Trans-Siberian Orchestra – Al Pitrelli (guitar)
Tags: al pitrelli > beethoven's last night > chris caffery > dave mustaine > jane mangini > megadeth > night castles > Trans Siberian Orchestra
TRANS-SIBERIAN ORCHESTRA‘s guitarist Al Pitrelli has played in many influential bands through out his career. The impressive list includes: Alice Cooper, Savatage, Danger Danger, Asia, Megadeth, Dee Snider’s Widowmaker, Blue Oyster Cult and O’2L, a project he formed with his TSO bandmate and wife, Jane Mangini.
Calling from a rehearsal compound in New London, Connecticut, as they prepare for their Beethoven’s Last Night Tour 2010, Al spoke about his love of music, the inception of TSO and their current tour.
Al Pitrelli: That was Paul O’Neill’s idea. Paul’s the mastermind. This is an album that we felt was really special to us when we recorded it in 1998. Not too long after that is when we did our first Winter tour, which became the TSO Winter Christmas tour for the past 11 years. And I’m pretty sure Paul felt that “Beethoven … ” never got its moment to come to life. It’s such a beautiful story. There’s some very incredible material on it, some of which we’ve been playing on the Christmas Tour for quite a few years now. He just felt that he wanted to go out and present it as a rock opera in its entirety, not too different from what the Who had done with “Quadrophenia” or ?Tommy,” or like a lot of bands lately who are going out and doing entire albums. Aerosmith has been doing it for a while, Queensrÿche and some other bands. This is just something that he decided to put out there and see what the reaction is to it. We will be doing be a bunch of songs off the “Night Castle” record, but since Trans-Siberian Orchestra is not the traditional rock band, as far as record-tour, record-tour. So why not? Let’s do something different. We’ve been breaking all the rules for the past 15 years, might as well continue.
KS: Any Savatage numbers being dusted off and played on this tour?
AP: I’ll say yes and no (laughing). I got involved with Savatage on “Dead Winter Dead” back in ’95, and on that record was “Christmas Eve (Sarajevo),” which obviously led to what has become the Trans-Siberian Orchestra. There’s also a song called “Mozart and Madness,” which is a piece of music Paul and Jon Oliva wrote, which incorporated part of Mozart’s 25th Symphony. We actually put that on the “Night Castle” record under a different name, and that is one of the songs we will be playing on the tour this spring.
KS: You were involved in the inception of TSO with Jon, Paul and Robert. Will you explain the thought process of forming TSO?
AP: I don’t know if there was any thought process on my side (chuckles). What happened was, when we recorded “Dead Winter Dead,” that’s when I met Jon Oliva and Bob Kinkel and, obviously, the rest of the guys in Savatage; Chris Caffery, Jeff Plate, Johnny Lee Middleton and Zak Stevens. Paul put the faders up on “Christmas Eve (Sarajevo)” and I said, “This is an absolute beautiful piece of music, it’s really powerful.” And I didn’t think people in America were going to get it. You have to understand, this was in ’95, as you know it was full-circle grunge music, rap and hip-hop, everything but traditional American metal.
We knew the band was huge overseas, so we went to Europe in the winter of ’95, and this was before the Internet and cell phones. Unbeknownst to us back in America, the track got into the hands of a DJ down in Tampa, Florida, and a guy up in New York. They were sister stations and I guess they were talking about us. They played it and the phone lines lit up and it became the No. 1 requested single in America within a week or two. We finally heard about this a couple of weeks afterward, I think someone from the office called and said “Hey, you gotta get to America.” We hung up on them because we thought they were goofing on us. By the time we got home, we realized this song was everywhere, every format picked it up and ran with it.
And right there, in Paul’s brilliant and kooky mind, he said, “There’s something here, let me write an entire album around this.” And he wanted to change the name to Trans-Siberian Orchestra. Paul’s story would have different songs, not too different from a “Jesus Christ Superstar,” but if you had different characters representing different roles in this beautiful rock opera he wrote around that song. So we used a bunch of different singers at the time, in the New York area. That went on for a couple of years just in the recording capacity. He changed the name because it invokes a wintry image. He’s got some other reasons behind it, I’m sure. That was kind of it, I don’t know if it was an actual scripted plan, but here we are all these years later, sitting on top of something very special.
KS: Not only are you the guitarist in one of the biggest bands in America, but you?re the music director as well. Talk about your dual role in TSO and how important each of your roles is.
AP: In my humble opinion, and you’ll learn that I’m not very opinionated … yes I am (laughing).
The role of a musical director is very simple: I get to scream, and I yell louder than everybody else. That’s it. When you have a band of this caliber and have people who play this well individually and collectively, all my job is, is to make sure they’re playing properly, and I keep them focused on the parts. As a guitar player … look, we got Chris Caffery in the band, Alex Skolnick, who works with us quite a bit, a guy named Angus Clark and a couple of other youngsters we’re trying to groom to get involved with us at another point. There’s a gazillion great guitar players on the planet, and I am fortunate and privileged to be rolling into 50 years old to have a job playing guitar. But that takes a back seat to my main role, and that’s to keep the 18 or 19 bodies on stage focused and orderly.
It was hard enough being in a four- or five-piece metal band or rock band. Four individual personalities at any given time, anything could go wrong. We don’t have to be detailed in our explanations. With this, I got a lot of people with a lot of personalities and ideas … they’re all brilliant and talented. My job is to surround Paul with talented people and let them do their own thing within the confines of what the Trans-Siberian Orchestra is, and that’s really my job. Keeping everybody focused, I guess, and on occasion, being a Bill Parcels type, with the gravely voice of mine, and scaring them just a little bit (laughing).
KS: You’ve played in so many influential bands with different styles and genres. What do you like about playing in TSO?
AP: That it’s incorporated with all those different types of genres in one band. If you’re familiar with some of the work I’ve done … to play with Dave Mustaine and Celine Dion within the same career is about as diverse as you can get. The trick is, I don’t necessarily have to change my playing. I change the tonalities or change my approach to the instrument a little bit.
Basically there are only 12 notes in music. It’s the combinations and interpretations of those notes that give you a different style. I grew up in the public school system in the late ’60s and early ’70s. Everybody got thrown a trumpet, tuba or clarinet, and you ended up in the band and orchestra and all those kinds of situations. Even though I didn’t like it very much, it was really teaching me about symphonic ensembles, how to conduct, read music, understand scoring and arranging. All those aspects of my musical education had kind of come to a point where I could sit in the midst of all these great musicians and be able to speak to the string section in the string section?s language and talk to some of the guys in the band on how we cut our teeth in the clubs. So basically it’s just having a fluency of dealing with people on a musical level.
KS: How was the experience playing in Megadeth? Was it a difficult situation coming into the band, given Dave Mustaine’s personality, not that I’m saying anything bad about Dave, but you hear things, you know?
AP: It was a great experience. Dave’s is a Type A personality, in the best definition of that. He knows exactly what he wants. He has a vision. He got thrown out of the biggest band in the world, and instead of sitting around kicking the can saying “Oh, poor pitiful me,” he started another band, which rose to the top of its game. So I got nothing but absolute admiration for that guy for not being one of those pussies who points his finger at everyone else and says, “It’s their fault, it’s their fault.”
He started all over again and got Dave Ellefson and started Megadeth, so he won, hands down. I used to joke with Dave, I’d go over to his beautiful house and I’d say, “Dude, you built this with a Flying V, you win.” He is definitely a taskmaster. That was the best physical shape I was ever in and probably the best my playing ever got because he’s relentless. All he ever does is work and write and practice. So it took me a little while to not be a lazy slob. And I’d say, “Well, let me try it his way because something seems to work.” I’ve learned a vast amount from Dave, a lot of good lessons and a lot of bad lessons, but everything is a learning experience. So hats off. … Also, I love his new record.
KS: I kind of feel that you brought the heaviness back to Megadeth after their previous three releases and got the band back in the right direction on “The World Needs a Hero.” Do you feel this way?
AP: I would love to take some of the credit for that, but I won’t, man. I think that those guys … they did the “Risk” album, and by the name of the album, it was a risk. It was pretty aptly named. I think that after that, they weren’t sure where the music was going, where the trend was going, and they were trying to keep up with what was going on commercially. Which I always felt was a big mistake because if you’re trying to keep up with what’s on the radio, you’re already 6 months too late. One of the conversations I had with Dave Ellefson was, “I joined Megadeth, I didn’t join U2. You guys were known to be one of the heaviest bands on the planet. You set the standards and the bar for everyone else. Why are you doing this?” And that was just two dudes talking when we first met. Then Mustaine turned around and said, “I want to go back to the old school and go back to what we used to do.” And I would bet the farm that I had absolutely nothing to do with that, but I was happy to be involved in that kind of renaissance.
KS: It must be pretty cool to be in TSO with your wife, Jane. And your side project O’2L with her is a great mix of jazz, blues and rock. How did this project come about?
AP: When I met my wife, she was/is a jingle writer in New York City. She worked for a company that basically put up a piece of film up on a computer monitor or a TV screen and her job was to underscore it. I heard her play, and she’s incredible, she plays like Chuck Leavell or Billy Powell. … I thought, what a great piano player, and boy is she cute. So when I started working with her in the studio, I realized not only is she a great player, but a brilliant composer. After you write a bunch a jingles, you may write five or six pieces of music for each individual, and maybe they take just one, so you have a surplus of underscores sitting around. And she had tons and tons of these great tracks around. The guy who ran the studio suggested she put a CD or collection of these songs together. Which she started, and I had a buddy named Mark Wexler, who was the vice president of GRP Records, a smooth-jazz label. He started a new label with Lee Ritenour called IE. But I just sent Mark one of the CDs and said it was just a friend of mine, didn’t say it was Jane or anything, I just said check it out. And he loved it. When I finally explained who it was, he said he knew a perfect label for it. A gal named Mindy Howard started Peak Records. She and Jane got together and got along great, and then there was a record deal and now there’s been three records. I’m so proud of my wife. Just the way she can run a studio and run a band, and the way she writes and works. It’s been a lot of fun.
KS: I think this proves your versatility as a musician because it displays another side of your musicianship that not a lot of people might not know about.
AP: First, I say thank you. The other thing is, when I was a kid in the middle ’60s, there was one radio station in New York, WABC-AM. Now a lot of folks … younger people, anybody maybe up to 35 years old, they grew up on FM radio. Genre-specific radio stations. Rock, rap, country, R&B. When I was a kid, there was one station, and on that station, you’d hear at any given time Frank Sinatra, Beach Boys, Beatles, Stones, Gladys Knight, Hendrix, Cream, and that was it. There was no ?different genres of music.? So as a kid, that’s your most impressionable age for a lot of things and certainly for music, you’d get exposed to all different styles of music. All these different styles made an impression on me, so I didn’t really care what kind of music or what style of music I was playing. I just cared if it was good. Music is music, there’s really no difference between Beethoven and the Beatles because there’s only 12 notes. It’s the mathematical combination of those notes that gives each artist and composer their identity, not to mention a certain amount of God-given gift. So I don’t know if there’s a difference in old music. I just love music as long as it’s good, and I loathe music that sucks and that’s fraudulent. As I said before, I’m not very opinionated (laughing).
KS: After this tour, what are TSO’s plans?
AP: Paul’s got so much music he wants to record. He really enjoys his rock operas, as do most people. I’m sure there’s another one he’s going to want to start working on this summer.
The West Coast band starts rehearsing for the Winter Tour not too long after 4th of July weekend. It’s a really grueling show, so we like to get in there (and get ready for it). We start getting together right around then and start rehearsing, so you figure July, August, September, we’re working on the Christmas show. Then October, November, December and into January we’re doing that. We come home from the road for a couple of weeks and start rehearsing for the “Beethoven” show. By the time we get done with this, we’re going to need a couple of weeks to catch our breath.
Maybe get in the studio with Paul and work on some new records and maybe just hightail for a couple days and start worrying about what we’re going to do for the 2010 Christmas show. It has become an all-year process, which I’m thrilled about. We’re really fortunate … Paul’s my best friend in the world and the twitch in my left eye. To think that after all these years, to have a career still at my age, and have it be at the top of the food chain, musically anyway, to be doing stuff like this is thrilling for me and everybody involved. And I just know that if we keep our eye on the ball and keep focusing and keep our integrity … the music comes first ? hopefully we’ll continue on for as many years as we can.
The community has grown with us and has embraced us as their own. It’s not like, as we get older they move on to something different. Our audience has grown up with us. There’s people in the audience now who weren’t (with us) when we started recording stuff. Now they’re 14, 15, 16 years old and they’re coming with their parents to the shows and with their grandparents. If you look at the audience you’ll see a 16-year-old in a Slayer T-shirt sitting next to his grandmother.
KS: Any last words or comments for your fans?
AP: I don’t have any fans, but I have a lot of people that have become friends over the years, and if they happen to love the music I’m involved in, then good. Thank you. I would also suggest, if they like TSO and the Christmas show, to come out and plan on attending the ?Beethoven … ? tour. It’s going to be up-close and a little more personal with the folks on stage. It’ll be the first time in 11 or 12 years that I’ve been on stage with Chris Caffery, Jeff Plate and Johnny Lee Middleton. To this day, they are so ferocious, it’s unbelievable. And the fact that my wife is on piano, you’re talking about an unbelievable and precise band. Probably one of the best bands I’ve been in my life.
So musically, you’ll be treated to some great performances. And visually, Paul’s done it again. He’s put production into a building that you really can’t fit into a building, but somehow he did it and it looks gorgeous. So it’s going to be a real special night.
By Kelley Simms