By: Rob Cavuoto
Queensryche’s anticipated new CD, Dedicated to Chaos is the sound of the band marching forward artistically, philosophically and sonically. Their commitment to their craft is unwavering. Their ability to challenge themselves and create new soundscapes is unparalleled in hard rock. A band continually re-inventing themselves, growing, and blending the boundaries of heavy metal, hard rock, alternative to form a unified and unique sound that is always recognizable with Geoff Tate’s vocals at the helm. I had a chance to meet up with guitarist Michael Wilton to talk about the new CD, reflect back on the 20th Anniversary of Empire and talk about all things on guitars and gear.
Robert Cavuoto: Can you tell us about the new Queensryche’s CD, Dedicated to Chaos, and how it differs from previous Queensryche releases?
Michael Wilton: It’s kind of a new departure for us. That’s about it. It’s coming out the 28th and we’ll be touring it pretty extensively.
Robert: When you say “departure”, I thought your last album, American Solider, was a real departure. What can we expected for this one?
Michael Wilton: Definitely more alternative but I’m more of a metal guy.
Robert: Are there any tracks that are your favorites?
Michael Wilton: There’s a song called “Lies” which has a really nice groove to it. The song “Drive” is about driving a car. Those two right now are my personal favorites.
Robert: Does everybody contribute to the songwriting process?
Michael Wilton: No. I just lent my talents to the recording. Everything was done with Yousendit.com. I worked in my studio, which is Watershed Studio, and basically tracked all my guitar parts there. We all have ProTool mix so when I was done with them. I would ZIP the songs, YouSendIt, and boom the guys get it.
Robert: Are all the songs pre-developed?
Michael Wilton: Yeah. The ideas were pre-developed. It was just for me to add my flavor to them.
Robert: As you mentioned earlier, the roots of your style is always in the hard rock, heavy metal. Do you think that Queensryche will eventually put another hard rock album out?
Michael Wilton: It’s hard to say. I don’t know what four members are thinking. My solo projects definitely have that.
Robert: Tell me a little bit about your solo projects and when can we expect to hear a CD?
Michael Wilton: Wratchet Head is a work in progress. I had some lineup changes, but we have about eight to ten songs completed right now. I also have another project which is Soul Bender. That one just needs to get everybody together and record. Lately I’ve been scoring for publishing companies, for television and movies.
Robert: When on tour, Queensryche always has a big theatrical production with video interweaved and intertwined within the songs. How long does it take you to prepare before heading out on the road?
Michael Wilton: There is a lot of pre-production time. We try to make the experience a visual experience as much as an auditory one. That’s the main time-consuming thing for us is trying to arrange the new media and get it to work in a band that travels and plays five nights a week, not just a one-shot performance. We also try and utilizing cost-effective technology so it’s not worrisome while on the road.
Robert: Are there a lot of pre-rehearsals to pull it all together?
Michael Wilton: There really is. The offers to always play live all over the world can make for a time crunch. Next week we’ve got two festivals, one in Sweden, one in Finland. Then we’ve got a one-off in El Paso, Texas and we come back and have a little more time before we go out with Judas Priest. Basically it’s got to be finished by then.
Robert: You guys aren’t strangers to Judas Priest so that must be cool to go out on the road again with them again.
Michael Wilton: Oh, yeah. They’re long-time friends and it’s gonna be a fun tour. We are grateful to the guys for letting us come along with them.
Robert: Let’s talk a little bit about your guitar experience and history. Who are some of your early guitar heroes?
Michael Wilton: My earliest heroes were Jimmy Page, Jimi Hendrix along with a lot of very influential and stylistic players in the progressive area. I was a big John McLaughlin fan and listened to a lot of Carlos Santana. My father has a vast jazz collection which started me into developing my interest in a very wide range of jazz guitarists as well as rock guitarists.
Being a young teenager with all that energy, I went for the heavier stuff. In my teens I started listening to a lot of Rainbow, Ritchie Blackmore, and Michael Schenker. Then I listened to Steve Morse and the Dixie Dregs albums. I tried to keep my palate open, always checking up on what Jimmy Page was doing. Then the whole Van Halen thing took over. That was some of the more influential, fun things to learn. That’s the early years that got me going.
Obviously you didn’t have the technologies of today. You had to sit there in front of a record player in front of your father’s stereo system and just pick out the notes and chords. That took a lot more time, but obviously you retained those songs better than getting a tablature off the Internet. They’re all ingrained in you. When you record these days, everything is matter-of-fact, spur-of-the-moment. It’s in one ear and out the other. If you don’t rehearse it and put it into muscle memory, its like, “Oh, crap. I’ve got to go back and learn that song. We’re gonna play that one.” Back in the old days before the technology, guys got together and you really rehashed the song over and over. This time it’s more learn as you go.
Robert: Do you miss those days when you guys were more getting together and working on the songs versus using YouSendIt?
Michael Wilton: Oh, yeah. It’s just the state of the industry now and how you try and equate your success with the almighty dollar. Being an old school person, I definitely miss the days of getting together with a bunch of guys and writing. I do that with my side projects. The Wratchet Head guys, we go into a room and I have to wear earplugs, because it’s blistering loud having the drummer right there in front of me.
I think there are advantages to both ways of recording. The old school way produced some great moments for Queensryche. Now technologically has got us in kind of a stranglehold. Its like, “Wow. I can’t go anywhere without my cell phone/Blackberry/iPhone.” It’s, “Oh, have you got Pro Tools?” It’s all bandwidth, MP3s. It’s not the big sound of the LPs. There are pros and cons and it’s whatever people gravitate to.
Robert: I’ve seen you at NAMM a couple of times. I know that you’re a guy who’s, really into the equipment and advancements. How do you stay in touch with all the technologies that move so fast and at the same time stay true to the integrity of what you’re trying to get across in your music and your style?
Michael Wilton: I try not to get on the cutting edge of computer recording. I do have a Pro Tools system which still runs an old Macintosh with old software. It’s the GEM Pro Tools. Believe me; some major platinum selling records were made with that platform. I know how to work it. I know how to use it and I know how to use the software and plugins, so I have enough. Obviously software companies have to keep on innovating and I appreciate that, but I kind of get locked into a way of doing things. As soon as they come out with Pro Tools 128, hopefully they’ll be able to access the legacy.
Robert: It’s a balancing act.
Michael Wilton: It really is. Believe me, some of the best moments for a guitar player are when you’re noodling and not really thinking. You’re just replaying the riffs over and over again and all of a sudden it’s ingrained. Sometimes the cheap little Radio Shack dictaphone can save some great ideas and vibes.
I have those as well, but now I have four-track cassette tapes. I have eight-track cassette tapes. I have DAT tapes. I have ADAT tapes. And still I’m pulling ideas from my old dictaphone when I don’t have time to set up all the technology. You want spur of the moment to capture the idea. Sometimes the dictaphone is the way to go.
Robert: A dictaphone is real old school.
Michael Wilton: That’s very old school. I think it’s whatever works for you so you’re proficient and fast. There’s not a lot of time to set up and record something to get basic ideas, riffs and jam solos. In this society right now where time is flying, everybody’s just trying to stay in business. You need things that are very efficient.
Even as you get older, your attention span, and your need for gratification is quicker. Sometimes it’s like, “Wow, maybe I should just use my camera to get this.” [Laughing] Then it’s the arduous task of how do I get this into my computer and save it as an MP3 or whatever. It’s like I have to take a whole college course on this.
Being a musician and being responsible for growing your career takes time, energy and effort in order to keep yourself on top of your game and moving forward. You have to take time away from that to read a manual or to record on a platform, and in a year your hard drive’s not gonna work anymore. It’s like, please. It’s a big balancing act, I think. My opinion, where my head can lead toward more tunes and chaos and I think dedicated to chaos is aptly put. [Both laughing]
You also have to be very good at multi-tasking to get everything done. “Oh, I’ve got an email. I’ve got to write this, do that, get the guy at the door. Oh yeah, the kid needs to go to school”. It’s a balancing act. In the guitar/amp area, there are some technologically advanced, great sounding products that I’ve found and I know a lot of people use it. It’s worth the endless sifting through pages of menus to make it sound good.
Robert: I love my old school pedals, do you still have any and use them?
Michael Wilton: Yeah, I have drawers full of pedals which I still use. Do you have the Dunlop Van Halen Flanger? If you don’t, definitely I’d put those in your arsenal.
It’s also hard to find a good overdrive or distortion. You want the best of both worlds. You want the clean Fender sound and you want to put distortion in front of it, but make it sound really good and not all compressed and fuzzy sounding. It’s just so hard to get the real quality overdrive and flange and distortions that don’t squash your sound.
That’s also what’s so fun about pedals. There are so many people; they’re fairly easy to make. They all sound so different. It’s really cool. You can really find some good boutique ones out there that really make it fun. That’s what I do. Put the mouse down and plug a pedal in and listen to your speakers on your cabinet and remember that.
Robert: What about playing guitar really turns you on?
Michael Wilton: I think it’s kind of an energy that’s deep-rooted in my subconscious. It’s kind of like a race car driver getting in the car. You feel the rev of the car. It’s like when you get the amp and the power and the volume, it just gets the juices going. These days I’m promoting amps made in America by Krank. I’m promoting the 1980 amp and it’s basically like a sturdy British amp on steroids. It’s like 80 watts.
You get a custom built one that’s got a nice transformer in it and it takes your head off. They record sound good. To me it’s just getting that sound. Everybody has the kind of vision of their sweet spot and that tone they’re looking for, whether it’s clean or heavy or whatever. That’s what you grow and nurture as a musician. Once you know it, I’m there. It’s like sitting back on a nice day and having a drink and smoking a cigar. It’s just amazing.
Robert: You’ve been endorsing ESP too. You have your own signature model. Can you tell me a little bit more about that?
Michael Wilton: I’ve been endorsing ‘The Skull’, MW- 600 which I’ve been playing since the early ’90s. Then we came out with a new one called ‘The Demon’. I had ESP in Japan make me a custom one because I wanted a sustainer in it. ESP makes them now and they’re amazing. You wire it in and it runs on a battery. You’ve got a little switch that you turn on and you’ve got instant sustain for an hour. I had push-pull pots to split the pickup, the humbucker. Also I put in I think a 10DV boost switch in there. Obviously that was my model, but everybody liked it. Then we made the consumer version of it. It’s kind of a gruesome looking guitar, but I think everybody is drawn to that gruesomeness of it.
I have another idea for another guitar which I’m gonna pitch to ESP. I’m sure this will drive them crazy. They want to reintroduce the old Skull one back, so we’re gonna have to brainstorm on that one and figure an idea on that that we could make it ‘new and improved’.
Robert: Do the skulls glow in the dark on the MW-600?
Michael Wilton: The signature model, would obviously be the pricier version, does. The reason is the process. You have to dip the guitar in a phosphorous paint first. It’s a lot more labor intensive and the cost of the phosphorous and everything. Then everything else is painted on top of it. The consumer models don’t have the phosphorous.
Robert: Big difference in price too between the signature and consumer models.
Michael Wilton: Big difference. But I have some of the consumer ones and they sound great. You’ve got to hot rod them a little bit. You’ve got to make them sound the way you want. I’ve got a lot of my guitars on that site. You can just go in and look at some of them. I haven’t updated it in a while, but all my tasty old ones are on there.
Robert: You had your 20th Anniversary for Empire a couple of months back. Can you reflect back on what it was like to make that album?
Michael Wilton: Sure. It was a very exciting time. We were just getting into the days of digital recording, but we had been touring off Mindcrime for a long time. The big idea was to write just songs and not a concept, and we were really excited about that. The juices were flowing. Everything was really going well. We were raising the bar for ourselves. Recording Empire: it was our A game. Everything we did in the studio – it was a big studio, big room. It was just magic.
Those days were just incredible. On Mindcrime, I used a Marshall JCM 800. On Empire, I remember we recorded with Soldanos, the ADA and Marshalls as well. It was the first time on an SSL. It was the SSL EQ and the compression on a clean sound. It was like, “Wow!” and that kind of gave us our clean sound. We learned how to really make a clean sound shimmer and remain fixed. Those were magical times.
Robert: Did you ever think it would be as big an album as it is today?
Michael Wilton: In my opinion I knew that these songs were deep. It’s a magic blend of guitar driven technique, yet making a song palatable and almost in a pop sense that the average person can gravitate and not think it’s techy or progressive. I think a lot of those songs on Empire are very tricky to play on guitar. That in my eyes is the fun and brilliance of it. It stands the test of time. It’s obviously imprinted on a few million people.
Robert: Was Mindcrime or Empire bigger in sales?
Michael Wilton: Empire. Empire reached more of a broader audience. Mindcrime was more underground but it kind of took off with the MTV effect.
Robert: Do you have any personal favorite tracks on Empire?
Michael Wilton: Yeah, the title song that I wrote [Both Laughing]. We play that song every night and it still sounds good. So does “Silent Lucidity”. Chris penned that one and that one still makes people cry in the audience.
Robert: I think there are still a lot of people who think “Silent Lucidity” is Pink Floyd [Laughing].
Michael Wilton: That was a big influence in those days. There are lots of little tastes of that style in our music. Listen to the beginning of “Eyes of a Stranger”.
Robert: What was the thinking behind doing Cabaret? Looking back, it doesn’t seem very metal-esque. I know that you’ve always changing up your style, but I think a lot of your core fans were surprised to see that. Could you shed some light on it?
Michael Wilton: Yeah. I have to say it wasn’t any of my brainstorming or anything. This was more the others. It was a challenge and a risk, to bring that kind of a stage show to a hard rock, metal performance. It was no easy task. Having dancers, gymnasts and everything galore. It was the best it could be for what it was. We didn’t have billions of dollars behind us to market it and promote it or to be like Las Vegas style or anything. It’s a chapter in post-Queensryche and it is what it is.
Robert: How long before we can get Whip Ale in New Jersey?
Michael Wilton: Currently the deal is just regionally in Washington State. I’m looking for ten state distribution. It’s a work in progress. It’s a whole ‘nother can of worms, legalities, and payoffs [Laughing]. Everybody’s really liking it. Stay tuned for that.