The Best Seat in the House: A conversation with Trans-Siberian Orchestra drummer Jeff Plate

Trans-Siberian Orchestra drummer Jeff Plate and his band of Christmas rock theater cohorts are trying their best to help bring a merciful end to 2020 by inserting a little holiday cheer in the lives of their fans.

After having their streak of 19 straight winter tours cancelled due to the ongoing worldwide pandemic, the mammoth touring entity that is TSO has been forced to put the brakes on and go in a different direction this year, that of the live stream.

On Dec. 18 at 7 p.m. CDT, TSO will present “Christmas Eve and Other Stories Live In Concert,” a performance of their genre-defining album, “Christmas Eve and Other Stories.” Fans will also have the opportunity to view special pre-show content including behind-the-scenes footage and interview segments. Tickets are just $30. The performance will be available for streaming on demand through midnight on Sunday, Dec. 20. Fans can also purchase gift packages, including T-shirts, ornaments and masks. Livestream tickets can be sent digitally to friends and family as presents as well. For more details and to purchase tickets and packages, visit www.trans-siberian.com.

The event will bring together members of both the East and West bands for the first time since 2000 when TSO first began touring with two full groups. For the livestream, Bryan Hicks will narrate and Al Pitrelli (guitar) and Derek Wieland (keyboards) will serve as musical directors. The band will feature Chris Caffery (guitar), Mee Eun Kim (keyboards), Johnny Lee Middleton (bass), Asha Mevlana (violin), and Jeff Plate (drums). Vocalists will be Russell Allen, Nate Amor, John Brink, Erika Jerry, Chloe Lowery, Georgia Napolitano, and Jeff Scott Soto.

The brainchild of the late founder, composer, and lyricist Paul O’Neill, Trans-Siberian Orchestra has played approximately 2,100 concert dates for more than 17 million fans and sold in excess of 12 million albums and DVDs over the years. Huge numbers. And although this winter will be one of the most memorable for mostly the wrong reasons, Plate is hopeful that fans will enjoy the livestream, then come back hungrier than ever in 2021 for the live shows that only TSO can deliver.

“I definitely think there’s a chance for that,” he said. “We’ll keep our fingers crossed that next year gets back to normal and we can get back on the road again.”

ListenIowa spoke with Plate about the upcoming livestream event; the cultural phenomenon that are Christmas-season, Trans-Siberian Orchestra shows; and what it’s like have the best seat in the house each night as the group’s drummer.

LI: Announcing that Trans-Siberian Orchestra would not be playing this winter due to the pandemic had to be gut-wrenching for everyone involved.
JP: It was disappointing. It’s become a tradition for millions of people around the country every year. This is all I’ve known for the past 20 years. When we started touring in 1999, the first couple of tours were fairly short, but soon after that things really started to take off, so for the past 20 years, I’ve been leaving home on Halloween and coming home on Jan. 1. This is a real bummer for everybody involved. We could kind of see this coming in the spring. As much as we had an idea that we would have to cancel this tour, it doesn’t make it any easier.

LI: And like you said, seeing a Trans-Siberian Orchestra show at Christmas-time has almost become as much of a tradition as anything else for a lot of fans. That’s how much this show has become ingrained in people’s holiday seasons.
JP: Yes, it’s really amazing, just to think of where this started, not only musically, but on the stage. I can still remember our first show in 1999. We had a box truck with a couple dozen lights and a fog machine. Four or five years later, we’re playing arenas, then we’re playing arenas twice a day. It’s just amazing that the fans have fallen in love with TSO, they come every year, sometimes twice. I’ve heard it thousands of times that this is what they do for their holiday get-together. They make an event out of it. And others say that their holiday doesn’t start until they see us.

LI: Tell us about your upcoming livestream event, “Christmas Eve and Other Stories Live In Concert,” on Dec. 18.
JP: We really held out until the last minute to see if we could play to fans in person but that wasn’t to be, so we had to adjust and overcome. We’ve seen a bunch of other artists do a livestream, we know we can do it, and well. Let’s hope it’s just a one-tine thing, but it’s going to be for the ages. I know, just in the spirit of Paul O’Neill and what we’ve done over the years, this is going to be spectacular.

LI: It’s a great deal for $30 considering what goes into a TSO production.
JP: I think that this livestream is an interesting opportunity for us to connect with a bunch of people who have never seen us before, too. You think of how many shows we’ve played and that many millions of people, but there’s that many more who haven’t yet seen us. The holidays are a busy time of year, and sometimes we just don’t fit into somebody’s schedule. Sometimes we’re just too far away and people can’t physically get to our show. In this case here, we’re coming right to your living room, you’re going to have the best seat in the house. It’s a $30 ticket, you can invite some family and friends over or even buy the ticket digitally and give it as a gift. This is a great way to introduce us to them. Even if you’re someone who has never seen a show, you’re going to recognize something; it’s going to make a connection.

LI: Having the band members from East and West versions of TSO come together for the first time in a long time has to be special, too.
JP: Sure. This is going to be one band. I’ll be anchoring the rhythm section, Al Pitrelli and Chris Caffery will be on guitars, and Johnny Middleton on bass. The four of us were involved in Savatage when “Christmas Eve/Sarajevo 12/24,” was recorded. We’ve been here from the very beginning of this. Whenever there’s been a spring, European, or non-seasonal tour, it’s been the four of us holding down the rhythm section. The rest of the cast will be filled out by players and vocalists from the East and West bands. Brian Hicks, the narrator from the East Coast group, will be narrating the story. These are always interesting lineups. It’s always cool to be able to mix and match at time and play in different lineups. Everybody involved is an all-star, and I know the show is going to be just that, too.

LI: How did you got this gig, Jeff?
JP: I initially started working for Paul O’Neill and Jon Oliva in 1994 when I joined Savatage. The band had already recorded the “Handful of Rain” record, and I joined for the tour. In the middle the tour, I was hired on as the new permanent drummer in the band, so I was very excited about that. The following year, we went into the studio as Savatage and began working on the “Dead Winter Dead” record, a concept record that Paul had written about the war that was going on in Yugoslavia at the time. It was very epic and dramatic, and the subject matter was something that Paul was very concerned about and interested in. In the middle of the album, he wanted to place this instrumental Christmas song, which was based on a person in Sarajevo who used to sit in the middle of the square and play his cello while his city was being completely destroyed. He was trying to bring some peace to the situation. This inspired Paul. “Christmas Eve/Sarajevo 12/24,” was that track. At the time, we were all kind of looking at each other wondering what Paul was thinking putting this Christmas song on a Savatage record. Once we heard the final version of the song, there was no denying that it was awesome. When that record was released in late 1995, that song just took off in a completely different direction. Paul and Jon had already been working some other theatrical ideas more aimed toward Broadway and that style, but Trans-Siberian Orchestra was something that Paul had wanted to put together, and this song gave him the opportunity to do that. So, TSO was born on the back of that song. We did “Christmas Eve and Other Stories” in 1995, and here we are 25 years later.

LI: Give us a sense of what it’s like to be on stage with TSO. There’s lasers, there’s pyro, there’s loud music — basically everything a kid who wants to be a rock star growing up would want.
JP: (Laughs) You just took the words right out of my mouth. When I was a kid, I saw KISS on the “Midnight Special” in the mid ‘70s. That just blew me away. I wanted to be a part of that. To think all these years later that I’m part of this group that, honestly, is second-to-none as far as production, and the amount of production, and the amount of amazing performers on stage, it’s a thrill. It’s a privilege and an honor for me. I still think about it every night while I’m sitting up there. I was a kid dreaming of this, and this is my career now, and has been for many, many years. Kudos to Paul O’Neill and the whole management and writing team for bringing me in and allowing me to be a part of this. Every year I’m amazed at what this has become. I’ve had an interesting seat right in the middle of it. To see it grow right in front of me and around me really has been incredible. I couldn’t be prouder.

LI: Have there been any memorable shows that stick in your mind?
JP: There were a couple. The first arena show we did, I remember walking to the arena and going, “Wow. I can’t believe this thing has become this.” All of a sudden we’d gone to playing arenas, then to playing the same arena twice a day, sold out. That whole progression just sticks out. Paul also brought in some special guests several years in a row, like Jon Anderson from Yes. I was able to play “Roundabout” with Jon Anderson! At the time, I thought, “What other drummer has even been able to do this besides Bill Bruford and Alan White?” I was floored. We also worked with Steven Tyler, Roger Daltrey, Greg Lake, Robin Zander, Joe Walsh. I mean, these guys are my heroes. We’re so thrilled, honored and obviously nervous. (Laughs) We were in the presence of greatness. “Dream On” and “Sweet Emotion” with Steven Tyler? I mean, I can remember being in my bedroom as a youngster listening to those records and thinking, “Oh man. I’d love to do this.” And then I’m sharing the stage with him.

LI: Pretend you’re in a rehearsal situation, and Paul is standing out in front of you and the other performers. What would he be saying?
JP: (Laughs) I chuckle because when Paul was in front of you during rehearsal, he was all over everything. The way the singer is singing, the way the singer is standing, is that light the right color? If anything, I miss that about Paul the most. In rehearsals, that’s where his dedication and energy for this really showed. To see him out in the middle of the floor during rehearsals, he was talking to the sound engineer, he’s talking to the light guy, he’s motioning to somebody on stage. He was just all over the place, all of the time. He paid attention to detail. That was his thing. He just wanted to make sure everything was perfect, and he succeeded in creating something that is timeless. He left us in such a good place, with such a good show, and surrounded by the best people. We miss him dearly, but we know he’s with us all the time.

To purchase TSO merchandise:  https://shop.trans-siberian.com/collections/tickets
For more information: www.trans-siberian.com.