In rocking with Whitesnake and joining Bruce Dickenson in celebrating the music of Deep Purple, Irish low-ender Tanya O’Callaghan is on a roll
When Tanya O’Callaghan was growing up in her small town of Mullingar, Ireland, she never could have imagined that one day she would return to her homeland to play a sold-out show with a band such as Whitesnake. Yet, earlier this year, she experienced exactly that. It took a lot to get to where she is now, including a leap of faith in leaving Ireland at age 25 and moving to Los Angeles to pursue her dream of playing bass professionally. Many open jam nights, one-off studio sessions, subs on gigs, and nights on couches were all part of her path to getting the call from Whitesnake singer David Coverdale early in 2022 asking if she would join them for their farewell tour.
O’Callaghan initially rose to prominence through her work with Guns N’ Roses’ Steven Adler, Tool’s Maynard James Keenan, the Rolling Stones’ Ronnie Wood, former Twisted Sister frontman Dee Snider, and the late Taylor Hawkins (Foo Fighters), thanks to her reputation as a solid bassist who plays for the song and boasts a large presence onstage. Her performance bravado is what initially caught Coverdale’s attention, but her reliability as a player is what led him to ask her to join his band. The sold-out swan-song tour is a bittersweet one for fans of Whitesnake, but a thrilling one for O’Callaghan. She not only gets to form a rhythm-section tandem with drummer Tommy Aldrich, playing the understated bass lines of Neil Murray, but she was able to perform in front of her family and entire village on the first show of the tour.
During a recent pause in the farewell festivities, O’Callaghan received yet another unexpected call when she was asked to join Iron Maiden lead vocalist Bruce Dickenson’s band and an 80-piece symphony orchestra for a tour performing the late Deep Purple keyboardist Jon Lord’s Concerto for Group and Orchestra. Naturally, she agreed — but having just taken on the vast catalog of Whitesnake material, she knew she was in store for weeks more of woodshedding, learning the lines of Deep Purple’s Roger Glover. Luckily, hard work is the way of life for O’Callaghan, who as an animal rights/vegan-lifestyle advocate keeps busy with her video series Highway to Health, along with her speaking engagements and collaborations for those causes. As of now she has a catalog of music to learn, a tour to prepare for, and a symphony waiting for her — plus the knowledge that anytime her phone rings, the next opportunity could be calling.
Tell us about your invitation to join Bruce Dickenson for the Jon Lord tribute.
We were taking a little time off before closing out the Whitesnake farewell tour, so I figured I was going to just focus on my Highway to Health series. Then I got a call asking me to join Bruce on tour, and I couldn’t believe it. It’s a celebration of Jon’s music and features some of the members of Jethro Tull and Deep Purple, with a full orchestra. It’s such an honor because I’m basically taking on the bass role of Roger Glover, which is insane. That’s going to be a hard one to jump into, because the musicians are all in Europe, so it’ll be just one rehearsal and then getting right into it. It’s surreal right now to be jumping from Whitesnake to Bruce Dickenson and Deep Purple, and back again. I’ve just started to woodshed the Lord material.
How did you come to join the lineup for Whitesnake’s farewell tour?
I would say it was pretty much the domino effect of being out there and playing with many different bands. Years ago I did a pop gig with a Disney artist named Jordan Fisher, and then I went out with Dee Snider of Twisted Sister, and after that with Steven Adler of Guns N’ Roses. I was always out there playing with different people. David [Coverdale] had seen me performing years prior at a festival where we were on the same bill, and he must have liked it and kept me in the back of his mind. When the bass chair opened up, David decided to call the Irish girl, and the next thing I knew, my phone rang. There was no audition or try-out or anything; he just called me out of the blue and said, “Hello, darling — would you like to be a Snakette?” I was not expecting that.
Honestly, with the pandemic and the state of live music, and given my involvement with the plant-based world and all of my many projects, I had accepted the fact that I might not tour again. I was happy with what I’d done in my music career, and I wasn’t expecting a gig of this magnitude to show up at my door. When it did, it was a pleasant surprise.
So, basically, all of the gigs that you work so hard to land keep leading to new gigs.
It’s funny how that happens. People always ask for advice in this impossible music industry, and the truth is the only advice is that you have to be out there doing it. You have to surround yourself with the people who are already doing what you’re trying to achieve, and submerse yourself in it. If you’re not putting yourself out there and building a reputation, then you can’t expect results. You can’t just sit and play in your bedroom all day, although granted on social media nowadays there’s something to be said about that.
Do you feel like there’s a current misconception among young players that YouTube and social media are the way to go to try to make it in this industry?
That’s a hard one to navigate; you always have to move with the times. Considering I’m approaching being the “older generation,” I understand there’s a massive place for the content creators and really for everyone to be somewhat present online. But in general, as hired guns and professional touring musicians, you’re not being hired to slap and tap and solo as fast as you can. They’re looking for musicians who play for the song — especially with us bass players. I mean, I’m in a rhythm section with Tommy Aldridge playing songs like “In the Still of the Night,” “Here I Go Again,” and “Is This Love?” and I have to honor the music. I’m never about trying to sneak in some fast fills. That’s a nice skill to have, and there’s part of me that wishes I could be a virtuoso, but that’s not why I have the career that I have. I’m the solid and reliable player who isn’t flashy and who tries to play exactly what the song and the rest of the band members need from me. I will always honor a simple groove, and I will drive it home all day long. That’s where I get pleasure from being a bass player.
With regard to the times changing and having to be present online, we’re all kind of figuring out how to do the social media thing, as it grows and changes. You should be putting up content if you’re a young player trying to be seen, because jam nights aren’t as prevalent as they used to be. What I see a lot of is people who can play fast and technically, but then you put them into a backing band and they can’t lock in. And of course, I watch these nine-year-old bass players who blow me away. The internet is wild.
What was it like learning Whitesnake’s huge catalog of music that spans over four decades and 13 albums?
Whitesnake has so many songs and so many hits that it’s insane. That’s the one overwhelming aspect of being a hired gun who jumps between bands: You constantly get these mountains of songs. And I didn’t grow up with the music of any of the bands that I ended up playing with, so that makes it all the more challenging. They usually don’t decide on set lists until rehearsals are about to happen, so I start going through tons of songs in chunks of ten at a time. My process has always been listening. With Whitesnake, before I even touched a bass I listened for days and weeks and got super familiar with all of the music and its nuances — until it was ingrained in my brain. Then when I do pick up my bass, I recognize a mistake faster when something doesn’t sound right or feel right. I made playlists and then got into them, and at the point that I was 50 songs in, I had to go back and make sure I still remembered the first ten. Plus, I scribble a lot of notes the whole time. These notes would make no sense whatsoever to another musician, because I’ve had no formal musical training and I use my own language.
How about taking on Neil Murray’s bass lines?
Neil is such an amazingly underrated bass player. He plays so tastefully and has so many wonderful moments, whether it’s a run at the end of songs, or lines in pre-choruses or bridges. They make the song so much more impactful. I love that they have a mix of quite heavy songs and love ballads. A lot of the joy in it for me was listening to Neil’s playing in these old mixes; in fact, I had to listen deeply at times, because he was buried in the mixes during the ’80s. Basically, I try to honor Neil’s playing. On their super hits, I’m playing exactly what Neil’s original groove is, but obviously I have my own feel on them. My bass tone is probably a little different from the original, but I dial it in to match it the best I can. The part that I take liberties with is in the actual performance itself. I love being onstage and getting lost in the moment of the show. Basically, you’re getting me rocking out, flying around the stage, with my hair going everywhere.
What’s it like locking in with Tommy Aldridge?
I almost don’t have words for it. It will always remain an absolute highlight of my career. I’ve been lucky to always play with great drummers — the ultimate for us bass players — but playing with Tommy is a whole other ballgame. He’s just a machine. His musicality is off the charts, and it can be a little nerve-wracking to play next to him. But we knew from the very first hit that it was going to click, and as a rhythm section we play fabulously off each other. He’s fun as a person, and he’s so welcoming. At our second rehearsal, he asked for more bass in his in-ears. He told me he hadn’t done that since the ’80s; that will forever be the biggest compliment I can receive. Just playing with him is such an honor. I mean, Tommy fucking Aldridge.
What’s it like joining them while facing the impending end of their beloved band?
It’s of course bittersweet, but in a way it’s very beautiful because all tours have an expiration date. It was nice to join on to be a part of their last chapter and be involved in their upcoming live DVD. It’s difficult as a sideman; I always tell players not to put all of your vegan eggs into one basket, because gigs can end abruptly when you’re most relying on them — an artist decides to call it quits or go in another direction. This tour has an endpoint, and I knew that going in. The crowds have been amazing; coming from two-plus years without [live] music, and these audiences knowing this was the last time they’d see Whitesnake, it’s been simply insane. I have goosebumps just thinking about it.
What was it like stepping out onstage the first time you performed with them?
Our first show happened to be in Ireland, so it was very emotional for me. It was a baptism-by-fire show, but also I hadn’t been able to get home for two and a half years because of the travel ban. I hadn’t seen my family and friends in so long, and I hadn’t played in Ireland in many years, so, to walk out to that was wild. On the opening night of a major tour, every technical issue that can happen will happen, and this was my first time playing with the band. I wished that I’d had a few shows under my belt. It was chaos, but beautiful chaos, and almost my entire town was there supporting me. There were Irish flags everywhere, and David made a big deal out of it. Opening night was forever one of the most specials shows I’ll ever play in my life. When David first called and asked me to join the band, he told me I had to say yes because the opening show was in my homeland.
You recently made the switch from playing Gallien-Krueger amps to Ampeg SVTs. What prompted this change?
GK amps are amazing, and I’ve been with them since my very first gig. But when the Whitesnake thing came about it was a combination of the fact that G-K had discontinued the RB1001, a big head that I liked, and knowing I had to play the songs as closely as possible to the originals. I needed to go with vintage Ampeg amps and try to get the original sound of the bass in the band. And what screams that more than a wall of vintage Ampeg 8×10 stacks? It’s all about the music at the end of the day and I needed to tailor my sound as accurately as possible for such an iconic tour. I’m very happy to be part of the Ampeg family, it’s been a blast working with them.
One thing that hasn’t changed is your use of your Sadowsky basses.
I’ve been with Roger [Sadowsky] for years, and while many would associate their basses with jazz and R&B players, I bring mine everywhere, from the rock realm to the metal realm. I love how versatile they are. I’m not a big gearhead; I just want to plug and play. Being a touring musician, you never know what you’re going to deal with on the road when it comes to the backline gear, so you need a bass with a preamp that you know is always going to sound good. On my Sadowskys, I love having control of the mids and all of the frequencies, and the consistency in the wood he chooses is insane. I’ve toured all over the world at all different altitudes and climates, and techs of every band I’ve been with have been amazed that the necks don’t move and the bass is usually in tune. Roger is a master builder, and his work is so consistent. I can’t imagine playing anything else.
Tell us about your Highway to Health project with Sepultura vocalist Derrick Green.
Just in the past few weeks we’ve reinvigorated that; we were ready to go, and then the entertainment world was halted. I’ve obviously been out with Whitesnake and Derrick has been busy with Sepultura, but now we’re finishing editing of all the footage we have, and have a release scheduled for March 2023. It’s terrific content full of amazing guests that was filmed all over the world. Lots of announcements coming on that soon.
For myself, as an activist and advocate for animal rights, I’m always doing panels or speaking at different events. I believe in using your platform to giving a voice to the voiceless, per se. I’ve been a vegan my whole life, and I don’t necessarily like the word or the label, because anything in politics or religion or food puts you in a box. But as someone who travels the world and happens to eat this way, I know we have a part to play. I use my time between tours to show people how easy it is to make healthier choices. I’m not telling everyone, “You have to go vegan or else!” Derrick and I tour constantly and travel and put our bodies through so much that we can speak from experience. The way you feed yourself and the way you treat this planet is very important. –BM
Bass Sadowsky NYC J-style 4- and 5-strings
Rig Ampeg SVT-4PRO, SVT 810E
Pedals MXR Bass Fuzz Deluxe, Darkglass Harmonic Booster
Strings Dunlop Marcus Miller Super Brights, Sadowsky Stainless Steel
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