Saturday, May 4, 2019

A Conversation with Jennifer Cella

Jennifer Cella has been gracing us with her expressive and powerful voice for close to twenty years now through the music of Trans-Siberian Orchestra and her work with dance-music producers Anton Bass, Jason Nevins, and Anthony Fonseca (aka Monikkr).  Though out of the public spotlight for several years while she began raising a family, Cella has recently come roaring back with two new bands that she not only sings lead on, but also is involved with creatively.  I recently caught up with Jennifer to discuss her time with TSO as well as her own bands Beauty in the Machine and Cover Girl.

Photo courtesy Marianne P. Stone

Dan Roth:  By way of some background, I'd like to ask about your first recordings. In 2001, you were high on the Billboard dance charts with "Begin2Rise" and then later that year, a featured vocalist on the Karmadelic full-length album, Flip Your Mind.

Jennifer Cella:  That was when I had started working with Anton Bass.  He had a deal with Jellybean Records at the time and those were my first real recording sessions.

DR:  This is when you were known professionally as Jayella?

JC:   [Laughs]  The dance world had a lot of artists using one-word names and I needed to find a way to shorten mine.  Cella is still a shortened version of my given name.  My real last name was too long and too Italian to use.  The record was coming out, so we threw a couple names in the air and we went with Jayella.   It's one of those things that I shake my head and roll my eyes at when it's brought up. [Laughs]  

DR:  You sang and co-wrote two songs on that Karmadelic record, one of which led off the album and was co-written with Anton and keyboardist Carmine Giglio, "Things I See". Was this the first time you had a hand in writing a song?

JC:  I had dabbled in song writing but this was the first time I had any success with it.

DR:  With you seeing some success in the dance world and having a couple records out there, how did you get involved with Trans-Siberian Orchestra?

JC:  I had an agent at the time who was submitting me for Broadway auditions.  That was where I thought I wanted to go with my career.  I had gone to the Tisch School for the Arts and a couple other schools and studied acting and musical theater; that was always my focus. I was getting really burnt out on the rejection.  In that business, you get a hundred "no's" before you get a "yes".  I had started to shift my focus more to music and I was in a cover band on Long Island. What I loved about that was the instant gratification.  You rehearse for the gig and then you go do the gig - you don't audition for the gig; you go and perform.  I was really falling in love with that.  I was done with auditioning and really didn't want to do that anymore.

My agent got me this audition with Trans-Siberian Orchestra.  They were using a Broadway casting agent back then.  I really did not want to go; I was really done with auditions and had no interest.  My agent pushed me to do it, explaining to me that it was more of a "rock thing" and they were asking for a Pat Benatar song for the audition.  I was like, "Alright, I'll do it."  Paul O'Neill wasn't in the room when I auditioned, only David Krebs and Taro Meyer.  I sang "Love is a Battlefield" and Paul came into the room about halfway through the audition. When I was done, he looked at their clipboard and they had put an 'x' through my name; they were going to completely dismiss me. Paul wrote "yes" next to my name and asked me to sing a Janis Joplin song.

I got what I thought was a callback, but it was basically Paul and I sitting in this rehearsal room and he was telling me about this awesome gig. I didn't know that I got it, but that was Paul's way of telling me that I got the gig.  I was really excited, but I still didn't know what I was getting myself into. At that point, the Show wasn't what it is today and nobody knew what it was going to turn into.

DR:  Did you know going in that this was for a lead vocalist position in the cast?

JC:  Actually, this was an audition to be a background singer. That quickly changed once we got to rehearsals and Paul started changing some things around.  He took "Promises to Keep", which on record was done by a children's choir, and reworked it for me to sing live. He really shook things up for me and I am grateful for that.

"Promises to Keep" followed by singer introductions  - TSO with Jennifer Cella from Jennifer's first tour (2001).  

DR:  "Promises to Keep" certainly was a staple of the set for many years.  Were you the first to sing that?

JC:  Yes.  It was written for a choir and Paul was looking for material to give me in the show. 

DR:  When you went on the 2001 TSO East tour, was that your first real tour?

JC:  Yes.  I had done some regional theater in Tennessee, but this was my first real tour.

DR:  The cast was such a melting pot of performers, with musicians and singers with metal, theater, R&B and club experiences.

JC:  And we all really bonded as a family back then. I first got to know many of them when we drove down to QVC to film an appearance before the 2001 rehearsals even began.  That's when I met Mee Eun Kim, Chris Caffery, Bob Kinkel, Mark Wood and Alex Skolnick.  We all piled into a van and drove to QVC and I was the new kid on the block.  I believe I sang "Dreams of Candlelight".

DR:  For your seven years on the tour, you were always on the East production.  Did you ever have the opportunity or desire to sing with the West cast?

JC:  I never had a choice, but I was happy that I was on East because that meant my family and friends got to see me perform.  It would have been nice to work with the people on the other tour, but honestly, we quickly become a family on the East, especially back then.  There was such a complete bond because everything was still so new, and we were building this all together.

DR:  I understand that back then, Paul O'Neill spent more of his time on the East tour rather than the West dates.  Did you get a lot of direction from Paul?
Jennifer Cella with TSO - Toledo, Ohio, November 29th 2007
Photo Courtesy James Marvin Phelps 

JC:  Yes, Paul was around our tour a lot. Paul's vision was always that it was one band and one show.

DR:  On the TSO records, you sang lead on five of their songs over the years. Often Paul dialed in on a particular way he saw or heard a singer and it seems like he used you for songs that needed that tender, emotional touch.

JC:  Yes, Paul saw me as the female vocalist with maternal instincts and as the one who could sing the rock ballads.  He always got me to express emotions in the songs that I sang. The songs that he would write for a female had a depth to them and he would often model them after that 80's rock sound.  He found that I could deliver those and that was area of my voice that he loved.  I was classically trained, did musical theater for years and was also in rock cover bands so I could do it all.  Paul really didn't want to explore the more legit side of my voice at all.  He found that little section of my voice that he loved the most and took it from there.

DR:  "Christmas Canon Rock" is certainly the song that you are most identified with, sort of your "signature song".  Do you like that it is what has become your legacy from your work with them?

JC:  Oh, definitely!

DR:  I want to ask about that note you hold at the end of the song.

JC:  When we recorded that in the studio, I just went for it.  Paul didn't tell me to do that, but I went for it and it turned out to be amazing and we kept it.  After I did it, I sat back and thought, "Oh shit.  I'm going to have to do this every night on tour." [Laughs] Doing it in the studio is one thing, but doing it live every night on tour...some nights you might just not feel the greatest, or have a tickle in your throat, you might be tired, you have adrenaline flowing - all that stuff that plays a part in the physiology of your voice.  It was something that I was very conscious of when we recorded it.  If I'm going to do this in the studio, I must do it live every night.  It was so rewarding to hear the applause at the end of that note.

DR:  The performance that you did for QVC has now been viewed almost nine million times on YouTube. We know the band are playing to the recording, but are the vocals live?

JC:  Yes, the vocals were done live, and the music was the recording, but the guys were still playing over it.  It was the same way we did it on Regis & Kelly.

DR:  "Christmas Canon Rock" featured - besides your stunning vocals, very prominent "hair flips" which have become a bit of a thing that TSO is known for.  Was this song sort of a ground zero for that?

"Christmas Canon Rock" - TSO with Jennifer Cella (lead) and Danielle Landherr, Heather Gunn (background) (2007)

JC:  No.  The hair flips came from when us girls were singing backgrounds off to the side and we were just there without choreography.  I started flipping my hair as sort of a "rock move" and that became our thing.  When we were doing Canon, we had to do something while standing there during that canon melody and turning our heads on the beat is what we came up with. [Laughs]  It's funny, I still do that in all of my performances.  It was who I was before I was in TSO and it sort of exploded  in TSO.

DR:  You sang two songs that were very quiet ballads, "Different Wings" and "Remnants of a Lullaby".

JC:  Sometimes Paul would take what I thought were my worst vocal takes and he would use them because he heard a vulnerability in them.  For me as a vocalist looking back, I sometimes think, "I could have sung that line better" or "Why did he use that take?".  Paul liked to capture the rawness and the emotion that he heard and felt.  Both songs were just Al Pitrelli and I in the studio. "Different Wings" in particular is such a pretty song and I remember singing that to my son when he was born and thinking how lucky I was to have a lullaby like this to sing to him.

DR:  You finally got to stretch out a bit more with a song from the Nightcastle album, "Father Son & Holy Ghost".  There is this intense 90-second section in the middle of the song where we get to hear that rock growl that you have and you rapid-fire that section of lyrics, starting with “The night it keeps burning While twisting and turning”.  How hard was that to sing?

JC:  It was really difficult, actually.  It is a hard song to sing because of that.  Paul knew my capabilities with breath control from Canon and he went with it.  I am breathing in there of course, but it is challenging.

DR:  The most recent song you had released with TSO was "Past Tomorrow" which is a somewhat stark, minimal piece of music, with just the keys and piano behind your voice.

JC:  Paul tried a lot of people on that song. It started out as a very, very different piece of music.  It was a very over-the-top, Broadway-ish kind of song with this high belt vocal and completely different to how it turned out. We were in the studio and about 99% done with it; we just had some background vocals left, when Al started changing it and put it in a minor key.  We then took out the entire chorus which had the phrase "Past Tomorrow"  in it and really just changed the entire feel of the song.  We started layering my vocals and doubling the harmonies, and it was coming out great.  I am really, really happy with how this one came out.  Of all the songs that I have sung for TSO, this is the one that I had the most creative input on.  It was a very cool experience to be involved in the transformation of a song that we just took two weeks to record and then sit there with Al and Paul and work out this totally new arrangement and made it really a different song.

Jennifer Cella with TSO - Nassau Coliseum in 2007
Photo courtesy Donna Searing McDonald

DR:  It's great that you continued to record even after you stopped touring in 2007.

JC:  Yeah, Paul always wanted me on everything, and I was thrilled to continue doing that.  In fact, I was working on a song for his next project when he died.  In the days leading up to his death, he had me working on demos for his next project. I was working with [Talent Coordinator] Danielle Sample on getting Paul exactly what he had wanted. I was actually waiting on a call back from Paul the day that he died to hear what he thought of what I had sent in. The call that I got was not what I expected obviously - very shocking.

DR:  Was it a hard decision to leave the TSO tour after seven years?

JC:  I was ready to start a family and I was afraid that if I waited too long, I wouldn't have that opportunity. As much as I loved the touring, I also wanted to be a Mom.  You have to make choices in life, and I didn't want to look back one day and find that I waited too long. To this day, I miss it.

DR:  Looking back at your time with TSO, what did you take away from your time?

JC:  So much.  You don't get to perform in front of 20,000 people unless you're in a group like that. It is something that most musicians don't get to experience. I really learned from every bit of it.  One thing that Paul really taught me was connecting with people. He cared deeply about the experience people took away from the shows and that sticks with me to this day. We were up on stage with the opportunity to make an impact and I feel really blessed that I was able to make an impact on people's lives.

DR:  After you left the tour, you were out of the public eye for the most part.

JC:  Yes.  I wasn't out there touring, but I wasn't going to stop singing because I was a Mom.  I was involved in a wedding band which was great money and helped to keep my chops up.  I actually really grew a lot in that job because you get requested all kinds of material and you have to be able to do it. With singing, it's really "use it or lose it" and I still got sing every week  to make sure I didn't lose it.

DR:  Over the course of the last few years, fans started seeing you on stages again, collaborating with some of your TSO bandmates like Alex Skolnick and Dave Z.

JC:  That was so much fun and nostalgic.  I have the utmost respect for all my TSO bandmates so any chance that I get to play with them is amazing.  I'm really glad that I did those dates with Rubix Kube; those are memories that I have with Dave that I otherwise wouldn't have.

DR:  Let's talk about your current band, Beauty in the Machine.  That is a collaboration with Electronic Dance Music icon Anthony Fonseca (aka Monikkr). How did you two get together?

JC:  I knew Anthony as far back as when I was working with Anton Bass in Karmadelic.  Anthony and I were signed to the same management and were always moving in the same circles.  In fact, I sang lead on a bunch of songs for the Jason Nevins album (2004's The Funk Rocker) and Anthony was involved in one of those songs as well.  At one point, he and I formed a band and were going to record and play out.  This was around the same time that I was making the decision to leave TSO and start a family.  I wound up taking a step back from that band as well.  As time went on, we didn't really talk as much as life just took us in different directions.  After Paul died, I had posted something online which prompted Anthony to call me.

Anthony had a band that he started called Beauty in the Machine which he had abandoned a couple years earlier.  He had one song written from that time which is called "Again".  We actually got together, re-worked it, changed the key, and re-wrote some of the lyrics.  That came out so well that he presented me with a snippet of a song that he had started writing called "Morning After" and I finished that.  Things were really clicking between us musically and he asked me if I wanted to do this and I was feeling really thirsty to do something creative. I worked with him in the past and knew how talented he was, and it looked like Anton was going to be involved with it as well.  I was looking forward to writing on a creative level and really developing something.  Two years later, here we are on this journey.  It's been slow because we are self-funding it, and sometimes I have to take a step back for family responsibilities and obligations.  It is going slower than if we had done this ten years ago, but it is fun and really rewarding.

DR:  Apart from those songs on the Karmadelic album that you had in writing, is this first time since then that you have been involved in the songwriting process?

JC:  I wrote and recorded a Christmas song that I put out myself, but I spent a lot of years not exploring that creative side.  Motherhood is a lot of work and really took me out of the loop of a lot.  Now that they are a little older, I have some freedom to dive back into stuff like this and it's been great!

DR:  How is your collaboration process between the two of you?

JC:  A lot of times he will come up with a musical track and ask me to add a melody and a lyric. What has worked out best is that he will come up with a track and we will do a writing session together, just bouncing ideas off of each other.  We wrote "13 Days" in about two hours. Another song that we recently completed, "Hold On", we wrote in less than two hours and that is my favorite so far. I was at his studio for three hours and in that time, we were able to write the song and record the demo with background vocals in that time. It's still got the beat, but it's a little darker and has a lot of heavy grungy guitars in it.

DR:  You both have that dance background, but the music that you are creating is more of an electro trip-hop sound, reminds me a bit of Massive Attack.  Does that sort of music come natural to you?

JC:  I have my toes in a lot of different genres and I do love a beat.  But I also love a good rock vocal. Obviously, Anthony does bring with him his dance music experience, but he also was in a rock band years ago that coincidentally opened for Savatage a few times back when Alex was in it; so, our backgrounds really gel well together.

DR:  The first song that you released was "Morning After", which is kind of ethereal and stark and really captures a feeling of loneliness.

JC:  Anthony had the track written and the first stanza [sings "You looked into my eyes, I was hypnotized"] and I wrote the other verses and the chorus. Honestly, I wrote the rest of the song while I was at my son's baseball game.  I had my earbuds in and a notebook and wrote the lyrics while watching the game.

DR:  I understand that there will be a dance remix of that one?

JC:  Yes.  We did a gig on New Year's Day at the House of Yes which is a dance club.  We felt that we needed to rework some of our songs to fit that crowd, so he remixed it and it translates really well for live performances. That version has so much more energy so that will probably be the version that we do when we play out.  The Remix for "Morning After" will be released on May 21st  with an accompanying video on May 28th.  I can't wait for everyone to hear and see it! It will be playable and viewable on our website along with all of our music.

DR:  Both of your singles so far have music videos and big rollouts for them.  And now with adding the visual element to the shows, is having that visual presentation to your music and presentation important to you?

JC:  It is an aspect that we want to develop.  We want our shows to be an immersive experience. We want people to come out to listen to music but also to see a show.

DR:  I was pleasantly surprised to see a real drummer as part of your live band configuration, as it is drum programming on the recordings. And, not only do you have a drummer, but it is John Sawicki who really takes the live performance to another level.  How did you know John and why did you pick him for this project?

JC:  John Sawicki and I go way back; he was in the cover band that I was in before I joined TSO. He has always been one of my favorite drummers. When I left to go with TSO, John left to be part of Stomp.  When we talked about bringing a drummer in, John was just a perfect fit.  His percussion set-up has been evolving also, he now has kick drum set up so he plays that standing up and his snare is mounted to his percussion set-up. It's a more visual aspect and sounds really cool. He is also my drummer in Cover Girl.

DR:  What is next for Beauty in the Machine?  Two songs have been released so far, with many more written and full live sets are happening.  Any timeline on when a full EP or album will be ready?

JC:  We just got a monthly residency at The VYNL in the East Village; last Wednesday of every month. We do have a plan to release an EP.  It was supposed to be out by now, but we got derailed by the video of "Again"; we weren't happy with it and that put everything on hold.  I hate to put a timeline on it, but we are on track for a Summer release for the EP.  It's coming, I promise. [Laughs]

DR:  Tell me about your Cover Girl band.  You are obviously doing covers, but you are calling it a "mash-up band"?

JC:  Well, we do a lot of straight covers, but we throw in some mash-ups that might be unexpected.  For instance, we will start with "Seven Nation Army" and go into "Sweet Dreams" but keeping up the bass line from "Seven Nation Army".  It comes out awesome.  The first gig we did, I was so scared because I didn't know if people were going to get it or understand or if people were going to like it.  So far, everyone seems to be loving it. Sometimes they look a little confused - they'll hear us start off with "Every Breath You Take" but I go into singing "Stand by Me".  It's just a different experience and shows you how fluid music is from one song to another. It's doing covers but in a creative way.  We also pay tribute to some iconic bands; we do a Led Zeppelin medley, a Nirvana medley that are really craftily done.  And John Sawicki is our drummer in this band too!

DR:  Nice.  Jeff Allegue is in the band also.  Did you know him from your TSO days?

JC:  I didn't work with Jeff in TSO.  I knew him more as Paul's friend and he was always at the New York Shows.  Jeff laid down some guitar tracks in the early days, before I got on board, so we never actually worked together with TSO.

DR:  Thus far, you have been playing gigs just on Long Island.  Any plans to expand your area a bit?

JC:  Right now, we are building a following and going into good clubs.  We all grew up on Long Island played in bands on Long Island.  There is a really strong music scene on Long Island.  People go out to hear bands and there are a lot of good places to play. We all bring in people from our reputations and history on Long Island.  It just makes sense right now to stick to that area.  Eventually we will play some gigs in other places.

DR:  Last question I wanted to ask about is the recording that you are doing for Joe Petrucelli's project for A Sparrow's Tale. Are you doing voiceovers for the animated project?

JC:  That is an exciting project that is in development.  It is going to be animated and it could be a TV project or a video; it could go a couple different ways. It's a story about a sparrow who wants to learn how to fly, but every song is also a music lesson.  It's a cool immersive way of teaching music without kids knowing that they are learning music. I'm singing the parts of Allegra, the mother sparrow.  It's coming along; it has some really good people behind it but is really early in the developmental stage.  It's a cool little project and I am looking forward to seeing it come to life.

DR:  Great!  Thanks for taking the time today.

JC:  Thank you!

For more information:

Jennifer Cella:

Beauty in the Machine:

Cover Girl Band:

Sips & Gifts:

Saturday, April 27, 2019

A Conversation with John O.Reilly

John O.Reilly, the world-class drummer from Long Island, NY, is probably most renowned for his keen sense of timing and his 15-year stint with the Trans-Siberian Orchestra. But John has been on a remarkable musical journey since the early 1970's, playing with a multitude of bands and artists over the years including Blue Oyster Cult, Rainbow, O'2L, Richie Havens, Joe Lynn Turner and many others.  In 2018, John brought his collective blend of band and industry experience to Yuletide-rock sensations The Wizards of Winter, as he assumed the drum throne for their tour and upcoming new album.  While we certainly couldn't cover John's entire career in one afternoon (though we tried!), we did chat quite a bit about some of the defining points of his long and interesting career.

John O.Reilly with The Wizards of Winter, December 2018, St. George Theatre, Staten Island
Photo courtesy Jeff Smith of ReflectionsNYC

Dan Roth:  The bio on your website states that you started playing drums on your 10th birthday.  Was there a defining moment for you that steered you towards drums and an interest in music?

John O.Reilly:  Like so many others, it was seeing The Beatles on television - that's what got me started. They made such an impact on so many, including me. Where I grew up in Queens, NY, three of my best friends were drummers. My mom took me to Bohack's, where we did all our shopping, and we used our collected plaid stamps to get a snare drum and a cymbal on a stand - that was my first one! The other guys who all played drums were all better than me, so they were guys that I looked up to.

My next real encounter was right before my fifteenth birthday. At the time, five of my good friends were all drummers also and we were always involved in neighborhood drum-offs. We were hanging out in a local music shop one day when I met George Christ who was a pseudo-cowboy looking kinda guy. It was 1967 and musicians were dressing like no one else back then. He drove a van with "Magic Bus" written on its side, and he had a band called Gripweed. I wound up joining Gripweed for one day and then the band broke up. But three days later, I ran into him and he was telling me of this new band that he was working with, and that he needed some help moving the band's equipment around. He asked me if I wanted to be a roadie. I had no idea what that was, but he explained that I help move the equipment, set it all up, and I get paid $10 a show. That band was J.F. Murphy and Salt. At that time, they were known as J.F. Murphy and Free Flowing Salt. That was a real life-changing moment for me.

DR:  They were certainly a successful band in many regions of the U.S. and were on some major record labels.

JOR:  Yes. I signed my first record deal with them to Columbia when I was 20 years old. But from 1967 to 1971, I went from being their roadie/tour manager/lighting director/sound guy to playing in the band. I started out just carrying the gear, and I was always amazed how we blew every band that we played with out of the water. They were such a great, great band.

DR:  They were such a diverse band too, with so many different influences in their music.

JOR:  Very diverse. And this was when AM Radio ruled. We were very successful in certain pockets of the country. We’d sell out a club in St. Louis five nights in a row but couldn't get arrested in NYC. I toured with them and would set everything up and play drums after the soundchecks.

DR:  Ah, so you still weren't drumming for them except for soundchecks.  Did you have any other opportunities to play?

JOR:  We had a great manager - Lou Linet. One day, Lou took me aside and told me, "I manage this other band that is looking for a drummer, and they checked you out at one of the soundchecks, and they would like you to come down and audition." I asked him what they were like and he said, "They are kind of like the New York Dolls-ish" and at that point I was such a musical snob being around these great musicians that this didn't really appeal to me. I asked him what the band was called, he says, "Wicked Lester” Lou was urging me on, saying "I'm sure you're tired of being a roadie at this point, here's a chance to play drums" I thought it over and decided to pass on the audition. Jump ahead many years later, I was recording at the Record Plant in Manhattan - this was 1980 or 1981 -and KISS were in one of the other studios there. I knew who KISS were and I had bought their solo records by that point. Gene Simmons comes walking up, and I said to him, "Gene, I noticed that you thanked Lou Linet on the back of your solo album." Gene responds "He was honorable man. An honorable man. How did you know him?" I explained that he managed the band that I was in, J.F. Murphy and Salt. Gene looks at me, and says, "You were the drummer!" And then Paul Stanley came walking up and Gene says, "This is that drummer from J.F. Murphy and Salt!" and Paul started humming the melody to one of our songs, and says, "That song should've been a hit!” I was stunned and I said to both of them, "I don't remember Lou Linet ever managing KISS." and Gene says, "Lou managed us when we were Wicked Lester” I just went [jaw drops]! That was another career defining moment for me. [Laughs] I was like Oh. Ok. Oops! [Laughs]

DR:  Wow.  That was quite the audition to pass on.

JOR:  Yup.  [Laughs]  Oops.  I had no idea of the connection as I hadn't followed them that closely.

DR:  But you did go on to become the drummer for J.F. Murphy and Salt.

Band photo - back cover of "The Last Illusion".  Reilly, 2nd from left

JOR: Yes, Bobby Paiva left the band, and I took over the drums. I had recorded some demos with the band, which was a real learning experience for me. Back then I tended to overplay a bit, and we were recording a ballad that called for a big drum fill. Rather than play a nice legato, drum fill and lay back into the chorus, I did this big over-the-top thing. That did not go over well. [Laughs]. No one said anything, but I got the look! Shortly after that I met up with Kevin Ellman, this great drummer who I really respected, and I was telling him about that session. Kevin gave me the best advice I ever got. He told me "You've got good meter and good time. Whatever it is that you are hearing in your head, cut it in half " That stuck with me forever.

DR:  Were the J.F. Murphy albums your first official recordings?

JOR:  I was on their last two albums, The Last Illusion and Urban Renewal.  But as it turned out, my first official studio recording was with Earl "Fatha" Hines, the great jazz pianist.  I had recorded some demos for J.F. Murphy and was playing live, when I met Fatha.

DR:   How did that come about?

JOR:  There was a well-known nightclub on Bleeker Street in New York called The Village Gate and Earl used to come down and check out the bands playing there. One night, I was playing there with J.F. Murphy and Salt. He came backstage, and came up to me, I was there in my cowboy hat, all decked out in Conchos, boots, and spurs [Laughs] and Fatha says to me, "I like your fire. I like your style." After that I was contacted by the local music contractor for the musician's union to play on his next album, This Is Marva Josie. Fatha was really a trip. We recorded at a small studio in the West Village and at that time, I was not proficient at sight reading music. The producer came over and handed me a chart for the first song. Fatha stepped in and said "Don't give him no paper. I want to hear him do what he does best." I just went [Wipes Forehead] Saved! [Laughs] That would have been embarrassing. We ran each track down a few times and rolled tape, we basically cut the album in a day. That was my first real recording experience.

DR:  The J.F. Murphy and Salt albums are really diverse.  A bit of psychedelic, jazz-rock fusion, traditional Irish tunes, and straight-ahead rock.

JOR:  The band was very talented but all over the place. The record labels didn't know what to do with us. We had this song called "New York City," which got played on WNEW-FM all the time, but Clive Davis at Columbia Records couldn't figure out how to cut it down to three minutes to get it played nationwide. Clive thought the hook was really strong, but how do you get rid of that whole middle section, and still have the song make sense? We had some radio support, like the one in St. Louis and other stations in the mid-west that really got behind us, but it was tough going for the music we were making.

The band was great though we had our share of turmoil. Then there was the big purge at Columbia and Clive Davis was fired and disbarred and suddenly we were like "J.F Murphy and Who?” The real bummer was that Davis had reached out to Lou Linet, told him that he believed in the band, and that he could do something more with us. Davis had just taken over Bell Records, wanted to do everything he could to make the label grow, and he wanted to sign us as his first act. Lou passed on this offer, Bell Records of course went on to become the immensely successful Arista Records, and our manager got fired.

DR:  One song that I would like to ask you about is "Urban Renewal" which was this adventurous ten-minute medley of West Side Story music on your final album for Dunhill Records.

JOR:  Oh wow.  [Laughs] That was a real workout!  We adapted that from the Buddy Rich Big Band's version of the West Side Story Medley.  We played all of this stuff live in the studio as a band, no click tracks. That was a real trip putting that together.  We wanted a real show-stopper for our shows and it was so much fun to play.

I want to share a story about this song though. In 1973, we played the annual Christmas concert for WNEW-FM; we opened for a popular Canadian band called Lighthouse. This was a sold- out Christmas show, and we were ready to go on and open with "Urban Renewal" and just knock it out of the park! We were all a little nervous; we were on this huge stage, Murphy would be on this concert grand piano, which we had never done on stage before, huge crowd. We hit the stage and launched into that song. Everything is going great right until we hit the transition - the song breaks for this solo clarinet part that leads into the "Rhapsody in Blue" section. There was dead silence. We're all looking at each other and Ronnie Allard, our sax and clarinet player was standing there without his clarinet. Jack Murphy signals to him to pick up his clarinet, and Ronnie says "I left it upstairs" - in the dressing room that was three floors up! [Laughs] Murphy finally signals to me to do something, and I just started playing this groove, and the band started jamming for maybe three or four minutes until we somehow transitioned into that next "I want to be in America" section. Just a little bit of train wreckage in front of a sold-out crowd at Lincoln Center, and in front of my entire family who came to see me play for the first time.

DR: After Jack Murphy ended the band, what was next for you?  I know Murphy eventually went on to some great success writing Broadway shows.  Was this when you started working with guitarist Johnny Gale?

JOR: I had gone through a couple of bar bands during the mid 70’s a few of them with Gale. I got involved with the band Whiplash, which was playing the tri-state club circuit that had an investor with lots of money, and the band was going to go places. Turns out that our manager was a smuggler; it was the first time I ever saw two million dollars in a suitcase [Laughs] that I was not supposed to see. It was a real wild time. We were playing a lot of industry showcases, and almost signed with Polygram. We had a $350,000 two-album contract sitting in front of us with our manager Al Dellentash. We had our pens out and ready to sign, when our manager told us that he wanted one more person to hear us play - an executive that was coming over from Atlantic Records. We wound up doing one more showcase for him, and we blew it. We should've signed that contract. [Laughs] Our salary was cut off; our truck was taken away, and that was it. I left the band and a few years later and Dellentash was sent to prison. Google his name, as you can’t make this shit up!

Whiplash -  L-R: Johnny Gale, Charlie Cochran, John O.Reilly, Keith Gale
Photo by Lynn Goldsmith

DR:  How did you wind up working with Richie Havens and Yoko Ono?

JOR: That was all with a band I was in called Visitor. That was a killer band live, but we never got signed. We had two drummers, two guitarists, keyboards...we were a great live band. We opened for The Stray Cats, Foghat, Meatloaf, and Todd Rundgren's Utopia in the 80’s. We wound up working with Richie Havens as his  band and recorded a couple songs for a movie called The Girl, the Gold Watch & Everything with Richie singing lead. Both songs were released by Elektra, and I played drums on "Two Hearts in Perfect Time.” That was a real learning experience as we spent a lot of time at Record Plant studios in New York recording our album. The owner of Record Plant at the time, Roy Cicala, was our producer.

DR:  Was this the same band that recorded demos for John Lennon's Double Fantasy album?

JOR:  Yes. One day Roy Cicala called us at our band house in Queens telling us that we needed to be in the studio the next day, and I can't tell you who it's for. We got to the studio, set up our gear and in walks Yoko Ono. Of course, we were all looking for John. [Laughs] It turned out John wasn't around at the time. She brought with her some songs and explained to Roy that she felt it was time for John to come back out and wanted to get things started. Yoko had called Roy, and said she wanted all of the top session players in New York at the time to be in the studio the next day - she was asking for people like Steve Gadd and Will Lee, all of whom were booked with projects. Roy told her that he can have a great band ready for her, and they will do the job. So, we got the call.

It was an up-and-down day for me, because the day we went into the studio to work with Yoko, June 28th, 1980, my brother-in-law died. My brother-in-law was a fireman, and he fell seven floors to his death that day. It was such a surreal, heartbreaking day. We did the demos, working with Yoko for two days. We thought this would be a real shot in the arm for the band, even though we hadn't gotten paid a dime to do record these demos. Roy Cicala had gone down to Brazil to open up a studio down there and then we didn't hear anything for about a month, until the news comes out that Jack Douglas is going to produce Lennon's new album at a different studio. We weren't sure what happened, but Lennon insisted on coming back to Record Plant to have the record mixed. While Lennon is there for the mixing, Roy mentions to Lennon about this band that did all the demo work and never get paid. Lennon had no idea so he offered to Roy that he would sing on the Visitor record that we were working on in return for our work on Yoko’s music. I met John a couple times at the studio, one day of which he came down from the mixing room while we were working on the song that he was going to sing on. He sat in the control room for a bit with Roy, listened to us working on the song and told us how much he liked it. We were all very excited, we thought that we were on the verge of hitting it big to come out with a record with John singing on it.

DR:  So, John Lennon sang on one of your songs?

JOR:  Well, here is the heartbreaking story that thousands of bands have. You think you are on the verge of something amazing that is about to happen to your career, that you are just that close, and everything is lined up. We are all in our band house on December 8th. having a late dinner and we're celebrating about how great this will be that John is going to sing on our album. Then we turn on the news and hear that he was killed. It was such a shock and an unreal situation. We wound up finishing our record but it was never released.. We managed to get the song "Uptown" to WAPP-FM on the last day of submissions for their "NEW YORK ROCKS" Promo contest. The station was syndicated around the country with every song on the record getting equal airplay. If the station's audience liked what they heard they could phone in to cast a vote. Whoever got the most votes for a particular area would be invited to perform in concert. We were chosen along with 3 other bands who were on that record, one of them being "John Bongiovi.” First place in the contest was a recording contract with a major label and Bongiovi's track "Runaway" was all over the radio by the time of that concert.

DR:  So many close calls - could have been the first band on Arista, a huge record deal with Polygram, John Lennon singing on your record....

JOR:  That is every musician's career. Some guys can weather through it and come out the other side, others just bag it. You need the thickest skin you could possibly have in this business. You need to persevere while living with a high degree of uncertainty.

DR:  I want to skip ahead and talk about the two albums you made with bassist Randy Coven and guitarist Al Pitrelli.  All three of you were Long Island guys, did you just meet up organically from playing out?

JOR:  I was in a band with guitarist Lucille Almond called Lucille and the Real Deal and Randy Coven had come to see us play at a club in Glen Cove. That was the first time I had met him. After our bass player left, we called up Randy and asked him to join the band. That was the first time he and I played together. After some turmoil, that band broke up, and lost contact with Randy. One day I am at Tower Records, and I see a CD in the racks by Randy Coven! I called him up and said, "Dude, you got a record out?! Why aren't you out working it?" He told me that he didn't have a band. I said, "You've got a drummer! All you need now is a guitar player." We put a band together with a keyboardist, a singer and a different guitar player than Al. We started doing gigs all over the island, and one day I come into rehearsals and Al was sitting there.

DR:  Was this the first time you had met Al?

JOR:  Yeah! Never met him, never heard of him before. Even though we were both on Long Island, you didn't really hear much about the players or bands that were in other counties than the one you were in. We started playing clubs and playing the songs that you hear on the Sammy Says Ouch! album. We had played that set for about a year and a half, so these songs were really tight and rehearsed by the time we went to record. All the songs you hear on that album were recorded live in studio except for a couple overdubs for solos. One of my favorite songs from that first album was "A Minor Disturbance."  Mark Wood played this incredible electric violin solo on there, and you can't instantly tell that it's a violin. I used to play that for people, and no one could figure out what instrument that was!

The album was really well received but Al got the gig with Alice Cooper and Randy moved back to Canada with his wife Michelle. While up in Canada, he met Phil X, and they put a band together, and played a lot from this album. When Randy came back to play the States and needed a drummer, he called me up, and we toured a bit with Randy, Phil, and I as the band. While on a break from Alice Cooper the three of us went back into the studio to record our second album, CPR.

DR:  So, it is the same band, but the album was released as Coven Pitrelli Reilly CPR.  Was that a band decision?

JOR:  No, that was the record label. I think they wanted to gain a bit of traction from Al's involvement with Alice Cooper. That record was a little different as we did a couple covers on there and brought in Zakk Wylde and Randy Jackson to sing. Mark was back to do a couple solos too. It was such a blast making these records because we were such a tight band. Nothing was done with a click track, it was all just laid down live. It was great working with Randy and Al because we each had this sixth sense of what the other was going to play; we were really locked in.

DR:  What was it like working with Randy Coven?  He was such a monster bassist and played with so many people, but never seemed to gain the notoriety I think he deserved.
Al Pitrelli, Randy Coven, John O.Reilly

JOR:  If you got along with Randy and dealt with what you had to deal with in order to work with Randy, he was fine. Randy was always a very busy player because he was playing his bass as a lead instrument. He was always on top of the beat. His playing really matured later in his career after working with Leslie West and Yngwie Malmsteen, but we didn't keep in touch after the CPR days. He pretty much expunged me from his resume, which is fine. Unfortunately, those things happen in this business.

DR:  One of my favorite albums that you are on is Gale Force, with your old Whiplash bandmate Johnny Gale on guitar and Tommy Farese on vocals.

JOR: That is a great record. Tommy, Johnny and I go way back - we were in a bar band together called Kivetsky years before. Johnny's brother, known now as Keith Karloff, was the principal songwriter on that album. This is another band that got that close to a major recording deal, this time on Interscope Records. The president of Interscope, Jimmy Iovine heard our demos and was blown away by our recording of "Boom Boom.” Gene Simmons was managing Johnny at the time and arranged for Jimmy to come to SIR Studios in NYC for a showcase. He loved it and was looking to give us a $500,000 contract for 2 records plus tour support, and he wanted us to tour like crazy up and down the 95 corridor to help break the band. He told us that his A&R people are going to think he is crazy to sign a blues band out of New York City. [Laughs] Turns out that is exactly what happened - they told Jimmy that they could spend $500,000 to sign a bunch of bands and see what sticks, and that's what they did. They signed Primus and a few other bands instead of us. But Johnny has gone on to great things, arranging and consulting on the Broadway show “A Bronx Tale” among other things. He is an amazing guitar player, knows how to get a killer tone, knows what to do with it, and does it better than anybody.

DR:  It's a great record, and possibly the best Tommy Farese ever sounded.  He sings his ass off on this album.

"Boom Boom" by Johnny Gale/Gale Force 
John O.Reilly-Drums, Johnny Gale-Guitars, Harvey Brooks-Bass, Tommy Farese-Lead Vocals

JOR:  Absolutely.  We were all blown away.  Neil [Ed. Note: Johnny Gale's given name is Neil Posner] was a big part of that.  He was responsible for getting that kind of performance out of the band.

DR:  With all of the various bands that you were involved in on Long Island, how surprised were you to get a call from Ritchie Blackmore of all people?

JOR:  I first heard about Ritchie putting Rainbow back together again when I was on the road with Joe Lynn Turner. One of Deep Purple's former tour managers came to one of our gigs and was telling Joe that Ritchie was looking for a bass player and a drummer for the band, and how Ritchie was now managed by Legends Artists Management. At the end of that run we played a benefit show at Webster Hall where I met Ritchie’s assistant Jim Mangard. He told me about the Rainbow gig and asked for my number, which of course I gave him, but forgot to get his! Turned out that a singer that I was working with at the time, Lucia Cifarelli, worked for Legend Artists so I went to her, and she graciously made sure my demo tape got in there. I got together with producer Bob Stander, and we put together some of my tracks - in fact, some of the Gale Force tracks were among the stuff on my tape. I sent that in but didn't hear anything, months had gone by and I had given up. Then one day my phone rings, and Jim Mangard, asks me to come down for an audition! I was told not to learn anything special for it, so I went down, and it was the weirdest audition that I had ever done.

DR:  In an interview about this era of Rainbow which was later included in Jerry Bloom's biography of Blackmore called Black Knight, Ritchie is quoted as saying this about you: "John O. Reilly, who used to play drums on Long Island, I heard about him and was particularly interested in his time keeping. It was very steady. He's not a showy type of drummer; he is more of a timekeeper which I think is very important. It's very hard to find a drummer in these times that plays in time. So, to me it's the first thing a drummer should be able to do. But it's very hard to find a drummer.".  Did Blackmore's quest for proper timekeeping come across?

JOR:  Well, for the first ten minutes of the audition I played drums by myself. Ritchie sat in front of me and would tell me what he wanted to hear. First, he asked me to play a groove and snapped his fingers to the tempo he wanted to hear. Then he asked me to play something fast, again snapping his fingers to a tempo. Then he asked me to play a shuffle. Now, if there is anything that I pride myself on, it's knowing how to play a shuffle at any tempo in a variety of styles. I asked him what kind of shuffle did he want to hear? I could play a Chicago Two-Hand Shuffle, a Texas Swing, a rock shuffle...He was surprised! He asks me to play a rock, and then a Chicago shuffle. I never had anyone check my time like that. So yeah, I got his penchant for time keeping right there in the audition.

Then finally after all this drumming - just me and no one else playing anything - he asks the rest of the band to play. At that time, it was Rob DeMartino on bass, Paul Morris on keys, and I forget who the singer was, but it wasn't Doogie yet. Then Ritchie puts down his guitar and asked me to play a drum solo. When we were done, he asked me if I played football (soccer). I said "No, but I can learn." And that was my audition. I then didn't hear anything until Ritchie called me about a month later and asked me if I wanted to be in the band.

DR:  What were the recording sessions like?

JOR:  Well, Rob left during rehearsals, and I brought Greg Smith into the band to play bass. We all got together in this huge house in Cold Spring, New York and really had a great time. Ritchie had a reputation for being a taskmaster, but there were some days that we just would be out there kicking the soccer ball around. Ritchie liked to write what he called the "cornerstones of the album" - four key songs that anchor the album and that is what we really worked on up there. “Black Masquerade." was one of those four and one that came together quickly. That is one of my favorite tracks on the record. The rest of the album was written in the studio.

DR:  With everyone that you have played with over the years, was this just another gig to you or did you find yourself getting starstruck at all?

JOR:  Yep, I knew I was in a great place. We would have the weekends off, and the band would all go back to Long Island while Ritchie would stay up there. Often, he would ask me to hang with him at the house on the weekends to “Have a Bash” And I remember thinking "How cool is this!” Here's a guy that I used to watch on Don Kirshner's Rock Concert with Deep Purple, and here he is sitting in front of me as we play together, just the two of us.

DR:  You wound up in his next band too correct?

JOR:  Yes. While at following years Christmas dinner he played me the recording of what would become Blackmore's Night, which they were just getting together, and I wound up being in the first incarnation of that band in 1997.We toured all of Japan, all through Europe staying in some very cool castles! We always had a good relationship, and we still do. The last time I heard from him was while I was on tour with The Wizards of Winter - he called to invite me to his 2018 Christmas party. A weird twist in all of that is that Chuck Burgi wound up getting hired for the Rainbow gig replacing me for their tour, and a few days later I joined Blue Oyster Cult replacing him! Who knew? [Laughs]

DR:  Let's jump ahead to your longest gig, playing drums with Trans-Siberian Orchestra.  In 2002, Steve Murphy was the drummer for their western tour unit. Takanori Niida was the backup but has also said that he was to be the drummer in the proposed third touring unit.  Then you wound up drumming for TSO West while Murphy was listed in the program. Can you explain what happened and how you got the gig?

JOR:  In 2002, I was doing a number of steady local gigs, the weekly Richie Cannata jam in NYC. Was one of them. I had done a few albums with Westworld, and I had fallen completely out of touch with Al after that second album we did with Randy and a couple albums we did with Joe Lynn Turner. Al had done that TSO thing, went out with Megadeth and then came back to TSO. Along the way he had run into Tony Harnell and a mutual friend of ours, producer Bob Held - both of whom brought my name up in conversation to Al. Al called me one day out of the blue, saying that he had taken over the West band and that he might have something for me. Now I knew nothing at all about Trans-Siberian Orchestra. I think I had heard about them from being on Rosie O'Donnell's show, but I didn't know what they were. He asked me to come down to the studio and meet the guys. I came down to one of the small studios they were using at the time in New York and who is there but Bob Kinkel. Bob and I met each other back in the Record Plant days in the 80's when I was recording there, and Bob was working there. So, I knew Bob longer than I have known Al. I remember Bob was working on "Queen of the Winter Night," and we all just hung out and talked until Paul O'Neill showed up and I got to meet him. We ended the day with Al giving me a couple of their CDs and told me to learn four songs just in case there were some changes within the backup band.

Two days later I was back in that same studio, and I was told that I might want to learn some more of the material. The rehearsals had started, and I got to meet Jane Mangini, Johnny Lee Middleton, Angus Clark and everyone for the first time. They wound up offering me the backup gig, and I did some songs with the West band during rehearsals. I remember something happened - Steve Murphy was there - I was never too sure what it was, and I heard a few different stories. Their tour manager at the time pulled me aside and told me that they might need me at their pre-production studios in Connecticut the next day. I tried to explain that I had some gigs lined up already, and then I was told that I was to be in Connecticut the next day. By the time I got home that day, Al called me and said, "Here's when the gig starts, here's when it ends, here's how much it pays. Do you want it?" And that's how I found out I had the gig.
John O.Reilly with TSO 2004
Photo courtesy Brian Reichow

I was learning everything on the fly. By the time I got to Connecticut, I really only knew five songs. I was relying on charts and some cheat sheets to get things together as quick as I could before we went out. I was really in the hot seat.

Takanori stayed on as my backup.  He did play one show on the 2002 tour though, he came out and played the last two songs of one of the shows that year.

DR:  As different as the TSO job was/is to all of your previous gigs, it had to have helped to at least have some folks around you that you had worked with many times, like Al, Mark Wood and Tommy Farese.

JOR:  Oh, I felt comfortable from that standpoint.  The only weird thing about it was that I couldn't play acoustic drums.

DR:  Had you ever played electronic drums before?

JOR:  Never. They are brutal. I don't care what they will tell you about them, they are such a different animal. You really have to sort of trick yourself. You can tension them to make it feel like a drum set, mount thumpers under your throne. But you don't get that visceral thing that you get by playing acoustic drums; everything is coming through your monitors or your in-ears. The reason to use them is total control; Bam - it's the same thing every night.

DR:  I imagine that there is some value in guaranteeing them to sound the same every night.

JOR:  Yes, but you're not guaranteed that they will work every night.  I've had that happen where all of a sudden, the kick drum would go dead, or the snare drum goes dead.

DR: That doesn't happen with acoustic drums. [Laughs]

JOR:  [Laughs]  No it doesn't. I will tell you this though - and Johnny Lee will corroborate this - Paul did not like drums and bass in the mix that much. It was always vocals, piano and guitar. Vocals were the most important to Paul. There were many times that the kit was taken almost completely out of the mix.

DR:  Did you work with the other drummers at all?

JOR:  Only if the back-ups got too far off their parts, which was very rare. Paul encouraged Jeff Plate and me to steal from each other. If one of us was doing something that the other was interested in, we would trade off.

DR:  Was TSO still playing theaters in your first year?  Or had they moved to playing some arenas at that point?

JOR: It wasn't until 2003 or 2004 that the west tour played an arena. I believe the first one was the Rose Garden in Portland, Oregon. That first year was tough, as many of the arenas were only a quarter full. But then the next year it was a bit fuller, the next year it was sold-out, and then the next year we were doing matinees. It didn’t take long for the west tour to grow.

DR:  I have had the pleasure of interviewing five key performers that were in the West cast as it grew from the early days and every one of them spoke about how things were less rigid than the East and they got away with a bit more of their own contribution back then.  Can you speak to that?

JOR:  The whole vibe was a lot looser back then. Paul was always with the East coast band and spent very little time with us. He let Al be in charge of mostly everything while the East coast band was pretty much under Paul's thumb as to what he wanted and how he wanted it done. The West coast band definitely had more freedom. We had a great combination of players - attitudes, personalities, musical abilities - and we just clicked. We had basically the same core band from 2002 through 2016.  Towards the later years though, Paul wanted both bands to be identical. There was no more ad libbing, no more jamming. The West coast band played for the longest time without a click track; we just played together as a band. The big turning point was everyone had to go to in-ear monitors. Both Al and I went kicking and screaming. Neither of us wanted any part part of them. I like to play to the room. But when we headlined the Wacken Festival in 2016 with two bands on adjacent stages, we all had to use them. 
John O.Reilly with TSO 2007
Photo courtesy Brian Reichow

The West Coast band was always considered the red-headed bastard stepchild. We were a little unruly to say the least. [Laughs] Whoever came in new to the band - whether it was a violinist or keyboard player - you weren't going to change us. You were going to adapt to us. We never wore watches on stage, because wearing watches was considered, just bad luck. We never played music before the show in the band dressing room - also, considered bad luck. Some former west members liked to come in and play their own music in the dressing room to get ready for the show. None of this ever had to be said, but you got the vibe right away.

DR:  For many years, Jeff Plate performed a drum solo on the East coast tour.  Why did you not do a solo?

JOR:  On the west tour we had to trim down our set length as much as possible without giving up any of the songs or production effects. Adios drum solo and long introductions for band and singers…Any way to shave the band and road crews travel time.

DR:  You had worked with Al Pitrelli previously on those two albums and tours with he and Randy Coven.  Was it different working with Al in his capacity here as musical director?

JOR:  “Church and State” is a key phrase here. We’re Brothers, but this is business. Al and I have a great relationship. He is an amazing guitarist, bassist, and musical director. One thing that we did, which that the East band could not do (because of Paul) was tweak things along the way. We had it worked out during the show that if there was something that maybe didn't work right or something that Al thought we could improve upon, he would signal to me at that point during the Show, and I would remember where we were at, and get together at the next soundcheck and tweak things. With no click track, we could move things around, change a part, or do something different.

DR:  TSO used to throw in some classic rock cover tunes into the set, like "Layla" or "Immigrant Song".

JOR:  You know what was weird about that? If the band we were gonna cover was still around or still touring, we wouldn't do their song. You never knew what Paul thought the right fit for us would be  One year we did "Radar Love". "Radar Love"??  Where did that come from? [Laughs] But we enjoyed doing those and sometimes we got to make our own call on stuff like that.  The first year that we went to Canada, Al had this idea during soundcheck.  He says, "Why don't we do the Canadian National Anthem and blend into a Rush song?" Within 15-20 minutes we had a segue of a Rush song and "O Canada" that we performed during the show, and it came off great! That goes to show you how great of a band we were.

DR:  Other than that one show where Taka Niida got to play a couple songs, did you ever miss a show?

JOR:  No, but I came close once. The year we toured with that big toy box on stage, I got a bad cold and a cough that I could not get rid of. They filled that toy box with fog before the show started, and we had to sit inside there for a good ten minutes breathing all of that in before it opened up. I was really pretty sick. I thought it was turning into walking pneumonia so at one point I went to have myself checked out. They didn't know if I was going to make the show or not, so they rehearsed with Ronnie Lee Hise Jr., the tech and backup. I wound up being cleared and arrived as they were wrapping up soundcheck. I just remember seeing Ronnie as he finished soundcheck - he was beet red and sweating. [Laughs] He says, "Don't you ever do that to me again!"[Laughs]

DR:  Did you ever get to play on any of the albums?

JOR:  It was mainly me and Jeff doing the studio work with Dave Wittman and Al doing the programming. There were some songs that Jeff and I would both play, and Paul would pick one that he liked and went with it. There were also some songs that only I did and only he did. Then there are other songs that we would listen to once the album was done, and it sounded like they edited together parts of what we each had played, so we couldn't tell who it was. [Laughs]

The first album that I played on was The Lost Christmas Eve. I remember when I first got the demos for that, there were already drums on there, and Al basically telling me, "Do what you do." I worked up three different versions of each song and gave them to Paul, and he picked the ones that he liked. In the end for that album, I played drums on "Wizards in Winter" "Queen of the Winter Night" ” "Christmas Jam," and "Siberian Sleigh Ride.” Takanori also drummed on a couple songs, "Faith Noel," and "Christmas Nights in Blue” I did a bunch of others after that album, such as "Believe,” "Forget about the Blame," and "Nutrocker.” Many of them didn't have names at the time as there were no vocals on them. But after that Lost Christmas Eve album, Paul got a bit of that demo-itis where he’d want the tracks to sound exactly like the demos, so you have to duplicate what's there. All the demos were done with the same programming and the same electronic kit and sounds in the studio.

DR:  Ah, so you were playing those electronic drums in the studio too?

JOR:  They wanted the same drum sounds that were going to be played live to be on the records.

DR:  Your last tour with TSO was 2016.  Did you have any sense that you were going to be let go afterwards?

JOR:  It came outta left field! I remember that day. Paul called to tell me he needed to make a change. He couldn't give me a reason at the time, and we were never able to sit down and have that heart-to-heart conversation because he passed shortly after. He did compensate me for not doing the next tour, which is unheard of in this industry. One thing you can say about Paul is that he was a very generous man. I don't have anything bad to say about anyone in the organization, because when my wife was alive and her MS was in control, she was allowed to travel with the band for the last ten days of each tour. Before my wife passed, she always referred to those days with TSO as some of the best times of her life, and I am so grateful that we had those times together.

It really took the life out of me because I wasn't expecting it at all. It was definitely a disappointment and a struggle. It was then that I really realized how hard my wife's death had hit me. [Editor's note: John's wife Cathy passed away May 12, 2015] It was tough to carry on without her because she was my world. I still think back to the day she passed, and the first person I saw that morning was Jane. Jane and her husband Travis were so supportive, as was everyone in the TSO organization. Everyone from TSO who knew Cathy loved her, she was just that kind of person.

DR:  I understand that he let you go without having a plan or a drummer lined up?

JOR:  As far as I know he had no one certain in mind. Once services were arranged, I flew to Florida and met up up with the entire TSO family to say goodbye to Paul. It was so heartfelt to be embraced by Paul’s Family, to honor his memory.

DR:  Let's talk about The Wizards of Winter.  After about a year of being let go from TSO came the announcement that you were now the drummer for this band.  How did you hook up with them?
John O.Reilly with The Wizards of Winter 2018
Photo courtesy Jeff Smith of ReflectionsNYC

JOR:  The keyboardist and musical director of The Wizards, Scott Kelly, had reached out to me after he had read my book (The High Paid Musician Myth). He liked some of the ideas in there and wanted to discuss some business and marketing, which is what I do. Scott and [vocalist/flutist] Sharon Kelly came up, and we discussed some ideas for the band. I applauded them for what they have done with that band. They have worked their asses off becoming a national touring act and releasing two albums without benefit of a record label or management per se. They were looking to make some changes to move things forward both in business and possibly within the band as well.

We continued staying in touch over a period of time, talking business, and I helped to create a digital lyric booklet for their fans. One of the changes that they were looking to make was in the drumming department in the band and during one of our conversations one day, Scott asked if I would be interested in drumming for The Wizards of Winter. I took some time to think about it and said, "yes".

DR:  Were you aware of them before they had reached out to you?

JOR:  Oh, yeah. Heard about them through social media.

DR:  What made you say "yes" to them?

JOR:  They are real, honest and great people. Through all of our business discussions I never got a sense of bullshit or putting on airs. They were always very upfront with me with everything. I really enjoyed going out on tour with them, and we're going in the studio shortly to record a new record!

DR:  Are you excited about that?

JOR:  Very excited! Honestly, I am just very excited about The Wizards of Winter. I'm playing with great people and I get to play acoustic drums! Are things rough sometimes with travel? Sure, but we work it out. And it is so wonderful seeing and hearing the audience’s reaction. The fans love it and it was so great to feel that appreciation night after night.

One thing that The Wizards also do is poke fun at itself, which TSO would never do! The fans love that, and it helps make it a fun show. I also want to mention one of our vocalists, Vinnie Jiovino. Vinnie is one of the most professional singers that I have ever worked with. All he does is think about the gig. He has fun too, don't get me wrong, but he is so focused on the gig. He doesn't talk much on the day of the show to save his voice, keeps to himself with the humidifiers and such. And when showtime hits, he delivers every fucking night.

DR:  The Wizards of Winter have released two Christmas albums so far. What do you think of their music?

JOR:  I love it.  If you listen closely, there is a real Celtic feel to it, and I don't think that's by accident.  I think that's just the way Scott writes.

DR:  You mentioned playing acoustic drums with the band.  Was it good to be back on an acoustic kit again after all that time?

JOR:  Absolutely! Are you kidding me? I love it. The kit I use with The Wizards of Winter is the same one that I used in Rainbow, Blue Oyster Cult, and all the gigs that I did with Joe Lynn Turner. I've had that kit a long time. I am very comfortable with it because I know what I can get out of it.

DR:  With each band that you have played in over the years, you often wind up playing with someone from a previous band of yours.  The Wizards of Winter is no different as you get to work with your rhythm section partner from Rainbow, Greg Smith and Tony Gaynor, the longtime narrator from your years with TSO West.

JOR:  Working with them again has been a lot of fun. It's like riding a bicycle. Once a bass player gets a sense that you are in control of what you're doing and knows that they don't have to chase you for tempo or drag your ass along. It sets them and the band at ease. Greg and I have that great relationship. And Tony is a trip and a great guy. He was cooking for us on the tour bus, which I've never experienced before. He is such a huge personality and really is serious about his narration.

John O.Reilly soloing, followed by "The Gales of December" 
The Wizards of Winter; Lerner Theater, Elkhart In. 12/21/18

DR:  Are there any drum parts that you have come up with over the years that you are most proud of?

JOR: No, I've always been a songwriter's drummer. To me, it's the support that I can give a band. One memorable moment that will always stick with me happened early on with TSO. We we're doing "The Three Kings and I," and right in the middle of the "Hallelujah" section of the song we all left out the same note at the same time, which created a short pause. In that moment, the sound of the band in the arena came back at us in this incredible "whoosh!!” Al and I just looked at each other like "What just happened?" [Laughs] It was just a really unique moment that I will never forget.

DR:  You have drummed in so many bands and have written a book on the music business.  Have you ever wanted to be a bandleader?

JOR:  No. Never wanted to have my own band, never wanted to own a studio, never wanted to do anything other than do what I do for a band. I just don't have the patience to deal with people and their schedules to keep all the moving parts together. Some guys love that stuff, not me.

DR:  If you weren't playing drums, is there another instrument that you have an affinity for?

JOR:  For a while I dabbled in some piano. I love the piano.  But then again, after the 2016 tour I bought Al and myself ukuleles. I bought myself a little chord book, and I started my morning every day with a cup of coffee and playing the ukulele. [Laughs] I think everyone should be issued one of these at birth because they bring so much joy.  You can't screw it up, and it is so much fun.

DR:  John, thank so much for taking the time.  Someday we will have to chat again and include all the bands that we didn't get to today.

JOR:  [Laughs]  Anytime.  Thanks so much, Dan

For more info:
John O.Reilly:
The High Paid Musician Myth:

The Wizards of Winter:

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

A Conversation with Alex Skolnick

Guitar legend Alex Skolnick is not one for sitting still. He started his career at 16 years old with the thrash metal band Testament. While he continues to be heavily involved with them, Skolnick has along the way picked up a jazz degree, formed his own trio, created a world music ensemble and can be found at any given time working with artists as diverse as jazz bassist Stu Hamm, metal drummer Mike Portnoy, violinist Joe Deninzon, Mexican guitar duo Rodrigo y Gabriela, and many more.  For this interview, we focused on his time working with Savatage, his move to New York City and and the beginning of his jazz career, and his involvement in Savatage's Christmas successor, Trans-Siberian Orchestra. 

Dan Roth:  I'd like to take you back a few years. It is 1993, you had left Testament and had assembled a new band, Exhibit A. Savatage guitarist Criss Oliva was tragically killed in a car accident and Jon Oliva decides to make a new Savatage record.  For a little history, lead me up to how you entered the studio for the Handful of Rain record.

Alex Skolnick:  I was still managed by Testament's management at the time and I had gotten a message through them.  After so many years of this period that was very intense, the last thing I wanted to do was jump into another band.  I told them that I was totally flattered but I don't think I'm the right guy for this.

I loved Savatage.  My friends and I used to trade tapes in high school because back then you couldn't get the first couple recordings.
Alex Skolnick with TSO November 2009
Photo Courtesy of James Marvin Phelps

Looking back, what I should have done is taken a "gap year".  You know, the year some take between high school and college? As far as my music career goes, that first wave of Testament was my high school. I didn't know what I was going to do to after leaving them, but I knew I wasn't looking to jump right into something else.

Somehow Jon Oliva had gotten my number and called me personally.  He said, "Look, the record is done, we just need someone to play the solos.  I know my brother and I know the one person that he would want to play the solos on this is you."

DR:  Wow.  That's heavy.

AS:  Yeah, that's pretty heavy.

DR: So this wasn't an invitation to join the band, this was more to wrap up the album.

AS:  Right.  Clearly the door was open though. Look, I'm a fan of the band and I know it's sacrilege to take the job as the band's guitarist and not be totally committed to it.  So, I told them, "Let's see how it goes."

It was great for me to do a record that was not thrash, but it was still heavy. It was based on heavy rock - influenced by Maiden, Sabbath, Deep Purple, but more modern. It was very different from what I had been doing with Testament.  At that time, there really weren't that many influences in that music: Motorhead, Venom, Slayer.  It was a real struggle to get my melodic ideas into the music and in the end, that's what really made Testament stand apart.

But recording with Savatage, it was so open; it was nice to do a record like that.

DR:  Did you do all of your recording at Morrisound Studios in Tampa?

AS:  Yeah.  We were holed up there.  I worked entirely with Jon and Paul O'Neill.  I didn't actually meet the rest of the band until the very end of the session when there was a photo shoot. I think I was there about a week or so. We did about three songs a day.

The music was done already and I was just recording solos over top.  There were a couple spots where I would add fills, like in "Handful of Rain". That has fills between vocal parts. That was new, and I don't think it was planned. I was just noodling in the studio and they said, "That's great! Let's keep that!"
Savatage Group Shot
(L-R) Doc Wacholz, Johnny Lee Middleton, Zak Stevens, Alex Skolnick

DR:  Did you play your own guitars, or did you use Criss Oliva's Charvel?

AS:  I played Criss' guitar on a lot of it. It's a very special guitar. It really has some magic to it. It has a great sound and really represents the best instruments of that era.

DR:  How much latitude were you given? Was there any pressure to emulate Criss' sound at all?

AS:  I just did what I do. The first song that I worked on was "Taunting Cobras".  I remember talking with the Morrisound engineer and telling him that I had been listening to the song and I have some ideas outlined. He said, "Great. Let me record them so we have them as a reference." I laid it down and first thing I heard was "That's great!" So right away I knew it was clear that we weren't going to have a lot of problems.  Sometimes I would give them a few different options and let them choose. Other times I asked for guidance - like I would ask if they wanted more of a melodic thing there or more of a heavier thing. In general, I ended up doing the solos the same way I do them today.

DR:  What was the mood like in the studio, with Criss' passing in the recent past?

AS:  It had reached a point when they were ready to move forward.  There were times when it would come up and it was sad, but for the most part we were all in good spirits.  Jon Oliva is such a character and the jokes were flying and a lot of stories being told.

DR:  Looking back on this album, do you have a favorite song or one that stands out to you?

AS:  The song "Stare into the Sun" is my favorite.  On that one I really got to play dynamically. I take heat sometimes because I play outside of the rock and metal genres and I enjoy working with musicians that play jazz or blues.  On that one, I felt like I was able to bring in some different influences. To this day, I hear from fans that cite that song as one where they really enjoyed my playing.

DR:  "Chance" is a song that has proven to be pretty popular from that album.

AS:  Yeah! That would by my second favorite.  Even though it was mostly keyboards and vocals, I really felt connected to that one and enjoyed laying down those guitar runs in there. I heard it made its way into the TSO thing not too long ago.

DR:  They performed it on their Beethoven's Last Night tours and also in 2015 at Wacken Open Air.

AS:  Wacken!  Yeah!  I saw some clips of that and remember saying "Hey. I played that!" [Laughs]

DR:  Were you invited to be part of that Wacken Savatage/TSO gig?

AS:  No.  I wouldn't have been able to make it anyway had I been asked.  No hard feelings there.  But it was fun to watch those clips.

DR:  Al Pitrelli has said that was the first show he has played in 20 years without a tailcoat on.

AS:  Ah.  It must have felt good.

DR:  You guys made a music video for the title track which got some MTV play.

AS:  We flew to Dallas to film that. It was a lot of fun.  I remember driving past the Grassy Knoll for the first time which was interesting.  I had played Dallas many times, but never went there before.  I actually hit it off with the actress in the video, Kelley Huston. We became a thing for a little bit after that and we're still friends.  And in a strange twist, she later dated the bass player in my Trio. [Laughs]

DR:  Was touring with Savatage part of the plan?

AS:  It was not in the beginning, but it was hinted at over time. I also had a great opportunity to let my own band at the time, Exhibit A, open for Savatage on the tour.

DR:  When the band went out on tour, you obviously were also playing songs and solos that Criss Oliva had recorded and was known for.  You changed up some of the solos which many fans didn't appreciate. It seemed like a no-win situation; if you had played them note for note, you could be called out for being just a stand-in with no originality. If you played them with your style, the fans of Criss would be upset.

AS:  I tried to reference his solos at times, and sometimes that was hard to do. I remember playing some very closely and some were a blend. I know if I am in a situation like that as a fan, I don't want to hear the exact solo that was on the record, unless it was something like "Little Wing" or "Running with the Devil" where the melody is part of the solo. Maybe I should've played them more like the record.  At the time, I was listening to a lot of Allan Holdsworth and more instrumental stuff that was influencing me.  Allan Holdsworth was known for playing radically different solos than were on his records. I recently was honored to play at an Allan Holdsworth tribute concert and one of the songs was his "Metal Fatigue".  Allan never played the solo on that song the same way twice, but I happen to love the original solo on the record.  So, when I went to play it at the concert, I played the original solo.  Sometimes as an artist and as a listener, you can see things differently. I try to see both sides.

DR:  Any songs on that tour that you particularly enjoyed getting to play?

AS:  Sirens! That was one of my favorite songs growing up and was great fun to play on stage.  "Jesus Saves" is another that has such great riffs. Some of the newer ones were fun too, like "Chance".

DR:  After the tour was over, you moved on from Savatage. Was there some consideration to staying?  Was there an offer to stay in the band?

AS:  I had a lot of things that I wanted to work on as an artist and staying in that situation just would not have been honest. I was actually open to it for a little bit but then it became clear that I was not going to be part of the creative process. During the tour, I really bonded with Jon.  He turned me on to these Deep Purple records that I hadn't been aware of and so many other classic rock records. I started brainstorming ideas about combining some of these classic rock influences and some of what influenced me growing up and I had some ideas about where we could go with the next Savatage record.  But then one day I get a phone call from Paul O'Neill; "Great News! Jon and I got inspired and wrote the whole record. It's done. We just need you to come down and record it."  He then read me the whole long Dead Winter Dead narrative over the phone with Sarajevo and a gargoyle [Laughs] - I loved Paul, but - I could tell that they were going to do to some great things with that record but this all just wasn't for me, so I respectfully declined.

DR:  After you moved on from Savatage, you did start working on some different things with bassist Michael Manring in Attention Deficit and then eventually made the move to New York City and started studying jazz in at the New School here.  Was that a long time coming?

AS:  Yeah.  It was in my head for a long time off and on. I was so afraid of doing it and finding out I had made a mistake.  I gave myself six months and then a year and so on. Instead, I realized that the mistake was that I should've come straight here after the original Testament lineup fell apart.  But then we wouldn't have Handful of Rain, we might not have had Attention Deficit.  It took a while, but I got here.

DR:  It was while you were in school that you met up and started collaborating with violinist Joe Deninzon in Stratospheerius?

AS:  Yeah. He was hanging up flyers for a gig that he was doing and saw my name on another flyer. At the end of every semester, every ensemble that was part of the class would do these public performances in the auditorium of the New School. Joe wound up coming to the performance and talked to me afterwards. He says, "Are you the same Alex Skolnick from the Testament records?" [Laughs] He had a gig coming up and he was looking for a guitarist. That wound up being my very first New York gig. We had a pretty good band. We had this respected latin drummer named Phoenix Rivera, a ridiculous bass player Rufus Philpot and of course Joe who is amazing on violin. We just continued gigging and eventually recorded the first Stratospheerius album which was a lot of fun.

DR:  So you are going to school here in the city, playing gigs and recording with Joe Deninzon and forming your own jazz trio as well. Meanwhile, Paul O'Neill, Jon Oliva and Savatage are releasing Christmas records and starting to tour as Trans-Siberian Orchestra. In 2000, you are once again working with them, this time in the role of  "Guitar 1" with the TSO East touring production. Connect those dots for me.

AS:  It was really the strangest thing. I was heading to one of my very first shows with my Trio - right around here actually - I was in a cab heading to the Izzy Bar which is the first place in New York that I was playing a lot. The Izzy Bar was a great spot where a lot of jazz artists were playing regularly, like the great bassist Richard Bona. The same guy who booked him knew who I was and started booking me there for various projects.  Anyway, I remember it was a misty night - heavy fog - and I see this figure walking down the street that looked like a ghost coming through the fog. I remember thinking how strange this guy looked but I had a feeling I knew him.  I hadn't seen him in five years but as we got closer I realized it was Paul O'Neill, walking through this dark mist, looking like this mad genius plotting something or other. [Laughs] Just as I realized it, I was going to roll down the window and say something, the cab took off.

Not two weeks later, I get this email from Adam Lind that basically said "My name is Adam Lind and I work for David Krebs. We hear you are in New York now and we need to talk to you."  What followed was this hilarious charade over several days of trying to reach David Krebs, who was not an easy person to reach at the time. Once I finally got through, it was hilarious, like right out of the movies. [In Krebs' voice] "We're looking at different guitar players. So, I'm listening to this record called Handful of Rain. Who is that guitar player? That's the guitar player you should get. Which one is that?  Are you that guitar player?" [Laughs]  We got to talking and he basically explained that he was managing Paul now, TSO has been spawned out of Savatage, and they were splitting it in two bands.  Pitrelli was in Megadeth at the time and not doing the tour so they were looking for some guitar players. This led to a meeting with Paul where I explained to him that I think I saw him a few days earlier and he remembered that night perfectly.  He lived in the building right around the corner from where I saw him and it all made sense.  But the whole thing was kinda spooky. I don't always go by feelings and coincidences but the whole thing was spooky and made me think that I should do this. It was really strange because the path I was on was going full-on jazz and music education, but this sounded fun.
Alex Skolnick with TSO 2007

DR:  Sounded fun? That partially answers my next question. You just explained that you didn't move forward with Paul and Jon in Savatage because you were not going to be part of the creative process.  This is a similar situation with the same guys, except now you are playing Al Pitrelli's guitar parts.  What made you say "yes" this time?

AS:  [Laughs] Well, a number of reasons. I looked at it and considered the reasons to say "yes" and the reasons to say "no" and the number of reasons to say "yes" outweighed "no".  For one thing, it was optional. I could do this tour, but that does not mean I was expected to do the next one. I could decide to do the next tour or not - it's not a big deal. The way it is run, different people can be plugged in, as has happened with almost every role over the years. That can be frustrating when you are in it as a performer, as you want to be more of the face of it.  But, I respect it as a business model, especially at that time.

I was actually in school when I agreed to do the first one. I talked to all of my professors and was given homework assignments to take on the road with me.  One of my hardest assignments was to work on a big band arrangement.  Luckily for me, Mee Eun Kim, who is now my good friend, was a keyboardist that had also been hired for TSO and is a Berklee graduate.  She specialized in notation, arrangement and all of the gaps that I needed to fill. She graciously and enthusiastically helped me with my homework while we were doing that first East tour.

Also, you have to remember that the tours back then were much shorter. This wasn't like saying "yes" to the TSO of 2017.  It was less than a month and I realized that it wouldn't interfere with my schooling. By the time the next tour came along, I had graduated and had released my first Trio record.

DR:  The album that was mostly jazz versions of rock standards?

AS:  Yes. Goodbye to Romance. We recorded it at the same studio that I did the Stratospheerius record with Joe. I didn't think much was going to happen with it, I just knew I wanted to make a real jazz guitar record.  I then got contacted by this radio programmer out of Nashville who was very influential in jazz radio programming at the time. This programmer told me that he loved the record and wanted to work it himself, which led to it getting on radio stations across the country.  It was really surreal. It was really blowing up and PR costs money.  I also took the band on the road with my own money. I only did that once before and that was with Savatage and I didn't put together the tour. The TSO tours helped support my PR campaign and my recording costs and it made sense from a business standpoint to still do the short TSO tours. The following year (2003) I did not do the TSO tour for all of the reasons you would think I would say "no" in the first place.

DR: After that year off, you were back out on the TSO stage in 2004 and right on through 2009.

AS:  Why did I come back to it? The paycheck was certainly part of it, but being away from it I realized that I missed it more than I thought I would.  I knew it was getting bigger, but I didn't realize how big. I was determined to balance it with everything else I was doing, even with how much energy I was putting into it and how beaten up I was feeling.

DR: Your own musical preferences were certainly counter to what you were playing in TSO - and you were not alone in that among TSO's cast. Was it difficult to keep up the energy and enthusiasm for their Shows playing music that was not created by you and played with such a level of direction?

AS:  You learn how to do it.  And also, the audience is so wonderful. They bought a ticket and made plans and you can feel the excitement that they bring. It's beyond your own musical preferences. If you add up all of the tours I did with them - I did nine tours!  That's a lot.  As much as I loved the audiences and the camaraderie, it wasn't going to sustain me anymore. The energy it was taking from me and who I was and what I wanted to do was becoming too much. I wanted to step away before I became bitter  - that's not fair to anyone.

DR:  Over the years, the TSO Show became a bit more choreographed for various reasons.  Many past performers have talked about the increased amount of direction as the Show changed.  Did you receive a lot of direction?

AS:  There was a lot of direction.  I remember rehearsing "Christmas Canon", the girls were singing, and Paul would walk on stage and start flipping his hair around from side to side. [Laughs] It was the funniest thing, but he was serious about this direction. Many of the moves would come about this way.

A guy who deserves a lot of the credit and someone that I miss greatly is bassist Dave Z.  A lot of the moves we did on stage came from him. He would egg me on all the time, "C'mon do this! It will look great!" and I would always resist until he wore me down. "Alright Dave, I will do it this one time just for you because we're friends."  And the next night I hear, "That move you guys did was fantastic!" and it suddenly became a nightly stage direction.  Dave was so committed to performing and you had to keep up with him. It really helped me as a performer no matter what musical project I was doing. I credit Dave for helping me with my performance.
Photo Courtesy of Erin Williams /

Some would paint me as an elitist because I am in it for the music and I believe art triumphs above entertainment. That's my mindset; I am all about the art. Doing the TSO Show - in particular working with Dave Z - helped me see that the entertainment is important too.  There are moves in the Show - even today - that originated with Dave.  There may be a few that I came up with, but not as much.  Like the end of "O Holy Night" where I was lifting the guitar away from me, trying to get some feedback.  That just came naturally; nobody told me to do that. But as I have seen clips of the Show, whether it's Joel Hoekstra or Bill Hudson, that's part of the Show now. [Laughs]

One more thought on direction before we move on, sometimes I thought there was too much direction. I remember one time where there was a note that I played, and I slid into the note. I was quickly told, "Don't slide into the note. Just play the note." That level of micromanaging is a little antithetical to where I come from.

DR:  I noticed that over the years as TSO brought in the scissor lifts and rear rising stage, you rarely were involved in those.

AS:  Yeah, well I was more of the "player", which was fine with me.  I don't need to do stuff like that. There was one tour, where we opened with "March of the Kings" and we descended on platforms. That was the only time where I was involved in that.  As the Show got bigger though, I got busier with my performance. If your stage partners are running around the arena, you still had to hold down that large stage.

DR: One of the many musicians that I have interviewed was a vocalist that you worked with, Peter Shaw.

AS:  Another character.  Great guy though and fantastic singer.

DR:  He talked a bit about the slowing of the tempos and the frustration the band had with that.

AS:  I remember the tempos were shockingly slow. Paul was convinced that everything sounded faster to the audience. He might be right, up to a point. All of us felt that it was too slow, and it presented challenges for certain singers. My good friend, Steve Broderick, loved the original recording of "Old City Bar" which is a reasonably mid-tempo waltz. We slowed it down to the point that it almost became a narration.

We would also have these celebrity special guests on the tours back then and we had a moment of vindication when Roger Daltrey performed with us.  We had been rehearsing this trio of The Who songs at a painfully slow tempo and Roger Daltrey stopped us mid-song and said, "Who came up with these tempos?" [Laughs]

DR:   I wanted to run a couple song titles past you that you performed live many times over your nine tours. You talked a bit about "O Holy Night" earlier.  You changed the ending quite a bit from what Al Pitrelli recorded on the original.

AS:   That was one of those interesting dynamics, because you're not supposed to change the song. I did and its part of the Show now. [Laughs] But it felt natural and was no disrespect to the original.  If I play it naturally and what feels right to me, this is what happens.  To this day, fans talk to me about that song and that video. I am grateful that I got to do that every night, that was sort of my moment in the Show.

DR:  "Tracers", where you got to play the double neck.

AS:  That was a fun one to play.  There is a break in the middle where it's only 12-string electric guitar, so that double neck was helpful for that. That's a very meaningful guitar. I was its caretaker and eventually Paul gave it to me.  It made its way onto the new Trio record that we just recorded, and it sounds amazing on there.

DR:  "Old City Bar". Was this a bit nerve wracking at all? To go from a stage full of musicians to just you playing completely exposed acoustic in a packed arena?

AS:  I loved playing that song, even when the tempo was directed to be so slow.  I am the only one playing in this giant arena and there is some power in that.  I loved the challenge of making the song more musical at that tempo.  There were a lot of funny things that happened when Steve and I did that song.  For a long time, it seemed cursed. One time, a section of the stage that we were on came loose while we were playing it and it felt like we were on the Titanic, rocking back and forth. [Laughs] That's the song where everyone - the singers, the band and the crew, take a break.  I'm looking over at a crew member trying to signal him with my eyes as the stage is rocking, and I am trying to look like I am moving to the song. Finally, he realized what had happened, grabbed some other crew guys and they came up and fixed it.  We never stopped playing the song.

Another time, there was a medical emergency a few rows back from the stage - which wasn't funny - but the paramedics are coming in, tending to that and everyone is watching that while we are carrying on with the song as if everything is normal. [Laughs] Another time a light caught on fire during this song. Everyone is looking straight up and pointing at this fire while we're playing and looking up there too.  Eventually a lighting tech climbed a ladder, put out the fire and everyone cheered.  The song never stopped the entire time. [Laughs]

DR:  That was the one TSO song where you got to sing a bit.

AS:  Yeah. I enjoyed that, and it helped me with my vocals.  It was the best training.  I tried to sing before with Exhibit A, but I hadn't found my vocal range and really wasn't ready. Doing that vocal part night after night with TSO really helped me.  When Testament was resurrected, I started taking on more backing vocals. Even today, I take on more vocal parts, like in the song "Electric Crown", there is that high part during the chorus - I got that! I even sing a bit of blues now with the Trio.

DR:  "Christmas Eve/Sarajevo 12/24"

AS:  That was fun to play, and the fans love it. It's an amazing charge of energy. And it's not that easy.  There are some good licks in there!  Al played some challenging stuff on the record.  When I first learned it, Al was at the very first rehearsals even though he wasn't doing the tour that year. He was telling me how I didn't have to do the runs exactly as he did on the record, but still you have to make it exciting.  It's a workout and fun to play.

DR:  We know that most of what we are hearing when listening to the TSO albums is Al Pitrelli's guitar work.  Did you ever get to record anything with them?

AS:  Yes.  I had a couple riffs that showed up on the Lost Christmas Eve album and then I played lead and the solo on the TSO version of "Believe".  I played some rhythm but not sure if it was used or not.

DR:  Your last tour with TSO was 2009.  You had left once before.  What made you leave for good that time?

AS: Part of the reason that I left wasn't from a guitar-related thing, but from the overall sound and presentation.  It was like being in a blender.  I think any large ensemble will be like that to a point.  Even playing in Testament, it's a smaller ensemble but still a blender.  If you hear me playing with Stu Hamm or with my Trio, it's a smaller group but my role is so much larger. It's not in a blender - you can hear everything I do. I'm somebody that likes to not be in a blender all of the time.

There would be parts of the show where I remember feeling lost. I would be playing a part that required a lot of technique, I'm putting my heart into it and I was trying to figure out why people didn't seem to be noticing. Then I look to my left and the girls are doing these dance moves and to my right there is an explosion and fire and then a platform coming down.  I started having enough moments like that along with the feeling of how much energy I was expending that I realized it was time to go.

DR:  Understandable.  Looking back at your time with the TSO, I understand it helped fund what you really wanted to play and was a bit of a learning experience. What did you take away from it?

AS: [Laughs] Well, I could go on and on.  It was a real life and profound learning experience. Doing TSO forced me to become a better performer.  It was a major course in the music business, in psychology, personal dynamics and drama.  I've seen some people that were unfazeable, Dave Z for example, that saw the bright side of everything and never focused on the negative.  On the flipside of that, I have also seen meltdowns that you wouldn't believe and unnecessary drama that would make reality television look tame.  It was fascinating. If I ever have time to do a book, I would love to write a fictional book about all of the stuff that went on.

DR:  Are there any particular moments during your nine tours that still stand out today as memorable?

AS:  Oh yeah.  The visit with Roger Daltrey was one. After everyone was told not to talk to him and leave him alone, I was pulled aside and told that Roger wants to play guitar with us and can I work with him on his parts!  All of a sudden, he and I are in this small room together going over guitar parts which I will never forget.

Another was playing the opening part of "Roundabout" when Jon Anderson guested with us. That was one of the hardest things I had ever done.  Not that the part was that difficult, but it had to be played exact with Jon standing there in front of 14,000 people.  That was a moment right out of a TV show.  Paul pulled me aside before the show and I think I am going to get a pep talk.  He explains that this is Philadelphia, this is where Yes had their biggest market, there are 14,000 fans out there, this performance needed to be right, don't screw it up. [Laughs] To play that opening, I had to use some meditation and yoga breathing techniques to just get disconnected from any nervousness. I was really playing from a different space. It was like I was on a meditation retreat and unaware of the gravity of the moment. Later, when everyone was going crazy I let myself enjoy the moment.

DR:  Nice.  I know you are busy with so many things, what is coming up next for you?

AS:  Well, the new Stratospheerius record just came out and I was so happy that Joe and I were able to reunite and work together on that.  He came by and we had a great time and I laid down a solo on one of the songs on there.

I also just finished tracking and mixing our new Alex Skolnick Trio album that will come out soon. I am really excited about it.  I think it's my best work.  There's acoustic and electric guitar on there, all original, one classical arrangement and no rock arrangements.

DR:  You played some of these new tunes on the short tour you did recently.  Does that help when you go to record them?

AS:  No comparison.  Especially for a project that is basically recorded live.  Playing these songs out first was basically our studio prep.

Metal Allegiance also has a follow-up record that is recorded and it's going to be great.  Mark Menghi and I wound up being the main production team on this one and I recently went in and did some edits.  It is very heavy but with some very cool creative stuff that I am excited about. We also have some touring in Europe planned.

And Testament just signed on to a North American tour that I can't talk about yet, but it will be one of the biggest tours of the year.

DR:  Alex, thanks so much for delving into this part of your history for a bit and look forward to hearing your upcoming albums.

AS:  Thank you!  Glad we were able to make this happen.
Alex Skolnick Trio
Photo courtesy of Evelyn Steinweg

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