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Trans-Siberian Orchestra’s Paul O’Neill, Artist Greg Hildebrandt Talk Art, Comics & Music

by  in Comic News Comment
Trans-Siberian Orchestra’s Paul O’Neill, Artist Greg Hildebrandt Talk Art, Comics & Music

The holiday season is a time of year rich in a variety of festive traditions, and for music fans one such tradition for the past 15 years has been the annual Christmastime concerts put on across North America by the progressive rock band Trans-Siberian Orchestra, probably best known for their “Christmas Eve/Sarajevo” instrumental that has become a mainstay on many a holiday playlist. Starting out in 1999 in mostly smaller venues in a limited number of cities, the band’s yearly Winter Tour, as it’s officially known, now encompasses over 120 shows with over three dozen musicians split between two touring companies performing in sports arenas and concert venues all across the United States and Canada, drawing families and headbangers alike.

Trans-Siberian Orchestra — or TSO to their fans — was founded in 1996 by composer and producer Paul O’Neill. This year, the band is changing things up and performing its second holiday release for the first time, 1998’s “The Christmas Attic.” The decision to finally perform “The Christmas Attic” in concert so long after its release relates to the timing of a another project O’Neill is currently working on: TSO-based, but largely separate from the writing, recording and performing of music. With the band in the midst of rehearsals for their new show, O’Neill spoke with CBR News about the upcoming project, but not before sharing some background regarding the genesis of Trans-Siberian Orchestra, his fascination with Christmas, and some history regarding his exposure to art in general — and comics in particular.

“The original plan for Trans-Siberian Orchestra was to do six rock operas, maybe one or two regular albums, and a trilogy about Christmas,” O’Neill recalled. “My obvious influences are bands like The Who, Pink Floyd, Yes, Emerson Lake and Palmer, and Queen. So when I was originally asked why I wanted to do a trilogy about Christmas, I said I’m also very influenced by Charles Dickens; Dickens wrote five novellas about Christmas. When he was asked why five books about Christmas, he said Christmas is too large a subject to take on in one book. So if it’s too big for Dickens in one book, it’s too big for me in one album.”

“I was always very fascinated by Christmas,” O’Neill continued. “I grew up in New York City. I remember coming home one Christmas Eve; I think I was five or six; and I heard the screeching of tires, and turned around just in time and saw one yellow cab slide into the back of another. The two drivers got out, and being a little kid I thought there was going to be a fight. Instead, the first driver admits it was his fault and offers to pay immediately for the damage. The other driver wouldn’t take his money. Next thing you know, they’re looking at pictures of each other’s kids! And five minutes later, they’re driving their separate ways. Any other day, there would have been blood on the streets. So at a very young age, I observed that there’s something about Christmas Eve that makes people treat each other differently.”

While O’Neill never forgot that incident, it didn’t really hold much meaning for him at the time. “I didn’t really think about it much, but later on, Erich Maria Remarque’s “All Quiet on the Western Front” was required reading. Remarque had written that book so well that I didn’t feel like I was in a classroom; I felt like I was in the battlefield, with shells falling all around me. I felt that fear, that claustrophobia. And that war, World War I, had one Christmas Eve night where the Germans started to sing ‘Silent Night.’ Then the British and French joined in, and then both sides exchanged gifts, and then they played a soccer game. I became fascinated with the power of this day that affects the way we treat each other. At some point [after that], I decided I would write [what became] the Christmas trilogy.”

This fascination eventually led to O’Neill experiencing Frank Capra’s 1946 Christmas movie classic “It’s a Wonderful Life,” which in turn led to Capra becoming another of his major influences, perhaps one the entire band owes a debt to. “I like happy endings,” O’Neill said. “Frank Capra’s DNA is all over my stuff. TSO would not exist if it wasn’t for people like Frank Capra. If you want sad endings, you don’t need me.”

The impact of Capra on O’Neill made him starkly aware of the influence that artists can have over others, both positive and negative. “Artists are very powerful, and very underestimated. They have a disproportionate amount of power to affect humanity, for both the good and the bad. [There was] one artist who used her unbelievably great talent to unfortunately make sick and insane evil palatable: Leni Riefenstahl was one of the greatest film directors of the 1930s. She made two [particular] movies; one was ‘Olympia’ [a 1938 documentary about the 1936 Summer Olympics held in Berlin], which made Nazism seem acceptable to the world. The other was ‘Triumph of the Will,’ [a 1935 Nazi propaganda film] which made Nazism seem acceptable to Germany. She basically took Nazism and romanticized it.”

“Then you have Charles Dickens, who wrote ‘Oliver Twist.’ Prior to the 1850s, child labor was the norm throughout the world. [After the novel], that little kid working away in the textile mill isn’t a stranger anymore; now it’s Oliver. And within a couple of decades, child labor is outlawed in Great Britain, and eventually throughout the rest of Western civilization.

“Prior to the 1800s, if you were rich you could get away with anything, including murder. If you were poor, you could get killed for anything, including something you didn’t do. But [along comes] Victor Hugo, and he writes ‘Les Miserables.’ For young men, it’s basically about the policemen chasing a convict. For women, it’s a love story. But the underlying theme is justice; Hugo just slips it in there. And within fifty years, you see the justice system changing.”

For art to have this kind of power, however, it also needs to have the power to evoke feelings. “The purpose of art — any form of art, be it a painting, a movie, a song, a comic book — is to make the person exposed to it feel emotion. There are three types of art: There’s bad art, good art and great art. Bad art makes you feel no emotion, good art will make you feel an emotion you’ve felt before, and great art will make you feel an emotion you’ve never felt before. Human beings are able to feel an infinite amount of emotions, and the easiest ones to trigger are anger or hatred. But compassion, empathy, curiosity and love are way harder.

“I learned this without even realizing it,” O’Neill continued. “My first lesson was from Michelangelo. My father had taken my older brother and me to the World’s Fair when it was in New York City. The Vatican had lent the Fair Michelangelo’s Pietà, [the iconic renaissance sculpture of Mary holding the lifeless body of Christ]. I was a little kid; I never thought of having a child, and definitely never thought of what it was like to lose a child. But I looked up at that statue, and the anguish that he had carved into Mary’s face was so powerful that I felt the pain. Michelangelo was reaching across the Atlantic Ocean and five centuries to take a kid to school.”

O’Neill acknowledges, though, that not all kids will appreciate or understand art unless it’s presented in a medium they can understand and enjoy, which led to his own introduction to comics. “My first exposure to ‘Les Miserables’ wasn’t the novel; it was the ‘Classics Illustrated’ comic book that turned me on to Victor Hugo. When I was a kid, that book would have intimidated the hell out of me. Also, a lot of kids first learn ethics from comics. Teddy Roosevelt said it best: “To educate a man in mind and not in morals is to educate a menace to society.” Batman teaches morals; Spider-Man teaches morals. Comics teach it all through stories, not lessons. I think some kids have gotten their first exposure to ethics from comics. When Spider-Man stands up against bullies, or Batman stands up against a corrupt police force, it drills home those messages without preachy storytelling. You see what they stand up for, and it gets ingrained.”

Beyond the ability of comics to reach out to younger minds, O’Neill also references the films based on comics that became their own legitimate piece of art. “I’ve always loved comics because they’re great storytelling, and they’re also a gateway [to other media]. Would Stan Lee have been able to write Captain America as a book? Probably not, but as a comic he could, and he was good at it. Batman; especially the original, was dark and brooding; it was [movie producer] Michael Uslan who brought back the dark Batman. Uslan and Tim Burton, to their credit, had the vision. A great artist is someone who has a vision that nobody else has, and then is able to get everybody else to see it.”

Recognizing the power of sequential art, O’Neill is branching out from his musical roots and has begun writing comics of his own. His first effort is a graphic novel entitled “Merry Christmas Rabbi,” a project currently being painted by veteran comics artist Greg Hildebrandt, who has worked with Trans-Siberian Orchestra since 2003, designing the concepts and supplying the artwork for the band’s albums, concert programs and apparel. The story is one that fits comfortably alongside those O’Neill has written for the band, centering on often dark events and emotions that are ultimately trumped with themes of kindness and redemption. O’Neill’s multi-tiered tale is one that spans from present day New York City to 1930s Nazi Germany, the Holocaust, and back again. The central protagonist is a rabbi who helps a young thug find redemption in an unexpected manner on Christmas Eve, decades after he himself found redemption of an equally surprising kind.

“Merry Christmas Rabbi” wasn’t initially conceived as a graphic novel; rather, it was written by O’Neill as a prose work, and the story itself was actually slated to be used as a device in “The Christmas Attic” as a sort of secondary account found within a newly-discovered World War II-era journal. O’Neill, however, decided to remove this element from the overall tale, leaving only an indirect mention of the journal in the lyrics of the song “Dream Child” with no specific detail on its contents. “The [journal] story was so heavy, but Trans-Siberian Orchestra’s audience is so wide, that at the last second we pulled it out. As I always tell the band, to make an entire arena roar and be happy is great, but to do it at the cost of hurting one person in that audience is not worth it. But [after the album’s release], we got a lot of letters asking if there was a story [in the journal], so when Amazon asked us about doing a book, I decided to test the waters [by telling that story]. We decided to do it through Kindle, because we wanted to make it affordable; rather than have to print it and ship it, we just decided to inconvenience a bunch of electrons and have it out there for $1.99.” The story was indeed released last year as an eBook novella for the Amazon Kindle, with a new cover illustration by Hildebrandt.

Before the novella’s release, O’Neill was concerned about reader reaction due to the story’s Holocaust overtones. Having experienced no backlash since it was published, he no feels that the story of “The Christmas Attic” could now be performed in concert. Because there is no overt mention that the contents of the journal mentioned in “Dream Child” are those chronicled in “Merry Christmas Rabbi,” people can enjoy the new show as it is. If they want to dig a little bit deeper by reading the novella, they will find “it teaches that it’s never too late to change the whole trajectory of your life.”

From his New Jersey studio, Hildebrandt also spoke with CBR, adding some details of his own about the story’s genesis. “After I [initially] read it five or six years ago, my first reaction was that this story should be a graphic novel. I showed Paul Will Eisner’s first graphic novel, ‘A Contract With God.’ He had never seen it, and he flipped over it. I also showed him Joe Kubert’s ‘Fax From Sarajevo,’ and he was totally turned on by that. I showed him serious stories could be told this way, so I started roughing out ideas on paper. Those rough ideas became the graphic novel’s first finished pages, which were unveiled for the first time as a preview in the band’s 2011 Winter Tour concert program.

“It’s going to be black and white, with some [limited] color,” Hildebrant explained of the book’s design. “The content is still being formed. I like to work on black illustration board with Prismacolor greys, and some white paint. Paul loved that take on it. Once it’s fully underway, that’s how we’re going to treat it. But it’s a constantly evolving thing and it’s taking time to do. It’s going to take me a year, full time, to do the book, at least. But I’m committed to it; I read the book and thought, I want to do this; I have to do this.”

Regarding the timeline, O’Neill added, “It’s coming, but it has to be perfect. In my world, there’s a rhythm: you write an album, no matter long it takes, and you record an album, no matter how long it takes.”

And “Merry Christmas Rabbi” isn’t their only graphic novel currently in progress. The two are also working on “Gutter Ballet,” a story based on one of the band’s upcoming rock operas that O’Neill plans to release as a theatrical production, and featuring music produced by O’Neill from Savatage’s 1989 album of the same name, as well as their subsequent “Streets: A Rock Opera” from 1991. The story is one that O’Neill actually wrote decades ago about the fall, rise and fall of a rock ‘n roll icon. “I read the libretto and thought that this story should also be a graphic novel,” Hildebrandt elaborated. “A couple of years ago, I took four of the songs and laid them all out in sequential art form. Again, Paul went nuts for it. I’ve actually done more work on that so far than on ‘Merry Christmas Rabbi.'”

The schedule is open-ended for this project as well, as it is for the band’s other active effort, “Romanov: When Kings Must Whisper,” another in-progress rock opera about the 1917 Russian revolution. Hildebrandt confirmed that he is also actively working on illustrations for this release. O’Neill added, “‘Romanov’ has been written and ready to go for a while now. The only reason we haven’t put it up on Broadway is we don’t have the infrastructure to support the special effects I had in mind. What Broadway considers great special effects, rock considers high school.”

On top of the work Hildebrandt is undertaking to support Trans-Siberian Orchestra’s multiple and concurrently running projects, his single largest focus is perhaps not on the albums, but instead the band’s annual tours. According to Hildebrandt, he spends about six months out of each year providing concepts and illustrations for the band’s stage show and merchandise. Of that, much of the time is devoted to designing and illustrating the content of the concert programs. Hildebrandt added that the programs are very much a real-time joint effort between O’Neill, Hildebrandt, graphic designer Jean Scrocco [who is also Hildebrandt’s wife and agent] and band manager Adam Lind.

“When we’re working on a program, the way we work is collaborative,” Hildebrandt said. “It starts with an initial concept. This year, Paul is putting together his new show, so I just asked him directly if he wanted ‘The Christmas Attic’ on the cover. He said yes. So I took off with that. I went to the story, read it, played all the music half a dozen times, made notes, and did a lot of sketches. I drew it all out in sequential art form, laying out the whole story with crude thumbnail sketches. Then I boiled it down with Jean, Paul and Adam, and we started to pin [the cover] down. It’s a four-way conversation. It’s like building a structure — by the end of it, you don’t know who did what, but you don’t really care. I love that. I enjoy that process very much.”

With the launch of a new show, the decision to feature “The Christmas Attic” in this year’s tour program was a fairly obvious one for O’Neill, but in past years, the decision on what to feature was a little more challenging, requiring O’Neill to come up with different concepts he would provide to Hildebrandt. O’Neill cited the 2009 and 2010 Winter Tour programs as examples of this process, where he had a very clear vision of what he had in mind and the kind of symbolism he wanted to represent it.

Hildebrandt’s 2009 cover features a train speeding across a frozen trestle, and includes architectural images from different eras, simultaneously. “I wanted that to be all about hope for humanity,” O’Neill explained. “I told Greg I needed this art deco kind of locomotive, with a beam of light shining from the front that represents accumulated human wisdom and knowledge lighting the way into the future. It goes by the house that I’ve used for writing since the seventies. The train represents the trans-continental railway, which helped unite America. If you look under the archways [of the bridge], you can see 1850s London, which represents the start of the industrial revolution. Then you see the Vatican, which harbored a great deal of the Greco-Roman knowledge that survived the Dark Ages. Then there’s the Roman Aqueduct. Then it keeps going further and further back. There’s the wolf, because the modern age of man first started when man domesticated the wolf thirty-thousand years ago. And then it goes further back, into the tunnel of time.”

For the 2010 program, O’Neill and Hildebrandt utilized more disparate elements, including characters from the storylines featured in the band’s past rock operas, such as Fate, one of the metaphysical players from the band’s first non-holiday release, 2000’s “Beethoven’s Last Night.” Fate’s right hand is making the two-fingered heavy metal sign, a tribute to the late heavy metal singer Ronnie James Dio, who had popularized that gesture throughout his career before passing away that same year. O’Neill and Hildebrandt also included DT Jesus, the central character from the “Gutter Ballet” story, as well as O’Neill’s own daughter Ireland, who O’Neill says he always wants to include in the covers for good luck.

Not only has Hildebrandt been providing the illustrations since 2003, Scrocco also took over the design responsibilities for the band’s tour programs two years later “In 2005, Paul was here [in the studio] looking at Greg’s art and said he didn’t like what [the current designer] was doing,” Scrocco recalled. “He said to me that TSO’s programs have to be the best in the industry, because the people who come to see the show had to be given only the highest quality. That’s when I realized how overwhelmingly important his fans are to him.” Scrocco persuaded O’Neill to hire her to design the programs, the first of which debuted on that year’s Winter Tour.

Hildebrandt first met O’Neill the same year they started working together, and he recollected the experience and how he became immediately enthralled with “Christmas Eve and Other Stories,” and later TSO’s other music. “Jean and I were playing our Christmas albums and wrapping presents. I went to put the next one on, and I saw a still shrink-wrapped CD that had fallen on the floor. I picked it up, looked at it, and thought, ‘Trans-Siberian Orchestra; what is this, some Russian women’s choir thing or something?’ I had never heard of them. Somebody had given it to me, and I had never played it. So I put it on, and holy mackerel; we played it four more times while wrapping presents. I brought it into the studio the next day, and an artist friend of mine said I’ve also got to hear ‘Beethoven’s Last Night.’ So the next day I bought that album. When I played it, it completely took me over, because I’ve been a classical music fan, and Beethoven fan, all my life. And I love classic rock and rock operas, so this thing completely leveled me. I played it until three in the morning while doing sketches [to the story]. I was doing this every night for two months.”

Hildebrandt had no way of knowing that O’Neill had likewise been a huge fan of Greg and his late brother Tim Hildebrandt since the 1970s. “The Hildebrandts painted the most iconic painting of the last century, and that was the original ‘Star Wars’ poster,” O’Neill said. “I said earlier that great art will make you feel an emotion you’ve never felt before, but Greg once said, ‘Great art will transform you for the better.’ Their art did.”

Interested in the possibility of working together, Hildebrandt contacted O’Neill, who was utterly stunned to have one of his all-time favorite artists call him from out of nowhere. The two lavished praise on each other’s work before arranging to meet.

“We met for dinner and we went over all the Beethoven sketches I had made,” Hildebrant recalled. “He went crazy over them, and the next year I was working on the Christmas tour program cover. To me, it was synchronicity, and I love that it happened that way. We’ve been friends ever since. When we met, it was like two minds interlocking. It’s been a fantasy fulfilled for me. Ever since I saw ‘Fantasia’ as a kid, I always wanted to work with a composer.”

“I remember the first time I met him and Tim,” O’Neill told us. “I felt like I had met these two magical people who had escaped from Oz, and they were so kind and humble. I always wanted an artist for the band, like the way Yes had Roger Dean, but to get Greg Hildebrandt? That wouldn’t have crossed my mind in a billion years.”

“I’ve done a lot of work with different musicians over the years,” added Scrocco. “I interviewed every single entertainer from the Philadelphia Live Aid concert in 1985, and I didn’t have one interview where the person was even remotely intelligible. When I first met Paul [along with the band] in their New York offices, I made the observation that I’m sitting here in a room full of rock people, and they’re all dead sober; nobody’s high! Paul started laughing and said they can’t do what they do if they’re stoned. In that first couple of years, it was such a joy to understand the overwhelming commitment that each one of them have in the roles that they play.”

“Paul is a genius on all kinds of levels; he’s an inspiration to me,” Hildebrandt said. “I love where his brain is at, and the kind of human being that he is. He’s a very idealistic, high-minded guy, and he believes, like the ancient Greeks did, that you can transform the world through art. I’m on that page too, so when we met, we were immediately on that same wavelength. I’m a huge fan; I see TSO on the same level as greats like Emerson Lake and Palmer, Procol Harum, the Moody Blues and other progressive rock bands. [TSO’s] music inspires me. And Paul is so huge on the idea of getting second chances. You can’t help but love the guy.”

O’Neill had similar praise for Hildebrandt. “It’s like Greg is in my brain. When I describe scenes on the phone, fifteen minutes later I get a sketch. And a week later, I get this huge oil painting. The thing I also worship about Greg is that he thinks like Trans-Siberian Orchestra does. We have this mind-blowingly expensive production; as I’m looking out the window right now, I see forty eight tractor trailers, and there’s four hundred crew members over in the arena right now, putting this tour together. But the whole time TSO’s been on tour, we’ve kept the ticket prices under $75. Hildebrandt oil paintings go for six figures, but Greg would always do quick pencil or pen and ink sketches that were affordable and anybody could buy them.”

The band incorporates Hildebrandt’s art into its shows via large LED screens that provide backdrop for the story as it’s performed. “It’s incredible seeing my work on the screens,” Hildebrandt admitted. “The first time they did this, I wasn’t even aware of it beforehand; they all kept it a secret. Paul gave everybody instructions, including Jean, not to tell me about it. Then the show started, and boom — all my art was on the screen, blasting all over the place. I was so emotionally blown away, I started crying. The feeling was overwhelming. It’s a thrill for me to see that. I’m still turned on with TSO and Paul; it’s just constant enthusiasm for me.” Hildebrandt has also designed a pencil animation sequence that’s slated to be used at some point in a future tour.

During the seemingly rare times when Hildebrandt is not working on a TSO project, he’s reengaging with the franchise that originally put him on O’Neill’s radar. Marvel Comics has commissioned Hildebrandt to do three new covers for their upcoming omnibus editions that will reprint Marvel’s original “Star Wars” comics, the first of which comes out in January. Hildebrandt has just completed the cover for the second, which will be solicited for a May 2015 release.

O’Neill is also feeling the urge to pursue more storytelling in the comic book field, away from Trans-Siberian Orchestra. “I’m going to try and spend more time in the studio, writing and getting some graphic novels out. ‘Merry Christmas Rabbi’ is our first venture into the comic world, and I want it to be so right, and so perfect. I’m also trying to get Trans-Siberian Orchestra so it can go out on its own, and I know it can, because people like [TSO band members and musical directors] Al Pitrelli and Derek Wieland can take up the lead, because they see the vision. I got that idea from Walt Disney, who’s also one of my idols. Basically, he put together a team. I’ve had my fun on the stage; it’s time to pass it on to the next generation. You can’t get hung up on things you love doing. There’s a time where you grow and develop your own ideas, and then there’s a point where you just need to mentor the next generation. About three years ago, Ireland said that I have all of these stories in my head, and I’ve got to get them made. She lit a fire under my butt.”

Trans-Siberian Orchestra is currently in the midst of their 2014 Winter Tour, which wraps up on Jan. 4. With a number of pending projects in the works over the course of the next several years in addition to its existing catalog, the rock band will have plenty of material to perform for years to come. Does O’Neill worry that TSO’s longevity will work against itself, as its audience gets older?

“No,” O’Neill replied. “Heavy metal will never be dead as long as God is making teenagers.”

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