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?

TSO West Keyboard Duels 2011 and 2012

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

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Thursday, February 18, 2016

A Conversation with Tim Hockenberry

When Tim Hockenberry opens his mouth to sing, you can usually count on all heads turning in his direction. This singer/songwriter has an astonishingly emotional voice, reminiscent of Ray Charles, Joe Cocker, Louis Armstrong and Tom Waits. Long a staple of the Bay Area music scene, Tim was exposed to wider audiences when he recorded and toured with the Trans-Siberian Orchestra, known particularly for singing their cover of the Savatage power ballad "Believe". After an album and four tours with TSO, Tim connected with Grateful Dead legend Mickey Hart, recording and touring the nation with his brand of freeform, hippie rock. And then in 2012, Hockenberry made a splash on the America's Got Talent television talent show, making it to the semi-finals.  As Tim is about to release his first solo album of all original music, he and I got together to discuss his amazing musical odyssey: his musical background, his love for jazz and the trombone, his time spent with TSO and Hart as well as the wonderful new songwriter's delight that is his new self-titled album.

Dan Roth: Tim, you are known in musical circles not just for your gravelly voice, but also for your keyboard and trombone playing.  Which came first?

Tim Hockenberry: The trombone.  I was born in upstate New York, but I didn't really get into doing anything musically until we moved to Michigan.  My Dad played the trombone - he played in a lot of Dixieland bands - and he threw one in my direction when I was about 12 years old.  I continued wrestling with that until I was about 16 and we moved to Minnesota.  It was then that I decided that I wanted to be an orchestral trombonist and started studying it seriously. I went to the University of Minnesota, going for a classical performance degree but also studying jazz while there. I had a really incredible teacher there who was also the principal trombonist with the Minnesota Orchestra. He got me a couple blind auditions in Detroit and Kansas City. It was there that I discovered just how competitive it was to score a position with a major orchestra - over 500 trombonists auditioning for these positions.

DR:  Wow. That's some great experience though. Did you do anything in the jazz world?

TH:  Actually, yes. Clark Terry, who is a legendary jazz trumpet player, came to my school. I was playing in the jazz band at the time, Clark hired me and a saxophonist from the jazz band and we hit the road, touring the Midwest USA in 1983.  We got on so well that he scheduled a year in Southern Europe and wanted to take us along. It was such an amazing opportunity. I was only 19 years old at this point. I had to quit school to make this happen. Unfortunately, two weeks before I was supposed to leave for Cork, Ireland, Clark Terry came down with a devastating pinched nerve in his spine and had to have back surgery.  When that tour fell through, it really devastated me. This was really my next step to making a living in music and being a professional trombone player.

DR:  That is disappointing, considering what a break it was to be touring with someone as legendary as Clark was.

TH:  Yeah, so I had already quit school and didn't have any housing so I got into the restaurant business, waiting tables to make money. That was kind of eye opening too - that there was a job that actually paid money!  Playing jazz is great but there was not a lot of money in it. [Laughs]  So while I was making a living waiting tables, I started playing in some funk bands in Minneapolis until my brother invited me to come live with him in Virginia.

DR:  Did you continue your musical path there?

TH:  No, I actually wanted to make a living and got into the serious restaurant business, working at this famous restaurant called The Inn at Little Washington for a few years. From there I eventually moved to New York and then New Jersey, waiting tables and pouring beer. My music had just stopped. I basically hadn't been involved in anything musical in about ten years.

DR:  Today, you are a pretty well-known musician in the Bay Area.  How did you wind up there?

TH:  A couple deadheads that I got to know while working in New Jersey wanted to move to California, and they asked me to drive one of their cars out there.  I loaded up my dog - I had a 160 lb. St Bernard Malamute - and all of my musical stuff and moved to California with these guys. I had planned to come back but wound up settling in Sonoma Valley. I got a really hot-shot waiting gig at Auberge du Soleil, which was a very fancy restaurant in the Napa Valley.

DR:  Were you doing anything musically at this point?

TH:  No, but I really wanted to get back into it. I actually went out and bought a trumpet.  I always wanted to learn trumpet, so I started spending some time with that, just to get back into music. I wound up bartending at this Irish bar in Napa Valley and they had really bad live music there. So on Halloween night, I dressed up like Michael Bolton and sang, "When a Man loves a Woman" with a small Casio keyboard.  I had never sang or played keyboard in front of anyone at that point, and I was almost 30 years old. 

DR:  Well considering your voice, that had to have surprised some there.

TH:  Yeah, I got a lot of love from that moment. It was like "Damn! The Bartender can sing!" [Laughs]  The next day the owner of the bar fired me and told me that he would rehire me to sing there instead.  I told him that I only knew like two songs and he told me that I had better learn some more. [Laughs] Then a couple of my regular customers that drank there all the time went out and bought me a full-sized keyboard!

That right there stopped my whole restaurant career in its tracks. I locked myself in a room and learned how to play keyboards and sing at the same time. So now, I had this new singing gig at the Irish bar and I started playing Sundays at this wonderful bakery owned by Alexis Handleman. Alexis didn't pay me, but she did feed me, which was major - I was literally a starving artist at that point. 

One thing led to another and I met a guitarist, formed a duo with him and started getting gigs around town. And from there I got into the society thing in Napa and San Francisco. That led to more gigs around San Francisco and forming a couple different bands. 

DR:  Sounds like a late start, but a start nonetheless, to a promising music career.

TH:  It did.  Except right around then I got married and we had two kids right away. For the next fifteen years or so, I continued to plug away and play the area but I stuck close to home to raise the family. That got me into my 40s.

DR:  I know at this point you had some regional success with a Christmas song, and had a couple independently-released solo albums under your belt.  Were you making a living with music?

TH:  I was scraping by. I performed in various clubs as a solo act, and sometimes with other musicians. I also got some guest spots working with people like Bonnie Raitt and Sammy Hagar when they needed some trombone. But that "Christmas by the Bay" was a song written by Clark Sterling and Nolan Gasser and it was attached to an entire album. The rest of the album was more Broadway style singing but this song wound up going viral on the radio and now every year it gets massive airplay on three big radio stations here.

DR:  Speaking of Christmas music, at what point did you hook up with the Trans-Siberian Orchestra?

TH:  I'm a member of this Bohemian club in San Francisco. It's basically a men's art and music camp that gets together for three weeks every year. I was up there one summer, I was about 46 or so, and I met vocalist Kelly Keeling. Kelly was brought in as a guest and he and I really hit it off.  We did a couple gigs together and he asked me if I had ever heard of the Trans-Siberian Orchestra. I had no idea what he was talking about, but he told me I should check them out. They are not my thing, as I am not into that sort of sanitized metal.

Six months later, he calls me and asks me to email some of my song files to [former TSO Talent Coordinator] Dina Fanai. I asked him what it was for and Kelly says that Paul O'Neil is recording this song called "Believe" and he wants someone that sings just like me. My first response was, "I'm an atheist. Does that matter?" [Laughs] and Kelly says "No, just send the files."
Tim with TSO - 4/21/10 - Detroit, MI
Photo Courtesy James Marvin Phelps

DR:  What did you send Dina?

TH:  I sent one of the songs that I had recorded recently. Paul heard it, got in contact and told me that he was emailing over a file of the backing track to "Believe" and he wanted to hear me sing the song over top of that. I didn't care for the demo that he sent; it sounded like everything was real synthetic and I had trouble singing over it. I sat down with my piano, played and recorded "Believe" and sent that back to him.  He sent a plane to come get me two days later.

DR:  To record the song?

TH:  Yeah. He flew me to Florida and we recorded "Believe". I think we did 140 takes in two weeks. [Laughs] Even after all of that, they went back and used the original recording that I did in my garage for the first half of the song.  That's what made it on to the finished record.  They then combined that with the parts that he liked for the second half of the song that I recorded in Florida.

DR:  I am sure you heard the original Savatage version sung by Jon Oliva before recording your version. Did Paul give you any particular direction when recording?

TH:  He just really let me do what I want, but I had to really honor the melody. I could not jazz it up it all. He really didn't want me to sound like Jon. He really wanted me to sound like myself. Frankly, I always thought Jon sounded like Al Stewart on that song. Paul wanted somebody with this gravelly voice to bulldoze his way through the song. I just followed Paul's lead on that. It was always "More stones, More gravel, More chest, More throat!" [Laughs] It was actually a really difficult studio session for me because this literally went on for 8 hours every day for two weeks.

DR:  So you never had an audition?

TH:  Those two weeks spent in the studio recording that song was my audition.  I never auditioned for anybody.

DR:  This was in 2008. Did you sign on for the tour at that point as well?

TH:  No. I really didn't want to do the tour. Paul paid me well for the recording and I flew back to California. A few weeks later, one of their managers calls and asks me if I will head out on tour with them. He made it sound really good - "You only have to sing one song, maybe some backing vocals, comfortable bus, this much money a week. But you are out for three months." I was like, "Three months? That's all the holidays right there away from my kids." At this point, I had a little girl along with my two boys.  

DR:  Pretty tempting though. TSO was at it's height of touring popularity around this time.

TH:  Yeah. They also kept on promising how they were going to do real radio promotion for the song and use my name and really blow the song and my name up big. Their manager kept assuring me that they were going to do things for me that they had never done for any other artist on the tours. None of that ever happened. All they did was the early morning radio to promote the tour and get people to buy tickets.

DR:  They did run an online video contest for it.  Were you involved with that at all?

TH:  No.  They were very careful not to put my name anywhere but on the very inside of the liner notes of the record. [Laughs]  Trans-Siberian Orchestra is very much like Disneyland. As a performer, you are kind of like Donald Duck. No one knows who you are and they keep you in the shadows. They want 'The Show' to be the star - the lights and the fire.

DR:  Did you enjoy the tours? Their music is much different than what you had been performing up until this point.
Tim with TSO - 12/13/08 - East Rutherford, NJ
Photo courtesy Jean L. Scrocco

TH:  The first year was fun.  I had a blast. Luckily, I had let my hair grow out - they are all about hair - so that definitely helped. I had fallen in love with the violinist they had at the time. We had a real good time, but then I found out that she falls in love with a different person every tour. [Laughs]  But then I did another tour and another tour and I was not getting along well with the guys from Savatage at all. They all really disliked me because I was out there singing a song that was sacred to them.  To them, it was Criss Oliva's song and Jon Oliva was the only one with the license to sing it.  To make matters worse, Paul loved me and my voice and he would always make a big deal about me when he would come to a show. The Savatage guys were kind of resentful towards me.  Plus I didn't fit their idea of a metal rocker, which I clearly wasn't and didn't aspire to be. [Laughs]  They tried to metal me up, but I wasn't really having it. I really don't gravitate to that sort of music.  I'm all about R&B , Soul and Jazz.  But I definitely did what Paul wanted done on the song. I wasn't taking any liberties.

I enjoyed the Beethoven's Last Night tour the most. Bob Kinkel wrote so much amazing music for that album and tour. And the singers - Chloe Lowery just tore it up. And Rob Evan - they were both fantastic.

DR:  Sounds like you at least had a good relationship with Paul. 

TH:  Yeah and Jon Oliva. Paul was always nervous that I would say the wrong thing. We would do live radio, they would have us introduce ourselves and I would say something like "Hi I'm Tim and I'm an alcoholic."  [Laughs]  Everyone would laugh but I hear Paul would cringe when he heard it.

DR:  Besides "Believe", you recorded three other songs for TSO: "Sparks" which was on Nightcastle. "Someday" which wound up coming out later on the Dreams of Fireflies EP and they also had you re-record "Dream Child".  Any special recollections from those sessions?

TH:  I never got "Someday". It seemed like such a dirge to me. It was actually hard for me to do. It was really out of my range. When I sing, it sounds like I have this big low range, but it's not there. I'm a first tenor. Paul wrote that so low for me. I hear Kayla Reeves does a great job with it on tour.

DR:  Why was "Dream Child" re-recorded with you on vocals?

TH:  I asked the same question. The singer on the original (Joe Cerisano) sounds great! Paul gets on these trips of "Lets repackage this and send it back out".  They had me sing it live at a few shows in 2010.  I was very nervous performing it live; it was really difficult to memorize that one.


DR:  Sparks is one of my favorite songs off of their Nightcastle album.

TH:  Sparks was a lot of fun. And that high 'D' on the record - that scream - is Jon Oliva, not me. I could not hit that note. Anything more than a high 'A' and I am done. But Oliva came in and crushed it. He still has it.

DR:  So after those four tours, did you leave on your own?

TH:  It was somewhat mutual, I think. During the last tour I was on, in 2010, things were getting really tense between me and some of the other guys on the tour and it just wasn't enjoyable. I went to Adam Lind, their manager, and expressed my concerns. He convinced me to finish out the tour and told me that we would talk again in the Spring.  I never heard from him again, which was totally fine by me.

DR:  Are you bitter at all with your experience working for them?

TH:  Definitely not bitter. For the most part it was a pretty good time. I did get to experience a major tour and sing in some nice-size arenas and the fans were great. There were just some things along the way that were very disappointing to me, however, and the music itself really isn't in my wheelhouse.

DR:  And from there, you hooked up with Grateful Dead percussionist Mickey Hart?

TH:  Yeah, I helped him finish his album and we toured the US.

DR:  You are all over that Mysterium Tremendum album.  I really enjoyed that.

TH:  It's a cool record! My buddy Ben Yonas produced it. We had a lot of fun putting that together. Then we hit the road and had a blast touring that record. We had a great band. Gawain Mathews joined us on guitar - he is a genius. Eighty-percent of that tour was really fun, Twenty percent was a nightmare. Talk about the opposite of Trans-Siberian Orchestra! No catering ever, the bus slept 12 and we had 14! [Laughs]

DR:  But musically you were much more involved and it seemed to fit you a bit better.

TH:  Yeah, and we had so much fun.  I told Mickey I wanted to play trombone on the tour. He said, "You can play trombone as long as it never sounds like a trombone!" [Laughs] So I bought a pedal rig for it, so every time I picked up my trombone it sounded like a spaceship landing. [Laughs]

DR:  I noticed that you co-wrote about half of the album. With Robert Hunter writing all of the lyrics, where did you fit in?

TH:  We would all get in a room together as a group and threw stuff against the wall and see what stuck. It's the kind of music where you can do that. We weren't a bunch of hired guns to perform Mickey's music - we were a band that collaborated.

DR:  One song that always stands out to me is one that you co-wrote, "Let there be Light". It's only four minutes or so on the album, but you really would stretch it out on tour.

TH:  I really like that one too.  "Cut the Deck" is another that I was very fond of.  I really liked doing that tour for the most part. Mickey's one rule was that there were no rules, so we got to try a lot of different things and nothing ever sounded the same twice.

DR:  Now having recorded and done some nationwide tours with Mickey Hart and TSO, what did you take away from those experiences that help you going forward?

TH:  I learned how to really go on tour; how to live out of a suitcase. I also learned how to preserve my voice. Some of Mickey's concerts would go on for three hours so I learned how to pace myself vocally.

DR:  I would like to switch gears and ask about your appearance and run on America's Got Talent. What led you to going on that show?

TH:  I never thought about going on there, to be honest. I always felt I was too old for something like that. I got a call from Natasha Miller, who is now my manager, and she offered me a VIP slot to audition for the show. I had no interest but my 9-year-old daughter, Lola, told me, "This show is the one that takes old people." [Laughs]. So I told Lola that I would do it if she came with me. We went down to the Bill Graham Auditorium and we were ushered into this room with 12 people sitting there.  They asked me to sing something, so I asked Lola what I should sing. She said sing "You are so Beautiful". I sang that with her sitting by my side. Things just sort of progressed from there. They kept moving me on through the audition process over several weeks. I knew things were getting serious when they started filming me backstage and asking me about my background.

DR:  The running storyline that they kept pushing each week was that you were almost 50 and a recovering alcoholic. No mention of your prior work at all.

TH:  During interviews, I mentioned to them that I had times where I was in rehab and worked through it. The producers told me to continue talking about that and to make that my backstory. At the time, I wasn't drinking, so I went with it.

DR:  As you appeared each week, you certainly had the support of many TSO fans who were actively promoting your appearances. However, there was quite a loud faction of TSO fans on social media that felt you shouldn't have been on there since weren't an amateur and you had already been successful by touring with TSO.

TH:  Successful? Where's my mansion? Where's my big car? Doesn't some sort of financial security come along with being successful? [Laughs] I get where they were coming from though because I have had some success compared to most musicians in the world. Compared to the successful ones though? No. I certainly had not achieved any fame behind my name, but the show wanted to promote this rags to riches story.

DR:  I know you only got 90 seconds for each performance, but did you ever consider singing "Believe" on the show?

TH:  I actually did. It would only be the front half of the song, and not singing the back half would be a little weird to me. Also, I was a little resentful. TSO lured me into their show with all of these promises about how much they were going to promote that song and me as the vocalist. Since they never did their job, why should I turn around and promote their song to 14 million viewers? In retrospect, it might have been smart - there are many TSO fans out there.

DR:  Did you ever tire of the Joe Cocker references?

TH:  I get it - we have similar style voices. But I don't think I sound a thing like Joe Cocker. I knew when I sang "You Are So Beautiful" the kind of comparisons that were coming. Billy Preston wrote that song and sang it first. But as soon as anyone hears someone that remotely sounds like Joe Cocker sing it, those are the only comparisons you hear. They kept bringing it up. That was a struggle to overcome that every week.

DR:  Were you enjoying yourself through the process? You made it to the semi-finals. Were you getting excited about winning?

TH:  I was until I finally read the contract that I had signed. The contract states that if you win, they own you for seven years. You are signed to work for them in Las Vegas, six nights a week, for $1000 a week. They own 75% of all of your publishing retroactively for ten years. I talked to my lawyer about it and he told me that I need to get off the show. [Laughs] At this point I certainly had the competitive spirit and wanted to win, but not at that cost.  So for the next song, I chose John Lennon's "Imagine". The first line is "Imagine there is no heaven", which right there should kill most of the Midwest vote. I knew it would not go over well because of that first line and I wanted to be voted off the show, and that's what we did. I was happy about that.

DR:  That was a great performance though, with Dave Eggar on cello.

TH:  Yeah, we tried a couple different versions. I flew my guitar player out and he was going to play with us as a trio. Then we tried something really stripped down with just me singing to the cello. The producers stepped in and said they wanted me to play the keys also, so I agreed to that. We wound up doing this really minimalist arrangement. I was so nervous - if you listen to the first note that comes out of my mouth, it is out of tune.

DR: You have a new self-titled solo album that is all original material. I know you have had a couple previous albums that consisted mostly of cover tunes. What made you want to release a record of all of your original songs?

TH:  My manager, Natasha Miller, was encouraging me to release a new album and she was pushing me to write some new songs. I was going through a really bad breakup at the time with my girlfriend and I sat down and wrote a couple songs about that. I also had been writing another song about the relationship I had with my ex-wife.  In addition, I had a few songs that I had written while on tour with TSO. I had a couple songs that I wrote with James Lewis but they didn't make the cut for this album. 

DR:  Did you record the album in the Bay Area?

TH:  Yes.  I recorded the whole album with Justin Miller, Natasha's incredibly talented brother. We did the whole album in his apartment.  I was pretty much hands-off. I would come in and play the piano or sing the vocal track and Justin would sculpt the whole thing. He is an amazing musician and I am so impressed with the job he did on this record. He brought in some musicians he knows from Nashville and the Bay Area and it really came together well.

DR:  How is this album different from your previous solo releases?

TH:  Well my first album, Pennies from Heaven, is a straight jazz record. I had hired this great jazz band called The Blue Room Boys that played jazz classics from the '20s and '30s and were fantastic. I sang and added trombone.  We recorded a bunch of classic jazz tunes and t
he whole thing took eight hours from start to finish.

My second record was Mostly Dylan, an album of mostly Bob Dylan's music that I did with Tom Corwin and Bonnie Raitt's band. My favorite track from that record was a song called "My Back Pages", which is a song that I wrote for my son who was being picked on at school.

My next record was Back in Your Arms with George Daly, who was a major record industry executive. It's a long story but we were supposed to be signed to a major label for this one but things wound up falling through.  I recorded it entirely in my basement. George Marinelli from Bonnie Raitt's band came in and played most of the guitar work on there and did a great job. I really liked this album; it was a mix of cover songs that I enjoyed playing and a few originals.

Then my last record was The List, which is all cover tunes. That was sort of a boutique thing, where my friends from the Bohemian club helped fund that.  It didn't have a label behind it; we just released it as a download.  I think my favorite track from that album was the remake I did of Billy Joel's "And So it Goes".

DR:  You mentioned some of your favorite tracks from your previous albums. Do you have a favorite song on the new album?

TH:  I really like "Little Angel". I love what Justin did with that one.

I really like another song on there called "I've Got Nothin (Better To Do)". That song came about from one day I called my manager and asked her if she was busy. She said, "Now Tim, You know I've got nothing better to do than you."  That was such a great line that I went and wrote a song from that.

"This Time By Me" is a song that was on my Back in Your Arms album that I wanted to remake. I was never happy with the way it came out on that album and then a couple years ago my co-writer on that, Tim Johnson, passed away. It's a great song that I wanted to be re-recorded and Justin did a great job on that.

DR:  Tell me about "Carrying You", which really stands out on the album and is a favorite of mine.

TH:  Each year before I would leave for TSO rehearsals, my daughter and I would pack up a bike with sleeping bags, ride up Mt. Tamalpais and we would spend a night in up in these cabins at the top of this mountain.  In 2009, after we spent the night up there, I took her to school and then flew to Omaha for rehearsals. I wrote "Carrying You" while on tour that year with TSO, thinking about carrying her up that mountain. I try to stay away from corny, heartfelt, human-interest songs, but this one just sort of fell out of me while I was on the tour bus. I left right before Halloween and came back right after New Year's.  That was rough as I was thinking of her that tour.

DR:  There are two songs on the album that you co-wrote with your sons. "Me and You", written with Maxx is a great album opener.

TH:  Maxx and I wrote that on Christmas Day 2012. He was having some relationship problems and I suggested we write a song about it. Within an hour, we had finished the song and we put it up on YouTube - just he and I on guitars and Maxx singing it. 

When I went to record it for this album, Maxx originally had sung the second verse. We wound up taking it out though and replacing it with mine. His voice is so remarkably different from mine that it sounds a little out of left field on there. The mandolin on here is played by Gawain Mathews, from Mickey's band.

DR:  I love the line in there "We're just an ordinary version of a complicated situation"

TH: [Laughs] I think that's his line. He is such a brilliant songwriter but he doesn't want to do that for a living. He has more sense than I do. [Laughs]

DR:  "If the Sky Was to Fall" was written with your son Jack?

TH:  Yes. I wanted to call it "Down on You", but got shot down. That could imply something else entirely. [Laughs] Jack wrote about eighty percent of the song. He wrote the lyrics and the melody. I wrote the bridge. That song sort of just fell out of him. He has a pretty cool sense of melody.

DR:  Any plans to tour to promote the record?

TH:  I'm not sure. If something breaks, then yes. Our strategy is that we are going to shop it hard not just to radio but also to Hollywood for movie soundtrack placement. I wrote mostly about relationships on this album - relationships with my daughter, with my girlfriend, with my ex-wife.  There is a lot that could fit into the Hollywood world.

DR:  Thanks for taking the time for this, Tim.

TH:  Thank you!  Enjoy the new album!

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