Queensrÿche founding guitarist Michael Wilton talks about the limits of musical progression, underrated albums, and finding unexpected success going back to where it all began 40 years ago

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CINCINNATI, Ohio (WOUB) – Seattle’s Queensrÿche has been a key force in taking the classic metal sound of bands like Iron Maiden and Judas Priest and pushing it to its musical and conceptual limits, focusing on virtuosic guitar work, soaring melodies and high concept lyricism.

Since 1982, the band has released 16 studio albums, including 1988’s iconic Operation: Mindcrime and 1990’s Empire.

Currently between album cycles, this progressive band is going back to their roots for the Origins Tour. Neglecting some of their most iconic work, and new songs, this tour is dedicated to full playthroughs of their first release, 1982 EP Queensrÿche and their first full album, 1984’s The Warning.

WOUB’s Nicholas Kobe spoke with founding member and guitarist Michael Wilton ahead of the band’s show at Bogart’s (2621 Short Vine St.) tomorrow. 

A promotional image of the band Queensryche. They are all posed against a wall of graffiti.
[Image courtesy of artist]
Nicholas Kobe: If you had to describe Queensrÿche in one sentence, what would you say?

Michael Wilton: Queensrÿche is a band that’s been together since 1981 and we are still hammering out touring albums, everything. So this is a progressive metal band and we’ve just garnered huge success from the fans supporting us and the industry supporting us. So we’re very grateful and we keep the fans informed when we’re touring and it’s something that we’ve been doing forever.

I’m calling right before the band takes off on a tour spotlighting the band’s first EP and LP, released back in the early ’80s. What was kind of the inspiration to center a tour around doing full play throughs of these two projects?

Wilton: Well, we heard a lot of comments from fans that this would be a great thing, and then last year we got an offer for a festival called Hell’s Heroes, in Houston, and the promoter brought up the idea of us playing the EP and The Warning. So our management and booking agency team, a light bulb went off in their heads. They said, “Well, let’s check this out. This may be something we can do in between album recordings.” So that’s kind of how it started. Now this thing is just blossomed up like you wouldn’t believe. We’re getting offers to keep this thing going all year.

Why do you think a tour focusing on the self-titled EP and The Warning has done so well, especially so many years after the release of those records?

Wilton: I really don’t know. I think it just means so much to a faction of the Queensrÿche Fans that have been there with us from the early days of the EP and The Warning. They’re just coming out of the woodwork. We’re just getting people that coming out to us saying, “Hey, I saw you at Haymakers back when you were touring with a Twisted Sister” or “I saw you at Lamar’s.” I think it just brings memories and a special time in their lives, and we’re just thankful and overjoyed that this has really taken off.

You talk about this bringing the fans back to a specific time. What memories or feelings have surfaced in you personally, as well as in the rest of the band? 

Wilton: Well, I was in my young twenties when this came out and I was just blown away that people enjoyed songs that I had written. Playing guitars and being a guitar band in the early days and just trudging out on the tours, opening for bands, it was such a crazy time. I think it had a lot to do with timing because the music industry was just blossoming. It was doing great business with album sales and then eventually CD sales, they were nurturing bands, having production budgets for videos, and getting them played on video networks. It was so exciting. To be that young, we were sponges.

We just basically absorbed everything that we could. if there was an opportunity for us to play, we took it, we weren’t choosy. We were young, we were ready to tour, and that’s basically our motto. Being from Seattle, we weren’t part of the LA scene or the New York scene, we were sequestered up in the northwest, and it’s not like we were emulating any other bands. This was just pure creative energy coming from five individuals. We were fortunate that people wanted to hear it, and I think we’re unique in that way. We’ve been able to play with AC/DC, Bon Jovi, and able to play with Slayer and Metallica, so we’re kind of that enigma. People don’t know how to categorize it.

The band can kind of thread that needle between the borders of a bunch of different genres?

Wilton: Exactly. But the Origins tour is bringing out more of the metal contingent and young kids with their battle vests, with the EP logo stitched on the back. It’s just a blast.

Would you say the vibe is different, comparing a show you would’ve played with Bon Jovi or even any other show where you’re not headlining versus a show like the Origins Tour where this is so centered on a specific period?

Wilton: I think it does. The hardcore Queensrÿche fans are going to come to support it no matter what, but it’s the fringes that you don’t know what they’re doing these days. The young kids coming out because when you’re a young teenager, you just love metal, you love energy. You don’t want to listen to adult contemporary. I think we’re just in that timeframe and the curiosity of the new generation of metal kids, it’s just a win-win.

How would you say the band has changed, especially as you’ve playing throughout your discography?

Wilton: Well, we’ve obviously progressed as musicians, as songwriters, at least we think we have. It’s something I think we’ve tried to stay true to. The music that we write is very heavy and it still has a melodic tinge to it. It’s not Cookie Monster vocals, it’s melodic singing. It’s got to have a melody in it. It’s in our DNA, we just have to do that. If you go too far outside the boundaries, you’re going to lose a lot of fans if we want to do something too experimental. I think as long as there’s melodic content and there’s a creative element that’s unique to us, then the fans are into it.

Looking at the band’s discography, could you name any albums you feel are underrated?  

Wilton: I would think the first six albums were just so monumental when the band was on fire. Rage for Order is something we may investigate because that’s when Queensrÿche found their identity and we] made our mark in the industry. I think it’s such an important album and it was progressive is a little futuristic and it strikes a chord with the fans. Obviously, Operation: Mine Crime and Empire for the common fan is their go-to listening. But for the more adventurous and hardcore musical people, Rage for Order, The Warning, and the EP are great.

How have you seen the Queensrÿche fan base – and just metal fans in general –  change over time?

Wilton: Well, I think with social media. It’s not just hard rock anymore. You have all these different facets of different genres and social media is so fragmented now it’s hard to try and find a band with a label that is posed to it. It’s weird. In a way, the internet brought us so much information, but it also makes us a little useless. It’s not like the days when you could pick up a magazine at a newsstand and see who’s on the cover, who’s playing in your neighborhood or town, and who has new records out and everything.

Now, it takes a lot of effort. We are old school, we think of albums as albums. We don’t want to just record singles and live off of our hits, it’s something Queensrÿche does. We’ve put out four records with this lineup and it’s just growing and it’s great. Even when the pandemic hit and decimated the industry, it’s growing back and we see more people coming out to concerts and all kinds of events. So hopefully we can keep doing what we’re doing for many years to come.

Anything in particular in your life and travels as of late that has been inspiring the way you think about music, and what you’re writing?

Wilton: Oh, there’s so much chaos in the news. I mean, we try to write about things with an optimistic viewpoint. There’s a wealth of subject matter that creatively you can intertwine with the music and social outlook. You don’t want to get too political, but you just want to be true and current, with the world.

From where you’re at now, what do you think the future looks like for Queensrÿche? 

Wilton: Well, we’re doing eight weeks with this tour, and then we’re probably due for the summer. We do a lot of fly dates, special shows and everything. Then hopefully in the fall, we’ll do a second leg of this tour. We’re also looking to put something together over in Europe, which for us is important because we haven’t been to Europe, in I think over four years. We want to get back over there. Then at some point, we got to write another record.

Always recording and touring. That’s the life.

Wilton: It is. We all love what we do. We all get along really great and the band is tight and it’s just a powerful show. When you see music live and hear it live, it hits you in the chest. It’s powerful.