Geoff Tate on Queensryche Split: ‘There’s So Many Different Ways We Could Have Handled This’
Singer Geoff Tate has certainly had a harder-than-expected road to his new solo album ‘Kings & Thieves,’ which releases today (Nov. 6) via InsideOut Music. The hard rock veteran began the album as a side project from his day gig as the front man in Queensryche, but by the time it was completed he had been fired from the group he helped found three decades ago.
A very public war of words ensued, and as of this writing Tate has announced the formation of a new lineup of Queensryche, which he will tour with next year — at the same time his former bandmates are out on the road under the same name.
Tate recently spoke to Ultimate Classic Rock about his guitar-heavy new album, the ugly split with Queensryche, his plans for a new lineup, and why he think his former colleagues’ actions make no business sense in the following exclusive interview.
UCR: How did you decide on the title ‘Kings & Thieves?’
Geoff Tate: A lot of times when you’re working on songs they don’t have a name yet; you just call them a ridiculous name like ‘James of England,’ or ‘Queen Victoria,’ or ‘Kings and Thieves.’ You just make up a title depending on what you’re thinking about at the time. So that was a working title of one of the tracks.
I loved the phrase, but I couldn’t figure out how to make it work within a song. So I was talking to the artist that was developing the cover art for the album, and I wanted to use my family crest as the main visual point. He came up with this beautiful cover, and he left this spot at the bottom of the crest for the title of the record. And immediately I thought, ‘”Kings & Thieves” — that fits perfectly.’ Without much further thought, that became the title.
One thing that sticks out immediately is how guitar-heavy a record this is.
Whenever I sit down to write a record — I’m a list-maker, so I pull out a piece of paper and I start scribbling down goals. And I knew that I would be going out and playing live, and I was going out to play solo, so I’d be pulling from my solo work primarily. And my first solo album was really an experiment in exploring my musical influences; everything from R&B to jazz and classical and electronica. It was pretty light on the rock tracks, it only had three rock tracks on it. So I wanted to create a record that would balance that out for live work; a rock album, really.
So my next note was, “What kind of rock record do I want to make?” So I started thinking about all of the bands that I loved and grew up with, and I was pretty heavily influenced by Deep Purple and Rainbow, Golden Earring, Pink Floyd . . . these bands that had this kind of classic rock instrumentation. Bass, drums, guitars, vocals and primarily the Hammond B3 organ on the keyboard end. So I thought, ‘Let’s focus on that, let’s see what we can come up with for that kind of instrumentation, try to write the album around those traditional instruments and see what we can come up with.’ So that’s what I did.
For somebody who’s really into hard rock, this is a record they’re going to gravitate to immediately.
Well, I hope so. (Laughs). I sure enjoyed making it. It’s one of the most enjoyable records I’ve ever made, really. I think it was because it was a pretty immediate record. I started in January, and I finished in August, I think it was. It just happened pretty quickly, and I worked at a pace that’s pretty normal for me, really. A lot of what you hear on it are first, second or third takes. It was pretty immediate, us sitting in the same room, playing together, feeding off each other, and just kinda making stuff up as we went. So it was a fun, immediate record, without a lot of rehearsing it into the ground. Not a very polished record, not over-produced and slick. It’s pretty raw.
Tell us about the writing process for ‘Take a Bullet.’ What inspired it?
First off, the musical end of it, it’s got this real heavy groove to it, which is infectious. It had this real deliberate kind of groove that I found infectious, and because it was kind of a mid-tempo track, vocally you could do a lot of rhythmatic singing in it, singing against the beat and filling in the holes with phrasing, which I really like to do. I’m kind of a rhythmatic singer anyway, so this was really a chance for me to play around with that even more. And the lyrical end of it really explores commitments that people have with each other, and the lengths they’re willing to go to stand up for that person, their friendship or their love for that person. What wouldn’t you do for a friend? You’d lay down your life for some of your friends. You feel that connected to them and that protective of them.
What about ‘Dark Money?’ The press release for this project says that song was inspired by the way politics are being funded by such huge sums of money, is that correct?
Yeah. ‘Dark Money’ is a phrase that has been coined to describe these immeasurable amounts of cash that fund presidential elections and congressional elections. You know, they’re typically funded by incredibly wealthy individuals or groups of individuals who get together and call themselves some benign name in order to not arouse any suspicion that they’re handing over tens of millions of dollars to a particular candidate or issue. And it’s kind of the way things work now.
We all grew up thinking or being told that our vote counts, and that the way the whole system works is based upon the popular vote. And of course nowadays we all know that that’s not true. (Laughs). That money funds everything, especially public perception of candidates. So the song is really about that kind of thing that’s occurring, and the sort of awareness that there’s really a class separation in our country now. There’s the incredibly wealthy, and then there’s the rest of us. And it never has been more apparent — in my memory, at least — than it is now that this is actually happening.
It’s very, very frustrating for people, especially when they read stories in the press about these super-rich people who are spending millions of dollars a day at leisure, while other people are wondering how they’re going to make their house payment or how they’re going to feed their families.
You’re really an artist who’s still making album-length projects despite the fact that everything in marketing has gone to singles. Do you even consider that when you are recording an album?
I gave that up a long time ago. (Laughs). I’ve never written in terms of, ‘How is this going to be on the radio?’ There’s certain song formats you can kind of, when you’re arranging, you can say, “Well, I think going to the chorus sooner would be better,” or “I think we can cut this verse in half here.” You can arrange it in a way that has more of an immediate effect, and I’ve experimented with that in the past. But as far as picking a single, I’ve never picked a single, ever. Also, t-shirt designs . . . I’ve been banned from picking t-shirt designs, because every one I’ve ever championed has always been the worst seller. (Laughs). I don’t think in terms of mass appeal.
Obviously a lot has changed for you from the beginning of this project to the end of it.
Yeah, exactly. When I started it, it was a side project. When I finished it, it was my only project. (Laughs).
With all that was going on with Queensryche while you were working on this record, did any of that find its way into these tracks?
I think so, definitely. A song like ‘Take a Bullet,’ for example. ‘Evil,’ or ‘The Way I Roll.’ Yeah, there’s some definite lyrical comments in there.
There wasn’t a sense over the years that Queensryche were an unhappy band on the verge of breaking up. The situation just suddenly seemed to explode very quickly.
I never got that impression, either. That’s what is so frustrating and disappointing about the whole situation; that it wasn’t presented to me that we were at this point of utter contempt and dissatisfaction. The last meeting we had, it was business as usual, taking care of things, making plans for the next year, booking shows. We had a whole series of shows for this year that we had booked and ready to go that they canceled, which from that standpoint, it’s a mystery to me why they cut off their own funding (laughs), you know? They said, “Well, you’re out of the band, and we’re also canceling everything and stopping all business.” So they have no money. That’s not a wise business decision, you know?
There’s so many different ways we could have handled this. The way it turned out is definitely not the way I would have liked to have handled it. I spent the last thirty years of my life living and breathing Queensryche, and promoting and protecting the name, trying to make decisions that I can live with and feel good about, that there’s integrity there. And for it all to end up on the floor as rubbish is just so disappointing and hurtful.
You’ve announced a new lineup of Queensryche, and there are now going to be two Queensryches in the marketplace, essentially. That’s got to be the last position you ever expected to be in. What made that the right decision for you, given the circumstances?
Originally when this whole thing unraveled, I was doing my project, and they decided they wanted to do a side project, which was fine. Cool; we’ve all done side projects. And we had a whole series of shows for Queensryche booked this year, and we were all gonna do our side projects in between and then gear up for a new album and tour in 2013.
They started a side project called Rising West, and they quickly found out that it didn’t have any value in the marketplace. They couldn’t sell any shows. They couldn’t get booked for shows. And that’s when they fired me and tried to use the name Queensryche to book shows, so they could all make a living.
I didn’t think that was right; first off, it’s illegal, because we’re a corporation. We have three corporations together, and they cannot get rid of me and then just split my shares up between the three of them. They can’t do that legally; it’s against the law.
So I had to create a case and take it before a judge, asking for an injunction. And my injunction simply said, look, I don’t think either party should use the name Queensryche until we come to a conclusion on what is Queensryche; who owns it, how the thing is gonna get settled, who’s going to pay who — that sort of thing. The judge said — surprisingly, to me — “Well, no. I think the marketplace should sort out who Queensryche is. So both of you use the name until November of 2013, when we have our court case, and we’ll decide then.”
So I didn’t really have a choice but to create a new Queensryche and go out and compete against my former band mates. So I thought, ‘Well, how am I going to do this? What would I like to do?’ And first and foremost, I want to play with really good players. I don’t want to have any weaknesses or deficiencies and have to rely on click tracks and computers to play a live show. Second, I’d like to play with people that I know and like or respect. And third, people that are fun, that make life enjoyable rather than miserable. People that can actually have a good time with life, and not look at everything in such a dark way.
Rudy [Sarzo] and Bobby [Blotzer] immediately came to mind, because we have been friends for thirty-plus years and have always talked about playing music together. So I called them up immediately, and both of them were very excited about the project, and re-arranged their whole schedules to make it work.
It was a little different with Glen [Drover]. I had known of him but never met him, but I’ve seen him play a number of times with Megadeth, and I thought he was a fantastic player; just a real fluid, effortless guitar player. And then talking with him, he’s just a really cool guy, very down-to-earth. He’s a Canadian guy who likes hockey and beer, and I’m all down with that.
So it all kind of came together, and I thought Kelly [Gray] and Glen would be a wonderful guitar duo, because they’re completely opposite. Where Glen is completely fluid and effortless, Kelly picks a fight with that guitar every time he picks it up! (Laughs). He’s got a whole different attitude about it, and I thought that might be kind of fun to put these two together and see what happens.
Anyway, we’re gearing up for a tour and booking dates, and that’s all going great. We get together in a month and start rehearsing for it. I’m really excited about it.
Are you planning any new recordings, or is this going to be a strictly live project until the court case is settled?
It’s primarily a tour. It’s the 25th anniversary celebration of ‘Operation: Mindcrime’ in 2013, so we’re going to focus primarily on that project live. And I really hope that some creative vibe starts happening in the group, and we can translate that passion into some music of our own. You never know until you get everyone together and see what happens.
There are some really strong writers in the group; Bobby writes and plays a number of different instruments, Glen writes, Kelly writes, Randy [Gane] writes, and then myself. So I definitely think that we could have a record if we decided to do that. I hate to predict that, because you never can until you get everyone in the same room and see what you have.
How are you going to get around the potential for confusion in the marketplace that comes from having two different bands both out working under the same name?
I don’t know if there’s any way to get around that, honestly. I think it’s just gonna have to come down to being up front with the advertising and really let them know, for the ticket they’re buying, what they’re going to see.
That’s an issue that I’ve been having with the other Queesnryche, is that they keep using my voice in advertising, and my image; they’re even advertising that it’s the original lineup and all this kind of thing, basically desperately grasping at straws to scratch out some money, which is horrible. And I have to hire my attorney to go after them every week and say, “Hey, look, you can’t do that.”
My attorney has to contact the promoter and pull the ad down and have them change it — you know, the promoters that they’re using are desperate, too, to scratch out a living, so they’re doing whatever they have to do to sell tickets. If they have to use my name, my likeness and my voice to sell a ticket, a lot of them, it’s not something they feel compelled to be honest about. So it gets expensive to constantly police this. But it’s wrong. When a ticket buyer sees an ad that says, “The original Queensryche lineup,” that’s what they’re expecting to see, and they go there and it’s not me. That’s false advertising. It’s wrong.
It seems counter-productive, because that’s a fan who might be alienated and never come back.
I know! Unfortunately that is the kind of mentality I am fighting against here with these guys. They don’t take into consideration long-term decisions, and they don’t really think in terms of, ‘How is this going to work down the road?’ They’re just in survival mode, doing whatever they can to get by. And what’s amazing about it is, they didn’t have to do that. Everything was going great, and we had work this year and next year all mapped out, we had the new album contract that our management was in negotiations with. The world was bright and rosy. But they chose not to see it that way.
It’s not the way I envisioned spending the last decade of my career. Which is another thing: why on earth would somebody take a successful band like Queensryche that’s been so successful all of these years, so respected around the world — why would you take and just grind that brand into the dirt and destroy it at our age? I mean, we’re all in our fifties. Realistically we have what, ten years left of creative public work before we’re all decrepit and dead (laughs), or unable to do anything more. Why would you destroy this legacy that’s so valuable, that bands dream of achieving? It’s beyond me how people can be so short-sighted and so convoluted in their vision. But it’s the hand I’m dealt, and I have to try to do the best I can with it, and carry on.
Is there anything else you want to say about ‘Kings & Thieves’ or the tour?
I’m very excited about it. Very excited about the tour. We’re very well-rehearsed. The band’s been rehearsing every day for the last month, and our set is pretty interesting. It’s songs from my first album, the new one, and some choice Queensryche songs as well. The show has a lot of dynamics to it, it has different movements. It covers a lot of ground musically that I think fans will really appreciate.