"This is our livelihood - we had to step up and take these chances. And you know what? It's been unbelievable - the fans have embraced us, and Todd has been a seamless integration into what we're doing." ~ Michael Wilton
Queensryche's new self-titled album is sitting pretty at number 25 this week on Billboard's Top 200 Rock Albums chart. As markets speak, that is considerably higher than their ex-singer's version of the band, which entered the chart at #82. In terms of sales that equates to about two and a half times as many sales - a pretty significant difference, and as I stated in my review of their new disc, the Queensryche that currently contains Michael Wilton, Scott Rockenfield, Eddie Jackson, Parker Lundgren, and new vocalist Todd La Torre has certainly in my mind earned the right to keep the name.
I recently had a chance to chat with guitarist/songwriter Michael Wilton, and by an unstated agreement, we stuck to what's going on today - enough has been said and written about the band's acrimonious split with their founding singer, and so much positive energy is being generated by the bands via their great new record, and their fans' reaction that to look back would make little sense. When in doubt, let the music do the talking, right?
Our chat occurred on the morning after their record release party in their hometown of Seattle - I asked how the show went, and how he felt about the band's future:
Michael Wilton: "It was brilliant! It was really a great event - it sold out, and it was like the first show we did last year with this lineup. People flew in from all over the world!
"It's amazing - it's a band again. Everybody is collaborating - the writing, everybody's putting their two cents in, and we're rebuilding the brand. Everyone is creative again, and just on fire.
"All cylinders are firing - and what's so great about Todd La Torre is that he is a musician, as well. He can play the drums, guitar, and that just makes things so much better. He's so on the spot as far as timing, and for the vocals that really makes a big difference. He can even play Scott's drum parts from the early albums, which is amazing!"
You can definitely hear that on the new record - La Torre fits this band like a glove, and for the first time in a very long time, Queenryche again sounds like a band:
Michael Wilton: "Thank you - it's doing quite well, it's going viral! We're very happy with our label Century Media, they're doing a great job.
"The fact of the matter is that you've got three proven assets within the band which founded Queensryche, so you're naturally going to get that kind of lineage in the threads of the creative process. You're going to get those influences.
"We didn't contrive, or try to make it sound like the old days, it's just kind of what you get. Everybody's writing together, and you've got the energy - the whole creative process. It's our DNA, it's what we are!"
It does indeed sound as if the band has been creatively reborn - I asked how they handled the writing process with all hands being on-deck:
Michael Wilton: "The writing process happened in between touring. We had pockets of time, and we started writing demos.
"Everybody was submitting demos, everybody was coming up with melodic ideas for vocals, lyrics - Todd obviously taking most of that, but Eddie Jackson was writing lyrics, Parker Lundgren wrote lyrics to one song, so it was a big collaborative effort.
"Once we would decide that we liked the direction of a song, then everybody would contribute ideas and all of a sudden the thing would be molded like a sculpture. It just kept building, and building, and building!
"Actually, it was quite expedient - it wasn't a very arduous process, it was very matter-of-fact. We knew we had a time limit, and it was all done between these weekend fly-out dates. There was such a renewed creative energy, and the juices were just flowing. It was great."
To get the whole thing down in the studio, the band called on a collaborator from the distant past, producer James (Jimbo) Barton (Rush, Eric Clapton, Gary Moore, Queensryche):
Michael Wilton: "When he got in my studio, Watershed Studio, he knew it from back in the days of The Promised Land, Empire, and Operation Mindcrime - he knew the sounds.
"He'd go, 'Michael, do you still have those amps?' And I'd go, 'Yeah, of course I do, I have copious amounts of Marshall heads,' and he said, 'How about the clean one?' Yeah, the Roland JC-120 - that was how Chris and I got those Queensryche clean tones.
"So, we pulled those out, dialed up the EQ and threw a couple of mics in front of it, and we were off!
"'Hello, it's like it's only been a couple of days, but I hadn't seen the guy in over fifteen years!'"
While Barton certainly delivers in terms of sonority, even the best production would not be enough without great songs. Queensryche reached deep and like their prestigious producer, they delivered the goods:
Michael Wilton: "It was really just amazing - all the songs are so individualistic in themselves. Each one is its own entity!
"What's nice is that some of them are in different tunings - it lends to a bit of variety. We didn't plan that, it just happened. That way, I get a song from Scott Rockenfield, and he's got samples on a keyboard - and I guess there are some pretty bad-assed guitar samples out there that you can load onto your computer. He'd sit there and write basic riffs from the keyboard that I would have to translate so it sounds like a guitar player - he'd give me songs that were just really cool. Sometime, I'd go, 'Dude, some of these notes don't exist on the guitar, we're going to have to change that a little bit!
"Songs were often written in a day. Scott would give me a live drum track, and I turned that into the song, Redemption - I came up with the melody for Todd to sing, and then Todd wrote and slapped on some guide bass, then we played it for the other guys, and it was jaws dropping and the 'wow' factor!
"That kind of got it rolling - everybody was into it. Then we got, Where Dreams Go To Die, that Parker Lundgren wrote - he did that via Skype with Todd, who lives in Florida. Originally, Todd put the drums on that. He asked Scott, 'Would that offend you?' and Scott said, 'No, no - that's good, it's a blueprint, a map!' I got the song, and pretty much arranged it, and wrote some parts for it.
"That's how the building process went, and then there was other times, other songs, we'd be in each others' studios just having discussions about the songs, seeing where they were at. It was just a matter of once we had twelve songs whittled down to ten, then we got Jim Barton involved, the record company involved, and we signed the deal - all this stuff happened at once - it was pretty crazy!
"For recording, it was just a matter of finding time, and scheduling with Jim Barton - he's a busy guy as well, and we were touring.
"The first thing we did was cut the drums at London Bridges Studios, then it was guitars at Watershed Studio, bass at Eddie's studio, and then Todd's vocals were done in Florida, Seattle, Los Angeles.
"Eddie Jackson came out with the riff to Fallout, and it kind of felt like a Queensryche meets Soundgarden kind of thing in the early stages. I was like, 'Whoa, this is interesting!' We worked on that - it had a few changes, and we built a chorus.
"Everything just took shape, and it was all good. There was no ego bruising, everyone was always working for the song.
"Ulimately, everyone knew what the goal was, and Jimbo was the guy who kept it all together. He was concise, and matter-of-fact - to the point. If a song was too long, if it had redundant parts, he'd say, 'Let's get to the next part quicker.'
"It was a good pre-production, and then the recording was just a dream."
Guitarist Parker Lundgren provides something of a bridge between the original band and its current lineup after being originally brought into the band several years ago - I asked about his development from hired hand to full time member and writer:
Michael Wilton: "When we got this all going, it was obvious and we gave him an option - he was wise, and he made a good decision.
"We said, 'OK, Parker - you're in a different situation now. In the last situation you weren't allowed to write, you were just a hired guy, you were just a player who had no say in any matter. This is completely different, you are part of the band, you are a writer, you can sing, you can do anything - we want you to just go for it. Show us what you've got.'
"That was the attitude, and that's the attitude now - ever growing as a musician, you know?
"I know he's younger than me, he's almost half my age - I don't think he was even born when we did Rage For Order, but the fact of the matter is that he has studied his instrument, he has different influences than everybody else, which makes him a unique character in the creative process.
"He's reflective of, and very much stays in tune with what the original guitar parts were. Whether it was mine, or Chris DeGarmo's parts, he's playing them verbatim. I told him to do that - the other guys, no disrespect to them, but they kind of did their own solos, and the fans didn't like that. They want what's on the album, what's engrained in their memories.
"He's followed that philosophy, and that's why he's here. He respects it, understands it, and he thinks it's really cool, what we've done in the past.
"So now, he's off, and we're going to see. That song of his, Where Dreams Go To Die, is one of the fan's favorites, so he feels pretty good right now! Like, 'OK, I actually mean something in this band now.'"
Given the strong reaction to the first samples of the album by their fans, I wondered how much of the new record they were currently playing onstage:
Michael Wilton: "We're calling this tour, Return To History, so we've been focusing on our first six albums, the ones that meant the most to the fans. As we started releasing audio into the Internet, fans started wanting to hear it, because it's fresh.
"It's just a matter of seeing which songs integrate into the set with the older music.
"Redemption - we put that into the set. That was a no-brainer. People said that live, that sounded like a tank coming through the audience. It fits right in with the Rage For Order, and The Warning stuff, so that's great!
"That's kind of what is cool - the stuff has a more modern kick to it. It's a little different, but I think that it's the way everybody is playing that makes it all work in the set.
"So, now we've three new songs, and those were the ones that were on the Internet. It's just a matter of time before the record company wants to promote the next song - then we'll run it, and get it into the set as we go, putting them into the set and making sure they flow right.
"We want them to promote the record, not to be all that we play - we're not about that.
"One thing about this band is that there is so much great communication now - everybody's really in tune with what's going on. We listen to the fans, we listen to you, and we now take it all into consideration.
"There's a fine line of sufficing the starving artist. It's a mutual thing - you've got to have your ego stroked, but you've got to have some give."
So, what come next for Queensryche?:
Michael Wilton: "Ultimately, the market is going to decide what happens - that's basically the fans.
"The fans will make the ultimate decision in what they like. And that being said, it's a unique situation. You have a band with a great history and lineage for their first six albums, and then it's like a business - it went sideways for a while, and then it went spiraling down.
"It's hard when you have to make changes, you determine what's not clicking anymore. This is our livelihood, we had to step up and take these chances. You know what? It's been unbelievable - the fans have embraced us, and Todd has been a seamless integration into what we're doing.
"He's not a singer who's just copping our old singer's style - he's got his own unique style, and the fans love it."
Thanks to Michael Wilton, Queensryche, Kevin Chiaramonte, and Century Media.