Trans-Siberian Orchestra drummer Jeff Plate talks blending genres and becoming a holiday tradition

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CLEVELAND, Ohio (WOUB) – The Trans-Siberian Orchestra has become synonymous with the holiday season.

The brainchild of Paul O’Neill, Trans-Siberian Orchestra (TSO) approaches the holidays like a rock opera. Their first album 1996’s Christmas Eve and Other Stories showcased this in spades, notably in TSO’s biggest hit Christmas/ Sarajevo 12/14, the group’s louder than life, and now definitive, take on Carol of the Bells.

TSO is best known for their annual winter tours, where they showcase their stories to their fullest potential. Complete with a full orchestra (as the name implies), elaborate stage production, and a narrated story, TSO seeks to combine music, visuals, and narrative into one festive arena-sized package. TSO has been selling out areas for almost two decades now, often playing two shows a day.

In 2023, as they revisit The Ghosts of Christmas Eve: The Best of TSO and More, Trans-Siberian Orchestra continues to up the ante to remain rock ‘n’ roll’s most exciting holiday tradition.

WOUB’s Nicholas Kobe spoke to TSO drummer Jeff Plate before their performances at the Rocket Mortgage Field House Friday, in Dayton December 28, Cincinnati on December 29, and Columbus on December 30. Read an edited and condensed transcript of their conversation below. 

An image advertising the Trans-Siberian Orchestra's 2023 tour.
Nicholas Kobe: So my first question is to anyone who I guess may be unfamiliar, how would you describe Trans-Siberian Orchestra in one sentence?

Jeff Plate: Well, I think the best response is just to come see the show.

Come see the show?

Plate: Yeah. There are really so many elements to a TSO show when you present it to somebody, it almost doesn’t make sense, but it is such an elaborate show, not just from the production standpoint, but lyrically and emotionally. This is what Paul set out to do when he created the Trans-Siberian Orchestra, was give the audience something that was, he used to like to say “sensory overload.” Visually we’ve certainly got that with the production that we have, but also the musicality, the vocals on stage, the story that goes along with everything.

What parts of it do you think wouldn’t make sense to just tell someone?

Plate: Oh, I think the fact that it is, at its core, it’s a rock show, but there’s also a story involved in the show and that includes a narrator. When you speak of a narrator and you speak of story, you think of theater, you think of Broadway, that kind of thing. The other elements, the rock show part of this, the production, the band itself, it is kind of an interesting combination of things. It’s quite a contrast. The first half of our show is the story segment, and it can be a little more tame, than the second half of our show, but they both just seem to work so well together. I think when people are sitting in the arena and experience that, then they understand what it is that we’re doing.

What’s something that has made you guys feel like rock music and heavier music go along well with the messages you guys are trying to convey?

Plate: Well, to be true to himself, Paul O’Neill was a rock ‘n’ roll guy. He’ll always be wherever Paul is. He’s rocking whatever he’s doing right now. He came from that genre of music in the ’70s. He was working with bands like Aerosmith, Ted Nugent, the Scorpions, and Joan Jett. Paul’s DNA is rock music. It’s also when you think about his style and his formula of songwriting, how he incorporated Beethoven and Mozart into his original pieces of music. I mean, those guys, back in their days, they were rock stars. They were just these huge musical attractions and they were the rock stars of their generation. When you use the term classical, I think you kind of think of safe and sweet and kind of soft, but there’s a lot of it that’s very bombastic. And Paul used a bunch of this to his advantage along with his music.

Taking the term “rock opera” and making it very literal?

Plate: Yes, exactly. That’s a good way to put it.

Yep. On this tour, in particular, you guys are celebrating The Ghost of Christmas Eve. What’s it been like to revisit that record?

Plate: The Ghost of Christmas Eve is more based on the television show that we recorded back in 1999. As far as the music that was in that particular show, at the time, we had two albums: Christmas Eve and Other Stories and The Christmas Attic. So the original soundtrack for that movie was kind of a combination of those two records. Once we prepared to do this story live, years ago Paul decided, ‘Well, we need a little something else in here.’ So we added a couple of songs from The Lost Christmas Eve also.

Paul was very good at the rhythm of the show, the story part of it. He knew exactly what needed to be there and what didn’t need to be there. So this show in particular, we’ve done this several times over the past 20-plus years that we’ve been touring. It’s a fan favorite, the band loves performing in the show. It goes over so well every year. We’ve done the show many times, but the show itself, the story is the same, but the show itself is different every year with the production changes and things like that.

Speaking about that, what’s something you guys are doing to up the ante and change the show around this year?

Plate: Well, here again, if you come to the show, you’ll see that there’s plenty of stuff out there on YouTube. We’ve always got something new, whether it is video content, whether it is a lighting scheme, whether it’s just the appearance of the show. One thing I will say is that this year we brought back the marquee for the theater setting, which goes along with the story, and the marquee is one of my favorite show setups that we’ve ever done. The marquee raises up and down, my drum set is on top of the marquee, and I’m lifted way up into the clouds a couple of times. It is an awesome view, and it just looks so cool and fits the theme of what we do perfectly.

As a band, what keeps you motivated and interested in coming back to this tour you do every year?

Plate: Probably everybody has a different answer, but I think at the same time, the same response is we love what we do. This project, this show, this whole entity is such a good thing to be a part of. I’ve been here from the beginning, so I have a lot of pride and connection to every note that we play up there. But the musicians on stage, the vocalists on stage, this is such a well-run professional tour and to be on stage in an arena that is sold out with the production and the story, just the great energy that’s involved in this, is what keeps people coming back.

I’ve said this a hundred times, I sit behind the drum kit and look around the stage and I’m blown away by the amount of talent that I work with daily. It really is something else. I think everybody in the group feels the same way. When you get on stage with such a professional, talented group of people and everything is running, that performance is going to be excellent. The show is going to be excellent. We get a standing ovation every time. So what we’re doing, is we’re doing it very well, and we enjoy working with each other.

What do you think makes narrative such an important part of the TSO experience?

Plate: Well, when we first started touring in 1999, we knew that musically we had something that was successful. Paul’s first two records were very well received. Christmas/ Sarajevo 12/24 was a hit. The trick was bringing this to the stage and seeing how well the story segment of the show was going to be received. This becomes possible because the narrator is speaking directly to everybody in the audience. I think once people realized Paul’s lyrics and Paul’s stories were connecting with literally everybody in the room, word of mouth spread about this, and this is what brought people back in. It wasn’t just a rock show or a music show or just a spectacle, there was a real meaning behind what we were doing. Paul’s always been a fantastic lyricist, and the lyrics and the story behind Christmas Eve and Other Stories, our first record are magic. This is really what connected with the audience and solidified us as a bonafide touring group and why all these years later we’re still growing.

Throughout your years touring with TSO, what’s something that you’ve observed change about the touring landscape?

Plate: Well, that’s, ever since COVID, obviously the most drastic change was when we didn’t tour, but even now, we are required to protect ourselves. The idea of COVID is still out there kicking around. We take a lot of precautions in keeping ourselves healthy and make sure that we are ready and able to perform every show because if not, then it just adds more work and becomes a situation for management to deal with. When we returned in 2021, I felt that there was still a little bit of a tentative, anxious feeling in the audience because some people were out there still wearing masks and we were restricted from interacting with any audience members. And the same 2022, but I saw things open up a little bit more.

This year I still see people with masks on and respectfully, that’s good for them. If that’s what they feel they should do, that’s what they should do. This year, I feel like the audiences have kind of relaxed a little bit more. They seem to be a little bit more responsive, and enjoying things. COVID thing threw a wrench into a lot of things, and just being comfortable in public was the main one.

So now it’s nice to see people kind of getting back to that and enjoying the show without having this monkey on their back, so to speak. In general, we’ve been very fortunate that pretty much since 2004, 2005, we have been a very successful arena act. The crowds are always big, and always receptive, and this goes back to what I said about Paul and his lyrics and his music, it just connected with everybody. I mean, hey man, we’ve become a tradition during the holiday season, and that’s kind of a heavy statement, but it’s true. Just to see people back in the seats having a great time. It’s great for all of us.

Speaking of which, not only do you play arena shows, a lot of times you’re playing two shows a day. What’s that experience like?

Plate: So this has been the norm since, I think around 2004 when we released The Lost Christmas Eve, the third Christmas album, and this is when this thing literally exploded. All of a sudden the audiences were doubling in size and we were selling out these arenas twice a day, and hey, you know what? It’s a good problem to have. We have such a demand for this show that this is necessary for us to work at this pace, pace. We’re also trying to do this tour within a seven-and-a-half-week window, so it’s holiday-based. There is no rescheduling of a show for January or February. We have to do it and get it done in November and December. Having said that, everybody in the band, the vocalists, the crew members, everybody knows what they’re in for when they come out here. This is a very demanding tour. We’re generally doing eight shows in five days every week.

Three of those days are double-show days. As far as myself being the drummer, I mean, I’ve always been conscious of staying in shape and keeping up my chops and the like, but we all know that we’re in for a lot of work, but it’s very rewarding. I’m literally amazed at the amount of crew members that come back to this tour every year, and they know they’re going to get their butt kicked every year, but they come back, they do it. They love the tour, they love working with everybody, and that’s what makes this whole thing work. I can’t tell you how many times some of my peers like, ‘Jeff, how do you do this show twice a day, let alone three days in a row?’ Well, it’s just what I do. It’s what we do, and we just find this to be the norm now.

TSO has become, as you were saying, a kind of a staple of the holiday season. What’s something the general public misunderstands or doesn’t fully appreciate about holiday music, that you’ve gained an appreciation for playing in all these years?

Plate: Oh, I think it’s just that, I mean, when you hear holiday music, it kind of puts you at ease, right? It’s safe. I think, across the board even if it’s something that has a little bit of an edge to it, it’s usually kind of has a little bit of humor to it. Something like the Grinch or whatever. But when it comes to TSO, all of that is there. But I think when 12/24 hit the airwaves, it started, the beginning of that song starts with this beautiful guitar part and a cello, and you think, oh, here comes another pretty Christmas song, and all of a sudden, bam, the band kicks in.

Paul was able to add an element of rock and power to this Christmas music, which I think people had not heard before. He had something that came out at the right time and gave people exactly what they wanted, or at the very least, gave them something new. I think we’ve been able to capitalize on that plus, plus Paul was able to add that power, and then once we became successful, he was able to add the production to drive the whole thing home.

I’d imagine that power not only comes from Paul’s background and your guys’ background in the rock world but also your background appreciation of classical music.

Plate: Sure, sure. And at the core, this project was kind of born out of the band Savatage. A progressive, hard rock and metal band. Granted, Paul O’Neill had the ideas for TSO in his mind for years, but as I mentioned before, he came from a background of rock and progressive music, and even the classical music that I mentioned. There’s so much power and punch to a lot of it just to be able to take all that and shove it in a blender and, come out with his vision for TSO making that a reality and having a really good group of people around him to make it all work.

Yeah, I mean, you guys have done albums like Beethoven’s Last Night that are direct callbacks to that kind of classical in info lens.

Plate: Sure.

Are there any other concepts outside of holiday music, like Beethoven’s Last Night that you guys would be thinking about or just interested in exploring?

Plate: That’s a tough question. I mean, we lost Paul in 2017 and we’re still sorting some things out. It’s kind of a complicated answer, but I guess in general, yes, there are some things that we would like to explore. There are some things that we would like to finish that Paul had started, but in general, right now we are doing what we do, and that is these winter tours, but if something opens up and we’re able to finish some of his work and explore some of these other ideas, we’re all game. Right now it’s a little complicated and still recovering from all that.

One last question to wrap up: what do you see on the horizon for TSO?

Plate: Well, the winter tour is pretty much a given. Granted, we can’t take anything for granted, but these winter tours have been so successful every year we have so much music to choose from, and there’s always rotating the stories, keeping the tour fresh. This is probably the most logical future for us. If there’s something else that happens along the way, as I mentioned, that would be great, but right now what we’ve established is very successful. The management team and the production team, have their hands full. I mean, once everybody takes a break, these guys are back to work in February, or March, putting this next tour together.

This is a year-round cycle?

Plate: Pretty much, I guarantee you right now, they are looking at next year’s tour, trying to map it out, looking at some markets that maybe we skipped over this year that we should revisit and how do we make the production different, yadda yadda. There’s always thought in what’s coming up next. So the winter tour is, this is what we do, this is what we know is coming down the road, and this is what we focus on every year. As I mentioned, we’re all here. If something else opens up and we can get creative again and work on some of Paul’s music, we’ll do that. But for the time being, I think we’re a very, very good place.