Operation: Mindcrime – Geoff Tate’s Three Keys to Success

by Martin Popoff

With the war over the soul of Queensryche ended—or at least the war over the flesh, blood, wire, steel and deed down at the county clerk’s office—both parties are moving on and creating some of the best music of their lives. Ergo, Queensryche’s back with Condition Human, while Geoff Tate is back, at exactly the same time—again like in 2013—with The Key, under the fresh band name Operation: Mindcrime. Classic Rock Revisited spoke with Tate about his ambitious new record, which, true to the narrative graphed out last time around (Queensryche vs. Frequency Unknown), is more progressive, textured and panoramic than the traditional metal-munching fare that Queensryche with Todd La Torre is crafting. Loosely speaking, Queensryche ‘15 sounds like the Queensryche of ’83 to ’90, while Geoff’s embracing the band’s vibe from sort of ’99 to ’09, which is in part why paths diverged in the first place...

Martin: Thanks for doing this, Geoff, very cool... Yeah, so, boy, this is crazy. You’re on quite a tear. This is like three records in four years, right?

Geoff: Yeah, well, actually, this trilogy I’m doing now is three records, one being released, and then the second and the third one are nearing completion right now. I’m hoping to have all three of them finished and turned into the record company by November. That’s my goal.

Martin: Well, there’s a lot to digest here. There’s definitely a lot of music on here. Just to break it down a little, tell me a little bit about the progressive rock influence on this album. How important was, and is, prog to you?

Geoff: Well, probably one of the first types of music... well, they didn’t have genres like that back then when I was growing up (laughs); that was a newer invention. But I grew up listening to albums like Sgt. Pepper’s, of course, and Yes, Close to the Edge, Tales from Topographic Oceans, Genesis, Lamb Lies Down on Broadway… Albums like that really affected me quite dramatically as a kid, and I’ve taken elements of all of those records and cited them as influences throughout my career.

Martin: Did you notice that Rush was the synthesis of prog and metal, and that was even more appealing to you? Looking at the blueprint of what you went on to do?

Geoff: Yeah, Rush was an influence, early on… 2112; I had that album and wore it out, learning it. Yeah, good band.

Martin: Okay, so what are the links to the original concept of Operation: Mindcrime with this? Why did you name the band Operation: Mindcrime?

Geoff: I needed a name, to call the project. And Operation: Mindcrime is a phrase that is very well known to people that are interested in the music I write. So it seemed kind of a good thing to call it. It’s recognizable. And also, secondly, it kind of sets the tone for what I’m really focusing on, now, in my musical endeavours, and that is to create concept albums and tell stories with my music.

Martin: Are there similarities, philosophically, or in the overall message of that original album, that you’ve carried forward to this band?

Geoff: Well, there are similarities in the fact that they are both stories. And the kind of process you go through to write a conceptual album is similar. Coming up with the storyline and breaking it into an outline and then assigning different scenes to support that character that runs through it. Yeah, similar in the way you build it. But it’s a completely different story than the Operation: Mindcrime albums.

Martin: Do you have a similar purpose or, you know, message that you want to put forward that comes out of both situations?

Geoff: No, not consciously.

Martin: Something you and I’ve never talked about... I mean, Kelly’s a big part of the band... What are your origins with Kelly? Tell me that story with the band Myth and how you guys met?

Geoff: Well, Kelly, and Randy Gane, who is also part of this project, we met and started playing music together somewhere around 1979, 1980, and really had an immediate rapport with writing. At that time I was keenly interested in writing music, and not wanting to play cover songs and that kind of thing. I had kind of gone through that phase. I really wanted to write albums, and I just happened upon two guys that wanted to do the same thing. And as with any musical relationship, you really start by comparing your influences, playing records or songs for that particular person. And we just immediately connected on a lot of different things musically, and had similar musical interests and similar philosophies about things at that time. And over the years we just worked on and off together under various projects. Randy’s toured with us before as Queensryche, on the Rage for Order album, which is the first one he participated in. He played keyboards, that’s what he does. And then Kelly, of course, was part of Queensryche for a while, on guitar, and also recorded and mixed and co-produced records with me—many records with me, actually.

Martin: Okay, so this record, in terms of the title of it, why The Key? What is the importance of that title and the idea of the key to this trilogy?

Geoff: Well, it’s three albums that tell one story, and the first album, what it does is kind of introduces the four main characters of the story. The four main characters have voices, my voice, Kelly’s voice, Scott Moughton’s voice -our guitar player, his voice, on the lead track- and Mark Daily. You know, at the time when we start very early in our child’s development, programming them, or teaching them what reality is, we define that reality for them. We say this is a chair, a dog, a cat, a tree, an automobile, the sky—all these different definitions. And that process will continue throughout our life, and the reality is what we know is what we learn. So in my story, the four characters develop a technology that allows the user of the technology to interface with a different kind of reality: they learn that the reality that they’ve known and grown up with is one of many. And soon, through this technology, they’re exposed to a completely different way of looking at themselves, each other, the world. And it promises to be an amazing technology that has the ability to really change things as we know it. And so, because of this, a conflict arises within the group, the four people. Some want to develop the technology and construct the technology into a program, or something that you can sell, and become incredibly rich because this is going to be a very popular technology. Others in the group want to give it to the world, because they think that technology is so important that it should be shared. This is something that’s going to elevate us to another place. And so the first album really introduces us to the characters, exposes us to the beginnings of the story, and also outlines the conflict that arises between the four.

Martin: Have you thought of extrapolating, or adding greater explanation toward making this into a book, or a trilogy of books?

Geoff: Well it has been suggested, yeah. It’s an idea. But I haven’t pursued it with a vengeance, because I’m swamped with recording the whole thing (laughs).

Martin: Making crazy amounts of complicated music, and a lot of cool arrangements and stuff on here…Your main writing instrument is keyboards, right?

Geoff: Correct.

Martin: Have you ever written with anything else? Obviously you are playing saxophone here. You haven’t written with saxophone… Maybe you have!?

Geoff: Typically with song composition, I use keyboards, because it’s my most familiar instrument, and also it’s a wonderful way that you can explore not only a melody, but also chord progressions and also the rhythm structure of the song. You can really explore song arrangement in a really interesting way with a keyboard. Same with the guitar, if you’re proficient on the guitar. But I am not, so keyboards are my first instrument.

Martin: What do you think writing on keyboards ever did to the writing of Queensryche songs? What made it different in terms of writing hard rock on keyboards?

Geoff: Well, a song is a song, no matter what you write it on. It’s a sketch, a blueprint, it’s a chord progression; you establish a melody or many melodies, or a melody that works within a certain chord progression, and once you have the blueprint, basically, you can take that blueprint, you can assign different instruments to the different parts, and in the case of Queensryche, that would be guitar, or keyboards, or vocals.

Martin: Something maybe I should know, but I’m a little confused on this… are you going to, in any way, rebrand Frequency Unknown as an Operation: Mindcrime record or anything of the sort? Or does it live as a Queensryche record?

Geoff: No, it lives as a Queensryche record.

Martin: And you’re fine with that?

Geoff: I don’t own it. The record company does, yeah.

Martin: But it’s going to stay that way? Have you not thought of bringing it into your fold?—it belongs in your fold.

Geoff: No, I haven’t.

Martin: It’s just gonna stay as a bit of a wrinkle in reality, I guess, in this whole situation.

Geoff: Well, it’s definitely not a wrinkle in my reality.

Martin: Have you come to terms with those guys continuing as Queensryche? Are you fine with it now?

Geoff: Well, yeah, yeah. It’s all settled. They compensated me for my work and my involvement in all that, so we’re all square on the legality end of things.

Martin: Do you find that a band sort of earns the right to call themselves... let’s use Queensryche as an example, like this idea of, you know, the lead singer, leader, the main writer, the front man leaves, and someone else comes in. And maybe there’s a period where there’s not a legitimacy there… Do you feel like looking at bands you grew up with as a kid, five records in, Jon Davison with Yes or Todd La Torre or whoever it might be, will earn the right to call this band Queensryche?

Geoff: Well, I honestly don’t look at it that way. The name Queensryche is a brand. You know, it’s a company, and it’s something that whoever owns the name can use. I don’t own it anymore. I sold it, so, I’m out of that.

Martin: It’s funny, because we have this debate right now, where a lot of people talk about Yes and Jon Davison. I’m kind with everybody, right?, in saying, “Damn it, it’s not Yes without Jon Anderson.” But yet also I’m the guy saying, “You know, if he writes five records with them, he’s earned the right.” If he goes on and Yes evolves... just like AC/DC did... No one would call Back in Black an illegitimate AC/DC album, you know what I mean?

Geoff: Yeah, time has a way of changing things, doesn’t it? (laughs).

Martin: And writing… Writing is very important, right? If the new lead singer comes in, you don’t want an airhead, right? You want someone who’s going to write with the band, a bunch of albums, and then it’s much easier to accept the guy.

Geoff: I guess so.

Martin: Well, let’s see… what about favourite tracks on here and why? Do you like the more experimental tracks? The heavier tracks? Something that was really hard graft to get?

Geoff: Oh, I like it all. It’s all part of the story, and it’s all part of the overall feel of the record. So each track in my mind is important to the telling of the story.

Martin: How would you contrast... let’s leave the whole lyrical thing out of it, but how would you contrast musically where you’re at on this, versus Frequency Unknown?

Geoff: Well, they are two radically different approaches. Of course, the Frequency Unknown album is a collection of songs-type album, and the trilogy, of course is a story album. They are miles apart in that respect. Musically, I think they are quite different too, in approach. The instrumentation, of course... yeah, I don’t know if they’re really similar, other than my voice and my writing, and my melody choices. I have a certain signature way of writing music. It’s something that comes out that I can’t really… well, it’s not that I can’t control it—it’s not like that. It’s just the way I do things, the way I hear music. It’s chord progressions, it’s phrasing, it’s melody choice, melody construction, all that stuff. It’s something to do with my personality, my musical influences, my taste in music, that kind of thing.

Production-wise, is there something you go for? You’ve given Kelly the credit on here, but I’m sure you’re very involved in this. Are there certain tones or mixes that would be a Geoff Tate signature, do you think, that you’re going for?

Geoff: Yeah. You know, the song’s atmosphere, the song, the tone of it, the instrumentation and all that, is very important to me. The sounds that are used. To me, a song on an album like this needs to set the scene for what’s going on lyrically. And that to me is the first order of business, is to make sure that that music, I guess, paints the picture for what the lyrics are saying. So yeah, that’s very much important to me.

Martin: One record you and I never talked about very much is Promised Land. What are your thoughts on that record after all these years?

Geoff: My thoughts on Promised Land. Well, I quite liked that record. It’s one of my favourite records that I’ve done. I just think there’s a lot of really interesting music on it. And I think of all the albums that we made up until Promised Land, it was the first one to capture a certain mood, overall, with the album, and stay in that mood, and not deviate a lot from song to song. It seemed to me at the time that the records we did previously, they were kind of sporadic in the… not sporadic—I don’t mean that to be negative, but just varied song choices and flow to the record, that kind of thing. Where Promised Land had a certain feel to it. It’s kind of hard to define, but I would say that on it, we found a space, and we stayed there through the entire record, not deviating from that space too much. Which I liked; I like that kind of thing. It’s quite challenging to make something like that.

Martin: Those whole three years or whatever, between all that massive touring and success with Empire, leading up to Promised Land, do you feel that it brought you guys more together, or tore you apart? Were you tired, or were you enthusiastic going into Promised Land?

Geoff: Well, we never were like a really close group of people. But leading up to Promised Land, it was a tumultuous time with a lot of... well, like you said, a lot of touring, a lot of media attention, that kind of thing, which is a direct influence... it was actually what really influenced Promised Land. It was the whole premise of the record. The whole premise of the record was that as Americans, we’re really tuned into and trained to compete, and to win, and to accumulate things and goods, an accumulative position. Success is very important to Americans. And so I felt like we, as a band, had reached that pinnacle of success, that we had done and achieved all of the things that are sort of associated with being a musician. And so Promised Land was a reflection on that. You know, “what does it all mean? Is it really that important? Is it very important? Is it something that… where do you go from there?” It’s almost like people think that success is this platform that you reach—and it really isn’t. It’s a never-ending ladder. It just keeps going and going and going; the ladder keeps going and you keep climbing and climbing. There’s never an end to it, you know? (laughs).