Queensryche: Finding Redemption In A Family Feud
JAM Magazine Interviews Percussionist Scott Rockenfield
By Vinny Cecolini
All Photos Courtesy of Queensryche Facebook
As much as love the speed at which the Internet disseminates news and distributed new music, I lament the death of the old methods. I miss "discovering" new music through "word of mouth," tape trading, late-night or college radio programs, hanging out at tiny mom and pop record shops or reading British rock magazines. In the early '80s, I vividly recall reading a review in Kerrang! magazine about a promising new progressive metal quintet out of Seattle. The band, whose name I assumed was pronounced "Queens-rye-sh," had released a four-song EP and the Brit publication had given the recording a stellar review.
The independent release, I soon found out, was selling like hotcakes. I had to get my grubby New York City-based hands on it. I called my favorite Manhattan record shop to find it when they were expecting delivery of the record. The morning of its release, I hopped on the subway and headed, not to my Queens high school, but the record store. There, I waited patiently for the UPS driver to stroll in pushing a hand truck full of "new release" boxes; and then longer for the store's owner to log in the deliveries. Finally, the EP was mine.
During the long subway ride to school, and later during detention, I stared at the EP's front and back covers, the band's logo, the four song titles and the band photo. I wondered who Queensryche were. What made them tick? They appeared to be my age, perhaps a few years older, but they remained a mystery. When I got home, I raced to my bedroom, sliced open the album's plastic wrap, slid out the fresh slab of vinyl, placed it on my turntable and watched with anticipation as the arm slowly move over the album and its needle met the vinyl grooves. From the first few notes of "Queen of the Reich" I was hooked. The guitars! The drums! That voice! The sound was refreshingly original though it contained the metallic musical elements I was obsessed with.
Throughout the decades, I've remained a Queensryche fan, though I've been disappointed with the band's recent releases. The last few discs have moved too far away from the sound and style that once made this group special. Little did I know that during the writing and recording of those albums, the band and its singer were not getting along. Their personal relationships were abandoned long ago. The working relationship was headed down the same path.
Fate and frustration would play a huge role in the band's eventual split with Geoff Tate. With the end in sight, and Tate touring with hired help in support of his solo record, Kings & Thieves, Queensryche's original line-up of drummer Scott Rockenfield, bassist Eddie Jackson and guitarist Michael Wilton had recruited Parker Lundgren as second guitarist and former Crimson Glory singer Todd La Torre. The reconfigured band did a short tour performing older Queensryche material that, depending upon whom you talk to, Tate had refused to do. Regardless, the new line-up had fans excited. La Torre was quickly welcomed into the Queensryche family as Tate's heir apparent. Although not a carbon copy of Tate, the singer's voice was perfectly suited to sing the band's back catalogue.
Tate and the original members remain locked in a heated legal battle. On the surface, it's a fight to determine who has the right to use the Queensryche name. Dig deeper and you'll see it for what it truly is - a corporate dispute. In question is whether the corporation had the right to fire one of its partners. When a judgment is rendered in November 2013, it most likely will come down to how Tate is compensated. For the moment, however, both Tate and his former band mates are both operating under the Queensryche moniker. Annoying and confusing to long-time fans - two can never be better than one - the temporary ruling is not without precedent. Currently there are rival versions of Saxon, Gene Loves Jezebel and Great White on the road diluting their brands.
Soon after the temporary ruling was made last year granting both parties a right to the band name, Tate assembled a touring group of well-known musicians, most notably bassist Rudy Sarzo and drummer Simon Wright, and took them into the studio. The singer emerged with the album Frequency Unknown, and hit the road. He later would do another tour celebrating the 25th Anniversary of the band's epic Operation Mindcrime by performing the masterpiece in its entirety. In the meantime, the 'other' Queensryche concentrated on writing a new record.
When I finally received the new self-titled Queensryche album, the first featuring La Torre, I approached it somewhat with trepidation. What if it was dead on arrival? When I finally worked up the nerve to listen to the new music, however, I was immediately transported back 30 years to the day I first listened to Queensryche's EP. The sound I missed during the last few years was back. As song titles such as "Redemption" and "Don't Look Back" suggests, the reconstituted line-up took a few steps backwards - to their musical roots mind you - in order to move forward into the future.
Scott Rockenfield is understandably overwhelmed. Although the drummer is supposed to be enjoying a rare few days away from the band to be with his family, he's been holed up in his home office, subjecting himself to a battery of phone interviews. I take no offense when he continually refers to me by the names of earlier interviewers. The band is informing the world the band is indeed back. The group is currently undertaking an abbreviated summer tour before heading overseas in October to tour throughout Europe. They will be back in Seattle when the ruling comes down
The group's self-titled album, the band's first with La Torre, debuted at number 23 on Billboard's Top-200 album charts, their highest since 2006's Operation Mindcrime II.
JAM: You and your band mates are certainly experiencing a whirlwind of activity.
Scott Rockenfield - Life is interesting (Laughs). We've had a great year and there's a lot of stuff going on. We couldn't be more thankful to our fans and the media. The response to our new record is amazing.
JAM: It helps that the band has released an amazing record. If the group had released a steaming pile of crap, I doubt the response would have been the same.
It's what we felt we had to do. South America was the final straw, our determination that the band was no longer working correctly. Geoff didn't agree with Queensryche's direction so, Michael, Eddie and I moved on. Our plan was to get the band back on track with what we did best, what we felt best about, and what we knew our fans were going to enjoy about us. The band was going to start performing classics we haven't played for a long time or forever. Our transition (from Tate to Le Torre) was the final straw for us. It brought back that energy and feel that was missing. You can hear it on the new record.
JAM: How much internal pressure did the band feel writing and recording the new record?
While working on the record we'd joke, "Are we putting out a turd?" You can't polish a turd and you can't convince people to buy a turd. We wanted to make sure we were making the best music we were capable of making. We were also determined to get back to doing what this band always did best - making music together that we were all enthusiastic about. And we did it!
JAM: Would you agree that your new recording marks a rebirth for the band?
Absolutely! The cool thing is that though it feels like a rebirth, we have a musical legacy that can act as a catalyst for us to keep moving forward. We also have fans that have been with us for decades, that are still with us and very happy we're back.
JAM: How did new vocalist Todd La Torre enter the picture? Did a chance meeting actually occur at a music convention?
It's true. None of us knew Todd personally, though we were aware he sang for Crimson Glory. During the January 2012 NAMM convention in Los Angeles, Michael bumped into him at an after party. They got to know each other and developed an interest in working together. Soon thereafter, Michael introduced Todd to Eddie and myself. We started talking about playing music together, because of the down time we while Geoff was off doing his solo project (Kings & Thieves). Michael, Eddie and I wanted to keep busy, so we put together a band with Todd and learned classic Queensryche songs we hadn't played in like, forever. We put a show together and we called ourselves Rising West. During the first week of June last year, we debuted at Seattle's Hard Rock Café. The show sold out in days. Â We had fans flying in from every corner of the world to experience it. We opened with "Queen of the Reich" and the audience exploded. That was the beginning of a brand new chapter.
JAM: The split with Geoff Tate had occurred long before that.
Our relationship with Geoff had fallen apart. We moved on and Todd became the perfect fit. We decided to carry on as Queensryche, because it's what we wanted to do and he's the guy we could do it with.
JAM: Let's clarify this transition of lead singers. On the surface, it seems very cut and dry. Was Rising West formed before the fallout with Tate occurred?
It was not so black and white. The transition had been building for a while. Our relationship with Tate started to deteriorate ten years ago. It started slowly, however, and moved along. Last year, a lot of stuff between us was getting very bad. At the time Rising West started, we hadn't made the decision to move on. Right after doing a couple of last shows with Geoff, the rest of us realized it wasn't going to work anymore. We moved on. Todd was the perfect guy for what the three of us needed to do. We completed some of the previously booked Queensryche shows and have since not looked back.
JAM: Then luck actually played a role on how things have shaken out?
We did get lucky. We didn't have to audition anyone. When we started rehearsing in my garage for the Rising West shows, we knew it was going to work with Todd. I didn't meet him in person until one week before the first gig. The three of us took a gamble especially since the shows were already sold out and we hadn't performed a single note with him in the band.
JAM: There was the off-chance this association with him would not work out, and Todd could not breathe new life into Queensryche. Were you well aware of that?
Yes. We still didn't know if we could write new songs with him. His voice, his personality, everything about Todd was a complete unknown, cloudy area for us; but what a great experience it turned out to be. This record was one of the most joyous, easiest things I've done in more than 20 years.
JAM: How much of the material on Queensryche was rejected from previous recording sessions?
The majority of this new record is new material. We were firing so fast creatively. Once we realized we were all on the same musical page, the new ideas just flowed. Yes, there is some glue that ties us to the past that you can hear in some riffs and drum parts. The cool thing is we have a ton of stuff that was rejected from past records that we're definitely never going to throw away. You just never know when those ideas are going to resurface.
JAM: How much of an immediate impact did La Torre have on the new songs?
Todd was willing to work on anything and everything. He's an open-minded guy that shares our headspace. He made us feel like kids in the candy store. It seems like everything we threw out him was going to be fun to work on. It's a great attitude to have.
JAM: Parker Lundgren's Facebook page is a good indication of the confident new attitude the band now has. A recent photo of the band members' heads are superimposed over the muscular bodies of the Spartacus characters from the cable series.
(Laughing) Dude! Our heads were not superimposed! That is what we actually look like! We're going to get director Zach Snyder (co-wrote and directed the movie 300), to work on our next video. I'm only kidding. I wish we could get Zack Snyder to do one of our videos.
JAM: Although guitarist Parker Lundgren is very much a part of the band, why didn't you reach out to former guitarist and founding member Chris DeGarmo to at least contribute songs to the new album?
The last time we worked with Chris was in 2003. Chris is still a very close friend, but his interests have little to do with music. He's a captain flying for a big private jet firm in Seattle. We had lunch a few months ago and he told me about the new offer he had received, which is going to give him more free time to spend with his family. I was so proud, because he's worked hard to get to where he now is in his life.
JAM: Is the door shut on Chris involving himself with the band?
I never know what is going to happen in the future, but for our new record, we wanted to focus on the guys in the band. It has been a while since we were able to do that with a singer interested in what we wanted to do musically. The future always holds fun surprises, though we're already working on new material for the next record.
JAM: You are in a positive mood, yet I need to ask you about some pesky negative things that are coming your way?
(Laughing) There are negative things?
JAM: Do you at all regret that your disagreement with Geoff Tate spilled out onto the Internet and into the music media worldwide?
We have always only spoken the truth. We have never avoided any type of engagement on this matter and we're not here to defend ourselves. I'd rather let the music, this band and our chemistry together do the talking for us. There are fans on the Internet, however, who insert themselves into the rhetoric. For what it's worth, this would be an interesting reality show if you trolled the Internet to read about our transition. However, it would be time consuming, and I'd rather write new songs and focus on what I'm good at.
JAM: When I spoke with Geoff Tate earlier last spring, he said the legal battle involving the band's names is about the dissolution of a corporation.
(Silent pause) My answer to all of that is simple. If the case goes all the way 'til the actual November court date, the judge is going to look at the facts and he or she will make a ruling. Hopefully, his or her decision will be based upon what is best for the band Queensryche, the brand Queensryche and the corporation Queensryche. It is an entity, and a successful one at that. I hope that come November the judge overseeing this case will do what is right for the band as far as who carries on with the name. I'm not a legal guy, so I do not know all of the details. But I have learned a lot from my attorney.
JAM: Queensryche has had a bumpy past almost from the beginning, from management to record companies, etc. You learned early on this is a business. However, I hardly think you could foresee the day where infighting would lead to this emotional legal entanglement the band is currently engaged in.
It certainly is the music business. This is a perfect example of where the business side of this industry has nothing to do with creating music. It is what it is. For anyone reading this story, It is important to that if you want to get into this business, don't think the music part is the only thing you are going to want to focus on. You will have trouble succeeding if you do. It would behoove everyone to learn about the music business before they get too deep into what they're doing. Be savvy, so you can watch out for all of these examples that we have been going through.
JAM: You dealt with this on a different level when you started out when you had management issues that had to be dealt with. This situation, however, deals with internal issues that go beyond music.
Back then, if something like this would have happened, it would have been demoralizing. We were not experienced enough, or ready for anything like what is happening today. When we started this band, I was only 17 when we recorded our debut EP. Our only focus was to create great music. Queensryche took off after the release of our EP and we've been touring and recording ever since. Initially, I just wanted to be a damn rock star. I'd go see Judas Priest, Iron Maiden or The Scorpions and I just wanted to be one of those guys on stage. I wanted to be in their shoes. I couldn't sleep until that happened. Then, as the years unfold and the dreams become reality, that's when you really have to stay on top of things. If you don't stay on top of things, all of your past hard work is not going to pay off.
JAM: You don't seemed stress about the upcoming ruling?
If I worried about everything that was going on right now, it would eat me alive. Whatever happens, Todd, Parker, Michael, Eddie and I going on as a group regardless of the November ruling. We will continue on as a unit of five guys that makes records and plays shows. We have something that no one can take away from us - chemistry and friendship. No one can take that away from us.
JAM: Chemistry and friendship seem to be the key to the new record you just released. It really shines through on the album.
I called Todd today at his home in Florida to talk business. We were going over BMI publishing forms for the record and informing each about other fun stuff (laughs). I said, "Hey Todd, I'm finishing a new song right song." It was a new piece of music I couldn't wait to send his way. One thing led to another, and the two of us must have spoken for two hours on the phone. We were bouncing ideas off one another for the next record. Seriously, I don't care what the band's name is for our next record. No one take the creative fire away from us. What I'm saying to you in a roundabout way is this. Worrying about something that is out of your control is a waste of time.
JAM: Todd La Torre is literally at the polar opposite of the country from the rest of the band. When are you going to make leave the Sunshine State and move to balmy Seattle?
(Laughs) The great thing is that we have found a way to work together. When I do music for films, I'm hardly ever in the same room with the people I work with. Often, they're scattered all over the world. Thankfully, we now have the tools at our disposal today to get things done no matter where any of us are located. Todd, me and everyone in the band, when we need to communicate, it's done through Skype. It helps make it feel like we're all in the same room.
JAM: How long did it take La Torre to become comfortable performing as Queensryche's singer?
When we played our first song together during the first Rising West show, the four of us knew instantly we were going to be able to do something together. The band felt comfortable on stage and off. We knew that traveling together was not going to be a problem. During the last year, we have gone on multiple tours using a bus. It felt like we were meant to be together. Being on the road was so much fun we were always looking forward to our next tour rather than dreading it. That had been a case for a while. Now we just count down the days until new shows are booked and we're back on the road performing another show.
JAM: How can fans find out about you upcoming tour dates?
Please go to www.queensrycheofficial.com. There you can find not only news and tour dates, but also links to our various Twitter and Facebook accounts. The rest of 2013 and all of 2014 will be some crazy touring times for this band, because this record has a lot of leg behind it.
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