It’s a cold, wet day in Seattle (what else is new?) when Guitar Player catches up with Queensrÿche’s Michael Wilton. Despite the nasty weather, the guitarist is enjoying some much-needed time at home before his band heads out on the road for a North American tour in support of its new, and 15th, studio album, The Verdict (Century Media Records).
As Wilton points out, Queensrÿche, like many other rock bands in this current era of continuously declining album sales, have been spending more and more of their time on tour. “In this ever-changing world of entertainment and technology colliding, it just seems like that’s the way it’s going to be, because no one’s buying music anymore,” he says.
In a positive twist, all that time on the road served to inspire and shape the sound of The Verdict. According to Wilton, the new record was largely written while Queensrÿche — Wilton, guitarist Parker Lundgren, bassist Eddie Jackson, drummer Scott Rockenfield and singer Todd La Torre — were touring in support of their previous album, 2015’s Condition Human.
“You’re out there experiencing life on the road, and it configures you to think, Maybe I should write songs that are suitable for playing onstage every night,” Wilton says. “Because you see what songs get the crowd amped up and what songs translate best to the stage. I think that may have given us some guidance on this album, and because of that, a lot of the songs on The Verdict are very energetic and very hard hitting. There’s not too much super-duper, long, headphone-y stuff. The material is really developed, and I think it’s going to play great live.”
True to Wilton’s word, The Verdict is perhaps the most hard-rocking Queensrÿche album in 20 years, exploding out of the gate with the one-two punch of the chugging opener “Blood of the Levant” and charging straight into the blazing lead single, “Man the Machine.” The songs are fortified with racing riffs, operatic vocal howls and the band’s trademark harmonized guitar melodies. But it’s not all full-throttle. The Verdict also boasts proggy excursions (the off-tempo “Light Years”), swirling, psychedelia-laced numbers (“Inside Out”) and moody, atmospheric ballads (“Dark Reverie” and the album closing “Portrait”), as well as moments that see the standard guitar-bass-drums attack augmented by all manner of pianos and strings.
In short, The Verdict is the sound of 1980s-era Queensrÿche adapted for modern times. And that mix of classic and current is something Wilton is proud to have captured, especially after the group’s up and downs. The late ’90s saw them strip away their distinctive prog sound, to the disappointment of their fans. Then, in 2012, they had an acrimonious breakup with original lead singer, Geoff Tate, who formed his own group under the Queensrÿche moniker.
But while Wilton acknowledges the importance of straddling the line between retaining Queensrÿche’s trademark sound and continuing to innovate, he also says it’s not something he and his bandmates are conscious of when they’re writing and recording. Rather, it just happens.
“For me and Eddie, in particular, it’s ingrained in our DNA,” he says. “No matter what we do, if we want to make it sound old or if we want to make it sound new, it’s always going to have that same essence. It’s just going to sound like Queensrÿche. Because you know what? We are Queensrÿche.”
Much of the music on The Verdict was composed while Queensrÿche were out on the road. How did that process work?
It was great. I think a lot of good ideas come when you’re on the road because, rather than just sitting in your home studio, you’re in a different location every day. You get inspired differently just by where you are. So it has its advantages. Because if you get writer’s block, or don’t believe in anything that you’re writing, you can say, “All right, let’s see what happens tomorrow in the next city!” [laughs] Then the other part of it is, as you get older, life gets a little more complicated. So when you have those moments where you can write, you take them, no matter where you are. And obviously, with laptops and digital audio workstations, it’s easy to do it anywhere now. If you’ve got an hour or two of free time, just set up and see what happens.
What recording gear do you use to get ideas down when you’re on tour?
I use Pro Tools software, and then I have an Apogee interface, which works really well, because you can go in line level. And there’s also a built-in microphone. So if you want to document ideas with your voice, it does that as well. But beyond the gear, everything is kind of the same as it’s always been. In the past it was a Dictaphone with a little Marshall amp that I’d keep in my hotel room. Now it’s a computer.
The process remains the same, only the technology changes.
Exactly. Yeah. We’re adapting to the future. I’ll probably record the next album on my watch! [laughs]
In 2012, Queensrÿche went through a messy and public breakup with its original singer, Geoff Tate. But since then, the band has come back strong with Todd La Torre as the front man. This is now your third album with him on vocals. Does the lineup feel solid at this point?
Yeah. It’s been basically seven years since all of that happened, and this configuration is just solidified. And it really shows. There’s a maturity in the songwriting as well as in the live application. With time and dedication now it’s really paying off, and I think the newer guys that are playing with Queensrÿche are really stepping up and doing a great job.
On this record Todd is actually pulling double duty — he’s singing and also playing drums. I know he was a drummer in some of his previous bands, but what led to the decision for him to get behind the kit on The Verdict?
Well, Scott wasn’t going to be available for this recording. [Original drummer Scott Rockenfield remains a member of Queensrÿche but has not actively played with the band for the past two years]. And when we realized that, we had to make a decision. Todd did all the drums on the demos for the last two albums, with Scott giving him the okay. And even on the recording of the last album, Scott basically played a lot of Todd’s parts, so it’s not like Todd is new to this. But when we go out on tour we’ll probably use Casey [Grillo], who’s just a cool guy and really down to earth. He’s been playing live with us now for about two years and he’s really great.
How did you approach recording your guitar parts on The Verdict?
I’m probably going to get a lot of hate mail for this, but amp-wise, all I used on the album was a Kemper.
A lot of rock purists are still committed to using traditional amps, but I would say, overall, the Kemper is pretty accepted at this point.
Right. And, you know, even with the Kemper, it’s still like I’m playing though my amps. They’ve just been profiled into this machine. And the machine is spitting out the sound exactly as it’s supposed to be. So the main sound on the record is my Bogner Fish, just profiled through the Kemper. As far as practicality, it’s incredible. We didn’t even hook up a speaker cabinet. I told [producer] Zeuss, “Let’s just go direct with it.” Because when you profile the sound, it’s a snapshot of everything — the amp and the speaker and the air coming out of the speaker. It’s amazing. We recorded the Kemper direct and Zeuss said, “I’m sold!”
In your opinion, what is the main appeal of the Kemper? Is it the sound or the convenience?
Both, really. But it’s less of a hassle, for sure. I mean, I love my amps and I still have them and they’re fun to play. But when time is of the essence, consistency and practicality kind of outweigh the arduousness of trying to find the right amp and the right cabinet and the right speaker and the right mic and the right angle. That can take half a day. But with the Kemper, I plug it in and I’m ready in five minutes.
How about when it came to effects? Did you use pedals?
We did. I had an old [Ibanez] Tube Screamer, my old A/DA Flanger, a Van Halen phaser [the MXR EVH 90]. Things like that.
What was your main guitar?
For the most part I used one of my older ESP signature skull guitars. It has Seymour Duncan pickups — it’s single/single/humbucker — and I upgraded the Floyd Rose system and put a brass block in it, just to make the guitar really sparkle. That was mainly it. I also had my ’92 Gibson Les Paul, which is really sweet sounding and even. I used that for some of the smooth, not-so-gainy stuff on the record. And then Parker plays Caparisons.
How did you and Parker work together on the record? In particular, there’s a lot of great harmony playing between you two.
Parker’s been playing with me for over 10 years now, so he fits in well and he knows what works for Queensrÿche. When it comes to the harmony stuff, we do whatever works for the song. It’s not just major or minor thirds in harmony. We like to use fourths, fifths, sixths — anything to spice it up a little and keep it interesting. And Parker always has great ideas.
The musical relationship between you guys is interesting, given that he’s roughly 25 years younger than you. He wasn’t even born when the first Queensrÿche album was released.
That’s true. When you think about it in a linear fashion like that, it’s like, wow! But he gets it, you know? And he loves all the old Queensrÿche albums. So it’s super fun to play with him, and we’re having a great time.
Do you see any particular differences in how each of you approaches the guitar, just due to the fact that you came up in different eras?
Well, he obviously has a more modern guitar approach than I do. Although in some ways I also think he’s an old soul. But as far as differences, you know, he’s young, and he likes to shred. [laughs]
You still do a fair amount of shredding.
I try. But I definitely have to stay limber to do it. I have to warm up to get to that point of velocity.
Do you have a particular warm-up regimen before going onstage?
Oh, yeah. It’s the standard little stretching exercises that you would do for carpal tunnel or tendinitis or things like that. Just loosening everything up. You’ve got to do it. At least I have to do it, and for a good 15 or 20 minutes before I start the set.
You talked earlier about the fact that, due to the decline in recording revenue, bands have to spend more of their time touring these days. How do you feel about that?
It’s just how it is. Touring is a necessity. It’s how a lot of bands are surviving these days, trudging their way through every city. At the same time, you can’t tour yourself to death, because you want the venues and the promoters to still want you, you know? So as far as how Queensrÿche approaches it, we try and stay in that 100-shows-a-year range. But, I mean, I know bands that do, like, 200 shows a year.
That’s a lot of time out on the road.
Yeah. It’s practically non-stop. But we’re older now, so there has to be a break in the action. That said, I still love playing, and this new material is going to go over great live. So I’m excited to get back out there. You know, there’s a saying: “We get paid to travel. We play for free.” That pretty much says it all.