Revolution Now

An Interview with Queensryche

by Greg M. Schwartz


After being fed an experimental mind-control drug, a disillusioned young man named Nikki becomes involved with an underground revolution led by the enigmatic Dr. X, who manipulates him into attempting to assassinate politicians. At first Nikki thinks he is fighting for a movement to change the corrupt system he believes controls society. But just as Nikki realizes he is being used in a Faustian bargain, Dr. X frames him for the murder of his girlfriend.

It could be the plot for an intriguing film—and just may be if Queensryche vocalist Geoff Tate has his way. He’s finishing up a screenplay to shop to prospective producers—but it is based on his band’s legendary hard-rock masterpiece, 1988’s Operation: Mindcrime. On its 2005 tour, Queensryche performed the album in its entirety for the first time in 15 years, with a theatrical stage production and actors playing scenes from the story onstage. This was in preparation for the recording of the concept album’s long-awaited sequel, released this April.

In 1988, a time when hard rock was mostly ruled by glam bands intent on general debauchery, Queensryche led off Mindcrime with “Revolution Calling,” a stinging indictment of all that ailed 20th century society: “Got no love for politicians / Or that crazy scene in D.C / It’s just a power mad town / But the time is ripe for changes / There’s a growing feeling / That taking a chance on a new kind of vision is due”. Later, in “Spreading the Disease,” Tate summed up the feelings of many regarding American hypocrisy:

Religion and sex are power plays,
Manipulate the people for the money they pay.
Selling skin, selling God
The numbers look the same on their credit cards
Politicians say no to drugs
While we pay for wars in South America
Fighting fire with empty words
While the banks get fat and the poor stay poor
And the rich get rich and the cops get paid to look away
As the one percent rules America.

“It didn’t seem that ambitious really. It seemed like what was interesting,” says Tate of the first Mindcrime, which became the Seattle band’s first platinum album and set the stage for their multiplatinum breakthrough, 1990’s Empire, which spawned the hit, “Silent Lucidity”. The band fell out of the limelight since, but unlike most of their Seattle contemporaries, they’ve managed to stay together for more than 20 years and are still going strong.

“We’re all very different people with different kinds of interests and paths in life and growth levels,” says Tate of the band. “And as long as you can accept that, I think you can probably keep the thing working. It’s when you try to change people to make them like yourself that it all goes wrong…. It won’t ever work, I’m convinced of it. I’ve talked to too many people in bands that have broken up, where they just can’t give each other the space to do what it is they do.”

Backstage after an October 2005 show at Cleveland’s House of Blues, Tate reflected on the genesis of both the original Mindcrime and the upcoming sequel. “I’d always wanted to do a conceptual-based record. We’d been kind of toying with themes: Rage for Order (1986), The Warning (1984) were both theme-based records,” says Tate. “We hadn’t really tackled a complete record that was a story all the way through and had always wanted to do that, and I just had the story at the right time. It took awhile to convince the band that this is the right route that we should go lyrically with things, but once they all kind of understood what I was trying to do, the interest started happening.”

The character of Dr. X was actually inspired by members of the Quebec Liberation Front, a separatist movement that Tate became familiar with when he was lived in Montreal in the 1980s. “I ended up meeting and hanging out with a lot of these cats, who were just bad asses—people that you didn’t really want to know, but you kind of knew through people secondhand,” says Tate. “They were the kind of people that would blow up cars and buildings and kidnap people—extortion, the whole bit. So that was an influence on the story.”

The mind-control drug that Dr. X utilizes wasn’t made up out of thin air either; Tate claims the U.S. military has been experimenting with mind control for decades (as hinted at in the classic book and film The Manchurian Candidate). “And what more perfect candidates to use them on than our military personnel?” asks Tate. “If you want to have somebody with a single-minded purpose, that’s a perfect kind of candidate, isn’t it?” In the Mindcrime sequel he plans to delve deeper into the topic. After making Nikki one of his first guinea pigs, Dr. X has moved on to work with a large pharmaceutical company developing the drug for the government. Tate is no fan of hard drugs—the Mindcrime track “The Needle Lies” is a damning statement against drug use, inspired, Tate says, by his observing heroin’s effects on those around him in the Seattle scene.

“It’s more observing friends and associates coming unglued on the shit. There’s nothing good about heroin,” says Tate. “And it’s been glamorized so much, and I’ve probably helped glamorize it a bit myself. But it’s a terrible drug, and everybody that’s ever done it has regretted doing it. It completely takes over your life. In a way, it sort of inspired the Mindcrime story because this mind-control drug is very similar—it takes over your body, your mind, your whole life. It’s what you become; it’s what you live for.”

Putting together an album with a fixed narrative structure presents an extra challenge in the songwriting process, but Tate says the Mindcrime sequel came together in a fairly organic way. “I kind of did an outline of points I wanted to cover, subjects I thought were interesting and relevant to the story and then sort of began writing the songs around a particular subject,” says Tate. “Guitarist Mike Stone and myself and producer Jason Slater wrote the majority of the songs. And we together, the three of us, we were just really in the right headspace. Those two came and stayed at my house for three months and we wrote songs. It was really kind of an amazing time, because we lived and breathed it. We didn’t take showers; we just kind of stayed in our pajamas and robes and slippers and built a fire in the fireplace and sat and recorded and wrote songs for three months. When we were done we had the majority of the record.”

Guitarist Michael Wilton and bassist Eddie Jackson contributed later, but Tate, Stone and Slater were the driving creative forces. “It was really a great vibe; we really connected on this one. But it was all story driven—I’d mapped out the storyline and covered the areas I wanted to talk about, and then I’d ask them, What can we do to make this feeling, what can we do to make this kind of vibe here?” says Tate. “And we’d play different chords and chord progressions, until we found something where we all went, ‘Oh, yeah, yeah, this is cool.’ “

While his band mates were more influenced by the British metal scene, Tate says his early musical influences leaned more toward progressive rock. “Things like Robert Fripp and King Crimson, ELP, Genesis, Yes. More musicians’ music, I guess. Theatrical stuff, like Queen, and then classical and jazz stuff,” says Tate. “So I brought those things into the band and said, ‘Well look, this is what I’m into.’ And I’d play the songs for the guys, and they’d try to understand what it was I found attractive about it. It took us quite a few years to finally meld.”

Tate says taking original guitarist Chris DeGarmo to a Peter Gabriel concert in the early 1980s was a seminal moment in Queensryche’s development. “He was always giving me a bad time about listening to what he would call sissy music. And I took him to see the Security tour, and afterward he goes, ‘You know, I see what you’re talking about.’ He said it was incredibly amazing and moving, and he couldn’t stop talking about it for weeks. He just needed to see it from a different perspective, like we all do.”

The exchange of influences was reciprocal. DeGarmo turned Tate onto the musical mastery of the Beatles. “I wasn’t really so much of a Beatles fan. But he got me into it, hearing their melody structure, their chord choices, how they constructed melodies in certain ways, that were really unique, you know?” says recalls Tate. “He got me to really see that and the harmonic structures they use. So we all kind of found musical places where we could relate to each other.”

The new album will feature a guest vocal appearance by metal god Ronnie James Dio as the voice of Dr. X. In the tradition of theatrical influences like Peter Gabriel, Tate says the band is hard at work on putting together another complete show that will leave a multidimensional impression on concertgoers. “We’ve been designing the stage show for the next tour and talking about the idea of presenting parts one and two together, as an ‘evening with’ kind of thing,” says Tate. “So that’s been fun working with set designers and costume designers, getting drawings sent out and all that—really fun.”

Tate won’t reveal the sequel’s full storyline, but he says it begins with Nikki being released from prison and having his mind blown that another George Bush is president. Nikki then moves on to his obsession with revenge against Dr. X. “There’s a similarity in the times,” says Tate. “Social scientists have said that we swing from one extreme to the other in our development as humans. And our politics are the same way.”

Tate cites the “ultraconservative mood of the country,” the economy being “in the dumper,” the huge federal budget deficit and the war in Iraq as being strange parallels to the first Bush presidency. And while Nikki is not an autobiographical creation, the character clearly reflects Tate’s progressive political views. “So here Nikki is released, and in one way, it’s like he never left. But on the other hand, he’s got all of these ancillary things to get used to, like digital technology and computers just run our lives now,” Tate says. “Plus, he’s got his real motivation, revenge. He’s had the love of his life taken from him. He’s had a pretty rough upbringing, he doesn’t know too much, he’s been in prison for most of his adult life. What’s he got to live for? He hasn’t really found anything that sort of lifts him up, that inspires his imagination to think of himself in another way. To be Nikki, you have to be kind of able to reinvent yourself.”

So how did Tate become so progressive-minded? While many musicians want little more than the clichéd sex, drugs and rock and roll, Tate is a family man, with five daughters, and is focused on living a life outside the mainstream. “I’m very blessed with my wife. She is a constant cheerleader kind of personality, where I have a tendency toward depression,” says Tate of his wife, Susan. “And she’ll logically get me to see that I really don’t have anything to be depressed about. She’s always saying, ‘Just look at your life, look at what we have and what we do and what our life is like, what we’re surrounded by. We have five beautiful children, we have a beautiful house in the country, it’s very peaceful and quiet and magical, we have fairies living in the woods. Everybody’s healthy.’ I’m a musician, I travel around the world playing shows for people. People would give their right arm to do that. What have I got to be depressed about, you know? And I think she really helped me see that.”

Tate’s progressive viewpoints are reflected in his children. Sixteen-year-old daughter Miranda, who had joined the band on tour for 10 days in October, is far from the spoiled brat that many envision when thinking of children of rock stars. She says that with such cool parents, she doesn’t have much to rebel against, but that Tate can still be strict at times. “He always encouraged me to speak my mind and stand up for what I believe, so we’re like the kids in class when our teachers are talking who say, ‘Well actually, that’s not what I learned,’ ” says Miranda. “He’s easygoing most of the time, but if stuff gets left on the counter, he can be intense. He likes order.”

Tate also has musical tastes that stretch far beyond the hard rock genre. “He listens to classical every morning, every single morning it’s on, and if we change the channel, he’s like, ‘We need to listen to classical,’” says Miranda. “He just goes through the house singing, especially in the mornings, when he makes coffee, always singing, every morning. Just scales, like he’s warming up.” The 46-year-old Tate is also strict when it comes to the boys his daughters date. “Before we can go on any dates with boys, they have to come to the house and meet him,” says Miranda, who acknowledges that it can be rather intimidating for potential boyfriends. “So he grills them like, ‘Well, what are your intentions?’ He always wants to know, and he has to make sure that they’re okay before they go out with us.”

Part of Tate’s grounded demeanor stems from his conscious efforts to make time to withdraw from mainstream American culture. Tate’s reading reflects his skepticism: authors such as ethnobotanist Terence McKenna, “physicist/magician” Fritjov Kapra, religious scholar Elaine Pagels and anthropologist Jean Liedloff. And he’s been making periodic trips to Mexico, particularly to the exotic Yucatán region, since 1985. “I try to go down kind of like a personal pilgrimage every few years to reconnect. I find that the model of life that we lead as Americans is not fulfilling enough for me,” says Tate. “When you can create something neat or satisfying in your job, like music, I get a lot of satisfaction doing that. But the emphasis on attaining wealth and achieving goals and the whole commercialism, it just eats away at my spirit. My wife and I try very hard at raising our kids without that pop-culture mentality.”

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