Trans-Siberian Orchestra's Paul O'Neill Talks Epic Christmases, the Recession, and Prog Rock
On an average day, the Trans-Siberian Orchestra's Mr. Paul O'Neill is busy doing stuff like masterminding proggy Christmas epics, recording rock operas about the Bolshevik Revolution, testing lasers, selling a billion albums, or shooting Beethoven's Last Night: The Movie.
But when he's got some down time, he's out there honing his skills as one of America's great talkers. Seriously, Crossfade "interviewed" O'Neill last week and we didn't even ask a single question. He just hit auto-pilot while we listened for the next 45 minutes.
See the cut for the TSO bandleader on epic Christmases, the recession, prog rock, and a billion other things.
TSO Is Impervious to Recession
"When we toured in 2008, I was scared to death because of the banking collapse. But we did more tickets than ever before. Then in 2009, I was scared again. But again ticket sales increased. And this year, I was terrified because it's been the worst year in the history of rock for touring, period. You know, so many bands have been canceling their tours or cutting back, from every genre -- rock to pop to Broadway.
"So William Morris was like, 'Paul, if you don't wanna tour this year, we'll understand. Are we gonna cut the production down?' And I'm like, 'Nah. I'm gonna increase it.' And they're like, 'Paul, you're not selling food and shelter and heating oil.' And I'm like, 'Yeah. But human beings, besides food and shelter, are entitled to moments of pure joy and perfect nights.'"
Photo by Lewis Lee
The Consumer Comes First
"I was like, 'You gotta keep 'em between $25 and $60. In New York, LA, Chicago, you can hit $70. But that's the highest.' You know, the kid who rakes your leaves or delivers your paper can not only afford tickets for himself, but he can afford tickets for his girlfriend. You know, what's the point of having the biggest rock production ever put together if only corporations, sovereign wealth funds, or the latest embezzler on his way to South America can afford tickets?"
This Band Is Old
"In Miami, you're going to see some of our newest members. This one young lady, Georgia, was born in '92. She's from Great Britain with a four-octave range. Amazing! Just a little waif of a thing. Then we were really lucky and we found this other young lady from Texas, Kayla, who has the best whiskey-dust voice I've heard since Janis Joplin. But she was born in '93, which was when Atlantic called me up to see if I wanted to start the band. So it's just really weird ... I'm thinking, 'Man, I was trying to put together this massive prog rock band and she's busy being born!'"
The Proggiest of Prog
"When Atlantic asked me to start TSO, I said, 'If I do my own band, I wanna do something completely different.' And they were lik, 'What does that mean?' And I said, 'I want a full progressive rock band, with a symphony in the studio, Pink Floyd-like production, and 24 lead singers.' And they're like, 'Why?!' And I said, 'This way, whatever I write, I'll have the perfect voice for the perfect song.'
"If I need a Joe Cocker voice, I have it. If I need somebody with a three-octave range to do Beethoven, I have it. If I need a superhigh soprano to do 'Charms of the Night,' I have it. And if I don't have it, I go find a new singer and add them to the band. TSO is always growing 'cause bands are like human beings. You're either growing and changing or you're dying."
Photo by Lewis Lee
The Human Voice Is Delicate Like Arnold Schwarzenegger's Hands
"One of TSO's rules is 'Do No Harm to the Singers.'
"Fifteen years ago, I was taking a friend to have a node operation, which is the removal of a callus on your vocal chord. And when you have the operation, it's like flipping a coin ... There's a 50-percent chance you'll get your voice back and a 50-percent chance you're going to totally lose it. The doctor said to me, 'Paul, I don't understand your industry.' And I'm like, 'Doc, what are you talking about?' He said, 'Paul, the human vocal chords are these thin, tissue-paper muscles. If Arnold Schwarzenegger at 19 got a job putting up drywall for 12 hours a day, five days a week, he'd have calluses on his hands. The human voice is not built to sing two hours a night, five nights a week on top of Marshalls. Within a handful of sessions, it destroys the voice.'
"Which is why, and I don't have to name names, there are so many great singers who can no longer sing."
Everybody Thinks TSO Is Awesome
"I really started to feel good in 2005 when we entered the top ten touring bands in the world, and one of the promoters did a demographic breakdown. He called me up and said, 'Paul, you're not gonna believe your demos.' And I'm like, 'Just tell me.' He goes, 'You're 51 percent female and you're 49 percent male, which is the demographic breakdown of North America. You've got every economic class from the ultra-wealthy to the ultra-poor. But here's the weird part ... Your average age is 21." And I'm like, "21? That's impossible.'
"We just try to build every album, every concert like an old medieval castle. So if you're 7 or 170, it looks cool."
Trans-Siberian Orchestra's Winter Tour 2010. Friday, December 10, 2010. American Airlines Arena, 601 Biscayne Blvd., Miami. The show starts at 8 p.m. and tickets cost $25 to $56, plus fees. Visit ticketmaster.com.