Trans-Siberian Orchestra – Jeff Plate (drums)
Jeff Plate always wanted to be a drummer. It was his dream, growing up in the Finger Lakes region of upstate New York.
Plate is the man behind the Trans-Siberian Orchestra drum kit, has been since its inception in 1996. He?s also played in thrash band Metal Church and rock band Wicked Witch, which recently became Machines of Grace. TSO is the multibillion-dollar entity whose light show, pyrotechnics, story lines and musicianship are larger than life, and its fan base runs from kids to grandparents who come back to see it year after year.
But back to ?always wanted to be a drummer.?
Baseball was a constant daily activity when Plate was a kid, but an injury to his hip when he was 12 put his bourgeoning Little League career on hold. During this time, Plate discovered music, which outweighed his interest in sports, and put him on a new career path.
?The first major influence overall was Kiss. That band excited me and spurned me on to do what I do now. The first time I saw Kiss I was 13 years old. I remember talking my parents into staying up and watching them (on The Midnight Special). They came out and did ?Deuce? and ?Black Diamond.? What I saw completely blew me away. I didn?t know what to make of it, but all I knew at the time was, ?I want to do that.? I was more into sports, but when I first saw that, that?s the moment that really changed everything for me. It was not so much the music because I didn?t know really what they were or who they were, it was just what I saw.?
Plate excelled at the drums. He absorbed many styles, with influences ranging from Alan Bouchard (Blue Oyster Cult) to Tommy Aldridge (Ozzy, Black Oak Arkansas, Pat Travers), Steve Smith (Journey) and Terry Bozio (Frank Zappa, Missing Persons), to Alex Van Halen (Van Halen), Neil Peart (Rush) and Carl Canedy (The Rods).
As a drum instructor, Plate tries to teach his students the basic fundamentals of music, and what it means to be a band?s ?anchor.?
?Your main job as a drummer is to be a timekeeper. Once you develop a sense of time, then the band will inevitably become that much better, because they have an anchor. A lot of kids see the flash and the speed, but it all comes down to, you need to have a very good meter. Because that is your job as the drummer, all the other stuff will come in time. I tell the kids, learn your rudiments, learn how to read, get a metronome, and something that I did not do when I was in school, but take advantage of your school music program. You can learn all the theory, or at least get started on theory. Drums, you can get by without knowing notes and chord progressions, but the more of that stuff you know, the better off you are. I encourage them to try and learn everything, just to soak it up, and they?ll be able to apply it some time in the future.?
Being a solid timekeeper on the drums is paramount to a band. Plate learned this trait as a youngster, relentlessly practicing with a metronome. His style also allows him to show off a bit with some impressive fills, but his knowledge of when to hold back and lock into a groove is equally as important.
?With TSO, the show is based on a story. The lyrics to the songs are very important to the show. It?s all part of the package. You need to be able to hear and digest the lyrics of the songs so they can understand the story. During vocal songs, it?s all about just laying it down, keeping it simple and letting the singer do their job. You don?t want to overstep what the singer is doing. When it comes to the instrumentals, it?s a little more open to interpretation. In instances like Machines of Grace, where you?re dealing with a four-piece rock band, there?s a lot more space to do something a little more colorful within the songs. With TSO, when you?ve got an 8-piece band on stage, plus a string section, there?s a lot of stuff going on. If it?s all going on at one time, it could turn into something messy. So my job during those particular instances is to just keep it solid because everybody else needs to anchor on that.?
?It?s natural. Honestly, it?s taken a long time. The TSO music and the way Paul O?Neil wants to present the band, you have to interoperate things a little bit differently. It took me awhile to learn how to really lay back. But once I learned to do that and became that much more solid, you realize how much better it was for that certain style of music.
?With Metal Church, Kurdt Vanderhoof said, ?Have at it.? I was also thinking of the songs and keeping things within reason. But there?s a lot more encouragement in that scenario to go ahead and let things fly a little more. That?s what the band is about. It?s metal. It?s energy. It?s coming at you like a freight train.?
His current drum kit, an electronic Roland V-Drum set, is nothing short of spectacular. His round drum rack supports 25 Zildjian cymbals, angled clamps and cymbal boom stands. Plate describes it as looking something like a spaceship. To a drummer, musician, even the casual fan, this set is mighty impressive. It?s something he cherishes and enjoys playing at every show.
?I have a Pearl drum endorsement, and I basically had the big double bass drum kit for years ? the past 20 years. When we came into doing TSO, we had a situation. Because we were playing in theaters, it was hard to contain the drum sound. Trying to keep yourself at a reasonable volume for the audience. Our audience ranges from children to grandparents. It?s not like a Savatage or Metal Church show where you just crank it up and let the audience have it, because that?s what they?re looking for. TSO is a little more controlled than that. The drums were just hard to control in the theater environment. That is how we ended up using the Roland V drum kit. It?s a beauty. I?ll be the first to say I?m proud of that kit. In the context of the TSO show and the amount of rigging and lighting that we have, to me it makes perfect sense to have that size drum kit up there. I get up there and have at it and have a ball playing it!?
In 1989, Plate relocated to Boston to live out his dream. He formed Wicked Witch with eventual Savatage and current Circle II Circle vocalist Zak Stevens. When Stevens was recruited by Savatage, Wicked Witch lost its singer and chance of making it, ultimately forcing Plate to realize that his time for making it big had made a U-turn and decided to move back to his hometown. That?s when the call came from Stevens that Savatage was looking for a drummer. Joining Savatage in spring 1994, a year after the death of guitarist Criss Oliva, was a happy time for Plate, but Plate still wishes he had the opportunity to play with Oliva.
?If there?s anything I would ever wish for is, besides to have at least met the man, I would have loved to be able to play with Criss. That would have been fantastic.?
In 2009, getting to record old Wicked Witch songs with friend and first vocalist Stevens, which ultimately turned into the debut Machines of Grace album, was something that Plate feels was a long time coming.
?We had a very good set of songs, so we felt. We were just at the right place at the wrong time. Boston had a very good music scene. The metal scene out there was fairly strong. Wicked Witch had developed a good following. We put a lot of work into what we were doing, and we thought we had something really strong. That was a bunch of music we all believed in, but never really got its shot.
?Several years ago, we decided to re-record the material and release it. When we did the CD, stuff was written 20 years ago. But when we started working on it, I had just as much fun drumming on it as I ever had. The songs, even though they may have been that certain style, the late ?80s Whitesnake-ish, Dio, Dokken style of music, to us they were still relevant. And we did the CD and it came out better than it was expected.?
It?s almost an understatement to say that Plate looks forward to TSO?s Christmas show.
?Every year when we walk into our rehearsal space, I don?t know exactly what this stage is going to look like. Every year, Paul (O?Neill) somehow comes up with these ideas, along with the production people. There is something different every year. I love seeing the progression. Having been there from the beginning, that to me is one of the most exciting things about going into rehearsals. Just seeing the space that we?re going to be a part of. It?s great to be able to put this thing back together and every year we make a real conscience effort to make it better.?
This year?s setup is punctuated by two huge suspended walkways at each side of the stage that move up and down above the audience.
?The audience for TSO comes to see us every year, and granted, there?s new people that come to see us all the time. But the idea is to give them something every year that they can?t believe they saw. And they can?t wait to come back and see what we?re going to do next time. The whole idea every year is to go out and be better than the previous year. It?s a very good tour to be part of. We?re able to work with the best production people, the best lighting people. We have top of the line from top to bottom, management through production through my bandmates and my vocalists. Everybody is awesome.
?I go back to when I was 13 years old, thinking this is what I wanted to do. And I?m able to do this. And on a level that I?ve always dreamed of, and with a group of people I?ve always dreamed of. To be on stage with your peers. People of your talent level and your commitment and your professionalism, and you put all that together, and it?s a great show. It doesn?t matter if it?s the last show of the tour or going into our first rehearsal, it?s exciting.?
The annual Trans-Siberian Orchestra Christmas tour started November 3rd.