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May 2011 (live broadcast via phone, The World Of Trans-Siberian Orchestra Podcast Episode #19)
Enjoy Church of Illinois for some 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. The video of the show mentioned in the interview is only available privately and not for sale.
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, this posted interview, 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, welcome back to my show.
ERIC: Aaron, thanks so much for having us on. We really appreciate it. It's good to be back.
AJ: Absolutely, it's great to have you & tonight is very special because you've invited a guest to join you. A fellow who, for those of us who have watched the video of your show, is just an amazing singer & he was also the narrator of the show. I know you told me, whether it was in our previous interview or in an e-mail, that he was a real key to making this a successful show & thus it's a delight to have him. So, I want to also welcome Mr. Zach Lorton, the narrator & singer from Enjoy Church's TSO tribute. Zach, thank you for joining Eric & I tonight.
ZACH: Aaron, thank you for having me on. I was a little surprised when Eric said 'I want you to come on the show with me.' I'm like what? So, thank you for having me on.
AJ: Eric is on the production side of things & a performer, so now we can talk to you as someone who is just performing & had a major role. I thought it would really flesh out the big picture of this project you guys have done to have both of you with me at some point.
ZACH: It's really interesting that you say that, because Eric & I both have production backgrounds. In fact, Eric at the church, he's on staff of the church, he's doing at this time what I was originally hired to do, which was production director over all things core & visual, as far as things like sound & lighting & everything else like that. & my job has morphed, now I'm doing more media production, video production, & stuff like that. Eric came on staff after I did & he's actually a much better fit in directing those aspects then I am, because he's got a few more people skills than I do. But, it's been a pleasure, it's been a real pleasure, to work with him in this context. It's been great.
AJ: Zach, let's just jump right in here. I'm curious how you got involved in the project. I know Eric was telling me a little bit about it in the last interview how he had the idea & brought it to the church. Were you invited in immediately or was this like 'Oh, yeah, I can sing & I can narrate.' How did you get into your role in the show, which is a substantial role.
ZACH: Eric may have told you in the last interview he's a huge fan of TSO, has been for a long time. Since he was a fetus. Ultimately, he and I had discussions about this. He was like "Man, I would love to do a TSO tribute show." & I thought I would also love to do a TSO tribute show. I wasn't really sure whether or not we, as church musicians, would be able to pull it off collectively, because, I mean, I've seen TSO live & aside from the light show they are just knock down drag out just complete professionals in what they do, plus their recordings. So, my question was "Can we pull it off? I'd love to do it, but can we?" Eric was just like 'We're gonna do it.' He talked to Pastor Daren, Daren Carstens our pastor, & he said "Yeah, man, go for it. Go for it." So, we talked to the band & everybody seemed really excited to jump on board. Since we work together & work really closely together I was one of the first people that knew about it. I don't know if it was one of those things where ... Eric, you probably know better than I do ... It was kinda simultaneous. It was kinda understand that I was going to be a part of it, although I wasn't really sure when.
ERIC: Zach is just one of my go-to guys just all the time. He sings in the band & he's just got an eye for production & performance in general. As far as especially the visual aspect of performing, as opposed to just standing there. I should mention that in 2009 when we did this Zach not only sang, but he also was the second keyboard player who covered all the strings.
ZACH: That was fun, thank you.
ERIC: So the guy ... without him it wouldn't happen. It was a no-brainer for me. I mean, Zach is an amazing talent. Anybody whose seen the video ... & look for it on youtube & if you want one we'd love to just give you one. Go to our website EnjoyChurch.tv, contact us, we'll send you one out. We just want people to see it & experience it. Zach is amazing, but the whole band was great. Zach's got a professional background with music similar to mine. We always have all these inside jokes, especially about the SAVATAGE album Streets: A Rock Opera. Every time we have a creative meeting at work something about, always about, that album comes up. Everybody thinks we're stupid, because they have no idea what we're talking about.
AJ: Well, Streets is about a guy named D.T. Jesus, right?
AJ: So, it kinda works. Yeah, a little.
ERIC: I think they're sick of hearing us go "Yeah, I used to live uptown, too, once, you know." They're like 'If we hear that one more time, you guys are fired, you're out.'
ZACH: "I used to come down here, look at all the characters."
ERIC: Exactly. But, this thing the momentum has been unbelievable. We really upped our game this year & it really just keeps moving forward. We've talked just a little bit about it, but it looks like we're going to be able to take the show out of the area, on the road a little bit. You know nothing too crazy, but just helping people with fundraisers & stuff like that. Even the fact that people are even talking about it ...
AJ: You mean, the church circuit? Like that?
ERIC: Maybe slightly out of, but still kinda that same niche, you know.
AJ: Absolutely. Eric, when we last talked you were telling us about some of the challenges you faced, like transcribing the music & re-creating the music for your line-up of musicians. I want to ask Zach a similar question. Zach, you obviously weren't playing guitar. You were doing something different. Was there any particular challenges that you faced either in singing or playing the piano or as the narrator? Any big hurdles, like 'here's a lovely wall I've got to climb to make this happen.'
ZACH: The first year we did it the wall was that 3 weeks before the production we found out that the second keyboard player was not going to be able to do it. I looked at Eric & said, "Look, if you don't have anybody else in mind I'll give it my best shot." I grew up playing brass. I grew up playing trumpet. I didn't grow up playing keyboard or guitar, though I had a basic knowledge of music theory & I knew how to play certain things on the keyboard. So, having to learn 11 songs in 3 weeks time was a bit of a challenge. I'll tell you the most difficult one was "Wizards In Winter". I spent 3 hours one night doing nothing but "Wizards In Winter", because I was not used to playing notes that quickly, changing notes that quickly. So, that was the biggest hurdle for me. The second year, 2010, there really wasn't that much of a hurdle, but there was a different type of a challenge because Eric asked me to work with the vocalists. To kinda help out the other vocalists in the show, because there's a very specific way that these songs need to be delivered. Not a whole lot of people in our vocal team were used to delivering things that way. So, I kinda met with all the vocalists that could be there. We kinda went through just some regular old breathing exercises, you know. Basically how to pull the best tone, the strongest tone, out of their notes & stuff like that. I saw one particular person, one of our guys, Todd, whose been a part of our team for a long time, long before I even started going to the church, I saw a really cool transformation take place with him. He was the gentleman that sang "An Angel Came Down" & the reprise "An Angel Returned." He came into it during rehearsals & he worked on the stuff that we talked about. I believe it was either the first or second night he came out there & started singing in this way that was ... people would know, who were not familiar with the way he normally sings, but he sang it & he sounded regal. It was great exposure for everybody else on the vocal team to see 'Yeah, I can do a little bit more than I thought with this.' They were able to expose themselves. We just saw, holy crap, we saw some powerhouse performances from some of our vocalists. The only thing I did was to give them a few pointers, & I said "Make it your own." I told them, "Memorize the words, make it your own." They did & they came up with some stuff that was just fantastic. They did a great job.
AJ: Now you also were the narrator. Did you do it for both years?
ZACH: I did, for both years.
AJ: Within TSO fan circles, & Eric can probably verify this, there's often talk about how the narrator speaks. Some people say that's the moment where the show slows down a bit because suddenly there's no music. Others say this is important because they need to tell the story. There's all sorts of discussion about the role of a narrator, because there are no narrators at rock concerts, so it's a new thing. Did you find any particular challenge in doing that in your show? Was that difficult for you or, I don't know, similar to what you've done?
ZACH: The only difficult aspect of it was not sounding exactly like the guys that tour with TSO. I'm not dissing them or their delivery. I had a couple of bootleg performances of them & I listened to the narration. I didn't want to go out there & say: "In ... an ... old ... city ..."
AJ: The way they do it.
ZACH: I mean, when someone tells a joke they don't say: "A nun ... walks into ... a bar." It's telling a story & that's what it was, so I had to go into my storytelling mode & basically say 'Now, if I was telling a story to a bunch of people at one time & I wasn't talking at my normal rapid fire pace how would I do it?' That's kinda what I did. A lot of people think the hardest challenge would have been memorizing all the words. For me it was second nature. For me it was second nature because I have a photographic memory, so for me it was just repetition. I just listened to it over & over & over again & made it my own.
AJ: Let me ask both of you guys, you've done the show 2 years now & there's talk of keeping it going & developing out further & continuing to discover new things ... how has it changed both of you personally as musicians?
ERIC: That is an interesting question. I'll tell you, probably my biggest thing ... it's changed me as a musician, or let me just say it's changed me as a music director. First of all, just to understand the fine line between gentleness & encouraging & still delivering excellence with people, because, it is tough. You know this is asking a lot of people & it really was something that I had to sort of grow into of how to achieve this thing & still do it in a way that didn't leave anybody feeling like, you know, like they just got ran over by a Mack truck. As a musician it just gave me a lot more appreciation about what true preparedness is really about. You can think you're ready to go & you can think you know the material backwards & forwards ... but, when you go to a TSO show those guys are executing at a level that's so far beyond what the typical person would think would really be necessary. & to even move into, you know, a portion of what they're capable of is that it takes a lot of effort. I think that helped a lot of us, especially me, grow during this as a player.
ZACH: That's a really good question. Well, for one it's kinda brought Eric & I a little bit closer together. It doesn't sound as weird as it just came out, as I just heard it.
AJ: If you had meant the opposite we'd be in trouble.
ZACH: Yeah, he & I were separated at birth 2 years apart. He & I are so alike in so many ways. It kinda brought us closer together as professionals working together, but also as just musicians who love the same material. & I got to see a little bit more of what a really good director does & looks like. I took a lot of cues from Eric, especially during that first year. When we were in rehearsal one day & it was going really really rough & we had already begun promoting & advertising the event, there was a question based on our rehearsal of should we do this. Eric was like 'We're doing it! We've already put it out there. We've promoted it. We're not backing down now. We're doing it.' That was enough to really light a fire under everybody. One of the other things that I've learned is that there are people out there that ... see, I grew up playing music. I went through a really really good music program in high school & in college. I marched with one of the largest marching bands in the country. All of the programs that I was a part of were really about precision & about getting it down. Working with the other musicians that we've worked with, who may not have had the same type of training, there's only one in our group who has a Bachelor of Music & she's Candy our piano player. She's a phenomenal piano player, but everybody else may not have the same level of training. So, getting them to the point, working with them, to where they could get to the point where they could see 'Wow, we're doing something of this scale & we're doing it well, we're doing it with excellence.' Just seeing the looks on their faces when we got the responses that we did from people of how it went & it was far beyond 'Oh, you guys did a great job tonight.' In the very first production we did people were like, 'If we'd known it was going to be this good we would have called everybody we knew & brought them with us. It was great just to see that & to see that as a musician I was able to be a part of that & I was able to help other people share in that realization, in that 'Wow, we've been given a whole lot & we can do a whole lot with it' was really cool to see.
AJ: Excellent, excellent. In the same vein, I want to ask another question. Because you guys are doing this in the church environment, versus going to some dirty bar or playing in an arena or Madison Square Garden or wherever, you're doing this in a particular environment that has certain ... I don't want to say ramifications, but there's certain things, boundaries & expectations. How has doing this show effected, let's say, your going to church or your work in the church environment? Has it had an impact?
ERIC: A lot of times what happens in church, specifically, is ... you know, music is a big part of what we do & there's a fine line between putting on a performance & having praise music in church.
ERIC: Let's face facts. There are some people from other churches who might see what we've done with this & think 'Wow, you guys are ... that is totally not cool in this environment.' But, honestly, it wasn't a church service. Realistically, our goal as a church is to bring people to hear the Message. I mean, that's what it is. If it takes doing things like this to kinda help facilitate that, then that's great. Not to mention the fact that it was super awesome & fun. It probably was one of the coolest things I've ever done. Aaron, I wanted to tell you, last time you asked me if I'd heard anything from TSO management, if the camp itself had any comments about our tribute. I'd mentioned that [guitarist] Angus Clark had watched a couple of videos. I was talking to him since our interview. As far as I know he's probably the only one. But, what you can see is these guys are just real, just like everybody else. They're doing their thing & they're like completely normal guys about it ... who happen to have the coolest job in the world. For somebody like him to come & take a look at it & say 'Man, that was a great job', I mean, it really means a lot & at the same time it just shows you, I guess, just how wide spread the whole idea of what TRANS-SIBERIAN ORCHESTRA does is. That didn't make a whole lot of sense with the 2 verbs, but you understand what I'm saying.
AJ: I understand. You know I've sat in a bar with a few members having a few beers & talking about their kids or other foolish things. They are just regular guys who just happen to go on stage & perform really loud music around the world. I can vouch for that. Yeah, that is a great thing to have Angus or someone pay attention or give you the thumbs up. It goes a long way.
ERIC: He was instrumental in helping me get a couple particular elements of the show down guitar-wise. As a matter of fact, it's kinda funny, he keeps bringing all these new guitars on the road & I was asking them about what they were. He's got this shop in Arizona building guitars for him, Atomic Guitar Works. So, I'd never had a guitar built for me, so I got ahold of them & basically said, "Look, I'm a huge TRANS-SIBERIAN ORCHESTRA fan, what do you got going on with them?"
AJ: Oh no!
ERIC: It just shows you how small of a world it is. This guy that owns the place just completely down to earth, interested in the same stuff that we are with the whole TSO & how awesome it is. You just find out that really everybody is a huge fan of this whether they want to go public with it the way we have or not. Everybody loves it.
AJ: You see, Zach, that's why you had to do the show. Eric invested in a new guitar. He had to get his money's worth.
ZACH: Oh yeah.
AJ: It's all down to the instruments. You know those guitar players.
ZACH: This is why vocalists have it a little bit easier in some cases.
AJ: No new vocal chords for me this week, I'm fine.
AJ: Guys, we're getting near the end. But, I was wondering if you had any last thoughts or things you wanted to share?
ZACH: We are making plans right now for our Christmas season, our Christmas season production at our church which is EnjoyChurch. You can find that on the web at EnjoyChurch.tv, dot tv not dot com but dot tv. We're going to be doing the TSO tribute again & as Eric mentioned we're going to be adding a few new things into it. This is the type of church building you would come into, the type of church environment where the first thing you say is 'This is a church? It doesn't look like it. It doesn't feel like it.' That's one of the goals behind what we do, is to bring people in. So, we are, if you're going to be anywhere in the St. Louis area during the month of December we highly recommend that you get in touch with us and find out when it is, because we'd love to have you.
AJ: The name itself, EnjoyChurch, that's just the best name you can have for a church.
ERIC: It really is.
AJ: It's like the opposite of what you would expect.
ERIC: That's really our goal. I just want to say, I want to thank the band & the people who came to see the show. Without all of them there wouldn't be a point to doing this. We want them to enjoy it & we hope they did. I'm just really thankful for everything that was involved in this. It's been an amazing experience.
AJ: That's great to hear. I'm going to say I think personally you give TSO a run for the money. Zach, if I was the director of TSO I'd be offering you a job as your vocals are just as good as anyone whose in TSO. Eric, your guitar playing is absolutely top-notch. You've taken the Al Pitrelli & Chris Caffery licks & given them your own feeling. It's a very hard thing to do to copy those guys. Both of your have absolutely soared. Everyone should be watching the video or seeing the show live.
ERIC: Thank you so much for your kind words & talking with us again, Aaron. This has been a great experience. It's just great to see how many people have been touched by this music, by everything that SAVATAGE has done. It's a steamroller. It really is.