Queensryche released their epic Operation:Mindcrime album in May of ’88, immediately impressing not only their fans but any appreciator for concept albums in the spirit of masterpieces such as Pink Floyd – The Wall, The Who’s Tommy, and David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust.
Although some metal bands made attempts at executing a concept album, notably Iron Maiden’s Seventh Son of A Seventh Son and Ronnie James Dio’s Magica, very few succeeded in making one that could sustain itself and become a classic.
Writing Operation:Mindcrime was a project which singer/songwriter Geoff Tate had longed to do at some point in his career, making it happen with the collaborative writing efforts of QR’s former guitarist and founder, Chris Degarmo.
Before the release of Mindcrime, QR was already getting notoriety for their last album, Rage For Order: conceptually driven but not quite a concept album. Rage offered a very dynamic and innovative sound for metal at the time incorporating digital and industrial synth sounds, sequencing, lucid songwriting and ethereal production. Rage really set QR in place for what was to come thereafter. Still honored and highly respected as one of metal’s greatest vocalists,
Geoff Tate is still pumping out great tunes with the help of friends and family, keeping the legacy of Queensryche in tact despite the lack of key players from the band’s original line up.
On tour commemorating the 25th anniversary of Operation:Mindcrime as well as a new Queensryche album, Frequency Unknown, Geoff was willing to discuss the success and some of the pitfalls of Queensryche which have lead up to one successful career in music. Before our interview began, Geoff changes his pants to adapt to unseasonably warm temps while enjoying the day at home in the Pacific Northwest …
How’s things going today in the Pacific NorthWest?
Well, I had to go inside and put shorts on because we’re having this incredible, early summer weather here in Seattle. It’s already 80 here. We have these strange weather patterns. Most of the time, it doesn’t get nice here until July. Crazy weather.
As a weather enthusiast I could talk about the weather all day … but in the last 24 hours I’ve gone back and listened to pretty much everything you guys have done to get in the spirit of this interview. I haven’t seen the sunlight.
(laughs) You’ve given yourself a crash course huh?
Not really, but it’s been a while since hearing some of these albums in their entirety, though. Queensryche always had a defined and cutting-edge sound in metal–an unconventional sound. Before you had a record deal, you guys got rejected a few times–was Queensryche ahead of the times, perhaps?
Ahead of the times? Oh no. It’s the way the business works. It’s a huge investment for a record company to take on a band. It’s a major amount of money they have to lay out, so there’s all these different parameters that have to be looked at.
Such as …
Is the band able to stay together? Are there drug problems or alcohol problems? Do they have a longevity? You know? They’re going to put millions of dollars into you and they want to get that in return, you know? It’s hardly ever about the music itself because music is subjective with art.
It’s not a sporting event where there is good music and bad music, it’s all about “how can you market it?”
At that time, the EP came out and metal and hard rock was kind of in its infancy, I suppose I should say. It wasn’t world wide yet or increasingly popular. It was in some places in the world, but it definitely hadn’t reached the United States. The companies are looking at all these things, trying to catch up with what was happening, making informed investment strategies. That’s kind of where we were at the time. We had nobody that was selling the EP to the record companies. They were just finding it on their desks, (laughs) if they could even find it out of the thousand of cassette tapes sitting high on their desks.
How did you guys eventually appeal to the record companies?
Well we sold 60,000 copies of our album and that was the major selling point right there. Our new manger that we got, walked into the record company and said, “These guys sold 60,000 copies under their own independent label, think of what you guys can do with this.” Then their eyes light up and they see sales potential.
How soon after did you see your audience growing?
We saw that right away. We were a pretty serious live band. We had an intensity about us that people could feel. Just from our first show we became a really good opening act for bands. They liked having us on.
We were up and coming, we had momentum, moving ahead with an audience building and we were appreciative, you know? We became the ultimate opening act.
It worked out well.
Kind of unique how it worked for us because we were able to expose our music to a a lot of different audiences and a lot of different bands and that gave us a nice, broad exposure.
One Queensryche album that stands out more to me than any is Rage For Order. It was that album that made me recognize that there was something different–something innovative–going on in the music compared to other metal acts. It was cutting edge.
Yeah, that was the idea behind it. We had done the EP and The Warning, and looking back on those I thought they were very derivative of what was happening at the time with a lot of other bands. I was looking to stretch out a bit and push the chemistry of the writing, Chris DeGarmo and I, really getting something unique. Neil Kernon, who produced that record, was very much of that mind as well. Dave Ogilvie as well, who at the time was working with Skinny Puppy and a lot of other underground punk synth.
Interesting. I never made the connection between the production of Rage For Order and Skinny Puppy’s sound. It’s industrialized digital punk and metal. Weird stuff.
Yeah, that was a lot of the inspiration, right there. Sort of the underground. I hate categorizing music, but bands like what Skinny Puppy was doing at the time. We were incorporating all these styles in with our musical sensibilities. You bring all your musical influences into what you are trying to write. I mean if your influences are AC/DC …
… God forbid.
… or say, Procol Harum, then your music is going to sound like that to some degree.
It’s the 25th anniversary of Operation: Mindcrime. Noted as one of the top rock-and-roll concept albums of all time, how does it feel to be up there with The Who’s Tommy, Pink Floyd’s The Wall? Were those the albums you grew listening to?
Oh yeah. And they were definitely the inspiration for creating a concept. It’s something that I wanted to do from the beginning. Chris and I had talked about it for years. We were searching for a theme and playing around with concepts early on, like on The Warning. Rage For Order was definitely a concept record in its own right. Not a story so much but a setting for the one listening to get into a world of their own. Finally, with Mindcrime, I hit upon this story that really resonated with me.
What was the story?
I was living in Montreal and there was some social unrest at the time–a French movement that was trying to secede from the union of Canada. They were doing horrible terrorist acts, kidnappings and bombings. I was very exposed to that and influenced. That began to work its way into the Mindcrime story.
I feel very proud of that record and it’s really been an experience bringing it back to life and on tour, presenting it live again. It’s quite challenging.
In what way?
Well, we’re playing it in its entirety from start to finish, which is one challenge all together. It’s an album that people are very familiar with so you want to make it as exact as you can. When it all gels and comes together it’s a very powerful performance.
“Eyes Of A Stranger” from Operation:Mindcrime
It’s a well written album. It’s got a literary value rather than just some obscure concept album. There’s an intellectual respect to how you write. Aside from music and writing, are you an avid reader?
Oh yeah, always been. As far as writing, I guess it might be my childhood background. I guess I was one of those strange people who were into scouting. I was in the boy scouts and then was in the explorer scouts. Part of the tradition of that is storytelling. We’d sit around the camp and everyone would take turns telling stories. I think I have scouting to thank for a lot of things in life.(laughs)
You’re also touring Mindcrime as a theatrical event as well as the performance. There’s a strong human element in theater compared to other mediums: void of distractions, advertisements, and in some sense technology.
Yeah, except iPhones. (laughs)
I stand corrected. We’re still here in the 21st Century aren’t we?
It’s a strange phenomenon. People come to shows and they spend the whole time looking at the camera. You know, rather than experiencing the show. It’s very odd.
Don’t you have the advantage to address the audience maybe and tell everyone to cut the crap?
Nah, you don’t have any control over that at all. But, I would definitely advise people to put the camera down and watch the show and get involved with it because the show is interactive. If you’re staring into a camera, you’re missing so much. Like watching a live performance on TV. It never captures the important stuff. It might give you seventeen different camera angles but you’re missing out on the elemental importance of the live show. How you feel. It’s a group experience.
That’s what so magical about it and it’s something engrained in our DNA.
Deoxyribonucleic Acid is a magical thing.
Yeah. It’s something we’ve done as human beings since our origins -created music. Music and rhythm. Things like that have been part of our evolution. That’s why it’s so hard to describe a live show. You have to experience it. It speaks to our primal sense.
I wanted to ask if there were any Queensryche albums that were a bitch to put together?
Oh yeah, there’s been quite a few of those. The Tribe album. Mindcrime II…oh man. That was like pulling teeth to get that thing made. Hear In The Now Frontier was another record that was very difficult to work on. Ah…yeah, there’s been quite a few. There were a lot of albums that were pretty easy to make. Operation:Mindcrime, that was a breeze.
Yeah. You can hear it on that record, you guys were pretty focused by that point. It was, no doubt, a cerebral effort.
Well, Chris and I worked very closely on that and we were really on the same page with it. We had James Barton who engineered and he was really into it. Then there was Peter Collins (Rush’s producer at the time), the producer. The four of us were really into it.
Good chemistry is an integral part of making records like that. Although there have been detours throughout Queensryche’s longevity, do you think Chris Degarmo and yourself will ever get together and write music again?
Yeah, I would like to do that and tried many times over the years. Chris had moved on to a different lifestyle, a whole different way of living now. His head isn’t in it. He’s really become a different person. I don’t see any high hopes of anything coming about in the future.
Yeah. It was sort of an awkward question, anyway. It’s not our business on how the man decides to live. He made great music.
People ask about that all time. It’s difficult because he never does interviews. He’s completely out of the industry, so I end up speaking for him. To be honest, I hate doing that, it’s not my place to really do that. We’re friends. We see each other probably once a month- play golf, have lunch. Every time I get together with him I always say you got any songs, you want to work on something, and he says, “Eh, I haven’t picked up the guitar in 3 years, I’m not really in that space anymore.”
That’s one of the difficult things about these kind of relationships. People change and you got to give them space. You do that and not hold any resentment.
It’s not like you guys have to get back together. You’ve already established Queensryche’s legacy with great albums, not to mention a Grammy nomination for Best Rock Song with “Silent Lucidity”. That song was kind of a deviation from the norm for you guys, reaching pop radio.
It was all very strange having a song that became so popular. A strange thing, because now it puts you into a different, sort of, audience. There were people who never heard Queensryche before but then they hear this song. They would come to the show and there wouldn’t be any other songs like that. It threw people off a little bit. It was a unique experience, though, and I am very grateful for the song.
Funny enough because that song almost didn’t make the record. It was done and written. There was guitar and vocals only. There wasn’t orchestration or anything. It was simple kind of song. Peter Collins our producer at the time heard it and said, “Well I don’t think this song should go on the record because it doesn’t stand up to the other songs on the record. I think you should write something else, or put it on another record.” Chris and I really wanted to have this on the record so we thought the song would be cool if it had something else to it. We started playing around with some melody ideas and that lead to calling in Michael Kamen who we worked with in the past for orchestral accompaniment. He came down for mixing. When it came to the orchestration, all of a sudden we heard this enormous piece of music which opened the doors to all kinds of potential to finishing it off. The orchestration took the song and made it become what it became.
Wow, if you guys went with Peter’s advice, that could have changed the fate of the band by a long shot. Michael Kamen breathed new life into the song.
Peter knew that too. he said, “Ok I stand corrected. This song is going on the record. Let’s tighten it up and make it happen.” With those missing elements sometimes, you make a judgement call based on what you have.
All you need is one little thing to push it over the top and make it happen.
OPERATION:MINDCRIME 25TH ANNIVERSARY TOUR
THE WILBUR THEATRE
246 TREMONT ST.