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Trans-Siberian Orchestra: The Word According To Kinkel ... And Me
By Mary Ellen Gustafson
(more articles from this author)
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If ever the phrase “Things happen the way they’re supposed to” rings true, it does when applied to Trans-Siberian Orchestra. Why the group was formed, how they got national attention, where they are today and what’s in their future, are a series of coincidences, flukes, miracles or whatever you want to call them. No matter what the word you use, this phenomenon has accomplished great things and their future projects will knock your socks off! For the strange, but true, tale of TSO Read on. . . Bob Kinkel

Photos by Mark Weiss

[Photo: Bob Kinkel] I’ve been following Trans-Siberian Orchestra since their beginning in 1996 and the core Rock group that drives it, Savatage, for even longer. For the six people that don’t know the story, here’s a quick history lesson: The Hard Rock band Savatage was originally formed in 1981 by Jon Oliva and his late brother, Criss, as Avatar; developed a cult following and a masterful live show; changed their name to Savatage; and were signed to Atlantic Records. (These are just the high points, people!) They released several successful albums and gained giant popularity in Europe and Asia, where they are MUCH, more well known than in America. At the time they were recording Hall of the Mountain King, Atlantic introduced Jon to Producer Paul O’Neill, and session Keyboardist Bob Kinkel played additional keyboards on the album.

Little did they know at the time that a dynasty was being born! After Gutter Ballet, Jon Oliva and Paul O’Neill wrote and recorded the first Savatage rock opera, Streets, and once again Bob Kinkel was on backing keyboards. O’Neill was now a fixture as writer/producer, with Jon and Criss Oliva as writers/co-producers for Edge of Thorns, after which Criss was killed by a drunk driver. Jon decided to keep the group going and with O’Neill, he wrote and produced Handful of Rain as a tribute to his brother. Bob Kinkel was back for the project, this time as Sound Engineer.

Fate stepped in on the second Savatage rock opera, based on the war in Bosnia, “Dead Winter Dead,” in the form of the song “Christmas Eve (Sarajevo 12/24).” This song garnered some interest above and beyond Savatage fans and Atlantic had the bright idea of the band releasing a Christmas album. However, Savatage wanted to remain true to their Hard Rock style and any band is limited by the vocal abilities within. O’Neill had an even better idea – start a new group, bring in a variety of vocalists from Blues to Classical to Jazz to Broadway, add orchestral instruments and write a “story” album.

[Photo above: Bob Kinkel and Paul O'Neill, Photo © Alan Dockery ] O’Neill, Oliva and Kinkel were the team responsible for writing stories, lyrics and music, doing orchestrations, sound engineering and production together for two Savatage albums and the natural progression was to build this new “group” around the band. The name Trans-Siberian Orchestra is no big mystery either. Paul liked the name and the Trans-Siberian Railroad is the longest unbroken rail line in the world. However, this small decision garnered them a spot on the Rosie O’Donnell Show on Christmas Eve in 1996. A producer thought she was booking a Russian Symphony! WRONG, but the response was overwhelming and the TSO Christmas Eve And Other Stories album, featuring “Christmas Eve/Sarajevo 12-24,” went from so-so sales to platinum!

[Photo right: All Pitrelli] That’s the short version according to ME, after talking to Paul, Jon, and members of Savatage over the years when albums were released, at live shows, reading hundreds of press releases and getting to know both groups and their management as phone buddies and in person. They are amazing creators and musicians, super nice people, love their fans, have a social conscience (they ALWAYS have satellite news running in their studio and it’s not the sanitized American version) and above all, give 150% at every single performance, no matter which group you see.

Subsequent releases from Trans-Siberian Orchestra include The Christmas Attic, the second album of the Christmas Trilogy in 1998; Beethoven’s Last Night, the first non-Christmas album in 2000; The Ghosts Of Christmas Eve DVD based on the cable TV Special by the same name in 2001; The Lost Christmas Eve, The Lost Christmas Eve the final album of the Christmas Trilogy in 10/2004.

Recently, I had the opportunity to talk with Bob Kinke, the one prominently mentioned person of the TSO creative team that I’ve never crossed paths with. I set out do some research so I could speak somewhat intelligently and couldn’t find a whole lot. Of course I read his bio, which in itself is pretty impressive – the guy worked for Record Plant Studios as an assistant engineer for bands including The Who, The Police and Genesis; moved on to session keyboard player/writer for many successful ad campaigns and scored the music for several TV shows; helped pioneer a technique of sound design using and manipulating pure sound in a musical way; creating the sound logo for "A Current Affair" and bringing an entire office building to life for "Diet Coke"; and finally landing on the creative team for Savatage and TSO. What I didn’t find were many interviews or photos or even face shots of him on the Ghosts Of Christmas Eve DVD, although his hands on the piano keys are prominently displayed.

[Photo left: Paul O’Neill] The more I tried, the less I found, so he was becoming a mystery man in my mind, and I decided to ask him where he fits into the scheme of all things TSO. “I fit in all over,” he told me. “I do engineering, keyboards, the string arrangements, all the orchestrations, the vocal arrangements, I’m the tour organizer, I play keyboards and I’m the musical director of the East Tour. I like to be in the middle of things.”

When I asked about the DVD, his laughing reply, “I was assistant director and spent more time behind the scenes than in front of the camera, which is why you mainly see my hands on the DVD.” No wonder I couldn’t find many photos! Since I live out West, that completely explains why I’ve never seen Bob. Al Pitrelli is the musical director on the West Tour!

With that mystery solved, I asked if he was involved with the story portion of the albums, although I pretty much know that Paul O’Neill does that part on his own. Bob confirmed that. “The stories are all Paul. I’m a sounding board for him once in a while when he wants to try out an idea, and everybody works with Paul on the music. He’s like the center and we all work around him. But I take care of all orchestrations, arrangements and conducting on the albums, plus extra keyboards and engineering on Savatage.”

I figured I should ask him something about the latest album, so I settled on the Christmas Carols and asked how difficult it was to come up with songs not previously used. “It’s sometimes tough to find the one to work with,” Bob said, “But once it’s there, it’s there! It comes down to where you get drawn into the Carol and where it fits the stories.”

Being familiar with the tradition of the entire cast sitting in the lobby signing autographs and meeting people until the last person in line is gone, I asked him how that tradition worked on days with two shows and how it got started. “We don’t come out after matinee shows,” Bob told me. “If we did we wouldn’t have any kind of break. As it is, on those days we’re absolutely dead when the last person leaves after the night show. We sleep good on those nights!” He continued, “Meeting our fans is the most important thing. When I worked at Record Plant, I was on the road with Alabama and I remember them doing that. They would stay and sign autographs until the last person left, and their fans absolutely loved them. That made a deep impression on me and I learned how important fan loyalty is. You have to be in touch with your fans – be available to them. It’s all about the fans. Without the fans we wouldn’t be here.”


Since it’s been a few years between interviews with anyone from TSO, I wanted to get some updates on a few things that were mentioned by Paul O’Neill and various other people and now I had the perfect opportunity! Number one on the list was the Beethoven’s Last Night tour, which has been promised for at least three years. Bob said a full production tour will be on the road sometime in the next two years. However, it won’t be a split tour like the “Christmas Eve . . .” tour is and it will start small like the Christmas tour did. Audience reaction and interest will determine whether it grows to a large tour or not. As far as it replacing the Christmas Tour, I got resounding “NO!” to that question. The Christmas Tour is here to stay!

Then there were the rumors about another non-Christmas album. They are not rumors. There is a new album in the works. It’s called Night Castle and it should be finished sometime in 2005. With everything else these people are involved in, I really take time projections with a grain of salt, but here’s hoping we’re out buying a new TSO album next year too!

I’ve been asking Paul O’Neill about the Broadway project “Romanovs” ever since he first told me about it like six years ago. Bob said the project is very active right now, but it takes a long time to get a show on Broadway. They even have a few other projects geared in that direction, but there’s just not enough time to work on everything.

My last question was asked on behalf of all the Indie bands trying to get somewhere, that self produce, or are trying to make it to the major label scene. I asked Bob if had any advice for them. “You just have to keep going and doing what you believe in. If you’re doing it to be famous, you might as well not bother. If you’re doing it because you love it, stick with it. You will get to a level where you’re noticed. Stay true to the music. It’s a lot of work, some of it’s luck, but stay as true to it as you can. Self-production works and these bands do end up getting picked up. It’s been happening and there is NO reason it shouldn’t continue. Everything is in turmoil these days and it can happen for anyone who works for it. Everything goes in waves, and hopefully things will turn around again soon.”

I didn’t have very long to get to know Bob Kinkel, but during the time we talked I discovered he’s the same type of high energy, driven individual that his partner Paul O’Neill is. They complement each other to keep this group known as Trans-Siberian Orchestra moving ever onward and upward. I know I can’t wait to see this year’s show, because they’ve added another 2 full trucks of lighting and effects. The O’Neill, Kinkel and Oliva creative team have so many projects in the works for TSO it makes your head spin. I just hope they all happen and I get the chance to experience every one of them!


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