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Pitrelli interview with reporters
In a September 2017 telephone news conference, Al Pitrelli spoke about O’Neill, TSO’s future, and this year’s show.

Here’s an edited transcript of the call:

Now that TSO has become an annual touring tradition, how do you go about making sure there are enough familiar elements that stay the same each year within the show, but also changing it enough to keep things fresh.

AL PITRELLI: “I think we’ve been doing that pretty much from the jump. Our first tour was in ’99 and we had performed Christmas Eve and Other Stories in its entirety and we kind of surrounded it with a few songs in the front as an introduction, some different things in the second half of the show from different records we had done.

“But we’ve been pretty much every year staying true to that formula where if the show is very well received and the folks are enjoying it, we’re hearing great feedback, then we’ll do the same rock opera again the following year, which is a familiarity that they’ve grown accustomed to.

“Again, it’s always been a matter of keep them on the edge of their seats. The front of the show and the back of the show will always change but once we perform a piece in its entirety, you’ve said it, we’ve become such a tradition. We’ve become to people what ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ or ‘Miracle on 34th Street’ was to me when I was kid. This is something that people who have latched onto and made part of their holidays. Their families enjoy it and there are multi-generations of families just coming out and watching it. It’s a lot of fun. Most of the folks in the audience have the entire catalog, they’ve purchased the entire catalog or downloaded it or however you get music these days. We always keep that in mind. What’s their favorite songs? What are the songs that people always requesting? When you’re doing ‘The Ghost of Christmas Eve’ like we are again this year, it’s almost the greatest hits collection anyway so everybody will hear their favorites.

Your ticket and your merchandise prices seem to stay at such a reasonable rate yet your production keeps on growing. On this period, how is that possible and why does that remain so important to the band?

AL PITRELLI: “Going back to when this first started, Paul O’Neill, the creator of this, always taught us to chase art, don’t worry about money. If you create great art everything will kind of follow later on but it doesn’t matter what you’re doing if you’re not really paying attention to the art form that you’re part of.

“He just wanted to make great records. He didn’t care how much the records cost to make and when it came time to touring he wanted to put on the biggest rock n’ roll show ever. I mean you’re talking about all of us grew up in New York City going to see bands at Madison Square Garden. When a band would come through the Garden not only would they do their normal show but they’d always bring extra production because they wanted to show off in front of the record companies, the radio stations, whatever it was.

“Paul, Paul’s family, the folks here at Night Castle Management, everybody in the band always kept that paramount. Let’s put on the biggest show we possibly can and then we’ll figure it all out later on. I mean we’ve been doing this for 22, I guess almost 23 years now. The plan seems to have worked.”

Obviously this is a whole new phase for you guys and I know that there’s at least sounds like plans to finish up some of the projects that Paul had started on. He was such, I mean, you could tell he was a visionary creative guy thinking thematically and coming up with the stories and all that. I wondered just about for the future creatively of TSO and if you see it going beyond the process that it started and how you compensate for what Paul brought to this group musically and creatively.

AL PITRELLI: “Well, Paul and his writing partner, John Oliva, have quite a few projects in the works. There’s a few records that we had been recording. Maybe we’re halfway done, 60 percent done, things like that. I know ‘Romanoff’ was one of them, ‘Streets,’ ‘A Gutter Ballet.’ There’s so many things we were working on during the downtime in between tours.

“But Paul and his family, Paul and his wife, this was their child that they gave birth to years and years and years ago. It’s so nice to know that the family is going to carry on the family’s legacy. TSO is one of their children. I’m just glad to be part of it. Whatever they want to do, we’re good with. The tour is the tour.

“Fortunately Paul was a workaholic and he has plans for tours and production ideas a couple of years ahead of where we are right now. The same with records, the same with… Walt Disney, Disney World, and Disney Production and everything Disney was carried on by Disney’s family and it has grown up to something that even Walt didn’t foresee and I’m looking forward to the same thing with Paul.”

OK. Sounds like Jon will still be involved and maybe Paul’s wife, is that pretty much what you’d see?

AL PITRELLI: “Oh absolutely. Yes, the same family, it’s the same people. I remember back in the day Paul and his wife, Desiree, would be in the studio. He would always say, when she was there and when she wasn’t there, what an incredible businesswoman she is. Later on when Paul’s daughter, Ireland, was born she grew up under Paul’s and Desiree’s watch as parents and gravitated toward the arts. He named her after his favorite writer of all time Oscar Wilde. When you have a family with this much depth just don’t be surprised what happens later on. It’s going to be an amazing journey.”

The tour is being billed as an updated version of The Ghost of Christmas Eve. What types of updates can the audiences expect?

AL PITRELLI: “Well, we always try to change the front of the show and the back of the show. The rock opera portion of the show as we touched on earlier will always remain the same, now albeit the production is always different. The look of the stage will be different, the lighting, the pyro, the lasers, the moving trusses, the video content.

“We’ll always try to upgrade that from year-to-year because we never really want to repeat ourselves. But we do want to have the familiarity of the rock opera that the people have really fallen in love with. Now the front of the show being the front of the show, we want to introduce people to maybe some material that maybe we haven’t done in a few years and, of course, the back of the show, we have about 45 minutes to an hour to explore some of our catalog. There’s always a song that we’ll try to change up at least.

OK, and does the tour plan to address Paul O’Neill’s passing during the show at all?

AL PITRELLI: “I think the tour itself is addressing his passing. I mean everything on that stage, I mean he created this. I think the show itself becomes a tribute to the man’s genius and again the legacy that will be carried on by his family.

“Ask me that question maybe in two months and maybe I’ll have a different answer. From my heart right now I think that every note that I play on the guitar, every note that’s sung by the singers, how it’s presented by the production staff, by his family, I think that everybody knows that everything is a tribute to Paul. “

Just as a performer who has been so involved with TSO for such a long time, just for yourself going into a production like this even though Paul was perhaps not as visible to a lot of people strictly from a performance standpoint, this is obviously his creation. But for you as a performer and for TSO as an ensemble what’s the general mood like now going into what has to be kind of just a different sensibility for this tour with Paul not here?

AL PITRELLI: “It’s different. It’s hard to give you an answer. The only thing I could compare it to is going to my first Thanksgiving dinner after my father died. Something’s missing but the family carries on and we’ll celebrate my dad’s life, we’ll celebrate Paul’s Life.

“Listen, life throws you curve balls sometimes. Bad things happen. In one phone call everything can get turned upside down. I won’t insult the situation by using typical clichés and I don’t think anybody wants to hear that but if anybody’s ever gone through any kind of loss it’s kind of answering the question on your own.

“There will be an empty hole in everybody’s heart for the rest of our lives, but life will continue to go on. Paul and Paul’s family legacy will continue to live. I mean listen, the only thing I can tell you is that Paul and I and a bunch of other folks, late at night in the studio after we got done working, he’d say he wants this to live forever. He wants our children and our children’s children to be aware of what we did.

“People used to compare it to Pink Floyd and ELP and things like that and Paul chose to try to compare it to the works of maybe Mozart and Beethoven. He wants people to remember this 200 and 300 years down the road, not just 30 or 40 years.

“I’ll miss him forever as everybody who knew him and loved him well.

Just very quickly, I know you also lost Dave Z. over the past year. Anyway just reflect on him and what he brought to the whole TSO ensemble. [In July, another member, 17-year bassist Dave Zablidowsky, who also played in the band Adrenaline Mob, was killed when a tractor-trailer hit that band’s tour bus on a Florida highway. Also killed in the crash was Janet Raines, who under the name Jane Train was singer of the popular eastern Pennsylvania cover band M-80.]

AL PITRELLI: “Well Dave was with us, good Lord; I’m going to say since 2001 maybe even 2000. We watched him grow up and we watched him mature as an artist, as a person, as a performer. Again, there’s just another hole not only in our hearts but his poor parents. I mean no parent should ever bury their child.

“It was a horrible accident, it was a freak accident and again, it’s just one of those things. Life can go upside down on you real quick. The irony of it all is that all of Paul’s stories deal with that one issue. You know? From ‘Christmas Eve and Other Stories’ right through ‘The Ghost of Christmas Eve,’ it’s all about loss and redemption.

“Somebody’s run away. There’s a child missing in the middle of the night who just wants to get home. There’s a father who misses his daughter. ‘Why did I yell at her?’ ‘Why did we say the things we said to each other?’’’ Why couldn’t I have just put her bed because now she’s gone and when will I ever see her again?’ Now, obviously all of Paul’s stories end with a happy ending but in life they don’t sometimes.

“It’s funny that even from the other side Paul is still always going to teach all of us. Tell somebody you love them. Say goodnight to the person you love and if something went upside down and you’re in a fight with somebody you’re not guaranteed there’s a tomorrow to fix it so just take care of everything right now. Every day’s a gift. ‘

You’ve been with TSO forever. How have you seen the show evolve over the years since you’ve been involved and what has been the best part of seeing it change and grow?

AL PITRELLI: “I think like any parent watching your children grow. Paul and his family, this is their child. I’m kind of like the weird uncle. I don’t know. I’ve watched it from infancy to what’s going on 22, 23 years now. Figuratively speaking or metaphorically I’ve watched this baby graduate college with honors. I’ve watched it go out into the world, I’ve watched everybody fall, I’ve watched it do things that nobody could ever thought it would do.

“It’s exceeded everybody’s expectations. I mean we started making some records back in ’95 and ’96 and ’99 we started touring. We had one box truck and a couple lights and a fog machine, a vision and a dream. Little by little circuitously we got to the point where we are right now.

“It wasn’t overnight. It was every year it got a bit bigger. Every year there were more markets in the country that wanted it. Every year people from around the planet were interested in what this thing is. Every year we just keep feeding this thing and nurturing it and taking care of it, treating it like a growing child to the point where it’s become something so big and so incredible and it’s reached so many people we never thought we’d reach. It’s been a privilege to be part of it all these years. Again, it’s got to be the weird uncle in the corner. That’s the only way I could describe it. A lot of aunts and uncles and we’re all really proud of what they’ve created.”

Every TSO Tour is like an iPhone release. The technology is just overwhelming and brilliant and fantastic and I’m wonder what kind of tricks TSO has up its sleeve for this time around with gadgetry and other audio and video wizardry.

“To be 100 percent honest with you I have not seen anything yet. I’ve seen sketches in computer layouts but that’s like me and you sitting down trying to explain to each other what the new Star Wars movie is going to look like. We can speak about it until the downbeat of the movie and as soon as you see it’s like, ‘Oh that’s what you meant.’

“Until I see it … until the house lights go down the first time and it really all kicks in to be honest with you I have no idea. I’m so concerned with the music and the band and taking care of that side of it. I know that we have the greatest production team on the planet. I know that Paul’s designs over the years have gotten bigger and better every year. He’s had designs for the next several years. I can only imagine but thanks for the comparison to the iPhone, that’s pretty awesome.”

Could you touch a little bit on what your role as music director is and how it may have changed since Paul’s passing?

AL PITRELLI: “I don’t think it’s changed, it’s the same thing. I’m in the very fortunate position of keeping my eye on the integrity of the music and the stories and the delivery live. Being a musical director is being like the conductor of a really, really good orchestra. You start these guys and stop them and when you surround them with such incredible talent you really don’t have to do much more than that.

“Most of the people on the stage have been together for the better part of 17, 18 years of live touring. Like we just mentioned there’s always new people coming in and out but for the most part you have a pretty good chemistry with the majority of folks on deck. Don’t ever tell them I said that, because then they’ll take complete advantage of it.

“But for the most part I give them here’s the songs that we’re looking at. This is what the family has decided to perform this year. This is where we’re going with the story, so on and so forth. Everybody be responsible for your parts and know this before we get into rehearsal. The once or twice that somebody was unprepared it didn’t work out very well for them. Because then I turn into the Bill Parcells of the sidelines and I have a really horrible screaming voice and nobody wants me to yell at them.

“But other than that you surround with talent, you allow the talent to be the talent and they will know their jobs. We have a great, great bunch of people.

I know somebody already touched on a little about the technology behind the show. One of the things … is that you guys try and stay out ahead of what everyone else is doing as far as lighting and all the other gadgetry that goes on stage. Look at the flight deck and now you’ve got people like Kanye that have floating stages and things like that. How exactly do you guys go about staying ahead of everyone as far as all that goes?

AL PITRELLI: “You know the ideas that come out of people’s mind. I mean for however many years I’ve watched Paul draw on a napkin his idea for a stage design or a special effect. It was fascinating because he wasn’t bound by limits as far as it can be done or can’t be done. Let’s assume everything can be done if you really want it to be done.

“I mean it’s the same evolution that filmmaking has taken over the last 75 years or music or sports or athletes. How could athletes today do what they do compared to 50 years ago? When you have somebody who just loves the art form so much and is completely just everything about them just wants to make better art well then you’re not worried about any kind of confines or limitations. You just see something and you make it happen.

“That was always how Paul did things. A lot of people have scrunched up foreheads and would have anxiety attacks and high blood pressure because of it but at the end of the day everybody involved, if he comes with an idea, let’s try to make it happen, let it come to fruition. It’s never been done before and now that you see like once he came up with the idea and it was put into place than a lot of other people using that kind of technology they also had ideas.

“The arts are always evolving, art is so alive. Somebody overheard me and Paul talking and they kind of used the quote from us. Paul said, ‘A complete art is a dead art. Once an art form is complete then it dies.’ This art form will never be complete therefore it will just continue to live on and evolve and grow up.”

You mentioned it earlier that you had said so many people you’ll hear from that say we play your music in our house all season. What does it mean to you and the rest of the group just to be part of so many people’s holidays?

AL PITRELLI: “Oh, it’s incredibly surreal, you know? I mean I recorded my guitar on Christmas Eve Saturday 12/24 in the winter of 1995. I mean that’s approaching, that’s 22 from now ago. I hear it and it sounds like it was yesterday.

“I remember the first notes recorded and the first time I sat in the studio with Paul and Jon Oliva and everyone else involved and to hear it 22 years later and people to have embraced it as part of their holiday soundtrack it really just us surreal. I guess that’s the only word I could describe because nobody ever saw this coming. Maybe Paul and the family did but I was just happy to be part of something great at the time and the fact that it’s gone on for a couple of decades is just really an incredible journey.”

Beyond Christmas music TSO’s catalog of original music is also growing. Has there been any consideration for doing another non-holiday tour and what have you enjoyed most about those projects?

AL PITRELLI: “I enjoy touring. I mean I enjoy touring in the winter, I enjoy touring in the spring. I like taking breaks from that. I love to go into the recording studio. To be honest with you I don’t know how much chit-chat there’s been about spring tours or subsequent things like that right now because everything is so brand new to everybody involved right now that we just want to make sure, OK, let’s dig in, let’s get this winter tour rolling and then we’ll deal with everything else later on.

“Again, with Paul’s family manning the ship I have all the confidence in the world that everything’s going to continue to move forward. I can only multitask so much. I just want the winter tour for this year to be extraordinary for many reasons so that’s all I’m really worried about right now as is most everybody else."

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