Trans-Siberian Orchestra's Paul O'Neill: Christmas music meets the '80s ... and flame-throwers
Even to the biggest Ebenezers out there, a few holiday traditions refuse to bow to time. The perfect bite of a well-constructed cup of eggnog. The joy derived from Rankin/Bass's stop-motion specials on the tube. And the annual sight and sound explosions by the Trans-Siberian Orchestra.
If you've never seen TSO's prog-music rock spectacular at Christmas time, founder Paul O'Neill is happy to fill in the blanks.
"The best description of a TSO show I ever saw came from a reporter who said the only way to describe TSO is 'The Who meets Phantom of the Opera with Pink Floyd’s light show,'" O'Neill said in an e-mail interview. "I would take any one of those alone as a compliment."
Of course, he would. O'Neill has had a front seat in rock 'n' roll business since the '70s, working with Leber-Krebs Inc., the management company that guided Aerosmith, AC/DC, Def Leppard and the Scorpions during their glory years. In the '80s, O'Neill was stage right, promoting each tour by Madonna and Sting during the decade.
From that foundation, O'Neill in the 1990s gave birth to TSO. Each holiday season, the band packs arenas with fans who crave TSO's performance signatures. Light shows that will carve up the arena walls. Pyrotechnics that will blacken a slice of frozen bread. And music that mixes Ole Saint Nick with the legends of arena rock from decades of yore.
This weekend in Tampa and Orlando, TSO returns for holiday gigs in the Tampa Bay Times Forum and Amway Center. (Find a date near you.) The highlight of this years' shows is the performance of "The Lost Christmas Eve," which will be performed live for the first time. O'Neill talked about the new show, the band's history and more via email. Here are some highlights.
Stuck in the '80s: I'm fascinated by your background working with bands and acts I worshipped in the '80s (and still worship today) including Madonna and Sting and more. What sort of influence did those musicians of that era have on you when you founded TSO?
O'Neill: "I was born and grew up in New York City. My main influences had already been strongly established by the time I started in the business and were basically classical music, The Who, Yes, Pink Floyd and the storytelling from the theatrical world of Broadway. I respect Madonna and Sting a great deal, because like TSO, they're constantly reinventing themselves and pushing the envelope in their respective areas."
For younger fans of TSO, they probably don't notice the "prog rock" and rock opera influences of TSO. Your music and concerts take the best of the rock music scene from the '70s to early '80s -- the sound, the light show, the staging. Do you feel that today's music scene, which feels more popish and disposable to me, could use a booster shot of energy from TSO, Pink Floyd, ELP and other bands of that genre?
"Back in the '70s and the '80s the big labels thought long term. An average reader might think that prog rock bands like ELP, Yes, Queen and Pink Floyd were hits out of the box, but they were not. They were nurtured by the label system through artist development. With the death of the label system, long-term artist development is simply gone; artists are no longer with labels for the majority of their career. If TSO, whose first album didn't sell the first year, had come out in 2006 instead of 1996, I honestly believe we would've been dropped. Through sheer luck, TSO is one of the last bands to have old fashioned artist development from a major label. All the bands that you named, Floyd, ELP, TSO had (or have) mind blowing arena special effects, but always kept their ticket prices affordable. In the '90s and the new millennium, ticket prices actually entered the four-figure range and the stage shows got smaller and smaller. With TSO, one of the founding ideals of the band, be it an album or concert, is to spare no amount of time or expense and give the fans the best show possible, while charging the lowest possible ticket price. Without the label system that allows you to make mistakes and develop the sound, constantly fostering great musicians, it makes it tough for today's artists to really develop and ground themselves in their genre."
Tell me about "The Lost Christmas Eve." What were the challenges to staging it live compared with other TSO material?
"We never intended to tour the first story of the Christmas Trilogy (Christmas Eve and Other Stories) for 13 years in a row, it just kind of happened. In 2012 we decided to change both the summer and the winter rock operas, and some of the people we work with were nervous about making the change. I truly felt the theme of The Lost Christmas Eve, which is hope and redemption, would echo better with our audiences, especially with what’s going on in the world today. Doing this tour was only the second time I've been nervous with TSO. The first was doing the Beethoven’s Last Night show in Vienna, and how it would be perceived in Beethoven’s home. I was very nervous this year when Lost Christmas Eve opened up, but am thrilled with the results."
For those who make coming to TSO shows a holiday tradition, what new things specifically can they expect in this year's show in Tampa?
"Besides a completely new narrated story, there are a lot of special effects that we've wanted to use for a long time, and the technology has finally developed for us to use on the stage. For the original Beethoven’s Last Night we wanted a humongous clock on a pendulum with a video screen and pyro on it, swinging back and forth on the stage. However, it didn't work because of the weight of the equipment and wasn't safe. Technology has come so far that we’re now able to make the clock light enough and control it, and the clock is making its first appearance this year."
But with still the same TSO tricks we've come to love, right?
"An English magazine once reviewed TSO saying, 'You have to see it to understand it, even if you have all the albums and memorized all the stories. TSO has enough pyro to BBQ an entire school of blue whales.' I particularly love that quote, and the extensive use of pyro in our set because when you feel the heat run across the arena it makes the audience feel as though they're part of the show."