Chris Caffery interview

Chris Caffery interview

By Firewoman

October 31, 2010

Although it seems Christmas decorations have been in stores since Independence Day, and gift-giving ads have appeared on TV long before Halloween, for many, the holidays begin when the juggernaut known as Trans-Siberian Orchestra takes to the road for their winter tour.

Founding member and guitarist Chris Caffery took time out from a very busy rehearsal schedule to talk about the 2010 show, new music, Broadway, and to explain why TSO is both an annual staple and perennial top touring act.  “The show has become a lot of people’s holiday tradition.  It’s great to see people who come every year.  The first time maybe it’s just the couple.  Then they bring their kids, then they bring their parents, then they bring their friends.  You just watch it grow into something people look forward to every year.  It’s a magical time of year, and the fact that we can become part of that is really a privilege for us.”

For those unfamiliar with their music, Caffery describes TSO as “a symphonic prog-rock band with metal and classical roots.  The show is everything from a single singer and guitar player with one spotlight to 150 tons of lights and sound.  There’s only one TSO.”

The first half of the show is primarily from TSO’s 1996 debut album, Christmas Eve and Other Stories.  Written and produced by Paul O’Neill, with collaborators Jon Oliva, Robert Kinkel and Al Pitrelli, the holiday theme was continued with 1998’s The Christmas Attic, and The Lost Christmas Eve, released in 2004.  Caffery believes fans can easily identify with the tale.  “The story that Paul wrote has a lot of different meanings.  It doesn’t necessarily relate to a little girl being away from home at Christmas.  You have service members.  You have family members who have passed away.  You have people who are working in far away places and can’t be home for the holidays.  The story just seems to strike a lot of different nerves in people being separated from the ones they love.  For those who are fortunate enough to be with their loved ones, it seems to bring them even closer together.  We’ve had people tell us that going to see the show has made them reach out to family and friends whom they hadn’t spoken with in years.”

While the first half of the show remains substantially unchanged every year, Caffery explained how the second half is always evolving.  “The number one change we have every year is that the entire production changes . . . the lights, whatever special effects we have, all of that changes completely.  Every year somehow Paul manages to make it larger than the year before.  Last year we had something like 18 trucks that carried our sound, lights and generators.  This year, I believe it’s going to be 19 or 20.  That part of the show, whatever you saw before, is going to be bigger, better and brighter . . . more state-of-the-art.  If we’re not inventing things ourselves, we’re looking for what’s the next thing people are going to use.  We want to do things and show people things they’ve never seen before.  It’s the most important thing for us to make sure that people get the absolute most out of every dollar they spend to see our show.  We’re so thankful that we have such a loyal fan following.  We try to keep the ticket prices as reasonable as possible without going broke.” 

Because of their growing library, choosing what to include in the latter part of the show can be difficult.  “It’s going to be whatever we can fit time-wise before we run out of our curfews in the venue.”  He continued, “There’s stuff that people definitely want to see every tour.  They just really look forward to hearing something like Figaro.  If we didn’t do that, people would be disappointed.  I’ve never done a TSO show that we didn’t perform it.  We’re practicing through about three and a half hours of material, and it’s going to be a tough decision as to what will eventually be in the show.  If we had our way, we would play the full three and a half hours, but it’s just not possible.”

The show isn’t the only thing with the band that involves two parts.  TSO’s first tour in 1999 played in a limited number of venues.  Their reputation grew quickly, and with the producer’s desire to limit the touring dates to the holiday season, it became necessary to divide the band into two touring companies.  Rehearsing both large productions proved to be an interesting challenge.  Caffery explained how rehearsals have evolved over time.  “When the show was first large enough to break into arenas, we rehearsed in an airplane hangar.  That wasn’t large enough, so we then started to rehearse in the Florida venue where one of the two tours was going to play.  We would set the ‘east coast’ stage on one side of the arena, and the ‘west coast’ on the other, with the sound and light boards meeting in the middle.  All of the sound and lights get programmed simultaneously so both shows are in synch.  One band rehearses quietly in large rooms inside the facility, going over parts and details.  The other band will be on stage working on that part of the performance, checking monitors and lighting, and running through the set of the live show.  Then we alternate.  The process goes on for about two weeks.”

Over the years, nearly 80 musicians and vocalists have performed as part of TSO, and through that time, much of the core group remained intact.  In late summer, guitarist Alex Skolnick announced he was leaving the band to “recharge (his) batteries and focus on (his) own visions”, and bassist Johnny Lee Middleton moved to the western tour.  Somehow O’Neill always manages to add extraordinarily talented performers to the mix and still keep the band cohesive.  Caffery said he’s excited to work with the new additions.  “Our new guitar player is Joel Hoekstra.  For the last three to five years he’s been playing with Brad Gillis of Night Ranger.  He’s a brilliant guitar player . . . he has a really great sound and feel, and we’re working really well together.  He’s also the musical director for the Rock of Ages Broadway show.”  Caffery explained why finding a musician to perform in the band isn’t easy.  “TSO’s music is very difficult.  There’s a lot of different styles . . . light, shade and heavy.  To get a person who’s able to capture all of those things and have the performance down at the same time with everything else that’s going on around it, it’s not easy to find someone who’s able to do all of that.  It’s a very challenging gig, and I think Joel is going to be fabulous at it.”

For the eastern tour, a familiar face is returning to the fold.  “Dave Z is back on bass.  He and I have a lot of fun out there . . . we’re like brothers on stage.”

Other additions to the eastern tour are the west’s former keyboardist, Derek Wieland and violinist Roddy Chong.  Wieland will double as the group’s musical director, and Chong as the group’s string master.  All parts of the whole seem to be easily interchangeable, as Caffery said, “TSO is one giant band and family.  Just because we have east and west tours, we’re still all one band.”  He added, “Throughout the years if I could list all of the great singers, drummers, guitar players that I’ve had the chance to work with, it’s incredible.”

Those who have seen the show before know to expect lasers, pyro and moving stages, but Caffery wants to keep much of what this tour will bring a mystery.  “I’m not going to give away any secrets.  There’s definitely some stuff on this tour that we’ve never used before, and I haven’t had the chance to use it, yet.  I’ve seen it, and it’s pretty cool.  I won’t even say if I have to get on or off it, or what I’m doing with it.”

If he knows anything about possible guest artists, he’s also remaining mum.  “That’s just something that comes out of nowhere.  There are rumblings of people we call or who we’ve spoken to.  Sometimes it’s someone Paul’s spoken to on the road . . . artists he’s worked with or old friends he’s known from his production and management career.  I usually don’t know until the week the show is going on.  Someone will say, ‘Guess what?  Friday night so-and-so is coming.’  You want to be sure that you have a song or two that you can do together.”

Although there have been many superstars among the guests, clearly one has stood out for Caffery.  “I just remember what it was like when Bob Kinkel knocked on my hotel room door to tell me about Steven Tyler.  Aerosmith is one of my all-time favorite bands.  To actually get a chance to play onstage with him, and he’s acting with you like you’ve been in a band with him for 20 years.  He was a barrel of energy, and so much fun to play with.  It’s a memory I’ll never replace.”

For a time, TSO existed in the public eye for about two months each year.  That changed when this past spring the band brought their music of Beethoven’s Last Night to life.  They’ll take their next step in the spring of 2011, when they head to Europe with the production, something Caffery is happily anticipating.  “It’s so exciting to me to present this to people who have never seen it before.  It’s something I’ve been looking forward to since we began touring in 1998.  Savatage had done so much touring in ..Europe.., and I want the European fans to see this.”

Caffery had more exciting news for fans . . . there are multiple new albums in the works.  When TSO toured in the spring, a snippet in the program noted, “the upcoming rock musical Gutter Ballet.”  This, however, will not be a stage production of Savatage’s 1991 release.  This Gutter Ballet is a story written by O’Neill decades ago which became the story behind Savatage’s Streets album.  Caffery explained, “Since Paul used the title Gutter Ballet for the Savatage record, Streets couldn’t be called Gutter Ballet.  I don’t think that at the time Jon, Paul and Criss (Oliva) wrote Gutter Ballet the song, anyone imagined where we’d be 20 years later.  We’re going to re-record it TSO-style, with different vocalists, like we recorded Believe with Tim Hockenberry.  It will be the first TSO record that Paul is bringing to Broadway.”

He continued, “TSO is also going into the studio to record what was actually the first TSO music that Paul and Jon wrote.  That was Romanov, which was written in 1992 or ’93.  I love all of the TSO records, but I have a huge fondness for the stuff on the Romanov CD.  The music is so cool – I can’t wait for people to hear it.”

As for timetables for the Broadway production and the release of Romanov, Caffery has clearly learned to hedge his bets.  “I learned something about ten years ago when I was on stage and said, ‘In spring we’re going to be doing the Beethoven’s Last Night tour.’  We finally did it in spring 2010.  In 2000 I said spring, but I never said what year, so the best I can say is, ‘I don’t know.’  We have a lot of different things in the works.  With the Christmas Trilogy and what will be 6 non-holiday CDs, there’s going to be a lot of TSO music out there.  It’s going to make touring a lot more difficult.”

In the meantime, Caffery is looking forward to the start of another winter tour, even though it’s meant being away from home over the holidays for 12 years.  “It’s fun for me in a lot of ways, and it’s challenging.  TSO is one big family on the road.  Our production office looks like Macy’s.  Everywhere you go, you have to travel with the Christmas spirit.  I was one of those people whose house looked like Snoopy’s dog house at Christmas time.  I actually like to travel around and see how other people decorate their homes in different parts of the country.”

He’ll have ample opportunity to pick up decorating tips as TSO’s Winter Tour will visit 78 cities, and run from November 3 through December 30.

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