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Interview: GEOFF TATE (Queensryche)

Rock Stars...  

'Rock, revenge redemption. All the questions will be answered' Or so says the pre publicity for the forthcoming UK June 2008 tour when Queensryche perform the whole of their 'Operation: Mindcrime 1&11' in its entirety!

Geoff Tate, Queensryche

For a band with metal roots, prog leanings and a hatful of AOR hits behind them, Queenryche are rock's enduring survivors, back in favour it seems with their two part concept album written and recorded 18 years apart.

Never a band to stand on their laurels the Queensryche of 2008 are a vastly different prospect from the early 80's metal outfit or indeed the slick chart friendly chart band that dominated MTV in the early 90's.

Having overcome the collapse of their record label, the departure of their guitarist and main song writer and with a changed management team, the four times Grammy nominated band with over 20 million album sales behind them overcame the odds to record 2005's hugely impressive 'Operation: Mindcrime11'. The two part concept album has now been turned into a live three hour audio visual feast in full surround sound.

Pete Feenstra spoke to the band's charismatic vocalist Geoff Tate in his hotel room in Sao Paolo as the band complete a South American tour to be followed immediately by a European stretch that will bring them to the UK in June.

How's the South American tour going?

We are really enjoying this trip. It's our first time for several years and we're kind of playing songs from all out albums. The fans are really enthusiastic and I've been enjoying the travelling especially. There have been a lot of economic changes since we were last here, especially in Brazil. In fact the last time I was here where there are no w sky scrapers where previously there were shanty towns.

And by June you should be touring the UK which is great news?

Yes I guess it's been a while but we are looking forward to it. We had a wonderful offer to come over and play the whole of the 'Operation: Mindcrime' show so we just jumped at the chance.

It no longer seems to be the case that you tour behind a particular record as the whole model has changed. But we'll be putting on a three hour show with actors, lots of different props, set scapes (an interior and exterior as the story takes place in a warehouse) film screens and it will all be in surround sound with the audience in the middle of it.

And it's a very interactive show. This isn't the kind of sing-along show, it is very violent - it's about the life of a terrorist after all - with some strong political statements, religious beliefs which are usually geared to setting people off on a different tangent.

We get a wide range of different audience reactions. You know some will yell at us, some will gasp, some will swear, so yeah it's very interactive.

Is it accurate to call it a rock opera?

Well I wouldn't particularly call it anything like that. Of course I can see why people might interpret it like that but I'm just happy that someone out there likes it.

What's really great is we get letters all the time from fans and we meet people after the show who tell us their feelings. For some reason a lot of our fans seem to be teachers.

Last night we were in Rio and I had a geopolitics teacher who came up to me and was telling me how they were using the music to help communicate with students - you know using the album as a tool. They explained how they use it and that is very flattering.

Back in the beginning of your career the other four members of the band seemed to be into Heavy Metal but you had a broader musical vision. How did that translate into a successful band?

Well I was the oldest and came to the band with the most musical experience I guess. So I shared my musical influences with the band and we all found common ground. We all shared a fascination and love for music.

So we managed to pull from all the different musical influences that ranged from Rock and Metal to jazz and lots of classical. And then if you can do that successfully you tend to emulate that diversity and if you pull it all together it can be pretty unique.

Going back to the beginning again, you took the independent route to recording by releasing your own debut EP 'Queen of the Ryche'. Was that part of a plan to use it as bait for the majors?

To be honest at the time it was the only avenue open to us. We'd just about sent our demo to everyone we could think of and no one showed any interest. But in fact if I'd known then what I know now about the music business I would have realised we didn't do it the right way. The demo would probably be sitting on someone's desk..

So yeah, we put it out ourselves and did quite well. I think we sold something like 60,000 copies before the majors paid attention! We went with EMI and by the time we signed we already had a lot of material stockpiled - a nice back catalogue ready to go - so we didn't have much more work to so at the time.

The following debut album The Warning' was actually recorded in London with Pink Floyd ('The Wall') producer James Guthrie?

That was an amazing experience for us. None of us had been abroad before at the time and we'd all been influenced by the British music scene from the Beatles and the Stones to Pink Floyd.

Someone we knew had a connection to James Guthrie and they knew that we were influenced by Pink Floyd so they hooked us up and it all fell into place. But the immediate problem was James was based in the UK and really wanted to stay there, so we took a leap of faith. It wasn't the smartest economical thing to do, but it turned out to be a wonderful experience.

I think we stayed in London for 9 months and used something like 6 studios and worked with people like Michael Kamen the soundtrack composer. He did all the orchestration on our record.

On top of that, there was just so much more going on over here. Back home there might be 4 bands playing the same clubs most of the time, but in London especially there were loads of bands and many diverse influences.


Were you influenced down the years by the different changes in the music scene? I'm thinking especially of Grunge given your Seattle background?

We were always influenced by a lot of styles but we never settled for just the one uniform influence. If we had done that I don't think we would have been able to record what we have.

But we did know a lot of the Grunge bands back then and a few that came up after us like Soundgarden in particular. And I think it's great to see other bands having success like that. It helps us all and boosts media attention to the music scene and opens up more people to rock in general.

Did the idea of recording a concept album weigh heavily on you?

We didn't really think much about it, as we'd been heading in that direction for some time as we'd explored several themes and concepts ourselves. And we were influenced by concept albums of the past like Sgt Peppers', 'Dark Side of the Moon', 'The Wall' and Genesis's 'The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway'. So we were talking about that kind of album, thinking about the themes and ideas to wrap a story around.

Was 'Mindcrime' long in the planning stage and recording?

About 9 months I think, which isn't that long for this kind of album. It all happened at once. After we had completed touring with 'Rage For Order' the band headed back to Seattle but I met and fell in love with a woman from Quebec and ended up going to Montreal with her. She was involved with a French separatist movement whose aim was to take Quebec out of the hands of the Canadian union. I ended up being inspired by them and started taking notes. And before long I had started working that angle into a story and pretty soon I had the outline and had effectively written a lot of it.

Meanwhile Micky our guitar player was getting married and we all went to the wedding and that's where I told the rest of the band about the story. After Michael got back from his honeymoon we all got together over a wonderful creative period of about 3 months. So from start to finish it took about 9 months.

We did a lot of talking, working through the ideas, working on different pieces of music and discussing the ideas. And at the end of it all it wasn't immediately successful at all. In fact a lot of people didn't understand it and didn't particularly like it. But after we'd toured it for about 10 months and done the interviews, people started talking about it, and things changed.

Presumably getting on board with MTV had a huge input?

We got a call from Andy at MTV who basically said that if we made a video they'd play it. And then we hooked up with Mark who did the 'Eyes of a Stranger' video. And 2 weeks after the release of the video the album went gold. It was wonderful.

Did the commercial success of the following album 'Empire' and the hits like 'Silent Lucidity', 'Another Rainy Night (Without You)' and 'Jet City Woman' herald a change of style and expectation from the band?

Well it did a number of things. We'd already started work on the 'Operation: Operation: Mindcrimes 11' album and already had the story but had to basically put that on the back burner with the success of 'Empire'.

That album pretty much spun us off into a different direction and given the commercial success it did have an effect, yes I think so. When you achieve commercial success you are reaching your goal - however much that might be subconscious - and then once you're there you are faced with the question, what next?

And what happened to us was that we ended up cutting the 'Promised Land' album which was really a band's introspective look at reaching success and the value that society places on that.
In many ways we were in the right place at the right time up till about 1992

5 years on and you split with EMI who basically folded. How did that affect the progress of the band?

It was a very strange time for a number of reasons. 'Hear in the New Frontier' had been out a few weeks and we were touring behind it. And I happened to call the A&R department at EMI about something and there was no one there. Everyone had just left and there was no message, no one told us anything. Everyone had simply gone, no 'nice working with you guys but we're closing', nothing!

So it was like being stranded on a desert island and we looked around thinking about what to do. And shortly afterwards out guitar player Chris DeGarmo quit, so that was like a one-two punch. He was the main songwriter and handled the business end of things. So we regrouped without a label and song writer for about two years.

Eventually we found our stride and worked with 2, no 3 labels and a couple of management companies and just focussed more on touring. But there was a change in the music business at that time and the emphasis seemed to shift to touring suddenly. And it was interesting to see the difference between those bands that could play live, I mean really play and those that couldn't through a combination of having been reliant on others or being incapable through alcohol and drugs etc. So it was a kind of weeding out process at the time but we were happy just playing.

You recorded a self titled solo album in 2002, was this attempt to do something completely different from Queenryche?

Yes it was really very different. The emphasis and focus was on writing songs in the style of my own influences such as R&B, Jazz, World Music and Classical Music and the music reflected that.

It gave me the chance to sing those harmonies, challenge my voice and feeling those musical strands. When you are in band you have a definition of parameters in which everyone can work. When you step out as solo artist you don't have those parameters and I guess the diversity of the record demonstrates that.

Focussing on your theatrical and audio visual work, what was the main difference in approach to the video of 'Operation: Mindcrime' and the DVD set up of the 'Mindcrime at the Moore'?

Not a huge difference in terms of working as a musician. But from the production side of things there was a big difference for me in as much as I was more directly involved. When we did the video we brought in outside people to film etc 'cos everything at the time was a mess. On the Moore theatre project we worked out the camera angles ourselves and I personally hired the camera crew and worked everything out.

How did you find the Seattle Seahawks Blue Thunder Drum Line on the 'Mindcrime at the Moor' concert/ DVD?

Well it was noisy (laughs) and great fun. As a result of them being in that show we wrote several extra pieces of music that are not on the album. It's really just down to the telling of the story live and the mechanics of it. They added a new dimension.

And did you always have Ronnie James Dio in mind for Dr. X in 'Operation: Mindcrime'?

Yes, Absolutely. I'd written the song and thought who can I get to sing the part? I'd literally got to that point and was stuck as to who had the personality to do this song. Then it came to me I called him up and I hadn't been in touch with Ronnie for a few years.

Luckily he picked up and I told him about the song and what I wanted. I ended up playing the song to him over the phone, and when the song finished there was just silence. So I said, are you still there? Then he said, 'great song kid, when shall we do it'?

Was it curious coming back to something you'd worked on years before?

The biggest challenge was to recreate the set scapes that I originally had. We wanted the same sort of songs and similar feel but obviously it was 18 years down the line, though we still wanted to retain the retro metal sound.

So we went to the warehouse where we store a lot of our stuff. And there in the corner under some plastic sheeting we found all this old gear, some of which we had to take to the studio to repair - kind of old metal boxes with light switches - real old vintage gear.

So it was fun to revisit that same musical place again and then to try and work the same musical themes into a second album. It was written just as quickly and we worked with a kind of a storyboard, describing some scenes, talking about some of them, working out the scenes, the themes of anger, movement, tension, feelings of conflict - you know Scot (Rockenfield) the drummer might do some heavy drum beats and we'd often work on up to four different version of an idea until we got the one we wanted.

Some days we'd just talk and didn't actually touch our instruments. One of my favorite aspects of being in the band was always to be in that creative studio environment.

So having revisited your concept album and writing the sequel, what prompted the unlikely 'Take Cover' album?

It was a funny thing because most of the stuff we do is more serious with socially conscious stuff and weighty lyrical concerns. But we reached a stage where we had done all we had to do and still had 10 days in our allotted recording time and no one felt particularly creative.

So Kenny from the record company suggested we play some of the covers we did at our sound check, and he said he'd put it out as an album. So we said, yeah lets do that, but rather than wait forever to make up our mind about an infinite number of songs, we took the decision for everyone to come up with two songs each, and they needed to have different arrangements or different melodies or interesting rhythm structures.

I think we just about pulled it off!

Queensryche UK tour starts Friday June 13 at Glasgow Academy

Interview © May 2008 Pete Feenstra

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