November 12, 2009

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Night Castle on tour
Trans-Siberian Orchestra spins a new tale
By Michael Witthaus music@hippopress.com

For Trans-Siberian Orchestra, bigger is not only better, it’s an annual mandate. The music — a full performance of the band’s first CD, Christmas Eve and Other Stories, followed by a mixture from the other four albums, including the just-released Night Castle, stays mostly the same year to year.

But their stage show, which requires 15 hours to assemble and makes Pink Floyd look like a bar band, is in a constant state of one-upsmanship evolution.

“We never want to do the same thing twice, we always want to do better,” says founding member Bob Kinkel. “We keep raising the bar and then we go ‘Oh no, we gotta jump over that!’ We do it to ourselves, but it’s a labor of love. It’s so worth it for us.”

For the current tour, “we have lasers developed that no one else has ever used on stage [and] a little more fire than last year if you can believe that,” says Kinkel, who calls it “the most visually exciting show we have ever done … I’ve been around doing stuff for a while and this has really moved me.”

Kinkel acts as music director for TSO’s eastern touring company (founder and principal songwriter Paul O’Neill leads the western edition). He spoke with the Hippo as the band prepared for a show in Richmond, Va.

Night Castle is an ambitious work that touches on love, childhood, history, sin, redemption and the nature of evil. But it began as a 10-song album. How did it grow into what we’re hearing now? 
It was a long process. Paul came up with an intricate, beautiful story. As we worked on it, we realized it needed more songs to be able to tell the whole story. [We] realized we had more than what would fit on one CD and so we went for two CDs. We still had to leave out so much stuff that we’d written. It was just a process over the five years it took us to finish the record [and] we felt to really be able to tell this story properly, it really needed to be that length.

If you sit down and read the book that comes with the album and then listen to the record, you’re going to have a different experience than if you just listen to the record. Is there a reason why such a complex story is told outside of the musical framework?
That would be more of a Paul [O’Neill] question. With all of our rock operas, if you don’t read the poetry or the story, you really don’t get the full experience to the music. … That’s why when we do the Christmas story we always have the narration in between, to keep the flow of the story. Between the lyrics of the song and the written part of the story you get the full experience — the story unveils. So this one — it might have been a little more storytelling than songs telling the story, lyrically telling the story, but you need both to really appreciate it.

What about plans for a full-length production of Night Castle — is there a spring tour in TSO’s future?
We plan on doing a spring tour and into summer for next year. It’s been years since Beethoven’s Last Night came out as well, so we’re trying to figure out exactly what the show is going to encompass — which will be Beethoven, Night Castle or some of each. We haven’t completely decided.

Greg Lake came on board for this record and I imagine he was probably someone you looked up to a lot in your formative years. How did he come to the project and what was it like working with him?
Greg is amazing to work with and yeah, he was a hero of mine and of Paul’s. We first met him when we invited him to be a guest performing on stage with us in New York three years ago and then again the following year. We got to play on stage with him and we talked about doing “Nutrocker,” which was made popular by Emerson, Lake and Palmer. He plays bass on that with us and it was just so much fun. The guy’s amazing … he just has such a wonderful view of the world and the way music works within that and his knowledge of classical music is unbelievable. He’s a brilliant guy and it’s just a pleasure working with him.

You didn’t start out on a path to being a musician but you had an experience working at Record Plant in New York City, which changed that. What did you do at Record Plant? Who did you work with and what was it like?
Oh! Record Plant was kind of a magical time. In 1981, I was in grad school at Columbia doing solid-state physics. I had an undergraduate degree in music and just realized that I wanted to be in recording. I remember walking in the first day and Cyndi Lauper was recording her debut record, J. Geils was mixing Freeze Frame and Willie Nile was back in Studio A. You just walk around … all the John Lennon solo records were done there as well.

I had the opportunity of learning to engineer and produce from Roy Cicala, who is amazing in the studio. I got to work with Aerosmith, Jack Douglas and Dave Thoener, who mixed the big Santana record (Shaman) from a couple of years ago. He mixed Freeze Frame — if you look up his name, it’s just one great record after another. I got to learn from the absolute best in the business.

I bet it beat grad school by a country mile —
Oh god, yeah! It was unbelievable … Record Plant is where Paul and I first met. He was just hired to produce the Savatage record (Hall of the Mountain King, 1986). He was looking for a keyboard player [and] that relationship grew over the years to what we have now.


Trans-Siberian Orchestra
Where: Verizon Wireless Arena, 555 Elm St., Manchester
When: Sunday, Nov. 15, at 3 & 7:30 p.m.
Tickets: $26 to $66.50
Info: www.trans-siberian.com