You cannot turn on the radio during the holidays without hearing a song by Trans Siberian Orchestra. They’ve become as much a part of Christmas tradition as eggnog and mistletoe!
Guitarist and musical director Al Pitrelli has been with them from the beginning, and recently sat down with Wisconsin Music to discuss his Christmas Past, Present and Future:
WM: How have the shows been so far on this tour?
AP: So far, so amazing. Things have been going great this year.
WM: Let’s start by visiting with your past. When did you first start playing guitar?
AP: I first had a guitar in my hands in 1964. I was two years old and I had just watched the Beatles on Ed Sullivan. And that was it, I was hooked. For a lot of people of my generation, that was a life-changing evening, watching that on Ed Sullivan. My mom has told the story a thousand times! The story goes that I was glued to the tv, and my grandfather had a guitar in the corner of the living room. I would watch the Beatles do their thing and then I would run over to the guitar and start strumming. From that moment on, I would just drag the thing around with me and make noise with it. It wasn’t anything musical, but definitely this was my new best friend. So not too long after that, when I was four or five years old, I started getting guitar lessons from a local teacher in town. Then, going through the public school system in the ’60s, there were a lot of music courses.
WM: Other than your grandfather, does anybody else in your family have musical abilities?
AP: Nah… they couldn’t even play the radio. (laughs) It was a white, middle-class, go to church, everybody works kind of family. There was nothing musical going on, there wasn’t even a piano in the house. They wanted nothing to do with it, and that almost inspired me more to seek out this thing that everybody was not that into. But my grandfather’s guitar, I’ E kept it all these years.
WM: What was the first concert you attended?
AP: The Temptations at the Westbury Music Fair in 1968. That I remember like it was yesterday. Motown man, that was it. The Temptations, Glady Knight, Marvin Gaye, Diana Ross… Motown was dominating the charts on the AM radio. My aunt and my uncle were in their early twenties and they were very into music, and they ended up taking me and I just loved it to death. I thought the Temptations were the coolest thing ever.
WM: I became familiar with you as a guitar player when you started playing with Alice Cooper in the late ’80s, but I was surprised to see some of the different bands you placed with and some of the things you played on.
AP: Me too! (laughs)
WM: What do you consider your first big break?
AP: The first thing that I did — that was for real — was in the mid-‘80s. I was teaching a lot and a lot of people knew that I was well-versed in a lot of different styles of music.
So I got a phone call by a buddy of mine who was an engineer at a studio in New York City. They were doing a record and they wanted a guitar solo in the manner of Steve Lukather from Toto. I didn’t even ask who it was or how much it was, I just said “I’ll be right there!” I was just excited to go play on something.
It turned out to be Phillip Michael Thomas from that tv show Miami Vice. The other guy from the show had a pretty big hit on the radio (Don Johnson – “Heartbeat”), so I guess he figured he could do the same thing. It was being produced by the guys in Kool In The Gang. The best part of that record was that it was voted as one of the top five worst records by Billboard magazine! I was so proud. (laughs)
WM: You really gained some notoriety when you played for Alice Cooper. Do you have a favorite memory from that time?
AP: A thousand memories. It was my first real big rodeo and I was hired as the musical director. Which meant that I got to run the band, work on arrangements and come up with ideas. Aside from getting a great education — and Alice being such a great teacher at getting me ready for what I didn’t know was to come …
One of the things that that stands out was that we had to go find the original recording voice-over that Vincent Price did for Alice’s song “I Love The Dead” from ‘Welcome To My Nightmare.’ Nobody had that voice-over so we actually went to A&M studios, got the original two inch tape that the band originally recorded on all those years ago with Bob Ezrin. I had the tapes in my hand, put them on the reel to reel and put the faders up. Talk about going back in time! It was in ’73 or ‘74 and here I am in 1989 listening to the original tapes. That was pretty exciting to be a part of that history.
The thing with Alice is that was the first time anybody interpreted rock music with a theatrical presentation. When we did ‘The Ballad of Dwight Fry’, he would dress up in the strait jacket and he became that character. Unbeknownst to me at the time, I would be living that the rest of my live with TSO, because that is basically what we are.
WM: When you first became involved in TSO, did you have any idea how huge it would become?
AP: No. I was convinced it was a beautiful piece of art that I helped create. When you think about 1995, there was nothing like that going on musically. It had Christmas themes. It was recorded as a part soundtrack to underscore a very dark story about the war in Yugoslavia for the band Savatage. Paul [O’Neill – TSO founding member] had written this rock opera called “Dead Winter Dead” and I was thrilled to work with him. As soon as I finished that session, I thought that was the end of it. Who would have ever thought in a million years that it would have become the number one requested song in America?
And even at that point when it was all over the place, I thought ‘Well, that was a lot of fun for a minute.’ You’re talking twenty-one years ago, from the moment I recorded those first notes, to you and I having this conversation right now.
WM: It’s amazing how broad your audience is at the concerts. You have small children to old ladies getting into it. It’s unbelievable!
AP: You’re 100% correct. And I know that’s factual and not marketing because my mother, who’s seventy-five years old, loves this stuff. Maybe because it’s her son playing it, but you can only listen to it once or twice if that’s the case. She didn’t listen to the Megadeth stuff I did! (laughs)
WM: What’s your preference: recording in the studio or playing live?
AP: Both. I get equally antsy if I’ve done one for too long. I’m ok with both sides of the fence, I’m very fortunate that way. I love creating and recording but I also love seeing the reaction from the audience.
WM: Would you ever put out a solo album?
AP: Nah. This is my solo project. It varies enough musically to keep me on my toes all the time. If you asked me that question thirty years ago, sure. But now it’s full time and I’m also trying to find a balance between this and my family.
WM: TSO has become a Christmas tradition so I hope you don’t retire anytime soon!
AP: I can’t afford to retire, I have kids to put through college. (laughs) And I’m having too much fun! I would rather die than not do this. I have no intentions of walking away.
WM: What is on the horizon for TSO after this tour?
AP: There’s a couple of rock operas in the works. I would like to get those done this spring into the summer. Then start getting ready for next year’s winter tour again. It takes about four or five months to get the crew up and running with the new production ideas and new special effects. And then we’re back on the road for 2017!