Michael Wilton, guitarist for Queensryche, may not end up on lists for the best guitar players. But it’s not because he doesn’t have the chops or imagination. His performances on the Dedicated To Chaos album are like mini-sonic vignettes — he moves from clean guitar tones to boulder breaking distorted sounds within a single track and creates this total picture within a single song. Wilton loves the classics as well as the more modern bands and in his playing you can hear this symphony of bent blues notes mixing with muted riffs and intricate arpeggios. The Dedicated To Chaos record is more stripped down than earlier Queensryche albums and since he was the only guitarist playing on the music — Kelly Gray and touring guitar player Parker Lundgren provide minimal parts — he was given free reign to let his guitar freak flag fly.
UG: You really come from more of metal background. You said you listened to bands like Van Halen, UFO, Judas Priest and Iron Maiden.
Michael Wilton: Sure yeah for a period of my career definitely. In my formative years. That was more in high school. After that just came hanging out with friends and getting in garage bands and going and investigating other guitar players and mimicking as best as we could in the young days.
Did you pick up on the classic players?
In my very early days obviously I was into Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Page, the Beatles, John Coltrane, John McLaughlin and all kinds of different genres of guitar players. It wasn’t until high school and kind of a social thing that really I jumped into what I called the British Invasion of Metal, which really hit our area in Seattle really hard.
You put some bands together?
Yeah, there was a number of small bands: Crossfire, the Mob, and Joker. I mean there was just a lot of different garage bands.
You were crossing paths early on with future members of Queensryche like Scott Rockenfield?
Yes. After high school I went to the Cornish Institute of Allied Arts and I studied music there for a couple years. Directly after that is when I met Scott Rockenfield and Eddie Jackson.
Jumping ahead a little, “The Lady Wore Black” was one of the earliest songs you ever co-wrote with Geoff Tate?
I think those were the early years and a lot of the songs were semi-derivative from what we were listening to. But definitely as a guitar player I think you can see a common thread of the lineage and how we progressed as players and songwriters.
What was that like doing the first Queensryche album, The Warning, at Abbey Road Studios?
Yeah, being that young age in my early ’20s it was an eye-opening experience. One, for the fact of actually moving there and living in a flat in the westend of London for some time. And two, seeing the orchestra arranged by the late Michael Kamen and James Guthrie and being in Abbey Road, which as I said before I am a huge Beatles fan. So it was just eye candy and ear candy everywhere.
When you listen to your guitar playing on The Warning how does it strike you now?
I listen to it as a progression; it’s a stair step up the mountain. When I listen to it it kind of sends images in my mind of back when I was recording those songs and how my practice schedule was set up. It was really an exciting and also scary and dangerous time because you don’t know really what the outcome would happen. You just kind of believed in something and then you took the risk and after that we had set up a good team and got to tour on that record extensively and meet a lot of bands.
Obviously the risk paid off because you recorded the Operation: Mindcrime album and brought in a huge audience.
I think we were really going on our gut instincts and basically who we listened to and who we liked and it was just kind of a mishmash of all the personalities blending up all the influences. Subsequently there was a lot of influence from Yes, Pink Floyd and the progressive bands with members of Queensryche as well as guitar players from guitar-oriented bands. That was something we just knew we were comfortable with and the themes and the conceptual ideas making it more of a 3D atmosphere was something that really intrigued us and opened the color palette for creativity.
That multi-media approach culminated with Empire?
"It was really an exciting and also scary and dangerous time because you don’t know really what the outcome would happen."
Empire was at a stage in our career when we had just pretty much broken the social barrier with MTV with Operation: Mindcrime. That was a full conceptual idea and we toured on that for quite a long time with Metallica and all types of bands like Iron Maiden. Why I’m saying that is after touring for so long and kind of being exhausted on the whole conceptual idea it was kind of natural for a change to metamorphosize and sometimes we just want to write songs. Empire was a collection of songs with not too heavy of a conceptual idea and maybe a little bit thematic. In a sense we wanted to make it sound more palatable. Don’t get me wrong because the guitar parts are very critical and they’re not really easy to play. But it was more of a sense of making it sound like it’s easier to listen to and enjoy and connect with people.
“Silent Lucidity” came from the Empire album. What did the success of the song mean to Queensryche.
That was a song that my high school friend Chris DeGarmo came up with. When he played that for us it was intriguing. But as we consider ourselves musicians we like to stretch the boundaries and “Silent Lucidity” in its pure form was just a very sparse song. But again speaking to a guitar player the intro is kind of a weird timing and it throws it off and it can be pretty tricky. Some of the fingering on it people actually destroy it on YouTube. It wasn’t until the idea that Chris said he was hearing orchestration is when the song kind of went into panoramic view and color and everything. It was just a slam dunk I guess.
Do you think your style evolved around playing with Chris DeGarmo?
I think there was a camaraderie. One from a social fact that we were friends since young kids and we went to the same schools and two, we both liked to play guitar and eventually we hooked up. So there’s kind of like this genetic musician brotherhood that happened between us. We wrote so much music together and played so many shows together that when we did come together to work on ideas and work on songs, I could kind of sense where Chris was going and what he might play next and he could do the same with me. To me that kind of builds a good guitar duo or a guitar team because you know the strengths of each other. But you also know your strengths and it’s the combination that brings together amazing surprises.
How would you describe the differences in the way you and Chris DeGarmo play?
Analytically it’s really hard for me. For me it’s more of a visual, sensory perception. I just kind of know the way he plays. I don’t even know the way I play; I can’t describe the way I play. I don’t have the right adjectives to describe what I play. I just think Chris is a very strong, melodic guitar player and very talented at songwriting. He’s very solid as a performer and his timing is impeccable. As guitar players when you play chords and write riffs or passages, I don’t know but I think most guitar players I talk to they hear things. They hear things going against the guitar; they hear notes or vocals or another guitar part or something. You do that enough and it just gets engrained in the way you view your playing and your writing. It just becomes common. But yeah, sometimes it takes people a while to discipline themselves to not just hear a linear passage but something that’s three-dimensional.
Hear In the Now Frontier from 1997 had a pretty stripped down version of Queensryche musically.
Yes it did. It was a trying time for the band; we had a lot of things were changing in that era business-wise. The record company was going out of business and people were being hired and fired and it caused a lot of uncertainty in the touring on that record. A lot of that record was more organic and stripped down and not a lot of ear candy. I mean there are some good songs and a lot of Chris’s Beatles melody influences in there. We had the whole way that it was mixed and produced was kind of stretched in a different way. Those are some really good songs on there and I think they translate live really well.
Chris DeGarmo left Queensryche at this point.
Yes, that was Chris’s last album that he was with the band. Everybody says, “Yeah OK, that’s what happened there” [laughs.] That’s kind of where he left us.
When you look at the collection of songs on the Sign Of the Times: The Best of Queensryche album that came out in 2007, how do they hit you?
They were all high moments and they were just very amazing elements to subsequently feed my learning and just maturing as a musician. There were so many great things that happened: we got to meet so many great musicians and so many great producers. Everything that surrounded us was in such a positive way and we had such a big huge team. We had a gargantuan record label and a gargantuan management team. Then we got to mess with all the latest gear and we got these NASA rack processing systems and Bob Bradshaw racks and ESP guitars. It was just really so much that it’s hard to pinpoint. There’s bubbles of great times from winning an MTV Viewer’s Choice Award. That was so unexpected and James Brown gave it to us. To playing Rock In Rio with 100,000 people and playing the Grammys. I sat next to Dan Rather the newsguy and there was so many strange, great things that had happened with the band. It’s a whole two-thirds of my life.
Some of the songs you did on the Take Cover album were interesting choices like Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth” and David Crosby’s “Almost Cut My Hair.” Did you listen to those types of bands? The San Francisco bands?
Yeah, sure, I did. I’m actually from San Francisco and I kind of grew up in the ‘60s. My father always took me to concerts when I was a young toddler.
Who did you see?
I saw the Youngbloods, the Airplane, the Grateful Dead, Country Joe & The Fish, the Rascals and all kinds of stuff that he exposed me to. But yeah, it’s quite an amazing 30 years.
You also covered Black Sabbath’s “Neon Knights.” Were you a Sabbath fan?
Oh man, yeah. In my arsenal of CDs, tapes and records, I had everything by Black Sabbath. I’ve had the great opportunity to tour with members of that band. For us to do “Neon Knights” was kind of a walk in the park for me because I already knew the song. I remember when we were touring with Alice Cooper and Heaven & Hell and Tony Iommi told me I did an amazing job and incredible justice in the solo section. I said, “Oh, c’mon. You penned the amazing solo there.” And he says, “Yours is not too shabby either.”
Getting to Dedicated To Chaos, Scott Rockenfield had described the new album as a combination of rock and dance. Would you agree with that?
"Each record is kind of a 180 from the last one and keeping it fresh and interesting. There are different ways to use your talent and your creativity."
There’s lots of different outer elements that were contributing to that album. Again the band is always looking at different ways to stretch the envelope and stretch the box. Sometimes that’s needed and sometimes you just gotta try different avenues you haven’t tried before. You do that because you can and you take all kinds of influences. It’s a balance of the influences and everything that just produces the music that we do.
Pursuing that line of thinking did you want to search out new guitar tones and sounds that you hadn’t used before?
Right. Instead of just using humbucker ESP guitars, I used a lot of different styles of guitars and more boutiquey amps. I’ve got an old Fender tweed combos and something that’s kind of a signature in our clean sound is the old Roland JC-120 combo. I still have that from the Mindcrime days. Tons of little combo HiWatts that I have. What we kinda did was we put mics on all of ‘em and I used this radial device that splits the signal and isolates it so you don’t get that nasty hum. Then we had mics on different cabinets and we just kind of matrixed them into the recording medium and just brought up the faders to add this sound or that sound. It was kind of a really fun way of recording.
You played all the guitars on Dedicated To Chaos by yourself?
Yeah. Kelly Gray was on our Q2K album that was after the Hear In the Now Frontier and we toured with him. He’s known for his producing skills; he produced Candlebox and Nevermore and lots of different bands. He had the hat of engineer/producer so when we’d get to an impasse in a song he could suggest, “Well why don’t you try this or try that” and kind of expedite the situation. Parker Lundgren had some input too with little parts here and there. It’s just kind of the sum of everything makes it what it is. With the advent of ProTools you have a little more freedom and you don’t have the time constraints like you do in the studio. So we could set up really interesting recording scenarios.
Being the sole guitar player must have been a completely different experience than doing the tandem guitar stuff back in the day with Chris DeGarmo.
Right yeah. Each record is kind of a 180 from the last one and keeping it fresh and interesting. There are different ways to use your talent and your creativity and you just use them for the best of your ability for what you’re recording.
“Got It Bad” was a great example of your creativity with the big guitar sounds, the funky riffs and the backwards guitar.
Yeah, I have an effect that does that but you can also do it in ProTools. It sounds better with the effect I think. That was the old Eventide H3000 that I have that has a backwards patch. I put it completely 100 percent wet and send it out and send it out and you have a backwards part and it’s pretty cool.
Was that some of your inner Beatles coming out?
Oh! On my iPod I’ve got immense albums of the Beatles. I may have Slayer and Mastodon but I will have the Beatles. When I need lessons in melody and time and space and the space between the notes, which is sometimes as important as the note, I’ll listen to the Beatles. Just to hear how melodic and how brilliant they were utilizing that and making it interesting. To me it’s my alchemy and it’s magic.
There’s a really melodic guitar riff on the verse from “Higher.” Can you explain how you developed that?
That was actually pretty simple. I had Scott’s drum part and that was the first thing that came out of my head. Kelly was with me and we just kept looping it and just built it actually pretty quick.
There’s kind of a David Bowie and Nile Rogers vibe on “Wot We Do.”
Yeah definitely. Bowie is someone we all listen to and Nile as a guitar player we listen to. Like I said we kinda have an open palette of musical influences.
Your solo in “I Take You” was so lyrical and economical. What is your view on solos?
It depends on what the structure of the music is. A lot of it I take from the melodic lines of the song and trying to find the strongest passage and that’s kind of the starting point. Then it’s got to work with the feel of the music and trying to make it sit in the pocket and give the song what it needs. That’s basically what you got to do and that’s how you gotta approach it. You don’t wanna go there and just show all flash. You want to do what’s right for the song and you’ve got to determine what’s right for the song. So you gotta be objective in your approach and sometimes less is more and sometimes simple is better than intricate and sometimes intricate is better. It’s all dependent on the song.
“Big Noize” closes the album and that one has some acoustic guitars in it.
The acoustic was my Taylor that records really nice. I think we used through a Seymour Duncan box where you record direct into ProTools. We kinda used that and a microphone.
Dedicated To Chaos was a different sounding album than other Queensryche records. Did it succeed in bringing the band into a more modern sound?
You kind of never know and it’s kind of a crapshoot. I think as an artist you kinda gotta go with your gut feeling. If it hits public taste and collides that’s double-plus good.
What was the response to Dedicated To Chaos?
"There's bubbles of great times from winning an MTV Viewer's Choice Award. To playing Rock In Rio with 100,000 people and playing the Grammys. It’s a whole two-thirds of my life."
It was released on Roadrunner Records and we toured quite extensively in 2011. The thing with Queensryche and our main body of work is the big albums and when you play it live you’ve got to give ‘em the favorites. So it’s like any one of the songs off the later albums post-‘’97 you’ve just gotta give ‘em a little taste of this and this. It blends in well. To throw a song in off of Chaos people stare at it but then it’s like, “Hey, it worked.” Certain songs on the older albums because we toured so much back then and wrote ‘em in a room together they just work live. Pre-ProTools it was, “Let’s get creative and write together in a room.” Those tend to for the most part translate live really well. Sometimes you can get overly creative in the ProTools area and it sounds good on the computer but when you play it live it’s a different animal. You gotta kind of make some adjustments here and there.
You had a side project back in 2004 called Soulbender. Will you do any more recording with that band.
I plan on it and we have all the demos for the second album. The core band kind of disintegrated so it kind of stopped. It’s kind of a purist thing so it’s gotta be something that’s really special and I just don’t wanna piecemeal it out. I want it to be a band so yeah someday.
What about Wratchet Head?
It’s kind of a fun thing and that’s a little more rock and progressive in nature and lots of guitar. So I have that. I’ve done lots of recording for film and television and lots of different media. Scott Rockenfield and I did a CD called Mosh Pit which is on Sonoton in Austria and distributed all over the world. Played on various TV shows from sports to cooking shows; you might hear some background guitar and drum stuff on there and it’s probably Scott and I.
Both Soulbender and Wratchet Head were heavier bands than Queensryche. Is that where your heart really is musically?
As you grow as a musician you really start to blossom in what you like and the way you play. The way it evolves is perceived differently by everybody. It’s really strange. I can jam and play the blues like a blues guy. I’ve jammed with Lee Oskar from War because he lives up here in Seattle. I can do that thing but I’m definitely in the rock and definitely into the hard rock and definitely into a semi-progressive area of the rock.
Queensryche provides a space for all of those styles?
Queensryche for the most part fills all those roles. We’ve got some really fun songs to play on guitar. Our current guitar player, Parker Lundgren, when he was working on learning the songs from Rage For Order he didn’t realize in-depth how fun and challenging the guitar parts are.
You’re such a smart and focused guitar player.
Speaking for myself, I come from the era where efficiency and discipline were really the rules to follow. When I went to school at the Cornish Institute, I was thrust in the arena of these great progressive jazz players and guitar players and piano players. I got into Gamelan music banging bells and drums and stuff in patterns and learning classical piano and all these great composers from the days of yore. That was kind of exciting for me and to take that and make it into something popular. I definitely like to stretch it out because that excites me—the musicianship and the guys playing and just giving you everything from inside their soul. That’s where I came from and I kind of get bits of that in everything I do and I create.
When you talk about a very high level of musicianship you have to mention the performances of drummer Scott Rockenfield and bassist Eddie Jackson.
I am fortunate. You bring up a real interesting point because when I’m working on these other side projects and the drummers, I’ve gotten so used to playing with Scott Rockenfield. He’s a machine and I never have to worry. He’s always on the beat or behind the beat exactly and he’s just incredible. Sometimes you have to adjust to a different drummer’s playing and it’s kind of strange.
Interview by Steven Rosen
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