|Going for the 'Aunch'
by John Stix
|Do you consider yourselves a progressive band as opposed to a blues-based band?
CHRIS: Yeah, but it's strange, because so many of the bands that we grew up admiring are blues bands.
MICHAEL: Blues-based, like Zeppelin.
CHRIS: I grew up listening to tons of Aerosmith.
So what happened?
CHRIS: It's a chemistry thing. The reason Queensryche is the way it is, is the combination of Scott Rockenfield, Eddie Jackson, and each one of their influences. It's the same with Michael, myself, and Geoff. If you ran through the stuff that all of us have been into, it's all progressive. Scott bathes in Alan White and Neil Peart. With Eddie, it's Alice Copper, who did some very experimental things. Geoff came out of Yes and Genesis. I came out of the Beatles, Floyd.
MICHAEL: It's kind of a growth thing, going through these different stages as a guitar player. You can go as far as you want. We just got to this one point.
CHRIS: We've also had this "No Limits" motto in the band since we first started. We're always pushing each other to go out there, go outside.
MICHAEL: Don't be afraid to make something interesting.
CHRIS: And never think something's too weird to bring in.
What is the weirdest thing on Empire?
CHRIS: "Thin Line" and "Della Brown" are very different for us. Each song in it's own way was different. "Anybody Listening" is out there. "Another Rainy Night Without You" is not as free-form, when it comes to a structure standpoint as "Anybody Listening," but it's still a different song for us.
Have either of you had any recent influences that actually had an impact on your playing?
MICHAEL: It's kind of tough, when you don't have a lot of time. You tend to go back to your roots. At least I do. I don't have time to sit down and study somebody I listen to it, and accept something for what it is. Subconsciously, I might retain something.
CHRIS: A recent project that I've actually sat down and analyzed was Hysteria. I sat there and analyzed that record up one side and down the other. It's an amazing production, a fantastic collection of songs. My motives in it aren't that I want to sound like Def Leppard. Our record doesn't sound like Def Leppard. Our songs don't sound like Def Leppard. But it's a lesson. It's an education. I listened to Yes' 90125 was one of them , and Hysteria is just a modern masterpiece. I'm not gonna sit here and say I love electronic drums. We much prefer the acoustic. There's lots of little pros and cons. You can look at it from arranging, compositions and sonics, how much bandwidth, what sort of territory that sonic landscape covers. It's an awesome productions.
MICHAEL: Led Zeppelin IV and V are not awesome productions, but they're magical. There's an aura to albums.
Have there been any guitarists who have gotten you off recently?
MICHAEL: I like Slash.
CHRIS: I like George Lynch.
Michael, in the past we've talked about John Coltrane as an influence in your music. In what way does it actually manifest itself in your playing?
MICHAEL: I hear it in my solos. The end part of "Della Brown" I heard as a saxophone. I hear a lot of my parts, just the phrasing, and the feeling I go for as sometimes jazz, and sometimes classical. I know my father hears them. He goes, "Great, you're listening to Coltrane again!"
CHRIS: It's all relative. If Michael's sitting down to write his solo section to "Della," and his old Coltrane listenings come to mind, for Michael, that inspired him to write that solo. Whether or not someone hears Coltrane in his solo is not the point.
How soon after the Mindcrime tour was over did you pick up the guitar? Is the inclination, once you get off the road, to take a break?
MICHAEL: Most definitely. We took two months off. We were out of ten months. When I got home I didn't even listen to music.
CHRIS: I didn't pick up my guitar for three or four weeks. I didn't even touch it. Then I think I listened to some of the Dictaphone recordings I did on the road and that kind of inspired me.
When you pick up a guitar, do you pick up an electric guitar and plug it into an amp, or do you pick up an acoustic?
MICHAEL: Acoustic, 'cause it's easier.
CHRIS: I've got both at home, it depends on what mood I'm in. An electric generally don't even plug in. I just grab it and sit on the couch, playing it without an amp.
MICHAEL: Lately, I've just been playing a Taylor 12-string acoustic, because it's different. I like hearing all the ringing.
Do you try to get road chops for a recording?
CHRIS: Generally what happens is that with the time it takes us to write the stuff and get it rehearsed cohesively, we've been rehearsing to the point where we come back up to a certain level.
MICHAEL: It's tough; you've gotta go review the old Segovia scales.
When you guys get together to rehearse, do you horse around and play Led Zeppelin or Rolling Stones songs?
CHRIS: Not really. At rehearsal, it's always organized time, working on Queensryche ideas. But we jam, too. If someone's not there, like if it's only three guys there, we'll mess around.
MICHAEL: Usually Scott and Eddie start playing Rush. We may play a Zeppelin riff, or something we heard on the radio.
Do you ever sit-in with other people, just for fun?
MICHAEL: I haven't. Pretty much all my time is devoted to Queensryche.
CHRIS: Yeah. I get total playing satisfaction out of this band. We have free reign, really. The things that we want to write, we write. The things that we want to play, we play. I never feel like the solo is too constricting. "Della Brown" is a song where we just started jamming on this groove, and we wanted these soaring solos that were oozing with passion. It was a very different approach. We'd never done this thing, playing with echoes and feedback, and not worrying so much about what was happening. The space was more exiting than filling it.
It sounds like the solos are either written out, or planned ahead of time.
CHRIS: Ah, yeah, for the most part. In the case of my solos, generally the ones that I've kept are the original solo that I just came up with when I did the demo for the song the first time through. I kept all the solos from the demos and just performed them.
MICHAEL: What I usually do is listen to the song on tape and then it changes in the studio because everything sounds different . The rest are usually improvised.
And how will you construct it? Do you know the lyrics before you solo and do they have an effect? Or is it chord changes, the mood?
CHRIS: It's kind of a strange situation. It depends on the track. ON Mindcrime, there were some situations where the solo was definitely influenced by what the lyric was about, like "Electric Requiem." The reason that solo sounds like that is because of what's happening in the story. The attitude of that solo was governed by what was actually taking place.
MICHAEL: Some songs, like "The Thin Line," were basically taken off the lyric, the melody of the lead vocal.
Who does what on this record? You don't identify who solos on the songs.
CHRIS: I do the solos on "Thin Line," "Jet City Woman," "Empire," "Silent Lucidity," "One and Only" and "Anybody Listening." "Della Brown" has three solos. I do the first two, and Michael does the last one. "Another Rainy Night" and "Hand On Heart" are Michael.
How do you decide who will solo on which song?
CHRIS: Generally, if Michael writes something, he usually solos.
MICHAEL: I usually have a good idea of the melody and the mood I want to put in the solo. If it's not happening, then I'll have Chris do it.
Chris, over the whole Queensryche catalogue, what songs do you wish you had soloed on?
CHRIS: Going back, I'll say "Revolution Calling." That was a great, real challenging rhythm. That would have been something interesting to solo over. Michael came up with a great piece over that.
MICHAEL: For me, it's "Silent Lucidity." I like the key changes. It drops into Eb, which is such a warm key. It's the modulation and the chord changes. It's one of those parts of a song that just lends so much to a nice melodic solo.
Let's talk about keys. Do you think differently if you're in E and A than if you are in Eb, or Bb, or F? Is there a comfort factor, or a desire to play in a particular key?
CHRIS: One thing about this record was we wanted to experiment with all kinds of different keys. If you go through it, there really are a lot of different keys that the songs are based in. The cool thing about that is the different keys create different moods. For instance, with "Jet City Woman," one reason why I liked writing it is because it''s in Ab, and I'd never written anything in Ab. Everybody else also thought it was cool. All the chording and positions changed just because of the way the string arrangement is when you're in that key. It allowed for a different attitude.
How would you describe other keys?
CHRIS: Michael brought up a good point, that you can use the key change, or the modulation, to create a lifting feeling, a sinking feeling, or a descending feeling. The case of "Lucidity" is a prime example. It's this uplifting modulation from G to Eb into the solo section that just lifts you up out of the track and into this whole other element of the song. At that point it's because of the modulation. The key change sets up the melodic, serene solo to follow over it. The impact of that happens because of the key chance. That's how strong it can be. "Eyes of a Stranger" is a classic example. We originally had the whole verse in E and Peter Collins, our producer, made the suggestion that we do a key modulation.
MICHAEL: Go up a whole step to F#.
CHRIS: We pulled it up to that, and it totally brought the track into a new dimension.
MICHAEL: As a guitar player, you think of F# as abrasive. To me it's a violent chord. It's real angry. Then all of a sudden, you use an E.
CHRIS: And the transition is to the clearer guitar tone. A backward sound coming into a clean sound. It was a sort of radical shift. What we were looking for was a shift of reality, and that's what we like to do with the keys in the songs - create intense perspective changes. Our first Ep was written entirely in the key of E. We vowed never to have a recording again that was so limited. But we were very young on our instruments at the time. This album is a smorgasbord of key changes and modulations.
Is that intentional or did it happen naturally?
CHRIS: A little of both.
MICHAEL: Yeah. E is like, when you're starting out, it's the low open string.
CHRIS: It's the heaviest, it's the easiest.
MICHAEL: Yeah, for the guitar player, it's the easiest to come up with ideas. As you start listening to all your records and all the old great riffs are in the key of E, you've got ot be careful. We just decided, 'Let's be adventurous. Let's try Eb!'
CHRIS: Plus, from a musician's standpoint, the challenge was to be able to create in different keys, because it changes things. You need to know your way around the way chords work together and the type of results that you get from combining certain intervals.
Is it thought out that much?
CHRIS: Yes. We're thinking...
MICHAEL: Let's make it interesting. Let's not have all the songs in A or E. It's personal. With your own playing, you get so used to playing in a key, you just want to do something different. You get sick of it.
So what else affects a solo?
CHRIS: It's musical. I'm always thinking that I'm writing phrasing over a piece. When I write solo. I think phrasing, I think melody. I'm talking about interaction of that solos part against the rhythm, or with the rhythm. Usually a combination of both.
Give me another guitarist who you think does that very well.
CHRIS: David Gilmour is brilliant at utilizing those elements. But let's just say, solos have never been a big point of contention with Michael and I. When we sit down to write, the solo is the last thing we think about. It's the song. We sit down, we write a song, and then, once the song has taken shape, we think of other things.
MICHAEL: The riff gives you the vibe, and then the vibe happens.
CHRIS: And the solo responds to the groove, to the track. The solo is the melodic statement that you express yourself within the track, but if you don't have a good song, the solo is no big deal! I think solos are very overrated. It's become where now there's so much emphasis placed on the solo itself, that sometimes people are overlooking the song. This comment might be directed more at the priorities of the aspiring guitar player of this age. The aspiring guitar player of this age is so concerned, at an early age, with technique, of being competent at being the latest whipster on the block.
Weren't you two guilty of this when you were young?
MICHAEL: I was on the Ep. Definitely. I was still young as a guitar player.
CHRIS: What I'm saying is, for me, the solos always come after the song. Even from day one.
As a guitarist, don't you usually have to go through the solo thing, almost before you can become a songwriter?
CHRIS: I disagree. You can write great tunes at a young age, all based around simple chording. With regards to Queensryche, the statements that we make during the solos are very important to us. We work on our solos. That's why we don't just go in and wail or wing something off. We think them out, and we want to say something very important with them. They can be the extra-memorable bit of that song, that pushes it over. You know, the killer solo. It's just the priority when we're writing together is different. Michael doesn't come in and go, "Check out this solo I got! Will it fit in one of your songs?" He goes, "I got these great ideas for a son," and the solo gets dealt with later.
Where do you store your ideas?
CHRIS: Microcassettes. You put it on and you just start jamming.
Do you jam with a drum machine?
CHRIS: No, you just play, and you shut your eyes, and listen to it the next day.
Do you make time to do that?
CHRIS: Well, you don't do it every day, because then it gets to be a job, or some systemating thing. You may listen to it and you may hear a harmony in there, or just a melody, and it might stick with you for a few days. And then you may come back and listen to it again and maybe that's the seed. That's how something gets started for me.
How much of the material gets accepted?
CHRIS: Well, for this last album, every song we wrote was on the album.
MICHAEL: There was nothing extra.
CHRIS: We wrote 12 songs for this project.
MICHEAL: One went to the Ford Fairlane soundtrack, but that was written for this album.
How do you work with a microcassette?
CHRIS: I've got a Dictaphone, and I always keep it with me. With a lot of my stuff, I'll sing the guitar idea that I've got into the Dictaphone. If I don't have a guitar, I'll just sing it.
What song started with a sung riff?
CHRIS: "Anybody Listening," off this record. I've actually got just the melody of the first verse on Dictaphone. I was thinking what the guitar was going to do. But it was more the melody that I latched on to and then I could already hear in my head what the guitar was supposed to do. A lot of times, we won't make super-elaborate demos. Michael and I remember on the tour last year, both of us had these little Dictaphones, and we'd just sit there and find some free time and start playing each other's Dictaphones. If one of us had a complete idea, we'd share it, and talk about what the other had in mind to pull it off. In some instances, I'd say, "I've got this piece; do you have anything that might work with this?" And Mike would listen to it, and go, "Yeah, wait a second, I think I've got something."
MICHAEL: I might listen to your tape and hear something that you didn't hear and explain to you how I hear it.
Is it all musical? Are you writing melody lines for Geoff to sing?
CHRIS: Not in every instance. Geoff writes melody lines, it depends on the song. Take "Lucidity," for instance. The music, the lyrics, the melody, I had it all ready and he liked it, so he went with it. Some stuff he'll change a bit. You toss a melody out, and he'll go, "Yeah, I like that," and use some of it.
Is there anything weird about the fact that you're sort of writing instrumentals that have vocals on them? You're writing an instrumental piece with a vocal melody in mind, but no particular lyric content, is that what happens?
CHRIS: Well, once again, it depends on the song. Half the battle is if you can get a good song structure going and good phrasing.
MICHAEL: It takes persistence. I wrote this song and I didn't have a melody, but I go, "Geoff, this feels environmental," and he wrote the lyrics. I go, "Make it Stones-ish," and he wrote this environmental song.
CHRIS: Sometimes, Geoff will come in, and go, "Okay, I'm onto an idea of this melody. I think the verse should go like this. When we started writing "Hand on the Heart,"he had the melody in mind for the verse. The music was already kind of pulsing in the key, but we rearranged the parts so that they accented what he wanted to sing. So we had an initial idea, together, that sparked a melody, and a lyrical direction from him, and then we re-wrote the composite around his idea. That's what you have to do. It's adaptability. Once someone's onto something, and the synapses start snapping, we all rally to make it work.
Are you writing songs for two guitar parts?
CHRIS: But there's a lot of instances on this album where you're only hearing one guitar at any given time. It's never where we write a song and I go, 'I've got this piece together, but it's only got one guitar during the verse, will Michael be pissed?' The answer is no. all Michael wants to do is make our parts where a second guitar part will benefit. It's the same thing with me. Michael comes in with a piece. I don't think anything's ever written just to make sure there's two guitars. The song's just written.
Do you do anything in your time off to work on your guitar abilities? Calisthenics so to speak? Do you work on sound abilities, as a songsmith and soundsmith?
CHRIS: I'd say the latter I spent more time on. Not so much the gymnastics or the calisthenics. We do nightly rehearsals on the road. At home, though, Michael wants to better the guitar sound on Operation: Mindcrime. We knew what areas we thought were deficient, and that we needed to improve on. Like the scope of the sound, from just a sheer thickness standpoint. We thought that the sound could be wider, and thicker.
MICHAEL: Less edgy.
CHRIS: On this album, we've captured, in my opinion, the best Queensryche guitar sound to date. I think it's also the best mix.
Did you play with more toys?
CHRIS: Definitely; we're always experimenting. We used the Bradshaw system. It's more than just a switching system The Bradshaw system has allowed us to cohesively organize all the things that we need to do within a show. It's a sonic organizer.
MICHAEL: It routes signals in a certain way, which is smart.
CHRIS: The traditional Marshall head is the sound that we've been going for. It's real easy for us in this band, because when it comes to the power sound, or the aggressive sound, we both see very much eye-to-eye on what we need to accomplish with that. We don't like a lot of distortion. We like something we call "Aunch." That is the killer sound.
MICHAEL: You're in heaven when you have that.
CHRIS: "Aunch" is the end of "The Thin Line." "Jet City Woman" has it. In the rhythm section, the best example is at the end of "Thin Line," because we're really poking out the notes. But it's very clear, very audible. All the notes that are going on have this incredible crunch around the sound.
MICHAEL: It's like little distortions. They sparkle at you or something.
CHRIS: We were messing with it forever.
MICHAEL: It's taken so long!
CHRIS: And we wanted the speaker to say "Aunch!" to us, when we're using the pick at this particular spot on the guitar. This sounds totally out there. We hit it one day. It went "Aunch," and both of us stood there and knew this is it! So then we just dialed it in, and brought it into the studio, and there it is.
Are you still using ESP guitars?
CHRIS: And new Gibsons. We used quite a bit of Gibson on the record. We use Explorers a lot on the record, and Les Pauls, and the ESPs. I've got a '78 Explorer.
MICHAEL: And Taylor acoustics.
CHRIS: I've got an old Martin D-135 that we were recording with on "Lucidity," as well as the Taylors.
Are the ESPs stock guitars?
CHRIS: We rodded those a little bit. We've got Duncan Customs in there. With ESP we have been able to have them just build specifically our creature comforts - the width we want the neck, the type of frets that we like.
MICHAEL: It's basically that the Strat sound we like to embellish. That's why we have the Gibson Les Pauls, because it's a different sound, more of a full-bodied sound.
What do you use your double-neck for?
CHRIS: I use it on "Silent Lucidity," and live, there's a couple other tunes, "The Mission" off Mindcrime. It's a 6 and 12. There's only two spots on "Lucidity" where there's any electric guitar at all. The rest of it's entirely acoustic.
Any other new toys?
MICHAEL: I've got the Eventide H-3000. I'm still learning how to use it. There's so many things on it, so maybe next year I'll learn how to use it.
CHRIS: With me there's no one particular device. It was the sum total that got us to the "Aunch." There's all kinds of things. I've got SPX-90 gear; I've got Lexicon gear; I've got compressors. It's usually a combination of something that really creates the cool sound.
MICHAEL: You're got to have your basic sound, that "Aunch" first. If you don't have the original sound you can't disguise it with EQ or delays or reverb.
CHRIS: Speaking of EQ, we're both using these ART programmable 15-bands, and that is very handy, 'cause you've got access to radical EQ changes within the touch of a MIDI program change. That's really opened up some cool stuff for us, too. We've spent some time messing with those in the studio. It's great now. When we went into the studio in the past, even on Mindcrime, we sat there messing for hours to get the basic rhythm sound. On this album, we walked in the door, and it was there. We had worked so hard to prepare the guitar sounds before we walked in to record the album, that when we got there it took the time to set up our system and we were ready to start recording with our guitar sounds.
Are there elaborate demos?
CHRIS: We do them for our management.
MICHAEL: Some people say they're elaborate.
CHRIS: As elaborate as our albums, no. We do 8-tracks.
How much rehearsal do you do before you go to play the songs?
MICHAEL: We're perfectionists.
CHRIS: "Resistance" we wrote in the studio. That was performed. Scott literally came up with this drum part in a day. He took the tape home. There were guide guitars to it, and he went home, and came back and whipped off his drum part the next morning. Other songs developed over months. We had the time to rehearse them. "Empire" was written for a long time before we recorded. We may have played it 100 times. The first 15 times were like a first version of the song, maybe without Geoff doing his part, or Scott playing something different. Each ten times something happens, and we work on it a little bit more until the ultimate time in the studio.
You have a habit of doing an intro that has little to do with the rest of the song. Do you write the intros after you write the son?
CHRIS: (laughs) No, I think that's just a cosmic accident. But I think the intros to our songs are cohesive with the rest of the piece. It's a perspective shift. It's something that we go after with songs. It's taking the listener to that different place in the song. That's exciting for us. It's not like, 'Okay, what is the beginning riff of the song, and that's gonna be it.'
Are you writing chronologically?
MICHEAL: Chris may have a whole completed idea, a chorus, and we hear the verse as the chorus. That's happened a lot.
CHRIS: When I was saying, "Guys, look, this is the chorus," three of them say, 'No.' Or I say it's the bridge, right? Three of the guys will go, "No, that sounds like the chorus."
MICHAEL: On "Eyes of a Stranger," I had the chorus as the bridge, and when I walked it to play it for everybody, Michael and Geoff and Scott and everybody said, "but that's the chorus." And I said, "No, actually, that's the bridge." And they said, "No, that sounds like the chorus." I said, "Okay."
Jeff Beck may like to record live, Steve Vai does his songs beat by beat. Where are you in that scale when it comes time to do parts?
MICHAEL: Some of the stuff were first takes on this record.
CHRIS: With the exception of the two measure slide bit which I dropped in the "Lucidity" solo was my guide that I laid down for Scott to play to.
MICHAEL: Generally, most of the rhythm parts are one or two takes. The first take you get going, and maybe your guitar's out of tune, or something's not right on the board.
CHRIS: The first take is always recorded. A lot of the first takes got used.
Are you playing with the drummer?
MICHAEL: We're playing with the drums, and the bass. The guide tracks is just a click track.
CHRIS: Just a click, Michael and I both do our passes to the click. That's the part, when I was saying, on "Lucidity" the solo wasn't even played to the band, it was played to the click. Then Scott lays it down and then we go in. It's so cool because Michael and I will set up the sound for a master take, but we just play to the click. Scott comes in, he'll play to us, so that we've got this semblance of the performance together, and 60% of the time we're together, just because we've been together eight years. We know each other.
Do you with that you didn't have to play to a click to get that rhythm down?
CHRIS: We don't have to play to the click to get the rhythm down.
MICHAEL: Yeah, what happens is, Scott has the click. He just uses our rhythm part as a guide.
You do your master rhythm parts to a click, and most of the time you keep it.
CHRIS: I think it's inaccurate to say that most of the time we keep it. I'm saying that's the way it goes down. As we treat it, we want to get the sound set-up, because somebody could do something really cool on that, and in a lot of cases we did, and we kept the stuff. Playing for Scott is weird. I don't know how to explain it, but before we go in, we are extremely well rehearsed, playing just to Scott. We don't do any click we play to Scott. So when we sit down to play the song, although all I hear is a 'beep-beep-beep' in my headphones, honest to g'd, Scott was there.
When Scott is there, do you go in or does he play alone?
CHRIS: Oh yeah, we hang out. We'll sit there and cheer for him. We see him on the video monitor. We all know each other's parts. I've spoken with other musicians where they'll write a piece and they don't know what the other band members are going to do to it. They just go, "Well, I know that I've done my part, but I don't really know what the melody's gonna be; I don't know what he's written for the lyrics - it's just gonna happen." Not the case with this band. I know exactly what Michael is playing in every part of every song. Michael know what I'm playing. I know what Eddie's playing at any given time. Once we get recording, we'll alter it. Sometimes Eddie will change something, and go, "Yeah, yeah, that's cool, okay." And then we'll change our parts to adjust to his. We let accidents happen and we encourage the spontaneity. No one's set in stone when they go in, but by knowing what somebody else is gonna do, it allows us to make the song more cohesive. It works for us.