Sit Down Series: Jeff Plate

Esteemed drummer, Jeff Plate currently has a lot on his…plate. (Bad joke. I know!) He is currently a member of Trans-Siberian Orchestra, Metal Church and his cover band, RUST. On top of that, Savatage will be reuniting for a performance at Wacken Open Air this summer. Prior to the final TSO show of the tour in Hartford recently, I sat down with Jeff to discuss the power of the TSO shows, the depth of the band and live performance, the future of Metal Church and Savatage, KISS and much more!

Alex Obert: What are your thoughts on this year’s TSO compared to other years?

Jeff Plate: When you go out with a new show, there’s always little apprehension. You’re just hoping that the audience accepts it because what we’ve done in the past has definitely proven to be a winner. And every year, the idea is to try and up the ante, up the production, bring out a better quality show. I do believe that we succeeded in that. I think, musically, TSO East and West are both fantastic. The band has been as smooth and on point as it’s ever been, same with the vocalists. Musically and vocally, the performances have been fantastic. But as far as the show itself, I think that this is the best production we’ve ever brought to the audience, as far as the video and the lighting and stuff. I consider this a huge success. It’s always a little bittersweet on the last day of the tour, we’re all tired and we wanna go home, but when it’s this good, I hope this can continue, but it always has to come to an end.

Alex Obert: How did the production step up since 1999?

Jeff Plate: If you just look at any pictures from ’99 to 2004 or 5, you’ll notice when we were doing theaters, how much smaller it was. It was one or two trucks of lighting and PA, now we’re traveling with seventeen tractor-trailers and twelve buses. It certainly massive. Every day I step on this stage and then in the middle of the performance, just look around and I see how big this thing has gotten. We just saw a picture of the band from 2006 and even looking at that picture, it’s amazing how much bigger the show is compared to that.

Alex Obert: With all of the years of touring, has there ever been a venue that you performed at and you thought to yourself, “Wow! I can’t believe I’m actually playing here!”?

Jeff Plate: One of the first big arena shows we did was when we played the Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland. It was a huge venue, we do over fourteen thousand people a show there. I remember walking up on the stage and looking out and going, “Holy cow, this is something else!” And obviously Madison Square Garden. When we did the two years there, it was such a historic and momentous show for us. When you walk through Madison Square Garden, that building puts pressure on you. I love this show and I couldn’t wait for it to be done because when we were finished, it was such a relief that we succeeded and actually pulled off the show. I would say that MSG is probably the feather in our cap, as far as that’s concerned.

Alex Obert: Which musicians have joined the band in recent years that have really wowed you?

Jeff Plate: Joel Hoekstra has been on board now for five years and when he came in, the TSO East band took a major transition. We lost a lot of people and brought in a whole slew of different singers and musicians. And when Joel came in, it changed the environment. He’s such a good, well-rounded player. Nothing against any other guitar player that we’ve worked with, they’re all great, but when Joel came aboard and Derek Wieland became our musical director, this thing really gelled and it took on a new life. There are so many singers that come in that have a quality where you just go, “Wow!” We had Jennifer Cella from years ago, she was fantastic. And then all of a sudden, we had Adrienne Warren step in to sing in her place. These people come through the door and you go, “Holy cow”. It’s just amazing how much good talent there is out there, let alone the talent we’re able to find and bring in. Everybody here is phenomenal, that’s why we’re here and that’s what this thing is what it is and so successful.

Alex Obert: How do you respond to those who may feel that TSO is “just a holiday band”?

Jeff Plate: We have three Christmas CDs, there’s the trilogy there. We have one EP. And then we have two non-seasonal records. And if you’ve ever come to see our show, you realize this is a rock show. Yes, there is Christmas involved in it and it is part of the story and part of the feel-good spirit of this show. And that comes from Paul O’Neill. This is stuff that’s coming out of his mind and his heart, we take this on stage. But if you watch our show, it’s not that there isn’t Christmas there, there certainly is, but it isn’t an overwhelming presence. I always tell people that you have to come see it because the idea of Christmas and orchestra and a narrator and dragons and lasers and fire and a rock band, people will go, “What?” And when you see the show, you realize this is more than just a holiday experience, it’s a rock ‘n roll show.

Alex Obert: Do take so much out of the life experience because you grew up a huge fan of KISS?

Jeff Plate: Oh my God, yes. KISS are my heroes. KISS is the reason why I’m here. When I was thirteen years old, I saw them on The Midnight Special, most people won’t even know what that is! But I saw them and that changed my life. And as time went on, a lot of our production/management people have also worked with them and crossed paths. So there’s a similarity in some of the effects and things that we do on stage. When you look at KISS, even today, they’re fantastic. But ’75, ’76, ’77, that era of KISS, there will never be anything like it again and that’s why a lot of bands are doing what they’re doing now. KISS brought this idea of “more is better”. Paul O’Neill brought the idea of “too much is not enough”. When you see our show, you realize it is a full-on production.

Alex Obert: Since we are currently in Hartford and relatively close to Worcester, what did you take out of your time there when you were younger?

Jeff Plate: I was there for a year and a half, maybe two years. I’m from a small town in upstate New York called Horseheads. When I was eighteen years old, I knew that I was not going to get where I wanted to go being at home. I knew some friends in Worcester, they said come out and play in a cover band, so I moved out this way. And then I ended up meeting some other people, I ended up closer to Boston and as that whole thing just kind of developed, I just continually met people along the way. Worcester was a stepping stone. The majority of what I’ve taken out of that experience in New England all came when I was living in Boston.

Alex Obert: Present day, which newer rock bands are you listening to?

Jeff Plate: I love Stone Sour, I think the Audio Secrecy CD is fantastic. So in turn, I also like Slipknot. There’s so much music, you listen to Sirius radio and there is stuff all over the place. Bullet for my Valentine, if you want to talk newer metal, there is stuff like that that just blows me away. And then there’s still some of the bands that I grew up on. Styx, for example, I still love that band. Rush. And it crosses over, there’s some country, the Kenny Chesney stuff, the Taylor Swift stuff I think is great. Being a little more open-minded, I listen to jazz, I listen to everything. Sometimes, when you do this for a living, you get somewhat trapped in this box where this is what you do and this is what you hear. But usually when I’m home, I’m able to listen to other things and explore a little bit. There’s a lot of great stuff out there.

Alex Obert: Are you a fan of early drummers like Buddy Rich?

Jeff Plate: Absolutely! When I was a young boy, Buddy Rich used to be on ABC Sports because he was also a black belt in karate. So that was when he first got my attention. Then I think I was seventeen years old, I saw him at a concert in my hometown. You look back at the old stuff, there is so much that people don’t know or have forgotten. But those old guys, him, Ed Shaughnessy, there’s a slew of ’em from that era that are just fantastic and they paved the way for some of the progressive rock drummers, the lead drummers, that exist today.

Alex Obert: Getting into your other projects, what is your take on Metal Church continuing on after the departure of Ronny Munroe?

Jeff Plate: We will be making an announcement soon. Metal Church is going to be just fine. It’s gonna be better than ever. Like we stated, the departure of Ronny Munroe was unfortunate, but we understand it. Sometimes as people, you get to a place where you need to make a change. And I think for Ronny, it’s better for him, it’s better for Metal Church, it’s better for us. Yes, I play in the band, but you listen to some of this old Metal Church stuff and it is some of the best metal/hard rock music ever written. And I’m honored to be able to play it. But as far as the band and its future, we’re gonna be just fine. As I said, there will be an announcement soon.

Alex Obert: If Savatage continues after Wacken, what direction do you see the band headed in?

Jeff Plate: I think Savatage has its own direction. That band has never tried to be anything other than itself. Savatage has had a couple different lives. And when I came into the band in 1994, there was such a change over the death of Criss Oliva, it was so tragic. It saddens me because I never even met Criss. I wish I could have at least met him and I would have loved to have played with him. But Jon Oliva, he was no longer the lead singer at that point. The early Savatage stuff, it’s hard rock, it’s metal, it’s a little more in your face, a little uglier. But when you listen to stuff like Gutter Ballet, you see the groundwork for what TSO is. So I don’t expect Savatage to be anything different than what it was. Poets and Madmen, that was the last record that we did as a band and it holds the same elements as earlier stuff like Hall of the Mountain King. If something happens, and to be completely honest with you, I don’t know, I would imagine that with Paul and Jon Oliva and the rest of us, it’ll be a fantastic record, if we ever get to that point.

Alex Obert: What are your thoughts on Jon’s statement about getting into shape?

Jeff Plate: Well I hope he does. I can’t thank that man enough, I’ve been working for him now for over twenty years. And not only is he one of my bosses, but he is also a friend and I care about him. So just for his own personal health and well-being, I certainly hope that he does. If that means that our future as a band will come any easier, that’s even better. Jon is somebody that we all hold dear to our hearts, we don’t want to see anything happen to anybody. I think it would be great if Jon held true to that.

Alex Obert: Do you have any gigs coming up with RUST?

Jeff Plate: Oh yeah, we’re booked right up through the summer. It’s all classic rock, late seventies and early eighties. It’s all the stuff that I listened to when I was a teenager while really getting my teeth into music and learning how to play drums. We do everything from Bon Jovi to Boston to Edgar Winter, Van Halen, everything in between. It’s a great group because they’re all great friends of mine, everybody’s on the same page. And for whatever it’s worth, the live rock music scene is pretty small in a lot of places, so it’s great that I’ve been able to be a part of this with some guys that I really like and just do this music that I love playing every night. It’s a lot of fun.

Alex Obert: In closing, what do you see in the future for next year and years ahead for TSO?

Jeff Plate: Well obviously, we’ve got the Wacken show coming up this summer. We have a record. I know Paul’s got a couple different things that are being worked on that are close to being wrapped up. We need to get one of these done this year. And I think 2016 is gonna be quite busy for us. TSO, we still have a lot of places to go to and a lot of places to conquer. Not that we conquered America by any means, but we are quite popular here and we have such a good product to present to people: the music, the story, the way this whole thing is presented. We need to try to get this to some other places. If we get a new record, we’ll have something more to work with. But I don’t see anything slowing down, to be honest with you. Christmas is not going anywhere anytime soon, so I’m sure these winter tours are gonna be coming around every year for some time to come. I’m certainly proud of where we started and where we are right now. It’s fantastic knowing we are able to go into a large arena and fill it up with people twice a day. Nobody else is doing that out here right now. So for us, this is all a good thing. I don’t see it coming to an end any time soon.

Alex Obert: I’d like to thank you so much for your time.

Jeff Plate: You’re welcome!

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