With the Trans-Siberian Orchestra becoming a near annual performance staple at Rupp Arena, so came frequent opportunities to interview Paul O’Neill. He wasn’t one of the ensemble’s principal performers. As far as I knew, he was never even at any of TSO’s Rupp appearances. O’Neill was instead the CEO of TSO, the sole brain trust of what had become a consistently strong selling touring act that merged metal, ‘70s-era prog and pure arena rock pageantry.
These were educational experiences, to say the least. An interview with O’Neill was largely a one-sided affair. A journalist’s question was essentially a point of ignition. Once asked, O’Neill would speak effortlessly, endlessly and informatively for the rest of the allotted time – and often beyond. He wasn’t being rude or inattentive to his interviewer. O’Neill simply knew the story he wanted to tell, whether it dealt with specifics about a particular TSO album or, with greater relish, his whole concept for TSO – a band he thought of in terms that were always large – large in personnel, large in audience attendance and especially large in terms of presentation.
“I wanted a band that could do anything, a band that could take the best of all the great acts that I worshipped – bands like Emerson, Lake & Palmer and Queen – and have a marriage of classical and rock,” he told me in a 2009 interview. “I wanted to give a third dimension to the music.”
I’ll put my cards on the table here. I always thought of TSO as a glorified Spinal Tap. Their shows were exercises in quite purposeful excess that no review (or reviewer) could adequately describe. But as with bands like Kiss, whose shows TSO seemed to most closely emulate, fans were beyond devout. For them, what mattered was spectacle – something O’Neill’s TSO army always delivered, along with a serving of holiday sentiment that was as huge as the band’s overall presence.
It was hard not to enjoy the ride as O’Neill held court during interviews, offering outrageous stories like this 2009 yarn detailing how a TSO concert literally sucked the electric life out of The Meadowlands in New Jersey.
“About 15 minutes into the show, the stage goes dark. The production manager comes running over and goes, ‘Paul, we just blew the circuit breaker for the Meadowlands. I thought, ‘Really? Cool.’ It was one of the high points of my life.”
Or this tale, from a 2014 interview, when O’Neill recounted what triggered the inspiration for TSO’s double-platinum album “The Christmas Attic.”
“Well, the statute of limitations ran out on this a long time ago, so it’s okay to talk about. I think the technical term for it is breaking and entering.”
O’Neill died unexpectedly today at the age of 61. But there is no question that his vision for the TSO will remain larger than rock ‘n’ life for years to come.
“Ultimately, TSO is like any other living thing,” O’Neill told me in 2012. “It’s just that it’s musically driven as opposed to celebrity driven.”