Paul O’Neill interview
May 12, 2000
by Steph Perry
Producer, songwriter, orchestra leader…these are just some of the facets that make up the mastermind named Paul O’Neill. Paul uses music to spin stories about people who struggle for what’s right. He believes that art goes way beyond the tangible as he relates, “the power of the arts is staggering. I believe that a lot of the great moves ahead for mankind have often come from the arts…The aim of arts is to touch the emotions, and the easiest emotion to trigger is anger. I mean, anyone can do it, you just walk out into the street and through a rock at someone’s head and they get angry. But to trigger laughter, sympathy, compassion, happiness, joy, those are much harder to do. If you can trigger those emotions, you can really create stories with a lot of depth.”
Paul’s poetry-filled lyrics bring you in touch with the characters he creates. When you listen to one of his productions, you are swept away to another place or time. O’Neill’s latest endeavor is the band known as the Trans-Siberian Orchestra — an eclectic group of Broadway singers and rock musicians. TSO’s sophomore release, Beethoven’s Last Night, tells the fictional account of the night that Ludwig Von Beethoven died. Beethoven is visited by two spirits, Fate and Twist, who help him out when good ol’ Mephistopheles arrives to collect his soul. The devil offers to give Beethoven more time on earth as long as Beethoven agrees to give up his just finished (and unreleased) Tenth Symphony. Beethoven decides that to give up his creation would make his life’s work meaningless. Mephistopheles ups the ante by telling Beethoven that he already owns the soul of an innocent little girl and that he will release her from an impending miserable existence if Beethoven agrees to give up his manuscript. Beethoven opens his heart and realizes her young life is worth the trade. Later, Fate intercedes and tricks the devil out of his deal. In the end, Beethoven’s soul is freed, and Twist hides the unreleased Tenth Symphony for future generations to find.
O’Neill refers to Yes, The Beatles, ELP, and Queen as some of his favorite musical groups along with Harry Chapin, Jim Croce, Oscar Wilde, and Robert Graves as lyrical inspirations. He was one of ten kids growing up in an Irish Catholic family. He counts his father as one of the biggest influences on his life. He described his father, a veteran of World War II, as a storyteller who wove intricate tapestries. Another influence growing up was the Irish music his grandmother often played in the house.
Although Paul writes and arranges music, he had no formal training. He was a concert promoter in the 1980’s — coordinating stadium shows for the likes of Madonna and Sting. He credits David Krebs for pushing him to write music. Contrary to the ever present rumors, O’Neill never performed on Broadway. He did have extensive experience, however, in off-Broadway productions. “But that was back when I was sixteen” was Paul’s way of giving it significance.
Paul called me from the studio while working on the new Savatage album.
Are you very happy with your finished product for Beethoven’s Last Night?
Actually, I love it. I’m ecstatic with it. We’ve gotten close to a thousand fan letters already. The response has been amazing…It’s so great when something you love, other people love back.
I heard that there was a video for it, will it be a dramatic tie-in to the story?
We’ll do three of them over time. The first one is finished, for Requiem. It’s basically Beethoven surrounded by the Muses – the Goddesses of Greek Mythology that whispered in artists and poets and writer’s ears – and the theory being that whenever an artist gets a great idea it’s the muses that are whispering it to them. They’re in this big old castle on the night that he dies and they’re all around him. We had a lot of fun with it.
Did you hire actors or were the musicians in it?
We had actors, and of course the guys from Savatage are in it, and dancers. We had a little bit of a field day with it. It was also the first time I worked with professional dancers. These were ballet and Broadway star dancers out of New York City.
Will it ultimately be on a longer playing video of the entire story or what format will we find it in?
It’ll be on MTV and it will make its way out on video and DVD format as well. I think they’re also talking about releasing the television special we did for TSO, The Ghost Of Christmas Eve, which ran twice last December on the Fox Family Channel. It’ll be running again on TV this year but will also be released on DVD and video.
You were once quoted as saying, “bad things can often turn into good influences”. Have you found that to be true in your own life and in your work?
It is true. You know, it’s always nicer when good things happen and inspire you, but it causes you to look at life differently, it causes you to use different perspectives. Many times, you read about it in history, for example, someone has a sick child with polio and it inspires them to fight that much harder to come up with a vaccine. I once read somewhere that it was a man that was unable to get his wife to the hospital in time that came up with the whole ambulatory service that is now used in this country. Sometimes disasters in life can inspire and drive us to go further and further. It’s amazing what the human spirit can turn around. Again, Beethoven going deaf, you’d think would completely end his musical career but it drives him to higher and higher heights. It’s just interesting what humanity can do.
Did you have that story in your head for very long before you actually sat down and really hashed it out, or did it just come to you one day?
It just came in one day, in one rush. The whole story tends to be born instantaneously from beginning to end, like within 15 or 20 minutes. It usually takes about two months to write the music. And that would be two months without any interruptions. But usually what happens is, we’re doing other projects, so you get a bunch done and then you stop for a while then you come back and finish it.
Do you ever write down these poems and stories just purely for the words, I don’t know if you’ve published any books or anything?
Actually, we’re going to be publishing books soon. William Morris is our agent and we’re getting into that. We were supposed to have done it a while ago but we keep getting distracted. We will have our first book out very soon, perhaps this year, called Merry Christmas Rabbi. It’s killer, really killer. The plot twists in it, there’s no way to predict what happens, it’s just very cool. I love it.
One story that I love dearly is the [Savatage] Dead Winter Dead story. When you read the liner notes, with the lyrics of the songs leading into the poetry, and back and forth, it’s just such an interesting way to read it. It really captivates you.
That was inspired by an interesting situation…that came in a couple little pieces. It happened a number of years ago, I was watching the late night news on one of the cable channels. They were playing raw footage, it was unedited, and they showed a street scene in Sarajevo. I’ll never forget it. There was this little girl, she looked about five or four, just laying dead in the street. A mortar had just gone off and it had killed her. It was just shocking, to see it. But the thing that really was getting to me, and cut deeper, was the fact that all these people were walking past her, like you or I would walk by a Coke can or a newspaper. Which told you two things: not only was something happening that was just so evil, but it was happening so often that people were becoming casual to it. Right then and there I thought about writing a rock opera about it. Because evil unconfronted will grow.
But I thought with these kinds of images on television that this thing was gonna end quickly. So we wrote a song called Watching You Fall which is on the [Savatage] Hand Full Of Rain album. It was just about watching a little child die. But what happened was, it was a year later, and not only had the war not ended, but it had gotten much worse. The death toll was up to 300,000. Most of them weren’t soldiers, it was civilians. That’s when we decided to write a rock opera about it, to try to bring a little more attention to it. I’m a firm believer in the fact that mankind can get used to anything. If you see enough blood and gore, the mind just sort of pushes it out. I decided to write a story to try to make it a little more real. I’ll try to give you an example, like Dickens, his family was thrown into a debtor’s prison when he was young. In the times from 1850 back, you have to realize that child labor was the standard all throughout the world. People tried to stop it. Some politicians and religious leaders talked about it and nothing really happened. A lot of it was because the people who were suffering from it, whose children were six and working in the textile mills and factories, didn’t have the power to change it. And the people who had the power to change it, it wasn’t real to them because their children were never there. But instead of preaching about it or becoming a preacher or a politician, Dickens wrote Oliver Twist, and he wrote David Copperfield. And people read these stories. And all of a sudden it wasn’t someone far away, but it was this kid named Oliver Twist or this kid named David Copperfield. It made the horror and the evil of what was going on that much more real. And when it becomes real to you it’s much harder to walk away from it.
So what we did, we went back and we read a lot about what was going on there. We took certain characters and we used them as inspiration. Like in Dead Winter Dead, the main theme of a Serb soldier who falls in love with a Muslim girl, was inspired by a picture I saw of a bridge. There was a nineteen year old Serb and an eighteen year old Muslim girl in Sarajevo who had fallen in love, and obviously this was the wrong place to be. So they were leaving the city, they were trying to get out over the bridge, and a sniper shot and killed her. He refused to leave her body and then they shot and killed him. Their bodies just lay there holding hands on the bridge and no one could go and remove them because they were scared. It was just that vision. I decided to write about them. But no one knew who they were. I couldn’t find their names. So I had also read about a Serbian who had hid his Muslim neighbors when the militia were looking for them. And he was a young man who wanted to be an actor, so when they tried to get him to tell them where they were, he wouldn’t, and they tortured and killed him. The name of the Serb soldier, I took his name, so that he has an acting part. And maybe 50 or 100 years from now, someone will read this and he will live again and his name will live, and the cowards who stood in the hills and shot them, they’ll be long forgotten. I know that’s awfully philosophical but that was part of the drive for the characters and the main theme for the story. Once I had those as inspiration, the whole story just came together.
I have to tell you, I really respect you as an artist because you take these lyrics, you really think it through. Obviously you’ve read and learned a lot about what’s going on in the world, and it’s such a meaningful story or point you’re trying to get across, and you tie all these things together. And that it can fall into place so beautifully with the music. There’s so many artists that maybe they don’t take advantage of the fact that they have this voice that can be used for good to get the word out about these things. Like you said, with Charles Dickens, in his day he knew of these atrocities and his way to make people aware was to write novels and that still stand today as classics.
Basically in twenty years he helped to end child labor in Europe and then it spread throughout the rest of the West. The power of the arts is staggering – to do good or to do evil. People say you can’t hurt people with words, but you can really hurt people with words and you can really heal people with words. It’s amazing what you can do with language and communication. You can use it for evil like the movie Triumph Of The Will where the filmmaker just glorified Nazism in the 1930’s. You can take something completely evil and make it look very attractive. On the same token, someone like Victor Hugo saw the injustice of the prison system throughout the West and was able to write Les Miserables and then overnight inspired people to change the prison system and the justice system. The power of the arts is staggering. I believe that a lot of the great moves ahead for mankind have often come from the arts. It’s also just inspiring. The aim of arts is to touch the emotions, and the easiest emotion to trigger is anger. I mean, anyone can do it, you just walk out into the street and throw a rock at someone’s head and they get angry. But to trigger laughter, sympathy, compassion, happiness, joy, those are much harder to do. If you can trigger those emotions, you can really create stories with a lot of depth. Am I making any sense?
Oh definitely. I don’t think artists are in any way obligated to do good in their work or to say good things or to make people more aware of bad things out there…It’s just a good thing when something good can come out of art. Like you said, it can be evil or good, it can go either way.
That’s right. You can’t write about it all the time. Sometimes it’s fun just to write about something like the Beach Boys having fun on the beach, and you need that in life, it’s very important. But it can’t be the only thing. I also think as an artist, you get away with murder. You don’t have to get up in the morning, you have tons of money to do what you would do for free, and all over the world people treat you differently and I think on occasion you have to give something back. If you can work in the entertainment business it’s like winning the lottery.
Do you have any interesting stories brewing for any future rock operas?
Actually the next three ones are written and done. They’re killer, I’m ecstatic with them.
Anything you’re allowed to reveal?
There’s Romanov (When Kings Must Whisper) which is about the Bolshevic revolution. The other one is off the record and you can ask me about it next time we talk. The third project is as we mentioned earlier, Merry Christmas Rabbi, we’re looking to get out this winter. If we can just get out of the studio long enough to put the finishing touches on it.
Is Romanov the Broadway production we’ve been hearing about?
Yes. The only problem we’re having is that basically we have so many things going on that it’s really getting hard. We have Trans-Siberian Orchestra which is taking off. The demands to tour and put out records is staggering. Then we have to get this new Savatage record done, which is what we’re in doing right now. And then I have to get that book out. But it’s a good problem to have, to be busy.
As far as TSO goes, I guess there will be some live shows later in the year at some point?
We were supposed to be getting ready to tour right now but I had to get the Savatage album done. But we will definitely tour this year. The last tour did so well.
Do you think you’ll be able to broaden it, as far as where you’ll be able to play?
Yes. Last year we would have gone further but we had to do the TV show.
Do you think you’ll be able to play in Connecticut this time around?
Oh yea, we definitely want to get up to Hartford and New Haven. We want to do Beethoven and the Christmas stuff this year.
As far as Savatage goes, are things going well in the studio at this point?
Things are going great. The album is killer.
So how far are you into recording?
We have the basics down and we’re into the overdub stage.
Is it true that you guys left Atlantic?
Yes. It was very hard. That was our home. We have TSO still on Atlantic. Savatage had been there since ’81 and it was just time to move on. We kept saying no to these other offers but these people came from Nuclear Blast and they offered to give us a customized label and we had this one meeting with them. They had all the heads of their departments. And everybody there, not only did they know all of the albums we’ve ever done, they knew the words to every song we’ve ever written. They were quoting lyrics and saying “how come it says this in the liner notes and this is really what you’re saying?” I’m thinking, these guys know us so well and want us so bad that we felt really good so we said, okay let’s try it. So we’re off and running.
So hopefully this means more publicity for Savatage, at least in the US?
Yes. It may take them to a new level. In Europe, I guess you know, they’re huge. It was very nerve wracking, it’s like the first time you leave home. Atlantic has been very good to us. We love that label. I mean, we’re a very eccentric and very expensive band and they pretty much indulged us our whole careers.
Is Nuclear Blast located on the East Coast?
As far a publicity goes, is Savatage willing to hook up with another tour in the US to kind of get the word out and to broaden the fan base? Perhaps with a band like Iron Maiden?
We’ve gotten a lot of offers already. The problem is, we never take them until the records are finished. Just because we’re always late. You don’t want to screw anybody up.
So Savatage could potentially go on a larger tour?
We always wondered, maybe you guys don’t want to go to that next level here in the US. I mean, you’ve got it overseas and maybe your home life is a little nicer not having that exposure here at home?
You know, we love the US and our fan base here is rabidly loyal. And that’s really nice but the more people who like your art the better it feels. I don’t care what anybody says. If you create something, you want other people to like it, you want it to effect other people. Especially now in the US with TSO going gold, it’s really opened a lot of doors for Savatage because everyone is aware of the direct connection.
I’m sure you’ve been asked this question a lot lately, I just want to talk about Al [Pitrelli] quickly. Do you feel that his departure has affected the band at all. Will it affect the band when you go to play live?
It’s like this. Al had to make some personal decisions. You know, we love Al. Al’s a close friend. He’s still gonna be in Trans-Siberian Orchestra. I think Al just wanted to hit the road a little bit more and we tend to live in the studio because of the multiple projects. But he’s still family, we still love him, I miss him. He’s a very close personal friend. We’re still going to make albums together and write music together. Stuff like that doesn’t affect me. Savatage has always had a changing lineup, in case you haven’t noticed, and Savatage is a musical ideal. Basically, we will do anything and try anything to make it to the next level.
How far back do you and Jon go? How did you guys hook up?
Atlantic Records called me up and asked me if I wanted to make a record with this band called Savatage and produce it. They flew me down to to Florida to see them in a show and I walked in and saw Jon Oliva on stage singing and I was just blown away. And then his brother [Cris Oliva] came out and started playing guitar and it was love at first sight. I decided I had to work with these guys. A few days later we all got together and it just gelled right away, me, Cris and Jon. We miss Cris Oliva so much, but Jon and I have just gone on. Jon’s a musical genius and so talented. He’s a nut case, and he drives me crazy, but I love him.
You were really lucky to meet each other then.
It was one of those serendipitous moments.