Trans-Siberian Orchestra (Al Pitrelli) interview
Interview by Davide Sciaky
Puoi leggere l’intervista in italiano qui.
Thank you for taking time out to talk to me today.
Well, thank you, it’s great to see you and nice to be talking with you.
Absolutely, where are you, exactly?
I’m in Milan, Italy.
Beautiful! I love it there so much.
Yeah, not so nice right now with a possible second lockdown in view, but what can you do?
I know, I hope you and your family, and everybody are safe and healthy and doing the best you can do.
Thankfully, we are all okay right now, I hope the same with you.
Yeah, listen, under the circumstances everybody’s pretty good.
I’m glad to hear it.
So, I’d like to start this interview talking about the big news of the past few days for Trans-Siberian Orchestra, you’ve just announced that the Trans-Siberian Orchestra will play a streaming show in December, a Christmas show. What kind of show can your fans expect to see?
Obviously, as everybody knows, because of circumstances beyond our control it’s the first time ever we had to cancel a tour.
We never even cancelled a show, we were never even late for a show before, so this past March this whole thing fell upon us, we were all watching the news and freaking out, “What are we gonna do? What’s going on?”.
By August the O’Neill family and our manager said, “Listen, there’s no way we can tour”, which was heart-breaking, for 21 years we’ve been doing the same thing, this has become a tradition for all of us.
Not too long after that is when they said, “What do you think about doing a live-stream?” and my reaction was, “Absolutely! We have to do something this year”: this is tradition for so many people, including myself and my family, this is what we do every year and I don’t know what life would be like without performing this wonderful work, “Christmas Eve and Other Stories“.
So, for the first time ever, instead of people coming out, and driving, and sitting in traffic, and worrying about parking, and babysitters and all that, you know, we’re gonna bring the show to the comfort and safety of everybody’s living room and, for the first time ever, globally!
Usually it’s been kinda restricted to the United States because we don’t have the time to travel to Europe, to Asia, to South America… nowhere! To come to Italy, where my family came from generations ago, it would be a thrill to ever play there.
So, looking at the glass half full we get to do a concert, one time, unfortunately this year, but at least everybody in the world can now tune in comfortably and safely so, everybody’s gonna have a front row seat, everybody’s gonna have the same vantage point.
Basically it’s almost gonna be like being on stage with us, so that’s really exciting for all us.
Yeah, that’s something that I thought from the very moment all these recent streaming shows started being announced. Of course, you miss out on the more physical side of being at a show, in front of your favourite band, next to other people, but at the same time… I mean, for me in Milan and for you in New York it’s easy to go see shows, but I’m thinking of all the people who live in smaller towns…
… they usually must travel a long way to see a show, or they miss it. So, this way you can reach a lot more people who otherwise would probably find hard or impossible to see you.
What you said is exactly correct.
Usually people have to travel a great distance, maybe they can’t travel for whatever the reason.
Now, especially this year travelling isn’t the safest thing, being around large crowds certainly isn’t being allowed in a lot of places right now.
So, again, the glass being half full, you stay home, stay in your pyjamas, have a glass of wine, you put the fireplace on, turn the tv on real loud, you know, with your fists in the air and let us bring the show to you.
An interesting part, because I don’t know that much about technology, but what I’ve been made to understand is that on December 18, at 8 PM New York time, or East Coast Time in America, is when it’s officially going to start.
Now that’s, what? 4, 5 in the morning for you, right?
2 in the morning, I think, yeah.
Right, that might be a little late for some people, I got two small kids in the house, so I’ll be to sleep, you know. [Laughs]
But you have it for 48 hours, so can start it whenever you decide, you get to tell me for the first time, “Okay, I want the show… now!”, and I’m gonna be there and starting the show now.
That’s pretty cool.
That’s kinda cool, yeah, listen, there are a lot of good parts about it.
I’d rather be on tour, I’d rather do what I wanna do, but that was taken away so now you have to adapt, and overcome, and improvise.
There’s a lot of positive things that are now part of the show, first of all to have people in Milan and in the rest of Italy, to be able to tune in and celebrate Christmas with us.
Maybe most of the people they have never seen this before and now you get a chance to witness what everybody’s been talking about for so many years.
What were the challenges of adapting your show to the streaming format?
Well, you know, it’s a smaller stage which, again, isn’t a bad thing, it’s just a different thing.
Keep in mind that all we have right now together is different so, I think it’s gonna focus on the performance, on the songs, on the lyrics, there’s gonna be a lot of the big production things that we’ve been known for.
But, again, I guess the biggest difference is that when I start playing usually I look out into a crowd and see maybe 15.000 people. Right now, I’m gonna look out and see 15 cameras about that far away from my face [moves his hand in front of his face], which at my age might be a little dangerous [laughs].
Can we expect to see some surprises in terms of the musicians who will play this show?
Yeah, I don’t know how much… you know, I can either tell you or keep it a surprise but, I’ll say it like this and you’ll tell me to elaborate: it will be the first time in literally 21 years that the original band from ’99 will be back together again playing this music.
So, you know, back in ’99 we did our first tour and it was the one band, it was myself, and Johnny Lee [Middleton], and the rest of the guys from Savatage at the time, and we performed and had a great tour.
Now, in 2000 popularity demanded that we cover the entire country, so we had to chop the band in half and Chris Caffery and Jeff Plate went one way, and Johnny Lee and I went the other way, and we haven’t had a chance to play this music together since then.
It’s a real honour and privilege, I’m very excited about doing it with these guys again where it all kind of begun.
You mentioned the band popularity and this is something I wanted to ask you about because over the years you have become huge, both in terms of live concerts and studio albums, I know that “Christmas Eve and Other Stories” is among the most sold holiday albums of all times in the States. So, when you first started was this success a gradual process or was it a sudden thing?
I’d say, a little bit both.
When we recorded the first song, ‘Christmas Eve/Sarajevo 12/24’, I was playing guitar and I knew that there was something special about the track, it was a beautiful piece of music, very powerful, very dark.
I didn’t realise how successful it was gonna be in radio in America, but…December of 1995 it got played in one radio station, and then in a matter of hours it was being played in every radio station in America .
Like, literally, you and I are talking now, by dinnertime it was all over the place, the phones were ringing, people were freaking out.
I had never seen anything like it!
So, that was a great success that literally happened overnight with the song.
So, then Paul O’Neil decided to write an entire record around that song and called it “Christmas Eve and Other Stories“; so, we went into the studio and, again, I knew we were recording something very special but never would have I understood or could have thought how popular it was gonna be.
That year the record sold, I think, two million copies and went double Platinum in America. I was like “YES!”, you know, “This is awesome!”, and I was happy with that.
From ’96 until ’99 we recorded a couple of records and people were buying these records, every year the songs would be played in radio, I was like, “This is incredible, dude”.
’99 he said, “Let’s go out on tour”, okay: the first tour was seven cities in the North Eastern United States, it was Boston, Philly, New York, Cleveland, Detroit, whatever, and we had one small truck, two buses and a fog machine.
It was a great tour, I was happy with that, again, “YES! We nailed it!”, sold a lot of records, sold out that tour, it was awesome.
Well, from that year until 2019 it grew to, like, last year we sold one million tickets in six weeks.
I had 20 tractor trailers and 12 buses, a hundred guys in the crew.
I always equate it to my children: when they’re born they’re like little, and innocent, and you’re like, “Oh my God, I’ve got to protect this and nurture, what’s it gonna be like when my baby grows up?”, and some of my children are all grown up and they’ve become incredible at what they do.
It’s the same with the Trans-Siberian Orchestra: it started out really small and we’ve protected it, and nurtured it, and took care of it, made sure it was always represented properly and over 25 years now it has grown to become something that I never thought it would grow to be.
I’m so proud to be part of it, ‘cause it exceeded all my expectations.
Back then you started working on your first album, or what was supposed to be you first album, “Romanov: When Kings Must Whisper”.
It’s been a long way coming and I’ve found an interview with Paul O’Neill from 2014 where he said that he was recording it, I think it was the vocals, at that time. So, I’d like to ask you what is the status of the album, today?
Well, that’s been I think world record for the longest time to release a record [laughs] because no matter what, we would work on the record and then something would occur that we have to put it on pause; a tour would come up, a special show, would come up, we would do spring tours, whatever.
So, up until about 2014 we had been working on it, in 2015 we took a break from it because we did the big festival in Germany, the Wacken festival, where TSO took over both stages, and that took months, and months, and months of preparation.
Then we went into the next winter tour and, what would be four years this coming April, unfortunately Paul passed away.
Everything, needless to say, came to a screeching alt.
The world, my world was completely turned upside down, a loss that I will never get over, I can only imagine his wife, and his daughter and the rest of his family.
So, last year, excuse me, earlier this year, when we got off tour after New Year’s, I’d say by February of ’20, I went down to our studio and we started working on “Romanov” again.
It was like, “Come on, let’s get back to work, Paul wanted this record to be completed, his work should continue, his legacy is gonna live on” and I would say it sounds great: the vocals are coming out great, the songs are coming together.
Then you turn on the TV the first week of March and I kinda looked at the TV and went, “Uh? What’s going on?”.
Management and the O’Neil family called up and said, “Listen, we don’t know what this is about, why don’t we just stop recording, everybody go home for a couple of weeks until this thing runs its course?”.
Well, a couple of weeks turn into… what’s today? Almost November 1, now.
So, I know that the record is so close to completion, hopefully by next year, safely, we could all get back to work and complete it and put it out, because it’s a magnificent work and it needs to get done.
So, is it gonna be the next album you put out or do you have other things in the works?
There’s other things in the works, but I know that everybody wants this record done for all the right reasons.
You know, it was the first, it was supposed to be the first TSO record, but with the success of “Christmas Eve and Other Stories” it got put off to the side.
Now, 25 years later everybody wants it done because IT IS incredible.
There are other works that we want to finish but, you know, I just want to get back to work and, more importantly, my wife wants me to get back to work because if I don’t get out of the house she’s gonna kill me [laughs].
It’s been 5 years since the Wacken show you mentioned which was also the last time you came to Europe, so I was wondering, why has it been so long?
Well, I don’t have a really good answer for you other than, we wanted to come back and we finished Wacken and we went right into rehearsals for the 2015 winter tour and we were all pretty exhausted and by the time we all caught our breath unfortunately, like I said, by ’16, no, excuse me, in ’17 we lost Paul.
You really don’t come back from something like that that quickly, or ever, to be honest with you.
Now it’s like, okay, what this pandemic has thought us, just like when a family member passes away, you have no idea what tomorrow holds for you, everything could disappear overnight.
So, I’m pretty positive that once the smoke clears, figuratively speaking, we’ll get back in the studio next year to continue working on the record, God willing we can tour in 2021, everybody’s talking about “Let’s go back to Europe, we love it over there”, we love performing there.
My wife and I spent our honeymoon over there, almost six years ago, I’ve been touring there since 1989, you know, I just love it, I want to bring my children over there, I want them to sit underneath Duomo and witness where our family comes from, where our culture originates from, the culture, the richness of… the people and everything about it.
We can’t wait to get back and bring you guys a little old fashioned American Rock and Roll and just live life again.
That show you played at Wacken was something really special and huge, you played two stages together with Savatage, and I think that every fan of both bands would love to see some professionally filmed footage of that show. Are you planning to release that anytime soon?
I don’t have any answer for you, I don’t know.
I know that it was filmed, I saw a couple of clips but, again, what I did yesterday is already behind me [laughs] you know, I don’t have the luxury of like, paying too much attention to what’s going on, I mean, the O’Neill family, the management, I leave all that in their hands.
I hope that it’s released because it was a moment caught in time, it was such an incredible evening and, to be honest with you, I’d love to watch it, I’ve never had a chance to really see it, I wanna sit back and go, “Oh, that’s what we do, cool!”.
I never get to watch the production of the shows, I’m on stage, I can’t see it.
I hope it’s really good [laughs].
Since we mentioned Savatage, of course many hoped that the Wacken show meant that the band could come back sometimes soon. Is there any news in that department? Has there been any talks among the band members? Have you been working on any new music?
Jon Oliva is such a great writer, he’s always writing new music, always sending me tracks, always sending me ideas.
When we’re working on TSO stuff he and I will sit down at the piano and I listen to new Savatage ideas he has.
We’re always talking about doing something, I would love more than anything to get the band together and go tour.
I know that the fanbase over in Europe would love that, it would be nice to do it.
Yes, we’re always talking about it and hopefully someday we will do it, because like I have said, the world changes on a dime and I don’t want to have any regrets saying, “We should have done it when we had the chance”.
Let’s just do live every day to the fullest and don’t wait to try to do something, just do it!
I look forward to one day… I don’t have a set date, or a time, or a plan, I just know that we would all love that very, very much.
So as of now there have not been more concrete talks with like, booking agents or promoters about a comeback.
Right, it’s just talks, it’s just a bunch of friends saying, “Man, it would be great to go out and tour”.
Up until recently everything has been like, “Okay, we finish the winter tour, then plan for either a spring tour, or a record, or the next winter tour”, really it’s a full time job just to keep this machine going, and in between that we always talk about, “Hey man, I’d love to go over to Europe for the summer”, there’s so many things to do, whatever.
Like I said, life sometimes kicks in so if you got your best friend you might go, “Wow, why haven’t I talked to you in three years? Oh right, I got kids, you got kids… “, you know, sometimes life just kicks in, especially as we’re getting older and other responsibilities come first.
I know that we keep talking about it, especially now that we have a lot of time to talk.
It’s a conversation that continues, I spoke to Chris Caffery this morning, he told me to say hello, by the way.
Well, thank you.
Jeff Plate, Johnny Lee, we talk all the time, it’s just a matter of, “Okay, let’s get this pandemic behind and let’s focus on the important things in life”.
Talking about your career more in general, twice in your career you joined bands where you had to replace guitarists that were very much loved by their fans, obviously I’m talking about Savatage and Megadeth. I guess that replacing such guitarists could be almost scary, surely it’s a big responsibility. How did you approach these two gigs?
Well, with Savatage Chris Caffery, he pays homage, and tribute, and respect Criss Oliva all the time; what Chris chose to do, he’s great at doing, and he loves to do that more than anything.
So, when I got involved with Savatage it was for the “Dead Winter Dead” record, and I was able to create my own guitar parts for that record, and “The Wake of Magellan”, and subsequent records after that.
Trying to compete with somebody like Criss Oliva… you know, he was so great, rest his soul, I would pay my respects to him all the time, but I also had the ability to say, “Okay, I want to do my own stuff”.
When we played live, Chris Caffery, I said, “Dude, you know him better than anybody, you take care of all the Criss Oliva’s stuff and I’ll take care of all the newer things, all the Alex Skolnick’s stuff, and myself and so on and so forth”.
So there’s pretty much a dividing line in the sand, because you wanted the Criss Oliva’s solos and his parts represented exact, because he’s brilliant, he’s incredible.
When it came to Megadeth, I had to learn everybody’s parts, note for note.
Mustaine wanted Marty Friedman’s solos exact, and that was hands down the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do as a guitar player, ‘cause Marty is incredible, completely different style, very unique.
Marty was an absolute gentleman, he stuck around for about a month after he decided to leave the band and helped me work on all the things, so I was like having the best teacher ever because, who’s better to teach you the Marty Friedman’s solos than Marty Friedman?
Dave Mustaine was very strict, he wanted them exact and that caused me to be a better guitar player so, I just approached it like, “Listen, if that’s what you expect me to do I’m gonna do it. Nobody else is gonna get this shot, I want this shot”.
I have a relentless work ethics where I’m just gonna work all day and all night until it’s exactly like it should be, and it’s taught me a lot, and I’ve taken that knowledge with me 20 years since I’ve left the band.
Going back to the TSO, there’s another project that you are working on, the remake of Savatage’s “Streets” as a musical which I think it’s supposed to be called “Gutter Ballet And The New York City Blues Express”. Will that be just a musical or also a studio album?
We always like to record records because that’s the generation we came from, you know, it will be a Rock Opera just like anything else Jon Oliva and Paul O’Neill have done.
Paul O’Neill was such a fan of all the Andrew Lloyd Webber’s work, of course he was a huge Pink Floyd and The Who fan, so, yeah, there’s so many records on hold right now that we can’t wait to get back to work on, it’s just a matter of, “Okay, let’s get healthy, let’s stay safe, let’s get this thing behind us”, and everybody just want to get back to work, there’s no more time to waste, because you’ve seen what happens.
We’ve all lost a year of being productive and doing what we love to do.
I’ll do two records at once, I don’t care, I just want to make up for lost time.
As we said before, three years ago Paul O’Neill sadly passed away. How has that changed the chemistry and the dynamics of the TSO? Has any member taken a more prominent position than in the past?
Not really, we all knew our jobs and our places.
If anything we do our jobs better, we take it more seriously, but Paul and his family have been there guiding us for years, and now his family is still occupying the same role.
One of the things that could happen in any corporation, or any business, or any band, or any organization, is that if your leader is no longer there everybody starts changing their jobs and then the infrastructure, or the foundation, of everything falls apart.
We all knew that, like, I know what my job is: I don’t book the tour, I don’t collect the money, I don’t hire the bus company.
I’m the musical director, I run the band.
That’s the only job I want, that’s the only job I’m going to do.
And then we communicate a lot, Paul and I talked on the phone at least once a day, now his family and I talk all the time.
We all want the same things, we want this to live forever, and we know how to do it.
Nobody is really taking on any other’s job, my job is big enough, I’m good with that.
I don’t know how to do the other jobs, therefore I don’t want them; let the guys who are best at those position do those jobs, and this will continue on just fine.
Of course the Trans-Siberian Orchestra has been your main occupation for many years now, and we could say that the music this band plays is a bit softer than that of other bands you played with previously, we talked about Savatage and Megadeth, you played with Alice Cooper, too so I was wondering if you ever feel like you’d like to play something more aggressive and direct, so to say, or less orchestral? Have you ever thought, in recent years, of starting some different project or to join some other bands to play something different?
No, to be honest to you, no, because there’s enough diversity with TSO that covers all that.
You don’t go a whole lot heavier and darker than playing some Beethoven symphony, that’s pretty cool, or a Rachmaninov symphony, I mean, it’s pretty dark, dude, it’s super heavy and musically so challenging, and there are other pieces of music that are just a good old fashioned Rock band.
I love playing acoustic guitar, I have plenty of opportunity to do that in TSO, this has been a full-time job for me for many years and I’m very happy with it.
This is the band that I joined and I started working for Paul when it was born, I’ve been there since day one, and that’s all you really dream about.
I’m 58 years old, I’ve done everything I wanted to do, I’m okay.
I was in Megadeth, I had it for a couple of years, it was a lot of fun, I’ve got to play for Alice Cooper, I was Alice’s musical director and that was THRILLING, and I’ve also played for other artists in between, so I’ve kinda covered most of it.
Listen, when I go upstairs to practice after I finally get my daughters to sleep then I get to play Jobin, or Brazilian music, or I can listen my Count Basie records, just chill out and do that.
I don’t want to do anything else, I’m good right here.
Going back to the streaming show, we talked before of all the positive sides to it, and there are many, but something about it is that once you’ve played it everyone in the world can see the show, so if you do another streaming show, unless you change everything about it, people are gonna see pretty much the same thing all over again.
Of course you’ll want to see how the one in December works out, but do you think there’s a chance you’ll do more of that after the first one?
Oh, I don’t know, ask me that next year [laughs].
To be honest with you, I honestly haven’t really thought about it, ‘cause the only thing we really have this year is the streaming show.
I know that next year, the 2021 tour is being booked right now, we’re planning on going out on tour next year, which I’ll be thrilled to do that.
I think it would probably be a good idea to stream the show, certainly over by you guys, you know, have A show represent globally but, I don’t know dude, you can send me postcards, you can show me videos of Milan, and I’ll say, “How beautiful!”; the architecture, the church, the cathedral… shopping, my wife loves that part, but at the end of the day I want to fly there and walk the streets, and see, and touch it, and smell it, and be there in person.
I’m kinda old, and I grew up in the Seventies, I want to go to an arena, be in the audience and experience the electricity and the excitement of a live concert.
Either way I’m good, and I’d like to maybe accomplish both next year, but to be honest with you, no idea.
I haven’t even thought about it, I’m more concerned about getting through the next month and a half than anything else.
But we’re approaching the year 2021, virtual concerts, streaming and all that, it certainly is very important and everybody does it.
Would I only wanna do that? Nah, I want to play live, I want the people in front of me to scream, I love the immediacy of live music.
But, either way, as long as I got a guitar around my neck and I’m making great music with great people I’m okay.
This was my final question, so I’ll only ask you one more little thing I’m curious about since you mentioned a few times that your family comes from here, from Italy: where does your family come from, exactly, and who was it that moved to the States?
From what I understand my great-grandmother came to the United States in 1902.
That side of the family came from Palermo, Sicily.
And my other side of the family is Calabrese, I’m pretty positive it’s southern Italian.
And I didn’t realise how different southern Italy is from northern Italy, it’s the same as in America, the North and the South is two different worlds.
I’ve only been to Italy I think three of four times, and I’ve only been to Milan, which is fine because I loved it there so much.
But I’ve never had the chance to… my wife wants to go to the Amalfi coast, my kids want to go to Rome, I’d like to go where my great-grandmother’s family came from because I want to carry their legacy, and that was the heritage, the love of family, and cooking and all the things that make me an Italian, or an Italian-American.
I love all of it and I’d like my daughters and my sons to go there and witness as well.
One day, you know, it’s one of those things that I’d like to accomplish and as I get older my windows are getting smaller so I gotta get to work and do all those things.
You are right, Italy is such a diverse country and travelling around is definitely a great idea.
Yeah, I know I would enjoy that.
You go from one side of New York City to the other side and it’s almost two different worlds, so I’m very familiar with the dichotomy of cultures and all that.
People say, “You are Italian”, but, no dude, from Sicily to Milan, I promise you it’s about as opposite as you can get.
And, you know what, I just want to explore all of it because, again, I don’t want to see pictures, and I don’t want to see movies, I don’t want to hear stories, I want to see it and touch it.
I want to walk the streets where my great-great-grandparents were, because that’s important to me!
I want my children to witness that. We are Americans, but this is where your family came from, this is what made us who we are.
So when we’re screaming at each other at the dinner table, I want to understand why [laughs].
Wonderful, thanks man, it’s been truly a pleasure to talk with you.
With you as well, it’s been a blast.
Much love, much respect, please stay safe and I hope to speak to you again in the near future.