When I got the call to interview the Trans-Siberian Orchestra, I was intrigued, but knew next to nothing about the band. After a day’s worth of research, I quickly realized I must be one of the very few people in the world who didn’t. One of the biggest bands, both in members and ticket sales, I was surprised TSO had remained under my radar. Well, any lack of information on my end was soon filled by one of the strangest interviews I’ve ever conducted—not to mention one of the most gracious interviewees I’ve ever shared a telephone line with. Some interview subjects don’t want to give you anything to work with. Paul O’Neill wants to give you everything.
The Trans-Siberian Orchestra is the epic creation, constantly evolving, and hugely successful progressive rock band conceived by the prolific Paul O’Neill. With a history writing, producing, managing and promoting such notable acts as Aerosmith, Joan Jett, AC/DC, the Scorpions and his integral role with Savatage, O’Neill’s success with a band of his own was decades in the making. After forming and promptly disbanding the prog-rock band Slowburn in the mid-1970’s, O’Neill entered the business side of the industry, eventually becoming Japan’s most successful festival promoters in the 1980’s.
After decades of success from “learning the industry from the inside out,” Atlantic Records asked O’Neill to start his own band in the mid-90’s and he was finally able to live out his Slowburn aspirations, and on a much grander scale. Founded in 1996, Trans-Siberian Orchestra’s albums have also been hailed as rock opera masterpieces, but their Christmas trilogy has become an undeniable force in the band’s touring career. In the midst of its annual tour of tidings, the band breaks into both an East and West coast touring band, allowing TSO to perform four shows each day (two shows, each day on both coasts).
The TSO is a force to be reckoned with and everyone seems to admire their annual tradition of metallic merriment. Below is the unedited, painstakingly transcribed interview with TSO founder Paul O’Neill who took me on a 90+ minute expository whirlwind that reads like a slightly disjointed biography. I asked very few questions, but got all I needed to know from his feverish tales, filled with personal anecdotes and extreme charm. Thank you, Mr. O’Neill. Happy Holidays.
Hi this is Paul from Trans Siberian Orchestra.
How are you?
Fine, Nolan. I’m a little tired. It’s been a crazy year. We have today off today and you are my last interview of the day. So I love it and right after I get to go to McDonald’s.
Haha. So you’re gearing up for the holiday season?
Yeah, the tour is already in full swing and it’s really been a crazy year from day one. When we were doing the last winter tour in 2013 we got a call from Berlin asking if we could ring in the New Year by playing Brandenburg Gate at midnight. I don’t know if you’ve ever been to Berlin, but it’s huge. Brandenburg Gate was designed to hold military parades by Frederick the Great and they were expecting around 900,000—1 million people. So I told my agent we had to do it. They said, “Paul, you have 2 shows the day before and you got that puddle thing in between called the Atlantic Ocean and also you’re flying against the clock.” There have been times when I’ve played Europe and do shows the next day in America, but when you cross time zones you gain an hour. They said, “Do it next year.” And I said, “They didn’t ask about next year.” So I decided to go for it. I had the jets on the tarmac in between shows and we took off and we had about two hours for error, but luckily there was no turbulence and we landed and did soundcheck with 15 minutes to spare, and then it really got magical when we hit the flightdeck, or stage, whatever you want to call it. Right before midnight one of the stage managers comes up to me and says, “Paul, you’re never going to believe this but we were hoping to peak out at about 1.1 million, but it’s just crossed 2 million and it’s still growing.” That many people where you couldn’t even see the end of it, it was maddening. It was just a great way to start the year.
Then we did the European tour, which was also a big jump for us because we’ve been touring for 15 years non-stop. Every TSO show has been a rock concert for the first half and then a regular concert for the second half. In 2014, when we toured Europe we figured we’d just do straight rock concerts, not breaking new ground. All the great rock opera bands like the Who and Pink Floyd have done it, but it was a first for us. And then we also decided to do the :”Christmas Attic” which was the only Christmas opera from the trilogy that we hadn’t done live. And basically, that happened by accident, Nolan. To be quite honest the success of the Christmas trilogy blindsided everybody by surprise. In 1999 when we first started touring, it was so successful and our agent said “Paul you’re going to have to start touring in October and finish up in February.” But I grew up in New York City, Nolan and I didn’t want to see a Christmas Carol outside of Thanksgiving through New Years. To me that’s the end of the holiday season. In the TSO we want to do everything we can, whether it’s an album or a concert, to have to most emotional impact. And so I said, I will never do anything from the Christmas trilogy outside of the holiday season. And then one of my agents said “Paul you’re breaking your own rules,” and I said, “Which rule is that.” And they said, “You always said that the fans own TSO.” Which is true. They’re the reason we are a band. “The Christmas Eve and other stories,” the first rock opera, just resonated with us across the board—all ages, all nationalities, every economic class, that William Morris was like if it ain’t broke don’t fix it.
So for 13 years in a row the winter tours open with that rock opera. And we didn’t have any other rock band to look at and give us guidance. But TSO always does things backwards. Normally you don’t take on Christmas– which in the entertainment world, Nolan is the Holy Grail– until you have multiple platinum albums before that. And it’s not just music; it’s any one of the arts. If you’re doing a painting on any other subject you’re competing with Andy Warhol, the best of our generation—but with Christmas you’re competing with Norman Rockwell, Botticelli, Michelangelo. Movies…Frank Capra. Novels… Charles Dickens. Music, forget about it, Tchaikovsky, Beethoven, Mendelssohn. Also, again you have to compete against art that has to get past the ultimate critic and the only critic you can’t fool, which is time. The only person we had to look back at was Charles Dickens. He was kind of like us in that he wrote about subjects that were larger than life. He wrote “Tale of Two Cities” about the French Revolution, the Industrial Revolution, “David Copperfield,” “Oliver Twist.” He wrote five books about Christmas. And when his predecessors asked why five books about Christmas, he said it’s too large a subject to take on in one book, so he wrote 5 novellas about it. And very few people know– but some people know– he made some of his biggest money in his career by reading those books live.
After 13 years we switched to “Lost Christmas Eve,” which made everybody nervous but it went over phenomenally and ticket sales actually went up in 2013. But when did “Lost Christmas Eve” we got deluged by fan letters asking when we were going to do “A Christmas Attic.” Number one, Nolan, a bunch of people realized we did them out of order. A lot of people thought “Lost Christmas Eve” is the darkest of the trilogy. The deeper the abyss, the better the happy ending. But it’s actually the “Christmas Attic” that’s the darkest, but it’s really hidden. Like all of my Christmas operas, everything is based on historical events or things that really happened in my life. When I was growing up in New York City, feel free to print this Nolan, because the statute of limitations is now up. But they were always knocking down buildings or whole blocks to put up new buildings. When we were kids, you’d see families move out and furniture move out and then they’d board up the lower floors and bring in a wrecking ball and knock it down. During the holidays though, us little kids would… I think the technical term is breaking in, and we’d pull down the plywood and explore these old buildings, especially the brownstones from the 1800’s, which were so gorgeous. The living floors were generally always empty and the attics were always the best because they were just filled up with stuff that people had put up there for decades upon centuries. For famous people, the momentous artifacts are kept in museums, for the rest of us people it’s kept in attics. The one that was by far the most amazing… we broke into an old brownstone that they were going to tear down and we reached the top floor and all the windows had broken out, rain had gotten in and the wallpaper was wet and you could see that behind that wallpaper was a door. This is a totally true story. The door creeps open and a musty smell came out. God knows the last time any one had been up there. And we climb the stairs and Wham! We are in wonderland. The first thing we see is this old gramophone and all these old things, but right in the middle was the large trunk—the kind people use when they travel by train or by ocean liner, and when we opened it up, it was filled with letters from the 1850s and 1860s. I learned things, people from the 1800’s had much better penmanship than they do now, and also that the letters were like new because the letters were made out of cotton as opposed to woodpulp with the acid. Me and my friends just read letters until the sun went down. And the trunk was given to a school, so it went some place good, but that’s where the idea for the child going up the stairs on Christmas Eve came from. And she reads all these letters and all these adventures and the heaviest one, which inspires the character in the rock opera sing the song “Dream Child”. It refers to a journal and a letter where this individual has done something so wrong in life that he thinks he can never be forgiven for it, but then he has this dream and he is. People have always sent in letters and asked, does this journal exist, and Nolan, I left it off the album because it was so heavy, and our audience goes from 7 to 107 and I didn’t think it was appropriate for people under 14 or 15. But last year, Amazon and Kindle called us and they know I have a bunch of books that I’ve written but never released because the rock opera is always based on a novel I’ve written first. And they asked if I had anything that I would like to release and I decided that this would be the perfect test.
Despite the fact that we have the biggest production out there traveling, as far as fireworks, special effects, lasers, I mean we’re way over 40 tractor-trailers and way past 360 people on the crew, I think that was the last time we took a count. But we’ve always agonized in keeping between tickets between $20-$60, and now they’re $25-$70, anything beyond that is shipping fees, handling fees, whatever, but we’ve never done Golden Circle Seating or VIP seating because what’s the point if only corporations can afford it. And not to mention when I grew up in NYC, going to see The Who was $5, and going to see Led Zeppelin was $7.50, and I remember my friend saying $7.50, how can they justify this.
The worst part was I recently went to see a show at the Garden. The floor seats were in the thousands of dollars, the nosebleeds were in the hundreds, and the worst part, Nolan, is that the first 20 rows were sparsely occupied. And it’s not because they weren’t sold– it’s because corporations bought them as perks for their clients and those people were in bars making business deals while their hardcore fans, who should have been up front were relegated to the back. So not only is it important for us to keep our concert tickets affordable, but because of Kindle we don’t have to print the book, distribute the book, store the book, we just have to inconvenience a bunch of ions—and we were able to release the journal which was based on a novella I wrote called “Merry Christmas Rabbi.”
I knew the first thing I had to do. I knew a friend who knew a Rabbi who survived the Holocaust, and I would always say to the kids in the band, if you have to make one person in the audience feel bad to make the rest of the arena roar in happiness its not worth it. I asked my friend to give this book to his Rabbi, which he did, and I called him and asked if anyone could be upset or take offence to this. He said “Paul, I read it twice in one night and it’s the only thing I’ve ever read about the Holocaust that gives me hope about humanity.” So I passed test number one. Last year we put it out on Kindle hoping it went to 100, and it went to number one and hung out there for awhile and more importantly the letters back were mind-bogglingly positive. So I realized we would do the “Christmas Attic” and now all the Christmas operas from the trilogy will have been performed. And then once that is done, right after New Years weekend we will sleep like cantaloupes in a bed– and we just bought our first recording studio.
As you know Nolan, the music industry has just been so destroyed in the past 15 years, which so hard to comprehend. When I started in the industry in the mid 1970s there were over 45 major labels worth billions putting out between 20-30,000 albums a year, only 400 recouped, only 50 made real money, but they made so much money that they recouped on the tens of thousands of mistakes. You can’t build prog rock bands in particular unless your dad is David Rockefeller. Thank god we were signed to Atlantic Records with Ahmet Ertegun. He’s the one who signed Ray Charles, Crosby Still Nash, Kid Rock, Matchbox 20, Aretha Franklin, the list goes on and on. He’s as important to rock as much as any singer or songwriter has been. When he first approached us about doing a group, I said okay, but I want it to be something completely different. He said “alright, what does that mean.” I said I want 4 guitar players like the Outlaws, two drummers like the Grateful Dead and the Doobie Brothers, a full symphony in the studio like Emerson Lake and Palmer– but not with a full symphony on the road because I remember when ELO toured with a whole symphony and sold out and lost millions– Pink Floyd-like production and 24 lead singers. They were like, “Why?!” And I said because I discovered a long time ago, writing a great song is only half the battle. Then you need the right voice for the alchemy to bring that song to life. Cat Stevens is a great singer and songwriter and he wrote the “First Cut Is the Deepest,” but Rod Stewart is the guy who made it a hit. I worship Bruce Springsteen. I mean “Born to Run” changed my life. He wrote “Blinded by the Light,” but Manfred Mann had the voice that made it work. If I need a voice like Joe Cocker, I have it. If I need a soprano, I have it. Also with 24 lead singers, if I need choral numbers, I have enough voices where I can actually do them. TSO is also, and this is accidental, the first band to never play a club, to never have an opening act, and to never be an opening act. And I actually feel guilty about that because having an opening act allows those bands to grow. We do that on the side of caution. We have lasers that could blind people. And not just for a little while. For life.
There are only two times I’ve been nervous with this band, the first time was when we split the band in half to do East and West. One of my agents pointed out, you have 80 members, you could split this band in half and you’re still 5 times larger than your average bear and you have enough keyboardists, guitarist and singers to do the albums exact. But when we first did that I was honestly petrified. Even bands with a large number of members like Earth Wind and Fire or Lynyrd Skynyrd don’t do east and west, but our fans understood and knew what we were trying to do and that went seamlessly—and the only other time was when we did “Beethoven’s Last Night” in Vienna. And that’s where Beethoven and Mozart lived. Are they going to like us or grab pitchforks and burn us at the stake? Thank god they liked it. This year we are going to headline Wacken, which is the largest festival in Europe.
I realize I’m going all over the place with you Nolan. It’s just so much has gone down. It’s gone from 45 major labels to 3. And also a lot of your average readers I would assume, Pink Floyd, Aerosmith, Genesis, Bob Seger, were all hits out of the box, but they were nurtured by the label system which allows you to make mistakes and correct those mistakes and tour support until you can stand on your two feet. Our first record was supposed to be about the Romanov Empire, but then William Morris said it should go to Broadway, which Atlantic agreed with it. But they eventually pulled the plug because what Broadway considers special effects, we consider high school. They didn’t have the ability to do what I had in mind. But when the first album did come out in 1996, what’s the technical term for it—it did not sell. If it was 2006, I think they would have pulled the plug on it. But Atlantic was positive and told us we were on to something and to keep going and we did Beethoven’s Last Night in 1999 and started the tour and that’s when it exploded. I think the Trans-Siberian had two lucky breaks. The first was I think we were the last band to have a blank check artist development. That doesn’t exist any more. I had a little warning at the beginning of the new millennium. I came home and my daughter was five and she was listening to my music on her computer. I said “where did you get all of daddy’s music” and she said “Dada, guess what, all your music is on the internet and it’s free.” And I was like, oh, Et tu Brute!” The Wall Street Journal had a great article where the journalist was talking about the meltdown of the music industry, which has basically gone from a trillion dollar industry to less than 1% of that in a very short amount of time. He said musicians and actors, before Thomas Edison, had to make their income by life touring and that musicians and actors are going to have to learn that what technology giveth, technology taketh away. And he has a legitimate point. We were lucky in that we had already established a hardcore live touring base. And more importantly, one of our promoters who is a demographic nut– I’m sure you know these type of people Nolan– he said, “Paul you’ll never guess your demographic.” And I said, “it’s really late, can you tell me.” He said, “we have every class from the super rich to the super poor. We have every nationality.” He said, “here’s the thing, your average age is 21.” That seems impossible, but the 7,8,9 year olds cancel out the people in the 60’s, the 10,11,12 year-olds cancel out the 50’s and I thought about it for several weeks and I came up with this pet theory—it was TSO’s second lucky break. In 1949, when Les Paul and Leo Fender invented the electric guitar PA systems, you had a great schism in music. You either grew up with Perry Como and the Dorsey Brothers where guitars were noise, or you grew up with Elvis and Chuck Berry where it was rock. When we started to tour it was half a century later, now it’s 60 years later, even if you have a great grandmother in the audience she’s from the Woodstock generation. So we all have rock in us. When you jump the generation wall, that feels the best, especially the last couple of years. When a couple comes up to me in their 20’s and 30’s and says, they first saw you when they were in high school or junior high school on their first date, and now they’re back with their kids. When I started in the industry, Nolan, there was an industry. There were 50 great state-of-of-the-art recording studios within ten blocks of where I lived in NYC alone. The first was Record Plant on 44th Street. Record Planet had 5 rooms, and we were just a baby act back then, but I remember John Lennon walks in and says, “Paul this song is really great, but the chorus, you really need to rethink that.” It’s where the old acts used to pass on tricks of the trade to the younger acts. They were very kind. I finished a Classics Live for Aerosmith and I was doing another band in the 80’s called Savatage and one of the guys from Aerosmith comes over and says, “Paul you’re really over budget on this aren’t you?” and I said, “You have no idea.” And he says we have 50 rolls of 2-inch that we didn’t use. Just take them and use them for Savatage. But honestly, Nolan, within the last 5 years, at least 95% of those studios are gone. Record Planet is bankrupt, Media Studio is bankrupt. It’s not only are we losing these studios, but we’re losing these transfer points from the elder statesmen to pass along tricks of the trade. That’s why this year, there was one studio left out of the 18 I used to work in, and somebody said it’s going bankrupt. So to make a long story short, we bought it. You can’t make Trans-Siberian Orchestra records at home on ProTools just like you can’t film Ben Hur in your backyard on your iPhone. And some of my friends think I’m out of my mind. Friends of mine ask how I think I’m going to recoup on this and the thing is I don’t.
How old are you Nolan? I’m afraid to ask.
God bless you. At least you’re there. Sometimes 21, 22-year olds I say “artist development” and they say, “what do you mean?” You’re in the perfect spot where you’re old enough to understand when an album was an album and young enough to understand today. You know I’m the oldest guy in the band and there was an industry when I joined the band. And there is now this lady, Gabriella Gunčíková who just joined us from the Czech Republic. When I first heard her voice I said “get her down here.” And she sang and I asked if she wanted to join us on tour. And she said, “I was just getting ready to leave the industry because there are no record deals out there. Trust me, Nolan, fifteen years ago, people would have beaten a path to her door. But the one thing we are lucky to have is that TSO has always been live and so many bands lip-synch and play to track these days. And I’m not even just talking pop bands, I’m talking rock bands. And that’s just not healthy. After the next TSO album and touring this summer, we’re doing rock arenas already, but we intend to get involved in more Broadway rock theater. I love Broadway, but there’s only one thing I’m taking from Broadway, which is its coherent storytelling. There are so many bands that, even after describing their rock opera to me, I don’t understand it. But on a negative side, Broadway is so Byzantine. If you and I got into a time machine and went back to 1914, we could reproduce all of those shows out now and have them look exactly like 2014. You couldn’t get back in a time capsule and go back 5 years and do a TSO show. But the other great thing– not to get over-philosphical Nolan– but human beings by nature are very social. I read a report a few years ago that said the 70’s and 80’s, the average kid spent 14.5 hours outside playing with other kids. Now they spend 45 minutes playing outside. Now when they play football and baseball they play it on their computer screen. And it’s also spread to adults with World of Warcraft and my favorite, Farmville, where you plant imaginary seeds in imaginary dirt and feed carrots to imaginary rabbits and it just goes right over my head. I like anything that gets human beings together in the same place. I love the look in people’s faces when a new special effect drops out of the season or they hear a new solo, when you see a father and his son jamming out to the same guitar solo that’s kind of magical. And again, especially these days, people work in cubicles, and instead of going out they get even more cubicle-ized. I have a 6-year old daughter who brings me to things and she brought me to an IMAX theater where we saw an orchid open up in 3D– and it was actually pretty magical– but I remember being in the rainforest where we saw an orchid open in front of us and there’s no comparison.
The other thing about live music is you can hear a great album or see a great movie and get a rush of endorphins, but if you hear a great solo or vocal performance, you pick up the endorphins or the guy next to you or in front of you. It kind of creates an energy that goes to the stage that takes the song to the next level and then that energy goes back into the audience and you get a rush that you simply can’t get from watching in your living room.
TSO is also the first band to draw members from every age group. People like Al Pitrelli, who has been in Asia, Alice Cooper and Megadeth. Jeff Scott Soto whose been in Journey. They are able to teach the tricks of the trade to the younger kids, and the younger kids are just able to bring this youthful enthusiasm and never let you get jaded and keeps the whole thing rolling forward and right now we feel really lucky that we are well-established and we feel really lucky to be self-generating.
I was asked to describe the band early on and I said it’s easy, it’s like the Who, because it’s a rock opera, meets Queen who merge classical and rock, meets Pink Floyd because of the production show, meets the Yardbirds. And they go, the Yardbirds?! From that one band came several bands came from that band. When anyone joins this band I ask, “If you could be doing anything in 5 years, what would it be?” And some members have been with us for all 17 years. Some have left to do something else they feel passionate about and came back. And some left to pursue their dreams. Katrina Chester was the first to really do it. When Kat first joined us she said, “Paul, I love Janis Joplin and one day there’s going to be a Broadway show about Janis and I have to be Janis.” Not long ago, “Love, Janis” came through and she goes, “If I don’t get it, can I come back?” And I said, we’d not only do that, but we’d hire a publicist to help her get it. And one day she goes, “Paul I got the gig. Get this they’re going to pay me to get on stage, smoke cigarettes, drink whisky and sing Janis songs.” I saw her recently and she was in her 10th year of being Janis on stage. It just makes me worry. If I don’t find the next Joan Jett or Steven Tyler before they leave high school, will they just go into another industry? Also always feel free to call my doctor and up my Prozac dosage.
How did you go from not playing clubs to playing arenas to selling out stadiums? Did you have apprehension that it wouldn’t work?
I had a band called Slowburn in the 70s, but I was writing free octave ranges, and I just couldn’t find someone to sing them. That turned out to be incredibly lucky because I got a job at Leber-Krebs that managed Aerosmith, Ted Nugent, Def Leppard, Scorpions, AC/DC etc. They were the college of rock. By getting a job there I found out how you book bands in Europe versus America, Asia, South America; how radio works differently form country to country. I was basically forced to learn the industry from the inside out and then I became one of the biggest promoters in Japan in the 80s. We were one of the biggest promoters to book festivals in Japan. When Atlantic offered me this opportunity, I went for it. I always wanted to have an over-the-top progressive rock band that really pushed the envelope. Getting back to your question… early on, I was really dragging my feet about doing this live just because I was really, really nervous. But there was a deejay in Cleveland named Bill Lewis who just kept nagging me about doing a live show in Cleveland. Then one day a deejay for NYC said he was doing a benefit show for the Blysdale Hospital. They basically help people that have gunshot wounds to the head. He said before you say anything, just go up there and see it for yourself. You take one look and it puts everything in perspective. And then Bill says oh you can do that but not play Cleveland, so we said okay and it sold out in 4 hours. Then a guy from Detroit said, you’re playing Cleveland but not Detroit. Then we sold out that show. Then New York, then Philly. It went bigger than we ever could have imagined. Not having an opening act, that was an accident. Other things that happened along the way made me appreciate how lucky we were. I think we’re number 2 for the number of tickets sold in the first decade of the new millennium, but normally if you have three acts on a bill and it sells out an arena, everybody gets credit for those tickets… not just the headliner. But we never had any help. When I used to go to the Garden, you would go see George Harrison, Eric Clapton would come out at the end of the night for an encore. Or you would go see Bob Dylan and Billy Preston would come out for an encore. It was not uncommon for bands to come out at the last second to do an encore, so we decided that at the last second we would call out a band that had an influence on us in some ways and do an encore. But, because our audience is so wide, they had to be iconic. The first one was Joan Jett. If you grew up in the 70’s, you knew her from the Runaways. If you grew up in the 80’s, you knew her from the Blackhearts. The funny one was Greg Lake who I became friends with from Emerson, Lake and Palmer. In my opinion, just like Black Sabbath invented heavy metal, Greg Lake invented prog-rock. The test I have is I always ask my daughter and her friends, “Do you know Greg Lake from Emerson, Lake and Palmer,” and they’re like “No.” Then I say, “Welcome my friends…” and they finish with “the show that never ends.” And the first time Greg Lake from Emerson Lake and Palmer came out he said, “Paul you really get prog-rock,” and I said, “I have no idea what that means.” He says, “Paul if you’re in a jazz band and play blues, it’s no longer a jazz band. If you’re in a blues band and play reggae, it’s no longer blues band. But progressive rock has no limits; hence it’s name. Progressive rock has no limits.” And besides the production value, you have no limits as to what you can do musically. He’s the Aristotle, OB1 Kenobi of rock. Every time he opens his mouth I want to take notes.
The other thing I wanted to do with TSO, Nolan, was I found two glaring errors encased in the system that the system no longer noticed them. The first of them is the strain we put upon lead singers. I won’t mention the name of any bands. It was well over a decade ago. I had to take this friend, who was going to have a node operation—which is a very scary operation. You’re either going to get your voice back or nothing. The doctor said, “Paul, your industry is insane. You’re not designed to scream every night for two hours. It’s not if you’re going to destroy your voice, it’s when. And there may be freak exceptions, but it’s really destructive to the human voice. You can think of dozens of people who had great voices in their teens, 20’s and 30’s and then in their 40’s their voices started to fall apart. With TSO, with 24 lead singers, no singer ever has to sing 4 or 5 lead songs a night and you can do that until your 90.
This other one really gets esoteric. The prevailing wisdom from the CEO’s of labels was that when artist reached a certain level of financial of success they lose the drive to create. And this never made any sense to me. What the label systems said to me did not hold up to logic and reason. If you go back to the 1800’s, Beethoven, Victor Hugo and Charles Dickens were all household names and all world famous. They wrote great when they were young, in their middle ages, and when they were dying. So, I thought, why could these guys in the 1800’s produce great art, but in the 1900’s wasn’t possible? I have a pet theory that it’s mass media. Even though Beethoven, Victor Hugo, Charles Dickens were household names, there was no paparazzi, no magazines at the checkout counter. People could walk down the street and Victor Hugo could see a policeman chasing a convict down the street. Dickens could see a pornshop owner negotiating with a client and get a story. But let’s use Michael Jackson as an example because he’s in Heaven now and in peace. If 15 years ago, you and your girlfriend through a 4th of July Party… if you invited 30 friends, say one of your friends was a little arrogant. One of your friends was a little O.C.D., one of your friends was a practical joker… when Michael Jackson walked in the room, the one friend probably wouldn’t be arrogant. The other friend probably wouldn’t order his silverware in the proper order and you childhood friend probably would’nt tie his shoes together. Artists get their inspiration by observing humanity. When Michael walks into a room, he can’t observe the world because the world revolves around him. His mansion wasn’t really a mansion– it was a gilded cage. If you think about Pink Floyd and look at “The Wall,” there are no pictures of the band. It’s the story log. I worship Gilmoure and Waters and the geniuses, besides Barrett behind Pink Floyd. But if we ever went out to dinner Nolan, and you brought Gilmour and Waters, I would have no idea who they were. About ten years ago, I was crossing a street in New York City and I was waiting for a light to change and there were two ladies talking. One said to the other, “I came home last night and he was so drunk that he slapped me. And I grabbed the can opener and ripped his chest wide open and he fell down on the ground crying like a little baby.” And I’m like “ladies, can you say that again? I want to take down this dialogue. If that had been Michael Jackson next to them that never would have been said.
No one at TSO is on that flight deck for the money, it’s because no one wants to be anywhere but that flight deck. And TSO is technically a prog-rock band, but it’s really an idea and an ideal. Number one is the fans of the band. It’s our job to spend our money and our time to give them the best concerts and charge the lowest possible price. The older members mentor the younger members. It’s a series of ideas and ideals. Anything great is an idea or an ideal like Athenian Greece or the Roman Republic. And even the United States, the founding fathers came up with these ideas and ideals and wrote them down and they carry on today.
This may seem like the most boring question, but I just can’t figure out where the name come from.
That’s a very legitimate question. The very first rock opera was about the Romanov’s, so that was the first musical, but when it moved to Broadway we were going to call it the Trans-Siberian Orchestra because the Romanov family build the Trans-Siberian Railway. But I couldn’t come up with the title to replace it. One day I get a call at 6am and they say, by 9am we need a name or we’re going to call it “Billy and the Boingers” and you’re going to have to live with it for the rest of your life. And it had that ring that he wasn’t kidding. It was really late and we were really tired and I was lucky to be in Russia the year before. And Siberia is really beautiful, but it’s really big, harsh and unforgiving and the only thing they have to transport them to relative safety is the Trans-Siberian Railroad. So the idea that life is very beautiful but also harsh and unforgiving and music is one thing that we all have in common that runs across to relatively safety and I love the initials TSO. And there’s a little bit of a side benefit, Nolan, you can always tell rookies in the audience because they think of people in folding chairs, but like someone said we’re more like Pink Floyd on steroids.
It’s a true pleasure to talk to you and thank you for taking the time.
It’s a pleasure to talk to you sir. Did you always want to be a journalist Nolan?
I did for a long time, but less now more than ever. It’s a tough time. It seems like everything is folding.
It’s scary. When I was younger I toyed with the idea of being a journalist. We’re both writers, but you have the harder job. You have to write under fire. You have a deadline. This guy wrote this and it just happened yesterday. If I had your job I’d just now be turning in Teddy Roosevelt and the Panama Canal. Journalism is the hardest part of writing. The cool part is you get to meet all kinds of people. Again, if there’s anything we can do for you just give us a call. And this is the perfect end to the day and now I get to go to McDonald’s and get a Big Mac, which my wife says I will die from a McTumor.
Thanks so much for your time.
Thank you Nolan. God bless and with any luck we will bump into each other on the road one day.