Interview with Geoff Tate of Queensryche
Geoff Tate has been one of the most distinguished vocalists in the hard rock/metal genre, fronting the thinking man’s metal band Queensrÿche from the very beginning. Geoff was kind enough to take the time out to discuss the new album Operation: Mindcrime II (the sequel to the sacred metal concept record, 1988’s Operation: Mindcrime), the status of the band after founding guitarist Chris Degarmo and his replacement Kelly Gray moved on, and the blast he had in working with another legendary voice, Ronnie James Dio. (Note: I thought I had a bit more time when he called, so I was scrambling around the house grabbing my notes and tape recorder while Tate, classy and professional, was patient and very generous with his time.
Bullz-Eye: Sorry. Let me just go grab my notepad and we’ll start. I just got a call from your wife, and she said you guys were running a bit behind.
Geoff Tate: Yeah. We got a bit of a weird start this morning.
BE: (Slightly out of breath) Okay, ironically, I just grabbed my copy of the “Ford Fairlane” soundtrack, so I could listen to the track (“Last Time in Paris”) you have on there.
GT: Oh, you found that somewhere, huh?
BE: (Laughs) Actually, I liked the movie. It was kind of funny, and Lauren Holly is in it, and I’m a huge Lauren Holly fan.
BE: (Still trying to catch my breath) I had the opportunity to see you guys twice. Once, I believe, on the Empire tour and you guys were playing the Rosemont Horizon in (suburban) Chicago, now known as the All State Arena, and Type O Negative opened for you guys. It was really funny, because your roadies literally deconstructed the set while Type O was playing, and one of them walked up and took the bass right out of Peter Steele’s hands as he was playing.
GT: That was the Promised Land tour in ’94, and there was some kind of joke that they were doing on him at the time. I think it was the end of the tour; they were playing a joke on him.
BE: Then I saw you guys on the Tribe tour at the Holiday Star Theater in Indiana. My brother and I had tickets on the side of the stage, so we moved up top to hear better. Do you like playing that place?
GT: You know, I can’t remember.
BE: Well, I can only imagine, you guys have been all around the world, and here I am going all Chris Farley on you and playing remember when.
BE: I apologize for asking some of these questions, but they are obligatory. I know you’ve been doing this a long time, but I still have to ask them. So, influences, I hear a lot of different things in Queensrÿche, but I’m almost 39. I was curious as to what you would list as your influences.
GT: Do you want me to list them all?
GT: God, Robert, we grew up in the ‘70s, you know, and there weren’t any real limitations on music on everything that was coming out. Jesus, I was definitely shaped by a generation of rock music from Steppenwolf to Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young to Alice Cooper.
BE: It’s amazing that you mentioned Alice Cooper, because every time I’ve seen your videos or your shows, I think of his influence. He is the father of theatre rock, and there are definitely elements of that in your work. Have you ever had a chance to work with or talk to him?
GT: Yeah. I play golf with Alice at least once a year, sometimes twice a year at different events. He is a wonderful guy. The funny thing about Alice and me is that he was the first rock concert I saw. I saw the Billion Dollar Babies tour, and that was the way concerts were. That was my definition of a rock concert (chuckles).
BE: I just saw him about six months ago, and the thing about him and the thing about you guys, you look like you really enjoy what you do, putting on a show. A lot of the bands that have come behind it look like it’s a chore to be there, they don’t look that passionate about what they do.
GT: We are passionate about what we do; we like working.
BE: When you guys are out on the road, have you had any artists come and say that Queensrÿche is one of the bands that have influenced them?
GT: We’re in one of those very complimentary positions of apparently having influenced quite a generation of musicians. There are diverse groups of musicians who have been influenced by us and have commented about it. It is odd and weird and flattering to see the interesting array of artists who have listed us as in influence from country people to classical people to rock musicians.
BE: Can you think of a recent example that might be strange?
GT: Oh God, you mean as a diametrically opposed contrast? What’s his name…? I have a problem with remembering young bands’ names.
BE: (Chuckle) I watch the Headbanger's Ball every week and DVR it and find that I can only really watch about two or three videos. A lot of the genre or at least what they are playing on there sounds the same. Even though the musicianship might be excellent, everything gets ruined once the vocalist starts and either channels Satan through some effects or screams at the top of his lungs. The one thing about bands like Queensrÿche, King’s X and Dream Theatre, is that they feature vocalists that sing. Are their any young bands that you like or vocalists that you enjoy?
GT: You know, most of the time I am pretty preoccupied with the music that is playing in my own head. So I don’t really listen too much of what younger bands are playing. You know honestly, the way this life works, you know, is: what is a young musician gonna teach me? What are they going to do that will affect me? I have already lived that life. I have all ready done the things that they’re doing right now. That’s my spin on that; I’m into a different kind of thing at this point in my life.
BE: Michael (Wilton - guitar), Eddie (Jackson -bass), Scott (Rockenfield – drums) and you have been together for a long time. Then you had Kelly Gray, and now Mike Stone settle in at guitar for Chris (DeGarmo). How do you feel about that transition (in guitarists) and how do you feel about it now?
GT: When Chris and I started this band years ago, we were the writing partnership, the one-two punch, and we worked very closely on developing the sound of the band and keeping that moving in the right direction. When he decided he didn’t want to do this anymore, it completely crippled the band because Chris was the main music writer. So when you take the main music writer out of the band, what do you have? Well, you have a bunch of disorganization. You have a lot of interesting riffs and a lot of bits and pieces, but you don’t have any songs. So we had to find someone who was a really good music writer and that’s what this allowed to locate someone who worked well within organization and keep it moving an upward way. Mike has really come in and cemented the whole band. He is a really talented writer, very talented musician and he really, really contributed on this new record.
BE: I was looking at the credits on the All Music Guide, and it looks like you’re credited as the songwriter for everything but the (opening track) “Freiheit Overtüre,” if I’m pronouncing that right. Is this album your sole vision, as opposed to Operation: Mindcrime, which had contributions from everyone?
GT: This one has contributions from everyone as well. It’s not really that different than the original. Every Queensrÿche record is a collaborative effort between people. But in saying that there are people that start the ideas out and come up with the ideas and carry out the ideas so each idea might have different contributions. You know, Eddie Jackson wrote quite a bit on this record, and Mike Stone and myself and Jason Slater, our producer wrote as well and the combination of those four writers created this record. Everybody played on it; everybody helped create it in some way.
BE: A little more about the business because I do want to get into that new record, because it is incredible. I congratulate you guys on having the stones to revisit a classic and having the artistic maturity to pull it off. You guys were on EMI for eons, moved to Sanctuary for a couple of records, and now you are on Rhino. How has the journey been on the labels?
GT: You know, the label is just a distribution arm for what it is the band creates. Some are better than others, some are run with more creative, more follow-through kind of people. A worldwide label like EMI goes through yearly changes, where interesting and creative people come in and then they leave, and we are always working with a different sort of team of people. It’s nice when you can get some consistency for a couple of records, at least. We saw that with EMI for Mindcrime and Empire, that was the same group of people marketing those records. They did a fantastic job at the time. Now we have a new record company (Rhino) and it is staffed by quite a few people we have worked with in the past at different labels. That is an interesting combination of personalities at this time. The new label has some of the same personality and it is kind of fun. Hopefully, the new label will be able to follow through and do their job well. We have real high hopes for this particular group of people and their enthusiasm is really, really high and they are very organized and it is really nice thing to be involved with. It gives you a real feeling of confidence.
BE: It seems some of the later stuff on EMI wasn’t given the same effort that was put together for those other two records; you can really tell when a label is pushing and when it’s not. Rhino is such an eclectic, strange label, it might just be a perfect fit for you guys at this time.
GT: I really hope so.
BE: The evolution of the band is an interesting thing. You were road warriors for a long time, put out a bunch of records, and then you started to do side projects. Scott has Slave to the System, Michael has Soulbender, and your solo record was released in 2002, which I thought was excellent. What does working on outside projects do for you guys creatively when you bring those experiences back to Queensrÿche?
GT: I think it is a refreshing kind of change working with other people. I had never really done that until my solo record and I found it to be very invigorating and very creative working with a whole different set of musicians, it was a real treat. It gives you a break, a new creative stream to float down for a while before you get back to your usual business.
BE: Despite your distinctive trademark voice, I was amazed that your solo album really didn’t sound like Queensrÿche. Oftentimes, when artists go outside to do a solo record, it sounds like an album they could have made with their own group, and that isn’t a record I want to purchase. I love Tom Petty, but I really can’t tell the difference between a Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers record and a Tom Petty solo record. Did you intentionally put out a record that wasn’t Queensrÿche?
GT: Yes. I picked musicians that weren’t rock musicians. They came from different backgrounds. Some were classical, some were jazz, some R&B, which are other musical styles that I enjoy. I wanted to pick players that could get around to those other genres. I wanted to do something that was off and different of what Queensrÿche does. It was a really fun, imaginative, very satisfying musical project.
BE: You’re a band that has always contained lyrics with a very existential nature to them. Asking why, looking for meaning, looking for understanding. I think you guys lead the league in question marks in your lyrics.
BE: Some of them are rhetorical, some of them are, ‘doesn’t anyone see the same things I am seeing?’ Tribe was one of your more optimistic records. It was almost like the five stages of grief, anger, denial, bargaining, and acceptance. Maybe I am reading way too much into it: was it your most optimistic?
GT: I was trying to give an overlook, a look at America and what we are doing, and trying to find the positive things about being an American and trying to find my place. To fit in with the philosophy of what America believes these days, if it comes off as optimistic, then I guess that is good (laughs).
BE: “Rhythm of Life,” “Tribe” and “Doin’ Fine” is in great contrast with “Open,” “The Great Divide” and “Blood,” which isn’t an open valentine to anybody.
BE: I took a good look at the lyrics for the new record and this is an incredibly angry, dark and cynical record. I think it is your darkest to date, so where the journey was taking you in Tribe has brought you to a very different place in Mindcrime II.
GT: Well, it’s a whole different animal. Mindcrime II is a continuation of a step in the life of a certain individual, a terrorist. I am really interested in sociology and anthropology and the study of human beings in what we do and how we get to where we’re going and what path we take. There are a lot of observations that I have made through my life about human nature. It is so predictable; I mean, you can predict what certain people are going to do based on their backgrounds, how they were raised, what their economic status that they came from and that kind of thing. There are patterns that people follow. Of course, there are exceptions to those patterns, and (there are) people who do break the mold and do something different, but that is very rare; it is more of the norm that people follow generation after generation after generation and the cycle that they were born to. Nikki is a product of that. He has a real difficult time accepting or taking responsibility for his own actions, he’s of that mind that it’s always someone else’s fault why he is in the predicament that he is in. He can’t imagine himself in another place; he can’t think to reinvent himself, even though he has the chance. When he gets out of prison, he doesn’t have to go on this revenge attack for Dr. X, he doesn’t have to do it. He makes that decision, he makes that choice, as we all do, but a lot of us want to blame someone else for why we are miserable or why we don’t have this or don’t have that.
BE: It’s pretty scary that there is a philosophy that nothing is my fault, it’s X or Y or Z…
GT: Which plays into the fact that we are such a litigious society, always ready and willing to sue someone over the smallest little mistake or infraction. When we are driving our vehicles, we can’t even imagine ourselves putting the brake on to stop our forward momentum, because, damn it, our lives are important. We have to get from point A to point B in a certain amount of time. We shouldn’t be stopped.
BE: You are out in Seattle, right?
BE: You should see the traffic out here. My wife, who is from a small town in the middle of the state, gets in traffic and she becomes a monster. I realize that is a metaphor for a much larger thing.
GT: Well, it is. It’s the rage we all feel, especially as Americans because we really don’t have a culture. It’s entrenched in the values. We are a hollow shell of a country built on consumerism and greed, with the hand title of Freedom. You know we’re FREE, WE’RE FREE. (snickers). No, we’re free to be saddled with trillions of dollars of debt, and free to buy a vehicle that best defines our personality so we can get on a freeway, bumper to bumper, driving two miles an hour unwilling to let the other guy merge into traffic because we can’t stand letting someone get in front of us. Why is that? Why is it so fucking petty?
BE: Those are difficult questions to answer. Like I said, you guys lead the league in question marks, asking things like that throughout your catalogue. It’s not just Mindcrime I or II.
GT: It’s the whole lack spirituality that we’re seeing so evident right now. A lot of social scientists put it to the involvement with the Middle East now. We are involved with this fundamentalist struggle. You have the fundamental Christians in the United States that are in power who are funding (the conflict) and pursuing the Muslim fundamentalists. We are at war with fundamentalism. The social scientists point out that when you are at war with some culture that your culture starts mimicking that culture. We are starting to see that now, with a clampdown on liberal thinking, we are seeing an attack on social programs that have been developed over the last thirty or forty years and a severe attack on freedoms that we have established for our citizens from this fundamentalist group, from this right wing, clutch-down, unable-to-see-past-the-dotted-lines culture that is in power right now. I think it is a very scary time.
BE: You mention spirituality. Do you have your own spirituality, or is that inappropriate to share?
GT: What I mean by spiritual, or what I don’t mean by spiritual, is a centrally Christian oriented spirituality. All religions, if you look back and study religion; they are all influenced by and derived from each other over time. They all kind of spread out and take each other’s philosophies and adapt them to the particular culture that is in power at that time, and they have done their modifications and passed it along to the next. It has all evolved from a central theme. What we forget a lot of times is that what denomination we belong to, or religious organization we belong to, doesn’t really matter in the big picture, it’s how we treat each other that is spirituality. That’s the ability to see outside of yourself. The ability to have empathy for someone else: that is spirituality.
BE: I see your philosophical, sociological and spiritual interests in the work, but do you see at as existential?
GT: What’s your definition of existential?
BE: We could go on for hours and hours about existentialism, but some of the basic caveats that I understand are trying to understand our meaning and the reason for our existence within a surrealistic picture. There is this madness or absurdity to life, and we’re trying to find exactly where we fit.
GT: Yes, I guess I do, I think that is what life is really all about, the journey the search for understanding. It is not about acquiring X amount of vehicles and houses and monetary goods. That is all distraction. What is important is to try to figure out how to be happy.
BE: Not the easiest task in the world.
GT: Yes, it is not (chuckles).
BE: I read that you had been working on a screenplay for Operation: Mindcrime when the genesis for the idea of making a sequel had occurred to you. Was there any trepidation on you part, any hesitation to do a sequel to it?
GT: It’s like apples and oranges, in a sense in that we don’t say, oh, I mean, I gotta stop doing that, because I don’t speak for everyone in the band. I can’t really do that. I don’t really think in those terms. I see Mindcrime as something completely different. Because it’s mine and I thought it up, so who else is going to finish the story? Nobody (chuckles), it’s me, you know. It’s my perspective, it’s my story and I decide how it goes. I don’t know who else would do it (chuckles).
BE: Do you understand that question, though?
GT: I understand what you’re saying, but I don’t think in those terms.
BE: You can’t.
GT: I couldn’t. I really can’t live my life worried about what other people are gonna think. If I did that, I would be paralyzed; I wouldn’t be able to make a move.
BE: Where are you in respect to the script?
GT: It’s done. It’s actually an amazing script. I worked with a screenwriter by the name of Mark Sheppard, and we developed the story and he’s developed the screenplay part of it. It is fantastic, a really entertaining script. I’ve read a lot of scripts in my time and this one is amazing. It is gonna make a fine film, and hopefully that will happen in the near future.
BE: Where are you in that process? Is there interest from somewhere, are you in the floating stage…?
GT: We have an agent that shops that kind of stuff, so they’re doing that now. We kind of just did our end and handed it over to the agent and now the agent does their job and shops it around Hollywood and looks for the right person to get involved and put a team of people together, and they take it from there.
BE: I had read that you had said something like ‘In the hands of the right director, it could be an amazing piece.’
GT: It would be, you know. It has all the right pieces. There is morality, it deals with violence, there’s quite an in-depth love affair/relationship. There is a lot to it. It’s timely, it’s political. One of the main attractions to it, I think, especially in today’s world, is that it deals with the mind of a terrorist. I think a lot of people are interested in that now, especially after the 9/11 episode was so shoved down our throats and we’ve been living in fear for the last few years. Of course, that fear is perpetuated heavily by the media. Yet people want to know about it, they want to know what makes these kinds of people tick, what makes them do the things they do.
BE: Did you have a director in mind on who you would love to see do it?
GT: I’m a movie fan to certain extent and there are many fine directors. It is really down to picking from a group of people and talking to them and seeing which one best works with you, which one can explain and communicate your ideas in the best way, and you just don’t know that until you talk with people. I shopped around quite a bit and met quite a few people before I picked Mark as the screenwriter. Mark was the guy I connected with. We talked, we can see eye to eye, and we have a similar sense of humor. He could best represent what I wanted.
BE: Was it important that he have the same set of political views that you have?
GT: Yes and no. I think there is a nice tension that is built between two artistic people when you have two people in opposition. Sometimes you can reach interesting points through opposition more than you can with someone who you are eye to eye with what you were doing.
BE: I have to ask my obligatory Ronnie James Dio question. Geoff Tate and Ronnie James Dio singing a duet together is an old school metalhead’s wet dream. How did that happen?
GT: It was a simple phone call.
GT: Really. I called him up and told him we were doing Mindcrime II and he loved that idea. So he said, “What do you need?” And I said, “I want your voice.” (laughs). “I want you to sing on the song and this is what it’s like,” and (I) explained it to him. He was very intrigued; he said he had to hear what gives, so I sent it to him. He called me about four or five days later and he said, “This is great, I really want to be a part of this, and you really have something cool here. How can we do it?” He flew up to San Francisco, where we were recording, and got involved. Man, what a great experience working with him. He is so good, so accomplished as a musician and what a treat to work with someone like that.
BE: You are obviously involved in the project, but did you ever have a moment when you said, `Our two voices, this is going to be a really great moment’?
GT: Yeah. When he walked up to the microphone and me and my engineer are sitting side by side at the console and Ronnie says, “I’m just gonna kind of warm up here and you guys can the get the EQ together and then give me five minutes and we can start the track, okay?” We look at each other and said okay, and he opens his mouth and the sound that comes out of that man’s mouth is so signature, you know. Me and my engineer look at each other and we’re, like, shaking, going, “Oh my God! It’s Ronnie James Dio!” (laughs)
BE: You guys are going to go to Europe in June and do some dates and then come to the States from August to October and do a Mindcrime I /Mindcrime II show.
GT: That’s right.
BE: How do you guys prepare for something like this? I would think that you have to do cardio or something; II may be your heaviest record to date, the energy it’s gonna take from all you guys is amazing to do it – both parts.
GT: It’s going to be quite the endeavor. To do I and II together, it might be my demise (laughs).
BE: (Laughs) Don’t say that.
GT: It’s definitely a lot to bite off and chew, but I think it will be very cool. I am very excited about performing it and I’m chomping at the bit.
BE: What do you do to prepare for it?
GT: Well, there is a lot of mental preparation. One, a lot of planning, and a lot of designing of the shows, which is one of my favorite things to do. I have been working with my stage designer Christian Sorrenson quite heavily on this. We’ve been brainstorming all these ideas and faxing off rough sketches to the fabricators to come up with these different things to get into the show and finding out what we can’t afford and what we can afford. What is going be workable with certain sizes of the stages? There is all kind of detail and things; that kind of preparing psyches you up and gets you excited about going out and actually being involved with this. Secondly, you have to be physically ready for it. There is gym work, cardio, running and that kind of stuff, weight training.
BE: Your material has never been three chords and a cloud of dust. It’s pretty elaborate and evolved. I would imagine you are going to have to get on the treadmill to pull this one off.
GT: There’s a lot of stuff that is very difficult to perform already. For example, there is a song called “Murderer” on the record that is probably the most difficult song I have ever sung. Even though I wrote it, it took me about two weeks to be able to sing it. Every four measures, the time signature changes. You always have to be conscious of where you’re at, and that makes you feel more conscious, but you have to get to the point where you are so comfortable that you don’t think about it, that it just happens. That takes a while to put yourself in that position. When the band plays the best is when the band doesn’t have to think about what it’s doing.
BE: There is that section from about “The Chase” to “An Intentional Confrontation” or “A Junkie’s Blues” that is absolutely breathtaking, and I know there are short little interludes, but it doesn’t sound like you are going to get a chance to breathe.
GT: (Laughs) It will be a challenge.
BE: You have been incredibly generous with your time, so I want to ask you a couple of really stupid questions.
BE: What’s your favorite pop?
GT: Umm, I don’t drink soda pop.
BE: What do you drink?
GT: I drink water, red wine and coffee.
BE: That’s it?
BE: Don’t eat candy either?
GT: Ummm. Well, occasionally I have a Snickers bar.
BE: (Laughs) That would be a cool commercial, `Gonna be a while at the Ryche show? Have a Snickers!
BE: Name a CD that you own or play that people would be shocked that you own or play.
GT: I have lots of those. God, I don’t know what would be shocking. I can’t remember names. You know the guy that got busted for having gay sex in the mens’ washroom?
BE: George Michael?
GT: George Michael.
BE: I have some of his stuff too. What superhero or cartoon character do you think you are most like?
GT: Maybe I’m like, gosh, I can’t picture myself as a cartoon character, maybe Popeye (laughs).
BE: All right. Do you have a favorite professional sports team?
BE: Not into sports?
GT: No, I’m not into spectator sports. I’m in to yachting and boats, I sail and race boats and that kind of thing.
GT: Manly sports, you know (laughs).
BE: What’s the last good book you read?
GT: The last good book. I read? It was “Tamata and the Alliance,” by Bernard Moitessier.
BE: Can you quote any line from “Caddyshack,” “Slap Shot” or “The Blues Brothers”?
BE: I hate to do this to you on a Sunday morning.
GT: I can’t. Sorry.
BE: I want to congratulate you on Mindcrime II and I can’t wait to get it so I can actually hear it on a big stereo instead of those crappy little computer speakers.
GT: Put it on a big stereo but it also sounds good on headphones. It’s one of those headphone records, where it has a lot of depth to it.
BE: I noticed you guys take your records and release them in that DVD audio format.
GT: We like that.
BE: Anything else you want to say about Mindcrime II? What was it like working with Pamela Moore (the voice of Sister Mary) again?
GT: It is always a treat. I love singing with Pam. Our voices work really well together. We just did an acoustic Rockline show the other night. Michael (Wilton) and (Mike) Stone played guitars and Pamela and I sang and Stone sang with us. It was a really cool thing. When we have her voice involved with us it kind of lifts us up, she has a really unique sound.
BE: Did you know that she is Terri Nunn’s cousin?
GT: I know Terri. Terri comes to a lot of our shows and functions and that kind of thing.
BE: Any final words?
GT: I think we covered everything, Robert.
BE: Thanks a million. I took more of your time than you had, and I appreciate it.
GT: It just means that I don’t end up getting lunch (laughs).
BE: Uh oh. Your wife is going to be mad.
GT: Well, it was a pleasure talking with you.
BE: Thanks, and I hope to see you guys in Chicago.
GT: I hope so.
GT: Take care, man.