QUEENS OF THE STONE AGE

This is a feature written for Classic Rock a few years ago when QOTSA released Lullabies To Paralyze. Josh Homme actually lives up to the hype and is one of the coolest guys on Earth; he’s in the room with Dennis Hopper, David Carradine and Evel Knevil.

JOSH HOMME, frontman and founder of Queens Of The Stone Age, facilitator of the Desert Sessions, occasional Eagle Of Death Metal, boyfriend to Brody, pal of Dave Grohl, has a fairly good claim on the title of World’s Coolest Guy. Of course he’s so damn cool that the suggestion of bestowing such a title upon him would make him blow chunks over the table. But the fact remains, if you were the corporate suck ass who picks the models for Gap ads, you’d put your granny on eBay to secure his services.

Offstage as well as on the guy has charisma. He also has that quality of being able to discuss anything from the merits of pickled onion chips (what the yanks call crisps, apparently) to great underrated albums like The Groundhogs’ Thank Christ For the Bomb and always have you thinking ‘Damn, I wish I had said that’.

Queens_of_the_Stone_Age_Lullabies_to_ParalyzeLullabies To Paralyze, the fourth Queens Of The Stone Age album, entered the US charts at number 5 and the UK charts at 4 and is already on the way to outstripping its million-selling predecessor Songs For The Deaf.

Reviews in the mainstream press – the broadsheets in particular – were almost universally positive, even ecstatic, while the rock and metal mags gave it a much frostier reception. There’s a sense that some fans and critics feel betrayed by the direction in which the band has travelled but also a sense that others outside the narrow self-imposed stoner rock ghetto are just discovering them.

If anyone regards the accessibility of recent Queens albums as a ‘sell out’ then Josh Homme isn’t concerned.

I wanted to take people with me and make records that were like a mix tape that you would make for a friend. And this album is the first time I feel that we’ve really achieved that. It’s an amalgam of things learned on the first three records,” he says.

It’s not only the music: it’s Homme’s new status as a celebrity that riles them as well as his much publicised sacking of Queens co-founder and bass player Nick Oliveri last year.

We’re gonna have detractors: there’s gonna be some people, you know, there’s nothing that we could do that will take away from their maniacal readiness to attack with Nick gone,” he says resignedly. “We could have been like a fucking Slayer record and they’d be like ’Pshaw! Pretty lightweight, huh?’  But you know, I implore them to eat balls!” 

Queens has always been a band with a revolving door policy for its members and to some extent it is that fluidity and uncertainty that has always lent vitality to the band.

“I feel like the more nebulous Queens of the Stone Age is – from people who play on the album, to the cover art, to the name of the album, to the name of the band – the more freedom exists for us to change, should we feel the need,” says Homme.

As well as a core that includes Homme, A Perfect Circle guitarist Troy Van Leeuwen, former Danzig drummer Joey Castillo and  bassist Alain Johannes (replacing Oliveri), guests on the album included Polly Harvey, Garbage singer Shirley Manson and ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons.

ZZ_TopWe’ve got Billy Gibbons from ZZ Top in the room playing guitar and singing harmonies with Mark Lanegan. I mean God, how often does that happen? I was like wearing diapers during the recording,” Homme enthuses.

Former Screaming Trees frontman Mark Lanegan joined the band just before Songs For The Deaf and while he reportedly left after the recording of the new album, he has popped up at several shows on the band’s European and US dates.

But while the departure or non departure of Mark Lanegan is just par for the course, the sacking of Nick Oliveri last year came as a shock to everyone. The statement issued at the time read: “A number of incidents occurring over the last 18 months have led to the decision that Josh Homme and Nick Oliveri can no longer maintain a working partnership in the band.”

Oliveri hit back, claiming that the original intention of the band had been compromised. “The concept was simple,” Oliveri said on his website. “A rock band: selfless, mindless, ego-free, unprotected, about danger, sex and no bull rock and roll. You know what happens when a pure and original rock band gets polluted, poisoned by hunger for power and by control issues? Things get really out of control.

“The strongest leaders are chosen by their followers, not self-appointed. The best frontmen are chosen by their fans. And whatever happened to loyalty?”

Then, only a few weeks after this, Oliveri and Homme were spotted together at a gig. Oliveri then started telling everyone who would listen that he really really wanted back into Queens; he admitted that he had “fucked up” and was prepared to do anything to reclaim his old job.

“I told him last time I was hanging out with him, ‘If anything falls through and you need somebody, you know where your bass player is, dude — you know where the bass player for that band is. So pick up the phone,'” he told Billboard magazine. “It ain’t about a money gig thing for me – I know which band I play bass in.”

Rumours abounded that he had been sacked for his penchant for party chemicals(something denied by Homme) with Oliveri himself claiming that he had left because Josh had sacked Mark Lanegan without telling anyone.

Mark wasn’t sacked,” insists Homme. “It just so happened that the recording of the new album coincided with the release of Mark’s solo record (Bubblegum) and he wanted to go off and promote that.”

Homme further claimed that it was the band themselves who had been behind a campaign of disinformation, spreading rumours about the departure of Lanegan. So if Lanegan wasn’t sacked, why would Oliveri leave if this wasn’t the case? If anyone was in on the ‘joke’ then surely it was he?

Even now, almost a year on,  the reasons are unclear and when pressed on the point, Homme retreats behind vagueness and a professed – and no doubt very genuine – affection for the man. Like Sid Vicious, Oliveri’s role in Queens was more than just his ability to play a few basslines: he was in many ways the soul of the band. No matter how serious things got – and with the addition of the gravel voiced Lanegan to the band there was definitely a dark counterweight to the lighter songs of Josh Homme – the fact that there was a bald guy with a beard playing bass stark naked tended to stop things from getting too A Level. Offstage he was fond of a small sherry after dinner, as it were. One look at him and you knew that he was a past master at lighting his own farts.

While nobody doubts that he could be a royal pain in the arse to have around 24/7, Nick remains a popular guy with fans, and with other bands and with all the members of QOTSA.

Well because Nick is the realest motherfucker in rock’n’roll,” says Josh. “There’s Lemmy, then there’s…I dunno, I’m scouting around for somebody in rock right now, a contemporary, man, that is as undeniably…(words fail) I love him, man.”

But would you have him back in the band?

I never say never. But I’m also the kind of guy that will always stand on his own two feet and get up when he’s knocked down. The only time I won’t get up is when I’m dead. And so we all need to stand up, because that’s what I’m about. And Nick is that way to.”

All this raises the question as to whether Queens Of The Stone Age is a band or Josh Homme plus some musicians. He thinks hard: “I think this is the most collaborative record that I’ve ever made – notwithstanding The Desert Sessions, which is ONLY everybody. Songs For The Deaf I made more or less by myself and that experience was not good for me because it was like being left alone. We worked with an outsider on Songs For The Deaf and the first thing he said was ‘ I wanna study your vibe and then I can perfect it’. And I was like…FUCK! So after he was fired it was all about trying to get back to where we were at originally.”

Nevertheless, that illustrates that while you’re not exactly a control freak, you do like to call the shots and say who is in and who is out.

I think people have a perception that I steer the ship like a Nazi general and that that is the most important role. But it’s not. It’s a whole family of artists that includes Chris Goss, Ween, Alain Johannes. And my role includes a lot of the stuff that sucks. We have a saying in the band: You fire yourself, but I tell you.” 

KyussPerhaps there would be fewer detractors were it not for Homme’s illustrious rock’n’roll past. 

It’s said that although in their day The Velvet Underground only sold a few thousand albums, everyone who bought a copy was inspired to go out and form a band of their own. The same could be said of Kyuss.

Formed in 1990 by vocalist John Garcia, guitarist Homme, bassist Oliveri, and drummer Brant Bjork, Kyuss (named after a character from Dungeons & Dragons) played a number of legendary ‘desert jams’ in and around their home town of Palm Desert, California.

“Sometimes they were so beautiful that you’ve never seen anything like it,” recalls Josh. “Sometimes someone was firing a shotgun on acid or some Mexican gang members were throwing someone onto the bonfire.”

At one show, Oliveri was so Taken by the mood that he smashed up his bass at the end of the second song and didn’t have a spare or another one that he could borrow. Doh!

Kyuss_Welcome_to_Sky_ValleyTheir 1991 debut Wretch was poor, but the follow up Blues For The Red Sun  – produced by Masters Of Reality frontman Chris Goss – is a classic slab of space rock, blues and classic metal. Lost in the maelstrom of grunge and the death throes of big hair metal, neither Blues nor its equally good major label follow up Welcome To Sky Valley registered much outside of a small but vociferous clique of fanatical fans.

They were a truly awe inspiring live band, but the tensions within the band between Oliveri (who left and was replaced by ex-Obsessed bassist Scott Reeder) and then between Garcia and Homme meant that they were not destined for the long haul.

I felt that in Kyuss we were so fiercely defending something that  when we looked up we said ‘Fuck!’ and realised that we were painted into a corner of our own making,” says Josh. “I loved Kyuss, I wouldn’t change a moment of my time in that band but I left because I loved it and I wanted to preserve it by destroying it.”

The dissolution of Kyuss in 1995 resulted in a confused period for Josh: he relocated to Seattle where he joined  The Screaming Trees as second guitarist. By 1997 he had rekindled his friendship with Nick Oliveri (who had been playing in the legendary sleaze-punk band the Dwarves under the name Rex Everything) and  Alfredo Hernandez, who briefly replaced Brant Bjork as Kyuss drummer in the band’s dying days. They returned to the Palm Desert region and created what became the earliest manifestation of Queens Of The Stone Age.

It was an incredible U-turn for Homme: where Kyuss was – even during their short tenure with Elektra records – a defiantly underground band, the first self-titled self-financed Queens Of the Stone Age album had a ravenous eye on the mainstream. To this day Kyuss has a devoted posthumous cult following and for many of these true believers, the MTV-friendly approach of Queens Of the Stone Age is apostasy. From the get-go, Josh has taken a perverse delight in rubbing the purists up the wrong way: even the choice of name with its allusions to 50s Roger Corman b-pictures on one hand and Freddie Mercury et al on the other is just as camp as a pink campsite for Shirley Bassey impersonators on every level.

“It’ll be interesting if they can say the name ‘Queens of the Stone Age’ to their friends,” Homme said at the time, meaning the “homophobic rednecks” he used to see at Kyuss shows, the thickos who started using the word “gay” as a general derogatory term.

Josh admits to a slight unease at his new status as a ‘celebrity’: people who have never heard a note of Queens Of The Stone Age’s music now know him as part of that vague aristocracy of people who are famous for being famous. The fact that he is part of a ‘rock couple’ with Distillers frontwoman Brody Dalle helps to keep him in the gossip columns.

That’s the part that’s so hard,” he says. “It’s only good for collaborating with other artists and for getting a table in a restaurant. My personality is not geared for it. I feel like I give enough through the music and if you want extra, you’re not going to get it without a fight. I don’t like people knowing about me. Some things are private…y’know, fuck off”

He has yet to smash a camera or attack an reporter from one of those Celebrities Behaving Badly shows. He is aware that intrusions into his private life go with the job: “I’m not complaining because I understand that. See, the ’suck’ part of being a musician is extremely small. The ‘suck’ part of being a roofer is extremely large. I’ve done both things. I went from a hard working job to working hard at this job and I understand and remember that. I just love to play and I love people and to me things have just got more simple as time goes on.”

It’s always ironic, particularly at he moment when the A list of rock is so sorely depleted – only Metallica, U2 and REM are bigger, with Foo Fighters, Velvet Revolver and Audioslave on an even par –  that Queens Of The Stone Age should be taking brickbats for being successful. The sad truth is that the purists and the true believers need a band like Queens more than they will ever need them. 

I doubt that some of our detractors would have the balls to do what we’ve done, because it’s not easy. I think you have to humble yourself at the altar of rock’n’roll. You put the music first and realise that you’re not entitled to play music. It’s a luxury, a gift, you’ve got to be really careful. You spit in the face of music and you will be gone. Music is a whole series of steep stairs on the way up but it’s a fireman’s pole on the way down…don’t touch the pole.” 

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