Trans-Siberian Orchestra – Delivering the Letters From the Labyrinth
Updated: Apr 4, 2020
Delivering the Letters From the Labyrinth
by Jay S. Jacobs
Progressive rock and Christmas didn’t use to be bound together, but Paul O’Neill and his Trans-Siberian Orchestra have helped to change all that.
O’Neill formed the Trans-Siberian Orchestra with Savatage members Jon Oliva and Al Pitrelli, who he had previously worked with while producing several of Savatage’s albums. Together they created the first concept album of what became a Christmas trilogy, Christmas Eve and Other Stories. That album spawned a surprise hit, which has become a holiday standard, with “Christmas Eve/Sarajevo 12/24,” a rocking instrumental medley of “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” and “Carol of the Bells.” Later concept albums The Christmas Attic and The Lost Christmas Eve were also smash hits and cemented the band as a rocking yuletide favorite.
However, O’Neill never saw the band as a holiday force only, and more and more the band has been straying from the holiday season. As far back as Beethoven’s Last Night in 1999, the band focused on different aspects of history for their concepts. Recent albums like Night Castle, Dreams of Fireflies and their latest Letters From the Labyrinth, which is being released today, have allowed the band’s focus to shift to more broad-based looks at the human experience. O’Neill’s passions for art and history
Another shift for Letters From the Labyrinth is that it is the band’s first album which is not a concept album. Instead, O’Neill describes the album as a group of short stories, dealing with such vital subjects as prejudice, war, bullying, predatory banking and the fall of the Berlin Wall. In fact, O’Neill was so enamored with the idea that he indeed wrote a series of short stories to accompany tunes – and even a graphic novel for the instrumental “King Rurik.”
However, TSO has not left Christmas completely behind. Their annual international concert trek will pay tribute to their 1999 television-movie Ghost of Christmas Eve, though O’Neill assures that the tour will also feature songs from Letters From the Labyrinth.
A few weeks before the Trans-Siberian Orchestra was to release Letters from the Labyrinth and hit the road for their annual tour, we were one of the media outlets who had the opportunity to chat with TSO mastermind Paul O’Neill about his group, his interests, and being the unofficial rock band of Christmas.
Paul O’Neill of Trans-Siberian Orchestra
How is Letters From the Labyrinth a step forward for the band?
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.
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 dreamlands, where you have happy dreams, not nightmares. You take on the world after that.
A year ago, you were about 90% through Letters from the Labyrinth. What was it that you needed to get to the final puzzle piece of the album?
There were certain parts to the story 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, [and] 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 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.
Oh, wow. So the story changed.
It literally changed on the one concert we did, right in the middle of doing the album. It just made me realize, a single day can change the perspective of everything. A single incident. You’re looking at Pompeii one day in 70 AD. A volcano goes off and everything changes. You’re looking at a country that’s at peace in 1914, and 1915 everything changes. It’s all about perspective. Looking at it from the other person’s point of view, putting things in context. Making sure that you’re not a burden, but also, keep an eye out for other people.
TSO has also added a new logo, which is a combination of two phoenixes from western mythology. The 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.
I want to ask you specifically about opening the show in Erie this time, for the first time, and also, I believe doing some rehearsals here, as well.
I don’t know if we’re doing rehearsals, I think all the rehearsals are happening in Omaha. 99% sure about that. Sometimes, I’m the last to know about changes.
We’ve always loved the area, it’s always been a great rock market. Correct me if I’m wrong, but you guys have a new venue, also. The band always loves new venues, just because the electrical poles are more dependable. We’ve had problems in the past. We’ve had a number of buildings where we’ve blown the grids, sometimes building, sometimes for that area of the city. Erie was off our regular touring route for a while just because the production had gotten too big. So, it’s great to have it back on the regular touring schedule.
Two things I wanted to ask. First of all about a specific track you’ve talked a little about, “Forget About the Blame,” tell me about this version with Lzzy Hale and how that came about. Also, how much of the new material will you expect to be part of the shows this year?
We, basically, are hoping to do at least six songs in the new show this year. Particularly, songs like, “Madness of Men,” “Forget About the Blame,” “Not the Same.” This album, we had decided this is going to be the first album that we were going to have one song – we’ve done this live, Gary, but we’ve never done it on an album – Where we’ll have a female sing a song that was originally done on the album by a male, or a male do a song that was really done on an album by a female. Originally, I was going to have a male/female do, “Not the Same,” which is a song about the Amanda Todd cyber-bullying situation.
Again, it goes back to what happened when I was at Wacken. There were quite a few people I bumped into there from the Middle East. Also, while I was over there, we were watching the news. I had a bunch of Iranians say this is all the Iraqis’ fault. The Iraqis are saying blame Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabians are like, blame the Shiite militias.
For the people living in Syria, they don’t care about blame. They just want it to stop. What’s happened in the past, is the past. You can study it to correct the future, but it’s not going to change the past. The people living there, they don’t care who’s to blame. They just want it to end. The song, basically, took on a different meaning, so I decided, because you see mothers and fathers fleeing. I’m sure everyone on this phone call has seen that heart-breaking photo of that little boy in his new shoes just washed up on the shores of, I do believe it was, Turkey. I’m a parent. I only have the one kid, but that really cut the soul. Just to see the anguished looks of both the mothers and fathers.
We decided that, Robin Borneman, great singer from Holland who has 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. 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. 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, different perspectives. Robin Borneman and Lzzy Hale both, in my opinion, knocked it out of the ballpark.
For you and Jon and the rest of the group, is there anything special about performing in Tampa and Orlando, just in your own backyard? Or are you just so overrun with ticket requests, and everything, that you can’t even enjoy it. Is it just another stop on the tour?
Honestly, Florida, has slowly become the second home for the band. We love it down here. A lot of places for the band to rehearse. We just bought our first major recording studio in Tampa. Now we have two huge SSL rooms that we can go in twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. We don’t have to wait for time. Florida is basically becoming the center for recording for us right now. The studios we used in New York City have closed up shop, so we decided, let’s buy our own. We found one for sale, and Tampa is basically going to be our hometown for recording from now on.
I’m curious about the writing part itself, the difference in writing a short story versus writing a song. What do you get out of each one?
Wow. That’s a great question. With TSO, originally, the whole plan was to be rock-opera-driven, and eventually we would do one or two regular records. We simply never got around to it. We toy with the idea of making this a regular record, 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. 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.
Do you think you’ll ever end up on a stage somewhere, maybe Broadway?
Yes. Basically these days, our next step is to head towards Broadway, just because I love the coherent storytelling of Broadway.
I’ve known a lot of bands that have done rock operas that even after they explain it to me, I’m like, huh? I just don’t get it. Broadway never really got the true edge of rock. Whether it’s from a production point-of-view or it’s just rock credibility, they just simply don’t understand it. For me, it’s just a natural marriage. It’s time for rock to enter Broadway. Not that there’s anything wrong with old fashioned Broadway, but how many times can you re-open Oklahoma? It’s a great musical, but it’s more suitable for the forties than it is for the new millennium.
Last year, the show was built around The Christmas Attic. What can you tell us about this year’s show? Is there a theme this year? Just describe to us a little bit if you can.
Sure. Basically, there were three rock operas in the trilogy. After we did The Christmas Attic, all three of the rock operas had been performed live. Next year is the twentieth anniversary of Christmas Eve and Other Stories, so obviously, we’re going to do something big for that.
This year, one of my managers said, “You know what? You’ve never done the Ghost of Christmas Eve,” which originally we did in 1999 when we got a call from FOX who had a small, I think one hour, mini-movie drop-out on December 2nd. They asked us if they could film the band for an hour doing Beethoven’s Last Night, which we had just completed. I said, if you give me an hour, I’ll give you a mini-movie. They’re like, “Do you have a script?” and I’m like, “I’ll write it tonight.” I just quickly scripted together this little thing, where a fifteen year old ends up breaking into this old Vaudeville theater. She’s a runaway. There, she’s discovered by the caretaker, who uses the ghosts and the spirits from the theater to turn her life around. Thank God, FOX liked it.
They were able to get the legendary Ozzie Davis to play the caretaker, and people like Jewel and Michael Crawford were kind enough to share their talents and play the ghosts. It was only supposed to run once, and never again, but it did so well FOX ran it multiple times. Then it’s basically run on various stations ever since. The DVD has gone multi-platinum.
I’ve always liked it. It’s a little gem. It’s fun to watch it at home, with your family. But, live, there’s an excitement where you pick up the energy of the person in front of you, to the left of you, to the right of you. We decided if we were ever going to do The Ghost of Christmas Eve, live, it was this year or not at all, so we decided to go for it.
What kind of a postmortem do you do, and when does that take place after Christmas blows over? Also what did you learn from 2014 that you want to do way more of, and what did you learn that you want to do less of?
Great multiple questions. 2014, getting the band to this point was hard. Keeping it here and not letting down expectations is harder. We’re lucky because technology keeps advancing. We want to give people the comfort of what they expect, but something new to make it exciting. That’s getting harder and harder every year, as this thing gets larger and larger.
The other thing that has actually really come into its own, especially recently, is the fact that we’re seeing so many people in their young thirties, who first saw the band when they were teenagers and they’re now coming back bringing their own kids. The band has survived the two decade mark and kept its original fan base, and 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 the 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. Also, 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, very wide audience, and you have to be very, 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.
I’m very interested in your version of events with the new album. Is this is all based on serious world-wide events that are kind of downers, or is the album up-lifting, food for thought?
Actually, that’s a great question. Basically, I started to believe that the arts are the alpha and omega of human civilization. I believe that human beings and civilization started to move ahead when human beings sat around the fire and told stories and did paintings about a hunt, or whatever. When civilization falls apart, it tends to be the backdrop that limits how far they would fall. To me, the first super great civilization were the Greeks because around 600 BC, they were the first ones to say, “The sun doesn’t rise by magic, it rises by rules. And human beings can figure out those rules.” The answers to all of the problems of life is logic and reason, tempered by compassion, hopefully adding up to wisdom. It’s also knowing human frailties, that humans will mess things up.
The Greeks ended up defeating the Persian invasions, etc., but then they destroyed themselves in the Peloponnesian wars. Their ideals of using logic, reason, etc. were all captured in The Iliad and The Odyssey. Those stories… Greece disappeared as a civilization, or as an Empire, but The Iliad and The Odyssey didn’t. All those ideals, the Hellenistic ideals which were spread by Alexander the Great, resurfaced in Rome. Then Rome became a great empire and improved the world.
At its height, you could go from cities [like] Petra, Jordan to cities [like] Bath, England on paved roads. Through cities with hot and cold running water, with sewage. The average lifespan was nearly fifty. When Rome collapsed, we had the dark ages where the average lifespan was fifteen. It was harsh, short, and brutish, I think what Hobbes said. Even though western Rome fell, the stories in The Aeneid survived, because in The Aeneid it’s basically about honor and duty, and perseverance, and doing the right thing for the right reason, and not giving up. Those ideals were captured in the storytelling of The Aeneid, and after Rome fell, the Empire disappeared but the stories didn’t. It inspired people like Charlemagne to try to reinvigorate the Roman Empire. When Charlemagne collapsed, his ideals were continued in the stories of Roland.
Great Britain has had its ups and downs, but King Arthur, the tales of Arthur about chivalry. The best parts of humanity were captured in the stories, and it was passed on from the lowest peasant to the highest king, and then recaptured with more stories later with Robin Hood. Any civilization is reflected in its art and its stories. When bureaucracies fall apart, when governments fall apart, the stories and the music tend to remain. They manage to float around and keep human beings together, and give them something that they have in common. Human beings, they tend to lose their minds in mass, as somebody once said, then gain their sanity back one-by-one. Is that answering your question, or did I just go off onto a million different tangents?
You earlier likened Letters From the Labyrinth to The Canterbury Tales, which is one of my favorite books.
Oh, wow. Okay, that’s wonderful. (laughs) A Chaucer fan.
In that respect, one of the beauties of that book is that it is open to interpretation, all of the pilgrims. Do you see that same thing for the album, or do you have a particular thing in mind that you want people to take from it?
No, it’s very similar. A lot of times, truly great books or truly great songs, you take away from it what you need to take away from it. We have songs on past albums, like “Believe,” that you find in it what you need to find in it. To me, truly great art will tend to have that. The great thing about The Canterbury Tales is you get to examine life from the point-of-view of the merchant, or the soldier, or the cleric. It’s told from different perspectives and it gives people a chance to look at it from someone else’s point-of-view in a way that they normally wouldn’t.
The world is changing, so quickly, so fast, these days… There’s a song on there called, “Prometheus,” which is basically about the collapse of the Berlin Wall and how it was an accident. There were people that saw what was happening, saw the opportunity, grasped the moment, and, bam, you had the end of the cold war. The Berlin wall going down without a single bullet being fired, without a drop of blood.
“Madness of Men,” is based partially on a symphony that Beethoven wrote. It’s basically what’s going to happen at one point. There’s a letter that we’re still reading between Erasmus and a child about who were the greatest military leaders of all time. She’s told that it was NATO and the Warsaw Pact under Khrushchev and Kennedy, and she’s like, “That makes no sense, there was no war.” He responds, “that’s what made him, the greatest leaders.”
When the world was close, literally, to nuclear Armageddon, Kennedy who represented capitalism under NATO, and Khrushchev who represented communism under the Warsaw pact, both were able to check their own personal prejudices or perspectives, and realize logic and reason. That if this war started it was over for everybody. They both backed away. Khrushchev was probably well aware that he would not survive the end of the Cuban Missile Crisis, and he basically got sent out to pasture. Which is actually in this point-of-view is a happy ending. Kennedy tragically ended in Dallas. The bottom line was these two individuals, who are hardly even talked about in history anymore, in my opinion, prevented what would have been a nightmare, imagine would take thousands of years to recover from, far worse than the dark ages.
How did such an early acceptance at the club level help build a foundation for you guys to graduate to the arenas?
Actually, TSO is the first band to never play a club. We pretty much went straight to the theaters and then the arenas. Chicago is an interesting one, it did grow there very quickly. We love Chicago, it’s a great rock town.
Funny story, I didn’t really appreciate how big a band we were there until, I forget the name of the arena it’s where the basketball team plays there, but we had sold out two shows in one day on a night when the Chicago Bears were playing out of town. The manager for the arena said, “Paul, you sold out two shows in one day when the Bears are playing out of town.” I’m like, “Wow, that’s great.” He goes, “Paul you know what the Bears are?” I’m like, “Yeah. They’re a football team.” He goes, “No, no, no. The Bears are a religion.” And he’s like totally serious. (laughs) I’m like, “Okay.” He goes, “The fact that you are able to sell out two arenas on a day when everybody is normally at home watching the Bears on TV just shows how big the band’s gotten.” Again, I’m not a super sports fanatic like some people are, and I’d never looked at it from that perspective, but it made me appreciate it from another angle.
I was reading that you are a collector of historical artifacts, and I was wondering, first of all, how did you get involved with that? Also, how does your passion for history inform Letters from the Labyrinth?
Wow. Okay. Well said. 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. I have every letter from Thomas Edison to his tool-and-dye 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 Robert Louis 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. 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. 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 emperor 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