Trans-Siberian Orchestra’s Paul O’Neill Talks “Letters From The Labyrinth”, Upcoming Winter Tour And More!

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(PCM) One of our very favorite winter/holiday traditions is heading out to see the absolutely phenomenal Trans-Siberian Orchestra live in concert. They consistently provide audiences with an awe-inspiring live experience with stunning visual effects and superior musicianship. Armed this year with their new album “Letter From The Labyrinth” this year’s show in sure to be absolutely mind-blowing.

We recently had a chance to catch up with Trans-Siberian Orchestra creator, lyricist and composer Paul O’Neill to discuss the groups new album, winter tour and more!  O’Neill says Letters from the Labyrinth, is a major change from the way TSO creates new works. It’s the first album that’s not built around a completed story. Instead, it’s a collection of completed songs that have, basically, left the safety of the studio where they were born. The stories will emerge from their combined journeys. Just as TSO was designed to be a constantly evolving, morphing band over the decades, Letters from the Labyrinth, is our first album where we’re experimenting, we’re calling it an open-ended album. Like our own lives, the story will develop and evolve. We’re not really sure what’s going to happen tomorrow, let alone next year.”

When speaking about the album’s concept O’Neill reveals “The initial release that everyone receives includes the very first and the last short stories. The opening short story, “Time and Distance (the Dash),” is basically, how we’re all given a certain amount of time on Earth, but we’re not told how much time that is or how we should use it. Each individual has to figure that out for themselves, but it’s also easier to make journeys if you have multiple people with you, not unlike Chaucer’s “The Canterbury Tales.” We included the very last story, “The Dreams of Fireflies,” which is basically a bedtime, go to sleep tale. Where it just sends you into dreamland. Where you have happy dreams, not nightmares. You take on the world after that. “

“Letters from the Labyrinth” is something that TSO has been working on over the course of the last year and were about 90% finished towards the end of 2014. When asked about what was needed to finally complete the album, O’Neill says “There were certain parts to the story that when I had originally written the story … One of them involved what was going on in the Ukraine. Another one, a short story, involved Syria. It was written before the Syrian civil war completely spun out of control, before the nightmare that spilled out of control in the Ukraine. A good example would be, when I was younger there was a huge hit book called, “Raise the Titanic,” where they raise the Titanic because it sank in its entirety. The book was a huge hit, but if that book came out today it wouldn’t have worked because now they know the Titanic split up. So, the story was basically dated before I even released it. So, we decided to rewrite it as a series of short stories.

Incidences happen, even though we were doing the album. When we played Wacken this year, which is a big rock festival in Germany… What’s going on in Syria is horrible, but people who are living there don’t care what’s going on, they just want it to end.  While I was there, the night before, I was wandering around the campsite, true story, bumped into two young men, about twenty. I asked them where they were from, and they were from Iraq. They were Sunni-Muslims. We talked for a little while. About fifty feet away, about thirty minutes later, bumped into two other young men. Also twenties, a little bit older, and they were Shiite-Muslims from Iran.

I can’t imagine that during the next three days, there’s no way, these guys didn’t bump into each other.
I would like to believe, that if God forbid, in two years if these four young men, who are in two separate militias met in combat in Syria in that horrible civil war, that if they recognize each other that not only would they not pull the trigger, I think they would actually un-chamber their weapons. They would say, “Hey, weren’t we at a concert with you at Trans-Siberian Orchestra in 2015?” It’s hard to hate someone, let alone shoot them, that you’ve gone to a concert with. That is the magic of music. It’s really amazing.

Wacken, which we were at on July 30th, made me rethink the entire album.”

TSO has also debut a new logo which features the combination of two phoenixes from western mythology. O’Neill describes it by saying “A phoenix is something that rises out of the ashes from something destroyed by evil, to build something stronger. It’s done in the ying-yang shape of the oriental philosophy, which is, basically the balance of life and looking out at things from the other perspective. We combined those two images. Greg Hildebrandt did the actual drawing for us, and that’s going to be in the center of the CD. Which is why the one song, Forget About the Blame, we have a male singing and we have a female singing it. Each brings to it their own unique perspective. “

When discussing the upcoming tour, O’Neill reveals that they plan to perform at least six new songs during the show, “Particularly, songs like, “Madness of Men,” “Forget About the Blame,” “Not the Same.”  He also goes on to reveal a few details about rocker Lzzy Hale of Halestorm’s appearance on the track “Forget About The Blame” saying “We decided that, Robin Borneman, great singer from Holland, whose been with us a couple of years would sing it, but I needed a female to bring the female side of it. Lzzy Hale, from Halestorm has a great voice. She’s just a great rocker, a lot of emotion. It goes back to the whole ying-yang thing. Where one side represents the sun, the male, the masculine side. The other side represents the moon, the feminine, the more sensitive side. So we decided that, instead of having a male/female do, “Not the Same,” that we’d have them do, “Forget About the Blame,” because the Amanda Todd situation is something I am very passionate about.

I hate bullying in any form. It’s really out of control, and as horrible as that is, the situation in the Mid-East is way, way worse so we decided that we would have two singers sing that song, you know, different perspectives. Robin Borneman and Lzzy Hale, in my opinion, knocked it out of the ballpark.”

It is surely safe to assume that the writing process for a short story is quite a bit different than writing a song, however TSO has undoubtedly mastered both. O’Neill comments, “With TSO, originally, the whole plan was to be rock opera-driven, and eventually we would do one or two regular albums. We simply never got around to it. We toy with the idea of making this a regular album, but I have gotten so used to the story adding an additional element to it, a third dimension, that I couldn’t quite let it go. I decided, let me write just one short story to go with this one song, and I’m like, oh, let me write another short story. We just basically decided that we would make this a series of short stories that were all inter-weaved as time goes by. It’s just a whole different way of approaching it.

In some ways it’s easier, when I have the story written I know emotionally where each song should go, I know where the melodies should go, the balance, the dynamic. This is a new action adventure for us, again, it’s not a rock opera, it’s not a regular album where it’s a bunch of songs, it’s kind of a hybrid, it’s something in between. It’s an experiment for us  and we’re not quite sure how it’s all going to work. In about a year, you and I should have a follow-up to this one.”

TSO shows have the amazing ability to bring together multiple generations of fans and O’Neill tells us, “The band has survived the two decade mark and kept its original fan base, much to our happy surprise, has brought in the next generation. People who had originally seen us as teenagers are returning and bringing their own kids with them. Hopefully, those kids will return and bring their kids with them.

We always say that music has got the ability to jump a lot of silly walls people put between people, whether it’s nationality, or economic class, or religion, or whatever. When you jump the generational wall, that’s the biggest jump of all. To a certain degree, TSO had an unbelievably lucky break because when we started to tour, it was 1999 … In 1949, there was a great schism in music when Les Paul, the offender, invented the electric guitar. You either grew up pre-electric guitar, with the Dorsey Brothers, Perry Como, or, post-electric guitar, Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry.

When we started to tour, it had been half a century, now it’s been well over sixty years, so even grandma and grandpa, that’s the Woodstock generation. Unless you’re in your late nineties for the first time every generation has rock in common. Which makes it a lot easier for us to jump the generational walls than bands that came before us. We’re very aware that we have a very wide audience, and you have to be very careful that there’s something there for everybody, so everybody keeps coming back every year, whether it’s summer or the winter. It can continue to be, at least a partial part, of the soundtrack of people’s lives.”

It is known that O’Neill is a huge history buff and collector, so we were definitely curious as to what kind of impact his love of history had on the new album “Letters From The Labyrinth”.  He says “I’ve been doing it basically for over forty years. I started collecting in the seventies when I was working for Aerosmith. We have quite a collection, like, I have every letter from Thomas Edison to his tool and die guy about how to build the first record player, and how to build the first record. I’m only missing one page, which I gave to Steven Tyler, because what do you give to Steven Tyler? I have a lot of letters from Lincoln, from Churchill, from Oscar Wilde, because when you’re holding letters that Lincoln held, that Churchill held, that Robin Lewis Stevenson held, you feel a connection. Like I tell my daughter, we don’t own these we’re just the caretakers of them for the next generation. It’s also inspirational.

I have one letter from George Washington to Thomas Jefferson, from December 1779, and I don’t have the letter from Jefferson to Washington, but you can tell he was requesting troops. It’s a really intense letter because you can tell in the letter George Washington thinks he’s going to lose the war. Back then, if you lost they cut off your head and stuck it on a spike. To have all these artifacts from history, especially western civilization, it gives you an interesting perspective, and also, you see a reflection of a lot of it actually on the album.

I have a translation from the 1400’s from Marcus Aurelius, the Roman Emperor of meditations. There’s certain parts of it, it’s hard to read because it’s old English, but it’s basically saying, “I’m the most powerful man, I’m the most powerful empire of the world, but what does it mean, who is going to care who Julius Caesar was in two thousand years.” It’s very intense that this man, nearly two thousand years ago, was worried about the same things that we’re worrying about now.

The reason we picked, Letters from the Labyrinth, is the Labyrinth is on the island of Crete, built by the Minoans and my [inaudible] two civilizations that pre-to the Greek city states. The Minotaur was in the middle of this maze, so I think every one of these songs that is going to make a journey will send a message home.

Letters tend to get lost in the mail, they sometimes go by different routes. When people discovered the Labyrinth, that was buried for thousands of years under ruins on Crete, it was filled with all kinds of messages from the past. The Terra Cotta warriors, which were buried for over two thousand years, it was just recently discovered in China. There are all these little time capsules that give us hints to what our ancestors were trying to do, and so, we can see what they did wrong and we can see what they did right.

On one of our tour programs from a couple years ago, in Latin, one of the mottoes is, the future can be rewritten. You can study the past, but you can’t change the past. You can look at the past and try to figure out what you should do now that will make the future better.

Human beings, we are what we remember, and civilizations are the same thing. We are what we remember. From the 1930s and the 40s, they were fighting the Great Depression, Natzism, Warlordism, and they defeated it. The next couple generations forget that evil can be unbelievably patient. It will rise again, so good has to be ever vigilant. Evil not only never triumphs, but it never gets a good night’s sleep. The only way that can happen is if we all work together. We have to realize, the bottom line is that we’re all in this together. Whether this comes to a happy or sad ending, we’re all going to enjoy this together.

Not to get really off the subject, but I really believe humanity is at a turning point. Because of computers, humanity has changed and learned more in the last twenty years than it has in the last two thousand. I’m not sure if morality and ethics have kept up with that. It’s very important that everybody stays educated, and especially, that we educate our young, and especially about right and wrong. I agree with Teddy Roosevelt who said, “The first thing you need to teach your kid is right and wrong, ethics and morality because to educate them without teaching them right from wrong is to create a menace to society.”

Certain things we are addressing on this album, a particular one is, “Not the Same,” which it was hard to write the lyrics to that. When I saw the Amanda Todd video, which I’m sure everybody here has seen, it’s the Canadian girl who was so bullied in her school that her parents moved her to another city, she was cyber-bullied also and moved to another city, she tried to kill herself. The other kids, instead of wrapping themselves around her, or protecting her, they continued to bully her. A huge crowd of them beat her up, left her beaten up outside the building. You can use the arcs to change how people view certain things, and whether certain things are acceptable. To me, bullying, of any sort, but especially with kids, is unacceptable, on any level. I don’t even like the word bully, it kind of romanticizes it. You have a lot of people who say, I’m the biggest bully on the block, or I’m the biggest bully on the street, or the biggest bully in the schoolyard or the biggest bully in the company. They’re not bullies, in actuality, they’re cowards.

Those fifty kids that beat up this little girl and left her on the side of the road, they wouldn’t have done that to Mike Tyson. Then they wouldn’t be bullies, they wouldn’t be cowards, they’d be stupid. They wouldn’t be. The fact that out of all those kids, nobody stepped up and said, “Hey, this is wrong.” Bullying just has to be stopped. It’s something that’s been around forever, that’s been allowed, but a lot of things were around for thousands of years, child labor, slavery, etc., that people now know were wrong, and just unacceptable.

What is allowed to happen in all these schools, and it’s not just America, it’s in Europe, it’s in Asia. I was actually once in a school, this was a long time ago, where these two kids started fighting and I pulled them apart, and one the teachers said, “Paul, it’s okay. You have to understand bullying is a part of life.” And I’m like, “No, it’s not.” It’s unacceptable and that’s the first thing the kids have to learn. Look out for each other, support each other, keep an eye out for each other because it doesn’t matter how strong you are, eventually one day you’re going to be old, you’re going to be sick, and that’s the guy or that’s the girl you’re going to hope will come and help you.”

TSO was brought together almost two decades ago, and have released three Christmas themed records, three rock orchestra style records. They have truly revolutionized how Christmas and rock is viewed by the masses. When asked about about bringing this unique hybrid to all ages, all background audience and associating that music with Christmas time, O’Neill comments, “It’s funny, because I had noticed that over the centuries every generation tended to kick something into the Christmas catalog of great art, great music. It really hadn’t happened recently. The closest thing, to me, and actually it’s really inspirational, I think it was 1975, when Bing Crosby, right before he died, I think it might have been the last thing he recorded, on his Christmas special was him singing “Little Drummer Boy” in counter-point with another song with David Bowie. You can find it on YouTube, it’s a magical little moment.

For some reason, rock never was able to turn something into the whole Christmas lexicon. In a lot of ways, we were very intimidated by the Christmas thing because number one,  you have multiple other platinum albums. It’s very scary because everybody is always doing it, and you’re competing against art that has gotten past the ultimate critic, the only critic you can’t fool, the only critic that counts in the end, which is time. Every century only passes on to the next century what it considers the very best. So, if you’re doing a painting you’re not competing against Andy Warhol, you’re competing against, Andy Warhol, Botticelli, Michelangelo, Norman Rockwell. If you’re doing a book you’re competing against Dickens. If you’re doing a movie you’re compete against Frank Capra. Music, forget it, you’re competing against Mendelssohn, Beethoven, Irving Berlin.

Again, I would like to say we planned it. As I always say, it was all those prayers my mother said when I told her I wasn’t going to college. You know, please don’t let this kid starve. I was always fascinated by Christmas, its power, people give their neighbor, even strangers, the benefit of the doubt. We did the trilogy, and it’s funny, because [inaudible] said, “Paul, how come three rock operas about Christmas?” I said, “Well, Dickens wrote a lot of books about subjects larger than life.” Industrial Revolution, David Copperfield, French Revolution, Tale of Two Cities, but he wrote five books about Christmas, and when a journalist asked why five books about Christmas, he said, too large a subject to take on in one book.

The trilogy is basically, Christmas Eve and Other Stories is basically how it has the same effect on human beings all around the world. Be it Europe, be it Asia, be it America. The second one, The Christmas Attic, how it’s been doing it for centuries. The third one, The Lost Christmas Eve, which is my favorite, is basically, there’s something about Christmas that allows you to undo mistakes you never thought you could undo. You live long enough, everybody knows somebody who hasn’t talked to a parent, or a sibling, or a friend, in decades.

There’s something about Christmas that will make you pick up the phone and say, I can’t remember what we were fighting about. The Lost Christmas Eve is basically about a father who abandons his child. The three of them just seem to work and they’ve taken on a life of their own. We just feel an unbelievable obligation just to, not to drop the ball. To keep this thing going.

Forty years from now, when we’re in the old rockers home, and the nurses are going, “Do we have to hear these stories again.” These kids will still have these things still touring, but more importantly, live music will continue to grow. I do worry that with the internet, it’s destroyed the music industry, and we have to come up with a new model or people are not going to go into the music industry and it’s going to be a great loss for humanity.”

 

 

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