|Nov. 1, 2002 - The Guardian: Wild Boys
Queens of the Stone Age have built up a fearsome reputation for drug-fuelled debauchery. They've also been called the saviours of rock'n'roll. Ian Gittins joins them for a night out
'I've been chasing my tail trying to have a good time on this tour," grumbles Josh Homme, the towering 6ft 4in frontman of Queens of the Stone Age, as he sucks on a beer backstage before his band's gig at Leeds University. "It's been difficult to come by. Everybody is so nervous of us now." He pauses, and then develops his theme. "Last night in Manchester, for example, I snogged three different girls after the show. I asked each of them if they wanted to come back with me, and they all looked kinda intimidated." There's another slurp of beer, and a sigh. "I guess our reputation goes before us nowadays."
It's fair to say, in truth, that it's no mystery why sentient folk tend to be wary of invitations to after-hours pleasure extended by Queens of the Stone Age. Over the past two years, the US angst-rockers have become known for Sodom and Gomorrah-style rock'n'roll debauchery, plus a level of heroic narcotic excess that would stun a stable of horses. "Have we earned that reputation?" says Homme, rolling the question around his mind. "Well, let's just say that we never try to put a limit on fun, shall we?"
There are copious reasons why QotSA, the intensive quasi-metallers fronted by Homme and his shaven-headed, goatee-bearded bassist sidekick Nick Oliveri, have become revered and feared as the hell-raising Led Zeppelin or Aerosmith of modern rock. One is Oliveri's liking for taking to the stage naked, a tendency that led to him being arrested at last year's Rock in Rio festival. We also shouldn't overlook their biggest single to date, 2001's Feel Good Hit of the Summer, the chorus of which famously ran: "Nicotine, Valium, Vicodin, marijuana, ecstasy and alcohol, co-co-co-co-cococaine!"
Yet Queens of the Stone Age are way more than talent-free party animals of the Mötley Crue variety, as rave reviews for their current album Songs for the Deaf have testified. Homme and Oliveri - joined, at various times, by giants of the US hardcore scene such as Nirvana/ Foo Fighters drummer Dave Grohl and former Screaming Trees singer-songwriter Mark Lanegan - have crafted a claustrophobic and turbulent album, frequently heavy with existential dread and paranoia. The NME's proclamation that "this is an record you could live in for months" represented one of the more restrained critical verdicts.
As Queens of the Stone Age take to the stage in front of a rabid, sold-out Leeds audience, it's easy to see why they've been held up in many quarters as the first truly great US rock band since Nirvana. Homme, Oliveri and former Danzig drummer Joey Castillo invest thunderous rhythms with a drive that recalls rock behemoths such as Black Sabbath, Deep Purple and Hawkwind. In line with the famous Hawkwind mantra of "If you want to get into it, you got to get out of it," QotSA sound as druggy as any band can get without actually being injected into your veins.
Lanegan, who is now formally a full-time Queen, joins them sporadically and displays surprising energy levels for a man who, offstage, appears so laconic that he hardly possesses the energy to breathe in and out. His sandpaper rasp, a result of a long-standing 60-a-day cigarette habit plus a throat condition, is an evocative counterpoint to Homme's keening vocal, and Leeds cheers the crowd-pleasing final numbers The Lost Art of Keeping a Secret and Feel Good Hit of the Summer to the echo.
It's a memorable set, a fact acknowledged backstage by Homme as he considers the evening: "Yeah, we fuckin' rocked tonight." He is then distracted by having to sign T-shirts for three visiting Scandinavian Premiership footballers, Stig Inge Bjornebye and Egil Ostenstad of Blackburn Rovers and Manchester City's Alf Inge Haaland. Haaland, perhaps still struggling to recover from the career-threatening tackle he received from Roy Keane, is sporting a shirt bearing the legend "Buddhist Punk".
Buzzing from the show, Homme is up for action and keen to explore what Leeds has to offer. "I'm going to find some fucking trouble on this tour if it kills me!" he says. Two female fans loitering outside the venue are keen to volunteer their escort services, and the night becomes a blur of beers and whisky shots in an underground jazz club and then, as dawn nears, in Queens of the Stone Age's publicist's hotel room. The Guardian makes its excuses near to daybreak, and the publicist awakes the next morning to find an empty room with every surface mysteriously covered in jellybeans.
"What time did I finish up last night? Oh, about 9 o'clock in the morning," says Homme the next afternoon, as we reconvene at Birmingham's moth-eaten Academy venue for the next night of the tour. "What happened at the end of the night? I really dare not say. I travelled a long and bizarre road, but I'd like to put on record that it finally led to a happy place."
Despite his musical inventiveness and hedonistic lifestyle, Homme looks a somewhat unorthodox rock star. Pallid, slightly overweight and sporting a side parting in his ginger hair, he resembles a vaguely seedy preppy more than a spiritual descendant of Steven Tyler or Kurt Cobain. And while he's clearly happiest swapping banter and insults with Oliveri, he shows a certain intelligence as he explains the philosophy behind his tempestuous band.
Homme and Oliveri first began making music in the mid-80s, when they were both 14. Together with two other schoolfriends from Palm Desert, California, they formed the now semi-legendary psychedelic/ stoner metal band Kyuss, who quickly developed an idiosyncratic approach to live performance. "We'd go out into the desert with a generator and play these parties that lasted all night," recalls Homme. "Sometimes they were magical, mystical things, and sometimes they were dominated by Mexican gang members on acid firing shotguns into the air."
Kyuss's heavy-duty riffing and uncompromising punk ethos evoked admiration in US hardcore circles, and they enjoyed a degree of commercial success until intra-band strife led them to split in 1995. The seminal status they now enjoy in US rock mythology led to a recent $2m offer to reform for one tour. "It took me about three seconds to turn that down," says Homme. "Kyuss were never about money, and to reform for that reason would be tantamount to blasphemy."
After Kyuss fragmented, Homme formed a short-lived band named Gamma Ray and Oliveri joined the shock-punks Dwarves before the duo reconvened in Queens of the Stone Age in 1998. Their eponymous debut album caused few ripples, but 2000's Rated R - named after the US certification given to adult entertainment - excited rather more attention, not least due to the inclusion of Feel Good Hit of the Summer. "We knew we'd get grief from the censors for that lyric," drawls Homme, "so we just thought that we'd beat them to it."
This summer's Songs for the Deaf, though, has upped the ante for Queens of the Stone Age. A dark, foreboding suite of music, it features pulverising semi-metal guitar anthems such as No One Knows and Go with the Flow, which imply the band were in a bleak frame of mind when they made the album. "Well, songwriting is a very cathartic experience for me," Homme says. "And sure, this record deals with a lot of things that were difficult at the time. We expel our demons. We had a few deaths, a few personal relationships went awry, and we lost a few friends along the way." So do you find it hard to turn such experiences into music? I am fixed with a gimlet-eyed stare: "I find it hard to turn anything else into music."
Homme is a student of rock's historical lineage, taking great delight in being compared to Iggy Pop's landmark group. "The Stooges were the best rock'n'roll band of all time bar none, and any analogy between them and our band is a huge compliment for us," he says. He is somewhat less enamoured, however, of the idea of his band as saviours of rock'n'roll.
"Shit, I never noticed that rock was in a burning building and someone needed to rush in and grab it," he says. "I mean, if we saved rock from a burning building, what did the Strokes save it from? Drowning? Did the White Stripes rescue it after it broke its leg in a bizarre skiing accident? I'm sorry, I don't perceive music that way."
Wary of fuelling the band's reputation for heavy narcotics use, Homme side-steps a question about whether he feels his band take more drugs than any other: "Well, I guess we take more drugs than Hanson! No, I know that people find our chemical intake interesting, and I understand that, but I hope they realise the point of this band isn't drugs. It's communicating how we feel about life with strength and intensity, which is the only part of this whole fucking process that interests us."
The hyperactive Homme has many extra-curricular projects outside of QotSA. He is planning further gigs with his side band, the Eagles of Death Metal, whose songs are all written by "a guy who is an acid-taking, speed addict devil worshipper Republican speechwriter from North Carolina". He has also made his debut in the film world: "I wrote some songs for a movie called The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys. It's a very dark movie, starring Jodie Foster as a one-legged nun who torments some kids." Just then Oliveri enters the room. "Did you know the Catholic church has merged with K-Mart for a big sale?" he asks. "Boys' pants half off."
One hour later, the Queens of the Stone Age take to the stage at the Birmingham Academy. Mark Lanegan's throat complaint has escalated to acute laryngitis and he is forced to stay backstage, alternating sips of honey with tugs of nicotine. Yet once again QotSA are colossal, a cavalcade of thunderous riffs and belligerent rock alive with twisted undercurrents. As you watch the wired Oliveri throwing shapes besides the moody Homme, you could easily believe you were witnessing the best heavy rock band in the world.
"People might perceive us as a bunch of drug-pumped loonies, but the making of music is like poetry or art to us," says Homme before vanishing into the night. "It's intense. And it's very, very special."
Songs for the Deaf is out now on Interscope. The single No One Knows is out next week.