It’s wet. Seriously so and I am running home from work hoping that I’ll make it back in time to speak to Geoff Tate of Queensryche, a man who singlehandedly changed my opinion of classic rock and metal and made me appreciate the value of conceptual metal albums. Falling through the door of my flat, I shake off my jacket, grab the phone and dial, only to be told that the number doesn’t exist. This is doing my nerves no good at all. A quick drink of water and a second attempt with hands that are trembling marginally less, show that in my haste I misdialled and a pleasant American voice bids me to enjoy the music while I am connected to one of the greatest vocalists of the last thirty years. I’m incredibly nervous and stammer an introduction that makes me sound like an addled school-boy before launching into my first question, hoping that Geoff won’t notice that my normal calm approach to life has been replaced by a jitteriness that borders on the pathological. Happily, the man is a consummate professional who answers each question in a thoughtful and measured way and as the conversation progresses it becomes clear that Geoff’s wealth of experience in the music industry has left him an intelligent and interesting answer to any question you could care to put to him. We are, therefore, very proud to present you this interview with Geoff Tate, lead singer with Queensryche and the man behind the astounding ‘Operation Mindcrime’ an album that still stands tall today as one of the finest progressive metal albums ever made.
To kick off – you’re celebrating the twentieth anniversary of Empire now and I was just wondering what you feel is the enduring appeal of the record?
The enduring appeal of the album? Gosh, I don’t really have an answer for that. I don’t know
Well, musically, obviously, it’s stood up very well, but of course there’s a very strong lyrical concept there and I was wondering if you felt that the lyrics that you wrote are especially prevalent in the post Bush era?
Err, you know, I don’t really know, that’s a very difficult question to answer- you never know how people are going to take your art – what you feel and what you experience and what moves you, you share it with the world and they gravitate towards it, or they don’t, and most of the time the artist doesn’t even know why that is – what the music means to them. I mean, they can tell you if you meet someone in the street and they start talking to you about it – about a track or an album but I don’t really know.
Often it seems to be the case that some of the greatest artistic statements have come out of times when the political situation has been difficult and certainly you wrote at a time when the situation in America and the world situation were not very comfortable and recently we’ve had the Bush presidency and I was wondering how the shift from Bush to Obama has affected your writing and your inspiration?
Well I think that when I was a much younger man I was more inspired by politics and the world situation regarding politics – much more than I am no. I kind of feel that the world has always been in turmoil politically and it probably always will be – you know different people and cultures, different backgrounds all trying to get along and make things work and politics is a compromise at all times. So there are always going to be people who approach it from extreme ends but in my opinion at this point in my life I see moderation as the key to longevity. You can’t keep burning the candle at both ends and if you don’t find ways to compromise – it’s like being in a band – it can’t always be one guy’s play, you have to be willing to compromise to other people’s point of view or the guys will get bored – you need to look to the greater good of whatever you’re working for.
As a band you developed really quite quickly from you r first steps to operation mindcrime and then Empire – how do you feel you’ve developed as a band musically and as artists?
Um well I think we still hold true to our core values of what brought us together in the first place, which was a real passion and love of music and a very open minded point of view when it comes to music. We all like different kinds of stuff. I think if you looked at our collective record collections we probably own every record ever made(!) we like a lot of different kinds of music and a lot of different kinds of artists in the band and when we get together we’re always looking through other people’s stuff for inspiration and for me, and I think for the other guys as well, there’s a real curiosity when one of your band mates finds a song that they really love and they play it for you and you try to find what it is that they love about it – is it the melody line or the chord structure or whatever – and we usually spend a lot of time talking about that kind of thing and we bring that to what we do and I think it keeps everybody happy – they feel like they’re contributing and they can experiment with the unusual concepts they’re interested in.
Your last album was a very strong album detailing the effects of war on the American soldier at a very personal level – that must have been a difficult album to write?
Yeah it was – on a number of different levels. First off, none of us are soldiers so we have no idea of what we were talking about and we realised that very quickly and that’s why we went about conducting interviews with soldiers so that we could get an insight into what they’ve experienced. And then we got down to the realisation that it had to be from the soldiers’ point of view – you know us not having any direct experience with that so the interview process was a long one with so many amazing stories and sitting there with people for quite a long time talking about their experiences and it was very emotional. I think all of us found the record to be quite a difficult one to make from that standpoint – the emotional content that was there could be quite draining on you.
Also it was the first record we’d made that wasn’t about us, collectively or singularly, so that was difficult too.
Is it difficult for you to balance the emotional seriousness of what you write with the necessary entertainment aspects of being in a hard rock band?
I don’t really think about it in those terms – I think that most successful artists and bands come at their art from the same place and that is they’re fired by something and they craft a song or piece of music based on that inspiration – they don’t come at it from the angle of “how many people are going to understand this? How many people are going to like it or buy it” you know? We don’t really think of it in those terms – that’s more of a standard record company mentality or producer – that kind of thing. Usually writers don’t think of it on those terms – they’re looking at it from what moves them.
Ok – What do you look for when you look for inspiration?
Oh it’s a lot of things. As a writer you always have your ears and eyes open to what’s going on around you and it’s a lot of things – it could be from a conversation you have with people or a piece of artwork you see in a museum or just being out in nature and what you get from that. Any direct experience – so you’ve always got your feelers out, just picking things up from everywhere, there’s no real set way that I go about it. I just find inspiration in so many different things. Actually – I take that back, one thing that does inspire me a lot is travelling and going to different places – and by that I mean going there for a while and having conversations with people and having experiences in that place really tends to inspire my creative side.
Over your time in the industry there have obviously been a lot of changes, but as a music fan one of the ones that worries me is the way the digital revolution seems to be damaging people’s concepts of listening to an album as a whole and obviously Queensryche write albums which are meant to be digested altogether – Do you feel that’s a challenge for you?
(Wearily) yeah, well the biggest damage of the digital revolution is to the industry itself. It’s pretty much dead at the industry and taken all the money out of it so the industry itself and to survive it’s had to downsize so much – you know cut and slash jobs. The industry used to employ thousands of people and now they’ve had to go down to a bare-bone skeletal frame and they’ve had to survive without the huge influx of cash and that’s hindered their ability to promote bands.
On the Empire album for example there were six singles on that record and each single takes about $25-50,000 to work that single on radio and TV and get it out to different publications and all that and that’s quite a lot of money – you’re talking about six singles, hundreds of thousands of dollars to promote that record and that’s on a conservative term – most records take close to a million dollars and that’s just not possible now. Obviously there’s fewer records being sold because there’s less promotion and because people can download everything so, whereas you’d ship a record fifteen years ago and a pretty successful band could ship a million records in their first week and everyone would have a party and be high-fiving and slapping each other on the ass and nowadays you get the same reaction if someone sells five thousand records so it’s a dramatic loss of capitol and income and you see this everywhere – it’s just dead in the industry and there’s no money in it to support people in their jobs.
Moving away from the obvious financial problems – my concern is more on an artistic level – it just seems there’s a younger generation who just aren’t interested in the concept of an album as opposed to random tracks…
Well, if had it my way…if I were king – I’d have everybody sit down in a room with a good stereo system and listen to music. That’s what people used to do, but then again it’s a different time now. People are on the go, their moving around and listening to music while they’re doing other stuff so it’s not like a conscious focus on music, it’s more of a background music to their life, you know? And I don’t think there’s really a way to get around that, it is what it is, it’s just a sign of the times – it’s how people are these days and it’s not like you can fight it or make a mandate that people have to spend a certain amount of time in their homes listening to music – so you have to just adapt to that and realise it’s a different time. But then we like making records of theme orientated music and complex records. We enjoy that very much and we’re quite good at it and it’s the sort of records we want to make and some people appreciate that and some people don’t. Some people will gravitate towards that kind of music, some people won’t, some people will listen to a record and wonder why they never ‘got’ it before – it’s just human nature – we all process music differently and it affects us differently and there’s no one way to listen to music and I’m cool with that – it’s just the way it is.
You’ve signed with Roadrunner now – are you in the process of writing a new album?
Yeah – we have a project in the works now which we hope to have out in spring.
And will that lead to a UK tour?
Yeah – I think we last played the UK last year for one show but I’m sure that something will come about. This year we haven’t really toured that much because we’re doing a new record, but this next year we’ll be hitting it pretty hard because of the new album and, of course, it’s our thirtieth anniversary so we’re all kind of excited about that so we’ll do a great tour with an interesting show.
There have always been rumours about a second solo album as well – is that going to see the light of day?
Yeah – it’s sitting right here in my studio in the uncompleted version that it is – I keep lopping from it – I’ll take a song here or a song there or use one for a Queensryche album or a film project I’m doing – that kind of thing so it keeps losing bits and remains incomplete.
As a band you’ve achieved so much and you’ve had lots of peaks – what ambitions are left?
Well I have lots of musical ambitions, you know I love working with Queensryche and doing what we do and I’d love to do more solo stuff and collaborative efforts with other musicians. I’ve just had my first acting role in a film this year – which is coming out in February called the burning…. incident – I did some acting and also some narration in it and I also had a track on the soundtrack so that’s kind of exciting so I’d like to do more of that and I actually have two or three projects coming up towards the winter. I also make wine and sell that – I have a winery called Insania and I’m pretty passionate about it. We have a red and a white Bordeaux-style blends and that keeps selling out – every vintage we do and we’ve got our next vintage in the Spring so there’s a lot of things I’m interested in besides Queensryche .
It must be difficult to juggle all of your commitments?
Well it’s not so much difficult as it is time-consuming. When you throw touring in there as well and touring is really time consuming – you’re on a really heavy schedule. It’s not just doing the show, it’s several shows in a day, radio promotion, in-stores, things like that, so it’s a busy day when you’re touring and of course you do four or five interviews a day so it’s a really busy time.
I just want to thank you for taking the time to talk to SonicAbuse – it’s been one of the highlights of my time on the site and a real honour to talk to you.
Thank you, good conversation man
And with that Geoff vanishes back into the ether. For me, it was a high point of working with SonicAbuse to chat to one of the artists I’ve listened to for many years and to find him courteous, interesting and friendly. Moreover the prospect of Queensryche pairing up with Roadrunner offers up some mouth-watering possibilities and with luck the band will be returning to UK shores, as Geoff said, as part of next year’s undoubtedly heavy promotional schedule. In the meantime, fans of the band can sate their appetites with the excellent 20th Anniversary edition of Empire which is out soon through EMI.