With Queens of the Stone Age’s seventh studio album Villains set to land this week, we look back at the Palm Desert rock polymath’s diverse career
Back in the generation-cresting days of 1995, American rock and alternative music was being pulled in a hundred different directions. With the hangover of grunge hitting hard via the likes of Bush, Candlebox and Collective Soul (anybody?) it was left to much more sonically equipped acts including The Smashing Pumpkins, Weezer and Pavement to fly the flag for new, less familiar musical horizons amid the rising tide of post-grunge pastiche.
But just as the aforesaid acts and others were staking their claim, a new chapter of the story was being written. Formed in California’s Palm Desert in 1987 by vocalist John Garcia, drummer Brant Bjork and 14-year-old guitarist Joshua Homme, Kyuss – doyens of a new school of down-tuned, riff-centric rock interchangeably known as desert or stoner rock – were bowing out following the release of their fourth and final album, And The Circus Leaves Town. With Homme – something of a veteran at the ripe age of 22 – later reflecting, “There were some great bands that came out of Seattle, but it got so blown out of proportion…” the joint flame-out of grunge and Kyuss’ own brand of sludgy, sand-soaked heavy rock saw Homme quickly dust himself down and begin anew, kickstarting the rise and rise of arguably modern rock’s most chameleonic musical mind.
As well as releasing the self-titled debut EP of a new project, Gamma Ray, Homme would join Washington alternative rock heroes Screaming Trees as a hired rhythm guitarist for a string of shows including the massive Lollapalooza in 1996. When the inevitable question arose, he plainly told MTV, “It ends up boiling down to this: I'd been in (Kyuss) since I was 14 years old; that was only thing I knew how to do. So I just had to quit. I didn't want to have to kick the dead horse.”
Following a cease-and-desist from a German band of the same name, Gamma Ray soon nominally evolved into Queens of the Stone Age, but before plunging into the project, Homme rounded up a cast of like-minded musician friends from the likes of Soundgarden, Monster Magnet, as well as former Kyuss drummers Brant Bjork and Alfredo Hernández for a new musical collective series dubbed The Desert Sessions. With music jammed out and recorded “on the spot”, Homme said of the venture: “You play for the sake of music. It’s easy to forget that this all starts from playing in your garage and loving it.”
Having yielded ten volumes bringing together Mark Lanegan, PJ Harvey, future Queens of the Stone Age guitarist Troy Van Leeuwen and more, it proved – not least in hindsight – a real catalyst for the rebirth of an artist who hasn’t paused for a moment to entertain stagnation in the two decades since.
Following the release of Kyuss/Queens of the Stone Age – an EP documenting the midpoint between the two bands – Queens of the Stone Age’s self-titled debut album marked Homme’s fully-fledged creative emancipation in 1998. With NME noting the imprint of artists as distinct as Black Sabbath and Neu! on the record, Kyuss’ stoner rock aesthetic of groove-laden, low-end heft had evolved into a sleeker, forward-thinking proposition that married the likes of keyboards and maracas with Homme’s trademark, fuzzed-out riffing.
In its restraint and exploration, Queens of the Stone Age was as much a smart and menacing release as it was sexy and minimalistic one, something that its follow-up, Rated R, blew apart in exquisite fashion. Teaming up with ex-Kyuss bassist and notorious livewire Nick Oliveri, the latter was a critically-acclaimed effort that doubled up as the band's breakout album in the UK upon its release in 2000. Presenting a decidedly more expansive, tripped-out tone, vibraphones, horns, steel drums, sax and a slew of breakneck riffs coalesced across 42 minutes that peaked on singles “The Lost Art of Keeping a Secret”, “Feel Good Hit of the Summer” and “Monsters in the Parasol”. As groundbreaking as Kyuss were, Homme was carving out a new sonic path that vindicated the sudden end of his first band.
“Queens of the Stone Age... marked Homme’s fully-fledged creative emancipation”
With solid groundwork laid over six years, 2002’s Songs For The Deaf upped the ante tenfold and ushered in something special for Homme and Queens of the Stone Age. Having befriended the frontman at a Kyuss show with fellow Nirvana member Krist Novoselic in 1992, Dave Grohl – as well as Oliveri, Lanegan, multi-instrumentalist Alain Johannes, current Pixies bassist Paz Lenchantin, long-time collaborator Chris Goss and several others – came together to realise Homme’s aim of recording a concept album informed by memories of uncomfortable car rides through the California desert in the Kyuss days, where the only thing to do to pass the time was to listen to Spanish radio stations. From “Go With The Flow” and desert-noir lullaby “Mosquito Song” to “First It Giveth” and once ubiquitous lead single “No One Knows”, the record remains a masterstroke that saw Queens of the Stone Age transition from respected rock torchbearers to full-blown icons of the genre.
Having experienced a new lease of life behind the kit on the album, Dave Grohl told The Fade at the time, “I love this band. I’ve known them for years and they invited me to play on this record. They’re one of my favourite bands and I haven’t played drums in a long time. It’s great music to play drums to.”
Not long after firing Nick Oliveri from Queens of Stone Age in early 2004, another project of Homme’s soon found the right time to spread its wings. Co-founded by Jesse ‘The Devil’ Hughes and Homme back in 1998 and first appearing on Volumes 3 & 4 of The Desert Sessions that October, the Homme-produced debut album from Eagles of Death Metal landed in 2005. Not unlike the escapism Dave Grohl experienced on Songs For The Deaf, Homme said, “I just sit behind the drums and play rock and roll, which is a great change of pace for me. It’s the antithesis of the bloated rock-attitude bullshit I’ve had to deal with recently.”
Sure enough, Eagle of Death Metal’s swaggering garage rock shtick offered Homme some commitment-free sanctuary before Queens of the Stone Age regrouped for 2005’s Lullabies to Paralyze and 2007’s Era Vulgaris, two well-received – if less critically devoured or commercially successful – releases serving as wonderfully twisting, experimental ricochets of Songs For The Deaf.
“As cross-generational rock supergroups go, (Them Crooked Vultures) band knocked it out of the park”
With a stable core line-up of Homme, guitarist Troy Van Leeuwen and drummer Joey Castillo, Queens of The Stone Age called their first official – and frankly well-earned – break in 2008. Of course, in the case of Homme, this meant cutting loose and breaking some more new ground. Aside from co-producing the likes of Arctic Monkeys’ third album Humbug and dedicating more time to the Eagles of Death Metal cause, the interval bred his most inspired collaboration to date when he hooked up once more with Dave Grohl and bona fide rock royalty in Led Zeppelin’s John Paul Jones to form Them Crooked Vultures.
As cross-generational rock supergroups go, the band knocked it out of the park. Blending Grohl’s pummeling drums, some of Homme’s nastiest riffs and JPJ’s command of everything from bass, clavinet, optigan and mandolin, the threesome’s self-titled debut album felt like a stomping, bombastic thirteen-track jam stemming from the same source that compelled Homme to found The Desert Sessions 12 years previous. Said John Paul Jones, “I had heard some of his Queens of the Stone Age material, but I wasn’t prepared for just how good (Homme) was. I’m particularly blown away by just what a good guitar player he is. I almost feel like he was hiding something there. And he’s a great singer and writer too.”
Having broken Queens of the Stone’s six-year hiatus via the cohesive and commanding …Like Clockwork in 2013, the fact Homme ended up working with one of his idols, Iggy Pop, on last year’s Post Pop Depression was nothing if not a little pre-destined. Two artists cut from the same cloth of brazen reinvention, the pair started working together after Pop scoped out Homme’s interest by text message. Self-financed and recorded in secrecy at legendary Desert Sessions haven Rancho De La Luna, as well as Homme’s Burbank studio Pink Duck, the album – a masterfully restrained meditation on mortality – served as yet another stage in Homme’s career-long pattern of veering between Queens of the Stone Age and collaborative projects that, above all else, put the music centre-stage.
“The fact Homme ended up working with one of his idols, Iggy Pop, on last year’s Post Pop Depression was nothing if not a little pre-destined... (they are) two artists cut from the same cloth of brazen reinvention”
Although he wasn’t performing with the band on the night, Homme told the New York Times that preparing Post Pop Depression helped him cope with the aftermath of Eagles of Death Metal and their fans being caught up in the horrific attack on the Bataclan in Paris in November, 2015: “I wasn’t there by a stroke of fate. I guess it was my fate to be home and to bring them home. My dearest friends – how will they unsee that?”
Despite assuming he’d grow up to be “a good contractor like his dad”, Homme has seen beyond, carving out a four-decade career as a collaborator, producer, instigator and creator. Whether co-producing Lady Gaga or teaming up with everyone from Trent Reznor and Peaches to Primal Scream and Death From Above 1979, he has always wielded curveballs to his advantage, shapeshifting and weathering trends like few others, all while towing the line between heavy and earworming, emphatic and understated, accessible and uncompromising. With the Mark Ronson-produced and downright danceable Villains offering up another opportunity to appreciate another side to his craft as part of Queens of the Stone Age, Homme’s words to Joel McIver in 2007 about the dissolution of Kyuss feels a bit like a personal mantra for resisting nostalgia in favour of embracing the new and being here now: “If you weren’t there, well, you weren’t. That’s just the luck of the draw. I’ll let other bands alter their great legacies.”
Queens of the Stone Age release Villains on August 25