Queens Of The Stone Age, led by the inimitable Josh Homme, don’t do things by halves. That’s why we caught them celebrating the release of new album ‘Villains’ by attempting to play Reading and Leeds Festivals on the same day…
Only a fool would try to match Josh Homme drink for drink. A fool or Mark Ronson. It’s just gone midday and the towering, cowboy shirt-wearing Queens Of The Stone Age frontman Homme is prowling around the band’s backstage compound at Leeds Festival, hammering tequila with dapper producer Ronson, who’s responsible for the Californian rock titans’ latest album, the up-tempo, groove-ridden ‘Villains’. It’s release day and the band are celebrating by playing not-so-very-secret sets at both Reading and Leeds Festivals on the same day (August 25) – the first band ever to attempt this cross-country feat – and drinking a whole lot of booze.
A helicopter emblazoned with the band’s name is ferrying them first from London to Leeds and then back down to Reading. “In the upstairs there’s an open bar,” jokes Homme of the chopper. “And I did some laps of the pool – I don’t know how many I did because I was so busy looking at the stables.” The fact that the band’s founding member is currently brandishing a silver-topped cane due to a long-standing knee injury exacerbated by the recent all-singing, all-dancing video shoot for ‘The Way You Used To Do’ hasn’t hampered the party, even though he underwent surgery just two weeks ago.
“I tore my leg up in the morning [but] I didn’t want anyone to know because then they would, like, try to baby me,” he says of the epic 18-hour video shoot, which sees Homme channelling Fred Astaire, Willy Wonka and Satan himself. Despite the injury, Homme upheld his Australian and Japanese tour commitments too. “I can bite my lip, so I just did that a lot,” he explains, and so he did until it got so serious the band had to pull out of San Francisco’s Outside Lands Festival, much to Homme’s disappointment. “We had to cancel a show which I really don’t like doing, you know, everyone cancels if their finger hurts.”
Strutting onstage for the first gig of the day in blinging biker boots, Homme ditches the cane and goes in hard. It might be early, but the Leeds crowd crammed into the NME/Radio 1 tent are madly up for it, seamlessly arranging themselves into a circle pit for the filthy glamabilly of the new ‘Villains’ material as well as big hitters like ‘No One Knows’ and ‘Little Sister’. “It’s a f**king pleasure to be here,” Homme tells the first big crowd of the weekend. “I gotta tell you, no matter how sober you are, I’m already f**ked up.” It’s a good audience, but if it wasn’t, Homme would be the first to say something.
Well known for calling out crowd members when he spots dickish behaviour, Homme has been fighting the good fight since the band’s early days. “Once in Holland, I think it was the Lowlands Festival, I saw a guy punching a girl in the face, right by the front row,” he says. “My whole life, I hate watching people get bullied and so, in a manner of speaking, you turn and you try to bully the bully. I have done that many times. I’m the only one with a mic so I think sometimes it perhaps looks like I’m bullying somebody – and I actually am.”
The band have long attempted to cultivate a progressive and supremely awesome fanbase. “I think I’ve always been trying to prune our audience [of] racist, homophobic, misogynistic assholes,” states Homme with intent. “The idea is to have our audience be an open-minded group of individuals. I think that’s why even picking Ronson initially [was] to chase people away.” Indeed, bringing in the ‘Uptown Funk’ producer to help bring a touch of perky chart-friendly gloss to the new record might have pissed off many a purist, but Homme is the kind of guy who doesn’t just like f**king with people – he’s the kind of guy who relishes it.
A swirling mass of contradictions, Homme is the rock star who doesn’t listen to rock music, preferring instead to kick back to the sweet sounds of an online radio station called Dreamboats And Petticoats which plays 1950s and 1960s deep cuts by classic crooners like Marty Wilde and Gene Pitney. I ask if Queens are a pop band. “Yeah, I think so. I think we’re an art band… There was a fire at the paint factory and all the colours mixed together and blew up. I think that the whole point is not to blend in. I think we’ve always had this element of art and pop, heaviness and darkness. There is a certain goofiness to it all too.” He enjoys more mainstream music as well. “I don’t have any guilty pleasures because I don’t feel bad. I don’t care if it’s Britney Spears or if there’s some f**king good Katy Perry songs.”
He’s also the hard-drinking, foul-mouthed tough guy who, the day before Reading & Leeds, recorded an episode of CBeebies’ Bedtime Stories, information he reveals to NME with a huge grin on his face. A father of three, he was recently spotted playing at a local school alongside his wife, musician Brody Dalle, and Garbage’s Butch Vig, rattling through Cheap Trick covers for a bunch of giddy 11-year-olds.
When asked what he thinks he might be doing were he not a world-conquering musical force, he pauses for a second. “I have forgotten to play that hypothetical game because it has been so long. I used to think, like, ‘Damn, what am I going to do?’ and I never really got to answer it.” Another pause. “I mean, at this point, if I didn’t do this, I would love to help kids.” Did he know he was a kid guy before he had them himself? “No, in fact I was sort of like, ‘You should probably keep your kids away from me because I don’t wanna touch them in case they get high or something’.”
Whether it’s reading bedtime stories, working with Lady Gaga (he played guitar on four songs on her 2016 album ‘Joanne’) or randomly appearing in cult television comedies like Portlandia and Toast Of London, Homme is all about surprising people.
“I think going where I’m not supposed to go just feels good,” he explains, gold tooth glinting as he smiles. But despite the fame, the critical accolades, the recent stint touring with his idol Iggy Pop, playing in Them Crooked Vultures with Dave Grohl, the seven majestic Queens Of The Stone Age albums under his belt and the handmade Hedi Slimane leather jacket on his back, Homme – who was raised in hot and dusty Palm Desert, California – still suffers from imposter syndrome. “I’ve always thought that someone would come in, turn off the lights, pull the rug and tell us to leave,” he says. “It’s odd; I often just feel like a kid from the desert that’s not supposed to be here. I still feel like someone is going to go, ‘Go! That’s it!’”
Formed by Homme from the ashes of Kyuss – the band he and friends started as teenagers that defined the atmospheric stoner-rock sound – Queens Of The Stone Age released their debut album in 1998. With the 20-year anniversary on the horizon, will they be celebrating with any special shows? The answer is a definite ‘f**k no’. “I’m not really nostalgic in that way,” Homme shrugs. “I think I probably get a bit more melancholic with that than anything else.” How about, then, a solo Josh Homme album, following his well regarded acoustic show as part of the Meltdown Festival in London back in 2014, where he sat on a stool, quaffed red wine and regaled the adoring crowd with smooth Dean Martin tunes and an embryonic ‘Villains Of Circumstance’, a beefier version of which has found itself a home on the new record? “I mean, I have always had the opportunity – but then you’re all alone. I like the friction of collaborations. I could do [a solo album] but I haven’t had the desire yet.”
Does the idea of being alone make him feel uneasy? Homme shakes his head. “I’m alone enough, already. I do think that the sparks fly from interacting with someone – it’s wonderful. I mean, the first album is basically solo, I play everything apart from the drums.”
Over two decades down the line and Queens Of The Stone Age are a finely tuned rock machine made up of serious pros, all of whom have fully signed up to Captain Josh’s manifesto. “I just wanted to play in a place where it would be OK to understand that someone could come in and maybe be there for a year or two then maybe go somewhere else. It was kind of a bit like a pirate ship, I suppose. Where you would come, take a journey and I’d put you back on dry land and go off.” The current incarnation of the band seem to be sailing on the longest journey yet, with guitarist Troy Van Leeuwen on board since 2002, guitarist Dean Fertita and bassist Michael Shuman just celebrating their 10-year anniversary with the band (“They got each other rings,” jokes Van Leeuwen) and drummer Jon Theodore bashing out the beats since 2013.
After another 45-minute chopper ride, the band touch down in Reading for the second show of the day. Sat by the band’s dressing room, Shuman praises the Leeds crowd for getting involved with their “brunch set” while Van Leeuwen brands the current incarnation of Queens “the most badass yet.” Mark Ronson is strolling around in a white vest, and suddenly Skepta’s here too, meeting Homme for the first time after sampling Queens Of The Stone Age’s early single ‘Regular John’ last year on ‘Man’, winning an Ivor Novello Award for Best Contemporary Song in the process.
The Reading show is even more of a triumph than Leeds, a 35-minute masterclass in controlled rock’n’roll chaos, with propulsive narcotic roll-call ‘Feel Good Hit Of The Summer’ and ‘If I Had A Tail’ oozing sass and swagger. New songs like ‘The Evil Has Landed’ slither and slide, adding fresh opportunity for hip-swinging into an already danceable back catalogue. Who knows where album eight will take us – but Homme isn’t thinking about that yet. “I think there’s no need to care about that now because we have found our answer for today and that will do, you know?” But what he does know is that he’s in this for the long haul. In a David Bowie-worthy move, he wants to go out on a high – no, not that kind of high. “I want the best album of my life to be the one before I die,” he states. “Hopefully I’ll make something beautiful and fragile at the very end.” We don’t doubt him for a second.