An Interview with Tanya O’Callaghan of Whitesnake

Passion runs deep in Tanya O’Callaghan’s veins, and both animal and human rights activism are two of such things, but of course, there’s music.

Stepping in the shoes of a legacy of bass players such as Neil Murray, Colin Hodgkinson, Rudy Sarzo, Guy Pratt, Michael Devin, and more, O’Callaghan is forging her very own path towards heavy metal immortality as she begins to take the stage with legendary outfit, Whitesnake.

O’Callaghan and I cover a wide range of topics In this career-spanning interview, from her days in River Dance, to session work, and her eventual comeuppance as Whitesnake’s latest bass player.

When you’re done here, be sure to check out her various online presences such as her website highwaytohealthshow.com, and her ever-updating Instagram page here.

Anthony:
Tanya, thanks for taking the time to be here today. How have you been these past couple of years?

Tanya:
Yeah! Almost time to hit the road again, which is awesome. I actually had a really, really productive pandemic, which is bizarre but great. I work on a lot of different projects as well as activism and have a show with Derek [Green] from Sepultura, I have a documentary in process, and studio work. So, I’m very lucky and happy to say I was busy the whole time, but I can’t wait to get back on the road.

Anthony:
It seems like a lot of people have been very busy these past couple of years, even with things getting shut down. So, before we get into Whitesnake, what got you started in music?

Tanya:
I was very late to music. I worked in an animal rescue shelter from the ages of eight through eighteen, and everybody presumed that was what I was going to do, as in veterinarian work. I was always into music, though. My dad was very into music and my little town in Ireland is very musical. So, I was surrounded by it, all my friends had bands and all that jazz. When I was about seventeen, I started dabbling in, and by eighteen, I had become completely obsessed with bass. It was honestly a 180 from being a girl who works in the animal rescue shelter every hour of every day to now being a bassist. [Laughs].

Anthony:
Let’s dig deeper into your activism. Why is that something which is important to you?

Tanya:
Yes, that’s by far my first calling. I was born obsessed with this stuff. I mean, you can see my Sea Shepherd flags and everything in the background. It is who I am. I ended up being a musician, and I love that, but music gives me this platform, which is wonderful, in any form of activism. As far back as I can remember, I’ve loved animals, I wouldn’t eat them, and I’ve been a veggie-vegan my whole life. I’ve just always really been into that — what can we do while we’re here on this planet to try and make it better for animals, other people, and the environment? It is my complete passion. My career as a bassist gives me a platform, which is wonderful, so I like to cross them over. I figured I’d end up being a vet or something. It took a slightly different turn. I ended up becoming a bass player, but a bass player with a mission. In my opinion, there’s no point in having a platform if you’re not going to use it. I don’t want to fucking talk about myself all day. I wanted to talk about what’s important and relevant.

Image credit: Sal Gomez Photography

Anthony:
Before we get into Whitesnake, what kind of bands were you in before you joined? You’ve done a lot of session work as well, right?

Tanya:
In Ireland, my very first bands were wedding bands, corporate bands, heavy metal — a lot of heavy stuff –and then I went into the pop world too. And then I got hired by Maynard Keenan to do some of the Puscifer stuff, and that was my first US recording session. That really opened my eyes to being over here in the US. When I moved here six, or seven years ago, I landed a couple of gigs in a row. So, I did one big pop gig with an artist called Jordan Fischer, and then immediately after that, was Dee Snider. And then immediately after that was Steven Adler. It was madness.

When you’re getting into this circle of hired guns or side cats, or whatever you want to call us, you’re in that pot, and then gigs open up, but usually most tours like that last a couple of years, some last longer, and then you’re on to the next, so I’ve just been really lucky. Consistent tours are both good and bad. I haven’t been off the road for like ten years.

Anthony:
What do you recall about your early days coming over from Ireland?

Tanya:
The first time I came over I didn’t live here, I just came off a record with Maynard (James Keenan) for the Puscifer record. Now, Puscifer is specifically about having guests, so there’s a revolving door of guests on those albums. That was my first experience in the US, it was actually in Arizona. I came out to record with him over ten years ago, I can never remember exactly, and it was amazing. And then obviously, I went back home to Ireland, and I had that in my head that was a pretty amazing experience, and maybe if I move to the other side of the world, there will be more opportunities like that. So, I just put my bass on my back and I came out to LA with no plan, and just dove into the local scene. That’s what you have to do, you know? Cut your teeth at the bottom of the pile first, do all the jam nights, a lot of free gigs, a lot of networking, as much as I hate that word. It’s been wild! Then it’s like any industry, once you’re you’re kind of in, people know that you’re serious, and you’re professional, it starts to sort of kind of go from there.

Anthony:
As you said, one gig opens up another and eventually, it led to you ending up with Whitesnake. How did they get ahold of you?


Tanya:
David [Coverdale] just called me because we already knew some of the guys, that’s kind of how it works. It’s like your peers promoting in the circles. So, the guys would have seen me play because we’ve played a lot of the same festivals. So, a different guy would see me with Steven Adler or Dee Snider, and we were often playing in these things, and we were at one particular festival, I think two or three years ago, and David [Coverdale] saw me play, and I guess it was just in his head. Then when the opening came up for the bass player, a lot of times in a situation like that they just already know, he just called me immediately and was like, “Are you available?” So, I mean, obviously, you’re not saying no to Whitesnake. It’s all good people, some of whom I know from before, some who are new to me. I can’t wait, a really good group of people.

Image credit: Keith Celentano Photography

Anthony:
With your unique style of bass playing and the many genres you’re capable of playing, do you feel it’s going to be an easy transition into the band once you start playing with them?


Tanya:
I toured with Dee Snider for two years, so I have played a lot of heavy stuff. This is definitely my jam. I mean, I’m not familiar with a lot of this stuff, because I just didn’t grow up with it in Ireland, obviously. I knew who they were, and I know the hits, but it’s fun now because I’m diving into all the hundreds of notes, and hundreds of songs. It’s always interesting at the beginning of something like this because there’s a lot to learn. David obviously has an incredible back catalog of music that goes back to Deep Purple, and many other albums he did. So, there is a lot of incredible music. It’s time to lock myself in the shed, and get learning. [Laughs].

I play a lot of rock ‘n’ roll. It’s a lot of riffs and a lot of just driving bass. I’ve played a lot of pop, R&B, and whatnot over the years, but you just adapt because as a bass player, it’s all about your groove, your timing, and your pocket. I’m not a flashy player. This is what I love, actually, this kind of gig, because it’s just driving bass lines. So, it’s nothing I have to change, it’s just playing for the music. You want to represent the song as best you can, so it’s really about stepping into the shoes of the bass player. That’s the cool thing, there are so many bass players across Whitesnake’s albums, and you want to honor, and pay homage to them, but you also want to be yourself. What the interesting is figuring out like fingerstyle versus pick on some of them, what feels better to me, or if the song needs to be this way, then I need to do it that way. So yeah, it’s an amazing play though. They’re just great bass lines.

Anthony:
What do you recall regarding the first time you met David Coverdale? What were your first impressions?


Tanya:
We don’t make a big deal of these things when you’re already backstage at different festivals together. But we have a joke between us because, obviously, he’s English and I’m Irish, so there’s Union Jack flags everywhere when I was backstage, and I’m like, “Wait a minute!” I’ve known a lot of the guys in that band and the rotations in that band for some time, so he’s a really, really fucking cool person. He’s very down-to-earth and very funny.

Anthony:
The new tour coming up is the Farewell Tour. What has it been like joining the band at the end of their run as you have?

Tanya:
I think that’s actually the best part of it because I get to do the Farewell Tour. I mean, it’s gonna be probably two years to do everything, but it’s extra special because David is actually retiring from touring after this. I know a lot of bands do the farewell thing for ten years, but he has said he’s going to continue writing and doing albums, which is awesome. I think it’s extra special especially the fact that we’re coming out of the whole world being locked down, and not seeing events. I think it’s just going to be magical in terms of energy, and so I love that I’m doing the Farewell Tour. I think it’s super special. It’s not just a tour, it’s the Farewell Tour!

Anthony:
Once the tour comes to an end, will you be staying on to record in the studio with Whitesnake as well?

Tanya:
Yeah, hopefully. There’s talk of it already. It’s one of the questions. We’ll probably keep recording, so absolutely. It’s just touring that David is done and set with. I don’t think he can ever stop writing music, he’s a song machine, obviously, he’s an incredible songwriter. So, here’s hoping there are loads and loads of albums in the making over the next several years or so. I’d be honored to be involved.

Anthony:
Where have been some of your favorite places that your music has taken you?

Tanya:
Oh, wow, God. Everywhere. I definitely love touring South America, the crowds in South America are amazing. Brilliant memories from Brazil and Bolivia. I loved it there. European festivals are some of my favorites. Like Hellfest and Graspop, they’re just a whole other ballgame. It’s just a sea of hundreds of thousands of people, and that’s the best. I don’t have a particular favorite because it’s down to the crowd, and the energy. That’s why this [Farewell Tour] will be so interesting because people have been cooped up for so long. I think everyone’s gonna go nuts. The energy the crowd gives you is everything, so fun. Then, obviously, the energy from the band. As a bass player, playing with Tommy Aldridge is pretty special.

Anthony:
As far as bass guitars, do you record with the same ones you play live?


Tanya:
I pretty much always my main baby, the tobacco burst one, which I just relic’d out, and had a make-over. I play Sadowsky basses, but I have many basses. A lot are for backups or other recording projects for their specific sounds. I played in different bands for years, so they just accumulate. I have a couple of them from the River Dance tour that I did, I have my four and five Sadowskys, and I have a custom Exotic as well. So, it just depends, because some projects need a specific sound, but generally, my Sadowsky does everything from metal, to pop, to R&B because they’re just such high-end bass guitars.

Anthony:
On the subject of River Dance, what was that experience like?


Tanya:
It was a great experience for heavy touring. So, for people that don’t know the theater world, we had a lot of people on the road together because it’s a ten-piece band, and then there are thirty dancers, there’s crew, and everyone else you’re moving with. Unlike rock music, or the music industry in general, theater does eight, nine, or ten shows per week, and matinees, so you do double days, and it’s exhausting. We went all over the world, we did Europe, we did China, we did North America. I remember when we hit our 100th show, and it’s a hell of a schedule. I’m glad I did that when I was younger, and kind of new to touring, because anything after that, I don’t wanna say easy, because touring is tiring, and amazing, but it’s not for the faint-hearted. When you go from nine shows a week, and then you jump onto a tour that does maybe four, it’s a different experience. [Laughs].

Anthony:
Whitesnake has a great musical legacy, and has featured many incredible performers over the years, so as the band’s new bassist, how do you intend to carry out the legacy while still pushing the band forward?

Tanya:
I mean, I think they’re excited to have a totally new thing coming in, but for me, it’s funny because I actually know all of the bass players that have ever been in Whitesnake, they’re all my bass brothers. Everybody has been so incredibly supportive to me — Neil Murray, Rudy Sarzo, Marco Mendoza, and Michael Devin, who just left, is a good friend of mine, and they’re all just amazing. The support that came from them meant more than anything, and everyone’s like, “Just go and be you.” David likes that, he brings in the players he wants for a reason, he likes to play, he likes his performers, so yeah, I think that’s beautiful. There’s space to be yourself, but the fact that all my bass brothers of the past have been so supportive is the best.

Anthony:
We mentioned Dee Snider earlier. Can you dig into your time with him? What was your experience like with Dee?


Tanya:
Those times are forever gonna be some of my favorite musical memories. He’s an absolute legend. I love Dee, I love his family. It was just total joy working with him. So fun, and honestly, it will always be just some of my fondest touring memories. He’s such a laugh, and he’s really fun to perform with because he’s so great on stage. I mean, he’s such a legend. I just love, love, love him, his family, and their whole crew.

Anthony:
Which classic songs are you most excited to play on the upcoming tour?


Tanya:
There are so many songs I haven’t even begun, and I think there’s a lot of the classics. Obviously, I’m loving “Still of the Night,” I am loving “Burn,” and a lot of the newer stuff as well. There’s one I love, “Trouble is Your Middle Name,” and there’s a couple of the newer stuff as well that I had never heard. I mean, there’s just hit, after hit, after hit, and there’s a lot of great bass lines in there. So, that’s a hard question because there are so many, and I’ve just started diving into the catalog. They’re all brilliant.

It’s a lot of learning because it’s not something that I grew up with it. So, I’m not familiar with 95% of it, which is kind of cool because my process is very much something like listen, listen, listen, listen, listen before I even pick up my bass, so my ears are well wrapped around it. There’s just there’s a lot of learning, and then just remembering as well because then we get into rehearsals in April. It will be fun because you bring it together as a band.

Anthony:
What do your future plans look like from here on out, Tanya?

Tanya:
2022 to 2023 is the Farewell Tour. Then I have a bunch of other projects. Anyone who follows me online will see it all as I’m pretty active on Instagram. I’m working on animal activism stuff all the time. Then there is Sea Shepherd, I’ll be doing a music video with them. I’m always doing like 40,000 things! I have the show with Derrick (Green) from Sepultura. So, you can see that on Highwaytohealthshow.com. There are always loads of things going on with me. It is going to be a great year on the road again. We’ve got a lot of shows across Europe, and then we’ll do North America after that.

Interested in learning more about Whitesnake? Hit the link below:

Be sure to check out the full archives of A.M. Radio, by Anthony Montalbano, here: https://vwmusicrocks.com/a-m-radio-archives/

About Post Author

Anthony Montalbano

Anthony Montalbano grew up in New York and North Carolina. Anthony is a baker by day and a contributor to the Vinyl Writer cause by night. With a passion for podcasts, Pop Punk, video games, and more, Anthony brings a unique and fresh perspective to the team. Anthony's column is a catch-all for the things he loves most, and he wouldn't have it any other way.
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