The Trans-Siberian Orchestra has a few things in common with Mannheim Steamroller—besides a unique name. Most significantly, they've both become holiday music phenomena by modernizing classic Christmas carols. But TSO takes it one visionary step further by using storytelling to drive home a message with emotional resonance. Paul O'Neill, TSO's founder, producer, lyricist, and primary composer, explains.
I first have to say that Trans-Siberian Orchestra is one of the coolest rock shows and most powerful Christmas productions I've ever seen. It's such a dramatic fusion of styles.
Paul O'Neill Thanks. A newspaper once described us as Phantom of the Opera meets The Who with Pink Floyd's light show.
With a little bit of classical thrown in. How did that fusion come about? Were you always into Broadway and rock opera?
O'Neill I was mostly influenced by classical, rock, and R&B. Also, having grandparents from Ireland, the storytelling elements of Celtic music had a great impact on me. Even songs as simple as "Danny Boy" tell a story. Growing up in rock & roll, with its reputation for being undisciplined, I have always been fascinated by the discipline of Broadway performers who were untapped by the rock world. So we tapped them and rocked them up.
Was it always your original intention for TSO to be primarily known as a Christmas phenomenon?
O'Neill Never, but we are thrilled with the success of the Christmas albums.
So how'd it all come together?
O'Neill With Trans-Siberian Orchestra, I wanted the sort of group that would have no limits, combining a symphony with a rock band. We would only do rock operas, because that gives the music a third dimension that normally you don't have access to. Normally, you just write the lyrics so that they stand up as poetry, and you try to write the music so that it's so haunting that you don't need the lyrics. But when you put the two of them together, it creates an alloy where the sum of the parts is greater than the whole—when you hear one, you can't imagine it without the other.
Once you do that to the best of your ability, you're always trying to find a way to make the music cut deeper. We realized that the best way to do that was to add the third dimension of story, which is essentially what rock operas do. We have such a wide palette to paint with, combining the rock with various singers, and choirs, and orchestra.
I'm a strong believer in the power of storytelling. I grew up in a large Irish Catholic home, and my parents wouldn't allow us to watch TV. That forced us to learn to read. Also, before we went to bed, my father would weave these incredibly intricate fairy tales and stories from the top of his head. Even as I got older, I'd hang around him telling stories to my little siblings. And Irish music tends to have strong storytelling.
So because of the nature of TSO, we need themes that are larger than life. Christmas is certainly one such story. In essence, God writes the stories. I'm just a quick stenographer.
Is there something specific that drew you to a Christmas theme?
O'Neill I've always been fascinated by Christmas. When we were really young, my friends and I were walking home in New York City on Christmas Eve, when suddenly we heard the slamming of brakes. We turned around just in time to see two yellow cabs sliding into each other.
The two drivers got out of their cars: one looked like a longshoreman, the other like he just got off the boat from a foreign country. My friends and I were kind of nervous, thinking there would be a fight. Any other day of the year, it would have been World War III with blood on the street—especially in New York City. Instead, the first guy says, "This is completely my fault; let me pay for it." The other guy responds, "No, this is something I could have gotten in any parking lot." Next thing you know, they're looking at pictures of each other's kids, talking and joking.
So at a really young age, I learned there was something about this day that makes people more compassionate. Then you look back at history. During many wars, both sides would stop fighting on Christmas Eve—even the Korean War, when one side was largely non-Christian. It's an incredible day that works magic on the individual and national level.
That's sort of the inspiration behind your most well-known single, right?
O'Neill Yeah, "Christmas Eve/Sarajevo 12/24." We heard about this cello player born in Sarajevo many years ago who left when he was fairly young to go on to become a well-respected musician, playing with various symphonies throughout Europe. Many decades later, he returned to Sarajevo as an elderly man—at the height of the Bosnian War, only to find his city in complete ruins.
I think what most broke this man's heart was that the destruction was not done by some outside invader or natural disaster—it was done by his own people. At that time, Serbs were shelling Sarajevo every night. Rather than head for the bomb shelters like his family and neighbors, this man went to the town square, climbed onto a pile of rubble that had once been the fountain, took out his cello, and played Mozart and Beethoven as the city was bombed.
He came every night and began playing Christmas carols from that same spot. It was just such a powerful image—a white-haired man silhouetted against the cannon fire, playing timeless melodies to both sides of the conflict amid the rubble and devastation of the city he loves. Some time later, a reporter traced him down to ask why he did this insanely stupid thing. The old man said that it was his way of proving that despite all evidence to the contrary, the spirit of humanity was still alive in that place.
The song basically wrapped itself around him. We used some of the oldest Christmas melodies we could find, like "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" and "Carol of the Bells" (which is from the Ukraine, near that region). The orchestra represents one side, the rock band the other, and the single cello represents that single individual, that spark of hope.
Christmas Eve and Other Stories was first released in 1996, and now it's an annual bestseller. Was the initial response to the album strong?
O'Neill It was strong out of the box and has gotten stronger every year. The whole thing just came together and became larger than we ever could have imagined. "Christmas Eve/Sarajevo 12/24" has always been one of the most requested radio songs at this time of the year. And a second single, "Christmas Canon" (from 1998's The Christmas Attic), is also performing well.
Tell us more about The Christmas Attic.
Starling: It's about a little child who begins to lose faith, because as you get older, doubts appear. And then she begins to gain a new appreciation for Christmas by rummaging through a trunk in the attic.
The song that really leaps out at me on that album is "Dream Child," which seems like a conversation with Jesus.
O'Neill Oh absolutely—that's actually my favorite song on the album. The narrator sings about a dream encounter with the Christ child. I always thought I completely gave it away with the line, "And I said to the Child, 'Do your hands they still bleed/After all of this time, do you think there's still need?'/But the Child only smiled and said not a word/And the snow it came down, as if it hadn't heard." It's just a way of saying that [Jesus] has never given up on us, even though we may have given up ourselves.
I'm really struck by how both albums include an outspoken message of faith. They don't water down the Christmas message, but instead embrace it in the midst of your storytelling.
O'Neill It's such a great message. Why would anyone ever want to water it down?
Historically, holiday specials and albums treat Christmas as simple tradition, but your albums get to the heart, with the message of redemption and compassion.
O'Neill There's only one God and he made everybody. When we die, I think he's really going to care about how we treated our neighbor. There are always people out there who need help.
I've been asked if I think Christmas is hypocritical in that people treat others so badly for the other 364 days of the year. But the problem is not Christmas. The problem lies in how we treat people the remainder of the year. There's just something inspiring about Christmas. For one day a year, people just seem to "get it."
Trans-Siberian Orchestra is currently wrapping up their biggest Christmas tour yet. Catch them if you can this year, or else remember to buy your tickets early next year. They are currently planning to release the third album of their Christmas trilogy in October of 2004, as well their second non-holiday rock opera in spring of 2005. After that, there are plans to take their first non-holiday project, Beethoven's Last Night, on tour for summer of 2005.
For concert dates and more information on Trans-Siberian Orchestra, visit www.trans-siberian.com. Visit Christianbook.com to listen to sound clips and purchase copies of Christimas Eve and Other Stories, The Christmas Attic, and their DVD, The Ghosts of Christmas Eve.