By Carl Begai
Back on October 24th, 1991 a 22 year-old head-in-the-clouds metalhead sporting the oddball name of Carl Begai took his kid brother to see QUEENSRŸCHE at Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto. The band was soaring on the strength of their now classic Empire album, and it was a show never to be forgotten by either sibling. A cult fave of the prog metal world through the '80s, Queensrÿche had finally (and unexpectedly) hit the big time and gave the fans an arena show to match. Of course, if you're a fan you're fully aware of how things have gone to hell since then. Never mind the 20 years of pussyfooting around the band's metal roots since Empire; amidst personal and professional ugliness there are now two versions of Queensrÿche, one featuring vocalist Geoff Tate and a new line-up, the other with former CRIMSON GLORY singer Todd La Torre taking Tate's place fronting the (almost) original roster. A recipe for confusion that will be rewritten in January 2014 when the battle over the band name goes to court.
Photo by Thomas von der Heiden
Twenty-two years and a day after that fateful Toronto show, I caught up with the Todd La Torre fronted incarnation of Queensrÿche - the real QR for anyone that has heard their new self-titled album - in surroundings far and away from the glory of Maple Leaf Gardens. In the middle of a European tour, the band touched down in Munich, Germany to play a simple rock club catering to only a couple hundred people, one of several steps towards rebuilding the Queensrÿche name as it should be remembered. Prior to the show we sat down to discuss Todd's rise to fame and the band's return to greatness.
"I was going to do both," Todd says of leaving Crimson Glory to join Queensrÿche, which was official as of February 2013. "When I joined (side project) RISING WEST which then became Queensrÿche, they knew I was in Crimson Glory but they never said 'Hey, you've gotta quit.' As far as the guys were concerned, as long as I could do both and Crimson Glory wouldn't infringe on Queensrÿche's touring, cool. They knew I had an obligation to do a record, so they weren't going to tell me to quit. What upset me and still does is when I read statements from Crimson saying that the writing was on the go when I joined the band, but the fact of the matter is that's not true. I'm still friends with the guys but I haven't talked to Jon Drenning (guitars) in over a year. When I'm back home we try to get together for dinner - me, Ben, Dana, Jeff - just to maintain that friendship. I care about those guys."
Todd has no regrets about leaving Crimson Glory for Queensrÿche. Looking back on when the offer came down, he agrees it was a no-brainer.
"This is a dream come true... exponentially. When things went down it was like, 'I have to do this.' Parts of it are surreal, other parts are not because I know these guys now. We're all very close so I don't see them in the same way I did before just as a fan. I'm still a fan, but not the way I used to be."
Joining the band of his dreams also put Todd in the line of fire. Keyboard warriors from around the world who felt he should be punished for the split with Geoff Tate did their best to shoot Todd down online even as he was being praised for his efforts.
"It doesn't bother me now," Todd insists. "It bothered me for a long time only in the sense that nobody - including myself - would ever try to diminish how great Geoff Tate was. I guess the hardest part for me has been that up until the new record, all I had to represent me were life performances on YouTube shot with mobile phones. People were comparing me to Geoff Tate in his prime on a record where multiple takes were made to make things perfect, which is how records are made. That was always frustrating. I'm never going to be him, I don't want to be him, but I do want to try and sing as good as he did on those albums. At first it was really hard for me because I'm an emotional guy. I've been called every name in the book, I've gotten death threat emails. That even happened in Crimson Glory, which was good preparation for this. I've been down this road before so if you want to talk shit, fuck off."
"I get along with everybody, but if you're just going to treat me like shit because I'm in a certain position, what would you do? If you were aksed to play an instrument or be in a band that you loved, what would you do? That's the thing; the anonymity of the internet allows people to just be bullies, be rude, and they don't have to be held accountable. If any one of those people said any of that stuff to my face, it wouldn't even be a conversation. That said, I don't read that stuff, I don't care. I would say that the majority of the fanbase - unless you're an absolute purist and don't want to be open minded - they have supported what we're doing."
At the time of this interview, Todd's first album as the singer for Queensrÿche had reportedly sold upwards of 50,000 copies worldwide. Not at all surprising given they were able to return to the band's signature sound with Geoff Tate out of the picture.
"The whole team behind the band has changed," says Todd. "Before, they were managed by Geoff Tate's wife and family members were involved. I'm not saying that's a bad thing, but we're with a group of people now that have way more respect and pull in the industry. Their sole job is focusing on the best interests of Queensrÿche and the brand, not just one person."
"A lot of the new songs kind of wrote themselves pretty quickly, and everyone contributed. From what I'm told by the other guys, the last several records had outside writers that would write songs and they would be told 'That's too heavy.' I guess there was a lot of cherry-picking of material, where as in this band I'm always pushing for the heavier edge. But all these guys want to do is what you hear on the new record."
Which is kind of confusing when you take the last two decades into consideration. If Queensrÿche is a five-piece band, how is it that four members of the band were kept muzzled musically while Geoff Tate took the band to places better left unexplored?
"I mean no disrespect by this, it's just an outsider's opinion," says Todd, "but when you have someone saying they wrote the majority of the material and they're the captain of the ship, I assume that means they're taking responsibility for those albums. In the same way, now that I'm in the band and all of a sudden the new material sounds nothing like the last several records, I guess that person was in charge. Now the band is in charge and this is what they're able to write and put out."
"I think Geoff Tate's vision is inventive and creative. I was a huge Queensrÿche fan up until after Empire, and after that.... I didn't listen to Promised Land for a long time. The other records came out and the band just dropped off the radar for me because I didn't hear the singing that I wanted to hear, I didn't hear heavy guitars, I started hearing a more adult contemporary style of music. It's great to try new things but for me, to stray so far away, it wasn't Queensrÿche anymore. And when you're hiring other people to write your music, the it certainly isn't Queensrÿche. I think Geoff is much happier now doing what he's doing, the guys in this band are obviously much happier, so it's good for everyone all the way around. None of us are being haters or are harbouring any ill will; we just want to move on as the band Queensrÿche."
Asked what it feels like to realize he's recorded his first professional album with a band he idolized for years, Todd is almost at a loss for words.
"I don't know how to answer that.... it doesn't suck (laughs). When Michael (Wilton/guitars) and I first wrote a song together, it became 'Don't Look Back'. That was the first song we ever did together and he wanted to know if I could write or if I was just a voice. Dude, I'm a drummer that just likes to sing (laughs). They wanted to know that this new person was able to provide song writing skills. The fact that there was no auditioning... I'll be honest, I'm really surprised that's been around this long and had the success that they've had brought in somebody knew and has given me complete freedom to do whatever I want. I've written guitar parts, all the drums on the demo for 'Where Dreams Go To Die' were mine and Scott (Rockenfield/drums) kept a majority of that. He put his stamp on it and made it him."
"When I was a 14 or 15 year old kid I studied The Warning record on drums. Now, Scott is in the band that I'm in. I'm the singer of his band. Now I'm like the kid on the diving board jumping up and down going 'Mom look! Mom Look! Mom look!' It's no fun for me if I can't share this experience with my close knit circle of friends back home. It's amazing."
With regards to the court battle over the Queensrÿche name, there's a lingering "What if?" question hanging in the air. In a recent interview Geoff Tate made the valid point that public opinion won't matter when it comes to the court deciding who gets the band name in the end, and the Todd La Torre incarnation of Queensrÿche is the visible favourite at this point.
"The most we've ever talked about it is to say that we're going to keep moving forward and writing music. We've never had a conversation that began with 'What are we going to do if Geoff gets the name?' because we don't think that way. These guys are the majority, it's not in our hands. So to answer your question, we really don't think or talk about what will happen if things don't go in these guys' favour. I'm not in the lawsuit, but in my opinion there is absolutely no reason why these guys will not be awarded the name."