QUEENSRYCHE (Geoff Tate) INTERVIEW
Music journalism is an activity I have been involved in for the last eight years, during which time I have met and spoken to many musicians whose music I literally grew up listening to. Talking to Queensryche’s frontman Geoff Tate was certainly a dream come true for me, and his warm and pleasant approach to our discussion made this interview far less unnerving than I originally expected it to be. Our conversation was mostly directed towards the release of the 20th anniversary edition of the now classic “Empire”, but other topics such as the state of the music industry, the experience of being attacked by insurgents in Iraq and the recordings of a new Queensryche album were also part of the curriculum.
By Yiannis (John) Stefanis.
• Hi Geoff. Hope to find you in good health and spirit! Are you ready to start this interview?
• First of all, as I need to get this off my chest first, I want to thank you for thirty beautiful years full of amazing music. Your music has helped and entertained in so many different ways!
Geoff: Thank you very much!
• Ok, now that the fan bit is out of the way, let us focus on the work at hand. We are currently celebrating the 20th anniversary of the release of “Empire” through the release of a special edition disc. It feels strange for me to realise that these eleven beautiful songs have been out and about for two whole decades! What are the feelings that you are currently experiencing by looking back at those days and remembering all the hype and success that surrounded this release?
Geoff: Well, you know, it is very interesting the situation when looking back on the “Empire” release because it is not something that I readily do. I am not usually a person that looks back; I am usually looking and working towards the next thing. I am trying to remember what was happening at the time with the band and thinking what it was that we were trying to do. I am glad that this is a record that so many people got to hear, as it was released at a time when Rock music was very popular and the music industry itself was a fully intact thing, working on all cylinders, you know? The music business today is completely different from what it used to be. Back then, MTV was playing a lot of music and the radio stations cross the world were promoting Rock music. So, we were very fortunate to be in the right place at the right time with a good album that got a lot of exposure, you know?
• “Empire” was released after what I consider to be one of the best music albums ever written, that being “Operation Mindcrime” of course and I know for a fact that there are many people out there who will agree with me on this one. How did you manage to move from a very complicated and demanding concept like “Operation Mindcrime” to the more straight forward one of “Empire” in a period of two years?
Geoff: Well, you know, that was a result of a conscious decision that we made in order to create something different than before. In fact, the most work that we did in “Empire” was really taking on the parts that we had ready for our previous record and that we didn’t work with before and utilising them. This is part of our ‘deconstructing’ process whereby when we write a song we throw all our ideas at it. What we did with “Empire” is that we threw all our ideas and then took them all away, keeping only the strongest ideas. It became like a house of cards where you take a card away, a card away and a card away and then you are left with exactly what you need to keep the building stable. That’s what we did with these songs – we took all the stuff away from them and only kept the basic building blocks intact. We used our deconstructionist approach to song writing! And that, really, was most of the work – tearing it all apart and finding out what was really there!
• I am not sure whether you are going to agree with me on this one but I always felt as if “Empire” was the first album in which Eddie Jackson’s (bass guitar) ‘star’ truly began to shine! You have all contributed loads to this album, but Eddie’s performance, especially in “Della Brown” really stands out!
Geoff: (laughs) Yeah, and that was a conscious decision between Eddie and me to really showcase the bass guitar. What we tried to do was to separate the bass from the guitars, getting the bass guitar to work on its own and position itself between the guitars and the drums. Before, on our previous records, we had Eddie duplicating what the guitars were doing, so yes – this was a conscious decision that we took for “Empire” as we wanted to make our songs sound more interesting at that point! So yeah, you’re right – that was a great observation there!
• Is it fair to say that on the strength of the success of “Empire” you began to feel more comfortable exploring different musical styles and sounds with your music? I am not implying here that you were a conventional band before, far from it, but “Empire” was such a diverse release with so many non-Metal elements in it. It must have felt quite refreshing to know that you could do anything you wanted and that your fans would still support you regardless.
Geoff: Hmm…yeah, you know, one of the concepts that really brought us together as a band in the first place was that we didn’t want to have a label trying to steer us towards a specific musical direction. We wanted to have our own entity all together, you know, and we figured that the only way to do that was to really bring all our other music influences into what we do and not to rely on what other people had done. We love Metal but we wanted to expand it and bring it somewhere different. That has been our approach from the very beginning, not to define ourselves by what other people did but to define ourselves by our own criteria.
• I believe that “Empire” holds the record in the band’s career as the album with most video clips and singles in its arsenal – I believe that they were six in total. Was that also part of the initial plan or was such a decision made following the initial success of the album?
Geoff: Well, this was kind of a building process that the album just had, so many possibilities for singles to come out and being in the right place at the right time meant that the music industry was quite open to what we were doing. MTV was quite enthusiastic about the band, whatever it was that we did, and they were keen to support us in doing that. The radio, of course, was also quite receptive of our work. Yeah, it was a combination of being in the right place at the right time and having released a record that was offering so many different musical choices for a single release. I think that if we were to release “Empire” today, it wouldn’t end up being the big seller that it was!
• Seriously? You believe that?
Geoff: Absolutely! Rock music isn’t the music of the times anymore, it is very underground and radio stations around the world don’t play Rock music nowadays as much as they did back then. MTV is definitely not playing it either! So yeah, I don’t believe that it would be very successful at all!
• That is quite a realistic approach, I guess, but a very sad one too! What we are saying here is that it is not the quality of music that matters, but whether there is economic support behind a band; support that will potentially help a band fulfil its potential!
Geoff: Well, quality is something that is very subjective anyway, you know? It is not something that everybody agrees on as a standard thing. Your personal ‘version’ of quality is most likely different than mine and vice versa…it doesn’t have much to do with that. It’s about having a song that connects with people and having a distribution vehicle to bring that song out to as many people as possible. Thinking in terms of the reality of the music world, when “Empire” came out, record companies at that time were spending a million dollars on the promotion of a record, right? That was ten thousand, twenty thousand, forty thousand dollars per single, to promote that single on the radio, and we had put out six singles on that record, so that’s one hundred thousand dollars right there in just radio promotion! When you are talking about making a video which, at the time, was a hundred and fifty to two hundred thousand dollars per video, and then to get it on MTV cost a lot of money! We are talking about a million and a half US dollars to promote a record! Nowadays, record companies have as a general budget for promotion of twenty thousand dollars! That is what they have to spend on the promotion of an album. So, the numbers are not even close and when it comes to sales? …a No1 selling album on the Billboard nowadays requires twenty thousand copies to be sold and back then it was a million copies. So you can see that the numbers are completely different. That, of course, is also a result of downloading and pirating of songs. There is no money in the record companies to justify a bigger promotion campaign – there is no money to do it with, you know?
• Well, you obviously know exactly what you are talking about here. We, as fans, are never really aware of all these very important conditions that enable the band to release its music.
Geoff: Yeah and, you know, it’s sad because of course for me, I remember the times when the record ‘economy’ was healthy, when people were buying records and the labels had the funds to really promote music – times when you could really go out and tour, you know? Now, I don’t know how new bands are really going to make it out there because there’s no money, you know? How do you get on a big tour, how do you keep touring throughout the year with no money, you know? I don’t know how this is going to work from now on, but I feel very fortunate that we started out when we did because we really invested a lot in touring! We go on tour and we visit thirty six countries around the world whereas a lot of new bands only tour in the United States or they only tour in the country where they’re from – they cannot get out world-wide. We are indeed very fortunate to be able to do that!
• Geoff, in lyrical terms, “Empire” as an album focused on some really important topics, all of which were really prevalent at the time, with songs like “Best I Can” and “Empire” acquiring a leading role. Is the message that you felt the need to convey back in 1990 still relevant today? Have things changed at all, either for the better or for worse?
Geoff: (laughs) Well, I guess that they have, depending on how you look at it! There was a song called “Resistance” on the “Empire” album which was about environmentalism and, on that subject, yes – things have changed definitely a lot and for the better. There are still a lot of big issues with different kinds of pollution these days, as opposed to then. “Empire” the song dealt with issues like gang warfare and drugs and how the police deals with that and in that situation nothing has really changed! There is still a war going on out there, you know? “Best I Can” was a situation of us writing about handicapped people and their determination to reach their goals. A lot of people really embraced that song, people with serious disadvantages, and we are happy about that as it was a rallying song to get behind of and kind of inspired them to seek their goals and move in the right direction. Yeah, you know, it’s funny when you look back and you see what the subject matter is, compare it with today and see what has and what hasn’t changed (laughs). Some things have and some things haven’t!
• Talking about war, I read quite recently that you’ve experienced a very dangerous and unique experience while touring in Iraq and performing for the US troops there! The base where you were staying came under attack, right?
Geoff: Yeah! We were there for two weeks and we went to many different military bases around the country in order to perform for the troops and it was an amazing experience! We were flying everywhere on military transport planes and the military treated us incredibly well. We went all around the bases and saw all the different things that they do with explosives, training with weapons and going out on reconnaissance missions with helicopters in often hostile areas. We had an amazing experience living the life of a soldier which was a very interesting task having written the “American Soldier” (2009) album. I wish we could have gone before we wrote the record as we could have written the album from a more accurate perspective too! But yeah, we had a great time and we had one unfortunate situation where the base we were at was attacked twice, the same base, in one day! Nobody was injured from us, as a building was in the way when the motors went off and took the majority of the blast! It was pretty scary, you know, being in a hostile environment and having the feeling that the ground is shaking around you, buildings are falling down and feeling that kind of panic that soldiers feel every day! I really have a lot of respect for people that serve there and experience that kind of stuff!
• It kind of makes you realise how fortunate you are that you don’t have to deal with things like that – that our everyday reality is so much different from theirs!
Geoff: Yeah, I feel very fortunate to predominantly live in a very safe environment. Even though we travel to a lot of different places and experience a lot of different things, I have never really felt threatened in any place that I have been. Maybe I just don’t visit the rough areas you know (laughs)…I don’t know. I felt safe everywhere, even when we visited Iraq – I only felt unnerved that one day, but was pretty safe everywhere else!
• Geoff, back to “Empire”! Do you have any plans to go on tour for the promotion of this 20th anniversary reissue? Maybe perhaps perform the album in its entirety, something that many of your fans will really appreciate? Looking on your website, I saw that you have only really announced two dates so far, both of which are in the States.
Geoff: Those two are the last dates that we have for the year. We are not really promoting this reissue from a live band point of view. I have done lots and lots of interviews, something like four or five interviews per day, this month, but we will not be doing any live dates. We are actually now working on a new album and for which we have a release date in the spring of 2011. We have recently signed an album deal with Roadrunner records so we will be releasing that album with them in spring – a period that coincides with the band’s thirty-year anniversary! So, we are going to have a new album and a tour to support that, so we will be playing songs from all our releases in celebration of the anniversary!
• And please, please tell me that you re also going to be visiting the UK!
Geoff: Oh yeah, we most definitely will!
• Excellent, as I have seen you a few times live and it has always been an amazing experience for me – one that I want to relive time and time again!
Geoff: That’s good to hear!
• Geoff, I have taken full advantage of your kindness by significantly exceeded the allocated time for this interview, so thank you for that! I hope that everything you do as a band meets is always blessed with success and thank you once more for creating unique and amazing music for people like me to enjoy! I hope you will be around for years and years to come and pledge to fully support you on all your endeavours!
Geoff: Oh, thank you for all your compliments. They are truly heartfelt and I really appreciate that! I am looking forward to talking with you again!
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