Jeff Plate is an American drummer, mostly known for being a member of prog metal icons Savatage as well as playing with the Trans-Siberian Orchestra (TSO), a project that took off as Savatage’s offspring to become a massive phenomenon in its own rights.
In January this year, Jeff released his first solo album with the band he called Alta Reign. Their CD named ‘Mother’s Day’ was reviewed by us recently. It is available to buy now, for information click here.
Angelina Pelova of the Midlands Rocks had the honour of talking to the living legend.
Hello, Jeff, how are you?
I am doing good!
it’s great to see you! Thank you for talking to me, It is such a privilege!
Likewise! Thank you very much for talking to me and for reviewing the record, I really appreciate it. It is very good.
You are welcome, I am glad you liked it! I am also honoured that you read my review and interview with Joel Hoekstra, it’s nice to hear that.
Yes! Of course, Joel and I play together in the Trans-Siberian Orchestra, so I see all his media comms, all of his reviews and interviews. There are a lot of people like yourself that I don’t know personally, so I figured out I’d reach out to them, you know? A number of people have responded, so it’s been very good. So, here you go! Thank you, I really appreciate it, you taking the time!
No problem. Are you currently targeting the UK, or is this part of a general outreach to other countries as well?
I was really doing this on my own, just tracking down people like yourself. I signed up with GERMUSICA Promotion and Management Co. in Germany last week, so we are setting another campaign for the record. We are trying to target Europe, Eastern Europe, and England/Britain also. When I released the record, there was a little bit of confusion, as far as the timing of the release and everything. We didn’t necessarily set up distribution in Europe because just selling physical CDs is a problem, as it is everywhere. I should have probably set something up for promotion earlier, but the fact is, people who’ve heard this record really seem to enjoy it! I felt it was important to start another campaign and just to get the record and the music out to the public. People seem to really respond very positively, so I thought it was worth the effort! So, we should be working Europe and Britain in the next couple of months.
A little piece of information which I am not sure you can utilise… Originally, I am from Bulgaria, where progressive and power metal have got a huge following. At the time when Savatage were big, I used to live there and I can tell you that they were some of our idols of prog metal, so it is definitely worth trying to reach out to Eastern Europe and Bulgaria in particular as well.
Sure, if you have any contacts, any suggestions, please let me know. I think Birgit at GERMUSICA seems to be really on top of it. I am understanding that Savatage really was such a popular band throughout Europe, especially for progressive metal! I know we haven’t played there, we’ve only done one show in twenty years, that was the Wacken show in 2015, but yeah, I am very proud and very thankful that I was and still am a member of Savatage. We have such a strong fan base, these people just love the band!
They do, yes!
It’s great, it’s great! I think with my popularity with Savatage, and also Metal Church, many people also know the Trans-Siberian Orchestra, obviously, this should do well throughout Europe and this is why I really wanted to keep pushing the record there.
That’s what I wanted to ask you first. I wasn’t sure if Savatage was best to start with, but since you mentioned it, obviously…
So, how would you promote yourself: Jeff Plate of Satavage, or Jeff Plate of TSO, or Jeff Plate of Alta Reign?
Well… Trans-Siberian Orchestra is obviously my biggest; this is where my most popularity is, especially in America. Now, in Europe, Savatage it is. We are still together, also I am ex Metal Church. So, we approached it mainly from Trans-Siberian Orchestra, Savatage and ex Metal Church perspective. I was in Metal Church for eleven years, which was quite a good run. A lot of people know me throughout Europe for mainly Savatage and Metal Church, and that’s really how we approach it.
I read in one of your interviews that it took, on and off, about thirty years to put this record together. What’s the story behind it?
So, thirty years ago I lived in Boston, Massachusetts, and I was playing in a band called Wicked Witch. Zak Stevens was the singer of that band (who’s after that been in Savatage, Circle II Circle, TSO). The guitar player Matt Leff really was the main songwriter; Matt and I worked a lot together on the music for this band. While we rehearsed, I recorded almost everything that we did onto a cassette tape. So, years later, years later, Zak joined Savatage, I joined Savatage. Probably four years ago, I was listening to some of these old tapes, and I have, like, twenty five 90-minute cassettes full of us. Some of the tapes were actually starting to deteriorate because they were so old, so I decided to digitize all these cool ideas that were on these tapes, and as I was doing this, I realized there was so much music there that was very, very good that we did nothing with. Matt Leff came down with cancer about seven years ago and he got to a point where he could no longer play the guitar. I talked to Matt about using some of this music for this project and he was okay with that. We lost Matt just over a year ago. As I was going through these ideas, and I have actually listened to some of these tapes for years, some of them were actually very good. I’ve always had lyrical ideas, I’ve always had song ideas of direction, and I just realized that if I was ever going to do my own project, I needed to do it probably soon; I am not getting any younger. So this was the opportunity for me to do this.
I got together with a local guitar player called Tommy Cook, and we began sorting out some of these ideas and recreating some of them. A lot of these ideas were not finished songs, they were just riffs; we had some song ideas that were never really finished, but this is the thirty-year part of it; that’s where it all came from, as literally that was 1990, we were writing this stuff and recorded some of it, and, like I said, we never finished a lot of this material, and it was just a shame. So this was the beginning of Alta Reign; this is when I started the running process, and then from there myself, Tommy Cook on guitar and Kevin MacCarthy on bass guitar, we got together and just started sorting out some of these old ideas, writing new parts to go along with them, and then, as this developed, we began writing some of our own music also. So probably 80 percent of the ‘Mother’s Day’ record is original music, but the basis of it started with some of these riffs that were just that alone.
That’s very helpful, thank you. It’s quite interesting to look for influences, as, obviously, the first thought that jumps to mind is that it would be Satavage influenced, but it doesn’t really strike me as that. For instance, Circle II Circle, from whatever I’ve heard, are pretty much like Savatage No 2 (Jeff nods in agreement – A.P.), while your band, if anything, I’d say reminds me of Dream Theater. Did you try to stay as far as possible from Savatage, or did you follow your ideas?
We’ve literally just followed our ideas! I had no intention of being someone else. It was really just the idea that, wow, some of these guitar riffs, these old riffs are great, we should do something with them, and then it just developed from there. Like I said, we’ve known each other for 25-30 years, so we’ve known each other in a long time, but this is the first time we actually got together and we started doing an original project like this together.
As far as the direction, you know, I want it to be metal, I want it to be melodic, I did want it to be slightly progressive. Thank you for the Dream Theater reference, that’s quite a compliment, but Dream Theater takes progressive metal to some other orbit, you know, they are the kings of what they do. I’ve always loved the ability of Dream Theater to be heavy, really heavy, you know. When they want to be, they are a fantastic metal band. But they are just also just as fantastic progressive, complicated and also melodic. I also love these three elements. So, as we developed this, I had no real preconceived notion of what I wanted Alta Reign to sound like, but as it developed, it just began developing itself. But I wanted it to sound big, I wanted the nice big drum sound, I wanted really big vocals. There again, the people involved, everybody is such a good player in Alta Reign, everybody has great sounds. When it became coming together, it really started becoming its own thing. It’s interesting, you know, your point about something like Savatage… I know most people probably thought: oh Jeff Plate is doing a record, what’s it going to sound like, Savatage?
So, what is it going to sound like? In writing these songs, this is the first time I am doing this. But we have had so many interesting comparisons, you know, from Dream Theater, to Disturbed, to Journey, to Ghost, to old Yes, you know, it’s all over the place!
And Scorpions as well, with Klaus Meine resemblance!
Yes. At the end of the day, I am very, very proud of this record, but I think we’ve created something that sounds original. You know, you may hear elements of this or that, but you can’t say that this song sounds like that song, or Alta Reign sounds just like that band. It became its own thing just really organically.
It did, yes. Now, can you tell me about Tommy Cook? I couldn’t find any intel on him, is he just a local guy, or has he starred in another band before?
Yes. So, I met Tommy Cook in 1993 I guess it was. He lives about thirty minutes from me. He’s a local guy, he’s just been this fantastic guitar player! He’s played in local bands, he teaches guitar, he’s got a full schedule of concerts. Just a very, very smart, nice, humble man. The first time I saw Tommy play years ago, he was in a cover band and I was like, holy cow, this guy is awesome! It took all this time; of course my schedule has been busy, I’ve been doing a lot of things over the years, but Tommy was the only guy that I could think of locally that was going to be able to do what I wanted. And he came in, he started working with us on this material, and he’s fantastic. He took what Matt Leff was writing years ago and completely embraced it, he understood it. But, to my surprise, it also was very similar to some of his original ideas that he had, so this is why it all works so well together. Tommy has done some other recording projects just with some local people, but nothing on a national level like this, but, you know, he is fantastic, and it shows on this record. His playing is awesome. Like I said, Kevin MacCarthy on bass and also Jane Mangini on keyboards (who I’ve known through TSO), that core is just phenomenal. Collin Halloway on lead vocals and extra guitars, great vocalist, and then Zak Hamilton, also a vocalist and a keyboard player. So between Tommy and Jane, their solos really just shine on this record, they really stand out. I was just really very, very pleased with them. Tommy especially stepped out and he really did a fantastic job.
It’s very melodic as well, it’s very interesting to follow the album. You’ve all done a very good job!
Thank you, thank you!
In terms of TSO, obviously we mentioned it a few times, can you try to summarise what it’s about? It sounds like something huge but is much bigger in America than it is here in the UK, and now you’ve got the Eastern and the Western tours. I didn’t actually realise that it started off just as Savatage and eventually became so big that Jon Oliva didn’t see a reason to go back together with Savatage because you can never outdo what you’ve done with TSO. What is the whole idea of TSO, do you only get together for Christmas, or is it like a permanent tour around the States?
Well, OK, so TSO came about with Paul O’Neill, Jon Oliva and another writing partner, Bob Kinkel. They had begun working on other music, aimed more at Broadway, aimed more at theater. This happened around 1990. This is when Jon stepped out of Savatage and Zak came in to be the leading singer in Savatage. The three of these men, Jon, Paul and Bob, were working on this other music, so they had all this going on on the side. “Dear Winter Dead” was the first studio record that I recorded with Savatage, obviously it’s about the war that was going on in Yugoslavia. Paul’s idea for “Christmas Eve/Sarajevo” we all thought was kind of strange, this instrumental Christmas song on a Savatage record, but the song is fantastic and we knew it when we heard it, the song just became a contemporary holiday smash hit in America. This was the vehicle for Paul and Jon to take their other idea and make it a reality. So that’s how the Trans-Siberian Orchestra was formed.
Obviously, it was really formed around that Christmas song, so the first two records that we did with TSO were Christmas and holiday CDs. We recorded ‘Beethoven’s Last Night’, ‘Night Castle’ and ‘Letters from the Labyrinth’ which were all non-seasonal CDs, but our real claim to fame, so to speak, is the holiday music, it’s huge in America. What we’ve done over the past twenty years is really unbelievable! We sell out major arenas twice a day, we played eight shows in five days every week, it’s just incredible what we do!
As far as TSO in Europe, the problem with all of this is that TSO is such a big production it made it so expensive. In America, we have 12 tour buses and 28 tracker trailers, with the lighting and stuff, it’s incredible. I know we all really wanted to try to establish TSO in Europe, but it was just so expensive to do this. We did not want to form a third group in Europe during the holidays because the tours that happen in America, like you said, there are two tours – East and West, there is so much work involved in that, the third band was really I think too much to consider. We did try doing a couple of non-seasonal tours in Europe and I think it was received very well. I know a lot of it is based on Savatage’s fan base and Europe is obviously very up on this classic meets rock kind of thing but here again, it is such a big production and so expensive to move overseas to do the proper tour. Paul never wanted to do anything that was small, he wanted to make the show big, lots of lights, a lot of production, a lot of people on stage and I think economically it was just a challenge for us to get established there, too. But Trans-Siberrian Orchestra in America – it’s incredible! There seems to be no end in sight! It’s a great thing to be a part of and I’m very proud of what we’ve accomplished over the last several years. We lost Paul O’Neill four years ago coming up soon. He created something that is going to be timeless. A lot of credit to Paul, he was fantastic!
Great! In terms of your own future, what is going to be your focus after you’ve done all the promotion for this album? Are you going to start working on another one? You’ve got also the cooperation with Chris Caffery in another band, is that now in the past?
Chris’ solo project? Now, Chris and I haven’t really worked together on that in a number of years. When I joined Metal Church, that’s when I switched my focus from working on Chris’ solo project to working on Metal Church.
So, the plan going forward. Obviously, we are still all dealing with Covid. Covid is now a year old basically in America and we are hoping first of all that things kind of get back to normal, that the Trans-Siberian Orchestra can get back on tour this year, that would be great, that would be the best. In terms of Alta Reign, I will be promoting this, doing interviews as long as people want to talk, as long as I am able to, I will promote this record, but we are also beginning to write the second record right now.
You are, OK.
So, yes, my plan is to hopefully get the second record done, it would be nice to have it released before the end of this year, if not, then early next year, like I did with ‘Mother’s Day’. But the plan is in place, we’ve already started writing, I’ve got close to ten ideas. We need to sort some stuff out but the songs are kind of in place, we’ve begun writing them. We’re going to follow the same formula that we did before.‘Mother’s Day’ for me is such a pride and honor. This is my first time doing the lyrics, doing the production and being one of the main songwriters, and as I mentioned earlier, I think we developed something that is quite original. It’s melodic, it’s heavy, it’s metal, you know, there is a lot of stuff going on here. The response has been great, so we’re going to stick with the formula that we worked on this record. Same people are going to be involved. I am looking forward to it. I know it is going to be a lot of work to measure up to ‘Mother’s Day’, but I think I have the material to do it and it is going to be exciting. If that goes well, if the world gets back to normal, it would be great to come to Europe, to come to England, do some shows, think this thing out and plan for us. I think it will be great live!
I think so, too.
I made a decision when I started this project. I do know a lot of people, I could have brought in other singers and other players, other writers. I really felt that if this was going to be my project, I really wanted to work with people that are closer to me. If I brought somebody, if I brought a singer in, he may not want to sing what I want him to sing, you know. Somebody with pedigree and a career is going to have their own thoughts on things, and this really was working with Tommy and Collin and the vocals. They were just great. They love what they write, they get what I’m thinking and we were just able to really work together so well there was no need for me to bring somebody else in. I did bring Chris Caffery, he did a solo on ‘Rise’, Joel Hoekstra plays on ‘Mother’s Day’, Mee Eun Kim from TSO, she also plays keyboards on ‘Mother’s Day’, but the core of the band, the main six members will stay the same. I could possibly bring in some guest players for a vocal or a guitar solo, or something like that, but no, like I said, we developed something with this group of people and I want to stick to that, I think we are going to be better off doing it that way.
Yes, makes sense. OK, anything in particular you’d like to say to the UK?
Well, first of all I hope everybody is safe and I hope everybody can stay healthy! We are still in a mess, it’s going to take a while, but I certainly hope that I am able to get back there over there performing. I love the crowds in England, I love the crowds in Europe. The response from people throughout the UK has been very positive about Alta Reign, so hopefully with the next record we can build on that popularity and be part of a tour, or maybe do our own shows. We’ll see, we’ll see what happens. But I certainly look forward to going back there and performing again, I miss it! I have been touring Europe and throughout the world for the last twenty five plus years and, although Trans-Siberian Orchestra is an American thing only, it’s really the only touring I’ve done for the past several years, but it would be great to get back overseas. The audiences overseas are different
than they are here in America, people really seem to be focused and they know your band and they know your music, and I really appreciate that. Yeah, I look forward to getting back over there. But, like I said, most importantly everybody needs to stay safe.
Of course. Thank you very much for taking the time for this interview!
I really appreciate it! Thank you so much for your interest and your support. Spread the word, I think Alta Reign is something, I am very proud of it, like I said, my whole band, we are all very proud of what we’ve created and we would love as many people to hear it as possible. Thank you.