Time means nothing to Queens of the Stone Age
Why the death of Josh Homme was the best thing that ever happened to Queens of the Stone Age
Josh Homme is aiming a particularly graphic air blowjob directly into his inner cheek as our photographer lurks near by. He stops sharply as our man takes aim, a dangerous grin flashing across his face. “You really think you’d make it out that door, down those stairs and into a cab with that shot?” he rasps. Homme leans forward. “Maybe you haven’t heard about me?”
He’s joking, of course. We fucking hope he’s joking.
This is Josh Homme circa 2013. This is Queens of the Stone Age circa …Like Clockwork. While assembled within this Soho hotel room – several hours later than planned – they form an intimidating wall of man flesh, there’s no ignoring the sparkle in every vaguely bloodshot eye, the palpable sense of refreshed momentum.
Hours later, at Rough Trade East, Josh Homme stands onstage in front of around 300 people. He steps up to the mic and declares “All I used to wanna do was fuck, fight, and get high”. He sucks deep from a beer. “Now all I wanna do is fuck and get high.”
Josh Homme is grateful, he’s buoyant, and he’s bullish. Josh Homme bears the look of a man who, perhaps for the first time in his life, knows exactly what he’s got to lose.
It’s fairly common knowledge that Homme almost – or even did, momentarily – die on the operating table following complications during knee surgery in 2010. He subsequently spent three months in bed, and several more attempting to rebuild his strength, his confidence and his self-belief to a point where Queens of the Stone age could come to life once again. These events go some way to explaining the six year gestation between 2007’s Era Vulgaris and this latest effort, and a long way to explaining the record’s tone.
From the moment the lolloping, growling bassline of Keep Your Eyes Peeled becomes punctuated with Homme’s howling vibrato, there’s a sense of mournful self-reflection at play, a crushing awareness of one’s mortality. The lyrics display a deathly fatalism seldom seen before; see I Appear Missing’s desperate intonation of “Calling all comas, prisoner on the loose / Description: A spitting image of me / Except for the heart-shaped hole where hope runs out.”
As with so much of Homme’s work, the record feels ‘of’ the desert. But while past work crafted an enviable, romanticised scene – the magisterial, grandiose fuzz-blanket of Kyuss, or the top-down race through the desert of 2002’s Songs for the Deaf – here there is a sparseness, an impenetrable loneliness. It encapsulates another aspects of that endless, unforgiving landscape. That the desert can make you feel like the smallest, most insignificant thing in the universe.
But vitally, the record acts as a document of overcoming these trials; the rediscovery of the joys of making music, of the importance of friends coming together to make something tangible. If I Had A Tail’s monumental layered guitar assault is triumphant in the highest, the sound of a band operating as one. I Sat By The Ocean has the kind of inimitable Homme guitar lead designed to have tens of thousands singing along to every note. Smooth Sailing is a sexed-up funk rock jam with a raised eyebrow and a wink to the camera in each line, a mating partner to Era Vulgaris’s Make It Wit Chu, and a nod to the lubricated hips of Homme’s libidinous alter-ego Carlo Von Sexron. Despite the at times seemingly insurmountable obstacles …Like Clockwork was forced to scale, the catharsis of its creation and its triumphant release contribute to far more than just a record.
The album’s cast makes for enthralling reading. The core of Queens of the Stone age, as fluid as it has often been, now feels concrete. We interview Homme, guitar and lap steel player Troy Van Leeuwen, a staple of the band since 2005’s murky, Brothers Grimm-evoking Lullabies To Paralyze, and multi-instrumentalist Dean Fertita. Bassist Michael Shuman and recently employed drummer Jon Theodore, formerly of The Mars Volta, hover nearby. It’s an incredibly powerful collection of seasoned musicians.
But as has been Homme’s inclination ever since inaugurating his Desert Sessions series in 1997, the process of collaborating and embracing a range of musicians and friends played its part, not simply for bringing an element of creative freshness to the tumultuous …Like Clockwork sessions, but to bring personal brevity to the sporadic bouts of darkness. While some were to be expected – Dave Grohl, Alex Turner, Trent Reznor – few could have predicted Sir Elton John offering an impressively snarling vocal to Fairweather Friends, while in the wake of some fairly public disputes, the inclusion of erstwhile partner-in-crime Nick Oliveri raised its fair share of eyebrows.
As did the band’s collaboration with Matt Berry, bold-voiced staple of so much superb British comedy, on Secrets of the Sound. A highly amusing studio mockumentary which sees all five members more than happy to thoroughly tear the piss out of themselves, it has to be seen. When we raise the subject, it’s surreal to see members of one of the most important American rock bands of their generation waxing lyrical about Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace and re-enacting scenes from The IT Crowd.
It’s Berry who introduces the band onstage that evening at Rough Trade East. Once again, surreal is the operative word, as we gather among the racks of vinyl to watch them rattle through a range of new tracks alongside classics such as Go With The Flow and Monsters In The Parasol. A band who at that point have narrowly missed out on a number one record in the UK while proudly topping the US charts for the first time; a band who that weekend would play to 40,000 baying metallers at Download.
It’s also strangely appropriate for a group who’ve been forced to go back to their formative, atavistic state, to reassess everything, and to remerge as a grateful, voracious collective. The beaming faces onstage are proof of the fact. They’ve emerged from the greatest challenge in the checkered, 17-year history of Queens of the Stone Age, and you can’t help but think they’d play to 300 every night, so long as they were back making their music, on their terms, without that clock ticking in the background.
Do you feel you’ve had to explain the context behind …Like Clockwork more than any previous Queens album?
Josh: Not really, everyone’s just copy pasting. We’re in a copy paste world, where everyone thinks their blog is so important, that what they had for breakfast is crucial to everyone’s knowledge. It’s mostly bullshit.
Troy: You can Google anything, anything at all, and the only thing you can be sure of is that what you get will be wrong.
J: They should call it Grong.
Perhaps the main difference is that there’s been a huge amount made of the thematic ideas which make up this record?
J: Well, that’s the difficult thing. By our standards we haven’t done a huge amount of press, and the reason for that is because it’s not an easy discussion, y’know. We’re not complainers or anything, but this record starts in a dark place and gets darker … what you gonna do?
The title is a wry comment on the lengthy process which went into the making of this record…
J: Well, it was going to be called Unicorn Party Sweetheart Kiss, but that was already taken.
But another idea which comes from the name is the of the clock as a memento mori, a reminder of your own mortality and the inevitability of death.
J: The goal is to have this multi-level significance, this lateral movement and multiple forms of correct interpretation. It’s nice when you feel something working on those levels, because there’s a certain amount of irony to it, but also a certain amount of optimism to the words …Like Clockwork. The timeframe that became this immoveable object in the room, and also the focus on time lost and time spent, especially for a bunch of guys where time has never been an issue, and all of a sudden is.
And that realisation that you’re not quite as invincible as you thought you were in your 20s…
J: …and your 30s, and right up until 40… but the other addition is that sometimes the best thing you can do is go away, because then it becomes about timings again, and about when it might be the right time to reemerge. It’s wonderful to make an entrance, and I’ll leave it up to everyone else to decide if that’s what we’ve done.
"I don’t think any of us are claiming to be the coolest motherfuckers in the world ... but we care about the music and hopefully people can feel that"
For the rest of the band, it must have required a certain degree of patience to wait for Josh to get back to that right place…
J: To get my shit together!
T: Whatever amount of time it takes to get things right, that’s the way it is. That’s the way it happened this time, and actually that’s the way it happens every record for us. It’s never gonna be predictable, that’s what’s so exciting about it. It’s going to be different, always.
Dean: We get to make our favourite music, that’s really the goal.
J: It became obvious that we needed to start. I spent a good six, seven, even eight months just sitting around waiting for something to happen, for the first time in my fucking life. And it became painfully clear that when you wait, you’re agreeing to become a victim of circumstance, you hope that what you’re waiting for will be good. It might be bad, but since you didn’t have any application of trying to make things happen you have to take whatever you get.
And that realisation that you could wait on this endlessly makes the process kind of triumphant.
J: It makes whatever hardship was there the best thing that could happen to you. It’s worth its weight in gold to just grab something, to learn something, and not have to repeat it.
In the midst of such an intense and personal record, Smooth Sailing is an anomaly. You’ve always shown a tendency to mix up humour and sex, why is that?
J: It’s ‘cause fuckin’ and funny are awesome, except when you’re fuckin’ funny.
T: Well, I’m not into clown sex, unlike some people.
J: Man, clown sex is just silly. Isn’t it silly?
Po-faced songs about fucking are a very difficult art to execute, it’s often better to address it with a bit of comedy.
J: There’s a way to do all things and, you sing about your interests, you sing about your perversity, and you sing about how to to heal yourself, and as long as it’s honest it doesn’t matter. If it’s honest it finds its right footing for you. There’s nothing we can do about whether it finds the right footing for someone else, but we have no chance unless it finds the right footing for us first. That’s part of the struggle, that music needs to come from that selfish, honest, real place.
Is having a sense of humour important in music? Do too many musicians take themselves too seriously?
J: We take the music seriously, don’t get me wrong, but we don’t take ourselves seriously. That’s where the distinction is. I don’t think any of us are claiming to be the coolest motherfuckers in the world, that’s not in my mantra, but we care about the music and hopefully people can feel that intuitively, instinctually, because then we have a chance of being someone’s favourite band. We ain’t trying to make singles, we wanna be someone’s favourite band.
This album has more of a sense of the desert than anything since Songs for the Deaf, is that fair to say?
J: At the end of the day, I’m born and raised in the desert. That’s the connection. For other people that place might be more romanticised or mythologised, and yeah, it’s still very romantic for me too, but in a completely different way. Someone else goes there to fulfill a vision of what they perceive something to be, and I just go home and see my Mom, know what I mean? I don’t think about the desert, because I … [laughs] I am the desert! But seriously man, Dean don’t think about Detroit, Troy don’t think about Gardena (LA) all that much.
And the desert doesn’t lose that sense of majesty when it’s commonplace?
J: No, I use it for the reason that I’ve always used it, and that’s to empty out my head and to feel small and … and to do laundry, and get in touch with my home. I still use it for that exact same reason, I still love it for that reason, but I know that it’s different for me than it is for someone else. Both those things are just fine. I can honestly say I didn’t think of the desert at all when we were making this record. It’s certainly good for driving through the desert to. That’s an overtone I can’t help but bring. Everyone brings their own little overtones, it’s gestalt.
T: I think there’s a little piece of everyone in these songs, sure, because we spent so much time working on them and making them what they are. It’s hard to point out what’s what, but we spend a lot of time around each other and I think we learn a lot from each other too.
So having played together so much, does inviting a range of guests add a sense of chaos and unknowability to the process?
J: I love chaos. But I also love collaboration. I love the positive friction of having your direction suddenly altered. In many cases it’s maybe something that the other person doesn’t even notice, but by the same token, this ain’t a hip-hop group where we pay someone to stand in the centre and we’ll shine a spotlight on them. Y’know, ‘featuring Akon’.
We’ve heard the rumours.
J: Sadly untrue. Y’know, we integrate somebody into our world and they become an ornament on this Christmas tree, and what is taken from it is more what we take from it than what they take from it. It’s not as much on display as it is about the experience we have with somebody. So there’s a marquee value to an outsider, but that’s almost of zero significance on the inside. It’s from a selfish place, of ‘what can I give here, and what can I take from this?’ More than like, where do you want your ornament placed.
Obviously it’s a two-way influence, you look at someone like Alex Turner before he started spending time with you guys.
J: Yeah, he was fuckin’ awesome. He still is fuckin’ awesome. When you care about somebody and they care about you, the influence on each other is mandatory. Alex has been a huge influence on me, he’s smart and he’s crafty, he never gets ruffled, he’s a truly great artist. And Matt Helders is just an incredible drummer, just incredible. That’s a sly motherfucker right there. And Jamie is like, eternally the young boy. Rosy cheeks, still?
It’s strange to think that an iconic American rock group could think a bunch of kids from Sheffield were genuinely cool.
J: The thought that a kid from the desert could work hard and go all the way to England and people would give a shit, trust me man, that’s equally bizarre.
It was interesting to see Nick Oliveri back on a Queens record. Have you missed his – mostly bad – influence?
J: No, because I still see him all the time, so I’ve never stopped experiencing Nick’s influence. I’ve known that motherfucker since I was 11, we don’t need to explain ourselves to an outsider, mostly because it’s none of their business, but also because it’s none of their fucking business. Nick and I have been bros for so long … he made his new record at my studio. And he was dropping off vinyl and he jokingly asked “yo, you need some background vocals?” and I thought, what a great way to put a knife in a balloon that’s been building up pressure.
T: He’s our friend, he’s Nick. He’ll always be Nicky Peeps.
J: It’s Lemmy’s fucking kid. It’s the most rock ‘n’ roll motherfucker that exists out there, I’m fucking serious. Nick is badass, and I know it. Do you?
Does that good will extend to (Kyuss drummer) Brant Bjork?
J: No. He’s just a contrived little piece of paper.
Was there not a danger of the sessions turning into a load of guys hanging out and partying? It’s lucky Elton’s off the powders these days.
J: [laughs] That’s really what it was, honestly. The ‘guests’ were like this willful mental distraction away from what was kind of a tough record to make. It was like, ‘come over, we’re stuck in here, come dance a little and we’ll juggle some, we’ll entertain you.’ And by proxy it’ll take our minds away.
Did using three drummers make it difficult to achieve any kind of continuity?
J: At the end of the day, continuity is whatever we put out. If you worry about continuity, you’re making a continuity error. Because these songs are disparately different. What we heard a lot from our close friends was ‘let’s see you try to sequence this thing’. But the sequence only goes one way, actually, in other orders it feels really bizarre.
Was that a long process in itself?
J: It took some mental gymnastics.
T: Not as long as making the record. And that’s the great thing about making a piece of art …
J: [laughing] Sorry man, I’m just thinking about the mental pommel horse and the mental parallel bars.
What’s your mental gymnastic event of choice?
J: Well, clearly I do the mental ribbon dancing, I can’t believe you would even ask that.
T: I’m more of an underwater basket weaver.
In terms of picking a permanent drummer, you pretty much nailed it with Jon.
J: That guy’s a fucking monster, no shit.
T: We did this tour a long time ago with the Chilli Peppers and The Mars Volta. They opened up and played four songs in 40 minutes …
J: … that’s almost 10 minutes a song …
T: … are you sure? But yeah, all I could do was watch him. He’s the kind of guy who’s learnt all that technical stuff, and forgotten it. He’s just naturally this … this force.
J: He’s got insane, insane chops from practicing for years, but he’s also got groove. Having the chops, the technical ability, is of little consequence.
D: That’s a musical drummer right there, he understands how to play.
"The thought that a kid from the desert could work hard and go all the way to England and people would give a shit, trust me man, that’s equally bizarre"
So you missed out on number one very narrowly, does that disappoint you? Surely you’d have liked to have a UK No. 1 record?
J: Of course. But it doesn’t matter until it gets close, and it becomes a thing. But we got number two and that’s pretty fuckin’ awesome. We got number one in the States, I mean, how fuckin’ awesome is that? But we never expected it. When you expect anything from music, you’re expecting way too much.
Do you know anything about Disclosure, who beat you to number one?
J: They’re fuckin’ dead men, that’s all I know.
So tonight you play at Rough Trade to about 300 people…
J: No man, tonight we’re playing at a gym called Buff Trade, didn’t you hear?
J: What’s so funny? Shut the fuck up. Scruff Trade is the barber shop next door …
…and this weekend you play to about 40,000…
J: Yeah, at Snuff Trade. That’s where they kill everyone after the set.
T: And then Bluff Trade, where we never actually turn up.
So which set are you looking forward to most?
J: Well I’m really excited about Enough’s Enough Trade, where we play the same track until everyone leaves.
J: And just so you know, this is all Off The Cuff Trade. I ain’t saying this shit again.
…Like Clockwork is available now via Matador Records