Queensryche: Stalwart In Seattle
By: Justin Donnelly
One of the most striking and influential progressive rock bands to emerge from the mid eighties is Seattle’s Queensr˙che. Unlike most progressive outfits of the time, Queensr˙che added sophistication as well as personal and social commentary within the bands complex songs.
When the quintet (Featuring vocalist Geoff Tate, guitarists Chris DeGarmo and Michael Wilton, bassist Eddie Jackson and drummer Scott Rockenfield) released their self-produced, self-titled debut E.P. in 1982 (Released on their own label 206), it wasn’t long before E.M.I. offered the band a record deal.
1984’s ‘The Warning’ was a good follow up (Enhanced by the live film ‘Live In Tokyo’), but it was on 1986’s ‘Rage For Order’ where Queensr˙che truly found their distinctive sound. In 1988, Queensr˙che’s ‘Operation: Mindcrime’ not only broke through to the mainstream, but at the same time created a masterpiece that many have since attempted to emulate. Few have actually succeeded. The album earned them a Grammy nomination, and is still considered one of their best works to date.
Their 1990 effort ‘Empire’ took many by surprise, but proved that they weren’t about to repeat a proven formula for short term gain. The tour proved to be an unprecedented drawcard, with half solely devoted to ‘Operation: Mindcrime’ (As documented in 1991’s live video ‘Operation: Livecrime), with the other half showcasing songs from their other releases.As different as ‘Empire’ was to ‘Operation: Mindcrime’, so was 1994’s ‘Promised Land’ to ‘Empire’. Fans were divided over the albums merits, but either way, there was no denying the bands ability to change with the times and never stay in the one sound for too long. The C.D.-Rom game ‘Promised Land –An Interactive Adventure’ was released a year later, and led the trend of music related interactive products.
1997’s ‘Hear In The Now Frontier’ however, wasn’t looked upon as a great release. The somewhat standard material and over simplistic delivery failed to please most fans, and with Chris DeGarmo’s resignation the following year, things looked bleak in the Queensr˙che camp. DeGarmo’s replacement was found in friend and producer Kelly Gray. His contribution towards 1999’s ‘Q2K’ is evident, and it seemed to reclaim some of the ground Queensr˙che had lost previously. After ending their long association with E.M.I., Queensr˙che signed on the dotted line with Sanctuary Records, with the double album/D.V.D. ‘Live Evolution’ hitting the shelves in 2001.
Scott Rockenfield takes some time out to talk about the new album, DeGarmo’s return (To help with the writing sessions of ‘Tribe’), E.M.I.’s dedication to Queensr˙che’s past and the tour with Fates Warning and Dream Theatre.
In recent years, fans have often questioned whether Queensr˙che is still a functioning unit, or whether their influence is felt anymore. If DeGarmo’s absence didn’t signal a dire warning to fans, then Gray’s recruitment and subsequent departure had fans wary of the bands longevity.
“We’re absolutely still a going concern! (Laughs) After we recorded the huge ‘Live Evolution’ package a couple of years ago, we also branched out and did some solo records. That took up all of last year, and they were extremely fulfilling. They all did well, and now were back. We’ve just finished our ninth album ‘Tribe’, and we have a nine-month world tour starting next week.”
Unlike Queensr˙che’s last couple of releases, ‘Tribe’ does have a theme and sound running through the albums ten tracks.
“Our philosophy to making records has never really changed since we started out in 1981. It’s always been about getting together and making music that we all believe in. It’s also been about expanding, challenging and pushing ourselves in different directions musically, and with each other exploring their own territory within the band. This record was very similar to that. We had a kind of a theme, or a concept idea that came from Geoff and what he wanted to do with the record on a lyrical basis. He took a motorcycle journey last year around the U.S. with his wife, and they kind of experienced what was going on with people. He kept a journal on his travels about what he was experiencing. When he came back, he started to think that it would be an interesting theme to start writing some lyrics about, and he kind of came up with all these stories and lyrics based on his journal. Geoff actually came up with the title too. We all sat around and thought; "What do we want to do with this record? What are we feeling like? Does anybody have any inspirations for something? A theme maybe to start with?” Geoff was the first to step up with that tribe theme. We’re a tribe, people are tribes and tribalism is getting to be very interesting these days on how societies are moving. He presented those ideas to us, and there was a lot about tribalism in the concept, and the philosophies behind people getting back into tribalism on a large scale. I mean you have the European nations that are starting to come together, and they now have one form of money (The Euro). People are kind of connecting in a global sort of sense. There are a lot of bad things happening in the world, but it also causes people to come together. We’re a kind of tribe in ourselves, within the band. That tribe thing also extends to the people we work with. So it was really that idea that sparked and turned the light bulbs on above our heads. It gave us a direction to explore, and that was all we needed to kick start a record. So anyway, we started to elaborate on that theme from Geoff, and Michael, Eddie and I, as the core of Queensr˙che, started working on the music for it. We started to explore and compliment that theme of global tribalism by writing some music that painted a full picture with the music and the lyrics, and the meaning they had together by supporting each other. We did a lot of experimentation, and a lot of interesting things on this album with percussion instruments, ethnic instruments, and ethnic melodies and sounds. It was a lot of fun, and very ‘Tribe’ sounding. We started recording it late January, and finished it around late May. I hope fans do take the time to absorb this album. We’re not the kind of band that can be absorbed after one listen. We kind of do things a little deeper than that. Once people kind of sink their teeth into the concept and the idea of this record and listen to the music, it’s really going to captivate them.”
Perhaps what is unknown to most Queensr˙che fans is the addition of the relatively unknown guitarist Mike Stone.
“We really started formulating the ideas for this album last year, and in the meantime, we were brainstorming back and forth with lyrical ideas. By January, we realised we were ready to go into the studio and put it all together and make it happen. We’d also been working with a friend of ours called Mike Stone, who plays guitar. Some of the guys in the band have known him for a while, so he’s an old friend. He lives in Chicago, and he has a cool musical heritage of different things he’s worked on in the past. He’s been a part of other bands, and has had his own bands. He’s an extremely talented guitar player, and he really fits within the Queensr˙che mould right now, and for what we need on the road. He also has a great personality. That’s something we were really looking out for when we work with people. Whether it’s producers we’ve worked with, or other band guys like Kelly Gray. An easy-going personality is needed to work well with us. He’s a really sweet guy, and it’s been really easy to work with him. He’s also really quick. He learned forty of our songs in a week, and that’s not easy! (Laughs) He’s going on the road with us this year in support of ‘Tribe’. We’d been planning that as he’s proved himself on the road since Gray left. When people see what we’re going to do with this tour, people are going to really enjoy it. Actually we found out being around with him during rehearsals for the shows we did last year, that he's a really talented songwriter. So we thought this tribe concept would be really interesting to get him involved too. He co-wrote ‘Losing Myself’ with us. We actually had a bunch of songs that we had worked with him on, but that was the best one that fit with the content that we wanted to do in the tribe thing. Who knows what will happen in the future. He’s just an all rounded talented guy. If I hang around with him, and rub elbows with him, it rubs off on me! (Laughs) And there’s nothing wrong with that! (Laughs)”
Although it’s hardly news now, original guitarist Chris DeGarmo was involved in the writing sessions for ‘Tribe’. However, as exciting as this sounds, DeGarmo has not returned as a full time member.
“Around the same time we were writing with Stone, we got a phone call from our old friend DeGarmo. He’d heard that we were making an album, and wanted to know if a couple of songs he had hanging around would worth using. He was looking to do something with them. So he brought them in, and we sat down liked the idea. We ended up collaborating with him on three songs. That’s kind of our expanding tribe that I was talking about before. Queensr˙che really has expanded its tribe with Mike, and Chris on a few songs. As cool as it was, Chris couldn’t go any further than that because of prior commitments. He wasn’t interested in going on the road and changing his life right now. He didn’t want to commit what it means to be in the band. He knows what our band is about, and that’s major commitment. We’re very dedicated to what we do and he didn’t want to hinder us by any means. He really wanted to collaborate on a couple of songs, and we’re going to take Mike Stone out on the road with us to play guitar.”
For those who are unsure just what those other commitments are for DeGarmo, you’ll be surprised he’s actually a commercial pilot!
“He’s a pilot. He flies private jets for independent companies that need pilots for businessmen and nice jets. It’s that kind of a charter thing. He’s been doing that for fifteen years. He wasn’t doing that specifically, but he was learning to fly for many years when we were hanging out back in the early days. It’s part of his heritage. His family, and in particular his father were pilots. When Chris quit the band in 1998 that was his one big pursuit. He wanted to become a captain and fly panes. He’s made that happen in the last six years he’s been out of the band. That was his main focus. He’d really have to give that up right now to go on the road with us, because once you’re in the band, and you’ve rehearsed for the tour, you can’t just walk out mid way through. It’s not like we can rehearse someone new within a week to keep the tour going. It takes months for us to put together our shows. So it’s either you jump in now, or you just don’t jump in at all until next time! (Laughs) That was his choice. He just didn’t want to commit.”
As mentioned before, most of Queensr˙che’s members spent last year working on their respective solo projects. With releases such as Geoff Tate’s self titled solo album, Scott Rockenfield’s ‘The X Chapters’, Michael Wilton’s Soulbender and Degarmo’s contribution to Jerry Cantrell’s ‘Degradation Trip’ and his touring band.
“We totally support each other in the solo things that we do. I was doing the solo way back in 1993 by working with some other people as a guest. And then in 1997, I did my own project ‘Televoid’ with my friend Paul Speer (Who is also a native of Seattle). That was a lot of fun. I even got a Grammy nomination for it. Everyone in the band was totally excited about that. It was great for me, but it also helped the band. It shows talent by all of us in the band, and it doesn’t hurt Queensr˙che by any means. So we definitely support those other projects because it not only helps the band as a business, but it also gives everyone the ability and opportunity to express themselves in other ways outside the Queensr˙che box. You also learn things from other people, and when we get back together to make a new album, I think we all have new influences and new things that we can use for inspiration. You learn things from other people. It’s kind of a learning experience. Geoff did his tour last year, which I thought was great. I also put out an album at the same time. We passed them back and forth, and we compliment each other, or tell each other how much it sucks! (Laughs) We’re honest with each other! With Geoff’s album, that is exactly what I expected from him. I think it’s the same with the other guys. For us to do something the same as Queensr˙che begs the question, why do it? If you do the same thing as Queensr˙che, then why not make another Queensr˙che album? You’re not really changing anything, or exploring new territories or learning anything new by doing that. That’s why we do side projects, to get out of the shell and do other things. For example, I’m scoring a new movie for a director in New York right now. I score orchestra and composition stuff too, with no drums involved at all. It’s all orchestra. That should come out later this year. I see that as an expansion of the Queensr˙che thing. My last solo album ‘The X Chapters’ is kind of the same thing too. It orchestra like, with drums, computers and all sorts of different stuff on there. I played everything on the album. Unfortunately, I’m my own record company when it comes releasing my solo stuff. A lot of sales are done on the Internet (Especially in Australia), so you don’t have global distribution like Queensr˙che. I wish it was better, but like I said, it sounds nothing like Queensr˙che.”