Chris Caffery and Alex Skolnick – Trans-Siberian Orchestra (guitars)
TRANS-SIBERIAN ORCHESTRA’s traveling holiday rock opera is a multimillion-dollar act that keeps growing since its inception in 1996. Their rock renditions of traditional Christmas songs performed by 14 musicians, 14 vocalist and two narrators with a full-on synchronized light show with lasers and pyrotechnics captivates audiences of all ages.
Mastermind Paul O’Neill, former SAVATAGE vocalist Jon Oliva, Robert Kinkel and Al Pitrelli knew they were on to something special when they created the band using a Christmas theme from a song off a SAVATAGE album. And most of the current TSO members have been in SAVATAGE at one time or another. TSO became so big that in 2000 that the band split into two camps, East and West bands, enabling the musicians to perform simultaneously in two cities, two shows daily on the weekends, for a solid two-plus months during the winter. Their latest release, Night Castle, a two-CD set, is their first non-Christmas album since 2000 and includes four remakes of classic SAVATAGE songs.
I had the chance to sit down and casually talk with guitarists Chris Caffery and Alex Skolnick of TSO East before their Dec. 26 show at Allstate Arena in Rosemont, Illinois. The two have been around the music business for years and know how to entertain. Not only that, they are hardworking and honest musicians who are fans of heavy metal, and they put the fans first, realizing that they would not be where they are without devoted support.
Briefly explain the history and origin of TSO.
Chris: Well, Savatage, which is a band that Alex and I played in, had a record called “Dead Winter Dead,” which is a rock opera that was released in 1995. On that record was a song called “Christmas Eve (Sarajevo),” which is an instrumental song that started getting some really heavy airplay on adult contemporary stations at Christmastime. Nobody expected it, especially in Tampa, Florida, where it went to No. 1. It was a big T1 station and the DJ there turned it onto Scott Shannon at a huge radio station in New York City called WPLJ, and that was right in Atlantic Records’ backyard and they were able to make it go No. 1 there. From there, obviously we really didn’t think we could sell Savatage as Christmas, so that’s where the whole “How can we sell this song?” concept came in. Paul O’Neill came up with the story for “Christmas Eve and Other Stories,” and was written around that song, and 13 years later, it’s a lot bigger than anybody ever expected.
Alex: It’s a rock concert and a holiday show. It’s like a traveling holiday show that rock fans and families can go to, and have them come back year after year.
And when did you realize that TSO had gotten so big that you had to split the band into an East/West format?
Chris: Well, there’s only so many days between, at the time we started, that it was between Thanksgiving and Christmas, because we really didn’t think we could tour before Thanksgiving. So the whole idea with promoters and radio was, “Look, we can’t really push a show any day before Thanksgiving or any day after Christmas,” so we decided to split it so we could fit shows in between, theoretically, November 26th to December 26th. That was the whole idea there, and then eventually we were able to start October 1st and go as late as the end of the first week in January, and we never knew that it would be able to stretch as far as it did. Even now that we can go that far, there’s still probably another, I’d say, 50 cities we could still play in but don’t have the opportunity to.
With so many great musicians in one band, or I should say two bands, are there any conflicts musically or personally, or is every member’s role defined?
Alex: The whole thing is very well-directed. Everybody has their place, sometimes you find your place in the show. When I started doing the show, I hadn’t played in Savatage for a long time, and I wasn’t familiar with Trans-Siberian Orchestra. Back then it was mostly theaters, and it kind of developed on its own. I stepped away in 2003, came back in 2004 and we were playing arenas, and then I kind of just found a place in the show. I found that everybody who comes along and plays in the show sort of finds their place but without changing the essence of the show.
Chris: There’s a definite formula that’s involved and everybody plays together great. I don’t think there’s anybody here who is the type of musician who’s going, “Hey, look at me.” I mean, everybody knows that they can play and everybody plays what they can play well, and we go up there and the most important thing is that the band plays well, and that’s the best thing about it. We put on the best possible show for the people who are out there because there’s a lot of things people could be spending their money on other than our concert. We realize that, and that, in the end, is the most important thing because regardless of how you try to portray yourself as a musician, if you’re playing in front of six people in the bar down the street, it’s really not gonna pay your bills. And it’s not that this is about paying bills, it’s about making sure that the people who come to the show get their money’s worth because they work hard for it.
Alex: It’s a big team effort going on.
I can sense that there are no egos involved, but are there any arguments over the musical arrangements? How do you decide the amount of leads divided between the two of you?
Chris: If anything, we usually argue about doing less (laughs).
Alex: Exactly, the less the better (laughing).
Chris: We usually say (to each other) “I don’t want it, you take it!”
Not many bands these days show the kind of respect to their fans that you do. What does it mean to you to be accessible to your fans, and how important is it to put on a great show?
Chris: Well, it’s like I said, if they weren’t here, we wouldn’t be here. So, in essence of anything, that’s the most important thing. I mean, they are what keeps us in these arenas every year. Without them, we wouldn’t be doing this, so I mean … I found out a long time ago that the tiniest things that a musician you’re influenced by can do, are kind of like … maybe someone in your family died or something, and you’re running down a hallway and someone tries to grab you and you just walk by them and someone goes “Hey this guy’s a jerk.” There’s circumstantial things and then there’s people you meet that you know are just complete … And I’ve found that when I was younger, that leaves a lasting impression on you. I’ve met certain people when I was younger, when I stood out in the freezing cold waiting to get an autograph or shake a hand and they looked at me and walked by, and that made a lasting impression on me.
Which bands did that?
Chris: I’m … not going to say (laughing).
Alex: You don’t want to say that! (laughing)
Chris: Let’s put it this way, Iron Maiden and Judas Priest were nice guys.
Alex: I’ve had experiences with some bands I met as a fan and they weren’t very nice, and then I’d meet them backstage at a concert, and they’d say, “I love your work.” It’s weird, but everybody in this band is down to earth, and we try to be as nice to the fans as possible.
The TSO show is so age-, race- and religion-diversified. Why do you think you appeal to such a wide audience?
Chris: There are just so many different generations (coming to the shows). There’s 60-year-old grandparents who listened to Black Sabbath who have a 40-year-old son who now has a son coming to the show. I had one fan tell me that he hadn’t seen his uncle for years and then they came to the show, and now they go fishing every year. Just different generations coming together because of the show.
Alex: It’s a show that’s not as boring as someone would think a theater show is, or going to “The Nutcracker,” where people tend to be uptight or you have to get all dressed up and it’s more formal. I mean. people come here dressed to the hilt, but then there’s people in Ramones and Maiden T-shirts.
Chris, is the possibility of a new Savatage album out of the question? What are your thoughts on collaborating with Jon and the boys again?
Chris: I don’t think that will happen. I would like it to happen, and I know other members in this band would like it to happen. I can’t say yes it will happen and then sometime down the line it doesn’t happen and I’ll get called The Boy Who Cried Savatage! And if it does happen and it turns out bad, then you’ll have the people saying “I knew that would happen.”
Alex, will you rejoin Testament after the TSO tour, and can we expect a new album soon?
Alex: I have a week off after the TSO tour, then we do the Slayer/Megadeth American Carnage dates. (Editors note: As reported Jan. 7, the tour was canceled because of Tom Araya’s scheduled back surgery). We’re rehearsing for the new album, but we want to take our time again like we did with “Formation of Damnation” because I think it turned out well.
Any last words for your die-hard fans?
Chris: Thank you!
Alex: We wouldn’t be here without you, and we’ll see you in the spring for our “Night Castle/Beethoven’s Last Night” tour, which will be our first nonholiday tour.
By Kelley Simms