Delivering the Letters From the Labyrinth
by Jay S. Jacobs
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 yuletide favorite.
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 Christmas.
How is 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.
A 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 other.
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.
Oh, 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.
I 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.
Two 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 fathers.
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.
For 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 on.
I’m 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.
Do 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 millennium.
Last 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.
What 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 less of?
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 people’s lives.
I’m 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?
You earlier likened 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.
In 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 normally wouldn’t.
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 leaders.”
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.
How 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 angle.
I 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 did right.
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.
I 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 level.
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.
Being 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.
Can you tell me a little bit about the graphic novel about King Rurik?
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 streets.
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 time.
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 it does.
Let me take this opportunity to thank you for giving us metal heads some great music to listen to at Christmas time.
(laughs) Okay, totally our pleasure.
You 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 Christmas time?
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.
I 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 their governments.
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)
I 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 street rock.
It’s 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 the melody.
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.
Copyright ©2015 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: November 13, 2015.
Photos ©2014-2015 Courtesy of Republic Records. All rights reserved.