Queensryche was formed in 1982 in Bellevue, Washington, by friends who played in various metal bands from the region. Since the band's debut EP in 1983, Queensryche has consistently set itself apart by incorporating progressive elements into its music with a vivid, almost dystopian, reflection of society in a way that was thought-provoking and poetic.
The first classic record of Queensryche's career was its third album, 1988's Operation: Mindcrime. A dark love story involving two people swept up by events in a society governed by an oppressive government and those that are working for its overthrow, Mindcrime was a sharp commentary on the Rea gan era, a time that is now too commonly being characterized as a golden age but which was rocked by scandals and political and financial malfeasance as devastating as any we have seen since.
The band's 1990 album, Empire, proved to be its commercial breakthrough, marking the outfit's first hits. While the band did not quite reach the same level of success with subsequent records, it did continue to release albums when many of its hard rock contemporaries split up. Last year, there was a major schism in the ranks, and now there are two editions of the band, one fronted by Todd La Torre and the other fronted by original singer Geoff Tate. We recently had a candid chat with Tate about Mindcrime, David Sylvian and what it means to be in your fifties.
Westword: You did an interview you did for Sleaze Roxx a few years back you mentioned how you like to tell stories in your songs. What were some of your early inspirations for that style of songwriting?
Geoff Tate: At some point, someone talked about how songs tell stories, and I thought, yeah, they are stories. Just watching audiences throughout the years, when you're performing they tend to understand what you're doing with a song better if you set it up and give a back story to what the song is about, or if it has a funny anecdote attached to it or a tragedy. Some songs tell stories; some ask questions. I find the music really dictates the direction of the lyrics for a song.
When people mention Seattle and connect it to music, it's not often mentioned that Jimi Hendrix, Heart and your band came from that city, as well, because you, Heart and Hendrix probably aren't seen as "local bands." What do you remember about playing in the area before Queensryche became known nationally and internationally?
Oh, we never did. We cut a different route. Seattle, at the time we were coming up, had a club scene, but they wouldn't let you play if you were going to play original music. They just wanted to hire you to play cover songs. We didn't really want to do that. We wanted to focus on our own music, so we took a different route and went into a studio, and cut a record, and created our own record company, 206 Records, and signed some distribution deals with a couple of different companies that handled the world, and we sold our record on our own. It sold so well that major labels were very interested in us at the time.
Years later, I'd say, probably by '89, '90, the club scene had started to really gather some steam. But we had already been established and been out and touring around the world at that time. A lot of the bands that came out of Seattle at that time, in the early '90s, ended up going on the road with us, and opening for us, and we did festivals together. Pearl Jam, Alice in Chains and Soundgarden, specifically. They toured with us a lot.
Were the political aspect of the band's lyrics part of the music early on, or is that something that developed along the way?
That was definitely influenced by the Reagan administration. People forget how it was then. It was pretty oppressive, you know? Lots and lots of rules, and that was sort of the beginnings of the Christian Right wing getting into power, and a political party was dictating your interpretation of god and what that means.
I just found the whole thing to be completely distasteful. I found it to be inspiring as well -- to write about that and point out the hypocrisy of it all. And who are they to tell me what to believe and those kinds of things? I think that's the major inspiration for that leaning in that direction.
Some of us got to hear Operation: Mindcrime in its entirety on the radio at the time it came out. It seemed very dark, eloquent, on point and poetically sharp in its critique. Did you receive any backlash about the album then?
Oh, there was definitely a backlash. I didn't really worry about a backlash. In the entertainment business, a backlash is a good thing. You want as much press and controversy as you can. So no worries. I was glad the album pushed people's buttons and made them talk at least.
Did you get any interesting mail out of that?
Oh, yeah, yeah, of course. Still do. There's a lot of kooks in the world and in our country, as well. I mean people that are just messed up. In our country, they've got guns, and they know how to make bombs. You keep your eye out for them and report them to the local authorities when you have to, especially today with the Internet. You don't have to be accountable for your opinion. That changes all the rules and changes the whole game. If you're not accountable for who you are, then you can say anything you want, no matter how ridiculous or off-the-wall.
The problem is that I think other people take people seriously. If someone's signing their name to something, they become accountable. If they sign their real name, they're inviting debate. That's a person I can have respect for. They have an opinion, and they want to talk about it and express it and invite dialog.
It's the people hiding behind a fake name and no contact information that spew some incredulous idea or opinion that I have no respect for at all. A lot of times people lose track of that, and they start worrying about, "Is this a popular opinion that this person has?" No, it's not. It's a crackpot. A crackpot and a coward.
Did you feel the times you were commenting on in 1988 were pretty similar to the times you commented on in 2006 with Mindcrime II?
It was pretty similar. The thing about Mindcrime that, I guess, some people don't see -- which I understand because people interpret music in their own way based on their life experiences -- is that Mindcrime is a love story. A relationship story between two people. They're just trying to survive in this world they're living in -- which is in upheaval. It's a very scary place.
The way things are is being challenged and the people in power are trying to keep their power. It's a time of upheaval and revolution, and these two people are trying to live their lives and be happy with each, and they're stuck in this environment. I think people lose track of that with this story and start weaving ideas that it's this political manifesto or something.
Both albums end on a note that could be said to be melancholy, or like a Dickens novel, without any kind of pat resolution. Why did that sort of ending appeal to you?
It was always written, in our minds, to make a double album out of the story. So the first album ended with Nikki being put in the institution, and that's where it left off. So eighteen years later in Mindcrime II, he's on a quest of revenge. It has its end that I think illustrates what happens when you live a life based around revenge. There is nothing that can make you happy.
You accomplish your task, and when you do, I think most often times, what people find is that's not what makes them happy. They should have perhaps done something different or found a different way to deal with their frustration. What I chose was what I felt was a typically human ending. Not necessarily what we've come to know as the Hollywood ending, where everything wraps up in a neat little package. That's not often the way life is.
In several interviews you talk about David Sylvian being one of your favorite artists. How did you learn about him or his band Japan, and what do you appreciate about what he does?
I learned about David Sylvian sometime in the early '80s. Maybe '83. As a musician, my ears are always open to other music and listening to people, and I recognize when a musician or a group of musician has something different from what I'm used to hearing. David Sylvian has that. He has something very different about his musicality that appeals to me quite a bit.
With his solo stuff I've seen him stretch out and do so many different things that are so unusual and so different and incredibly inspirational. There's a few pieces of music on his album Alchemy: An Index of Possibilities that is so different that I don't quite know what the origins of it are.
In Western music we have the twelve tone scale, and all music is based on this twelve tone scale. For Sylvian's music, he takes from Eastern music and perhaps music he's making up in his head. The key structure and the melody working through it is so unique and different it just grabs you.
He's not a hugely popular artist because he tends to choose to express himself with his own rule book, I guess. But I think a lot of people really appreciate his work, especially people that are in the arts, and tend to look at him as an artist's artist.
This is going back a few years or so but what inspired you to do those interviews with war veterans?
It started with my dad who was a war veteran and just talking with him and hearing his war experiences in Korea and Vietnam. That prompted me to ask questions of other veterans like, "What was it like for you in Da Nang in '67?" That started snowballing into an obsession. That's probably what all albums are -- one's current obsession, whatever is inspiring.
So I chose to write an album about it called American Soldier. A lot of [those stories] are about people being put into extreme situations and how they deal with those situations, psychologically. Do they lock up? Do they come unglued? What sets them off?
I found there were a lot of similarities between people's experiences. Even down to being in different conflicts. People in World War II were experiencing similar things to people that fought in Iraq. I started thinking about, "Why is that? What is it about those experiences that are so similar?" That lead to question after question.
What were some of those similarities?
How people deal with pressure and stress being in life threatening situations. How they react to people close them being killed. How they deal with being away from loved ones. It all came out in the songs.
You did an interview with Brave Words And Bloody Knuckles and that was before you released Dedicated to Chaos, and you said how some of the songs are more rhythm-oriented in a way that hard rock and metal generally isn't. What made that approach appealing?
I particularly like a lot of music that has a groove to it, a certain kind of rhythm structure that has a lot of swing to it. The term "rock and roll," originally, the rock was the four-four, heavy beat, and the roll was the swing part of it -- the "and" beat, one and two and three. Rock and roll had that ability to have the heavy beat but with the upbeat feel, as well. I like music that has that kind of swing to it. It makes you move. You want to run or walk fast or dance -- it makes your body feel physical.
A lot of rock music doesn't have that. It has its own thing. We wanted to experiment with taking the rhythm section into a kind of different place and feel a little differently. What I was doing in that article was describing the evolution that happens with songwriting. After so many years of writing songs, you're always looking for ways that you could branch out and try to do different things in the context of what you're doing.
You've already done thirty years of what you've done. It's like if you had to commute to work every day: Do you take the same way every day for thirty years, or do you sometimes branch out and take the scenic route. You might find a restaurant you love that you've never been to before, or a view you can see that you find inspiring.
It's the same with songwriting. You can take any song and play it in a bazillion different ways. The only thing that limits you is your own imagination. You can give it a swing beat, you can play it in an adaptable time signature that changes every measure. You can make it sound any way you want.
You've done at least one acoustic tour in the past. What do you enjoy most about that format of a performance?
It's different and playing with the band without the big noise. I like that. From a vocalist standpoint it's incredible because one, you can really hear yourself well. You're not fighting with drums for space. It's a bit more naked not being propped up or hiding behind a wall of noise. You realize very quickly that the audience can hear every little nuance. They can hear you breathe. I like that edge of being almost like a vocal nudist.
What do you like about being that exposed?
Maybe I'm a closet nudist, I don't know. No, I don't know. I just like it. I also like doing different renditions of songs and take them in a different direction. Sometimes you wish you could re-do a song. Maybe you felt like you didn't quite nail it, or it took on a different direction than you thought it was going to be. When you play acoustically, you can strip the song back to its basic form. It's either going to stand on its or fall on its face. It's very exposed, and I just enjoy that.
Our last tour really started in my living room. My wife and I entertain quite a bit. A lot of our friends are musicians. It's kind of customary around our house after dinner that everyone gathers in the living room, and there's all kinds of instruments laying around, and we pick up stuff and play songs and entertain each other. That tour was fun.
As an artist over fifty, what do you that you've been able to shed from your psyche that perhaps held you back or otherwise interfered with the full expression of your creativity at an earlier age?
I'll tell you, fifty is a very strange age. It's different, I think, for women than men. It's different based upon what culture you live in. At fifty, you've already done a lot of things in life. Hopefully you've done them well and achieved some success at what you've done.
But you're also at a point where you realize that half your life is over. Probably more than half. So how are you going to spend that? Are you going to keep doing what you're doing until the day you die or are you going to change some stuff up and really hit that bucket list heavy.
So you're at kind of a crossroads, and I think anybody at age fifty is probably at that point looking at their life. You know, "I can see where I'm going, and I know where I'm going, so how am I going to go there? Am I going to go there of my own volition of my own physicality? Or am I going to propped up on medication and that kind of thing to get me through there."
All of these kinds of things are going on in your head. The kids are growing up and moving out of the house. It's a time of transition. An exciting time, and I think that all comes through the music in some way. I finished my solo album last fall and people that are curious about that can see what a fifty year old is thinking about.
I have a hard time with the judgment aspect of [assessing a previous age] because I think everything you experience makes you who you are. It's all important to your development. Perhaps wearing tights probably wasn't a good idea. I maybe regret that a little bit. But I could rock the tights, so why not? They were in style at the time.
You work with what you have and what you find interesting. People ask me all the time if I regret my decisions or musical adventures, and I never do. It's all part of who I am and how I got to be where I'm at and it's a part of my history. So there's nothing to regret. I did the best I could.
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