Interview: Trans-Siberian Orchestra's Paul O'Neill
October 26, 2006 01:16 PM
by Christina Fuoco
Two years ago, a reporter caught Trans-Siberian Orchestra leader Paul O'Neill off guard. He asked O'Neill, "What's the point of Trans-Siberian Orchestra?"
"I said, 'We're trying to create the greatest art that we can,'" O'Neill recalled.
The reporter asked for a definition of "art," and O'Neill, whose 30-piece band has become a Christmas staple, said the purpose of art is to elicit an emotional response from a person who's exposed to it.
"To me, there's three types of art--there's good art, there's bad art and there's great art. Bad art is a painting on a wall that you don't even notice. You just walk past it as if it was wallpaper. It's a song that you hear on the radio that just becomes background noise. It's a movie that you go to that just becomes a good excuse to eat buttered popcorn," O'Neill explained.
"Good art will elicit an emotional response from the listener or viewer that they felt before. You see a picture of forest, and you remember the last time you went fishing with your dad. You hear a song about driving fast in your car, and you remember when you were 16 and you got your driver's license and you went over the speed limit. You hear a love song and remember the first time you fell in love. That's really, really hard to do.
"But great art--and this is the hardest thing to do--elicits an emotional response from the person who's exposed to it that they never felt before."
O'Neill hopes to accomplish this with Trans-Siberian Orchestra's art, including its albums--1996's "Christmas Eve and Other Stories," 1998's "The Christmas Attic," 2000's "Beethoven's Last Night," 2001's "The Ghosts of Christmas Eve" and 2004's "The Lost Christmas Eve." Next year, he hopes to release a follow-up, "Night Castle."
O'Neill talked to LiveDaily about the long-delayed "Night Castle," this year's Christmas tour and the art that touches him.
You produced a television special in 1999--starring Michael Crawford and Jewel--for Fox Television, increasing your fan base. Any plans for a follow up?
Paul O'Neill: TSO is going to do multiple movies in the near future. We're going to do it after we finish "Night Castle," which is the next album that is coming out. We should turn ["Night Castle"] in with a little luck in 2007. It was supposed to be turned in in 2005, but obviously we're running late. Actually, I'll tell you a funny story. I got a call yesterday from somebody at Atlantic [Records, asking], "Paul when are you going to turn 'Night Castle' in?" I said, "Soon. Really soon." They said, "Paul, Jesus is coming back soon. If you don't mind we'd like the album one week earlier." I'm like, "I'm doing the best I can." Luckily, Atlantic has been unbelievably patient with us and given us an unbelievable amount of rope with which to hang ourselves. [Laughs] But so far, it's all going great. The albums are doing amazing. Last year, in seven weeks, we did 837,000 tickets [for the Christmas tour]. This year, it looks like we may break a million. Once we finish "Night Castle," we're going to do a 12-month, around-the-world tour. "Beethoven's Last Night" will be the rock opera in its entirety in the front half of the show, songs from "Night Castle" and the album after "Night Castle" will be the second half of the show.
You already have another album written?
We basically have the next seven albums written, [and] two Broadway musicals written ready to go and financed. Big-time financing. [O'Neill could not go on the record about details regarding the musicals or financing.]
Why do you think there's been a delay with "Night Castle"?
[Laughs] Everyone would say me.
Are you a perfectionist?
Yeah, yeah. It's so funny. We want it to be perfect. We want it to be great. We just really want to grab the listener by the heart and we have a gripping tale that takes them through the whole story, and leaves them emotionally exhausted and drained at the end and exhilarated. We're trying to create the best art possible. The first time I even got a hint of [great art] was when I was really young. I grew up in New York City, and they had the World's Fair here in 1961 or something like that [editor's note: 1964]. My father took me and my brother to see the World's Fair. At the World's Fair, they had Michelangelo's Pieta. It's one of the very first sculptures he ever did. It's the only sculpture he ever signed. It's Mary holding Christ right after he's been taken down from the cross. I'm not overly religious, even though I was brought up Catholic. I was 6 years old at the time. I couldn't be.
As I'm looking at this statue, the pain in Mary's face as she's holding her dead son, had nothing to do with religion. Just looking at a mother holding her dead child ... I felt the pain and the anguish she must have felt to hold her dead child. Here I am, 6 years old. Not only have I never even thought about what it must be like to have a child, I had no clue what it would be like to lose one. The idea never even entered my head. But here is this statue carved by this man over 500 years ago, 20,000 miles away from where I was born, and yet this man with this work of art is reaching through five centuries to grip the heart of a 6-year-old kid and make him feel an emotion he had never felt before. I was unaware of it at the time, but it happened.
Then, as I got older, you go to school. I remember reading "All Quiet on the Western Front," which was required reading. At the time I was reading it, I had never been in a war, in a trench being mustard-gassed as artillery shells are falling all around me. I never felt that claustrophobia, that kind of fear. But by reading "All Quiet on the Western Front," I'm feeling this claustrophobia and fear. "Am I going to live? Am I going to die?" I can't wait to turn the page to see what happens. So, again, here is this writer [who], through the use of words, like Michelangelo through the use of stone, is able to make someone feel an emotion they've never felt before.
I think that's the purpose of art. When triggering emotional response, some are easier to trigger than others. The easiest one to trigger, and I think this is why so many people often do it, is the emotions of anger and hate. They're so easy to do that; any 4- or 5-year-old kid can do it. Like, a 5-year-old kid throws a rock and hits your head--you're angry at the little kid. Then, if he gets behind a fence where you can't get him and he hits you in the head again, for five minutes you hate the little bugger. Those are easy emotional responses to get. But the ones of joy, passion, empathy, sympathy, happiness, these are much tougher to trigger in a human being. Especially the one of laughter. The artists that I see that I admire the most, believe it or not, are comedians. A lot of times on tour, we stop by hospitals, especially children's wards or cancer wards. A couple years ago we were there talking to the kids, it was going great. But there was a comedian there at the same time. He's getting these adults and kids all to laugh. We're in the cancer ward, so both the adults and the kids have cancer. And they're also all going through chemotherapy. They've all lost their hair. I'm sure you're probably aware chemotherapy makes you feel nauseous, basically drains the life out of you. For 10 minutes, he has all these sick people laughing. Those 10, 15 minutes, they weren't sick, they weren't cancer victims. They were just laughing and they were happy. He took them from someplace they were to someplace great. He did it just with words.
How does this year's show differ from last year's?
This year, we've added another four tractor-trailers of light and special effects. We just keep trying to take it to higher and higher levels. We have all kinds of surprises. We're working them out right now with the engineers. When we go on tour now, 219 people go to work. The band's gotten so big, we have to literally rehearse in a coliseum, which we rent out for two weeks. A lot of times, these bands rehearse small or in a rehearsal studio or a sound stage, and then you book cities in the middle of nowhere and call them warm-up shows. In Trans-Siberian Orchestra, we don't believe in warm-up shows. We believe in being great out of the box. We basically just rent a coliseum because that's the only thing that can fit our production. We rehearse for two weeks, shake out all the bugs so that no one has a bad experience going to see a TSO show. We don't sell tickets behind the stage. Once the front of the show is sold out, it's sold out. TSO is the first rock band that actually does matinees. The reason we do this--I learned this from Pink Floyd--is we don't want anyone to ever go to a TSO show and say, "Oh my boyfriend took me to see TSO but we were behind the stage" or "My dad took us to see Trans-Siberian and we had bad seats." We become the first rock band to ever do two shows in one day. In a lot of the cities, if we sell out too quickly on the night shows, rather than open up the sides and behind the stage, everyone gets up a little earlier and we do a 3 p.m. or 4 p.m. show. Most rock musicians would rather have a boiler implanted in their forehead than get up in the afternoon. [Laughs] But with Trans-Siberian Orchestra, we'd rather get up in the afternoon than have someone experience less than the full show.
How many members do you have in your band?
Thirty core members and 30 kind of revolving members. I think it keeps it healthy. There's literally teenagers in the band, people in their 20s, people in their 30s, people in their 40s. It's the older people have experience, and they're the keel of the organization. The younger musicians, those who are 19, 20, don't allow anyone to become jaded. I remember last year, the bass player's like "Can you believe we sold out Madison Square Garden in four hours?!" He's so excited. The young kids, they don't allow the older ones to become jaded or be taken for granted. That's one thing we never want to do--take our audience for granted. We never want to become complacent. We want every show to be new, to be fresh. We just always want to stay on top of our game. That's what's really important with Trans-Siberian. Despite the size of the band and the complexity of the music, there's no tapes, no lip syncing there's no nothing.
Last year, believe it or not, a couple actually came and tried to get their money back after they saw [a vocalist] do "Queen of the Winter Night." She's running all over the stage doing this unbelievably hard operatic song written by Mozart. She was so perfect, everyone thought she was lip-syncing--and she wasn't. [A lot of artists] say they have to lip sync because they have to dance or move. With TSO, you get the movement--forget the movement, you get the running. Nobody's lip-syncing. The string parts are all live. If we make a mistake, you're going to hear it. Watching someone walk a tightwire with a net is exciting. Watching someone walk a tightwire without a net is even more exciting.
THE GHOST OF CHRISTMAS EVE - now available for the first time on VHS and DVD - is a unique fantasy trip through the magic of Christmas. Narrated by award-winning actor Ossie Davis, the production takes us on a journey of a runaway little girl's decision to return to her family after she enters a rundown theater for shelter and encounters an old caretaker who guides her on her journey. This magical story - which features appearances from Atlantic recording artists Jewel and Michael Crawford - was filmed entirely on location at the newly refurbished and historic Loews Jersey Theatre in Jersey City, New Jersey, and includes performances of such tracks as "O Come All Ye Faithful," "Good King Joy," "Christmas Canon," "Music Box Blues," "Promises To Keep," and "This Christmas Day,".