When Queensr˙che listened to Operation: Mindcrime in its entirety for the first time once the recording was finished, you can imagine what emotions the band members experienced. Relief that the task was finally completed. Satisfaction from a job well done. Excitement that they could start promoting the album and then bring its electricity to life onstage. Anticipation of what kind of impact this new album—this fierce, critical, demanding, violent, political album—could have on their career. Queensr˙che had created its first gold record, an opus that would cement its position in music history and earn respect by rock and mainstream critics alike. Of course the quintet couldn't foresee what was on the horizon, but popping a few champagne corks would have been logical.
So it's startling to learn that guitarist Michael Wilton wasn't pleased when he reviewed the fruits of the band's hard labor.
"At first, I was a little miffed at the production, and the way it sounded," he recalls of listening to the album from start to finish after spending months working on it in Canada, the United States and Holland.
"I thought, back in those days, you were wanting the big '80s sound, right?" he says with a laugh. "But this was a more, kind of a cold sound, which after I ingested it a few times I kind of got it, and that's kind of what made it stand out. It was its own thing, its own color, and you know, looking back at that, I'm glad it wasn't the big '80s, the big-hair production with the huge snare sound that echoes, the hard-hitting snare that we had. That kind of thing, it lent to the song and the energy and 'specially in [singer] Geoff [Tate's] voice."
The only other displeasure Wilton recounts was Victory/KAJEM Recording Studios in the suburban region of Philadelphia. He didn't mind that the place was supposedly haunted—"We thought, 'Oh, perfect.' "—but humorously remembers that the old building was "very damp and cold."
His most prominent memories of that time are fonder. "We were sequestered in Scott Rockenfield's basement [nicknamed "the Dungeon"]. All five of us were in there together writing as a band. This was in the advent of before being amused by computers and Pro Tools systems and recording individually and sending files over the Internet. This was still just a 'sit amongst each other and put the record together,' and that was what was so great about the band back then.
"We had just signed with Q Prime Management, who handle Metallica and so forth. We were at a creative high, and given the opportunity, management said, 'Go for the conceptual album. Do it.' So we just spearheaded right into it and unleashed the creative fury, and put together a masterpiece," he laughs again.
As you'll read in Wilton's account below, the masterpiece was borne of the band pushing boundaries among themselves to best serve the music. He remembers how he and guitarist Chris DeGarmo (who left the band in 1998) constantly challenged each other to reach a new level of performance. The attention that Mindcrime brought to Queensr˙che threw a spotlight on the duo's sonic balance of Wilton's fiery edginess and DeGarmo's more restrained ardor. They have been friends since their high-school garage band days, and their musical rapport that had truly come into its own is one of the album's highlights.
"As a team, guitar team, which was Chris and myself, this was the peak of our writing together before the advent of computers, digital machine, digital tape machines," Wilton says. "I think that's real special to me."
Blistering.com: When somebody says to you, Mindcrime is 20 years old, what do you think?
Michael Wilton: Yeah, it's been a couple decades, and it's always kind of good to hear that [laughs]. You know, aging is one of those things, not getting into pharmaceuticals [laughs] yet. But yeah, it's kind of interesting how the government and wars, everything's happening again.
Blistering.com: It's another Bush that's in office.
Blistering.com: With the lyrics on the album, do you ever look at them and think, "Nothing's really changed"?
Wilton: I think with the administrations and the ruling class hovering above U.S. society, it's like, kind of brings back the underground movement [laughs]. And it's just, the way things are forging forward, it's always kind of nice maybe to get a like an alternative view, and that's what Mindcrime is.
Blistering.com: What do you remember when Geoff first brought the idea to you to do it?
Wilton: I think it was capturing the visual aspect of it and then trying to transcend that and bemuse ourselves with a possible movie script as well, and translating that to the puzzle that was integrating certain musical pieces with the conceptual idea. And we had never done anything like that before, so it was quite a challenge from start to finish, trying to make everything flow, musically as well as lyrically as well as conceptually. It's quite a process.
Blistering.com: Was there any particular person that happened to come up with the visuals. The artwork has also become iconic, especially from Video:mindcrime [the album's video collection released in 1989].
Wilton: It's very image-based, so when it went to different, various art departments at the record label, this is what they came up with and striking images and everything, and it just kind of fell into place, so we were lucky to get the good branding on the Operation: Mindcrime font. We've seen other people try to steal that. [laughs] But it just laid the grounds for bringing something that was hard and heavy to the front, kind of as what Pink Floyd did.
Blistering.com: When you started working on the concept, was there anyone that said it wasn't going to work? Or who was really into your vision?
Wilton: We had the producer Peter Collins, who was all for it, and he . . . [kept] us all in the same boat so that we didn't go off in any crazy direction. And I think a lot of that kind of kept us, at that age, you know, pretty energetic. It's like it kept us straightforward and pushing the envelope and really honing in on the recording process.