To understand how Paul O’Neill came up with the idea for Trans-Siberian Orchestra, you have to go back to when he was a teenager. "I was in awe when I first saw The Who do ‘Tommy.’ I said I want to do this, except way, way bigger," O’Neill recalled, with a mischievous bit of glee in his voice. Ironically, O’Neill’s grand vision for Trans-Siberian Orchestra might not have become reality without a bit of career misfortune.
In the early ‘80s, O’Neill was producing an album by a hard rock band signed to a major label. The band had lots of talent and even a couple of members with some name recognition from previous projects. But this was when hard rock was going through a period where it was being declared dead by pundits. To cut to the chase, the label ordered him to scrap the hard rock-oriented album and instead have the group make a pop album in the vein of the flavor-of-the-month. O’Neill refused and was replaced by another producer. Ultimately, the band made the pop album the label wanted, and the album tanked.
So what does this moment of ‘80s artistic integrity have to do with the present day and Trans- Siberian Orchestra? Essentially, Trans-Siberian Orchestra might never have become a reality – certainly, at least with all of the key people involved in the project-- had O’Neill not resigned as the producer of the aforementioned project.
With O’Neill having the unexpected opening in his schedule, he received a call from an executive at Atlantic Records, Jason Flom. "Jason said ‘Paul, we dropped this band called Savatage, but if you’ll write and produce with them, we’ll re-sign them.’ I had heard of Savatage," O’Neill said. "I was aware of them, but I had never heard their music. So, I said ‘Well where can I see them?’ Jason said, ‘Well, they’re performing a farewell concert in Tampa tomorrow.’ So I jumped on a plane, and flew down to Tampa."
O’Neill was stunned by what he saw and heard. Savatage frontman Jon Oliva was simply the best rock singer he had ever heard. Backstage after the Savatage show, O’Neill talked with Jon Oliva and his guitar-playing brother, Criss. "What Jon and Criss told me kind of blew my mind. They had gone through exactly what I had just gone through," O’Neill said. "Management had told them that heavy metal was dead and they had to make a pop album." Savatage went along with the directive, kicking and screaming in protest the whole way. And, as expected, the album bombed, costing Savatage much of its rock credibility in the process.
But, O’Neill had a plan.
"I said let’s make this next album, but let’s try to become the first progressive metal band," O’Neill revealed. "I said, ‘we can take this song, this suite called ‘In The Hall Of The Mountain King,’ but we can rock it up.’" Incorporating the arrangement of that classic Grieg composition (originally part of the Peer Gynt suite) into the song "Prelude To Madness," it became the centerpiece of the 1987 Savatage album, Hall Of The Mountain King. The album revived Savatage’s career, recasting the band as a trailblazing progressive metal group. Just as significantly, it cemented a creative partnership between O’Neill and Jon Oliva that has remained a cornerstone of Trans-Siberian Orchestra to this day.
This concept of starting a progressive metal band was not new to O’Neill, but he could never find the singers or musicians to bring his vision to life. In producing and writing with Jon Oliva in Savatage (as well others), O’Neill began to craft the template which would ultimately become Trans-Siberian Orchestra.
With Trans-Siberian Orchestra, O’Neill knew he could take his idea of progressive rock to a whole different level. He could add a full orchestra to a rock band and, instead of just one frontman, O’Neill would recruit different singers to bring to life whatever characters he could envision. He would also take the rock opera a step further, adapting the cohesive story telling of Broadway plays to create compelling and emotionally powerful narratives to match the epic scope of the music.
In 1993, O’Neill presented this concept to Atlantic Records, and the timing was fortuitous. Trans- Siberian Orchestra, obviously, was going to be a big-budget undertaking, and O’Neill got in just before downloading music turned the music industry on its head. At this point, major labels still had the resources to invest in acts, nurture their music and give them time to build momentum, believing that eventually the act would break through commercially and become a group that would string together a series of platinum selling albums and arena-filling tours.
Atlantic bought into O’Neill’s vision for Trans-Siberian Orchestra, although the musical path that unfolded was not what O’Neill originally anticipated. "The original concept was to do six rock operas, a trilogy of rock operas about Christmas, and possibly one or two regular albums," O’Neill said.
But, O’Neill’s nature caused that script to flip. "I’ve always been this way my entire life, the things that intimidate me the most, I like to get out of the way first," O’Neill said. "So we put out Christmas Eve and Other Stories. And, I’m sure the average person out there thinks it was a hit right away. It wasn’t. The first year it didn’t do well at all. But, we were very lucky. We were the last band to have old-fashioned blank check artist development. Atlantic was like you’re onto something. Keep going."
Atlantic’s patience and commitment paid off. Today, O’Neill says he’s been told Trans-Siberian Orchestra’s catalog sales are among the top in Warner Bros./Atlantic catalog. In all, Trans-Siberian Orchestra has sold more than 10 million albums.
While it was not originally the plan, O’Neill tackled the Christmas albums first. Those CDs -- Christmas Eve & Other Stories (1996), the subject of this year’s tour The Christmas Attic (1998), and The Lost Christmas Eve (2004) later known as the "Christmas Trilogy," plus the stories that make up these rock operas-- have become cemented into the holiday tradition for millions of fans throughout the years.
In response to the amazing demand from radio and fans, Paul and TSO re-united with Jason Flom and Lava Records (Republic/Universal) to visit the Winter Season one last time. "Dreams of Fireflies (On A Christmas Night)" is a low priced EP -- TSO’s way of saying thank you to the fans.
Now Trans-Siberian Orchestra is well on its way to achieving O’Neill’s initial goal to be a year round touring band. Its first such work, Beethoven’s Last Night, arrived in 2000 and was followed in 2009 by the ambitious Night Castle. Now three more such projects are in production --Romanov: When Kings Must Whisper (originally slated to be TSO’s debut album), Gutter Ballet and Letters From The Labyrinth. O’Neill said one of those three CDs will be released in 2015.
When the first of these three new projects makes its live debut (expected to be in 2015), it will be the next progression for Trans-Siberian Orchestra, a concept O’Neill calls "Rock Theater," which premiered with a three year world tour of Beethoven’s Last Night. O'Neill's vision for Rock Theater boils down to a basic concept: take the spectacular modern visual production of a Trans-Siberian Orchestra concert, as well as the fully developed stories that are told in the lyrics and poetry of the group's rock opera-styled CDs to the stage, and bring theater into the 21st century. "I worship some of these Broadway shows I've seen over the years, but they could have been produced in the exact same way in 1912," O'Neill said. "It's just the lights, maybe occasionally dry ice, smoke and that's it. I honestly believe if you looked behind the walls of some of these theaters, you'd see electric systems proudly installed by Thomas Edison in 1890. And so the idea is to take the most state of the art special effects in rock and roll and marry it to the coherent story telling of Broadway, with Rock Theater, we're trying to create this exciting new hybrid, where we take the best of rock and the best of the Broadway world, combine them and add some new touches of our own."
And when O’Neill talks about rock production, he isn’t talking about garden variety rock show production. The Trans-Siberian Orchestra live show is now in its 16th year of touring and has set whole new standards for dazzling visual production. The $20 million-plus production (“Pink Floyd on steroids” is a favorite one-line description for O’Neill) features not only a massive main stage which O’Neill calls the flight deck, but a second stage toward the back of arenas. Each is armed with all manner of pyrotechnics, lasers and other visual effects. "We were one of the first bands to have the trussing system rhythmically moving in time to the music together with the lasers, lights and pyro," O’Neill said. "It’s unbelievably expensive, but unbelievably cool."
That spectacular production will be applied to totally new live Trans-Siberian Orchestra shows this winter. After having performed Christmas Eve and Other Stories in its entirety as the main rock opera on previous winter tours, Trans-Siberian Orchestra switched to The Lost Christmas Eve for 2012 and 2013. For this year’s tour, TSO will perform The Christmas Attic – taking the beloved album, the final piece of the “Christmas Trilogy” live, coast-to-coast for the very first time.
The shows will be new, but O’Neill’s fan-friendly philosophy about the Trans-Siberian Orchestra live show will very much continue. Where arena rock shows commonly have ticket prices of $100 or more, Trans-Siberian Orchestra tickets will stay in the $50 range, giving fans some of the best bang for the buck of any tour. Additionally, a portion from each ticket always benefits a charity (something TSO has done since first hitting the road) with the group raising a total of $11 million to date.
As always, O’Neill is sparing no cost or effort when it comes to creating the most musically and visually impactful, plus emotionally powerful show possible. "The whole thing about Trans-Siberian Orchestra is to do anything, spend any amount of money, to make the music have the ultimate impact," O’Neill said. "We don't want fans to walk away from a TSO show going, 'Man, that was a great show. We don't even want them to walk away saying, 'Man, that was the greatest show we've ever seen.' We want them to walk away saying, 'Man, we just ripped that band off blind.'"