When Paul O'Neill first conceived Trans-Siberian Orchestra (TSO), his goal was as straightforward as it was ambitious. "The whole idea," he explains, "was to create a progressive rock band that would push the boundaries further than any group before, following in the footsteps of Emerson, Lake & Palmer, Pink Floyd, the Who...but take it way, way further."
With more than 8 million albums sold, TSO has inspired generations of fans to rediscover the multi-dimensional art form of the rock opera. On the road, they have become one of the world's top acts including a recent mention in Billboard magazine as one of the top touring artists of the past decade. Their annual Winter Tour features a $20 million-plus production that has played to over 8 million people in 80+ cities, selling more than $330 million worth of tickets.
O'Neill’s vision for the future is a unique combination of theatrical story-telling, virtuoso musicianship and over the top production called Rock Theater. “It’s not Broadway, it’s a hybrid, it’s something different,” describes O’Neill. “When you come to see one of our shows, and you’re in that venue, our job is to take you to someplace that you wouldn’t think you’d be able to go unless you were asleep and dreaming. We attempt to make each concert a journey, causing you to feel emotions you have never felt before. And as you exit the show, you leave feeling a little more relaxed and a little more invigorated, and better prepared to take on the ordinary troubles of the world.”
After many years in the making, Rock Theater made its debut in 2010 with BEETHOVEN’S LAST NIGHT, a sensory overloading experience that tells the story of the composer’s last night on earth, through a multimedia explosion of hard rock, classical and Broadway along with extensive use of video, lasers, pyro and cutting edge lighting. In 2011, TSO also took the show to Europe for the first time, playing shows in cities like Berlin, Vienna, Amsterdam and London.
Even with a projected 200 live performances in the next 12 months, O’Neill’s finding the time to widen the array of projects he is working on. The band is currently in the studio recording their next production, GUTTER BALLET. A TV program done in partnership with PBS, called “The Birth Of Rock Theater,” features TSO captured live for the first time on video and has recently hit the airwaves. In addition, two graphic novels in conjunction with famed illustrator Greg Hildebrandt are also in the works, and that’s just a few of the many multimedia avenues TSO will be exploring in the near future.
O’Neill, a New York City native grew up "with a wide-ranging world of musical influences” around him, particularly the previously mentioned rock 'n' roll titans. But O'Neill also soaked up sources such as Broadway musicals, Motown and singer-songwriters such as Jim Croce and Harry Chapin, while authors such as Oscar Wilde and Robert Graves fueled his literary tastes. He began his career playing guitar for touring productions of Jesus Christ Superstar and Hair, and then went to work in the late 70’s for Leber-Krebs Inc., the Manhattan management company whose clients included Aerosmith, Ted Nugent, AC/DC, Def Leppard, the Scorpions, the New York Dolls and scores of others. In the 80’s, O'Neill became a major promoter in Japan as well, but returned to the States to start writing and producing full-time.
O'Neill helmed Aerosmith's CLASSICS LIVE I and CLASSICS LIVE II albums before beginning a fortuitous relationship with the band Savatage that led them to be the forerunners in progressive rock with albums such as HALL OF THE MOUNTAIN KING, GUTTER BALLET, STREETS: A ROCK OPERA and DEAD WINTER DEAD. It also introduced him to Jon Oliva, Bob Kinkel and Al Pitrelli, as well as reconnecting him with legendary studio engineer Dave Wittman, who all became collaborators in O'Neill's grand vision – Trans-Siberian Orchestra.
"I wanted to take the very best of all the forms of music I grew up on and merge them into a new style," O'Neill says. "Basically I was building on the work of everybody I worshipped: the rock opera parts from bands like the Who; the marriage of classical and rock from bands like Emerson, Lake & Palmer, Yes and Queen; the over-the-top light show from bands like Pink Floyd...I always wanted to do a full rock opera with a full progressive band and at least 24 lead singers.”
O'Neill took the idea to Atlantic Records which, to his surprise, went for it and financed the creation of Romanov (When Kings Must Whisper) which was initially to be TSO’s first release. "We were very fortunate," he says. "It was one of the only labels left that still did an ‘old school’ kind of artist development. My original concept was, ‘We were going to do six rock operas, a trilogy about Christmas and maybe one or two regular albums.’"
However, when Romanov got temporarily put on the back burner, the first installment of the Christmas trilogy, CHRISTMAS EVE AND OTHER STORIES, became TSO’s debut album. Fueled by the socially-conscious single, "Christmas Eve/Sarajevo 12/24," the album went double platinum. More platinum certifications followed with 1998’s THE CHRISTMAS ATTIC, and the final installment of the Christmas trilogy, THE LOST CHRISTMAS EVE in 2004. In the midst of completing the trilogy, TSO released their first non-holiday rock opera the gold certified BEETHOVEN'S LAST NIGHT.
The most recent release NIGHT CASTLE debuted at #5 and was certified gold in just 8 weeks. NIGHT CASTLE is a sweeping two-discs of genre-blending epics and an affecting story that takes you around the world, through time and to points beyond. O'Neill and company plan to eventually give NIGHT CASTLE its due in a live setting in the near future.
But TSO really cemented its following in concert. The group hit the road in 1999, beginning an annual November-December extravaganza that O'Neill takes pride in being "as over the top as we can make it.” “We have two stages -- with pyro, light and lasers -- on both sides of the arena, as well as in the crowd and the best sound we can find...There's no second-class seat at a Trans-Siberian Orchestra show. I want people to walk out of our shows speechless and... still not believing what they have seen was possible."
"We spend a lot of time planning," O'Neill confesses with a laugh, "and people are always telling me, 'Paul, stop writing and start recording!' It's working out great, though. I feel lucky that it's gone this long and that we get to do what we love for a living. The arts have incredible power, and with that comes incredible responsibility. Someone once said that if you want to change the world, don't become a politician -- write a book, write a great song. I believe in that, and that's what Trans-Siberian Orchestra is about," O'Neill explains. "This is a group -- a constantly morphing group -- of extremely creative and talented individuals who are always trying to raise the bar of where a band can take its audience sonically, visually and emotionally. With that as our core ideal, the possibilities are endless."