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April 2011 (live broadcast via phone, The World Of Trans-Siberian Orchestra Podcast Episode #12)
Enjoy Church of Illinois for the past few years has put on an annual Trans-Siberian Orchestra tribute show, performing the Christmas Eve & Other Stories album in its entirety just as TSO does in concert. No video has ever been released of the show, an update on the idea discussed in the interview.
Eric Strothers is the musical director for Enjoy Church & it was his idea to create a TSO Christmas show, of which he also was musical director & lead guitarist. Following their second annual show I got in contact with Eric & asked him to join me one evening on my weekly 'The World Of Trans-Siberian Orchestra Podcast' to discuss this endeavor. A follow-up episode a month later had Eric returning with vocalist & narrator in the show Zach Lorton, who also does media production for the church. Both interviews are posted on this blog. Since this interview Eric has released an EP with the violinist from the show, Abby Stahlschmidt, under the name The Merge fusing classical & metal in the style of TSO.
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AJ: Eric, thank you so much for taking time out to talk with me tonight about your humongous endeavor.
ERIC: Thank you for having me on. There has been such an unbelievable response to the show we've put on & for my entire team & for me personally. It's been a little bit overwhelming. Surprising just how much people have grabbed a hold of this. It's one of those things where there's just such a love for the music. There's so much passion into it & with church we're a 100% volunteer driven & to have my band come in, give their time & their effort to pour into this & do it the way we did, it's a huge deal for me. A big debt of gratitude.
AJ: Yes, absolutely, & for those of us who have seen the show, & I know many TSO fans have because you've circulated the video, definitely I agree with you. People really like it. & it's more than just the music, because, obviously, you're pulling from a very strong catalog, but there's something you've really given to that show, too. There's a real heart & soul that comes across & the work you guys have put into it really shows, the creativity also.
ERIC: It really conveys the message of our church. Not to crash people over the head with the message of the church & Christianity in general, but just to get people in the door & see a message of ... a true message of hope, with, let's face it, an awesome rock show behind it. Whether you get anything out of it or not, faces are melted. It's just a good time for everybody. Good for the kids, good for grown-ups. I would go see it if I wasn't playing in it.
AJ: Maybe someday, eh? I have to ask the most obvious question ... there's a difference between being just a fan of a band & then deciding you're gonna kinda recreate the band. Tell me what inspired you to create & put on this show so long ago.
ERIC: I have been just consistently blown away by TSO. I'm probably a little bit of a dork when it comes to that. My friends tease me about it a lot. I listen to their music all year. A big piece of it is Al Pitrelli. I think he's just a fantastic guitar player. He has such an interesting style. & just the show, the realness of the musicians of what they do, I'm so drawn to it. Honestly, at this point in my life, I wouldn't want to be out on the road hacking away at a band, you know, trying to make a living playing music on the road. But, TSO is the one thing I would drop it all & run away for. It's just such a tremendous production. I love the music. I love the grandiosity of it. Is some of it cheesy? Sure it is. But, that's what makes it so great, that they're not afraid to laugh at themselves & throw the hair around. I mean, flames, loud music, it's just got everything you want. Growing up in the late 80's early 90's when the big guitar players were the hot thing in music, this has taken that & put it out there in a way that's stripped away all the ugliness of it & it's just a big rockin' good time.
AJ: & you speak as a guitar player yourself, too.
ERIC: Yes, & that's one of the things with Al Pitrelli. I can't say enough about the guy's style. He's just tremendous. I would love to sit down & just have him teach me for like a year straight.
AJ: Well, I have spoken to some of his guitar students & another teacher around him, Bob Strano "Uncle Bob NYC", matter of fact, & they all say one of the things he always taught was melody. Make sure you have a melody line that people will go away & remember.
AJ: Which is definitely tied into the music of TSO & also tied into what you were saying about going to see this production at a church & walking away with a message that they remember & also music that they may or may not be familiar with.
ERIC: Right, right. Definitely. The twist on the classics that people recognize, pieces of the song even if they haven't heard this particular arrangement. But, just the story itself. You know we do the entire narrated portion of TSO's winter show & with just a small twist at the end. The final narration, after "An Angel Returns", rather than being the end of the show it takes sort of a downward turn & sets up the true ending of our production, which is the song "Believe", the SAVATAGE song that was on Night Castle [by TSO]. It brings the point of the message home, that all of this good stuff happen, this guy hears this semi-corny tale from maybe an angel inside this bar & it forces the reflection on him that basically it's never too late to go back home, to turn things around, to make a positive out of a negative.
AJ: Actually, it's a very interesting message too, for you to perform, because it is a Christian message, but yet you can invite non-Christians to your shows & to come to your church & they will enjoy it just as much. I think a lot of churches they tend to focus: 'We're gonna do the Jesus story now or we're going to do something very focused on Christianity'. But, you don't necessarily have to do that. You can have the message come across but with different words, you know. So, it's an interesting choice that you would do this thing with your group.
ERIC: I was really surprised that our pastor allowed me the free reign to pull off this stunt. That's really the best word I can think of to call it. Last year, 2009, Christmas season, we put this together. I knew it was going to be good. I was worried a little bit as we were getting closer to zero hour. 'Is this gonna come together? Is this gonna be believable? Is this gonna sell, especially to anybody who had ever seen TSO?'
AJ: Just beyond the basic theater trouble too, is everybody going to remember what they're doing, etc. etc.
ERIC: Right, right. We only had one performance planned. We did the show & it was packed. & the response was unbelievable. We were shocked. All of us were shocked. We ended up adding two more shows just at the last second. They both went really well. So, in 2010, people were calling & asking if we were going to do this again. I had assumed that we would, but I hadn't really put it out there. So, we had to take it up a notch. Man, my crew brought it. I was so proud of all them. The tremendous amount of work they put in to get this music down. Probably one of the biggest challenges of it was transcribing the music. There is no official guitar transcription book of Christmas Eve & Other Stories. There is the piano/vocal book.
AJ: You don't have a book for drums or bass, etc. either.
ERIC: Exactly. Everybody just really woodshed & did their part. I've got some tremendous talent in the band. I mean, I'm the musical director & lead guitarist, but without them this would have been nothing. It's just an amazing driving force that they all brought. Every single person was so crucial to the success of this thing. & everybody did it. Everybody showed up & brought their A game every time.
AJ: When you brought the idea to them that 'we're gonna do this show based on this rock concert that's been touring the country', where they familiar with the music & the band, or did you have to introduce people to it?
ERIC: They were familiar with it a little bit. You know everybody's probably heard "Christmas Eve (Sarajevo 12/24)" on the radio, at least. The commercials that they run on television as the Christmas tour will get close. But, probably not at the, as some might call it, insane level that I liked it & was into it. So, it was a bit of an introduction for them to kinda see the entire picture, as opposed to being just a bunch of cool songs to play.
AJ: Did you have bootleg videos or anything you showed them, so they could actually see a performance? Did you teach them, I should say.
ERIC: We did watch some of the recordings of independent origin, if you will, that are out there of the live show & listened to the same kinda thing, audience recordings that have just freely circulated around that the fans trade. It really helped them get an idea of what it was we were going for. & with the lighting we had available to us, I think we pulled off a pretty decent visual to go along with the sound. It took a little bit of prodding. & one of my guys, the narrator of the show, whose name is Zach Lorton - I hope you're listening right now, Zach, you're awesome - he also sang a couple of just the major hard hitter songs. He sang "Good King Joy" & he sang "Believe". He has such a tremendous stage presence. He worked with the vocalists this year & just brought the level of excellence through the roof just by giving them simple pointers. He kinda came from the same place I did. He really understood the vision of the entire thing. So he was able to bring a lot more to the table than just his actual part in the show to help me coach the vocalists.
AJ: Now, to mention what you just said about looking at the visual production, TSO is very famous for their PINK FLOYD-esque light show & that's definitely not what you've done in your church. Did you ever in a moment think 'uh oh, I'm not going to be able to do the light show? Is it gonna work because I don't have all that?' Was that ever a concern or a worry of yours?
ERIC: It was a concern, honestly. Especially because we had a lot of people come both years that we've done it who knew the band but didn't have any idea who we were. It's a little easier when its the home crowd, so to speak, & they already know you & love what you do. But, I was concerned about that. But, with what we had, I think we did a really good job with it. I wish that we could continue to take it up & take it up & take it up. That's something ... I'd like to see us have to hand out sunglasses at the door, just in case somebody can't take it.
AJ: In a way, Eric, I want to say, as somebody whose watched the video of last years show, because you don't have this over-the-top light show & there's no fire anywhere in sight or anything crazy, it actually changes the dynamic of the show. In many ways, I think, it really changes the focus, so you really get into the songs in a different way. You actually hear them, I think, in a different way. Thus, it gives you guys a very special - I'm struggling for the right word - it gives you your own personality.
ERIC: I agree. I think that's a good way of putting it. It really does bring out the story. It has to be the main focus at that point, because we don't have these huge visual effects. It just brings a realness to it, I think. An honest, real face to this story.
AJ: & you can't hide behind any lights or anything. It's all ... you're right there. It's very personal, I found. Even watching the video I felt like I'm right there with you guys. It has this very intimate feeling, which I don't always get when I look at a TSO production with flashing lights.
ERIC: Well, when there's 14,000 people there, too.
AJ: Yeah, it's different.
ERIC: It's a little difficult to maintain that intimacy, but I really appreciate it.
AJ: But, they can't do it. With 14,000 people you can't have that intimacy. But, this is something that you have & I think it happens either naturally or unnaturally. It's something that you guys have put across & is a real strength to your show in a funny little way, I guess you could say.
ERIC: It actually does really work out well for us. Because we don't have this huge just bombastic visual presence with it, it really helps us dig into the music itself & just the story of it. Something I really hit home this time is the quote/unquote characters of the show - the father, the daughter. That really came across. They weren't just people that were slated to sing this song. They really owned the parts. & that intimacy of our venue ... we were playing to just under 700 people I would say, when the video was shot, but it felt even smaller than that because of the closeness of it. It was really cool to see people's emotional reactions to it. Where at a TSO concert you get that to some extent, but you get the flames going.
AJ: Yeah, it's a little different. Now, I have to ask, was there anyone who, in the early stages when you were first doing it, was there anyone who was like 'No, you guys shouldn't do this' or 'We shouldn't perform this in our church.' Was there any ... negative energy you were getting, from either from staff or congregation, that I'm hoping was a hurdle you went over & changed their point of view on.
ERIC: It wasn't bad, honestly. I think everybody was just really excited about the idea. Probably the only person who thought we shouldn't be doing this was me after the first couple rehearsals. Like 'Oh boy, I wish we hadn't advertised this already. It's too late to pull the plug now.' Because, I was just nervous. It was just such an undertaking. Everybody was excited about it. One thing that I found really interesting was I think a lot of the musicians, especially musicians, I think the vocalists felt a little more confident right out of the gate, was they weren't sure if we as a collective & themselves were capable of doing what we did. & that's part of what made it so great when it was successful. 'You know what? We did it. I told you we could & we did.' That was great to see. Overall, everybody was really pumped up about it. I don't think they understood what exactly it was going to be like. But, once they saw the finished product they were really surprised. One of the funniest things we heard from so many people at the church was 'Oh, if I had known it was gonna be this good.' It's like 'I tried to tell you!'
AJ: 'I tried!'
ERIC: 'I tried to put that out there that it was going to be great but you just didn't believe me!' Overall, the response was great.
AJ: Now, have you had any response from the TSO camp itself? Have you communicated with them?
ERIC: Just a little bit. [Guitarist] Angus Clark has watched a couple of the videos. I'm a huge fan of the guy. I just think he's a tremendous player. Really cool guy. I've gotten the opportunity to hang out with him a few times. He actually helped me tweak out some of the guitar parts for a couple of the harder songs.
ERIC: He gave us some public kudos on Facebook. A lot of people actually commented on the fact that he commented on it. So that was interesting. You know, I kinda hope that we'll hear a little bit more out of the management. That would be cool if they acknowledged it.
AJ: Now, you've mentioned to me that there was some conversation about actually releasing a video. Is that still in the works or is it that something that's not going to happen? Can you share any news about that?
ERIC: I have filed all the paperwork with Warner Chappell, the publishing company, & its just a waiting game now to find out what the quotes gonna be, but we're gonna do it. & if you don't mind me throwing a little plug in?
AJ: Please do, I want you to. Absolutely.
ERIC: Our website is enjoychurch.tv. If you visit the website & click on 'contact' on the front page, if you're interested at all in knowing more about what we did or wanna see some links to the videos, wanna know when we will be actually able to sell the finished DVD, get a hold of us. We would love to let you know what's going on. That is the plan. I just have to wait for it to come through. I regret that I didn't on the process sooner. I had no idea that the lead time for something like that would be so long.
AJ: Yeah, that's the way it goes.
AJ: Well, I have to say, I hope it comes through for you. I would love to see this video shared with other folks. Or, even if it's only the people who were in the audience & only TSO fans, it is so worth seeing. You guys have put together this amazing package. What's the future hold for this? You're gonna do it again, right?
ERIC: We're gonna do the show again, yeah. We're gonna keep it going as long as we can. TSO has done essentially the same show for the last 10 years or so. I'm hoping we can get at least 3, 4, 5 out of it. You know we have to figure out a way to take it up a notch. I think this next year here, in 2011, we're gonna add some songs to the back end after the story part is over. Probably no flames or explosions, just because of our building, but it's going to keep getting bigger, I think.
AJ: But, because of your building it's a challenge. You want to bring it up a notch, but yet you know what limits you have. So, it's going to require some creativity. That really brings out your own personality of 'This is our take on it.'
AJ: So, it has its benefits of not being able to shoot flames up into the sky.
ERIC: You're probably right there. We would start to steer away from sort of what made it magical. One thing, for those that have seen the videos we have out there on youtube. One of the toughest things that makes the stage layout feel a little more open, but it was really weird for me musically to get used to, is our drums are on stage right & not in the center. If I was going to change anything, maybe that's what I would be next year. The drums would be in the middle. It's just a little bit easier logistically for everybody. If we can just, I guess, probably add more songs. You know I just want to keep it interesting for the people who come year after year. Change it up just a little bit. Keep the story intact & just add a little extra at the end.
AJ: Absolutely. Eric, I have to sadly let you know that our time has flown by. I want to bring this to a close now & thank you for joining me.
ERIC: Thank you so much for having me on.
AJ: Eric, publicly I just want to say I think you've done something amazing & you have my utmost support from far away.