Q&A: Trans-Siberian Orchestra's Paul O'Neill
Paul O'Neill admits he can be like a 12-year-old kid when it comes to his act, Trans-Siberian Orchestra. The progressive rock band is known for its live shows complete with an orchestra, a massive light show, lasers, dozens of pyrotechnics, moving trusses, video screens and other effects that are synchronized to the music.
So when the power went out 15 minutes into a 2005 show at New Jersey's state-of-the-art Meadowlands, it thrilled O'Neill. As a matter of fact, he called it one of the highlights of his career.
"The stage just went black," O'Neill told SoundSpike. "Whenever anything goes wrong, I freak. The stage manager comes running up to me, 'We just blew the circuit breaker for the Meadowlands.' I said 'Wow, OK.' Five minutes later, they had it all up and running. After 2005, when the band toured, we would carry multiple tractor trailers of generators so that certain arenas, if they needed extra electric, would hook up to generators.
"I thought 2005 was my high point. Then, in 2007, we're playing Jackson, MS, and the crew is hooking up the generators. Someone from the building said, 'You don't need to hook them up. We're a state-of-the-art building. We can handle your electrical needs.' The crew's like, 'Yay.' Fifteen minutes into the show, the stage goes dark. [A roadie] comes up to me and I said, 'I know we broke the circuit breaker for the building.' He said, 'Paul, we broke the circuit breaker for Jackson.' 'Really? Cool.' It wasn't the entire city. It was just part of the grid. It was off and on in 10 minutes."
With total album sales in excess of 7 million, Trans-Siberian Orchestra debuted in 1996 with "Christmas Eve and Other Stories." Highlighted by "Christmas Eve/Sarajevo 12/24," the album has since achieved two-times platinum certification from the RIAA, with sales now rapidly approaching three million. Two further albums completed O'Neill's planned Christmas Trilogy; 1998's "The Christmas Attic" and 2004's "The Lost Christmas Eve," both of which are approaching two times platinum certification.
In the spring of 2010, TSO debuted the live rock opera "Beethoven's Last Night," the band's gold-certified rock opera fantasy about "what could have happened" on Beethoven's final night of life. The band's latest release, "Night Castle," which features the singles "Believe" and a cover of the "Nutrocker," was certified gold in less than eight weeks.
O'Neill talked to SoundSpike about Trans-Siberian Orchestra's forthcoming album, the "duty" of the TSO and what he learned from Yes' Jon Anderson.
SoundSpike: How's the new album coming along?
Paul O'Neill: The new album is sounding killer. As of now, the next new album will be "Romanov: What Kings Must Whisper" [a rock opera about the Russia's Bolshevik Revolution in 1918], which was originally finished in '93 and was supposed to be Trans-Siberian Orchestra's first album. Some people thought it should go to Broadway first. Some people bought the Broadway option rights. In the end, basically, we couldn't get the production quality we wanted on Broadway, so we ended up not doing it just because I come from the world of arena rock. What I consider mind-blowing production means tons of electric. The whole point of Trans-Siberian Orchestra was to have a progressive rock band that would push the envelope of the boundaries that other bands had done before. The Who invented the rock opera. Bands like Queen and Emerson Lake and Palmer had married classical and rock. Pink Floyd had budget-be-damned lighting production. As of now, Trans-Siberian Orchestra blatantly has the biggest and most complicated show.
Part of the problems we're starting to have is, as the years have gone on, the shows have gotten so big that we've had to leave certain markets out. We did a lot of re-engineering so we could spread the weight out over the points in the arena. With Romanov, we had this massive, massive, massive stage setting in our imaginations.
In the meantime, you're on your Christmas tour. What can we expect this year?
We made the show bigger, better. We added a lot of new toys. There are a lot of new band members. The band used to go from anywhere from [ages] 18 to 25, which is a third of the band. We call them "the kids." The majority is 25 to 45. I'm the old timer in my mid-50s. We found a young lady this year who just joined us from Texas. She is an adorable little thing. But she has the best whiskey rock voice like Janis Joplin that I've ever heard. The only thing that freaks me out is she was born in, like, 1993. I have boots that are three times older than that. It's just great. We're constantly bringing in new blood.
The great thing about the youngsters is that they bring that youthful enthusiasm. They don't allow the old timers to become jaded. Because we draw from the rest of the rock world, the classical world, the R&B world, the theatrical world, we have a lot of cross-pollination, because the way a blues singer will attack a song is totally different from the way a theatrical person will attack a song. Same for musicians. The whole thing is to form a band without limits.
What is your goal with Trans-Siberian Orchestra?
Our first duty as Trans-Siberian Orchestra is to give the fans the most value with the least amount of money and to have the best rock show every year and keep raising that bar. And every album, make it better. That's why "Night Castle" had two CDs -- a rock opera, a regular album and a 60-page book. When it came out, it was $9.99 for a long time. And Amazon, without even being asked, sold it for $7.99. People got a lot of value for their money. Same with the live show. Tickets are between $25 and $60 in the majority of the markets. There's a few markets like Los Angeles and New York where it has to go to $70. Any ticket that goes higher than that is somebody tacking on service fees or scalpers. Especially with what's going on in the economy now, we have to make sure it's affordable.
When I started Trans-Siberian Orchestra, I wanted to do something different, push the boundaries. Atlantic [Records] asked what my plan was. I said, "I want to do six rock operas." They said, "Why rock operas?" "Because it gives a third dimension." Pete Townshend and [Roger] Daltrey [of The Who] figured this out. The first rock opera was [The Who's] "Tommy." [The song] "Pinball Wizard" stands on its own. When you realize it's about a deaf, dumb and blind kid, it takes on a whole 'nother meaning.
How did you decide to bring Trans-Siberian Orchestra on the road?
I was still nervous about starting a tour in '99. There was a gentleman in Cleveland that just kept bugging me, Bill Lewis from the rock station in Cleveland. He said, "Paul, you have to tour." "Bill, maybe next year." "Paul, I just heard you did a free show for a hospital for children. Paul, if you do it in New York, you could do it here. Let me just put one show on sale." He puts the Cleveland Opera House on tour. Sold out in four hours. We had never toured -- ever. We were headlining with no support. He put another one on sale. Then, he puts the third one on sale, sold out. I got a call from a [DJ] in Detroit, Doug Podell. "I hear you're playing Cleveland. Why don't you play the Opera House in Detroit?" "I'm not sure." "Paul give me the show. Don't worry. You're going to sell out." Detroit sells out. All of a sudden, wham. We have this [short tour]. We're the first band in history to have over 80 members, to never play a club, never have an opening act, never be an opening act and go straight to the theaters and coliseums. That alone in itself is kind of cool -- even though I feel guilty for not having opening acts because that's the way baby acts develop. The reason we don't have opening acts is the same reason that Pink Floyd stopped having them. We have so many special effects with the laser and the pyro. If somebody bumps the laser mirror, these lasers are so powerful they could do real damage.
What's the most important thing you learned over the years?
There are two people I learned a lot from. One was Greg Lake, one of the forerunners of prog rock. He said, "You really get prog rock." I said, "I have no idea what you mean by that." "Paul, progressive rock is the only form of music that has no myths. It's built into the name. You're always trying to push the envelope." "Greg, I never thought of it like that." That's why Greg Lake is Greg Lake. I got a little bit of wisdom from Jon Anderson -- what a class act; what a genius -- that made me appreciate how lucky TSO is -- and beyond lucky. I think we were lucky at the last second. I feel like that because the only way TSO comes to life is with the support and the belief of the record industry that existed in the '70s and '80s and '90s. Without it, you can't build bands like Trans-Siberian Orchestra. Ahmet Ertegun is the person who started Atlantic. Besides signing TSO, he also signed Led Zeppelin, Genesis, Crosby, Stills and Nash, Yes, Ray Charles. You pull out the bands that were signed to Atlantic and remove them from the memory of man, the hole in the legacy of rock 'n' roll would be the size of the Grand Canyon.
8 - Greensboro, NC - Greensboro Coliseum
8 - Bossier City, LA - CenturyTel Center
9 - Jacksonville, FL - Jacksonville Veterans Memorial Arena
9 - New Orleans, LA - New Orleans Arena
10 - Miami, FL - American Airlines Arena
10 - Duluth, GA - The Arena at Gwinnett Center
11 - Tampa, FL - St. Pete Times Forum
11 - Birmingham, AL - BJCC Arena
12 - Nashville, TN - Bridgestone Arena
12 - Orlando, FL - Amway Center
15 - Wichita, KS - INTRUST Bank Arena
15 - Boston, MA - TD Garden
16 - Tulsa, OK - BOK Center
16 - Providence, RI - Dunkin' Donuts Center
17 - Memphis, TN - FedEx Forum
17 - Uniondale, NY - Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum
18 - North Little Rock, AR - Verizon Arena
19 - Dallas, TX - American Airlines Center
19 - Buffalo, NY - HSBC Arena
22 - Ottawa, Ontario - Scotiabank Place
22 - Denver, CO - Pepsi Center
23 - Colorado Springs, CO - Colorado Springs World Arena
23 - Toronto, Ontario - Air Canada Centre
26 - Albany, NY - Times Union Center
26 - Milwaukee, WI - Bradley Center
27 - St. Paul, MN - Xcel Energy Center
28 - Columbus, OH - Nationwide Arena
29 - Kansas City, MO - Sprint Center
29 - Grand Rapids, MI - Van Andel Arena
30 - St. Louis, MO - Scottrade Center
30 - Auburn Hills, MI - The Palace of Auburn Hills
17 - Munich, Germany - Zenith
18 - Vienna, Austria - Wiener Stadthalle
19 - Stuttgart, Germany - Hanns Martin Schleyer Halle
22 - Berlin, Germany - Tempodrom GmbH
23 - Hamburg, Germany - Congress Center Hamburg
24 - Dusseldorf, Germany - Philipshalle