Queensrÿche – Peaks and Valleys

Sunday, 9th October 2022

Veterans of heavy metal, Queensrÿche strives to move forward with new records that celebrate the passion they have for their artistry. Digital Noise Alliance is the group’s sixteenth studio record – containing the diverse mix of heavy tracks plus anthems and ballad work that stands up more than adequately against the early discography that made them successful on a global scale. We reached out to vocalist Todd La Torre as he prepared to baton down the hatches with Hurricane Ian getting ready to hit his Florida homestead – where we talk about the organic writing/development for this new record, the decision making process behind the single choices, what he’s learned now a decade into the band as far as professionalism, special memories touring with The Scorpions and Judas Priest, plus his deep thoughts on what success for the band means today.

Dead Rhetoric: Digital Noise Alliance is the latest album for Queensrÿche – your fourth with the band. Describe the organic process this set of material took that maybe differed from previous idea development – and what you thought of the results when it comes to how this record sits in the discography of the group?

Todd La Torre: Sure. The last records, (the process) has been mostly emailing files or a mixture of methods. Which has its benefits – each guy can sit with the material longer; you don’t feel like you have to produce something right now. There are more advantages in my opinion though to being in a room and working as a band, which is what we did with this record exclusively. Three or four different writing sessions took place for a couple of weeks at a time to write these songs. And then we had a good pre-production session. It probably translates when you hear the record, you can hear that chemistry because we all just wrote stuff together instead of one guy writing a song, another guy writing his song, and trying to make it sound more like Queensrÿche. This was done like an old school band used to do back in the day.

As far as where it sits in the discography. My personal opinion is maybe after Promised Land, maybe Empire, I think that at least these last four records I’ve done with the band, any one of those could have gone perfectly after Empire and kept that trajectory going. I couldn’t really say if it’s better yet than The Verdict or Condition Human, I think it’s just as good, just in a different way. It holds up well in the coveted five, possibly first six Queensrÿche albums, a nice follow-up.

Dead Rhetoric: When it came to the fact that you have to whittle down twenty song ideas to what makes the final cut, is that a difficult process to choose what’s best in the band? Because there are times where you view these songs as like your babies, or your own children, trying to evaluate one over the other…

La Torre: It can be. You have your obvious handful of songs where this is definitely going to go on the record. Then you start seeing how many songs you want on the record, how many spots do you have left. And you whittle those down – I don’t love this song, but I really love this chorus. This other song is great, but the chorus isn’t as good. You start stealing parts to try to make the best remaining songs. And then sometimes you just have a matter of opinion. Someone in the band prefers one song over something else another person may prefer. Ultimately, we vote on things and talk about things, and our producer Zeuss also has a say in things. Maybe it’s a good song but just another mid-tempo song, and we need something more upbeat. All of those variables come into play when we are trying to decide. Usually, it’s not a super easy thing. It wasn’t that difficult for this record, we had a lot of ideas to sift through, but at some point, you have to draw a line in the sand and say look – these are the ten or eleven songs and commit to these. You know when you have something good.

Dead Rhetoric: You’ve released three songs to date from the record. How does the process work between band, management, and label to decide what would be the best tracks to give listeners the best grasp for what to expect fully on the record?

La Torre: Thankfully, Century Media gives us so much creative freedom. The band is tried and true. They trust the judgement of what we are doing. They didn’t ask to hear any demos before we recorded (the album). We write the songs we write, and we record them. When it came time to release the singles, we said these are the songs we wanted to release. I am sure they have a say, but there wasn’t any pushback on what we said we wanted to release. I don’t think they’ve ever said no, we don’t really want to do that. An example is we released “In Extremis” first, a good solid, up-tempo song. Is it the greatest song on the record? That’s subjective. Where the curve ball came in is on the second song, we all said it would be great if we put something out that was totally different than what people would expect. Amidst all the other hard rock and metal bands out there, we thought, what if we put out a ballad? It’ll really cut through noise, because it won’t be like this heavy thing that everybody else is doing. And it was for “Forest”, a beautiful, spacious, kind of a simple song. It really resonates with a lot of people, it’s about the loss of a parent. The video was a home run video to get that message across. The label never pushed back on that, asking us to put a second up-tempo song out. And then we put “Behind the Walls” out. It was a nice breath of fresh air with the ballad, and then hit them with the other song.

There is more to this record than just rock stuff, there’s something different like “Forest”. Part of that went into why we put out “Forest” as the second single and video. The label totally supports what we want to do, and they give us the keys to the car and let us drive. They are really great about that.

Dead Rhetoric: How does it feel now to have drummer Casey Grillo and second guitarist Mike Stone within the current lineup – do you believe the band chemistry and vision is at peak performance?

La Torre: I really do believe that. We all hang out. In the past, maybe there is somebody that doesn’t want to go to dinner with the band. Isolates themselves from the group or isn’t as willing to participate in things. Casey for example, was at every songwriting session, even if we weren’t doing drums that day. If we were just working on guitars, he would still be there, and if he had an idea, he would vocalize that idea. Same with vocals, he came up with the vocal melody on the pre-chorus for “Forest”. I had this little piano thing I was doing, and he was great. The guy shows up relentlessly. He learns all the material that we ask him to work on. He’s been a breath of fresh air; he’s been playing with us for over five years now. He deserved to play on the record, and with his drumming he did a stand-up job performing on this record, creating the drum parts.

And then Mike Stone, a familiar face to the audience. It is very nice for people to see him play with us again. He’s such a funny guy, really nice, he never argues about anything. He’s just a really great team player, he cares about his image. He buys different clothing for the stage to enjoy that aspect of live performing. He doesn’t just wear a t-shirt; he takes pride in learning how everything was played back then. He contributed really well to this album also, he played on several tracks, and he crafted some of the harmony guitar solos with Michael (Wilton). He’s been a delight to have play with us again.

It’s an awesome outfit, everybody in the band gets along so well. Which is really paramount, because you might play an hour, an hour and a half – but the other twenty-two and a half hours you have to live together on the road. I feel so lucky that I am in a band where no matter who’s out doing something else, I can say to the other guy that’s available ‘do you want to go grab a bite to eat?’ and I’m equally as happy to share a meal with any one of those guys in the band. We all do that with each other, we intermingle that way. It’s not like two guys hang out and these others in the group don’t. It’s a lot of fun.

Dead Rhetoric: When looking at your decade-long history now in Queensrÿche, what would you say have been some of the biggest learning lessons you’ve experienced and taking into consideration to deliver the best performances on record and on stages worldwide?

La Torre: That’s a really good question, I don’t think that anybody has asked that particular question to me before. I did get some grooming with my short time in Crimson Glory, so that showed me the ropes a little bit on touring. Doing interviews and stuff like that. When I got into this band, the guys in Queensrÿche didn’t have to tell me how to conduct myself. They trust in how I’m going to speak either on behalf of the band and also this is me talking, not the band. They let me be me, to be honest. They don’t control what I say or how I say it, they respect me to just be who I am.

I’ve learned a lot more about the business aspect then when I was in Crimson Glory. With Queensrÿche, it’s a much more organized outfit. I’ve met so many more people in the industry, from promoters to press people, more insight into how the record labels operate, contractual stuff. As far as how that benefits me touring, probably just the amount that I’ve toured with the band, you learn more about what to expect in certain situations. Like festivals, they are going to line check and go – you are not sound checking, you are earlier in the bill because the biggest bands are the headliners. Maybe you don’t feel like singing at two o’clock in the afternoon, you are on a tour bus and didn’t go to bed until two am because of your body clock, you woke up, got a quick shower and there are tens of thousands of people out there – psychologically, how do you deal with that because it’s going to be on YouTube before you are off stage? And that lives forever. You learn how to give yourself a break with the stress and say, ‘you know what- I’m human, I’m on tour. The people that are criticizing me aren’t touring musicians. They don’t know the rigors of touring.’

Your body is your instrument as a singer. All of the things that go into what make it difficult, that’s probably the greatest thing I’ve learned. I’ve learned what works for me, and what doesn’t work for me. Not speak as much. I’m not a drinker so I’m not up partying or consuming alcohol. Basic things. And then there are times where you do everything right, and you just have a bad night. You have to say that sucked for me, tomorrow is a new day, let that go. I’ve done this before, and the next day I killed it. Don’t let that one bad show define you as a performer, you had a bad day, move on. Those are the most beneficial things I can say my time with this band has helped me try to deal with.

Dead Rhetoric: What do you think are some of the hardest decisions that fans of Queensrÿche struggle to process and understand when it comes to what you guys do as musicians when it comes to the many mechanisms at play as far as business, record labels, and other outside factors?

La Torre: That’s another great question. One of the first things would be – that’s not Queensrÿche, that’s not Geoff Tate singing. Or no Chris DeGarmo… the guy has been out of the band now longer than he was in the band. Those things people need to realize, some people don’t stay married forever. Football teams change their quarterbacks all the time. People move, life happens, people’s interests change. That’s just the way that it is. The band has evolved into what it is now.

Then you have people when you post the tour dates and they’ll be like – this is bullshit, no Kansas City, no Tampa! Whatever their city is – why is that? Well, there are a million bands touring, and only so many available theaters and clubs open. Not only that, sometimes you have a non-compete radius clause in the contract, you may have played there earlier on a fly in date, and we aren’t allowed to play in that city for so long. And then you have routing – you may be in Kansas City on a Tuesday night, but all the venues are booked! And you book these things out six months to a year in advance. There are a ton of variables that the average person that just doesn’t understand all of the inner workings of the expenses of touring, the routing, what’s available. Maybe the guarantee- we need to make a certain amount of money to keep the engine running. Maybe this promoter can’t pay us enough to where it just doesn’t make sense for us. Every day you are on the road costs us many thousands of dollars.

There are a lot more working parts that I think people just haven’t thought about – other than thinking that’s bullshit that they didn’t play in my city. I have supported them forever – how can they not come through? It’s nothing personal, it’s all business. If it doesn’t make dollars, it doesn’t make sense. As much as we would love to play for everybody, there are some things that just aren’t available. Especially with the clubs that closed during COVID-19, every band trying to go out and tour and lock in those facilities. A lot of moving parts to answer that question adequately.

Dead Rhetoric: When it comes to specific song choices in the live environment – have there been some special favorites that appear beyond the expected classics that you have a newfound love and respect for? And did they ask you in those early years which songs you wanted to put back in the setlist that maybe hadn’t been there for a while?

La Torre: When I first joined the band, they told me they probably knew more songs to play than what I may know the words to. What did I want to play? I like “Queen of the Reich”, “Roads to Madness”, everything off The Warning. “Eyes of a Stranger” obviously is a hit song, they asked me what I liked. As a fan of the band, this is what I miss hearing. These are the reasons why I would love to play these songs. I think your audience would appreciate that. Songs that aren’t hits, that I’ve always enjoyed performing, are “NM 156”, “Screaming in Digital”, “Killing Words”, “Roads to Madness” is a fun one. Some great deep cuts. I would love to play “Deliverance” or “Before the Storm”. There’s talk about learning some old cuts that we’ve never played since I’ve been in the band.

Dead Rhetoric: When you think back to your musical career, what are some of the personal highlights that have taken place either on record, live, places you’ve travelled to, or people that you’ve met – where you knew you were making an impact with your work?

La Torre: Getting the chance to tour with The Scorpions was really cool for me. I can remember seeing them in Tampa, Florida in 1988 on the Monsters of Rock tour, they were second from top billing. Here I am having dinner with Klaus (Meine) sitting next to me, talking. Sometimes you have to pinch yourself – if you would have told that fifteen-year-old kid that one day you would be in Queensrÿche opening up for the Scorpions in arenas, becoming friends with the original guys, I would never have believed you. That is something that sticks out – touring with Judas Priest and getting to know them, it’s an honor.

I’ve travelled Europe before I was in any band, just personal vacation stuff. But being able to go over there and perform, see people praise you because of the band and your work and what you’ve contributed to the band is very humbling. Greece is my favorite place, it’s where my wife is from, she lived there when we met. Making friends all over different parts of the US, Europe, that’s really cool. You are away from your home and family, but you see these places and made some genuine friendships. Those are standout things. I’ve been able to do more than I ever thought would happen to me just by sheer statistics. Being on That Metal Show with Dave Mustaine, meet Jason Newsted, doing some red-carpet events and meeting Lemmy, Phil Anselmo, all these people that I grew up loving. Those are some standout things – bands I grew up loving are now peers and I have friendships with a lot of these people. Most people don’t get the chance to do that.

Dead Rhetoric: What would surprise people to learn about Todd La Torre the person when he is away from his musical endeavors? How would you say you’ve changed or evolved from your early years as a musician to how you handle things in the current music industry landscape?

La Torre: I used to be just so impressed with shredding. I used to listen to Yngwie, Paul Gilbert, shred guitar players. Now I barely listen to any of them. I respect it, people like Jeff Loomis who I’m friends with, I listen to his guitar playing because he does it when it’s appropriate. He understands that balance to playing spacious, nice melodic stuff and then turning the heat up when he can. Musically, I’ve come to appreciate bands like Pink Floyd, where in my teens I hated Pink Floyd. I wanted to hear heavy stuff; I wasn’t mature enough musically to really appreciate the space. It’s easy to fill up space with a bunch of playing, it takes a certain musical maturity to have reservation, and less is more in a lot of cases. That’s one thing I’ve learned.

If I want to hear something progressive, I’ll listen to Opeth. They have the perfect mixture of space, very progressive, but not just soloing forever or virtuoso all the time in that sense. Fates Warning, Opeth, that kind of stuff. And how I handle that now, sifting through all the stuff that’s available to us. I hear thirty seconds of something, and I’m just like ‘nope- next!’. A lot of the metal today, and I’m the biggest metal fan out there too, what I’m hearing today… I was talking to Zeuss last night, listening to satellite radio. I heard this one band on, and it was all ‘heavy’… there was a break, and then more ‘heavy’… I thought it was the same band, but it was a different band. The guitar tones were the same, overplaying with drums, just screaming. What happened to the good singers out there? Where are the Ronnie James Dios’? Where are these great singers in metal like Phil Anselmo on Cowboys from Hell. He was doing singing like Halford on some stuff, but new style of vocals as well that we hadn’t really heard yet. Remember in the 90’s when grunge happened and the hair bands it became a joke, things were regurgitated, and nothing was original anymore? I almost feel that needs to happen again in metal now.

Today’s generation isn’t really learning how to sing. The overall metal is a totally different thing now. I don’t resonate with it now. There needs to be a changing of the guard, something else has to happen now. Like Korn did, Korn brought a new vibe and sound. Pantera brought a new vibe and sound. The British wave of heavy metal brought something different. I feel like it’s time for the screamo, over playing, down tuned to C or lower, it doesn’t sound original at all to me and bores me. In my teens I would have heard that and thought it was brutal and heavy. That part has changed in me – I like pieces of it, but I never would want to go to that type of concert. It’s so linear.

Queensrÿche, we have peaks and valleys. We aren’t a heavy band in that sense. But Opeth has these beautiful peaks and valleys, it’s not just cranked up to eleven, pedal to the metal the whole time. There is somewhere to go. When you come out with all guns blazing, there’s nowhere left to go. That aspect of songwriting in a heavy style has kind of gone away.

Dead Rhetoric: Last year you released an amazing solo record for Rejoice in the Suffering. How do you feel about the response and are there plans in the works for a follow-up at some point down the line?

La Torre: Very kind of you to mention that, thank you. Craig and I, we plan to do a proper follow-up to that. We are working on the beginning stage of ideas on guitar for that now. It was received really well. I did great sales on it. I still get asked about it. When I am out with Queensrÿche touring, somebody has records to sign, a lot of times they throw that record in my face for me to sign. Which is really cool. I see my t-shirt in the audience at different shows, that’s nice. It was received better than I could have hoped for, and we will definitely be doing a proper follow-up.

Dead Rhetoric: You will be touring again with Judas Priest across North America this fall. How does it feel to be on this type of tour, and is it intimidating to be sharing the stage with the Metal God vocally?

La Torre: It’s not intimidating at all. He’s a super nice guy, everyone in the band is very kind, very nice. They are very professional, it’s an honor to be asked not only for the first leg of the tour but to be asked again. In total it will be about three months that we tour with them. It’s been a great experience. I hope this isn’t the last big thing that we do with another big band like that. After this, the trifecta or holy grail would be for me to tour with Iron Maiden. Steve Harris, if you are reading this, bring Queensrÿche out on an Iron Maiden tour (laughs). I cherish every moment the band does. A lot of these bands are getting older, they are retiring here and there. It’s a special thing to be able to go out with them. They are putting out great music, they are still touring, it’s inspiring to see them at that age still kicking ass on tour. I have no complaints, it’s a feather in my cap and memories I’ll always cherish.

Dead Rhetoric: What do you believe is left for Queensrÿche to accomplish in the coming years? Has the definition of success changed over the years?

La Torre: The first part of that is, we have a lot more gas in the tank. We will do another record after this one, we’ve already talked about some ideas. I think our best work, and my best work, is yet to come. I don’t think this is the best record we have in us, it’s the best we wrote right now. There is so much more that could be even better.

Back in the day, success was like you were signed to a record label, you had a video out, you toured. That was success. If your band had a video on MTV, you were a big deal. The perception was, you should pay attention, who is this band, if they are big enough to be on MTV, let me check them out. Now, anybody with an iPhone can record a video. Everyone has home based studios, ProTools, Logic, it could be GarageBand for all I care. They have the means to record themselves, but that doesn’t mean it’s going to sound great. It’s become much more accessible to record yourself, get yourself out to the masses. There was no internet in our original day. Getting your music out there isn’t a special thing now, anybody can do it. You don’t need to be signed to a label to be on YouTube, anybody can do it. Anybody can have a video, so having a video doesn’t make your band special. It’s just an extra visual, and your CD or album is a business card to get people to come to the live show. It’s the hors d’oeuvre, if somebody can go viral on a video and make money without playing a show, good for them. But we are a touring, live, real band.

The definition of success for me now means sustainability. If you are a band that can go out there and draw enough tickets anywhere in the US, parts of the world for that matter, that’s successful to me. And maintaining that. A lot of bands have millions of views on a video, they can’t even sell two hundred tickets anywhere in the US. That’s not successful to me, that’s bullshit. It takes nothing to click like, it takes nothing to watch something. It takes a few minutes to watch it. To throw down your hard-earned money that you work hard for, get in your car and go travel, see the band, much less buy a t-shirt or anything extra, to me that is success. When people are doing that – are we selling out arenas? No – but we can play in every state in the US, and most every country in Europe, draw an audience, get paid, and perform for people having an audience that will come and see you. If you can do that and just maintain that in a club, never mind arenas or stadiums, to me that’s successful. I have friends that gig locally that play beach bars five nights a week, making $60,000-$70,000 a year, playing “Brown Eyed Girl” and “Margaritaville”. That’s successful, they earn a living by playing music exclusively.

The definition has definitely changed. The business has changed. You have to tour to make money. If that banner is not flying behind me, I’m not getting paid. The days of making millions on record sales is not the case. Writing a record, taking a year off to compose the next record and then tour that for a year, that doesn’t exist anymore.

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