LA. Late afternoon. You pick up a rental car and start to drive. As you leave the city lights behind and the landscape turns to dust, you realise the magnitude of what you’re about to do. For the next week, you’re abandoning everything you know, embarking on a trip into the desert with some of the world’s most accomplished musicians – people you’ve never met.
Sure, you’re a master of your craft, but that’s within the comfort of your own band, your own studio, your own schedule. The pressure to create something new, within a tight timeframe and with strangers, starts to set in: “What the fuck am I doing?”
This might sound like the start of a hipster Choose Your Own Adventure book, but in fact this was how some of rock’s biggest names spent last Christmas, packing a bag and preparing to head into unknown. In the weeks just gone, they’d each received a call from Josh Homme – Queens of the Stone Age frontman and musical innovator – inviting them to California’s Joshua Tree for an intensive, week-long, recording session at middle-of-nowhere studio Rancho De La Luna; the magical desert destination that has spawned celebrated albums such as Arctic Monkeys’ ‘AM‘, Iggy Pop’s ‘Post-Pop Depression‘ and part of Foo Fighters’ ‘Sonic Highways‘. ‘Desert Sessions, Vol. 11/12’ was about to kick off.
“It’s sort of like a fancy dress party” says Mike Kerr, Royal Blood frontman and one of the 10 chosen for Josh Homme’s latest game of musical Heads, Bodies and Legs. “On your way there you think, ‘What the fuck am I wearing?’, and then you arrive and realise everyone else is in fancy dress too. Then it’s a party.”
It’s been 16 years since Josh Homme last called on his peers to pack up and head with him into the wilds. ‘Desert Sessions Vol. 9/10‘ saw collaborations with PJ Harvey, Joey Castillo (former drummer in Danzig) and Twiggy Ramirez (Marilyn Manson’s former guitarist) alongside some of Josh’s Queens of the Stone Age compadres. This year’s line-up is no less fruity, if a little more feminine.
There’s Primus’ Les Claypool: bass-thumping master of his instrument, Stella Mogzawa and Carla Azar, drummers for Warpaint and Jack White, the aforementioned Mike Kerr; Royal Blood singer and guitarist; Matt Berry, the Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace and Toast of London comedian (but also the man behind six of his own studio albums); Matt Sweeney; who also toured with Josh and Iggy for Post-Pop Depression; Scissor Sister Jake Shears, and the Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top. Plus two unknowns – one quite literally – in the form of Libby Grace and Töôrnst Hülpft, but more on them later.
“It should read funny on paper”, says Josh of this year’s eclectic lineup, while slurping a coffee at his Pink Duck Studios in Burbank, Los Angeles. “That way, it’s interesting before it even starts. I’ve been doing these long enough to understand the bizarre chemistry that’s necessary and to know that it should seem like it’s from disparate ends of the Earth.”
It’s 10am and Homme’s already been to pick up his motorbike from the repair shop – a beast of a Harley that only a person of his stature could command – and tended to his kids (one is about to take his first ever solo flight to visit mum across country and another is at home with a temperature).
Far from the tequila-swigging, quiff-rocking, Queens of the Stone Age frontman you might expect, this is Josh in Dad Mode. While his wife, Distillers badass Brody Dalle-Homme, is busy touring with her band, the desert native has been taking time out from from his own band to look after their three children and “try and relax”. But after a significant break – it’s been two years since Queens’ swaggering last record ‘Villains‘ – Joshua Tree came a-calling.
“I’d tried to do one of these a few times, but if they don’t happen in December or January, they’re off,” he explains while puffing on a Parliament cigarette. A combination of busy schedules and the desert reaching cook-you-as-soon-as-look-at-you temperatures means there is only a small sliver of time in any given year which Desert Sessions can happen. For the last 16 years, that window had been and gone.
“If you can catch those first two weeks of January, you can really get someone when their energy and enthusiasm is ready to go,” Josh says. “Because you can’t help but have somebody agree to do this and then have some moment where they doubt it, like, ‘Oh really? I have to go to the desert now?’ And it sounds fun but it also sounds like a pain in the ass, particularly for guys like Mike or Matt.”
But for the majority of the crack team selected – British or otherwise – logistics were not going to stand in the way of them being part of a now-legendary project.
“We saw each other at a party a week or so before I ended up in the desert,” says Stella Mozgawa, Australian drummer for Warpaint and a fairly last-minute recruit to this year’s collective. “It was quite cold so they were handing out these really nice patterned Mexican blankets. I’d gotten quite drunk and taken one, so when Josh asked if he could call me, I genuinely thought he was calling me to say, ‘It was great to see you, what a fun night but can you please return that blanket you stole?’ I was quite relieved when he said, ‘Do you wanna come up and make some music next week?'”
So with squad assembled and the date set, where does it all begin?
“There’s a bit of mental disrobing that goes on as you drive to the desert.” Josh muses. “I think as a musician, particularly in this day and age, you have a bit of armour on to protect yourself from grabbing hands and chatting mouths and closed ears. You do it to insulate yourself. But on the way to Joshua Tree, you take a lot of that off – which is ultimately a combination of insecurity and bravado – and you really empty your pockets of the residual of trying to protect yourselves.”
With their baggage left in the big city, then, 11 strangers make the sparse, two-and-a-bit hour drive out of Los Angeles. “When I showed up after a very long ride on my own,” Mike Kerr says, “I was surrounded by mountains and it got really cold. I couldn’t handle it. I felt like Elf. Like Will Ferrell in Elf! Looking out the window, like, ‘Where the fuck am I?'”
Unlike previous Desert Sessions, the record is not a sprawling mixtape of guitar solos and rock riffs. This time they’ve kept things neat. Consisting of just eight songs, each one as motley as its crew, the album twists and turns, slipping between genres and supporting the idea that perhaps there is something quite magical about this little studio, deep in the wilderness. “There are fewer songs on this record than the others, but they all get this extreme detail work. I said to people when we began: we can do anything we want to. Nothing is off limits. All we have to do is like it.”
And like it we do. Opener ‘Move Together’ is a perfect tone-setter for this most unpredictable of albums: Billy Gibbons’ snarly vocal over a simple loop, a little cowbell, some stonking guitar, unnerving pauses and sexy-as-fuck lyrics. Here you’ve got your bar setter: this isn’t any old rock n’ roll record.
The rest of the album is a wild ride. ‘Noses in Roses, Forever’ wouldn’t sound out of place on a Queens of the Stone Age record – and, in fact, several past Desert Sessions songs, including ‘Make it Wit Chu’ and ‘In My Head’, have been plucked from origin and placed onto Queens’ albums. Even when the tracks ooze with the familiarity of Josh’s vocal, though, there’s a sprinkling of weird that makes you pause, rewind and ask yourself what exactly it is you’re listening to.
“All of this is about seeing how far down the river goes.” says Josh. “Where does it start? Where does it end? And allowing yourself to be swept away with the pace of that river”
Well, rivers are nice and getting lost in the music is great and all that – but how do you get over real things like nerves? And telling people their idea is no good?
He laughs: “I hear it from the outside and it sounds a little like, ‘Going out to the desert to make a record? Pretentious? Moi?’ But it’s really none of those things. There is always someone who has more nerves than others but everyone is feeling a spectrum of emotions. I’m like a tour guide heading deep into the heart of bizarre. Much like Santa Claus, you have to believe for it to be real.”
Santa Claus. And Elf. What’s next, Rudolf? Or perhaps a sup on Saint Nick’s boozy stash to ease the first-night jitters?
“It wasn’t super loose like that but we definitely indulged.” says Stella with a laugh, remembering that Les Claypool of funk metal titans Primus turned up on the first night of the sessions.”He has his own wines that he makes on a vineyard in California, so he brought a stack of them and we were indulging in that most nights, at dinner and stuff. And also Rancho De La Luna – I feel like I’m sponsored by them – makes their own mezcal. So there was always delicious alcohol available for our consumption.
“But it never got like the classic, ‘Everyone got fucked up on mushrooms and super drunk and whatever happened, happened’. It was always about the music and the process and getting to know these new people who you’ve maybe seen on tour, but never got the opportunity to make music with before.”
Mike Kerr adds: “It’s sorta like being on the edge of a cliff and figuring out who’s willing to be the first one to jump. One person would just say, ‘Okay, I’ve got an idea!’ and everyone would be just be in straight away. It felt like a really tight team, actually. It’s amazing because you’re halfway through a track – and it’s going really well – a nd you just think, ‘Fucking hell! I’ve never even met these people let alone written with them.’ And it feels like this has been going for years. It’s a really powerful experience.”
A little further down the weird and windy road, past a Mexican-inspired instrumental (‘Far East From The Trees’), a reimagined country track sung by Josh’s old friend, Libby Grace, (‘If You Run’) and a classic verse/chorus glam-rock anthem (‘Crucifire’), we reach what is surely the heart of bizarre. ‘Chic Tweetz’ combines the comedic-sounding (but, I am assured, very serious) Finnish accent of one Töôrnst Hülpft: a man, it seems, who turned up at Pink Duck where this song was largely laid down, each person there assuming he was a friend of the other. Josh – at least at the time of our chat – is still none the wiser as to who this guy actually is.
“Matt [Berry] was in town so I said, ‘Let’s not go out – let’s just hang out at Pink Duck and we can order dinner in. Dinner and a movie for me and brother Berry. I asked Stella to come by, too, and I thought Matt knew that guy Töôrnst. I thought he was with Matt, but, honestly, I think that’s not correct because then Matt started asking me about him and I was like, ‘What! I thought he was with you?’ He was just this weird guy who turned up at the same time as the others. Nobody comes here unless they know, so it seems inconceivable that it was just random.”
Over a Rocky-Horror-esque organ, Töôrnst’s slightly ludicrous vocal and camp lyrics is something of a palate cleanser. “I sent you: chic tweets! / Unanswered for weeks, I want take peeks in those cheeks / I sent you this: hot fax! And you gave me de axe / I said I would wax all your cracks”
You get the idea. “The whole song was so childish but Töôrnst was so serious!” laughs Josh. “I just sort of went with it. I should probably call Matt and find out who he is.”
It’s hard to imagine going into a process like Desert Sessions – which still sounds like some kind of terrible but intriguing anxiety dream – and coming out quite the same. Each of the players describe it as something of a spiritual experience. The result is undoubtedly one of the most exciting and exploratory rock records released in recent years, and you can’t help but wonder if more of our favourite artists wouldn’t benefit from being exiled to the desert once in a while.
“All it’s doing, really, is asking a question,” Josh says. “And that is: ‘Do you remember why you started playing? Because there’s nobody out here to care, except you and me.’
It’s with this wisdom that we are reminded that this is not Homme’s first Rancho. And we hope to Hell it ain’t his last.
– ‘Desert Sessions Vol. 11/12’ is released on October 25