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Walking In The Shadows: Exclusive Interview With Geoff Tate

By Jeff Kerby, Contributor
Monday, August 5, 2002 @ 5:30 PM

Vocalist Geoff Tate Gives Jeff

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Geoff Tate has fronted -- and still continues to front -- one of the most important bands in metal history. Queensryche is a group that has been defined from its inception as much by its lyrical force as by its instrumental proficiency. Their masterwork, Operation Mindcrime, continues to be one of the most talked about albums from that decade, and it showed exactly what this group was capable of when everyone was unified in vision and purpose. When asked about the time he has spent with the Ryche, Tate will invariably mention his friend and former guitarist Chris DeGarmo. It isn’t difficult to ascertain from his comments that their working relationship was probably the major component to the classic QR sound with all of its edgy complexity. With that gone, there is obviously something missing.

That isn’t to say that Tate spends his time lamenting the past. Instead, he insists that there are many thunderous days in store for the Ryche whether they be with DeGarmo or without. In the meantime, the singer has released a solo effort, Geoff Tate, which transcends the typical expectations placed on the singer of a famous hard rock band. The influences contained therein are consistently diverse and colorful and show that a true musical artist may have many different styles of expression that move them. With this album, Tate has obviously decided that the content and the quality of the delivery is more important than the someone else’s notion of who he is or what he should be. After all, the great ones know that true creative freedom can only be achieved after the self is put secondary to the art.

KNAC.COM: The idea of love seems to be one of the major themes running through this album. How has being the lead singer of Queensryche been problematic for you in pursuing a meaningful long-term relationship?
TATE: It definitely poses a challenge. I think any time you are swallowed up with a career whether it’s music, film or whatever it is you do, it’s a pretty engulfing lifestyle. It takes a special type of person to understand that and let that happen. Then again, it can be a really selfish existence as well. One thing I’ve learned, but haven’t really perfected yet, is balance in my life, and my wife has really taught me a lot about that. I realized that it’s possible for you to work hard and play hard and yet still spend time with your kids and your family. Basically, it’s just a matter of enjoying life without keeping your nose to the grindstone so much. I mean, at the end of the day, what have you really got? Are they going to reward you for making the most money? Maybe for having your face on the most magazines? That kind of thing doesn’t mean anything really. Instead, it’s all about balance and trying to keep that in perspective -- it’s a hard lesson to learn.

KNAC.COM: Once you’d sold all the records and had your face on all the publications, was it disillsioning to find that it didn’t make your life complete, especially after you had made it the focus of so much of your personal energy throughout the years?
TATE: Exactly -- Promised Land is about that exact place that you get to when you reach as high as you think you can get only to realize that you still aren’t happy. You have to find that it isn’t the job that makes you happy, but instead that it’s a deeper kind of thing that you have to discover on your own. I think it’s like that for anybody who has a certain amount of success doing what they do. A job is a job. There is so much more to life. Again, balance is something that plays a major part in that.

KNAC.COM: Do you think it’s more difficult to achieve personal balance while working within the context of a band where there is more of a dynamic of equality regarding decisions and musical direction? Have you found that it’s easier working on a solo project where you control so many aspects of the situation?
TATE: Well, being in a band with a group dynamic or a democratic atmosphere where you have to vote on everything, can be very, very difficult. It can also be very satisfying though because it causes you to grow as a person. The situation I have been in recently with my solo project does allow me to dictate what it is that I do, and I do get to call my own schedule. That is a luxury that I’m very much enjoying right now. After twenty years of knocking heads with people, this really is a nice vacation for me.

KNAC.COM: There are a lot of different sounds and elements running through this disc, yet it isn’t entirely segmented from your previous work. Are there certain songs like, “I Will Remember” or “London” that you could see interspersed on this disc and still have it maintain its continuity?
TATE: Oh yeah, I think that people who enjoy Queensryche will find something about this record that they like. The people who go out to my shows will find that I’m doing a two hour set which consists of the new album plus different renditions of obscure Queensryche songs that I’ve always wanted to do but for various reasons couldn’t. What I’ve found is that the new stuff goes real well with the Queensryche material that I’ve chosen. It just fits beautifully. My plan from the beginning when I started the record was to create an avenue to express myself. That isn’t to say that in Queensryche we haven’t done a good job of sort of pushing the envelope with our material and our songwriting progression. Of course, even with that, we’re still in a box called “Queensryche” with a label and expectations, but we’ve still been pretty experimental in what we’ve done. I wanted to continue that spirit in my solo project and really experiment with music and bring in a lot of the musical influences that inspired me growing up.

KNAC.COM: Queensryche is considered one of the more eclectic bands within the metal genre exhibiting a wide range of influences. But, do you think that if you were a beginning artist today that you may have moved into another direction musically and away from a harder style of expression?
TATE: I could definitely see myself doing other things. I never really was a “metal” fan, but I was inspired by the guy I was playing with, Chris DeGarmo, who is a very inspirational writer. We had a very strong collaborative practice between the two of us, and I really enjoyed working with him. If he wasn’t in the band, I never would have even joined Queensryche. I didn’t do it because I wanted to be a metal singer. I was a singer no matter what. I like all kinds of music.

KNAC.COM: Is that willingness to experiment what made you different from a lot of the other metal bands of that period?
TATE: I think so. DeGarmo was -- I shouldn’t speak of him as though he’s passed away -- had a wide variety of music he was drawing from as well. We didn’t come into it as metal fans, we came into it as music fans who wanted to write music. It just so happened that the guys we picked to play with -- Rockenfield, Wilton and Jackson -- were metalheads, so what we happened to come up with was a type of music that was just outside the metal genre but still within it to a certain extent.

KNAC.COM: Do you think there is any room left to work innovatively within the context of metal today?
TATE: It depends on how you categorize things. See, I think that with record companies and the way they work, they will always want to put things in a neat little box and call it something so they can sell it. That’s understandable because that is what they are about, but they’re coming to it with an entirely different perspective. They aren’t into the music or the art of it, and in many cases they aren’t even music fans -- they are business fans. If you think of it in a business sense, then no, there really isn’t any room to move anymore, but if you’re coming at it from a musical standpoint, yeah, there is room. You know, go ahead and blend Salsa with Black Sabbath riffs -- that’s what makes music unique is the blending of different styles. If everyone just played the same thing and had the same influences, then everything would be very dull. Instead, if we allow ourselves to take the stuff we hear, run it through our own individual filters and lay it out to the point where maybe the drummer goes, “hey, that’s pretty cool, let’s add this” then you start brainstorming and before you know it -- innovation happens. From there, things will just sort of build on each other. That’s how musicians work, or should work.

KNAC.COM: When you’re not allowed to do that, does it feel as though you have tools at your disposal that you’re not being allowed to implement?
TATE: If you don’t allow yourself that latitude, you are either stupid or only interested in maintaining your position in some musical niche. I can understand that, though. I mean, people have to make a living, and it is a pretty nice living being able to make money playing music. For me, playing within a musical niche is better than say, building a house or something like that. I could probably do that, I could build a house maybe if I was good with tools or proficient in math, and I’d probably even enjoy it, but there’s no reason to though if I’m good at what I do and enjoy it.

"I never really was a ‘metal’ fan, but I was inspired by the guy I was playing with, Chris DeGarmo… If he wasn’t in the band, I never would have even joined Queensryche."
KNAC.COM: Was there ever a time where you had a song that you knew was good but that you wouldn’t bring it to the table because it wouldn’t have fit within the parameters of Queensryche? Or was there always a type of freedom inherent in the group?
TATE: Well, when Chris was in the band, he was very open minded with that kind of thing. Even if he didn’t really feel what you were doing, he’d make suggestions and give you constructive input in order to either have it fit in with the group or to take it some place different that might be cooler. With him not in the band anymore, it really is more of a challenging environment for getting eclectic, interesting ideas out there. It’s quite a bit different chemistry now. I guess, to answer your question, it is both yes and no. There is a song called “Disconnected” off the Promised Land which has a really cool shuffle beat thing and we worked on it for awhile. Well, one day Chris heard it and said, “You know, I really can’t relate to this song.” He stated that he respected how it fit into the record and everything, but that he just couldn’t relate to it as it was right then. A couple of months later Chris came back with this really cool guitar part that he had written for it. His contribution just took that song to a whole different level, and everybody got excited about it.

KNAC.COM: I imagine that would actually be one of the times when it was rewarding to be in a band…
TATE: Yeah, because that was breaking new ground within the group. We were branching out, and really that was my job within the band. I was always bringing in new ideas and trying to push them on everybody. Then, they would just sort of reel them in and try to make them fit within the group dynamic.

KNAC.COM: As it stands now, are there any plans for Chris to come back into the group?
TATE: Well, the door is always open, but I think he’s sort of grown out of it. He’s changed his lifestyle dramatically -- he flies planes for a living now, and he seems to really like that.

KNAC.COM: So at this time there are no plans?
TATE: I can’t really say yes, and I can’t really say no. We both expressed interest in working together again, and we talk on the phone together occasionally.

KNAC.COM: In the song “Touch,” you write that there is a simple purpose to your life. If you had to pinpoint what the purpose of your life is, would it be trying to maintain that balance you discussed earlier?
TATE: Yeah, yeah, in a nutshell that would be the overall game plan. As kind of a footnote to that though, I’ve been really trying to experience joy. That may seem ridiculous, weird or impossible to some people, but to me it has always been very difficult. I have really been trying to live in the moment and enjoy the process rather than just looking forward to the result so much. It’s kind of my nature, though. I’m just one of those people who is kind of a workaholic who focuses on one thing really heavily. I’m trying to break those patterns and just experience my life and the joy of where I may be at that time.

KNAC.COM: Is that a cool sentiment to have in metal? Can a guy experience joy? Or does the emotion always have to be tied in to anger or lust?
TATE: I think that anger and lust are really base type emotions that you experience very early on in life. Hopefully though, through experience and relationships, you change and grow up and experience other things that balance those feelings out. Therefore, you have more to write about -- definitely. You know, I think that’s why metal has traditionally appealed mostly to a younger, male audience. It’s kind of a way of channeling testosterone, and of course, the older you get, the less testosterone you manufacture. (Laughs) You know, you just find other ways of expressing yourself and your emotions. You just acquire different delivery mechanisms.

KNAC.COM: When I interviewed Blackie Lawless a few weeks ago, I asked him who he regarded highly as a lyricist within metal and your name came up at the top of the list. Being a proficient writer of lyrics, how important is it to just find that one word -- the one perfect word -- versus maybe just finding one that might work or that might just be ok? How special is that process to you?
TATE: Lyrics have to be extremely important to me because I’m the one who has to deliver them. I may not always use them in the correct way grammatically, but I do use them for effect. They are also a tremendous way of getting everything out, although I never know what it is that I’m writing about until I pull everything out and look at it the next day and go, “oh, I see where I’m going with this, but maybe I can tighten it up here and use a directive in order to make a point.” Other times, I just leave it as raw as it is at that time. I do have fun with that. I think it is one of the things that gives me the most enjoyment within making music. It’s a funny thing, you may slave over a line or a verse or even a whole lyrical song for months, and then somebody hears it, buys the album and may come up to me going, “you know that song you wrote? I just love how is says this and that and…” They go on, and I realize that it’s a completely different thing that they’re hearing than what I was saying. So what does that say to you? I used to think that it meant that I wasn’t a very good writer and that maybe I wasn’t getting my point across as clearly as I could be. Then, I tried to be more direct in what I was doing so that the people would get the more concrete idea. The problem with that was that writing that way got kind of boring for me. I ended up just reverting back to my old way of doing things which was just to not obsess about it that much.

KNAC.COM: Would you say then that your writing is more of a stream of consciousness type of process carried out without a specific theme in mind?
TATE: Yeah, that’s the way I write. I use music to inspire or accentuate what’s in my head. I have a really difficult time expressing myself and my feelings on things, so it takes me awhile to figure out how I really feel about something. I’m kind of one of those closed off males who is out of touch with his feelings that they write all the therapy books about. Yeah, that’s me.

KNAC.COM: How much time would you say that you spend a day engaging in writing?
TATE: I’d say on average…probably about five or six hours a day.

KNAC.COM: Is it some type of deal where you go, “Ok, at eleven in the morning I’m going into a room and I’m going to write a song” or is it something less structured?
TATE: Well, I do this thing where I try to keep a schedule, but at the end of the day, I always try to leave something unfinished, so then I have something to start on when I come back. That way, when I come down to the studio, I don’t just sit there because there’s nothing to work on. I already have something in mind and something in the works when I sit down.

KNAC.COM: I’m sure it cuts down on writer’s block…
TATE: That’s the idea anyway…

"I’m kind of one of those closed off males who is out of touch with his feelings that they write all the therapy books about. Yeah, that’s me."
KNAC.COM: Was the transition from Queensryche to a solo project made any easier for you given the assumption that fans of the Ryche are some of the more astute listeners in metal? Do you think it makes them more willing to take the trip with you into more diverse pathways?
TATE: Yeah, I think so. The people that follow Queensryche tend to be on average very open minded musically, so therefore, when you go into their record collection, you may find Aerosmith mixed in with Miles Davis. It shows that they can appreciate different extremes. I like that, and I respect that -- that’s the way my music collection is too. In that way, I would think that they would find new things on this album that they would like as well. Of course, there will always be those hardcore guys who only listen to the EP, and those guys probably aren’t going to like this record.

KNAC.COM: Can you give me a couple of examples of influences that people wouldn’t ordinarily associate with you?
TATE: My writing partner on this, Jeff Carrell, and I met and started our writing collaboration because we both discovered that we had a love of Hall and Oates.

TATE: Really, that was the basis for the whole project starting out. Songs like, “Touch” and “Every Move We Make” are inspired by Hall and Oates.

KNAC.COM: In fairness, they did actually have some good songs.
TATE: Some great ones.

KNAC.COM: Yeah, but the thing was, Hall and Oates was more like a trio than a duo. It was like ok, there’s Hall, there’s Oates and then there was that weird ass mustache of his. It was like a separate entity.
TATE: Yeah, well you sound like a guy who can’t grow a mustache.

KNAC.COM: Damn, you caught me. I’ve got a horrible case of mustache envy over here.
TATE: Actually… I’ve got that too. I’ve got one of those pencil thin Clark Gable mustaches and a big upper lip, so it doesn’t go very well together.

KNAC.COM: Facial hair aside though, they were a good pop group. They had a ton of catchy hooks in their songs. What about the Cars?
TATE: Yeah definitely, the Cars were one of my favorite bands growing up. I had a lot of influences borne out of the ‘60s and the ‘70s. One of my first were the Supremes and Otis Redding. I started out on a lot of R&B and soul music, too, before I progressed onto rock and progressive rock like Genesis with Peter Gabriel and Supertramp and groups like that. I’ve got quite a background with that and a lot of it comes out on this record. For this, I chose to work with people who had similar tastes, and none of the guys that I worked with on this project came from a metal background at all, so that was really refreshing.

KNAC.COM: Was that a conscious decision on your part or was it just the way it worked out?
TATE: No, I really wanted it to be as far away from Queensryche as I could get it for a couple of reasons. One of them is that I needed a break and wanted to work with a different type of musician. Secondly, I wanted to do both projects but keep them independent of each other. I wanted to take this record and do groove oriented rhythm structured music and focus on vocal work and harmonies. Then I thought we could take Queensryche on into a really aggressive arena later on, and I didn’t want the two projects to cross paths.

KNAC.COM: How hard was it for you to decide to record Geoff Tate? Many metal vocalists do start to feel stifled by the restraints placed on them, yet most wouldn’t be confident enough either in their audience or even themselves to attempt this. What made it right for you?
TATE: It was difficult at first -- it was scary. Doing anything outside the comfort zone of what you are familiar is a scary thing. Finding different people to work with can also be difficult. Then when you do get started writing and you produce a few things, at first you don’t think it’s very good. Eventually though, you do write something and you run with it, but you have to realize that when you go out and play it for somebody, they may go, “this is fine, but it’s not Queensryche.” Well, you know, it’s not supposed to be. That’s when you start doubting yourself and start going, man, did I do the right thing here? What I decided is that, “hell yes, it’s the right thing to do.” I did what I wanted to. That’s why I got into music anyway… was so that I would have the freedom to do what I wanted to do. That was my primary criteria for getting into the music industry in the first place -- to satisfy myself. I’ve always approached the music writing and the song writing in the same way. It is something that I do for me regardless of what anyone else thinks or says. It’s a really selfish endeavor that way.

KNAC.COM: Does it ever bother you that you aren’t just regarded simply as Geoff Tate and that you are and will always most likely be known as “Geoff Tate the Vocalist of Queensryche”?
TATE: No, I mean, I’m very proud of that. I think we’ve done some really good work over the years and that we have some integrity within the industry. We have one of those careers that I think is the perfect kind of career musically. It’s not like you’re a household name and you can’t move around in society. I can still go where I want to go. Yeah, I may get recognized fairly often, but it’s nothing major.

KNAC.COM: And you’re not building houses…
TATE: Yeah, exactly. I’m doing what I like to do, and I get to be pretty adventurous creatively. I value that more than anything. You know, just having the ability to write different types of songs. Although, it does amaze me when a guy will come up and go “’Queen of the Reich,’ man, that’s the best song you ever did.” I just think about it and I go, “what about ‘Silent Lucidity’ or this song or that song.” He goes, “nope, that doesn’t do it for me.” Then I realize that’s just where he may be at musically. You know, that’s what he listens to, appreciates, and that’s what moves him. The thing is, that’s not where I’m at anymore. I like certain aspects of that style or presentation, but I’m always looking to blend and change and move and experiment.

KNAC.COM: Is the fact that you guys weren’t the prototypical heavy metal band the reason that you were able to withstand the whole alternative music influx of the early ‘90s?
TATE: I think the biggest reason we made it was because we really were in it for the music and that showed. We didn’t go out and wear outrageous costumes or go out in the press all the time solidifying some kind of image. Our image was really just about the music we made. We’re just kind of like real people. We aren’t game show hosts or Hollywood celebrity type people.

"That was my primary criteria for getting into the music industry in the first place -- to satisfy myself…. It is something that I do for me regardless of what anyone else thinks or says."
KNAC.COM: Is part of that because you guys weren’t from LA? Was it a good thing that you came from Seattle instead?
TATE: I think that definitely helped. I think that a lot of the bands from Seattle that made it big had that sense about them. They kept to themselves and did tours and hung out with their friends. They didn’t move to LA and become a tabloid headline. We had that type of opportunity around the time the Empire record came out. We were selling millions and millions of records and had all kinds of attention heaped on us. We even had companies calling us wanting to make action figure dolls out of us. That’s when we just took a break from it and said that we weren’t into that -- let’s just slow down here and regroup.

KNAC.COM: Of course, the album that preceeded Empire was another huge record for the band, Operation Mindcrime. In the end, how much of Queensryche’s legacy will be tied to that record?
TATE: Well, when we recorded that album, we were working on all cylinders as a band. We were very close and communicating really well. You know, it was just a good time for us really. We had new management that came in and was very enthusiastic about what we were doing. They gave us lots of encouragement to follow through with our vision. Things were just great at that time, and maybe that came out. Maybe having all that support gives you the courage to follow through.

KNAC.COM: Lyrically and atmospherically, it was very different from anything else that was out at that time. It’s funny to hear you talk about that as being such a positive time for you when that is such an aggressive, angry album.
TATE: I think our management was important because they kind of gave us the ok to do what we wanted to do. When you have that freedom to let it all out, I guess that’s what happens.

KNAC.COM: I’m sure that throughout the years you’ve been asked the entire gamut of questions from fans regarding the content of that album.
TATE: Oh yeah.

KNAC.COM: Are there any that stand out in your mind as being especially bizarre?
TATE: Nothing specifically stands out, but it does seem to be an album that affected a lot of people and has a definite audience.

KNAC.COM: Did the touring for Live Evolution have anything to do with you choosing to do the solo album now? Was there anything inside you that said, “Ok, this is a fitting end to what we’ve done so far, now let me try something else?”
TATE: Well, I was already doing the solo record at that point. I had a lot of it done and was recording. Actually, that was a difficult tour to do anyway because Kelly was still with us and he was not running on all spark plugs the whole time. It was a difficult environment to be in. I’m looking for the touring experience this summer to go more positively for sure.

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