Queensrÿche: ‘Keeping hold of the flame’

By  Bryan Reesman

(Greg Watermann/Rhino)

(Greg Watermann/Rhino)
The music industry is gasping for breath. Metal is still considered outside of the mainstream despite a recent resurgence. And veteran rockers are not exactly hip in America.

But Seattle-based metal legends Queensrÿche — core members vocalist Geoff Tate, guitarist Michael Wilton, bassist Eddie Jackson, and drummer Scott Rockenfield — keep marching to their own beat and are surviving and thriving in a business that is experiencing massive upheaval.

It’s 2009, and Queensrÿche has just released their 11th full-length studio album, American Soldier, one of its strongest efforts in over a decade, and the band is in the midst of a two-month national tour.

The latter half of the ’00s has been good to Queensrÿche, allowing the band to experience a creative resurgence and to reinvigorate their fan base. Their latest album is their most lucid statement in years, and the music combines the melodic Queensrÿche that fans know and love with a modern edge. Their long-running saga is a reminder to the flailing music business why building up and sustaining a career is critical to keeping itself afloat.

Prior to this, however, the Seattle rockers faced some tumultuous times after having grown into powerhouse status between their 1982 EP debut, Queensrÿche, and the Grammy-nominated, multiplatinum fourth album Empire.

Following the massive success of Empire (1990), with its famous ballad “Silent Lucidity,” and then the platinum successor Promised Land (1994), a darker and more intriguing effort, the group fell victim to the dour grunge and alternative movement of the ’90s — not to mention some bad luck.

First off, their label, EMI Records America, folded in 1997 while the group was in the middle of a tour to support Hear In The Now Frontier, a Top 20 album that attempted to capitalize on a more downtuned ’90s sound but did not go over well with fans. It ultimately sold less than half a million copies. It was during this rough patch that original member and songwriter/guitarist Chris DeGarmo, who had spearheaded the band’s sonic shift, quit Queensrÿche and has rarely been involved with the music industry since (other than concert stints with Jerry Cantrell and a short-lived studio reunion with his old bandmates), preferring to be a pilot.

While Hear’s follow-up Q2K (1999) featured the addition of bluesy guitarist and longtime friend Kelly Gray and was a musical improvement, the group’s sales dropped drastically and they adjusted to playing smaller venues than they had previously. While playing to packed theaters is still quite respectable, their mainstream profile, like that of many legendary, classic metal bands at the time, was waning.

Nostalgia and fan loyalty kept Queensrÿche rocking and rolling through the first half of the ’00s. They toured behind their Greatest Hits package by supporting Iron Maiden on an arena tour across the U.S. in 2000, and they released a concert DVD titled “Live Evolution” the following year, after which Gray departed. The group released the moody, edgy studio album Tribe to mixed reactions in 2003, with DeGarmo appearing on four tracks but neither touring with nor rejoining the band, so they hit the road with new guitarist Mike Stone on a co-headlining tour with fellow progressive-metal legends Dream Theater that produced the Art Of Live album and DVD.

Many fans were excited by the announcement in 2004 that Queensrÿche decided to record a sequel to 1988’s concept classic Operation: Mindcrime, their most acclaimed and beloved album. This was preceded by a three-leg national tour where they performed the first album in its entirety. During this time they also supported the reunited Judas Priest on a North American arena tour.

Released in March 2006, Operation: Mindcrime II, which featured a guest appearance by Ronnie James Dio as the villainous Dr. X, reinvigorated the band. A tale of torment and revenge that attempted to answer some lingering questions from the first opus, the album found the group returning to their musically adventurous roots and amping up the guitar harmonies, with Tate singing more passionately than he had in years. Operation: Mindcrime II was their strongest release since Promised Land. It charted at #14 in America and sold more than 125,000 copies in its first two months of release.

The subsequent tour featured both Mindcrime albums performed in their entirety and spawned their third live DVD in six years, “Mindcrime At The Moore.” The 2007 album Take Cover — which included the group’s interpretations of songs by the likes of U2, Black Sabbath, and Peter Gabriel, among others — bridged the gap between Mindcrime II and the new American Soldier and allowed them to tour again. That same year, Sign Of The Times: The Best of Queensrÿche emerged, featuring a new song with DeGarmo (“Justified”) and demos of songs from Tate’s first band, Myth, which also featured Gray.

Like Mindcrime II, the latest Queensrÿche platter is also one of their strongest releases in the last 15 years. American Soldier is a concept album but not a political one and not in the rock-opera vein of the Mindcrime efforts. It was inspired by Tate interviewing U.S. war veterans who served throughout the last few decades and their experiences. Tate quipped three years ago that his wife felt he had become a snob because of his spoiled rock-star life. So when the mighty rock god came down from the mountain to speak to the regular men and women who serve in the military, did he find it humbling?

“It was totally humbling, really it was,” replied a congenial Tate, relaxing in his swanky Manhattan hotel room where he was conducting interviews for American Soldier. He may have been perched high above the city, but he did not like act like he was sitting in an ivory tower.

“I think we all speculate too much about stuff we know nothing about,” says Tate. “We’re all guilty of it to a certain extent. I was definitely guilty of that walking into this project. I talked to my father, who’s a [Korean War] veteran, and he finally told me his story after [I was] waiting all my life [to hear it].”

Inspired by his father’s stories, Tate chose to seek out other veterans and hear their recollections.

“The more I talked to them, the more questions I asked and the more questions I had,” the singer stated. “I started looking at the whole thing completely differently and realizing that without them, without what they do, without their belief in what they do being so strong, the rest of us can’t live the way we want to live. We can’t follow our own dreams and imagine life and live life because we’d be worried about walking out that front door and being taken out, or somebody breaking down our front door and taking us and selling us or our children into slavery. We really take that for granted because we’ve lived in this country for 200 years without having that happen. I think that safety breeds a bit of arrogance, so I was definitely humbled by the stories I heard, and I’m glad for it.”

Tate was not sure what prompted his father to open up, but he saw a pattern in many veterans through his research and interviews. Many men and women in their ’70s, the age his father is at, were more apt to discuss wartime experiences from their twenties.

“My dad has put enough distance between those events in his early twenties and his life now and is able to talk about it or has lived enough life where he’s done the emotional work it takes to put those things in perspective,” explained Tate. “And that seems to be the commonality of a lot of the soldiers that I interviewed and talked to.”

In writing the lyrics to American Soldier based upon the experiences of his interviewees, Tate chose not to politicize their lives and their actions.

“What I found in talking with soldiers is that it’s not about politics for them,” he explained. “They could care less. They’re there to do their job, to defend their country, and they believe that wholeheartedly. There is a strong, strong sense of honor and commitment, one that I almost can’t even relate to. I didn’t grow up with those things instilled in me, even though I grew up in a military family. My dad didn’t instill that in us. He instilled a lot of great things that I think are very military-related, like a work ethic that I have tried to instill in my own kids. You get up in the morning and go to work. You do what it is you’re interested in, you strive for greatness, and you don’t sit around and wait for people to give you stuff. You go out and make your own way. I didn’t feel the pressure growing up to enlist in the military and defend my country. Now at my age, at 50, I am in complete and utter gratitude for people that do feel that way, that feel driven to that kind of commitment, and I’m grateful for that.”

When Tate spoke to Goldmine in 2006, he revealed that when the group made its anti-Bush sentiments known at that time, he received death threats for the first time in his career, while other fans expressed surprise at their political leanings. One had to wonder whether such fans had ever truly read the lyrics to Operation: Mindcrime, which tackled issues of social justice and right-wing politics. And on the flipside of that issue, it makes one wonder what such people might think of American Soldier.

“When you make music you never know how people are going to perceive it,” mused Tate. “Maybe my opinion is one that is antiquated or extreme, but I really feel music is art. It’s about people’s feelings, it’s about your interpretation of events and life. It’s not a sporting event. In my mind there is no good music, there is no bad music. There just is music, just as the same with art. And people who put art into sporting roles and that kind of mentality … I am in complete disagreement with that. I don’t see that there’s a contest. I don’t agree with award ceremonies. To me that’s complete bullshit.”

For Tate, the goal of this album was to generate discourse.

“I hope that people listen to it and are affected by it, but above all else I hope they talk about [it],” he said. “I hope that it sparks conversation, especially between soldiers because it was written for them. It’s their words, their experiences, their lives. I want them to talk about it and share it with each other. Hopefully for the rest of us, people [who] are civilians, we can learn something from their stories and talk about it, because I think the more we understand the subject the better off we’re going to be.”

In writing the lyrics for American Soldier, many of which do not follow conventional rhyme schemes, Tate used the words and thoughts of his interviewees, albeit with some tweaks to make them a little more lyrical. One of the standout tracks, “Man Down!” invokes the concept of “the Cavalry of God” riding up next to a soldier. It makes one feel like the soldier in that song feels demonized for his role in war.

Tate clarified one of the song’s stanzas that addresses the issue.

“That paragraph works in two ways,” Tate says. “It’s an actual event that the guy was telling me about. It’s an interesting story. When he got back from conflict, he didn’t feel like he was ready to fit in. He didn’t feel like he fit in at all, so he just wanted to leave and get going and move on and find himself. So he bought a brand-new car and loaded up what little stuff he had and started driving. He didn’t really have any direction. He ended up crisscrossing the country over about a six-year period, and along the way he kept coming across this religious Gospel group called The Cavalry of God. They had those ‘Jesus Loves You’ slogans all over the bus, with people singing and praying, ‘pilgrims on the way to the Holy Land’ kind of thing. He got kind of creeped out about it, that it kept following him, because he felt like he was evil in a sense for what he had done in war. So he was calling himself Satan and this was the God bus that was following him.”

Two songs that were emotionally difficult for Tate to deliver were “If I Were A King,” the lead single, and “Home Again.” With regards to the former song, the singer said he was very affected by interviewing a soldier named Sean Lenahan, who could easily articulate his wartime experiences in hostile places like Somalia, Kosovo and Panama.

“Whereas other people I interviewed didn’t do that so well,” remarked Tate. “You really had to dig to get something that they could contribute. That was interesting in itself, that I got to see the differences, the gulf between people being cognizant of their emotions, feelings and thoughts, and people who were still there and not here.”

With regard to “Home Again,” Tate related to the story of a soldier missing his daughter, particularly as he is the father of five girls ranging from 10 to 24 years of age. The tale involved a father and his daughter having letters that crossed in the mail, both relaying the same sentiments of missing one another and encouraging each other to stay strong.

“That got me thinking about families and being separated from your loved ones and how hard that must be knowing that your dad or your mom is going into a life or death war zone,” observed Tate. “The rest of us who leave our families on business trips are working but are not in a life-and-death situation where there is a really good chance that we won’t be coming back. That’s a whole different kind of thing. That’s pretty heavy. So when we wrote the song, I thought I should have a little girl sing this part, and I had the perfect little girl, my [10-year-old] daughter Emily. She’s a great singer and really got what the song was about. She swung hard.”

The frontman brought another musical dimension to American Soldier by bringing back his sax playing, which surfaced previously on Promised Land, Tribe and his superlative self-titled solo effort in 2002.

“‘Dead Man’s Words’ uses a lot of Arabian scales and modes, so soprano saxophone seemed like the perfect instrument for that, for those keys and to be that kind of Arabian horn,” offered Tate. “Arabian culture has used horns for thousands of years, so that seemed to fit. Then on ‘Middle of Hell’ I was trying to create this cool, calm feeling amidst the dissonance of some of the guitar chords in the song.”

The current tour for American Soldier was planned to incorporate the experiences of the soldiers who contributed their thoughts and experiences to the album. Queensrÿche is focusing on the new release, 1986’s experimental Rage For Order and Empire. At press time, they planned to rehearse all of the songs from each album so they could rotate their set lists but manage to play all three albums entirely within an individual week of touring.

As far as the stage show, “ … we have multimedia screens, new film and video footage, all of our interview stuff with all of the different soldiers, war footage from the different eras, home movies and a whole array of visual stuff,” divulged Tate. “We have some new tour technology, which is an image-generating machine. Musically, Parker Lundgren will be joining us on guitar and taking over for Mike Stone, [along with] Jason Ames, who is a very talented singer, guitar player and keyboard player. Then we have Emily, my daughter, and one of the soldiers who sings on the record, AJ Fratto.”

American Soldier marks a new milestone for the band in that it is the first release in their 28-year history on which Michael Wilton played all of the guitars, an experience he very much enjoyed.

“There wasn’t anybody there to say, ‘Ah no, let’s do it like this instead,’” said Tate. “He really got to follow his vision. He didn’t have to compromise on the guitar end, which is nice.”

The Queensrÿche songwriting dynamic, however, remained the same.

“We definitely let it flow, but we definitely have the committee, which is myself, Eddie, and the producer that we’re working with [at the time],” explained Tate. (In this case, Jason Slater with Kelly Gray.) “Eddie and I are probably the ones in the band that care the most about what’s happening and police everybody and make sure everybody’s doing what they need to be doing, given that we allow them the freedom to express themselves. But we reserve the final call for deciding what the deep end is. Somebody has to put a marker down that says it’s ‘six feet deep here’ by the poolside. Somebody has to got to write that in, so that’s mostly my job: ‘That solo is really cool, so let’s ask some questions. Does it fit the mood of the song? Does it make you want to cry? Does it show that you can play guitar really fast?’ We all have to feel fine with the answer.”

Despite the deterioration of the music industry, at least in terms of physical CD sales, Queensrÿche have persevered and continue to thrive on their own terms. But the business is not about selling large quantities of albums anymore. Despite being a Top 15 album in America, Operation: Mindcrime II sold approximately 150,000 copies domestically. The original Mindcrime sold more than a million.

 “We don’t make any money selling records anymore,” admitted Tate. “Very few people do. We still love doing it and still do it, but we do it differently. Money comes from other places. It’s not just showing up; you’ve got to go look for it and figure out ways of making money.”

The group makes its cash through touring and merchandising and through licensing their songs to films.

“I remember in 1999 I was at this celebrity golf tournament, and the team I got assigned to had Doc McGhee, who is a pretty well known band manager,” recalled Tate. “Doc is a very smart man, and I said, ‘Doc, what’s happening to the business? What’s happening to the music industry?’ He was puffing on a big old cigar and said in a very grandfatherly type [of] delivery, ‘Well, boy, it’s changing.’ I said, ‘Yeah, I’m really concerned. Record sales seem to be plummeting, and there’s all this downloading going on. What’s the industry doing to stop that?’ He said, ‘The whole industry is doing absolutely nothing. The whole thing is going to go in the toilet.’ ‘What are we going to do?’ ‘Well, we’re going to find other ways of making it work. I just read this really cool book and you’ve got to check it out. It’s called ‘Who Moved My Cheese?’”

Tate went looking for the book, at first put off by the fact that it was located in the self-help section. But as he read it, he discovered the truth that changed him.

“You can’t stay in one place and expect to make a living in that same place all your life,” the vocalist reflected. “It doesn’t work that way. You’ve got to go where the food is. You’ve got to go where the money is. And you’ve got to go where the supplies are. So it was actually really good advice, and I thank him for that. It definitely made me look at what we do and try to modify it so we could make a living. And we are. We do very well considering the economy and the state of our industry.”

Various band members have also pursued other interests outside of the group. Wilton (aka “Whip”) has his own line of ESP guitars and a line of clothing called Whipwear. Rockenfield runs the RockenWraps drum finish and supply company and recently created merchandise for Tesla, Metallica, Huey Lewis and Asia. The drummer also recently finished a full-length orchestrated score for the horror film “Albino Farm,” due for a fall 2009 release, and is currently scoring three other films in production. And his Web site carries plenty of music and merchandise related to his career.

Tate plans to co-star with Blackmore’s Night singer Candace Night in a horror movie called “House of Eternity.” The singer has also developed a red wine brand that bears his name called Insania, and he claimed that it is doing phenomenally well, having landed its first review recently in Wine Spectator magazine.

“I started it a couple of years ago, and we released our first vintage this month, in February, and that’s almost sold out,” says Tate. “We’re doubling our second vintage. I wanted to make a style of wine from where I live in Washington state that reflected that European flair for winemaking, specifically the French, who have a masterful command of winemaking and have been doing it for thousands of years and perfected it. I believe that we can accomplish a very similar type of winemaking from the state I live in.”

For Tate, finding new avenues of expression and new ways to reinvent oneself comes from determination and passion.

“Believe it or not, people are multidimensional,” he asserted. “Their interests lie in other areas besides what they do for a living or perhaps what they are famous for. You pursue those things with passion. Say you like real estate. You’re fascinated by the numbers and figuring out the deals, and you like the art of the deal and cutting deals with people. You start going into that and having some success because you throw yourself into it. Say you love fine dining and Bordeaux-style wines. That’s me, baby. I love it.

“I think that’s the key to life,” Tate concluded. “Someone once told me if you want to change your life, lean in that direction [of interest]. Start focusing on it and looking at it and understanding it, and pretty soon you’ll be doing it and having success at it.”

That philosophy helped drive Queensrÿche in their early days and is allowing them to stay the course while opening up other possibilities for their own lives. As Tate noted about the group, 28 years is a long time to be passionate about something. Many of their longtime fans would gratefully agree.

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