Queensryche’s Michael Wilton – Building Empires

by Martin Popoff

No matter what era of Queensryche’s many moods you are into, it’s gotta be pretty easy to dig what the band has done, now two records deep into the Todd La Torre era. If Queensryche was a bold return, then Condition Human... well, this just might be the best record of the band’s career. Why the crazy talk? Well, even when the band was doing seemingly everything right, there was always something holding back any given classic, some experiment that didn’t quite work. Not so with Condition Human: this is a record firing on all sixes, welled-up with majestic prog metal, still concerned with song, and gorgeously vocalized by La Torre.

Classic Rock Revisited celebrated the achievement with Michael “The Whip” Wilton, as the band geared up to hit the road (To Madness) with Scorpions... “Taken En Force?” “The Lady Wore Blackout?” “I’ll Rock You Like A Hurricane In The Shadows?” “He’s A Jet City Woman, She’s A...” all right, I’ll stop.

Martin: Congratulations, Michael, cool sounding record, the total package. What do you think the personality is of this record, versus the self-titled? What are the main differences?

Michael: Well, Queensryche is about evolving with every project. So we had a little over two years to put the music together and really concentrate on it and get the layers in, and give it the best, more thought-provoking lyrics, and lots of layered guitar work. So all in all, it’s just an evolution of the last album. And that’s kind of the way Queensryche has always done it in the past.

Martin: I definitely notice the guitars. There’s a lot of twin leads and stuff as well. What were your main twin lead influences coming up?

Michael: Well, my twin leads have always been from the early days. I listened to Judas Priest, Iron Maiden; that was pretty much the music I listened to for double solos, and I thought that was really cool as a teenager. I always valued that and I enjoyed how it filled the spectrum, as far as the melodies being played. It was always a joy to try and learn.

Martin: Has Todd’s role changed this time around versus the self-titled?

Michael: Well, Todd is more comfortable in the situation. He’s really handling all the songs more and his vocal performances are getting stronger and his writing collaboration is expanding as well. We are all moving forward, as we do, as musicians, and with the relationship and the writing. He’s a great writing asset in the band because he’s a musician. So he can talk to everybody as a musician. He can go, ‘Michael, I think this part in this song needs a G minor seventh.’ I know what he’s talking about. And he’d say, ‘Scott, I need a high hat change right here.’ He’ll be able to explain to Scott. So Scott knows about it, rather than just saying I don’t like that part. Or it needs more angst or something. It’s all details, and what it does is it expedites communication among the musicians, and it really just moves the band forward in a fury of progression. We like to keep everything as progressive as we can. You know, we’re in 2015, and as you know, I’ve been doing this for over 30 years, so yeah, just keep going forward.

Martin: And what does this Condition Human album cover mean to you? What does it signify?

Michael: Well, I mean, it’s all about the human element and how everybody is evolving in a fast-paced world, our perception of it. The songs are all kind of mini-stories and mini-thoughts and ideas, and to encapsulate it, it’s basically the little girl, all white and pristine, symbolizes the goodness that is in the world. And she’s wiping the window, and the TriRyche is giving a vision of a vast darkness, an outer world of unknown, and it’s symbolic of where does pristine innocence fit in this jaded, dark world? And that’s kind of what it encompasses.

Martin: Great production on here, by Zeuss, and I imagine you guys are very involved in this. I mean, is there sort of a band agreement of a type of mix and philosophy that you guys go for, or a philosophy you go for in a mix and a production that is demonstrated here?

Michael: Well, as far as the production, we’re kind of like every other band. We want every instrument to be heard, and we don’t want it to be overly compressed. And it’s just a matter of being on the same page. Chris Harris was great, because he was a fan of the band in the early days, since the first album, and he’s also a musician, and he plays guitar and keyboards and can do all kinds of magical things on the computer, and he was telling us that, you know, the way you guys recorded those albums, the magic that happened in the way you did things, like those little choice elements that gave you your Queensryche signature, that’s what I want to bring back. I want to bring back that excitement where you don’t know what’s coming around the corner with Queensryche. That’s kind of what made it exciting for a lot of people and he really wanted to do that… but in a 2015 setting. So it’s about keeping Queensryche current. You know, we’re writing new material, we’re being played on the radio. Our videos are being played, and we’re with a record company that is current and it’s very important that we stay current and not just a legacy act. But the whole production value is let’s try to capture that magic with this production, and really give it some depth and a lot of layers, things that you can listen to upon maybe your third listen and pull things out you didn’t hear on the first listen. That’s kind of the philosophy.

Martin: I love it. I think it’s your best production ever. It just has such a wide range, and a little bit of that modern high midrange clatter, yet you can hear everything. It’s great.

Michael: Well thank you; a lot of people really said the whole production value is not ear-fatiguing, and that it’s not overly compressed. Zeuss did a great job.

Martin: As a parallel, tell me what you learned from Peter Collins, good or bad? What was Peter Collins like? What did he do for you?

Michael: Peter Collins is just a master of bringing the strongest elements in an arrangement, and building the arrangement for the song. Not about trying to show off a fast drum fill or a fast guitar lick or a fast bass lick. It’s about what is best for the song. He was the master at that. We were trying to play our instruments and we wanted to show off a little bit here and a little bit there—it kind of feels good, right? But Peter was writing for the song. What does the song want? What does the song need? And that was his value. I learned so much from the guy as far as the importance of staying focused on what the song wanted.

Martin: What about Neil Kernon? What was he like as a guy to deal with? And how do you feel about that record?

Michael: Neil Kernon had just come off doing Dokken, and he was just a real fast worker. And he had ideas. He was like, ‘Guys, let’s go sample... let’s go in this parking garage and slam this door and record it!’ He would sample all these things and try to experiment. It was really kind of Queensryche taken to the next level, going into something completely different from The Warning. And he was all for it. Guitar-wise, we brought in our old Marshall 50 Watts, and we just let them rip. And the production value that he brought in and the crazy, zany ideas that he had, it was like, if anybody had a crazy idea, he was, ‘Hey, go for it!’ So it was more of an experimental time. We were happy that Neil let us explore our vast chasms of creative ideas.

Martin: Has there been any discussion of renaming Geoff’s Frequency Unknown as something other than a Queensryche album?

Michael: To tell you the truth, I haven’t even thought of it. I haven’t even listened to it. I heard of a couple songs, and it’s like, it’s so pushed to the side that we don’t even care about it. It’s like pushed back in the corner. I think what’s important is Queensryche now, Queensryche 2015. That’s just a time that most people don’t even remember, or know about. We’re not going to try and give it any glory or anything.

Martin: How would you contrast what you do with Parker? (Lundgren, co-guitarist). What are the main differences in your styles, and how do you guys split up what you do now?

Michael: Parker is the young gun. He’s the shredder. He’s the guy that’s... his fingers and his tendons are super nimble. He can do anything on the guitar. And it’s like he and I are more about collaborating. I’m trying to bring him into more of a Queensryche style, which is a bit more melodic and melody-driven, rather than scale runs on the guitars. And so he and I are kind of complementary. And he’s bent on his style—and he loves it. I mean, he wasn’t even born for Rage for Order, yet he loves playing those songs. He goes, ‘Man, these songs are so fun to play. How come you guys don’t write like this anymore?’ (laughs). But it’s a good blend. It’s like, he represents the music, the guitar music, the way it is on the albums. He’s not trying to spin his own agenda. He’s not trying to spin it as, “this is Parker Lundgren, and this is how I play Queensryche.” No, he’s giving his best representation as to what is on the CD. And that’s why he has lasted so long. And that’s why the fans love him, and that’s why he works so well. So it’s just... you’ve kind of got the old experienced guy, and you’ve got the young gun, and it just works.

Martin: And how did you contrast with Chris when he was in the band? What were the main ways that you guys split things up? What would you do way more of than he would do, for example, more naturally?

Michael: We complemented each other. We complemented each other’s style and we complemented each other in writing. And it was something that was really special. I mean, it’s hard to even describe, as far as a style. But our two styles are… If something was a little too much Chris, we added a little more Whip, and then we kind of got the Queensryche guitar thing going—and vice versa. He was just the master of melodic guitar, and melody. He just had that pouring out of his brain. I mean, he’s such a gifted and brilliant songwriter. Those were magical times. I mean, now we’re older, I hang out with him all the time and we talk about the good old days and stuff. I think, in my history and in my personal opinion, those are magic days.

Martin: And what would be one of the hardest nuts to crack in this album, something technological, something that took you a long time to figure out? What is it like in the studio when things get tense?

Michael: You know, we just persevere and it’s more of a challenge, I guess. I think probably the biggest challenge for me was writing the seven minute, eight minute song. The title track, ‘Condition Human,’ has a lot of guitar parts in it (laughs). It’s something that I started writing right after the release of the 2013 CD. I had that idea, and it kept building and building, and the time of the song just kept getting longer and longer and longer. I think in the demo form, it was almost like ten minutes long, and we took it back down a little bit. That one will probably be, if we ever play it live, quite a task to pull off.

Martin: Listen Michael, I’ll let you go. I’m hoping to catch you guys in mid-September; you guys are here with Scorpions. Hopefully I’ll see you then.

Michael: Yeah, we’re touring forever (laughs). This is going to be great, the tour with the Scorpions… another one of our big influences back in our teenage years, with Lovedrive and even the old stuff with Uli Roth. I’m a big Scorpions fan, so it’s going to be great touring and talking with those guys (laughs).