Queensryche: Thinking Man’s Rock Band

People who have the misconception that hard rock/heavy metal is just a lot of thunderous guitar riffs, negative lyrics and loud drum solos haven’t heard Queensryche. The Seattle-based band’s thought provoking pyrics and complicated melodies redefined rock music in the ‘80s and their current album, Empire, is showing that the strength of their songwriting ability will continue to serve them well in the ‘90s musical arena.People who have the misconception that hard rock/heavy metal is just a lot of thunderous guitar riffs, negative lyrics and loud drum solos haven’t heard Queensryche. The Seattle-based band’s thought provoking pyrics and complicated melodies redefined rock music in the ‘80s and their current album, Empire, is showing that the strength of their songwriting ability will continue to serve them well in the ‘90s musical arena.

Comprised of keyboardist/vocalist Geoff Tate, guitarists Chris DeGarmo and Michael Wilton, bassist Eddie Jackson and drummer Scott Rockenfield, the band burst on the rock music scene in 1983 with the EP Queensryche. Their next three albums, The Warning (1984), Rage for Order (1986) and Operation: Mindcrime (1988, certified gold) continued to attract a growing legion of fans as well as praise from the critics.

Their latest project, Empire has catapulted them to the top 10 on Billboard‘s album charts and further solidified their reputation as “the thinking man’s rock band.”

The strength of the band’s material is largely responsible for their success. Crafting socially conscious, thought-provoking tunes is a passion that propels their music. While they had all played in different bands in high school, when they began playing together, DeGarma says the factor that set them apart from other local bands was their commitment to writing their own material.

“We have a triad in the band that is our songwriting core,” DeGarma explains. “Geoff, myself and Michael, the three of us or some combination. Generally the songs start somewhere in the triad. Michael and I write music mostly and Geoff writes lyrics, but we also contribute to the lyrics as well. Scott and Eddit have also written some. THe more writers, the better because it allows us to cover more musical ground.”

DeGarma says the members of Queensryche have very distinct personalities and opinions and that makes for interesting collaboration. “I enjoy writing by myself,” the 27-year-old writer comments, “but the great thing about collaborating is you have an objective opinion coming in. We have different approaches, but that’s great because Michael thinks of things I wouldn’t and I think of things he wouldn’t.

“Geoff is a very talented lyricist. He’s a bright guy. It’s interesting to see the things he writes about. We’re opposite. I’m optimistic. Geoff’s pessimistic. That clash makes for some great collaboration, especially lyrically…Everyone has a different perspective. If we were all alike in our music would be one dimensional.”

When asked how they work through the differences of opinion that result from their individuality, Chris responds, “Brutal honesty. When you’re collaborating you have to be able to take constructive criticism. We open ourselves up to commentary, but we like that. We’ve been together a long time and we know when we’ve got something. We see similar visions. We also have management and a producer who can give us objective input as well.”

De Garmo started writing long before Queensryche was formed. “I started writing at 14 and my first big influence was the Beatles,” he recalls. “My grandparents bought me Sgt. Pepper when I was six or seven years old. It was a wonderful first record. My grandparents had impeccable taste… I was introduced to late era Beatles as a youngster then went back to their earlier stuff as I got older and began to appreciate them more and more.”

All the members of the band grew up in Seattle and shared a firm commitment to making music. DeGarmo says they quit their day jobs in 1983 and never looked back. They took their name from a song Chris had written called “Queen of the Ryche.” I threw those two words together,” he says. “it sort of means something like assembly of power. It has a European, classy sound.”

DeGarmo says that unlike many bands who set aside specific times to write, the members of Queensryche are continually creating. “We try to keep the creative tap flowing,” he comments. “We don’t budget any specific time to write. We just write whenever we can-at home, on the road, we don’t set certain times. It’s hard to turn creativity on and off.”

That creativity has led to a very diversified package in Empire. The songs range from “Resistance,” a fiery anthem about the plight of the environment, to the poignancy of “Della Brown,” a moving song about a homeless woman. “One and Only” is a warm love song and the title track, “Empire,” is a commentary on the “instant” American society.

“The idea behind this album was to make amore introspective record, a more personal record,” Chris says. “Our records are a commentary on the things going on around us. Rage for Order dealt with the information age. As young people we’re dealing with making that transition to an information society. We addressed technology on that record…Mindcrime was more spectacular. The characters in the songs were pretty extreme. It was a fictional, cynical look at the political climate in the ‘80s. Empire was written in Seattle. It has a more personal flavor. This LP deals more with relationships and positive thinking. Those issues are ones people can relate to in their own lives.”

“Best I can” (written solely by DeGarma) is about positive thinking, about overcoming obstacles with a positive outlook. “Silent Lucidity” (DeGarmo) sounds like a haunted lullaby. It talks about lucid dreaming. I’ve been working on a dream recall…Then “Empire” has an aggressive edge. It talks about the pressures on kids today in an instant society. This record is much more diverse in showing a much broader landscape. We wanted to offer something different.”

In writing songs for an album, DeGarmo says the band take a quality over quantity approach to their writing. “We always write a couple songs extra, but we don’t start out with 30 songs,” he explains. “(That way) we can devote more time to each track. For Empire we wrote 12 songs, 11 were on the album and the 12th ended up on the soundtrack of the movie Ford Fairlane [“Last Time in Paris].”

DeGarmo said the song wasn’t written with a movie in mind. The soundtrack deal was something that the band fell into “by accident.” They were in Colorado and the 20th Century Fox needed a band to fill Red Rocks amphitheater while they were shooting. They met the director and he asked them for a song for the soundtrack. DeGarmo says they’d like to do more film work. “I think our style of writing would lend itself to cinema,” he says.

Though they don’t rule out writing for films, DeGarmo says they really don’t pitch any of their material to outside acts. “When we put effort into a song, we’re excited about it and reluctant to let it go,” he says.

Since their music is so personal to them, Queensryche is also hesitant to record outside tunes. They’ve done it twice-“Gonna Get Close to You” on the Rage for Order LP was written by Lisa Dalbello and they recorded “Scarborough Fair” as the B-side of a single. “We’ve recorded someone else’s song twice because we really liked the songs,” Chris says. “But we really take a lot of pride in writing our own material.”

Writing their own songs is important to Queeensryche because they view their music as a platform for expression and they are very careful what they say from that platform. “Whether people want to admit it or not, music influences people’s ideas,” DeGarmo states. “We do keep that in mind. We like to challenge our listeners, but we don’t like to portray anything negative.”

For newcomers seeking to establish a successful niche in the industry like Queensryche, Chris offers these words of advice, “Develop your own songwriting,” he says. “If someone wants to be a composer, it’s never too early to begin. And as a writer you need to develop your imagination as well as your musical skills. You’re never too young to start writing.”