Interview: Trans-Siberian Orchestra’s Chris Caffery on his holiday tradition and metal misconceptions

Overplayed Christmas songs, annoying shoppers and that dude from the Salvation Army ringing a bell nonstop outside of the local supermarket are just some of the things guaranteed to go down at this time of year. That’s why it’s pretty amazing to get lost in another holiday season staple for a few hours with Trans-Siberian Orchestra, who come to the Garden tomorrow for an afternoon and evening show.

The TSO grew out of the incredibly fertile mind of producer Paul O’Neill after he had written a series of rock operas with the prog-metal band Savatage. Launching in 1996 with Christmas Eve and Other Stories, the revolving cast of players quickly became a tradition for millions, moving quickly from small theaters to massive stadiums around the world. This time around, Trans-Siberian Orchestra is dipping into the past, performing the second installment of their Christmas Trilogy, 1998’s The Christmas Attic, for the first time in full.

With an unparalleled live show that continues to reach new heights, it’s the backgrounds of many of the TSO musicians, which have included Testament’s Alex Skolnick and Al Pitrelli, best known for his work in Megadeth, that remain most interesting. Vanyaland caught up with guitarist Chris Caffery, who got his start in Savatage, to talk about metal misconceptions, keeping it fresh and what’s in store for his former band, who are slated to reunite at next year’s Wacken Open Air Festival in Germany.

Tell me about the decision to break out The Christmas Attic this year.

Paul always said that there’s something about music when you create it in the studio that’s very different and special when you get to perform it for people live. So when he was making the decision about what to do this year, he just decided to complete the cycle and give The Christmas Attic a chance to make it to the stage.

With the new stage set — which I’ve never seen anybody do before – it’s really different, and it has a completely different feel to it. I’m happy that [Paul] made the decision because it completes getting all three of those records out there live. It’s been fun.

How much of it is a way to keep it fresh for you guys every year?

It’s a completely different show, and that alone for the band makes it fresh right there. As far as the other stuff we play, songs like “Wizards in Winter” and “Christmas Eve/Sarajevo 12/24,” the songs that are this bands most popular songs, those are songs that we’ve been playing for 16 years but there’s people that have never seen us play them.

Those are some of the most exciting moments of the show. It’s weird because I really don’t think there’s a problem with keeping it fresh with this level of production; it’s always something new and cool on the stage that you’ve never seen before. We’re constantly changing what people see on that stage every year.

Did you have any idea when you joined Trans-Siberian Orchestra not only would it get this big, but that it would become the holiday institution that it has?

I don’t think anybody really did, but Paul is the only person – and I say this constantly – that had in his mind how big TSO could get as far as popularity, He was talking right before we did the first tour and saying, “When TSO does arenas,” and we hadn’t even done the first show yet; but he was already in the frame of mind, “When we get into arenas.” Then he got to the point, “When we headline stadiums.”

I think there was a bonding process when it came to the fans. At first it was couples in theaters, and then they brought their kids and then they brought their uncles and aunts and their step-brother they hadn’t seen in 20 years, and then we started doing single shows in arenas and then it just spread. That’s the connection between Paul’s lyrics and the messages and the quality of the show that the band puts on stage.

That time of year has just created a bond between the fans and the band that we wanted to be a part of every year. For us it’s kind of surreal to be synonymous with the calendar for some of these people. You know, they look at the calendar and see April and say, “Ok this is when the kids are on spring break,” then they look at June and say, “Ok, this is when this happens and we go on vacation.” And then they look at their calendar and say, “Ok, this is when we’re going to see Trans-Siberian Orchestra,” and that’s the craziest part about it, and that’s why Paul makes sure every year to take it to a different level. It’s a privilege what we do.

Chris Caffery

I think some people are surprised to find out the backgrounds of some of the musicians in TSO and sort of that they do in their “day jobs” from the bands Al played in to Alex being in Testament and obviously yourself in Savatage.

It’s not that… weird for me, because I’ve worked with Paul for 30 years. When Savatage first brought keyboards and piano into heavy metal, it was kind of a groundbreaking thing. Bands had used piano in heavy metal songs before, but we had songs written around the instrument of piano. If you look at our videos from the Gutter Ballet record, it was a small orchestra with a rock band. For me, that formula that Savatage had, the rock opera formula, we had the rock theater element in our music; we had a lot of the stuff that has been used in TSO. So for me, it was a really natural thing to go from Savatage to TSO.

Alex was always a very well-rounded player who had the ability to play lots of different styles of music. Somebody like Al can play anything; it’s not like he wrote it, but five minutes after listening to it he can play it — I’ve never worked with a guitar player in my life who could do that.

There’s a misconception out there in the mainstream that metal artists, even when it’s something as textured as prog-metal, that it’s just a bunch of meat and potatoes stuff, yet what you have done, it sort of flies in the face of that.

Yeah, exactly. Like with TSO, it is a rock band with a theater element to it, and it’s really hard to put one tag on this band. And it’s going to keep changing and growing as Paul’s ideas change and grow. The way those songs are played live, and the classical elements involved are very powerful.

When you first started touring with Trans-Siberian, you talked about how it’s gone from couples to families to extended families. Obviously it’s a different audience than what you had been accustomed to with Savatage. How do you reconcile the two, like when you go back and play to straight ahead metal audiences?

Well the craziest thing about the heavy metal audiences is that I’ve been touring since I was a 17 year old, and that was 30 years ago. There really isn’t anybody around that isn’t an older adult now. If anybody that was watching me when they were 15 are 45 now. Then there’s a bunch of 16, 17 year olds that come to the TSO shows that get turned on to Savatage and say, “Savatage is my favorite band,” and the music is proving itself to be pretty timeless with that.

Paul would always say, “It’s easy to write a song about a car or a girl, but it’s not an easy thing to write a song that’s going to change somebody’s life.” That’s the thing about a song like “Believe” or the songs like “Ornament” I’d see tons of people crying in the audience every night. These emotions that get passed along from these songs didn’t die with the generation, they weren’t written about something that was happening at that moment — they were written about life. And life goes on and that’s the most special thing about it.

What can you tell me about the status of Savatage these days? Obviously you’re playing Wacken next year, are there plans beyond that for either live shows or new material?

I’m gonna put it this way: for 12 years, 13 years, I’ve been waiting for my band to play again. We’re playing again. I don’t know what’s going to happen after that [laughs], but there were people that were putting a fork in it, and we’re getting up and not just running a marathon, were running in the Olympics with this festival being what it is. I’m not going to make any predictions, but let’s just say there’s a possibility that something more will happen after Wacken – that’s all I can say. And nothing would make me happier.

TRANS-SIBERIAN ORCHESTRA :: Saturday December 20 @ TD Garden, 100 Legends Way, Boston :: 3 p.m. and 8 p.m., all-ages, $40 to $70 :: Advance tickets :: Do617 event page

Follow Michael Christopher on Twitter @blackbranchmc.