Sunday, December 29, 2013

A Conversation with Andrew Ross

Though thousands of fans may know him from his tours around the world with the Trans-Siberian Orchestra in the last seven years, singer and multi-instrumentalist Andrew Ross has been hard at work lately with multiple musical projects. When not touring and recording with TSO, Andrew has been singing lead for his metal band DareDevil Squadron, writing and performing with vocalist Chloe Lowery in their alternative band Chameleon, and working on a forthcoming solo project. I caught up with Andrew while on tour with TSO to discuss all of these musical ventures and much more.

Dan Roth:  I understand you are from Asheville, North Carolina. When I think of North Carolina music, bluegrass and mountain music comes to mind. Can you tell me a little about the music scene there?
Andrew Ross:  I was born in Conway, South Carolina, but when my parents divorced, my mother moved us up to Asheville. My stepfather's parents were into Bluegrass and played banjo, guitar and bass and they would have whole family gatherings, which became musical jam nights. My uncle was in a band called Windsong and they opened for Kenny Rogers on his Australian tour. So, I grew up with all of this musical talent surrounding me from my stepfather's side of the family.

The music scene in Asheville? Bluegrass and mountain music for sure. But there is also a rock scene. [Guitarist] Warren Haynes is from Asheville and he comes back every year and throws this all-star jam at the Orange Peel. It's a really rich and artistic environment up there in the mountains.

DR:  I've seen you play guitar, bass and mandolin. Any other instruments in your repertoire?

AR:  I play a little banjo and I also taught myself how to play the didgeridoo. If you listen closely to the beginning of Chameleon's "Something in the Water", you will hear this droning D ostinato - that's me playing the didgeridoo right there at the top.

DR:  Is that the first time you have played the didgeridoo on a recording?

AR:  No, I have done a lot of recording over the years and none of it has really been released. I used it in a recording for a musical of Where the Wild Things Are that a friend of mine was putting on as well.

DR:  Since you have so much going on musically right now, I would like to dive right in and talk about your various releases. Let's start with the new EP from Chameleon, your band with vocalist Chloe Lowery - The Monster EP. Can you talk about the songwriting process for you guys? Is it a true collaboration between you and Chloe?

AR:  Chloe and I have definitely found our stride in the songwriting process. Our songs usually start off from just her and I sitting in a room - often me with a bass line and Chloe on a piano. Chloe likes to hear the bass line only, not the other notes or chords because those notes will influence what she hears in her head. So we'll get the bass line down first, and she will write the melody to that bass line. Then we will go back and fill in the chords around those bass notes. So typically, what we will do is have a bass line, hit 'record', and then Chloe will start singing in gibberish - some unknown Chloe language - and once in a while it will turn into English and she'll have this brilliant hook. "Put Your Money Where your Mouth is" and "There's a Ghost Living in my Head" came about this way.

So now we have a recording of her singing this melody line over top of the bass line. I will now go in, fill in the verses and lyrics and talk about what the song is about. We usually don't start out saying, "Let's write a song about this or that"; we just start writing the music. How it sounds, the mood of the pieces, and the place we are in all help determine where the song will end up.

DR:  For those that haven't heard Chameleon's music before, how would you describe it?

AR:  I guess I might call it college-rock. There are so many influences in our music - there's a little bit of grunge in there, mixed with pop from Chloe. At its core, its electronic beats meets rock guitar, and now that we have our live drummer in place, we are mixing in the acoustic element to our sound. We're not a technical band - the stuff I am playing on guitar is pretty simple. It's more about creating a mood and an atmosphere for Chloe to really show off what she can do vocally.

DR:  The new EP has sort of a theme here, at least lyrically, with "Ghost in My Head", "Zombie" and "The River". Was it intentional to have all of those on one EP?

AR:  [Laughs] No, we didn't intentionally do that. I guess it was just happening in our minds at the time. When we are singing about Zombies, we aren't singing about actual zombies - we're singing about people under the influence. When we're singing about monsters in "The River", we're singing about evil things that we cannot control in our lives. And with "Ghost in My Head", it's about that devil on your shoulder.

DR:  The Monster EP has six songs and I would like you to comment a little on each one. Let's start with "How the West Was Won", a song that you have been performing since the very first Chameleon concert back in 2011. It also has some really nice, delicate violin work along with some nasty slide guitar work in there.
Chameleon - "How the West was Won"
Live in Concert  April 2013     Arlene's Grocery, NYC

AR:  Yeah, that was one of the first ones we wrote. Chloe and I wrote "How the West Was Won" in Eugene, Oregon. We both have traces of Native American in our bloodlines, and I have always been fascinated with Native American culture, their stories and proverbs in particular. They have proverbs like It's better to have a handful of lightning than a mouthful of thunder or Those who have one foot in the canoe and one foot in the water will always fall in the river. So when I started writing the verses, I tried to write them in this style: If you keep skipping stones, you'll dam that river and flood your home; Let those big rocks go" Basically what I'm saying is leave it alone - kind of like the Beatles' "Let it Be"

So we're in Eugene and I had the guitar tuned to some strange Open D tuning, and just started writing this in that proverb style. When we got back to New York, Dr. Robert put a beat under it, we called up our friend Aurelien Budynek and he added some slide guitar. Violinist Caitlin Moe was in town at this time, and she came over to the studio. We hit record, she just improvised and what you hear is her first take.

DR:  "Stay Wait" is just a powerhouse of a song and really shows off Chloe's range, with it starting off soft and building into something so huge.

AR:  "Stay Wait" is a Chloe song. That is really her baby on this EP. I walked into the studio one day and Chloe was playing the bass line on my Gibson SG and we started adding in some electronic drums - some totally different hip-hop style beat. We set it aside for a while, but we would always come back to it. We realized that the more we did to it, the further away we got from what the song really was. So we stripped it down so it's just Chloe's voice in the beginning and then it just builds and builds and crescendos. We are really happy with how this one came out. So much so that we decided to make this our new music video.

Lyrically, Chloe and I had both come out of major break ups in recent years, and we drew from that. It's kind of a love song, about wanting to fall back in love with someone. I think that's why it is so powerful, because this song really came from the heart.

DR:  "Anthem" was your first single from this EP.

AR:  "Anthem" is our procrastination anthem. "Anthem" is really all about the things that we want to do: "I want to go on a diet, I want to start reading more, I want to write a new song, I want to do this or that". But no one ever does it today - everyone starts it tomorrow. "We'll get with it tomorrow".

DR:  "Zombie" is sort of a fun and quirky song.

AR:  With "Zombie", were touching on the drug culture in America. I find that there are a few different levels of this culture. There are the law-abiding citizens who will go out and get smashed on liquor or beer, but its okay because its within the boundaries of the law, but they're still anesthetizing themselves. Then there is the second level of people who get depressed and start needing Xanax or anti-depressants just to cope with their 9-to5 job. Then the third level is folks who go completely out of the legal system: the clubbers and ravers who are dropping acid just to go out and be a freak at night. We're not advocating or condemning the uses of any of these things, just a commentary on how so many people just want to 'drop out' and escape. It seems like we're hiding from something, thus the "Zombie United States".

DR:  "Robber/Ghost in My Head" is another song that has been in the Chameleon live set for quite a while. For those that have heard you perform this live, they will notice that a recognizable verse is missing from the studio version - the lines where you sing the verse from Black Sabbath's "War Pigs".

AR:  That is completely due to copyright permission. I tracked down the current publisher of "War Pigs" - the company that owns the rights to it. I sent them the lyrics and the song, and described how we would like to use the opening four lines of "War Pigs".  The deciding factor for the publisher was "How many copies are we producing? How many do we thing we are going to sell?"  Basically "How much money will they be making from them granting us permission?" They didn't like my answer - I explained to them that we are still just starting out and we're not going to make them millions of dollars. So that verse was cut from the studio version at the last minute.

We started thinking - do I write a new verse to go in there or leave it blank? We decided to leave it blank, so when verse three comes up and there is nothing there, just imagine Ozzy singing "War Pigs" right there. [Laughs].

DR:  Will it still be in there when you perform it live?

AR:  Oh yeah. We're going to do it up!

DR:  And then the last song on the EP is another in the "monster" theme - "The River".

AR:  This was a song that I had been playing around with on the acoustic guitar, much like "How the West Was Won", and it just came together really fast. The lyrics are kind of dark, dealing with things that we can't foresee and diseases and all of the awful things that can happen to you. It's basically someone speaking to their loved one who doesn't have much time left.

My favorite part of the song is when Aurelien breaks into the guitar solo and Chloe starts hitting those high notes and it becomes sort of a "Great Gig in the Sky" moment. Originally, it was just going to be a break with Chloe riffing like that. Then we tried it with just a guitar solo in there and we couldn't decide which was better. We finally tried putting them both together and it worked so well.

DR:  Chameleon has been performing live now for a couple years, since 2011. There have been numerous line-ups on stage, from three to as many as eight, with various musicians and vocalists adding their talents. Have these dates been about growing and finding your footing as a band?

AR:  Yeah, absolutely. I think what we thought Chameleon was a couple years ago has changed. Originally, it was Me, Chloe, and Rob (Dr. Robert). When we record, we would keep adding on instruments. We just weren't satisfied with the guitar and vocal. We kept adding all of these players to the mix - Aurelien, [violinist] Asha [Mevlana], Justin Surdyn on trumpet, Lena Lien on sax, and Gabe Marshall on drums - they really dug the music too. We have also had some terrific singers contribute backing vocals - Natalya Rose, Jason Wooten and April Berry. They all wanted to play and add their talents because they believe in what we are doing.

At the core, Chameleon is Chloe and I, but it really wouldn't sound the same without the contributions from our friends, so it's their band too.

DR:  I wanted to ask about the Patsy Cline cover that you performed live, "Three Cigarettes in an Ashtray". It was unexpected but still fit in with the Chameleon vibe.

AR:  That's a song I always really loved, and I played it for Chloe and she loved it. We went in and recorded it as well, so there is a recorded studio version of it, but I'm not even going to get into it with copyrights again. [Laughs] This song just seemed to fit her Chloe's voice so well.

DR:  And you now have two music videos. Can you tell me a little about them?

AR:  "Anthem" was the first professional music video that I had ever done. We've done the EPK and some live videos where we cut scenes together, but this was our first big video. We came in contact with Jimmy Negron, who was a film student in New York. He approached us and told us how much he loved our music and that he had a school project to finish for his final thesis. He wanted to make a video for one of our songs for his thesis! He did an awesome job, got an 'A' on his thesis and graduated.

The video was shot on one long 3-day weekend. Luckily, we had good weather, since a lot of it was shot outside. For the outside shots, it was us driving around Queens and Brooklyn, looking for places that looked cool and where no one was around. We were shooting guerilla-style; jumping out of the van, filming a shot, and driving on to the next spot. If you stay too long in one area, you have to get a permit. That was a lot of fun.

The next day, we rented a studio and shot the scenes that you see at the end of the video with Angus [Clark] and the whole band. We had planned to shoot on the roof of the building, but it was over 100 degrees that day and it just didn't work out. And then the third day was when we shot the party scene, which is my personal favorite part of the video. We asked you and some of our other friends to come out to be background actors, and Jimmy found some extras by advertising on Craig's List. I'm really proud of how that came out, it really looks like we are at a bar, having fun.

DR:  And now "Stay Wait" has been released as a music video.

AR:  It's more of a concept video, more plot-driven than the "Anthem" video. We're trying to tell the story of a girl who wants her old boyfriend back. We have a special guest in the video - Chloe's sister Savannah is dancing with a partner, and they are representing the two lovers. Savannah Lowery dances with the New York City Ballet so she was a natural for this.

DR:  Do you have any plans to perform outside of the NYC area?

AR:  Last year we went to Austin during the SXSW festival, we did the Red Gorilla festival. But having all of us piling into a van and going on the road - that's what it's all about. We want to get out there, maybe support a bigger band. A lot of our friends in the band have other jobs and other gigs, so it's not as easy as it may seem to do. We want to be able to financially support our friends so it is worthwhile for all of us to hit the road. For 2014, we have plans to hit more of the tri-state area, with more Pennsylvania and New Jersey in the mix.

DR:  Nice.  Well, in addition to this new release from Chameleon, you have your solo EP about to be released as well. How long has this been in the making?

AR:  The original guitar tracks and scratch vocals were recorded in 2010. I was going through a really difficult time; I was breaking up with a girlfriend of 7 years and was really depressed. Right around that time, I grabbed a mic and started playing and recording some guitar riffs that I had in my head for a while. All the songs on this EP are about girls. The first song on it is about my mother. I was born in Conway, South Carolina and we moved around a bit before settling in Asheville. The first song is called "The Mountain", and I sing about my time in Pawley's Island and moving to Asheville with my new stepdad. The man that I sing about who "shared my middle name" was a friend of my Dad's that lived in Conway whose name is Marion who had a bit of a troubled life.

DR:  I was going to ask if this song was autobiographical, with the mentions of Conway, Pawley's Island, and Asheville.

AR:  The whole EP is autobiographical.

DR:  The next song on the EP is "Ships with Strings"

AR:  I wrote this song while I was in my jam room, which is red  - "The Red Room" - and I was looking at all of my guitars on my wall, and that day they looked like boats or ships up there.

DR:  Ah, Ships with Strings.

AR:  Exactly - "Ships with Strings". The song came about from there and this one touches on Sarah, and our relationship as we are sailing away from each other and drifting apart.

DR:  There is some tasty slide guitar on this track. Is that Aurelien once again?

AR:  Yeah - Aurelien appears on all four songs on this EP. The acoustic guitar and vocals are always me, but everything else is all Aurelien's production. He brings the slide guitar, ebows, delays and everything else.

So the "Ships with Strings" song ends and it segueways into "Sunday" which was basically written when I was depressed - Here I am in this house with nothing to do, my girlfriend is gone, every day is the same. Over the course of the song, I realize that there are other fish in the ocean and by the end of the song it picks up as things start feeling more hopeful.

DR:  Then the EP wraps up with "The Letter".

AR:  This is another autobiographical song about a letter that I wrote to a girl who sent it back and then I wrote her another letter that she couldn't throw away, which is this song. Things didn't work out with this girl, but she was very important to me at the time.

DR:  So why only four songs?

AR:  I thought about adding more, but it really felt complete to me. With this EP, I told my story up until 2010 and anything after that will be another EP.

DR:  All four songs segue really nicely together musically, almost like a suite of music.

AR:  Yeah, that's what I wanted to do from the start. I love albums that do that. Like Side 2 of Abbey Road, how one song flows into the next? I love that. I love the vibe - when I'm listening to a song and I'm in the zone with it, then it's over and there is this big awkward space of dead silence before the next song starts. [Laughs]  When I wrote these songs, I was in sort of a dreamy state and I wanted them to all flow together. I've been doing so much heavy material; with DareDevil Squadron, I'm screaming and Chameleon has a real hard side to it. This is completely different from those, really acoustic and atmospheric. I just wanted to paint a landscape with this collection and not raise my voice ever.

DR:  Yeah, it definitely has a chill vibe about it.  When is the release date for it?

AR:  I am releasing this on my birthday, February 6th, 2014.

DR:  Any further plans to support the release with a video or any live shows?

AR:  You know, Chloe is the one who really got me going with this EP. I was just sitting on these songs and Chloe urged me, saying ,"You have got to release these songs!". Chloe thought I should do a video, but then I started thinking that I should do a video for the entire EP, with all of the transitions. We'll see though.

Andrew Ross & Angus Clark
performing with DareDevil Squadron Oct 2011
DR:  I wanted to ask about DareDevil Squadron as well. You have a new album in the works with them as well?

AR:  We do. This has been a busy year. We got together and decided to make another DareDevil Squadron album and this one will be heavier, more progressive and very melodic. We're going to drop-tune everything down to C-sharp and we will have lots of vocal harmonies all over the place. We kind of found our sound now. Our first record was a mishmash of a lot of different genres of rock, but I think we have honed into something that is uniquely DareDevil Squadron. We already have five songs recorded and will come back after the TSO tour and bang out the rest.

We have made "Chronicles of Sorrow Part 4", which is a continuation of Part 1, which was on the first album.

DR:  "Chronicles of Sorrow Part 1" opens with you playing the mandolin, which is a bit unexpected, but it works. Where did the idea to include mandolin on a prog-metal song come from?

AR:  That came from Angus and I sitting in a room, deciding to write a prog song and wanting to include a different sort of instrument. It was that simple. I brought in my mandolin and our drummer, Jason Gianni came up with that melody line.

DR:  The band did a very popular cover of Mumford & Sons folky hit "Little Lion Man". How did you choose this song to cover? 

AR:  It was Angus' idea. He pointed out how popular the song was and we figured that if we did a cover version of it, people might hear it and discover our band when searching for the song on YouTube. That was fun to put together and came together real fast. We laid down the drums and guitar parts in a day, then everyone came to my studio for me to scream out the vocals. I then left for TSO's spring tour and Aurelien mixed the song and put together the video. A lot of people have been asking us to put it out on our album or as a single, but I don't know if we are going to get the rights for that.

DR:  Chris Altenhoff played bass on the first DareDevil Squadron album, but he wasn't always at your most recent gigs. Is he playing bass on the new record?

AR:  Winston Roye, who is an amazing bass player and is really into the prog side of things, and Pemberton Roach, who has been playing a lot of shows with us, have both been working with us. We're not sure how exactly things will pan out, if both of them or only one will be on the new record.

We loved working with Chris Altenhoff, but he has been taking a step back from the rock and roll lifestyle lately had has been exploring other things in his life. I am sure if we asked him to record this album with us, he would have said, "yes", but we wanted the band that you see live to be the same lineup that made the record and he just isn't in the same place anymore. We talked to him about that and he understood and gave us his blessing.

DR:  Do you have an idea yet of when the new record will be released?

AR:  Not sure exactly, but probably in the spring of 2014.

DR:  With this band, all five of you guys have "call signs". Yours is "Awesome Wolf". Where did that come from?

AR:  When we were forming the band and came up with the DareDevil Squadron band name, Angus wanted us all to have code names, like squadron fighter pilots often do. Everyone came up with theirs, but I had to think on it. Near my house, there used to be an off-track horse racing betting site. A buddy of mine took me in there one day to check out some of the crazy names that the horses have, and one of the horse's names was "Awesome Wolf". So, it's silly, but I stole my name from a racing horse. [Laughs]

DR:  You have been touring with Trans-Siberian Orchestra since 2007, for many years singing "Angel Came Down" and "Angel Returns". How did you hook on with them?

Andrew Ross with TSO
Moline, IL   2007-8 tour
Photo Courtesy Brian Reichow

AR:  Dina Fanai heard me singing in Jesus Christ Superstar. I was doing a lot of rock musicals back then - Godspell, Hair, Superstar - musicals with an edge to them. But with TSO, Guy LeMonnier was out, they needed someone to fill his shoes and Dina had me come down for auditions. I wound up singing "Angel Came Down" and "Angel Returns". about fifteen different times for Paul O'Neill. Dina would meet with me during this process, giving me tips and feedback. I also used to wear my hair in a ponytail back then, and Dina was like, "Take that ponytail out." [Laughs]. Finally, one day, Dina leaned over to Paul and whispered something in his ear - I don't know what she said, but he looked at me and said, "Andrew, you're in. Call your mom; you're joining the West Coast band.". And that's what I did - We were very familiar with TSO and their "Sarajevo 12/24" song, so I called my mom right away and it was so cool to tell her I was in the band now that does that song!

DR:  You mentioned Guy LeMonnier, the singer who you were now replacing. Guy was one of TSO's original touring vocalists and had proved to be a real fan-favorite over the many years that he toured. Was it challenging stepping into a role that he was so well known for?

AR:  There was an amazing amount of pressure taking over for him. He was THE Guy; he was THE Angel. He and I couldn't have looked physically any different, and our voices are different too; he is a little more operatic than I am. It was a big change; Paul definitely wasn't trying to get someone to do a Guy impression.  I did feel some resentment early on from some of the guys in the band, after all Guy was such a good friend to many of them and was a part of their touring lives for many years. But they eventually opened their arms to me - even Tony Gaynor said something to the effect of, "I didn't want to like you - Guy was my friend - but I couldn't help it.".

That first year was the worst. I was petrified on stage. Here I was taking over for this really popular dude, and a lot of fans didn't know he was gone. And here I come out singing "his" songs. But by my second year of touring, a lot of fans started remembering me and I started getting fan mail and finally got really accepted. Including the Spring tours we did, this is now my tenth TSO tour and I am starting to feel like one of the old faces around here.

DR:  When preparing for going out on your first tour, did you listen at all to Guy LeMonnier's performances of those songs?

AR:  I never listened to Guy. Dina didn't want me listening to him so that I wouldn't be influenced at all by the person who I was taking over for. I listened to the studio version and I listened to a lot of Peter Shaw, who was singing those songs for the East Coast touring group. I have since heard Guy's performance of the Angel songs, and they were great, but it's different than how I do it.

The funny thing is, Guy and I met at Disney World a few years ago. He is the coolest, nicest guy. He came to the show and was real supportive. He could have hated or resented me, but I always thought that was really cool and gracious of him. 

DR:  You mentioned the Spring tours. With those tours, you were tasked with singing a couple Savatage songs - "Handful of Rain" and "Chance". Were you familiar with these songs beforehand? And did you enjoy singing these?

AR:  Oh yeah. I had some Savatage records when I was a kid. I went through this phase of getting into a lot of metal, particularly stuff that was played very technical, fast and melodic. I came from the Bluegrass scene, which, if you think about it, is also very technical and fast. So, Savatage was already on my radar.

You know, I had been singing "Angel Came Down" for so many years, and that is only one side of my voice. I was real excited to have the opportunity to show my higher, screaming register. Those two songs really gave me the opportunity to open up and yell, more so than the Angel songs. Those are just great songs as well. "Chance" is my all-time favorite song that I have done with TSO. I am a die-hard prog fan; if there are time signature and key changes, sign me up! 

The 2011 Beethoven's Last Night tour, where I first got to sing those songs, was my favorite TSO tour so far. It was so fun. When we got to Europe, the crowd there just exploded when they heard the opening riff of "Chance". Especially in Germany - Savatage is like Metallica over there - the fans were singing all the English, along with me!  I was just thinking, "I hope they like me!" [Laughs]

DR:  Was that song challenging to you as a vocalist?

AR:  It was. I had some frustrating moments in rehearsals - there was one part of the song that I just couldn't get to flow out of my mouth [sings "I believe in nothing, never really had to, In regards to your life, Rumors that are not true]. I just had a mental block on that one section, trying to get that out. It was challenging to spit those lyrics out in that strange melody that [Savatage vocalist] Zak [Stevens] did.

DR:  Have you met Zak Stevens?

AR:  No, I want to though. Zak came to one of the shows in Florida and sent me a message through Jeff Plate and Jeff said, "Zak said to tell you that you did a great job with the song and he was proud of you." That just meant the world to me. Once again, here I am singing someone else's song.- that was Zak on the record, that was Zak who toured with Savatage for years and laid down that foundation over in Europe. To hear that feedback from him, it really made me feel justified for singing the song.

These things go through my mind. Even when I sang the Twist songs in the Beethoven tours, taking over for Jay Pierce. The poor guy - he couldn't sing anymore. He had his voice taken from him! Jay is the sweetest, nicest guy. He never drank, never smoked. He did such an amazing job with the role of Twist on that first Beethoven tour, and here I was trying to fill that role too. That's three times now with TSO that I am stepping in for an established singer and role.

DR:  You certainly made the role of Twist your own on those next two tours though. Was that tough, since those performances involved getting a little more into the part?

AR:  Jay taught me a lot about Twist, but I stepped in and gave it my own "twist" [Laughs], my own interpretation. It was a lot of fun. I am an actor, and have done this before. Paul's direction of "Get up in his face! But don't be malicious, be mischievous." [Laughs] He would tell me to think about punks from my childhood that would egg you on. I love working with Paul and his off-the-wall imagery that he gives us to help nail the part the way he wants.

DR: It looked like you were having a blast on stage, interacting with Rob Evan.

AR:  Rob is such a character. [Laughs] He is such a nice guy. Every night on that tour, I would whisper something crazy in his ear, just to try and break him. Off stage, He always would say, "Andrew, I'm going to kill you!" [Laughs], but he would not break character. I managed to make his lip quiver a couple times, but we really had some fun up there. He is so tall; I had to stand on my tiptoes to get up to his ear.

DR:  On this current tour, you are singing "Lost Christmas Eve". How does that compare to the other songs you have sung for TSO?

AR:  It's a real wordy song; there are just a lot of lyrics. I remember Opening Night of the 2012 tour, I walked on stage and looked at April [Berry] and asked, "What's my first line?!" [Laughs] Sometimes with all of the lasers, lights, fire and snow happening around us and thousands of people looking at you, the last thing you think of is, "What's the words?". We rehearse so much, it becomes engrained and you let your muscle memory go.

DR:  As far as studio recording with TSO goes, you are listed as "Backing vocals" on the Night Castle album. Which song or songs are you on?

AR:  [sings Here, Believe, A Night Enchanted, Seen]

DR:  "Night Enchanted"

AR:  Yeah. I did the bass line, the baritone, and the tenor line, and then I doubled all of them. There are so many vocals on that song. If you really sit down and listen closely, you can pick out who's who. I did about three different sessions for that song. They brought all the guys in for and Tommy [Farese], Tony [Gaynor], Scout, Kelly Keeling, James many of us. They had us all in this tiny room with a mic in front of us and we sang that song over and over and over. I was then flown back down with Steve Broderick and we added more layers to it.

DR:  Can you say if you are on any of the new TSO albums that are currently being worked on?

AR:  Yeah, I have done some recording. You can expect to hear a little more Andrew on the newer stuff.

DR:  What do you like and dislike about touring with TSO?

AR:  I love the people, and I have friends all over the country now. I have met a lot of people that have really touched my life. There is a girl named Shan Hunter, who lives in Georgia, who has started an Andrew Ross Fan Club, and we talk online every few days. I get to hear a lot of stories from people about how TSO has changed their life. Getting out there and having a real relationship with these fans - that's the best thing.

Least favorite thing would be that I am away for the holidays every year. I'm away for Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas and even New Year's Eve sometimes. It's tough, but I wouldn't give it up. These people I tour with are like family though, and we have Christmas dinner together.
Andrew Ross with TSO, 2010 Tour
Photo Courtesy of Kelly Michals

DR:  You have now toured with three different TSO stories. Do you have a favorite?

ARChristmas Eve and Other Stories is my favorite story. The whole story is so beautiful. The Lost Christmas Eve is a little darker and hits closer to home, as my sister has had trouble with pregnancies. Beethoven's Last Night was just fun because of the historical value and getting to play the part of Twist.

DR:  Do you ever have the opportunity to work with TSO co-creator Jon Oliva?

AR: Jon Oliva is such a big part of the process of getting us together on stage. He runs the vocal rehearsals; he's an acting coach, a vocal coach. In rehearsals, he is like a cheerleader - We'll be singing a song and we'll see his hands come up doing these mystical waves; He's like our TSO shaman. [Laughs] He is really big into how we say the words and what point we are bringing across when performing. He really helps me; I wish he were out there at every show. [Laughs]

DR:  I wanted to ask about the guitarist that you work with a lot, Aurelien Budynek. Many know him from the proggy jamband Stratospheerius or his work on Broadway musicals, but he works with you in DareDevil Squadron, Chameleon, and your new solo material. Can you tell me a little about Aurelien and why he is involved in so much of what you do?

AR:  Aurelien is a great friend. He is hands-down, one of the greatest guitar players I can think of. He knows music inside and out - he transcribes music for the Hal Leonard-published tab music books. He has put together the books from everyone from Foreigner to Pearl Jam to Cannibal Corpse. When we were putting together DareDevil Squadron, both Angus and I knew Aurelien and thought he would be perfect for the band.  When it came to my solo work, I was just sitting on these acoustic tapes and Aurelien asked if he could take it and work on it - what he sent me back just blew my mind. He added these ebow parts and slide guitar parts that really moved it to a new level.  When we started working on Chameleon, he would hear what we were doing and ask to add various things, and it would come out brilliant. When we started expanding the Chameleon lineup for live shows, he was a natural to have with us to add in guitar and bass parts; he's basically a full-fledged member now.

DR:  To wrap things up today, I would like to ask about your involvement with Music for Autism.

AR:  Music for Autism is a great non-profit organization that will come to communities and bring together families that have children living with autism. A lot of people don't understand what autism is, so often parents are hesitant to bring their autistic child to an event where everyone is expected to applaud or be quiet at certain times. So we create an environment where they can do whatever they want to do while we are performing for them. We play acoustic instruments and we do everything from Katy Perry to Hank Williams Sr.- just fun songs that kids like. Music really connects with people with autism - it really breaks through to them.

I got started with this through Jarrod Emick. He is a Tony Award winner who was doing a Bluegrass show for Music for Autism and he asked Jason Wooten if he knew anyone that could play the mandolin and we got together and put on a country set that the kids really loved. I found doing this really fulfilling, so I talked with the organization and asked to put on more shows. I have done these concerts now with Jason Wooten, April Berry, and Chloe Lowery. The shows are very interactive; they can come up on stage with us, dance around, whatever the music makes them feel like doing.

DR:  Very nice. Well, thanks for taking the time today.

AR:  Been my pleasure.

For more information:

Andrew Ross Official Site:

Andrew Ross Fan Page:


DareDevil Squadron:

Trans-Siberian Orchestra:

Music for Autism:

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

A Conversation with Tony Gaynor

Millions of fans know Tony Gaynor as the original, founding narrator with the Trans-Siberian Orchestra. After their initial tour in 1999, Tony fronted TSO's West Coast touring company for the next decade, warmly telling the tale of Christmas Eve and Other Stories.  For the last couple of years, Tony has continued working with his close friends from TSO, writing and recording their own songs in their new group The Kings of Christmas. I caught up with Tony as he and The Kings were preparing to tour this year with the Wizards of Winter.
Dan Roth:  Before we get into your work the Trans-Siberian Orchestra and The Kings of Christmas, I wanted to ask a bit about your background.

Tony Gaynor:  My first exposure and interest in entertainment was when I was in military school. I grew up on the streets of Brooklyn - Bed-Stuy. My mother didn't have much confidence in the public school system, especially in those neighborhoods. So many in our neighborhoods eventually ended up in jail, on drugs or dead. My mother came to me one day and told me that she was sending me to the New York Military Academy upstate. I started there in the Fifth Grade, and it turns out that for all of the protest that I put up about going, she couldn't get me to come home on the weekends; that's how much I enjoyed it. I was going to school with diplomats and ambassadors and learning to ride horses.
DR:  That couldn't have been more different from the streets of Brooklyn.
TG:  Very different. From playing skelly or stickball in the park in the projects. [Laughs] Here I was playing lacrosse, was on the swim team, even became the quarterback of the football team. One year we were putting on the play Treasure Island and I was cast as Captain Smollett. We put on the play and I had a lot of parents complimenting me and asking if I had ever done this before. This was really my first time acting.
For my senior year, I came back to New York and went to the High School of Fashion Industries. I had this one substitute teacher who also moonlighted as an actor. He had us work on this exercise of going on a job interview, he gave me the role of the hiring employer, and I was to work with this other girl in the class who was playing the applicant. After class, this teacher took me aside and complimented me on how I really took control of the scene and was very believable as this employer. He asked me if I had ever thought about pursuing a career in acting. I don't recall his name - but this substitute teacher was the one who really encouraged me and got me thinking about this seriously.
I started doing a lot of Black Theater around New York City. I worked in the Negro Ensemble Company, which is where I first met Samuel L Jackson. I grew up in the Baptist church, singing in the choir. My mother had me doing poems for stadiums of people. I still remember one from when I was 8 or 9 years old, standing up on the podium:

"Here I stand, Books in my hand
Today's black child, Tomorrow's strong man
The hope of my race is to mold the place, in Amercia's magic land
American am I, None can deny
He who oppresses me, He who I defy"

I was doing a lot of regional and off-off-Broadway plays. Eventually, wanting to work on developing my craft, I enrolled in the American Academy of Dramatic Arts where I studied acting, speech, and movement.
DR: What were some of your first professional roles? Did you get involved in voice over work at all?

TG:  I think my first job was actually a voice over spot for the Donahue show. I did a lot of voice over and commercial work as well as regional theater.
DR:  You had a role on As the World Turns as well?

TG:  Yeah, I was a day player on there. I came in for in extra role and ended up doing this character called Mad Dog. I never got to star in the show, but it was a nice little role.
DR:  But you did star in the musical Another Chance.
TG:  I joined the cast in a leading role when the show was running at the Crossroads Theater in New Brunswick, NJ; my character was named 'Ace'. The show was about three young black guys that had grown up together and were up to no good .One of the guys, played by my good friend Neko, meets up with the daughter of a pastor and turns his life around to get with her.  It's based on true story from the playwright.
DR:  Were you making a living as an actor by this point, or did you still have a survival gig?
TG: I didn't do the usual bartending or waiter job that a lot of actors will do while auditioning. I got a real good job driving - I got my Class 1 license and this is what I did at night. I really liked this job and driving eventually became my backup - when things were slow in the entertainment business, I could jump in a truck and still support myself. I left this for a time though, in 1997 when Neko and I went to Los Angeles to look for acting work out there. 

L.A. turned out to be not as grand and not as rewarding as I had hoped. We struggled out there. I got a quick lesson in how things worked out there, especially when it came to acting. So often I would walk out of an audition feeling as if I had really done well, only to find that the role went to the cousin of the Director. Also, at that time, because of California's laws, I couldn't use my Commercial license to get a job driving out there; I would have had to have one of their licenses. So I got other jobs, but it was a real struggle. It got to the point that I was homeless, living in my car behind a Rite Aid in Hollywood. Things improved a little bit, but Neko and I eventually managed to get an apartment in North Hollywood, but we had no furniture, no TV, no radio. It was bad, but we knew that we were paying our dues, pursuing our dreams.
DR:  It really makes you value the roof over your head.
TG:  It makes you value a lot of things. That's really where I learned to be humble and have faith. For the times that we starved and struggled out there, when I needed help, He stepped in and provided somehow. It was rough, but we didn't go without. But this experience did make me want to start looking into writing or working on my own material, working behind the scenes.
It got to the point that I became a target of a gang. There was a guy who didn't know me but made two attempts on my life. I would be working on my car outside and would see this guy watching and following me, while wearing a goose down coat in the middle of an 80-degree day. I knew something wasn't right and I later found out that he was someone who was joining a gang, and the initiation was to murder someone he didn't know. That someone was me; I started having to park my car at another end of the complex and taking different routes back to my apartment as this guy was targeting me.  After a while, Neko and I were preparing to move back to New York. One day I went out to get an oil change so we could drive back cross-country. I came out of the apartment and started walking up the block to where I had parked the car and I get this feeling, I turn around and the guy is running up behind some bushes holding "something". I jumped in the car, took off and called Neko - I told him to pack up the rest of our stuff. When I got back from the oil change, he threw our stuff in the car and then I kept on driving. I drove about 48 hours straight, stopping only for gas. When we reached New York, I kissed the ground.
Once I got back to New York, I got an audition for the TV special for Trans-Siberian Orchestra. I came in to do that movie in this old theater in New Jersey and that's where I met Tommy, Al, and the rest of the group. That was the beginning of TSO.
Photo Courtesy of Brian Reichow
DR:  So you auditioned to perform on the special, not to be the tour narrator? 
TG:  Exactly. My audition song was "Music Box Blues" and Paul [O'Neill] told me that I had beaten out 3,000 others. Singing was never my main thing - I always just wanted to perform and be an actor. I came in to perform for the special and did it in one take. Paul had us do two more takes for close-ups and that was it. I was done.
DR:  How was filming that television special different from work that you had done before?
TG:  You know, it was quick for me because we knocked my part out. But once I saw it being broadcast on TV, I felt really proud.
After that, I was asked to go on tour. Paul told me that he got a lot of good comments about my performance and he was impressed how I knocked it out on the first take and he said that he felt that I had a strong stage presence and a real command of the stage. He said that was when he got the idea of having a storyteller during the show. So he called me in and had me read the story in David Krebs' office. I was still hesitant because I wasn't sure what we were getting into - I wanted to be an actor. I didn't know about going on tour with this longhaired rock band. [Laughs]
Paul called me down to the studio and convinced me to take the job. He told me that he understood that this wasn't my goal or what I wanted to do, but he said, "This will be something that your kids will be proud of; This will be a real family tradition." That's when he sold me. When he said those words to me, I really thought about it.
I knew early on that I wanted to do a body of work that was positive, especially having a young daughter at that time. I didn't want to play anything derogatory; playing a pimp or a pusher or something like that. I turned down a role (of Collins) in the Broadway run of Rent because I didn't feel true to myself portraying that kind of character night after night; I had that moral ground that I didn't want to step over.
DR:  But what Paul was offering you was a role that fit you?
TG:  When Paul told me that "This will be something that your kids will be proud of; This will be a real family tradition.", I bought into it hook, line and sinker. I believed in the message and I believed in the vision. I really thought it was something that had that potential.
Photo Courtesy of Brian Reichow
DR:  So that first TSO tour went out in 1999 and the talent assembled on stage was a real melting pot, as there were singers and musicians from the musical theater world, from the rock and metal scene, and even from an R&B background. How did you fit in with this collection of performers?

TG:  I didn't know what to expect with going out on this tour bus. Guy [LeMonnier] didn't either, as he came from the musical theater background. Tommy and Al knew what to expect, as did some others. But we all gelled right away. A lot of us had bonded during the filming of Ghosts of Christmas Eve. Tommy was the funniest character I had ever met. But everybody got along well....[Chris] Caffery, Daryl [Pediford]...  I think us getting to know each other for the movie made the difference.
DR:  Did you get a lot of direction early on in regards to how to deliver the story?

TG:  Taro Meyer and Paul worked with me a lot early on with how they wanted it presented and delivered. But after that first year, I would change things up and add in my own take on it, but still keeping it with how Taro and Paul wanted it.
DR:  So you had some freedom to add your own creative input back then?

TG:  Yeah. It was pretty much, "Guys, go out there and do your thing. Sell it, Let's build it". I really didn't get too much flack  - occasionally Taro would pull me aside if she thought something wasn't working, but they pretty much left us to our own devices to sell the show.
DR:  How long did it typically take you to learn the script?

TG:  About a day and half to learn it and have it down off-book. I always had a pretty good memory; you see how I threw out that poem from when I was 8 years old! [Laughs]
DR:  In the one section of the narration: "Like Belfast and Burundi, Rwanda, Palestine; The only decorations here had been awarded for their crimes", the city of Darfur was eventually added during the 2007 tour. Can you comment on that change?
TG:  That was Paul's idea. He told me about it right before a show one night. He told me that when I do that line, to put Darfur in there. He said, "There's a lot of things going on there right now and it's relevant." And it stayed in there from then on.
DR:  In my interview with vocalist Michael Lanning, he mentioned that he was called upon to fill in for you for one show on the 2002 tour. Was that the only show you had missed during your tenure with them?

TG:  It was the only one show I had ever missed. I will never forget - I woke up that morning and got a phone call; my mother told me that my grandfather had died. When the office heard about it, they insisted that I skip the show and go to the funeral. So I did the show that night, and then flew home, attended the funeral, and flew back the next day so I could make the next show.
DR:  After so many years of performing the same role and the same show, did you ever start feeling stuck or bored?  What kept you coming back year after year? 
Photo Courtesy of Brian Reichow

TG:  Yeah, the script was the same, but really, every show was different. I was having a ball on stage. For instance, Jane [Mangini] and I had our own private jokes going on up there. It really became so much like a real family that it didn't feel like work. Towards the end of my time, it started becoming more routine, more like work. But on the first few tours, we were having the times of our lives. Also, so much of the audience became like an extended family. Hearing from them about how they were looking forward to us coming back the next year was very motivating.

In those early years, when nobody really knew who we were, Tommy and I would go out on excursions; we would go to some filthy rich neighborhoods with these million dollar homes and we would go in there like we were shopping for a house. [Laughs] We would go to places when we were out in the West and Midwest and no one know who we were, but they knew we weren't from around there - Long-haired Italian guy and a black guy with a Brooklyn accent [Laughs]. We would get into conversations with people who would ask what we were doing there and tell them all about the Trans-Siberian Orchestra. We would take their names and go call the office. "Are we sold out tonight? No? Well can we get 4 tickets or 6 tickets for these folks we met?" The office would shoot back "No, we can't give away tickets". We would then ask, "Would you rather have empty seats or fill them?"  We would eventually get our hands on the tickets and get them to these people we were meeting. And at the end of the shows, there were these people in the signing line with armfuls of merch. They would thank us for the tickets and then we would see those same people the next year with 6, 8, 10 other people that they were bringing to the show, and they were all buying merch. This kind of word of mouth is what helped us grow.
And the whole thing of saluting the military during the show came from us as well. Michael Lanning started to notice the military who would come through the signing line. He would tap us on the shoulder and say, "Hey, there are a lot of folks from the military here; we should thank them" and Tommy would direct us to stand up and really thank them not only for coming, but for their service. Paul eventually took notice of what we were doing and so the TSO military tribute began.
DR:  That West Coast touring cast - particularly the performers involved in the first five or six years of touring - really became known for their chemistry and rapport with each other. As the narrator, did you get in on that?

TG:  Absolutely. A lot of people think that The Kings of Christmas came about because we parted ways with TSO and we wanted to compete or get back at them. Honest to God, that is not the way it came about. On those long drives as we traveled all over the West and Midwest, we really bonded and respected each other as performers and as people.
Around 2004, Tommy and I started talking about coming up with something that we could do where we could work together year 'round. Since TSO was only doing Christmas, we were looking for ways that we could work and perform together the rest of the year. I actually wrote a television pilot that involved a few of us. I also wrote a musical play that involved all of us. In 2006, when Maxx Mann came back and Guy was still with us, we bought cameras and started filming and recording stuff that we would work on together while on the bus. We were looking for an outlet to work together because we all enjoyed it so much. That's where the birth of the idea for The Kings of Christmas really came from. We would sit up for hours on the bus and sing old songs and we were really looking for an avenue to work together.
It just so happened that we finally acted on it when we had all been let go by TSO. We were known for Christmas, we were attached to so many families' lives around Christmas. We thought, "Why would we need TSO to get together and perform?  Why not do a Christmas album and do what we are known for?"  And this won't be the only thing we are working on. There are a lot of things that we have talked about that you'll be hearing about in the near future that doesn't involve Christmas.
Photo Courtesy of Brian Reichow
DR:  Your delivery style - the way you presented the story - was very different from how Bryan Hicks delivered it with the East Cast touring company. Was there ever a discussion to alter your style to come closer to how it was being done in the East?

TG:  The year that I was let go. After all those years it was brought up to change my style to do more of what he was doing. What Paul wanted me to start working on was a style of speaking that is called "Standard Stage", which is similar to what Bryan does. After the 2009 tour, Paul signed me up for speech lessons with a coach in New York. Even after going for those lessons, I found out before the 2010 tour that I was let go anyway.
My take on it is that when you are telling a story, you are engaging people; you don't want to deliver it in such a manner where you are projecting at them. Bryan just has a different style. Just because it is theater, doesn't mean that you have to speak as loud as you can, especially when you are mic'd like that. You let the soundman do his job. The way I perceive it is that when you are telling a story, you don't project it to the back of the room. [in Tony's storytelling voice] "Hello kids, would you like to hear a story?". You invite them in and make it intimate for them. Over the years, I think that's what a lot of fans did like what I did with it. On the parts that needed to be a little more softer and intimate, I made it that way. On the parts where I was really bringing home a message, I took it there. I never kept it here on this monotone level, I took it everywhere. You're trying to engage them and have them hanging on every word. If you do it more intimately, the fans will lean in and really pay attention.
"An Angel Came Down" - Live in Concert 2006
Tony Gaynor - Narration,  Guy LeMonnier - Vocals
[Original TSO East narrator] Tim Cain had that stronger, deeper delivery. He had that Darth Vader presence [Laughs]. That was his take on it. Not mine. And then Bryan came along and he had his take on it.
DR:  After 11 years of you delivering the narration in this style, were you surprised that they wanted you to change?
TG:  I was surprised. I sacrificed and helped build TSO to what it is today. The way I did the narration worked and it sold. We doubled, tripled and quadrupled the audience while I was narrating his story that way. I was surprised that now, after all of those years, he was not happy with it. I was not surprised about being let go though.
DR:  No?
TG:  No. We had seen what was happening with the singers, being let go one by one. Tommy and I started this and were there from the very beginning and we watched as our friends and performers that built this were being let go. He and I always thought he was going to be let go before me. It just so happened that it turned out the other way around.

Photo Courtesy of Charlie Gow
DR:  I have had the pleasure of interviewing some of the popular performers that helped build TSO. Michael, Tommy and now yourself. All of you, and others as well, were let go at some point, and the feelings and sentiments expressed afterward about how TSO handled things have not painted a rosy picture. I can certainly understand the fans being disappointed, as you guys were the foundation and some of the most popular performers they had. But a devil's advocate might say, "That's just show business". Can you comment on that?

TG:  Like I
mentioned earlier, I never wanted to go this direction. I wanted to be an actor, do film and television. What sold me was that conversation I had with Paul down at SIR studio. He was convincing me to do this, and I had no intention of doing it.  But when he told me about things like, "If we do this right, this will be a family tradition. This will be a job for life. Your family will be proud of you.". I bought it. I believed in the message and what he said to me. So after all the years of doing it and sacrificing, yeah - absolutely that's show business. I have no problem with being let go or telling me that they want to go in a new direction. But that's simply not what happened.
I can honestly say that I do not regret my time with TSO. I do believe that I probably did stay too long. I believe now that after parting ways with them, that they actually did me a favor. You had asked me if it ever became routine or boring. No it didn't. But - I now realize that I became lazy. I grew accustomed to having the big show at the end of the year. It paid well - not as much as promised, not as much as the agreement in the beginning - but I did all right. But I became complacent. I stopped auditioning. I stopped being that guy living in his car in Hollywood, going for every audition. I stopped being that guy. I didn't realize that until I parted ways with them. It made me wake up and say: maybe this should have happened years ago. Honestly, in my heart, I believe that they did me a favor that they don't even realize. I have no ill feelings about being let go - that is show biz. Part of being in show business is always trying to reach the next level. Being with TSO, I wasn't reaching the next level. Maybe the show and the lights were reaching the next level, going to the next plateau. But me as an artist, I wasn't. That's never going to happen to me again in this lifetime. That situation has jolted new life and a new hunger in this business for me. Again, I say "Thank You"!
Photo Courtesy of Brian Reichow
There are two things that did bother me though. The first was the manner in which I was let go. I just felt that an excuse didn't have to be made up and I didn't have to be tested to see if I would take the time and do these classes. If I had said "No", they would have said "sorry, we can't use you next year". But I did take the time - I actually lost my trucking business doing it because I couldn't do both and I had to give up a lot of my contracts. After putting in all that time and making the sacrifices and always being willing to go the extra mile for the organization, the least they could have done was tell me. They could have picked up the phone and told me, or invited me to dinner or down to the office and just told me.
DR:  In my interview with Tommy Farese, he mentioned that he wound up breaking the news to you, without him realizing that he was doing so. Is that how you found out?
TG:  Yeah. I never should have heard it from Tommy. After all of those years - my kid grew up without me there for the holidays. I bought my home and I never had a Christmas in my own house. I never woke up to a Christmas morning in my home until the year that I was let go. After all of those years, I was owed a little more respect.
The second thing that bothered me was discovering the true faces of some of the so-called friends and fans. During the whole building of TSO, Myself, Tommy, Michael, Guy and many of us would go the extra mile with the fans, in particular the "d group" (ed. note - an online discussion site for some TSO fans). We really gave a lot of ourselves to these people. We would be out there with the autographs, pictures, hugs, chatting, talking with these fans, meeting some for lunch or dinner, while the office wasn't on board with all that. There were a lot of times in the beginning that the office wanted nothing to do with the "d group", in particular certain members of this group. TSO had a business to run - for them it was about the bottom line: time and money. We were the ones who really spoke up for the fan group, as we saw that they helped sell tickets and they maintained a presence on the internet for us (ed. note - this was before TSO launched their own online fan site).
To hear some of the hurtful things that these folks said after the fact, and about us forming The Kings of Christmas - there are some people who should just be ashamed of themselves. I've forgiven them; it is what it is. But they know who they are.
There was no reason to take sides. There is enough stuff in this world that people should really be worried and focusing about; this is trivial. When you leave your job, are you going to try and find or create another job in that same field? Or are just going to go work at McDonald's? Why would you begrudge anyone from doing what they love, what they are known to do, and what they are good at?
DR:  Bryan Hicks got the Beethoven's Last Night narrating gig, both live and studio. Were you ever in discussions to be involved in that?

Photo Courtesy of Brian Reichow

TG:  From the very beginning. That was the whole premise. We loved what we did and loved working with each other every year, but that was supposed to the plan from the beginning. Again, all that talk that we bought into, "were going to do all of this together, were going to be doing this and that, when it all comes together it will be you guys". I was supposed to be doing Beethoven 13 years ago. But when it finally came about, you know what happened. That carrot was always being dangled. There were supposed to be films and other projects promised.
For me, it wasn't really about the money. I do what I believe in. I have turned down jobs if I didn't believe in them.
DR:  Yeah, you mentioned you turned down that role in Rent.
TG:  Exactly. Broadway. What actor turns down Broadway? I got blacklisted for doing that. When I turned down the role and gave my reasons, my phone stopped ringing. That's when I decided to go to LA and you know what happened there. I suffered for my craft. I have no problem with that, but the fun is in building it; going out and doing it and watching it grow. That's what TSO was, until somewhere down the way, the message got lost and it became the bottom line and not the message.
DR:  You are listed as contributing backing vocals on the Night Castle album, which song are you on?
TG:  "Night Enchanted". Everyone was on that.
DR:  You shared the stage with so many great vocalists and musicians with TSO over the years, any stand out to you as favorites?

TG:  Sophia Ramos. Also Jill Gioia, and of course Michael Lanning, Guy LeMonnier and Tommy. Daryl Pediford is definitely missed. And Maxx Mann's voice and enthusiasm were great on stage. And in terms of musicians, Jane Mangini for sure.
DR:  Once the tour groups were split, you were always the voice of the West. Did you ever want to do the East coast tour?

TG:  I would have loved to have done the East tour at least once so my family could have seen it, and also to play New York!  I would have loved to play at Madison Square Garden. I also would have liked to show the East coast fans what the West coast guys could do. [Laughs]
DR:  Much has been made of the change in the size and scope of TSO's show, How did moving the show from theaters into arenas affect you as a narrator?
TG:  It affected me a great deal in the beginning. I will never forget the first arena we did - I had no idea about the slap back. I was used to the stage with the side fills and the sound coming back to me. It was weird to have the sound slap back to me. It's great to play in the larger arenas, but me personally, I loved it when we were in the more intimate setting of the theaters.
DR:  Can I ask you what your relationship with TSO is now? Have you stayed in touch with anyone, other than Tommy, Michael, Guy & Maxx?

TG:  Nobody will talk to me. I have spoken with [TSO Manager] Adam [Lind] a couple of times. It's unfortunate because I hold no ill will towards anybody. I don't see why we can't stay in touch. My father passed two years ago and I didn't even get a 'Sorry for your Loss' note or anything. To this day, I cannot understand why there is this whole separation and the side-taking that has happened.
DR:  I want to talk a little about The Kings of Christmas. I'm going to put you on the spot a little with this one. When you guys were working in the studio on recording this album, one of your engineers was keeping an online blog about the progress of the band. She used somewhat-vague names in place of your real names, but I want to read this excerpt from that blog and then ask you to comment:

"So when Hood (aka Tony Gaynor) received a call from the TSO management, he came running into the recording studio all a dither. (Which is hard for a man of his natural suaveness…) Boom Boom (Tommy Farese), Yoda ( Dave Silva ), and X Man (Maxx Mann) naturally thought someone had died and/or they had finally hit a high point and had hit stardom (without even releasing a record!).

However when Hood put the phone on speaker the guys were tossed. Abba (a representative from TSO) had said that the pay due to Hood would not be given since it would go towards a “competing project” and that lawyers were on the line to go through contracts signed. It was also said that Hood could not do Christmas music with anyone ever again.
TSO had received word from another promoter about the project and the advertising on the public relations and booking agent site. They had previewed the 45 second snippets and had seen the bios of the people working on the project. Along with this, since the call came into the public relations firm, came the unsaid threat of pulling venues out from under the boys booking"


Is that all 100% true?

TG:  It's 80% true. There are two things in there that are not true.

DR:  You are not naturally suave? [Laughs]

TG:  [Laughs] No, that part is true.

Two things are false in there. I was already in the studio when the phone rang, so I didn't come running into the studio. And the phone was never on speaker. I was speaking to the person that called from TSO right outside the door, but they could hear what was going on. For the first time, I kind of lost it. When the comment came over the phone that "I can't do Christmas", I took offense to it. This is my holiday; I'm a Christian. I just found the comments ridiculous - they told me that it would be no problem if I was doing this in a bar or a club, but because of whom I was doing this with and that we were doing Christmas - that was a no-no and that I couldn't do that.

Again, I spent twelve years with these guys, we've grown accustomed to and love working together, and this is what we do. That was probably the first time that people in the organization saw me out of character.

DR:  What is your role with The Kings of Christmas?

TG:  I sang back-ups on all of the songs. I sang the high parts and falsettos that made up the harmonies. At the end of "Letter to Santa", that's me and Guy doing that whole angelic part, that's me on the "We ride" part of "Sleigh Ride" that Guy sings.

DR:  And "Henry the Horse", that's you on lead?

TG:  That's me.

DR:  That is such a fun song. I love the story in there. Who is doing the voices in there?

TG:  The horse voice is Tommy and the Rudolph voice is Maxx. A lot of people don't know, but Tommy has a sense of humor that you wouldn't believe. [Laughs]

DR:  Where did that song come from? It's a little different from the rest of the album.

TG:  I remember when we were working on this one. Me, Tommy, and Guy did the lyrics in my apartment one night and Dave Silva played the guitar. Once it hit the studio, Maxx had his input with the sounds and effects.

"Henry the Horse" - The Kings of Christmas
Tony Gaynor - Lead Vocals

We were looking for a kid's song to do. Originally, we wanted Michael Lanning's "Benny the Christmas Tree" and Tommy wanted Michael to write a little more. But Michael was on Broadway at the time and we just couldn't connect our scheduling to make it happen. One day, Tommy comes running into the room and says, "Listen, I had this premonition about this horse" [Laughs]. So he came up with the original concept about a horse disguising himself as a reindeer, and then we all got together and wrote it.

You know, with The Kings of Christmas, we didn't know how things were going to go. We just knew that we wanted to do something together, making our own sound, and it not be TSO. Some probably thought we were going to try and rip off the TSO sound, but we knew that was exactly what we didn't want to do. We were confident that between us we were going to come up with some good stuff. From the very beginning, we would sit in a room just like this with some acoustic guitars and a digital recorder and just wrote some songs. We came up with about 20 different ideas and songs from those meetings.

DR:  Some of your narration for this album appears on the Kings website. Will we get to hear the full script when you tour the album?

TG:  Oh yeah. We will have the entire narration for the tour.

DR:  So now, you, along with Guy LeMonnier, Tommy Farese and Michael Lanning are going on tour with the Wizards of Winter.  Can you tell me a little about the show?

TG:  I am one of the team here. We are collaborating and putting this thing together, together. It's been a pretty good open forum between the two groups. We rehearse together; we all have some say into the songs. If one of us has an opinion on the tempo or an arrangement, we have our say and try things out. It is completely different from TSO, where the direction comes down the pike with "this is where you stand, this is how you will sing...". It is more in tune with how we did The Kings of Christmas, where not one guy makes all the decisions. We bring whatever we have to the table to make this a great project, a great show and a great situation to be in.

DR:  You guys seem to be having a blast in rehearsals. Are you looking forward to hitting the stage with the shows?

TG:  Absolutely. We are having so much fun; it reminds me of the first few tours of TSO.

DR:  Can you talk about the future of The Kings of Christmas? You had the aborted tour in 2011 and then didn't make it out in 2012 with Tommy getting hit hard by Hurricane Sandy.

TG:  The past couple of years we had things happen that prevented us from going out, and we were anticipating going out in 2013. While we were planning things, this opportunity with Scott [Kelly] and the Wizards of Winter came about. They wanted to grow as a band and asked us to be involved this year. Once we met them, rehearsed a bit and got to know them not just as musicians but also as people, this just made sense. Why not collaborate, join forces and see what happens?

DR:  Is there still a plan to go out on tour as The Kings of Christmas and present your album in concert?

TG:  Yes. We are planning it now for 2014. We have a great bunch of people that are getting behind us to help present the tour. And fans should also pay attention this season, keep your ears open because you will be hearing "Sleigh Ride".  And "New York Christmas" was used on the Live with Kelly and Michael TV show.

DR:  Other than working on The Kings of Christmas, what else have you been working on lately?

TG:  I write a lot. I'm in the middle of finishing off a novel. You know, we have been losing so many people to substance abuse. Even recently, Whitney Houston, Cory Monteith and countless others that struggle with it. That's something that's been weighing on my heart. What I have been writing about deals with this, particularly how we as performing artists often fall into the trap of addiction. It's not a new story, but it's something I felt I needed to get off of my chest.

DR:  Can you tell me something about Tony Gaynor that fans would be surprised to learn about you?

TG:  I could have gone professional as a bowler. My bowling average is 274!

DR:  Wow. Very nice. Well, thanks so much for taking the time and discussing so much. Is there anything you would like to add?

TG:  In closing, I just hope that a lot of our friends and fans take a moment to open their eyes and open their hearts and not be so quick to judge or jump to conclusions. There is so much happening in the world; TSO and KOC are so trivial in comparison. No one stays at their same job forever. You may go off to start your own company doing what you do best. There shouldn't be anything wrong with that. There are no sides. I can't tell anyone how to live their lives or what position to take - if they choose not to pick up the phone anymore, that's fine. I just want to let them know that I still love all of those guys. I am proud to have been part of it. I am proud to have played my part in it. What happened cannot be undone - myself, Tommy, Guy and all of those guys were there, were an instrumental part of TSO. It's a fact and it's just not the case now. We are moving on and that's OK.

For whatever happened, I have long since forgiven every single person in the TSO organization and I wish everybody the best. Take care and start worrying about the things that matter, like us eating and surviving. It's getting bad out here. We should be building each other up and not putting each other down. I am a man of faith and that's what I go by. I go on faith alone, because I've been there. I told you one incident out in LA, there were others. If I told you the others, your mouth would be on the floor. I'm not supposed to be here right now, but I am. I'm here for a good reason. I'm never going to give up and fulfill my purpose and I hope everybody else does the same thing.

In the end, I want people to walk away from The Kings of Christmas experience knowing that this is all about us doing something that we love to do, and do with each other. None of this comes from having a vindictive attitude or soul. A long time ago, I made a promise to myself and to God that the day I can't be humble, take it away. I always look back to Matthew 16:26 that basically says "What profits a man to gain the world and lose his soul." and I live by that.

Tony Gaynor, surrounded by Guy LeMonnier, Tommy Farese and Michael Lanning
on tour with Wizards of Winter 2013

For more information:
The Kings of Christmas:
The Wizards of Winter:
Trans-Siberian Orchestra:
Trans-Siberian Orchestra Fan Site