Last week, Queens Of The Stone Age announced plans to go on hiatus. “There will be future stuff with Queens, we’re just taking a break since we had a long, long two years of touring,” bassist Michael Shuman told an interviewer. “We’ll take a break to do other stuff.” In case the prospect of a lengthy wait till another album of thunderous riffs and desert sleaze is getting you down, here’s the mighty Josh Homme’s last NME cover feature: a May 2013 conversation with Tom Howard in Paris, not long after a near-death experience that reshaped his approach to life, lust and rocking…
In 2010, Queens Of The Stone Age frontman Josh Homme’s heart stopped when something went wrong during routine knee surgery. The doctors had to revive him with a defibrillator. It was widely reported, because he’s the leader of one of the most significant heavy rock bands of the last 15 years. And, on the surface, he came out of it unscathed.
A year later, in 2011, the band headlined the Other Stage at Glastonbury. It was one of their biggest shows ever. Everything seemed like it was going incredibly well. But, says the 39-year-old, chugging away on an electric cigarette, when he woke up on that operating table “pieces of me were missing”. And what’s happened to him since he was nearly an ex-Homme have been “the roughest couple of years I’ve ever had”. He was “physically and mentally exhausted” and “bed-ridden for four months”, and on various occasions throughout this interview he describes the period of time since he died as “the fog”. He elaborates: “You go through things, you feel sorry for yourself. [When you’re bed-ridden] you read every book, watch every show and you have two months left to ride out, so what do you do? Your mind goes sideways. I disappear when it gets like that, because I’m not the sort of guy who can [talk to people I know and] go, ‘This tastes like shit, taste it.’ It’s hard to want to include someone you care about when it’s awful.”
Right now, in a hotel room in Paris, Josh Homme doesn’t look like a man who’s had to rebuild himself. Right now he looks like the flame-haired king of the Californian desert he’s famous for being – born in Joshua Tree, raised in Palm Desert, living in the Hollywood Hills with his wife, current Spinnerette and ex-Distillers frontwoman Brody Dalle, and their two kids. He is precisely as gigantic as you’d expect, and when he first strolls into the room he’s wearing a knee-length grey trenchcoat and talking about how rubbish the questions he was asked in his previous interview were. It turns out the journalist hadn’t been given the fact sheet described by the band’s publicist as “questions not to ask Queens Of The Stone Age” that explains who all the special guests on the band’s imminent sixth album ‘…Like Clockwork’ are, and which tracks they play on. Those names in full: Dave Grohl, Alex Turner, Elton John, Trent Reznor, Jake Shears, Mark Lanegan, Nick Oliveri and Brody Dalle. So you can see why everyone wants to talk about it. What people don’t realise is these people aren’t Josh Homme’s guests, they’re Josh Homme’s friends. They’re friends who helped him when he “lost just about everything”. And this is the story of one man dealing with life after death, with a little help from those friends.
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The first person Homme spoke to about making new music was Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor, who does backing vocals on the gloopy and drifting ‘…Like Clockwork’ track ‘Kalopsia’, named after the delusion of finding things more beautiful than they really are. “I didn’t know if I could make a record again,” says Homme. “And I don’t know why, but I called Trent. I wanted him to produce the record and I didn’t have many songs or know what I was doing and was completely lost. I just said, ‘Man, you wanna have some coffee?’ and he came to my studio [Pink Duck Studios in LA] and we talked for about five and a half, six hours. We didn’t talk about music much, just the world outside of it. We were acquaintances before but he’s funny and smart and honest and a good communicator, you know. And we did it again, and again. And I talked to him about producing the record. And then I went back into a like [acts decrepit] for a while, buzzing like a fridge I guess. Then when I came back he was starting the Nine Inch Nails record so he didn’t produce my record, but he helped me a lot.”
This is when Homme realised he definitely wanted to make a new Queens Of The Stone Age album, so he got in touch with his band members Troy Van Leeuwen (guitar), Dean Fertita (keyboards/guitar), Michael Shuman (bass) and Joey Castillo (drums), and “asked them to come into the fog with me”. He adds: “Five of us went into the fog and four of us came out.” He won’t say what happened, but Homme ended up firing Castillo, his drummer of 10 years who played on 2005’s ‘Lullabies To Paralyze’ and 2007’s ‘Era Vulgaris’, just as he fired his “best friend” and bassist Nick Oliveri back in 2004 after the Songs For The Deaf Tour. And what do you do when your name is Josh Homme and you need a drummer? You call Dave Grohl.
“I know it’s Dave Grohl as in Nirvana and that’s what everyone else thinks, but it’s just my friend Dave who I have a special musical relationship with that’s just different, you know. I’m used to musical relationships and collaborations being fleeting and that’s OK and I don’t mind. Not everything lasts. But for some reason me and Dave is still going. And my friend Dave was like, ‘FUCK YEAH’. He drinks a lot of coffee. So he was excited and I was excited. You let Joey go, two days later you’re playing with Dave. Then two days later you’re playing with Elton John. Fucking nuts. Shaking hands with Elton with a gaping wound that’s dripping with the psychological blood of letting your drummer of 10 years go; just like, ‘Hi’.”
Elton’s the only person on ‘…Like Clockwork’ to approach Homme, rather than the other way around. He called him up out of the blue one day and said: “The only thing missing from your band is an actual queen.” “Traditionally,” says Homme, “when people call and say ‘I wanna be on your record’, it doesn’t work. He’s the only guy who’s been, like, ‘Let’s jam together’ that I’ve been ‘cool’ too.”
Next thing you know Elton’s at Pink Duck Studios. “He was fucking wonderful,” says Homme. “What I was able to glean from the situation is that typically people have something recorded for him and they want him to play on top of it. And if it’s a rock band it’s always a ballad, apparently. ’Cos he walked in and was like, ‘[Puts on English accent] Do you have a ballad for me?’ And I was like, ‘No, we’re playing a rock song, you’re joining our band for the day.’ And we gave him ‘Fairweather Friends’, which is not an easy song to learn. All the piano is him. He started by playing nothing but the root of the song, which is so amazing and respectful and experienced. Then, after about 20 minutes he was just like, ‘[Puts English accent back on] I’m gonna start flowering it out a little bit.’ To watch him do that was just fucking badass. We played for three and a half hours. That’s how long it took to get it. Then he stayed for another three and a half hours and he just talked and hung out and bullshitted and looked at fucked-up pictures on the internet.”
Next came Alex Turner, who Homme has known for a while, having produced Arctic Monkeys’ 2009 album ‘Humbug’ and provided backing vocals on track ‘All My Own Stunts’ from 2011’s ‘Suck It And See’. “We ride motorcycles together,” Homme says. “Stuff like that. Just ride through the hills, pick a spot to go to, turn around and come home. No cellphones, because you can’t on a motorcycle. If you don’t pay attention you die. And you look over and all you hear is [makes motorcycle noises] and it’s just [clicks fingers] and nothing else is going on. Get to the spot, have lunch, turn around, come home.” On ‘…Like Clockwork’ Turner provides backing vocals on the dirty funkiness of ‘If I Had A Tail’. Says Homme: “With Alex it was like, ‘Will you come over here just for a few hours and drink tequila and maybe we could sing something?’, and he’s like, ‘Yup’.”
The most eyebrow-raising person to pop up on the album, though, is Nick Oliveri. He and Homme were in Kyuss together from 1990– 1992, before Oliveri was booted out. Then in Queens Of The Stone Age together from 1998 until 2004, when Oliveri was sacked for reasons that may or may not include being violent towards his girlfriend. The two have since made up. “It’s what it is, not what it was,” say Homme. “I know people get hung up on stuff but what am I supposed to do, go door to door and explain the situation? Nick recorded his record [with his band Mondo Generator] at my studio, and he was dropping some vinyl off and was like, ‘Er, need background vocals?’ and I was
like, ‘Yeah’. So he sang on ‘If I Had A Tail’. Him and Mark Lanegan are going “Oooohohohoooo”. It’s just friends, you know. And that’s good enough for me.”
Homme is, of course, well aware that the contacts section of his mobile phone is about 600 times more impressive than most. “I know it’s got some marquee value to somebody else, and I’m realising that to the outsider it’s like, ‘Woah’. But I just needed a distraction from how confusing this record was to make. The songs were what they were. But it’s like a Christmas tree. It exists before you put decorations on it, but it’s cool to put decorations on it.
“Every Queens record has an umbrella over it that’s the arc of the big picture, you know. For me it’s very simple and I understand what word is written on top of the umbrella. First record [1998, self-titled]: repetition. Second [‘Rated R’ in 2000]: fan it out. Third [2002’s ‘Songs For The Deaf’]: drive home and harness the chaos. Fourth [2005, ‘Lullabies To Paralyze’]: make it about music again, you know. Redemption. Fifth [‘Era Vulgaris’ in 2007]: anger. And this one is: what do you do when you’re lost, man?”
In many ways ‘…Like Clockwork’ is a classic Queens Of The Stone Age album. The drumming is monstrous. The riffs are gigantic. Josh Homme sounds like a warlord. The accompanying visual art, done by a young British artist called Boneface that Homme read about in an American magazine called Juxtapoz, is all stunningly bleak and blood-splattered and, of course, rich with imagery from the Californian desert. It’s easily the band’s best album since ‘Songs For The Deaf’, but also their most wounded. Pretty much every song features words about feeling confused, lost or scared. Despite the fact that Josh Homme is, in 2013, “feeling wonderful – shoulders back and head up”, there are absolutely no gloriously irresponsible “C-C-C-C-C-CO-CAINE” moments.
On the “nihilistic funk” of ‘Smooth Sailing’ he’s explaining: “Fear is the hand which pulls your strings”. On ‘I Appear Missing’, the longest track on the album, he’s all: “Prisoner on the loose/ description: the spitting image of me/except for a heart-shaped hole where hope runs out”. ‘Fairweather Friends’, the album’s most grandiose tune, poses the question: “Is there anyone out there, or am I walking alone?” On the delicate piano number ‘The Vampyre Of Time And Memory’ which Homme “hated at first” is the despairing: “Does anyone ever get this right? I feel no love”. Then on the album’s finale, the ever-so-slightly John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’ title track: “One thing that is clear, it’s all downhill from here”. It’s a pretty negative way to end an album that got him through the worst period of his life.
“Funny you bring that up,” he says. “Because it wasn’t really for the Queens record. It was just so powerful that you couldn’t look away, and I was talking to the band about that track and we were like ‘Does anyone know what ‘It’s all downhill from here’ means?’ And we were like, ‘Is it bad or good?’ And we couldn’t decide, so I Googled it and the internet didn’t know either. So I actually thought it was a wonderful way to end the record, because the consensus among all of us was that it’s up to you. So apparently you’re quite a negative person. Because downhill is coasting, right? But it’s a phrase that sits on the fence. You need to decide which side you’re gonna jump on. But you gotta jump.”
Other than lyrics, another major difference between this Queens record and any other Queens record is it took seven months of hardcore studio action to tease it out. Work it out. Get it all… out. “It took so fucking long,” says Homme. “Every song is like a person. They need to be represented correctly. It’s a bit like being a miner – not meaning a young person – in that you’re doing your best to uncover the gems of what you don’t understand, and it’s hard work. Queens records have always been so simple. I could see where it’s supposed to be, and hear it in my head. And people walk to what they’re looking at and I’d just be like, ‘There it is, let’s go to there’ and it’d be this joy. But when you’re lost in the fog and you don’t know where to go you can’t hear it any more, you know. And so you just work, and you walk forward. I waited for months just going, ‘What do I do?’ How about stand up and start putting one foot in front of the other? It’s almost killed me too, let’s be honest.”
One thing that got Homme through the making of this album is humour. He’s a funny guy. When the hotel fire alarm goes off during the photoshoot he dances and sings along, saying, “This sounds like our next record!” At one point during the interview I ask him to sniff the Parisian air and tell me how it smells different to the Hollywood Hills. He opens the window, drinks it in, then just puts him arm around me and says: “I like you.” After the interview, someone asks him about how much he likes Game Of Thrones and suggests he write a song for it, like The National did, at which point he starts singing the words “Gandalf and Merlin walk into a bar”. Pretty sure that means he’s not into the idea.
The album title is also a joke. “It just became a mantra. When things were going well we’d be saying, ‘It’s going like clockwork!’ But when things were going badly we’d be like, ‘[sarcastically] It’s going like clockwork.’ There were periods where I was just like ‘WHY?’ But we were laughing the whole time and getting along the whole time. When things are going great it’s hilarious, and when things are the worst they’ve ever been, it’s never been funnier. That’s how I’ve always dealt with stuff. Gallows humour. When the hangman farts. If you can’t laugh at yourself, someone else will.” Laughing your way through misery is, I suggest, very much the British way. “Nah,” he responds. “It’s the desert way.”
And you know what? It worked. Life after death sucked hard for Homme, but it was also “the greatest thing that’s ever happened to me. I got to reprioritise everything. Some things that were important don’t mean anything now. And even though I had to find my way back, where I’m at right now it’s the best thing that ever happened to me. My grandpa always used to say, ‘Everyone gets knocked down, but it’s the style with which you get up that’s important.’ And standing up feels pretty goddamn good. This is everything I got. You can love it or hate it and I’m OK with that. But it’s real, and that’s all I can do. I don’t expect everyone to love it, but it would be so awesome to be someone’s favourite band. I just wanna be someone’s favourite band.”