QUEENSRŸCHE's Geoff Tate - Building His Empires

November 19, 2010, 9 years ago

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By "Metal" Tim Henderson

The life of a rock star in 2010. One day you are in the Middle East trying to help the troops escape the day-to-day horror of war. Moments later you're sitting in New York playing excerpts from a forthcoming record to your new label. QUEENSRŸCHE's Geoff Tate appears to be the master juggler, his cabaret face on one day, vintner's cap the next and behind the scenes, plotting the next artful expose in the progressive metal scene. Oh yeah, he's dabbling in the acting world as well.

Tate recently revealed that he was in New York recently showcasing his new label, Loud & Proud, Queensrÿche's upcoming platter of studio material, due out next spring (read the entire report here). But the band had just returned from a tour of Kuwait and Iraq, performing for the troops and surveying the lay of the land so we civilians can get a taste of the ongoing conflict overseas first-hand.

"What an adventure that was," Tate begins. "The Iraq trip was really pretty darn intense. We were there for two weeks in Kuwait and Iraq, kind of flying around with the military to all these different bases and playing shows to the troops over there, which is really a wonderful experience. Hanging out with everybody there. They treat you really well. They show you everything they do and you get to do things like blow stuff up with C4 explosives and shoot down flying helicopters, that kind of thing, which is all pretty macho stuff, you know. But we were up in Northern Iraq and actually got bombed while we were up there. Had to spend a lot of hours in bunkers there, waiting for the insurgents to get under control, so that was kind of a bit of a scary situation, but we all lived through it though we got injured. And just a lot of sunburn and a little bit of issues with all the dust in the air. A very dusty place. I had to kind of walk around with a bandana soaked in water around my face to keep my voice from going. Really an adventure. Quite a different place to be. It was the first time we’d ever been to the Middle East and it was really interesting seeing how people live and their philosophy on things, and just what was going on over there, too, in a war-zone. You can’t really imagine. You just see pictures on the news. That’s one thing, but it’s a whole different thing to be there.”

BraveWords.com: Well, I’m sure the troops that you met must appreciate what you’ve done for them by bringing to light the whole American Soldier conceptual piece. You guys have really been big supporters of this whole movement.

Tate: "Well, it’s the least I think that an entertainer can do, is to go over there and play. Every soldier we met said the same thing. They said our life is like that movie Groundhog Day. You know, we hit the alarm and the day starts and it’s the same as the last day. And so the only break they have from the monotony of the schedule that they live on is when they have entertainment come in, and it doesn’t happen all the time. Maybe once a month they’ll have somebody come over and play. And I guess they don’t get a lot of really famous people coming over there. They get a lot of I call them the bands I’ve never heard of. So we had a really good turnout for our show. Watching people relate to the music and hearing their stories about the first time they heard a particular song and album. It’s always good to hear that kind of stuff.”

BraveWords.com: Well Queensrÿche is a far cry from BOB HOPE, though. (both laugh)

Tate: "Well that was a different era, a different time.”

BraveWords.com: I think it’s great to hear about these stories, but your families and loved ones would just be worried sick, especially now you’re telling us that you were bombed and it wasn’t a case of beer that you were tackling (both laugh).

Tate: "Well, I didn’t tell my family about the bombing until after I got back. I didn’t want to worry them. Actually besides that particular instance I think we were also incredibly safe wherever we went. You’re on this giant military base and there’s every sort of modern weapon there to guard you. In the case of the bombing it’s just these mortars that people have over there and they just set them off randomly. It’s not like they’re shooting at any specific target; they’re just launching this rocket into the base from some unknown place. It’s all very random and not very well thought out. No, we were lucky. The one that went off in the morning when we were at the one base landed about I’d say about a hundred yards from where I was standing. And the ground just shook. I mean it was just amazingly powerful and scared the hell out of me. I’d gotten up early because we were leaving that morning to another base. And I’m standing outside because the sunrise was coming up and I had a little container of yogurt and I’m there eating the yogurt, watching the sun come up, and BOOM! The bomb goes off, you know. Oh, wow, it was like I was gonna wet my pants, you know.”

BraveWords.com: Well, is it a place that you were so comfortable that you would revisit again?

Tate: "I’d definitely go back. In fact, we’re planning on going to Afghanistan as soon as it cools down a little bit.”

BraveWords.com: Well let’s move on and talk about the business at hand, although a lot of artists are more comfortable talking about what’s in front of them than what’s behind them. Are you happy to discuss Empire in light of the fact that its celebrating a landmark 20th anniversary?

Tate: "Well, yes. Since the release I’ve been doing quite a few interviews about it and I’m kind of forced to recollect a lot of the memories that I had kind of buried down. Really we never think about what we’ve done, it’s more what we’re doing now and what we’re doing in the future that we’re kind of focused on. In fact, none of us even had clocked the idea that twenty years had gone by since the release of it, so the company called us and said hey, we’re re-releasing this, what do you think? I actually have quite a few memories from that time—recording and writing the songs and that kind of thing—much more than I thought I had.”

BraveWords.com: I’ll keep these questions rather painless, because as a fan growing up with Queensrÿche, it’s really a strange career because you released an album (Operation: Mindcrime) that went so huge in the underground, and then you finally found enormous success with Empire. So it was kind of strange to see you touring/promoting two records at the same time

Tate: "Well, in a sense I think you’re always promoting every record when you’re touring, because you’re playing a set list of a lot of different songs from hopefully most of your records or a good portion of them. So you’re always promoting multiple things really. I see what you were talking about. Mindcrime, if that’s what you’re speaking of, which I assume so...”

BraveWords.com: Yes.

Tate: "It didn’t do huge numbers commercially when it came out. In fact, it wasn’t until MTV made a video of it that it went gold. We had always dreamed of performing that record in its entirety until the Empire tour gave us the opportunity to do that. We were headlining for the first time on a big scale, so we took that opportunity to play that album in its entirety in the middle of the show.”

BraveWords.com: Now how did life change for you. With Empire you became a mainstream band.

Tate: "Well, I don’t really know what that means, mainstream. I just know from a financial standpoint we all had some money for the first time, and we did buy a house and maybe bought a car. Not huge money, not wealthy, but we definitely went up a few notches in the tax bracket, which becomes a huge burden.” (laughs)

BraveWords.com: Another problem entirely, right? (laughs)

Tate: "Yes, a whole other problem entirely. And you have to learn about investments and learn a lot more about finances, what to do with this money that you have sitting there and how to be smart with it, that kind of thing. But yes, it takes a huge portion of your day to deal with that kind of thing, as opposed to what you had been doing, which was spending your day writing music and working on art. We had to learn to adjust and not get caught up in the monetary thing so much, but focus on the important thing, which is creating stuff. And I think that’s probably the biggest challenge at that time, was just doing that and keeping your feet on the ground and not giving in to all the pressure around you to doing the game shows and award shows and that kind of thing, which is enormous pressure on you for that kind of thing.”

BraveWords.com: Do you think the band remained level-headed at this particular peak?

Tate: "I think so, in comparison to other bands that kind of implode. We managed to kind of keep things in check, probably through our own conversation with each other, pushing each other to not be so concerned with that other stuff because it’s just frivolous – kind of here today, gone tomorrow; that’s the pop mentality. You have a big record and the next thing nobody knows or cares about you, so it’s definitely a different thing to get used to. And in a sense we kind of bypassed that consciously. We said, hey, we don’t want to have action figure dolls and we don’t want to market ourselves like that. We actually disappeared for four years after Empire; didn’t make any music, didn’t make any public appearances, just so we could focus on the art and writing about stuff that was important to us.”

BraveWords.com: When was the last time you actually listened to the album from start to finish?

Tate: "Well, you know honestly I don’t usually listen to our records after they’re complete. When they’re done and I put ‘em away and I’m onto the next thing really. In fact I haven’t listened to Empire completely from start to finish. I’ve gone and listened to certain tracks for different reasons, mostly for production reasons. Comparing it to what we’ve done recently or what we did before, kind of trying to judge somewhat objectively about a sound texture and that kind of thing, and trying to figure out if it really makes sense in 2008 or 2009 to record at a certain studio to get a certain drum sound when we can do it at the house for nothing. (laugh) And it sounds just as good because the technology has changed so much, things like that.”

BraveWords.com: Queensrÿche have always been such a forward thinking band, whether it was the actual writing or the production, and I believe time has been very kind to this album. It sounds so pristine that it could have come out yesterday. How has this album weathered over the years in your mind? And how do you think its grown on fans over time?

Tate: "Well that’s a big question. You know, a funny thing about that record is a lot of people in the music world, especially in the production end of things - like producers, engineers, live sound people - they use that record as a reference record. Such as when they’re going into a studio for the first time, a new studio, they’ll put that record on the system to listen to the room, how it reacts to the music, because it’s a really well recorded album. That has nothing to do with the band, that’s all James Barton, our engineer. He’s a fantastic engineer, and he made a really, really good sounding record that a lot of people call good, that they think is really well recorded. And I agree with him; I think that it’s a really good sounding record. I think that song-wise, writing-wise, that record was a wonderful experiment for us. We were trying to write songs that were really stripped down of any kind of production, so to speak. We did a lot of taking away. We’d write the song and then we’d take parts out and play the song without those parts and see if it could stand upon its own. Kind of like the whole game you play with building a house of cards, and you build this elaborate structure and then you pull everything away to see what it actually takes for that house to stand up. That was kind of our philosophy with that record. We wanted to make a record that had a lot of different movements to it, a varied record, and probably first and foremost we didn’t want to make a concept record since we’d done that with Mindcrime and we were planning on returning to the sequel for Mindcrime. We didn’t want to make a record like that again, we wanted to do something different for us. So I think we did that and then it was onto the next thing.”

BraveWords.com: How much credit would you have given Peter Collins (RUSH, ALICE COOPER, BON JOVI, SUICIDAL TENDENCIES) with the sound and creating this masterwork?

Tate: "Peter isn’t the kind of producer who, he doesn’t come from an engineering standpoint so he has nothing to do with the actual sound and the production from that standpoint. Peter is a wonderful administrator, at keeping the record on budget, on time, making sure everybody shows up at the right time, scheduling meals, if you’re going to use any kind of outside musicians and he contacts them and makes sure they make it to the place; booking plane tickets, that kind of thing. He’s really a strong administrator, which is very important in making a record, especially back in those days when you had these huge projects that you were working with. So hats off to him for doing a great job on that, because he made that record and came in under budget and on time with it. Song-wise he’s got a really strong pop ear, and he’s really good with suggesting melody variations and things like that, which is very valuable when you’re making a record like that, especially at that point in our career. We were still pretty young and new to writing and he’d hear things like, oh you know maybe you should jump up a third on that harmony; I think that might make it sing a bit. And sure enough he was right, so that was a lot of really valuable input he had in that direction.”

BraveWords.com: I must quickly reference one of my favourite Rush albums, Power Windows (1985), and he worked on a couple of Rush’s more experimental albums (1987's Hold Your Fire as well) before he jumped into the Queensrÿche camp. How did you guys sync up with him?

Tate: "It was recommended by our management at the time, that we take a listen to Peter and see what we thought of the work he’d done. We were listening to the Rush albums and other albums that he had made, but we didn’t really know what he did on those records. We just knew, oh, those were good records.”

BraveWords.com: (laughs) And his name’s on the back.

Tate: "Right, his name’s on the back! So then it came down to having conversations with him and meetings. And once you meet the guy, he’s just a very personable guy and we got along really well. He gave us the outline of what his job description in his mind was, and what he would bring to the party, so to speak. So we took a chance and said, okay, well let’s just do that. And the Mindcrime album he worked on—that was the first one he worked on with us—so we thought because of his past experience he’d be able to understand what it is we were trying to do, and he’d definitely be able to administer the record because we had a lot of things that we wanted to try to accomplish with that particular record. And it would take somebody with his experience to be able to facilitate that. And that record we had such a great working relationship with him and James Barton on that record, that we decided to duplicate the team again for Empire. And it was great working with both those guys again. It’s like we’d already gotten past the get-to-know-you stage so we didn’t have to do that again. We just launched right into working and throwing out ideas, we already knew how the system worked with all of us, so we just kind of got right to it.”

BraveWords.com: Well I don’t mean to stroke your ego, but I will because American radio loves a good voice. And you have a legendary voice, and I would think most of the reason that Empire became such a huge hit was the big crossover hit ‘Silent Lucidity'. That was really the track that broke it wide open for you guys. How did you want to tackle that particular ballad?

Tate: "Well, thank you. Yes, that is a beautiful song. The idea of that song, at least from a performance standpoint, was to try to relax, don’t push it, don’t get real emotionally intense on it but just kind of keep an even-keel delivery. A kind of more relaxed kind of way of approaching the song, which I found to be quite challenging actually. In fact, some of the earlier takes I did on the song, I listen back to them and they were definitely more intense with the delivery and didn’t really fit the concept of the piece. So Peter (Collins) and Chris (DeGarmo), our guitar player, really worked with me a lot on that song to get me to relax and give them a lot of takes where I wasn’t laying into it. It was a bit of a challenge, that song, to sing at the time, but love the song. Just love performing it still and hearing the audience sing it back to you. It’s a song that because it was a crossover hit and it affected a lot of people, everyone’s got a story about it. Like, oh when I heard this song I was dating this girl, and we ended up getting married and that was our song at our wedding we danced to. Another story, I buried my father to that song, he loved that song so much and there’s an album of yours that’s buried with him and that was his song. All different stories from all these people from all different walks of life. It’s always good to hear that kind of stuff and hear how it’s affected people.”

BraveWords.com: Chris had a big stamp on this record.

Tate: "Chris was really on a roll with this particular record. He wanted to really work at presenting the music in a different way than what we’d done before, and it was his idea to actually strip everything down and take the music down to its basic structure, and not get too over-the-top production-wise with it.”

BraveWords.com: At the end of the day it’s a beautiful headphones record as well.

Tate: "I enjoy listening to music on headphones quite a bit. It’s always a frustrating thing, actually, because you listen to a mix, especially that you’re doing on speakers in the studio, and it’ll sound a certain way and that’s what you’re working with is those speakers. And then you get the song out of the studio and you put them on another set of speakers and it sounds completely different. Certain instruments are lost and the vocals low or high. And then you listen to it on headphones and it’s a completely different thing, you know, so you wonder, well what is real? And my idea or conclusion is that a song recording is something that just changes depending on where you’re hearing at; on what system you’re hearing it; what frame of mind you’re in; what is your musical background?; what do you like, what don’t you like; what have you heard before? We all hear music differently and we all channel it differently. We all run it through our own individual filters and pull things out of it that are familiar to us, and that’s always been really intriguing to me is how people hear it and what they take from it.”

BraveWords.com: So you don’t personally have a favourite playback place when you’re finished a record?

Tate: "Well, of course I love being in the studio because that’s the setup for that, and I’ve got several sets of speakers that we monitor on to make sure we’ve got the mix just the right way. I think I probably prefer headphones to anything, but then they all change, too. You can put on three or four different sets of headphones and they all sound different. Some have less bass, some have more midrange. Some of them the high end is screaming, some of it’s really smooth. It just depends.”

BraveWords.com: How do you feel about the MP3 generation affecting the Queensrÿche catalogue when you listen to it? I’ve heard a lot of artists complain that a compressed MP3 just does not do a piece of music justice compared to maybe the vinyl version. Do you hear those differences?”

Tate: "Oh, yes. It’s a degradation of the sound when you put it on MP3. It crushes the frequencies down, so certain things pop out and a lot of stuff is lost, which seems backwards to me why we’ve gone backwards in sound quality. I guess it’s just the sacrifice for the ability to be more mobile and to be able to pass files around and things like that, which is very handy. For a true audiophile to really enjoy music, vinyl is the way to go. And CD is good as well, but some people don’t really care about that. A lot of people don’t care about it really. They just don’t hear the difference.”

BraveWords.com: A few left-field questions for you. There’s apparently a Queensrÿche Cabaret DVD in the works?

Tate: "Well, I don’t know when that’s going to happen. We’ve been collecting footage, but we haven’t got any kind of release date in mind as of yet. We kind of did some pieces of all of our shows, collect that stuff in case we need it for something we have.”

BraveWords.com: And I must ask because I’m such a great lover of red wines, more so southern hemisphere wines, I will admit to you. Tell me about the business (Threeriverswinery.com) and where that’s going and how that’s grown for you.

Tate: "Insania is going great. The vintages keep selling out so that’s a good thing, I’m happy about that. We do a red and a white blend and they’re very French-inspired-style blends created with Washington State grapes. It’s a really fun business; very challenging, kind of like music in a lot of ways, in the actual creation of it. It’s a little bit of inspiration and a lot of craftsmanship, kind of like music is. And I just love it. I find it very pleasing and challenging to do, which I think challenges in your life are a good thing. They kind of build character and kind of keep your mind from clogging up with cement, you know. But trying new stuff is always good.”

BraveWords.com: I must mention a funny story. DEF LEPPARD singer Joe Elliott launched his new Down N Outz beer recently. He remarked that "over the years I’ve noticed a lot of musicians putting their names to a variety of wines etc. As nice as a glass of red or white is, well, it’s not very rock and roll, is it??!! Beer or lager seem to be the drink of choice at nearly every gig I’ve ever played or attended, so for me it’s a much cooler thing to do." I thought I’d get a comment from you about a rocker putting his stamp on a wine bottle!

Tate: "Well, you know, I like wine. It’s my beverage of choice and I prefer drinking wine to anything else. I only like one beer and that’s Guinness. Everything else is just not satisfying to me, so I don’t think I could make a beer. That I feel good about, that I would drink, so Guinness has been around for hundreds and hundreds of years. I don’t think I could better that. But wine gives me a little bit of leeway. In our state, Washington State, we’re the second highest wine producer in the country behind California. We have pristine growing conditions; we can grow any kind of grape in the world and we can do it really well. We have a wine industry that’s just exploding and I’m really happy to be part of that and be proud of it. I guess a lot of people, they just find a stereotype so easily and so readily. A rocker with his name on a bottle of wine: c’mon, that’s a stereotype. What are rockers supposed to drink, tequila? Beer, Jack Daniel’s? I don’t know.”

BraveWords.com: Diversification equates to survival in a sense, for a lot of musicians these days.

Tate: "Well, you know, the older you get, too, you want to try different things in life. You do one thing and you do it well, and that’s good, satisfying. There’s other things that you’re interested in that you want to try your hand at and see how you do. I mean, the wine business is something that I’ve been interested in for years and years and years, and finally had the opportunity to develop something with it, so I jumped at the chance. I’m interested in quite a few things. I just acted in my first film this year. It should be coming out, I think, January or February, something like that. I really enjoyed doing that and provided some music for it as well. And I’ve got several offers right now to do other films this year coming out, and I just saw Dee Snider (TWISTED SISTER) perform in a Broadway show on Thursday, called Rock of Ages. And he was great, he was absolutely stunning in the role. And I was talking to him afterwards and he said, 'well the first week I was doing it I was just second-guessing myself I was so nervous. I haven’t had butterflies in my stomach before a performance in twenty-five years so I didn’t really know what was happening to me.' And he added, 'I’m really glad I tried doing something different and got out of my niche and stretched out.' And I have to agree with him. I think it’s a great thing to try different things and get out of doing the things you always do.”

BraveWords.com: Do you think that’s helping you with your creativity by going outside of the box with all these different "hobbies"?

Tate: "Oh, I think it does, definitely. I’ve never really had an issue or problem with song-writing, I love it. It’s the thing that keeps me interested in music. If I couldn’t write songs, if I just had to play the songs off Empire for the rest of my life, I wouldn’t do it. I really wouldn’t do it; I’d do something else. Song-writing is really what keeps me alive and interested in making music. And I think I could probably speak for the whole band. That’s why we got together in the first place. We didn’t get together to be rock stars; we got together to be musicians and write music. People use that term, they don’t understand that it’s insulting. They don’t think they’re insulting you, that they don’t get there’s a difference between rock stars and musicians.”

BraveWords.com is giving away a limited edition Queensrÿche Empire litho (see below). To enter, contestants are required to sign up to the Official BW&BK; Facebook Page and then send an email to contests@bravewords.com with the subject line: "Send Me My Empire Litho."

North American residents only please. Contest closes November 29th.

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