An Interview with Scott Rockenfield of QUEENSRYCHE and SLAVE TO THE SYSTEM
Interview by Ray Van Horn, Jr. - July 2006
Rough Edge: These are busy times for you with
"Operation Mindcrime II," "Slave to the System," as well as your X-Chapters and Survival Instincts projects. You obviously have many on and off buttons to push for these outlets!
Scott Rockenfield: That is a fact, man. I pride myself on being a multi-tasker and it’s kind of the way of I’ve been for a lot of years. I like to have different things going; I’ve just created an outlet for everything. The Queensryche thing is kind of an ever-revolving machine and that’s going on obviously and we’re going to mount a tour starting in Europe then in the States in late August. That’s all good and then the Slave to the System project, I can give you a little history on that …
Rough Edge: Sure, go ahead.
Scott Rockenfield: That started a few years ago. About eighty percent of the Slave to the System album was done about five years ago. We decided—Kelly and I, Kelly Gray who was in Queensryche with us for a couple of years during our Q2K period—he and I had known each other since high school. We actually graduated together way back, so we’ve been friends for a long time. Needless to say, we had talked during that tour about when we got done with that two-year thing—since we were going to have some downtime before our next projects came about, so to speak—we decided it would be cool to do something together, just kind of have some fun and make some music. His suggestion was that a couple guys that he knew, him and Roman (Glick) from Brother Cane, they worked with them in the late nineties, so he had a great relationship with them already. I didn’t know those guys but I knew Brother Cane; I was a fan of those guys and I like what they did. They didn’t know me either, for that matter. Kelly talked to them about this possibility and they were excited about working with me and I was excited about working with them. Kelly was kind of the nucleus of the whole thing. Long story short, we just decided to get together; they had some time, I had some time and so we flew those guys up to the Seattle area. Kelly lives right down the street from me and we had a studio set up in his house and we basically just parked ourselves there from the day those guys showed up. We set everything up and just started jamming together and the really great chemistry thing that happened for us was from day one when we met and started jamming. Three weeks later those guys went home and we were pretty much done with the writing and recording of the record.
Rough Edge: Yeah, I was fascinated you guys had the whole thing wrapped in three weeks.
Scott Rockenfield: It was really magical, a great personality thing that we had, great chemistry together with a common goal that we didn’t really realize. It wasn’t something we planned; we just wanted to make a really cool rock record, write some great riffs and focus on good songs and just rock out. That’s what we did, and it just fell right into place. So we got done three weeks later and as I said, eighty percent of the album was done that way. At that time, we pressed it up on our own and shipped some copies around the world and we sold a few on the internet and stuff, but we didn’t get a deal and it was one of those kind of difficult things to sort of knock down doors. We didn’t have a team of people helping us out. Once again, we really did it just to have some fun and have a record that we could enjoy to listen to and be fans of ourselves. A couple of years passed and we decided to get together and make some more, so we did a whole new session of tunes back in Seattle for a possible second release and then last year we got a phone call from Spitfire Records who had the original copy. We had sent it out and they were one of the people that it landed on their desk and just out of the blue they called us last year and said ‘You know, we just found this record again, it’s a great record, if you guys ever want to do anything with it officially…’ So they offered us a deal and we kind of talked about a global release and doing something with it, so what we did was we added two songs to the original release. We pulled a couple of new songs people hadn’t heard yet, which are “Rag Doll” and “Cruze Out of Control,” so we did that to kind of freshen the record up for anybody that had already bought it and make it a cool new release for Spitfire so it wasn’t exactly the same as the last one. But they re-released what we did before; we remastered it with a guy in Hollywood and they put it out. The first single was “Stigmata,” and you know, shit, we’re cracking the top thirty rock radio and the record’s selling well! It’s a surprise! It kind of took us by surprise. We’ve had a really great time the past couple of months and the response has really been overwhelming, really great feedback about the songs, the record, the band, so you know man, we’re just eating away at it, kind of juggling our “day jobs.” My thing with Queensryche is just something I have to juggle, and Damon (Johnson), he plays in Alice Cooper’s band as well; that’s sort of his day job, but the cool thing is they tend to feed each other, our day jobs, and we just try to make things happen and so far it’s been a great ride.
Rough Edge: What I really appreciate about Slave to the System in comparison to Queensryche is that it’s more straightforward, no-expectations rock'n'roll that would’ve easily found a home in the late eighties and post-grunge nineties.
Scott Rockenfield: Yeah, that’s really kind of cool, man, thanks. That’s a great comparison, because what you’re comparing it to is some very cool music back then, you know? That’s music I was a fan of. We like that stuff and it was a big time period and a kind of cool musical change that happened and became very popular and it really started a new wave of something. We kind of just wrote music that was from all of our influences. We all have different backgrounds; some are the same, some are not, but most of them are based around just music that we were all fans of—and I suppose that’s all an opinion anyway—but we threw that into what we did and we just generated this new thing together. Who would’ve known that North meets South would work with Damon and Roman being Southern boys and Kelly and I being the Northern boys? (laughs) It worked!
Rough Edge: I was going to say that Slave to the System is kind of your anti-prog rock band, at least until you hear that really killer string section on “Abyss” that takes the song a smidge higher. You really couldn’t resist yourself, could you? (laughs)
Scott Rockenfield: (laughs) Once we got into it, we started playing around with some stuff, but it’s funny that you say the kind of style that you hear within what we do. I think our goal was to do something different than what we would normally do. For me, it was a different approach in terms of my playing and how I wanted to contribute to the songs as a drummer and as a writer—which we all kind of wrote everything together. It was to not do what I did in Queensryche! I kind of approach it differently because I’ve been doing that for so long I kind of just wanted to try something different, and it just seemed to work really well, you know? We just wanted to do a straightforward rock record that had some great dynamics to it and we just tried to play our asses off. I think we achieved that goal! (laughs)
Rough Edge: You know what I like? It’s not all the way through, but there’s a real greasy sound to it; the guitars are real greasy. If you know that band Seemless, they’ve got that real hard, greasy working stiff sound to their rock.
Scott Rockenfield: I like the word “greasy,” that’s great! Yeah! That’s kind of what we went for. The great thing about what we were able to do was that we had everything self-contained. I think the record made itself in a short amount of time and our lack of knowing each other—it was a brand new relationship—but we have a lot of experience through the years of being musicians and studio guys and all that stuff, and I think with Kelly once again being the nucleus of this whole thing, he’s just an ace at mixing and engineering and recording, so we were able to do everything in-house, which makes it a much more relaxed atmosphere. I think that’s why we got your analogy of just a greasy rock, no-holds-barred, relaxed rock record.
Rough Edge: Ironically enough, drumming for a band called Slave to the System has probably set you free a bit, wouldn’t you say?
Scott Rockenfield: That’s great, because the name is actually a play on words because really that’s what we didn’t want to be. We were kind of poking fun at what we’ve all done before; we’ve all been slaves to the system in some way. Queensryche, even though it’s a pretty free, self-controlled band, we don’t have a lot of outside influence that tells us what we have to do and when we have to do it, but there’s still a certain system that we abide by internally that does what it does for the sake of us getting it done. So we were kind of poking fun at everything—and it was Kelly’s idea—going ‘You know, I don’t want to be a fucking slave to any of this stuff! Let’s do a record together and let’s call it Slave to the System,’ because really we’re not. The funny thing is, as soon as we start to succeed, we’ll probably become slaves to ourselves again and then have to change the band name!
Rough Edge: (laughs) Rechained to the System!
Scott Rockenfield: There you go! (laughs)
Rough Edge: The band name really speaks for itself. I mean, you’ve been established in this industry for what, twenty-two, twenty-three years? And you’ve seen the view from the top. What are some of your perspectives on your musical journey that has led you to this band with a backlash name such as Slave to the System?
Scott Rockenfield: God, I don’t know. I guess I don’t really think about it much, you know? I’m so grateful to have been in the industry for so long. Queensryche has been a legacy that has really done well for us and it’s been the same four guys for so long, it’s been a great thing. I think we’ve created our own system in doing that. I think we’ve influenced a lot of other bands to try to follow along in the same type of shoes—not necessarily musically—as in the concept of how we do things, how we do them on our own time and we don’t have to take shit from anybody. That’s kind of what we always wanted to do and I think we’ve achieved that, which is cool. We’re able to do records and our companies don’t tell us when and where we have to do it. That’s all worked great, and so this Slave thing is just a fun thing to do. I don’t really think about it much; I’m going to do what I want to do, when I want to do it.
Rough Edge: As long as we’re talking about Queensryche, let’s switch over to "Operation Mindcrime II." Naturally, the initial fan reaction had to be about how seriously the album should be taken. I spent a lot of time with it when I first got it, and I had a chat with Geoff (Tate) about the album as well, but my impression is that it’s Queensryche’s best work since "Promised Land"—not to down any of the other recent albums at all—but the whole epic feel of the eighties Queensryche has obviously returned as opposed to the breezy feeling of, say, "Tribe." What are your thoughts on this?
Scott Rockenfield: Well, you know, that was something we wanted to attempt, to kind of take a step back a little bit from what we’ve done in the last five-to-seven years and kind of take a look at things. I kind of agree; "Promised Land" to me was actually one of my favorite records that we ever did. There was a way that we made the record by living together at this cabin on an island outside of Seattle. We rented this huge cabin, set up a studio in it and we did all the recording there for six months. We basically lived and recorded there! It was a communal feel, which was totally cool and I really enjoyed that whole process. Then the years have passed since "Promised Land" and we’ve done different things, you know, and we’re always trying to look for something new to do, but this record came about kind of from…it was just getting time for us to try to revisit the "Mindcrime" concept, but also to revisit why we wanted to revisit "Mindcrime"; what was it about? We just wanted to dig back into the past and try to relive some of the aggressive and deep and extremely creative angles of what we did back then, and I’m not sure we’ve done that on some of the last records. For whatever reason we’ve just done what we’ve done, but this one’s just kind of a place that we wanted to go.
Rough Edge: Let me trail back to "Promised Land" a second. I’ve always been curious as to your thoughts when Queensryche recorded it…it came out after "Empire" when you guys hit a big commercial peak and then to my ears when I first heard "Promised Land," I was like ‘God, listen to that, they sound so angry! This is great!’ I got wood because I loved how heavy that album was. Was there a conscious effort at the time to say ‘We’ve hit this peak, we have a ton of fans, some of them may be faithful, some may not be faithful,’ but anyway, was "Promised Land" kind of a lash-out album in your opinion?
Scott Rockenfield: It was more of a record where we did "Empire" and that was a huge success. We toured for two years solid on that record and it just a body of work that took us for a long time, just hugely successful. So we came home and we took a lot of time off, you know? It was a few years that we took off and when we came back to do "Promised Land" and we started talking about doing another album together, it was like ‘God, we’ve got to do something that’s just for us and not a follow-up to "Empire," not a bunch of hits following the same thing, so we just decided to take a left turn, dig into things from "Empire" and all of that success, what it did to us as people. Success isn’t always necessarily a positive thing! Those things on "Promised Land" were a reflection of the things that we’d encountered being so successful on "Empire." It just turned out to be this dark, foreboding, thought-provoking, personal record for us, and I think that’s part of why I like it so much! (laughs) It was exactly what we were all going through at the time; we all kind of felt the same vibe.
Rough Edge: Interestingly enough, that change in Queensryche’s thought process was as radical a jump as "Rage for Order" was to the first "Operation Mindcrime." I love "Rage for Order," but still, my jaw hit the floor when I heard the original "Mindcrime." Was there something inside yourselves at that point in Queensrcyhe’s career that was going ‘God, we’ve just jumped to an incredibly new level?’
Scott Rockenfield: Yeah, and I think you pretty much hit it right on the nose. "Rage" was pretty much a turning point for us even from "The Warning." If you kind of go through the history of everything from the EP and then "The Warning," they were somewhat similar because we were still trying to find ourselves together, we were so early on in our careers. After "The Warning" was done and then "Rage for Order," which was a pivotal turning point for us as our creative collaboration, because we really got to experiment and find ourselves together more than we had before. We were much more confident in what we were going to do and we had a record company that was really supporting us, so that was a big thing for us and "Rage for Order" was born from that type of vibe. Then the "Rage for Order" thing shocked people, but it was a pleasant shock and it was a great record that a lot of people hold really dearly to themselves now, and then when we get done with that, what do we do? We take a serious hard left turn and slam into "Mindcrime," which is revolution and suicide! (laughs) And then "Empire" was a left turn from "Mindcrime"; that record pulled a bunch of hits, no concept to it at all, and it went through the roof and then on "Promised Land" we took another left turn and a few people fell off the track, but we kept them all with us and they followed us down the dark, dirty road. It’s kind of been that ride for us on every record, you know?
Rough Edge: Specifically for you, what did you see going on in your environment—obviously there’s a lot that Geoff put into it from his personal views—but is there anything that you yourself has seen that kind of lent itself to the restoration of the "Mindcrime" storyline?
Scott Rockenfield: Well, yeah. For one, just the political landscape and everything that’s going on in the world was perfect timing for us. We tend to look at stuff like that. Geoff may have told you all this as well, but that was one thing we all talked about, our president, things that are going on…I mean, "Mindcrime I" could’ve almost been released now and it would be pertinent to what’s happening. It was such a great parallel right now to then. That was a perfect thing for us to all of sudden jump into doing it, so that was a big feed for us. We have a lot of contemporary things to talk about that would really tie in the old to the new right now, and then musically, direction-wise, I think it was time for us to do this, because we just wanted to do something that’s not being done, you know? There’s a lot of great music that’s going on these days by a lot of new bands, but in my personal opinion, I just don’t listen to a lot of it because I find that there’s not a lot of substance to it and I can’t even put a face to a name or a sound to a name anymore. I can’t pick one from the other, as well as I used to be able to. Earlier on, years ago, they used to have a little more individuality to them, and I don’t find that as much now, so I think what I’m trying to say is just musically as well, the political climate was a great time, but I think musically for us it was a great time to relive that and bring it now, because we have a lot of fans that are young people, their folks were into "Mindcrime," teenage kids are into "Mindcrime" who now are going to really enjoy us digging deep into the past and going outside what we’ve done the last few years, doing something that’s not of the norm that’s going on these days. "Mindcrime" needs to be that anyway.
Rough Edge: I’m not sure if you were there in the recording studio when Ronnie James Dio came to record his parts as Dr. X, but wow…
Scott Rockenfield: (laughs) God bless Ronnie! He’s been an old friend of ours for many years. He was actually one of the first people that asked us to jump on a tour with him back in 1983. I mean, we were just kids! We had just gotten going and we were getting ready to make a new record, which was "The Warning." We hadn’t made it yet, I believe, and he asked us to come over to Europe and do a couple months tour over there with him. He’s a king! When he asked us, that was great, and through the years our paths have crossed multiple times. He’s always been the most gracious, nicest guy. We have mutual respect and admiration, which is totally cool and flattering, needless to say! So when it came time for us to look at a possible character for the Dr. X role, names came up and Ronnie’s was one of the top. It was just kind of an easy thing that once we thought about it and made the phone call, he was pretty much on it, like ‘Where do I gotta be and what do I gotta do?’ Needless to say, I wasn’t there when he did the recordings; when he did the recording, he was down in California with Geoff in a studio and Michael (Wilton), Eddie (Jackson) and I had already finished most of our stuff and we were up in Seattle. I didn’t get to hear what was done on it until the record was pretty much mixed. It was a nice, pleasant surprise because it wasn’t watered down by me already watching the sessions and the multiple takes. It was like being a fan like yourself: here it is, I’m going to pop it in, I can’t wait to hear this track, and that’s kind of what happened to me as well! Ronnie’s just a cool guy, man. He just steps in, and he may be short, but he’s bigger than the Statue of Liberty when he sings!
Rough Edge: The whole thing comes off like a rock opera. Critics were once comparing the original "Mindcrime" and "Empire" to Pink Floyd’s "The Wall," but I say when you put the two "Mindcrimes" together, it’s the more legit comparable to "The Wall," I think.
Scott Rockenfield: Absolutely, and that’s a flattering thing for us. We were all big fans—and we still are, for that matter—of those types of bands and records. Pink Floyd has been a huge influence on me and the rest of the guys, bands like Pink Floyd, bands like Rush that have dug deep into the conceptual lengths of music with what they’ve done and even Genesis, bands that have done some really cool musical things. To be compared to even The Who, you know, with their rock opera concept, it was all just something we were into, so that’s a nice, flattering comparison, to be lumped into that sort of thing, and that was our goal, you know? "Mindcrime I" to this album being a continuation, that’s kind of how we’re looking at it and we’re looking at the tour being pretty much a "Mindcrime I / Mindcrime II" package deal like one big rock opera onstage. The great thing is nobody’s doing that! None of these new bands are doing anything like that! That’s not to say they’re not doing anything cool, it’s just a fun place for us to go. We’ve always been theatrical type of people in what we do and it’s going to be a lot of fun.
Rough Edge: Geoff has mentioned working on a screenplay to possibly adapt "Mindcrime" to film. How great would that be?
Scott Rockenfield: Yeah, you know? We’ve talking about that since day one back in the early days of the original "Mindcrime" and for whatever reason, through the years it’s just never panned out. We had a lot of interest from different people and there was a lot of talk from people, but I think it’s just better timing now with "Mindcrime II" being finished; it’s more of a story and it would make a lot more sense now if we can get something to happen with that, to tie it all in. It’s a finished story now and there’s a lot more to it. If we can make it happen, that would be cool, whether it’s a Broadway thing or a motion picture or whatever, man; it could be a pretty cool thing!
Rough Edge: Absolutely. How about that fan-conceived South Park picture of you guys performing "Mindcrime" onstage? Crazy stuff!
Scott Rockenfield: You know, it’s so funny; the last leg that we did last fall when we had just finished up the "Mindcrime I" tour, you know, we resurrected the whole thing and went out for the whole last year and we had film screens behind us that played all the film stuff that we sing to and it’s all a perfect live film type of thing. During sound check one day, we’re just doing a sound check to a couple of songs and everybody in the audience was cracking up and I turn around and look up at the screen behind us and it’s that! The South Park guys jamming away during our sound check behind us, and it pretty much blew the song because we had to stop since we were laughing so hard, but yeah, God, how funny that is, man! Maybe they’ll put us on South Park one of these days! You know you’ve made it when you get on one of those shows!
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2006 by R. Scott Bolton. All rights
Revised: 23 Aug 2016 22:57:09 -0400.