Geoff Tate of Queensryche
It’s hard to believe that it’s been over twenty years since the release of the debut Queensryche EP. Decades later the band is remembered for its progressive sound and heady lyrics, a brave endeavor for a band making it’s mark in that era. Their 1988 release Operation: Mindcrime remains relevant to this very day. As a concept album it shed light on the relatively new band at the time, and gave them the opportunity to spread their wings and fly. Now, several years later, Operation: Mindcrime has taken on a life of it’s own, literally. The album has been succeeded by a theatrical version of the album, as well as the follow up Operation:Mindcrime II. Their sound defined by Geoff Tate’s insane vocal range as well as crunching guitars and a dynamic rhythm section, was hard to mistake.
Blowing away the ideas of labels at the time, Queensryche toured with bands at varying ends of the spectrum including Def Leppard and Metallica, daring to take on any crowd and make them a fan. Two decades later, I’d say they made their mark.
Their most recent release, a covers album titled “Cover Me” allowed the band (Geoff Tate, Scott Rockenfield, Mike Stone, Eddie Jackson & Michael Wilton) to explore other genres and come up with new arrangements for some of their favorite songs of all shapes and sizes. The results? An eclectic arrangement of cover tunes ranging from a Broadway favorite to a Queen classic.
With a new all original album in the works, the band is gearing up for a cross country solo tour. About a week before the tour started, lead singer and Queensryche mastermind Geoff Tate took some time to talk to us about the new tour, the new album and surviving in todays music industry and living to tell about it.
Interviewed by: Mary Ouellette | January 2008
I want to start out with talking about the tour that gets underway later this month. A lot of fans were lucky enough to see you recently on the Heaven and Hell tour and now you’re heading out on a solo tour, what kind of set list can fans expect? Will it be a lot different?
Oh yeah- for one, it will be our show. We’ll be playing a lot more songs. We’ve got a pretty interesting show this time around. It’s a show that really features a lot of our past material – songs that we haven’t played live in many, many years. We’ve been working hard at relearning some of our early stuff. It’s kind of fun going back to listen to that stuff and kind of figure out how you can present it now.
Any tweaks on anything? Have you changed anything arrangement-wise of the older stuff that you think you’ll be playing?
Yeah, almost everything really has been kind of tweaked in some manner. We were looking at our catalog recently, and we have 130 published songs. And out of that 130, we’ve only been playing about 50 or 60 different songs out of that. So we said, let’s shake some stuff up here and go back and revisit some of the stuff and see what we can do with it. And plus we have the covers album that we released in November.
Will you be performing a lot of the covers?
Yeah, we are going to be playing some of them. We’ll be going through and changing them up every night. It will probably be a different set every few shows. And we’ll be changing that up quite a bit.
Now I notice some of the locations are two consecutive nights. Is that by demand, or will it be different shows?
I think it’s probably due to demand.
I noticed the tentative show here in Massachusetts isn’t on the list anymore, so I don’t think you will be playing here on the tour.
Yes, we had some problem with the venue. Something happened at the venue – I’m not sure if it was a fire or remodel, but something happened.
Yeah, that’s a bummer.
Yeah, I love playing Boston!
You talked a bit about your covers album titled Take Cover, I wanted to touch upon the contest that you are running in conjunction with the album. The contest is going to allow some lucky fan to get up on stage with you and sing a cover song with you – can you tell me a little bit about the contest and how that idea came about? (For more information on this contest visit the official link here)
Yeah, it’s going to be really fun. We get a lot of requests from people saying, I’m a singer and I want to do something for my career, what do you suggest – so we thought this would be a fun thing to do – to have a contest. We have a covers album out, and allow people to compete for a chance to sing with the band. And at the end of the tour on the last date we’re having kind of a final round of competition. The winner that wins that contest will be on our next record.
Wow – that’s quite and honor! So there will be a winner at each show – someone that gets to sing on stage?
Yes. We’re going to have an applause meter and that kind of thing.
That will get everyone involved, that’s a great idea – I love it. The song selection on the covers album is pretty diverse. It ranges from so many different genres, so many different eras – when you guys were trying to break down what songs you wanted to choose, what kind of criteria did you use?
That was kind of a funny situation because we found ourselves unable to make decisions. All of us have quite a varied record collection, we like a lot of different types of music. It was really difficult to choose. So we said, okay how about this. Everybody in the band pick two of their favorite songs, and the only rule is that you have to do something different to the song. Either change the instrumentation around, or change the arrangement, not just do the song like it was written. Somehow give it our twist, our own interpretation. That worked pretty well.
It really did, because you covered a pretty serious range with this stuff. You had to learn to sing a song in Italian, huh?
Yeah, actually – that was really quite challenging. It was fun to sort of get into the mind of your bandmates and see what they like and why they liked it. For instance, there’s a song by Queen that’s called, “Innuendo” and I was really unfamiliar with that song. In fact, I had never heard it. Our guitar player brought that in and I said, why do you want to do this one? And he said, beyond really enjoying the guitar lines, and what the guitar work was doing, he really liked that it was one of the last songs that Freddie Mercury and Queen wrote and recorded as a band. Freddie, at that time, was incredibly ill and dying of AIDS and he sang that song from a wheelchair. He just didn’t have the strength to stand up in the studio. And Michael was telling me this story, and it really was a touching story. And especially given the fact that what the song is about, it’s about a man who is looking at life from death’s door, and giving his take. Sort of a philosophical outlook on what it means to live. It really hit home with me thinking about what recording that song must have been like for the band at the time, and for Freddie in particular.
Of the artists that you covered that are still around, did you receive any feedback from them about your rendition of their songs?
I received something from Brian May of Queen. He wrote us a nice email and said he loved the song and was honored that we recorded it and picked it. I thought that was really nice.
As far as a new Queensryche album featuring all new material, is that in the foreseeable future? Obviously you will be on tour, and that might inhibit you from writing new material, but if fans could pencil it in somewhere in the near future, is there a place for it?
Yes, actually we are just finishing up the writing for that. We’re planning on recording in March when we come off the tour. One of the reasons why we are going out on tour right now is because we’re getting ready to do a record. It’s always good for us because we’ve noticed when we’re on tour, we get our chops up. That repetition of playing every night, for that length of time, it really helps you to develop your stamina and your dexterity, all the things that you need are there when you come off the road. So it’s a good time to jump right in the studio when you’re hot.
I would think it would be inspiring to be able to feed off the fans energy as well…
Yeah, all of that combined really puts you in the right headspace for recording.
It’s hard to believe that its been 25 years since the release of your first EP. In an industry that doesn’t often lend itself to longevity, how are you able to sustain your passion for writing and performing or is it just something that is inherent to you?
That’s an interesting question. When we got into the record industry, it was completely different than it is today. You can’t even compare the two industries at all from then until now. Back then, an artist or band was really allowed to develop and work at what they did, tour and procure an audience, to really develop what the band was all about. The whole mindset has changed now. It’s very pop culture oriented now, here today, gone tomorrow. There’s nothing about longevity really. It’s really a shame because a young band doesn’t really have a lot to say yet, they are still working on their instruments and mastering that. They haven’t quite got a handle on anything really. They don’t have the life experience to write from. They are really only speaking to people of their own age group, they’re not spreading out yet. That’s just inherent of living life. Not many young band’s music is really interesting to me being the age I’m at because I’ve already done that. For us, we like hanging out together as a band, we’re friends. We like the creative process, we look forward to it. We feed off each other. A lot of times we’ll be at rehearsal and we won’t even play a note. We’ll be talking about an idea, a concept or a political or social issue and out of that conversation comes the inspiration for the next day’s rehearsal. And inevitably, there will be several ideas that come in the next day based on the conversation that happened the day before. It’s just a real interesting group of people brainstorming out an idea and taking it to its fruition.
This sort of ties in with the previous question, but having been part of the industry for such a long time, what are some of the major changes you’ve seen both positive and or negative?
Well, primarily I think it’s the idea that music is such a disposable thing. Whereas before, it was considered something very valuable to the culture. Somewhere in the 90s, it all changed drastically and it became disposable. There would be 16 bands all lined up to be signed and become rock stars. Before, it was really more of a thing where you were allowed to develop yourself and the real quality stuff lasted and the not-so-quality stuff was here today, and gone. But today, you don’t even get that chance to develop yourself. You’ve basically got one shot. And I think, based on what I’ve read that’s happening in the industry, people are predicting that there’s not going to be any record companies left after this year. Maybe one or two left, and that will be it. Man, what a big change that’s going to be. And on top of that, the delivery mechanisms for music has changed quite a bit. When I was growing up, it was FM radio, that’s where you heard cutting edge material, you heard what was going on. Then, MTV came in and that changed, and that became the #1 delivery mechanism, and now that’s over. Now people are looking online, at the internet sites like iTunes, and myspace. So I think to have any kind of longevity in the business, you have to be flexible in the sense that you have to keep looking for these new delivery mechanisms, learning about them, learning how to operate them, and learning how to fit what it is you do, and fit it into that. That’s really the key to keeping it going.
I missed the show when you were on the Heaven and Hell tour, but I was speaking with someone this morning, and she said that during your set on that tour, you actually played saxophone during one of the songs?
Yes, that’s right.
How long have you played the saxophone?
I’ve played sax on a couple of records, but I started playing consistently about 1990. I kind of decided on a whim one day….
That was my next question, why did you decide to start playing it?
I’ve always liked jazz music, and I’ve liked rock music that has saxophones in it. I thought, I’m going to buy one of these and play it. It took me a couple of months to really wrap my head around it, but then I kind of got the bug, you know? So I play it almost every day. I practice it and all that. I haven’t played it consistently on a record or on a tour yet. Well actually, I take that back, on the Promise Land tour, there were two or three songs I played sax on, so that was in ’95.
Think we’ll see it on this next tour?
Oh yeah, I’m playing on two of the cover songs – Welcome to the Machine and For the Love of Money.
So you’ll get to bust out a solo, huh?
Regarding your vocals, what kinds of things do you do to maintain your voice? Your vocals are obviously your instrument, do you have a strict regimen that you have to follow? Has it changed over time? What do you have to do to preserve your vocals?
I don’t really do anything special. I just recognized early on that your voice is very contingent on your body, and how your body feels. When I feel good, I sing really good. When I feel bad, I don’t sing so good. Put two and two together and I realized I have to stay healthy. That’s primarily what I do. I exercise regularly and live a moderate lifestyle without too many excesses. That seems to work on the preservation front, but for me, when I tour I get stronger and sing better the longer I go. By the first two weeks of the tour, I’m just on fire. As long as I don’t get sick!
Even with the massive success of Operation MindCrime a lot of people still would say that for the era it emerged at, it was really too intellectual both musically and lyrically. To me, Operation MindCrime stands out as album that is timeless and has stayed relevant since the day it was released to this very day. Do you ever sit back and think that maybe that came out at the wrong time for you? Or that people don’t appreciate the depth and complexity of it, or is that something that doesn’t even enter your mind?
Oh, intellectual. Yeah, we’ve always been accused of that. I can’t complain because it’s really done very well. It’s reached a lot of people, and it’s considered by many to be a fine record. I think that’s all you can really hope for when you write an album, that somebody enjoys it. It’s something that is kind of hard to explain, writing songs is a complete art. It’s not a sporting mentality, there’s no competition involved at all. It’s completely based around expression. My way of thinking is that there is no bad music, there’s no good music, there just is music. But our society is built around a sporting mentality. They always want to categorize things, and put things into boxes, and rate them. We’re always describing things as the best, and the worst and I don’t think those rules apply to music at all, or any kind of art. It’s all expression and it’s all subjective. It’s for the person who’s listening or viewing it. Some people are going to appreciate a song, while everybody appreciates it for a different reason. Some people when they hear music, they don’t hear the individual instruments at all, their mind doesn’t work that way at all. They just hear it as a wall of sound. Some people can only pick out what the bass guitar and what the drums are doing, they can’t pick out the complexities of what the rhythm guitar is doing or what the melody is. Or how the melody structure works within the rhythm structure and why that’s interesting or not interesting. It’s all just a confusing bunch of opinions, so how can you rate something like that? You can’t. And if you read a critique of somebody’s music, I don’t even read that stuff. It’s irrelevant. Is that person a creative writer? Do they write music for a living? No.
Don’t you think every manager’s first advice to their artist should be, “Don’t ever read your reviews.” Because it’s true, it’s exactly like you said – it’s someone’s opinion of something, right?
Are they at that same place that the musician is? No, they’re not. They haven’t lived that particular life, they haven’t played guitar for a living, they haven’t walked in the same shoes at all so how can they be a judge of it? They can’t. So why even have that included in a magazine or website? What good is it?
I understand what you are saying.
Even in my position, I’ve been a professional musician for going on 30 years, I would never judge somebody’s music. I would never put myself in the position of a judge because it just doesn’t make any sense to me. I could probably be recognized as someone that would be qualified as a judge – but I just can’t think in terms of best or worst. You know?
At one point there was a rumor floating about that you, Bruce Dickinson and Rob Halford might join forces to do a metalesque version of the Three Tenors. Was that ever something that would actually happen?
That is a really funny story. This is the power of rumors and the media. You know that game where people sit around in a circle and they whisper in each other’s ear a secret, and the secret gets passed around and when you reveal it at the end, the whole thing has changed? Well, that’s kind of the story here. Rob, Bruce and I were in our bands and all touring together. This was probably around 2000/2001, something like that. We were all on tour and decided to make a date the next night on our day off to have dinner, have some drinks and have a good time. We all went out to this Italian restaurant, sitting around, having some bottles of wine, telling old road stories, laughing and joking, having a great time. And towards the back end of the evening, after several bottles of wine, the manager of Iron Maiden who has a very thick Northern English accent (I won’t try to imitate it, I won’t do it justice) and he’s very difficult to understand and he brought the waiter over and says, “This music that we are listening to, what is this?” and the waiter says, “Well, that’s an album by some opera singers called the Three Tenors.” And he names off the 3 very well known opera singers, and Rob laughs and he stands up with a glass in his hand and staggers up to the front of the room and says, “I’m toasting!” then he starts banging on his glass and says, “I think that Rob and Bruce and Geoff should form a new project – the metal singers – and we’ll call it the Three Tremors!” And we all stood up and cheered and toasted, and that was it.
Wow, you’re kidding? And it traveled from that?
Yeah, someone probably told a story to somebody who told a story, to someone who told a story and it just traveled from there. And here it is, 8 years later, and we’re talking about it.
It’s amazing! That question actually came from one of our contributor’s, Roger, who’s one of your biggest fans and actually named his child Geoff with the same spelling. He thought there might be a chance of it actually happening. Guess I’ll have to give him the bad news.
It is funny.
Your 1994 MTV Unplugged is one of our favorite Unplugged episodes of all time. Has there ever been a thought of doing a whole unplugged tour?
Yeah, that would be really fun. We like to play acoustically. In fact, almost every day we play acoustically. Michael and Stone and I usually do radio performances in the mornings when we’re on tour at different radio stations. They interview us, and we sit around and laugh and joke, and play our acoustic guitars, just play a few songs. It’s really fun to do that, it’s fun to strip a song down, and take away all the sound effects, the big giant drums, and strip that out – and get to the basics of what a song is. Most songs – 98% of songs start off with an acoustic guitar and a singer, or a piano and a singer. Two people, or three people get together and they work out the song that way. Then you transmit that into, well, what do you want to do with this? How about if we put the drum line like this, and you can do this with it, and you can build a song out of that, sort of a humble beginning. So it’s a wonderful thing, we really enjoy it. On the Tribe tour in 2003/2004, we played our show, took a short little 3 minute break, the crew came out and set up stools –and we switched it and played an acoustic section of the show. We did like 6 or 7 songs that way and it was really fun. The audience really liked it. So yeah, we might do something like that in the future, I think it would be really satisfying.
You participated in the Rocklahoma festival this past year. Any comments on that event, and is it something you think you would participate in again?
Oh, we’d like to. That was a really fun endeavor. The thing about that is that I would like to see them continuing to put that festival together. In other parts of the world, they have annual festivals that happen every year, like the Sweden Rock Fest, it’s been going on for 30 years. Germany has about 4 or 5 different festivals that have been going on for 20 years. It seems like all the European countries have these festivals, and people come to the show and they camp out for the weekend. The roster of bands is completely eclectic and wide spread, it’s not like a theme, but it’s a bunch of different types of music. We’ve done these festival dates over there and we’ve played with Supertramp, we opened for Roger Waters last year, we’ve played with Jethro Tull, Heart, Steve Miller – you name it, they’ve been on the bill. It’s really a fun thing, and America doesn’t really have something like that. I think this is a really good start at keeping something like that going as a tradition.
I think that’s their goal, to make it an annual event.
I really hope they can do it. It’s a big undertaking, and it takes a huge amount of organization and planning, it would need a lot of top notch people to keep that happening. It’s lucrative, and I think that’s a good thing. But also, I think that the most important thing culturally is that it’s something people can count on, like oh yeah, we’re going to go there this year.
Yes, something to look forward to. Okay, last question – and I have to ask this because you always have brilliant musings on political and social issues, I’m curious to hear what you think about the current presidential run and if you have an early favorite?
Oh, it’s fascinating. I’m so happy that it’s getting so much attention now because I think that we are in a really precarious situation as a country. Our economy is hurting so bad and when that happens, it affects people in so many different ways, on so many different levels. Like for instance, the concert industry is really in the dumper. People just don’t have the income to go out and see live entertainment. That’s a tragedy, that in this rich nation, so many people are hurting. And I think that, in my opinion, a major point in the next election is what are they going to do about the economy? What are they going to do about providing jobs and getting us out of debt? We’re so far in debt now, over 8 years, we’ve gone into trillion dollar numbers already. And one of the things that’s really admirable about Hillary Clinton to me was that she has that kind of experience, she was there during the Clinton administration when they got us out of debt which was fantastic. Everybody at that time, under their administration, everybody was making money especially in the middle class. That’s what we need, someone that has the leadership qualities to make that happen. And also, kind of save our presence overseas. We spend about 3/4 of our year traveling overseas, meeting with people, talking with people, doing some television interviews and radio interviews with people, and that’s one of the subjects that gets talked about a lot. The United States presence overseas, and our administration, we’ve lost a lot of respect worldwide with the Bush administration. It’s a tragedy really. So I am really concerned about the next presidential election. Right now, I’m leaning towards Hillary because I like what she stands for – and I’m not a democrat, or a republican – I vote for the person. But I really feel she would be an incredibly strong leader and I like the fact that she’s a woman. I would like to see a woman become president of this country, I’d like to see that happen. I think we need some balance in the thinking, and in the presence of the country. We need to show the rest of the world that we’re progressive. We can’t keep electing what I would call kind of backward thinking leadership. And I would consider the Bush administration to be very oriented towards special interests, especially very rich special interests like corporations and people with that kind of mentality, there’s not a place for that right now.
We need to get the middle class back.
We need to pump up the middle class and give people a leg up. It’s scary out there.
*Photos used courtesy of Queensryche MySpace page