Q&A: Trans-Siberian Orchestra

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TSOs Paul  ONeill with the stuff he makes his music with
  • TSO's Paul O'Neill with the stuff he makes his music with

Trans-Siberian Orchestra founder Paul O’Neill has had a busy morning. “We stayed up all night doing interviews last night and then woke up early,” he says, not sounding the least bit groggy. “After some Egg McMuffins with sausage and hash browns, we’re ready to go. It’s all good.”

This is quite a change of pace for a guy known to work all winter and hibernate during the spring and summer months. But this year, he is taking Trans-Siberian Orchestra back on the road to support Beethoven’s Last Night, a concept album the group released in 2000.

You can see TSO at 8 p.m. Friday at EJ Thomas Performing Arts Hall and at 3 and 8 p.m. Saturday at the Palace Theatre (1615 Euclid Ave., 216.241.6000, ). Here’s what the garrulous guy had to say about the current tour. —Jeff Niesel

What made you decide it was finally time to take Beethoven’s Last Night on the road?
We’ve been dying to take it out on the road for a long time. The original idea for TSO was to do several rock operas, a trilogy about Christmas and two rock albums. The trilogy took off faster than expected. It was a curse and a blessing. The blessing is that we stumbled into a Tchaikovsky. When he wrote The Nutcracker, it was just another ballet like Swan Lake and Sleeping Beauty. It never dawned on him that it would be associated with the holidays. I’ve been in rock ’n’ roll for 36 years, and there’s a rhythm to it. You tour for one or two years and you make an album and then you tour for one or two years. We basically go in the studio and start an album and then shut everything down and start to build these huge productions every year. The show has gotten out of control. It’s a good problem to have. It’s intentional. Pink Floyd were our idols and we have an advantage that they didn’t with the technology. [With last year’s] Night Castle we couldn’t get on a straight run, and we had to hit the road. That’s why it took over three years to finish. It’s already gone gold and will go platinum. The band is psyched to start the tour off in Ohio. Beethoven died on March 26 and we want to do the first show on the eve of his death and the second one in Akron on the day of his death. The first TSO show ever was at Palace and it sold out instantly. Look at what Cleveland has wrought.

Talk about why you think of Beethoven as the world’s first heavy metal musician.
A lot of my friends from the ’70s and ’60s are deaf now. He was deaf without the electric guitars. The other main inspiration is that we have 24 guitars and lead singers, and we tend to write about subjects that are larger than life. Hence, the Christmas trilogy. For the first non-holiday tour we wanted a subject that was larger than life. But we needed a subject that everybody couldn’t identify with. I don’t care if you are born the [poorest of the poor or you’re born a Rockefeller. I don’t care if you’re born crippled or Michael Jordan, everyone thinks you have a tough life. Everybody has problems. Look at Beethoven. He was the world’s most famous piano player, a legend at a very young rock. He started to go deaf in his twenties. They found out a decade ago that the cause of his death was probably massive lead poisoning. It would not only have caused deafness but manic depression and wild mood swings. He fought his way through all that to write the ninth symphony. It blows my mind. It’s like Michelangelo painting the Sistine Chapel blind. He would bring countless happiness to people but couldn’t hear. It does have a happy ending based on a true fact that a lot of people don’t know. I got the inspiration from Dickens and Victor Hugo, the Who, Emerson, Lake and Palmer. Dickens wrote about subjects that were larger than life. He did it in A Tale of Two Cities in the way that he doesn’t zero in on Robbespierre or Louis XVI. He does it in a way that everyone can identify with. That’s what we try to do with Trans-Siberian Orchestra.

Tell me about the show.
Beethoven will be done with a narrator. I love Tommy and Superstar was genius but they had a huge advantage in that you didn’t have to explain who Pilot or Judas was. There have been bands that have done rock operas. Even if you’re hearing it for the first time, it’s easy to follow. Right after the spring tour, we started recording the next TSO album. For the next couple of years, we intend to have a number of shows go straight to Broadway. There’s just not enough time. That’s a good problem to have. It’s a little surreal because it seems like we just finished the last tour. Everything keeps changing and the movie industry is five years behind the record industry. They’ll figure it out. One of the first things they did in the French Revolution was banned intellectual copyright. Then ten years later, someone noticed ten years later that no one had written a new book in French in ten years. You make a 300 million dollar movie and someone starts to stream it for free, what do you do? These movies like Pirates and Lord of the Rings, who’s going to pay for them? They are changing times, and it might be healthy. Everyone in the music business got lazy because old catalogues got reissued and the money kept rolling in. The quality of the music didn’t matter that much because your back catalogue protected you. God forbid we have to get creative again and work.

Do you anticipate making this into an annual venture?
Yes. We’re also thinking both directions now. We’ve been in the arenas for so long, there’s an intimacy to the theaters. I love the arenas. But in the theaters, everybody is really close. When the Stones went out a couple of years, they played small theaters because it keeps the band on its toes. We all discussed it and the band is excited about it. This is the eleventh year we’ve been on the road. The whole thing has come full circle. We decided to bring it back down to the theaters and when we find the right place, we will do outdoor festivals where we can take the production to a whole other level. In the arenas, you have to deal with those pesky roofs. If we want a 60-foot wide, 500 feet high wall of flame, I can do it. When we do that, it will be the entire band times two.

Have you thought about doing a residency at a theater in New York or some place in Vegas?
That has been offered to us and we have thought about it. The great thing about doing something in Vegas is that you get to really tweak it and make it perfect. The negative thing about it is that a lot of people can’t afford to get out to Vegas. And we like to bring the show to them. The lazy side of us likes the fact that we would get to set it up and stay. Vegas has even become credible with Elton John and stuff like that. With what’s been going on with the economy, I fear a lot of people won’t be able to get out there. But everyone can afford to go to their local arena. We’re doing everything we can to avoid the scalpers. I feel like TSO was the last band to have old-fashioned artist development. The average person out there thinks that Led Zeppelin, Queen, Pink Floyd and Aerosmith were hits right out of the box. They weren’t; they were nurtured. Everyone thinks TSO exploded right out of the box. It didn’t. The first year, we didn’t even gross six figures. Atlantic stayed behind us through thick and thin until the band took off. I do believe the pendulum has swung so far in the opposite direction, it will correct itself. The good thing about ProTools is that it’s great. The bad thing is that it won’t tell you your song sucks, as apposed to a live audience which will let you know rather rapidly.

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