In the run up to
their sole UK appearance at this years Castle Donnington, Seattle
Maestros QUEENSRYCHE have finally broken the silence to chat to JOHN
DUKE about the past decade.. With the highs, the lows, the hopes, the
fears. This is their story.
The last 10 years
have seen Chris DeGarmo (guitar), Geoff Tate (vocals), Eddie Jackson
(bass), Michael Wilton (guitar), and Scott Rockenfield (drums), emerge
from small town notoriety to current platinum basted super stardom.
Universally acknowledged as one of the most distinctive acts of the
last decade, it somehow seems fitting that Queensryche are about to
celebrate ten years together with their first ever Donnington
performance. To commemorate both events I indulged in two lengthy
conversations with Mr DeGarmo in which we covered the entire band
history from day one. So with much thanks for his time and
consideration, let us begin.
Seattle, 1981, sees
the five individual members of what will become Queensryche scattered
in dissimilar cover bands across the Seattle suburbs. Day jobs ranked
from stacking in stockrooms, to fiddling in electronic assembly plants.
Initially Eddie, Michael, Chris, Geoff add Scott were, drawn by a
universal dissatisfaction. The need to create, to be different.
"We did a few gigs
under the moniker 'The Mob' in certain Seattle clubs. We wanted to
write original material, to forge our own direction. Back in '81
relatively few bands in the Seattle area were making names for
themselves and those that were just did covers. A lot younger and
fresher, sixteen, maybe seventeen, we wanted to make moves outside of
simply being the best local band. As The Mob we only did five shows,
but as two of those were 'Battle Of The Band' affairs we managed to put
together quite a nice local following. As I remember Geoff was the
really loose piece in the puzzle back then. He'd been with another band
for some time and was very hesitant about giving that up for anything
new and untried."
From its inception
Queensryche was determined to go about things in an original manner.
Refusing to do the usual bar room cover circuit the band literally went
underground (into Chris' basement) and worked on original material. The
first four track demo was eventually played to the owners of Easy
Street records, Kim and Diana Harris, by Scott's brother, Todd. They
liked the material and immediately ran off 3,500 copies on their own
independent label '206'. The eponymously titled first offering was
worked around the local stations, sent overseas, and positive feedback
started to come in, especially from the UK.
"I can still
remember the weird feeling I got hearing our stuff on local radio for
the first time. It was an incredible rush and things seemed to happen
quite quickly. Either Kim or Diana played one of the tracks from the EP
over the phone to someone in A&R at EMI America, they came up to
see the band and suddenly Queensryche had a deal! Luckily we'd already
got an album's worth of unrecorded material so we were ready to go into
the studio right away."
arrived in London to record the first album, 'The Warning' with
producer James Guthrie. In retrospect it was a somewhat clumsy,
grandiose affair. Recorded in five different studios, it also cost the
earth. "James chose London to cut the album. The bands we had been
influenced by were the very ones he'd worked with, Priest, Floyd,
etcetera. It was all very exciting for the band, all very heady. Yet,
if we'd known then what we know now, we would have gone about matters
completely differently. For a start we'd have flown James over to the
States as opposed to flying the entire Queensryche entourage over to
London for three months! It was our first album, first time working
with a producer, it was a whole new world and we didn't really get it
together. Consequently I don't think we captured what we wanted with
that record. Some material was attempting to take the band to new
places, 'Roads To Madness' and 'NMI56' particularly. In retrospect, I
definitely look back on 'The Warning' as a lesson, and a very expensive
played a gig as Queensryche, the band was quickly introduced to the
delights of tour support, with the likes of Kiss, Quiet Riot, Twisted
Sister and Dio. The time was 1984.
"It was one hell of
a jump and extremely nerve wracking because none of the band had
enjoyed a tremendous amount of stage experience. From having played
before crowds of maybe a hundred or so people, we were suddenly down in
Texas in front of audiences of ten to twelve thousand! It was just an
incredible situation. The entire band had to make massive adjustments
and I think it only then began to dawn just what we'd let ourselves in
for' We thought we'd done the hard part getting a record deal but those
shows brought us down to earth very quickly. We realized we'd only
ascended to the bottom of yet another ladder!" he laughs. "Matters
weren't helped by the fact that we'd started touring before 'The
Warning' had even been released so no-one was familiar with any of the
material! We had to work very hard to salvage a lot of those shows. It
Vancouver's Mushroom Studios with the help of name producer Neil
Kernon, Queensryche's second album 'Rage For Order' marked the
beginning of a critical acceptance that the band has never lost.
Showing the roots of the hi-tech metal machine that was to rear its
head one year on, 'Rage For Order' took far more chances than 'The
Warning'. It showed a band searching for an identity.
"'Rage' was the beginning of our independence from past influences. Our
first couple of releases had been consistently compared to Priest and
Maiden, and after awhile that sort of became a monkey riding on our
shoulder. Yes, we were listening to those bands, and it was all very
inspiring and what not, but for 'Rage' we were desperate to create our
own sound. We started experimenting a hell of a lot, especially with
keyboards, basically fucking around trying to find just what we could
do. I still think we came up with some pretty
wild stuff. 'Rage' was loosely cohesive, largely theme orientated, and
the first record we were satisfied with musically."
Musically, it might
have been a success. Image-wise it was virtually a disaster. Clumsy.
The band decorating the cover in long leather macs, sultry mascaras
peering from below scaffolded hairdo's. They got rightly crucified.
"Bluntly it was
just poor decision making on the part of the band and management. By
'Rage' it had become evident to us that other acts were accompanying
their musical statements with strong visual images, so we thought we
might as well take a stab at it! Up until that point the music had been
the complete priority and there was a bitter struggle going on within
the band to get noticed as individuals. 'Rage For Order' taught us that
the music could stand alone. It showed us where the priorities for the
band should lie. In retrospect we know that the image we have in 1991
is based around what's in the grooves. Back then we were working
against what was on the record."
The tours for 'Rage', from August '86 to February '87, got heads nodding for the band all over the world. It was then that
Queeensryche hooked up to an extensive US trek with AC/DC and Ozzy, plus selective dates with AOR gods Bon Jovi.
tour was amazing and I think the point when we realized that we might
be sitting on a springboard to somewhere else. Those AC/DC gigs were
the best thing that had happened to the band to date, placing
Queensryche in front of an audience that normally would never have
heard or seen us. Yet, ironically, it all got a little detrimental
towards the end, within the heads of the band at least. Because we had
hooked into such a big touring set-up, because we were more than happy
with our last album, we got a little impatient. By early '87 it seemed
that we'd run up against a wall. Bands can get signed, sell a couple of
hundred thousand records, get on great tours, but the vehicles that get
you really exposed to the masses, radio and video, were still locked
tight. That was very frustrating because we thought 'Rage' could have
worked those avenues really well. We were starting to realize that
things weren't going to be breaking big after two albums, and around
that time certain bands were hitting platinum on just the one, and
frankly Queensryche was getting a little green! In retrospect what we
didn't realize was that we were building for the next album, setting
ourselves up for what was to come."
They had to wait.
The future was 'Operation Mindcrime', the fulcrum for Queensryche in
more ways than one. Again they took a chance. In the late '80s thrash
was the rage, thought had gone out the window, concept was consequently
old hat and associated with retrogressive tossers like Pink Floyd and
Yes. Queensryche, being Queensryche, swam straight against the stream.
"We'd been tossing
around the idea of doing a complete concept album. Geoff especially
wanted the band to do something massive in scope that utilised strict
chronological sense. He had a rough idea of the outline, of the Nikki,
Mary and Doctor X characters way up front, and things just started to
spark from his early enthusiasm. Lyrically I know Geoff considered the
whole thing a massive personal challenge. Up until 'Mindcrime' he and I
had pretty much collaborated on all lyrics, but he got on a roll with
this one and virtually did the entire thing alone."
'Mindcrime' was no easy proposition to sell to the record company.
Their input was "You've just come off a big tour, you've got a solid
following, it's time to make the safe record that could break big."
Meanwhile we're in my basement conspiring to come up with this sordid
tale of revolution, mind control and brain washing!" Laughs. "Writing
that fucker was no easy process! Forget the concept itself, musically
we worked our asses off on 'Mindcrime'. Creatively it was a very
intensive and fraught period way before we ever got near the bloody
studio! Consequently once we'd finished we were desperate to find the
right people to record it, because everything, every facet, had to be
true. As I remember we were quite willing to work with Neil Kernon
again but I think it's safe to say that none of the band had actually
been blown away with any of our past productions. Then EMI put forward
Peter Collins and we honestly never looked back. He was just finishing
off some stuff with Nick Kershaw, and we bargained that someone from
such a different background colliding with us had to produce some
pretty exciting results. 'Mindcrime' was going to be a very complex
album to capture
and the last thing we wanted was some 'rock' producer to come in and
do a 'Ho hum, it's just another record.'
have thought long and hard about the concept and who they wanted
working on it, but once 'Operation Mindcrime' was
taken into the studio in early '88, even they were unprepared for what
"It got totally
insane in there! Obsessive to the ninth degree! The
entire band actually fell out of our creative tree in a big way, and
nowhere was that more apparent than on the many sound effects which
proliferate that record. We would ask ourselves ridiculous questions
like , 'if someone were walking down the hallway what would it sound
like if they were whistling down wind and you were following behind
them? When the door opens in a room where should the voice come from?
When they walk over to the bed where exactly is the bed in relation to
the rest of the room?' We were up to all hours of the night drawing
floor plans for fucking imaginary buildings!" Chuckles. "I have to give
Peter Collins credit though, he was always willing to sit through these
things. It was that sort of quality control that really left a lasting
impression, even though I still think Peter went a little crazy making
that record. But then again we were working seriously long hours,
because he was determined to bring 'Mindcrime' in on schedule and on
budget. Which he finally did to all our amazement!"
completed and initial euphoria worn away, the real world started to
intrude into Queensryche's creative paradise in
the form of the record company.
least, 'Operation:Mindcrime' was a massive success
to band, producer and management, but the record company was floored as
to how to actually promote it. Great album but what the fuck is it all
about?" was a question voiced more than once! and that's where Q Prime
played an important part. Luckily we had recently hooked into the sort
of powerful management who could ensure that no outside pressure was
put on the band to change anything. And when the album immediately got
great critical reviews it took at least some of that pressure off!"
Yet it would take
eight long months before 'Mindcrime' finally broke in the USA, and it
eventually came through a combination of two elements that have always
lain at the cornerstone of the band's success. Clever, powerful
management and instinctive, grandiose artistic vision.
landed two critical tours which allowed the band to bring their own
highly individualistic metal to both ends of the market. They supported
Leppard right across the States and then moved straight over to
Metallica and did it all again, taking in Europe as
well, just for good measure. Crucial move, crucial tours at crucial
moments. It opened Queensryche right up.
were two bands who were making history of their own in 1988 and we
landed massive supports with both of them! Being a part of that
'Hysteria' tour was some experience! It was a huge, huge album and a
great opportunity to play before tens of thousands of people. Making
the transition to Metallica was a whole different animal, yet we
perhaps found more in common with them than we did with Leppard. In the
States I still think that Metallica and Queensryche was one of the
bills of that year, markedly different music sharing the same attitude.
We went in not knowing much about Metallica, and I don't think they
really knew a hell of a lot about us, but as the tour progressed both
bands were surprised to find the amount they had in common. There's a
passion to Metallica, a sense of wanting to do things their way, to
forge their own path, that Queensryche undoubtedly share."
enlarged Queensryche's sphere of musical influence and honed the band
to operating their grandiose metal in front of, and specifically for,
very large crowds. Queensryche, far more than Leppard and even
Metallica, were made for the big screen. They'd only just realized it.
Although 'Mindcrime' might have been taking its own sweet time in the
States, the UK had accepted it with open arms. In celebration
Queensryche took time out to play two headlining shows here. The end of
'88 saw them at the Town And Country Club and in April of '89 the
Hammersmith Odeon. Both shows were packed out and conducted before
"We were totally
blown away by those shows! It had been a long time since we'd been over
and I don't think the band had ever experienced such extreme adulation
before. Both nights comprise two of my strongest 'career' memories and
I think the entire group would acknowledge them to have been pivotal
moments for Queensryche.
All the hard work we'd done previously seemed to have been worth it
once we got to the UK. We needed it too, because the album still wasn't
shifting big units in the States. It seemed as if the record company's
worst fears were about to be realized!"
Yet the media wall
that the band had perhaps been precociously frustrated with around
'Rage For Order' was starting to collapse. 'Mindcrime's intensely
visual scenario, the natural scion of any well worked concept, led the
way inexorably to videos. In 1991 an integral part of the Queensryche
body politic, the success of the 'Mindcrime' videos rode hard on the
back of the two big support tours.
"We went quite a
few months into the 'Mindcrime' project without doing a video, and I
think we'd just arrived at a point in time where we felt it was worth
the gamble to do one. We attempted something that would try and capture
the entire vibe of the album visually, and that's why we went for 'Eyes
Of A Stranger' (Released only in America.) It was a very moody, visual
piece and started getting played to death almost immediately! Obviously
we took a lot of time over that project but we still couldn't believe
how quickly accepted it was! The band were entering people's home
through their television for the first time, a massive door had
suddenly and easily opened up! 'Stranger's success prompted us to do
the far more extravagant follow-up, 'Video Mindcrime'. We couldn't wait
to give the kids a further taste of the album in a visual medium,
because that's how they seemed to be taking it best. Suffice it to say
that 'Video Mindcrime' went platinum and we've never looked back. The
video success had a domino effect, because the big station programmers
were suddenly getting inundated from the kids who had seen us on the
screen who now wanted to hear us on the radio. Towards the end of '89
these guys finally figured out that they could play Queensryche and
people wouldn't change channels!"
The one striking
thing the band did between finishing touring 'Mindcrime' and releasing
'Empire' was to submit the track 'Last Time In Paris' for the film 'The
Adventures Of Ford Fairlane'. A crucially underrated, if rather
unlooked for step.
"In the summer
before we started writing for 'Empire', Q Prime told us about a film
being shot in Denver whose director wanted us to come down and play a
gig at Red Rocks. They wanted to shoot our audience for the movie and
inter cut it with shots of some fictitious band performing. They
offered us a sweet deal so we did it. Afterwards it was suggested we
submit a song for the soundtrack and as there was no particular hurry,
we decided to just go straight into writing stuff for 'Empire' and
offer them something from that. We originally sent the title track
itself, but as 'Ford Fairlane' was a comedy, 'Paris' was eventually
deemed more fitting. Then, to our surprise, EMI America released it as
a single and within a matter of weeks it had eclipsed anything we'd
done single-wise with 'Mindcrime'!
In fact it almost hit the top twenty, which was totally uncharted
territory! Of course that success set up a brilliant buzz for 'Empire'
because people were getting a taste for new Queensryche just before the
album was about to be released. I honestly believe 'Paris' broke down
any final barriers Queensryche might have had with American radio,
because when we eventually released 'Empire' the single, every station
in the country seemed to be playing it!"
'Empire' the album
was released in September of 1990. A far more personable offering, with
individualistic slants saluting accessible material, it was the
complete opposite to 'Mindcrime', the success of which had, ironically,
determined the new change in direction.
"We called a band
meeting and finally decided that the next record should be totally
different to 'Mindcrime'. It was pretty obvious to us, though I'm not
so sure about the press or record company, that we had to let that
album be. There wasn't going to be a sequel, that would have been trite
and sickeningly predictable. Instead of writing future fantasy we
decided to write about what was going on at home in Seattle. For the
first time in a long while we started looking into ourselves to write
songs, simply because we finally had the confidence to do it.
Consequently, more than any other Queensryche album, 'Empire' showed
the inner workings of the band. It's a very honest record, a
self-portrait of things that we were thinking about and things that
were going on around us. It was very much a case of dragging everything
back a bit, centralizing so we could start again."
'Empire' marked not
only a change of philosophy but also the most drastic musical shift in
the band's entire history. Undoubtedly an overtly commercial album, its
two million plus sales and three hit singles are now history, but what
might not be so well tabulated was the almost militaristic promotion
plan that went on in the States to break that record. Queensryche's
fourth album was obviously something EMI felt it could finally get its
teeth into! Chris stoically refuses the big push philosophy.
"I don't think we
were sitting down at that particular point in our career to write the
commercial Queensryche record. I will admit that for this one we made a
determined effort to focus more on melody than we had ever done before.
The golden rule we set up when writing for 'Empire' was that we should
be able to sing all the parts. Including the guitar solos! Everything
had to be memorable, down to the last three notes. That's what we
wanted, people can say it was predictable, contrived, but it's just the
way it was."
'Empire' was put
out towards the end of last year, coinciding with new product from
Priest, AC/DC, Slayer, Megadeth, Dokken, Maiden and Anthrax!
Notwithstanding, it smashed into the American charts at no. 7, three
weeks after release, making it the highest breaking metal album at that
time. Evidence that Queensryche was servicing a need not met by any of
their illustrious contemporaries. Final vindication.
"The success of
'Empire' on a worldwide scale has meant the realization of certain
dreams for this band. Having a platinum album, being able to tour the
world as a headlining act, establishing ourselves as a worldwide force.
The one aspect that I love to think about is the fact that we've
endured and that we've finally come out to shine. Obviously it's the
fans who put everything in real perspective and with that in mind we'll
see you all at this years Donnington. Thanks for everything!"