I Remember Now > Spreading the Disease

DeGarmo Speaks on Spys4Darwin, Queensryche


One of DeGarmo's rare post-Queensryche interviews...

--- Quote ---Breaking the Silence: Chris DeGarmo Returns
by Christa Titus
December 2001
Unassuming Position

When “Submission in Love” surges from your stereo’s speakers, its guitar grabs you with a hook that’s fashioned from a thick buzz of distortion. It pumps and thumps like an adrenaline-charged bloodstream, and you follow the spirit of the song’s title by surrendering your attention. The axe man grinds his instrument with controlled passion, but no particular trick or turn of the six-string hints at who it is that’s making it insistently thrum in your ear. Yet after the first chorus of the singer demanding that you “get down/assume the position” (whichever one it is that you prefer, I suppose), a sitar-like progression emerges and hovers in the air, summoning you like a snake charmer’s flute. It’s a signature riff, but because subtlety is one of the performer’s hallmarks, you almost don’t realize that you’re experiencing déjà vu.

You consult the inner sleeve of microfish, an EP released in May by a little-known entity called Spys4Darwin. At the top of the list that identifies the band’s members, it reads: Chris DeGarmo, guitars.

Not many artists can camouflage themselves within their own music, but this element of unintentional disguise is an ironic touch to DeGarmo’s newest project. The guitarist/songwriter hasn’t been in hiding, but his profile has been measurably lower since his abrupt departure from progressive-metal act Queensrÿche was announced in January of 1998. He didn’t shy from the limelight—he toured with Jerry Cantrell when the Alice in Chains (AIC) guitarist hit the road to support Boggy Depot (Cantrell's solo album) that same year—but he didn’t try drawing attention to himself, either. In the subsequent years since, this writer couldn’t find any mention of DeGarmo in the media until just this past summer.

Darwin’s Evolution

Almost as if in keeping with the situation, the atmosphere surrounding Spys4Darwin’s incarnation has been equally low-key. AIC drummer Sean Kinney, an old friend of DeGarmo’s, also toured on the Boggy Depot jaunt, and their performing together sparked a desire to collaborate. After another AIC member, bassist Mike Inez, and Sponge vocalist Vin Dombroski joined them, they have regularly indulged in some serious jam sessions at the band’s Binge Studios in Seattle.

“Some of the songs on the EP were actually spawned out of us just screwing around and jamming and recording it, and then reviewing it and saying, ‘Hey, we got onto something right here; this is really cool,’ and then we develop it and send it out,” DeGarmo observes about the making of microfish. “Some of that was either Mike or myself or Sean introducing some initial idea that got the ball rolling, or Vinny as well, so I would say almost everything we do starts with someone and a core idea . . . I love it when Mike calls, says, ‘Oh, man, I wrote this song, I’m really excited about it.’ That’s great, and I think all bands that really tap the assets of the group do that, or allow that. If somebody’s really excited about somethin’ and they come in with it, then we just go, ‘Great! Let’s do it.’ ”

DeGarmo’s Take on How Spys4Darwin Got Its Name:
“[When] we first moved into [Binge Studios] it was an abandoned warehouse, but it was quite a hang-out for folks who didn’t have any place to stay. As we were getting organized, we met some interesting characters who had sort of set up home out back of this place, and one of them was this guy named Darwin, and a really nice guy who used to sit out in this lean-to that he built out there. He appointed himself—or anointed himself, I should say—sort of security guard of our studio. We were totally cool with that, and so we said, ‘Sure, Darwin, that’d be great, you know, we’d really appreciate that.’ He didn’t have access to the building and couldn’t get in anyway but, [it was] very sweet to offer that.

“One night when Sean and I were coming into the place very late, Darwin said he was leaving on a trip somewhere, and he asked if we would look out for his things. He actually didn’t have very much, but he was really serious about us keepin’ an eye on his space and on his things, which of course we said we’d most happily do that. So, as we stepped into the door to the building, I looked at Sean and said, ‘So I guess now we’re spys for Darwin.’ ”

The result has so far produced a batch of tunes that are grounded in grunge but more organic than most Queensrÿche or AIC material. Overdubbing was used to create dual-guitar and -vocal effects, and keyboards are featured in the Led Zeppelin-ish first single “Dashboard Jesus”; otherwise the spontaneous, laid-back melodies are much more conducive to a musical outfit drifting into impromptu groove sessions onstage than, say, tunes like “Man in the Box” or “The Thin Line.” “Chain Letter” is a down-and-out lament that is buoyed by a warm, bluesy harmonica contributed by Dave Atkinson, whereas the mantra-like “Insomnia Station” and energy-intensive “Flood (Skill of the Kill)” nod their heads to Temple of the Dog and Soundgarden.

Men in a Box? Hardly.

Although DeGarmo was a chief lyricist for Queensrÿche, he didn’t contribute any verses to microfish. That was left to Dombroski, whose words are rather stream-of-consciousness when compared with DeGarmo’s more structured writing style. “When we were just kind of first getting together, Vince was singing, so he’s comin’ up with the lyrics and we were comin’ up with the music, and that’s just kind of the way we sort of introduced ourselves to one another. I have many more things to say lyrically,” DeGarmo promises with a laugh. “[But] I was interested to kind of just let Vin go and see where he’d go with this stuff. It was very [casual] in that way.”

On One of the Ways That Inspiration Comes to Him:
“The best songs for me have just, I swear to God, [been] like all of a sudden I’m pickin’ up the guitar, and there it is. I’m playin’ a piece of it or something, or some lyric falls into my lap, or something happens and I see something, or I do something or I’m watching something on TV, or I’m reading a book, and it makes me start thinking about something. Then I just go off somewhere, and somehow it finds its way into something. I figure if you do enough stuff, you keep your eyes open all the time, and you’re, readin’ things, payin’ attention, watchin’ what’s goin’ around, puttin’ instruments available around you, things just seem to happen.”

He also chuckles when he’s asked if Spys4Darwin is a long-term enterprise. “I think part of what’s been kind of fun about it is we haven’t really defined it too specifically yet,” he muses. “It’s just been a good time so far, and we have the ability to continue to record and release what we come up with, and so far we’re real excited about doing that. Nobody came into it with a non-exclusivity clause or anything like that. It was really just [that] we all liked hangin’ out and doin’ music together, and we thought it’d be fun to share that with anybody who was interested.”

In terms of live shows, the good time has so far limited itself to just one gig: radio station KNDD Seattle’s EndFest 10 bash held August 4, where Spys performed alongside such modern-rock neophytes as Nickelback, Ours, and the Crystal Method. And instead of capitalizing upon the name recognition of its members by launching a media publicity blitz, Spys is using a grass-roots approach to promotion. It primarily consists of word-of-mouth (during the interview, DeGarmo indicates that he’s only done a handful of them related to Spys4Darwin) and the Web site spys4darwin.com, which is currently the only place where microfish can be purchased.

Spys afforded themselves this freedom by creating Pied Viper Records, to have “control over all the aspects of [the band] and not having to answer to anybody for much of anything, really. Make [the EP] the way we wanted to look, [photographs] the way we wanted to be, mix it and master it the way we want, doesn’t have to pass through any additional ears; not even managers,” DeGarmo explains, his voice void of any rancor toward the creative restrictions entertainers contend with in the music industry. “It was really just us getting together, us recording, us taking it into mix with friends, and us releasing it directly to those people that are interested in it, with kind of very little fanfare . . . This was about us trying to make the recording as we could in our studio and make a nice package that was more about bein’ proud of somethin’ that we put out as opposed to whether or not it competes with Creed.”

Routine Questioning

Spys have a very fluent chemistry together, but DeGarmo admits that it was different to work with another outfit after spending about 16 years in his former full-time gig. “I was spoiled, certainly, playing for so long in Queensrÿche and everybody [in it being] wonderful musicians. We were going for that early on when we were puttin’ the band together, just tryin’ to find really top-notch players,” he recalls.

On Remembering the 1991-1992 Operation:LIVECrime Tour. (The Operation:LIVECrime boxed set was recently reissued as a stand-alone CD and a DVD with bonus footage.):
“All the tours were fun for different reasons, but I think that one was particularly satisfying because it really was a production so beyond the group, which was really fun to do. We had a chance to build a bunch of these vignettes and dream up these wild, crazy scripts for the video footage, and combine some of the videos we had shot with some of these things we had specifically shot for the rear-screen projection. Trying to thread it all together, workin’ through all the problems—at the time, some of it seemed like absolute hell, but in retrospect, it was really great—like when we arrived in Lubbock [Texas] to start that particular tour, and our first reels of film went up in flames. It was tens of thousands of dollars burning on the screen. [The audience] ended up being treated to a special performance that no one else did, and they were cheering like they thought it was part of the show. They thought it was just amazing, like it’s all part of the production. And of course, we were horrified.”

That search for competent performers helped the Seattle-based quintet make its mark during metal’s heyday by pushing melodic boundaries instead of merely cranking out songs praising luscious babes and getting loaded. (In terms of flesh factor, Queensrÿche is rather Victorian: The most erotic lyrics it’s ever written are about the woefully existence of a sexually compromised nun.) As a principal songwriter, DeGarmo helped shape some of the group’s most-memorable tunes (“Best I Can,” “Walk in the Shadows,” “Eyes of a Stranger”); as a leading spokesman, he reflected a band that had a good time onstage without sacrificing any of its professionalism. His and guitarist Michael Wilton’s musicianship—along with them using their instruments to complement instead of compete with each other—made them frequent interviewees for guitar instruction magazines. Being such an integral member, DeGarmo’s quitting seemed as likely as a David Lee Roth/Eddie Van Halen reunion . . . which proves, as history has shown in both circumstances, that you should never say never.

The shock from his leaving was a hard knock for fans to start the new year with, and the brief explanation issued by the Queensrÿche camp (“creative differences”) did nothing to soften the blow. When posed with the question of if he cares to elaborate about why he left the band, DeGarmo answers with a polite, “No, thanks,” and softly chuckles. After being asked if he would rather discuss when he decided to leave instead, the long and short of his response is, “I left in November of ’97.”

Given the band's tight-knit, non-gossipy nature and DeGarmo’s own easy-going personality, his replies were not surprising; in fact, your humble narrator for this story pretty much expected them. But it’s hard not to admire that both he and his former band mates have kept a respectful lid on the subject for the last four years—a rarity in a business where throwing mud can be its own publicity tool. Contrary to some of the negative rumors that flew when he left (and are still flying, via the Internet) regarding how the band's members were getting along, DeGarmo and Queensrÿche vocalist Geoff Tate remarked in separate interviews with RequiredRock.com that they miss working together and are hoping to do so again some day—outside of Queensrÿche—in the future.

“We have a great chemistry,” DeGarmo says reflectively, “and I don’t think that our creative, collaborative days are over, necessarily. It’s just like [my leaving] was a needed break.”

On Fans Who Miss the Original Queensrÿche Lineup:
“I’ve run into a lot of people that have expressed those kinds of thoughts, and the fans that I’ve had the pleasure of meeting and everybody that has appreciated what it was that we did, I love ‘em for it, you know? I think it’s great that something I was a part of and something that we did reached people, and, more importantly, had an impact on people; less how many people it reached but more the people that it reached, it connected with . . . Most the people that have checked out Spys, a lot of them [are] Queensrÿche fans, a lot of Alice fans and a lot of Sponge fans, but the Queensrÿche fans are very passionate fans. I experienced that right from the very beginning; I always felt like we had a really solid following, people that were just really passionate about what we did.”

However, DeGarmo is far from reticent about discussing his Queensrÿche tenure or his pride its achievements, which include selling more than 9.5 million copes of its collective catalog and two Grammy nods for “Silent Lucidity,” its biggest radio hit. (The dream-inspired lullaby also won the 1991 MTV Viewer’s Choice Award and landed DeGarmo a BMI songwriter’s award.) “They’re like brothers,” he says of Tate, Wilton, drummer Scott Rockenfeld, and bassist Eddie Jackson. “Coming from my side, what we accomplished together, it’s something I’m really proud of, was a big part of me and a big part of my life, and I put my heart and my soul into it. I’m really proud of it, and I know that” he sighs, “I know that those guys think the same."

On Sept. 11:
“At the moment I’m really trying to have faith that humanity can somehow recognize that we have one planet here, and we need to work to share that together and really be stewards of this magical earth that we don’t see any other like around right now. I am just really frustrated with the amount of hate and deviousness in the world right now, and yet, I know that as far back as people have cared to record, there is always conflict on some level. Even when people say ‘peaceful times,’ there’s always some conflict going on somewhere . . . It’ll be tragic if we can’t seem to find some way to be stewards of our planet.”

As for Spys4Darwin's future plans, the band hopes to do some live dates in the U.S. and abroad, and DeGarmo anticipates that a full-length album of around a dozen songs will be available after the new year. Keep in mind, however, that that deadline is a fluid as the rest of the outfit’s operation. “It’ll just be kind of when it’s done and when everybody that looks at each other and goes, ‘Yeah, let’s put that out there,’ you know?” he says. “It’ll be sooner, rather than later, I think.”

After about an hour, DeGarmo brings the interview to a close by saying he’s fresh out of time. The phrase reminds me of microfish’s “Cold Dead Hands,” the melancholy cut that closes the EP, where Dombroski contemplates what your fingers may be clutching when the Reaper beckons to you: “It might be a needle . . . a gun . . . the hand of a complete stranger . . . the hand of a loved one.” On the song, the warped tone of DeGarmo’s electric guitar ripples like water when its surface is skimmed; his acoustic one glistens against it. Midway through the song he sounds off another aural calling card. His fingers walk up the instrument’s neck one deliberate note at a time, and then DeGarmo bends the strings. The notes gently soar in a serene echo, almost as if he’s signaling you to come find him.
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