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Queensryche’s Geoff Tate and Michael Wilton Talk About “Empire”

Earlier this month, prog-metal heavyweights Queensrÿche re-released their 1990 album, Empire (Capitol/EMI), with bonus tracks and a live recording of a concert they played around that time in London. The record contained the the Top 10 single “Silent Lucidity,” featuring a string arrangement by Michael Kamen (of Metallica and Pink Floyd fame), which pretty much made the Seattle band ubiquitous until grunge happened. Here, vocalist Geoff Tate and guitarist Michael Wilton reflect on the album.

REVOLVER What do you remember most about writing Empire?
GEOFF TATE We’d just finished the Operation: Mindcrime album and the tour. For me, Empire was about recovering from a really long tour and kind of connecting with the city in which I lived in, so I moved to downtown Seattle; I moved onto a boat. There’s a big lake in downtown Seattle, so I was right in the middle of the city. You could walk to all the restaurants and clubs and whatever, so I was really feeling very “downtown” at that point. And spending a lot of time on the boat and writing a lot of songs, I’d take off for a couple weeks at a time and anchor off some island. We have a million islands around here and sit out there with the tape recorders and the notepad and write.
MICHAEL WILTON Sometime between Operation: Mindcrime and Empire, I came up the riff for “Empire.”

Did you have any ideas what you wanted that album to be?
TATE Yeah. Very strong ideas. We really wanted to make a record of the time, and to kind of deconstruct our sound a bit. We’d write a song then we’d think, What can we do without here? What isn’t  absolutely essential to the song arrangement? And we’d take it out so that what we’d have at the end is just the real basics of what it takes to get that song across.

And we didn’t want to make a concept record. We wanted to make a record that was just a collection of songs. A lot of different topics. But it had to be stripped-down. It had to have a really strong, catchy melody.

Some people think the trilogy of “Jet City Woman,” “Della Brown,” and “Another Rainy Night (Without You)” make up a mini concept album, because of the sound effects. Is that so?
TATE That’s a good urban myth. Can I use that? We’re really big into sound effects, and the idea being that you put the listener into the environment in which the song is taking place.

Did you record the seagulls on “Anybody Listening?” on your boat?
TATE Yeah. We even have a Hitchcock-like appearance by James Barton, our engineer, on that song. He’s one of the last things you hear on the whole record. James Barton talking to himself in the studio.

How did you get the other ambient sound effects?
TATE We had these really cool digital recorders with microphones. We’d go out and walk around and we’d have these microphones strapped to us so people couldn’t see them. And you just walk around and you can capture all kinds of interesting conversation and environmental sounds and seagulls, for example, and people talking and walking by. It’s amazing how much noise is around us at all times. You just kind of get used to it and you blot it out of your mind, but if you listen back to the recording, there’s stuff going on all around you. It’s hardly ever completely quiet.

I read somewhere that you had tried to record an actual drug deal for “Empire.”
TATE Yeah. That didn’t go over too well. [Michael laughs] Well, it’s kind of a weird situation anyway. And whenever we tried, people would kind of get freaked out and they wouldn’t talk. They’d feel something was going on because they’re street smart and they’ve got an incredible antenna. And we just never could make it happen where people would talk openly. We even tried to stage one, and that didn’t sound convincing at all, so we gave up on the idea. We probably tried six or seven times. We ended up buying a lot of drugs. [Laughs]

Oh yeah?
TATE Not really. We should put the disclaimer in there. [Laughs]

What inspired “The Thin Line”?
Goeff: Well, a dominatrix in Brussels, I think it was. Are you into S&M, Kory?

I am not. Are you?
TATE Not anymore. [Laughs] Not after Brussels. A little too much for me.

What do you remember about working with Michael Kamen, who did the orchestration on “Silent Lucidity”?
TATE Michael Kamen was just one of the most amazing, creative musicians that ever had been around. He was just an amazing man.
WILTON He’d hear things in his mind that us mere mortals couldn’t even come close to.
TATE And then he’d whip out a piece of scratch paper and write a whole chart on a little 5x7” business card. [Laughs] He’d go, “Go play this. This is gonna be great.” He was a man who really loved life. He loved art and fine food and wine. And whenever he’d see you, he’d always give you a big bear hug. “Oh, how are you?” That kind of thing. And you just felt immediately close to him, right off the bat. He had this really open acceptance about his personality. He really, really got our band. And vice-versa.
We first met him through James Guthrie, our producer for the Warning album, in London. And Michael had just been working on The Wall with Pink Floyd and [the follow-up to The Wall] The Final Cut. And James said, “I really think that you should listen to this new band I’m working with, Queensrÿche. They’ve got a couple songs on their record that they really want you to listen to and see what you think.” And he ended up composing the orchestration for “Roads to Madness” and a song called “No Sanctuary” on that album. And that started our relationship. That was 1984. And he worked on the Empire album with us, and Operation: Mindcrime, and then we did a really beautiful single for a film, what was that song called, Michael?
WILTON “Real World.”
TATE Yeah, “Real World.” I just never had enough chances to work with him. I could work with that guy every week. He was fantastic to work with.

Is it true that he wrote the orchestration for “Silent Lucidity” overnight?
TATE Yes. In fact, when we had written “Lucidity,” Peter Collins, our producer, didn’t really care for the track. In fact he didn’t even think it should be on the record. And Chris [DeGarmo, Queensrÿche’s second guitarist at the time] and I really believed in the track. And we were pushing, pushing, pushing for it. And we said, “Look, Peter, wait until you hear what Michael does to this with his orchestration before you make your judgment because we think what he’s got is gonna be really cool.” And finally the tapes came in the mail, and I think Michael was working in England at the time, and we put the tapes up and we’re sitting in the studio listening to what Michael did. It was like, Oh, my God. It was so beautiful. He’d just written the most beautiful melodic lines for that song. When it was over, Peter was sitting there with a big smile on his face. And he says, “OK, I stand corrected. It’s a great track. It’s on the record.” [Laughs]

Interview by Kory Grow

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