Photo credit: Ronnie Yonker
SonicAbuse has interviewed Geoff Tate, the former vocalist of Queensryche and current vocalist of Operation Mindcrime, three times now. Geoff plays the perfect gentleman as an interviewee, taking the trouble to ask questions, as well as to answer those posed at some length. Given the longevity of Geoff’s career, you could easily forgive him for having succumbed to ennui long ago, taking refuge in stock answers and all but ignoring whatever interlocutor is foisted upon him, yet in each interview there is the feeling that he’s as invested in the interview process as he is in his art.
Geoff has every reason to be enthused at this moment in time. Freed from the ravening claws of a legal action between himself and the members of Queensryche, he’s now on a new label (the respected Frontiers), fronting a new band named Operation Mindcrime and he has a brand new album, the eagerly anticipated ‘the key’, due out in September. Those who have heard the clips posted around the internet will have seen that Geoff has not strayed too far from the musical style that made his name, but what is most exciting is the fact that ‘the key’ is merely the first part of an ambitious trilogy (the second part of which is already recorded), marking this out as an immersive and involving piece of work that is guaranteed to satisfy long-time Geoff Tate fans with its detailed story-line and hot-blooded guitars.
To return to the interview we don’t, perhaps, get off to a brilliant start, as it becomes apparent that mine is not only the first interview of what promises to be a lengthy press cycle for Geoff, but also that I’ve caught him early in the morning. Happy to talk regardless (as long, he says, as I don’t mind him having a couple of coffees during the interview), Geoff asks where I’m calling from, showing a rare interest that catches me momentarily off guard… Read on and find out more about the exciting new project Operation Mindcrime.
Where are you calling from?
From Leicester in the Midlands.
Oh Leicester, OK, I know where that is.
It’s a smallish city, it’s quite nice but we don’t get too many bands stopping here.
I wonder why that is – you don’t have a concert industry or…?
Well, it’s sort of caught between Birmingham, Wolverhampton and Nottingham, all of which get the major tours rolling through, and we just seem to get missed out.
I think I played a show at… Leicester hall?
De Montfort hall? I think you played a show there in support of Thin Lizzy?
It was a long time ago, I can’t remember, although it sounds familiar.
It’s strange, after all the years of touring, places just kinda blend into one another. You remember small things about places. For example you go back to the venue and suddenly you remember something, but if somebody just says the name of a venue it’s hard to pick out something to remember.
My wife just showed me a photograph of me standing with a man, I think it was taken in 1986, and she asked if I knew the man but I couldn’t recognise him. Apparently he and I are doing an interview in a few weeks but I didn’t remember the photograph, and it was taken so long ago and I haven’t talked to him since – it’s kind of odd!
It must be a very exciting time for you with this release of the Operation Mindcrime debut – you must be doing a lot of press at the moment?
I’m just starting to, I think they’ve got me… actually today. I’ve got some interviews today and you’re the first one actually.
Hopefully before the ennui sets in…
I haven’t done too many interviews for this album – maybe four total so far – so I’m kinda out of practice. I haven’t talked to anybody about what I’ve been doing for white a while so pardon me if I don’t have clear and concise answers.
I can’t imagine having questions thrown at me all day so I can understand the need to search for the write way of expressing things.
Yeah – it’s kind of tedious and difficult talking about oneself. What can I try to answer for you?
I’ve actually had the pleasure of talking to you before, once when you were poised to release your second solo album ‘Kings and thieves’ and once when you were about to put out ‘frequency unknown’, so the last time I spoke to you, you were mired in the Queensryche legal battle. It must be a huge relief for you to settle that battle and move forward without so much uncertainty hanging over you.
It really is, it’s wonderful position I’m in right now, just having released a new album, or getting ready to release it. That’s a wonderful feeling and I’m just finishing up the second album right now, which is going to be released next year, so I’m kinda in the throes of that right now, which is exciting, but there’s so much work to do, you know.
You’re doing a conceptual trilogy, I believe, of which ‘the key’ is the first part, so you’ve answered part of my next question – about how much was actually completed, and it sounds like it’s a matter of recording rather than writing now?
It’s actually… the second album is recorded, so we’re just getting ready to mix that right now, and the third album is mostly recorded; we’ve still got a couple of tracks left to do. We’re still in the development stage with that record. But we’ll wrap up, we’ll be done with the whole project by October. That’s my plan.
You’re no stranger to the world of concept records, but a trilogy seems to be a really grand, ambitious way to start this new chapter in your musical career.
Yes – it’s been really challenging and fun to make the record definitely. It’s a lot of music. But I had a lot of stuff, a lot of things that I’d been collecting and working on over the years. Little bits and pieces that have found their way into these recordings. And I have a lot to say… musically at least, so it was a good time to do it.
The single that’s been released – ‘re-inventing the future’ – it seems, to me at least, to be a very strong statement of intent to signal that you’ve taken control of your destiny after so long a period of turmoil – am I reading too much into it and it’s just a part of the story?
[Laughs] How do I answer that?! Wow! Well, although I’d like to use your description, because it sounds really great for an article… yeah, let’s go with that. “Taking control of my destiny…” Yeah, I like that!
That track had an interesting story – I was on a flight to Brazil, no, not Brazil, Bolivia of all places and I got seated next to Dave Ellefson of Megadeth and I’d never met him before, so we started talking and found we had a lot in common and we spent twenty-six hours travelling together. So I started telling him about the record I was making and he… a couple of weeks later… he sent me that track, or the first draft of it, so we started working on that together and it ended up being on the record. Which was kind of a nice surprise.
Listening to other tracks on the record – I’ve not heard the whole thing yet, but I’ve been following the trailers, and I was very interested in the multi-track trailer because it seems like you’ve really pushed the boundaries with the vocal approach. On one track there were some very ‘hear in the now frontier’ / Alice in chains style harmonies, there’s another one with some vocal treatment going on, so it sounds like you’ve really experimented with how to present your voice on this record.
Yeah, I constantly kinda do that with records and try to do different things it really depends on the song and what story I’m trying to tell with the song. With this record it was wonderful because there’s a story to tell, so you can all kinds of interesting stuff with the music, with the arrangements and melodies. You can add all different kinds of treatments to set the tone and the mood for the particular part that the song is expressing.
How much of a challenge was it to introduce your ideas and story to the band and get them to work with you on building this conceptual trilogy?
It was a wonderful journey actually. Introducing the story and the outline, describing it and then shaping the music to fit, was challenging definitely. It was definitely challenging and it continues to be challenging because we haven’t finished it all yet. It’s a labour of love, I think, for everybody involved. Everyone has come into it with a lot of creative ideas and a lot of suggestions and it’s a real collaborative effort, which I love. To be part of something like this, where several people are involved in the building and shaping – it’s great.
You’ve got Kelly Gray on board again, I know you have worked together a lot in the past and I’ve always admired the bluesy feel of his guitar work, did he help to produce on this record as well?
Yeah – he’s part of the writing and production and the recording. He wasn’t part of ‘frequency unknown’, but I’ve worked with Kelly since about 1979. He and Randy Gane, the keyboard player on the record, we were in a band together before Queensryche and we’ve kept our friendship and our musical friendship together over the years and Kelly’s worked with me on many albums in my past. The first album he worked on, the first Queensryche record, was ‘Q2K’ and then after that, gosh! I lose track of how many records he’s worked on with me.
When you did ‘operation mindcrime’, the album, it was very much like the wall, it was a multi-media piece with conceptual videos and an intricate stage performance. Was that something that you’re hoping to recreate with ‘the key’, building a whole multi-media experience around it?
Yeah, it definitely lends itself to that direction. Again, it’s a pretty involved story. It’s actually quite a bit more involved than ‘operation mindcrime’ because it’s three albums worth of stuff and all written at the same time, whereas the ‘mindcrime’ albums were written with lots of time in between.
Even the track that you’ve released so far, it seems to contain an integral line to the story – something along the lines of ‘if I had the key would or should I share it?’, so even within that one song you’re introducing something of the dilemma that lies at the heart of the story.
Yeah – that’s the idea with that track, it kinda introduces the conflict that first happens, within the story. It goes on and gets quite a bit deeper as the story develops.
I love the idea of ‘the album’. I grew up with music like Pink Floyd and I like the idea of albums taking the listener on a journey. But it seems the industry has changed – do you have any reservations about how such a large conceptual work might be received by, say, a younger fan base?
I have no idea. I have no idea how people interpret the music or how they feel about it, until, of course I get feedback which, typically, is when I tour. That’s when I have lots of interesting conversations with people about the music and what they think of it, or how it affects them or, in this case, in the case of this album and the ‘mindcrime’ albums, there’s lots of speculation as to what’s going on within the framework of the story and that kind of thing, and I find that kind of thing really interesting to talk about. As a writer you have an idea about what you’re trying to say but the people always take it differently, they’ll put their own spin on it. They’ll interpret it, typically, based upon their own life experiences, or, in the case of music, with regard to their musical palette, what they’ve been exposed to. You never really know how your stuff is going to go over with an audience, with a group of people or even an individual. You just have to carry on with your vision and your convictions and your song craft and follow your muse, as they say, and then it takes on a life of its own, really, that you have no control over. I don’t know if I want control of it. Music is… it’s a personal journey for people. They plug into it and find something about it that is intriguing or interesting to them, or they don’t, it’s kind of the way it works.
With regard to this record, you’ve got that very familiar logo – it’s obviously important to package the album in a particular way.
Well, of course, the record companies have to have the ability to sell it, so they try to find familiar images that they feel my audience is going to relate to or understand or be familiar with.
When you go out on tour, are you going to be playing the album as a whole, and what other material can we expect to hear?
I really want to play the album in its entirety, which I plan on doing as the centrepiece to the show. And of course I’ll be playing… gosh… many tracks from my career which is… a lot of stuff [laughs]. I think there’s a hundred and fifty six… close to one hundred and sixty songs that I’ve written or been co-writer on throughout my career so there’s a lot to choose from. The real challenge is picking what to play.
You’ve always taken a great deal of care in how you present yourself on stage – often you’re very theatrical – do you have anything in particular in mind for Operation Mindcrime?
I do, I’ve got some plans in the works for the show presentation, but I don’t really want to talk about too much of that at this point, but as the tour dates get closer I’ll have more information to share with people about that. But, I think it’s going to be an interesting show considering the amount of music that I have at my fingertips to perform, plus the new album as well. I think it’s going to be an interesting event for people to witness.
You’re on a new record label, Frontiers, you’ve got the new album coming out and the second one in the works – how do you make time for your other interests whilst doing all this – for example I know you’re a keen connoisseur of wine?
Oh I am, very much, into wine, yeah. And… at the moment, actually since the beginning of this year, I’ve just been non-stop in the studio and I haven’t done anything else. Trying to reach this deadline that I agreed with Frontiers on finishing the record, all three of them… it’s a monumental amount of work and I think I underestimated the amount of time that it would take me and I’ve just been working, working. I’ve taken two weeks off since January… actually since last November and those were two weeks that I needed because I was just losing my mind. When you work like that… I love working and I’m a hard worker when it comes to writing, I write every day, so I actually have to take time off now and again to clear my head and remember why I’m working hard. It’s crazy. I work long hours too, typically I start around ten am and I don’t finish up until seven or eight at night and it’s just constant.
I’ve just one last question – you said earlier that this is a labour of love – what is your overriding hope for the future of Operation Mindcrime?
I don’t necessarily know that I have a hope for it, although I hope to be finished with the record soon… But yeah, switching gears and not going into the studio for a bit. I’d like to get out and tour the album. I love travelling and I love going to different places and I love playing music live, so I’m really looking forward to that next stage of getting out of my house and getting on airplanes and tour buses and hitting the stage and performing the new stuff.
And that will be soon?
Yeah, we’re working on some tour dates now and we’re hoping that will all happen towards December or January or around that time. That’s where we’re looking. It’s funny when you write music – I typically write with no regards to how I’m going to do it live. It’s always kinda been my way of operating and then actually getting out and doing it is kind of a revelation, as we figure out how to do it live and adhere to a particular arrangement or change a section because we can’t pull it off with the number of people we have on stage. It’s challenging and I’m looking forward to making it work quite a bit.
Hopefully Europe will be on your list?
Actually yeah, I think that’s where the tour is going to begin.
It’s been a pleasure to talk to you and I’m very excited to hear the record in full.
Thank you, we’ll see you out on the road.