Vox - Geoff Tate
This issue, I'll not only be reviewing the talents and abilities of Queensryche vocalist Geoff Tate, but having caught up to Geoff on the road as he supports his self-titled debut solo CD, I've include an insightful interview with the hard-working musician.
To begin, a strong argument can be made that Tate did for progressive rock/metal what Stephen King did for speculative fiction: raised the level of awareness and acceptability, not to mention the standard of success. Certainly, he was not alone in this, but after conducting an informal survey, I have found that where the words progressive and metal are used, rock fans consistently point to Tate as a seminal influence and favorite. Rock patrons were compelled to buy Queensryche albums after hearing "that high singer," and progressive artists noted the skill and virtuosity Tate brought to the lead vocal slot.
Comparisons are insidious things, a human animal's way of feeling safe and in control. Still, early comparisons were made of Tate to Bruce Dickinson and Rob Halford—both fine singers. But reducing Geoff's contributions to the corpus of rock/metal by making such blithe statements is tantamount to saying that all African Americans or Asian Americans look the same. From the gate, Geoff had his own distinctive style and vocal timbre. (I exhort you to flush the need to draw comparisons to new musical acts from your system.)
Geoff studied and trained his voice primarily with Maestro David Kyle of West Seattle, Washington. I must note that Mr. Kyle is an extraordinary teacher—I know, I studied with him, too—and he has a luminous list of successful vocalists to his credit: Geoff Tate, Ann and Nancy Wilson, and Lane Staley to name a few. "The Maestro," as he is affectionately called by his pupils, teaches classical technique, which won't surprise Queensryche fans who are familiar with Tate's broad range, vocal control, and deep, powerful vibrato. David had a wonderful career in New York—Broadway, Radio City Music Hall—and is as close in real life as you can come to Yoda in terms of sage advice and delightful humor. It was under his tutelage that Geoff began to develop his natural gift.
Vocal trainers are a strange breed, and essentially fall into two categories: those who know what they're doing, and those who don't. I personally attest to Maestro Kyle's belonging to the first group. The technique Kyle teaches is classical. This entails more than a few elements, but fundamentally it is premised on the singer placing the voice in the masque or mask of the face. Fledgling vocalists often sing from their throats and sound overly glottal in their efforts. A student of classical voice, or one naturally given to singing in the masque, focuses his sound in the facial sinuses. Different trainers will use varying methods to teach this ability, but ultimately, the singer learns to shift emphasis of the vocal mechanism from his throat to the cavities behind and around the nose where the tone resonates. One of the advantages of mastering this technique is singing with ease over the passagio, an Italian term for the natural register breaks in the voice. A vocalist singing in his throat will experience one of these breaks roughly where his voice naturally shifts into falsetto—that airy sound most car-radio singers use to achieve the high notes in songs they sing as they drive. Having studied, Tate developed command over his voice from rich lows to bright, amazing highs.
When Geoff began doing auditions, the rock music climate was not readily accepting the clean, pure, operatic tones he was so consummate at producing. A cultural convention had developed which insisted that the inherent rebelliousness and power that was "rock and roll" ought to be accompanied by shrieking, growling vocals. There are exceptions, of course, but they are few and their audience was always a rather narrow niche. But if even that could be contested, what makes the rise of Tate as a premier vocalist stunning and important is that fact that his voice is pretty. There is a warmth and immediacy to his vocal timbre that is rare in heavy rock music even today.
This does not necessarily make his tone superior. Indeed, what remains forever true about music is that it is intensely personal, and opinions vary widely as to what people like. Geoff's strength as a singer, however, is that despite the obvious beauty in his voice, he won broad acceptance in what was then a relatively unconventional approach of mixing heavy rhythmic guitars with clean, soaring vocal performances.
But Geoff's approach to songwriting was more than to flaunt the amazing range he had developed, or test a rock audience's expectations by singing a clean tone over the mayhem of pounding guitar amplifiers. Tate infuses a dramatic flare in his rendering of melodies and lyrics. Consider the turn of phrase, "We've come too far to turn back now," in the song "Roads to Madness" from the album The Warning. Here Geoff places a peculiar emphasis on the final word that strikes some as off pitch or out of key. In truth, it is more akin to what is called recitativo, an Italian term which essentially means talk-singing, taking its meaning from the Latin root verb recitare which means "to read out." It is a form used often in classical voice pieces such as Handel's Messiah, and is likewise used a great deal in the American tradition of musical theater. In lay terms, it sounds like speech with just a thread of the connective tissue of song. The effect is to create intimacy in the same way Romantic playwrights like Shakespeare used the soliloquy. A feeling of desperation or urgency is often the emotional underpinning for these sections. Similarly, Tate does this in "The Killing Words" from Rage for Order and in countless other places. Effectively, this stylistic device often raises the song beyond words and music, giving it a feeling of art, story, something a listener wishes to see performed. It is a bold, creative technique, and I suggest that the traditional theater's loss is rock and roll's gain—a unique voice and a definite step in what ought to be part of every musician's goal: evolution and growth.
Given his use of these classical tools in his singing, it is not at all surprising that Tate was instrumental in bringing about Queensryche's concept album, Operation Mindcrime. Some refer to it—and concept albums by any band—as rock operas, perhaps apropos considering Tate's formal classical training. In any case, Tate brought to bear an immense effort on this album, which was well suited to his musical background and training and continued to win him fans in the rock community.
Examples of dramatization of the lyrical content are seen in such songs as the title track for the albumEmpire, where samples give statistics of government spending and youth fatalities—an issue growing more timely every day with such tragedies as Columbine, Colorado. Evidently, Geoff and the band feel strongly about certain topics, predominant among them seeming to be the social-urgency of a government's constituency taking responsibility for its governance and not implicitly trusting an elected body. These beautiful lyrics, such as those written for "Is There Anybody Listening" from the Empirealbum, encourage the individual to think for himself. Indeed, personal agency seems to be an overriding theme from Tate's lyrical pen, again evidenced in the final track from the Promised Land CD, "Someone Else," and in the equally gorgeous "Some People Fly" from Hear in the Now Frontier.
Tate's courage as a vocalist, however, is not relegated to his usage of classical methods or strong criticism of the Establishment. Geoff is also willing to change. After the multi-platinum Empire album, Queensryche took a 4 year hiatus to rest and regroup. When Geoff could once again be heard over the airwaves, fans reacted in a rather polarized way. Promised Land was rawer, and not as heavily produced as Empire, perhaps owing to the bands intimate involvement with the recording and production. This trend continued with Hear in the Now Frontier.
Why the change?
I'm convinced that some if not all of the answer to this question is Tate's deliberate choice to do new things with his voice (a feeling confirmed in my interview). Consider the degree to which each Queensryche album is different from the last. Geoff is an instrumental part of this; and whether or not we are individually drawn to the musical changes themselves, it must be considered a credit to his musicianship. Indeed, not long ago I heard Geoff sing live. He retains the ability to achieve the high note on "Take Hold of the Flame," and likewise can sing the songs from the Queensryche corpus of music with deft skill. Yet he is a different vocalist today than he was fifteen years ago, or even five years ago; and I suggest that this is by choice, something that is obviously intensely important to him as is evidenced in his lyrics.
An exploration of positive vocal elements in Tate's work could fill far more space than this column could ever provide, but let me point to one last thing: enunciation. To some, this is an inane measure of vocal ability. However, in progressive/metal rock, lyrics often have deliberate and important connotations. And what listener hasn't had to interpret for a friend or family member just what the singer was saying? In the arena of progressive rock/metal, a vocalist is sometimes measured by his or her ability to move up into a higher range. I confess to the weakness of enjoying just such musical bravado. But many of the premier vocalists compromise the vowel when they achieve their high notes, or are singing in a higher register. Tate does not. I'm certain Geoff is capable of departing from a strict adherence to the technical element of clearly enunciating his words—and again it is a matter of opinion as to whether this is preferable—but the uniformity and ability demonstrated by Tate's choice to vocalize words with their written vowels is not only remarkable but admirable. It may be that what he is singing is as important to him as the way he sings it. Whatever the reason, it is rare that I need the CD booklet to comprehend his lyrics. This is not an easy feat, and is yet another illustration of Geoff's ability.
Geoff Tate remains a powerful influence to a generation of vocalists. He is responsible for many aspiring singers seeking training, and for helping to forge a path that introduced musical elements from other traditions into the paragon that is progressive rock and metal. This cross-breeding is healthy and leads to the discovery of new musical forms and expressions. Geoff Tate stands as one of the important contributors to the form and expression of progressive rock and metal with a unique and amazing voice.
A voice that has now begun a career separate from Queensryche.
At the end of June, Sanctuary Records released Geoff Tate's self-titled solo CD. Immediately, Geoff hit the road with his new band to support the effort. He was gracious enough to spend some time speaking with me in preparation for this column.
PO: Congratulations, Geoff, on a great new CD. The material is yet another departure from what you've done before, which has seemed to be the hallmark of your career—every CD moving into new musical territory. Is each successive musical change—from album to album—a conscious choice, or does it grow naturally out of your own evolving experience.
GT: I try to use music as a learning tool, and approach it from an expressive standpoint. For that reason, the music necessarily changes. But I'm also always pushing and trying to do different things with music. Trying to do something outside my own box. Queensryche does the same thing, but there's a chemistry there that is relatively constant. What I've done with the solo stuff is to capture some of my early musical influences, or at least use them to explore new sides of my own musical expression.
PO: How did you meet the players on Geoff Tate? Were they people you knew?
GT: Scott Moughton was a friend of my wife's. We were out one night at a club catching a blues band. We got talking, and soon we had a regular Tuesday night jam to play and write. Later, I met Jeff Carroll. Over drinks one night a Hall and Oats tune came on to which I started singing. Jeff came in with the harmonies, and not long after he joined Scott and I on our Tuesday jam. We wrote songs and it snowballed. Along the way we picked up Howard on keys. Then I called Evan up do play drums. I'd heard some of his previous work and loved the electronic word he did. Chris is Jeff's roommate and a base player. There you go.
PO: Are there plans for further solo albums?
PO: Will you use the same players as you've used on this release?
GT: I intend to collaborate with different musicians as I go along. That way the chemistry continues to change, and so will the music. I'm very happy these guys could come out on tour, though.
PO: Can you tell me about your relationship with Sanctuary records and how that came about?
GT: My wife is my manager, and she's very plugged into the music scene. She and Tom Lipsky, who is president of Sanctuary, had been talking about my becoming part of the label already. Queensryche had been very unhappy with Atlantic. So the band and I made the leap together.
PO: Much of the underpinning to your new record seems to address inexorable forces— floods, tides, the consequence of knowledge, love—and a certain sense of helplessness against them. This comes most powerfully in "Over Me," where you communicate an utter sense of loss and languor. Can you speak more to the presence of these forces in your music?
GT: A lot of what I was exploring thematically was relationships. I think it's one of the most important subjects in life. They test you as a human being. Yet, without them you're an empty shell. They force you to look at yourself objectively, they force you to learn.
PO: You make active use of the interrogative in "Forever," "Helpless" and "Over Me." The song "Passenger" conveys a sense of being disengaged from something difficult and meaningful as a result of choice, just as "Over Me" shows regret for NOT making a certain choice. Can you elaborate on your exploration of choice as an element of relationships?
GT: It seems to me that everything sort of turns around action/reaction. In any given moment we have the ability to make a choice, and then we live with the consequences.
That said, a great deal of my lyrical method is stream-of-consciousness. So much of what I write isexperience driven. Often, I can later look back objectively and have a clearer view of what I've created. So, essentially, I work with and trust my intuition, putting down what feels right. And often what I find is that the work is autobiographical. A lot of what I get down is stuff I know at the time. I'm always struggling with trying to communicate myself in language. It's very difficult for me. Thankfully, I can sit down with music and figure it out.
PO: There's also a strong undercarriage of belief and faith. The CD starts with "Ask me what I believe in," "Helpless" starts with "Ask yourself, do you believe, Ask yourself, why?" And, of course, there's the song "Grain of Faith." Is this something you elected to consciously explore?
GT: No, not consciously. Although, the whole project was a leap of faith, stepping out on my own. In fact, the project was difficult at first, working with different people, wanting to do more of a soul, R&B thing. I didn't want to stay in any preconceived boundaries. And it took a while to sing it. And to write the songs. In the end, I had to exercise some belief and faith, sure. And a lot of it was in myself.
PO: Much of the language intimates someone to save, or comfort one who's suffering as in "when my hands begin to bleed will you stay and comfort me?" and "When these wounds upon my brow begin to seep the truth we found do you feel we need to keep giving?" The imagery seems to borrow recognizable images of sacrifice from religious faiths. Can you elaborate on how the theme of self-sacrifice influenced this album? If that was your intention?
GT: It's difficult to explain. I did work off the cultural identification of certain imagery. But in the chorus of "In Other Words," the lyric "a whispered ‘yes'" is about commitment. Like most people, I personally need someone to believe in me. I need to be driven. I get that all from my wife, who shares and believes in my vision. I guess it's sort of a romantic way of saying: "If you believe in me, I can do anything."
And about this song in particular. I feel kind of naked when we play it. With Queensryche, there's a level of noise, large guitar stylings, that back me up and weave me in. This new music is exposing. I've really hade to fine tune my chops to be exposed in such a way. There's added attention placed on what I'm doing, and I'm very aware of it. I have to get even further inside the music, and really share and express what the music is about.
PO: "Off the TV" seems to echo earlier themes about which you've written, such as perhaps in "Anybody Listening," where you write, "Criticize the words they're selling." Am I right in assuming a social commentary here, especially since most of your self-titled debut deals with different subject matter?
GT: Yeah, it's about participating in life rather than watching it. Television is so dictatorial, telling you what to do. It numbs you. And it doesn't require you to engage your imagination. You just lapse into a kind of narcosis, sitting and watching. I'm kind of advocating getting out and feeling life, experience the sun, feel its warmth on your skin, feel the rain. Go Sailing, etc. Hiking, jogging. Feel. Experience. Share with each other. All television gives you is somebody else's life to watch.
PO: Many readers are interested to know how you prepare vocally for a show.
GT: I like to sing in the shower because of the heat. But, essentially, I start lightly humming to myself early in the day. I play around with my falsetto, and kind of work the voice that way until sound check time, when I really starting to sing. I don't do any scale work, per se. I do a lot of singing of melodies I'm working on for the show or a new song.
PO: When you're not touring, do you keep any kind of vocal regimen?
GT: I try to sing every day. But I also work five days a week, 11-5, in my home studio. Then I take the weekends off. I tend to be a workaholic. So, now I'm learning to balance my time with my wife, Susan, and family: Emily, Isabella, and Miranda.
PO: How important was vocal training to the development of your career?
GT: It helped me create endurance in singing style. Before training, I couldn't sing long without losing my voice. I learned the mechanics and my own boundaries. I tend not to overdo theory. In my opinion, 90 % of music is emotion. I take different influences into my own mind and filter it through my own experiences. I think the more and different kinds of music you listen to tends to make your own music distinct and original. Queensryche's first record was very reminiscent of metal. But later, about when we hit "Rage for Order," we began to push outside early influences. And some of that was due to me constantly exposing some of the guys to various other musicians.
PO: Are there certain things you specifically avoid as a part of your vocal approach?
GT: I go with what feels right. I work to make the vocal performance fit the song. Too many people are trying to do vocal gymnastics. For me music is an inspirational mechanism, and I like to hear the emotion. I don't hear a lot of emotion in arpeggios or rapid picking. Music is personal expression. It's not about satisfying other people's expectations. Music is a selfish fact of self expression.
PO: What advice do you have for aspiring vocalists?
GT: Follow your heart. Sing what feels good to you. Experience life. It's all there is. Art and expression isn't about competition. Unfortunately, the industry currently doesn't trade much in art, but rather numbers, ratings. The radio controls what the public hears on radio waves. We wind up with either conformity or a backlash to the selling of certain sounds in a box with labels called a product. My advice is: "Don't make a product." [Laughs]
PO: What aspect of music do you find most personally rewarding?
GT: The feeling I get making music and singing it. Having the idea, pursuing it and pushing it into an audio reality. Participating in that process is very pleasing. It's also strange because often ideas I've pushed for a particular song or record really evolve. "In Other Words," from my solo album for example, didn't sound like it does now when it was first written. We started having way too much music on it. So, I stripped it away to a bare bones skeleton. The result, I think, was a perfect balance of instruments and voice.
The same thing happened on "Operation Mindcrime." I started out with some notes in a notebook. I fine tuned it and pursued it, writing the whole story idea. The band hated it. But I really believed in it. So, I did the divide and conquer thing. I got together with Chris and worked on some music for it. Once he got invested musically, he began to see the picture I was trying to create. Then we started working on the other guys. Ultimately, we finished the album, and when I look back, it amazes me because it came out so far beyond my expectations.
I love that journey.
PO: Of the body of your work, is there a particular album or song of which you're especially proud? Or which is most pleasing to perform?
GT: Not really. Whatever I'm working on at the time is what I seem to like best.
PO: Your understanding of voice being what it is, when you hear the work of other vocal artists, what would you say are the most common failings?
GT: I listen for more of the totality of the song. But so many people just aren't into the music. They're not involved. I don't understand the manners of audiences today. They're fucking rude. I'm doing a soft passage, something that requires concentration, and someone yells out: "Mindcrime!"
PO: What about the current line up of Queensryche?
GT: After Chris left, there was a huge whole in the band. We tried to patch it with Kelly. I think he's a very talented musician, but as a person he's self-destructive. We're healthier without him. Maybe we'll hire someone to do the tour, but we'll likely do the new Queensryche album with just the four of us. Who knows, on the road perhaps we'll have some guest guitarists come out and join us on stage to do some of the set.
PO: With Kelly gone, how will you divide up the song writing duties for the new Queensryche album?
GT: The other guys in Queensryche aren't real prolific writers. Michael did more early on. But with the new stuff I'll be working with outside writers that I admire. Then we'll present it to the band and allow them to filter it through their own expressivness.
PO: Can you give us a sense of what to expect from the next Queensryche album?
GT: That's a hard question to answer. And partly because I'm something of a music snob. So much music today is cliché, derivative or juvenile. Comparing music drives me craze. It's all about self expression. It's not up for debate.
PO: If you weren't able to work as a musician, what might you be doing?
GT: I wouldn't do anything else. You're either a musician or your not.
PO: What aspect of a professional music career do you find least appealing? After dealing with the press, of course. [Laugh]
GT: [Laughs] Well, I guess the criticism. It's worthless. I don't understand the point. It comes from people who typically don't play or understand the complexity or difficulty of what we do. After somebody writes a song, a critical comment makes a statement that the feelings and expressions of the songwriter are in some way not valid. Why does there need to be a distinction of good and bad? Actually, there almost can't be a distinction of good and bad, because it's all subjective.
I do have something of a peeve for New York elitism. Some of this grows out of the control the media corporations there have over the entertainment industry. They have reduced art to business. Of course, it does spur some people to start new record companies. But the monopolies are hazardous to what musicians do. It really becomes a unique form of censorship.
PO: Which vocalists do you admire?
GT: I like female vocalists because they are not afraid to express their feelings, where men are taught to be "strong." Expression is considered weakness. So, I identified early on with women singers: Gladys Night, Diana Ross, Janis Joplin. Janis was great—very delicate, then rough, then slick. I like the tough girl, pant-wearing biker-chick sound of a strong woman. Kate Bush. Sade is probably my favorite contemporary singer. I relate to the aloofness she conveys, and I always hear her struggling to keep her emotions together and not reveal anything. As for male vocalists, I like Van Morrison. But I think Bono is the premier lead singer in modern rock. Of course I like Bowie, especially because he's a risk taker, he stretches out.
My influences tend to be older and varied. I'm a huge fan of R&B and soul. I also like art rock: ELP, Tangerine Dream, Genesis. I like Sly and the Family Stone, Peter Gabriel. I didn't start from a hard rock foundation. In fact, I am constantly pushing the other guys outside their box in Queensryche. I've opened them to a lot of other influences.
PO: What aspirations do you still harbor?
GT: I want to do some Broadway work. And I've been developing a treatment of Mindcrime for the screen.
More than that, though, I'm going to take my family on a big sailing trip after the kids are older. We'll take off and see the world. I'll stay grounded in reality for the next few years. Then it's off to the sea.
PO: What's next for you?
GT: I'll be on tour with my band for a few months. Then I've got three weeks booked to do the tracks for the new Queensryche album. Then I'm back on the road. I intend to do some international dates on my solo stuff in Canada and perhaps Japan.
PO: If you had to name a few of your career highlights thus far, what might they be?
GT: I'd just say it's been a great career. I've enjoyed working with a lot of interesting people. And it's been great to travel and see so many different places.
PO: Any last comments?
GT: I'd like to say how much I appreciate the Queensryche fans, a lot of whom are coming out to hear my new material. They're very open-minded. We've thrown a lot at them, always changing, trying new things. And I've done the same now with my solo work. I'm very grateful.
PO: Thanks for your time, Geoff.
GT: Not at all, thank you.
I give Geoff Tate's solo CD my highest recommendation. His abilities as a vocalist are unsurpassed, and not simply because of power, range, versatility, and technical proficiency. Geoff is a musician of uncompromising vision, who exhibits a willingness to change, and has become equally engaging and dynamic with a new sound and band as he continues to be with Queensryche. I've no doubt we'll see him on Broadway. Indeed, I've always known his voice to be perfectly suited to such a forum. Meanwhile, take the opportunity of hearing the newest incarnation of one of today's best voices.