December 1, 2010
By David Huff
A Holiday Mix of Classical Music on the Rocks
JAM Magazine Speaks with Guitarist Al Pitrelli
Close Up Photos of Al Pitrelli by Jim Johnson
All Live Stage Shot Photos Credited to Mark Weiss and Lewis Lee
In some respects, the success of Trans-Siberian Orchestra defies explanation. Incorporating elements of classical music with progressive elements of hard rock and heavy metal, TSO has become a Christmas holiday staple since it burst upon the scene in 1996. And to think, it all started because of a single song written by a progressive power metal band.
The seeds for TSO were planted in the tune "Christmas Eve (Sarajevo 24/7)". Appearing on the Savatage album Dead Winter Dead, the cross-over success of the song, especially the heavy rotation it received on multiple radio formats during the Christmas season, sparked an idea in one of the song's creators, Paul O'Neill. Why not combine the progressive rock metal influences of Savatage with a full orchestra and rechristen it under the moniker Trans-Siberian Orchestra? The idea intrigued Savatage mainstay Jon Oliva and songwriter Robert Kinkel, who had co-written "Christmas Eve" with O'Neill.
Oliva had grown especially disillusioned with Savatage since the untimely automobile death of his brother Criss Oliva by a drunken driver in 1993. O'Neill, who had co-produced and written five previous Savatage albums, knew his good friend needed a project to help channel his energies in a new direction. Trans-Siberian Orchestra would provide that outlet. With the aid of Savatage contributors Kinkel and guitarist Al Pitrelli, the 1996 release of Christmas Eve and Other Stories would radically change the future lives of all parties involved.
Next year, TSO will combine its East and West Coast touring productions into a single unit to perform overseas in Europe for the first time. To say the unprecedented success of TSO took its founding members by surprise would be an understatement. Fourteen years and five rock opera albums later, the Trans-Siberian Orchestra has become, in the words of Petrilli, 'the gift that keeps on giving.'
JAM: The first time I heard about the Trans-Siberian Orchestra, the first word out of my mouth was "Huh?" The whole concept literally caught me off guard. What was your reaction when Paul O'Neill first presented the idea to you?
Al Pitrelli – I don't know if I ever had a reaction to Paul's idea to be honest with you. It wasn't like he presented this proposal or prospectus to me, about a business he was starting. We were in my kitchen talking and he says to me, "Hey, I'm going to start this thing called Trans-Siberian Orchestra. This is what we are going to do and this is how I'm going to go about getting it done. Do you want to be a part of it?" I just looked at him and said, "Sure Paul, whatever."
JAM: And that was that?
Here's the thing. We first met when I toured with Michael Bolton the rocker, not the soul singer he became. Paul was part of the management team that handled Bolton back in 1984 when I started working for him. He was in the office one day when I went in and we struck up a conversation. At the end of our talk, Paul said, "We have to work together one day." Now, if you factor that conversation in, and fast forward ten years, Paul hired me to play guitar on the Savatage record Dead Winter Dead, which included "Christmas Eve (Sarajavo 12/24)". That song would become the centerpiece to what is now Trans-Siberian Orchestra. So, to answer your question, there wasn't a real conscious decision one day where Paul goes, "I want to do this." There were little things, like a series of mini lightning strikes, leading up to the formation of the project.
JAM: It sounds like one of those 'six degrees of separation' things.
At the time of TSO's formation in 1995-'96, you have to keep in mind what was going on in the music industry, especially with radio. Heavy metal and guitar-oriented hair bands from the '80s were dead. This incredibly huge scene of grunge, hip-hop, the Seattle movement, had all killed off the hard rock industry. Everything, especially traditional rock and roll, was seemingly gone overnight. When Paul told me he wanted to create a record with a non-traditional orchestra, I looked at him and said, "Brother, I love you, but you are insane. This is so not going to work, but what the hell, let's go and do it." I think I got paid a couple of cheeseburger dinners out of the work I did. Literally, there was no money involved because all of it was being spent on production. Since I loved hanging out with Paul because he's a musical genius, I told him flat out I didn't care about money. If he wanted to create a piece of art, then let's create something really special together. I was in, period. Besides, I was convinced it was never going to sell.
JAM: The TSO concept of combining rock and orchestra isn't new. Emerson, Lake & Palmer come to mind as sort of pioneers in the field. Are you surprised this project has been able to sustain itself all these years?
Yes and no. I've been in this business for 30 years, so as a musician, I have helped nurture ideas, been part of recordings and tours, and seen concepts come and go. The direction Paul wanted to take, however, was clear cut from the beginning. You couldn't budge him from the musical path he saw in his head. Jon Oliva and Bob Kinkel understood Paul's vision and immediately dove into the project with him.
JAM: Al, you've been a part of a lot of recording projects throughout your career. What makes this one stand out from the rest?
Very few of the ventures I've been involved with I can go back and listen to without my skin crawling. The one thing about Paul is this. I may argue and fight tooth and nail with him in the studio about what he wants to do, but at the end of the day, he makes his case as the producer. What he says goes, and I'm fine with that. I don't even try to figure it out. I just go with the flow and enjoy it. Honestly, through the years, the music he wanted me to recreate on the guitar is the only thing I can listen back to and enjoy.
JAM: That's quite a statement.
I have tremendous respect for the man. He has a knack for creating something that is timeless. He has the instinct to know that the masses are going to get it – not only musically with his rock opera soundtracks – but the stories, the poetry and the Frank Capra-esque tales he writes. They are beautiful stories. I understand why the American public embraced Trans-Siberian Orchestra. Paul has his finger on the pulse of America, and now we are moving globally. We'll be touring Europe this coming Spring. For whatever reason, this music is not too advanced to where it goes over people's heads, and it's not so Neanderthal that it insults people. There's a perfect balance with the music and the story being told.
JAM: I interviewed producer Bob Ezrin recently about his involvement with Pink Floyd's The Wall. He told me working with Alice Cooper, to create his concept album projects in the '70s, was instrumental in preparing him to deal with the intensity, and somewhat madness, that ensued with his production duties creating The Wall. Did the time you spend with Alice in the late '80s, as his musical director, prepare you for TSO?
Absolutely it did. Alice was a big, big part of my education. Working as his musical director taught me how to communicate and speak with trained musicians, and those that played purely by instinct. With Alice, he had a mixture of gifted, classically trained musicians who could read and speak all forms of music. On the other end of that spectrum, he mixed them in with guys who were self-taught players. Together, these individuals were equally talented at their particular craft. As a music director, I had to learn to speak to them all differently. Working with Alice taught me those skills. It also prepared me for the theatrical portion of a rock and roll concert which I had never been exposed to. As a musician on stage with Alice Cooper, you become a soundtrack for the visuals that are playing out on stage. It was a crash course for what I'd eventually be doing with Trans-Siberian Orchestra.
JAM: Has working with TSO given you a different kind of respect, not so much from your peers, but the general public?
That's a difficult question to answer.
JAM: Would you rather be respected more by your peers than the general public?
Ideally, I'd rather be well respected by all of them. Success is a relative term. We have sold millions of records, have two complete touring bands, and 14 years later, we are still selling out arenas around the country. At this stage of my life, and remember I've been doing this some 30 years, I don't know many of my peers are enjoying the type of success TSO does with their own careers. Today, I only care what people who have gone to the show think.
JAM: You know, I don't think an Eddie Van Halen would have worked in TSO? There's no way he would have taken the direction Paul saw in his mind.
Interesting you say that. I'm going to paraphrase what someone quoted me one time. They said Eddie Van Halen would be the greatest unknown guitar player on the planet if it weren't for David Lee Roth.
JAM: That's a very debatable subject Al, but here's something that's not. In my opinion, looking over your body of work, YOU are the biggest unknown guitar player in the world.
You know, I want to thank you for saying that to me. It's a title I hold dear to my heart. It makes me very proud to hear that statement come from you.
JAM: Seriously, I'm not throwing that out to appease your ego. Your eclectic style of guitar playing has sustained you in this business for 30 years.
You know what, I'm proud of that accomplishment as well. At one point in my career, being characterized as a good, unknown guitar player used to really irk me. Now I'm fine with the term. I'm 50 years old, sitting in the back of a tour bus pulling into an arena in Salt Lake City. We are playing two sold out arena shows. At this stage of my career, that's not bad. I can walk into this concert hall and nobody would know who I am. That wouldn't matter to me for a second. When I walk on the stage tonight, I'll be surrounded by my family and friends. I will be playing music that I helped create, and this audience will react with smiles on their faces. I'm a part of their holiday tradition, because that's what TSO has become to hundreds of thousands of people around the country over the years. Those are all the accolades I need.
JAM: In the '80s, you played guitar with the rocker Michael Bolton, and then went on from there to tour with Alice Cooper. Your talents could have landed you a gig with almost any of the guitar-oriented hair bands of the time, but the whole glam thing sort of passed you by.
I can't begin to tell you how happy and fortunate I was not to get caught up in the crazy rock world of the '80s. It destroyed a lot of people. Over the years, I've learned I don't need a pat on the back for the job I do with TSO. At the end of the evening, all I want to hear is, "Hey man, you did a good job tonight on guitar." That in itself is why I appreciated your compliment of calling me a great unknown guitar player.
JAM: You really don't have an ego, do you?
What matters most to a musician when they walk out of a room is this. What are people saying about them now they've left? When you go through life doing a reasonably good job at whatever you do – and you're a decent human being – when you turn your back and walk away from the crowd, that gesture can be a metaphor for anything you want it to be. I think it is safe to assume on my part that when I walk out of a room, people will say, "Hey, you know what? He's pretty good dude!" That is all my ego hopes is said about me at the end of the day.
JAM: Your body of work over the decades has incorporated so many eclectic styles of playing, how do you keep it straight in your head?
I've never looked at my playing as incorporating different styles. I grew up on Long Island in the 1960s. There was only one radio station for us back then, WABC-AM. At any given time, I would hear Sammy Davis Jr., Frank Sinatra, The Beatles, Gladys Knight, soundtracks from West Side Story or the Sound of Music, Paul Revere & the Raiders, you name it. As a young guitar player learning his instrument, one minute I'd be playing something by Glen Campbell, the next Eric Clapton. All I know is there are 12 notes of music with an infinite number of combinations. Seriously, I could care less if I am jamming to Ozzy, doing a heavy metal adaptation of Mozart's 25th Symphony, or playing acoustic to a little vocal ballad.
JAM: When you join a group as a touring musician, are you careful how you interpret the guitar playing of the original guitarist? Does that make any difference to you at all?
It makes a huge difference to me. It's not my job to interpret someone else's work. I've been hired to replicate it. When I played with Megadeth, Dave Mustaine didn't want to hear anything about an interpretation of his music on my part. He wanted the guitar notes to sound exactly the way they do on the record. Megadeth fans wanted me to play every Marty Friedman guitar solo note for note. If I was to interpret it differently, that would make me lazy and foolish because that meant I wasn't learning anything. Marty is such a great guitar player, that by exactly mimicking his solos, it forced me to play like him for those 30, 40 seconds. That in turn expanded my own insights on how to play different styles of music with my instrument. I really enjoy learning. By duplicating the sound, it kept Dave happy and made me a better guitar player.
JAM: You said Dave Mustaine pulled you out of a pretty troubled personal life and helped you cope with other problems as well. What were you talking about?
I was going through a pretty heavy bout with alcohol abuse back in '99 as well as a real ugly divorce. My personal life was spiraling out of control. It never affected me professionally, but Dave had gone through his own bout with drug and alcohol abuse, so when he and I hooked up, he saw right through me. He knew I could play the guitar and do the job he wanted, but fortunately, he also took a personal interest in what was going on in my life. Dave attacked my addiction problems on a more militant level. I didn't like his drill sergeant act at first, but in retrospect, it's exactly what I needed. When he first confronted me about my abuse problems, my immediate reaction was, "Hey, there's nothing wrong with me." Once I saw how orderly his world was being sober, I thought there might be something to it. Turned out there was.
JAM: It's interesting that Dave Mustaine gets kicked out of Metallica because he was a nasty alcoholic and drug addict. He was saved by Alice Cooper, who in turn gave you a pivotal job that not only prepared you for TSO, but helped you escape the '80s rock scene of big hair, makeup and spandex unscathed.
And as you well know, Alice had his own battles with alcohol and drugs that he too conquered. The music business is a tight knit community. People in this industry will reach out to help if you're willing to take their hand. There are people in all walks of life chasing that dragon. Rock and roll is no different a profession than a lawyer or business man. Anyone can find themselves drowning in a sea of alcohol or drugs. You have to want to be rescued. Dave Mustaine knew I was in trouble and responded to that silent S.O.S. signal I was sending out. I'm forever grateful he did.
JAM: You said that recreating the work of another guitarist, note for note, improves you as a player. What do you mean by that?
When I was a kid growing up, what helped me grow as a player was duplicating guitar solos. It helped me understand what the guitar could actually do. For instance, learning to play the guitar parts of the Allman Brothers Live at the Fillmore East note for note, gave me the musical vocabulary to create my own style. Believe it or not, learning to play the different guitar styles of a Dickey Betts, Jeff Beck, Eddie Van Halen, Neal Schon or a David Gilmore, enables you to understand the nuances and vibratos of the instrument. These guys are the masters. Duplicating their combinations and tones, believe it or not, ends up helping you create your own identity. The same principles apply to art, theater, acting, etc. This is how all artists learn their craft. You learn from the masters, take what they've taught you, then embellish on that information to make it your own. As far I'm concerned, the learning process should never stop. To this day, if I hear a really cool note or guitar passage on the radio, I will sit down and learn it.
JAM: How would you describe the ride you've been on with the Trans-Siberian Orchestra?
Working with my friend Paul has taken me to an entirely different level of chasing perfection. He has had me redo the notes of guitar solos, or acoustic parts, 90 to 100 times in some instances, because he was looking for one particular sound. I just don't see it while I'm playing. However, Paul's ear will hear the music differently and bring a particular note, or sequence of chords I'm playing, to my attention to embellish upon. When I listen back to the parts he's finally happy with, I get what he was looking for. Performing Paul's music is a tremendously rewarding, as well as frustrating experience, but I relish the challenge.
JAM: Does Paul use Jedi mind tricks to get you to play what he wants to hear even when you think you've already done it?
He may have at some point, but I'd never know it would I? All joking aside, Paul uses subtle pressure like, "C'mon man, you can do better than that! Take me some place else with your music. Tell me a story with your guitar." Over the years, Paul has taught me that as an instrumentalist, my job is ten times harder than a vocalist because I have to tell a story without a lyric. I have to use the notes on a guitar to make a statement. That is really difficult, especially when Paul wants you to master what you're saying. He has taught me so much over the last 15 years I could never thank him enough.
JAM: And here I thought Steve Vai and Eric Johnson were the only anal perfectionists I had ever met.
You know, people who strive for that type of perfection are on a whole different plain than we are. I may never accomplish on the guitar what Steve Vai has done, but the journey to at least trying to get to that level is fun for me.
JAM: Is it fair to call the Tran-Siberian Orchestra 'Savatage light'?
(Silence for 10 seconds) No, and the only reason for the hesitation in my voice is I'm sure I've never heard that question before. If anything, TSO has become "Savatage, Oh My Gosh!"
JAM: Savatage and TSO founder Jon Oliva has gone on record saying the Trans Siberian Orchestra is a multi-platinum band that is actually Savatage with a different name and different singers.
Savatage was a great metal band that had tremendous success and took their style about as far as it could be taken. Paul O'Neill wrote several of their albums. There's a big question mark that if it wasn't for Savatage, TSO may not exist today. Yes, the Savatage song "Christmas Eve Sarajevo 24/7" on Dead Winter Dead was the spark that ignited what the Trans-Siberian Orchestra is today. Because of that one song, we have been able to give several musicians and singers the opportunity to be a part of something great. We gave the American public the chance to embrace something they didn't have before. Paul decided to shift gears and create something that previously didn't exist. Yesterday this wasn't here. Today it is. Job well done.
JAM: In October 1993, Jon Oliva's brother Criss was on his way to a concert with his spouse, when a drunk driver struck their vehicle. The wreck killed the Savatage co-founder while severely injuring his wife. Did his tragic death not only signal the end of the band, but in a way, open the door for the TSO concept to step in and fill a void?
I think the only thing Criss Oliva's death accomplished was breaking a lot of people's hearts. I believe in kismet and karma. I believe our lives are a series of left and right turns, where you make the decision on the direction you're going to take. I don't believe that anybody's untimely death does anything but break the spirits of their loved ones. Did it create a void that gave me entrance into Savatage? Yes, but I'd rather have Criss alive and walking the planet than have the job offered to me. Every time I see Jon, I see that hole in his heart that's missing because his brother is not here.
JAM: Have you ever said no to a project when you were asked to participate?
I've never said no to a project because even if it sounds funky, I won't know what it's about until I get in it. Now I certainly have walked off some projects once I got involved.
JAM: Why would you do that?
At the end of the day I don't need the money bad enough if I feel my integrity is going to be questioned or tested. It also comes down to the people I'm around. If they turn out to be different than what I thought, I'll leave. For a little Italian, I suffer from a Napoleon complex and have a really bad temper. If everything is good, we'll be best friends. If something about the situation makes my skin crawl, I won't hesitate to walk out because I could care less. Nothing is that important to me
JAM: Why did drill sergeant Dave Mustaine win out where others did not?
Because when I see Dave, I'm looking at someone who walks the walk and talks the talk. He's not somebody who comes in and says this is the way you have to do things because I say so. He was in Metallica, got fired, then fought back and created the second greatest heavy metal band in the world. That's one hell of an accomplishment. Most people would have curled up in a ball like a pussy and quit. He said to himself, "Nope, I am going to fight back and do this." He also successfully fought his alcohol and drug abuse to come out on the other side. I have tremendous admiration for a man like that. I don't have to like everything about him. Dave and I won't ever walk through the woods singing show tunes. But here's the thing. When I work with someone, I have to admire and respect them. If I like them on top of it, that's an added bonus in my book. With Dave's history and accomplishments, he's allowed to speak his mind to me. I can either be smart enough to listen, or I can be foolish and more arrogant than I already am, and tell him I'm not interested in his opinion. When Dave would talk, I'd listen and make it work for both of us. I didn't necessarily have to agree with what he said, but I respected the fact it worked for him.
JAM: Musically, Paul O'Neill is the polar opposite to Dave Mustaine yet, they both earned your respect. Exactly what does the word mean to you?
Respect is like watching a really good movie. I can watch It's a Wonderful Life every year at Christmas time. After that I can watch the Godfather trilogy. They are two different movies, two different schools of cinematography, two masterpieces. These films were directed and brought to life by Frank Capra and Francis Ford Coppola who had two completely separate ways of accomplishing their goals. The one common denominator they had was their work ethic which helped distinguish their body of work. Paul O'Neill and Dave Mustaine are insane perfectionists when it comes to the music they create. Just when I get tired and want to put my feet up at the end of the day, they are like "Hey Al, let's try this on the guitar." That type of drive gets me excited and motivated to see what I can pull out of myself. It doesn't matter I'm dealing with creative personalities that are polar opposites. They are brilliant in their own right, and as a guitarist, that excites me to work with them because I have to be at the top of my game at all times.
JAM: Does it make you feel pretty good knowing an artist can contact you about a project, explain to you what he's thinking about doing musically, because he knows you'll get it?
Yes it does. I'm very grateful to possess a talent a lot of guitarists don't. As a matter of fact, that's one of the reasons Paul and I work together so well. He knows that whatever comes out of his mouth, or is floating around in his mind, I'm going to be able to translate and get it on tape for him. It makes me feel good because that means I'm shutting off the creative switch in my head and paying attention to what someone else is saying. When Paul is on to something, I have to disengage how I hear music and listen to exactly what's going on in that big brain of his. Sometimes he has three or four soundtracks of music going through his mind simultaneously.
JAM: In the music business, greatness unfortunately for a musician, is defined by how successful you are selling records and having hit singles. Your versatility has certainly served you well over the years. Are you where you want to be right now in your life?
I'm getting there. I want to continue making great music and cultivate relationships in this business. I want people to say I was a good guy who left a good legacy behind. I want my children to be proud of the work I've done. I want a stranger in the street, who doesn't know my name to recognize the music I've helped to create. At this point in my life, to at least be given the chance to still be out here doing the thing I love is amazing. Once you have run out of challenges in life, you might as well crawl up and die. I need to wake up and feel useful. I need to wake up and feel I can accomplish something on a daily basis. I want wake up every day and create something. I want to go to sleep tonight and realize it was a good day because we built something together. I want some little kid to walk out of a Trans-Siberian Orchestra show tonight inspired to buy a guitar, or play the piano, or learn the violin. If I can inspire a 12-year old to walk away from computer games and go to a guitar store the next day, then it was a good day for Al Pitrelli.