|Interview with Chris DeGarmo
by Dan Birchall
Hear In The Now Frontier
It's been more than two years since the release of Queensryche's last album, Promised Land. Not to say that the band's members have been idle, by any means - they toured throughout much of 1995, and 1996 brought the release of Promised Land the computer game, a dual CD-ROM set for Macintosh and Windows systems. And of course, they've been writing more songs!
Fourteen of those songs - fifteen, if you're in Japan - are included on the band's new album, Hear In The Now Frontier, being released in the United States on March 25th, with various other release dates - seemingly in a state of constant change - for the rest of the world.
This latest leap in a new direction - or several directions at once - is very diverse. In general, it sounds less produced than most of Queensryche's previous works. Some songs have a hard edge which may shock recent devotees of the band, while others could almost be used to lull children to sleep. The sound has already been compared to grunge, disco, and nearly everything between. Overall, the album may come as a bit of a surprise to existing Queensryche fans, but I expect the sound to be much more accessible to a general audience. With only two songs over five minutes long, this album could also generate plenty of radio airplay for the band.
Guitarist Chris DeGarmo makes his debut as a lead vocalist on one track. I spoke with him in early March, as the band prepared for the launch of the album.
Consumable: Two and a half years it's been - how do you see the world differently now? When Promised Land was in the works, there were rumors about personal lives in turmoil. At this point, you all seem to be more stable.
Chris DeGarmo: Well, stability is relative, isn't isn't? (laughs) We're all just at different levels of insanity... There were certainly - within the band - some tumultuous lives going on, and I think at any given time there's some turbulence and some smooth air in there as well, to use flying analogies. But I think we're in a good state right now. We had a really enjoyable time with the project. The writing came effortlessly, really - we were feeling very prolific, I guess, when we finished touring with Promised Land. And the two and a half year separation between these two releases is short by Queensryche standards. Certainly comparing us to something like Rush's discography and their ability to seem to turn around projects in like nine months or whatever it is, we seem related to the tortoise or something. But it just takes what it takes, and for some reason, we can't, given the touring that we do and that sort of thing. This seems to be about our cycle. Also, we don't just want to put anything out. We have to get to the point where we're feeling good about what we have, and we have and we have an internal standard that we're trying to hit. That's kind of the yardstick that we go by on everything, and in the case of the last one, it just took us longer to get ourselves positioned to where we felt we had something to offer.
C: So you're your own worst critics, basically.
CD: Yeah, I think so... (laughs) But I'm happy to say our chemistry is very strong, and we're nurturing it. We wanted to actually release this a little sooner. We waited a bit - quite a bit actually - for the production [producer Peter Collins] to come. And don't we all wish that sometimes when we were ready to undertake something, that the world could revolve around us? But with the exception of being a child, it's a fleeting moment, so we had to wait for other schedules to fall in sync with us, or we might have been able to put it together six months earlier. We're doing good, and everyone's very excited about this, and we're already putting together presentation ideas now.
C: For the tour? Has it gotten any more specific?
CD: It's going to start in June - probably around the third week of June, probably around the Northwestern area of the country, and we're going to do all of the U.S. first.
C: As a change.
CD: Yeah, it is a change. We've done it coming from outside North America on most of the other tours, or at least the ones within recent memory, and so we're going to do it a little different this time, not wanting to be too predictable.
C: Any chance of finally getting to Australia?
CD: I hope so. I'd really like to see us get a chance to present the band over there. But we would like to have an audience over there, someone over there interested to see the band, and I think our exposure in Australia is still somewhat elusive. I don't know exactly how we're perceived over there, or how we fit in, so we're still kind of trying to assess our place (laughs) over there. In a few new territories we've been doing some interviews - we got South Korea and Singapore and some other Pacific Rim areas, what were formerly Eastern Bloc European countries. And you probably know, there are fans out there in a lot of different places. It's just trying to put it together so that we can bring a presentation to all those places, and it gets a bit complicated.
C: And then you have somewhere where you have two fans in the whole country, and you can't rent an arena for two people.
CD: Yeah. I wish we could, I'd love to just drag the show all over the world and play it, but unfortunately it's not quite as easy as that. Hopefully we'll get to more places this time. Right now, it's still a little ambiguous.
C: Do you think you'll reach out to a more mainstream rock audience with this album?
CD: I don't know. I really don't have a crystal ball. I know that we did something that is where we're at, at the moment, and that's all we've ever tried to do with any of these things - capture the band at the moment, what's on our minds, what interests us. There are a lot of other variables that create the end result, as far as how it's commercially received and all those kinds of things. I really just don't have any idea, and I never have, with any of them. (laughs) I'm being really honest - I just don't know. I hope people enjoy it. If we really spent a lot of time trying to figure out what everybody wants, what everybody expects and what we should do based on where we've been and where we've going, I mean, it all gets terribly complicated. I think we've just trusted the voice inside, so to speak, and it's worked out. So I really don't know. It's all open open territory. (laughs)
C: How does it feel to sing lead vocals?
CD: It's great, it's fun. I've been singing on our albums for a long time, and I felt I could give a different perspective on it than Geoff. In the interest of open-mindedness, everybody was cool on it. At least they didn't kick me out! (laughs) That's what happens when Geoff leaves the studio for the afternoon.
C: The song "The Voice Inside" got me wondering, what sort of background, or current viewpoints do you have in the way of philosophy, or beliefs floating around?
CD: Well, I think in terms of philosophies, there's been a thread running through most of our material, perhaps not very early on when we were just beginning the composition process. I think at some point we've gravitated toward affirmation of self and free thinking, coming at it from a number of angles. People finding their own wings, and trusting their passions and fortes in life, and trying to resist much of the social conditioning that we're surrounded by. So it's a philosophy of starting with the individual, really, and recognizing the power of the individual, in an age when we feel crushed as an individual, honestly, and the system works toward suppressing the individual. Yeah, I think there's a philosophy. I don't think it's that we try - we didn't sit down with a game plan a long time ago and map it all out. I know for Geoff and I, because we write most of the lyrics, it's just what interests us, and it seems to be inspiring. You need to be able to pose something, you need to be inspired. That's what seems to inspire us, the possibilities. It's endless fuel for composition. An open mind, all the possibilities. I'll never run out of stuff to talk about.
C: Do you feel that there's a common thread on this album? The first two songs describe society being screwed up, and the last one, "sp00L", is optimist and says to keep working for change.
CD: Yeah, I think in our attempt to not make a concept or thematic album, when we actually got done with it and had to sit and sort of figure out what we'd done so we could explain it to people (laughs) inevitably, there wind up being some common links, really. Maybe it's just that there are a lot of individual diverse separate takes on that sort of thing. It wasn't by design, it's more by accident that it's all kind of like that. Now that it's done and we step back away from it, it's connected to what we've done, but just in a different way.
C: Rumors are circulating that you won't make any videos for this album, due to dissatisfaction with the airplay they receive on MTV.
CD: The visual landscape is something that is certainly exciting to the band, we enjoy going off in that direction. As far as actual videos, we're not closing the door, ever, to making music videos for the songs. But we create imagery for the fans via the show - we come up with special imagery away from things that we've done in videos. If no one can see a video, it becomes pointless to make. Many of the videos we've done are very expensive, and we would rather put the money into visual presentations that we know people will see, and that means the ones that we are presenting. We understand that especially with a career as long as ours, we've had some nice collisions with public taste and with the decision-makers at these video channels who decide whether bands are relevant to their current tastes, and that sort of thing. We understand that it's a different scenario each time we come out with a record - it's a different environment. So if we felt our stuff would get exposed, we'd do it. But it's all kind of a crap-shoot to some degree. I'm not going to say that we're not going to make any videos. I know we haven't made any yet, and I don't see any on this week's itinerary. But certainly we're not closing the door on that.
C: And if you spend less money on broadcast videos, you have more left to spend on the tour.
CD: Yeah, and ultimately, other things as well. We know when we bring our show someplace, we have total control over what people see, and what they experience. If we don't cut a video that maybe wasn't going to get cut anyway, maybe we can afford to stay out a little longer, play a few more shows, because we can afford to pay everybody a little longer. At some point, you have to figure out what the goal is, what it is that you're trying to do. Honestly, videos have never been a guarantee. We were fortunate to have a project where we had some videos in heavy rotation, and people responded really nicely to those. But we also know that we won't be guaranteed heavy rotation throughout our career, nor will any other band. And that's just the way it is. I understand it, and I think we really could do some great videos for stuff on this, and we may do that, but we're putting together the show right now, and I'm more excited about putting resources and energy into that, 'cause I know that's going to happen, as opposed to wondering whether someone feels we'll fit in with their version of what music is right now.
C: So even if the album is comparatively raw, the tour show is still probably going to be some incredible phenomenon.
CD: Well, those are big adjectives. I won't say that we're going to follow in keeping with the spirit of the recording, which is as you said, more direct, more stripped down. This isn't going to be a tour with the moving sets. We had something within the grooves of Promised Land last time, we really designed the bar scene and the whole thing. You can hear it with the segues and everything on the album. This is different - we did that kind of tour, and I know that a lot of people really enjoyed that very much, but we, in the interest of providing some diversity as well, don't want to do the exact same thing we did last time. At the same time, there are some elements of the Queensryche presentation that I think people are going to expect from us, and I don't think we'll disappoint in that area. But I think it'll be a little more raw this time - I don't know how to describe it. It's going to be good, we always go out wanting to put together a very quality show with an emphasis on great sound first, making it a show that people come to and it sounds really good. And hopefully something as well that's visually inspiring. I won't use your elaborate adjectives - I would like for people to come to our show and feel inspired or moved somehow. If we can accomplish that, I will be very happy.
C: Similar goals for the album?
CD: Yeah. The songwriting thing, it's a little more selfish - when we do the show, we know we're presenting to people we know. As a songwriter, I think you have to be true to yourself first, and I think we've done that, and by doing that, we've been able to find other people who are interested in what it is we do, as opposed to at some point changing the strategy all of a sudden and creating albums based on what we think other people think we should do. That gets you into this terrible house of mirrors, and you can't find your way back.
C: Some other critic described one of the songs on this album as "epic and self-indulgent."
CD: (laughs) Oh, self-indulgent, that little two-word thing has followed us around for God knows how long. Of course it's self-indulgent! I mean, what is a painting? What is a drawing? It's self-indulgent. A song is self-indulgent. What else should it be? Other-indulgent? Of course that depends on what your goal is, that goes with it.
CD: Yeah, and ultimately, we assume risks with that. We assume the risk that people may not enjoy the version of where we are at a given time, and commercially there are risks too. But the payoff as part of the band is huge. It's such a great feeling to do what is steered from within us. And if it all gets taken away somehow, if it all falls apart, that's something so solid to hang onto. It's a matter of pride and conviction, really staying to what it is that you want to do, knowing of course that you can't please everyone. If you can accept that, it helps you stay to what you want to do. The moment you try and please everyone, you compromise to some degree. That doesn't mean you can't be a nice person or something like that, particularly with forms of expression. But expression says it all right there, it really does. Expression is of thyself. It's not "I'm going to express what other people think I should be expressing." (laughs) That starts you down this really weird road of losing all perspective on what it is that you're trying to do, you know. Unfortunately, it is a business these days for a lot of people, and they treat it as a bar of soap or a box of cornflakes, so we get a lot of interesting offerings from a lot of different directions.