Geoff Tate of Queensryche
Queensryche, the quintessential kings of concept albums, return with their latest work of art – American Soldier. The album takes you on a rollercoaster ride of the up close and personal and sometimes gut-wrenching perspectives of our American heroes, the veterans of war.
From the opening track “Sliver,” which starts out where a lot of soldiers do, boot camp, to “At 30,000 Ft,” a song fittingly about a pilot’s experience from the air, the album resonates throughout and takes the listener through a broad range of emotions from sadness to pride to overwhelming gratitude. On one of the more touching tracks, “Home Again,” Tate shares lead vocal duties with his ten year old daughter on a song inspired by a soldier’s letters to those back home while he was at war.
The album is dedicated to the soldiers from start to finish including some special guest appearances from a few of them.
Queensryche frontman Geoff Tate took some time to talk to us about the personal nature of the album, what he hopes people will take for it and how it has affected him personally.
Interviewed by: Mary Ouellette | 2009
You’ve said that the whole idea for American Soldier stemmed from a conversation that you had with your Dad, can you tell is about the origin of that?
I grew up in a military family, my dad was a veteran of Korean War and Vietnam, and he spent his career in the military. He spent 20 years in the Air Force, retired and went back to work for the Navy after that here in the Seattle area. All through my life he never talked about his experience in war, he brushed it aside and preferred to talk about the technical aspect of things than the emotional impact of what he went through. Even though I questioned him about it over the years, he just never seemed comfortable talking about it. Then in 2006 we were on tour with the band and I had a day off and I was visiting him in Oklahoma where he lives. We were sitting on the back porch drinking some ice tea and he just started talking about it. My jaw hit the floor, luckily I had my video camera with me and I stuck it up on the picnic table and started recording the conversation we had.
Weeks later I was playing the video tape back for my kids and wife and my wife was actually the one who suggested that I write a song about my Dad’s experience. I thought that was a great idea, I had never done anything like that before and so really that was the catalyst for it; looking at his story and wondering about other people’s stories in a similar situation, wondering if there were any similarities, so that got me talking with different solider that I met at airports and backstage at our shows, what started as a casual conversation ended up becoming interviews, as the project evolved I realized I would probably benefit from recording interviews properly and that evolved into filming them. Long story short, I ended up collecting hundreds of hours of interviews with soldiers with different backgrounds with different stories from different conflicts from World War II to the present. I wrote outlines for the stories that I found that were similar themes and brought those to the band. They ended up listening to the interviews, reading my outlines and writing songs around them.
You said that your Dad had never talked about his time in the military until just recently, what do you think it was that made him want to talk about it after all this time?
I really don’t know. What I found through my research was that it’s very common for people his age to start reminiscing about their life and collecting their thoughts about it. Perhaps they go through a sort of an emotional management process and this becomes a point where they are willing or able to talk about it. For my dad’s generation specifically it seems very common for soldiers his age to being talking about it in their sixties and seventies, which he is in his late seventies now.
You interviewed soldiers from different parts of the military and different eras prior to writing the songs. How did you get in touch with them? Were they aware of the album before the interview process or what was the general idea going into it?
It really came down to a word of mouth process. Talking with specific people I met at airports or backstage at shows, they would give me phone numbers or put me in contact with people that they thought had interesting stories or would be interested in talking. It was a varied group of people which I found very interesting. Some people were very open and willing and able to talk about their experiences and other people were very closed off about it. It was really dependent on where they were at emotionally in their lives and how much time had passed between their experiences and the present.
I think one of the most fascinating things you’ve said about this album is that it’s not political at all; it’s a statement for the soldiers. Do you think there will be people that can’t see beyond the political aspect of it and if so, what would you say to them?
You mean people who will read something into it that’s not there? (chuckle) Well its art. Music is art, it’s not a sporting event and I think a lot of times in our culture we treat it like a sporting event, we attach scores to music and we use rating systems and we use terms like best and worst and those are competitive terms. Art is subjective, it’s all very much a personal experience and how art affects you is also subjective and personal. For instance you could be walking through one of the great museums of the world with artwork from everywhere and walk right past paintings and artwork that doesn’t move you and you can be captured and be moved by something else and stop and really feel something from it. It’s all very dependent on the individual and music is that way as well. I’m sure you’ve probably experienced this, you’ve heard pieces of music that really affect you and they become important to you and they become the background of your life signifying specific events or instances you’ve had and that’s all very personal stuff. So, this album, for example, wasn’t put together from a political standpoint at all, it was put together from actual stories from actual soldiers who have been there. One of the things I realized right off in talking with various soldiers was that I was coming at it from a platform of complete ignorance. I’ve never been a soldier, I’ve never been in war, I’ve never had a gun pointed in my face, I’ve never had to react, Ive never had to defend my country, so I didn’t know anything about it. I think one of the things that we often fall victim to in our culture is speculation. We speculate about everything, even things we don’t know about. I didn’t want to be in that position. I wanted to explore the actual real events and real affects and the real stories, so this is the first record that isn’t about me to some degree, it’s about other people and I was merely acting as a biographer. People will read into it what they will, there’s no way to get around that. People will take a statement you make and completely take it out of context and apply their own meanings to it and I learned awhile ago not to fight that, it’s just human nature in some people.
You actually just touched on this a bit, the songs on this album as you mentioned weren’t your own experiences you were writing about other people’s stories, did that present a whole new challenge for you and how was that writing process, drawing from other peoples stories?
It was a completely different process for me. I was really looking for commonalities in the experiences of the soldiers, once I found those commonalties that’s what I focused on as far as making a story out of it. Some of the songs are actual one on one events describing someone’s personal experience and others are a composite of a number of different stories put together that had commonalities involved with it. It was a completely different process and one that was very challenging for the band because what we ended up doing was reading the outlines I wrote, watching the interviews I conducted, being moved by the event and creating music to help support and tell the story.
Queensryche is no stranger to concept albums, but did you have any fear going into a concept album about something that is so real and touches so many people on a very personal level and doing it justice?
I don’t think so. Again, music is of course is a personal journey, what we find to be the most advantageous way to approach it was to collectively witness the story and then what comes from that is an emotional response. You try to portray that emotion in a way that best suits the subject matter. You try to find musical passages that connect with the emotions and rhythm structures that help propel the story along. It’s a really interesting way to work, one that’s kind of different than we would normally work in creating a song but in a lot of ways similar because again you’re tapping into, whenever you write a song you’re speaking from an emotional standpoint of some sort, whether your own experience or one that you’re getting from someone else.
Delving into the music a little bit, one of the songs has a Middle Eastern sound to it and on another song a guitar was used to recreate the sound of an airplane. Did those ideas develop as the stories were told or were they ideas from the start?
A little bit of both, you have the story and it takes place in a location, for instance, you try to create a location sounds cape based on that location, again it’s all revolving around telling a story.
There are parts of the album that actually incorporate some of the soldiers, with some spoken word parts and a singing part, can you tell us a little bit about that.
In listening back to the interviews, some of them were just incredibly emotional. We thought a really good way to establish that emotional connection would be to actually include the person that went through it in the song itself, that way it’s very much the soldiers own words. It helps connect to the listener in a way that is probably more poignant than a third person telling of it.
It was interesting, this was the first project I’ve ever done like this where I conducted interviews so I really had to learn how to do that. Even though I’ve been involved with thousands of interviews over my career this was the first time I’d ever been on the other end of the microphone and I walked away from the whole event having a much deeper respect from a journalists standpoint because it’s not easy to get people to open up and talk about stuff. Its different for someone like me for example, part of my job is to explain what it is we do, but from a soldier’s standpoint, it’s not their job, their telling experiences that happened to them, sometimes very emotional, and getting them to open up about that sometimes is very successful. Sometimes I talked to people who were very emotionally connected to themselves and could describe and talk about their experiences and other times it was like pulling teeth and getting one word answers. Some of the interviews are difficult to watch because you can see me struggling to get something from them and them holding back and other ones are very difficult to watch because they’re so emotional. I have a lot of film footage of people crying and opening up and how they felt when they were trying to save the life of their best friend and couldn’t, and how they carried the guilt around with them for years and you watch that and it’s hard not to be affected.
Your ten year old daughter has a part on the album as well. I’m curious as to how that fell into place, I know the song is a dialogue between a father and a daughter, how did your own daughter become involved, has she been singing or was this more of an on the fly thing?
It was definitely an on the fly decision. It was kind of interesting how it happened. On Wednesdays my daughter has a class in the building where my studio is and I had just finished writing the song Home Again. I had sung the vocal parts and written the words and I had just finished working on it and she walked in after school, threw her books on the table and asked me what I was working on. I told her I had just written a new song and asked her if she wanted to hear it. I played it for her and she was reading the lyrics and after it was over I looked at her and she had tears running down her face. So I asked her if she liked it and she looked at me and said “Dad you’ve never written a song about me before” and I said “well what do you mean?” And she said “well isn’t this written about me and you? “ And I asked her what she meant by that and she said “well you’re gone so much and god I miss you so much and sometimes I call you and you don’t answer” and I thought, wow that’s interesting and I asked her if she wanted to sing the song with me because there’s a part for you to sing and she said yes. So she just whipped it out, put the headphones on, I was all excited trying to technically get it working because her voice is a different volume than mine but she just sang the song and she had so much emotion in it and she gave it that feeling of innocence and speaking from her heart. It was just a magical moment. I played it back for my wife and band they were very excited about it.
It’s just another example of how music affects people in different ways, even though she read the lyrics, she saw herself in it and applied it to her life and rightly so because there are things in that song that she experiences and I experiences with her and I think It speaks to people on a number of different levels and different backgrounds.
Have the people that have been involved in the interviews, have they heard the whole album yet, wondering what kind of feedback your getting from them?
Very positive. Again its sort of interesting for example, some of the interviews I did are several years old and they couldn’t remember what they said and so they’re listening back to it now and hearing it in the context in some cases a direct interpretation of their life experience so is interesting for them and sometimes very emotional. One of the soldiers who heard it said “you just hit it right on the head; this is my life, thank you.” So it’s something that they can hold on to throughout their life too. One of the things that kind of drove me personally about making this record is that over the years you get feedback from fans and they’d tell you about the situation they were in when they first heard it and how it affected them and became a part of their lives and a lot of the people we hear from are soldiers in different conflicts, The Gulf War for example, Iraq, Somalia, Afghanistan, and they are using our music to help get them through a situation, to inspire them, or calm them down or center them so they can focus on what they need to do. If anything I would like this record to be for them, so they can realize that when they are far away from their homes and their families that this is an album about them and they might find some strength in it by listening to these stories and feel connected in some way that they’re not there alone, that someone understands what they’re going through.
Yes, I think that’s very powerful. I think like you said earlier, people speculate, but for those of us who have never been in that position this album give us a way to connect with them through the music.
We don’t really know what happens. The cover art is a soldier’s boots standing there alone. In a way this is a way for the listener to spend an hour listening and living in those soldier’s boots. How can you know me until you walk in my shoes. This is a way that the rest of us can understand what they go through and appreciate them because that’s another thing that happens, we take that for granted, we don’t have to worry about an occupying force kicking in our doors and taking our children and selling them into slavery which happens all the time in other parts of the world, we don’t have to worry about defending our patch of ground because someone else is doing that for us and we should never take that for granted.
The tour starts in April and is going to have three “suites” from different albums which seems very ambitious, can you tell us a little about that and what fans can expect?
We’re going to focus on three albums – of course American Soldier and we’re going to bookend that with our 1986 album Rage for Order and our 1990 album Empire, which are two of our fans favorite albums so we’re going to be showcasing those songs. We’ve been rehearsing all the songs on all three so we’ll interject and change the songs around nightly so people have the opportunity to come to different shows and hear all of the songs.
For more info on Queensryche and American Soldier please visit their website.