Sept. 2002 - Gallery of Sound: The Modern Stone Age Family
by Albert Mudrian
Queens of the Stone Age take a sonic trip through the radio of the desert. Or is it the desert of radio?

“Well, it ain’t f***ing Tommy,” offers Queens of the Stone Age frontman Josh Homme when pressed about the loose design surrounding his band’s third and best recording, Songs for the Deaf. “I mean, it is kind of a concept record,” he relents, “but as if the word ‘concept’ didn’t suck.”

A road map is a better description of Songs for the Deaf. Fastening together the record’s fourteen songs through a series of interludes deriding FM radio DJs, the album begins in taxing Los Angeles traffic before ending 120 miles later in the serene desert of Joshua Tree, California. It’s a drive that Homme has made more times than he can even remember. “When I’d do it I didn’t have a stereo, all I had was a radio,” he recalls. “And it goes into weird religious stations and really bad, bad music on that trip through the middle of nowhere. So I used to really enjoy the silence and then every once in a while the station you were at would all of a sudden let out a screech and become a new station. I just wanted to bring that to a record somehow.”

Perhaps more importantly, with Songs for the Deaf, Homme and co-conspirator bassist Nick Oliveri also provide welcome relief for the long-suffering hard rock fan. “There are a lot of people who like heavy music but don’t wanna listen to Creed or nü metal bands,” Homme notes. “I think we can offer something a little more esoteric for them.”

He certainly has the experience. Since forming the group in 1997, two years after the demise of stoner metal luminaries Kyuss—the outfit he and Oliveri banged heads in from 1990 to ‘95—Homme has worked meticulously to reformulate both the Queens and the hard rock genre.

“I’ve been thinking of this album since the first album, not necessarily the radio thing, but to me that isn’t the full concept, the full concept is the diversity of it all,” Homme explains. “I think we’re supposed to be pushing buttons over the three records. I’ve always looked at our first three records as a set: the first one was to distance ourselves from Kyuss, the second album fanned out the music into different areas and this one takes that out even a little further, I think.

“A dynamic for the records had been created,” he continues. “So then it’s inevitable that a pattern is set. And the reason to set a pattern is to destroy it, and you first have to think of what you wanna destroy before you set the pattern.”

If you think that’s confusing, just try to keep track of album credits for those same records. Queens of the Stone Age has effectively always been just Homme and Oliveri; since the recording of their second and previous album, 2000’s R (as in the movie rating), the pair has elected to rotate their backing band for studio and touring purposes, often bringing folks on board who are a part of the half-dozen side projects Homme and Oliveri are also involved with.

“I just like playing with different people and I like learning stuff about music from other people’s perceptive,” Homme explains. “Like ‘Raining Tree’—I just wrote a few words, the rest of it was written by Alain [Johannes keyboardist/guitarist]. And it’s a song in 5/4 and I never would have naturally played a song in 5/4. And now I’d actually mess with 5/4, which is a real—dare I say—intellectual time frame. So it’s a way to never get writer’s block and kinda keep on moving all the time, even if it is in a very small, tight circle.”

The recording sessions of Songs for the Deaf brought even more musicians into the fold, among them returning Screaming Trees vocalist Mark Lanegan, ex-Goatsnake/Scream guitarist Pete Stahl, A Perfect Circle keyboardist Troy Van Leeuwen and even Dean Ween. But the most notable guest was former Nirvana drummer and current Foo Fighters captain Dave Grohl, who was initially drafted to become the band’s permanent drum fixture. Grohl had been friends with Homme and Oliveri ever since he and former Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic had seen the duo perform with Kyuss in Seattle some ten years ago.

“If you play with Dave, you’re psyched to play with Dave but you don’t want him to overpower the music,” Homme insists. “And I do think him playing with the rest of us holds back his size. The way it’s set up right now, no one can ever become larger than the band, so everyone is able to put egos aside and just contribute to the band as a whole. This way no one can compromise what we wanna do. If we wanna go out and do a two-drummer tour and take an electric piano player that plays electric piano all the time as well as having a second guitar player—like, I don’t wanna ask if that’s okay and hear, ‘Well, I don’t know.’ I wanna play with people that realize that this is just a tour, like, let’s do something different each time and not feel threatened.”

Still, you’ve still got to worry that the media might just focus on Dave and not realize what a great album this is.

“A little bit,” he says, “but that’s partly why I just fired him.”

Did you really fire him?

“I’ll just leave it at that.”

A few days later the Queens camp announces that Grohl would be relinquishing his drum stool in the band and returning to his Foo Fighters full time.

“Well, you know, if having Dave in the band stopped people from calling us stoner rock,” Homme laughs, “it’s all worth it.”

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