Lunatic's Serenade

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Al Pitrelli
Filling your soul with Heavy Metal

Since the release of the first record "Christmas Eve and Other Stories" in 1996, the Trans-Siberian Orchestra has been filling the souls of heavy metal fans with the joy and forgiveness of Christmas. Creator Paul O'Neil with Jon Olivia of Savatage put together a Christmas trilogy that will take any non-believer and shake their faith (or lack there of). You can relate to the situations in the songs. Maybe you are the Runaway, the Bitter Old Man, the Child in the attic, or you know someone who is. Either way, the songs are for you.

I had the opportunity to talk with Paul's West Coast Super Conductor/Lead Guitarist and Co-Writer Al Pitrelli (who thanked ME for taking time to talk to HIM! and has also done a stint with Savatage and Megadeth!!) I was so nervous, and I forgot to hit the "record" button on my computer. So I would like to say to Al and to the readers: "I'm sorry if I didn't get all the words you said exactly. My wife did an amazing job of typing while you spoke and I racked my brain trying to remember"...It was an honor to hear from Al Pitrelli. He is a super nice guy and even chatted with my wife! So without any further ado…

HMS: Ever since I was a kid, "Carol of the Bells" has always been my favorite Christmas song. I have heard the a cappella versions, and the words and music versions. Then one night in 2000 while channel surfing, I fell on PBS a minute before "Christmas Eve/Sarajevo" began. My heart leaped inside my chest when I heard the opening riff of the metal sounds with the string section. It grabbed me and two minutes later I'm a broken mess! It was like hearing it for the first time. What is the story behind the title?

Al Pitrelli: In 1994 Paul (O'Neil) called me; he was working with Jon Oliva on a new Rock Opera for Savatage, Dead Winter Dead. Most of the album was done but they needed someone to play some guitar solos so I came aboard. I heard the song Christmas Eve (Sarajevo 12/24) and the hair on my arms stood up. I had been the musical director and guitarist of Alice Cooper and we toured in Europe before the war.

There was a cello player in protest; he played Mozart and Beethoven in the town square while the bombs dropped during the war.

HMS: In an earlier interview, you spoke of growing up in New York City during the 1970's and being exposed to classical, jazz and rock. Unfortunately, I did not appreciate classical music until I was 16 when I saw the movie about Mozart. Who had the most impact on your soul before you became a musician? Who put the drive in you to be one?

AP: In 1964 saw the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan show. They were different from anything out there. 50 years ago that’s what got me started. WABC AM was the only music station on radio and played everything from Marvin Gaye, Kenney Rogers, The Temptations, Cher. I didn’t know there were other musical sounds other than what I heard on my parent’s car radio.
In public school they handed you a trumpet or another instrument and you played in band. You'd play show tunes, classical, jazz, more types of music. That gave you a wide vocabulary of music. Music as an art form is something that continually grows. I fell in love with something that has never broken my heart.

HMS: Two of my favorites growing up in the 80's are the bands you were in. What was it like working with Savatage and Megadeth?

AP: Megadeath was an awesome experience. Never stopped working with Savatage. Just took a break to work with Dave Mustaine. Dave asked me to stay on a little while longer, and a little longer turned into a two year thing. I learned a lot from Dave.

HMS: We've seen the TSO perform (7 times in Vegas) it's like watching a magic show. Only there's no illusion. The fire is real, the heat is intense and the action is non-stop. How does the "Orchestra" deal with all the pyro stuck in that little box?

AP: When we started in ’99 we had a 24 foot box, a couple fog machines; it’s evolved into what it is now. Lots of people involved have been involved from the beginning they know what to expect, the lasers, the smoke, etc. Plus we rehearse for 2 months before the tour starts. Everything has been rehearsed and choreographed into the ground before anything happens.

HMS: I listen to the Trilogy throughout the year. When the songs "For the sake of our Brother", "Old City Bar" , "Music Box Blues", "This Christmas Day" and "Back to a Reason" play (especially live), those move me deeply. What are the songs that hit you most when you're under the lights?

AP: Depends on the night. "Sarajevo" hits me a lot cause’ I have two sons in the armed forces. I grew up with these songs too, being on this side of 50 I relate to these songs as a father now.

HMS: I do have to say that I LOVE the way you use the toggle switch during the solo in "Christmas Jam". The lights off and on with your sound, the band driving behind you...I lost my mind that moment.

AP: It’s a guitar, an amp and a rock band. Back in the day we didn’t have the toggle switch. I don’t know who first did that, but I heard it and thought it was the coolest thing.

HMS: You get to work with an awesome number of top notch, talented musicians. One guy we miss is Tommy Farese. How is he doing?

AP: I haven’t spoken to him in a while for no reason than just life. Our relationship just sort of hit a fork in the road.

HMS: Is there any chance of the "Old City Bar" coming back into the set list?

AP: Yeah, it might. As a matter of fact Bart (Shatto) and I were in the dressing room and someone mentioned it was their favorite song, so we just played it right there.

HMS: I'm looking at the cover to Beethoven's Last Night (the complete narrated version). Did they draw the guys after you and Vitalij Kuprij?

AP: (Haha), No... I don't think Vitalij would ever be that angry at me.

HMS: On your time off, what's the first thing you like to do after those long tours ( besides sleep for two days)?

AP: I get no time off. Between traveling, touring, rehearsing - getting ready for the tour in Europe (WACKEN Open Air) with Savatage.

HMS: Another thing I enjoy watching is your left hand in how you stop picking and you hammer those notes to wall! So smooth and effortless: your bends and vibrato, not using the tremolo bar. I have never seen anyone do that as flawlessly as you. And the thing about it is when you do it, it's all about tone and feel. I don't see any arrogance in you. Which leads to my next observation: Angus Clark took a lot of the solos this time around ( in the show in Arizona). Just hanging back or do you trade nights?

AP: Angus is a great guitarist. I wanted him to get out there and do his thing and have his time on stage. Sometimes I like driving the ship from the side of the stage. I told him, I’ll have my moments don’t worry, you go have fun. And every show is different, so you never know.

HMS: Anything you'd like to tell our younger readers who aspire to be musicians, artists or music lovers?

AP: Odds are against you for accomplishing that task, to be at the top – in order to accomplish that task you have to love it; you have to love it more than anything else and be willing to do it for free. There are going to be so many years of struggle - you better love it. Practice, enjoy it, and remember why you fell in love with it. In 1964 I absolutely fell in love with what was on my TV screen and I would absolutely curl up and die without music.

HMS: Again, thank you for your time and a big thanks to the TSO road, light and tech crew for making the tour a really big show! And please give a big thanks from me to Paul O'Neil for his vision. The songs touch my soul and I share the music like the Gospel!

AP: Thank you and I will tell him you said that. Happy Holidays to you and your family and we'll do this again.

HMS: Sounds great and have a Merry Christmas also.

(extra-extra special thanks to me wife for helping this absent minded professor..)

Tim Duran, HMS

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