Jeff Plate and John O. Reilly of the Trans-Siberian Orchestra
by Aaron Strickland
During most of the year, Jeff Plate and John O.Reilly are busy with numerous projects. Plate is the drummer for the veteran hard-rock groups Metal Church and Savatage, as well as a cover band, Rust; he also teaches. O.Reilly, whose résumé includes stints with the classic-rock heavies Rainbow and Blue Öyster Cult, is the operator of the Stanley Spector School of Drumming and the author of a new book and online magazine. Any of those projects could easily fill the schedule of most drummers. But every November through January, these two players are dedicated to providing the pulse for the experience that is the Trans-Siberian Orchestra. Two drummers, one band. Well, actually, two bands.
We’ll explain. In 1995, the Florida-based Savatage, founded by brothers Jon and Criss Oliva and anchored by the recently hired Plate, released the concept album Dead Winter Dead. Featured on that album was the instrumental “Christmas Eve/Sarajevo 12/24,” a medley of the famous holiday tunes “God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen” and “Carol of the Bells.” When Jon Oliva’s side project with Savatage producer Paul O’Neill, the Trans-Siberian Orchestra, reissued the track the following October on its debut album, Christmas Eve and Other Stories, it would change the course of Oliva, O’Neill, and Plate’s careers in ways none of them could have imagined.
During that holiday season, “Christmas Eve” spread like wildfire on radio across the country. The immediately recognizable melodies and Plate’s thunderous tom patterns provided the foundation of this new yuletide mainstay. While Savatage continued to record and perform, a second Trans-Siberian Orchestra album, The Christmas Attic, appeared in 1998. In 1999 TSO began touring, ushering in a new holiday tradition—and taking on an increasingly significant life of its own. The first tour consisted of just a few theater shows in the Northeast, but in time theaters would become arenas, a couple of tour buses would grow to twelve, and two tractor-trailers would become twenty.
By perfecting the marriage of classical music and rock and employing the largest production you’re likely to see anywhere—complete with a gargantuan PA, 150 suspension points, eighty channels of audio, state-of-the-art lighting, a constantly moving truss, lasers, every type of pyro imaginable, and even a narrator—the Trans-Siberian Orchestra became a multi-platinum-selling organization and one of the most in-demand holiday-season spectacles anywhere.
In 2000 the act introduced two separate versions—an East Coast band and a West Coast band—so that it could cover the entire country during the two-month holiday season. O.Reilly joined the West Coast group in 2002, while Plate continued with the East Coast lineup. Today the act only continues to grow, with Plate and O.Reilly still manning their distinct rhythm sections and on the rare occasion even getting to play the same event, like this year’s Wacken festival in Germany. Modern Drummer spoke with both drummers about their approach to this highly unusual and remarkably popular act.
MD: What’s most rewarding about being a part of the spectacle that is the Trans-Siberian Orchestra?
Jeff: Being part of a band that I always dreamed of. Granted, when TSO started, there were more questions than answers. We have now come upon twenty years since the release of “Christmas Eve/Sarajevo 12/24” and twenty-one years since our first album, and we’re on our sixteenth winter tour. TSO keeps getting bigger, and there’s no end in sight. It’s a testament to the music of Paul O’Neill, Jon Oliva, and Bob Kinkel and the drive and decisions of the entire organization. The greatest reward for me is the audience that comes to see us year after year, and their response at the end of our shows.
MD: You‘re from Horseheads, New York. What was your biggest challenge as a musician growing up in a small town?
Jeff: The main restriction was not being exposed to people who were really writing and playing original music on a higher level. The good part was that I lived in the country. There were no cell phones, no computers, only three television channels, and I had all day to practice.
I had a great drum instructor, Bobby Williams. He turned me on to two teaching programs, one by Sam Ulano and the other by Joel Rothman—great instruction books that I still use today. By the timeI was about sixteen years old, I knew that this was what I wanted to do for a career. I also knew Horseheads was not the place where that was going to happen.
MD: You made moves to Tampa and Boston. Most notably during your time in Boston, you joined the band Wicked Witch. Zak Stevens, who later left the band to sing for Savatage, recommended you in 1994 when they needed a new drummer. What were the difficulties of entering an established band that had just gone through the death of a founding member? [Guitarist Criss Oliva was killed when his car was struck by a drunk driver.]
Jeff: When I met these guys, I could just tell how devastating this was. Jon, Criss’s brother, and bassist Johnny Middleton, Criss’s best friend, were still kind of in shock about the whole thing, and rightly so. Criss was an incredible guitar player. I came into something that was really very fragile at the time. So my approach was to learn everything as well as I possibly could and keep my mouth shut. I needed them to trust that I was the right drummer, a great bandmate, and a professional. I couldn’t give them any reason to doubt me or not believe in the band as it was at that point. The lineup had changed a lot. And I had to fill the shoes of original drummer Steve “Doc” Wacholz, and this was no small task.
MD: How did your style help with transitioning from Savatage to the Trans-Siberian Orchestra?
Jeff: To begin with, Paul O’Neill and Jon Oliva were developing this before I ever joined Savatage. When Paul joined Savatage as producer and member of the songwriting team of the Oliva brothers, the band became one of the very first heavy metal/prog-rock bands. Paul brought in a lot of his classical influence. You can hear the classical/prog direction on the Gutter Ballet, Streets, Dead Winter Dead, and Wake of Magellan albums. Savatage was progressing in the direction of what we now know of as TSO. There was certainly an adjustment for me, because now you’re talking about playing drums in the context of twelve to fifteen other instruments and vocalists instead of being in a four- or five-piece rock band.
MD: The 2014 show, the live debut of “The Christmas Attic,” was over the top. Most drummers will never know what it’s like to be part of such a massive production. Describe that experience.
Jeff: Like I said before, it’s something that I’ve always dreamed of. At every show I look around me and can’t believe what we’ve become. Our first show was forty lights, a fog machine, a couple of trucks, and an audience of 1,500. Now we have twenty trucks full of lights and production and an audience of 10,000-plus at every show. We know how fragile this industry is, so I appreciate every show I play.
MD: Let’s talk about your early influences.
Jeff: My parents encouraged me to play an instrument, and drums just seemed like the natural thing. I saw the band Chicago on the 1974 television special [Meanwhile Back at the Ranch]. I loved the music and Danny Seraphine’s drumming. So Chicago VII was the first record I ever bought. I was twelve years old at the time. Then, a year later, I saw a commercial for The Midnight Special, and Kiss was advertised. I talked my parents into letting me stay up late and watch the show. I sat there in front of the television with my G.E. cassette recorder held up to the speaker of the television. It just blew my mind and put me into orbit. That’s the moment that I knew this is what I wanted to do. Kiss and Peter Criss were a great platform to learn how to be a rock drummer.
Later, Rush’s 2112 fell in my lap, and then all of sudden Neil Peart was one of my biggest influences. Along with this, I started playing with some better musicians locally and was turned on to bands like Return to Forever and Jean-Luc Ponty, with Lenny White and Steve Smith on drums, respectively.
There were alsotwo local drummers who really influenced me. One was Carl Canedy, who played with the Rods, and the other was Frank Briggs, who played in a band called 805. Where Carl was the monster metal drummer and showman, Frank was the technician. I would go see those two play every chance I could, and they really influenced me so much.
Another major turning point for me was a Simon Phillips clinic that I saw around 1986, 1987, in Worcester, Massachusetts. I walked out of that clinic with my tail between my legs. He was so ambidextrous. He was playing a different rhythm patternwith every one of his limbs while telling the audience what he was doing. I decided at that point I was either going to think about doing something else or I was going to get a drum teacher and make myself as good as I could be. So I ended up taking lessons from Dave DiCenso in the Boston area. He really straightened out a lot of things in my drumming.
So that’s the list of people that really made it happen for me when I was young. And of course there’s a long list of drummers that I admire and learn from today.
MD: In TSO you play a hybrid kit made of up Roland pads and acoustic Zildjian cymbals. How did that decision come about, and why?
Jeff: When I was in Savatage, I acquired an endorsement from Pearl drums. I played Pearl for a number of tours with Savatage and the first two tours with TSO. In the theaters, we were playing to an audience that varied from eight years old to eighty. We were trying to be sensitive about volume, but we had a problem controlling the drum sound. So the suggestion came up to try electronic drums. It was Paul’s decision ultimately, but it was also a production necessity. This gave us the ability to control the sound of the band and gave Dave Whitman, our sound engineer, the ability to mix the band as it should be.
The electronic kit has made the life of my drum tech, Imy James, and production crew so much easier. With three double-show days in a row every week, setup time is critical. For my Savatage and Metal Church tours, I’ve always got the Pearl drumkit out there. On the Trans-Siberian Orchestra tour, I’m still using the Pearl hardware. On top of that are Zildjian cymbals. The live TSO setup consists of twenty-five pieces of brass. I’ve also used Vater 3A drumsticks for over twenty years. I’m very proud to endorse all of these companies.
MD: What do you think John O.Reilly brings to the West Coast band? How would you describe him?
Jeff: A veteran. A class act. A world-class drummer. A powerhouse drummer who is smooth as silk. John is the epitome of a team player. He and guitarist Al Pitrelli had worked together in the past, so those two getting back together was pretty seamless. The selection of John was perfect. I always enjoy listening to John play, and I couldn’t be prouder of him.
MD: Is he expected to play your parts note for note, or is he able to insert some of his own uniqueness?
Jeff: We all interpret things a little bit differently, and he is obviously playing with a different set of musicians. So, in the case of the drumming, I’ll be listening to the West band rehearse, and John may do something and I’ll be like, Wow, that was cool. I’m gonna steal that. And he may do the same thing. There is a great deal of respect between us. The production can dictate a little bit of what’s going on within the band, and things change a little bit back and forth, but in the end we’re both playing what is best for the show.
MD: What advice would you give to aspiring drummers?
Jeff: Well, you’ve got to get your head wrapped around the idea of practicing a lot—as in hours a day. You’ve got to get off your cell phone, get off your computer, and you need to find a good instructor who can teach you right from wrong. Your instrument is expensive, so you better be prepared to get a job and make some money. And you may need a vehicle that can haul your drums. To say it’s a lot of work is an understatement. If you look at drumming from a distance, you wonder why in the hell anybody would want to do this. It’s because the end reward is like nothing else. There is no better feeling than anchoring the greatest show on earth.
Tools of the Trade
Jeff Plate uses a Roland KT-10 trigger pedal; snare, tom, kick, and cymbal pads; and TD-10 sound modules with TSO. With Metal Church he plays a Pearl Masters Custom Maple kit (and a Reference Birch set in his home studio) and two 14″ SensiTone snare drums. He plays Zildjian cymbals and uses Remo heads, plus a Pearl Icon rack, chimes, and hardware, including an H-2000 hi-hat stand and PowerShifter Eliminator P-2000C bass drum pedals. He plays Vater 3A nylon-tip sticks with grip tape and keeps his gear in TKL cases.
MD: On the 2014 winter tour, the East and West bands traveled a total of 22,175 miles to perform 122 arena concerts, and in doing so visited seventy-one cities in thirty-seven states. How do you prepare yourself for a tour of that magnitude? Describe what it’s like being a part of the TSO.
John: It’s a dream come true. That’s what we all dream about when we’re starting in the business. To get to do what I love to do, which is playing drums in a band that is growing constantly, is a dream. There’s no other way to describe it. I don’t take it for granted. This is something that not many guys are ever going to be able to experience. In my opinion, this is the best gig ever.
Besides just practicing on the kit here at home, my main preparations are watching what I eat and working out. You don’t want to go on the road and start eating better or practicing there. My preparation starts in late May or early June.
MD: What’s your practice routine?
John: I just get familiar with playing the material again. At rehearsals, it takes us maybe a day or two to get into the swing of things; then you fall right back into it. The main thing is to be in shape to get there and start running the show down twice a day for fourteen or fifteen days. This band definitely demands a lot from you, but it’s fun. Being ready is paramount.
MD: Before the Trans-Siberian Orchestra, you played for a number of household names, live, in the studio, or on video, including Blue Öyster Cult, Geoff Tate, Joe Walsh, and Ritchie Blackmore and Rainbow. What experience stands out the most?
John: My God, there’s so many of them. When I was playing with Ritchie Blackmore’s Rainbow, during that first week of rehearsals, Ritchie wrote “Black Masquerade.” Right away that song just fell into place. It was one of those magical things. From the moment he played the riff, it was like we’d been playing it for a week. We just followed him. There were a few little changes, and the song was written on the spot. It was really that fast. That was a real memorable track and a memorable experience. It’s one of my favorite tracks on the record, Stranger in Us All.
MD: What about Joe Walsh, Geoff Tate, and Paul Rodgers—were those studio engagements?
John: Actually, those were special appearances they made with TSO. One of my favorites was with Paul Rodgers. That was a rip. He was such a genuine man and a great guy. He and his wife, Cynthia, were so gracious. Afterwards we stayed in touch on and off over that year, because Cynthia was very concerned about Cathy [John’s wife, who passed away in May of 2015] and her multiple sclerosis. At that time, and we were so lucky for this, Cathy was able to travel with us for the last seven days of the tour. Being out there was some of the best times of her life. The TSO organization let that happen for her and myself, and I can never repay them for that.
MD: You started playing the drums at age ten. You turned pro at twenty, making your first recording with jazz great Earl “Fatha” Hines. You have a history that covers everything from jazz to rock. You’re known for your solid time and uniqueness. Are you able to apply any of that in TSO?
John: Absolutely. It’s all about meter. It comes down to generating good, solid time, especially in a band as big as TSO—and on a stage as big as the one we use. You also need the ability to make something swing. If you listen to any of the great drummers—John Bonham, Ringo, or Buddy Rich—there’s an inherent sense of swing with everything they do. That’s really what I try to inject in anything I do.
MD: Just like Jeff Plate, you’re playing a hybrid kit with electronic drums and acoustic cymbals. Did that take some getting used to for you?
John: Oh, yeah. It still does. My kit up on the main stage has got the subwoofer, my two spot monitors, and my in-ears, and I’ve also got two thumpers mounted underneath my throne. Yeah, believe me—it’s kind of like prostate surgery sometimes.
MD: So you’ve got your in-ears kicking, a sub behind you, two monitors in front of you, and two thumpers?
John: Yeah, you bet. I want this shit to seem as real as possible to me.
MD: Switching gears, many years ago, you studied under New York City drum instructor Stanley Spector. You recently digitally restored all of his material. What inspired you to resurrect the Stanley Spector School of Drumming?
John: An accident in my basement, actually. I was making room for a set of drums, and I almost broke my neck tripping over a box. In that box I found a bunch of cassettes, workbooks, and handwritten notes. I thought I had completely lost these tapes from when I had first studied with Stanley. I opened up the first page of his workbook, closed it, and I was able to play it from memory. I hadn’t seen that stuff since 1969. It brought back such great memories.
Stanley had such a unique method of teaching, where he would teach you how to visualize. His school closed in 1988, about a year after his passing. I found the phone number at the bottom of the book, called, and spoke to his widow, Astrid. I explained to her the whole story. I gave her my address, and then a package showed up about ten days later. She sent me the advanced home-study course, lessons 1 to 10, on cassette. Over a period of time, I struck up a conversation with her. I wrote Astrid a nice letter explaining that I’d like to archive Stanley’s material, so that it could be saved. It’s Stanley’s life’s work and should be preserved. So she decided to give me a shot. I archived three years of Stanley’s lessons. It’s a work of love.
MD: You’ve taken on the role of teaching this material?
John: Yeah. Right now, there are about sixty-five students. I’ll teach through Skype. I teach the way that Stanley taught. He would present a problem and then ask you to try to solve it. He really made you think about stuff. And as simple as some of these lessons are, it takes extreme focus.
MD: You’ve also been doing some writing. You released a book, The High Paid Musician Myth, this year, and you have Maverick Musician Magazine online. What was the motivation behind these projects?
John: The real motivation and inspiration had come from my brother, who passed away suddenly last year. The plan with both projects is to inspire other musicians to realize that this is more than just a music business now. You can’t really depend upon the music business to make a living. You need to be able to have other sources of income. There are examples in the book of some guys who I’ve studied with—Frank Kern, Eben Pagan—who are brilliant marketers. These guys were musicians starting out. They’ve parlayed what they’ve done into some pretty successful businesses, and there’s no reason why any musician out there can’t do the same thing.
MD: In your book you talk about the decline of the music business and the trickle-down effect it’s having on musicians. Can you elaborate on that?
John: The trickle-down effect is the lack of work. It’s harder and harder to get really great gigs. Maintaining gigs is getting harder. Not to say that it can’t happen, because it definitely can. As a matter of fact, one of Jeff Plate’s students that he mentored, Elijah Wood, landed the Shania Twain farewell tour. You have to be prepared. You have to be at the right place at the right time. If you want anything bad enough, you have to persevere. And it doesn’t hurt to know somebody. Just because you get a great gig, that doesn’t mean that you’re going to have it next year. You have to think outside the box. For example, the cover story for the debut issue of Maverick Musician Magazine was [TSO guitarist] Chris Caffery. He’s done very well with his Tears of the Sun hot sauce. Plus he’s working on a cooking show.
MD: What qualities do you think Jeff Plate brings to the East Coast band? What makes him unique?
John: His musicality. He’s a world-class player. He’s got great meter. He knows how to operate within the TSO structure. I’ve learned from Jeff. I’ve learned from watching Jeff. He and I will play the same song pretty much the same way. We might do a couple of things a little bit differently. I may hear something that he does and go, Oh, I’m going to take that. And he’ll do the same thing with me. He brings the ease of his style. He makes everything just sit in the right spot, and that’s hard. Jeff’s got the ability to put everybody at ease when he’s playing. He’s dependable. There’s no looking over your shoulder and wondering what’s going to happen next. Jeff is consistent about everything that he does.
MD: What’s next for John O.Reilly?
John: Now it’s the winter tour. I’m also going to be hosting a series of live webinars, promoting the book, and in general just starting to get my act together here. The weeks after my wife’s passing really took the wind out of me. I’m just trying to make her as proud of me as I can. I’ll give it my best shot. Next year is going to be real busy. People are going to start to get sick of me. [laughs]
Tools of the Trade
With TSO John O.Reilly uses Roland TD-10 sound modules and snare, tom, kick, and cymbal pads, with a Pearl H-2000 hi-hat stand and PowerShifter Eliminator P-2000C bass drum pedals, plus a Gibraltar rack, cymbal and tom arms, snare stand, and throne. On all other gigs he plays Mapex Saturn series drums with a Mapex P900 double pedal and hi-hat stand. He uses Sabian cymbals, Vic Firth American Rock Classic wood-tip sticks, and Rhythm Tech mounted tambourines.