The Popdose Interview: Geoff Tate of Queensrÿche
2010 marks the 20th anniversary of Empire, the chart-topping album from Queensrÿche, and 2011 will begin the band’s 30th year. While both celebrations are notable, they’re not what keeps lead singer Geoff Tate going. In fact, Tate seems to have a much greater interest in the future rather than living in the past. Also, it is clear that Tate is interested in music as art versus mere commerce, and his love of making and listening to music trumps the difficult terrain of the modern music industry. Popdose had a chance to speak with him on a variety of topics, but the central theme remained consistent throughout – progress is about moving forward, and that is what Tate, and Queensyche as an organization, plan to do.
Queensrÿche is in the beginning stages of writing and recording new music. How is that going?
It’s good. We’re actually working on it every day we’re not on the road. But it’s coming along good. We’re hoping to have something out by spring sometime, that’s our goal.
What’s the overall feeling for the new music? Is there a description you could apply to it, or is it still in the formative stages?
Well, when things aren’t completed, it’s always difficult to talk about them. And then, it’s even more difficult to describe in the first place, so, you know, music is definitely a medium that’s best experienced one-on-one with people because it is so difficult to describe stuff. Everybody kind of runs art through their own filters anyway, they take different things from it at different time periods. Something might be inspirational to someone at some time, then someone else might not get it at all, but might discover it later.
It’s all kind of very subjective stuff.
When Queensrÿche was starting out, I assume everyone was fairly localized and was able to be together for writing and recording periods. I would assume that’s not the case anymore. What are the logistics of getting everybody together to write and record?
That really hasn’t changed for us. We all live about ten miles from each other, and we have a central rehearsal location we utilize as well. We’re all a phone call away, really.
That helps. I’ve heard stories of bands with members scattered all across the country, and their biggest obstacle is just getting together anymore.
I think the digital age has really helped with that because you can do file-sharing nowadays, and everybody’s using the same kind of format, probably ProTools, and they can fly files back and forth and get a pretty good sketch of a song as a demo together. When you’ve got enough of those together to make an album, you can get together to rehearse at a central location to really fine-tune it all and record it.
Yeah, the digital age has definitely revolutionized a lot of the recording process and, well, the whole music industry, really. The downloading thing, the economic side of it all, it’s really changed that.
The release getting the notoriety at the moment is the Empire 20th Anniversary reissue. Does it concern you that there’s so much talk about the old albums, while new material might get short shrift? Or, do you take that in stride?
Well, honestly we don’t really look back too much. I don’t think any of us really listen to the records once they’re done, once we finish it, for quite a while. If we do, it’s for reference purposes to go back and refresh your memory, how you did something or if you’re listening for something from a production standpoint if you’re pointing out something to an engineer, or something like that. You’re referencing something you did from a certain record to point to what you’re trying to achieve.
It’s something I’ve heard a lot, not just from musicians but writers and actors, that when they’re done with a project, it’s done.
That’s really the idea behind that. You’re on to the next thing. There’s no use in looking back and getting caught up in what you’ve done in the past. It’s always better to kind of move forward, try to keep the flow going.
In any state of writing and recording, are there any periods where you can really feel something coming together, or is it a matter of maintaining the work ethic? “Let’s get in there and see what arrives?” Was there ever a moment you could point to and say, “We were writing such-and-such and had a really positive feeling this was something that would connect with people?”
Honestly, I don’t know how other people look at it, how they perceive what it is we do. I never consciously think about how it is going to connect with other people other than the band. And I know that’s the case for the entire band. We write music and albums for us, and we share them with people. They might like it at the time, or like it in time after they’ve lived with it more, or they might not like it at all. There’s nothing you can really do about that.
It’s a scenario of diminishing returns when you base your own happiness or your feeling about yourself on what other people think. You have the committee of people you filter the music through, and that’s the band, and if someone in the band isn’t relating to the song or the project, that’s the concern. That’s where you try to make it work. Once the band gets behind it, and everybody’s into it, then full steam ahead.
The band’s new label is Roadrunner/Loud N’ Proud?
Yeah, that’s the new label. That’s the one we’ll be releasing the new album on.
In your opinion, what’s the state of labels these days, not just with Queensrÿche but with the artist/label relationship in general? The labels are in such a strange state. Some labels just keep swallowing up other labels just to exist, while others act somewhat like a clearing house that license from bands – almost like independent contractors. What’s your take on the label side of the music business these days?
It’s changed dramatically since we first started. The biggest factor is that there’s honestly no money in it anymore to support an industry. The product the industry produces is pirated and downloaded and so on. That alone has pretty much gutted the industry. It affects not only the bands but the labels that sell it and all the people that work for them, all the way down. Labels used to employ lots of people to do individual jobs. Now they have to slash and burn and chop from their business in order to survive.
Now you have to find different ways of getting income in so that they can survive in there. Therefore, you have labels swallowing up other labels, joining together and partnering up. The whole industry has changed completely from what it used to be. There used to be money from royalties and record sales, and stuff like that.
I mean, if this was any other business in this state, any other industry, the government probably would have stepped in and subsidized it. (Laughs) But not the recording industry, of course. Not anything that has to do with the arts, of course. It’s just gutted; there’s no money in it. Labels are happy if they can sell five thousand records. Ten thousand is like a major achievement, for that they’re all high-fiving themselves or slapping each other on the ass. Ten years ago, fifteen years ago though, the numbers were dramatically different. You could sell a million records from an established band, easy. Two million records on a really popular band, so that is a dramatic change in the numbers right there.
How has it affected the business side within the band, to deal with not just the labels, but the greater need to tour and in effect be your own promotion machine, where that used to be something the labels did for their acts automatically?
It’s definitely changed that too. You have to multitask, and you have to tour a lot more. And the bands that never really were full musicians in the first place, they were primarily rock stars and such, they don’t tour much, you know? If at all! The bands that were really players, that did get out there and play live, and had an established audience they’ve been building over the years are still able to play shows.
And even on that end, on the live end, that’s changed dramatically too. You have to deal with a monopoly in Clear Channel which owns all these different venues around the country, and they have their own promotional staff, so you don’t have the variety of different promoters that really know the different regions… They kind of oversee everything from one central location.
Then you have the LiveNation and Ticketmaster merger.
Yeah, LiveNation and Clear Channel are really the same thing. And with the Ticketmaster thing, you know honestly, I think that was a big waste of time. Now they charge a couple bucks for the tickets and paperwork and all that, but it’s no big deal. I think some people were just looking for an easy target so they could get the press riled, you know?
Getting back to the topic of digital, for the most part, Queensrÿche has always approached the idea of the album as a self-contained idea. Obviously Operation: Mindcrime, but even going back as recently as American Soldier, while not having a storyline certainly has a central theme that runs all the way through it. What’s your take on how people experience that through digital where the listener can pick and choose, where there’s no necessity to experience something in perhaps a cohesive group?
That’s interesting to me. In fact, we were having some discussions with the record label recently about that. There’s not too many bands that do what we do, it’s kind of our own little niche. The album is kind of going the way of the 45, or the 78! (Laughs.) The format’s not the objective anymore, it’s more a specialized thing.
I guess, perhaps it’s always been that way to a certain extent. People found songs from an album, and they really liked them and that’s what they focused on, and there were others that they couldn’t relate to at the time. Or, they grew into them over time. I guess it’s the same way today; they hear something and if it doesn’t grab them in the first few seconds, they pass over it. It’s pretty easy to skip from track to track now. If you’re gonna download something, off of iTunes or one of the pirate places, you get to pick and choose.
Which is kind of a shame, really, because as I’ve found with music, there’s other people’s music that I don’t immediately gravitate toward but, given time, I grow to love that and really cherish it. And if I would have gone off my initial impression of the song, right off the bat, I would have missed that opportunity to experience something that was beyond my scope at the time. That’s happened to me a lot of times while listening to other people’s music. Buying a record, listening to it once and saying, ugh, then put it away, and then revisit it a year later and my head is in a different place, then I’m saying, wow! How did I miss this? This is brilliant!
That really does speak to people who listen to music on a deeper level. Sometimes I feel hit songs are used more like a fashion accessory now, that you must have the hot track coming out of your car and iPod, rather than having some sort of engagement to the music. Does digital really force that pick-and-choose atmosphere into play?
It’s so difficult to predict or guess what somebody else is going to like, what they’re going to relate to. Music is a very, very personal thing. It goes with people through various stages of their life, their growth and development, so I really try not to get hung up about that, or think about that too much because it’s kind of a dead-end street.
I can’t tell you how many times someone’s come up and said something like, “You know that song off of Rage For Order,” and they’ll give me some title, and they’ll talk about the topic, and it’s not what the song’s about at all! But that’s what they took from it, and that’s the way they hear it, and that’s all good. If they like it and if they get something from it, that’s cool.
So subjectivity is also a part of it. The listener brings something to it as well.
Oh yeah, absolutely.
Queensrÿche’s music has at times dealt with topics other bands would deal with. Have there ever been topics that you’ve considered introducing into the music, but haven’t done so? Or is that somewhat a less democratic approach, and you’d save that for a solo album?
No, I’m pretty free. Everyone in the band is free to bring in ideas. We try to make them all work. One of the things that attracted us all to each other in the first place is that we all have pretty global tastes in music. If you listened to all of our record collections together, we probably own every record that is! You name it: R&B stuff, classical, jazz, pop music; you name it, we’ve got it. We all pull from that stuff and, like, backstage before shows, we’ll all take turns warming up and to get in the vibe, we’ll get into people’s collections of music. And it could be a Willie Nelson song, to a Depeche Mode song… And we try to find what it is about that particular track that each other finds so intriguing, or satisfying.
Once you open your mind up to that, gosh, it just leaves you so open to inspiration.
It’s true. At the same time, I think people get locked into the idea of a band being a very specific thing.
I think that’s very true in the United States. We are a consumer culture, moreso than a lot of places in the world. We have this sort of idea that things have to be in a little box with a little label on it, and that’s as far as it goes. We want our Classic Coke. We want things to be the same way every time. Other cultures are more open to experimentation, and they see music for what it really is, which is art. It’s all subjective, it’s all individual and it’s not so much a product.
That’s always a bit of a thorn in everyone’s side that works in a creative field, I think. How do you straddle that line of still remaining experimental and being true to your art, and also trying to keep an element of consistency in what you do.
There is that battle between wanting to grow, but at the same time you’re being reminded that growth could bring a sense of alienation, and nobody wants to turn their back on growing into their art, and they can’t risk turning off the preexisting fanbase which, perhaps unfairly, want the McDonalds burger in California to taste like the one in New York?
That’s what I was getting at. You try to find a way to straddle that line. Sometimes you hit it and sometimes you don’t. Sometimes the art is too much of an intoxicating draw to you to sacrifice it. In the band, everybody has their own individual goals they try to achieve with each album. And then we all have our collective goals that we all can see eye-to-eye on. We try to work that out so that everybody’s happy with it.
And also, a band is not a product in itself either. It’s a group of individuals who are all at different places in their lives with different experiences as well. They’re bringing all those things into what it is they do within the band. You have to give people room to experiment and grow and change. And sometimes, certain people aren’t into the project at the time. Maybe they don’t contribute that much to it, but on the next one they’re all over the place on it. You have to give people room to do that too. You can’t expect everybody to be in the same place you are at any given moment.
One of the things about Queensrÿche that a lot of people don’t consider is that the band has been relatively intact for quite a long time. There have been different people that have passed through, but at the core, the line-up has remained consistent. What does it take to maintain such a relationship, and what occurs when someone new enters into the band? How do they integrate?
Well, a lot of communication, really. Talking out, well, everything. It’s like being in a relationship, in a marriage, you have to keep on it. Like all relationships, it takes work and you have to be able to express how you feel about things so you can fix things, you know? If nobody’s willing to talk, the problem isn’t fixed, and things keep festering, that would be a section that you have to amputate. (Laughs.)
At least that’s what we’ve found and it seems to work for us. When (Chris) DeGarmo left the band, back in 1997, we decided we were going to continue on, the four of us. How we were going to continue on was the big question mark because Chris was a pretty prolific writer, and contributor to the band, and also a personal motivator. He was very much a leader personality, he was able to keep things going in a certain direction, that kind of thing. With him not there, other people had to take those roles over, and we had to relearn how to operate. We’d been operating in a certain way for a long time and with him gone, we had to relearn how to do things.
We wanted to keep our element of experimentation, so we decided to never have a permanent replacement for him. We’d have different people sit in at different times, and contribute and collaborate with us. So we weren’t actually going to have another permanent guy, or woman, or whoever in that position.
So it was never a matter of trying to get a replacement. I would assume that, because of his role, that finding somebody who would fit into that spot would probably have made the relationship between everyone else uncomfortable.
Yeah, it would, and also honestly, the four of us operate pretty good together. We just felt it would be funner, and more advantageous to us as artists, to collaborate with different people rather than having some stagnant setup where we’d be coming back to the same people for inspiration, you know? It’s worked pretty well for us. It’s given us the chance to work with a lot of different guitar players and producers and engineers over the years, and it’s given us that kind of freedom to explore what we can do.
2011 is the date for the new material, you said about late spring we would likely see that?
And what’s the situation for touring?
We’ll have a coinciding tour with the new album; it’ll be our 30th anniversary year as a band. We’ll be putting together a show that kind of reflects that, to some extent, focusing again on the new material. That’s something that everybody looks forward to, the tour following an album, being able to present the new ideas in a live situation.
I wish we could play our new album live before we could record it. I wish we could do a tour like that, kind of like what bands used to do in the ’60s and ’70s. They’d tour and they’d play the new stuff, because the stuff changes the more you play it. You get different ideas for it, and the more you live with it, the further you can take it.
Thanks again to Geoff Tate for speaking with Popdose, as well as Jeff Albright at The Albright Entertainment Group and RockStar PR for facilitating this interview.