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Trans-Siberian Orchestra – Al Pitrelli

Trans-Siberian Orchestra – Al Pitrelli

It’s that time of year again when people turn on their holiday lights, put up their decorations and look forward to seeing and listening to the Trans-Siberian Orchestra. Since their debut in 1996 when the late Paul O’Neill (TSO founder, composer and lyricist) first saw his idea of “Rock Theater” come to life onstage, they have been a staple holiday tradition not to miss. Well, as with all traditions, they found a way for people not to miss the show this year while we are all in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic. On Friday December 18th fans will be able to livestream this year’s TSO performance of “Christmas Eve and Other Stories Live In Concert.”

Catching up with TSO’s Music Director/Lead Guitarist Al Pitrelli, who has also lent his extraordinary talents to world re-known musical artists and groups such as Alice Cooper, Savatage, Megadeth, Danger Danger and Asia, he explained how the show will be presented, a bit about the additional steps these dedicated artists took to be able to perform and what fans can look forward to from this multi-platinum, progressive rock group.

SFL Music: Tell me how the show will be livestreamed. There will be an East coast and West coast collaboration?
Al Pitrelli: Yeah, members from each band are going to join together for the first time in probably about twenty years to perform this music together again. So, on that front, I’m really excited about that. I haven’t played with some of these people literally in two decades. As far as everything else goes, I mean, musically you know, we’re going to perform Christmas Eve and other stories in it’s entirely. Top to bottom with the narration. There will be a lot of all the bells and whistles and special effects that people, you know, it’s become part of the TSO tradition. The visual as well, but to be honest with you, once we get to rehearsal, we get the green light. We’ve all tested and we got a clean bill of health. Sit down in rehearsal with a guitar in my lap. This is what I do. This is my happy place, you know? I’ve been doing it most of my life. That part will be real familiar. It’s everything else that is going to be a little bit different, but what I’ve said a lot lately is that well, different is all we have right now. So, I’ll take different, as long as we get to put a show on. Albeit one show, but it’s going to be the most important show we’ve ever done.

SFL Music There’s going to be behind the scenes footage and things of that nature as well with the live stream?
Pitrelli: Well, that’s what I’ve been told which again, that will be another first for us because usually it’s like you know, pay no attention to the man behind the curtain, but again, this is what it is in closing out 2020. So yeah, there’s going to be a little insight to what goes on which again, it’s exciting. It’s different. It’s certainly not normal, but nothing is normal anymore right now. So, I’m just so happy to have the opportunity to do a show. To be honest with you, (he chuckled). I don’t care what they throw at me. As long as they say at some point. Ready, Go! And I get to look at the band and say, lets hit this because this is really, really a blessing and a gift that we have the chance to do this one time this year.

SFL Music: Is there anything that you guys have added into the actual show that you could do livestream vs live?
Pitrelli: Production wise, I don’t know. I don’t have an answer for you. My task is to run the band and to be honest with you, I kind of never pay attention to anything else other than the music because it’s an enormous task to begin with. Such a deep catalogue of music and so intricate to be perform. We have the best department heads, crew chief’s, management, the O’Neill family. Everybody involved is the best of the best. So, I’m sure there’s’ going to be some amazing special effects that I’m just not privy to yet and I’ll find out probably not too different then when you find out to be honest with you.

SFL Music: Well, that’s something to look forward to. A surprise.
Pitrelli: Yeah. A lot of surprises coming up.

SFL Music: What influenced you to become a musician originally?
Pitrelli: The Beatles on Ed Sullivan in 1964. I was two years old, and if you talk to anybody from my generation, any musician. Well first of all, I think they changed the world with that broadcast, but certainly as a musician, it absolutely. In my feety pajamas. I actually have a photograph my mom took of me watching The Beatles and I grabbed my grandaddy’s guitar that was kind of leaning up against the wall in the living room at the time. And as soon as I saw them playing, I started strumming the guitar as she actually caught a Kodak moment. It had me by the center of my heart and my soul for the last 56 years now.

SFL Music: Did you teach yourself or were you formally trained?
Pitrelli: A little bit of both. Back then in the public-school systems, everybody got handed an instrument by third grade. So, I was no different. I started playing in the orchestra, the wind ensemble, the marching band. All that stuff. So, I always had a trumpet or some horn instrument in my hand, but I always was playing the guitar at home. I’d take a couple lessons here and a couple lessons there, but the music departments then were pretty in-depth, so by the time I hit junior high and high school, I was in like four or five different music courses each day. There was a lot of theory, and ear training, sight singing and all those things. So, there was that side of the education, and then just an insatiable desire to want to be really good at something. A lot of it was the old-fashioned way you know, putting the needle on the record, and as much as my parents cringed listening to the same songs like three weeks, trying to figure it out note by note. Then I went to college for a little while. Took a couple of semesters, but that wasn’t for me. So, I guess a little bit of both.

SFL Music: This was in New York?
Pitrelli: New York, I went to community college I think a semester, and then I went to Berklee College of Music up in Boston for about two semesters.

SFL Music: That’s impressive. That school is hard to get into.
Pitrelli: Yeah it is. It was a great experience. I met a lot of great people. Musicians. Friends of mine, you know, we’ve been friends for life. They’ve gone on to have incredible careers as well, but you know something about it, it was like ok, this is fine, but I just want to go back to New York. Hits the streets of the city and you know; I just want to conquer the world with a guitar in my hands.

SFL Music: what would you recommend to an up and coming band, especially nowadays?
Pitrelli: Go to medical school (he chuckled).

SFL Music: That’s perfect!
Pitrelli: To be honest with you, my middle son. He’s just going to be thirty years old. He finished high school. He graduated at the top of his class and he was a bass player. Incredible musician, the kid is just so talented, and you know, he asked me the same question. He goes daddy, I want to be a musician. What do I do? I said well, you go to college. You study real hard. You practice real hard. You become better than everybody and you get a degree in music education, so God forbid this doesn’t work out for you, you can go teach and have a job and a family and benefits and do all that stuff. You know, that safety net I felt was real important to him, and that’s exactly what he did. I put him through college. He went to music school in New York City and graduated with his teaching certificate. He’s out killing it. He’s touring, he’s producing. He’s writing jingles. He’s scoring films. Doing everything he wants to do, but he knows that if, well if the world ever ends. Well, guess what happened this year, you know? You have the opportunity if you want to like just say ok, I did that. Now, I can go teach. Anybody who wants to be in any art form. Even if you want to be an athlete. If you want to be a guitar player, piano player, ballerina. I don’t care what you want to be. You have to be better than everybody else, and if you think that you worked hard enough, you haven’t even begun yet. Because there’s somebody somewhere whose working around the clock because they want it more than life itself. And you have to love something that much because there’s no guarantee you’re ever going to make a dime from it.

SFL Music: That’s great advice.
Pitrelli: Hey listen, I tell my two daughters are nine and four years old now and this is like my second rodeo being a parent. Even at their young age, whatever they want to do, you do, but you have to love it. You have to love it that you could do ten thousand hours a couple times over in your life because you’ve got to be great at whatever it is that you want to do. And If you’re lucky enough to make a living at something you love, then what do they say? You’ve never worked a day in your life then.

SFL Music: Well you sound like a wonderful dad.
Pitrelli: Oh, that’s a work in progress too. I’m trying to get better at that every day as well, but thank you.

SFL Music: I hear ya there. You’re welcome. Now, I knew Johnny Lee Middleton even before he was in Savatage, and the other musicians you have doing the show have also been around for a while and are well known for their amazing talents. What would you say is maybe the key to having that longevity in the music industry?
Pitrelli: Well, being part of something very special. Having a great work ethic. Always keeping focused on doing a great job. Never taking it for granted. All those kinds of things, but I think that when Paul O’Neill wrote Christmas Eve and Other Stories, I never saw on the horizon the longevity that it’s had. You know, you’re talking about 25 years now. He wrote something so timeless that everybody in America and now globally has embraced as their own because everybody relates to the story. So, the story became timeless. The tours we have gone on in perpetuity with exception of this year. We keep selling records and people keep falling in love with this so, you know, Paul’s work will live on forever. My responsibility is to make sure that when the band performs live, it’s better than it was in previous years. So constant quality control. Never taking it for granted. It’s like having a child, you know? My oldest children have grown up. They’re in their thirties, but they’re still my baby boys. I still love and protect them like they’re infants, and that’s how I feel about TSO. I will always protect it, take care of it, making sure everything’s ok.

SFL Music: It looks like there is trilogy of albums for people to buy? “The Christmas Trilogy” (Christmas Eve and Other Stories, The Christmas Attic and The Lost Christmas Eve) that was out of print, but will be available November 20th?
Pitrelli: Well there’s the Christmas Trilogy. It’s the three Christmas records and the DVD. Listen, this thing its grown. It’s fascinating to watch. I’m not one to always look in the rear-view mirror of my car figuratively speaking. You know, I kind of don’t look over my shoulder too much, but every so often, I kind of like take inventory of what’s been accomplished and I’m constantly amazed at how far we’ve come and how many people just love this. So yeah, there’s all sorts of stuff. If you go on TSOlivestram.com (via www.trans-siberian.com) for the event coming up on December 18th, there’s all sorts of different packages and bundles and stuff you can get and people, they can’t get enough of it, and I’m just proud to be part of it.

SFL Music: In regards to the Christmas show. Being that what’s gone on this past year, people are already putting up Christmas trees and decorations. Is there anything in particular you want to say to your fans? I know people have been depressed and I think they are looking to the holiday season to feel better and more normal.
Pitrelli: Well yeah. I mean, listen the only thing I can say is that for the first time, and certainly in my life we are all literally in the same boat. Everybody has the same feelings. People are dying from this thing. Normalcy has gone out the window. So, my wife and I and my two little girls, we put up our tree a couple nights ago. I never put a Christmas tree up in twenty something years. I’ve never been home to do so, you know? So, when my wife Nicole said, you want to put the tree up? I’m like absolutely! You know, we dug through storage. We got the ornaments out. It was the greatest day because it’s something that I’ve never experienced. So again, going back to what I said earlier. All we have is different. I’m going to focus on the good parts of different. I’m going to know that I’m going to be under my roof with my entire family, my children anyway. My mother can’t be here because you know, for health reasons obviously. She’s a bit older, but for the first time in almost 25 years, I’m going to be home for the holidays with my kids. But on December 18th you know, with a click of a button and a $30.00 charge to your credit card or whatever it is. Globally now, we can all kind of unite and be together for that 90-minute show Christmas Eve and Other Stories and realize that you’re not in this by yourself. Not to make somebody else’s hardship less or more important that my hardship, but we are all sharing in a hardship. Let’s share together for 90 minutes in this incredible story of hope, redemption, families being reunited, and let’s shake this pandemic off our shoulders. Albeit for an hour and a half, but so what! At the end of Paul O’Neill’s story, there’s always a happy ending. This pandemic will end too and it will be an ending. Maybe not a happy ending, but it will be an ending that we can start over, figure out where we are from there, but having the faith in the things that are important. Your family, your loved ones, saying goodbye to somebody, a good night kiss and telling somebody you love them. All of the little things that we kept taking for granted have been like stripped away from us. All of those moments are so much more important. Me in particular right now, that when this thing is behind us, I will be different for the rest of my life as will be my children, but for this one evening on December 18th we can all just kind of like sit in front of the TV and relive a familiar tradition and maybe explore an unfamiliar tradition for the first time together.

SFL Music: Has this given you any ideas for next year or have you thought about that yet?
Pitrelli: My dear, I have no idea what next week is going to bring. For next year, the 2021 tour is being booked for the past several weeks. It’s our 25th Anniversary. I’m going to kind of follow that star on my horizon and hope for the best, but if not, we’re going to adapt, overcome and improvise, and we will figure something out and always persevere and always share the holidays together in one way, shape or form. So, I’m not too worried about next year. I mean, I worry about next year, but right now my task at hand is to make this the best, most important performance of our careers and our lives. After that, you and I will have another conversation. We’ll figure out what January’s going to bring. Who knows?

SFL Music: That sounds good. This year’s lineup for the band livestream with be you playing guitar and directing as well as Keyboardist Derek Wieland. Guitarist Chris Caffery, Bassist Johnny Lee Middleton, Keyboardist Mee Eun Kim, Violinist Asha Mevlana, Drummer Jeff Plate and Vocalists, Russell Allen, Nate Amor, John Brink, Erika Jerry, Chloe Lowery, Georgia Napolitano and Jeff Scott Soto. The Narrator will be Bryan Hicks. Those are the musicians that will be in the show, right?
Pitrelli: Yeah. It was hard picking the bunch, but you know it’s basically again, the four of us from the ’99 band is again for the first time in years, and all the singers are like the lead singers from the respective coasts. It was like alright; this is the bunch that we’re going to use to represent. I wish there was a way to get everybody into that sound stage and do it, but again, we can’t have that many people in close proximity. So, you know, a lot of people didn’t feel safe doing it. These people, as soon as we asked the question were like, count me in boss, and I was like yeah, there we go.

SFL Music: So, you have to follow social distancing and guidelines?
Pitrelli: Strict guidelines, yeah. They have several Covid officers at the facility. We have to test once a week before we get there. Then when we get there, we have to test and then wait 48 hours before we can even start rehearsing. So, now this is no joke. You’re talking about putting 60 or 70 people in a room, you know? I mean, if you watch the numbers, like this is ridiculous what’s going around in the world. So, we’re going to do our best to keep everybody healthy. Getting there, while we’re in there, but again, more importantly when we leave, we want to be healthy. I don’t want to come home to my family, God forbid I get everybody sick or the holidays? So, this isn’t a game. This is no joke and everybody understands how important it is. Not only musically and emotionally, but health wise.

SFL Music: Was there anything else you want fans to know about the show or the music?
Pitrelli: Well listen, its 30 bucks for the show and you have the opportunity to start it whenever you want any time after 8 pm east coast time on the 18th. If you’re at work, you’re not home until whatever time, ok, start it then, and I think you can watch it in unlimited amount of times over that 48-hour period. So, watch a couple of times and have a good time. Just enjoy it. The only other thing I want to add to our conversation which I’ve enjoyed very much is, everybody just please stay safe. Let’s eradicate this thing once and for all. Let’s join together that evening and share 90 minutes of hopeful sentiment.

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