INTERVIEW: Queensryche’s Geoff Tate

Queensryche have never done what was expected of them. They pioneered progressive metal with the legendary concept album Operation: Mindcrime but followed it up with the pop-metal blockbuster Empire. Then they followed Empire with the dark, moody Promised Land. They finally released a sequel to Operation: Mindcrime in 2006, and followed that up with American Soldier, a heavy, intense journey into to horrors of war, both physical and emotional, culled from interviews with actual returned servicemen. New album Dedicated To Chaos (Roadrunner) is a complete about-face from American Soldier, a rhythm-driven, kaleidoscopic examination of modern attention spans (or the lack thereof).

Drummer Scott Rockenfield and bass player Eddie Jackson kickstarted the direction of the album when they turned in a series of riffs and jams that were a world away from the guitar-driven darkness of American Soldier. “That’s what makes it interesting and keeps us coming back for more as musicians,” says singer Geoff Tate, down the line at 2am Melbourne time. “In fact, one of the things that drew us together years ago when we first started out was the ability for almost everyone in the band to really communicate their thoughts on music, and to share their musical influences, which are pretty vast. I think if you look at all of our record collections we probably own every record ever made! I personally own seven or eight thousand records!”

Tate says part of the beauty of Queensryche is that each member is a capable writer, so the band has the ability to shift the songwriting focus to different combinations of members for particular projects. “Everyone doesn’t participate equally in records,” he says. “Some people run dry. Some people are more constantly prolific, and other people have their moments. That’s what it’s about, being in a band. You give people room to grow and to change, to do what they’re going to do.” In that sense, guitarist Michael Wilton seems to take a relative back seat on the Dedicated To Chaos material, playing an at times more textural role than before, with softer, warmer guitar tones than the aggressive, trebly bite of American Soldier. Wilton still throws in a respectable number of harmonized solos, which he will share on the road with guitarist Parker Lundgren, the latest in a line of axemen who have stepped into the spot left vacant by Chris DeGarmo in the late 90s.

In several places where you might expect a guitar solo (and often within the rhythm tracks too) Dedicated To Chaos features Geoff Tate’s saxophone playing. He’s used the instrument a lot over the years, but rarely so boldly. “Well there’s always some stuff …I guess in the 90s there was some saxophone on the records, but oftentimes I sort of mask the sound of the saxophone naturally by running it through amplifiers and things, y’know? And just because I’m a melody guy, and I listen a lot to the melody structure of the songs. But this time I left the saxophone unaffected on a lot of tracks so that you can really hear it. I took a few solos here and there. The only track that I masked the actual horn sound was “At The Edge,” where I played the solo section at the end of the song through an amplifier. It has more of a rock feel to it.” The “At The Edge” solo sounds particularly interesting because at first it almost sounds like a harmonica through a guitar amp. It’s only a few phrases in that your ears manage to grasp what’s going on.

Tate plays a number of different saxes on the record and on the road. “I primarily play tenor saxes. That seems to be the one that I go to first, the one I can play the best and that I get the most expression out of. But I also play alto and soprano. I haven’t jumped over to the baritone yet. I want to get one because I love the sound of it, but I haven’t found one that I want to buy yet, and they’re very expensive, so I have to justify it.” Tate plays Yamaha saxophones, and he has a Selmer Mark 6 that he uses for recording only. And why the sax? “I just love it. I started out in school band playing brass instruments and my preference for instrumentation is usually horns. They’re very similar to singing. They’re a melody instrument and very expressive. You can do a lot of things on it like you would when you are singing. And they’re kind of a sexy instrument. You can get really soulful and haunting with it, and you can also get really nasty as well. It’s very much like a voice: there’s a lot of breathing that goes into it.”

Over the 30 years that Queensryche has been together, Tate has learned to care for his legendary four-octave vocal range. “I’m pretty fortunate – I have a very strong voice, and I started out very early in my teens taking voice training. I started using opera techniques, and it really helped me maintain my voice throughout a performance. When I first started singing I could only sing for half an hour before I’d start losing my voice, so with the training it gave me a lot of stamina. I can sing for three hours now and not have a problem. I think that’s really the key: doing the breath exercises and staying healthy. That’s a big part of it. Exercising every day, getting lots of sleep, which is paramount when you are on the road. My body needs eight hours every day, and if I can get the proper rest I can do shows continuously with no break. In fact, I don’t like to take a break. I like to just power through a tour and not have a day off. But that’s just me. I’m fortunate in the fact that I’ve got a lot of strength in my voice.”

Tate released a solo album in 2002 which showcased a different side of his musical personality – at times rocking, at times restrained. A follow-up is in the works. “I’ve got quite a few tracks recorded for it,” Tate says. I’ve just got to find the time to finish it, really. Queensryche takes up a lot of my time, recording, and of course touring is a big part of our livelihood these days. So it becomes really an issue of time. But as a composer I’m always writing. It’s just that a lot of what I write ends up being on a Queensryche record. So I have to kind of juggle that. Economically it makes more sense for me to put out a Queensyrche album, so I customise the songs to fit a Queensryche record.” There is no release date in mind for the album yet.

[geo-in country=”Australia” note=””]By the way, Tate says Australia is in Queensryche’s tour plans – welcome news from a band who only played Oz for the first time in 2006.[/geo-in]

Dedicated To Chaos is out now through Roadrunner Records.

[geo-in country=”Australia” note=””]This is an extended version of an interview published in Mixdown magazine.[/geo-in] You can read more of this interview at Gibson.com.