Queens of the Stone Age

Palm Desert, California is part of a chain of sun-baked communities (the most famous being Palm Springs) located in the Coachella Valley about two hours east of Los Angeles. Temperatures in the valley can climb over 115 degrees in the summer. It’s a dry heat. The restaurants set up outdoor misting systems to irrigate their customers like ferns. The golf courses are carefully maintained, but on the outskirts of town you won’t find a single blade of grass – just miles and miles of stony, colorless desert.

It was into this blank landscape that the young Josh Homme and the members of his band, Kyuss, would drive, loaded down with amps and guitars. When they arrived at the dead center of nowhere, they set up and played, blasting bass-heavy metal out to the desert over the hum of their generator, developing the sound that would make Kyuss a critical darling and a cult favorite. Kyuss became the leaders of a new genre of rock, dubbed “stoner rock,” a groove-heavy style of metal dipped in psychedelia and roasted in the desert sun.

The “generator parties” became part of the legend of Kyuss and condemned the band to a lifetime of critical reviews packed with desert-flavored metaphors like the one above. The press loves the generator-party hook (I couldn’t resist) because it speaks to the independent attitude that was key to Kyuss and later Queens of the Stone Age, and also because the idea just sounds so rock ‘n’ roll.

Josh HommeHomme’s (pictured left) feelings about those parties are more ambivalent: “They gave you butterflies at the time because they were really anarchy oriented. Whatever vibe each party took, it was definitely going there and there was nothing you could do to stop it.

“And sometimes that was really jubilant, and other times that was like ‘someone just shit on the windshield of my car.’ That actually happened.”

There’s the gritty side of anarchy for you. Kyuss had more than windshield soilers to overcome; although they endured through four albums, landed a major label deal, and released one widely acknowledged classic – Blues for the Red Sun – they never quite moved beyond cult status. Those who knew them loved them, but those who knew them were not that many. They went out with a whimper in 1995 with the album …And the Circus Leaves Town (one of the more knowing final album titles).

When Josh Homme returned to music with the Queens of the Stone Age in 1998, he found the world finally catching up to the stoner rock sound. The Queens quickly became genuine leather-pants-and-groupies rock stars. Rolling Stone, MTV – all the mass distribution forces were soon behind them, and a major label (Interscope) arrived right along with the momentum.

Their debut was hailed as the second coming of Nirvana, and their sophomore effort (their first on Interscope) was even more ambitious and arguably more successful. Homme & Co. had reached the position of being both mythologized for their past and quite popular in the present. Homme grants that the popularity required some adjusting.

“[At first] We had a lot more punk rock guilt, where you’re like, ‘I’m not interested in that,'” he says. “So you’re almost trying to stay out of that [success] and then along the way it’s like, ‘that’s stupid too.’ That’s too reactionary, like ‘You can’t jump off this cliff.’ ‘Yes I can!’”

“You have to play for respect, because that’s the only thing that lasts.” – Josh Homme

Queens somehow managed to have their artistic reputation and eat it too. They’ve become known as a “band’s band” – one that other musicians are eager to follow, get involved with, and emulate – while still notching hits with the fickle record-buying public.

“You have to play for respect because that’s the only thing that lasts,” says Homme. “Look at the Stooges – people hated them. It actually took 35 years for people’s ears to acclimate to their sound.”

The critics love Queens of the Stone Age, partly because they’re unpredictable and partly, I can’t help but think, because they’re charmed by Josh Homme, one of the funniest men in rock ‘n’ roll.

I meet the famous Josh Homme and the Queens of the Stone Age – 2007 edition – in a practice space in a warehouse section of Burbank, California. They’re promoting their new album, Era Vulgaris. (Homme calls the title “pseudo-intellectual. It’s like saying buttfuck in German.”)

QOTSA are kicking back, passing around cigarettes, waiting nonchalantly for my questions, and trading indecipherable jokes. The three who’ve been around the longest – Homme, Troy Van Leeuwen, Joey Castillo – do most of the talking.

Troy Van LeeuwenVan Leeuwen (pictured left) sits to my left, ghostly pale and full of dreamy, off-kilter remarks. He could do side work in vampire movies. Michael Shuman is mellow and amiable. Dean Ferita sits directly across from me, but doesn’t say a word. Some quiet people actually have nothing to say, although I suspect he’s not that kind.

“Oh, he’s talking,” says Castillo when I comment on the silence.

Where Castillo is raunchy and playful, Homme is wry. His answers run from flippant to prickly to thoughtful – often in the space of one sentence.

Taken all together, the Queens are quick, funny, and often difficult to follow. The vibe reminds me of any group of guys during the stoner years – insular, smart, a premium placed on the weird and surprising. Queens are experimental even in conversation, basically still jamming, and even though there is a lot of humor and a lot of giggling, there’s not a lot of mockery or any palpable paranoia.

The dumb things that get said fall to the wayside and they keep moving. And they’re quick to praise each other’s skills; though they’ll make jokes about the drummer (“Usually there’s all these musicians and then there’s a drummer there”) or the bass player (“If you blow ass on guitar, you can play bass”), they point out that those don’t apply here.

“No slouches,” says Castillo. “The one thing about this band is you gotta be able to play.”Joey CastilloComing up on the ten-year anniversary of the formation of Queens of the Stone Age, they’re reaching a critical point in their history. This would be when many successful bands become shadows of their former selves. Could the new album be the one that separates their early work from the later? Will people, looking back, say Era Vulgaris was when they lost it?

Some predicted that downturn for their previous album, Lullabies to Paralyze, since it marked the departure of bassist Nick Olivieri, whom Homme asked to leave in 2004. Homme-Olivieri was thought to be the Jagger-Richards of both Kyuss and Queens – in other words, the rest of the lineup could change, but the band’s heart was Olivieri-Homme (composition credit for most of Rated R and Songs for the Deaf belongs to Olivieri-Homme).

This theory ignores two facts: lineups shifted throughout both Kyuss and Queens, and Lullabies was actually the second Queens album recorded without Olivieri. Nevertheless, doom and decline – or at least weak basslines – were predicted for Lullabies to Paralyze. But with Alain Johannes stepping in for Olivieri on bass, QOTSA continued the fearless, unbounded style that has always set them apart from other hard rock bands.

There’s a reason why Josh Homme is able to consistently make great music with changing lineups, and it’s not that it’s all Josh and the other band members don’t matter. Homme is undeniably a great songwriter, but his real genius is for collaboration. When talking with the band, you can see how this works: he welcomes ideas, he builds confidence without patronizing, and he keeps things loose.

When I ask Homme about the advantages of playing in the desert, he defers to Michael Shuman, the new bass player.

“There’s nothing to do out there but play,” Michael observes.

“Perfect reason number one,” agrees Homme.

Dean FeritaFor more evidence, take a look at his writing credits; it’s difficult to find a single track credited only to Josh Homme. Those that aren’t Homme-Olivieri are Homme-somebody. He’s not burdened by the necessity of working with other artists; he welcomes it, and he’s clearly not a credit hog. Granted, he is the leader of this band – the tone comes from him – but he can both lead and listen, which is rare. So his bands can become true bands, not orchestra and conductor.

It’s how he drives the Desert Sessions, another part of the Josh Homme/Kyuss/Queens mystique. The Desert Sessions are periodic retreats to a home studio named Rancho de la Luna out in Joshua Tree. They’re casual, completely unstructured projects – just musicians being musicians, getting away from the big city, crashing around the house and picking up instruments, and remembering why they did this in the first place.

Collaborations are spontaneous; they play where, when, and with whom they happen to find themselves. The desert Zen vibe has attracted some big names over the years, from PJ Harvey to Dean Ween to Mark Lanegan. Ten volumes of resultant music have been released on vinyl – most on the Man’s Ruin label – and they are uneven but occasionally brilliant. Homme brings something out of whoever is at hand, partly, I’m guessing, by leaving them alone.

With the new Queens lineup, he’s able to keep the flexibility of the Sessions along with the accessibility of their more radio-friendly metal. Era Vulgaris is a fierce, economical record – no wasted time and no sloppiness. Even its dreamier moments are focused. It’s less fuzzed out and more dynamic than Lullabies.

“This is our version of a futuristic record, but only like three weeks ahead. Like a view into next May,” says Homme in his usual cryptic, more-than-half-joking fashion.

Chatter about the album has centered mostly around who is or isn’t making a guest appearance – Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails, Julian Casablancas of the Strokes, Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top, and Mark Lanegan have all been rumored. Homme, of course, loves to toy with the rumors.

Fleetwood Mac,” he says when I ask who’s on the record. “We hired the USC marching band not to show up. Trust me, it’s a lot cheaper.”

Michael Shuman(In the end, the Reznor track – the title track – was not included, and Billy Gibbons didn’t work out, but Casablancas and Lanegan do both have guest vocals.)

As things wind down, I have one last thing to ask Homme. The label rep sent me to the wrong studio first – Queens’ new Burbank studio, not far away – and there, propped against the wall amidst the amps and guitars, were three paintings. I could only see the front painting and whatever edges showed of the others, but it was enough to tell that they were excellent and fascinating things on which one could build a good career.

Each was marked with the block-letter name “Homme.” They were contemporary enough that they would be believable as Josh’s work, but really too good to be – it just wouldn’t be fair. How could one person be that talented at two disciplines?

Turns out they were Homme originals – just not that Homme.

“Those are my grandma’s,” he explains. “My family is really weird with the arts. She painted, she finished one, and then just put it down on a stack of finished paintings and put up another one. She cared about them so much, but I think they were just for her. I have other family members that play instruments but only alone. If you come into the room, they stop playing. My dad and my uncle both. It’s very much a selfish endeavor.”

This story brings a little joy out of everyone in the room, presumably because they recognize the impulse to play only for yourself – the purity of it. Although they work well together, ultimately, they don’t work for anyone but themselves. That’s why they belong in Queens.

Homme finds a fitting motto for the band from another ancestor: “My grandpa always said, ‘You can pretend to be dumber than you are, but you can never pretend to be smarter than you are.’ I think that works for Queens. Sometimes we’ll be like, ‘Let’s try this; it’s super stupid.’ That song ‘Sick Sick Sick’ – it’s just one note. One note, no fills, just to see how it works. Turns out it sounds alright. You just have to pick the right note.”