Progressive rock and Christmas didn't
use to be bound together, but Paul O'Neill and his Trans-Siberian
Orchestra have helped to change all that.
O'Neill formed the Trans-Siberian
Orchestra with Savatage members Jon Oliva and Al Pitrelli, who he
had previously worked with while producing several of Savatage's
albums. Together they created the first concept album of what became
a Christmas trilogy, Christmas Eve and Other Stories. That
album spawned a surprise hit, which has become a holiday standard,
with "Christmas Eve/Sarajevo 12/24," a rocking instrumental medley
of "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" and "Carol of the Bells." Later
concept albums The Christmas Attic and The Lost Christmas
Eve were also smash hits and cemented the band as a rocking
However, O'Neill never saw the band as a
holiday force only, and more and more the band has been straying
from the holiday season. As far back as Beethoven's Last Night
in 1999, the band focused on different aspects of history for
their concepts. Recent albums like Night Castle, Dreams of
Fireflies and their latest Letters From the Labyrinth,
which is being released today, have allowed the band's focus to
shift to more broad-based looks at the human experience. O'Neill's
passions for art and history
Another shift for Letters From the
Labyrinth is that it is the band's first album which is not a
concept album. Instead, O'Neill describes the album as a group of
short stories, dealing with such vital subjects as prejudice, war,
bullying, predatory banking and the fall of the Berlin Wall. In
fact, O'Neill was so enamored with the idea that he indeed wrote a
series of short stories to accompany tunes – and even a graphic
novel for the instrumental "King Rurik."
However, TSO has not left Christmas
completely behind. Their annual international concert trek will pay
tribute to their 1999 television-movie Ghost of Christmas Eve,
though O'Neill assures that the tour will also feature songs
from Letters From the Labyrinth.
A few weeks before the Trans-Siberian
Orchestra was to release Letters from the Labyrinth and hit
the road for their annual tour, we were one of the media outlets who
had the opportunity to chat with TSO mastermind Paul O'Neill about
his group, his interests, and being the unofficial rock band of
Letters From the Labyrinth a step forward for the band?
Letters from the Labyrinth is a major change from the way TSO creates new works. It's the
first album that's not built around a completed story. Instead, it's
a collection of completed songs that have, basically, left the
safety of the studio where they were born. The stories will emerge
from their combined journeys. Just as TSO was designed to be a
constantly evolving, morphing band over the decades, Letters from
the Labyrinth, is our first album where we're experimenting.
We're calling it an open-ended album. Like our own lives, the story
will develop and evolve. We're not really sure what's going to
happen tomorrow, let alone next year.
The initial release that everyone
receives includes the very first and the last short stories. The
opening short story, “Time and Distance (the Dash),” is basically,
how we're all given a certain amount of time on Earth, but we're not
told how much time that is or how we should use it. Each individual
has to figure that out for themselves, but it's also easier to make
journeys if you have multiple people with you, not unlike Chaucer's
The Canterbury Tales. We included the very last story, “The
Dreams of Fireflies,” which is basically a bedtime, go to sleep
tale. Where it just sends you into dreamlands, where you have happy
dreams, not nightmares. You take on the world after that.
year ago, you were about 90% through
Letters from the Labyrinth. What was it that
you needed to get to the final puzzle piece of the album?
There were certain parts to the story
when I had originally written the story... One of them involved what
was going on in the Ukraine. Another one, a short story, involved
Syria. It was written before the Syrian civil war completely spun
out of control, before the nightmare that spilled out of control in
the Ukraine. A good example would be, when I was younger there was a
huge hit book called, Raise the Titanic, where they raise the
Titanic because it sank in its entirety. The book was a huge hit,
but if that book came out today it wouldn't have worked because now
they know the Titanic split up. So, the story was basically dated
before I even released it. So, we decided to rewrite it as a series
of short stories.
Incidences happen, even though we were
doing the album. When we played Wacken this year, which is a big
rock festival in Germany... What's going on in Syria is horrible,
but people who are living there don't care what's going on, they
just want it to end.
While I was there, the night before, I
was wandering around the campsite, true story, [and] bumped into two
young men, about twenty. I asked them where they were from, and they
were from Iraq. They were Sunni-Muslims. We talked for a little
while. About fifty feet away, about thirty minutes later, bumped
into two other young men. Also twenties, a little bit older, and
they were Shiite-Muslims from Iran. I can't imagine that during the
next three days, there's no way these guys didn't bump into each
I would like to believe that if, God
forbid, in two years if these four young men, who are in two
separate militias met in combat in Syria in that horrible civil war,
that if they recognize each other not only would they not pull the
trigger, I think they would actually un-chamber their weapons. They
would say, "Hey, weren't we at a concert with you at Trans-Siberian
Orchestra in 2015?" It's hard to hate someone, let alone shoot them,
that you've gone to a concert with. That is the magic of music. It's
really amazing. Wacken, which we were at on July 30th, made me
rethink the entire album.
wow. So the story changed.
It literally changed on the one concert
we did, right in the middle of doing the album. It just made me
realize, a single day can change the perspective of everything. A
single incident. You're looking at Pompeii one day in 70 AD. A
volcano goes off and everything changes. You're looking at a country
that's at peace in 1914, and 1915 everything changes. It's all about
perspective. Looking at it from the other person's point of view,
putting things in context. Making sure that you're not a burden, but
also, keep an eye out for other people.
TSO has also added a new logo, which is
a combination of two phoenixes from western mythology. The phoenix
is something that rises out of the ashes from something destroyed by
evil, to build something stronger. It's done in the ying-yang shape
of the oriental philosophy, which is, basically the balance of life
and looking out at things from the other perspective. We combined
those two images. Greg Hildebrandt did the actual drawing for us,
and that's going to be in the center of the CD. Which is why the one
song, "Forget About the Blame," we have a male singing and we have a
female singing it. Each brings to it their own unique perspective.
want to ask you specifically about opening the show in Erie this
time, for the first time, and also, I believe doing some rehearsals
here, as well.
I don't know if we're doing rehearsals,
I think all the rehearsals are happening in Omaha. 99% sure about
that. Sometimes, I'm the last to know about changes.
We've always loved the area, it's always
been a great rock market. Correct me if I'm wrong, but you guys have
a new venue, also. The band always loves new venues, just because
the electrical poles are more dependable. We've had problems in the
past. We've had a number of buildings where we've blown the grids,
sometimes building, sometimes for that area of the city. Erie was
off our regular touring route for a while just because the
production had gotten too big. So, it's great to have it back on the
regular touring schedule.
things I wanted to ask. First of all about a specific track you've
talked a little about, “Forget About the Blame,” tell me about this
version with Lzzy Hale and how that came about. Also, how much of
the new material will you expect to be part of the shows this year?
We, basically, are hoping to do at least
six songs in the new show this year. Particularly, songs like,
“Madness of Men,” “Forget About the Blame,” “Not the Same.” This
album, we had decided this is going to be the first album that we
were going to have one song – we've done this live, Gary, but we've
never done it on an album – Where we'll have a female sing a song
that was originally done on the album by a male, or a male do a song
that was really done on an album by a female. Originally, I was
going to have a male/female do, “Not the Same,” which is a song
about the Amanda Todd cyber-bullying situation.
Again, it goes back to what happened
when I was at Wacken. There were quite a few people I bumped into
there from the Middle East. Also, while I was over there, we were
watching the news. I had a bunch of Iranians say this is all the
Iraqis' fault. The Iraqis are saying blame Saudi Arabia. Saudi
Arabians are like, blame the Shiite militias.
For the people living in Syria, they
don't care about blame. They just want it to stop. What's happened
in the past, is the past. You can study it to correct the future,
but it's not going to change the past. The people living there, they
don't care who’s to blame. They just want it to end. The song,
basically, took on a different meaning, so I decided, because you
see mothers and fathers fleeing. I'm sure everyone on this phone
call has seen that heart-breaking photo of that little boy in his
new shoes just washed up on the shores of, I do believe it was,
Turkey. I'm a parent. I only have the one kid, but that really cut
the soul. Just to see the anguished looks of both the mothers and
We decided that, Robin Borneman, great
singer from Holland who has been with us a couple of years, would
sing it. But I needed a female to bring the female side of it. Lzzy
Hale from Halestorm has a great voice. She's just a great rocker, a
lot of emotion. It goes back to the whole ying-yang thing. One side
represents the sun, the male, the masculine side. The other side
represents the moon, the feminine, the more sensitive side. So we
decided that, instead of having a male/female do, “Not the Same,”
that we'd have them do, “Forget About the Blame,” because the Amanda
Todd situation is something I am very passionate about.
I hate bullying in any form. It's really
out of control. As horrible as that is, the situation in the
Mid-East is way, way worse. So we decided that we would have two
singers sing that song, different perspectives. Robin Borneman and
Lzzy Hale both, in my opinion, knocked it out of the ballpark.
you and Jon and the rest of the group, is there anything special
about performing in Tampa and Orlando, just in your own backyard? Or
are you just so overrun with ticket requests, and everything, that
you can't even enjoy it. Is it just another stop on the tour?
Honestly, Florida, has slowly become the
second home for the band. We love it down here. A lot of places for
the band to rehearse. We just bought our first major recording
studio in Tampa. Now we have two huge SSL rooms that we can go in
twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. We don't have to wait
for time. Florida is basically becoming the center for recording for
us right now. The studios we used in New York City have closed up
shop, so we decided, let's buy our own. We found one for sale, and
Tampa is basically going to be our hometown for recording from now
curious about the writing part itself, the difference in writing a
short story versus writing a song. What do you get out of each one?
Wow. That's a great question. With TSO,
originally, the whole plan was to be rock-opera-driven, and
eventually we would do one or two regular records. We simply never
got around to it. We toy with the idea of making this a regular
record, but I have gotten so used to the story adding an additional
element to it, a third dimension, that I couldn't quite let it go. I
decided, let me write just one short story to go with this one song,
and I'm like, oh, let me write another short story. We just
basically decided that we would make this a series of short stories
that were all inter-weaved as time goes by. It's just a whole
different way of approaching it.
In some ways it’s easier. When I have
the story written I know emotionally where each song should go. I
know where the melodies should go, the balance, the dynamic. This is
a new action adventure for us. It's not a rock opera. It's not a
regular album where it's a bunch of songs. It's kind of a hybrid.
It's something in between. It's an experiment for us and we're not
quite sure how it's all going to work. In about a year, you and I
should have a follow-up to this one.
you think you'll ever end up on a stage somewhere, maybe Broadway?
Yes. Basically these days, our next step
is to head towards Broadway, just because I love the coherent
storytelling of Broadway.
I've known a lot of bands that have done
rock operas that even after they explain it to me, I'm like, huh? I
just don't get it. Broadway never really got the true edge of rock.
Whether it's from a production point-of-view or it's just rock
credibility, they just simply don't understand it. For me, it's just
a natural marriage. It's time for rock to enter Broadway. Not that
there's anything wrong with old fashioned Broadway, but how many
times can you re-open Oklahoma? It's a great musical, but
it's more suitable for the forties than it is for the new
year, the show was built around
The Christmas Attic. What can you tell us
about this year's show? Is there a theme this year? Just describe to
us a little bit if you can.
Sure. Basically, there were three rock
operas in the trilogy. After we did The Christmas Attic, all
three of the rock operas had been performed live. Next year is the
twentieth anniversary of Christmas Eve and Other Stories, so
obviously, we're going to do something big for that.
This year, one of my managers said, "You
know what? You've never done the Ghost of Christmas Eve,"
which originally we did in 1999 when we got a call from FOX who had
a small, I think one hour, mini-movie drop-out on December 2nd. They
asked us if they could film the band for an hour doing
Beethoven's Last Night, which we had just completed. I said, if
you give me an hour, I'll give you a mini-movie. They're like, "Do
you have a script?" and I'm like, "I'll write it tonight." I just
quickly scripted together this little thing, where a fifteen year
old ends up breaking into this old Vaudeville theater. She's a
runaway. There, she's discovered by the caretaker, who uses the
ghosts and the spirits from the theater to turn her life around.
Thank God, FOX liked it.
They were able to get the legendary
Ozzie Davis to play the caretaker, and people like Jewel and Michael
Crawford were kind enough to share their talents and play the
ghosts. It was only supposed to run once, and never again, but it
did so well FOX ran it multiple times. Then it's basically run on
various stations ever since. The DVD has gone multi-platinum.
I've always liked it. It's a little gem.
It's fun to watch it at home, with your family. But, live, there's
an excitement where you pick up the energy of the person in front of
you, to the left of you, to the right of you. We decided if we were
ever going to do The Ghost of Christmas Eve, live, it was
this year or not at all, so we decided to go for it.
kind of a postmortem do you do, and when does that take place after
Christmas blows over? Also what did you learn from 2014 that you
want to do way more of, and what did you learn that you want to do
Great multiple questions. 2014, getting
the band to this point was hard. Keeping it here and not letting
down expectations is harder. We're lucky because technology keeps
advancing. We want to give people the comfort of what they expect,
but something new to make it exciting. That's getting harder and
harder every year, as this thing gets larger and larger.
The other thing that has actually really
come into its own, especially recently, is the fact that we're
seeing so many people in their young thirties, who first saw the
band when they were teenagers and they're now coming back bringing
their own kids. The band has survived the two decade mark and kept
its original fan base, and much to our happy surprise, has brought
in the next generation. People who had originally seen us as
teenagers are returning and bringing their own kids with them.
Hopefully, those kids will return and bring their kids with them.
We always say that music has got the
ability to jump a lot of the silly walls people put between people,
whether it's nationality, or economic class, or religion, or
whatever. When you jump the generational wall, that's the biggest
jump of all. Also, to a certain degree, TSO had an unbelievably
lucky break, because when we started to tour it was 1999. In 1949,
there was a great schism in music when Les Paul, the offender,
invented the electric guitar. You either grew up pre-electric
guitar, with the Dorsey Brothers, Perry Como, or, post-electric
guitar, Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry.
When we started to tour, it had been
half a century, now it's been well over sixty years, so even grandma
and grandpa, that's the Woodstock generation. Unless you're in your
late nineties, for the first time every generation has rock in
common. Which makes it a lot easier for us to jump the generational
walls than bands that came before us. We're very aware that we have
a very, very wide audience, and you have to be very, very careful
that there's something there for everybody, so everybody keeps
coming back every year, whether it's summer or the winter. It can
continue to be, at least a partial part, of the soundtrack of
very interested in your version of events with the new album. Is
this is all based on serious world-wide events that are kind of
downers, or is the album up-lifting, food for thought?
Actually, that's a great question.
Basically, I started to believe that the arts are the alpha and
omega of human civilization. I believe that human beings and
civilization started to move ahead when human beings sat around the
fire and told stories and did paintings about a hunt, or whatever.
When civilization falls apart, it tends to be the backdrop that
limits how far they would fall. To me, the first super great
civilization were the Greeks because around 600 BC, they were the
first ones to say, "The sun doesn't rise by magic, it rises by
rules. And human beings can figure out those rules." The answers to
all of the problems of life is logic and reason, tempered by
compassion, hopefully adding up to wisdom. It's also knowing human
frailties, that humans will mess things up.
The Greeks ended up defeating the
Persian invasions, etc., but then they destroyed themselves in the
Peloponnesian wars. Their ideals of using logic, reason, etc. were
all captured in The Iliad and The Odyssey.
Those stories... Greece disappeared as a civilization, or as an
Empire, but The Iliad and The Odyssey didn't. All
those ideals, the Hellenistic ideals which were spread by Alexander
the Great, resurfaced in Rome. Then Rome became a great empire and
improved the world.
At its height, you could go from cities
[like] Petra, Jordan to cities [like] Bath, England on paved roads.
Through cities with hot and cold running water, with sewage. The
average lifespan was nearly fifty. When Rome collapsed, we had the
dark ages where the average lifespan was fifteen. It was harsh,
short, and brutish, I think what Hobbes said. Even though western
Rome fell, the stories in The Aeneid survived, because in
The Aeneid it's basically about honor and duty, and
perseverance, and doing the right thing for the right reason, and
not giving up. Those ideals were captured in the storytelling of
The Aeneid, and after Rome fell, the Empire disappeared but the
stories didn't. It inspired people like Charlemagne to try to
reinvigorate the Roman Empire. When Charlemagne collapsed, his
ideals were continued in the stories of Roland.
Great Britain has had its ups and downs,
but King Arthur, the tales of Arthur about chivalry. The best parts
of humanity were captured in the stories, and it was passed on from
the lowest peasant to the highest king, and then recaptured with
more stories later with Robin Hood. Any civilization is
reflected in its art and its stories. When bureaucracies fall apart,
when governments fall apart, the stories and the music tend to
remain. They manage to float around and keep human beings together,
and give them something that they have in common. Human beings, they
tend to lose their minds in mass, as somebody once said, then gain
their sanity back one-by-one. Is that answering your question, or
did I just go off onto a million different tangents?
Letters From the Labyrinth to The Canterbury Tales, which
is one of my favorite books.
Oh, wow. Okay, that's wonderful.
(laughs) A Chaucer fan.
that respect, one of the beauties of that book is that it is open to
interpretation, all of the pilgrims. Do you see that same thing for
the album, or do you have a particular thing in mind that you want
people to take from it?
No, it's very similar. A lot of times,
truly great books or truly great songs, you take away from it what
you need to take away from it. We have songs on past albums, like
"Believe," that you find in it what you need to find in it. To me,
truly great art will tend to have that. The great thing about The
Canterbury Tales is you get to examine life from the
point-of-view of the merchant, or the soldier, or the cleric. It's
told from different perspectives and it gives people a chance to
look at it from someone else's point-of-view in a way that they
The world is changing, so quickly, so
fast, these days... There's a song on there called, “Prometheus,”
which is basically about the collapse of the Berlin Wall and how it
was an accident. There were people that saw what was happening, saw
the opportunity, grasped the moment, and, bam, you had the
end of the cold war. The Berlin wall going down without a single
bullet being fired, without a drop of blood.
“Madness of Men,” is based partially on
a symphony that Beethoven wrote. It's basically what's going to
happen at one point. There's a letter that we're still reading
between Erasmus and a child about who were the greatest military
leaders of all time. She's told that it was NATO and the Warsaw Pact
under Khrushchev and Kennedy, and she's like, "That makes no sense,
there was no war." He responds, "that's what made him, the greatest
When the world was close, literally, to
nuclear Armageddon, Kennedy who represented capitalism under NATO,
and Khrushchev who represented communism under the Warsaw pact, both
were able to check their own personal prejudices or perspectives,
and realize logic and reason. That if this war started it was over
for everybody. They both backed away. Khrushchev was probably well
aware that he would not survive the end of the Cuban Missile Crisis,
and he basically got sent out to pasture. Which is actually in this
point-of-view is a happy ending. Kennedy tragically ended in Dallas.
The bottom line was these two individuals, who are hardly even
talked about in history anymore, in my opinion, prevented what would
have been a nightmare, imagine would take thousands of years to
recover from, far worse than the dark ages.
did such an early acceptance at the club level help build a
foundation for you guys to graduate to the arenas?
Actually, TSO is the first band to never
play a club. We pretty much went straight to the theaters and then
the arenas. Chicago is an interesting one, it did grow there very
quickly. We love Chicago, it's a great rock town.
Funny story, I didn't really appreciate
how big a band we were there until, I forget the name of the arena
it's where the basketball team plays there, but we had sold out two
shows in one day on a night when the Chicago Bears were playing out
of town. The manager for the arena said, "Paul, you sold out two
shows in one day when the Bears are playing out of town." I'm like,
"Wow, that's great." He goes, "Paul you know what the Bears are?"
I'm like, "Yeah. They're a football team." He goes, "No, no, no. The
Bears are a religion." And he's like totally serious. (laughs)
I'm like, "Okay." He goes, "The fact that you are able to sell out
two arenas on a day when everybody is normally at home watching the
Bears on TV just shows how big the band's gotten." Again, I'm not a
super sports fanatic like some people are, and I'd never looked at
it from that perspective, but it made me appreciate it from another
was reading that you are a collector of historical artifacts, and I
was wondering, first of all, how did you get involved with that?
Also, how does your passion for history inform
Letters from the Labyrinth?
Wow. Okay. Well said. I've been doing it
basically for over forty years. I started collecting in the
seventies when I was working for Aerosmith. We have quite a
collection. I have every letter from Thomas Edison to his
tool-and-dye guy about how to build the first record player, and how
to build the first record. I'm only missing one page, which I gave
to Steven Tyler, because what do you give to Steven Tyler? I have a
lot of letters from Lincoln, from Churchill, from Oscar Wilde,
because when you're holding letters that Lincoln held, that
Churchill held, that Robert Louis Stevenson held, you feel a
connection. Like I tell my daughter, we don't own these, we're just
the caretakers of them for the next generation.
It's also inspirational. I have one
letter from George Washington to Thomas Jefferson, from December
1779. I don't have the letter from Jefferson to Washington, but you
can tell he was requesting troops. It's a really intense letter,
because you can tell in the letter George Washington thinks he's
going to lose the war. Back then, if you lost, they cut off your
head and stuck it on a spike. To have all these artifacts from
history, especially western civilization, it gives you an
interesting perspective. You see a reflection of a lot of it
actually on the album.
I have a translation from the 1400’s
from Marcus Aurelius, the Roman Emperor of meditations. There's
certain parts of it, it's hard to read because it's old English, but
it's basically saying, "I'm the most powerful man. I'm the most
powerful emperor of the world. But what does it mean? Who is going
to care who Julius Caesar was in two thousand years?" It's very
intense that this man, nearly two thousand years ago, was worried
about the same things that we're worrying about now.
The reason we picked Letters from the
Labyrinth, is the Labyrinth is on the island of Crete, built by
the Minoans and Mycenaens, two civilizations that were previous to
the Greek city states. The Minotaur was in the middle of this maze,
so I think every one of these songs that is going to make a journey
will send a message home.
Letters tend to get lost in the mail.
They sometimes go by different routes. When people discovered the
Labyrinth, that was buried for thousands of years under ruins on
Crete, it was filled with all kinds of messages from the past. The
Terra Cotta warriors, which were buried for over two thousand years,
were just recently discovered in China. There are all these little
time capsules that give us hints to what our ancestors were trying
to do, so we can see what they did wrong and we can see what they
On one of our tour programs from a
couple years ago, in Latin, one of the mottoes is, the future can be
rewritten. You can study the past, but you can't change the past.
You can look at the past and try to figure out what you should do
now that will make the future better.
Human beings, we are what we remember.
Civilizations are the same thing. We are what we remember. From the
1930s and the 40s, they were fighting the Great Depression, Nazism,
Warlord-ism, and they defeated it. The next couple of generations
forget that evil can be unbelievably patient. It will rise again, so
good has to be ever vigilant. Evil not only never triumphs, but it
never gets a good night's sleep. The only way that can happen is if
we all work together. We have to realize, the bottom line is that we
are all in this together. Whether this comes to a happy or sad
ending, we're all going to enjoy this together.
Not to get really off the subject, but I
really believe humanity is at a turning point. Because of computers,
humanity has changed and learned more in the last twenty years than
it has in the last two thousand. I'm not sure if morality and ethics
have kept up with that. It's very important that everybody stays
educated, and especially, that we educate our young. Especially
about right and wrong. I agree with Teddy Roosevelt who said, "The
first thing you need to teach your kid is right and wrong, ethics
and morality, because to educate them without teaching them right
from wrong is to create a menace to society."
Certain things we are addressing on this
album, a particular one is, “Not the Same,” which it was hard to
write the lyrics to that. When I saw the Amanda Todd video, which
I'm sure everybody here has seen, it's the Canadian girl who was so
bullied in her school that her parents moved her to another city.
She was cyber-bullied also and moved to another city. She tried to
kill herself. The other kids, instead of wrapping themselves around
her, or protecting her, they continued to bully her. A huge crowd of
them beat her up, left her beat up outside the building. You can use
the arts to change how people view certain things, and whether
certain things are acceptable. To me, bullying, of any sort, but
especially with kids, is unacceptable, on any level. I don't even
like the word bully. It kind of romanticizes it. You have a lot of
people who say, I'm the biggest bully on the block, or I'm the
biggest bully on the street, or the biggest bully in the schoolyard
or the biggest bully in the company. They're not bullies, in
actuality, they're cowards.
Those fifty kids that beat up this
little girl and left her on the side of the road, they wouldn't have
done that to Mike Tyson. Then they wouldn't be bullies, they
wouldn't be cowards, they'd be stupid. They wouldn't be. The fact is
that out of all those kids, nobody stepped up and said, "Hey, this
is wrong." Bullying just has to be stopped. It's something that's
been around forever, that's been allowed, but a lot of things were
around for thousands of years, child labor, slavery, etc., that
people now know were wrong, and just unacceptable.
It is allowed to happen in all these
schools, and it's not just America, it's in Europe, it's in Asia. I
was actually once in a school, this was a long time ago, where these
two kids started fighting and I pulled them apart, and one the
teachers said, "Paul, it's okay. You have to understand bullying is
a part of life." And I'm like, "No, it's not." It's unacceptable and
that's the first thing the kids have to learn. Look out for each
other, support each other, keep an eye out for each other because it
doesn't matter how strong you are, eventually one day you're going
to be old, you're going to be sick, and that's the guy or that's the
girl you're going to hope will come and help you.
know that people everywhere dig the TSO, and at Christmas time you
take on an extra special meaning for a lot of people. Just what do
you guys do to make sure that the people coming to your shows are
seeing some different wrinkles in the TSO arsenal?
Number one, we've just been very lucky.
Not only have we had a constant inflow of new and young talent that
has been developed over the years, but our crew is beyond belief
great. From the pyro guys, to laser guys, to light guys, they're the
first ones in and the last ones out. If you have a great song,
that's great, but if you have great production where the lights and
the lasers and the pyro and everything else is going off in time,
off of one nervous system, it helps to take it to a whole other
Also, one of the reasons I tend to like
the over-the-top production, is it breaks down the wall between the
band and the audience. It makes it all one. I would love to say that
it was part of our plan to write these three rock operas and that
they would be humongously successful during the holiday season and
we would take them out every November [and] December, but honestly,
we were completely blindsided by the success of the Christmas
trilogy. One of my agents said, "Paul you lucked into a Tchaikovsky
meets Dickens." I knew what he meant. Tchaikovsky was also
blindsided by the success of The Nutcracker. He looked at it
as just another ballet like Sleeping Beauty, or Swan Lake,
and never dreamt that it would be as inter-woven into the holidays
as it did become.
The good thing about it is, it's an
unbelievable honor and it's very flattering. The little bit of a
problem is that it throws off the natural rock rhythm. Writing is
one mindset, you go into a zone and you write no matter how long it
takes to create the album. The recording is a whole other different
mindset. Touring is third mindset. Because of the success of the
trilogy, no matter what is going on, when October rolls around, you
shut down the studios, you shut everything else down. Everybody
heads off to an arena and we just start to put together these
humongous, Pink Floyd, humongous productions.
The insanity of it all, normally, when
you build something this big, you tour for at least two years so you
can amortize the cost of it. Basically, at the end of every tour we
start again, so that next year there's something new for the eye.
Human beings, we're strange creatures. We like the comfort of the
familiar, but we like the excitement of something new and different.
Every year we feel the pressure to do that. But we've been very
lucky in putting together a team that has the same vision in common.
We all realize, the bottom line is, it's all about the audience, to
take everybody in that arena on a journey of their imagination where
they're not in that arena. They escaped and they feel emotions they
never felt before. They leave that building recharged. Our biggest
fear right now is that we never drop the ball.
a student of history, obviously, music has been a part of the world
for thousands of years. With technology it's really challenging our
music industry, music in schools, so many facets of our thriving
music industry. What do you hope for the future, and how can we
balance the technology and keep the history of music moving forward?
Wow. Great question. Number one, there's
something magical about music, and it literally goes back to 600 BC
where Delphi, somebody said, "Music soothes the savage breast." When
Pythagoras figured out the chromatic scale, which is the twelve
notes we use in music to this day, they didn't know why, but back in
600 BC they discovered that people who had mental illness, there was
no way they could calm them down or make them feel better, would
calm down when they heard melodies played on the chromatic scale
from harps. Hence, the term, music soothes the savage breast, which
has changed over the years to, music soothes the savage beast. Back
then, there's something about a calming melody, and we're over two
and a half thousand years ago, that people would hear this melody
and it would relax them and make them calm down. That's the magic of
music. It's one of the reasons why I love “Pachelbel's Canon.”
There's something haunting, halcion-like. That melody just relaxes
people. There's also melodies, Beethoven's “Fifth Symphony,” that
can get you up and going. The great thing about music is it crosses
generations, centuries, effortlessly.
A few of you may have already heard this
story already, but one of the reasons why we do, “Carmina Burana,”
and it was on the Night Castle album, was I first heard that
in the 1970s when someone had an extra ticket in Germany. I got to
see it with a full symphony, and a sixty-piece choir, and it totally
blew my mind. The audience, for a lack of a better word, was richer,
upper crust blue-bloods in Europe. Then in the early 80’s I went to
see Ozzy Osbourne, and before Ozzy took the stage, a tape came on,
and it was “Carmina Burana,” and the kids went nuts. The lyrics for
“Carmina Burana” were written in 800 AD by a Bavarian monk, the
music was written in 1930 by Carl Orff. Then in the 1990s I went to
see a rap band and before the band took the stage, tape starts
“Carmina Burana,” and the crowd goes nuts.
I'd be willing to bet really good money
that a majority of Ozzy Osborne's fans do not speak Latin, but it
didn't matter. This song was amazing. It's basically all about fate,
the meaning of life, etc. One of the songs on this new album,
Letters From the Labyrinth, “Who I Am”, I wrote that thinking,
if I were that Bavarian monk and I was alive today, what lyrics
would I write and to what melody? How would it go along with
“Carmina Burana?” That's where the lyrics for “Who I Am” came from.
Eventually, one of these days, we will take “Carmina Burana” and
have it go right into “Who I Am,” which is the end chorale on
Letters from the Labyrinth.
you tell me a little bit about the graphic novel about
One of our band members, Vitalij Kuprij,
grew up in the Soviet Union and he's now a member of TSO. Vitalij is
just a character. He goes, “Paul, when I was young there was only
three ways to get out of Soviet Union. One was chess. I'm not that
good a chess player. The other was ballet. Paul, you don't even want
to go there. The other was piano playing. That I could do.” Even
though he grew up in the Soviet Union, his family is from Ukraine,
Kiev. With the break-up of the Soviet Union, what's going on over
there is heart-breaking. After the last European tour, he went home
and when he came back and told me the destruction going on over
there, it really, really bothered me.
We decided to write a symphonic piece
and put a story around it. I didn't want to pour gas on the fire. I
didn't want it to be anti-Russian or anti-Ukraine, or pro-Russian or
pro-Ukraine. I wanted it to be pro-humanity.
I remember that the very first capital
of Russia, basically, was Kiev, or it was right outside of it, and
the very first king of Russia was Rurik. They basically ruled Russia
all the way up to the Romanovs who ruled the last 300 years. Rurik
united all the Slavic tribes that were all killing each other, and
started Russia on its way to being a great nation.
What's going on in Maidan Square, he's
in a sarcophagus, the smoke from all the burning fires awake him. He
ends up going to Maidan Square. We lucked out with King Rurik,
because if King Rurik, who was around in 800 AD, was dropped in New
York City, he would be very confused, but Kiev has a very
Greco-Roman look to it. A lot of the buildings look like they’re
right out of Athens, so he wouldn't feel that confused, and soldiers
in riot gear look like knights. But, as he comes there and he sees
the women, the children, the men outside the buildings, and the
soldiers keeping them out, he's confused. He goes into the building
where he sees a sniper just shooting anyone who steps forward in the
The problem isn't any single individual.
There will always be another Hitler. There will always be another
Stalin. The problem is envy and hate. You plant seeds of envy,
doubt, greed, suspicion, in people's minds, they start to wonder. Is
my neighbor stealing from me? Is my neighbor this? Is my neighbor
that? The graphic novel was illustrated by Greg Hildebrandt, of
Lord of the Rings and Star Wars fame. It just basically
says, you're all Slavic. You're all human. What you're doing to both
these countries you won't be able to undo for decades. He gets them
to snap out of that trance where they're blindly following orders.
Where they're destroying both countries simultaneously. When people
snap out of that trance, the destruction has been done in the
Ukraine, it's going to take decades, and it may not even be undone
in our lifetime. Obviously, the same is true in the Middle East. I
think the arts have a responsibility. You can't stay neutral all the
Beethoven's “Third Symphony” was
originally being dedicated to Napoleon, because he thought Napoleon
was going to bring freedom and democracy all across Europe. The
minute Napoleon crowned himself Emperor, he crossed out that
dedication. Bottom line is, Trans-Siberian Orchestra, our job is to
entertain everybody, but there's sometimes when you can't stay
neutral and you have to say this is wrong. Too many things are going
on right now that are wrong. When it's necessary, Trans-Siberian
Orchestra, we'll put our reputation on the line. If it backfires, so
me take this opportunity to thank you for giving us metal heads some
great music to listen to at Christmas time.
Okay, totally our pleasure.
brought TSO together almost two decades ago, you've released three
Christmas themed records, three rock orchestra style records. You've
really revolutionized how Christmas and rock is viewed by the
masses. How do you feel about bringing this unique hybrid to all
ages, all background audience and associating that music with
Again, I would love to say that I
planned this whole thing, but it wasn't true. It's funny, because I
like you had noticed that over the centuries every generation tended
to kick something into the Christmas catalog of great art, great
music. It really hadn't happened recently. The closest thing, to me,
and actually it's really inspirational, I think it was 1975, when
Bing Crosby, right before he died, I think it might have even been
the last thing he recorded, on his Christmas special was him singing
“Little Drummer Boy” in counter-point with another song with David
Bowie. You can find it on YouTube, it's a magical little moment.
For some reason, rock never was able to
turn something into the whole Christmas lexicon. In a lot of ways,
we were very intimidated by the Christmas thing because number one,
you usually don't take on Christmas until you have multiple other
platinum albums. It's very scary because everybody is always doing
it. You're competing against art that has gotten past the ultimate
critic, the only critic you can't fool, the only critic that counts
in the end, which is time. Every century only passes on to the next
century what it considers the very best. So, if you're doing a
painting you're not competing against Andy Warhol, you're competing
against, Andy Warhol, Botticelli, Michelangelo, Norman Rockwell. If
you're doing a book you're competing against Dickens. If you're
doing a movie you're compete against Frank Capra. Music, forget it,
you're competing against Mendelssohn, Beethoven, Irving Berlin.
Again, I would like to say we planned
it. As I always say, it was all those prayers my mother said when I
told her I wasn't going to college. You know, please don't let this
kid starve. I was always fascinated by Christmas, its power. People
give their neighbor, even strangers, the benefit of the doubt. We
did the trilogy, and it's funny, because Ahmet Ertegun said, "Paul,
how come three rock operas about Christmas?" I said, "Well, Dickens
wrote a lot of books about subjects larger than life." Industrial
Revolution, David Copperfield, French Revolution, Tale of
Two Cities, but he wrote five books about Christmas, and when a
journalist asked why five books about Christmas, he said, too large
a subject to take on in one book.
Christmas Eve and Other Stories is basically how it has the same effect on human beings all around
the world. Be it Europe, be it Asia, be it America. The second one,
The Christmas Attic, how it's been doing it for centuries.
The third one, The Lost Christmas Eve, which is my favorite,
is basically, there's something about Christmas that allows you to
undo mistakes you never thought you could undo. You live long
enough, everybody knows somebody who hasn't talked to a parent, or a
sibling, or a friend, in decades. There's something about Christmas
that will make you pick up the phone, call that person and say, I
can't remember what we were fighting about. The Lost Christmas
Eve is basically about a father who abandons his child. The
three of them just seem to work and they've taken on a life of their
own. We just feel an unbelievable obligation just not to drop the
ball. To keep this thing going.
Forty years from now, when we're in the
old rockers home, and the nurses are going, "Do we have to hear
these stories again?," these kids will still have these things still
touring. More importantly, live music will continue to grow. I do
worry with the internet, it's destroyed the music industry, and we
have to come up with a new model or people are not going to go into
the music industry and it's going to be a great loss for humanity.
have a question about the song, “Prometheus.” It's about the fall of
the Berlin Wall, does the song deal about what led up to it or does
it deal with the repercussions since the fall of the Berlin Wall,
and did your interactions with people at Wacken change your outlook
on that at all?
It didn't change that. The first time I
was in Berlin, it was in the 70s, and a young man was shot trying to
get over the wall. I will never forget that. I remember saying to
myself, "Wow, I am so lucky that I was born on the right side of
this wall." Everyone thought that that wall was going to be around
forever. There was no moving it. No one foresaw it coming down, and
especially coming down without a shot and overnight. After it came
down, everybody said, "Oh, it was always going to fall anyway."
That's actually not true.
There were a number of individuals that
when the government made a mistake and accidentally said that the
wall was going to be open, there was one individual that noticed
that this was a mistake, but this was the moment and he grabbed a
friend and he goes, "let's go to the gate and try to get through."
There was a mother whose son was the last man shot trying to get
over the wall. She joined in on it. There was a group of young
people that were constantly keeping the pressure up for freedom and
bringing down that wall. All acted together, these handful of
individuals saw this opportunity, grabbed it, and, bam!
Overnight, the Berlin Wall came down, the Cold War ended, and it was
very much like Great Britain's Glorious Revolution.
As most people know, Great Britain was
torn apart by religious wars, under King Henry the VIII, under Queen
Elizabeth, Queen Mary. When it finally all settled down and King
Charles the II decided to switch the country's religion again,
Parliament packed him up, shipped him off to Europe, and got a new
king, without a single bullet being shot. Without a single person's
head being cut off. In Great Britain it's referred to as the
Glorious Revolution – the first revolution where they changed
governments with no deaths.
The magic of the collapse of the Berlin
Wall, the end of the Cold War, was again, that it happened without a
war, without a battle. By that I mean, a serious battle like World
War I, World War II, where deaths are in the tens of millions. It
just shows what can happen when people work together. But also, we
can't take it for granted. Everyone just had such high hopes that
this would be the end of dictatorships and authoritarianism and
ruling by fear, but sadly, what's gone on in the West with
corruption of institutions, has made human beings start to doubt
Everything is based on trust. Humanity,
again I say the arts are the alpha omega, the thing underpinning the
arts is trust. When the first caveman could go to sleep and he
trusted that the first caveman next door wasn't going to kill him in
his sleep, or steal his berries when he went hunting, that's when
humanity started to get together. Individually, we are all limited,
but combined, there's nothing we can't do. Anything humans can
imagine, humans can do. Both for the good and for the negative.
Trust has been broken down. A lot of
people in a lot of Western nations no longer believe that their
governments are looking at what's best for them. Their bank accounts
are empty, but the people that ran their bank accounts are now
billionaires. Public servants are supposed to serve the public, but
the word has been flipped around where the public serves them.
Taking on health care, when every
congressman and senator has the exact same health care that the
average American has, that's when I believe the health care system
will be fixed. Alexander Hamilton, our first Secretary of Treasury,
died a pauper. Too many people now believe that people go into
government to enrich themselves. That's not how it used to be and
that's not how it has to stay. Again, I have a great belief in
humanity and the people, as did Lincoln, sometimes the ship of state
will tilt a little too much to the left or right, but eventually we
will again all pull together. Progress will be made. I know right
now a lot of people are hurting, especially this time of year. It's
an opportunity to get everybody to let their guard down and to talk
to their neighbor, talk to each other. We are going through a rough
time right now. I do believe in the end we're going to pull
together. I don't know if that's from watching too many Frank Capra
movies. Hopefully, I answered that question somehow, and if not just
call my managers and I'll call back. (laughs)
really enjoy the record, and listening to it a few times, the track
that really stuck out to me was, “The Night Conceives.” I think of
TSO, I think of all your dynamic arrangements, it seems like this
song... This song stuck out to me because it's very riff-centric
with the guitar.
It's Zeppelin meets Aerosmith. It's very
one of the most straight-forward rock songs that I think of from TSO,
was that your intent?
That was 100% our intent. Jon Oliva came
up with this great Zeppelin meets Aerosmith riff, and I came up with
I've always been fascinated by night.
Night is where the fringes of society can feel safe. At one point of
my life, I used to live in Hell's Kitchen. When I was younger. At
night you would see the winos, the schizophrenics, the drug addicts.
They would come out because they felt safety there. So, I was always
fascinated by night, and here we give her a human form, where she
watches out for those who are on the fringe of society, protects
them beneath her mantle, until they're healed or feel safe enough to
go back out into the light again.
We had a blast with that song. Kayla
Reeves, who sings it, really put a lot of emotion in it. Kayla, as
some of you know, joined TSO when she was seventeen. We got her out
of the foster care system in Texas. Now she's been with us for like
six years. Where the heck did that go by? But she puts an emotional
bite and passion to that song, where you believe every word she
says. I really do love that tune. It's got edge and Kayla really
does make you believe it.