Wednesday, May 22, 2013

A Conversation with Bob Kinkel

Bob Kinkel has worn a lot of hats over his long, successful musical career: Producer, arranger, engineer, composer, conductor, performing keyboardist, and much more.  He of course is most well-known for co-creating the Trans-Siberian Orchestra, where he played a key role in their first five albums and their annual Winter Tours through 2010.  Mr. Kinkel has been busy working in the studio with a new project that is now being released. I caught up with Bob at his very busy, world class recording studio, as we look back at his time working with Savatage and TSO and discuss his exciting new project, Cinema 12.

Dan Roth:  I would like to start by asking about your musical upbringing.  Are you classically trained?

Bob Kinkel:  Yeah, I have a lot of classical training.  I had the obligatory piano lessons when I was 7-8 years old and sang in the church choir.  I grew up in Williamsville, New York, which is a suburb of Buffalo, and they had one of the best music programs in the country.  When you are in elementary school, they stick an instrument in your hand.  I started playing saxophone - my mom actually played sax and I inherited her saxophones. I started playing in bands and we had a piano in the house; my Dad played piano a lot.  There was always music around.

I took lessons for probably 4-5 years before they got cancelled because of me not practicing.  Once I got to high school, I really started teaching myself to play though.  You may remember the old record clubs - you had to order like 20 records and I was going through and picking albums by the covers and I ended up picking Emerson, Lake & Palmer's Tarkus!  I bought it because of the cover, ended up loving it and bought all of their other records.  I remember bringing ELP's Pictures at an Exhibition into school one day to show Michael Levy - he was one of the teachers that was teaching theory and directed the choir.  I started telling him "Look at this - what a great piece this is!" and he was like "You know that is a piano piece".  I went "It is?!?"  [Laughs]

He was kind of mentoring me in high school, which was nice.  I wanted to get better at playing the piano, he had me start with Bach's Two-Part Inventions and from there I basically started teaching myself a lot and practicing constantly.  By this time, the grand piano in our house had moved to the basement, so I kind of had a studio set up down there.  I started experimenting with tape machines - I had a Radio Shack 2-track reel-to-reel - and started reading all the magazines and was just really into it.  I was always working and I would spend all of my money on music things...I bought my first synthesizer - a minimoog - in 1975.

Bob Kinkel (far left) with Rogue
Photo Courtesy of Bob Kinkel

I went to Hamilton College, entered as a Pre-Med, then a chemistry major, a physics major...  In my freshman year I was lucky enough to take piano lessons from concert pianist Albert Bowen, who was a student of [Vladimir] Horowitz. He taught me so much, in terms of how to approach pieces and how to practice.  I started taking all of the music theory classes, music history, orchestration and learning how to conduct. I also learned about Edgard Varèse and other composers who worked with synthesis, found sounds, and musique concrete. The school also had an electronic music studio there, which was wonderful.  They had one of those big ARP modular synthesizers and a Scully four-track reel-to-reel and a quarter-inch tape machine.  That's when I learned how to edit tape and a lot of the other studio chops that paid off later on.  By that time, I was always playing in bands and out late closing the pub [Laughs].  I would also be practicing the pipe organ in the chapel til 2 in the morning.

I wound up staying an extra year at Hamilton, working in the physics department and playing in Rogue, a covers band. We did a huge cross section of covers - Steely Dan, Turtles, The Who, The Cars, Talking Heads etc. Everything from the 50s through the late 70s - More of a pop rock band.  I was also the organist for the chapel, so I was still constantly playing music and working on my classical chops.
Bob (on keyboards) performing with Rogue
Photo Courtesy of Bob Kinkel

DR:  You sort of answered this a little bit...I was going to ask you which keyboardists influenced you.  I am guessing Keith Emerson?

BK:  Keith Emerson was a big influence. Rick Wakeman and all of the prog rock guys. Elton John and Billy Joel for that style.  I was also a huge Who fan and I liked tons of classical music.  Growing up I had inherited a collection of 78 [rpm] records from my grandmother. I would listen to the William Tell Overture on the 78s and it would take like eight records on the spindle to get through the whole thing - it would stop in the middle, go "clunk" [Laughs].

DR:  [Laughs] That's awesome.

BK:, I really just grew up with music around me all of the time.

DR:  You eventually wound up getting involved with  studio work and commercial jingles?

BK:  Yeah, that was in the 80's.  I actually went to grad school at Columbia University on a full ride for solid-state physics.  I wound up quitting halfway through and started looking for work.  I had met Jim Ball, who was an assistant engineer at the Record Plant [recording studio] and he introduced me to Lila Wassenaur, who was the manger there at the time.  For months, I came back every two weeks and told her I would work for free - finally they let me, and eventually I was hired officially.  I really honed my engineering chops there as I got to work with tons of the top people.

DR:  I want to skip ahead a little bit to your involvement with Savatage.  The first record you were on was Hall of the Mountain King?

BK:  Yeah, Hall of the Mountain King was the first record I played on with them.  That's how I met Paul [O'Neill] and Jon [Oliva].

DR:  Were they recording at Record Plant at the time?

BK:  They were recording at Record Plant - that was the first record that Paul produced of theirs and Jim Ball was the engineer. 

By this time, I had left Record Plant to go out and do session work and I was playing in a prog rock band led by Richard Termini. I'd be in sessions and a keyboard player would be brought in, and I was realizing that some of these guys would take four hours to play something that I could play in ten minutes.  I started thinking, "Hey, I must be ok" because I never thought of myself as a great, great player.  But I had chops and I was always practicing while I worked at Record Plant.

There was an early sampling keyboard called the Emulator II, which was the first one that made it easy to spread out samples.  I was one of five people in the city that had one of those.  I also had a Prophet 5, a Yamaha DX7 and a few other things.  That was the era when I was doing jingles - that was when I did the Hefty commercial and was being successful in that world.  I got a call from Jim Ball out of the blue who says, "Hey I'm working with this guy who wants to do a whole orchestra thing.  Can you do that sort of thing with your samplers?".  So I said "Sure" and came down to the studio and we did "Prelude to Madness". That whole thing is basically me and the band.  I played every single part on that - the whole orchestra is me - and then we just all got along really well.

It was fun.  At first, when I walked in, it was Studio A at Record Plant.  There are candles everywhere with wax dripping and Jon had this skull necklace on. I was like "Whoa!  Hey Jim, what did you get me into?" [Laughs]  But within five minutes, I realized that these are the nicest people in the world and we had a great time.  So I did "Prelude to Madness" and ended up doing a couple more days and did all the orchestration for that record. From then on I did all of their orchestrations whenever they needed them.

DR:  Were you familiar with Savatage before that?

BK:  Never heard of 'em.

DR:  You mentioned orchestrations.  Can you explain what it is you do when you are credited with orchestrations?  Are you writing out the various orchestra parts and then recreating them with keys?  Or sampling orchestra sounds?

BK:  It's combinations.  For instance with "Prelude to Madness", that was all samples.  I basically played every single part to make it layered and it feels organic if you do it that way.  Even if I'm doing fake stuff, I always fake as if I'm playing the instruments so you breathe with it, you phrase with it as you would if you were playing the instrument and not play it like it's a clunky keyboard thing.  I always approach it from an orchestration point of view, whether it's a traditional classical piece or something like a Beatles kind-of thing where you can use the instruments in slightly different ways.  Depending on the song and where it would take me, I would do different things.

With TSO, it's mainly strings but there is a lot of timpani, bells; there's winds in there too.  It's a mixture of live and not.

DR:  With Jon Oliva already there in Savatage playing keys, how did you two divide up the keyboard work?

BK:  On the Savatage records that I was on, Jon played piano and I did everything else.  With Handful of Rain and the ones I didn't play on, Jon did all of the synth work on those.

DR:  How did the band react to having a session player come in and play on their records, after so many albums of it being just the core band?

BK:  We all had a great time.  Criss Oliva in particular was such a sweetheart.  I just remember the hours he spent with me showing me his guitar riffs so I could double things on keyboards.  I was doing so much session work, and Criss used to ask me "You wouldn't want to come on tour with this metal band, would you?" [Laughs]

DR:  I was going to ask you if they ever had asked you to go out on tour with them.

BK:  They had.  But at the time I was married and was basically making way more money in the studio than I could going on tour with them.  Plus I didn't want to be away that much.

DR:  I wanted to ask you about Savatage's Streets album, which opens with a children's choir.  You worked with the choir on there?

BK:  Yeah, it was the children's choir from The Met (Metropolitan Opera).  Paul wanted a children's choir for "Heal My Soul".  They came in and they were singing a Mozart piece - The Magic Flute. They were singing this just to warm up and the mics were on, so we rolled on that and added it to the beginning of the album.  And then I arranged the parts and conducted the choir for "Heal My Soul".

DR:  It seems that whenever Savatage or TSO used a choir, you were the one working with them.  Is working with the choirs something that came natural to you? 

BK:  Yeah, I would always work with them.  With the TSO stuff, I would actually sing everything first.  I remember with the first TSO record I would sing all the children's parts in falsetto just to get the feel of the whole record and orchestration.

DR:  Speaking of "Heal My Soul", you guys released this song again in 2007 under the TSO name, but this time a children's choir sang it completely.  What was the reason for doing that?

BK:  Paul wanted a softer version out there.  It's such a great song; he wanted a version that had a little less edge to it.  That piece is based on a Welsh lullaby ("Suo Gân"), such a traditional piece.  Some pieces of music just become universal because you hear them in so many different contexts.  Most people are familiar with what could be called the "hit parade" of classical music because they're everywhere - even if you don't listen to classical music per se, it's everywhere - in television, film - you are constantly bombarded with these themes.

DR:  Did you work with the choir on that version as well?

BK:  Yeah, I arranged it, conducted it, recorded it, and played piano.

DR:  Back to Streets.  Jon has said that it took over a year to record that album.  Were you involved the whole time?

BK:  I came in as a session player.  I might have been there a week, doing keyboards. It was intense though - there is a lot of orchestration on that record.  It was a fun record to play though.

DR:  You weren't on the Handful of Rain or Edge of Thorns records?

BK:  No, they did those down in Florida.  They started one thing in my studio before moving down there - "Chance" - Jon had come up with this riff [Sings keyboard riff from "Chance"] - which is such a brilliant, brilliant keyboard riff - and then they recorded the rest down in Florida.

DR:  There is one Savatage song that you have a co-writing credit, which of course is "Christmas Eve/Sarajevo 12/24".  I wanted to ask you a little about that piece.  I understand it was around in some form before it became a Savatage song?

BK:  Paul had it around for a while and had some different ideas of how to work with it.  He had this idea to take "Carol of the Bells" and start it with "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen".  It originally started with acoustic guitar instead of cello, with a nice blocked-out melody that Paul had for "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen".  But then the two of us got together and came up with the additional musical parts, I figured out how to put the two themes together in that whole center section.  We worked on it together for about four days.  We came up with the "Bum bu-bu-bum" and said "Yeah! That works!" [Laughs].
It was great; we had a really good time putting that together.  We came up with the original new sections and put it all together and gave it its shape.  There were no guitars other than the acoustic at first.  Then we realized that it would fit into the Sarajevo story on the Savatage record (Dead Winter Dead) and then Al [Pitrelli] came in and put all of his brilliant guitar work on top.

This wasn't the first time we had written together though.  We worked together on a musical called Romanov - it's mostly Paul and Jon, but four of the songs I co-wrote with Paul. 

DR:  Did you have any idea that once it was recorded that you had created something really special?

BK:  Paul and I definitely loved it.  What happens, when you create a piece of music - you're creating a piece of art, you put your heart and soul into it and you hope that other people will enjoy it.  But you never know.  I just remember getting the phone call - [Disc Jockey] Mason Dixon down in Tampa had played it one night [on WMTX] and the lines lit up.  We flew down to Florida and put on a special show for their listeners in a special benefit concert - we played like six or seven songs. 

DR:  And you performed live with Savatage?

BK:  I performed live with Savatage twice.  Once was at this show in Tampa, the other time was at a show in Cologne, Germany.  At the Germany show, we had just finished recording the Beethoven record [TSO's Beethoven's Last Night] and we debuted a couple Beethoven songs at that show along with a cover of Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody". 

DR:  Really?  Did you play the whole show with them?

BK:  I remember they basically set up a keyboard for me and I think we did "Requiem" and "A Last Illusion" and then "Bohemian Rhapsody" and then they took my keyboard off stage.  I just remember that was the hottest day, walking up a flight of ten stairs to the stage, I think the temperature went up by 20 degrees. [Laughs] But it was fun - it was a great crowd.

DR:  You mentioned Romanov - what was your involvement with that? 

BK:  I co-wrote four of the songs and we did all the demos together, then Paul, Jon and I did all the presenting.  It was on a fast track to Broadway at one time, and then TSO happened.  Originally, Paul's concept was for that to be the first TSO record, but Christmas just took over. [Laughs]  It's kind of weird now for it to come back twenty years later.  They're in Florida working away at it.

DR:  Are you involved in the current production that is being worked on now?

BK:  No, not really.

DR:  Any idea how similar it is to the original demos and recording?

BK:  I haven't heard any of it.  I can tell you that one of the songs that was on the recent EP that came out - "Time You Should Be Sleeping"...

DR:  That's such a beautiful song.

BK:  That's actually my song.  It's mis-credited on the record.  That was part of the original Romanov recordings - it was a lullaby I had written for Alexei, the young son of the Romanovs.  I don't know if it's still going to be on the Romanov recording that they are working on now - Romanov itself is such a long work, I couldn't say if it will still be on there.

DR:  I wanted to ask you about what became the first TSO record - Christmas Eve and Other Stories. It was recorded with essentially the same band lineup as was on the Savatage records, but with many additional vocalists.  How different was it to record that album from a Savatage album?

BK:  I was involved more as a co-producer and writer with TSO.  Except for "Christmas Eve Sarajevo", Savatage was pretty much a Paul and Jon thing and I was brought in as an extra.  With TSO, Paul and Jon would write songs, and I would write as well and had more of an influence on things with my classical background and they would have the more metal stuff too.  I think it was a really nice combination.  And we could have all of these different singers, so a different character in the story could have a different voice, which you couldn't really do with a rock band with a single singer.

Photo by James Minchin
DR:  From an actual recording process though, how has it changed?

BK:  There's a lot of ways to build songs.  You can hit it in the studio with a band, play everything, do a couple overdubs, and you're done.  It used to be you would build them from the drums up, but you can go backwards now.  It is often a process where the song evolves as you're recording it, where you can make changes like if you decide you want the chorus to be twice as long, and then you may go back in and re-record a bunch of stuff, so it's an evolution process. 

DR:  Were you involved in assembling the vocalists?

BK:  From the beginning I was always involved with the auditions and bringing vocalists in. I was involved with that right up until when I stopped touring in 2010.

DR:  When you would write songs, did you write them with particular vocalists in mind?

BK:  A lot of times Paul would have a type of voice in mind, then we would try a lot of different people on that song.  What's really nice with TSO is that you can try different vocalists to see which has the best fit - it's somewhat like making them a part.  It's like "Who has the proper emotional content to bring this song to life?" or "Who has the tone or persona to make you see this character with your eyes closed?"

DR:  That's fantastic to have that luxury.  It's got to be like being a kid in a candy store.

BK:  Oh God, Yeah!  It is, but it can also make things take a lot longer! [Laughs]

DR:  How difficult was it to merge the works of classical composers like Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, and Mozart with hard rock?

BK:  Not really too hard.  There's a lot of "rock stars" that have been around forever.  Beethoven was a massive "rock star".  People lined up for his funeral.  When his Ninth Symphony was performed it caused riots - people were saying "What is this?!"  It was definitely the equivalent of parents today telling their kids to "Turn that shit down!" [Laughs]  That energy has been around for a long time.  Mozart...Paganini...they were "rock stars". The Romantic era, all the French composers, they were like musical jocks.  Virtuoso playing seems to exist in the classical world and the metal world so it marries up really well.

DR:  How would you go about deciding which classical pieces you wanted to work with?

BK:  Paul would always have things in mind, I would bring in something, Al would bring in something.  Sometimes we would have a song and we would realize how it would go well into a particular classical piece.  Like in "Mozart and Madness", Paul would say, "We could go into some Mozart here", and then I would say, "How about this one?" and we find pieces that naturally fit.  And in "Requiem", Paul came up with that great riff that worked with Beethoven's Fifth.  And the TSO song "Beethoven", we wanted to make something out of the [Beethoven's] Ninth [Symphony] so I added this one riff and then we went back and put in the Pathetique Sonata.  It just flowed.  Again, it comes from the Top 100 classical, the kind of stuff that is in everybody's subconscious.  It just kind of flows, since we all know those pieces so well; when wer'e writing, it comes out.

DR:  What were some of the musical challenges you had when marrying up these classical pieces to what you were creating?  Did you feel like you had to stay true to the original piece?

BK:  Ah, No.  [Laughs]  You keep the energy but you can add to it.  So much of classical music has become museum pieces. Instruments have evolved. The old violins sound nothing like the modern ones. The old pianos were really quiet and now they have the big steel frames, more tension, longer strings, and they're louder.  With brass instruments, the bore - the size of the hole is bigger.  Guitars and lutes - stringed instruments like that have been around forever. And now you have electronics, you can add stuff - "Let's make it louder!" Everything is bigger now anyway so it's like a natural progression, a natural extension.

DR:  On the early TSO records, you and Jon Oliva handled all of the keyboards.  How did you divide it up and how can one discern who is playing what?

BK:  Jon has such an amazing feel when he plays. Basically, on all of the songs that he wrote, he played the piano parts. All of the orchestration parts and all of the really fast runs, that's all me, because I have the classical background.

DR:  On the first five TSO albums, you are listed as the "Co-Producer".  For the uninitiated, what was your role as Co-Producer?

BK:  As a Co-Producer, you're handling lots of the production, but you're not making the final decisions.  I would work independently a lot from Paul; I would be in my studio working, he would be down the hall working. We would talk about the overall shape of the record together, but all of the final decisions rest with him.  I would work with all the players, work with the choirs, and do all the vocal comping.  General ideas, concepts - that's him.  He controls the budget...

Photo Courtesy of Brian Reichow

DR:  I didn't think there was a budget [Laughs].

BK:  It may have been Jason Flom that said it, not sure, but one of the executives used to tell Paul that he was the only one they knew that would have an unlimited budget and still go over-budget. [Laughs].  It's all because Paul doesn't settle, which is nice. He is a true artist, and if he hears something and wants to go for something, he will.

DR:  Can I ask about Running in the Passion of the Fairytale Moon ?

BK:  That's a musical that Paul and I wrote, shortly after Romanov.  Paul and I had gotten on a roll and wrote the whole thing in about a month.  We demoed it out, presented it to a few people.  That one is top secret - I can't even tell you what it's remotely about. [Laughs]  Paul came up with a brilliant idea. Other than saying it's a brilliant idea, I'm not going to say a word about it. I'm hoping it will show up soon.

DR:  How about Letters from the Labyrinth ?

BK:  I don't know a thing about it. That's Paul. Paul just writes. I don't know where he finds the energy with all of the other stuff he does, but he will go in and write all night.  He will have twenty notebooks of ideas before he'll start a record. He is really good at editing; he reads like crazy, he's a history buff, he reads poetry. He never stops.

DR:  When you and he would collaborate on writing songs, was it primarily you with the music and Paul with the story and lyrics?

BK:  Not necessarily.  Sometimes I would have an idea, and he is great at shaping stuff and adding his own thing to it, so if you come up with something really "hooky", he'll force you to finish it and then he'll add things.  So musically, he co-writes and he does the story and he does stuff on his own too.

DR:  How do you feel about the reworking or updating of some Savatage songs to become Trans-Siberian Orchestra songs?

BK:  Well, you don't have to a song done only one way.  Like "Heal My Soul" - doing it entirely with a children's choir.  It's a different take on the same song. Sometimes it's nice - if the song fits the story - sometimes the perfect song already exists.

Are you going to compete with yourself? Are they cover songs?  You'd really have to ask Paul about his inspiration, because it's his idea to bring those in.

DR:  From 1995 through 2004, seven albums were released from Savatage and TSO, and then nothing for five years until Night Castle came out in 2009.  After such a productive and busy period, what took so long for Night Castle to be finished and released?

BK:  Well you'll notice a slight slowdown before that; The Lost Christmas Eve took a few years to get done. I think part of it was just exhaustion. We had started touring in '99 with just a few shows and by the middle of the first decade it had expanded to slightly over two months of touring with two shows a day, plus a month of rehearsals before that, plus auditioning people.  I created all the arrangements for the strings, vocals, and keyboards for the live shows. People would leave then we would have to find someone else that could play. It's a massive amount of work making all the touring stuff happen. You get off the road and - it's an old joke, but you check to see if your head is level by seeing if you are drooling out of both sides of your mouth. [Laughs] It just took a toll over that period.  And Night Castle was really ambitious for Paul. That's also when he centered himself in Florida for good, so instead of having everyone local here in New York, everyone would fly down and back.  It just took a while.

DR:  After four TSO albums that featured you heavily as a songwriter, there are no Kinkel-written tunes on Night Castle.

BK:  Yeah, that really was a result of Paul now being in Florida. My family and I are here in New York, and with Jon living down there as well, the record was done.

DR:  The roster of musicians on the records seems to expand with each record; Night Castle boasts six different keyboardists. Why so many?

BK:  When you're working with everybody live, and everyone has been playing on the tours, you want to make sure everybody gets to play on the records. It's only fair; they've been out on tour working their asses off, so we bring them into the studio to play a couple parts here and there. Though the bulk of Night Castle is still Jon and I.

DR:  Since you guys are such prolific writers and working constantly, are there a lot of songs that haven't made it on to the TSO records?

BK:  Well, there are always ideas and fragments out there. If Jon has a song that doesn't go on the TSO album, he'll put it on his record. If you're writing all the time, there will be some things that you'll write for one project and not for another...

DR:  Any prospect of ever seeing a TSO album filled with rarities and out-takes?

BK:  No.  Because we don't go in and finish them. It's not like we have full recordings that didn't make the record.  There's bits - like we'll get through the first chorus of something and then move on - some demos, but no full complete songs.
Photo Courtesy of Pete Ferling

DR:  When looking through TSO liner notes, it's striking how many engineers the albums have.  There's the mixing engineer, associate engineers, additional engineers...

BK:  The guy who polished the engineer's shoes... [Laughs]

DR:  [Laughs]  Can you describe what an engineer contributes to a recording for those that might not be aware?  And why do you need so many?

BK:  Okay, well, Dave Wittman is the main engineer. The engineer's job is to capture the sound and performance on to what used to be tape, but now it's in to Pro Tools or Digital Performer. Whether you are recording a performance in midi or acoustically, they look at mic placement in the room; they are responsible for the sonic quality.  Dave is the mix engineer and he mixes everything. These days you have hundreds of tracks. You have the luxury and the curse of being able to delay your decisions until the final mix. In the old days, you would have 24, 48, sometimes 72 tracks, so you would have to be very conservative when mixing; you might have to mix some things early.  For example if you had recorded ten passes of strings, you would bounce them all down to four tracks, as opposed to now where you would just leave them all. So the engineer is responsible for the sonic quality, and helping the producer achieve their vision of what the sound should be like.

The reason there are so many, and I engineer as well, is that there are times when we are trying to get a record done and Dave might be mixing in one room while were still recording vocals in another room, recording guitars in yet another room, so we would be using multiple studios at the same time. The most we ever had going at once was five. It's really a production trying to get it done. I would be in recording the choirs, doing string sessions, making sure all the keyboard parts are right or editing - there is just so much work for the engineers to do. It really is a massive undertaking. It's amazing that we got those records done as fast as we did.

DR:  Really?

BK:  Yeah.  It's just massive numbers of tracks and a massive amount of work.

DR: I know your daughter had a cameo on The Lost Christmas Eve doing that spoken "Merry Christmas" part. How did that come about?

BK:  We were trying to find the right child for that. We were auditioning tons of kids. I was just exhausted one night and Gretchen was there eating dinner, so I asked her to sing that part like a real little kid. She went into the studio and nailed it.

DR:  I wanted to ask you about your time on the road with TSO.  You were the musical director for the ten years you were out there?

BK:  Yeah, most of the time I was the overseeing musical director for everything.

DR:  What went into your role as musical director?  What sort of things were you responsible for?

BK:  I arranged all of the string parts, I would rehearse the band, make sure everyone is playing the right parts.  Just making sure everyone is doing what they are supposed to be doing to make it sound the way it should be.

DR:  And Al has a similar role for the western touring troupe?

BK:  It started out being one uniform thing and then we kind of diverged a bit where Al started changing stuff on the West Coast.

DR:  When performing, Al is a bit more visible in his role, with hand motions and pointing, while you were more subtle.

BK:  The keyboards, especially in the TSO stuff, are kind of unique.  It comes from the way Jon Oliva and I play, which is very rhythmic. The foundation is piano, drums and bass, while there are a lot of big power chords for the guitars to play while the keyboard is keeping the rhythm going. So in a lot of ways I don't have a free hand to do any of that dramatic-gesturing. I actually can conduct, and used to it when we did "Carmina Burana" on stage. I'm also "tethered" in one place so I don't have a way to move around as much to make the big sweeping cues.

After a while, the band really takes care of itself and we make the cueing less obvious. For me, I wanted to make one big show; I didn't want to be out front. There's ways you can do it subtly and there's ways you can do it big. It's all how your ego is or how you want it to appear.

DR:  But the performers on stage were still watching you for cues?

BK:  Yeah.  A lot of time I wasn't lit, but if you watched me closely, you could see me give cues, count vocals off and things like that.  I conduct a lot with my head, as again, I have both hands always taken up.

DR:  Did the role as musical director come natural to you?

BK:  Well, I had always been conducting and working the vocals and the strings. I would always stop the band and make sure the tempo was right. During rehearsals I would really be in there conducting transitions - I love for transitions to feel really organic - I hate lots of click cues and things like that. We'd always find ways to rehearse the band so it breathes as one; that to me always felt good.

DR:  Did you get involved with determining the setlist?

BK:  Yeah.

Photo Courtesy of James Marvin Phelps
DR:  Any songs that didn't make the cut that you wish did?

BK:  The problem with TSO, is that we had four albums and that alone is almost five hours of music. Since we had the tradition of always doing the full rock opera and then some excerpts from other things, you always have to leave off great songs. So, yeah.

DR:  The keyboard duel that you used to do with Mee Eun Kim -

BK:  That actually started with the West Coast group with Jane [Mangini] and Derek [Wieland].  Paul always wanted to have that kind of thing; I was like "meh". I guess I'm not super competitive [Laughs] But yeah, it was fun to do. It was a good moment.

DR:  And you would wrap it up with the band doing Vince Guaraldi's "Linus and Lucy".

BK:  Yeah, we did do that for a while.  That was Al's idea to do that.

DR:  Tell me about your spinning keyboard.

BK:  Oh, that was fun!  That was the most fun for me; I loved that thing. I remember Elliot Saltzman and Patrick Whitley and some of the production guys were trying to figure out how to make a spinning keyboard to work.  They were out to dinner one night and there's this huge Lazy Susan in the middle of the table and they started spinning it and went "Ah!". [Laughs] So basically they made this thing out of a giant Lazy Susan and mounted the stand on it and made a base that would attach to the floor - well, they attached it to the floor after I dumped it over once [Laughs] - and yeah, that was so much fun.  The first year I could only turn it once or twice in each direction and then later on when we started bringing our own stage, we made a hole in the stage so the cables could go down and I could spin it about six times in each direction, I just had to keep track. Our poor roadies - after each show one guy would be under the stage and one guy on top trying to untangle the cables. [Laughs]

But that was fun because I got freed up a little bit, face different directions; I got to actually play with different people on stage and see more of the audience.
Photo Courtesy of Jean Scrocco

DR:  Did you ever think about using a keytar so you could be more untethered and could move around the stage more?

BK:  No.  I used to have one of those, but it always felt...wrong. There are a couple guys who can pull it off, but it wasn't for me.

DR:  On your last tour with TSO in 2009, you split time on stage, with you playing keys during the first half of the shows and Vitalij Kuprij taking over for the second half.  What was the background on that?

BK:  It was about transitioning.  Rhythmically and feel-wise, I'm way more solid than Vitalij. But classical chops - he won that big Chopin Competition in Russia when he was ten years old, so he was one of these childhood prodigies - he can really rip it up classically. I worked with him a lot getting him into shape, because the keyboard parts are not played the way a piano player would play them. I did so much pipe organ playing and that sort of thing, that I don't approach a piano as a piano. I play much heavier, so I had to work with him to change his natural instincts. I also spent a ton of time working with him on the Beethoven's Last Night stuff as well.  Same with Derek.

We have people that learn the parts just in case, God forbid, something happens to somebody, so I had worked with Derek for a long time and getting him rockin'.  He's also one of these really amazing classical players and I was working with him to dig in in a slightly different way and he's come a long way. He does a great job.

DR:  Was it decided before the 2009 tour that it would be your last?  Or during?

BK:  My last tour? It's complicated. [Laughs]

DR:  Was it tough to not be going out on tour on anymore after doing it for so long?

BK:  It was good for me, in some ways.  My kids were growing up and I had missed ten years of Christmas.  Plus it's allowed me to get back and doing other stuff.  I get bored with repetition.

DR:  Over the years, TSO performers have had to miss a show here and there due to sickness or personal reasons, often replaced by someone in the back-up band. Did you ever miss a show?

BK:  I didn't miss any.  When Beethoven's Last Night went out, Chris Caffery became the only one left who had played every show. I put together all the parts and all of the arrangements for that first Beethoven tour, worked on the keyboards and was there for the rehearsals until that went out. Same with the 2010 winter tour - I worked with Derek and all of the keyboard players getting that all together.

DR:  I wanted to ask you about the Beethoven's Last Night tour. You co-wrote about half of that album -

BK:  Yeah, that one's got a lot of me in it.

DR:  Did you miss not being on stage for that tour?

BK:  That one I would have liked to have played. It was difficult for me to watch.

DR:  I was going to ask you what it's like for you to watch something that you helped create now from the fan's perspective.

BK:  In some ways I prefer being behind the scenes. I'm more of a producer and writer than a "Hey, look at me" performer. [Laughs] I do like being on stage though. I love the fans and the energy of touring is an amazing thing. But I am not one that sleeps well on tour buses and things like that. It takes its toll.

DR:  Any particular songs over the years that you really enjoyed playing live? Any songs that stand out to you?

BK:  The first show of each tour, when we played "An Angel Came Down", when the narration would start and you kind of felt the magic beginning. That was always a great moment. And I loved playing "Beethoven" and "A Last Illusion"; they are just fun as hell to play. "This Christmas Day" was always a high point when the whole story wraps up.

DR:  I love the way James Lewis delivers that song too.

BK:  James is an amazing, amazing singer. He is such a pro and he never sings without a huge amount of emotional content. For me, I am an emotional player. Any performance, whether it's an instrument or vocals, needs to have a lot of emotional content.  Otherwise it's just notes.

DR:  What did you enjoy the most and least about your years touring with TSO?

BK:  Well, most - Playing. It's a lot of fun to be up there. Everybody is good friends and just amazing players. It's just so much fun to be playing together and creating something that is larger than any one individual. It becomes this larger-than-life thing. To feel that flow is an amazing feeling; it's incredible. And least - being away from family and the kids; that's always hard.

DR:  After the act split into two touring groups, you spent the rest of your time with the East group.  Did you ever want to or think about heading West?

BK:  In the early times we talked about it, but then Al and Jane ended up being married, so there really was no way to float between after that. It would have been nice, but it's just the way things worked out.

DR:  I wanted to ask you about how the show has changed over the years. Some long-time fans and former performers alike have noted how the show today is a lot more scripted and choreographed than in it's earlier years.  Can you comment on that?

BK:  Well, the stage direction evolved over the years; "Who's gonna stand here?" and things like that.  We went from a theater show, where basically no matter where you are, you're lit, to an arena show, where if the lighting guys don't know where you're going to be, there's no way they can keep a light on you. It really necessitated thinking what the flow of the stage is. When we started adding pyro, lasers and the cues, you really had to start taking the production aspects more seriously. You had to be in the right spot, or you'll be playing in the dark.

As the show grew, it necessitated more stage and placement direction. For instance, we would watch to make sure no one is blocking someone else and that everyone could be seen. And then we started adding staging in the back of the arena; the TSO shows are just a massive undertaking. There are about 130 people on the road, per tour. You'll have 26 performers on stage, but then you'll have 18 semis worth of equipment, a generator truck because a lot of buildings don't have enough power for all of the lights.  You have nine tour buses.  So that right there is 28 people just in drivers. And then you have your lighting crew, the laser crew, the pyro crew, the rigging crews, the backlines guys, the production manager, stage managers, tour managers; all of these people are out there. It's a huge team of people that it takes to put on one of those shows.

So again, if you're doing something in the back, and the performer has to come to the front, you can't just go back there - there's people going up on lifts, there's safety issues; it's complicated. There's live fire on the stage - you do not want to become part of a barbecue. [Laughs]

You have to know where you are, so just the evolution of the size of the stage and the massiveness of the show dictated a lot of that happening.

DR:  Of all the Savatage and Trans-Siberian Orchestra records that you were involved with, which one do you personally hold in the highest regard?

BK:  Christmas Eve and Other Stories was just a magic record. It flowed; it had a lot of heart and magic to it. The other ones all have that too, but that one just holds up really well. It just came together so well, it's really cohesive and just flows beautifully through the entire thing.

DR:  Tell me about this amazing studio that we are sitting in.

BK:  We're sitting in Spin Recording Studios. I'm a partner here; I have my own production room here and I do a lot of my recording here. I've always had a studio since high school, and obviously the size of it has grown. I do a lot of my writing here, and I also have a full studio in my home. When we opened this, it was my idea to have a lot of really talented people all on the same floor that can work on projects together. I bought the console so we could make it really first class and it competes with any studio in the city. This is one of the largest SSL consoles on the east coast.

DR:  You mentioned that you were still hands-on with TSO through the 2010 tour. What have you been working on since then? I know you are featured on a couple of Dave Eggar's albums.

BK:  I have worked a lot with Dina Fanai.  Dina is an amazing vocalist and works with artist development and casting with TSO, and one of her best friends is Dave Eggar. Dave is an incredible cello player and is also a piano virtuoso. He is one of those truly gifted musical geniuses. He has his doctorate from Julliard. Dave does a lot of the stuff that they would have Yo Yo Ma do, and he also tours with Yo Yo Ma's band.

DR:  One of your songs, "Dream in 4D", is on Dave's Left of Blue album.

BK:  Yeah, Dave and I were just messing around and came up with that one. We recorded that at the old Spin Studios, which was in another building a little further from here, before we opened this one.

DR:  And you continued to work with Dave?

BK:  We really started working together; we would get together and jam. We have done a project together called Cinema 12. It's Dave, Dina, myself, and Nik Chinboukas. Nik was a recording artist with a band called Collision and he is also one of our main engineers here. Dave and Dina and I would just get together and jam for hours, and then Dina and Nik would get together and start cutting things up, structuring the compositions and feels and vibes, and then they would call Dave or myself back in and we would play more parts. We came out with this record called Cinema 12. It kind of feels like film music but with a song structure so it's all very melodic, very hooky, but there's no lyrics - it's all made-up language. So big choir, big vocals, big and lush strings. We just did that over the last few years; we would work on it a little bit at a time, put it away and then come back to it. We finally finished it a couple months ago so we are putting that out there.

DR:  I have listened to the entire Cinema 12 album, and it is really amazing music; it sort of draws you in and keeps you there.  I noticed that "August Moon" is on there, which was on Dave's Kingston Morning disc.

BK:  Yeah, and if you read the credits on Dave's record, you'll see "Cinema 12".  It's one of the pieces we had been working on and it just fit on his album. That's Dave and Dina singing; Dave singing with a vocoder with Dina on top of that. It's really simple, but a gorgeous piece.

DR:  It certainly is. Where did the band name come from?

BK:  Dina thought it up. The music is thematic; it's very visual music, very image provoking.

DR:  When writing the songs for this album, did they start with the piano or start with the cello?

BK:  A lot of it was just improvised as we would jam together and come up with ideas. There's a piece called "Rubixtsar" that started with an electronic percussion instrument called the Handsonic. My daughter Gretchen started playing with it one day and came up with this cool rhythm and we recorded that; then we added a bunch of hand-clapping stuff, we just had some fun with it. Dina then took it and started working with it. I did a lot of the writing, Dina and Nik produced it, I executive produced it.

DR:  And you still have the classical feel on here - one of the tracks is Bach's Prelude from his Cello Suite Number One.

BK:  Yeah, that's just a favorite piece that Dave plays his ass off on and Dina adds those great lyrical hook lines on top.

DR:  It's on Soundcloud and the Cinema 12 website now.  On which formats will the album be released?

BK:  It will be on iTunes shortly and at some point a CD will be released. We have also been getting it out to the film people, so hopefully you'll be hearing some of this in film and TV.

DR:  There are also videos for a couple of the songs.

BK:  Yeah, Manny Quintero created the two videos. He's done a lot of visual work with Dave and Dina. The goal is to have a video for each song. A lot of people tell us how inspirational our songs are visually, so Manny came up with those two concepts.

DR:  Any plans to take this project to the stage and do a live show?

BK:  It would be complex and take a lot of people to do it right, but it could be fun to do. We'll see.

DR:  You mentioned that you are submitting this music out to the film industry. Have you ever been approached to compose or perform music for films?

BK:  A little bit. I'm actually going to actively seek more of that. Its fun getting back and doing orchestration and arranging for other stuff; it's inspirational. I just did a piece for the new Five for Fighting record. We just recorded it yesterday. We did full orchestra, everything live. He has a beautiful song called "Symphony Lane"; it's just him on piano and vocal and everything else is the orchestra.

DR:  Will we ever see a Bob Kinkel solo album?

BK:  I don't know. Maybe. I've got some stuff going on. Anything is possible right now. I'm in a good place right now. It's been good to have a breather and get back in my creative head and having the facilities here and having a full time engineer that I can have work on projects for me. We have so many musical people around here and working in this environment is so much fun for me.

DR:  You have worn a lot of hats over the years. Are you most comfortable as a producer, engineer, composer or performer?

BK:  Producer/engineer falls really well but I love playing out. Now I just play out for fun; I'll go out and play with Dina sometimes and there's a few others that I'll play with sometimes. But I'm loving being in the studio again and being creative and focusing on that aspect.

DR:  What can you share that most fans might not know already about Bob Kinkel?

BK:  I was a competitive swimmer for a long time. I love to go windsurfing. I used to do down to Sheepshead Bay. I would sail from Plum Beach across to Breezy Point. On windy days, I would get up in the morning and go windsurfing and then play sessions all afternoon. It was a good time.

DR:  Got to ask the old standby question: What's on your iPod or in your CD player?  What sort of music do you enjoy listening to?

BK:  Really depends on mood. I have all my classic rock stuff, tons of classical stuff, film scores. There's so much great music in so many different genres. There isn't really one type or one artist that I listen to over and over again.

DR:  Anything you would like to share as we wrap this up?  Anything I may have missed?

BK:  You'll hear more things from me. Check in every once in a while. I'm working with some new artists and doing some other production work as well. You should be hearing some stuff in the next few months.

Photo by Matthew Kleinrock

For more information:

Cinema 12:
Dina Fanai:
Dave Eggar:
Spin Music Studios:
Trans-Siberian Orchestra:
TSO Fan Site/Message Board:
Termini Band: