Thursday, December 17, 2009

Interview: Trans-Siberian Orchestra's Paul O'Neill

One of the blessings of the season for Trans-Siberian Orchestra founder Paul O’Neill may be the fact that he doesn’t have to answer questions about when the group’s new album, "Night Castle," is coming out. The double album, which has been promised for at least five years, hit shelves on Oct. 27 and has already gone gold.

"When (Guns ‘n’ Roses’ long-awaited album) ‘Chinese Democracy’ came out, we kind of lost our cover," O’Neill joked. "Luckily our fans have been very patient, and the album’s selling better than we could have ever imagined."

"Night Castle" was originally intended to be a stand-alone 10-song record with no theme, but TSO co-founder and Savatage frontman Jon Oliva convinced O’Neill that it had to be more.

"Jon told me that TSO is not like any other band, and fans expect a story," O’Neill said. "It’s a little bit of role reversal because when we were working on Savatage, I was always the one wanting to do a concept record. The first half of the record is the ‘Night Castle’ story, and the second half pays homage to our past and looks forward to the future."

Savatage fans will find a couple of treats here as a reworking of "Prelude to Madness," the band’s take on Grieg’s "In the Hall of the Mountain King," shows up as "The Mountain," and the second disc features a cover of "Believe" from the "Streets" album. The latter is a preview of a Broadway musical called "Gutter Ballet" (also the name of the second record O’Neill did with Savatage) that O’Neill and Oliva hope to get to the stage in the next two years. It’s the culmination of a work that O’Neill began in the 1970s. Many of the songs have already had rock versions recorded by Savatage, but will return to their roots for the Broadway show.

"We want to take it back to the original blues, gospel, Motown sound," he said. "For Savatage, you’ve got to metal it up. Jon and I are kind of psyched to be doing it because Broadway is something we’ve always wanted to take on."

The second disc also includes a cover of Emerson, Lake and Palmer’s "Nutrocker" that features Greg Lake on bass. It’s a song that obviously had a profound influence on O’Neill and TSO, who are known for blending rock and classical for Christmas.

"That song brings it full circle," he said. "It’s us paying tribute to Emerson, Lake and Palmer, paying tribute to Tchaikovsky."

The new album also means a new experience for the Christmas tour that fans have come to view as a tradition over the past few years. The first half of the concert will be the expected Christmas show, while the second set will focus more heavily on material from "Night Castle." Not to worry, though, the band will still follow its motto: "Fog it, light it, blow it up."

"We spend more on pyro in two months than most of the rock world does in an entire year," O’Neill said with a laugh. "Our first duty is to the fans, to give them the best show for their dollar. We realize that entertainment is not a necessity of life, but human beings need moments of joy, or at least moments that are stress free. When you’re not worrying about what’s outside the arena, the body gets to recharge its batteries. The underlying story is about hope."

When O’Neill started TSO, he never expected it to become a Christmas staple. His idea was to do a Christmas trilogy, six rock operas and a couple of regular albums. With the release of "Christmas Eve and Other Stories" and the holiday hit "Christmas Eve Sarajevo" (also originally recorded by Savatage) in 1996, the band did what O’Neill describes as "lucking into a Tchaikovsky," a reference to the composer’s "Nutcracker" ballet which became a Christmas classic.

"‘The Nutcracker’ was just another ballet, and it never dawned on him that it would become so intertwined with the holidays," O’Neill said. "When we wrote the Christmas trilogy, we hoped it would be successful, but we never dreamed it would become as big as it did. The fans wanted to see it every year, and we didn’t want to let them down."

Now, it’s a sold-out holiday tour with two companies that keeps growing and keeps O’Neill going non-stop from October through January. There’s still plenty to keep O’Neill occupied after the holidays, too. There are currently plans for a spring tour to focus on the band’s two non-Christmas albums, "Beethoven’s Last Night" and "Night Castle." Work continues on the Broadway show. There are some Savatage projects in the offering, including a best-of compilation, a re-release of the band’s last record "Poets and Madmen" on Atlantic, and possibly a new album. And then, there are, of course, those future Trans-Siberian Orchestra records. O’Neill’s not ready to make any predictions on those yet, though.

"Whatever I say, I know it’s going to be later," he joked. "I’m just glad I’m in rock ‘n’ roll and not in charge of getting ammunition to some war front in World War I."

Read my review of "Night Castle."

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