You know that feeble feeling you get when you meet someone who is far beyond you in terms of intelligence and accomplishments? Well, Paul O’Neill would be that guy if he weren’t so damn nice. Between masterminding Trans-Siberian Orchestra and knowing an intimidating amount of history, this guy has most people beat. But, when I say he’s nice, I mean really nice. He knew my name before the interview even began, called me 30 minutes early and was a lot of fun to talk to.
O’Neill has an encyclopedic knowledge of the music industry from the ‘70s forward, as well as history, both ancient and modern. He was so generous with all of this information that our interview lasted well over an hour. Sometimes an interview can be akin to pulling teeth out of a rigid corpse, but to be honest, I was the rigid one, compared to how forthcoming Paul was.
I am in no way surprised that he is the main lyricist and composer for the Trans-Siberian Orchestra. This guy can tell stories—not those annoying stories that your grandfather tells you about the “good ole’ days”—stories like The Odyssey, The Iliad and all the other epics that set the standard for good and engaging storytelling.
“It was in ‘93 that Atlantic asked me if I wanted to start my own band,” O’Neill recalls. “And I was like, ‘Okay, but I wanna do something completely different.’ They’re like, ‘What does that mean? A full prog rock band, a full hard rock band; so like 4 keyboard players, 4 guitar players like Skynyrd and The Outlaws and 24 lead singers.’ They’re like, ‘Why?’ and I’m like, ‘Because this way there would be no limits to where the band could go.’”
When most people think of record labels today, they’re thinking of a boardroom composed of miserly old men that are unwilling to give the artist enough breathing space to innovate and develop, but Paul painted such a different picture of his label. In fact, he attributes some degree of his ability to grow as an artist to the nurturing and encouragement he received from Atlantic Records.
Paul went on to say, “As I told Atlantic, I just wanted to build on everything that I worshipped. The marriage of classical and rock, ELP and Queen. The light show—blatantly Pink Floyd. When I was a kid, writing, I would try to write the lyrics that I thought were so good that they could stand as poetry and the melody that was so infectious it wouldn’t need lyrics and would stand up as music, but when you combined the parts the sum would be greater than the whole, but then I was always looking for a way to make it cut more deeply emotionally. For me, the band that blatantly cracked that code was The Who.” It is story telling that sets Trans-Siberian Orchestra apart from many other outfits, one need only attend a show and hear the voice of Bryan Hicks to know that the TSO tradition is an oral one.
Many musicians and bands speak of being families, but I think Trans-Siberian Orchestra takes the cake on this one. With over 88 members it’s a huge band and this lead me to ask how he manages to keep all these different personalities and talents working together, harmoniously and smoothly. It is clear that these people are all friends, and the communication on stage is impressive given how much everyone is doing; from sprinting violinists to a fleet of singers there are many spectacles in the Orchestra. But rather than complete for attention, which would be a total debacle, they each add to band and the experience. When I asked Paul about this, he told me that he always wanted Trans-Siberian Orchestra to be talent-based, rather than celebrity-based. This way of running a band is what allows for them to operate smoothly.
Instead of having one star singer perform night after night, he has multiple singers singing on different nights, this allows them to receive vital down time for their vocal cords to recover. In fact, he even made this into a rule of sorts: “Don’t kill your singers.” He followed that with another rule for the band: “The second we stop working for the fans is the second that we fall.” And given what I’ve seen, this is certainly a philosophy that the entire band embraces and it’s probably what allows them to remain one of the best live acts out there.
This year is a historic one for TSO; they began their first ever European tour, and it was not without its challenges. Typically, the Trans-Siberian Orchestra travels, in the states, with over 30 trailers for all of their crew and staff, but in Europe they’ve been reduced to only five. Despite this, Paul seems to be in high spirits. The critics have been giving rave reviews for all the shows that TSO has done so far, in their trek across Europe. Given Paul’s propensity for dreaming big and making things like progressive rock, shred and Christmas music work, don’t be surprised if they eventually decide to do a Martian tour.
Trans-Siberian Orchestra will be performing a 3 p.m. and an 8 p.m. show at Caesars Circus Maximus Theatre and April 9. More info at trans-siberian.com.