If you've been following the music news at all, you've heard about the ongoing battle between Queensrÿche
singer Geoff Tate
and his - now former - bandmates. Barbed comments have been hurled from both camps for well over a year now but it now looks as if the dust has finally settled. "It's an amicable settlement,"
says Queensrÿche guitarist Michael Wilton
. "That's what we've come to. That's all I can really say is an amicable settlement."
Wilton, a co-founder of the band, is reluctant and uncomfortable talking about the situation and that makes sense. Politics and litigation is the last thing he wanted when forming Queensrÿche over 30 years ago. Back then all he wanted to do was play guitar and write killer riffs. In a strange way, he's been able to return to that more innocent time since the band began working with new singer Todd La Torre
. The former vocalist with Crimson Glory
, La Torre appeared on the group's self-titled album
released in June 2013. Wilton was thrilled with the results and thoroughly enjoyed working with the new singer. Here he talks about life without Geoff Tate, feeling reenergized and a new album. Ultimate-Guitar: Did you have any idea trouble was brewing with Geoff Tate? Michael Wilton:
When someone has been in a band more than 20 years, these types of situations arise. Sometimes it's just creative decisions and sometimes it's business decisions but with this it was both. In most companies they only keep a CEO for 20 years and then they want fresh blood in. You can make the comparisons. Moving forward, you had put together the side project Rising West with Todd La Torre. Was that the first time you worked with him?
Yes, it was and let me explain that. That's like so amazing how that turned out. Basically we were in a situation where we didn't have any work. We decided since Geoff was gonna go out and do solo stuff, "Why don't we do it?"Did you know about Todd La Torre?
I had met Todd at a Seymour Duncan party at the NAMM Convention and we had just exchanged email and phone numbers to maybe work on some solo stuff, commercials and movie kinds of things. TV show stuff. I didn't really know Todd could sing like Bruce Dickinson
. He was telling me he was a musician and kind of a drummer and played guitar and does a little bit of this and filled in with Crimson Glory for a while. But you had never heard him sing?
Yeah, it got to a point where the band wanted to do something and I go, "Well hey, I know this singer. Let me see if he's up for the task."
Little did I know he puts together while YouTube discography of Queensrÿche songs where he pulled the vocals out and put his in. What did that sound like?
We kinda went, "Holy sh-t."
I sent that to the guys and I go, "What do you think?"
And the guys were so motivated by it we booked two shows at the Hard Rock Cafe. It was a risk, right? Because none of had ever actually performed or rehearsed or done anything with Todd. So you can imagine the situation. If it woulda backfired, it would have backfired really bad, hah hah hah. What was that like first meeting Todd?
He met us and instantly a nice guy and very genuine. He came in and we go, "What's the first tune you want to work on?"
and he goes, "Well, let's start off something easy like 'Queen of the Reich.'"
And I go, "What?"
So we played it and everybody's eyes were perked up like, "Whoo, what's this?" Todd truly blew you guys away?
Our other guitar player Parker [Lundgren]
had to stop. I went, "What's wrong?"
He said, "Guys, I've never heard our music sung like this before."
That's kinda how it started. We had 10 days to get an hour-and-a-half set. Fortunately we found out that Todd was a fan of the [Queensrÿche]
EP up until "Promised Land
" so he kinda knew all those songs and mainly knew songs from "The Warning
" album. It was like, "Slamdunk - let's do it." What were those shows like at the Hard Rock?
You know what? Those shows sold out and the Hard Rock Café was blown away. After the first soundcheck when there was some people in there and they leaked out the soundcheck of "Queen of the Reich
," it just flew like a virus on the Internet. It was like, "Whoa."
People's ears were definitely perked and the antennas were up because we had people calling us and people flying in for the second show. "Get me on the list
" from managers and booking agents. Dude, it was pandemonium. And like you said, had that show gone badly, it could have been a disaster.
Oh, imagine if it would have backfired? It would have been the worst ever, hah hah hah. Is it entirely different working with Todd LaTorre than it was with Geoff Tate?
Imagine this: you're working with a musician now and not just somebody who writes lyrics. It's like, "Wow, he speaks the same language."
He is in the trenches like us. He's a musician. He's a killer drummer. I don't know if you know that. And he plays guitar and he plays keyboards. It's a different chemistry and it really just breathes fire into this whole situation. It's like your jaw just drops. It's almost like going back to the beginning when we were in our teens and 20s doing the "Queensrÿche
EP and "The Warning". You had those same feelings as you did back in the day?
Yeah, we used to just be in a room and nobody had Pro Tools or cellphones or nothing like that. And we just wrote ideas together and somebody was lucky to have a four-track cassette recorder. That's kinda like what it is today. It's like we're just bouncing ideas off each other and it's not like, "Well, I wrote this riff and it has to be that way."
It was like, "My way or the highway."
Now everybody's really excited to work on endless possibilities of musical ideas. Everybody's bringing their A game. It's like, "I don't wanna just be pedestrian on this song. I wanna make this song as cool as it can be."
It's that kind of situation now. So going into the studio to make the Queensrÿche album with Todd LaTorre was a fertile time?
It was really fertile. There's no shortage of songs that got passed over over the years. I have hard drives of probably 30 to 40 songs that we could pick from but the situation was so fresh and new that all the songs written for the CD were written at that moment. It was all new ideas, new riffs, new songs, new everything just because we were so stoked on it. Were there any feelings of, "Check this out, Geoff Tate"?
No, because we've been doing this long enough. We know we are the proven assets of the music writers of this band. We have been from the beginning. It only changed in the last five, six years or maybe 10 years, hah hah. We know what we are. I don't know exactly how I play but I know what I'm gonna kind of write like. And that's how musicians perceived the guitar parts and the songwriting back in "The Warning" days and "Rage For Order
" and "Operation: Mindcrime
". So there was no apprehension at all. If anything it was a bit of the old and now there's this new excitement. Sure there was probably an underlying pressure but bring it on. C'mon, man. We had something so positive going, it would have been a crime not to let it happen. "Queensrÿche" was a pretty heavy album. Is that where you guys were musically?
Wow, you think that's heavy? Wait 'til you hear the new one. You know what it is - we're not a band that's gonna meander for 17 minutes on a song and label us progressive. We're basically five guys just really giving you're A game on the writing and everybody wants to supercharge in a way that just makes the song sound good.You're really trying to get at the heart of every song.
There's not a lot of overplaying on it. You're kind of grapping towards an essence and that essence is the chemistry of the band that makes it a little heavier than natural. You know what I mean? It's not cookie cutter drum parts and guitar parts and everything. It's more interesting. We're back into layering things really cool and there's lots of ear candy in there and some really amazing playing. You were in the middle of touring while recording the record?
Yeah, in this day and age you kinda got to work like that. You get some killer gig offers, you gotta go do 'em and then book the recording time around that. Especially for the rebirth of an organization that has that now. We gotta do our diligence to get out there to people who don't know what's going on. Since you were time-challenged, was every note mapped out in pre-production before going into the studio?
The riffs and the arrangements? They were predominantly pretty much there. There was a good blueprint I guess of what we had done. We had talks amongst each other and maybe a few little arrangement changes and adding a middle eight or a super chorus or something like that. There was instances of that with solo sections and everything. But I gotta tell ya when everything's flowing like that you just go with the moment and let it happen. So a lot of the stuff was just built on the spot. You worked again with James 'Jimbo' Barton who had produced the Operation: Mindcrime and Empire albums. Why did you bring him in? Jimbo
was the obvious natural selection for us for engineer and producer. Just because he knows the sounds and he knows what we like and he knows how to get a kickass performance out of us. It's not about, "OK, I'll just copy some programmed drums here and we'll copy and paste."
He's like, "We're getting the performance out of you and if it takes all night we'll do it."
He really is unique. There is nothing like a live performance.
He's kind of more of the old school. He's got the alchemy. He knows the way to get things done right and in-depth with microscopic precision and that's kind of what we're about. We're the devil in the detail. We really pride ourselves on even if it's just a small, little break, we do it the way we wanna do it. It's like, "Make it interesting."
Jimbo was gracious enough to work with our schedule. What was the recording schedule?
We had two weeks to do drums and we had three weeks to do guitars and then two weeks to do bass. Then four weeks to do vocals and it was trying to figure it all out. He organized it and we managed to get it done and sign a record deal and blast off. You talked about layering parts. How did you approach the twin-guitar arrangement with Parker Lundgren?
It's a natural situation for us. There's gonna be dual guitar parts, dual guitar solos and both going doing independently different things. That's just the way it's always been. That's the way Chris [DeGarmo]
and I designed this band. We were a guitar band and we patterned ourselves after the British Invasion in the '80s. We were into Maiden and Priest and the harmony thing and it was so cool. So that naturally got ingrained in our thing. It's not 100 percent all that but if it lends itself to that and you hear it in your head, we always give it a shot. 'Cause it's so fun to play live. It's really dynamic. "Don't Look Back" was the first song you worked on with Todd La Torre?
Mmm hmm. It raised the bar and everybody stepped up. I think "Redemption
" came next and then "Where Dreams Go to Die
" after that. It was just like dude, it was pretty exciting. Some real quality music was being composed. But yeah, "Don't Look Back" was the first. It was a demo and that was the first thing I sent Todd. I sent him a bunch of things but this one he latched onto and said, "Yeah, I got an idea for it."
So we filed it, kept it and then when the time came, we blasted it. "Redemption" was another song you co-wrote, which was meant to bring back the sound on "Empire"?
The infections riff. The one you keep hearing over and over again in your head. It's memorable and it just had the essence of that song. It had that feeling. When I wrote "Empire
," it just had this color to it and "Redemption" had the same thing. It was the same kind of feel. "Open Road" is the ballad with the clean Roland JC-120 guitar sounds?
Dude, the JC-120
is DeGarmo's and my classic clean sound. It's like Jimbo comes into my studio and goes, "Dude, you still got that?"
I go, "Yeah"
and he goes, "Alright, let's fire that thing up."
I still got the settings on it. It was beautiful. He goes, "There it is. There's the clean sound. That's what I'm looking for."
It was like, "Done. Let's do it. Wham. Bam. Thank you. Let's go have a smoke. We're done."Your solo on "Open Road" was remarkable.
You take the melody and the phrasing and what you want to do at the moment and just build the song and make it stronger. I wasn't being stifled by a saxophone solo, hah hah hah. I understand. Were you in there with a bunch of guitars and amps looking to dial in cool sounds?
Yeah, because all the songs were written for the most part in different tunings and keys, we had different-sounding guitars and different amps. When you're doing a song like "Open Road
" for example, it's got a clean part in it. How are you gonna make that read? You're tuned down a whole step. In my studio, I have the arsenal. I have amps stacked to the ceiling. So it's a plethora of different guitar textures and sounds. It's very accessible and very fast to get at the sound and experiment and do that. Ease-of-use and being able to dial in a sound instantly is crucial.
After 30 years of doing this, you accumulate a lot of sh-t, right? Lots of effects and amps. I take good care of 'em. I replaced all the filter caps in the amps. The Marshalls have a good nother 20 years on 'em. You played ESPs on the album?
Yeah, I'm an ESP
guy. I have been for a long time. Lots of ESPs were used on the album. They lend well to the sound. Tune 'em down, extra long neck-sounding ESPs. Like on "Don't Look Back," you can hear in the rhythms this clankety guitar and that's the ESP. It's like another guitar tuned to B really low and layered. Dude, we used all kinds of guitars. We just wanted to make sure and not use plug ins - this was all the real shit. Real effects and amps - wire, guitar, amplifier. You touched on a new Queensrÿche album being worked on?
The seeds have been sewn. We've got some really kickass demos we're all really liking. We're gonna start building it. We're not gonna rush anything. We've got a vibe going and what's needed is quality time to build everything and we have bits and pieces of free time that we're gonna do that. Will the Queensrÿche album provide a jumping off point for this upcoming record?
Oh yeah, it'll be a natural progression. We won't be doing anything drastically draconian, 180 degree flip flop or do anything like that. We will keep the roots, the ingrown red hairs of the bud. They will be there. You just got off the Cruise to the Edge with Yes. What was that like?
It was totally mellow. We didn't know what to expect because these were all classic progressive bands. Here we come in and we're this dark entity. It was a great experience. The people on the boat really appreciated what we did and a lot of people had never even heard of the band. They go, "Wow. So this is what Queensrÿche's like. I really like it."
We did two great performances on there and then we got to hang out and go see some great music. I've never seen "Close to the Edge
" done by Yes
. And to see that and music from their first three albums, which I love. I got to see Marillion
. Great band.
Great. Steve Hackett
and his band. The musicianship was just overflowing with epicness. It was just so good. Compared to the Monsters of Rock, it was totally different. Everybody's not rippin' drunk and falling all over themselves. What are you doing now?
We're on the road. We just finished three kickass shows and we've got a day off. We're doing the M3 Rock Festival in Baltimore and back to Seattle and do some more writing. Life is good my friend.Interview by Steven Rosen