Thursday, January 20, 2011

What about 'Bob'? An interview with Geoff Tate of Queensryche

Photo by Greg Watermann

Queensryche has another “Bob” in the oven.

The veteran Seattle rock band is in the middle of recording sessions for a new album, which it hopes to release this spring. As lead singer Geoff Tate told me in a previous interview, every Queensryche record bears the working title of "Bob" until it is officially christened with its final moniker. The tradition stems from the band's first demo, which was recorded on a cassette tape that belonged to a guy named Bob.

"He'd written his name on it in, like, really dark pen," said Tate of the original Bob, "and he wrote it actually on the case that the cassette was in, so it never came off. So after that, we always put each demo in that same case, and we called it 'Bob.' And it became this weird tradition that every album is called 'Bob' until we actually have a title."

Queensryche — featuring Tate, guitarist Michael Wilton, bassist Eddie Jackson, drummer Scott Rockenfield and touring guitarist Parker Lundgren — toured during 2010 in support of “American Soldier,” a concept record dedicated to the thoughts and experiences of soldiers and veterans in all branches of the military. The lyrical content for the album was culled from numerous interviews Tate held with soldiers – starting with his own father.

As I consider it, one of the coolest aspects of my job is getting to pick the brain of those involved in creating songs which have impacted my life in some way – whether I consider them personally inspiring or just great tunes to rock out to. Two such Queensryche songs are “Someone Else,” a soaring, but stripped-down ballad that features an amazing vocal performance by Tate, and “The Thin Line,” a track on “Empire” that is often lost in the shadows of that popular album’s six successful singles. I was able to ask Tate about both those songs during the course of this interview, which occurred by telephone five days before Christmas.

Queensryche will be appearing in Wendover on Saturday at the Peppermill Concert Hall. The concert is sold out.

DOUG FOX: The last time we talked, you gave me a preview of the concept album you were getting set to record, and at the time it had the working title of “Bob.”

GEOFF TATE: Oh, yeah. Uh-huh.

DF: And that turned out to be “American Soldier.” Now, that was an entirely unique project. Looking back at it now a year after its release, what kind of reaction did you receive from it?

GT: Well, I would say overwhelmingly good. You know, it was a record that I think affected a lot of people. I’ve heard lots of stories about the record, from lots of people I’ve talked to. In fact, recently, over the summer, we went to Iraq and Kuwait, and entertained the troops over there with the record, that we played quite a bit while we were there and got a lot of good reactions from the soldiers. So we felt really good about that.

DF: The effort was something they really reacted to positively?

GT: Yeah. Well, it was written from their point of view and their stories, so I think it’s something that just about every soldier could relate to.

DF: You kind of created the material from a series of interviews that you’d done and sort of incorporated them into the lyrics, and also you have some of the interview tapes interspersed in the songs, so I imagine that helped the impact felt by those in all walks of the military as well.

GT: Yeah. You know, it’s taken from the soldiers’ perspective, it’s about what they all experience. If they’ve been in battle, if they’ve been in that situation before, they could definitely relate to the lyrics of the songs.

DF: Were you able to play much of that material live?

GT: Yeah, actually quite a bit of it, the last year that we toured on the record.

DF: Which were some of the songs that translated best to the stage?

GT: Oh, gosh, well “Home Again,” we actually brought my daughter Emily out on tour with us, and she did the entire North American run with us. And that was really a wonderful experience for me, and I think for her, too. In fact, she said to me last night over dinner, “When are we going on tour again?” (laughs) “Well, not for a while, honey.”

DF: How old is she?

GT: She’s 13 now.

DF: So she really loved that participation?

GT: She did. She was pretty frightened at first. And she said, “Can I hold your hand during the song?” And I said, “Yeah, yeah, sure, whatever makes you feel comfortable until you kind of get used to it.” And about five shows into it, she said, “You know, I don’t think I have to hold your hand anymore. I got this.” (laughs) “OK, honey.”

DF: So, you have another performer in the family?

GT: Yeah, we do. She’s the only kid of ours that has the passion for it, you know. So she might fall in her dad’s footsteps, perhaps. But you never know with kids. One day they want to be a singer and the next they want to be a pastry chef, you know?

DF: How many kids do you have?

GT: Five. I have five girls.

DF: Awesome. I was actually going to ask about her, because you also involved your dad, as I recall it was your interviews with him that kind of spawned the entire project.

GT: Yeah, that’s right.

DF: So it was kind of a three-generational experience on that record?

GT: Definitely.

DF: That had to be unlike anything you’d experienced before.

GT: Yeah, it definitely was, and one I’d like to repeat at some point. I find a lot of inspiration in my family, you know, with the relationship that I have with them. And I learned a lot. I think a lot of that stuff comes out in the songs, the lyrics of the songs. I don’t see it changing. I think it’s always going to be that way.

DF: Do a lot of your lyrics come from personal experience?

GT: Yeah, except for the last album, of course. Yeah, primarily I write from that platform, stuff I know. Somebody said, “Write what you know,” so that’s kind of the philosophy I’ve taken.

DF: Well, that’s good. One song I wanted to ask you about, out of the whole Queensryche catalog, so to speak, that’s always really spoken to me and just been a song I’ve completely loved, is “Someone Else.” And I just wondered what was the inspiration behind that song?

GT: Well, I think, you know, just growing up, life, going through things, ups and downs, tests to your integrity. You know, as a kid you kind of learn that things are kind of black and white. These are the rules, you follow the rules and this is what happens. But as you get older, you kind of see that life is really a lot of gray -- it’s kind of open to interpretation. And “Someone Else” is a song about kind of realizing you’re at different plateaus in your life, different places, achievements, either personal achievement, spiritual achievement, whatever. You go through these rough times to get to this place, and then when you’re at that place, it’s probably a good idea to look around and appreciate where you are. It’s a song about that – being at that place that you’ve struggled to get to and realizing there’s so many more places to go, and to keep your curiosity alive and your interest in life, and just don’t give up on things or take the easy way out. Keep looking ahead and striving to get to that next rung on the ladder, wherever that may be for you.

DF: How much time did it take to do the vocals for that song?

GT: I don’t really remember, Doug, off the top of my head. The song, we had first written it on piano, and then we decided, “Let’s try a band version.” So we got everybody included, and had guitars and bass and drums and everything in it. We recorded that and then we felt, “Oh, you know, the music’s too big, it needs to come back to the piano. It’s got a pretty strong lyric and we want to focus on that.” So we kind of stripped it all back to the original idea, which kind of goes to show you that most of the time, your original idea is the strongest one. (laughs)

DF: Have you ever released the full band version anywhere?

GT: Yeah, it’s on a B side of something. I’ve seen it and heard it before, so I know it exists.

DF: I’d be interested to hear that. It’s hard to imagine it different than the stripped-down version that’s so powerful, like you mentioned. It’s hard to imagine it in another form. Have you ever played that song live after the “Promised Land” tour?

GT: Um, yeah, we have. Quite a few times. It’s a crowd-pleaser, that song.

DF: Well, the band’s newest release, of course, is the 20th anniversary edition of “Empire.” When you look back, is it hard to imagine that so much time has passed since that came out?

GT: Yeah, it’s kind of a sobering experience, actually, because it just seems like yesterday, you know? Yeah, in fact, it’s been kind of interesting with this release, it’s forced me to kind of look back at that time, which is something ... I normally don’t look back too much, and I’m pretty much focused on the present. But I had to go back and kind of think about those times and what was going on and kind of remember when, you know? In fact, this coming August will be the band’s 30th anniversary, which is kind of hard to believe.

DF: It’s amazing how quick time goes by.

GT: Yeah, it’s a finger snap, you know?

DF: While you were busy writing and recording the tracks that became “Empire,” as a collective group or individually, did you have any idea how special that album would become? As you were working on it, were there any inklings like that?

GT: No, I don’t think anybody ever knows that kind of stuff. It was a record that was a strong record in a time where rock music was the music of the time. Record companies were strong economically, you know, downloading hadn’t been invented yet. (laughs) And the radio stations were all playing rock music and MTV was based in rock music and playing it every single minute. So we were in the right place at the right time, again, with a very strong record company and a good marketing plan. Record companies had a lot of money to spend on promotion then. That record got a lot of attention. It had six singles on it, and all of them did very well. So, yeah, it was a very special time in the record industry and very special for us in the sense that we got so much airplay.

DF: You kind of touched on this, but I was wondering what your thoughts were on the current state of the record industry and radio, especially as it relates to bands like Queensryche. I mean, like you mentioned, we still hear those songs on the radio all the time, but it still seems almost impossible to get new material on the radio or get it to stay there for any length of time. How do you approach that? Do you just say, “We’ll do the best we can” or do you not think along those lines any more? How has the whole industry changed your thought process?

From left: Michael Wilton, Eddie Jackson, Geoff Tate and Scott Rockenfield.
GT: Well, it’s radically changed. It’s not even comparable to what it was 10 years ago. One, it’s been completely gutted economically with downloading. So when you do that, there’s no money in the industry that makes it work. Less people can be hired to do the job, and your companies are all going under because they can’t make any money, and the ones that are still alive are only alive because they’ve bought up so many other companies to kind of prop themselves up. Everybody in the industry from that standpoint is looking to get out. So, it’s not even comparable nowadays to what it was then. It was a great system, you know. People got paid for their work. The royalty design was in place and working really well. What you have to do nowadays, there’s no use really lamenting what’s happened, it’s just you’ve got to figure out a way to get around it and try to make a living. Luckily we’re a touring band. We tour every year. We regularly visit about 42 countries every year. We’re pretty well established in the touring end. Bands nowadays, though, starting out, I don’t know how they’re going to make a career out of it because it takes an audience to come see you. And if you don’t have the ability to get out there and get an audience, if you can’t go on tour because you can’t afford it, then nothing happens. So I don’t know what it’s going to be like in the next 10 years, but for us, we just keep releasing music, you know, every two years, and touring quite a bit and just keep going that way. I think a lot of bands they stopped making new music, they just kind of rest on their laurels and keep playing the same songs they’ve always played every year. I think there’s an exception to the rule where that works, you know, but I think it’s kind of a dead-end street ’cause after people see you a couple times, they don’t really have an incentive to keep coming out because you’re not doing anything new.

DF: Especially it seems to be at odds with, I mean, the whole reason they probably joined bands in the first place was for the thrill of the creative process and writing new music and presenting that. You hate to see it when bands get into a rut like that.

GT: Yeah, for us, that’s what’s always kept us together I think, and moving forward, is our love of creating the music, that’s what we really kind of live for, you know, is the studio experience. The live experience is wonderful, too, but in a different way. But making those records is what’s really the passion for the band.

DF: So what’s on the horizon in the future for your next studio project? Anything yet?

GT: Actually we’re in the studio now working on a new record. In fact, I’m just taking a break from that to talk to you. We’re hoping to finish it up sometime in January for a spring release. We just signed a new label deal with Roadrunner Records. It will be our first release with them, and we’re looking forward to it. It’s going to be exciting. They’re very excited about the record that they’ve heard so far, and they’re excited to have us on their roster. Actually, that’s a good thing when the record company’s excited. (laughs)

DF: That’s always a positive! Well, is it a concept record?

GT: I don’t really know how to describe it yet. Honestly, Doug, it’s still in pieces. I think musically it’s another experiment for us where we’re kind of looking to stretch out musically and try to take the band in a little further interesting direction. We try to make each record different from the last one, either musically or conceptually. So this is another kind of experiment in that direction where we kind of stretch out musically in some different directions than we’ve touched on in the past.

DF: What is the typical writing process for you guys? Do you work on a couple songs through to completion or do you have bits and pieces in a whole bunch of different areas and work on a lot of things at once?

GT: Yeah, kind of that, working on a lot of different things. Some songs come together rather quickly, and then you’re done with them and you leave them sit. Other ones you struggle with. Some of them just take months to develop and so they’re in various stages of being finished for long periods of time. But now we’re in the position where we just finished drums and bass tracks this last week, so now we’re into overdubs on guitars, and doing the vocals next. This is the exciting part for me, when you’ve got the basics, the foundation built, you know. Now we start adding to it, putting on the pretty stuff, you know? (laughs)

DF: Well, does this one still have the title of “Bob” at this point?

GT: It still does, yeah. It’s called “Bob” right now. (laughs)

DF: Just going back to “Empire,” for a minute. Did you have the same working process that we just talked about for the new record – was everything kind of in bits and pieces or was there any one or two songs that kind of jump-started the whole process?

GT: It was pretty much like all the records, you know, you have kind of a grand plan, and then you go about filling in the void with actual music. (laughs) It’s kind of that way. Usually, the recording sessions or the writing sessions start with a song. And the “Empire” album started out with the title track, that was the first one. And then once you get that one down and they all start flowing, you get kind of an idea of what you want to do and take it from there.

DF: One thing I’ve always been kind of fascinated with is how so many different people can listen to the same album and yet everybody has a different favorite song. And as many great songs as are on “Empire,” I think the one that I’ve always loved the best is “The Thin Line.” And as many times as I’ve seen you guys live, I’ve never had the chance to see that one, but I’ve noticed it’s been reappearing in your setlists in this last year, so is there any chance it will still be in your setlist in the year ahead?

GT: I hope so. I love playing that song live. Yeah, I don’t know. We keep reinventing that song, kind of using it in different ways and performing it in different ways. And it is one of those songs you can do that with. And it seems to be a crowd-pleaser, so we’ll probably keep it in the set.

DF: I would think it would be a great live song.

GT: It’s always difficult to pick songs to play live for us. We have songs that we know people are going to want to hear and expect to hear. We also want to fill in the set with songs we personally want to play, you know? So we do that quite often and try to find different ways of presenting ourselves live, and try to change it around a little bit so people don’t get complacent with our performances, and so we don’t get complacent as well. It keeps us on our toes to play different things. Like sometimes in concert, we’ll just work out a new arrangement of a song that we haven’t played in a long time and play it that night. It keeps everybody interested in the band so you don’t get that kind of glazed-over [look] after you’ve been on the road for a couple months. (laughs)

DF: You have a show upcoming nearby to here in Wendover in January. I know a lot of your tours in the past, you’ve spotlighted certain albums; I haven’t heard anything about your new tour, I’m just wondering if you have any idea what will be involved for that show yet and what kind of setlist fans can expect?

GT: Yeah, I don’t know. We haven’t actually rehearsed yet for that upcoming show cause we’re, of course, in the studio. We’ve been doing kind of sporadic touring this year because it’s a non-album year so we tried to kind of curtail our touring this year so we could spend more time writing the record. But this next year, of course, will be the big full tour because we have a new album coming out, and again, it’s our 30-year anniversary, and we’re going to be playing quite a lot of songs from all the different records. But for Wendover, I don’t know what we’re going to play yet. We’ll play “The Thin Line” definitely.

DF: OK, excellent. And then I was just going to ask you, because we’ve talked about this before and I’ve never seen any final word that it ever came out, but “House of Eternity,” did that project ever come about?

GT: No. That project lost its funding this last year when all the banks went broke and all the investors went crazy. So that project is on the back burner and awaiting funding right now, but I ended up doing another movie called “The Burningmoore Incident.” I think there’s a trailer for it up on the Web now. It’s going to be released, I believe, in February or March, something like that.

DF: So how did you enjoy that experience? Was that your first real acting?

GT: Oh, yeah, absolutely. It was amazing, actually, really, really different. And much more difficult than I’d anticipated.

DF: What kind of a role was it?

GT: It’s kind of a very strange horror film. And the part I play is kind of a horrific character, the mass murderer character. And I can’t really talk much about the film because it’s not released yet, and they told me not to talk about it. But I had to work with stunt coordinators and trainers and things like that, so I learned a lot about how to throw a punch. (laughs) And to take one. In a way, it’s kind of spoiled watching movies for me now because I watch fight scenes, and I go, “Oh, he did that really weird, that’s not right!”

DF: Well, is there anything else you’d like to add that we haven’t talked about?

GT: Well, I think you’ve been pretty thorough, Doug.

DF: OK, it’s always a pleasure to talk to you, and hopefully we’ll see you in January.

GT: OK, man. Well, take care, and thanks for the interview.

DF: OK, and good luck with the new album.

1 comment:

  1. Another great article Doug! I knew it was going to be good by the first sentence..."Another Bob in the oven" :-) I must say I am impressed with Geoff Tate. A record to salute our troops and a family and introspective man. A fun and interesting read.