Posted on February 25 th. 2018
Questionnaire by C. on behalf of METAL TO INFINITY WEBZINE BELGIUM
“One of the things I despise the most is this infernal need to classify everything; to put everything and everybody into a category. It’s impossible. It takes away the individuality and uniqueness of a person by trying to lump them into a tightly-defined group. I can’t stand it when people define my music, and I certainly don’t like it when people try to define me.”
As one of the most distinct voices in metal for nearly 40 years, it has never been easy to place Geoff Tate into any sort of category, and perhaps this is why he chafes at the idea of fitting into a neat box for the sake of generalization. Maybe it is because his career as a singer is not too dissimilar from this personality trait: unlike a majority of singers, who proclaim to “come out of the womb singing”, and always seemed to know they wanted to sing, it was complete happenstance that led Tate to even become a vocalist in the first place. “I didn’t actually know I wanted to be a singer until later on,” Tate says. “I started out as a musician and learning music. When I was 9, I started piano lessons; when I was 10 I joined the school band, which I did all the way through high school. I didn’t actually become a singer until my last year of high school; my friend’s band was rehearsing in my grandmother’s house over the summer while she was out of town. My friend became ill and had to move away, so his band was left without a singer. I knew some of the songs, so they asked me to sit in with them so they could rehearse. Once I started singing, they liked the way I sounded, so I became a singer! Before that I was a keyboard player in bands, so that’s how I started out. I knew I wanted to be a musician from a very early age, so I started leaning in that direction; studying and becoming proficient in my instrument. Then I moved on to trumpet and saxophone in school, so I became trained in it. But singing was something I just fell into, really.”
For most of the last four decades—especially in the years since his publicized split with the band that made him famous—Tate has always been a divisive figure within the metal scene. You either love him or you hate him, but very few are indifferent to him. It is this sort of passionate reaction that has come to define his art, for whatever other labels one may care to place upon it. As a personality, Tate is very much the same way: he is charismatic, articulate, and boldly outspoken. “I think all you can do as a writer and artist is write what you feel, and be honest with yourself. I do think that we’re moving radically quick into new territory. For a lot of people, the new territory is absolutely terrifying; they’re not comfortable with the change, they’re not comfortable with the way things are moving ahead. But it’s a wave that is impossible to stop.”
In his many years as a vocalist, Tate has seen a lot of musical fads come and go, and the conversation quickly turns to modern music and the implementation of technology. “There’s lots of great technology, lots of amazing instruments and different programs that are available these days to make music. It’s great, I think it’s fantastic that people use technology to create some kind of art. I do think that [some] people lean on it because it’s there and can be used; why walk when you can drive, right?”
So one has to wonder what such an influential vocalist as Tate thinks about auto-tune and other types of technological “crutches” that are used in the music business today. Maybe not so surprisingly, he is open-minded about something that so many “metal purists” are quick to dismiss. “I think that’s sort of outdated thinking.” Tate says, in regards to looking down on these technological advancements. “It’s innovation. Before there was a guitar, there was a lute. Before there was a lute, there was some kind of stringed instrument that made sounds. That’s always been the way humans experiment. It’s just part of the process. There’s no good and bad. It is what it is. One of the things about music that’s so great is that you can improvise a lot of different things. You start with a loose structure, but the whole idea of music is improvisation, and building on something that’s already there. A lot of the best musicians continue that throughout their career; songwriters build on established themes, then they make something of their own out of what they hear.”
From here, Tate continues to tell me more about his early days as a musician. “When I was in school, I studied a lot of classical music, then later I studied jazz and became really enamored with jazz music. That kind of led me into rock music. At the time, the rock music that really appealed to me was what we would classify today as ‘art rock’ or ‘progressive rock’: bands like Emerson Lake and Palmer, Genesis, Yes, Supertramp…those were the bands that really grabbed me. In fact, my friend who was a drummer in one of my bands in high school, we built a synthesizer because we wanted to recreate the sound that was on the ELP album Lucky Man. There’s a solo at the end of it that was really cool. We couldn’t afford to buy one because synthesizers were way new, and hugely expensive. So we sent away for parts by mail, piece by piece, and we built our own just so we could play that song in our band!”
Tate has always influenced a plethora of singers, and so many of them wish to emulate him by learning his secrets—but they may be disappointed to learn that he has no magic tricks or some sort of ritual that makes for optimum singing greatness. “I was never really one who babied my voice,” Tate admits, “I never wore scarves or things like that. I find the less I think about it, the better I do.” However, Tate is happy to fill in the details of how he prepares for a show, for those who wish to fashion their singing style after his. “The way that it works for me, I honestly don’t think about it much anymore. I’ve been doing it so long that it’s natural for me that I don’t really have to think and prepare like that. Of course when I was first starting out years ago in high school, and singing was new to me…do of course it was fresh in my mind, and I thought about it a lot. But then as time went on and I got more comfortable with it, I stopped thinking so much about it, and just did it. To this day, I still warm up during the day before a show. I typically start in the morning and lightly sing and run over scales, that sort of thing, until soundcheck time, which I tend to do soundcheck full out [voice] for a good hour; hard singing kinda gets you set for a show. Then I don’t think about it again until showtime.”
In fact, maybe it has been so long since Tate has thought about it that few may remember that he actually contributed to a singing tutorial: The Book of Heavy Metal Singing, which he did as a favor to a friend. “It was a vocal exercise program put together by a good friend of mine, who was a singer as well—I am a baritone, yes, I do know that! Because I had more ‘fame’ than him, he asked me to endorse his singing program. It sold a few copies, and then he became a dentist. He’s actually my dentist today!”
Indeed, Geoff Tate has “been there, done that” in many respects throughout his career, especially when it comes to the work that is considered by many to be his magnum opus: Queensrÿche’s concept album Operation: Mindcrime, which marks its 30-year anniversary in 2018. From the moment Mindcrime hit the public consciousness, there have been attempts to share its story with a wider audience, from Broadway musicals to independent film. “I think the first time someone came to us and wanted to make Mindcrime into a movie was 1989.” Tate reveals. “Since then, it’s been talked about, planned, people have written screenplays…lots of different plans, but nothing has ever come to fruition. There’s a Hollywood screenwriter that’s writing a screenplay for Mindcrime, but whether it ever comes to fruition, I don’t know. Books have been talked about as well.”
But more than just a concept album, more than just a story, Mindcrime has become a statement of rebellion for so many fans who instantly connected with its political themes, and have come to find that not very much has changed in 30 years, especially in regards to the current political climate both in the U.S. and around the world. “I’ve been around long enough to have seen different things come and go, and some things come back around again—like trickle-down economics!” Tate says with a laugh. “It was a popular idea in the Reagan era, and it didn’t work—the rich got richer, the middle class paid for everything, and the poor remained poor. Interestingly enough, here we are back again revisiting trickle-down economics with the new tax structure. It didn’t work the first time, I don’t know why people think it’s gonna work a second time.”
At this point in the discussion, current political events steer the conversation, and Tate is completely in his element. “You can’t stop what’s happening; people are looking at things very critically, and we’re recognizing things in our country…things like national healthcare, people say, “oh, it’s so bad for the country!”…but why is it bad, when it’s so good for other countries? Why are we paying these incredible taxes? Why do we pay property tax on a house that you bought? Why do we pay the equivalent of another mortgage in taxes on something you already own? What are your taxes going for? What, to fund a war machine so a few people can get rich? That’s not right. Other countries have incredible health care for their population; why don’t we have that? Why can’t we have that? What’s wrong with it? Because we’re seeing what other countries are doing now instead of being in the dark, we’re asking those questions, and that makes people in power incredibly uncomfortable, because they don’t know how to explain themselves.”
Yet through all of that, Tate does not seem jaded or bitter, as is the case with so many people who chose to stay home on Election Day. Where most of his generation are fed up and tired of putting up with the same old lies, Geoff Tate has a more optimistic outlook about the future. “There’s so many innovations, so many changes; especially in America. We’re going through a real interesting time of looking in the mirror and trying to figure out what our national identity is. We’re drawing new lines, new rules of how things should be, or how we envision things should be. That’s exciting, and I think it’s really because of the fact that these new communication devices have been invented. We’re all plugged in to the internet, we’re all witness to situations that are happening simultaneously all over the world including our own country, and we’re passing judgment on these situations almost immediately; whereas before, it would be months before we heard or read about a story.”
Indeed, it wasn’t so long ago that we weren’t just a Google click away from fact-checking everything, and entire societies were built on faith based on what they were told to believe. “Truth is something that we make to suit our situation,” Tate points out. “It wasn’t too long ago that in Europe, kings and queens had convinced their population that they were put there by God, and said to them ‘you are in charge of everybody, and what you want will happen’, and they convinced millions of people that this was right. Now we look at it with our 21st century eyes and think, ‘what a snow job!’ My parents grew up in a time when communism was shoved down everyone’s throats as the ultimate evil. People lost their jobs and their livelihoods because of McCarthyism, because these people happened to believe in communist ideals politically. Yet in this last election, we had Bernie Sanders, a Democratic socialist, which would be blasphemy to my parents’ generation, but not to a younger generation. These ideas make sense to them. Generationally, when the older people pass away, those ideals will go with them, and we’ll see change in a direction that seems unlikely now.”
“It’s a generational changing of the guard.” Tate says simply, as our time comes to a close, and he ends our conversation on a positive note. “I definitely find that it’s an interesting and wonderful time to be alive, right now. It’s a time when we’re assessing where we are, who we are, and what we want as a country. It’s exciting to be part of that discussion; I think every American should be part of that discussion. We should all talk about it; not vent and be angry about things, but let’s try to come up with solution-oriented discussion on what the problems are and how we can fix them. I have high hopes for humanity.”
The New Reality, the latest album from Geoff Tate’s Operation: Mindcrime, available now.
*Interview conducted December 2017.
Special thanks to Sudra Kaye of RetroGaze and Rob Bradley of Thrillkiller, for the fan-submitted questions.
Official Geoff Tate site: www.geofftate.com