Brian Sherwin interview with singer, songwriter and musician Geoff Tate (Queensryche) (This is an interview I had with Geoff Tate of the band Queensryche. It was originally posted on the Myartspace Blog on April 19, 2009.)
Queensryche, formed in 1981, is considered to be one of the most influential bands to rise in the 1980s-- largely due to the fact that Queensryche broke from the marketable direction that was expected from bands in that era. Throughout the 1980s Queensryche delivered something more than just songs about sex, fun, and hangover memories-- they delivered socially charged songs that challenge the listeners perception of the world and relationships around us. Today they continue to carve their own path musically and conceptually.
For nearly three decades the band has meshed aspects of visual art, video art, and performance art into their performances on stage. Due to their thought provoking lyrics, sound, and performances the band has been dubbed the ‘thinking man’s heavy metal band’. Concept albums by Queensryche, such as Operation: Mindcrime, are often mentioned alongside other notable concept albums, such as The Who’s Tommy and Pink Floyd’s The Wall. To date over 20 million Queensryche albums have been sold worldwide.
In an interview conducted by phone I discussed the visual aspects of Queensryche with frontman Geoff Tate. Geoff offered his thoughts on critics, copyright, and the challenges that musicians and visual artists face today. He also offered some insight about American Soldier -- a recently released concept album by Queensryche that tells the story of war from a firsthand perspective.
Brian Sherwin: Geoff, Queensryche performances often involve aspects of film, video art, and performance art. In a sense, various aspects of art are meshed together in order to heighten the experience of the audience. You could say that the audience is hit with a visual and audio bombardment. That said, how involved are you with the visual aspects of the tours? Do you oversee the process? Are you involved with the planning directly?
Geoff Tate: Yeah, I’m directly involved in the process. We have been collecting and cataloguing images for 28 years. In the early days it was difficult to keep track of images because keeping everything on file was a laboring process. With the technology of today the process is easier because the images, clips, and audio can be saved on computer files. So there is a lot of resources for us to pull content from within the collection when we are planning stage shows or videos.
For the stage performances I’m directly involved in selecting actors that have the talent to convey the themes and emotions that we want to capture for the audience. I help select and arrange the video clips that play behind us on the stage. So I would say I’m deeply involved and interested in the meshing of visual and audio for our shows and how that communicates to people at the show.
BS: Can you go into further detail about the importance of the videos that play behind Queensryche during performances?
GT: The videos that play behind us can be a crucial aspect of the show. So it is important to be involved in the process. The story told visually on the screen can help the audience to stay connected with what I‘m saying. In a live performance you can sometimes have audio issues-- for example, people might have trouble hearing the lyrics-- so the visuals keep the connection going. They keep the general concept going.
When I’m on stage and the film is playing behind me I can look out into the crowd and see that the audience is looking at the video instead of locking on to just me, or just one of the guys. I can see that because of the video the audience remains connected with what the music is about instead of being distracted-- I can see in their eyes that they understand the point.
People today are so used to minimalism, you know, empty spaces. I think that viewers need something more than that. They need visual art combined with audio at concerts because it is a strong communication tool. The visuals help to communicate the message clear.
You can have fun with the videos as well. For example, you can switch things up and include images that at first don’t seem to be connected to what is being said, but later on have it come together… so the audience is like “Oh my God, I get that!”.
BS: Relationships are a common theme on Queensryche albums-- one could say that both Operation Mindcrime and American Soldier and other albums are at heart about relationships and how individuals interact in various situations. When it comes to visual art-- are you attracted to artwork that deals with a similar theme-- art that conveys the joy and pain of relationships in general?
GT: I’m attracted to different types of art. The art that attracts me personally does not necessarily have to involve the themes I’ve explored with music. With Queensryche the themes we explore varies depending on the project. We have dealt with subject matter like madness and how you get to a point in your life where you accomplish goals and then start to really question what things are worth. So when we look for artists we look for someone who can convey those feelings visually and connect them to the lyrics and sound.
It can be hard to find a visual artist who cant match visually what I’m saying in a song. Some art, like painting, has a certain feel to it-- it can be full of movement or be static. So you have to think about that when selecting visuals in order to find what works as an image and with the audio.
BS: I understand that one artist you like to work with is Hugh Syme. Syme has done album art for Iron Maiden, Aerosmith, Megadeth, Rush among other bands. Can you discuss the connection you have with Syme?
GT: We work with Hugh Syme regularly. He is an artist who has a great reputation in the music world. He can take ideas and turn them into something with little direction. Share some thoughts with Hugh and he can do it. For example, he did the cover art for our recent album American Soldier. The album involves interviews I had with war vets from WWII all the way up to Iraq. The concept and lyrics are based on those interviews so it is like their voice, their thoughts about war, are heard. So I needed an image to convey that.
I spoke with Hugh for about 20 or 30 minutes about the concept and he returned with this idea of the soldiers boots which is on the cover of American Soldier. The image is kind of like the saying, ‘you don’t know a person until you walk in their shoes’, but in this case its you don’t know a soldier until you walk in their boots. It worked for the album. Hugh is able to take that basic image and incorporate it into everything from stage design to promotional materials for the band and tour.
When Hugh makes a cover it becomes a part of the promotion itself. He does this seamlessly-- makes it look easy because he knows what he is doing and sticks to it. Working with him has been a very positive experience. You don’t have to hunt him down to check on his work and progress-- sometimes it can be like pulling teeth when working with artists for album art.
Sometimes the artists you work with does not take the job seriously and you have to make sure they are actually working on something. Hugh is not like that. He does great work and is ok with others being a part of the process. When you find an artist like that you want to keep going back to them.
BS: What are your thoughts on criticism? Both music and art criticism?
GT: Why should anyone give a rats ass about what a music critic has to say about music? How many music critics have actually performed or know how to play an instrument? The same goes for art critics. I doubt many of them have ever created art, painted, or if they did they probably did not ‘make it’ so instead they rip apart people who have. Criticism is just an opinion, that is all it is no matter how much the person knows or thinks they know about the subject. It all comes down to their personal likes and dislikes.
I'll give you an example. I often visit art museums when I have time to myself and enjoy the Louvre. During visits I’d say that 9 times out of 10 I will walk past what an art critic says should “strike” me. The artwork that should have caught my attention, according to the critic, just did not strike me at that particular time. During another visit it might. Or I might walk past works that stuck out before because they did not catch my attention during that particular visit. Art is subjective. What you like can be due to how you are feeling at a specific time.
The problem with art and music critics is that they attach competition to everything. That is really their only purpose. So you have some people trying to live up to what a critic says is right or “good” instead of exploring their own creativity. If I did that I would have never got to where I am today.
BS: You once mentioned that we have become a mediocrity worshipping culture. Can you go into further detail about that?
GT: Modern people, especially in America, are so used to black and white marketing. Absolute black and white marketing. Because people are conditioned to expect absolute black and white marketing it can be hard for them to think outside of the box and to see things, products or bands, for what they really are.
BS: Do you have a stance on copyright?
GT: I can speak as someone who has had a long career in the music business. The idea of copyright is over. It is basically dead today. I think we could look into new ways of doing things, but I don’t know if that would even be enough to secure rights to intellectual property. I’ll use Queensryche as an example, we have seen a 90% drop in royalties since the 1990’s because of the advent of the internet and the advancement of file sharing technology.
It is too difficult to enforce copyright when technology makes it so easy to obtain music, or visual art for that matter, without paying for it. Because of that there is no real music industry today. It is just difficult to enforce copyright and no matter what you do someone will work around it.
BS: So because of rampant unchecked downloading the music industry is pretty much dead? Can it be turned around?
GT: The music industry of today is a façade compared to the past. I’ll put it this way, 10 years ago a record label would ship a million albums to retailers when a new album came out. The sell numbers of those shipments would be calculated to help decide chart ranking, the position and so on. Today you are lucky if 5,000 to 10,000 are shipped. Today the record label, the executives, jump up and down in joy if 500 are sold at retailers in the first week when in the past it used to be that you would need to have sold 60,000 in the first week to get that same response.
Society today just does not have respect when it comes to using stuff without permission. The same thing is happening with the movie industry in recent years and I’m sure the art world will have similar problems. It really hurts young musicians today because in the past a record label would give a band a three or four album contract from the start. Today they go through young bands like they are on a factory production line. A lot of young bands are dropped quick. They don’t have time to grow under the wing of a record label like they would have in the past.
BS: As you suggested, copyright infringement is becoming all too common in the age we live in. One could say that it is becoming harder for musicians and visual artists to protect their works as well as the intention of their creative contributions to society. Today it seems that a musician or visual artist, if popular, will be praised for infringing on the copyright of other musicians and visual artists instead of being questioned about their ethics and intentions.
The artist Shepard Fairey’s history of copyright allegations comes to mind. That said, do you support copyright law? Or do you feel that “fair use” should be extended further? Should music and art be fair game for anyone to use without the interest of the artist in mind? Or should artists be able to protect their works-- and in a sense, their market from those who would try to profit from it without compensation?
GT: I think people don’t take notice when someone infringes on copyright because they don’t understand or care about intellectual property. We have a generation, no, two generations now that have grown up with no understanding of intellectual property rights. They expect music and art to be free while not really doing anything themselves to contribute to culture other than adding to the problems we already have regarding the rights of musicians and visual artists.
I’d say that most of the musicians who support free culture have probably never been on stage, have never made any real money with their albums, or have based their career on using content that does not belong to them. Visual artists probably face a similar situation. So they either support it because they are not at a place, or may never get to a place, where copyright matters to their career or they support weakened copyright because they have already tapped into the intellectual property of others without paying compensation and don’t want their job of taking from others to get any harder.
BS: So what about free culture supporters who suggest that strong copyright blocks or limits creativity?
GT: I don’t buy into that. Copyright has not blocked or limited my creativity. Like I said earlier, the people who make that claim have probably not produced something that people want to buy so copyright is not important to them. If they created something that people wanted and paid money for they would probably change their position really fast.
If they made their living from music or from visual art they would want to protect their intellectual property and be compensated when someone infringes on it. They would want to be able to support themselves and their families. At one time copyright was a good way to do that. There are others who see intellectual property as limiting and don’t realize, or don’t care, that we have built our life around this, what we do on stage, and what we have created over the span of almost three decades. You could say we built our lives around copyright because it fed our kids, sustained our families, and helped us maintain some control over our careers and what we were able to provide.
Musicians and visual artists need and want to get compensated for what they do just like any other profession. It isn’t a hobby. Unfortunately, like I said earlier, there are two generations now that have grown into the idea that music, art, and anything creative should be free. The bad thing about that is that once music, art, and film has no value in the market it really won’t have any value at all in this money driven society. If creative works should be free, everything should be free, and I don’t see that happening anytime soon.
BS: Finally, your recent album, titled American Soldier, is a salute to service men and women-- it is a concept album about war from the perspective of those on the front lines. As you know, the war in Iraq has not been popular-- many artists have spoken out against the war with music and visual art.
Sometimes these works depict soldiers as nothing more than cold bloodied killers or mindless pawns-- you could say that they have insulted the men and women who defend their freedom to express. In a sense, some of the art in recent years has depicted American soldiers in a dehumanized manner. What are your thoughts concerning that? Is that one reason why you decided to work on the album?
GT: You could say that. People often speculate about situations, especially war. They make up their mind about a group of people even though they have most likely not been anywhere near their shoes-- or boots. How can I talk about Iraq if I have not been there? How can I talk about war if I have not experienced it directly? How can an artist comment on the soldiers serving in Iraq if they have not met any? This is what I know... everyone hates war, including American soldiers. Every soldier I interviewed for the album, including my father, hated war. None of them want to fight like that yet they are able to sacrifice themselves, time with their family, and everything else.
We wanted to let the soldiers tell their own story without, for example, a painter telling their story based on speculation alone while in the comfort of an art studio. Soldiers were interviewed for the album and their thoughts are included throughout the album. It is not like soldiers are a different species or some primitive being designed to kill. They are us. They are people. The album reflects that.
For example, the song Home Again focuses on the feelings of separation that soldiers feel when they’re away from their families in a dangerous situation. These men and women are faced with one question every second during war, “will I make it back home again.”. I know that soldiers think more about life than death and more people need to understand that. They want to live and they want the war, the bad situation, to be over. In some ways we can all relate to that.
You can learn more about Geoff Tate by visiting his website-- http://www.geofftate.com/
You can learn more about the band Queensryche by visiting their site-- http://www.queensryche.com/
Take care, Stay true,