Earlier this year, we met Josh Homme at his Pink Duck studios in LA to talk through the latest iteration of his rock n' roll supergroup: Desert Sessions. We had a long chat about each track on the album, recorded at Rancho De La Luna in the Californian desert. Here is that conversation, in full, for you to pour over while listening to Vol. 11/12.
1. ‘Move together’
Words written by Billy F. Gibbons. Music by Joshua Homme, Matt Sweeney, Carla Azar, Stella Mozgawa & Les Claypool.
Josh: “Billie and I have known each other for a long time and we have a trust there. Billie, is a classic piece of art. And so just putting that in a different frame, in a different location musically creates such wonderful surprises. He was the first person looking outside, taking in the vista and I said to him, ‘Hear this loop’. And he said ‘Oh mayyyyn.’ He just has this infectious spirit about him, he never says ‘I hayyyte Gary’ he says, ‘There’s a guy. Who has the most amazing hot sauce…’ so he’s just constantly engaging in what he likes. And so when he heard that loop, he said, ‘Oh you should sing’ and I said, ‘Not me. You.’ So he sang that vocal just over the loop, with nothing else, so he had no concept of how perverted it would get. I have this vision of a gypsy march. I love the crippled factory-like march of that. I love the drama. It’s visual to me too, on the crest of the horizon. It’s like ‘Jesus, what the hell is that, let’s get out of here’. I love the drama of that. That was Stella and Carla meeting each other. It really rings like ‘I bought this stamp factory,’ the sort of machine-like process to create something and they sound wonderful together.
We spent a lot of time on the details of that song which was much different to the other Desert Sessions. There are less songs on this record but they all get this extreme detail work. It became clear that for a song like this, each part that’s loud, you think you know what’s going to happen, but you don’t. But also it feels comfortable, it doesn’t feel like you’re going to get lost. It’s not a merry-go-round –here comes the verse and then the chorus, again – this is more like a bus. You get on one stop and you get off somewhere else completely and that ended up having a lot to do with setting the tone for the record.”
Carla Azar: “Dave from Rancho de la Luna just passed a sequencer to Josh and he brought it outside to the patio to where Billy Gibbons was sitting and he just started singing along to it. And we made this behemoth track from this very precious, very gentle and vulnerable idea, and then it kind of just grows into this monster of a song. It was fun. Everyone who was there for that first leg I was present for, got really involved and it was really exciting. I remember that was a bit of a bonus.”
2. ‘Noses in Roses, Forever’
Words written by Joshua Homme. Music by Joshua Homme & Matt Sweeney.
Josh: “This was the first song we did.
I’ve asked everyone to come here, so regardless of what I’ve said, I need to set a tone in reality for what it actually is and words just won’t do. So it’s important that I would also take the first piece of marble that we’ll sculpt together. I just take a step forward and hope that everyone steps past me and keeps on going. And then I just sort of walk behind in a way, cleaning up and going, ‘Oh well’. It feels like being a tour guide deep into the heart of bizarre. Meanwhile, trying to show them, the swap meet here. This art installation. ‘Let’s go to the Integratron today’ and then come back and record. It’s almost like holding up the strange and unusual, not saying much and seeing what the effect is.
It was not the greatest choice for a first thing because what if you had a song and you took two other songs and just injected them in there. ‘Am I allowed to do that? Is that ok?’ And by the time you’ve done it, it needs to work or you’ve made a big mistake. So after we’d recorded that one and got the first one under way, I thought ‘Oh God, that experiment has to work’ because it’s a bit wild, an experiment of a song. It turned out good. There was a lot of scratching my head thinking ‘How the…’ it was a bit like doing a Rubik’s Cube with a backwards ticking clock, that was the most stressful one for me but that was a good kind of stress.”
3. ‘Far East For The Trees’
Music Written by Joshua Homme, Carla Azar, Les Claypool, Stella Mozgawa
Josh: “The first few songs in any situation like this, need to articulate the absence of the box. There is no box we’re playing in and everything goes. As long as you like something, it really doesn’t matter how far afield it’s coming from. If we put together our likes, it will sound great and so don’t worry about it so much. And I think those first three songs do a good job of articulating a world that doesn’t really have a box.
It’s nice to have an instrumental too, there’s a certain joy of doing something that doesn’t have to be sung over, it kind of sings itself. It’s very landscape-y. If something gives you a lot of visual and reminds you – as my friend says Vu Ja De: it reminds you of a place you’ve never been – so I think that has a certain Vu Ja De. You know you can see this place that I haven’t ever visited before.
I brought my kid’s drumkit because it sounds so good at home. I put it outside by the fireplace and Carla just started playing that and it sounds so good. It was a good example of… if you don’t try and stop ideas and just follow them, because that song’s quite sweet without really trying to be anything.”
4. ‘If You Run’
Words & music by Libby Grace, Joshua Homme & Matt Sweeney
“What’s important, too, is that someone like Billy Gibbons or Mike Kerr or Matt Sweeney who have been involved in so much stuff also meet someone who has never done anything. Libby Grace is… I’ve known her for so long. I’ve always known she has this amazing voice, she writes these infectious songs but she’s never done anything. She ended up marrying one of my good friends but I knew her even before. She’s a mother of two and also has such an interesting voice that is so different.
On the first day, I said ‘How are you doing’ because she has this incredible poker face. I said ‘Are you enjoying yourself or do you hate this, I really cannot tell’. And she said ‘I. Am.Freaking.Out’ and I said ‘For what it’s worth, I can’t tell.’
But also, she was completely ready. She had the initial building blocks of this tune that sounded like a campfire warning, almost like a cautionary tale. She’s country and western in a more traditional sense, like Johnny Cash or Tammy Wynette and so I said, we should really destroy the notion of what country should sound like. That’s sort of a perfect example of Desert Sessions when you say ‘Wow this is really beautiful’ and then you take a hammer and smash it with the mind to take the best piece and shove it into something else. It really is this Frankenstein’s monster of creativity and it feels like you’re being asked to do things you never would, even though you’re not being asked, like ‘Let’s destroy the notion of country and western stuff by putting this very bizarre arrangement together.'”
Words written by Matt Sweeney, Joshua Homme, Mike Kerr & Jake Shears. Music by Matt Sweeney & Joshua Homme
Josh: Matt Sweeney had this moving and grooving thing and it felt like we needed something that moved. Mike and I were both raised very religiously and so we have a lot in common there and that foundation makes for an interesting discussion. And then you have Jake, who was also raised in a very strange community on an island – in Puget Sound – in the middle of nowhere and just dealing with everything that he’s had to deal with too in coming out and emerging from all that, like ‘Ta da!’ just the way Jake does. It was just a great pairing, those two together.
So Mike just seemed like a no-brainer because he’s not playing anything, he’s just singing. His voice, I love too, it’s quite feminine and quite sweet and has a great tonality to it. I love that about his voice, it’s elegant to me. At the root of it all, he’s got this elegant, beautiful woman’s voice and as someone who has a kinship of that, that notion and loving the juxtaposition of not having to yell something, y’know? I recognise this inherent natural sweetness to his voice which I love.
Watch the pull quote will be: ‘Mike has a feminine voice,’ says Josh.
6. ‘Chic Tweetz’
Music by Matt Berry, Stella Mozgawa, Joshua Homme. All those lyrics written by Töôrnst Hülpft (except inner monologue written by Matt Berry).
“There’s something really interesting that happened because it was one of the few things that we recorded here [at Pink Duck in Burbank, LA]. Matt was just in town so I said ‘Let’s not go out, let’s just hang out here and we can order dinner in’. Like dinner and a movie, for me and brother Berry. And then I asked Stella to come by and I thought Matt knew that guy Töôrnst, I thought he was with Matt but honestly I think that’s not correct because he started asking me about him and I was like ‘What, I thought he was with you.’
Well, he was just a strange person. He was just a different person to anyone I knew and when Matt came over, Töôrnst was there too and I think there was confusion… but then Stella ended up knowing Töôrnst but he just showed up. Nobody comes here unless you know, and everyone turned up at the same time but I thought he was friends with Matt. And he may have been.
But what came of it was so bizarre, it was one of the strangest things I’ve been around. I call songs like that a smart bomb, everything is normal and then someone like drops a smoke bomb that has stink in it. And it was so childish and Töôrnst was so serious! So i just sort of went with it. I think at the end of the day, Töôrnst was friends with Stella, it seems inconceivable to me that it would just be random and that someone would get pulled into that world, so it must be that they knew each other but honestly I thought Töôrnst came with Matt because he would know strange folk. Do you know what type of music Matt’s into?
He’s into utterly English sort of folk. My understanding of his musical taste is like ‘Here’s the ethereal quartet’ and I’m like ‘What the…’ it sounds like something more likely to happen at the Renaissance Fair but it’s not the Renaissance Fair, it’s totally legit. Like someone playing a harp in a band for real all the time and I just love that because it’s a constant surprise. I think there’s a pre-conceived notion that every comedian is joking 24/7 but watching Matt dead serious, like, ‘Yeah this is the ethereal quartet’ and I’m waiting for him to mess with me and I’m like ‘Oh, you’re dead serious. OK, let’s do this then’ (laughing.)
It was so funny. It was kind of Töôrnst that kept everything feeling like I couldn’t completely laugh out loud even though I thought I should be. It felt like we were in a very bizarre parade with someone who’s being dead serious and I’m going along because I think it’s funny and then at the end, I thought, ‘Oh my god, but you’re serious?’ Or maybe it’s just the greatest sense of humour of all time because it wasn’t tons of giggles from Töôrnst, just from everybody else. Cultural divide, I guess. And I thought it was brilliant because I couldn’t stop singing it. I had that little guitar lick but it was making fun of something else, like a fake commercial and then when Matt did the stream of consciousness thing, like ‘I have a vocal idea’ and I said ‘Great!’ And that’s actually him saying, ‘Is this the reggae bit?’ and I thought, I’ve gotta leave that in. It’s very spur of the moment, it’s ridiculous, it’s catchy and annoying and strangely, the few people who’ve heard that are like ‘Will you just send me that song, just that one’ and I’m like ‘Really? Cos the others are good too’
It’s there for a good reason, to lighten the air and take away the “Pretentious, moi? I take folks out to the desert.” It has a way of walking into the room that song and goes [raspberry noise] at a black tie event. So I really love that song. I’m gonna call Stella. If I’m going to do press, I really need to know who this person is.
It’s what I love most about getting to do this. When I was in Kyuss and we would be in one hotel room, if we got one, and I would always try and be the last one out the room so I could let go of the door and say ‘And little did he know what was about to happen to him’ because it set the stage for anything, everything, something and it gives me that old feeling of that night with that. ‘And little did he know’.”
7. ‘Something You Can’t See’
Words Written by Jake Shears , Mike Kerr & Dave Catching, Matt Sweeney. Music written by Mike Kerr, Matt Sweeney, Jake Shears, Carla Azar.
“I guess there’s no other way to say this. I kind of drank too much one of the nights as it passed 10:30pm and Mike said ‘I have an idea’ and it was the chord structure for this song. And I said ‘I’m going to go up to the other house’ and I just went up there and passed out. [Sighs] and they just recorded this tune.
I think Jake had just gotten there and he was having those nerves where he’s like ‘How do I fit into this? How do I…? This seems daunting, I should go’. It’s that creative fight or flight which is the same as any other fight or flight. And what I love is, he and Mike – and I guess Sweeney as well – really got together and Jake said to me the next morning I thought ‘I can’t go, I have to stay as hard as I can’, y’know? And when I heard the building blocks of all that the next morning I thought ‘Oh my god, that’s beautiful’. Because it’s almost like a single from another time. And also, lyrically, it took this position that I haven’t heard in rock n’ roll music; some of the loneliness and alienation associated with being a gay man in the world. It was really cool to me. There’s something you don’t hear about with that kind of honesty every day. And I thought this is exactly why I want to do this stuff. So much of the time, you’re shining a light on something that has been lit for so long and every once in a while you move that light and go ‘oh, hello’, to unearth something that doesn’t often get its due, feels exciting.
I ended up playing some stuff on there and I thought I’m glad there’s still space for me to play something. Because it’s also quite empty, in terms of the performances that are on there. Very simple. And yeah, that bridge man. It’s a really cool song.
8. ‘Easier Said Than Done’
Words written by Joshua Homme. Music by Joshua Homme & Carla Azar.
“I don’t play piano well and also I’m not good at it [laughs]. And it was fun to sit next to Mike and add these little things that my fingers won’t do. Mike is such an easy collaborator. That shorthand is so quick with he and I. And initially I was going to ask someone else to sing this but also in those moments, I think it was Sweeney and Mike were like ‘Why have someone else do this’. I think I naturally want to pull myself off situations but also I’m glad they just said ‘You’re singing guide vocal for someone else to learn to sing, just do it’. After that happened, it felt like, this made sense, this is something I would say.
There are a lot of lyrical explosions in there which are exciting to me because sometimes what’s said and how it gets said is sort of ‘Whooooah, ok I’m really gonna say this?’. I feel like if I’m asking myself that question, I’m in the right spot. But also, the emptiness, because of what Carla did. She was rolling a brush and playing this part and taking a brush on the snare. If all that’s going on is piano and that, it almost sounded broken and modern, like, ‘Here’s a brand new computer that doesn’t work right’. And I loved the idea of something that’s slightly broken but continues to work anyway and finds its place, despite being broken. It was so empty, you could put bass and guitars all over it but I feel you could ruin the emptiness. And Mike played great piano.
And then the ending is just… I like that arrangement idea. From making the Iggy record I really said we really need to really pay attention to how things end, that’s where everyone gives up. And if you save a part you’ve never heard that’s really good and that is the end. It’s like a sentence with a period that’s huge. Or a punctuation that’s much larger, thoughts wise, y’know? And it’s exciting that way to me. Because the ending is the best part and often times the beginning of something, people save everything for that moment but I think from working on the Iggy record and revisiting Hendrix’ records
I hadn’t listened to Hendrix for years but before I started mixing all this stuff, I was listening to it because one of my kids asked me, ‘Who’s Jimi Hendrix’ and I played them an intro to Hendrix and got deep into it. I started noticing, if he sings vocals up right in your face and the guitar’s back and when that comes out it’s really organic, constantly swirling left and right backwards and forwards and it’s just like ‘Wow’. It’s a bit like being in the ocean, you’re not in control and these waves and things are hitting you.
So on the Iggy record, I was like, why can’t something be so loud it takes over the mix for a second. I guess the opposite of that is something that they call digital black, which is the absence of sound, where everything stops and you go ‘Is something wrong?’ I put little moments of that all over the place. Like in ‘Move Together’ there’s a moment where you should say, ‘That’s a mistake’ and then it comes in, because that’s funny to me. When was the last time you thought there was an error on an album and then you’re like ‘Oh, OK’. Those little additions of just philosophy are funny and interesting to me.
Music seems to be so plugged into the matrix nowadays, really through no fault of its own. You really can’t have a scene bubbling without someone saying, ‘The scene you should be paying attention to is…’ it’s like ‘The seventeen quietest beaches in Northern California’ and you go there and it’s a mad house and you’re like ‘Thanks’. So things don’t get their chance to bubble and gestate and they don’t get their privacy, because everyone wants to blow them up at the expense of that thing, y’know?
So I think something like this is… it feels good to pay attention to what’s going on in the world and just do this as an exercise. I know it comes out, but honestly I would probably not care if it didn’t. I think it comes out because I have to tell these folks, ‘We’ll record something and then it will come out’, it’s the lure to get someone there. But hopefully at the end of it, everyone else would think, if it didn’t, I’d be OK with it too because I got already what I needed to get.”