Machines of Grace

This "5 and Dime" interview with Machines of Grace drummer Jeff Plate was
conducted via a telephone chat on May 20.

Dave: Hey Jeff. Thanks for letting me conduct this interview to introduce Machines of Grace to the music fans that visit my rockin' website. Start off by introducing your band mates and naming who they would consider their primary influences on their chosen instrument.

Jeff: I'm Jeff Plate on drums. On guitar is Matt Leff. Zak Stevens, who people would know from singing in Savatage and Circle II Circle, is our lead vocalist. On bass is Chris Rapoza, who is from Rhode Island. He's played in a few bands with Matt, including Trigger Effect and HELLSPEAK.

My primary drumming influences include Peter Criss and Neil Peart. KISS is the reason I do what I do so it all starts with Peter. George Lynch was a big influence on Matt. If you know Zak Stevens' vocal style and history, you'll have to include Ronnie James Dio and Geoff Tate as influences. Chris Rapoza is a huge King's X fan. dUg Pinnick, with that five-stringed, tuned -down, shake-your-rear-end style of bass playing would be Chris' kind of deal.

Our chemistry harkens back to the history of this band. Before Zak and I joined Savatage, we had a project with Matt that we were pursuing called Wickedwitch. The chemistry came in a rehearsal room as we spent many hours, days, weeks, and years playing, working, and writing. We developed a chemistry so to speak, a method which has become our style. Machines of Grace was based around guitar riffs, I would chime in, and Zak did the majority of the lyric writing. We all had a hand in the arrangements, the melodies, and the progressions within the songs. That's where the chemistry between the three of us started, and Matt and Chris have worked together for years. They have a very solid base. Now, we're just re-polishing it.

Dave: The musical résumés of the members of Machines of Grace include stints in bands like Savatage, Circle II Circle, and Trigger Effect, which you've already mentioned. Your résumé also includes Trans-Siberian Orchestra and Metal Church. Connect all of the dots for me and tell my readers where Wickedwitch stopped and Machines of Grace was formed. Also, how has the band and its material evolved since Day One?

Jeff: When Zak was presented the chance to sing for Savatage, the Wickedwitch project ended. His choice was a no-brainer. Savatage was a class band and a world renowned band. We pushed him out the door. He had to do that gig. Wickedwitch, at that time, was a hard rock metal band. Nirvana had just entered the scene. Although we had a good product, the music scene and environment was changing. Those factors brought about the end of Wickedwitch part one. About two years ago, we were approached about re-doing the Wickedwitch material, kind of as a novelty. But at the same time, with the work that I've done and with the connections I've made along with Zak, we knew we had a good product that never had its just due. When we decided to redo this, we headed back into the studio, recorded the stuff, and re-wrote some things. When we thought about re-using the Wickedwitch name, we were confronted with the fact that a band in Florida was also using the name. We had basically abandoned the name for a couple of years. It gave us the opportunity to come up with a different name, one that doesn't lend itself toward thrash metal or death metal. After throwing names around for months, trying to find something that stuck with all of us, Machines of Grace fits us well. The logo and the artwork that goes along with it are fantastic. So here we are, with an older idea, but with a new name and a new approach.

Machines of Grace evolved once we got back into the studio. Previously, we had nothing more than a couple demos with these songs. This time in, we had a better approach to the material as far as preparation. Plus, we have a great producer in Paul David Hager, who works with the Goo Goo Dolls and Avril Lavigne. I weeded out some of the unnecessary drum stuff that was going on back in the day that might have been stepping on the vocals. Matt did some of the same on guitar. His rhythm stuff was very similar to what he did in the past, but our producer encouraged him to try a couple of different sounds. "Innocence," on this record, is an acoustic song. Previously, it was a full-blown, balls-out metal tune. The producer suggested that Matt grab an acoustic guitar and experiment. All of a sudden, we had the same song, but a brand new song altogether. After you listen to something, when you go back re-visiting and re-thinking about it, after growing up so to speak and maturing, it was apparent that we had to do a couple of different things within the songs. We had to change a few parts. Zak took some of the lyrics and melodies that were in question before and re-worked them to kind of fit where his head is at today, at this point of his life. The experience we had all gained over time let us recreate the material, not just replay it and re-record it. Some things happened out of the blue, and we think for the better. That's how Machines of Grace and our material has progressed and evolved. The next phase will be more of a real collaboration of writing, along with some of the older ideas that we've been kicking around for years. Our debut album though, is a collection of stuff that we were working on back in the day. Having the opportunity to do it the right way has made us think a lot harder about it. Time constraints and finances make you have to be smart about things. We had to do it effectively and efficiently. Before I went in to do the drum tracks, I had put a lot of thought into it. Hopefully, the end product will sound like this. Our self-titled debut record, by the way, will hopefully be released in North America on July 12.

Dave: In the band's press release, you're quoted about the sound of Machines of Grace, that "The music is metal, but not thrash. Rock, but not pop." That gives my readers a great verbal description, and music fans reading this interview can link to the band's website and its MySpace page, where they can hear songs like "The Moment" and "Fly Away." Yet comparison to other bands is inevitable. Let's spin that comparison the opposite way. How does Machines of Grace NOT sound like Savatage? In the future, will Machines of Grace have to write music and lyrics that distance itself from the other bands you've all played in?

Everybody seems to like that description of our band's sound. We are basically a hard rock metal band. We're a mix of Dokken and Dio. Machines of Grace has a metalish, slightly gothic element on one end, which fits Matt's style. He was a runner-up for Dio's guitar slot when he was in the Guitar Institute of Technology. Yet there's also the George Lynch factor. Zak, on the other end, has melodic vocals with the hard rock element, like Don Dokken did.

Savatage, back in the day with Chris Oliva, was a guitar-driven band because he was the man. "Hall of the Mountain King" and "Power of the Night" were all about guitar. The "Gutter Ballet" era, when producer Paul O'Neill started incorporating more orchestration, is when I joined the band. Savatage then was big thick rich vocals with Zak, orchestration underneath, and great guitar playing over the top. Machines of Grace is more of a straight-ahead rock band. I have more freedom to express myself differently in Machines of Grace. Zak's melodies and approach is different than it was in the studio with Paul O'Neil. The same with comparisons to Circle II Circle or Metal Church, Machines of Grace has a different sound altogether. The difference maker is Matt's guitar playing and Chris' bass playing. They are quite different than any of the other bands Zak and I have played in. They have a different sound.

It's interesting that you ask about distancing ourselves because internally, we have asked ourselves what we'll do on the next record. We have a library of material that we were working on back in the day that was either never finished or never put together properly. We have to approach it now as we did years ago when a lot of the material came out naturally, without trying to sound pretentious. Yet we have been influenced since by the bands we've played in and the different music that we've listened to. We'll have to lock all of that out, sitting down and writing what we feel. We all came from the same spot. That element will always be there and future recordings will tie into this one. For as long as Zak and I have been in Savatage, if there's a little bit of a hint of that band in Machines of Grace, you almost have to expect it. Even if we don't hear it that way, the comparison will be because of Zak's singing or my drumming. The guitar playing, as I mentioned previously, and the overall song approach in Machines of Grace are completely different than that in Savatage.

Dave: After a band releases a record, the next "greatest challenge" becomes getting that record heard. Trans-Siberian Orchestra has such a unique niche, Savatage and Metal Church have legions of fans, and all of them have record label support. What is the Machines of Grace approach on getting their music heard?

Jeff: All of involved know that it's a different ballgame these days as far as getting record deals. The digital world and the Internet have changed everything. Doing interviews, having a website, having exposure on MySpace and Facebook, and doing a media blitz online is our best approach to getting the word out there. Trans-Siberian Orchestra has a huge following, and we'll have to tap into that. The style of music of Machines of Grace, the performance, and this collection of songs, fits well with the Metal Church and Trans-Siberian Orchestra crowd. Our campaign is to push Machines of Grace online and see what type of reaction we get. If somebody comes calling with a great idea or a great offer, or an approach, we'll certainly want to listen. At the same time, we're all involved in other things. We're not a bunch of kids who can load into a van and go banging around the country to try and get heard that way. Through the connections we all have, through the reputation and good will that we've built up, a lot of people will hopefully give us a spin or give us a blurb here and there. That's how it starts. In the beginning, we'll have to spend some time at the keyboard on the computer. But once the word gets out there, it spreads like wildfire. We're expecting a workload, but we feel we have a pretty good product. Usually the strength of anything is carried by word of mouth. Once our record is out there and things get rolling, we're hoping that it feeds on itself.

In today's economic environment, it costs a lot of money to get out on the road. Plus, we're all scattered around the country doing other things. Packaging bands together makes sense, and we can kill two birds with one stone. Doing shows with Circle II Circle and Metal Church makes a lot of sense. There are some possibilities floating around, especially with Metal Church. Nothing is set up, but the idea is there. We'll get some things lined up when the timing is right. I'm positive that by the end of summer we'll have some dates set up.

Dave: Many a musician has released a "side project" record that fell to the wayside when the touring or recording schedules of their other bands beckoned. Promoting songs and records takes time, as does building a band from scratch. Can you and your band mates block out enough time in 2009 and 2010 from your other commitments and busy schedules to give Machines of Grace due diligence?

Jeff: That's a very good question Dave. It is certainly something that could be a problem. I'm very busy with the other musical projects that I'm involved with and that's a good thing. When we first approached the idea of doing Machines of Grace, who as I said earlier had a bunch of material that never had its just due, we decided to record it and see what happens. We wanted to do it the right way. We wanted it to sound as good as we can so at least we had a great record of what we've done. To be quite honest with you, it came out better than we expected. We now have a very strong product that we don't want to fall to the wayside and go unheard. At the same time, when Trans-Siberian Orchestra calls, I have to be there. Luckily, that schedule is set because we do our winter tour and we do some recording throughout the year. At the same time, there are a lot of open spaces to do things properly. It just involves proper planning and being respectful to not step on the toes and interfere with the other things going on. Machines of Grace is a project, that if we look at this properly and be smart about it, we can pick out a few weeks here and there to make sure that the word about Machines of Grace gets out there. A strong recording goes a long way, as does a strong live performance. We all feel that once we get there and do some live stuff, we're going to make a little noise. Be very helpful in carrying this thing forward. With the other bands that Zak and I are involved in, things don't just pop up tomorrow. We know the scheduling for months in advance. There will be windows of time and opportunities available. We just have to be smart about it and take care of them the right way. Zak resides in Florida, but I'm in upstate New York and I'm a car drive from Matt in Boston. Chris is in Rhode Island. The musical end of Machines of Grace are all in reach, and we're making plans right now to rehearse and put together a live set. We'll have to fly Zak in and do a little extra leg work to make that happen. But that's just the way things are. There are plenty of bands out there whose members are scattered all around the country. Regarding our live set, given Zak and my history with Savatage, it would be nice to dust off something a little obscure. We'd stay away from the Savatage staples. But you have to be careful doing that kind of stuff. Machines of Grace has enough material for a strong live set. Throwing in something from Savatage would be interesting and worth the buzz. I almost think that some people will expect it.

Everything else about Machines of Grace is coming soon. It's all being discussed and it's all in the works. We have some merchandise ideas that'll utilize the great looking logo that's been designed. We have to sort through a few things to find the right look for the t-shirts and hats. It sounds simple but you have to be smart about it. You can't throw money and time around like you used to. We talk about it every week. Hopefully, in early July, we'll have the full blitz of announcing a few shows, merchandise links, and future plans. We don't have a studio video to release. In the right live situation, we'd love to do some live recording to capture a few good performances on tape. These days, Youtube and playing live are more the avenues than Headbanger's Ball and MTV videos. Stay tuned because right now, Machines of Grace is a work in progress.

Dave: A few days before his tragic death, Dimebag Darrell and his band, Damageplan, played in New Jersey. I met him for the first time that day, and he was such a genuine person. I hope to keep his memory alive by closing my interviews with a question about his legacy.

Jeff: I saw Pantera at Darian Lake in upstate New York. They came out and it was amazing. I couldn't believe how loud it was and how good it was. Twenty minutes into the set, some kids jumped onstage. Phil Anselmo got into a fight with a security guard who was punching out a kid. Next thing you know, there was a melee going on and they shut the show down. I stood there with my friend, amongst 15,000 kids who were so pissed off that they were ripping up the seats. I knew that I had to get out of there. We escaped unharmed, but it was bizarre to say the least.

My other connection to Darrell was losing my sister to a car accident around the same time of his tragic death. It was a few days before starting a Trans-Siberian Orchestra tour. It's unbelievable what you have to deal with. Right after that tour, I was at the NAMM convention. Dimebag's legacy was everywhere with videos of Pantera performance or Dimebag doing guitar clinics. I was standing there with TSO violinist Mark Wood at his booth talking with Chis Caffery and I looked up to see Darrell's brother, Vinnie Paul. He was in a daze and I knew exactly what he was going through. I told him what had happened with me, and I gave him my sympathies about Darrell. We hugged and we were both teary-eyed. It was really cool, it was a sad moment but it was a good moment. I could only think about how proud he must have been about his brother. We're all in this thing together. We all go through tough times. If you can give somebody a pat on the back or a hug to let them know you're with them, that's what it's all about.

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