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Rap Sessions: Trans-Siberian Orchestra's Al Pitrelli
Posted on Friday, December 01 @ 06:15:18 MST by roadrash
 BandsThe Trans-Siberian Orchestra has grown into possibly the biggest winter music event in the United States. The TSO show has become a Christmas traditon for hundreds of thousands of families and music aficionados of all ages each year. GR got together with one of the founding fathers, Al Pitrelli, to talk about this booming entity, among other things, and what we met was a guy who's really just in it for the music!

Trans-Siberian Orchestra's Al Pitrelli
Interview by Mary Ellen Gustafson

Al Pitrelli
Photo: James Minchen
I’ve known the people involved in creating what has become this massive entity called Trans-Siberian Orchestra and the core rock band they started with, Savatage, almost since they started in 1996. Over the years I’ve had the opportunity to have conversations and interviews with Paul O’Neill, Bob Kinkel, Jon Oliva, Chris Caffery, meet John Lee Middleton and Jeff Plate and at least see Al Pitrelli play live with both bands. And, after all these years of attending TSO's West Tour and feeling like I know Al as well as all the others involved, although I’ve never actually met or talked to him.

When I hooked up with the guys in Savatage in 1998, he wasn’t around at the moment, but I still remember him and Chris playing off each other to the songs from the Wake Of Magellan Tour and thinking it was one of the most awesome guitar duos I’d ever seen. Actually, it’s still right up there at the top to this day. Bottom line; I’ve got a lot of history with and respect for Al Pitrelli and I finally got a chance to meet him and talk about the TSO experience ... among other things.

Up to this point, all my interviews regarding TSO have been with members of the East Tour. Al Pitrelli, the West Tour's Music Director and guitar player extraordinaire, took some time out of his busy schedule to catch me up on what’s going on with TSO, the various side projects of the principals and just music in general. We were talking like old friends in about 30 seconds and after living in Arizona for 29 years, I was immediately an Easterner again ... between his New York accent and him talking about driving through the mountains in my home state of Pennsylvania.

When I interviewed Bob Kinkel the year before last, he told me about doing the orchestrations for the East Tour and the albums, so I wondered if Al did the orchestrations for the West Tour or if Bob did them all. Al explained that he, not Bob, does the work for the West Tour as the Music Director and that over the years the two tours have each “morphed” into their own thing. By now they're pretty different, especially during the second half, although even in the first half they take a bit of creative license with some of the songs from Christmas Eve And Other Stories ... and he explained.

“It would be unfair to either band to try to duplicate the second half, because we want to work with the strengths of each ensemble and not try to force them into something they would be uncomfortable with. The West Tour band is also the O’2L band (Jane and Al Pitrelli’s side project), so we play together all year long. We have different dynamics than the East band does. We each do what works best for us, but it’s definitely one mother ship. It’s like twins that grow up and one moves to the West coast and the other stays on the East coast – they develop different personalities.”

I know so many people who have made the Trans-Siberian Orchestra Christmas Tour an annual family tradition all over the United States and there really isn’t a whole lot of advertising, compared to other concerts throughout the year. TSO has always relied more on word of mouth advertising, yet they sell out huge arenas around the country and never fail to amaze and excite audiences of up to 18,000 for a full 2 hrs. and 45 min.. I honestly don’t know how these incredible performers can keep up with the schedule, which this year on the West Tour includes 13 cities with 2 shows in one day, and still stay upbeat and positive. I figured they had to be exhausted from working so hard on that stage, not to mention all the travel from place to place. I have NEVER seen a TSO concert where EVERYONE involved, from the drivers and stage crew to the performers, roadies and everyone involved, did not give 200%. A lot of the same people are still out there doing the same job since the very first tour and none of them are getting any younger, yet the list of shows just keeps getting longer. I’m rambling a little, but the point was to ask Al if it’s getting harder to keep up with the schedule. I think this has to be the most classic answer I’ve EVER heard in all my years of interviewing musicians:

”Touring is a weird thing. It beats working. I don’t want people to think we don’t work. We work harder than almost anybody in our country works at their day job. We have to work out for 2 hrs. every day just to contend with how grueling it is on the road. But, we’ve been doing this since we were babies. Everybody in this band started out playing the guitar, the bass, the drums, whatever, when they were little and it was never work ... it was fun. The fact that we get paid for it is a bonus. We’d be doing this for free. We’ve been doing it most of our lives for free. When I walk on that stage and there are 18,000 people in the audience and my wife is out-playing me, it’s a rush. I always tell people when they’re in a band or in my employ, and they sometimes get a little tired or a little cranky, I look at them and say ‘You know what, you’re doing the show for free. That’s a given. For two hours and forty-five minutes, you’re having the time of your life on that stage. I’m paying you for the other 21 hours a day when you’re fuckin’ bored to death. That’s the kind of job it is. You gotta travel. When you work on stage, whether it’s a club, a hall, or an arena it doesn’t matter. You could stand and play for somebody to throw you a dollar on the street and you’d love it. It’s the travel and the airports and the other stuff that gets tedious. THAT’S what I’m paying you for, so shut up!’ I have to think of ways to keep these people cranked and remind them this is the life that we chose and this is what we do. If you want to have the luxury and the wonderful grandeur of performing in front of people, well it does come with a price. The price is inconvenience. If you don’t like the inconvenience then put a dollar amount on it and that’s why you’re getting paid. I don’t pay anybody to be in the band, I pay them to put up with time in between when they get to play.”

Trans-Siberian Orchestra
Photo: Mark Weiss

After that awesome answer, it was time for me to check up on all the pet projects I’ve talked to Paul O’Neill about over the past 6 years to see what’s going on with which ones. Every time I talk to anybody involved with TSO, these same questions come up, so I’ll just pass over them quickly. “Romanov’s” is still somewhere in the mix, but it takes major, major funding, writing, personnel, and a whole lot of other things to actually get a show on Broadway and although it’s not going away, it is on hold at the present time. A tour for Beethoven’s Last Night is further up on the list, but this is also on hold for the time being. I have more info on that later. An international tour by TSO is planned for the future, but the Christmas themed tour has such a small window of opportunity, that particular tour probably won’t be happening any time soon. A different type of tour will hopefully be put together in the next couple years. The band Savatage is, at least for now, on the back burner for those involved. John Oliva and Chris Caffery have solo projects going on and the other members are also involved in side projects. Paul O’Neill would like to put another Savatage project together and the individuals involved think it would be fun and would like to work on another album, but right now there’s no way to fit it in. Finally, for news about “Night Castle,” read on . . .

Al told me about the schedule that TSO has to work with these days and it completely explains the updates I just gave. He also caught me up with what is definitely in the works right now and what’s supposed to happen when. I asked about Romanov’s, but we ended up talking about the logistics of the Christmas Tour and the Top Priority as soon as it’s over.

“When you have a great writing team like Paul O’Neill, Jon Oliva and Bob Kinkel, there’s incredible music that comes out of it. But with TSO turning into the behemoth it’s become, it’s really difficult to allocate time to any other thing. When you have such a successful tour, how many other side projects can you devote your time to when everybody wants to do such a great job with TSO and its projects? In the 10 years since its inception, TSO has grown into this massive, massive undertaking with hundreds and hundreds of employees that takes 3 months just to get the logistics of the Christmas Tour started, then a month of rehearsals, then two months touring, then you put the monster back to bed in January and that’s 7 months. There’s not a whole heck of a lot of time left for any other project that comes up no matter how much you want to work on it. Everything is gonna take a back seat until we can get TSO on auto-pilot, or at least something resembling a really well-oiled machine. The Night Castle record is the priority that everyone’s talking about right now and it’s mandatory that we get that record done. I gotta tell ya, the music that we’ve done so far is absolutely spectacular and it’s gonna be the best record we’ve ever made in our career. We’ve been working on and off on it for the past two years, but in the last 2 or 3 months we’ve really hit our stride and come up with some really incredible material we’ve been recording, so we’re hoping we’re going to have it done and in the can by Spring, 2007 and I know Paul wants it released by Fall, 2007.”

Trans-Siberian Orchestra
Photo: Mark Weiss

As we talked about the Beethoven’s Last Night possible tour, as well as doing an international tour because TSO has so many fans in Europe, Japan, Oz and pretty much everywhere, Al stressed even more that they HAVE to get the Night Castle CD finished and released. Once that album is finished, the two fit together more naturallyto put a tour together in the first place, they aren’t seasonal so it’s not mandatory to take the tour out in November/December and it will finally give TSO the opportunity to get an International tour put together. The Beethoven’s album has so many classical themes and Europe was the home of Beethoven, Bach and Mozart. It seems only fitting to play in Europe. Their dream is to do a massive TSO concert at the Cathedral in Cologne, Germany! I can only imagine how AWESOME that would be! Al repeatedly stressed that the goal of everyone involved with TSO is to get Night Castle released by September of 2007 and from all the things we discussed, once that album is released, a whole lot of new touring opportunities will unfold for fans WORLD wide, instead of just in the U.S. at Christmas time. However, not to worry U.S. fans. The Christmas Tour will continue as it does every year and we won’t be left out of the Beethoven’s/Nigh Castle Tour either!

This may have been an odd question to ask in an interview about TSO, but with Al Pitrelli being a New Yorker and a musician, even if he doesn’t live in NYC these days, with CBGB’s doors now closed forever, despite the petitions and support to keep it open, I asked him for his thoughts on the topic.

“I thought it was horrible. It was truly one of New York City’s landmarks and mainstays and that’s where we all cut our teeth growing up. There’s a lot of history and a lot of stories in that building. A lot of bands started there and ended there and it’s a sin because it was decision made based on the value of real estate opposed to the value of the art. Petitions are good to show the opinion of a cross section of the public, but from what I understand it all came down to a matter of dollars and cents. The guy that owned the place got behind the eight ball and stopped paying the rent and the landlord wanted to get it back for the black and white, dollars and cents definition of what it’s worth to him. It’s really, really a sin because it’s not just CBGB’s. There’s got to be 25 institutions in Manhattan that are no longer there. There are a lot of historic places where rock ‘n roll came into its own like SIR, The Record Station, The Hit Factory. All these places where records were made are all gone. The only one that’s left in town is the Electric Lady and I think that’s because somebody is funding that place. It’s certainly not making any money on its own. CBGB’s is done, they’re gonna put a lock on the door and they’re gonna turn it into some mutant geek style restaurant or something. It’s unfortunate, but that’s just the way it goes."

Trans-Siberian Orchestra
Photo: Lewis Lee

We were nearing the end of our conversation and I asked Al a question I ask most musicians who’ve enjoyed a fair level of success. Al Pitrelli is certainly someone that people trying to make it in the music industry should listen to. He’s been with bands from Asia to Savatage to Megadeth to TSO and others along the way. So to all you people out there still trying to make it, here are some pearls of wisdom from somebody who’s been there, done that and is still doing it . . .

“My advice is that you have to stick by your own integrity, be true to who you are and not get distracted. It’s like in the ‘80s, when the metal bands got popular and all the record labels wanted all the bands to be alike, so they ended up formulated. Then Curt Cobain and the Seattle bands came out acting like maniacs and not performing like everybody else. Soon there was Soundgarden and Pearl Jam and all the bands doing something different until everybody sounded just like them. You always have to break new ground. You always have to do something that will get you noticed. When we all sat down to write the first TSO record, we weren’t looking for what was fashionable or what would 'fit in.' We wanted to make a great record. We threw all musical ideas into the kitchen. We didn’t care what it was, we just said let’s do the coolest thing we could ever do. That showed us that maybe we were not gonna be popular, but what the hell, we made a great record, proving that the American people will gravitate toward something that is really good. This is a really long statement, but the bottom line is don’t conform.”

I'd like thank Al Pitrelli for taking the time to talk to me and all our readers and for the absolutely AWESOME show I just saw in Phoenix a on 11/26/06. These people never fail to make each year's show bigger and better than the year befoe, yet remain humble in the face of their wildly extatic fans and express their hope that they gave a good show. Al - you did FANTASTIC!!



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