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Music

The leader of Trans-Siberian Orchestra reveals the magic of big cats

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Tiger uppercut: The shirt that ruined Jay Whitecotton's life.


A year ago I sat at a deli and noticed what quite possibly was the greatest concert shirt ever made. On black cotton was a ferocious white tiger clawing an '80s style metal guitar, with crimson blood pouring out from the instrument's body. In bold Old English letters were the initials "TSO." On the back were many concert dates, but no full band name.

After an extensive and exhausting search (Google), I learned that the shirt represented progressive metal Christmas act, Trans-Siberian Orchestra.

As I sat at that deli staring at that shirt (surely creeping out the guy wearing it), I found myself stuck on a train of thought more macabre than Edgar Allan Poe's worst nightmare. Just what the hell does a white tiger murdering an organic guitar have to do with Christmas?!

I was consumed with this question for months. My nights were ruined with wondering just how many archetypes of '80s metal this band incorporated into their holiday set. I imagined a medieval stage show with an aging Tawny Kitaen dressed in mistletoe, cat-walking across a used Corvette, midgets clad in elfin spandex sweating back to back through teased Aqua Net mullets and exposed chest hair, and Ozzy Osbourne gracefully walking through the nativity scene and biting the head off the baby Jesus.

But with time and research I learned that TSO were more than just progressive hair metal's last-ditch effort to stay relevant. They are quite possibly the last rock band — other than U2 and the Flaming Lips— to actually care about their live show. In 2009, Billboard ranked TSO as one of the Top 25 touring artists of the past decade; if you have seen their live productions, it's not hard to see why. Fifteen hours of preparation before every performance shows just how meticulous they are.

Shows are filled with pyrotechnics, lasers, and synchronized lights, everything timed with a perfectly executed orchestra. Above the symphonic melodies stand such guitar shredding that if it weren't for their Christmas theme would seem to conjure up hell born demons hungry to feast upon the souls of the living (more appropriate for Easter).

I got the chance to interview founder, composer, producer, and lyricist Paul O'Neill, who formed the band in 1996 after years of successful work producing and managing acts like Aerosmith, Humble Pie, AC/DC, Joan Jett, and the Scorpions.

Hello Paul O'Neill. For the past two years I have waited for this moment to interview you. You may not know this, but you have indirectly ruined my life. Now, I've debated many questions in my life -- Plato's discourse on the nature of Justice, Hegel's use of contradiction to explain how identity is developed from differences as the mind externalizes itself through objects either standing outside or opposed to the self -- I have even wasted my time wondering what Bill Murray possibly whispered to Scarlett Johansson at the end of Lost in Translation. (Possibly: "If I don't win the Oscar for this, you gotta bang the guy who does.") But nothing has challenged me more than witnessing your band's T-shirt. Tell me just what in God's name does an angry white tiger clawing out the blood of an electric guitar have to do with fucking Christmas?! Tell me so I may finally know peace and warmth again, you progressive rocking son of a bitch! TELL MEEEEEE!!!

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