Music Talk: Exclusive Interview with Trans-Siberian Orchestra

Trans-Siberian Orchestra is a progressive rock band founded in 1993 by Paul O'Neill. I think this band is one of the greatest acts in the history of music. Recently, I had the opportunity to talk to the founder of the band, Paul O'Neill about the music, the final installment of the Christmas Trilogy - The Lost Christmas Eve, and life. Here is what he had to say... 

(Q) Tell me a little more about Trans-Siberian Orchestra...

Trans-Siberian Orchestra is technically a progressive rock band, but in reality it is an idea and an ideal. The band is musically driven rather than celebrity driven, a phenomenon that seemed to have taken off in the early 80’s with the birth of MTV. To our knowledge, we are the first band to draw our members from every genre of music, be it rock, classical, theatrical, R&B, gospel, etc. We draw our members from countries all over the world: America, Germany, Korea, Ukraine, Great Britain, Holland, as well as every generation. We have members as young as seventeen and I’m the oldest one in the band. The band was designed to push the boundaries of what a rock band could do both on recordings as well as in concert. Our goal is to make the best albums and live concert experiences as possible, sparing no amount of time or expense while charging fans the lowest possible price.

(Q) Behind every great genius lies a source of inspiration. Tell me a little more about who or what inspired you to create Trans-Siberian Orchestra…

When I was a kid growing up in New York City and first began to play guitar, we would try to write songs where the lyrics were so good they didn’t need melody and would stand up as just poetry by themselves. We’d then try to write a melody that was so infectious that it didn’t need the lyrics, so that when you combined the two they would create an alloy where the sum of the parts was greater than the whole. When you heard the lyric and melody combined, you couldn’t imagine them apart. Once we had done that to the best of our ability, we were always trying to find a way to make the music have more emotional impact.

The band, in my opinion, that first came up with a way to do that was "The Who" when they did the first rock opera, "Tommy". When I first heard "Pinball Wizard" I loved it, and when I bought the album and figured out the pinball champion was deaf dumb and blind, it was even better. When I first heard "Heaven on their Minds" on the radio I loved the song, but when I picked up the album Jesus Christ Superstar and found out that it was sung by Judas, the song was even more intense. That was why, when we first started Trans-Siberian Orchestra, the original concept was to do six rock operas, a trilogy about Christmas, and the occasional non-rock opera album. We try to write the songs so that, like "Tommy" or "The Wall", they stand up individually, but when woven together create a tapestry that has a story, thus giving the album more emotional impact, and if we are lucky cause the listener to feel an emotion they never felt before.

(Q) Queen, The Who, Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, Yes, Emerson, Lake & Palmer, and Aerosmith. Tell me a little more about how these bands influenced you…

I’ve never heard of any of these bands, let alone any of their music… Only kidding. Had the bands you just mentioned not existed, TSO would not exist in it’s present format. It’s a little scary how dead on you are with the biggest musical influences of my life. The rock opera: blatantly from "The Who". The marriage of classical and rock: blatantly from "Emerson, Lake & Palmer" and "Queen". The budget-be-damned light shows from "Pink Floyd", and the street edginess of Aerosmith and Led Zeppelin. TSO is fortunate enough to have Greg Lake appear with us both as a special guest live and on the album. In my mind, Greg Lake is the father of progressive rock just as Black Sabbath is the father of heavy metal.

Greg is very generous in sharing his wisdom from his years with King Crimson and ELP. He once told me that progressive rock is the ultimate form of music, the only form of music that has no boundaries. It’s part of the name, ‘progressive’, it is always pushing the edge. If you’re in a blues band and you play jazz, it’s no longer a blues band. If you’re in a jazz band and you play reggae, it’s no longer a jazz band. If you’re in a reggae band and you play a Strauss Waltz, it’s no longer a reggae band. But progressive rock does not have to abide by any normal rules, which is why bands like Rush on ‘Spirit of the Radio’ can go from rock to reggae and back to rock and nobody says ‘boo’." Greg Lake is like the Aristotle of rock and roll, everytime he speaks, I feel like I should be taking notes.

(Q) I am a huge fan of you. In fact, I think last year alone, the song 'Christmas Eve/Sarajevo 12/24' was both my ringtone and ring back tone for the entire year. I just never changed it because I couldn't.

First of all, thank you very much. Hearing things like that is the best part of being in this industry. When new members join, especially kids, we always tell them that the fans own TSO, and the minute we forget that is the minute we start to decline.

(Q) When it comes to music, I think of it as a language. I don't think the world could live without it, to be honest. Going back to inspiration, I have to ask, whenever you write, what inspires you most when you create music?

Wow. Great question. Complicated answer. I’ll take it in sections. First, I totally agree with you that music is a universal language that when done right needs no translation. I truly appreciated this over the years with one song in particular, "Carmina Burana" a song whose lyrics were written in the dark ages by a barbarian monk and the melody in the 1930’s by a classical composer. I first heard it performed in Germany in the ‘70’s with a full symphony and choir in an audience of mostly rich, older, upper crust blue bloods and it totally blew my mind. Later on in the ‘80’s I was seeing Ozzy Osbourne in concert, and before Ozzy took the stage, a tape started to play. It was "Carmina Burana" and the place went nuts. In the ‘90’s a friend asked me to go see a rap group in an inner city club, before the group went on stage, a tape went on and the place went nuts, it was "Carmina Burana". I was thinking, "here’s a song whose lyrics were written in the 1800’s the melody during the great depression and it was effortlessly leaping the atlantic ocean to blow away aristocrats in Europe, Suburban kids in an arena, and inner city kids in a rap club". Those who don’t know it, the lyrics are in Latin, which I’m fairly sure most of Ozzy Osbourne’s fans don’t speak. Only music has that kind of power.

The second part of your question, about the world not being able to live without music, I agree. Music has the ability to bring peace to the tortured mind, inspire crowds of people to feel as one. After the Greeks in Delphi had discovered the Chromatic Scale during the Sixth century, they said very famously that "music soothes the savage breast." They did not know why, but when people with mental illness heard melodies played on a harp, they calmed down. Now for the third, and hardest, part of your question. Ever since I started working in this industry in the mid-70’s there was a basic belief in the industry that when an artist reached a certain level of financial success they lost the drive to create. This is why so many bands that had done great albums early in their career haven’t done a great record in decades. But that never made any sense to me, because not only am I a fan of music, but I’m also a big fan of the Greek philosophers who said "to use reason and logic and it will always lead you to the truth". The theory that I just mentioned did not hold up to reason and logic, because in the 1800’s Beethoven, Dickens, Victor Hugo, etc. were all household names around the world, their works universally known, and they were all financially successful.

But these individuals not only created great works of art when they were young, but also when they were middle aged and later on elderly. Beethoven wrote the Ninth Symphony right before he died. So I wondered, how were these artists in the 1800’s able to create great art throughout their entire lives, and artists in the 1900’s did not seem to be able to? This is just my own pet theory, but I believe it’s because of mass media. Even though everyone knew Beethoven’s, Dicken’s, and Hugo’s name, no one knew what they looked like. Dickens could see an individual arguing with a pawn-broker and get an idea for a story. Hugo could see a police man chasing a burglar and get an idea for a novel. Beethoven could see a couple falling in love, and get an idea for a sonata. I believe that they, like most artists, got their inspiration by observing the constantly changing world around them. However, with the birth and total saturation of the western world in modern media, a great many artists lost that ability. I’m going to use Michael Jackson as an example. I thought he was a truly great and gifted artist who gave great works of art that brought joy and happiness to countless human beings. However, Michael became so famous that he lost the ability to be able to just observe people.

If you, Sarah, fifteen years ago threw a New Years Eve party and say, one friend was a little bit arrogant, one was a little condescending, your friend from elementary school was a practical joker, and you invited Michael Jackson. When Michael walked into that room the condescending person would not be condescending, the arrogant person would not be arrogant, and the practical joker probably would not tie Michael’s shoes together. Michael lost the ability to observe the world, because when he walked into the room, the world revolved around him. This is one of the reasons that in TSO the covers of our albums have artwork as opposed to pictures of band members. I got this idea from watching Pink Floyd. I worship Pink Floyd, I think Waters and Gilmour are geniuses. However, if they were to walk into a room right now, I’d have no idea who they were. In Pink Floyd the music is the celebrity, we try to keep the same true in Trans-Siberian Orchestra.I felt this theory was vindicated a number of years ago when I was standing on a corner and there were two ladies in their mid-twenties standing next to me. One of the women said "My husband came home so drunk last night that he slapped me. I threw him down hard and opened his chest with a can opener." I wanted to say "Hey ladies could you slow down so I can write all this down?", it was a great idea for a story. If I had been Michael Jackson, I never would have even overheard this. So, to come full circle and answer your question, I get the inspiration for my writing from the world around me.

(Q) Tell me a little more about 'The Lost Christmas Eve'…

The Lost Christmas Eve was the final installment of the Christmas Trilogy. I personally love that story. There is something about Christmas Eve that allows people to undo mistakes that they never thought they could undo. If you live long enough, everyone knows someone, a friend a parent a grandparent, that they haven’t talked to in a long time. On Christmas Eve, you can pick up the phone, and individuals that haven’t talked to each other in so long that they can’t even remember what they were fighting about, will leave the past in the past and start over.

(Q) Criss Oliva, a talented guitarist who is also the younger brother of Jon died tragically and so unexpectedly. Tell me a little more about how the death of Criss Oliva impacted the band…

Criss Oliva was one of the greatest guitar players I ever met. And also one of the nicest humans. You know that old cliche, "treat everyone as though this is the last time you are going to see them"? Criss would treat everyone that way. For someone of his talent level, he was always very kind, humble, and looking out for other people. As you may or may not be aware, TSO’s first album was supposed to come out in 1994. Jon and I were well on our way into delivering the first TSO album, but when Criss died, we put everything on hold to stabilize Savatage, because it was very important to us that his music lived on. The only way to insure that was to make sure that Savatage continued as a band. I miss him terribly to this day, and I cannot imagine how hard it must have been, and still is, for Jon.

(Q) What advice do you have for any artist or band that suffers such a traumatic and unpredictable loss?

To basically take all that emotion and steer it into your art. Writing and recording "Handful of Rain" and "Dead Winter Dead" helped Jon and myself get over that initial first couple of years. Jon, to me, is one of the greatest singers I’ve ever worked with, always had the ability to capture emotions when he sang. I didn’t think that could get any better, but even more emotion actually came out of him after Criss passed away.

(Q) Ticketmaster is known as the world's biggest ticket seller. As of March 1st 2013 you have had over 25,000 fan reviews on the Ticketmaster fan reviews site, and you held the #1 spot by over 10,000 reviews. That is quite an accomplishment, I would say. How does that make you feel?

It’s the ultimate compliment from the fans. We don’t take it for granted and we try to re-earn it with every tour. Because our fan base is so wide, both in age group and economic class, we try to build each concert and album like an old medieval castle. If you’re seven or 107, when you see a medieval castle, it’s cool. No matter how close you are, it’s cool. And then as you approach the castle, the way you enjoy it depends on your age. If you’re a teenager, you tend to run around the battlements and ramparts. If you’re in the middle of your life you may go into the throne room or the library. If you’re up there in age and you just want to relax, you may go to the highest tower and look out over the pastoral setting. The more times you visit it, the more you explore, the more there is to find. Performing live, the band’s motto is "Fog it, light it, blow it up, just don’t let the audience get bored."

(Q) For those bands and artists who have to endure critics, what advice do you have for them? How do you handle your critics?

Of course one wants everyone to like their art, but the only critic that we really worry about, the only critic that you can’t fool, is "Time". Mozart and Beethoven’s music has gotten past the ultimate critic and is as relevant today as it was in the seventeen and eighteen hundreds. For the record, I’ve always considered Mozart the world's first rock star. He lived like a rock star, died young like a rock star, and died penniless like a rock star. And Beethoven was the world’s first heavy metal rock star. When you think of the opening lines of the Fifth Symphony, if Black Sabbath or Led Zeppelin had written those riffs, everyone would have believed it, he was centuries ahead of his time.

(Q) You are known for your philanthropic activities. In fact, it's a well known fact you have donated over $10 million to a combination of both local and national charities. Tell me a little more about this…

If you’re born in western civilization, you’ve won the lottery in life. And if you get to do what you love for a living, you’ve won it twice. We have been very fortunate and doing this is our pleasure and our way of giving something back to the communities that allow TSO to exist. I don’t think anybody in TSO was born with a silver spoon. A lot of us had kindness’s done to us as we were building our careers. Some acts were downright charitable, so it’s our pleasure to pass it on.

(Q) I have been to quite a few concerts. Out of the many I have frequented, I have to say, your concert was one of the best I have ever been to in my life. The music is one thing, but seeing you live, a fan can discover a whole new experience.

Once again, thank you very much. In Trans-Siberian Orchestra, it’s not only the singers and musicians on the flight deck that are members of the band, it’s the hundreds of people in the crew, and management that are considered band members as well. They tend to be the first ones awake and the last ones to go to sleep. If it wasn’t for them, not only do they help us to create these new visual spectacles ever year, they agonize to find ways to keep the tickets affordable. Because what’s the point of having a great concert if only corporations and sovereign wealth funds can afford tickets. That’s why Trans-Siberian Orchestra keeps it’s tickets between $25 and $75, never higher. We have no VIP tickets, or elite seating.When new kids join the band, we explain to them that a lot of people in the audience can easily afford these tickets, but for some, it might be their only entertainment of the year, and we don’t have the right to not give them the very best show possible. To make sure that I’m getting through to the younger ones I’ve sometimes explained it from another angle. I say "make believe one year we play for exactly a million people. The concert is three hours long and everyone lives thirty minutes from their doorstep to their seat, thirty minutes from their seat back to their house. We don’t have the right to waste four hours of their lives without giving them the very best show possible." This is why we rent a coliseum for a month before the tour and rehearse. The show must come out of the gate strong, there are no warm up shows for TSO. And towards the end of the tour Al Pitrelli will take the band aside and remind them "this may be our last show, but to everyone out there, this is their first show, so we need to act like it’s ours too."

(Q) From past to present, you have accomplished so much. Now, I have to ask, what are your present plans and future projects? What is next for Trans-Siberian Orchestra?

The one thing that Trans-Siberian Orchestra has taught me is that whatever you plan, something is going to change, because life has a way of just throwing boulders in the roadway. You just have to improvise, adapt, and overcome. Fortunately, TSO was designed to be constantly morphing and changing as the times change, and our biggest fear is that we never want to let the fans down.

(Q) For all of your fans reading this interview, what would you like them to know?

We’d like to thank them. For the support over all the years, through thick and thin. When albums have been late, you guys have been unbelievably patient. As I’ve said once before, the energy we feel from the audience when we play live is as important if not more important than the energy we pull from the local electric companies. When we first started touring in 1999, we never dreamed that it would still be growing fifteen years later. Once again, we thank you.

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Anonymous said…
I love Trans-Siberian Orchestra! They are amazing and one of the greatest bands ever. I saw them 5 times and they are incredible live.