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 De Garmo (guitar), Geoff Tate (vocals), Eddie Jackson (bass), Michael Wilton (guitar), and Scott Rockenfield (drums), emerge from small town notoriety to current platinum basted superstardom. 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 Donington performance. To commemorate both events I indulged in two lengthy conversations with Mr De Garmo 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."
Queensryche duly 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 one!"
Without having 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 realised 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 was tough!"
Recorded in 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.
"That particular tour was amazing and I think the point when we realised 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 realise 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 realise 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 retrogresive 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."
Unfortunately '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.'
Queensryche might 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 took place.
"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!"
Studio slavery completed and initial euphoria worn away, the real world started to intrude into Queensryche's creative paradise in the form of the record company.
"Creatively at 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.
First Queensryche 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.
"Undoubtedly there 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."
Those tours 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 realised 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 ecstatic crowds.
"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 realised!"
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, centralising 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 realisation 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 Donington. Thanks for everything!"