didn't go wrong. And to cap it off somehow Paul made the full moon poke through the clouds at the end of the set.

Al Pitrelli: [laughing] Yea, funny how he does that, right? It's raining, it's pouring, it's cloudy, it's disgusting out and then at the end of it, the clouds part, the full moon is dead center between the two stages to accentuate the pyro going off. I just love how Paul has every detail planned out in the big head of his. God bless him.

Bp: It's as if [Bryan] Hartley had the clouds on a fader.

Al Pitrelli: Exactly. I didn't realize any of that was going on because I had my head down for the entire show. I did not know what was going on, I just knew I was paying attention to make sure the band was running good and everything was working good. Lo and behold what seemed like an eternity – it was the longest five minutes of my life, let's put it that way. The two plus hours went by like five minutes, but a very intense five minutes.

St. Louis, MO - December 27, 2015 (Photo by The 2 Z Girlz)

Bp: You've premiered big and different shows in the past, so you're no stranger to that, but this time around not only were you taking on this monumental task with both stages, but you're doing it in front of the entire European press. And you spent the day before and the day of talking about it all day long. Did that add any extra pressure?

Al Pitrelli: You know what, it didn't add pressure to it because I don't mind talking about it, they kept asking us what we were going to do and I kept saying, "I'm not going to tell you what we're gonna do because I want you guys to sit back and enjoy the surprise and the shock and hopefully enjoy what we're doing." I don't want to talk about that. What it did was it prolonged the build-up to the show. Like today, we have a show at 7 o'clock, so all day long I'm ready to get onstage for that show. At Wacken it was a full day and a half of press before the show on the festival grounds talking to everybody. I love talking to people, I don't mind that, but I don't want to be standing here talking anymore, I want to put a guitar on and get to work. That's the part – it's like getting into a fight before you get into the ring, all the time before you get into the fight you're biting your nails, "Shit," you just want to get in there and punch someone in the face and get punched in the face. The same thing with playing, I don't want to talk about it anymore, I want to go do it.

Bp: What was the feeling like immediately after the show?

Al Pitrelli: I actually got emotional for a minute because it was so stressful, I was so completely focused, it wasn't the kind of show that I was up there bouncing around playing the guitar, I was just standing in my spot making sure everything went right. So when we finished the last note of the last song and I saw the reaction from the crowd and the look on Paul O'Neill's face, that it was an absolute grand slam. I actually broke down for a minute because – it's like watching your child be born, all the chaos that goes into childbirth and all of a sudden you have this beautiful, perfect eight-pound baby boy or baby girl in your hands, you can't help but get emotional. You fall in love, but you're also – my wife's fine, everybody's good, everybody's healthy, that was horrifying [laughs]. It was just extreme relief, one really big exhale and a lot of Jameson's after that show.

Bp: I can't remember if it was on the TV broadcast footage or elsewhere, but there was a moment at the beginning of either "Sarajevo" or "Requiem" where Paul was just beaming and it reminded me of the relieved smile he had after opening night of The Christmas Attic tour in Toledo when we chatted for a while. Obviously those shows were on a different level, but that smile was the same.

Al Pitrelli: The Cheshire smile. The impetus of my existence is to make Paul smile. I know I've made him frown and scream over the years, but more times than not, all I want to do is have him walk away saying his dream came to fruition. That everything he saw in his head came to life. That's what's paramount for me. This dude is relentless in his creativity, his vision, his dedication, his determination. So for me to have anything less than perfection occur onstage – it would break my heart to ever see him anything less than one-hundred percent thrilled. That's what he deserves and that's what I'll give him as long as my eyes are still open and I'm still breathing.

Bp: He keeps raising the bar, making your job harder with these bigger and more intricate challenges.

Al Pitrelli: That's alright. Making my job harder makes me better. I don't know how not to do something. If I don't know how to do something, I'll figure it out and then I'll know how to do it. It's like anything else, if you don't have a mountain in front of you to climb you're going to get complacent.

Bp: Can you talk about the studio process that went into creating Letters from the Labyrinth a bit?

Al Pitrelli: Jon and Paul wrote a huge amount of material. They had so much material ready for this and when I got down to Tampa about the second week of January or so they started playing me tracks that they'd started mapping out and we just basically started recording a lot. That process went on from January until, I think we finally finished it the end of the summer or early September. It was the most difficult record we've done in a long time because most of the stuff is really, really intricate and deep. But it was a whole lot of fun because you'd walk into the studio, make a cup of coffee and open the score to a Beethoven symphony or whatever piece it is, and watch these children come to life.

There's no real mystery or hocus pocus involved, just a lot of hard work.

"Prince Igor" from Letters from the Labyrinth

Bp: How is it determined who is called in for what part? If you've got a song like "Prince Igor," how is the decision made who is going to do the organ on that or who is going to be brought in to do the guitar? Or do you bring in a number of people to track it and then decide which take worked the best?

Al Pitrelli: Nah. Usually we kind of know who is going to be right for what. Mee Eun Kim played some Hammond on "Night Conceives" because she'd been playing it for a while live with Kayla. She played it really well and had some really nice parts going on so she would come in to do that. Maybe I would play a little Hammond on some things. Vitalij came in and played some piano on "King Rurik." He co-wrote that with Paul so that was a no brainer. I think everybody kind of comes in and says, "Angus would be really good on this" or "Caffery would be really good on this" or "Johnny Lee would crush this" or "Dave Z is a no brainer." "Those songs make sense for Jeff Plate" or "John O'Reilly's got a different feel, let's put John on that."

You know your people so well you have such a large palette to draw from, you know which color is going to work where. That's part of the musical director's job at the end of the day. That's part of Dave Wittman's job and that's part of Paul's job. They all know who does what. When it comes to who is singing what, I don't even want to get involved in that part of the conversation.

Bp: [laughing] Does that pose a challenge with recording, for instance, if you have fourteen tracks on the album and you think Jeff Plate would be good for seven of those songs, do you bring Jeff down once and he tracks all seven or does he come down a few times during the process because not everything's ready to track?

Al Pitrelli: Usually everything is pretty much ready and Jon Oliva and I are pretty good at programming drums so we like to program the drums and put the tracks around that to make sure the tempo feels right, we'll move this around and that. Once the arrangement is there then Plate will come down and spend three or four days getting a feel for the song and he'll interpret it as Jeff Plate would play the drums. He's such a great drummer that he'll sit behind the kit and make it his song and bring it to life. The same thing with O'Reilly. I program drums like John O'Reilly plays because we've been in bands together for thirty years. When he comes down, he says, "Yea, that makes sense." We know each other so well, you're talking about people who have been playing together for thirty years, some of us twenty years. We've all been doing this for a very long time so it's kind of a no brainer.

Bp: What's your go-to guitar in the studio?

Al Pitrelli: I have a 1960-something cherry sunburst Les Paul that I've had since, I don't know, 1975? My father bought it for me for a birthday gift or something when I was in the 8th grade. That's Paul O'Neill's favorite guitar on the planet and about 90% of the stuff you hear on a TSO record has been recorded with that; all the rhythm guitars and obviously all of my solos. There's something about that guitar that has its own personality. It's the longest relationship I've had in my life besides my mother. It's a pretty special one. There are a couple others that I use, I have a 1968 Explorer and a '61 double-cut away Les Paul custom that looks like an SG. Those are my guitars that I use to layer stuff, but the old cherry sunburst Les Paul with Dicky Betts' name carved in the back is the one I've been using forever.

Bp: When you're laying down a solo, how many takes do you usually do before either you are satisfied or Paul's satisfied?

Al Pitrelli: That question has several answers. It's been one take in the past. It's been five-hundred takes in the past. It all depends. If Paul and I are in the same mind-set and we're hearing the song and the interpretation the right way, usually what I'll play, he'll hear or what he'll hear, I'll play. Sometimes if we're coming from different perspectives on what it should be then it'll take a little bit longer. But my first instinct – the solo is already written I just need to go find out where it is; the melody or whatever it's going to be. It already exists because if you listen to a guitar solo in a song – if you listen to "Hotel California" you couldn't imagine that song without that solo. So was the solo written or did Joe Walsh just have to pick it out of his big brain, y'know what I mean? You can get a little wacky thinking about that, but I like to look at it that way because it's like anything else, if something is done and it's a piece of art then it all kind of was supposed to be exactly like it was. So sometimes I kind of throw my hands up in the air and I tell Paul, "What do you hear here, because I'm not hearing that. At the end of the day, you're the producer." And I'll give him what he wants and I'll try that and say, "Can I try what I want now?" and he'll say, "Of course." Sometimes he'll say, "You know what, I like yours better." Sometimes he'll say, "Let's stay with mine." I'll say, "You know, yours sounds better. It's more appropriate for the song." You never know, dude.

Bp: So when Jon and Paul write the song, how solidified is the solo at that point? Do you have free reign over it? Obviously you're going to bring to it your own style, but is it an open canvas or has it been mapped out?

Al Pitrelli: It depends. A couple songs – Oliva's a really, really good guitar player and he's so musical that sometimes he'll turn around and say, "I recorded this solo on the demo." I'll say, "I love that." He'll say, "Can you just play it like you would play it." "Yea. Absolutely. Done." Sometimes he'll say, "I have no idea –" I call him Sonny and he calls me Freddy. He'll say, "Freddy, do something that you would do." So I'll play it and he'll say, "Yea, that's it." Then Paul may come in and have a different spin on it. It's such a democracy until it's not a democracy. At the end of the day Paul O'Neill has final say. But he trusts Jon, he trusts me, he trusts Dave Wittman that we're going to do what the songs need anyway. Again, the songs already exist we just need to scrape all that extra clay and let that sculpture come out. We're not adding a lot of stuff to it, we're just taking away all the layers until it's revealed.

"Ornament" from Christmas Eve & Other Stories

Bp: Do you have an example of a solo that you crafted on your own?

Al Pitrelli: Off the top of my head – [long pause] – I remember, going back to the first record, the song "Ornament" where Paul and Jon had an idea of something and I kind of looked at them and said, "Yea, no. I'm gonna dig my feet in the ground on this one, dig my heels in. This is how I'm hearing it in my head." It was very lyrical, not too many notes in the solo. When I finished it they both went, "You know what, dude, you are exactly right. That was perfect."

"The Storm" would be another one that they had a framework of and some melodic ideas and I said, "This is what I'm hearing, you guys let me know what you think." And they said, "That's it."

"The Dark" I had some ideas and Paul said, "Nope, I don't get it." Then Paul sang me his idea for the solo and that's exactly what we recorded. Paul sang me that melody and then let me interpret the melody. So it all depends and we all trust each other and love each other so dearly. We're going on twenty years working together. "If you feel that strongly about something, I owe you the respect to say, 'Ok, let's bring it to life.'" We may do something and throw it out after a few days, but it certainly deserves a real good look at. There are some things that Dave Wittman will turn around and look at me and say, "Dude, can't you put a little bit more snot on that or get a little sleazier or a put a little more nicotine," we like to say. "Make it more like a barroom. Don't make it so precise. Stand up, smoke a cigarette, make it a little sleazier." 'Cause Dave's got that set of ears that he sees the bigger picture because he's got to mix it.

You learn to trust in each other that if somebody's that adamant about it, then let's look at it. That's important.

Bp: Do you remember any examples of one-take solos?

Al Pitrelli: Oh God, I think – give me a second to think about this – I think on the Dead Winter Dead album "This is the Time," when I was first sitting with Paul and Jon and we were first meeting each other and deciding whether or not to work together. The guitar solo on there was probably the first take that I think we kept. "This Christmas Day" was probably one. "Forget About the Blame" on the new record, I think I was in there late one night with BJ Ramone, one of our engineers, and I started fiddling about with that, maybe a take or two. Certainly a take to get the framework of the melody and then a take or two to kind of finish it out. Sometimes you nail it and I'll want to fix it and they'll say, "Nope, it stays as is."

Bp: Shifting gears from the studio to this year's tour. When it comes to the setlist, this year's winter tour was different than previous in that you didn't have an album to play in its entirety, but the DVD, The Ghosts of Christmas Eve, and the song selection strays a bit more than in the past with some songs added from the third album, which hadn't been released when the DVD was done. How did the setlist take shape for this tour?

Al Pitrelli: For the story that was mainly Paul. Adam Lind was also very involved in that because Adam has a different vantage point and always has his eye on the bigger picture. With that I stay clear of the story because Paul wrote the stories. I helped him score them and I've helped record all of them, but when it comes to the actual story and how he wants the presentation of the story, I kind of leave that up to him. I know he changed a couple of the songs around and he probably had a really good reason to do it, but for the most part it stayed true to the story. What I found out after – when did we film that? Was it '98 or '99 maybe? Something like that. Again, like anything else in its infancy of this thing, I didn't pay that much attention to it when it was done because I never thought it would see the light of day. Christmas Eve & Other Stories had come out and gone platinum, awesome. Then The Christmas Attic came out and that started selling a lot of records, but we still weren't touring. We were like the Steely Dan band or some sort of weird studio band. So when we filmed The Ghosts of Christmas Eve it was like, "Great, we filmed a thing for Fox TV, we're going to be on TV this holiday season. That's going to be fun. Me and Jeff and Chris and Middleton, the whole pile of us. What a fun thing for the holidays this year." Then all of a sudden, seventeen years later I didn't realize it had gone double or triple platinum as a DVD. And people watch that like they watch Miracle on 34th Street or It's a Wonderful Life or when I watched Charlie Brown as a kid.

Everybody loves it for a couple of reasons. First of all, it's a really great film with some great acting in it. But it was also like a greatest hits from the first two records. So that in itself was a really cool idea. Let's keep the integrity of the story, our narration and let's give people songs from both those early records and we'll dabble with the rest of the stuff later on. But what I didn't realize was that Paul O'Neill and Adam Lind were having a conversation about how they can bring the movie to life. What they did with the 3-D imagery on the screens and having the movie play and having us become part of the movie or the movie become part of us, I thought that was absolutely genius. Now people are hearing Phillip Brandon narrate it, or Bryan Hicks on the east coast narrate it, but now they are watching it at the same time, replacing Ossie Davis' voice. The whole thing I think was very clever and the audiences have reacted so well to it. I can't get over it. They're watching the movie and they're watching the band oscillating between the two and I'm thinking, "This is awesome!"

I'm such a huge Peter Gabriel fan so I loved his Secret World film, which was a similar situation, where it became very multi-media and I really enjoyed it because if you can sing the song you can hear it come to life, but if you can live the song, if you can watch the song and you can see it, and you can become part of the song, then it touches people on a whole different level. These people are not only hearing Jeff Scott Soto or Chloe Lowery or the rest of them sing these songs, but they're watching these songs come to life with the production. The production is so subtle yet so bombastic at the same time, it's really weird. It's like getting punched in the face by Mike Tyson, but being okay with it.

Bp: [laughing] That's a great analogy.

Al Pitrelli: You know what I mean? It's weird because it's definitely over the top, but yet it's done so classy and elegantly. It's like watching Fred Astaire dance or watching Baryshnikov dance or Conor McGregor fight or Jeff Beck play the guitar. Whatever it is, there's so much behind it, yet it comes off so effortless. You couldn't imagine it any other way. The production is important because we've created something that people need to witness. I don't want to put on just a rock concert, I want people to experience what we lived all those years ago when we filmed it. The other thing is with that film I had forgotten, eighteen years ago, I was thirty-six then, right? Whatever I was. My kids were little when we made that. Now I've got three grown children who are now men. Two of them are in the Armed Forces, the other is out touring as a bass player for a living, they're not home on Christmas. So when Jeff sings "This Christmas Day" it hits home a little differently now. My wife Nicole and what I call our little Munkie, Olivia, who is now four, it's a little different because I want to go home at the end of the tour and walk through the door with the Christmas tree all lit up and have Olivia run into my arms and Nicole and I are going to sit in front of the fireplace. Everything is different after fifty. And I'm watching the audience grow up with us too because insert name, insert age here, and people have grown up with this band and understanding the different characters that maybe they didn't relate to as much twenty years ago.

Bp: It'll be interesting when you roll out Christmas Eve & Other Stories in 2016 again to see that come full circle now that it's been away for four years.

Al Pitrelli: Yea, for me too. To play "Christmas Eve/Sarajevo 12/24" in the middle of the show or as part of the story – every time I start that song off and the audience reacts I think, "That was twenty years ago, dude! Twenty years ago." It's still brand new to me every time I play it.

Bp: Songs that lived in the studio obviously come alive when you bring them to the stage. What are some examples of songs for you that have gone through that metamorphosis by playing them live whether it's through new arrangements or vocal harmonies added?

Al Pitrelli: All of the above. I mean, music is alive and it grows so I think every song for the most part has a new arrangement live. In particular, if I had to give you an example, stuff like – we have such great singers so when they start harmonizing we want to put choirs on everything, so when we went into "The Lost Christmas Eve," we designed this whole thing at the end of it where the choir is going to kick in. "Christmas Nights in Blue" when we were doing that it took on this whole barroom, ragtime, Cab Calloway feel and it's a lot of fun because we can keep growing it. I love how the music keeps growing up all the time. Like one of my kids.

Bp: It was especially cool to hear how that took place with a lot of the Savatage material that you performed in Wacken with both bands. Having that enormous choir on those vocal counterpoint songs was something that Savatage never had and the songs came to life even more so.

Al Pitrelli: Oh, absolutely. What'd we have, twenty singers? We'll find something for you to do, you'll be busy, I promise. [laughs] It's not something that's normally done. Paul used to tell me when he'd go see Queen and they'd do "Bohemian Rhapsody" and the whole middle section, that famous opera thing, they'd roll tape. Of course they'd roll tape, they only had four guys onstage and they could sing, those four guys. Paul taught me a long time ago, make the record the best it can be and worry about live later. Now we have so many great players and singers available to us at all times, we can do whatever we want. We have no limitations apart from good taste, class and decorum. So let them sing on – look, we did a live version of "Christmas Jam" and we recorded it in Prague a couple years ago and I was just doing one of my moments where I was like, "This is how I'm feeling tonight so this is how I'm going to play." And Paul turned around and said, "You know what, that's the new arrangement of the song." So from the recording to where it landed a couple years later, now that's the arrangement we perform live because it took on its own life. Live music – most of the bands I grew up listening to – their best records were their live albums because they were moments caught in time. Mainly The Allman Brothers Live at the Fillmore, that album defined music for me.

Bp: All the more reason to have a live TSO record out there [laughs]. I understand the logistics as to why there isn't, but -

Al Pitrelli: I don't know. Ask Paul that. I could go either way. There's about ten million live albums out on YouTube. Every one of our shows, every one of our songs is well documented.

"O Come All Ye Faithful/O Holy Night" live in Kansas City, MO - December 26, 2015 - video captured by Shane LaRene

Bp: Let's talk guitars, can you give me a guitar rundown of what you're playing on this tour?

Al Pitrelli: In no particular order, I have a brand new Fender Strat that was built by the custom shop earlier this year. I've wanted one of those guitars and it's a total balls out, awesome Strat. I have a bunch of Strats at home, but this one is just amazing. They did such a great job. That one I start the show with. I was practicing at home back in September into October and I had this 1962 Les Paul Junior that sits on my fireplace and I'd fit that in every night for a couple of hours. Practicing just felt good and I thought, "This has not been out of this house in a long time." So I took that out with me. I've got another Les Paul, nothing good about it, nothing bad about it, it's got this tiger stripe kind of flame Les Paul that I liked a lot that I took out this year. My main black one that I've been using forever, that's another one. My black Explorer that I've been using forever and my Dan Armstrong, my clear, polyurethane guitar that I had out last year, I've been having some fun with it again this year. I have a couple different acoustic guitars, but that's it. Nothing too crazy.

Bp: Have there been any changes to your rig this year or is it the Marshall standby?

Al Pitrelli: Marshalls. Same as it's been since 1973. Just a lot more of them.

Bp: As far as effects?

Al Pitrelli: In the rack I incorporate – I have six different heads going so a couple of the heads have effects built into them and a couple of them don't. Six heads through six cabinets and each one is EQ'd a little bit differently and treated just a bit differently. So I have my rhythm sound here, my solo sound here, on the solo just a little bit of delay, onboard delay, and some reverb. That's it. I don't use any chorus. I don't know if Michi [Tanikawa] at front-of-house has me compressed at all. I'm kind of just old school, basically it's a Les Paul into a Marshall. The delay and the reverb are just because sometimes the melodies, the notes, are long between each other – or the space between the notes is long I should say. So the delay and reverb tie that up nicely a little to make it a little more haunting. I was never a big effects person so that's kind of it, dude.

Bp: How about your strings?

Al Pitrelli: .11 to .56. Pretty heavy.

Bp: When we last spoke you were still predominantly using monitors as opposed to in-ears.

Al Pitrelli: That got shot to hell because of Wacken. [laughs] That was the end of the wedges as soon as we got to Wacken. There was no way to do it without being on in-ears, so that was trial by fire for me. Earl McCoy is my monitor engineer and I've been trying since the Megadeth era to use in-ears and I'm like, "Not a chance, these things suck." Earl came up to me one day and said, "Listen, we've got to do this so let's give it a shot." I said, "Alright." And within hours he had it sounding so good I can't even imagine not using them anymore.

Bp: Wow. You've been won over, huh?

Al Pitrelli: For this show, yes. If you're going to tell me that I'm going to some bar down outside of Dallas somewhere to play in a blues band for a while, I want to hear the room, I want to smell the room, I want to hear everything about it. That's not when you'd use in-ears. But for a show of this magnitude that's gotten so big and so tech savvy, there's no other way to do it. And Earl made it sound just amazing. It really does sound great. It's the most fun I've had onstage in years because everything sounds so fuckin' good.

Bp: Do you review audio of previous shows or do you make mental notes as an MD as the show happens?

Al Pitrelli: I'm just making mental notes. A mistake made doesn't bother me at all. A mistake made ten nights in a row I would have noticed anyway. Somebody drops a chord or something goes wrong or you miss a note, who cares. If you're a little flat or a little sharp, it happens. It's live. If something happens say today and then tomorrow the same thing taps me on the shoulder that it's still there then I'm going to address it at soundcheck, but other than that, I have this little hand gesture that I give to John O'Reilly and I'm like, "Remember this." The next day he'll say, "You had something going on in, say, 'Wizards in Winter,' that you wanted to look at." I'll say, "Ok, thanks." Then we'll review stuff like that.

Everybody self-governs. Everybody self regulates. Every one of the singers – "Oh, I didn't do that as good as I wanted to." Or someone will say, "I had a rough night." "Ahh, that's cool dude. You had a rough night. Good. Make it better tomorrow." I don't have to worry too much.

I hear things no one else hears. I look for details that most people won't recognize. It's the subtleties in the music and the depth of the music, that's what I concentrate on. If you play a wrong chord, you're gonna beat yourself up. I don't need to bring it to your attention. You know you did something stupid. Don't do it again.

Bp: There have been a couple times that vocalists have been so into the character that they are portraying they've become emotional onstage due to the depth of Paul's lyrics. What instinctively comes to your mind as an MD in that type of situation?

Al Pitrelli: For me or for somebody who is having an emotional breakdown?

Bp: You, as an MD, seeing it unfold and then your reaction to be there to help them.

Al Pitrelli: Well, I'm not an MD at that point. I'm just a decent human being. It has nothing to do with being musical. If you were walking down the street and somebody got hit by a car, somebody fell over, somebody was taken ill, somebody was being bullied, some people may walk away and pretend it wasn't happening, but I'd be in the middle of it. [laughs] That's who I am. Being an MD is the simplest job in the world until something goes really wrong. Reacting to it calmly and solving the problem and then – nobody, nobody while I'm still alive will ever be on that stage and have that happen to them without me holding their hand and putting my arm around them and me saying, "Hey, it's fine. You're okay. You're not alone." It happens. But it's mortifying to think that something like that goes on onstage and you're isolated? Nah. Not on my watch, dude. Other people may not get involved. Me, I can't help it. I'm Italian. I'll take care of you and afterwards we'll go get some lasagna.

Bp: [laughing] In Omaha during rehearsals, do you watch the East band before they head out for their first show?

Al Pitrelli: Sometimes I have, sometimes I haven't. I try to make a point of going out there, mainly to be supportive and clap and applaud and encourage. So sometimes I'll want to watch to make sure they're doing things the right way or maybe I'm watching to see them do things that we don't do and go, "Hey, that's something pretty cool. Maybe we should try that." There's a lot of interaction like that. I'll sit with Paul O'Neill and Jon Oliva and take inventory on what's going on. Is everything sounding good? Is everything looking good? Can I help Billy Hudson along with something? He's the new kid in town and if he needs a little, "Hey, try this. Do it this way. Hey, give this a shot." Or "Hey, dude, you just crushed it. Sounds great!" I think that the people who have been in the band the longest have a certain responsibility to nurture the younger ones to make them feel like they belong and help them out and be supportive.

I don't like being old, I don't want to grow up. But I like being a father in this thing because these records, these songs are partly my children as well. And I know them better than anyone else. Me, Jon, Paul, Wittman, a couple of the other guys know this stuff inside and out. So it's nice to be a little bit paternal.

Bp: A mentoring role.

Al Pitrelli: Yea. I want to help the next generation along. Unfortunately for people like Billy Hudson I'm gonna live forever [laughs]. He's screwed. I told him not too long ago, "I look at you, it's like looking at a twenty-five year-old mirror. Good." He plays great. He looks great. He's got a great attitude and he's hungry. He wants to be a good student. Considering I'm still a student, he'll be too. I think he's going to do really well. It's nice to see.

My father was a teacher. A lot of my family was in the military and educators. I guess that's a little bit in my blood too.

"Christmas Jam" live in Council Bluffs, IA - November 18, 2015 - video captured by zwicksflicks

Bp: After a very busy 2015, what are your 2016 plans?

Al Pitrelli: 2016 plans – I want to go home and stay home for a little while. I want to be a good husband. I want to go play with my Munkie. My three older children, we spent a lot of time together this year. Probably do some recording at some point. A couple other things probably will be going on. But I want to finish out '15 and then I want to go home for a while.

Bp: One last question, I know from the fan perspective how important the signing line is to get a chance to say hello and express our thanks to the musicians in TSO who have inspired us, but how important is it to you from the musician side?

Al Pitrelli: I don't think as a musician it matters either way. I think, again, going back to your question if someone is having an emotional breakdown on stage, how do you react. We've gone from playing seven shows in 1999 to playing one hundred and something this year. The people who come to see us put us on the map and they've not only have they bought records and bought tickets to the show, they've embraced us in a whole different way. You go to somebody's house, walk in with a good bottle of wine, don't put your feet on the furniture – I'm going to somebody's house at every show. The least I can do is thank them for their hospitality.

Listen, sometimes I'm tired and I'm a little pissy. Do not walk up on the line, look at me and say, "Hey, you look tired." Bad idea. "Really? Good." There's two ways to approach me. That would be the worst of the two. But at the end of the day, barring those people, I can't thank them enough. "You've come here this year, you've been coming here for ten years, twelve years, fifteen years, five hundred shows, five shows, whatever. Thank you."

You like something I helped create. I want to thank you for that. I want to talk to you about that. And if you know that we've done our eighth show in five days and if I do look tired, just don't say it. Lie to me. Tell me I look good.

Bp: [laughing] A lot of bands don't necessarily feel that way. You got the show and that's what you get. It's awesome that you feel that way and you do that.

Al Pitrelli: Well, because it's not a normal show. We're not celebrating just an hour and a half of a rock concert, we're celebrating a lot of people in that audience who've been there for ten years and helped put us on the map. I know half of the people in the audience. We've grown up together over twenty years. I can't speak for other rock bands, nor will I, I can only speak for us, that I remember it was at the Tower Theater show in Philly in 1999, Plate, Middleton, myself, Caffery, we were so stoked we walked off the front of the stage just to say thank you to these people. We didn't know what was created that night. We'll continue doing that until we're not doing this anymore. We owe those people – they give us a standing ovation at the end of the night, I can go shake their hands at the end of the night.

Bp: Thanks.

Al Pitrelli: Always a pleasure, my friend.

Additional Links:
Audio excerpt I - Taking the stage at Wacken
Audio excerpt II - Meeting fans
Trans-Siberian Orchestra - official site

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

Chicago, IL - December 28, 2015 (Photo by The 2 Z Girlz)


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