Monday, June 20, 2016

A Conversation with Vitalij Kuprij

Ukrainian-American maestro Vitalij Kuprij is a classically trained virtuoso, equally at home playing Beethoven's 4th Concerto on a grand piano in a concert hall, or in an arena shredding on one of his neo-classical rock compositions surrounded by a full rock band.  Kuprij is no stranger to either genre of music, having released solo albums of him performing classical compositions alongside albums from legendary progressive-metal bands Artension and Ring of Fire with Kuprij rocking on his Korg keyboards. I caught up with Vitalij in his suburban Pennsylvania home to chat about his extensive musical training, his adventures in the prog-metal neoclassical world, his recent work with the Trans-Siberian Orchestra, along with news of some exciting new music from Mr. Kuprij.

Dan Roth:  I'd like to kick things off by talking about your musical background.  I understand your father was a trombonist?

Vitalij Kuprij:  Yes!  A professional trombonist.  He wore many, many hats. Trombone was his main instrument but he was also a music teacher, a director of a music school and a director of a House of Culture.  He also had his own band; he was a bass player.  My Dad was the one who got me into trouble. [Laughs]

DR:  How did you know that you wanted to focus on piano?

VK:  That is a funny story. A very good friend of my Dad had wanted me to study accordion with him.  The accordion is a very, very popular instrument in my country. My Dad signed me up for accordion lessons for that September. The day before I was to start lessons, my Dad took me to work with him. He was doing some writing for his folk band and I ran to the upright piano that they had there. My Dad told me later that I started to jam! My fingers just went naturally on the piano keys.  My Dad called his friend and told him that he was switching me from accordion lessons to piano lessons.  Totally changed my life!  I am so grateful. Nothing against the accordion, but the piano is the king.

DR:  With learning piano in the Ukraine, are Ukrainian-born composers part of the training?

VK:  The classical training was basically the traditional Western Music.  I studied the greatest composers from the 17th and 18th century: Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms and so forth.  Yes, we do have some great Ukrainian composers and we were taught their music in the school.  There are some great, great piano pieces that I learned and stayed with me to this day.  It was influential of course.  We had Levko Revutsky who was a great composer - what a soul he was! His music is very folk-oriented, just like my country. But the main foundation of my training was the music from Germany and France.

DR:  Is there one composer that you can say had the biggest influence on you?  Or does that change?

VK:  It always changes. They are all so different and if you want to master your instrument and your true classical training skills, you have to broaden your vision and not focus on one thing.  I will say that the one composer that did stand out for me was Chopin.  Chopin wrote mainly for piano. At that point, when I was young, Chopin was my idol.

DR:  At 11 years old you moved away from home - to Moscow - to continue your musical training and subsequently became the youngest person ever to compete in the All Union Chopin Competition, winning first prize.  Can you walk me through that time?

VK:  In the Soviet Union, at that time, any training you could get was Big.  Whether it was military, or music or painting or anything else, it was done like the Army.  It was very rigid.  We lived in dorms, five people in a small room, no privacy, everything is public. Showers were two days a week for guys, two days a week for girls.  That was the most bizarre thing that I have experienced, but I am grateful for it at the same time. I got the discipline that I needed.  Lessons weren't done once a week like it's done in Western Europe or here. I would go for two or three hour lessons a day, every second day. The rest of the time would be taken up with practice.

We studied all of the composers, but as I said earlier, I was so in love with Chopin at this time that I didn't want to play anything else.  That was like telling the government "Screw You!".  I told my teacher that I didn't want to play anything else, so the faculty at the school had debates over whether or not I would be allowed to focus just on Chopin. They finally gave me permission to concentrate on Chopin's music if I could represent the school in that Chopin Competition. 

Winning that competition really opened up some channels.  I toured the Soviet Union for three months when I was 13 years old, travelling by train.

DR:  That had to be an exciting time though, competing in such a prestigious competition.  Any special memories from that?

VK:  You know, everything is sort of bizarre in my history with classical music. The Chopin Competition was in Kazan, which is in the north of Russia. This was my first time flying and it was in the middle of a severe snowstorm. 

They also had a drawing to see who would perform first, second and so on.  You usually don't want to go on first. It is so hard to play first. You are starting the whole thing, plus there is so much music to come and so many more candidates have to play and the jury doesn't have you in the front of their minds any longer.

DR:  And you drew that opening slot?

VK:  No!  I drew Number Two. Not too bad, right? But the girl who had drawn first fell in the ice and snow on her way to the competition and broke her wrist!  So I end up going on first. [Laughs]  Nothing was ever normal; there was always a story to go along with everything I did as I learned classical music.

DR:  Over the years, I have seen many articles and news sources refer to you as a "Russian" keyboardist.  You seem pretty proud of your Ukrainian heritage. Does it bother you when someone identifies you as "Russian"?

VR:  No. I understand that for the most part, people are misinformed.  These days, it has gotten a little better, but I do make a point to correct anyone who thinks I am from Russia. Russia and Ukraine are two different countries that were under that one big umbrella, so I understand the confusion.

DR:  It's clear that you had a pretty rigorous classical upbringing, but I understand that it was a particular Yngwie Malmsteen record that opened your eyes a bit to other music.

VR:  Yes! Well I certainly had watched my Dad perform in his folk band and do other things, but I was a total classical nerd.  Back then, there was only one record company in the Soviet Union - Melodiya. My brother had gotten me the Trilogy album by Yngwie. I put it on and listened to that song "Liar" [sings guitar melody of "Liar"].  Immediately I wanted to put a band together. I started asking my friends.

While it was that Yngwie album that grabbed me, there was also a Beatles album that was released there called A Taste of Honey and some Queen as well.  All of that is what I started listening to all of the time.

DR:  What was it about that Yngwie Malmsteen album that so grabbed your attention?  His neoclassical guitar chops? Or as a pianist, were you listening to the keys on there from Jens Johannson?

VK:  Well, Yngwie didn't feature a lot of keyboards prominently.  Johannson, you are right, but maybe more on his earlier albums.  It was Yngwie's playing! It was so technical and melodic at the same time. I loved the expression and the harmonies.

You know, many years later, Yngwie called me and asked me to be in his band.

DR:  Really?

VK:  Yes.  I could have been on his Alchemy album. He called me and offered to fly me to Florida and have me play the keyboards on this album.

DR:  At that point you already had a couple solo albums out along with a couple albums with Artension, so you were certainly building a following.

VK:  Yes, and I was also trying to break through in the classical world as well and I was broke as a skunk at this time. I politely refused the offer. I would have loved to have worked with Yngwie but I didn't want to give up what I was doing on my records and Artension records to play two or three chords while he shreds. As I say, I would love to work with him, but I think it would be great to put together a neoclassical monster with a guitar/keyboard revolutionary shred! I think a record like that would be amazing musically.

The next thing I knew, he was trashing me in the Japanese press, saying that I had no experience. Well "Duh!", I was just starting out in the rock world and didn't have a lot out yet. And he didn't even really know me. You don't trash me in the press just because I didn't say "yes" to you. [Laughs]

DR:  How long after you listened to that Trilogy album did you dive into that neoclassical style yourself?

VK:  It was gradual. Not everything was accessible in my country. Most of the Western rock bands got music released there much later. We didn't really have a rock culture in my country  - there were a few bands (Aria, Black Coffee, and others) that tried.  But I eventually started picking up on whatever my brother got his hands on - he was collecting a lot of Western music - and I listened to develop my own musical style.

DR:  Back to your training for a moment - So you were in Moscow then touring the country after you won that competition. You then went on to Switzerland for further training?

VK:  Yes. I attended the Basel Academy of Music for four years there on full scholarship.  I studied with this famous Austrian pianist Rudolf Buchbinder.  He taught me much about the Western style of performance and discipline. With me coming from such a Romantic environment with much bigness and Russia, Buchbinder polished me with that Western European disciplinary attitude.

DR:  It was while you were studying in Switzerland that you met guitarist Roger Stafflebach?

VK:  Yes.  That's correct. Roger has been my friend now for almost 25 years. I was living in a little town in Switzerland through the summer and there was this piano bar that I would go to and jam. Roger came in and introduced himself to me. There was a bit of a language barrier as I could not speak German, but Roger was looking for a keyboard player. He and I hit it off and started playing together. Monday through Friday I would study music at the Academy of Music an hour away by train, then Friday night I would take the train to Roger's and rehearse in his garage for the weekend.  Then Sunday night I would go back to the Academy - you must do whatever it takes.

Roger and I formed this awesome instrumental rock quartet with two more Swiss players; we called ourselves Atlantis Rising. I started writing neoclassical music and we would put any money we had into making cassettes. We must have made 300 of these cassettes and shipped them all over. We were broke as a skunk; we were just hungry boys wanting to do a CD!

DR:  Did one of these cassettes wind up at Shrapnel Records?

VK:  Yes, Mike Varney at Shrapnel heard it.  Roger and I both came to America. I came to Philadelphia to audition for the Curtis Institute of Music while Roger was on the West Coast.  After my audition, I flew to Roger and we then both flew to Novato, California to meet Mike Varney.  At that time, Mike and Shrapnel were releasing a lot of music that was similar to what we were doing.  Mike signed Roger and I and we would become Artension.

DR:  So here you are enrolled at one of the most prestigious, challenging music schools in the world, forming Artension and releasing their first album and then the next year releasing your first solo album. How did you balance everything while going to Curtis? 

VR:  Building a big career is difficult when targeting both fields so passionately. I didn't care how difficult it was; I just believed that it was possible.  I would go through semester and then while other students are on break, I would be writing on the piano and remembering what I was writing. I would then fly to California, record with Artension, then fly back and return to my classical studies. Curtis is a tough school; probably number one in the world.  I believed - and still do - that music has no limitations as long as you have enough passion for it.

DR:  How did vocalist John West and the rest of the folks join the band?

VK:  Mike introduced us to John West and he brought Kevin Chown (the bass player) and Mike Terrano, the drummer.  Up to this point, we had all instrumental music and Mike asked me to write some music that was suitable for a vocalist and we cut our first album (Into the Eye of the Storm).

DR:  Artension released a total of seven albums - so far. Does any one of them stand out as a favorite?

VK:  With each one, there are certain things you like and certain things you don't.  It's not so much the album that stands out but rather the process of making the record and the experiences. Sure, everyone likes to see the finished product with the cover art, but you as an artist will never be satisfied - and you shouldn't be! If you are satisfied, then you stop growing as an artist.

I think Phoenix Rising is great and of course Into the Eye of the Storm is most memorable, but I really do like Forces of Nature. It has a different feel to it because of a new bass player and drummer - Shane Gaalaas on drums.

DR:  Did Artension ever tour?

VK:  No. Artension never played live.  We almost did though as we had much success in Japan. Our first album almost went Gold in that country.  We planned a tour of Japan, but the tour manager screwed up my paperwork.  I was still young then and had a Soviet Union passport and did not know what sort of privileges it carried when travelling in Asia.  I wound up in a hotel in San Francisco hoping for a work Visa to come through while the rest of the band were on their way to Japan. Since I couldn't make the trip, the rest of the band did some promo appearances and then flew back.

DR:  Did the band have opportunities to tour later on?

VK:  Yes, we had some offers but it just never worked out.  It must not have meant to be.  I would still love to grab the guys and go tour - we have enough material to play.

DR:  I want to ask you about three particular instrumental piano pieces that you have spread out across those Artension albums. They are named "I Don't Care", "I Really Don't Care" and "I Really, Really Don't Care."  Can you tell me about these?

VK:  [Laughs] The first one was "I Don't Care". I sat down and jammed it out. Mike Varney really appreciated my chops and wanted to showcase me a bit. I had to have a solo piano piece on the album.  Then the next one I wanted to continue the concept. It's cheesy but it's funny. [Laughs]

DR:  In 2001 you started working with vocalist Mark Boals on his solo album Ring of Fire.

VK:  Yes.

DR:  By this point in time, you had released several solo albums as well as albums with Artension,  Despite all of this experience, were you at all starstruck working with the vocalist that you first heard all of those years ago on Yngwie's Trilogy album?

VK:  It wasn't starstruck, but of course much admiration! He sung on that album that was of such importance to me and here he was inviting me to perform with him! That was fun.  I had such a great, great time working with Mark. We turned that into an actual band, named after that solo album. I wrote the music with Mark writing the lyrics and melodies.

DR:  The band released two studio albums and that great double live album recorded in Japan.  By the time the third studio album came out, you were not on it.  What happened?

VK:  Mark and I had some misunderstandings in several ways.  Nothing dramatic, just certain things we did not agree on.  Artension was a little bit close to my heart in terms of how it started and I told Mark to go with another player while I continue to focus on Artension and my own material.

DR:  Understandable. But in 2014 we were graced with a brand new Ring of Fire album (Battle of Leningrad) - nearly twelve years after the last one that you were on. What spurred you guys to work together again?

VK:  It was totally random. Mark and I had reconnected and during some conversations we talked about doing a new album. It had been a while, we decided to throw some music together and see if the spark was still there between us and see what happens.

DR:  Was it your idea to focus on the Russian history as the album's theme?

VK:  You know what's funny?  Johnny Lee Middleton got me hooked on the band Accept, in particular their Stalingrad and  Blood of the Nations albums. I was just loving those and I also am really interested in World War II history.  It came to me that we should do an album about the Battle of Leningrad - it is a real important story. I am a very intense individual and said "Hey, Let's go to war, Let's capture that feel through music."

The concept came from me and Mark researched some of the facts from this time and those tragic events and put together the lyrics.

DR:  Can you talk about the keyboardist's role in these bands?  Your solo albums are mostly instrumental where there is plenty of space for your solos and keeping the keys out front. With Artension and Ring of Fire, you are working in a band format with a vocalist.

VK:  Sure. Because I wrote most of the music, it was always somewhat keyboard-oriented. I was also exploring the opportunities to write vocal material.  It may have been limiting in terms of me being flashy, but I can do that through my solo albums.  As the albums progressed, they don't have as much of me being prominent because I was really focusing on the power of the band itself.  But they all will always have that touch of me on them.

DR:  Nine albums have been released under your own name.  There was a period from 1996 through 2004 where you released your first five solo albums, seven Artension albums, and all of that work with Mark in Ring of Fire. Since you wrote most of the music for all of these, how did you approach the writing process when you sat down at the keyboard? How did you know that what you were writing would be right for each project?

VK:  It was different each time. There was a time where I would sit down and write specifically for Artension. I would look at it as developing the flavor that we created on the earlier albums and continue to push that.  I would also be very conscious when writing, knowing the range of John West, knowing the band's styles and the chemistry in the band between the players.  And similarly with Ring of Fire and my own band.

Now, I just write and want the music to have a very powerful and emotional feel. I focus more on the composition, get it to a higher level of maturity. I utilize all the knowledge that I collected from the experiences I went through and I write plainly without targeting a specific band or project. I just want to capture my writing, preserve it, save it and then develop it, change it up, and come back to it.  Writing music is just phenomenal. I love it because it is such an innocent process and you give birth to new information.  You start from nothing and end up with this musical, spiritual information.that is accessible to others.

DR:  When I look inside of this Ring of Fire album for example and it says "All music written by Vitalij Kuprij", are you writing out the guitar, bass and drum parts as well?

VK:  I write all of the music - all of the parts - on the keyboard. So there are guitar, drums and bass played in keyboard-form to give the rest of the guys a clear direction of what they should be playing.  Especially with the later albums, they get to be more thought-out. I try to leave out improvisational stuff and leave that to myself, that way I am in control.  But structurally, it is pretty well thought-out when the guys get together to record.

DR:  When you write for your solo albums, quite often we will hear a direct quote from a classical piece. Other times there are runs that are inspired by classical composers. Are these done on purpose, or just naturally in the writing process?

VK:  Both. I always believed that there shouldn't be a set formula. You have to aim for something, but things will happen naturally. They will just pop out of you because that's you. 

When I am performing a classical work, my performance or orchestration of that piece will be different, based on how I will develop it with my flair.

DR:  Speaking of classical works, you have released three classical albums. Do you see yourself recording or performing more music in this vein?

VK:  Absolutely. I would love to do another classical album. What I don't know is whether I will do another album of works of the great composers or an album of my own classical material.

DR:  I had read that you were writing a piano concerto to honor your father.

VK:  Yes! It's been going for so long. It is something so important to me that I don't want to rush it. It is written, but there are parts that will probably be re-written.  I will finish it, but this one takes time.

DR: I would like to talk to you about Trans-Siberian Orchestra. Your first tour was with the East touring group in 2009. 

VK:  That was a totally "out of the blue" scenario. I woke up one morning, got my coffee, and checked my emails. There is an email from their management asking me to come down to Florida to meet with Paul O'Neill.  I am not sure how exactly they first heard of me. I know Paul was looking for a keyboardist that could do everything and be flexible. He had called someone that he had worked with in the record industry and that person recommended me. A few weeks later, I was there. 

DR:  Can you talk about your audition with them?  Did you play your own work or some of theirs?

VK:  Let me tell you how my audition went. I arrived to the studio and knocked on the door. Bob Kinkel opens the door and I say "How ya doing, brother? Do you have any beer?" [Laughs]  Bob showed me around a little bit, I played some Mozart Figaro and that was it. I didn't play too much. They had a beautiful grand piano there, so I jumped on that and started having a good time. After this, I wound up talking with Paul for hours into the night.  The next day I flew home and a few months later I was in Omaha for the tour rehearsals.

DR:  Were you familiar with TSO or Savatage before all of this occurred?

VK:  I knew Savatage, yes! What a great, great band. I was even featured in Burn Magazine one time in the same issue that Savatage were. I have a kick playing Savatage material.  If I could go on tour with them and just play their music, I would leave now. It is so rockin' and fun - really my cup of tea.

DR:  Had you worked with any of the Savatage/TSO musicians at all before being hired by TSO?

VK:  No, but I had heard so much about Chris Caffery because he was good friends with John West, but didn't meet him till I got to those rehearsals in Omaha.

DR:  On your first tour with them, you only played the second half of the Show, while Bob Kinkel played the first half.  
Vitalij Kuprij with TSO
Toledo, OH  November 2009
Photo courtesy of James Marvin Phelps

VK:  I was so nervous when Bob would introduce me. The very first time that I came running out, my transmitter for the in-ears fell out as I hit the stage, and here I am picking it up off of the stage, blushing. [Laughs]  I care so much about the music and treating it with respect and here I am looking like a clown up there.  But once I was on the keyboard station, I was at home.  That's what I am here to do.

DR:  Bob mentioned that this splitting the Show between you and he was about transition.

VK:  Bob wanted to still do the rock opera - Christmas Eve and Other Stories - but Paul wanted me to be on the more technical stuff in the second half.

DR:  Since you have been on the West touring group, you have been on "Keyboard Two", with Jane Mangini on the front-of-stage "Keyboard One". Can you talk about the differences at all?

VK:  We both play a lot of the heavy strings.  Jane plays that flute part and most of the piano during narration.  I also play a lot of piano because sometimes we just switch. Sometimes there will be parts that Jane is not comfortable with and she will ask me to cover it.  I do a lot of the whistles, bells and strings.  Strings are very important.  An organ was added for the last couple of tours and I have been having a blast shredding on the organ!

DR:  How do you mesh with Jane? She comes at the keyboards from a different place than you, with more of a bluesy groove to her playing.

VK:  I love Jane so much. She is an incredible human being. She is so humble and nice and never asks for anything. She is also the hardest working female musician that I have met in a long time. If I had to sum Jane up in one word, it would be "strength". I so completely admire her.

DR:  Do you enjoy the "keyboard duels" that you and Jane do as part of the Show?


VK:  They are great fun. We did it one year (2012) where we were running around to each other's keyboard rig, sometimes having trouble seeing the stairs because of the fog [Laughs].  We are cracking up the whole time. Fans really like the piano duels because it is very entertaining, and sort of an "exhale" from the seriousness of the Show. But also for Jane and I right there on the stage, it is entertainment for ourselves.

DR:  As the two keyboardists in the band, do you and Jane spend a lot of time rehearsing together?

VK:  We spend most of our time working individually.  Jane will do her thing, and I do mine.  We do get together though where we try out some things. 

DR:  You mentioned the fog earlier and watching for the steps. Is it challenging to play keys with such an elaborate light show?  They have to cast shadows on the keys?

VK:  They try and make you comfortable but sometimes there are some dark spots.  Sometimes you will see me with my nose almost to the keyboard. [Laughs]

DR:  Do you use foot pedals to trigger the sound patches?

VK:  No, they are all programmed and you just have to go through them from song to song.  It is demanding but I remember them well.  The pedals are used more for dynamics.

With TSO, the show has to be exact.  It has so many moving pieces and everything is on cue.  You really have to be sharp and on your game from the first note to the last. The focus level really has to be there because there are so many components to the Show. From pedal work to how you articulate your playing to when you turn the keyboard to even when you have to communicate visually across that big stage.  Sometimes Jane and I are communicating with gestures to each other.  You really cannot lose your concentration.  Once you take your last bow, you are back on your own and can breathe again.

I often play the hardest parts without breathing, and that is wrong. I will take a deep breath and play - I will exhale - but I do not breathe normally when playing something challenging.  It's fun though!  It's worth the fight.
Vitalij Kuprij with TSO
Beethoven's Last Night Tour   April 17, 2010
Photo Courtesy of Chris Sweda

DR:  Do you have a warm-up routine?

VK:  I have a keyboard in the dressing room and I have finger exercises that I go through to get the blood moving, but that is pretty standard for a classically-trained keyboard player. But it's all about the mental focus before the Show.  I shut down about ten minutes we are to hit the stage, I close my eyes and get into the adrenaline and responsibility mode.

DR:  Any particular TSO songs over the years that you really enjoy playing live?

VK:  I was such a big fan of the Beethoven's Last Night tour, and not just because I had the role of Beethoven in terms of the piano. I find fun in every song, because I have to. You play two and a half hours twice a day, it can get to you after a month of touring. [Laughs]  Sometimes you get to a song and think "Oh fuck, not this shit again!" [Laughs], so you have to make it fun.

DR:  Credits on TSO albums are known for being vague. Many musicians are listed with no specifics as to which song they might be on.  You are listed on the Dreams of Fireflies EP - did you play on it?

VK:  Yes, I played piano on "Winter Palace" and also on "Time You Should be Sleeping".  Jon Oliva played the original piano parts and Paul gave it to me to bring it to life using Jon's parts as a reference.

DR:  There is a song on TSO's 2015 album Letters from the Labyrinth called "King Rurik" that you got a writing credit on. Can you tell me a bit how this song came to be?

VK:  First of all, it is an extreme honor to get a writing credit on a TSO record. Paul knows me really well - he knows my culture and he knows my music drive.  Same with Jon Oliva and Dave Wittman.

Let me tell the background.  It was the summer of 2013. I knew I would be touring on the Lost Christmas Eve tour on Keyboard 2. Then when the tour is over, instead of flying home, I would immediately be flying to Europe to start rehearsing Savatage material for the TSO tour over there where I would be on Keyboard 1 in an entirely different tour. Plus, at the end of that tour I would be flying into a war - I was going home to Ukraine and visit my family while there was all of that unrest going on there.  I knew I would need a lot of juice - both physically and mentally. I connected with John Schaeffer, who is an amazing Fitness and Conditioning Trainer. John put together a personalized training program that was specific to me and what I needed.  I worked out twice a day with this very hardcore program, getting myself in shape for what was to come. 

So I did the Lost Christmas Eve tour, the European TSO tour and then to the war zone with my family. When I finally came back, Paul got me right back to Florida to work with him. I shared with him what I had just seen and experienced in the Ukraine. We started collaborating and put together "King Rurik". Then Paul came up with the story that goes with it. Working with Paul was one of my greatest experiences musically. Not just because he credited me for the song, but because he let me pour out and express myself. It turned out to be a great situation for the album and being able to showcase the story. It is really a blessing for me to end up in the credits; I am truly honored.

DR:  Are you playing all of the keys on "King Rurik"?

VK:  I'm not sure about that. I am certainly on it, but I would rather not comment about that.

DR:  Do you play on any of the other songs on this new album? 

VK:  Just "King Rurik".  But I am such a big fan of "Past Tomorrow"!  It is so moody and Jennifer Cella does such a great job on there.

DR:  With the vast bulk of your work - your solo albums, Artension, Ring of Fire - you wrote or co-wrote all of the material. With the TSO Shows, you are playing music written by others. Does performing with TSO bring you the same level of satisfaction as playing music that you had a hand in creating?

VK:  It is really about the experience. The TSO Show is really a one of a kind. You are playing in an arena twice a day! To me, I have to ask "Does it have artistic integrity? Does it have that punch?". Paul accepted me and works with me so closely. I have gained so much information, knowledge and experience touring with this Show.

This Show helps me survive as an artist and to be able to reinvest in my own vision. I still have plenty of opportunities where I can be more in control of my vision as a musician, writer and performer. Progression - my new album - is a perfect example. It's like I am back to my own vision.

DR:  You have worked with so many talented performers on these TSO tours. Any one of them really surprise or impress you?

VK:  I hate to leave anyone out, but I must talk about Chloe Lowery. Chloe is one of the bad-ass female singers of all time. I am such a fan of hers. When she opens her mouth to sing, it is just ridiculous. 
Music to me is a language of emotion and should be something that audiences not just hear, but see and feel as well. You are assured of experiencing all of that when Chloe sings.

And of course I must mention our musical director, Al Pitrelli.  I love working with him.  I hope someday to do an album with Al - The Pitrelli/Kuprij Project! That would be awesome.

DR:  After seven years of touring with TSO, any particular show or memory stand out?

VK:  One funny thing happened during my first year. I was on Bob Kinkel's spinning keyboard stand playing "12/24". Everything was going great; I was hitting every note, I just had that feeling of everything going fantastic! I am spinning that keyboard stand around like crazy and suddenly the top keyboard flies off the stand. [Laughs] All of the cables are now fucked up. The bottom keyboard slides off and I catch it on my thigh. I am still jamming on it - no sound is coming out because all of the cables ripped out. But there I am with this keyboard balanced on my leg and I am still playing it. [Laughs]  The crew still gives me a hard time about that.

DR:  In the summer of 2015, you performed at the Wacken Festival in Germany as part of Savatage. How did you wind up being part of the Savatage line-up for that gig?

Vitalij Kuprij performing with Savatage
Wacken Open Air 2015
VK:  I was asked! I love those guys and their music. That was another memorable moment for me. Forget that it was Wacken and the magnitude of the event. Playing Savatage music was such a thrill for me. It reminds me when I first met Roger and we put Atlantis Rising together. We were in Florida rehearsing for this and I was literally jumping around while playing.

We would be playing "Jesus Saves" and I would be jumping around, sweating and just having so much fun. It was great playing all of that Savatage music on the 2014 European TSO tour, but playing it here as part of Savatage for all of these fans that love and came to see Savatage was really something special.

DR:  Was that the biggest show you have been a part of?

VK:  Oh yes.

DR:  Once you were joined with the TSO band on the adjacent stage, was it challenging to play with so many musicians playing at once?

VK:  Yes,  It was pretty sick, but we all knew what we needed to do. Everybody was all-hands-on-deck.  I took the whole concert very personally. I wanted to have a blast playing the Savatage songs and just feel that energy!

DR:  How did you and Jon Oliva split up the keyboard duties?

VK:  Jon would do what he needed to do and whenever he needed me to do anything, I followed along. Savatage is Jon's vision and I just played whenever and whatever Jon wanted.

DR:  In the liner notes of many of your albums, where it normally lists what keyboards you are playing on the record, it will usually state that you used "Knowledge, Experience and Confidence".  Tell me about that.

VK:  Those are the tools that I use to improve myself. Knowledge is something you gain as you do it. You apply your knowledge and get experience out of it. Confidence is something you need in your vision to survive and to defend your point of view as an artist. Otherwise you are just a copy machine or a shallow artist.

DR:  Did you ever consider just focusing on the classical side and making a name for yourself as a classical pianist?

VK:  Of course, when I was younger. You know Vladmir Horowitz is my idol!  I have performed in Europe with orchestras. I have performed recitals and held master classes. I have performed Brahms' First Piano Concerto, Rachmaninoff's Second, Beethoven's Fourth! But to answer your question - Yes, but I spread myself out like a tree.  I want to do what makes me feel the power and the joy of music. I am blessed to be classically trained, but I have so many choices. I can play classical and I can play neoclassical shred.  Whatever is bringing me that joy of music.

DR:  Since you mention Horowitz as an idol, who are your influences on the rock side?

VK:  Coming from my country where much of the rock music was not available, I really started from Square Zero in terms of that kind of influence.  I came to realize that if I study the discography of all of the great rock keyboard legends - whom I admire and respect - I would lose something of my own. I try to do this completely like hunting in the dark.  Some of that great music would subconciously sink in and I would lose a bit of that "raw me".

I certainly have great love and respect for Keith Emerson, Jon Lord and Rick Wakeman. And for current players, I can say that I do respect Jens Johansson. He was so funny and so cool in his days. He is amazing in his own right. I am also a big fan of Mike Pinnella. And I love Jordan Rudess. I used to be skeptical with his approach to the art form as he focuses so much on the technology.  I like to write and then record in the studio; I am old fashioned that way. But despite my admiration for these players, I am not influenced by them. Often when you ask an artist they might say "If it wasn't for this person and this person, I wouldn't be doing what I am doing."  I am not like that.  I just don't want to stuff too much in my head because I would not have room to focus on my element. 

DR:  Have you ever explored jazz or other non-classical music?

VK:  Absolutely.  All the time. I love exploring different genres of music, whether it be jazz, hip-hop or whatever. I write all of the time and have played and written music in these styles. Music has no limits.

DR:  I want to ask you about Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata, a classical piece that is widely recognized. You incorporated parts of it into your own "Piano Overture" from your Forward and Beyond album. You played it on an Artension album. You played part of it on the live Ring of Fire album. Then when you got hired by TSO, you are now playing a version of it with them. 

VK:  It's a masterpiece in it's own right that has become commercially accepted through the centuries. I have been playing this stuff for many years.  That's just me. It is such a great piece; I might do it again. [Laughs]

DR:  Do you teach piano students?

VK:  I don't teach much. I used to. Some students have come to me wanting to win a competition. Some have come to me wanting to really grow. I do occasionally teach and I am not the most fun teacher. I don't care how perfect you are playing a piece of music. If I don't feel it, you are disrespecting music. 

Truthfully, I would rather be writing than teaching. I feel somewhat paranoid when it comes to my time as a musician.  There is so much that I want to say musically that I try to preserve it and make it last.

DR:  Are there any bands in today's music scene that you really enjoy?

VK:  I love Dream Theater. I know every album and have met all of the guys. I was into their album "Images and Words" back in 1993 while I was still in Switzerland. I also love Gary Moore, Queen and Sting.

DR:  You have worked with a number of incredible shred guitar players on your solo albums - Greg Howe, Michael Harris, Tony MacAlpine, George Bellas. What's it like to work with such a level of guitar players and hear them play music that you write?

VK:  It's been a phenomenal experience because I love guitar and I love how everyone has approached it. I love working with those guys and they are so different. Plus, it's been a great learning curve for me!

DR:  You made two albums with the late, great Randy Coven on bass. He never became a household name, but he worked with so many and was highly respected by musicians everywhere. We lost him unexpectedly in 2014.  Any particular memories of working with Randy?

Vitalij Kuprij's band 2005-2007
(L-R) Randy Coven, John Macaluso, VK, Michael Harris
Photo Courtesy of Kyle Cassidy

VK:  Oh Yes! Randy was the funniest jack-ass on the planet [Laughs].  God Bless Him. I invited him here and he came on his bike with his girlfriend and totally let me know what a rock star he was. When we were recording, he showed up to the studio with a giant pot of his home-made stew for us.  He was a total redneck but such a good soul. He always made sure we were fed. He never took care of himself but he took care of others.

DR:  I would like to wrap this up by talking about the many current and future musical endeavors you are involved in. Progression is your new forthcoming solo album?

VK:  I have been working on this for so long. 
I am so proud of it though.  It has really turned into an expensive album because I don't work the modern way. I would book the studio and a producer for two or four weeks at a time, and that gets expensive.  I also want to show my musicians that I want to treat them well. I don't care how famous they are, I want to pay them to follow my vision.  The album is finally recorded, so just be patient - it will be out sometime in 2017 on Lion Music. I love working with Lars Mattsson at Lion - I feel like he really believes in my stuff. 

DR:  Can you give me an idea of who is playing with you on the record?

VK:  On drums, my longtime drummer Jon Doman. Angus Clark, Chris Caffery, and Bill Hudson are all playing guitar.  Dave Naccarelli, who played on my VK3 album is playing bass.  He has such an incredible feel. And also for this album, I am adding a second keyboardist. The album is a blend of High Definition and VK3 styles, with more of a progression to where I am today musically.

I want to go play live with this new music after such a long break. I am creating a vision of emotionally, powerful music that should trigger a reaction and bring a new fresh air to the music scene. I hope to play some clubs and smaller venues to bring my music up close and personal to my fans and hopefully make some new ones.

DR:  You recently performed at a benefit concert for your trainer John Schaeffer where you and the band played quite a bit from Progression. Was this the first time these new songs have been performed live?

VK:  Yes! This was the first time for those and first time in a long time that so much of my solo music has been performed. I put together a killer band for this gig and it was so much fun. 

DR:  You recently announced that a new Artension album is happening. The last Artension album came out in 2004. How did this reunion come about?

VK:  Artension is my baby and it never really went away. Everyone was getting busy with other things and I had some opportunities to get involved with.  We all just went on our own and did our own things. For this re-birth, I spoke to Chris Caffery and we are adding him to the band, so we will have two guitarists. So it will be me, Roger, Chris and John.  

DR:  Any word on the rhythm section?

VK:  That is still a puzzle. The writing process has already begun and I have my ideas and preferences of who I would like there, but that decision hasn't been made yet.

DR:  I understand that you are part of Mistheria's all-star Vivaldi Metal Project?

VK:  Yes!  That's awesome.

DR:  I understand he has put together a lineup of some of the world's greatest rock musicians.

VK:  He has everyone on there. I played one part on the recording. Giuseppe is a great soul. He is like a "European Me".  He is really passionate and I wish him all the best. This is a very unique project. I have to give him so much credit for the endeavor and the risks taken.

DR:  Well sounds like we have quite a bit of music to look forward to.  Vitalij, thanks so much for finding the time to sit down and discuss your career and your vision with me.

VK:  Thank you, brother. So glad we got together!

Vitalij Kuprij with TSO
November 26, 2014  Sacramento, CA
Photos courtesy of Patti Hoffman

For more information: