Chattanooga Times Free Press entertainment reporter Casey Phillips spoke with Paul O'Neill, composer/lyricist/producer of Trans-Siberian Orchestra, about his lofty ambitions for the band, riding the last wave of major label support and why Christmas intimidated him.
[Note: Although this transcript is presented as a Q&A, Mr. O’Neill spoke continuously after the initial query. Unasked questions were inserted later at appropriate points in his response to make the conversation easier to follow.]
CP: At this point, TSO has been on a successful run for nearly 20 years. When you started, were you surprised that the concept of a rock opera was so well received after it had lain dormant for so long?
PO: Oh boy, that's a big question.
It was 1993 when Atlantic first approached us about me starting my own band. I said, “OK, but only if I can do something completely different.” They were like, “What does that mean?” I said I wanted four guitars like Lynyrd Skynyrd, two drums like The Grateful Dead and The Doobie Brothers, four keyboard players, a full symphony in the studio, Pink Floyd-like production and 24 lead singers.
They were like, “Why?” (Laughs.) The idea was to build on everybody I worshipped - a marriage of classical and rock - by giving a third dimension to the songs via rock opera - blatantly from The Who - and the budget of Pink Floyd.
But they kept going, “Why the 24 lead singers?” The original plan was to do six rock operas - a trilogy about Christmas and one or two more albums. Rock operas want different sounds for different characters. A normal rock band might have two great lead singers. This way, if I needed a great Joe Cocker voice, I would have it; if I needed a soprano, I would have it. Most of the bands I admired had big choral parts on their albums, so when you see them perform live, they couldn't perform them. With 24 lead singers, we could.
The first album, which was finished in 1993, was called “Romanov: When Kings Must Whisper,” which was a rock opera about the Bolshevik Revolution, which in '93, was very timely since the Berlin Wall had just collapsed and the Soviet Union had collapsed. Some very credible people said, “This is too good to be an album. This should go directly to Broadway.” William Morris got a bidding war going. Besides $30 million to put it up, they got me something they shouldn't have been able to get me, which was total creative control.
We never put it up on Broadway because what Broadway considers phenomenal production, rock'n'roll does not. Broadway theaters couldn't even handle the electrical needs we had in mind. Other (things) distracted us, and the first album came out in 1996.
Trans-Siberian Orchestra is really complicated. We've been unbelievably lucky. I'm 55. When I started in the mid-70s, there were over 45 major labels with a ton of money and a ton of clout. They were releasing tens of thousands of albums a year, of which only 400 recouped and, of those, only 50 made money, but they made so much money they could undo the tens of thousands of mistakes.
When I started in the '70s, you were considered an arena rock band if you could sell out coliseums or arenas for five years in a row. That was very common in the '70s and '80s and '90s. Nobody has done it, to my knowledge, in the new millennium. I don't think it's because the kids are less talented. I think it's because of the collapse of the record label system overnight. By 1999, there were only four major labels. Now, there are only three.
Most people think Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd and Bob Seeger were hits out of the box, but they weren't. They were nurtured by the labels, who supported them until they could stand on their own two feet. When our first album came out in 1996, it didn't really sell, but Atlantic said “Paul, you're on to something. Keep going.” If that happened in 2006 instead of 1996, we would have dropped. Back then, the labels looked long term. They were basically writing a blank check to keep the band going.
CP: Your live shows are really grandiose affairs, which makes you seem like a kind of arena rock anachronism. How do you keep a production that large going for so long?
PO: Some of the ceilings we shattered were intentional: The first band to have more than 80 members, the first band to have 24 lead singers. Some of them were unintentional: the first band never to play a club, to have an opening act or be an opening act. I feel guilty about that because supporting and opening acts are how baby bands grow bigger.
When we went on the road, the lasers alone are so powerful. That's why Pink Floyd no longer has opening acts because if the opening act bass player or guitar player bumps one of the lasers, and it goes into the audiences eyes, and we don't notice it, that person is blind. I don't mean blind for a moment; I mean Blind.
Over the last decade, we've had a lot of special people come out and do special encores - Steven Tyler from Aerosmith, Joan Jett, Roger Daltrey from The Who. That's our way of paying tribute to the people who have influenced us. I'm still learning from all of them.
Jon Anderson from Yes did four shows with us. He did “Roundabout,” but we did it like the album with a complete choir section. That was the only time it's been performed live that way. A friend of mine said, “Have you heard this album 'Fragile?' You have to come to my house.” I went there, and my first exposure to yes was the opening to “Roundabout.” I was like, “How does somebody play this, let alone write it?” That album blew me away.
When talking with John, he told me something I wasn't aware of, which is that the first Yes album, “Yes,” did so badly that he got a call saying, “John, I have some bad news for you. America just says 'No.'” He said, “What do we do?” and they were like, “What do you think you do? You go back to the studio and make another album.” That album was “Fragile.”
When you look at the bands that Atlantic signed and nurtured - Yes, Emerson, Lake and Palmer, Led Zeppelin, The Rolling Stones, Ray Charles - if you pulled bands they took and nurtured until they could stand on their own out of the legacy of rock'n'roll, the hole would be the size of the Grand Canyon. (Atlantic) had a blind faith in developing artists. The change that has happened in the entertainment industry is mind-boggling. In 1995, the industry was worth well over $1 trillion. Now, you could probably buy every publishing company for less than $10 billion. We're lucky because we have such a great live touring base.
CP: Since its foundation, has TSO developed in ways you didn't anticipate?
PO: Honestly, TSO has made turns and developed in ways they never could have imagined when we first started it. We designed TSO to be like a breathing thing that was music-driven rather than celebrity-driven, which got out of control in the '80s.
By 2003 or 2004, when we entered the top touring bands in the world, I got a phone call from a promoter who did a demographic breakdown. He said, “Paul, you're not going to believe the demo's. You're 51 percent female, 49 percent male, which is a breakdown of North America. You have every economic class, from the ultra rich to the poor. Here's the weird part, Paul. You're average age is 21.” I said, “That's impossible.” He said, “Nope, you're like a 'Lord of the Rings' movie.”
I pondered that for two weeks. My own pet theory? It was a second stroke of good luck. The first was that Trans-Siberian Orchestra was the last band to have blank check artist development from the label system. We caught the tail of artist development.
The second stroke of good luck was that in 1950, there was a great schism in music when Les Paul invented the electric guitar and it became a standard. You either grew up on Perry Como and Tommy Dorsey pre-electric guitar or you grew up on Chuck Berry and Elvis Presley post. By the time we started touring in 1999, when the band started to explode, it was half a century later. Unless you are in your late 80s, every generation has rock in common.
When you jump any of the walls people put between themselves, whether nationality or economic class, that feels great. When you jump generational divide, that feels the best. It was easier for us than other bands because of the time we came out.
CP: You said the Christmas opera trilogy was part of your initial plans for TSO. Those have become what you're known for. Did you anticipate that material forming the benchmark by which all your other material would be judged?
PO: We always hoped the Christmas albums would do well, but we never dreamt they would be as successful as they did. As someone at William Morris basically said to me, “Paul, you walked into a Tchaikovsky.” I knew exactly what he meant. Tchaikovsky just thought of “The Nutcracker” as just another ballet like “Swan Lake.” He never dreamt it would be so interwoven into the holidays.
Besides the obvious musical influences with Beethoven and Mozart, I'm very influenced by Oscar Wilde, who is my favorite author, and Charles Dickens. Dickens wrote about subjects that were larger than life, but he wrote five books about Christmas. A British reporter asked him, “Why five books about Christmas?” and he said, “Christmas is too large a subject to take on in one book.” I said, “If it's too large a subject for Dickens to take on in one book, it's too large for me to take on in one album.” They were like, “What's the plan?” I said I was going to divide it into three parts.
Growing up in New York City was just a great way to grow up. When I was coming home from school at six years old, I was with my friends and it was snowing on Christmas Eve. We heard the squealing breaks, and we all turned around to see one cab hit another cab in the back bumper. Being little kids, we were scared there would be a fight.
The two drivers get out, and one looks like a long shore man, and the other looks like he just got off the boat from some far country. The first driver said, “This is completely my fault. I just finished my shift and have the money on me now. Let me pay for your bumper.” The other guy looks at his bumper and said, “You wanna know something? I could have got this in any parking lot. Keep your money.” The next thing you know, they're looking at pictures of each other's kids and laughing. Any other day of the year, World War III would have blown up in the streets.
I said, “There's something about Christmas Eve that makes people treat each other differently.” When I was a little older at school, I found out that they didn't fight in World War I or World War II on Christmas Eve. In World War I, not only did they stop fighting, they played soccer. The first year they did it, the general said, “Anybody who does that next year gets the firing squad.” The next year, they all did it again.
I was always fascinated by this day that not only affects the way we treat each other as individuals but the way nation states treat each other. I said the first installment would be about how it has this effect all around the world, via a young man who stumbles into a bar on Christmas Eve and is told a story by an older man. The second one would be about how it has been doing this for centuries, and the third one, “The Lost Christmas Eve,” would be about how it allows you to undo mistakes you didn't think you could undo.
CP: Three pieces seems like a big undertaking, even with your label support. Were you concerned going in that you might not be able to see it through?
PO: I got the trilogy out of the way faster because it intimidated me the most. In the entertainment world, be it a movie or book or song or painting, you're competing with the best of your generation or the last two generations. Anything to do with Christmas, you are competing with the last 2,000 years, and you are dealing with art that has to get past the ultimate critic, the only critic you can't fool: time. Each century will hand over to the next century only what it thinks is the very best.
Anything to do with Christmas, you're competing with Mendelssohn, Frank Capra, Charles Dickens, Botticelli and Michelangelo. Since it intimidated me the most, it's like when I was young and hated math the most so I did first to get it out of the way. We got it out of the way first. We hoped it would do well, but we never dreamt it would be as successful as it became. It also kind of happened backwards. You don't usually tackle Christmas until you have a lot non-holiday successes.
Trans-Siberian Orchestra is, on it's face, a progressive rock band, but it's also an ideal because at every album with every concert you spare no expense to give the fans the best possible experience and charge the lowest price. The fans own TSO, and the minute we forget that is when the band starts to decline. I always tell new kids when they join the band (anyone between 17 and 25) that we're not entitled to these millions of dollars every year or these millions tickets, we have to earn it every night; there's no cruise control.
We're just so lucky that there's so much talent in the band. It's the only band you'll see a lead guitar from Mega Death next someone from Kool and The Gang next to someone who starred as John Valjean on Broadway next to someone who just played Carnegie Hall. It's the best of the rock world, the R&B world and the classical world and the theatrical world. The band breathes.
On the “Night Castle” album, which was supposed to come out in 2005, I wrote the role of Tran-Do around Rob Evans, who I saw as John Valjean in “Les Mis” and the role of Erasmus around Jay Pierce. In “Beethoven's” last night, the main adversaries are Beethoven and Mephistopheles.
CP: Speaking of which, in real life, Beethoven never finished the symphony he was working on in the opera, right?
PO: In “Night Castle,” Tran-Do is a good man seduced into total evil. Rob Evans had finished the Tran-Do roles, and even though we had more than 12 male lead singers, Rob was rolling over everyone I was trying as Lt. Crozier like a tank. The easy thing would have been for Rob to sing both roles, but that went against the ideal of “do it right no matter how long or expensive it is.”
Two thousand five came and went, then 2006 and 2007. By 2008, Warner Bros. was calling like, “Paul, when are you going to turn the album?” I was like, “I know it's late, but soon.” Then, they were like, “Jesus is coming back soon. If you could turn the album in one week before that, Warner Bros. would be ever so grateful.”
It was (TSO guitarist) Al Pitrelli who saved the day. He said, “Why don't you just try Jeff Scott Soto, the guy who took Steve Perry's place in Journey?” I was like, “Al, Crozier is a baritone. Journey is a high tenor band.” He said, “Jeff Scott Soto is a baritone.” Jeff was kind enough to fly down. He had a dynamite voice. When he finished the five songs on “Night Castle,” the album was done and released and went on to be gold and then platinum.
Instead of being run over like a tank, it was a battle of equals, like two battleships in the North Atlantic pounding away at each other. Rob and Jeff, even though one comes from the rock world and one from the Broadway world, are both such monsters, that on “Night Castle,” Rob plays total evil and Jeff plays total good. On this “Beethoven's Last Night Tour,” Rob is playing Beethoven and Jeff Scott Soto is playing Mephistopheles. He's totally believable in both roles.
We're just very lucky with the talent that has come on board. I don't just mean the musicians but the crew, too.
CP: As producer for such a show as elaborate as Trans-Siberian Orchestra in a day and age when nobody else is doing something so large, do you worry that the show will ever outlive its support base?
PO: The only thing I worry about is the economy. Trans-Siberian was designed to morph and change, depending on the needs of the fans and the times. This year was the first year we played Europe. It went phenomenally. We were a little nervous playing Vienna, playing “Beethoven's Last Night” in the city of Beethoven and Mozart, but it went better than we ever could have expected, especially considering that the economy over there is wacky, too.
CP: Why are you touring “Beethoven's Last Night” instead of “Night Castle,” which was more recent?
PO: Originally, we were going to do that - that was the game plan - but when the banking collapsed in 2008 and the mortgage crisis, we're in the worst economic times since the Great Depression. I just decided that, just as “Romanov: When Kings Must Whisper” was timely in 1993, “Beethoven's Last Night” was timelier right now.
I don't care if you're born the richest of the rich or the poorest of the poor, are born healthy or a cripple, at some point, everyone thinks they've lived a rough life. Everybody sometimes think they have a hard time. Mozart and Beethoven are two my biggest idols. Mozart was the world's first rock star; he lived like a rock star and died at 33 like a rock star and died penniless.
Beethoven knew Mozart, but Beethoven was born in Germany to an alcoholic father and very poor. Through his hard work, he made it to Vienna, which was the musical capital of the world at he time, and by 21 is recognized as the greatest piano player who ever lived by Mozart. When Mozart tells you you're the world's greatest piano player, that's like Michelangelo telling you you're the world's greatest painter.
By the time he was 25, Beethoven realized he was going completely deaf. They figured out a few years ago that he had massive blood poisoning that would have unquestionably caused his deafness, depression and maniacal mood swings, which his doctors were treating with mercury, which didn't help anything.
If Beethoven had just crawled into a corner and given up on life, I don't think any human being would have judged him harshly, but instead, he fought his way through complete deafness, maniacal mood swings, depression and mercury poisoning to write “Moonlight Sonata” and his 9th Symphony - music that would bring joy and happiness and peace to countless billions but that he himself would never hear.
I was always in awe of that. I knew that the day he died had one of the largest lightning storms in the history of Vienna, so I figured, “OK, here he is, dying all alone and lightning is going off. At midnight, what happens? Mephistopheles appears to collect his soul, and of course, Beethoven is horrified. He gives him an offer, and the bargaining begins.” It goes back and forth, back and forth.
Human beings' ability to screw things up is truly amazing, but so is our ability to overcome any obstacles and triumph. When you look at Beethoven and the things he overcame and the legacy he left behind is mind-boggling.
The first thing is to tell an amazing story, but the second thing is to leave people with hope. The thing about hope is all you need to do is wish for it and it's there. The world is going through wacky times. Humanity has a habit of moving three steps ahead and then slipping back.
Because of computers, in 200 years, our kids could be out of the solar system, out of the galaxy, exploring the universe and approaching the heart of god to figure out what it's all about. Or we could all be in caves eating bugs. It has to be the former, not the latter. We have to leave our kids with a better world than we were given. I just believe in happy endings, especially now that I have a kid.
With the holiday rock operas, we tour them every November and December, which means that no matter where we are in the studio, we have to shut down and put these things on tour.
In rock'n'roll, there's a rhythm. You record it, no matter how long it takes, and once it's in, you tour it for two years. With the success of the holiday rock operas, we don't get into that rhythm. Being on tour is totally different than being in the studio. That's a great problem to be having.
CP: What changes do you have planned, if any, for TSO?
PO: Right now, we've got eight more weeks in America and then we'll dive back into the studio and finish “Romanov: When Kings Must Whisper” and our first theatrical release, “The Music City Blues Express.”
TSO is a work in progress and was intended to be so from day one. Like all human beings, we don't exist in a vacuum. I'm constantly learning as we go along. We were supposed to hit Europe in 2010. In 2009, every country in Europe sent over journalists to review (TSO). As I'm reading the reviews, they were all great. My favorite was that, “There was enough pyro to barbecue a pod of blue whales,” but at the very end, his only negative point was, “I can't imagine how they think they're going to fit this into European venues.”
He was right. In America and Canada, every city has a big arena because hockey and basketball are national institutions, but in Europe, it's all soccer-oriented, and there are only 10 venues that handle a full-on Trans-Siberian Orchestra concert.
William Morris called up and said, “Paul, we have to cancel 2010 because another band with a much smaller show than yours had their rigging collapse and kill some people.” They said, “We can tackle Europe two ways. We can just concentrate on these 10 cities who can handle it. Or, you know how you mentioned you remember how you said you designed the show to be able to breathe, depending on the needs of album or the tour?” I said, “Yeah.” He said, “Well, you might want to do the same thing with production so when we're booking Europe, I don't have to bypass cities no one has ever heard of.” I was like, “That's a good point.”
It's especially important now because, before the banking crisis, everybody was traveling wherever they had to go. We noticed in 2009 that Americans and Europeans were driving billions of miles less a year. Before that, somebody was willing to drive five hours and pay for a hotel.
At Trans-Siberian Orchestra, we agonized over ticket prices. They used to be between $20 and $60. Now they're between $25 and $60, occasionally $70 in New York. I forgot that that's only half the ticket cost. If you're a minimum wage employee in Rome, yeah, you can afford the tickets, but you can't afford to take three days off work, fly to London and get a hotel and fly back. That's true all around the world.
So we are decided that if people can't come to the mountain, we'll bring the mountain to the people. A couple years ago, we were asked to open for six months in Las Vegas and stay there. I was tempted, but a lot of Europeans, Africans and Asians - even some Americans - can't make it to Vegas. We're going to keep it this way. Whenever we bum into a problem, it's improvise, adapt and overcome.
We're psyched to be in Chattanooga. Memorial Auditorium is a classic venue. Our biggest fear is to never let the fans down, whether in a concert or an album, because they've been so patient and supportive. God forbid I have to get a real job, or I'll be in real trouble. (Laughs.) It's scary how fast the world is changing.
Casey Phillips has worked as a features reporter in the Life department since May 2007. He writes about entertainment, young adults, technology and people of interest. Casey hails from Knoxville and earned a bachelor of science degree in journalism and a bachelor of arts in German. He previously worked as the features editor for Sidelines at Middle Tennessee State University. Casey received the East Tennessee Society of Professional Journalists Award of Excellence for Reviewing/Criticism in ...
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