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17 February 2014 @ 08:53 pm
The Trans-Siberian Orchestra Interviews: Jeff Plate - December 5, 2013 - Part I  


The Trans-Siberian Orchestra Interviews:
Jeff Plate - December 5, 2013

Interview, photos & videos captured by Brad Parmerter unless noted otherwise.

Confined and somewhat hidden behind his massive kit, unable to run around the expansive Trans-Siberian Orchestra stage, drummer Jeff Plate might not be the most recognizable member of TSO, but he has provided the heartbeat for the band since the beginning after taking a seat on the Savatage drum throne in 1994. Savatage producer Paul O'Neill created TSO to be a prog rock band that could handle any musical style, a challenge Jeff has risen to with masterful precision.

For fans who have shaken hands in the post-show signing line of the TSO East band though, Jeff is typically the first member fans see, greeting all with a smile, "Hello," and words of encouragement for drummers and musicians of all ages. Leading by example, Jeff is an example of the adage "opportunity meets preparation" as his hard and tireless work honing his craft enabled him to rise to the occasion when given the opportunity to prove his skill and ability.

I spoke at length with Jeff in December about his career, Savatage, the first TSO show, drumming, touring, setlists, The Lost Christmas Eve tour, special guests, the then upcoming Berlin New Year's Eve performance, the blurred lines between Savatage and TSO, specific Savatage and TSO songs, his other band Metal Church, TSO fans, the differences between TSO theater vs arena shows, and much more.

Jeff Plate, pre-show December 23, 2013, Boston, MA

Bp: Good morning Jeff, how are you?

Jeff Plate: Good, how are you?

Bp: Good. Welcome to Albany. I was wondering if we could start at the beginning, could you briefly give a quick history of Jeff Plate. Why you started playing, when you started, that kind of thing.

Jeff Plate: From the very beginning?

Bp: The very beginning. What were some early influences? When did you start playing?

Jeff Plate: Well when I was a kid my parents used to always listen to music. I don't want to sound like a dinosaur, but when I was young I had three television channels. So we had American Bandstand and Soul Train and stuff like that on Saturday afternoons, and then there was Hee Haw Saturday nights and some other musical shows on throughout the week. Sometimes Johnny Carson, that kind of thing. My parents always listened to the radio, my dad loved country music, so I was brought up in that environment. Plus I lived in the country, a very rural part of New York.

For some reason through all this I gravitated towards drums. I don't know if it was just because I was an athletic kid and it seemed like natural progression. I saw Chicago on television when I believe I was maybe 11 or 12 years old and it just completely blew me away. I was just so interested in what was going on. Chicago 7 is the first record I ever bought, I think when I was 12. Listening back to this record now, it is so all over the place and eclectic. It's rock, it's jazz, it's pop; it's everything. I'm surprised I was listening to something like this when I was that young. But that record really turned me on to music, and then a year later I stayed up and I watched the Midnight Special, which was on Friday night, and I saw Kiss. They came out, played "Deuce" and "Black Diamond" and I was forever changed. That moment in time, I can see it like it was yesterday, and that was the thing that completely set me off into orbit as far as what I was going to do with my life. And I was going to do that. So fast forward all these years and I just kept on playing drums and practicing and did some stuff for school, some private lessons, kept playing in local bands. I left my small upstate NY town and went to Florida which was a failure, came back home, went to Boston and that is where I really learned what was going on as far as where I was as a musician. There were drummers in the Boston area that I met and saw that could play circles around me with one hand and one foot...I realized I had a lot of work ahead of me. So anyhow, I started taking some private lessons out there. I was in some cover bands, did some original stuff, I ended up in a band called Wicked Witch. The lead vocalist was Zak Stevens. After several years of beating the streets of the Boston area and having some minimal success, we did not get the record deal that we were hoping to do. But Zak ended up getting a chance to join the band Savatage.

In 1992 is when I believe he left Wicked Witch, and it was one of those bittersweet things because I was so happy for the guy because he was getting to do something better. At the same time, I knew I wasn't going to be able to replace him. So as Zak went on to join Savatage, the band Wicked Witch kind of just floundered around for a year or so and the whole thing kind of fell apart. That's when I decided to move back to NY, having spent 10 years in Boston trying to be a rock star, trying to get that elusive record deal, all of the above. We came close, I didn't do it, and I thought, "It's time to go home and rethink some things, and maybe rethink my path and priorities." But I was always going to be involved in music somehow. So Zak joined Savatage, they put out the Edge of Thorns record, which was a great record and kind of put the band back on the map. They had a whole new energy and things were going well and then guitarist and founding member, Criss Oliva, died in a car accident in 1993.

Soon after this, I called Zak to see how he was and what he was doing. I didn’t know what was happening with Savatage. As it turns out Paul O'Neill and Jon Oliva were listening to the demo tape that I had done with Wicked Witch and liked my playing and also had some photos, liked what they saw and wanted me to join the band. So this completely came out of nowhere. I did not expect anything like this to happen when I was sitting on my couch in Horseheads, NY. Of course I accepted. I went down to Florida, met Jon, Paul and Johnny Middleton. At this point they were doing the Handful of Rain record with Alex Skolnick playing guitar. So that's how I got into the Savatage fold.

I did a tour of the States in 1994, at the end of that year we did Japan Live 1994. From there I’ve done three other studio records with the band. Dead Winter Dead came out in 1995. To say it was the birth of TSO is not exactly true, because Paul and Jon had been working on this type of a project for years prior. But "Christmas Eve/Sarajevo 12/24" was the song off of Dead Winter Dead that kinda took off in a completely different direction, and lo and behold we had a hit song on our hands that was thriving on contemporary adult radio. Paul and our management decided to take the song and run with it, and the Trans-Siberian Orchestra name was put to it. Christmas Eve and Other Stories was recorded a year later and here we are, 5 albums and 15 years of touring later TSO, is alive and well and I’ve been here since the very first note. It's been an interesting run and that's about as condensed a version of this as I can come up with at this time. The journey has been interesting and better than I could have ever imagined.

Savatage "Edge of Thorns" - Live in Japan; 1994

Bp: Now you guys gigged really hard with Wicked Witch for a year or so and then as you mentioned you moved back to NY and were rethinking things and then kind of all of a sudden you were in Savatage and playing on larger stages than you had played before. How was that transition?

Jeff Plate: Well, obviously like I said, when I got the offer to join Savatage I was literally in shock and I really couldn't believe this opportunity happened. I will say this, and I've talked to a lot of kids, a lot of my students, I've done some discussions in some schools, business classes, it all comes from [having] a good reputation. Zak highly recommended me and he wasn't going to stick his neck out for me unless he knew I was up to the job, that I was a pro, that I was serious, that I was dedicated. So I felt really good that all of my hard work and preparation helped me get this gig. It wasn't just the drumming part of it, because Savatage had gone through the loss of Criss Oliva which was huge, Jon Oliva had previously stepped down as lead vocalist and that's why Zak Stevens came in so the band Savatage was completely upside down at that time. When I came in I was very naive to a lot of the history of the band and stuff like that, but you know my whole thought process when I joined these guys was just shut your mouth, do your job, don't give them any reason to doubt you.

So that's how I came in and approached this and of course I was nervous, but when I met the guys and Johnny Middleton especially, who has been my friend ever since, he was just so cool. "Welcome aboard, are you ready to rock?" Those are the first things he ever said to me. I was like, "Yep!" And then the rest is history. Zak I had known for years prior, and everyone else was just great so when I came into this there was a comfort level there. When we first started doing our tour in the States in '94, IT WAS a rebuilding moment for the band. Not that Wicked Witch was playing in front of thousands of people in the Boston area, but we were an established club band. We were doing hundreds of people a night when we were playing our shows, so the transition was not that bad. It's the excitement that you're out there, and now you're in an internationally known, signed band, doing a real tour. At first a little intimidating, but everything around it just all fell into place really quick and I felt great. I knew I belonged there and the guys completely accepted me. Here again, like I said in the beginning, it was just about me going in there playing the part, doing everything I was asked to do. Steve Wacholz, who was my predecessor, had quite a history and made quite a name for himself [as a] great metal drummer. The early version of Savatage was just a fantastic hard rock band so I had my work cut out for me. I had some shoes to fill there. But when it got rolling I felt very comfortable. When we actually got over to Japan and did the live record it was such a relief in a sense that it's like, "Wow, I just did a tour. I just recorded a record. Two things I always dreamed of doing I did within months of each other!" I also knew that my place in the band was pretty solid at that point so the comfort level and the reassurance from the guys was really good. But obviously the excitement when you get a chance to join a band like this and go out and do some touring and that kind of thing, it was huge. But like I said, it was something I had been gearing up for my entire life. It came at a time when I thought things were going to have to change for me, and then I get the phone call and now I am here talking to you.

Bp: When I talked to Al, about a year or so ago, we had talked about, his career and he drove home the phrase "opportunity meets preparation." It sounds like that was instrumental in your case as well.

Jeff Plate: Exactly. I mean I was a big fish in a small pond in my town in New York and I knew when I was 18 if something is gonna happen I gotta get outta here. Like I said earlier, when I went to Boston and saw the competition and what I was up against it was like, "Holy crap! Okay, time to buckle down." So it was practicing hours a day, working with a good teacher, looking at bands, watching shows, doing all this and that, studying things, feeling things. You learn from experience, but you also learn from watching people that are better than you.

So I really took all that to heart and I just always felt that if I could just prove myself night after night and keep getting better then something good will come out of it. That doesn't always happen, and I realized that. My train of thought when I had moved back to New York was, "Hey, I did everything I could and I tried and it didn't work. I'm not the only one that had been through this." So when the Savatage gig came up I was doing construction at home at the time. My boss, who was my cousin, he basically fired me so I wouldn't drive a nail through my foot or fall off a ladder or something. He just said, "Get out of here. Go practice. Go do what you're supposed to do. Don't screw up this opportunity." So before I actually got down to Florida and started rehearsing for Savatage I knew almost every song I could find inside and out. I'd been practicing for hours upon hours, day after day, week after week and here again, when I got down there, I didn't give them any excuse to doubt me. I knew the songs so well that once we started playing together it really jelled pretty quickly.

Bp: What did you play for your audition down there?

Jeff Plate: You know I'm trying to remember. Honestly, the weird thing about it was there really wasn't an audition. I went down to Florida, they were in the studio recording Handful of Rain. I walked in and there was Jon and Paul and Zak and I'm like, "Holy cow, this is so cool." The next day Johnny comes over, I met him and then Alex Skolnick. I knew the name Alex Skolnick more than I knew the name Savatage. I knew who the band was, but I didn't really know the music that well. I had seen "Gutter Ballet" and "Hall Of The Mountain King" on [MTV’s] Headbanger’s Ball a few times. Alex Skolnick at the time was very popular and in all of the guitar magazines; Testament was successful. When I met Alex it was really exciting for me, but I also realized too, this dude is my guitar player, and I need to really step it up. So it all really came together. The first song I played with these guys, I think it might have been "Jesus Saves." You know, basically, I went down and met the guys, we did some photos, listened to the music, they sent me home they said, "Go learn everything," and that's what I did. So next time I came back down we just started playing.

Bp: Wow. That’s amazing.

Jeff Plate: Yeah, it's kind of interesting. Here again, not anything like I expected how this was going to happen.

Bp: Right, wow. We’ll circle back to Savatage again in a bit, but if we can move to the early days of TSO, what memories do you have of the first TSO tour in 1999?

Jeff Plate: I always tell this story because I think it's hilarious. Johnny and I were standing on the side of the stage at the Tower Theater in Philadelphia, waiting to go out, Johnny was so nervous his leg was twitching. I was sweating. We're thinking, here we are wearing tuxedos and we're gonna go out and play Christmas music, what are we doing? And the dry ice was rolling across the stage right into the laps of this older couple who were sitting in the front row. And they were dressed for a symphony orchestra performance. You know, he had this nice black tuxedo suit on, she was wearing a red dress with a shawl and hair done up. Probably 60ish in age and the dry ice was rolling off the stage right into their lap. We looked at each other and said, "We are doomed!" And we went out there and did the show and this couple loved it. They stayed the whole time! We got done with the show, took the bow, the gentleman stuck his hand up and gave me a high five and I walked off that stage and said, "Wow, I can't believe that just happened!" And that was kind of the gist of what happened every show after that. Here we are kind of questioning what's going on here. You know, we were a metal band at one point in shorts and t-shirts playing festivals and coming on and playing "Taunting Cobras," "Hall of the Mountain King" and now we're out here in tuxedos playing "First Snow" and "Mad Russians" and stuff like that. It was just a contrast to what we had come from.

Trans-Siberian Orchestra "A Last Illusion/Requiem" - Live in Philadelphia, PA; Dec. 10, 1999 - courtesy You Tube

Bp: So you weren't nervous that you couldn't do the show well or perform well, you were nervous that you guys were just gonna bomb.

Jeff Plate: We were nervous that the audience was not going to accept it. The band was very good. At the time it was, I'll say the ‘original members,’ if that's how you want to term it: myself, Johnny, Caffery, Al, Oliva was not performing but he was part of the whole thing, there was Bob Kinkel, and that core group of people had already done several Savatage records together. So we were tight as a unit. Then you added Mark Wood on electric violin, and the singers were all knocking it out of the park. As far as the talent and the ability of the band, there was really no question about that, it was just how is this audience going to accept this Christmas thing? And along with the couple that was dressed to the nines to watch our show, there's dudes in the audience with Savatage shirts and Metallica shirts and everybody in between and it was just the weirdest scene. Here again, you come to a TSO show today you're gonna see the exact same thing, only you're gonna see 10,000 of them. It was really more a question of the audience accepting what we were doing. We knew what we were doing was different, but we were doing it well. "Let's go out here and do our thing and see what happens." And here I am 15 years later talking about it, and it's still kind of baffling, but it's great.

Bp: It doesn't make sense on paper at all.

Jeff Plate: No, and this is exactly... when you talk to people about the show, they'll look at you like you’ve got three heads when you try to describe all the elements of the show. You need to come see it because if I tell you what's involved in this you'll think I'm nuts and it doesn't make a whole lotta sense. But when you see the show, and here again, we've seen this thing grow to the level it's at right now, people walk out of there thinking it's the best show they've ever seen. What I like to tell people is it's going to be the most unique show you've ever seen; whether you like certain elements of it or not, we do what we do very well. The way the whole thing is put together and presented to the audience with the narration, with the story, the production, the cast that's on the stage… you really don't see a performance like this anywhere. That's the main thing that I try to tell people, to sell them on this, to at least get them in the door. Then usually they'll come back every year after that and bring as many people as they can. And that's how this whole thing has grown.

Bp: It's been word of mouth from the theaters to now the arenas and with that switch from the theaters to the arenas, obviously you'd played big places with Savatage, but with TSO was that change comfortable for you? Do you prefer the arenas as opposed to the theaters?

Jeff Plate: I do. You know, it's different for me being a drummer because my kit is my stage. It's not like I'm a guitar player or a vocalist, sometimes your performance depends on the size of the stage you have to work with.

For me, I'm in the same space all the time. The theater IS so cool because the audience is literally right on top of you at times, like the Beacon Theater in New York and the Orpheum in Boston. I remember that second tier, that second level, that front row seemed like you could just reach out and slap their hand. So that was one of the questions when we made the transition, is the audience going to lose that personal connection with the band? And I think for some people they still would rather see us in a theater but at the same time you're not gonna get near the production and the show that we're able to do in an arena. Obviously you can't fit 19 trucks of production in the theater. And I know if you're sitting up in the upper deck in the back you may not recognize who I am, but the show itself is so overwhelming. It's not so much the individual person that's on the stage, but it's the show. Here again, the whole theater thing that was one thing that was lost was some of the individuality, you know people could actually see who you were pretty much from whatever seat you were sitting in. When you get into the arena, obviously the further back you get the lines get blurred a little bit. You can't really tell who's who up there sometimes but the overall show is just spectacular compared to what we were able to do in the theater.

Bp: Does that bother you losing the individuality of each performer?

Jeff Plate: Ummm....no, not really. You know what, my deal is I'm the drummer in TSO. I've been here from the beginning and I plan on being here until, either this thing comes to an end, which I don't see happening, or I'm not able to play anymore and I'm very comfortable with that. This is my gig. This is my job. It isn't so much about my own glory as it is the whole package. People need to love the show so they can come back and see the show again. And this is really kind of how TSO was set up. It isn't about an individual, it is about a story, it's about a presentation, it's about a performance and a production that is going to allow people to come and go and also allow the audience just to be completely blown out of their socks [so] they want to come back and see it again. And I mean, the individual part of that, as far as I'm concerned, it's really not an issue and it's really not a factor in what I do. I go up there, I do what I do behind the drums and it's worked for all these years and I don't see anything really changing with that. Some people, sometimes they have a little problem with it, but I certainly don't.

Bp: With any band there’s the group of fans who always want their band and the experience before they moved to larger venues. I know some fans who dearly miss that intimacy of that show and rail against the larger-scale production, but I try to explain to them it was always in the plan for a huge production. That Paul would've had the pyro and the huge production in the theaters on the first tour if he could have, but he couldn’t.

Jeff Plate: Right. Sure.

Bp: The means weren't there. So this was always in the plan to have a giant show, it's just you couldn't fit it in the theater.

Jeff Plate: We couldn't fit it in the theater and the thing a lot of people do not understand is the amount of money it costs to even pull this thing out of the driveway for the first show. There is a huge investment in everything that we do and now that we've gotten to a point where we can sell out arenas obviously you can afford to do what we're doing now. When we were doing theaters and you're only selling 2,000 or 2,500 tickets, you're not generating enough money to be able to produce a show like that.

But now that the thing has gotten bigger obviously there's more of a cash flow, financially you can afford to put on a show like this. It's another thing people don't think about either, that every year Paul decides to take this thing out on the road there's just a huge financial risk factor there. I mean huge beyond something you and I probably can't even comprehend. But to go out there and finance this thing and put it in these rooms and present the show like people see it is quite an undertaking. Not just on the physical end of it, you know putting this thing up, performing the show, tearing it down, moving it from city to city, but just the planning and the financial end of it that is involved in making this thing work from the very beginning is, you know, people generally don't think about that.

But you are right, Paul has always been looking at this type of a production, this type of a show and once TSO took off, so to speak, and really became an arena act, we were selling tickets by the millions then all of a sudden you could afford to put up all the lights, and the trusses, the lasers, the fire, everything that's going on. You look back at the old Savatage videos, "Gutter Ballet," "When The Crowds Are Gone," you are going to see the very early markings of TSO in those videos. The way the lighting looked, the orchestra, the piano, the symphonic kind of classical tone to the music and looking back on that first show in '99, it's very similar to some of these Savatage videos that were done prior to that. And this is Paul's vision, he had it since then so now he's able to bring the whole thing out in full force and for people who are looking to go be entertained, you're going to get it with this show and there's no doubt about it.

Bp: Also staying on kinda the theatre to the arena transition, at that time you moved from acoustic to electronic drums.

Jeff Plate: Yes...

Bp: I think I know the answer, but which do you prefer?

Jeff Plate: Well I prefer the acoustic drums. That comes with being an old school drummer. That's what I grew up on. I'm glad you asked this question because this is something that I get asked often. The problem that we had when we first started doing the theaters, is acoustic drums are loud. Theaters are designed to project sound. A good theater is designed for me to be able to stand on the stage and talk and you can still hear me in the upper deck with no amplification, no p.a. So you put an acoustic drum set in there and a rock drummer that’s hitting them pretty hard, it's going to be loud. We ran into a situation where we could not control the volume of the drums without padding them down to where they didn't sound good or without me learning how to play differently. I'm a rock drummer, TSO at its core is a rock band, so the electronic thing came about because we had this problem. Then Roland at the time came out with the electronic kit with the mesh heads and we checked out a kit and I got into it. I got into the brain and designed a sound that was similar to my Pearl drum set, the tunings of it, the tones of it and that's what we've gone with all these years. But initially the move was made to control the volume of the drums which was very important. We weren't playing to 20 year old metalheads. Like I said at the first show you’ve got some older people in the audience and some very young people so the idea is to make the show and the volume comfortable for everybody. Then you fast forward to when we were starting to do two shows a day, all of a sudden the idea of an acoustic kit that you had to change heads all the time, retune all the time, and all of the maintenance that goes along with it, just maintaining an acoustic kit on a tour like this, it made a lot more sense to have the electronic kit. You set the thing up, you plug it in, you turn the juice on, you hit it and boom, you're ready to go. It sounds exactly the same as it did the night before and now that we have been doing this all these years, it is our look, our sound, and I've learned to adjust to playing them. I mean, we've got them set up where they feel as much like an acoustic kit as possible.

Bp: Physically for you it's different because acoustic drums have a certain give when you hit them and electronics don't have that same feel and give. So it's got to be a little bit more physically wearing for you, right?

Jeff Plate: Well yes and no, I mean the harder pads will always bother you after a while, but like I said, the mesh heads on these drums, it feels like I'm playing an acoustic kit.

Bp: Okay.

Jeff Plate: I mean, obviously you're not going to have some of the same dynamics and the sensitivity that you have with an acoustic drum set. As far as the actual feel of the heads and what I go through playing them, there isn't a whole lot of difference.

I say that too because I've done this for so long with these drums I've just gotten used to playing them and working my way around some of those differences between the electronics and the acoustics. But the way we've got it set up we're using the latest pads, the latest sensitivities, the response, the heads themselves, you can adjust the tension on them and it makes a huge difference. You have no idea, when I first joined Savatage and we were doing some demo stuff in the studio we were using an electronic kit that had the hard pads. They were basically a piece of wood with a thin piece of rubber on it and it just killed your hands after a while so now these new kits have come quite a ways in feeling and responding a lot more like an acoustic kit. Now this is our look, this is our sound and with the amount of shows that we do it would really compound my tech's workload if we were using an acoustic kit where he was changing out heads every day and retuning. It certainly makes things a lot easier for us. But having said all that, I've listened to live tapes and you know I hear the west band rehearse, these drums sound pretty damn good. It took us a long time to hone in on a sound and try to make them sound real. I think they sound really good.

Bp: And also the time of year that you guys primarily tour during the winter you've got cold trucks and hot stages which would make the acoustic drums even more temperamental.

Jeff Plate: Oh, absolutely. I go through it with cymbals sometimes. You know sometimes when the weather is extremely cold, you go into a venue and next thing you know you have flames and everything else going on, the temperature change certainly has dealt the cymbals a serious blow at times. Sometimes when they're not warmed up and they're still cold, they're rigid they tend to crack a little bit easier. In your reference to the acoustic drums, you're going to have that kind of a problem too. So it all works out. It was a necessary change in the beginning as far as volume and control of the sound and now it's a no brainer. I think this is really the way to go with what we do.

Bp: Now for the past couple of years you guys have been using the SMPTE time code to sync the band with the lighting and video cues. Was that much of an adjustment?

Jeff Plate: Well, pretty minimal actually. I mean as far as that's concerned I always have used a metronome. Back when I was younger and I got into a real serious practicing and a teaching situation when I was out in Boston one of the main things was, "Here's your metronome, learn to love it." So I was always playing with a click, when I was practicing whether it was on my drum kit or my drum pad. TSO, and with any band that I play in now, from my cover band [Rust] to Metal Church, and everything in between, I use a metronome. I may not always play to the click, but it is always there as a reference. TSO began using a click for almost everything because that way there's no variance. It’s hard, especially to be on a schedule like this where you can be fatigued, you know tempos can change, I mean I'm only human....if you have a metronome everything is exactly the same every night. We were using the metronome quite a bit before a lot of the SMPTE became involved, and honestly it's just playing to a click. We have to learn the ins and outs of the starting and stopping playing of certain sections and it's no different than me using a metronome, so it was not a hard transition at all. The lighting is so intense, the video cues and the production cues that we're doing now, without the SMPTE it would be hard to make all that happen.

Bp: When you're out in Omaha, do you take in the west's full production rehearsal?

Jeff Plate: Sure. Every year. It's interesting because you sit out there and you see what's going on from a totally different perspective. As far as the drummer's concerned, you can watch the show and see certain spots when the lighting has got you really singled or you are kind of in the dark. So you learn where to pick and choose your spots. You know what I mean? It's also interesting too just to be able to hear this thing in its full glory with all the guitars and strings and everything coming at you. It's great. We've also been using my drum tech, Imy James, as a backup drummer, so he does some of my soundchecks. It's interesting for me to stand out in front and listen to my band playing, I’m getting the audience perspective, which is a bit different than my monitor mix.

Jeff and Imy James, drum tech extraordinaire

Bp: What is your monitor mix like? What does it favor or is it pretty well balanced?

Jeff Plate: Well, obviously, drums. We've got such a great crew and great equipment. Besides my drums being the loudest in my mix I have a mix of everything. If you wanted to lower the volume of my drums a couple db you would have a real cd sounding mix in my ears. I’ve got both guitars, both keyboards, I have all the strings, all the vocals. I think that's important. I like hearing everything. For me it helps make the band tighter and obviously it also helps me to hear when something is a little amiss, I'm able to hear it and these are things we correct the next day or in discussion after the show. Every once in a while you get somebody that's pushing or pulling a little bit, it's a natural thing. When it's tight like it is now, like it has been, it's great having that full mix to play with. I'm up there enjoying myself every night because it just sounds great.

Bp: I read somewhere you have either audio or video rolling for each show and you will review every night or every few nights...

Jeff Plate: Yeah, they've been good about me videotaping the shows and I do it for the critical aspect of it. A lot of times when you're up there playing things are just going by very fast. I play something a little different, every night, a couple of spots here and there, and sometimes I’m not sure if it’s cool or not. It helps to keep myself in check, it keeps everybody in check. You know my guys up front are running around like crazy all night long, sometimes things can get a little off and when you listen back to them you can correct that. As far as the lighting cues and the spotting and positioning on the stage and everything, it helps with that too.

So it's been quite a critical tool, a useful tool, to make the show better. Bryan Hartley, our lighting designer and engineer, will utilize it. He's so busy doing certain things, maybe there's someone who's in the dark in a certain spot when they shouldn't be or vice versa. It's just little things like that you correct along the way. But it certainly helps, when you can review the tape you can really get an idea of what is working and what's not working.
Bp: You must have a pretty nice archive of footage.

Jeff Plate: I have a few things.

Bp: [laughs]

Jeff Plate: [laughs] 15 years.

Bp: Wow! So at this point in the tour is soundcheck helpful every day or is it kind of a necessary evil?

Jeff Plate: Both. Every room is different. You need to get up and actually run through some stuff just to make sure that everything is working properly. Obviously we have situations when we do these doubles that the crew has everything they can do to just be ready for the show. Full credit to our crew and our production team. When we go up without a soundcheck we generally have no problems at all. But you have to do this at this level in this quality of a show it is important to at least try to do a soundcheck. Here again, between myself and Derek and the others, suggestions that may come up, there's always a part here and there, "Hey, let's try this. Maybe this doesn't sound right." It gives you a chance to correct a couple of little things before you do it in front of an audience.

Bp: During the band introductions part of the show, when you're introduced you acknowledge the crowd and then you always point upward. Is that in memory of your sister, Terry?

Jeff Plate: Yes, exactly. And it's been 10 years. Ten years, November 11, 2013, and I've done that every show and that's what it's about. She was critical in me becoming what I am. She was always very supportive, couldn't be happier when I got this gig and everything that was going on. It was just, you know, she was right there with me the whole way and these things happen. It's unfortunate, but these things can happen to anybody, there's no rhyme or reason to it, but it is something that keeps me on my toes because I know somebody's there watching me all the time and it's just a salute that I do. Some people confuse it with some other things, but that's really what it's about. Just out of respect and my love for her and always thinking about her. I know she's watching so I need to behave.

Bp: [laughs] That's always a poignant part of the show.

Jeff Plate: Yeah, it's a huge part of my life. There was a big part of me that left that day, Like I said, leading up to that point she was very supportive. She pushed me alot of times because, as you can imagine, talk with anybody who has done this as long as I have, there is a certain amount of frustration that comes with this too. Sometimes you get to the point where you [think], "Hey maybe I suck. Maybe that's why I didn't get my gig. Maybe I did this wrong or I didn't do that right or I was in the wrong place at the right time, blah blah blah." You know it's easy to dedicate so much of your life to something and not succeed and then feel pretty bad about it and I was in that place when I moved back home from Boston. I had a sense of pride in the fact of, "Wow, I've become a good drummer and I tried to do all the right things." But then you start second guessing yourself and that's where my sister and my family would step in to say, "Look, just stick with it. You know you've come this far, you're good. Don't give up on this thing yet. Stay the course." And without that support sometimes I think I could've went somewhere differently. But with all of that help and support I stayed on course and everything has worked out for it.

Bp: You've done okay for yourself.

Jeff Plate: I think things are pretty good.

Trans-Siberian Orchestra "Jeff Plate Drum Solo" - Live in Hartford, CT; Nov. 26, 2011, 8pm

Bp: Now, your drum solo was kind of born out of that time. Is that right?

Jeff Plate: Yes. I think, well I know because I was living it every day, when you go through something like that and whether somebody dies unexpectedly or whether somebody dies due to a sickness, it's never easy. There's no... when it happens, it is so hard. Her death happened four days before the beginning of that tour in '03 and so all of a sudden I'm dealing with everything that goes along with that; this devastating loss, her family and her kids and then dealing with the funeral and also I’ve got a tour to do. When you read the lyrics and follow the story to Christmas Eve and Other Stories there's a lot of that story that touches on what I was going through. So I was getting on stage every night and there were literally times where I thought I was going to explode. You know, your emotions and everything are just so amped up you can't even describe it. And Paul came to me one day and he said, "Jeff, do you want to do a solo?" And I think he just knew that I needed to let it out. And I said, "Sure." Then we picked a spot for it at the end of ‘Nutrocker’ and from the first night it just worked. The audience loved it, the band loved it, Paul loved it and it built from there. I know Paul knew I was certainly capable of doing a good solo, but he also knew that if I didn't do this solo on a nightly basis, I may just self-combust right there on the drum stool, like a Spinal Tap moment or something. It was a perfect storm and for whatever reason, you know here again, every night that I was out there playing I'm thinking about my family and everyone and my sister and all that, so I was really trying to do it with the utmost urgency, I wanted to just nail it every night like you couldn't believe. So that first tour when I started doing it, I just came out of the gate blazing and it worked. It worked really well.

Bp: Do you miss not having it in there now the last couple of tours?

Jeff Plate: Uh, sure. I mean I've always enjoyed doing it and I certainly understand the reasons that I'm not doing it. Changing the show, trying to keep the show within a certain time frame, we have so many songs that we don't do that we would like to do. When we go to Omaha we have a list of, there's a good 12 songs or more that we’re learning that we don't do. So the whole thing is trying to keep the show within reason and trying to keep a variety to it. Yes people ask me every night about the solo and it will come back. When Paul and management wanted to change the show it was like, "We need to change the show." And granted there are some elements of the show that are the same, you have certain songs that are great production pieces and need to be there. I know that next time the solo appears it'll be in its full glory and it'll be spectacular.

Bp: Well the story part of the show is now about a fifteen minutes longer now too, so...

Jeff Plate: Exactly. I'm mean you're looking at…let's put it this way, 5 or 6 years ago, maybe 4 years ago, the show was pushing 2 hours 45 minutes, which is a long show. And then when you had a special guest come in, you're looking at almost a 3 hour show and then you need to get off the stage, take a shower, grab something to eat, put your clothes back on and go back up there and do it again. So when you have 6 hours of stage time, 3 days in a row, that's enough to beat anybody down.
So just trying to keep this show…for us the East band tries to be right around 2 hours and 20 minutes and you and I have both been too many shows over the years, and when it gets to around that two hour mark you're going, "Okay, when's it gonna to end?" [laughs] You know what I mean? No matter how much you love your band, there's comes a point where information overload starts to come into play.

Bp: The audience is physically and mentally exhausted by the end of this show as well.

Jeff Plate: Yes, with TSO, it is an emotional show. Visually, there's enough there to tire you out just looking at it, but when you are listening to the lyrics and you're following the story, and the emotion that goes along with that and there are some real peaks and valleys in the show. If you can sit there and take all of this in for 2 plus hours, granted when you walk out of the place you're going to be a little tired.

Bp: True.

Jeff Plate: The people on stage like myself who are actually physically playing this for that amount of time twice a day, then you can understand how we try to preserve the performers as well as the audience.

Bp: It's a grueling schedule, especially when you add in the travel as well.

Jeff Plate: Yup.

Bp: I know "Appalachian Snowfall" was done in rehearsals and even in Toledo the night before the tour started, has that come out at all for an audience?

Jeff Plate: No.

Bp: No. I didn’t think so.

Jeff Plate: Nope.

Bp: Will it?

Jeff Plate: We had the song worked up, everything sounded great, it's just sometimes you get these songs and you need to find where it fits in this show? We can't put it in the first half obviously, so where does it fit in the back half. And that just seemed to be the odd man out. I think that the idea of the song and using it in the future is certainly in play. I see that happening at some point.

Bp: From the fan perspective you’re not necessarily thinking about building a flow or an overall tone, you just want to hear your favorite songs, no matter how varied the list. It’s a delicate art, building a set list. And you start with a much larger group of songs than just what we see on the tour.

Jeff Plate: There's always this big basket of new songs and pretty much everything we've done throughout the years. All those songs are always in play. Then when you get out there and you start going through this stuff, "Okay we need to do ‘Fireflies….’ because that's the current song. ‘Someday’, which is a great change of emotion for the 2nd half of the show, it’s Kayla’s showcase and she nails it every night. "The Mountain" involves all the production and the lifts and everything. ‘12/24’… obviously. There are just certain things that we have to do and then you fill in the spots around it.

Bp: Right.

Jeff Plate: It all comes down to Paul really. He just may on a whim say, "Okay we're doing this and we're not doing that." Okay, so we're ready. Rehearsals out there are a lot more involved than just running this show. We are on call, so to speak, for all these other songs, you have to be up on them, because you never know.

Bp: So songs like, "Appalachin" or "Boughs of Holly" and "An Angel’s Share," which we haven’t heard in a long time, could just be a casualty of wrong mood at the wrong time. They don’t fit.

Jeff Plate: Exactly. ‘Boughs of Holly’, like ‘Appalachian Snowfall,’ are great songs, but they really do not fit in the back half of the show. The back half of the show, that's the hard rock/metal, part of the show. So those two pieces don't quite fit there.

And then obviously it comes down to the timing of what is going to work, "Okay, we're at 2:15 and have room for another song. What's it going to be? What makes sense?" And then you fill it out from there.

Bp: Do you know if there is a specific reason why you didn't go back to the rotating A B C set list like you used last year?

Jeff Plate: The production is such a big part of the show, and having one set list helps that end of it. The set for the 2013 Winter Tour worked so well it didn’t need to be changed from night to night, With all the video and projection that we're doing you have to really be prepared for one show and make sure that that one show runs as well as it can. If we ended up switching songs out, it would be switching a whole production for that moment. And you're talking about different video, different lighting, different cues. With the video and the projections that's involved in the show now, why jeopardize that one moment of the show for the sake of doing the other tunes? I mean granted there are people like yourself who see a number of shows every year, but there are a lot of people who see just one show a year or have just seen the show for the first time.

Bp: That's the majority of people. I mean, 95% of the audience doesn't see more than one show.

Jeff Plate: And there's a good percentage of the audience who this is their very first time they've ever seen TSO so it's not so much that they don't know the difference, but you really want to give them THE show that is run and produced as well as it can possibly be so that person can walk out of there and go, "That was 100% from beginning to end. I can’t wait to see it again." We don't leave any room for error that way.

Trans-Siberian Orchestra "Sparks" - Live in Buffalo, NY; Dec. 30, 2013, 7:30 pm

Bp: The addition of "Sparks" this year..."Sparks" is not a song off Night Castle that I would say is a favorite, but it comes across really nicely live.

Jeff Plate: You know what, I certainly understand what you're saying. I was a little curious when this song came on the list, but Robin sings it great. It's a good rock song, and here again, that's kind of what the back half of the show is about. I will give Al Pitrelli kudos up and down for this one. He thought about this song and what can we do to make this a little cooler. And of course Paul is right there. Paul is doing a million different things at once. There's all kinds of production questions, interviews; everything that is involved with TSO goes through Paul. When some of these songs come up as possibilities, they would throw it out there and the band plays it, listens to it and thinks about it. Al is very good at orchestrating some different parts, taking some things that you know maybe he hears within the song that aren't there prominent on the recorded version and then bringing it out a little bit more. For example, the keyboards, which have become a strong part of the song now. He added some backing vocals. Let's fill this thing out because now we're not just sitting around listening to the song on an iPod. We're looking at this thing that's on a stage the size of a football field, so how are we going to fill this out? We listen to the song first of all, and then look at it as to how do we present it to this audience. I enjoy playing the song, I really do. And I know a lot of people when we first started playing it out, they're looking at us like, "What is this?" And by the end of the song we get a great response every night. So we go out there, we kick this thing in the rear and the band plays it well. Robin sings it great. I know on the west coast, [Jeff Scott] Soto's doing it and Soto is awesome. He makes everything sound good. So it's going over well on both ends.

Bp: How do you like being up on the riser this year? That's new for TSO.

Jeff Plate: Yeah, it's awesome. [laughs] It’s one of those things when you're a drummer looking back at some of the old Ozzy videos back with Tommy Aldrich, Blizzard of Oz and all of that, Tommy's up in the clouds and that is so cool. And I've always aspired to be up in the clouds and now I am! Now I'm up there, not just figuratively but literally!

But it's just part of the progression of the show. The staging has been similar now for a number of years. The lighting scheme and the lights that are above us change every year, but this year was, "Okay, the stage really needs to change." And then you add the staging along with the backdrop of the castle and it’s the biggest change in the show we've ever had out there. So putting me up there, I mean it's just the logical move, I guess. With the lighting that's in the riser itself and the fire and the projections, yeah, it's very cool. But it is neat to be up that high and be able to look out at that room every night and go, "Wow, this is awesome!"

Bp: When I saw the cover come down at the first show in Toledo I was shocked at the castle and then to see that you and Luci were up there – I was shocked. It's great because as somebody who likes to get a good camera angle for still photos or video, it's nice having a different perspective and a clearer shot of both you and Luci now.

Jeff Plate: Yeah, and obviously the higher up I am the more I'm kind of buried behind my drums a little bit. I think if you get back a little ways it's probably easier to see me and if you're on the sides it's easier to see the drummer. The perspective of it just looks grand. And then with all the projection the castle itself is always lit in one way or another so whether there is lighting on me or not, you can always see my silhouette. But the way it's set up is pretty cool. I'm really happy with it.

Bp: It looks amazing. You mentioned the guest artists earlier, do you miss having them?

Jeff Plate: Yeah. I mean, think about it...you know the first time we did it...now who was the first one that we had? Jon Anderson, I think, from Yes.

Bp: Or was it Joan Jett maybe?

Jeff Plate: Yeah, it actually was Joan.

Bp: In the theatres.

Jeff Plate: Yes, we did "Little Drummer Boy" at the Beacon Theater. You are correct. Joan is such a rock star, but such a down to earth cool person. You don't get this real intimidating kind of vibe from her. She wrote one of the biggest songs in rock history and she carries herself well, humble, so that was really pretty cool. And plus, through our circle of production and management people, they had worked with Joan over the years so we met her before and knew her a little bit. But I'll be honest with you, when Jon Anderson from Yes came and sang "Roundabout" with us there was a moment where I sat there and thought, "I'm freaking playing ‘Roundabout’ with Jon Anderson. Who else has done this?" I mean Bill Bruford and Alan White are the only two drummers I can think of that have played "Roundabout" with Jon Anderson and now myself and John O'Reilly.

Trans-Siberian Orchestra w/ Steven Tyler "Dream On" - Live in Uniondale, NY; Dec. 12, 2008 - courtesy You Tube yankeesdrummer

Bp: You've been the timekeeper for some really big front men, him and Steven Tyler...

Jeff Plate: The same thing with Tyler. When I was a kid Aerosmith was my favorite band in the world! Here I am playing "Dream On" with Steven Tyler and I had the same pinch myself moment. How many people besides Joey Kramer have ever played the song with this guy. I mean those moments, how can you ever top these. Roger Daltrey, who was by far the coolest dude I could have ever hoped for, he was just awesome. And then Tyler was great. Joe Walsh, Robin Zander, Greg Lake, Ian Hunter, Leslie West... am I missing anybody? I don't think so. When I was just a teenager trying to figure out how to hold my drumsticks, this is the stuff I was listening to and the people I was looking up to, and going to see in concert. Next thing you know I'm on stage with these people and then playing the songs. They are just such blow away, memorable moments. But along with that, like I said earlier, it also extends the show. There's work on the production end, there's work on the band end and trust me, as soon as we heard we were getting these people to come sing with us, we were running these songs every day. We're not going to go up there and play "Roundabout" and let ourselves down, we're going to nail this thing.

Bp: Every year when you guys were in Toronto I had my fingers crossed that Geddy and Alex [of Rush] would come out and do something with you guys.

Jeff Plate: Wouldn't that be a trip. I mean these things are all still possible, it’s just that now it's gotten to...here again with the show and the production and the time involved in doing this stuff. There's so much more to it than just inviting somebody up to sing a song.

Bp: Yeah, it's not a day of show, thrown together type of thing.

Jeff Plate: No. It is months of preparation and when we had these guys on our schedule it was every day rehearsing and making sure that this was right. And I'm not downplaying anybody else's position in this band, but as the drummer I can't screw anything up. You know what I mean?

Bp: If you fall off the rails, everyone does.

Jeff Plate: Yeah, if this thing is going to work, it starts with me and if I fall off the rails here, this is going be a disaster. So yeah, there was always this little bit of apprehension. Then the adrenaline is obviously up, you’re so excited you are just trying to keep everything in check. But coming down to it you prepare for it as best as you can and when any of these guys walked on the stage, I knew we were ready to do this. It's just that we had to do it.

But what a thrill. I mean, to meet some people is one thing, to actually perform on stage with them and then be able to converse with them after the show or in between shows. I just had a great conversation with Jon Anderson between shows. We just happened to be sitting next to each other in catering and then the same thing with Roger Daltrey; just very nice people, very humble, and it's good to see that. You hear a lot of bad stories about your rock star idols and about their attitude, their behavior and then these men were just gentlemen and it was great.

I think as much as we were thrilled to have them there, they were actually as thrilled to come and do it with us. To be able to have that line of singers doing backups, with the strings, with all the keyboards, everything possibly we could do with these songs was covered. So for them to go out on the stage and actually perform it live and everything that was possible was there.

Bp: Speaking of kind of living on the edge, New Year’s Eve sounds like it’s going to be a pretty wild undertaking.

Jeff Plate: It certainly should be. We've got to hope the weather and everything is cooperative on that day. But it's going to be an interesting journey, that's for sure. Leaving America and getting there in time to do it and then the logistics of the soundcheck. And for me, I need to have a drum set put together, all of the above. It's going to be an interesting day, but it's going to be awesome because the exposure the band is going to receive, not just in Europe, but I think worldwide, it's going to be something. Here again, who would have ever thought we'd be doing something like this? Back in '99 when Johnny and I were sweating bullets as we were walking out to play our first note, the next thing I know all these years later I'm playing the Brandenburg Gate on New Years Eve. Who woulda thunk? Crazy, and it's awesome.

Bp: Bring your mittens.

Jeff Plate: Yeah, oh exactly, yeah. No telling, I mean we've been over there in January before. It's been brutal, but you never know. I mean just hopefully everything works out as far as travel, the weather, the....there's so much involved in this one performance that it'll make your head spin. So everything will hopefully fall into place.

Trans-Siberian Orchestra "A Last Illuion/Requiem/The Mountain" - Live at Brandenburg Gate, Berlin; Dec. 31, 2013

Bp: Like you said, the exposure alone is going to be massive and then to follow it up with the shows over in the UK and Europe, it's perfect timing.

Jeff Plate: Yes and this is part of the plan. We have a very good product here and it's not that America is the only place that knows about the Trans-Siberian Orchestra, but what we have is very good and we need to expand and branch this thing out. I think Christmas Eve and Other Stories is such a brilliant record that a lot of people don't know about. And it is the thing that has fueled everything to where we are right now. "Christmas Eve/Sarajevo 12/24" is the song that has really driven this thing from day one and it still is the highlight of the show. As you know, we end the show with that song. It's the most popular, it's the most dynamic, it's powerful, it's all of the above. So when you get to a certain level and place in the career of a project, it's time to take this someplace else and try to conquer other territories. We certainly have the band and the vocalists and all the tools to do it, it's just quite an undertaking to put something like this together and actually do it.

And I'll go back to what I said earlier about Paul sticking his neck out and being able to finance these projects and these ventures. You can't imagine what it costs to get this thing overseas, let alone out of the driveway to start a tour in America. So, it's quite an undertaking. It's quite a risk. We are certainly going to be prepared for it and I believe we've got something here that everybody is going to enjoy. You have to get it to them and that's what this whole venture is about.

Bp: The European audiences are pretty passionate and there's a pretty decent contingent of Savatage fans who are clamoring for any sight of you guys, so Europe should be pretty fun.

Jeff Plate: Yeah and you know what, the European audience is a different audience. With the Savatage history over there and some of the other personalities in the band that have been touring throughout Europe over the years, there's going to be some familiar faces and a lot of things that people are going to be looking forward to seeing. TSO will be going over there with with the big guns and present this thing in the best way we can. And hopefully, for the skeptical person in the audience, we'll win them over, and for the fans that we've already had over there for years, this will be just another thing that they're going to enjoy and help spread the word for us.

Continue to Part II

More in my Trans-Siberian Orchestra Interview series -> here.

Additional Links:
Trans-Siberian Orchestra
Jeff Plate Official Site