December 10, 2015 Paul O’Neill Of Trans-Siberian Orchestra – The Architect Of A New Tradition
Paul O’Neill likes to go BIG! As a guitarist, writer, and producer, O’Neill began his musical odyssey while attending a New York high school and playing in bands like so many musicians do, but unlike most, he did not stop there. O’Neill went on the road and played guitar in the touring company of Jesus Christ Superstar and Hair. He landed a job at the legendary management company Leber-Krebs Inc. and became involved in the careers of such music industry giants as AC/DC, Aerosmith, Def Leppard, and The Scorpions. O’Neill became a concert promoter, and was soon one of the biggest in Japan, promoting every tour for Madonna and Sting that decade.
Furthermore, he also promoted Rock festivals featuring some of Rock’s biggest bands. In the mid 1980’s O’Neill turned his attention to writing and producing. He produced Aerosmith’s 1986/1987 platinum Classics Live, Volumes 1 & 2, Savatage’s critically acclaimed 1987 album Hall of the Mountain King, and 1989’s Gutter Ballet, as well as the self-titled debut album from Badlands. His work with Savatage introduced him to Jon Oliva, Al Pitrelli, and Bob Kinkel, as well as earned him a reputation of being a unique storyteller with a grand vision. It soon became clear that O’Neill was destined for much bigger things. Soon, the four collaborators began building the foundation of one of the most unique musical experiences to ever occupy a stage.
During a trip to Siberia, O’Neill was struck by the country’s beauty, despite its harsh and unforgiving climate. There was one common thread, he realized. The Trans-Siberian Railway was the only thing that all of Siberia’s inhabitants could experience together and in relative safety. O’Neill drew an immediate parallel, and concluded that life itself is incredibly harsh and unforgiving and that the one thing we have in common that we could share in relative safety is music. Years later, the name Trans-Siberian Orchestra was born of that experience.
O’Neill says, “I would love to say I planned this whole thing, but that isn’t true.” When he embarked on his most ambitious project yet, he had no idea what it would mean to families the world over. Trans-Siberian Orchestra came together nearly two decades ago, essentially leveling the playing field and bringing Rock and Heavy Music back into the mix along with the Christmas classics. It created a new standard, giving Metalheads, Rock fans, and just holiday lovers in general around the globe something great to listen to at Christmas time.
“Totally our pleasure,” says O’Neill, when asked about what it feels like to revolutionize how Christmas and Rock are viewed by the masses. Since their 1996 debut record, Christmas Eve and Other Stories, Trans-Siberian Orchestra has become closely associated with Christmas time. In fact, since they have made a regular tradition of touring around the USA with their massive assembly of musicians each holiday season. Becoming bigger and bigger each passing year, they have even split into two separate orchestras at times, performing in two cities at once on a given night.
When O’Neill was asked about his motivations behind Trans-Siberian Orchestra, he offered, “I had noticed over the centuries, every generation tended to kick something into the Christmas catalog of great art and great music. But it really hadn’t happened recently. The closest thing to me, and it’s actually really inspirational, I think it was 1975 when Bing Crosby, right before he died, it might’ve even been the last thing he recorded, on his Christmas special, was him singing the Little Drummer Boy in counterpoint with another song with David Bowie. You can find it on YouTube. It’s a magical little moment.”
Inspiring words, O’Neill went onto to address the concept of Rock and Christmas even more in-depth stating, “For some reason Rock was never able to get anything 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 platinum albums. It’s very scary because everyone is always doing it, also 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.
A very true statement, Tran-Siberian Orchestra has done a fine job of pleasing critics, but, most of all, audiences with their story-telling live shows that bring the music to life beyond the wildest imagination. Addressing the issue of withstanding the test of time, O’Neill went onto to say “Because every century only passes onto 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 competing against Frank Capra. And music, forget it, you’re competing against Mendelssohn, Beethoven, Irving Berlin. I was always fascinated by Christmas, and it’s power to make people give their neighbor or even strangers the benefit of the doubt.”
Amidst their career, Trans-Siberian Orchestra’s Christmas- themed records has not stop with Christmas Eve and Other Stories. In 1998 they went onto produced the now iconic “Christmas Eve/Sarajevo 12/24”, The Christmas Attic; which included the hit “Christmas Cannon” a take on Johann Pachelbel’s “Canon in D major” with lyrics and new melodies added. Then in 2004 they released The Lost Christmas Eve sprinkling in the Rock Operas of Beethoven’s Last Night in 2000 and Night Castle in 2009. With their busy schedules and plethora of other projects among band members, they put out the EP Dreams of Fireflies (On a Christmas Night) in 2012, and on November 13, 2015 put out their new record, Letters From the Labyrinth. Their first full-length studio album in seven years, it is a total of sixteen tracks, including a bonus offering, the record touches on Classical material, features some new compositions, and even see’s a guest appearance from a list of vocalists including Symphony X/ Adrenaline Mob’s Russell Allen, and Halestorm’s Lzzy Hale.
With plenty of material to offer audiences, Trans-Siberian Orchestra, above all, are widely recognized as the ultimate touring operatic/theatrical act in music today, using elaborate lighting, pyrotechnics, laser lights, smoke and fog, hydraulic platforms, and an army of singers and musicians who engage the audience with amazing performances. When asked about the motivation to create such an unprecedented, epic stage show to tell these amazing storied O’Neill offered, “We did the trilogy, and it’s funny because Ahmet Ertegun said, “You know Paul, how come three Rock operas about Christmas?” I said, “Well Dickens wrote a lot of books about subjects larger than life, such as the Industrial Revolution, David Copperfield, the French Revolution, but he wrote five books about Christmas and when the journalist asked why, he replied that it was too large a subject to take on in one book.
Thankfully for fans they did take on the task, because it has provided for a different and exciting Christmas-themed experience each season. O’Neill then said “The trilogy is basically… Christmas Eve and Other Stories is basically how it (Christmas) 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, is about how it’s been doing it for centuries. The third one, The Lost Christmas Eve, which is my favorite, illustrates that there is something about Christmas that allows you undo mistakes you never thought you could undo. If you live long enough, everybody knows someone that hasn’t talked to a parent, a sibling, a friend in decades, and there’s something about Christmas that will make you pick up the phone and 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 have taken on a life of their own, and now we just feel an unbelievable obligation not to drop the ball, to keep this thing going so in 40 years from now when we are in the old rockers home and the nurses are going, are we gonna have to hear these stories again. These kids will have these things still touring, but more importantly, that live music will continue to grow.”
During the holiday season of 2015, Trans-Siberian Orchestra embarked on their Ghosts of Christmas Tour, which began on November 18th in Erie, PA and going through to December 30th, where it will end in St. Paul, MN. No matter where the tour stops it will be an experience worthy of an entire film no matter their musical preference to feast their ears and eyes on. In a world where tradition is merely obsolete, it is comforting to know there are those like Trans-Siberian Orchestra still keeping that hope alive.