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Cultural Shorts

Geoff Tate recalls building Queensrÿche’s 'Empire'

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Former Queensrÿche lead vocalist Geoff Tate is currently on tour performing two of the band’s most beloved albums in their entirety.

Tate performs at Wave on Saturday, Nov. 20, and at Knuckleheads in Kansas City on Friday, Nov. 19.

Geoff Tate, formerly of Queensrÿche, has been celebrating that band’s legacy on his current tour by performing two of the band’s most beloved albums in their entirety.

First up is 1986’s “Rage for Order,” an experimental opus that shattered early illusions that the Seattle-based outfit was a heavy metal band. Tate, who routinely showed a distaste for his band being classified in that genre, could quickly point to the quintet’s sophomore LP as evidence that its roots ran deeper than the Sturm und Drang of some of its contemporaries.

“Rage for Order,” like its predecessor, “The Warning,” dealt with intellectual lyrical themes — humankind’s uneasy relationship with technology, the threat of big government — while walking a musical line somewhere between Pink Floyd and Prince.

Although “Rage For Order” didn’t catapult the band into stardom, it did bode well for the group’s future. The band won a coveted spot opening for Ozzy Osbourne that year and was featured heavily in prominent music magazines of the day. It also laid the groundwork for 1988’s “Operation: Mindcrime.”

If “Rage for Order" was in some ways ahead of its time, "Mindcrime" was in some ways a throwback. It was a concept album released at a time when concept albums — the business of progressive rock bands of the 1970s — were out of vogue. Still, a handful of acts — including King Diamond and Iron Maiden — released story-centered LPs in the late ’80s and enjoyed some of the greatest commercial success of their careers in the process.

"Operation: Mindcrime" was cinematic in scope with a storyline that involved anarchy, drug addiction and forbidden love. With songs such as "Revolution Calling," which name-checked Andy Warhol and is eerily prescient in its detailing of political and social hypocrisy, and “I Don’t Believe In Love,” an anti-love song that sold more than a few skeptics on the idea of a concept record, it demonstrated that whatever kind of music Queensrÿche was making, it was striking, familiar but new and always forward-thinking. (Tate performed the record in its entirety on a previous tour.)

But it was 1990's "Empire" that fully cemented the group's commercial appeal and vision. Though not a concept album in the same vein as its predecessor, the record tapped into the zeitgeist of the post-Reagan era with songs about homelessness, climate change and the rise of globalization. There were a few love songs along the way, including “Jet City Woman” and the inescapable radio hit “Silent Lucidity.”

From there, Queensrÿche became a major force on rock radio and in concert halls, trading opening slots for Osbourne and Metallica for headlining gigs.

In subsequent years, the band remained experimental and came to be considered pioneers in the genre of progressive metal, alongside bands such as Dream Theater and Fates Warning.

Tate left the band in 2012 amid deep acrimony with his bandmates. Lawsuits and bitter exchanges in the music press followed but fans managed to embrace both Tate’s newfound status as a solo act and Queensrÿche’s decision to forge ahead with a more primal, metal-oriented sound.

Tate, who performs at Wave on Saturday, Nov. 20, and Knuckleheads in Kansas City on Friday, Nov. 19, spoke with KMUW earlier this year from his home in Seattle about the making of “Empire,” his passion for hiking and his connections with his family, which were deepened across 2020.

Interview Highlights

Queensrÿche had released a number of albums in the 1980s, each one gaining a little more traction in terms of audience. “Operation: Mindcrime” was a concept record and that seemed to raise the band’s visibility even more. Then “Empire” came out and the band reached radio, MTV, became unavoidable.

It’s a different perspective when you were part of it. It’s also a completely different perspective 30 years later. It’s a different world now. But it was a wonderful album that I enjoyed making. I can’t speak for the rest of the guys in the band but I really threw myself into it, the concept of it, the performing of it, the recording of it. It was normal for us back then to put out a record every couple of years. That was our schedule: Make a record and then tour. The band kept building and building over the years and “Empire” was our fourth album. It was a time when radio really discovered the band. We had quite a few songs on that album that turned into radio songs. But you never know you’re writing a radio song until it gets played on the radio.

“Operation: Mindcrime” had “I Don’t Believe In Love” and “Revolution Calling,” which I think you could hear on radio but then “Empire” came out and there were three or four. It was a real radio album.

Yeah, and people started hearing it that way. Perception is something that can change in a second, a blink of an eye. It’s a strange thing when you have success and what you’re doing is deemed commercial when you never thought of it that way as a writer or musician. When you start selling albums it automatically becomes commercial. That’s where we were at with that record. It became the biggest selling one of our career, and it changed all of our lives in the band.

It’s almost a time capsule of American life at the time. There are songs that touch on homelessness, other social issues. It’s apparent that the five of you in the band were engaged in the world around you as people and as writers.

I think that’s something that had always been sort of a trademark in the writing of Queensrÿche: looking at social issues and commenting on them and contemplating them and then writing a song that maybe helped explain the situation from another point of view. “Empire” had several songs like that. “Resistance” is about the climate change debate and the results of climate change, what it’s been doing to the civilized world. Homelessness [is something we wrote about] with “Della Brown.” There were relationship songs that are kind of classic writer go-tos because you write what you know and we’re all in relationships to come extent. It was an album that I think really resonated with people, and they heard it. And the reason why it resonated with them was they heard so much of it. It became an album that had six singles on it. It was played pretty continuously across radio stations in America and Europe, South America for a good couple years straight.

When you have success like that things change. People look at you different, your family sees you differently, your friends see you differently, and the people you’re in a band with start looking at each other a little differently.

Yeah, definitely. It affects you in a lot of different ways. One, of course, like you mentioned, is perception; how others perceive you, then how they treat you. It changes you. Because that album had so much publicity and we were on MTV every few minutes, we lost a bit of our anonymity and our ability to move through a city or town or an area without being noticed and recognized. That went by the wayside. That’s a big adjustment to deal with on a personal level. You feel like you’re always on, you’re always in the spotlight. It’s just a bit uncomfortable but it’s not insurmountable. I got used to it and learned to deal with it.

“Empire” was hugely successful monetarily. So now you’re thrust into a whole different lifestyle with different choices and more money than you’ve ever seen before. How do you deal with all of that? It’s like going back to school and having to learn business management and investment and all that kind of stuff.

None of us had any kind of background in that. We all came from the music side only. There’s just a lot of different things to get used to. Some people get used to it and learn to ride the wave and other people crash. Luckily we didn’t crash. We kept going and doing what we did for many years. It was a 30-year endeavor with Queensrÿche. We went the distance. Not many bands can go that long.

In terms of the current tour, you were getting things rolling in 2020 and then COVID hit. We all watched cancellations and postponements and anyone who had friends in the industry became worried about their friends and their livelihood. You’ve been at this for roughly 40 years, and I imagine had probably never seen anything like it. Were there moments of panic in all of that?

Not so much panic. It was more of a sobering kind of study, how it was affecting my band. I employ people for tour and seeing them not be able to make a living [was hard]. We tried all different kind of ways to keep paying them, keep them solvent while we waited this thing out. So, luckily, that all worked. But, being completely honest with you, I had amazing year of being home for the first time in my life. I know it sounds strange, but I had been on the road almost all my life. This was the first time I actually took a complete year off and just spent it in one place and lived my life, got to know my kids again and got to know my grandkids and spend time with my family. Man, it was a revelation for me. I didn’t even know I needed that. But now I’ve experienced it, and I’m so grateful that I was able to do that.

There were a number of musicians I talked to over the last year who had similar experiences. They tended to their gardens and got to know home. Like, “Oh, yeah, this is what the fuss about autumn in New England is all about.”

[Laughs.] My one daughter, her birthday is in September. I think I’ve missed her birthday every year since she was five. To have that this last year was really great.

I know that you love to hike, so you must have had a chance to do some of that in the last year.

That’s a passion for my wife and I, hiking and mountain climbing, going to remote places, backpacking. So we did a lot of that around the Seattle area. We tend to hike and explore in other areas of the world when we’re touring so this was a nice change for us, to participate in our sport locally. It’s a beautiful place to live, the Pacific Northwest, and I really enjoyed being here.

You grew up in the Seattle area and were there when it was a far cry from the city it is now. It was a much smaller then. Does it still feel like home to you or have you had thoughts about, “Well, maybe we should get out of here, leave it all behind”?

Oh, yeah. Many thoughts about leaving it behind. But you know, what's funny is once you live in a place for a while, and you kind of put down some roots, roots spread and you have your children and then they grew up and they buy a house near you and they start having kids and then you have kids and grandkids all in this immediate area. Moving someplace else becomes an actual impossibility if you want to keep the relationships and watch your children grow up and go through what they're going through and see the same for your grandkids. So you can’t get away. Maybe you could go away for month or two, but you always come back.

I just passed the 23-year mark of living in Kansas. I came here in the late ’90s and planned to stay for three years.

There you go. Where did you come from?

I came from Lake Geneva, Wisconsin.

Yeah, that's a big change.

I could see the lake every morning. There's a beautiful footpath around the lake.

I've actually hiked that path around Lake Geneva when we made the “Empire” record.

That was Royal Recorders, which is at the old Playboy Club. It was the place to work for a while. There weren’t a lot of distractions for bands.

It was just a big empty space. Huge. Most of my time there was spent either walking that footpath or in the studio staring at the wall, listening to music. It’s kind of a limited experience.

We had a dinner party at the studio one night. Alex Lifeson from Rush came and had dinner with us. It was a really fun night. But it started out in a completely awkward situation because they had us set up in the studio at this big banquet table in a recording room of the studio, which was a soundproof room. It was just completely dead. There wasn’t any ambient noise at all. So, we’re sitting in there, having this beautiful meal, a catered meal and you can hear ever little detail of people chewing their food and drinking, gulping their water or wine and cutting on the China plates. It was eerie and weird. We had to stop the dinner and have the studio bring speakers and put some music in there because it was too much.