Saturday, January 24, 2015

A Conversation with Guy LeMonnier

At 6' 3", Guy LeMonnier often towers over those around him, and for seven years his smooth, powerful baritenor voice set the lofty tone for Trans-Siberian Orchestra's venture into theater-style vocal performances. Millions of TSO fans know Guy as a founding and long-time featured vocalist with their touring show and the voice of "Young Beethoven" from their Beethoven's Last Night rock opera. I caught up with Guy to talk about his TSO legacy as well as his time spent with The Kings of Christmas (the group made up of TSO alum) and his current involvement with Christmas-Prog-Rock sensations, The Wizards of Winter.  We also discussed his acting background and his time spent with theater luminaries Frank Wildhorn and Neil Berg, as well as his future in the film and televsion world.

Dan Roth:  I would like to start with Guy LeMonnier, circa:1999.  You are on the very first Trans-Siberian Orchestra tour as a featured vocalist. How did you connect with them?

Guy LeMonnier:  Those were the days where I was doing straight up theater, pounding the pavement, and I saw the open audition call. I was very, very ill; my voice was raspy. But, I got up at 6:30 in the evening, went into SIR Studios in the city and there were Paul O'Neill and Bob Kinkel.

DR:  Do you remember what you sang for the audition?

GL:  Great question. It may have been something from the musical Rent. I think I also did Seal's "Kiss From a Rose" too.  Depending on the audition, I would have some Broadway songs ready and usually something that rode the line between theater and rock.

But I went in there, was raspy as hell, and they loved me. They claimed that they had seen 2000 people that week, and I know I was the last one that they saw. They adored me until I got in to the studio with them when I was well. I didn't have the same rasp in my voice from being sick. I went into the studio with this clear Jekyll & Hyde theater tone and from there on it was a battle for them to try to get me to sound the way they wanted.

DR: You were the original "Angel" on their tours, singing "An Angel Came Down" and "The Angel Returned" that first tour and for many tours afterwards.  Did you know going in that that was the part they were looking for?

GL:  No. Had no idea. I just went in there, sang what I sung and found out later.

Guy with TSO 2003. Photo Courtesy of Charlie Gow

DR:  Did you sing any other songs on tour?  Or just those two?

GL:  I also sang "Christmas in the Air". If you listen to the original cut of "Christmas in the Air" on the album, it all sits in the basement. There's no dynamic to it, it doesn't climb, there's no high note, no big rock notes. So when they wanted to do it on tour, I sat down with Bob Kinkel and said, "Can we do anything with this song? Can we move and build it and gain some dynamic? Can we end on an up note?". And Bob, with his way, it took him like three seconds and he had the song totally rearranged with big high notes and it was great from there on out.

DR:  Did you know the original vocalist on that song, Jody Ashworth?

GL:  I did! At the same time that I was spending 90 hours a week in the studio with Bob and Paul as they were trying to get me to sound like what they wanted for the Beethoven songs, they got Jody Ashworth singing them in the end. That's gravel; it's like glass scraping and it's a cool sound - but nowhere near any sound that I was going to achieve for those songs. He has a beautiful voice; he even hit those high notes, which was incredible for as low as his voice was.

DR:  Can you tell me a little about that first TSO tour in '99? The vocalists then were you, Tommy Farese and Daryl Pediford?

GL:  Yeah, and John Margolis singing "Old City Bar". 

DR:  Had you done anything similar to this before?

GL:  It was definitely my first exposure to playing with folks working in the rock world, like Al Pitrelli playing with Alice Cooper and Tommy Farese singing in every rock club on Long Island, so playing with a rock band behind me was definitely new to me. Everything up until then had been musical theater. I remember it didn't pay very much that year, and they had all 14 of us packed on one bus.
I had been on tour before, but this was definitely a 'rock tour'. It wasn't very extravagant, but they made us feel important.

They treated us good; you felt like a rock star. You would don your leather jacket and your boots every October; I grew my hair out every year for that. [Laughs] That was ultimately a big issue for me in TSO, that I couldn't grow long hair. The hair is very, very important in TSO - make or break important. At this point, they wouldn't hire someone with a buzz cut or really short hair, unless they could grow it out; it's a big thing for Paul.

DR:  Did you know anyone on the tour before this?  Had you worked with anyone?

GL:  No.  I was a new hire. In fact, I was one of the first theater vocalists they hired.

Guy with TSO 2004. Photo Courtesy of Charlie Gow

DR:  Did you ever fill in for another vocalist and sing something different?

GL:  No, my bag was the musical theater bag. And by that rationale, they would never put me on to sing a song like "Music Box Blues" or any of the rock songs. Like many people in the industry, when they paint you in a corner and see you one way, that's what you are to them. They don't have a lot of vision to see what else you might be capable of. I was not the soul/blues guy, I was not the rock guy; I was the musical theater guy.

DR: So after that first tour, you were not on the TSO stage again until 2002. 

GL:  Correct. I kept on working and picking up other roles. I did Frank Wildhorn's Jekyll & Hyde tour for nine months. I then did his Dracula musical in  La Jolla, California.

DR:  Did you have to audition again to get back on the TSO tour in 2002?

GL:  No, they were great about that. I had gotten these other roles and couldn't make it out in 2000 and 2001 and they wanted me back. 

DR:  When you returned, the tour was now split into two touring troupes. You are one of a handful of performers that have played in both troupes.  Did you have a choice when they added you to the East cast?

No.  But I liked being on the East tour because it was close to home. But then Rob Evan came in and I got bumped to the West tour the next year.

DR:  They used to include vocalists in their backup band. Were you involved in that at all during your time away? Or were you too busy?

GL:  I did the backup band for one year after I was fired, just for the paycheck.

DR:  So you were with TSO in 1999, then 2002 through 2006. You were there for the remarkable growth from theaters and smaller venues to the arenas. Now that the lights, stage, risers and effects have grown to as large as they are, many fans seem to long for those early tours when it was less about the spectacle.

GL:   There are some changes in the dynamics of a rising band that are hard to combat, unless you don't care about making money. If it were me, there would be at least three TSO tours going right now. There are cities that they toured for years and they are dumping them. They built fanbases in these cities and they left them. There are fans left that gave their time, money and devotion and now they don't come to their city anymore.

I thought the transition to the arenas was really cool. I had never performed on a stage where I could look up and see three tiers of people. The magic definitely left to some extent, just from the lack of intimacy. But it was necessary and inevitable. In the end, it's all about business.  

Even the whole "You've got a job for life" thing that I am sure you have heard from all of the original TSO cast. Was it said? Absolutely. Repeatedly and passionately. Did I ever actually believe that? Even at the tender age of 23 years old? No. This is a business, and absolute statements like that are never valuable in business.

DR:  For six years, you sang the same two songs at every show. Did it ever get old?

Of course. When you consider that it's about ten minutes of your day that you are on stage. But it never got old when I was in the moment, as I stepped to the mic. I couldn't help but feel that emotion and immerse myself in it when I have a row full of children and families looking up at me. But outside of that time, it absolutely got old. And a big reason for that was because there was no real room for elaborating or creativity. I could stick a little grace note in there and get slapped down that night. I had a whole ending for the "Kyrie among nations" that didn't just sit in that same droll way that everyone was singing - I had an R&B line over top of that that went over big, even Pitrelli and the guys on stage loved it. But it had to be taken out immediately. That's what makes something stale. Do I blame Paul for that? No. Do I think his vision is a little limited? Yes, absolutely. 

You have to remember, the show is backlit for a reason. They would much rather have you see flowing hair and cardboard cutouts than actual people. No one has ever spun a solo career off of the Trans-Siberian Orchestra. If you're playing 60 shows a year, twenty thousand people a night - don't you think you would get a following? Never. They don't nurture their own people. You're a tool and you're there for a reason.

DR:  Since you were the first one to sing these songs live on tour, did you spend much time trying to emulate the original vocalist?  Or did you get much direction on how to deliver them?

GL:  No. I just sang the songs. Here is the thing about those Angel songs though: They are in the basement. The top note is a D above Middle C - you had to have a real low end to your voice. And to be honest, I don't think they have found anyone yet that can hit the bass notes for those songs. They still pulled it off wonderfully, and I think Andrew [Ross] did an amazing job with them on the West tour, but they're not basses. It's not usually particularly useful to be a bass, but with these songs, it would have opened them up so much more.

Guy with TSO 2004. Photo Courtesy of Brian Reichow
When I sang them, I always had the 'wingspan'. I always did it with my arms outstretched. They used to tease me about it. [Laughs]. But the only direction I would get was to "take out that grace note" or "keep it in the basement and keep that drone going". I know it sounds impressive to the audience that way, but they could have done so much more with those songs. I tried but they didn't like it.

DR:  You would come out, sing "An Angel Came Down" to kick off the show and then, apart from some occasional chorus vocals, you weren't back out again until the last song, An Angel Returned".  How did you pass the time?

GL:  [Laughs] We had a straight-up pisser backstage. We were bored out of our minds! It wasn't about us, it was about the band. They thought it was about them and management thought it was about them. We were just extraneous, until the audience started identifying with us and we helped to grow the brand. But what did we do? We ate a lot! Lunch at 3:00.  Here comes dinner at 4:00. And here are the menus for the after-show meal. There were a couple years there where we just got fat! [Laughs].

DR:  You were one of the few performers that spent time with, not just the original, but both the East and West casts as well. Can you talk a little about the differences?
GL:  The East show was always more of the structured template. The West show was "The Wild West" and went very untouched for many years. When you look at the maps of the cities that the East and West troupes travel to, it's hilarious. The East tour would seemingly cover a handful of states, and the West did the rest of the country. [Laughs]
Nobody bothered them - they would travel 700 miles a night, through snow and ice storms - for us it was a rough tour. That alone built so much camaraderie - laying in a bunk in a bus, heading down the Pacific Coast Highway in an ice storm, you are scared for your life. So we built a real bond on those trips.

And the West show was so much more fun. It was much looser and not tied up in the bureaucratic nonsense.

DR:  That came along eventually though.

GL:  Yeah, that came later. Once they took a look out at the shows and said "Woah! What's going on out there? They're out their building tens of thousands of fans. We better go and change the shit!" [Laughs]

DR:  Do you keep up on their shows these days?

GL:  Not really. I hear enough from colleagues about the click tracks, the in-ears, the moving light trusses, the direction. If I had to sum the show up today, I would call it "plastic". "Plastic with moving parts". [Laughs] And I mean no offense to the performers, just the show today doesn't breathe like it used to. 

DR:  For those that didn't have the pleasure of seeing you perform live, all TSO fans certainly know you as the voice of Young Beethoven, since you sang "Vienna" on their Beethoven's Last Night album.

Trans-Siberian Orchestra - "Vienna" - Guy LeMonnier on Lead Vocals

GL: They were grooming me for a while, trying to get me to sound like a particular voice that they were looking for with the Beethoven character. Again, they wound up going for Jody Ashworth, who I think is wonderful. We have nowhere near the same sounding voices. They should have known what they had with me - a clean-sounding musical theater voice.  Instead I would be spending 90+ hours a week in the studio with them - unpaid hours - for them to realize that they needed Jody's voice for those songs. I was doing all of this with the hopes that I would get picked for the Beethoven role. I could have had four albums worth of material for as much time that I spent in the studio, but in the end, I wound up with the one song, "Vienna".

DR:  What else did you record while with them?

GL:  I recorded many of the songs for Romanov. I recorded "Who is this Child?", "This is Who You Are", and most of the Beethoven songs. Some of those songs were a right fit for me, many were not. They wrote those songs with a really deep low end and then they peak at the other end of the spectrum. Rob Evan would have been great from the beginning with these songs because he has that range.  But in the end, I think Jody did just a terrific job with the Beethoven songs.

DR:  After so many years touring and recording with TSO, are they any particular shows or moments that stand out to you?

GL:   I only have terrific memories of my time there. We all had just so much fun. With the core group of guys - Tommy Farese, Tony Gaynor and Michael Lanning - we built such wonderful friendships that will last a lifetime. It was a "rock tour" - it's as close to Aerosmith as someone like me is going to get.

DR:  One event that seems to have gone down in TSO lore is your appearance on stage in a cow costume. For years, TSO fans talked about this as one of the funniest things ever witnessed on the TSO stage. Tommy talked a bit about it in my interview with him.  Can you explain how you wound up on stage wearing a cow costume? [Laughs]
Guy & Tommy Farese with TSO 2003. Photo Courtesy of Charlie Gow

GL:   Well, I found a cow costume in my size and it was all over from there, Dan. [Laughs]  When you find an XXXL cow costume, you hang on to it!

Part of the reason that the audiences loved us so much is because we were always taking it to the next level and hamming it up. Audiences like to feel that they are being let in on something or they are part of a joke. During the introductions, we would really ham it up and show the charisma of this group. Those kinds of actions were very much frowned upon by the organization. 

Anyway, I had found this cow costume and I brought it with me to rehearsals as a joke for Halloween, but never used it.  So now, I had this costume in my luggage. We let Tommy know what was up, but we didn't tell him when. We get to Omaha for a show and I decided that I was going to get into this costume for the intros. I walked out on to stage in this head-to-toe cow costume, with a straight face as if nothing was wrong. Tommy basically spit water across the stage. [Laughs] He put a towel over the udders, which made it look like a bunch of erections. Everyone on stage and in the audience was cracking up - it went on forever. I just walked to the mic with a complete straight face and said "What?". The crowd roared. It was a lot of fun. Of course there was a phone call from the office waiting for us after the show.

I got gifts for years from fans: cowbells, cow statues, anything cow related. It was good times, a lot of fun.
Tony Gaynor, Tommy Farese,  Michael Lanning, Guy LeMonnier
on stage with TSO in 2004
(Photo courtesy of Brian Reichow)

DR:  Did you ever miss a show?

GL:  No.  There was a time where I got really bad food poisoning. Our Canadian crew was very big into mixing Clamato juice with beer. One day, I was hanging out on the crew bus and they offered me this drink. It turned out that the clamato had been sitting underneath a table in the back lounge of the bus for half a day and went bad. I was not in good shape after drinking that. [Laughs] I still went on though.

DR:  TSO has a mandatory signing line for their performers at the end of their shows. Did you enjoy those?

GL:  Absolutely! It was so much fun to connect with the fans. Of course, there were some nights where the line wrapped around the arena and it was a little daunting, but it was harder for the band. The band was up there for the whole show, while most of us singers only sang a song or two and then sat around. We had a great time with the fans. Tommy, Tony and I would have a riot with the fans in that line. [Laughs]

DR:  Can you talk about the circumstances that led to your separation from TSO in 2007?

GL: My ending was horrendous and life-changing, like many peoples were. All I want to say about it - and I do want to say this - is that I was fired over hearsay. And the hearsay came from an unreliable source, especially in light of the behavior that occurred afterwards. There was enough drama to fill a reality show.

I had just bought a house down the street from where Al Pitrelli owned a compound of six houses with Jane. I did this because I, along with the rest of the TSO cast, were all invited to stay up there and live there and contribute to and write the next TSO album.

DR:  They asked the cast for creative input?

GL:  That sweetens the pot a little bit, right? I was a single guy and didn't want to live in their house with the others, so I bought my own place down the street. I was working for this multi-million dollar organization and it was great to be brought even more so into the fold - and with the promise of helping to create the next album. Of course, that promise never came through, and I was let go.

DR:  The next time most TSO fans heard from you again was in 2011, when you were involved in The Kings of Christmas with other TSO alumni. Where were you from in the interim?
Guy with TSO 2004. Photo Courtesy of Brian Reichow

GL: The extrication from TSO was enough to make me start a new page. I had lost my girlfriend of four years, I was up to my eyeballs in debt after just buying this house, and I had lost my steady job. The whole ordeal was humiliating and devastating. So I left. I packed up the truck and I went out to Los Angeles to pursue TV and Film roles.

Everybody has his or her story - particularly with that organization. Michael Lanning was fired just after his son died and was wrongfully accused of drinking on the tour. If you can allow me to refute that on tape right now, that was bullshit. Absolute bullshit. We lived in tight quarters, together all the time; we knew what he was doing. In fact, we were the ones that would tease him about having a drink, and he refused every time. So that accusation was perhaps the most wrongful of all of TSO's many firings, in my opinion. It was a blatant lie, he didn't have a drop to drink, and that was the reason they used for getting rid of him. All of the firings - from Michael Lanning to Mark Wood to Tommy - were all done in such a tactless, cowardly, horrible way. 

The bottom line is that Paul decided that he wanted kids up there and that's what he has now. Leather-clad, long hair, the chain-wallet look. No offense to the folks who take the stage today, but that's the vision that Paul decided he wanted and older guys with tux tails on are not going to fit in that image. Young, blonde-haired kids with hair down to their butts does. I get why he wanted that image - that's what he thinks a rock show should look like. Never mind how successful it had gotten over the years with talented, experienced people that didn't quite fit his vision all of a sudden.

DR:  Andrew Ross took over your role on the shows after you were let go. In my interview with him, he mentioned that you and he met that next year.

GL: Yeah! We went to Disneyland together. Andrew is a great guy and did a wonderful job in the show. He was nowhere close to me, which was good. If you are trying to imitate the one who was there before, that's often not the way to go - you have to have your own take on it. I thought he was terrific. I feel bad that he had such a hard time from the audience and the cast when he first took over. I was well liked and had a lot of fun with everyone there, but I never felt like I was the Angel or someone that would have been that missed. But he was great in the show and if things were different and I was to do it again, I would take things from him and what he did with the role as well. We had a great time hanging out.  And he has beautiful hair. [Laughs]

DR:  I wanted to ask you about The Kings of Christmas record, 365 Days a Year.  How did you get involved with that?

GL:  The guys called me and said they wanted to write an album. So I packed up the car in LA and moved back to New York. Because of that, I had a lot at stake with this record, maybe more than everyone else. 

DR:  Tony Gaynor, Tommy Farese and Maxx Mann were involved with this. There were rumors of Bart Shatto being part of this as well?

GL:  Bart was at first, but his involvement was only as deep as the TSO leash would allow him to be. Once the news of our band reached TSO, he was out. I do understand where Bart was coming from - when TSO tells you that you are going to lose your job over this and that you can't do a Christmas album, some people are going to tell TSO to buzz off, and some are going to cling to them. I understand both positions.

Guy with TSO 2005. Photo Courtesy of Brian Reichow

DR:  Before you guys announced the The Kings of Christmas band name, there were two other names floated on the internet from your camp: "TxO" and "Bunk Alley Brothers".  Was either of those in real consideration?

GL:  TxO was never going to be used. It seemed cute, as in Ex-TSO guys, but Tommy, Tony and I never intended to use it, but suddenly it was out there [Laughs]. The Bunk Alley Brothers name was talked about a bit more and considered viable.

DR:  What was it like to work again with your former TSO cast members?

GL:  Tommy and Tony are in my heart of hearts. I love those guys. I grew up with them in a lot of ways. I was 23 years old when we all started the TSO live shows in 1999, so I have known them now 15 years. And we have transcended to that point where no matter whether we are fighting or kidding or whatever, it's all love. They're family. 

DR:  Each of your voices are pretty distinct and one can easily pick out who is singing what. I know you sing lead on five of the album's songs, and you share the lead on "Soldier's Song. Some of the songs on the album are pretty heavy, in terms of lyrics and topic. Can you talk about the writing process?  The credits aren't very specific.

GL:  For the unity of the band, we agreed to list the credits as everything having been written by The Kings of Christmas. First, let me say that most of the songs on that album would not have happened without the amazing Dave Silva on guitar.  He came up with so many riffs that we were able to run with.  But we all did contribute in various ways to various songs. I had a hand in writing "Henry the Horse", "Christmas Passed", "New York Christmas", "How's Your Life", and "How do you Feel?". "How's Your Life" is mine - I wrote that song front to back. Tommy helped with the lyrics and brought a new aspect to the song. That's really the way we worked. I am really proud of my work on this album; I had a real hand in the melodies in particular. Tommy is such a terrific lyricist and he really helped bang out the lyrics.
"How's Your Life"                                                                  "Christmas Passed"

DR: The Kings of Christmas project seemed steeped in TSO-inspired controversy. Tommy Farese was fired from TSO for participating. Tony Gaynor admitted that he took phone calls from TSO management where he was told that he couldn't be involved in another Christmas project. Did all of this cast a pall over your work as you were putting the album together?  Or did it create a bit of drive or motivation?

GL:  TSO were like hounds on our ass for a while there. There were cease and desist letters and lawyers involved. There was this ridiculous notion of "You cannot do anymore Christmas". But we took all of that and used it as a motivator to make the best album that we could. We still thanked the Trans-Siberian Orchestra in our credits, because the bottom line is that we would have never met if it weren't for them. 

DR:  The album certainly garnered rave reviews once it was released, though you ran into some difficulties in mounting the tour. Now that a couple years have passed, is there still a future for The Kings of Christmas?

GL:  Well, first, my apologies to the fans for that aborted tour situation in 2011. The fan response was overwhelming, but Tommy, Tony and I had decided that the live show wasn't ready.  Some others in the band and a promoter felt otherwise and they went out on tour without the rest of us, using the Kings name. We still stand by our decision; a canceled show can be forgiven, a bad show is never forgotten.

As for a future, I really don't know. I personally put a lot of time and effort into it. Not just the recording and writing, but looking for investors and building the interest. I'm not even 40 yet and I am trying to pursue a career of my own. It got to the point that I couldn't afford any more time out of my life to keep this project growing. Is there a future for it? There could be. The album was pretty well received, but we also heard from critics that it was a little too heavy and emotional, when in fact it's just a different take. We weren't trying to be TSO at all.

DR:  And that was something that you as a band were pushing to the fans - letting them know that you guys were writing these songs, not a producer or a behind-the-scenes person.

GL:  The only thing that was similar was the combination of songs and a story.  

DR:   In 2013, you, Tommy, Tony and Michael Lanning wound up collaborating with The Wizards of Winter on their tour. 

GL:  Yes!  They are an outstanding band, and they are inspiring because of their music.They used to be a TSO tribute band, but if they were still just a cover band, I wouldn't have been interested.  They are such authentic people. What attracts me to them are their personalities, what a wonderful family they are. At this point in my life, the quality of people that I am working with is more important than anything. Plus, their original music is so beautiful.

DR:  Did you four enjoy touring together once again? It seemed like the audiences really appreciated seeing and hearing you once again.
Guy with The Wizards of Winter 2014.  Photo Courtesy of Vicki Bender

GL:  Yeah, it was a good time. We all got to go out and do our thing again. Mikey would bring down the house every night like he always did with his "With a Little Help From My Friends". Tommy was out there singing his songs - he did "Ornament" the way he sang it for the early morning radio gigs. And Tony tells a story like no one else. 

DR:  You recently announced that you have officially joined the band. How come?

GL:  Because they asked. I like the path that they're on. They are exiting the mold of a cover band and are breaking out with their original music. I want to be there to help with that and to see that happen. Their music is brilliant.

DR:  And you are more involved in the tour?

GL:  Yes, I fill in where they need filling in. I help with the arrangements and in backing vocals throughout the show.

DR:  You sing lead on two songs on the new Wizards of Winter CD - can you tell me about them?

GL:  Yes! "Special Feeling" is a song that I sang with them on the 2013 tour and really fell in love with it. I was delighted when they asked me to sing it for their new album.  I also sing a duet called "Just Believe", which they had just written for the album. It's nice to be appreciated and I don't think I ever felt that way with TSO, for the many years that I was there. I kind of bled into the background, I did my job and hope I did it well, but it wasn't a real atmosphere full of appreciation if you know what I mean. 

"Special Feeling"                                                              "Just Believe"

I really enjoyed singing these two songs with the Wizards. I am so excited for the band's future. They have gold on their hands, whether they realize it or not and I am thrilled to be a part of the growth. Plus, having Tony there and hopefully Tommy again next year is great as well.  I am in love with their music.  Unlike most TSO songs, where they never fit right into vocalist's ranges and are in these weird keys, Scott Kelly writes for the singer. Every song has a sweet spot. I love singing with them.

DR:  We talked earlier about you doing some musical stage work. You toured with Frank Wildhorn's Jekyll and Hyde. What was your involvement in his Dracula production?

GL:  I was in his production of Dracula in La Jolla that was coming to Broadway.  I was Tom Hewitt's understudy and stunt double, so I was flying on wires for the show.  I also recorded the demos for the Broadway production.

Guy singing "The Longer I Live", Dracula The Musical

Frank writes amazing musicals. If you look at his body of work, it is absurd that they won't keep his musicals running on Broadway. He has taken his musicals to Korea and Japan and he is huge there because they love his shit, as well they should. He wrote this wonderful new musical of the story of Camelot, Excalibur, that went right to Switzerland. That's the kind of show we need back here on Broadway instead of all of these movie rip-offs and bullshit. You look up and down Broadway and wonder, "Where's the dramatic musicals that have always been around?". Musicals like Les Mis, Miss Saigon, Jekyll & Hyde, and Scarlet Pimpernel are all going away, and that's what I moved here to do!

DR:  And you also worked with Neil Berg in The Prince the Pauper?

Yes!  I actually took over for Rob Evan in that one. I had met Rob when we were both doing Frank Wildhorn's Jekyll and Hyde. He was doing the alternate and understudy for the role on Broadway and I was out on tour doing the Second National tour. 

I would work with Neil again in a heartbeat. His musicals are fantastic! The Prince and the Pauper? It's a full-length Les Mes-style musical. It's beautiful and funny and dark and serious. The music is phenomenal! It was an amazing musical that was cut down to make it a kids show. His music is so pleasing to the ear. Rob Evan and I were in that together, and I eventually took over his role of Miles Hendon when he left. For the cast recording, I am on a song with other characters, performing "Father Andrew's Lesson / Thrill Of Adventure".

DR:  Most recently, you were seen in the off-Broadway show of Around the World in 80 Days here in New York, which was a very elaborate production for being off-Broadway.

GL:  I really came in on that to help with the theater transformation for that show. It had a 2½ million dollar budget and was top notch all the way.  Myself and two other guys rebuilt the theater and when some of the original cast started moving on, I took over in the lead role. It was very cool and a nice re-entry to theater here in New York.

Guy singing "Oh Holy Night", Flat Rock Playhouse 2013

DR:  And in 2014 you were the Production Manager for another Off-Broadway show that drew rave reviews, Ayn Rand's Anthem.

GL: Yeah, I enjoy being behind the scenes as well. I ran the production - I had a technical director, a lighting designer and a sound designer all under me. It was hellish, but it really came out well.

DR:  You seem equally comfortable whether you are swinging a hammer and building a set, singing in front of 20,000 fans or running the behind-the-scenes production of a play.

GL:   I gained a valuable skill set from my father growing up; he and I would build houses and I am thankful that I learned a lot from him. I like being a production manager because I think I am a good boss; I am not always the best with delegation but I am pretty fair with everyone.

DR: What is something that someone might not know about Guy LeMonnier?

I love movie scores. I have a real fascination with movie soundtrack, from Forrest Gump to Bridges of Madison County

DR:  You have a somewhat unique last name. Did you ever think of going with a stage name?

GL:  So many people think that LeMonnier is already a stage name. [Laughs]

DR:  What is next for you?

GL: The further along in you get in life, the more you want those creature comforts - a family, a house and you want to make money.  Frankly, Off-Broadway theater is not the place to make money and the state of Broadway at the moment is not the most viable venue for me either. I'm in love with the film and television process. I got into the entertainment business to fulfill an obvious need for attention [Laughs] and I want to be wherever people are picking up the remote.

I've got a great manager now and I want to be involved in the most prolific screen venue I can, and right now that's Netflix, Hulu, and whatever else people are watching at home. the auditions are rolling in, we'll see what happens.

For more information:

Guy LeMonnier:

Video Channels:

The Wizards of Winter:

The Kings of Christmas:

Special thanks to Charlie Gow for his help with photos for this interview. Charlie was a good friend and a big fan of TSO. He was also a big supporter of my series of interviews and frequently opened up his vaults and shared with me photos from his personal collection for use with the interviews. Charlie passed away before he could read this one, but I am pretty sure he would give his seal of approval.  R.I.P. Charlie.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

A Conversation with Scott and Sharon Kelly of The Wizards of Winter

If it is the Christmas season and you enjoy progressive rock with a dash of metal, or power ballads with a dash of theater, chances are good that you are listening or going to see The Wizards of Winter. Based out of New Jersey, this 10-piece eclectic ensemble has been rocking the airwaves and filling theaters each year with their take on the Holidays. I caught up with the husband-wife team that helped found the band: Keyboardist, composer and musical director Scott Kelly and his wife, Flutist and vocalist Sharon Kelly. In this sit-down interview, we talk about the band's origins as a Trans-Siberian Orchestra tribute act, their transition to writing and performing their own original material, joining forces with original TSO members, and their exciting new self-titled CD.

Dan Roth: Before we get into The Wizards of Winter, I want to ask about your musical background.

Scott Kelly: I got involved with playing keyboards after attending an Emerson, Lake and Palmer concert in the 70s.  I saw them do Pictures at an Exhibition in New York and afterwards I thought, "That's what I want to do!".  Little did I know how hard it was at the time. [Laughs] I convinced my parents to get me my first Hammond organ and some music books and began learning how to play. I also got a job working at a music store where I worked with a lot of really good musicians and absorbed a lot from them. 

I eventually got good enough - and brave enough - to get involved with a band.  All through college, I played in various cover bands.  I eventually wound up playing keyboards for a band called The Features.  They were a popular cover band in the '80s, mostly playing new wave music.  We opened for artists like Cyndi Lauper, Joe Jackson, David Johansen and many other artists that were touring at the time.  We were playing seven nights a week - I also had a day job and Sharon and I had gotten married, so that did not leave a lot of time.  I wound up leaving The Features to join Dr. Jimmy and The Who Show, which was a Who tribute band.  We mostly played in the North East, from Boston to New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey. We had the same agent as Twisted Sister so we wound up being on the same bill as them many times, and we did countless gigs with The Good Rats as well. This gig was more like four nights a week, so it was a little bit more manageable, and then it all stopped for me.

DR: Stopped?  What happened?
Scott Kelly with The Wizards of Winter 2011

Scott:  We had a gig one night at a popular rock club in North Jersey called Circus Circus. Our next gig was two nights later and when the crew went to open our cases, all of my instruments and equipment were gone.  Someone had stolen everything. At the time we were a young married couple saving for our first house and I didn't have money to replace everything, so literally my music career stopped in one night. I just moved on with my non-musical day job and really didn't get back into things until 1999 when our daughters were in high school.  They were in the school's marching band, they had no one to teach pit percussion and I jumped in and helped.  I eventually helped form and lead their Drumline program and we wound up winning state championships - we would design the show, the choreography, the whole thing. It was a great program that is still going strong today.

It wasn't until 2004 when I got a keyboard again, a Korg Triton. Sharon and I decided we were going to start playing out and we performed as a duet at local restaurants, when the next opportunity came along - we joined this progressive rock band called Contrarian. They were like a cross between Kansas and Dream Theater.  They called me for an audition and I really liked the stuff they were doing; it was challenging keyboard material.  I did this for a couple years, but they never had the impetus to go out and play live.  We played a couple shows here and there, but we spent most of our time in the studio writing and rehearsing.  I really wanted to get out and play live more, so I left and started looking for more opportunities. I wound up in another cover band called Prankster that played locally and met our bass player Steve Ratchen around the same time.

I am not formally trained, and many of the musicians in the band are, so when I present material to the band that I have written, they might question how I have the chord structure laid out. From their trained ear, they might not have gone the same way that I had in a song, but I do and it works out.

DR: Sharon, you sing and play the flute in The Wizards - did you follow a similar musical path as Scott?
Sharon Kelly with The Wizards of Winter 2012

Sharon Kelly: I started pretty early on as well. My mother was a singer and both my parents sang on Christian Radio.  My mother was the Musical Director of four large church choirs and had me performing in Holiday musicals and Christmas Cantatas throughout the year. I sang and played flute since grammar school, participating in choir and band right through High School and later,  sang  backup for Dr. Jimmy and The Who Show. I took a long break as well, until Scott and I started going out as a duo and I sang and played flute with Contrarian as well. I also did a short stint with the Sweet Adelines when we lived in Oklahoma. But I kept my musical side on the backburner for a long time as we raised a family and just experienced life as it went along.

Scott: We always kept music in our lives, we just didn't get to do it professionally for a long time. And now it's taken on a life of its own. [Laughs]

DR: Well speaking of taking on a life of its own, can you explain how The Wizards of Winter came about? You mentioned meeting Steve Ratchen when you were out playing locally again.

Scott:  That is really where it started - we were introduced to Steve and we became friends. He was looking to start a new band and I had this idea to try out a Trans-Siberian Orchestra cover band. I was always a fan of their music after seeing them live in their early days. In 2008 or 2009, We had gone to see them at the Continental Airlines Arena and I didn't like it.. They had the whole wall of fire going; to me the show had become so impersonal from when we had seen it in the smaller venues.  I felt that it had lost the magic that was there in the beginning. The production was just so over the top and it was becoming more about the fire and lights, and less about the music and audience connection. I had wondered if we could bring the music back to where it started, with doing smaller shows without the spectacle.

This was also at the heart of the recession in 2009; the economy really hit us and everyone around us hard. Even our local food pantry was empty. This really got me thinking as to how I could tie all of this together. I always was inspired by the line in their song Old City Bar, "By helping a neighbor or even a stranger, And to know who needs help, You need only just ask" - that line always resonated with me. So I started thinking about putting this band together to perform this music and raise some money for the food pantry.

We talked to Steve about it and he was in, so we started reaching out to others who were interested in doing this, and doing it for the right reason. The plan was to give most of whatever money we made away, so we had to find the right group of people.

Sharon: We were looking for people that really had the passion for it.

Scott: After some auditions and getting to know some folks, we wound up assembling a dozen musicians and singers that were interested. My original plan was to reach out to some churches, schools and play locally and see where it goes. One of our guitar players introduced us to an agent who has a production company out of New York that books gigs for bands.  We wound up doing a showcase for him and he loved us, told us how he was going to line up all sorts of gigs for us.  We learned a hard lesson here, as it turned out that this agent had lied to us about promising gigs and had strung us along for several months. By the time we had found out that he wasn't lining up shows, it was Fall and I quickly started lining up gigs for us to play. 

DR: What was the audience response like that first year?

Scott: It was terrific. It really inspired us and told us that we were on to something here. After every show, fans were asking to buy our album, and of course we had to explain that this wasn't our own music and didn't have albums to sell.

DR:  You were just doing strictly TSO covers at this point?

Scott:  Yes, we did the Christmas Eve & Other Stories album the first half of the show, and then we mixed in songs from the other albums in the second half. We did "After the Fall", "Requiem", "Dreams of Candlelight", and songs from their other two Christmas albums as well. 

DR:  Today, there seems to be a TSO tribute band in almost every market. Back then, this was something different - getting to hear TSO music performed again in small settings.

Scott:  And not everyone even knew that we were a TSO tribute band. In fact, our very first show - in this wonderful theater in Pottsville, Pennsylvania - many fans there didn't know that we were performing music at all !

DR:  What is the story behind that?

Scott:  We were booked for The Majestic Theater in Pottsville. I called the theater and asked how many tickets they had sold, they told me, "three"! [Laughs] I was thinking, "How am I going to explain this to the band"? [Laughs]  Well, we loaded up the truck drove out there knowing this and we all decided that we are going to play this gig as if we are playing Madison Square Garden and give these three people the best show!  We got there early in the morning to set up our lights and equipment and run through soundchecks.

DR:  Did you have a crew then to install and work the lights?

Scott: No, we did everything ourselves - and still do a lot of it ourselves to this day. In fact, that first year, I controlled the lights with foot pedals underneath my keyboards.

So we have the show all ready to go and just before the doors opened, our guitar player at the time went outside and comes back to tell us that there is a line of people wrapped around the building. I went outside and sure enough, the line was going down the block - the show was sold out!  All of these folks just showed up! We greeted everyone as they came in and then got the show going. After every song the fans were cheering wildly and giving us standing ovations. It was great, but we thought we were being punk'd "[Laughs]

We took a break for the intermission and we started chatting with the fans. They started telling us how much they were enjoying it, but they all thought that they were coming to see a magic show because of the name "Wizards of Winter", but they said, "This is good too!" [Laughs] And that was our first gig!

DR:  Did you still follow through with your mission of donating to the Food Pantry?

Scott: Yes! That first year we wound up donating several thousand dollars. We helped that food pantry, Habitat for Humanity and the Children's Hospital. The one charity that we have really been helping out a lot though is the Choroideremia Research Foundation. One of our young fans has this rare condition that causes blindness and we have donated tens of thousands of dollars in the hope that a cure can be found. And then this year we have been donating to the Wounded Warrior Project, which is near and dear to our hearts.

DR: The band name - is that a play-off of TSO's "Wizards in Winter" song?

Scott:  Yeah. I always liked that song and since the original vision was to be TSO tribute band, we started looking at their song names for inspiration. Plus, I also liked the idea that abbreviated you get 'WoW' - even though at the time our 16 lights wasn't exactly a "WoW Factor" [Laughs]

DR:  At what point did you start incorporating your original material into your set?
Scott: After we finished that first year's tour, we started looking at the idea of putting together our own album - so many fans after the show were asking to buy our album, so I started coming up with some ideas. I was working out the chord progressions for the first song I wrote for The Wizards, which eventually became "Arctic Flyer", and my daughter heard it and remarked that it sounded like a train. That led to the idea that our narrated story would involve a train, and each stop that the train made was it's own story and a song would be attached to it.

Sharon: We started thinking of what Christmas meant to each of the people that we meet along this train ride. Some are happy, some are melancholy. We also wanted to touch on THE Christmas story, with its religious connotations. TSO leaves all of that out.

Scott:  Right, and this way we could change the songs up and not always be locked into performing the same exact story each year. The concept would be the same, but as I would write new songs, we could incorporate those into our story. We sort of equate it to Dr. Who, who travels through time and space. Our little train travels on Christmas Eve and can visit any place or anyone in any time, looking into people's lives.

Scott Kelly with The Wizards of Winter 2013
DR:  Who composes the music?

Scott:  Well, I never intended it for it to be me, but it worked out that way. We did try to write together as a band at first, but the music styles just didn't work together. 

Sharon:  We all worked cohesively together when performing, but with writing the music, each person was bringing such different dynamics that it wasn't working with what we had envisioned. Scott writes a lot of the melodies and I help with the lyrics.

Scott: Most times I write the music first and then backfit the lyrics. Then Steve and [guitarist] Fred Gorhau will come in and help with the arrangements. I usually present the melody and basic structure to the song, and they will work with that, adding in their bass and guitar parts in there.

DR:  Was the first time that either of you had written original music?

Scott:  The only other time was when I wrote out music for the drumline that I was working with.

Sharon: "Moments of Wonder" is a song that I wrote and sing lead on. We took an early iteration of that song and submitted it to a contest for Women of Substance, a radio show that was looking for new female talent. Among thousands of entries, that song was chosen and was played between a song by Carrie Underwood and Celine Dion, which was pretty amazing for us just starting out with our own material.

DR:  All of your songs seem to have a moral center to them. One of the differences I find between your songs and TSO's songs are that while TSO often uses metaphors and devised characters to tell their story, your songs are pretty straightforward about feelings. Your songs come right out and say, "Life is a gift", "Hold on to what you believe", "Remember Christmas memories"...

Sharon: We really just want people to think about their own lives. So often our lives are on autopilot and maybe for a couple of hours, they can sit in their seat while we play and think about their own lives and what's important. What it comes to for The Wizards of Winter are family and friends and sitting back, breathing and enjoying life. A lot of our songs reflect that.

Scott:  Our songs are from the heart. Our song "Simple Gifts" is a true story that took place right here in this house. As far as differences between us and TSO, what they put on is such a secular presentation of Christmas. We are not a religious or Christian act, but what is Christmas? We feel that the original Christmas story needs to be included and our train will always stop there; that's the first stop in our story. Yes, we are playing prog and metal like TSO does, but our story and the meaning behind it all is very different. It's not like we are presenting a moral tale, but we want to think about what does Christmas really mean? Why are people so different at that time of the year? 

DR:  You have mentioned that you were in Contrarian together and also performed as a duet together. And now here you are working together in The Wizards. Does working together musically as a married couple always come easy?

Sharon: It has always worked. This is obviously the biggest musical venture that we have been involved with and it can be stressful at times. It has taken off so quickly and the logistics can be overwhelming at times.

Sharon Kelly with The Wizards of Winter 2013

Scott:  She comes along kicking and screaming some days [Laughs]. We've been married for 34 years and as stressful as putting all of this together year round can be, I don't think it would work if our marriage wasn't as strong as it is.  I still have a day job, as do all of our band members and it can consume you. It becomes part of one's persona.

DR:  Will we see you in leather jackets and sunglasses soon?

Scott:  [Laughs] No, that won't happen.  But at the end of the day, we enjoy performing together and were proud of each other. When the audience roars and gets on their feet from something that we wrote and performed, we catch each other's eyes on stage. It's a good moment.

DR:  Do you find that your own material goes over as well as the TSO covers?

Scott:  We find that it goes over better than the TSO songs. And that's because we do it better than we do TSO's material. We certainly put our spin on their songs and we do them well, but it is still not like playing your own original material that you wrote and recorded. 

DR:  The production values in your live shows are similar to the early TSO shows. And as TSO's stage show becomes more extravagant and immense each year, there seems to be a growing contingent of fans that miss the intimacy when their shows were more music and personality and less fire and spectacle. Many of TSO's past performers have expressed similar thoughts. Can you relate to that?

Sharon: Absolutely. When we saw first saw them in concert there was such intimacy and you could really connect with the performers. That is something that we have experienced as well - I always recall at one show, I was singing in the audience and this little 6-year-old girl put her hand out and we hi-fived. It was such a great moment and that is what gets lost in the arena shows.

Scott:  We have definitely experienced this as we have grown. We're playing 1500-1800 seat theaters and we see the fans in the balcony, you can feel the separation already. A lot of times I will try to sneak up there before the show starts and shake hands, just to thank them for coming. As much as we are enjoying the growth in popularity, we really don't ever want it to get that big where it becomes a spectacle or a Circus McGurkus. Even as we move up into 3000-4000 seat venues, we lose a bit more of the audience connection - we saw what happened with TSO and it is something that we are very conscious of.

DR:  The group that makes up the Wizards of Winter today is not the same that started out a few years back.

Scott: No, there are just the three of us left. In the early years, we brought in folks that were passionate about it.  As we talked about earlier, we wanted a talented group, but also we wanted them to be here for the right reasons. As the band started tasting a bit of success, the attitudes of some started changing and didn't always fit with the overall vision. There are musicians that we haven't invited back for various reasons, but the band that we are today is very harmonious and the overall talent level is the best we have had.

DR:  You obviously handle the brunt of the keyboard work. Have you always had a second keyboardist on board?

Scott:  No, not in the beginning.  Sharon used to do auxiliary keys, but now we have Mary McIntyre who is a classical pianist, which helps a lot.

DR:  With TSO, some of the keyboard work is the doubling of the string parts. Do you do something similar?

Scott:  Yes, you really have to. We obviously only have the one violinist, and this helps thicken the sound.

DR:   2013 was a pretty eventful year for The Wizards. As your tour got underway, fans saw not just the band on stage, but four pretty special guests on stage with you: Can you talk a bit about how this marriage of The Wizards and four of the pillars of Trans-Siberian Orchestra got together?

Scott:  As a fan of TSO, I was certainly very familiar with their legendary performers, and I knew that some of them had formed their own group, The Kings of Christmas.  They had released an album but their tour dates wound up being canceled. I had wondered what had happened to them, so one day I sent Tommy Farese a message, telling him about our band, how we started, what we are doing now and I invited him to give a listen to our music. A short time later, he responded, "I really love your stuff, if you ever want me to appear as a guest at your show, let me know". Within minutes we were on the phone and we really just hit it off - we just laughed and exchanged road stories for a couple hours. We really connected and he asked me to send him more of our music, and things just progressed from there. He came back and said, "Look, Guy LeMonnier and Tony Gaynor want to come along too".
We talked about a guest appearance, then several shows, then the whole tour!

I now had to talk to the band and present this opportunity to them. I explained that we have three of the original TSO performers interested in touring with us and we had to learn some new music!  Tommy wanted to do "The Snow Came Down" and "Ornament", neither of which were in our show and Guy used to sing "Christmas in the Air" with TSO so we looked at that as well. It was different, because we were just starting to get away from it being an all-TSO show and adding in more of our originals, and now we were adding back in TSO songs with the singers that were associated with them. We had a lot of internal discussion about this, because all it was going to do was put the TSO spotlight on us, and this was something we were trying to move away from. This was going to change everything in how we were doing our shows.

DR:  What was the band's reaction to bringing these performers on board?

Sharon: We took a vote and everyone was in. I think everyone realized what a great opportunity this was.

Scott:  They came down to our rehearsal space in June of that year and we all really hit it off musically. They are all such pros and they really helped us to up our game, and we all got along really well. Then Tommy told us that Michael Lanning was on board as well !  We didn't start booking the dates right away, as they still were still looking at doing a Kings of Christmas tour, but ultimately it was decided that they would all just come out with us, so we were a little behind in setting up the tour.  The response was great; some fans started flying in from all over the country just to see these guys on stage again. And the bottom line was we had so much fun.

Sharon:  Tommy Farese, in particular, made us tighter and better as a band. He would come in to our rehearsals with an iron fist - in a good way though - and contributed so many great ideas and suggestions. 

Scott:  All four guys really loved our original material and I am really proud of that.

DR:   You mentioned a couple songs earlier, but what songs did they wind up performing on the tour?

Scott:  Guy did "Christmas in the Air" and one of our originals, "Special Feeling".  He loved that song so much, and he fits it so perfectly, that he came in to the studio and sang it on our new album! Tommy sang lead on "Old City Bar" and three of the TSO songs that he sang originally: "The Snow Came Down", "Ornament" and "This Christmas Day".  

Michael Lanning sang a beautiful solo of "The First Noel" with just piano backing, and his original "Benny the Christmas Tree" which is a real fun song. He also did "Christmas Nights in Blue" and "With a Little Help From My Friends" which he used to sing with TSO - that would bring the house down every night!  Tony of course shared the narrating duties with the narrator that we had at the time.

Highlights from the Wizards of Winter 2013 Tour
with special guests Tommy Farese, Tony Gaynor, Michael Lanning, Guy LeMonnier

DR:  With all of these songs now added to your setlist, did you change the story to accommodate them?

Scott: Yes. We changed the libretto to include those songs. It still had small pieces of the original TSO narration though, like the lead up to "Christmas Eve Sarajevo".

DR:  You seem to be in a unique situation. You started out as a TSO tribute band, evolved into doing your own music with a bit of TSO inspiration and a desire to move away from the TSO music.  But then adding in some of the original and fan-favorite TSO performers sort of steered you back in that direction again. 

Scott:  It is a mixed blessing. We talk to fans that don't know the difference at times between our songs and their songs. It gets crazy with some fans - these are not the hardcore TSO fans coming to see us for the most part. We still have fans bringing their TSO CDs to us to sign and we explain to them that most of what they just heard was Wizards of Winter music with us paying tribute to a few of TSO's classics. We've had fans tell us how they saw us at a particular arena and we have to explain that it wasn't us, but thanks for the compliment. [Laughs]

Sharon:  I had a fan comment to me about my performance of "Queen of the Winter Night" - she told me that I didn't let her down and that I sounded just as good as when she saw me at the Izod Center. [Laughs]

DR:  It seems like it was a win-win deal for the fans and the band to some extent though. Longtime fans got to once again see and hear the voices that built the TSO live show, doing songs that they were known for, and these fans were all introduced to your own music at the same time in a theater setting.

Scott:  Exactly - there was a certain amount of confusion for some fans, but TSO has a reputation for hiring quality talent, and these fellas were some of the best that they ever had. Fans know the quality and that certainly helped gain interest in our shows last year.

DR:  So after that hugely successful 2013 tour, you headed into the studio, recorded and now released the new self-titled CD for 2014.  I know the band had an earlier CD with limited availability, and it looks like you have re-recorded several of the songs from that earlier disc on the new one. Why?

Sharon:  Because of the quality of that first release. It just wasn't up to par. We didn't really have any money since almost all of it was going to charity, so it was not recorded in the best circumstances; we utilized an in-house member who didn't have the qualifications.

DR:  This new self-titled CD was recorded with all of the current band members?

Scott:  Yes - the band that you see on stage is the band that recorded the CD. And unlike the earlier album, this was done in a real studio with real engineers and mastering.

DR:  The album artwork has been created by Ioannis, one of the preeminent album cover artists working today.

Scott:  It is an honor to be able to work with him because of all of the legendary artists that he has created cover art for. He likes our music and he contacted us. He even came to rehearsals to really get a sense of what we are about and really created something special for our album art.

DR:  I wanted to ask specifically about some of the songs on the new album.  The first single from the album - "March of the Metal Soldiers" - garnered considerable attention when it was released on Memorial Day. The proceeds from those sales were going to the Wounded Warriors Project?

Sharon: Our son-in-law is a disabled vet so the military is very near and dear to our hearts.

Scott:  The original that it is based on is a Victor Herbert classic from Babes in Toyland. The original vision for this song that I had in my head was gladiators marching into an arena with big marching drums, which is my drumline experience creeping in there. And I wanted to make it regal and give it a bit of an ELP flair. There is even some influence from Rainbow's "Gates of Babylon" in there.

DR:  The vocal break in the middle - are they singing in Latin?

Scott:  With our son-in-law being a Marine, we certainly were familiar with 'Semper Fi' - Always Faithful. Each branch of the military has their own slogan or motto, so I took each one and translated it into Latin. The words together jointly are loosely translated as "Always faithful, not self but country. This we will defend. Integrity, service, always ready. These colors won't ever run." This seemed like a fitting tribute to all that sacrifice for our freedom. And yes, since this march is our tribute to the military, all of the proceeds from this song go to the Wounded Warrior Foundation.

DR:  "Toys will be Toys" is a fun instrumental 

Scott:  This song actually started its life as a finger exercise that I was doing in C#. From that, I developed the melody line and presented it to the band. They weren't thrilled playing a song in C#, but it came out great!  The story with the song is that no one sees the toys when they are alone underneath the tree, so this is them having a ball and playing while no one is around!

DR:  For "Night of Reflection", is that a mixture of "Ave Maria" with your original lyrics?

Scott:  Yes. For that one I really got the idea to tell the Christmas story from Mary's perspective. Here is this young, frightened girl who now has this great task imposed on her - to give birth to the Son of God.  How does she deal with that? One of our former vocalists wrote lyrics, and we massaged them a bit to get where the song is today.

DR: One of the songs on the CD is one that certainly brings down the house at your shows: "Once Long Ago". It's THE Christmas story and it has a dramatic 70's classic rock feel to it - was that intentional?

Scott:  The story in that song is being told by sort of a ghostly character, was it an angel?  It is clearly someone that was there to watch the events unfold. So it had sort of an eerie feel as I was writing it, so it also put me in mind of Phantom of the Opera. The organ break and the percussion are very influenced by Emerson Lake and Palmer, once again.

Sharon: When that song came about, we envisioned someone with Vinny Jiovino's voice and now that is exactly who we have singing it! We wanted some drama to it, similar to Phantom of the Opera. The singer that sang it previously never quite captured the drama that we envisioned - it was always choppier in the verses. The version on our new CD is exactly as we had always pictured.                            


DR:  You mentioned earlier that  Guy LeMonnier has recorded "Special Feeling". Is he on anything else on the album?

Scott:  He sings a duet with Mary McIntyre on "Just Believe". I really enjoy working with Guy. That first day in the studio when he came down and sang "Special Feeling", our jaws dropped. It was like, "That's the voice!".  When I sat down to write "Just Believe", it was his voice that I could hear in my head singing it. 

Sharon:  Guy and Mary really came in mind when we were working on "Just Believe".  They just really brought that song to life. And for the tour, he is much more involved, helping with vocal arrangements and backing vocals as well.

DR: I did want to ask about a TSO song that you perform live, but I find it somewhat unexpected - "Whoville". TSO has never performed this one live, but your band seems to have a lot of fun with it.

Sharon: It's so much fun and it really ties our story together, with our trip to the North Pole with Mary as Mrs. Claus and all of the toys. And Tony gets to step away from the narration on this one and he joins us on backing vocals. It's just a really fun song.
The Wizards of Winter - Weinberg Center, Frederick, MD 12/4/14
Photo courtesy of Vicki Bender

DR: Do you have a particular favorite song to perform?

Sharon: Of the TSO songs we still include, I like doing "First Snow" and of ours, I think "Gales of December".

Scott:  For me, it's "Once Long Ago", "Sing O'Alleluia" and one of our new instrumentals "The Journey".

DR:  For the 2014 tour, you mentioned that Guy LeMonnier is returning with an even more increased role as he has officially joined the band.  Is Tony Gaynor involved more as well?

Scott: Yes,  The "Voice of Voices", as Tommy Farese coined the phrase. Tony is our sole narrator now, where as previously we split the role between our previous narrator and Tony. An exciting change is that Tony will not be tied to a mic stand - he will be wearing a mic so he can move around the stage a bit more.

DR: Also for the 2014 tour, I see vocalist Joe Cerisano is now on board. Joe obviously has a long successful history in the music business, and has the TSO connection as well, being a featured vocalist with TSO for several years and the voice of their song "Dream Child".  What does he bring to the table for The Wizards?

Sharon: Joe is such a professional and so kind. He is here for the love of the music. He really has enjoyed being part of what we are doing here, and he is another who has pointed out how similar our band and outlook are to the early days of TSO touring. 

Scott: He sort of brings the father figure feeling to the band - he has experienced so much in the music business and he is very assuring and very positive. For the tour, he is singing the songs that he used to sing with TSO, but we have also talked about recording with him as well. We looked at a couple of our original songs that he really likes but we just ran out of time this go-round. We are looking at doing something together in the studio though.
The Wizards of Winter - State Theater, Portland, ME 11/28/14
Photo courtesy of Vicki Bender

DR:   Over the last few years, you have played as far south as Norfolk, Virginia, and as far north as Niagara Falls, Canada and Portland Maine. Any favorite places to play so far? Or any places that you really want to play?

Sharon: I really like playing in Maine and I love the State Theater in Easton. I would love to play in Florida, Tennessee and in Texas.

Scott: The audience in Maine is unreal - they are so great. We have had a lot of wonderful audiences, but Maine certainly is the loudest. Over all the years, that small theater in Pottsville, Pennsylvania was one of the most fun places to play.  

DR:  What is next for The Wizards of Winter?
Scott:  It has definitely taken on a life of its own, so we are looking at a number of things. There will be another album, maybe an EP as well. We are looking at various opportunities to tour nationally, but they have to make sense in a number of ways. 

DR:  Could you see yourself splitting into more than one touring group to visit more cities in the lead-up to Christmas?

Scott:  I can. Based on the offers that have been coming in, we could have probably even done that this year, there is certainly audience demand for it. We think there is certainly room for us in the market, as we offer something different from the Mannheim Steamrollers and TSOs of the world.  I am up for the journey, but we will probably need some investing assistance, just like the others did.

DR:  Do you have any plans to do anything outside of the Christmas theme?

Scott:  I do, I have actually been working on something with a pirate story that will be a progressive rock epic. Both the music and the story are in a preliminary form, so not sure when that will happen. Right now we are concentrating on the Christmas show, guiding and building that up.

DR:  Thanks so much for taking the time.

Sharon:  It's been our pleasure!

The Wizards of Winter - State Theater, Portland, ME 11/28/14
Photo courtesy of Vicki Bender

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