Each winter, Trans-Siberian Orchestra traipses across the country, filling arenas with its big-budget, over-the-top Christmas concerts that revolve around a the magic of Christmas. But to hear Paul O'Neill, the creator, lyricist, and composer behind the project, tell it, TSO is a year-round endeavor.
"I never could have imagined it would've gone on and gotten this big," he says in a conference call to promote the upcoming concert at the Q. "This year's been particularly magical, because we kicked it off, as you know, New Year's day in Berlin at the Brandenburg Gate. They said it was between 900,000 and a million, and right before we hit the stage, a German stage manager came over and goes, 'Paul, I think we just crossed 2 million.' It was surrealistic to look out at that sea of humanity. It was a great way to bring in the New Year."
Years ago, the band took its 1996 Christmas rock opera Christmas Eve and Other Stories, the first part of a trilogy of prog rock-influenced Christmas albums, on the road. It had a good 13-year run before O'Neill decided to mix things up.
"Two years ago, I just said, 'We're going to risk it,'" he recalls. "We did The Lost Christmas Eve. That did phenomenally, but it set loose a deluge of fan mail saying, 'When are you going to do The Christmas Attic?' It is the only rock opera from the trilogy we've never done live. As I'm sure most of you reporters are aware, musicians love writing albums, you love recording them. Of course, you love watching them go platinum, but it's not real until you play it in front of a live audience, and you feel the energy of the audience back. It basically creates an energy tape loop. It just takes music to a level you simply couldn't do listening to it alone, on your stereo. We decided that we would debut The Christmas Attic this year, which would be the perfect way to end 2014."
O'Neill promises the show will be another spectacular display of music and technology. Because, as he says, "technology has zoomed ahead so quickly in the last 10 years," he's employed a team of young inventors to ensure that TSO can keep up with the changes. To hear him describe it, it's as if he has his own personal Geek Squad working to make sure the troupe is using the latest and greatest gear.
"There's a division of young kids who, their only job is to come up with new special effects," he says. "To make sure that we wanted to become cutting edge, we always tell them all the same thing: Make believe you're working for NASA. We don't want you thinking rocketry or jet propulsion. We want you thinking transport beams and warp. If only one out of a hundred ideas makes it to the flight deck, we win. We get a lot of our ideas from in house. Also, every light company, every pyro company, every special effects company, knows that we're always looking for cutting-edge stuff."
And you can expect to see some incredibly intense lasers when the band performs at the Q. From O'Neill's description, it wouldn't be out of the question to have a good pair of shades on hand when the band turns up the heat.
"When Michael Jackson canceled his tour, god bless, because he passed away, PyroTech all of a sudden had 10 lasers they had built that did a really thick blue beam, which is the hardest laser beam to produce," he explains. "They're unbelievably expensive, and they were kind of freaked, because they were now stuck with these 10 lasers. I'm like, 'I'll take all 10.' Basically, every special effect company, every pyro company knows that if they come up with a really great special effect that's insanely expensive, there's one band dumb enough to buy it, and that's us."
The payoff is that he gets to see an audience that's astonished by the use of lights and pyro.
"You love the look on the audience's faces, especially the kids, when they see a new special effect that they've never seen before, and we need more than the ordinary band, because as you are probably well aware, we have stages at both ends of the arena," he says. "You can always tell the rookies in the audience, just because they hear orchestra, they think 50 people in folding chairs, 200 lights on or off, and then all of a sudden this humongous prog rock production starts to put itself together, and we're off and running."
For O'Neill, who says the band has three albums in the works (When Kings Must Whisper, Letters From the Labyrinth and Running in the Passion of the Fairy Tale Moon), the ideas keep coming.
"Basically, we have all the tracks down, and we're going through the singers, and as we get the right singer for the right song, and that goes in the can, and the first one that's done, gets turned in," he says when asked which of the three will be released in the new year. "At this point, we have to turn in by June, because we have to go over to play Bach in Germany next summer."
Even if The Christmas Attic sounds like some strange mash-up of Mannheim Steamroller and Emerson, Lake and Palmer, O'Neill says the music appeals to fans of all ages and provides the kind of escapism they need.
"I think it made it way easier for us to jump the generation gap, and again, when you jump in, you've got these silly walls people put between themselves, be it nationality, be it economics, whatever," he says. "It feels great, but when you jump a generation, that feels the best. There's something magical about watching a 15-year-old getting into an [Al Pitrelli] guitar solo, and his father's jamming out there with him. Basically, we want it to be just like an emotional rollercoaster ride. You come to the show, and again, if you're having a great life, come, add another great night to your life. If you're having some speed bumps in life, leave your problems in the trunk of your car. No one's going to steal them, I promise."