The Geoff Tate Interview
I won’t bore you with a drawn out introduction because, believe me, you’re going to want to get to the meat of this piece. But I would be remiss to not acknowledge that my conversation with Geoff Tate — the world renowned Voice of Queensrÿche — was one of the most interesting and effortless interviews I’ve ever had the privilege of conducting. If my words even halfway portray his sagacious insights on life, music, politics, and yes!— food and wine— then I’ll consider my job well done. So, ladies and gents, without further ado, I invite you into the fascinating mind of Geoff Tate…
Before we get into the details of the new album, Kings & Thieves, your tour just kicked off and I believe you’ve done about seven shows in eight days. How does it feel to be back on the road?
It feels good! Just got to New Jersey today and we are on our way to the venue now. The band is playing really well, people seem to really like the show, and we are having great time.
How was the crowd last night in Pittsburgh?
The crowd was insane. It was a crazy show, one of those ones that stick in your memory.
How so? Can you tell us some highlights?
I think the performance we had was exceptional, so off the bat it was memorable for us, but I really think the audience connected to the songs. Every audience is very different. And audiences are different regionally too, so sometimes it depends where you’re playing at. But the Pittsburgh audience has always been a very loyal audience for me. I’ve been going there for almost my whole career, I think one of my first times playing and touring there was back in 1983, so I have some loyal, long-time fans there and it’s always good to see familiar faces in the audience.
You’re going out with Alice Cooper to do a handful of shows together in Canada, are you looking forward to that leg of the tour?
I am looking forward to that, I have a long history with Alice Cooper, the first rock show I ever saw was the Billion Dollar Babies tour, back in ’73 I think it was. And then just all through my career I’ve had various opportunities to work with him… different gigs, celebrity golf, all great experiences.
It’s been about a decade since the release of your self-titled solo album, which you described as a very introspective project. I read recently that with the new album, Kings & Thieves, you were “ready to rock” and were focused on making a “solid rock album.” What drove that shift and how has the process of creating this album been different than the last?
One’s first solo album is typically a drastic step away from what one is used to doing, because by the time you make a solo record you really want to make something different. You want to work with different people. You want to have a fresher approach. So my first solo album is definitely that. It’s an exploration of my different musical influences — there’s a lot of jazz and R&B influenced music on that record. And with this album I just really wanted to focus on my rock roots. The whole project was really fun to make, and actually really quick too. I started the record January 2, 2012, and finished it July 15, so it went really fast in comparison to other records I’ve done in my career — some of them took years to make.
I also read that one of your focuses on this album was to create a set of music that was dynamically interesting to perform live. I was watching some videos that a fan uploaded to Twitter from your show last week in New York, and you definitely achieved the goal of creating a full of life performance because even through the haze and shakiness of his camera phone, I was completely engaged. That being said, it goes without saying that your voice is phenomenal, but is being on stage and connecting with the audience an aspect of your work that you equally love?
I do. I love performing live. I love singing songs for people, and I especially like singing songs that I’ve written for people. It’s a wonderful experience, really, and one that I very much appreciate and feel fortunate to be able to do.
And that’s surely why you have such loyal fans, like the ones aforementioned in Pittsburg, because that love of “singing songs for people,” can get lost on someone like you who has been gifted enough to sustain a career in an industry that offers no guarantees, which brings me to my next question… what does is take to preserve that legendary voice of yours?
I just sing every day. There really is no mystery to it. The voice is like a muscle group, so as long as you keep your body healthy and keep working at it, you build up stamina. I’m definitely blessed with a strong voice, and I worked for many years to make it stronger. I’ve never really had any issues with it… I just kind of get up and rock.
You’ve attributed life as a big inspiration for your music — can you elaborate on that for our readers, perhaps give us a glimpse into your creative process?
Life is very inspirational, there’s a lot going on, and I think if you just open up your mind and your heart and your eyes to what’s happening around you, inspiration will translate into your writing. I just try and pay attention to what’s going on; not only to myself, but also to the people around me, the people I love. And then I take a step further outside and make an observation of what’s happening in the place I live or with the people I come in contact with. I take inspiration from all these different things so I’m really never at a loss for something to write about. And I think there is something to be said for writing about what you know, writing about what’s important to you. Often times the best kinds of songs come from that.
Because you have been in the business for almost four decades, I’m wondering, how you feel about the impact the Internet has had on music—iTunes, Spotify, YouTube, SoundCloud, Facebook, Twitter, etc — how have these entities affected the music industry and musicians in particular?
I think the music industry is in a state of rearrangement. It used to operate within certain parameters, it had a system set in place, and that whole system has changed now. The record industry, as it exists today, is nothing even close to the record industry that I started out in years ago. It’s changed so drastically, and one of the things that are very challenging is actually communicating with people. We live in what they call “The Communication Age,” but in a way it’s a lot more difficult to communicate with people. They don’t go to the same publications anymore, they don’t go to the entertainment section of a newspaper to find out what’s going on, in fact, most people don’t even read newspapers now-a-days because that’s all been replaced with technology. And unfortunately a lot of the people that are in the industry, such as club owners and promoters, still cling onto this old way of doing things, but the old way doesn’t work anymore. You have to find new ways of reaching people and letting them know you have an album out, for example, or that you’re going on tour, and that is the biggest challenge — reaching people. So it’s an interesting time, a time of change and opportunity for people with vision to set up a new way of doing things.
You’re so on point, because all of these social media outlets are supposed to connect us — in terms of music, you can tweet to a fan, post a last minute show on Facebook, or even test a new track on YouTube — but in terms of actually connecting, it’s completely intangible.
It is, because on top of that, people tend to customize the information they have coming to their computer now. They get hit and inundated with so much information that they’ve gotten to a point where they shape the news they read through a Google search. But then they miss so much other information. And the same thing applies when trying to figure out when your favorite band is coming to town or releasing an album… you miss the information. I can’t tell you how many times that has happened to me. I’ll get an email from a fan asking when I’m coming to town, and often times I was just there? The message gets lost.
And this obviously doesn’t just apply to music, it affects the world at large, but particularly in government and politics, which reminds me of my favorite track on your new album, “Dark Money.” You do a masterful job of taking a subject that is overly discussed, argued, and polluted with opinion, and stripping it down to its bare bones. Can you explain some of the sentiment behind this track?
You hit the nail on the head in terms of songwriting, because to me songwriting is taking a big subject and trying to reduce it down to the basic idea you’re trying to get across, and then hammering that home in a very simple way that people can digest. Life moves fast and we don’t all have time to look into every detail of every situation, so a song is meant to get the idea across and then be repetitive with that message. That’s what I try to do with songwriting, and over the years I’ve worked at making that message more and more concise. Years ago I would have conversations with people about my music, and often times their interpretations of a certain song were very different than I had intended the message to be. So I went through a period of time where I was questioning my ability to get the message across, and started experimenting with different ways of writing so that it could be understood in a concrete way. And some songs you want to be understood in a certain way and others you write with more ambiguity. So there’s no real set pattern or form, and that’s one of the things that really attracts me to songwriting — it’s only limited by your own imagination.
“Dark Money” is definitely not ambiguous. It’s such a well-written song and the message couldn’t be clearer, yet it’s also completely non-partisan, which is refreshing, especially during election season.
“Dark Money” is a big subject that affects all of us. It’s really about the game—politics is a game. We all grew up with the rules of the game being explained to us… that your one vote counts, that if enough of us vote for something that idea will then be passed as a law, etc. But somewhere down the road the game changed and they didn’t tell us. The rules have changed and what we have now are incredibly wealthy groups of people and individuals influencing legislation and elections with the amount of money they put towards those entities, which is referred to as “dark money.” It’s mysterious, we don’t necessarily know where it comes from, and they have ways of hiding it. So the song really points that out. It doesn’t pick a side and say, the left is doing it, or the right is doing it, because both parties do this. What it is acknowledging is that this is happening so let’s discuss, let’s communicate, because the more you communicate, the more points of view you explore, and are therefore better able to understand the issue. And once you understand it, the easier it is to affect some kind of change.
You’re featured in the documentary, Programming The Nation, a film that discusses subliminal messages in America, which I find fascinating. Tell us why you were interested in being a part of this project?
The documentary is basically a series of interviews with different people who are involved in music, advertising, etc, and basically asking them how subliminal messaging works within their profession. Anybody who’s selling something is using a form of subliminal messaging. We use it in how we present ourselves physically as well, we create an image that projects a certain message. We use it to sell our product, and in music it’s the same thing. If you’re writing a song to get a point across, you do everything you can to paint that picture and translate the message. It’s not necessarily an evil thing; it’s just a part of human nature now, because we’ve created this way of existing that’s dependent on buying and selling. But it’s a really interesting and well-done documentary with a lot of intelligent people, so it was great to be a part of it.
Speaking of side projects, tell us about your wine, Insania. What provoked your interest in wine making?
Well it’s actually a funny story… I started making wine when I was 14, because I was a Boy Scout and you could get a merit badge for making something and I really wanted that merit badge, so I made wine. The first wine I made was from dandelions, which is an old folk recipe for making wine. But I really fell in love with the whole chemistry aspect of it, and as I grew older and was able to travel the world as a musician I was very lucky to be able to visit the great wine growing regions of the world and became really enamored with all the different kinds of wine, and learning about the wine culture, and what grapes are traditionally grown where. So it became a hobby and I started collecting wine, and as the collection grew I naturally had to build a wine cellar, and then about 8 years ago I decided I wanted to try making wine again, which is when I came out with the Insania brand. My first vintage was the 2007 and about a year later I started my white wine, which actually just won 92 points in the Wine Enthusiasts publication. And that’s a wonderful award — it’s like the equivalent of a musician winning a Grammy. So I’m over the top with that.
My reasoning behind delving into some of your side projects is that all of these different facets seem to fold into the dynamics of your character, which then translates through your music. Is this what you meant when you aforesaid being open to one’s surroundings as a means of inspiration?
You definitely have to open yourself up to new experiences, and that can be a scary thing for a lot of people, because it’s easy to get into a pattern of life. Trying something new means dipping your toe in uncharted water, and you never know how that will work out. But you have to try, or you get stagnant, and there is nothing worse than being stagnant. We are only here for so long, why limit yourself to just one thing? I think we should try and experience life and all of its diversity as much as we can.
Lastly, as someone who’s been able to sustain a career in an industry where most people are lucky to get their “15 minutes,” what advice do you have for up and coming musicians? What do you know now that you wish you knew then?
Well, like I said earlier, the industry has radically changed since I started out, so if there is any advice I could give a young musician it is to be open to change, be accepting of it, and try very hard to adapt to new environments. Don’t limit yourself to playing one style of music, if you want to make a career out of it I think you have to try a lot of different things musically. Especially nowadays, you have to be able to change it up, keep progressing, produce something different each time. A lot of artists and bands get into a sameness about what they do. And again, I think it comes down to what we were talking about earlier… people become hesitant of trying new things. You find something that works and you get comfortable, so you keep doing it. And for a young band these days there are so many more challenges to being able to support yourself doing this than when I started out. The industry isn’t that strong anymore. It doesn’t have the money in it because of downloading. People just don’t buy music like they used to, and as a result the financial end of the business weakened to a point where record companies just started collapsing. So you have to be able to live with that and do it for the art of it, and for the satisfaction you get from creating. Don’t get into it because you want to be famous, or a rock star, because most likely that’s not going to happen. You have to find your enjoyment from the creative process and through the ability to perform you music live for people.
I said “lastly” before my previous statement, but that was a lie. I always close my interviews with a question that really digs deep into a person’s soul, so get ready for this one… If you were on death row, and your execution date was tomorrow, what would be your last meal?
Well, I love food. I’m a foodie. So this is a tough one. My answer would probably change depending on when you ask me, but right now I’m craving a really good salmon dinner because I haven’t had salmon for several weeks now since I’ve been on the road. And I would specifically like to have Copper River salmon, which is from Alaska. It’s an amazingly rich salmon. The fish has this amazing taste to it because the food they eat is only in Alaska; it’s very decadent and very expansive. So yes, I’d want Copper River salmon, preferably medium rare, with some light citrus sauce that would accent rather than overpower the fish. And then, I would like a glass of my 2010 Insania white wine to go along with it.
Just when you think you can put “one of the greatest metal vocalists of all time” into a box, he pulls an answer like that out of his hat. I said it before and I’ll say it again, the honor of conversing with this talented, wise, and multi-faceted character was an experience I will never forget. So let’s open a bottle of vintage Insania and raise our glasses to Geoff Tate — a true Jack-of-all-trades — it’s no wonder why everything you touch turns to gold...Salute!