Trans-Siberian Orchestra guitarist Al Pitrelli and drummer Jeff Plate took part in a teleconference call with media outlets recently in advance of the group’s annual winter tour which will kick off Nov. 17 with a date at Mid-America Center in Council Bluffs, Iowa. This year’s trek marks the 25th year the supergroup has been performing for audiences, and to mark the occasion, the theme will center around the landmark album, “Christmas Eve and Other Stories,” the multi-platinum disc that set the wheels in motion for the group more than two decades ago.
Tickets for the Council Bluffs show can be purchased at https://bit.ly/3GnJoeY.
The following is a transcription of the interview. ListenIowa was to be a part of the teleconference but was unable to due to a family emergency.
Gary Graff, MediaNews Group: Tell me about making the decision to take it out wide again this year after going virtual last year, and also what you’re going to have to do this year to keep it safe in terms of protocols and everything.
AL PITRELLI: Well, I don’t even think it was a decision made. Our management team, the O’Neill family, they’re always planning on the next year’s tour, and they’re always booking it. Right now they’re looking at 2022 to start that, so it’s always an overlapping kind of situation. When we were doing the virtual thing last year, they were planning on touring in 2021 until somebody tells us that we can’t. As far as safety and stuff like that goes, that’s going to be a state by state situation. I think I could speak for Jeff on this one saying we’ll show up in hazmat suits and play, dude. We’re just like caged animals chomping at the bit. To not do what we’ve doing for 20 something years, to have that taken away from us last year, you love something this much, once you have it back in your hands, you love it, cherish it, protect it that much more. So I just want to put a guitar around my shoulders and stand out in stage center and say, “Let’s go.”
JEFF PLATE: To Al’s point, to elaborate on that a little bit, the fact that we didn’t do this last year, I think everybody who’s on board is going to be as careful as they can possibly be so we can get through this without any problems.
AL PITRELLI: Agreed, agreed. Everybody wants to come back and do a great job.
JEFF PLATE: Al mentioned the 20 years. You don’t realize how important something is until it doesn’t happen. We don’t want to go through that again. So I think everybody’s going to be on board with this.
Graff: Do you have to do certain things? The band is known for going out and meeting the fans after the evening show. Do you have to cut something like that out because of circumstances?
AL PITRELLI: Not sure yet. Again, we’re a couple months away from the first downbeat, a month and a half, so God willing, this thing, maybe it’ll just disappear in the rear view mirror completely by then. That’s going to be a call as we get closer to it. Again, we will do whatever is necessary just to ensure the safety of obviously everybody in the band, the crew, and more importantly or as important is the folks in the audience. There’s a lot of people we got to move around. Thank God we got great management, the O’Neill family, scratching their heads and figuring out how to do this. Other bands are out having great success. The NFL’s back in action. Other bands are canceling shows. We don’t have the opportunity to reschedule. By the time New Year’s Eve hits, it’s like, we cannot miss a show and we will not miss a show. Again, whatever we’re told to do at this point, we’re going to follow the rules and the protocols and we’re on. I just want to play. I know Jeff does too, and everybody in the organization wants to get back to doing what we love the most.
Erin Ferguson, Nazareth Times: Hi, guys. Thank you so much for agreeing to this interview. My first question is actually for Al, and my second one is for Jeff. The first one is there’s always so much passion that goes into the music played by the Trans-Siberian Orchestra. As music director as well as the lead guitarist, how do you make sure that that passion and fire stays alive every year continuously?
AL PITRELLI: It’s a really good question, but for me, it takes no thought whatsoever. When you love something, you love it. That’s it. It’s like asking me if I ever get tired of kissing my children. It’s part of us. Jeff and I have been there from the jump. We watched this thing open its eyes from the very first time some time mid-’95 and have watched it grown up like I’ve watched my children grow up to exceed all my expectations. When you love something this much you never have to rekindle or do anything. The only thing we got to do is compartmentalize it. Well, we had to compartmentalize it for the last 18 months because, like I said many times already this year and I’ll continue to say, is that when you love it and it’s taken from you, when you get it back in your hands, it’s not like we ever took it for granted, but you just cherish it that much more. Jeff and I, we’ve been doing the same thing since we were both puppies. You put a pair of drumsticks in his hands or a guitar around my neck, we’re like kids all over again. I’ll never get tired of this. People say, “When are you going to retire?” I’m like, “When I’m dead. Why would I ever not do what I do?” I just love it so much. The fact that so many families in America have embraced us as part of their holiday tradition. I’ll never get tired of looking down at the smiles. Jeff and I, we have this thing that we always talk about together, like, “What are you thinking about during the show?” Jeff and I both will say, “Hey, we’re counting exit signs,” because when we cut our teeth in the clubs there was one exit sign right next to the pool table in a bar. Now you look up in these arenas and there’s 30, 40, 50 exit signs. It’s like, I’ll never get tired of looking out and seeing all that.
Ferguson: Absolutely, absolutely. As a creative I know how hard it can be. Through the pandemic you guys did do the online thing and the virtual thing. I think all your fans would want to thank you, me as well. I just wanted to say one more thing. Your music, it’s so, I don’t want to say [inaudible 00:06:56] because that’s not really the word. You can hear the passion. But your music also touches people and gets them emotional and has them crying at times. How do you feel about that aspect of your music?
AL PITRELLI: Jeff, you want to grab that, or that one for me?
JEFF PLATE: I think the bottom line is we were fortunate to be working with Paul O’Neill when he created this thing. As Al just mentioned, we’ve been here from the very first note, so it’s just amazing to be on stage all these years later after all the doubt and the questions and everything circling around this thing when it first started. To be able to be doing this all these years later with millions of people on board with you every year, it’s something that we’ve become a tradition. That’s a pretty heavy thing to say. But I think last year really showed that with the amount of people that turned out for the livestream but just how upset people were that we were not touring, not just fans but also band members, everybody involved. This is a very unique project we’re a part of. I can state for myself personally, every night I’m on stage I treat it like it could be my last, so I just go up there and do everything that I can. We’re going to make this thing work as long as we can.
Alan Sculley, Last Word Features: Hi again, guys. Good to hear from again and see the tour happening. I want to touch back on the livestream that you did. I thought that was a nice kind of thing to try to fill the void with a little bit. I guess two questions. I’m curious from either of you, Al or Jeff, how do you livestream & translate it to a streaming type of situation the way people watch? Because I think of your show being such a sensory experience that, in person, it’s just, wow. How does that go from there? Half of it is…I’ve talked to a number of bands who did livestreams. They went so well, and they were so popular that they’re thinking, “We may livestream a show or two every tour we do.” I wonder if that is in the mix with you guys thinking that maybe TSO will do a livestream on a more regular basis in addition to the tour.
AL PITRELLI: Not sure. Well, let’s back up. The livestream… If you go back to our first show in ’99, Jeff and I, I think we had, I don’t know, seven or eight cities on the tour. We had a box truck, two buses, and a fog machine. The curtain came up, the lights went down, and we played the songs from top to bottom. It wasn’t the sensory overload that it grew up to be. It was a beautifully written story that Paul O’Neill put pen to paper back in ’95, and we started recording in ’96. The people fell in love with the characters. They fell in love with the story. They fell in love with the sentiment of it. Because at the end of the day, at the center of Paul’s story is about missing somebody, and everybody misses somebody especially around the holidays. There’s an empty chair at everybody’s dining room table, unfortunately, so many more over this past year, how disgusting this plague has been. I think during the livestream, it showed me, in particular, two things. One is that people, they love the story. It didn’t have all the special effects. There’s no physical way we could do that. But the band played amazing. The singers brought the characters to life. I heard after the fact that we sold almost 250,000 of those things. From a financial standpoint, I could care less. It didn’t matter to me. What really made me emotional is that people wanted their tradition. Albeit virtually, we were all joined together. A quarter of a million homes purchased that. If you figure it was a mom, dad, Billy, Susie, and some uncle passed out in the chair by the fireplace, five people per house, that was about the amount of tickets we had sold last year, about a million and change. Paul’s story was that important that people needed to shake this pandemic off their shoulders and spend that hour and a half together and celebrate again. That meant everything to me.
JEFF PLATE: I think, too, as far as the livestream, that there’s a big issue or the question was, how do you present this, as you mentioned, after seeing our live shows which are literally second to none? I give our management team and the O’Neill family all the credit for a) going ahead with this, but coming up with something that really looked fantastic. I think it really presented TSO as this is TSO. Al mentioned the story. There’s the story. There’s the music. There’s just the message of the whole production. Management team did a fantastic job. The production crew, everybody on board really did a great job and just making this thing look awesome. It looked great on the TV screen, on the computer screen. Let’s hope we don’t have to do it again, but if we do, I think we know we’re in good hands.
AL PITRELLI: I’d rather not do it again. I’d rather go out and play live. There’s something just so magical about playing live.
JEFF PLATE: Absolutely.
AL PITRELLI: Who knows? Listen, we all learned one important lesson. We have no idea what tomorrow holds for us anymore. Whatever they say to do, I’ll do it.
Nick Spacek, The Pitch: Hi, guys. Thanks for your time, taking the time to do this. I’m curious, what are the challenges of crafting a new stage show every year given the literal heights to which you risen over the years? Additionally, what are the challenges of making sure these songs are true to what the audience expects while also keeping it fun for everyone performing?
AL PITRELLI: Jeff had just mentioned in the previous conversation about how extraordinary our crew and department heads are. On stage, below the stage, behind the stage, we were all trained by Paul, and Paul’s vision was larger than life at all times. So his ideas, I’ve never watched so many crew people twitch. He’d asked for something to be done. They’re like, “Paul, it can’t be done.” He’d ask Jeff and I to do something musically. We go, “Dude. You can’t do that.” Again, he’s always right. Go back to my favorite story about he asked one of the crew chiefs, he wanted all the lights synced up to every note, every guitar solo, every keyboard kit, every drum hit in this particular song. They said, “No, we can’t do that.” He said, “Really?” He popped up some YouTube of some dude in Ohio with a step stool and a staple gun from Home Depot and a bunch of lights, and he programmed all those lights to Wizards of Winter. He goes, “If this guy could do it for $80 at Home Depot, you’re telling me you can’t do this?” They said, “No, we’ll do it.” When you think about that training over the years, it’s a no-brainer. The department heads, especially this year, they’ve been home in their pajamas for 18 months doodling on their computers. I can’t wait to see what they come up with this year. They are the best at what they do. Paul surrounded himself with extremely talented people who love Paul’s story, who love Paul’s vision. He made every one of us rise to the challenge. So production-wise, I have no doubt it’s always going to grow and be extraordinary. Musically, listen, Jeff and I are surrounded by some of the best players on God’s Earth. As a musical director, and don’t ever tell them I said this, all I got to really do is start them and stop them, they’re all awesome, and every so often sneer at them. They love this. They know what they’re responsible for. They’re all doing their homework. Now right they’re going to show up in Omaha in a couple of weeks ready to dance. Then it’s just like, the chemistry of the band is intact, everything about it. You got a great bunch of people who have a common vision, so it makes everything that much easier.
JEFF PLATE: There’s always a new trick up the production’s sleeve every year, too.
AL PITRELLI: That’s true.
JEFF PLATE: These guys, this is what they live for is to bring a new toy out and try it out on the audience. I don’t know how many times I get asked, “Do you know what the show is this year?” Honestly, I don’t even know what it is until we get to rehearsal and I see them build it. Every time it’s like, “Wow. That’s just awesome.”
AL PITRELLI: It’s the coolest thing ever.
JEFF PLATE: For me to be sitting in the middle of it every night with everything going on above me, behind me, in front of me, it just blows my mind. As Al said, these guys just do a fantastic job every year. That’s why people keep coming back.
Spacek: I have to imagine this is why it actually is fun for you because you show up to rehearsal and all of a sudden you’re like, “Oh, we’re going to be on platforms that rise up 40 feet in the air, and there’s going to be fire.”
AL PITRELLI: I’m not as enthusiastic about it as some other people especially the 40 feet in the air part. At my age, I’d rather stay on God’s Earth. Listen, when we were kids, where I lived on Long Island, trying to sneak into Nassau Coliseum and getting chased out by the cops and security trying to meet the guys from the Allman Brothers or Skynyrd or whomever. Now Jeff and I walk into this arena and we both immediately turn into teenagers. Well, first of all, we’re not getting chased out by anybody, and we get to see 20, 21 tractor trailers full of stuff laying on the floor and go, “Oh my God. This is the greatest thing ever.” Watching that build while we’re putting the finishing touches on the show musically, the whole thing comes together over the course of a couple weeks and just this look of astonishment. I just sitting there and go, “This is so great.” Because going to see Kiss or AC/DC when I was a kid, it’s like, “Oh my God, this is awesome.” Like Jeff just said, we’re standing down stage center or behind his drum set in the middle of this going, “Oh my God. This rules.” If you always stay a teenager in your mind and remember where you came from, it’ll always be brand new and exciting, and every year it’s the most fun. My favorite thing is to walk into the arena for the first time and go, ” Yes, this rules.”
JEFF PLATE: Ditto.
Richard Duckett, Worcester Telegram & Gazette: Two years ago you brought back “Christmas Eve and Other Stories” for not having done it for a while. What was it like coming back to that show? Is it your favorite one?
AL PITRELLI: Jeff, you want to go first this time?
JEFF PLATE: I’ve said along, I think this story is really the star of the show. This is what kept bringing people back every year was when people connected with the story and realized it’s about them. It’s about everybody. This is just how people, just word of mouth, kept coming back. These audiences kept building every year. This is our first venture with the Trans-Siberian Orchestra, Christmas Eve and Other Stories, so this has a lot of meaning. It’s very special for all of us. The songs, the story, everybody about it, I think is fantastic.
AL PITRELLI: I agree with Jeff. This is what kind of put us on the map and made Trans-Siberian Orchestra a household name. But coming back to it a bunch of years later was really kind of interesting especially for me because when we recorded this music, you talk about 25 years ago, we’re celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, so I was 34 at the time as was Jeff. Playing songs like Ornament and This Christmas Day and Old City Bar, they meant something different to me in my 30s. My three older children were babies back then. I remember a time standing down stage center when we first brought this back a couple years ago and listening to one of the singers sing the song, Ornament. I got really, really emotional because my boys have grown up, and a couple of them are in the Armed Forces. One’s in the Navy, and one’s a sniper in the Special Forces. I remember the character was pleading to the heavens of the safe return of his daughter who had run away on Christmas Eve. I caught myself just wondering, “Is my boy okay? Where is he today? I just want to put my arms around him.” As I get a little bit older these songs become a little more important to me, and I relate very deeply to the story. Then what I noticed was everybody in the audience was relating, too, because as I said earlier, everybody misses somebody. With Paul’s story, what it brings to everyone’s attention is at least you’re not alone in that thought. It doesn’t take away the pain or the worry as a parent or whatever, but at least you know that the person sitting next to you is having the exact same thought, and you can find a little bit of solace in that I think, or at least I can.
Mike Chaiken with the Waterbury Republican-American: For a lot of musicians, COVID was a time for reassessment or relaxation and reconnecting with family. What did you guys do before you got back and planning for your upcoming tour with the downtime you had?
AL PITRELLI: Oh, I had pretty much an anxiety attack every day. You do the same thing your whole life: You get up, you put your pants on, you go to work. All of a sudden, that gets taken from you, so the absolute fear and terror of, like, “What do you mean?” The world just shut down and with nothing but questions marks on the horizon as far as when this end. Will it end? Are my children going to be able to walk outside and play with their friends without a mask or a hazmat suit on? I think across the board, I’ve been a holy wreck for the better part of a year and a half. My wife’s about ready to shoot me. If I don’t get out of the house and do something, she might put a bullet in my knee. Then once you kind of exhale a little bit and realize, not every piece of produce in my house has to taste like a Clorox wipe anymore. Now we got a handle on this thing. Spending time with my daughters, being in the house watching my first football season last year in 20 something years. It’s like, “Wow. I remember doing this.” Listen, I hate saying anything good came out of this because there’s so many families that have suffered such loss and such tragedy, so I’m really, really uncomfortable about saying the positives. But if you ask me, yeah, connecting with my family, doing things that I normally wouldn’t be able to do, and focusing and living in the moment. That’s something that’s really difficult for me, and I’ve learned to try to do that. Then once they gave us a green light to get back to work, man, like I said earlier, Jeff and I and everybody in the organization, we’re like a bunch of caged animals. “All right, let’s go.”
JEFF PLATE: We all had to just wonder if that last show in 2020 was the last show. You couldn’t see what was coming day to day let alone year to year with what’s being going on. Being home for Christmas last year was great to a certain extent. It was really fun doing the house up and spending that day with my wife and the pets and family and all this and that. But it isn’t what we should have been doing. At any given moment I felt like I should be somewhere. I should be on stage doing a matinee, an evening show, whatever it was. Having said all that, this tour coming up is going to be fantastic. I just can’t wait to get back out. I’ve spent a lot of time working on an original project, so that kept my focus on something musical while all this played itself out. Yeah, this is the real deal. This is what we do and can’t wait to get back.
Linda Oatman High, Paste Magazine: I know that the charity aspect of Trans-Siberian Orchestra has always been a big part of what you stand for and who you are. Will that continue this year? If so, do you have any idea which organizations or charities will receive this funding?
AL PITRELLI: Well, thank you for bringing that up. Listen, credit where credit’s due as usual. That’s all Paul O’Neill and the O’Neill family. These people are so generous, loving, caring, philanthropic. I remember when Jeff and I first started working for Paul, and Jeff was with Paul before I was, but back in the days we’d be walking back and forth into the studio, out of the studio, going to dinner, going to the subway, whatever. Every time you’d turn around Paul would be reaching in his pocket handing somebody a five, a 10, 20, whatever he had. He would tell me time and time again, he was like, “Oh, this money is not going to change my life, but it may change this person’s day. If I could change their day, maybe they got a chance at a better tomorrow and maybe nudge them on a little bit better of trajectory.” He’s wanted to change the world in that regard. He and his family from day one, from the jump the first show, they always would take a dollar from every ticket sold and put it back into the community. In answer to your question, I never know what the charity is in whatever community. Usually that’s left up to management and the O’Neills and the promoter because we want to make sure that the money gets into a good charity and gets to be used for what it was designed for. Just to be part of the community, you guys have embraced us and made us part of your holiday tradition for decades now, so to come back in, it’s an honor and a privilege to know that the O’Neills have made a difference around America. I look at the recipient’s face and they’re just so appreciative of this. Again, that’s who Paul was, or I should say is, and his wife and his daughter as well, and it’s never going to stop.
Jeff Gaudiosi, Misplaced Straws: TSO always had a backup band just in case somebody couldn’t perform a show. With COVID being a real possibility, are you guys bolstering that backup band to make sure you have enough people should something happen?
AL PITRELLI: Absolutely. What I always try to compare it to is just watch a football game. You got the quarterback who’s starting, and you got two or three of them on the sidelines. If something happens, the guy’s in. What matters is winning that game. What matters to us is doing a show. So we’re pretty thick right now with folks at almost every position. I had mentioned earlier that we don’t have the luxury… or we can’t reschedule a show. Come New Year’s Eve, that’s it. We’re done. We’ve never canceled a show. Going back historically, I had to take Jeff to the emergency room a bunch of years ago first thing in the morning. He got back and sat behind the drums and not feeling all the great to say the least and did the show. I broke my leg in the middle of a guitar solo back in 2008. I jumped off a riser thinking I was 25 and remembered mid-air I’m 45 and landed wrong and did not stop playing. So we’re not going to miss a note. We’re not going to miss a song. We’re not going to miss a beat. Heaven forbid this thing wreaks havoc on us. We’re prepared as much as we can possibly be to have somebody come out and step in and continue to do the show because, like Jeff said earlier, the show is the star. The story is the star. People want their tradition back. I’m not going to let anything happen to it this year.
JEFF PLATE: We did not have the luxury of rescheduling these shows for a month or two down the road. We have a small window to do this in. The backup part of what we do is essential even more so now.
Jane Sathe, Daily Progress: Since you’ve had a year away, a year and a half away from doing the show live, any of these songs that have meant so much to you in the show over the years, do you think they’ll have special resonance? Do you think any of these songs will have a new meaning for you?
AL PITRELLI: Yeah. To be honest with you, I think everything about this is going to have new meaning. Walking into the venue for the first time saying hello to people I haven’t seen in almost two years. It’s like anybody else, who would have thought that a person in America wouldn’t be able to go and hug their grandfather or their grandmother, things that are taken away from you. Again, not that it’s ever taken for granted, but things just became part of who we are you’re not doing. To walk back and to say, I’m going to work. I’m going to get on an airplane in a couple of weeks and land in Omaha, walk into that arena, maybe fist bump a lot of people instead of hugs hello. Everything about it’s going to be brand new and special. The songs are always special, but we’ve been away from them for a while. I think that playing these songs and looking out into the audience and seeing the reactions and the smiles, yeah, I think it’s going to be extremely special this year.
JEFF PLATE: I was going to say the same thing. I think every song is going to have an extra meaning to it along with the story. For what the world, Americans, everybody has just been through the past year and a half, this story is just going to relate even more to some of these folks, myself, too, personally. One our favorites and can’t wait to get back.
Gary Graff, MediaNews Group: Did the pause at all allow you to return to or focus on the remaining recording projects, Romanov and the other things that were in motion? Where are you at with those and their potential release?
AL PITRELLI: We were working on that until this whole thing kind of exploded in our face. I remember somebody saying, “Hey, put CNN on for a minute,” or Fox, whatever news station was. This was like some old Charlton Heston sci-fi movie I watching unfurl. The whole thing was surreal. They said, “Let’s shut the studio down, and everybody go home until this thing blows over in a week or two.” Well, 18, 19 months ago, whatever that is. So we weren’t able to get back down there for a while. Then, I don’t know, I’m going to say probably towards the end of 2020 we had the livestream. Then right after the new year we started getting back in the studio, feeling safer about being together in close proximity. Anyway, the short of it is that we had been working on Romanov. There’s some new material that we’re looking at as well. But it’s been a little more daunting. We can’t really just get in there and just feel 100% comfortable. There was a lot of quarantining. There’s a lot of testing. Wearing a mask and trying to be creative, something new, so there was a learning curve to that. Listen, Romanov is still there. We’re working on it. It’s going to come out at some point. There’s a couple other projects that we’re talking about doing. Again, if we can get back to a more familiar normal, I think the work process will go a lot quicker. At least we got something accomplished this year.
Graff: Because it’s Florida, don’t you get to go down there and pretend COVID doesn’t exist?
AL PITRELLI: There’s a couple things that I’ll never talk about in the press over the years: religion, politics, and college football. Now I’m not going to talk about people’s perspective on it. All I know is that when I get down there, a year ago, there was quarantine in the hotel room for four or five days, which is no fun. Again, this is what we got to do to stay safe. By the time we got to the studio and we knew everybody tested and was clean. You’re kind of in a bubble. You stay in the bubble, and you do what you got to do. I’m responsible for doing my job and not risking anyone else’s health. How is that for a roundabout answer? Pretty good?
Jeff Gaudiosi, Misplaced Straws: I know on the East Coast we have at least one new face in the band with Gabbie Rae joining the female vocalists. Are there any other new faces in either line up or any of our returning favorites that aren’t going to be on the road with you guys this year?
AL PITRELLI: No, everybody else is exactly the same. Like Jeff had said a couple minutes ago, the band’s been intact for a long time now. Some of us have been together from the jump. On the West Coast band, a lot of these people have been with me 15, 16, 20 years now, so the chemistry is intact. The singers are intact. The stories, the characters, everything about it should be about the same. We’re a little older, maybe hopefully, all a little bit smarter going through what we’ve all been through last year. Other than that, it’s going to be TSO show, over the top visually, sonically, and especially emotionally.
Gaudiosi: Great. We’re looking forward to it.
AL PITRELLI: Jeff, go ahead if you like.
JEFF PLATE: Just for everybody, thank you. This is awesome that we’re having these discussions again and ramping up with this tour. It feels like it should feel at this time of year. Anyhow, looking forward to getting back out there and seeing everybody.
AL PITRELLI: Yeah, exactly. Thank you all so very much because knowing that Paul’s story is intact and safely nestled away in people’s hearts, everybody wants to come back out and celebrate it. I mean the amount of enthusiasm from people in the press, it’s just overwhelming that you guys love it as much as we do, and the folks, your readers and your listeners are all excited about it. To be part of this, never saw this on the radar in my life. I’m just grateful every second to be part of it and for Jeff and I to be able to talk you all about it. So thank you again. Please, stay safe. We can’t wait to see everybody.