|Mind Over Matter
Within the week, QUEENSRYCHE will have played their first UK headline shows by performing their
epic 'Operation: Mindcrime' album in its virtual entirety. MICK 'Situation: Mindslime' WALL
spoke to the band Stateside as they prepared for the trip and asked, 'Shouldn't this sort of
heavy concept malarkey be left to lonely guys who write books?' Chief surgeons GEOFF TATE and
CHRIS DEGARMO (pictured right) sharpened the scalpel and opted to conduct the rest of the
interview without anesthetic.
The Spectrum Arena in Worcester, Massachusetts. On stage, Queensryche have got their hands full trying to keep 13,000 impatient Def Leppard fans entertained for 45 minutes. They're doing all right, but, like the man said - it ain't easy, baby.
This is MTV land we've strayed into here, and Queensryche are the strangers in town. Apart from a gaggle of die-hards clustered around the edges of the stage who throw their hands into the air and scream like banshees every time Geoff Tate or Chris DeGarmo dance within wishing distance, the majority of the crowd respond to Queensryche's set with polite interest but little enthusiasm.
Here are these popcorn chewing and beer sneakin' kids, some still in their early teens, all revved up and ready to rock rock 'til you drop and here come Queensryche, the arch deviants, wanting to lay the whole paranoid mindcrime trip on them...
And as the two worlds collide, neither side wins or loses. The band dish it out and the crowd take it on the chin. Not knowing what to do with it, they just stare wide-eyed, mental shutters drawing closed.
Geoff Tate senses all this but continues to play to the galleries like they were throwing roses at the stage, an ironic smile creasing his lips, his eyes burning like two black holes in the snow moving in and out of the footlights like a cat, much more the young rebel rocker these days and less the Heavy Metal apprentice of old, but still with that voice, at times as sweet as a kiss and at others as dirty as money...
Chris DeGarmo - the other focal point of attention onstage -cradles his guitar like a weapon and makes it spit fire, striding about the stage with a studied cool even the little girls recognize.
The other guitarist, Michael Wilton, and bassist Eddie Jackson, play like their arses are on fire, gamboling around Leppard's spectacular four-cornered stage in tight concentric circles, working, working, working like prisoners digging an escape tunnel.
Meanwhile, drummer Scott Rockenfield sits perched in the bullseye of the ring, beating on the skins like a crazy man, eyes shut tight, arms flailing, shunting home the rhythm with a brutal energy that belies his small, skinny frame.
There are very few bands that could do a job on this stage and make it look convincing.
It's to their credit that Queensryche appear to have made the transition from the usual backs-to-the-wall situation to the present open-plan arrangement so effortlessly.
The hard part is getting their new material - which makes up 90% of their current set - across to a crowd of people so obviously unfamiliar with their latest album, 'Operation:Mindcrime', released to deafening critical applause but predictably slow sales earlier this year.
Apart from 'Queen of the Reich', which opens the set, and 'Take hold of the flame', kept for the finale, the rest of the set is made up entirely of material from 'Operation:Mindcrime'. Only 'The Mission' and 'Suite Sister Mary', plus most of the shorter instrumental passages from the new album are not played live - though the chances are they will be when the band come to headline their own shows in Britain this month.
It's a gamble Queensryche have taken: instead of opting to trot out a 45 minute showcase of would-be hits old and new, they've plumped for the harder option and decided to tough it out and ram the new album home as intently as they can, come shit or shine. And why? "Because we believe in it," says Geoff Tate, standing in the corridor outside the dressing rooms after the show is over.
"But is that enough, Geoff?" I tease him. "What about the kids?" "The kids?" he says, eyeing me warily. "What about them?" Shouldn't you concentrate on keeping them entertained and leave all this mindcrime malarky to the lonely guys who write books? "Are you trying to be funny?" he asks, screwing up his eyes. And even though I am, it's a question Geoff Tate has obviously been asked before. By the radio. Maybe even by himself once or twice. I let it bounce.
"Number one, we do things to please ourselves, to keep us entertained," he says, nonplussed. "We have to like what we're doing first before we can expect anyone else to like it too. Secondly, I think the audience would like it alot less if what they saw was a band faking it, and trying to be something they were not. We never fake it. Love it or hate it, you can't accuse us of not putting our hearts into it.
Later, over dinner in a dimly lit Thai restaurant across the street from the Spectrum, Geoff Tate, Chris DeGarmo and I pick up the theme. "Frankly it's still a puzzle to me how best to present what we do live - espcially in a support situation, where you only have a limited amount of time and facilities to work with," Tate admits. "What I try and do as a frontman is relax the audience and get them to loosen up a little. The music is serious enough on its own without me having to over dramatise the songs in my own performance. While I was off the road I got to watch a lot of our videos and there were definitely aspects of my performance that I didn't like, that I wanted to change...I think the word here is 'pretentious'?" he smiles self-deprecatingly.
"I've done my best to try and eradicate that aspect from my performance now. The message of some of our songs might be cold and, er, quite bleak sometimes, but I still want the way we portray ourselves and the music to have a certain warmth and sincerity that, hopefully, makes what we do more easily accessible to people.
"Ulimately, on the Leppard tour, we're playing mostly to kids who've never bought a Queensryche record in their lives," DeGarmo points out. "So it doesn't really matter what we choose to play and what we choose to leave out. So we figured let's just do what we want to do. Plus, we're all jazzed on the album! As far as we're concerned, these are the most exciting songs we've ever written. We can't wait until till we're able to play the whole album!"
Their first night on the Leppard tour, however, three weeks before, was the first time the band had climbed on a stage before an audience in 18 months, and Tate and DeGarmo admit they were both terrified.
"God, we were all nervous wrecks!" laughs Tate. "I've never been so nervous before a show before..." "Yeah, it was scary," agrees De Garmo. "Even though we were well rehearsed and we'd had a soundcheck that day and everything, we were still shaking in the dressing room before we went on. We were just completely out of the habit. After we got the first couple of gigs under our belts, though, we were pretty much back in business and ready to rip it up onstage again. If anything, we've all missed not being on the road. It's a kind of relief to be back." Tate nods his agreement. "No matter what the rigours involved in what is, basically, for us, playing our music to somebody else's crowd, there's still nothing like the buzz you get from playing live - especially when the show has gone well," he says
"It's a real challenge to our powers as a band to try and win the crowd over every night. We don't succeed every night - I'd say out of the 16 or so gigs we've done with Leppard so far, maybe on four or five we've actually managed to have the whole crowd with us by the end of the set. But when we do it is the best feeling in the world." And on the nights they don't succeed? "You have to be philosophical about it," smiles DeGarmo disarmingly.
"Most of those kids out there don't even know our names. It's our job to make the show exciting enough to have them saying at the end, 'Hey, those guys were all right. They really kept it going even though I didn't clap once. What were their names again?'."
By the time you read this, Queensryche's brief spin around the plump arenas of America with Def Leppard will be long over. By now, they will be well on the road to making their first ever headline appearances in Britain. I shall be there, of course, when they play at the Town And Country Club in London, wearing an unseemly gobshit grin on my face, and the words I-Told-You-So scrawled in black across my heart. And yet - strange to relate -in four years of watching Oueensryche open shows for other people in countless different spots around the globe, this will be the first time I will have ever seen them headline a show of their own. It should be something to see.
"It's a big deal for us to be headlining there, and we're really looking forward to it," says DeGarmo. "But what well be focusing on will be more what people will be able to hear, and not so much what people will see. Coming straight from a support situation we don't have the time or resources to put together a big theatrical extravaganza of a show. So we're going to approach it the opposite way, which means getting in a great PA and concentrating on getting the best possible sound."
"Yeah," grins Tate, picturing the scene with relish, "just an intimate evening with Oueensryche and their music blowing the f**kin' roof off!" In what is likely to be a 90-minute set, the band will showcase a selection of material from both "The Warning' and 'Rage For Order', as well as performing the whole of 'Operation: Mindcrime'. That is, with the sole exception of 'Suite Sister Mary', which, paradoxically, also happens to be the track selected as their latest single in the UK by the band's record company, EMI. At 10 minutes-plus, however, it's likely to get as much airplay on British radio as a 12" of me making farting noises under the bedsheets. So what's the reasoning behind releasing that track, of all tracks from the new album, as a single at all?
"You got me," deadpans Tate, squinting into his beer glass. "The record company in England seem to think we don't have any chance of getting played on the radio over there anyway, so I guess they figured what the hell, let's go for the longest, most uncommercial track we can find and blow this thing out in style!"
"But then nothing on the album was designed with commercial possibilities in mind," DeGarmo points out. "So to just pick on one track and highlight that as some kind of statement in itself is not the simplest of tasks. Even so," he shakes his head and smiles, "to pick that particular track does kinda baffle me. Wouldn't it be outrageous if it was a hit? It's gotta be a million to one..."
"Actually, when they first suggested releasing'... Mary' as a single in England, they wanted to edit it down to, like, three or four minutes long in order to try and get some radio play," says Tate, "but we spilt a lot of blood making that track. It's the most adventurous and, I think, accomplished piece we've ever recorded and we were damned if we were going to let anybody start messing around with it and trying to cut it down. We refused point-blank to let them do it. Then they came back to us and said what if they broke the track down into three different parts and released them as three different singles simultaneously? And we said, guys, come on! Give us a break. I guess they just ran out of ideas in the end and decided to just put the thing out as it is. Personally, I think the record company wimped out. I think they gave up and said we don't know what we're doing..."
BEFORE OUEENSRYCHE arrive in England though, they will have been out opening the show for Metallica in Europe. If some of Leppard's audiences have been tough to crack, how do the band think they will go down with the slavering, mean-eyed Metallica hordes? "Hopefully we'll be able to relate to each other," says DeGarmo. "I think that both bands come from a fan base that isn't overly concerned with how much radio airplay or video rotation you've achieved, they're just into how good you are on the night. And I think, lyrically, we share a more cohesive direction than, say, us and Def Leppard. Even though, musically, they're very different from us, we're heading in a sort of parallel direction."
"There are many more similarities between us and Metallica than there are differences," says Tate. "And the fact that the Metallica fans are so fanatical and loyal about the band makes it all the more exciting for us. I respect the kind of fans that are that into their music. They're the kind of audience where you can't pull the wool over their eyes. Our own cult audience is like that, and I like it. It's a challenge playing for an audience like that, because these kids know what they're about. And no, it's not going to be easy, but then we never have been known to take the easy road, so why start now?"
Why indeed... The success of such out-of-left-field items as the recent Metallica album and the seemingly ageless Guns N' Roses debut, both of which continue to excite interest from the media while digging their hooks deeper all the time into the world's charts, has proved there is a vast market out there for a rock band with distilled visions beyond the passing glamor of a cute video or a nifty whistle-as-you-work hit 45.
"The reason bands like that are now popular is because it's been so long since a band came along and really flipped the bird to the whole industry just by doing exactly what they wanna do, and not what some half-assed radio station who wouldn't know a great or original rock record if it came along and bit them on the ear want them to do," says DeGarmo with admiration. "The record company marketing men can sit around a table and debate all day why exactly these bands are popular, but to me the answer is obvious," says Tate. "It's the enduring power of rock 'n' roll, and if people want it bad enough they're not gonna wait for their local radio station to get hip and start playing it, they're going to go out and seek it first hand, in clubs and in record stores. We feel that intensely about our music, too," says Tate. "When someone suggested we got Desmond Child (co-writer of all Bon Jovi's biggest hits) in to help write us a hit single - which actually happened at one point in the past - we didn't buy it. It's not what we wanted. We're not interested in a quick passport to the top of the hit parade. We want to do it in our own way and in our own time."
"When we gave our finished album over to the record company this time it was so beautiful, Mick, it was so f**king sweet, because they hadn't even heard it yet," says DeGarmo passionately. "The album is exactly the way we wanted it and we're proud of that fact. Sink or swim, they can't take that away from us."
"And slowly but surely we're starting to see the rewards of sticking to our guns," says Tate. "We just started touring three weeks ago and already we've sold 80,000 more copies of this album than we did our last. It's already our best selling album ever and we've still got the best part of another year to kick it around on the road."
What lies, though, at the end of that road for Oueensryche? "I think one of two things will eventually happen," says DeGarmo quietly. "Either we'll keep amassing fans slowly through heavy touring, or somewhere down the line where we're at and where public tastes are at will mesh..." "Will collide..." mumbles Tate. "... and the stars will open up and we'll have that one really big album," DeGarmo finishes. "The one you can never live up to," adds Tate with a hollow laugh. "The one where they tell you you sold out," giggles DeGarmo.
Geoff Tate clicks his tongue and finishes his beer. Looking too far forward into the future kills the present for him, he says. "The fact that we've even got as far as we have just by doing something we enjoy this much is an achievement in itself. What happens next is impossible to say, really. Right now, these headline shows in England are the most important things on the agenda. Let's see how we crack that before we talk about what happens next."
Right. F**k the future, Mabel. There's always room in the world for a little bit of 'ryche 'n' roll, isn't there? ANSWER me when I talk to you! All right...