|April 23 2005 - Kerrang! Magazine, Issue NO 1053: DESERT STORM
written by Morat
transcribed by Ricky Smith (Flaming)
ONCE UPON a time.... Many a good tale has started with those words. But if the story of Queens of the Stone Age is a fairy tale, the classic rags to riches - or in this case dive bars to arenas - then it's way more twisted that anything Alice ever saw through the looking glass. It also comes with a whole cast of Mad Hatters, not to mention a hell of a lot more drugs than Alice ever used while spinning out on Wonderland. You may want to strap yourself in. Oh, and bring some sun block while you're at it, since our tale begins in the Californian desert...
THE DESERT is a place of startling opposites; of harsh, character defining physical changes. The high desert is so lofty that your ears pop as the alititute changes during climbs on long empty roads leading to the snow capped mountains. The low desert... well, you get the idea. Both contain your classic sand dunes, wilderness and the kind of heat that fries lizards. Both can be bitterly cold in the winter. But these differences are not the only stark opposites you can find in the desert - in towns equally as diverses.
One is Palm Springs - the golf capital of the world. It's a millionaire's Bournemouth of manicured gardens with built in sprinkler systems (in the fucking desert!). Salton Sea, on the other hand is the methamphetamine capital of the world; a glorified trailer park with more guns than working cars.
Strung between those places are countless desolate towns. All of them still maintain their Wild West looks and most of them are equally as lawless. And of course those worlds collide, no more so than at the now-legendary generator parties, like those in Sky Valley (past Indio, about 3 hours from LA) that kick-started the whole desert rock scene.
THOSE OF you with a half-decent record collection will know that the third album by the legendary pre QOTSA desert rockers Kyuss was entitled 'Sky Valley'. But the picture of the road sign on the cover (since stolen and replaced many times like the Beatles' 'Abbey Road' sign) doesn't really do the place justice. After the obligatory snapshot, you drive for about 5 miles on a road built over so many sand dunes it's like a roller coaster ride. You pass absolutely nothing - no trees, no houses, nothing. A perfect place to throw a free gig where anything goes, including, when things went wrong, Mexican gangs running around with shotguns.
It was here that future Kyuss members John Garcia (vocals), Josh Homme (guitar), Brant Bjork (drums) and Nick Oliveri (Bass) go their first real taste of live rock'n'roll. Inspired first by local punk band Across The River (featuring more future Kyuss members - drummer Alfredo Hernandez and bassist Scott Reeder) and then by a later incarnation of ATR called Yawning Man. Kyuss were formed - although initially called Katzenjammer - featuring Homme, Garcia, Bjork and a bass player called Chris Cockrell. They started throwing their own parties.
Playing generator parties in the desert was hard work at first because, as Homme recalled in 2000, "if people see you for free and they don't like you atall, they tell you then, not tomorrow and not behind your back. They don't even leave, they stay there and fuck with you".
They soon learned 2 very important lessons; the first was that, out in the desert, if you sounded like anyone else people would give you shit for it. The second was that the desert does very strange things to your sound and, if you're trying to play heavy music outdoors, you have to be really fucking heavy!
"I think that probably has a lot to do with it," agrees Earthlings? and one-time QOTSA guitarist Dave Catching. "I know that when we put stuff outside to record it, it has a really cool quality - it floats around. Plus, none of those guys had tuners so they had their guitars tuned down low because they thought it sounded good. Me and Fred Drake (the late owner of the famous Rancho De La Luna desert studio) and Chris Goss (Kyuss producer and Masters Of Reality frontman/guitarist) went to a couple of the generator parties to see Kyuss, but they were kinda funky because although Kyuss were cool, some of the people who showed up weren't. They were very violent and fights almost always happened with the weirdos who showed up. So I went to a few but I preferred to wait until they played a club because it was way cooler."
Homme also remembered times the parties got out of hand in Kerrang! in 2000.
"What do you do if you have a party in the middle of a canyon and there's no-one to control it? It's anarchy. If it's rough, there's no-one there to stop it. The worst is when Mexican gang-bangers are firing shotguns into the air and waiting around starting shit with anyone who will match their gaze.
"We played one party where I thought I was going to the bathroom, so I walked into this garage and it was a huge meth lab. Everyone looked at me like, 'You're a dead man'. I was 15 years old with no ride, no way to get out. That's a real slice of life..."
ALTHOUGH KYUSS were only teenagers - just 16 or 17 years old - when they recorded their first demo, and only made four albums before Homme pulled the plug, the band had a huge impact on the rock world. Some of the credit must go to the awesome production talents of Chris Goss.
"I saw them do a show at a tiny club called The Gaslight in LA," Goss told Kerrang! in 2001. "It may have been their first LA show. I was blown out the door. I remember going up to Josh and saying 'Wow you really sound like Sabbath'. Josh was kind of insulted and said, 'Well, I'm not really that familiar with Black Sabbath'. That's when I really knew I was on to something."
Homme acknowledged Goss' influence too in 2001. "When I met Chris, it was like going to school. WIth Kyuss, Chris was definitely a mentor."
"I think Chris was a huge influence on them because they were all kids and he's a fucking badass," says Catching. "I think they were pretty proud to listen to anything he had to say at the time. I mean, if you listen to (the first Kyuss album) 'Wretch' and then listen to (the second) 'Blues For The Red Sun', there's quite a bit of difference. I remember Chris coming to my house one day and saying, 'Man, I found these kids in the desert and they're fucking heavy as shit! And I'm gonna make them heavier than God!'. He wasn't kidding."
So heavy, in fact, that by the time they were barely old enough to legally drink they found themselves invited to open for Metallica in Australia.
"It really boosts your ego and, at that point, my ego was probably already out of control," admitted Kyuss singer Garcia later. "You're living in this surreal dream. The majority of all Kyuss times are a blur. There's a few times I can vividly remember, like a few great stand-out shows, but the rest is a blur. I was just along for the ride. And I rode it pretty good! I didn't care. All I cared about was playing the show and getting fucked up."
Indeed. But aside from being "heavier than God" Kyuss never seemed like a band that was built to last.
They went through multiple line-ups (the only 2 members staying the distance were Homme and vocalist John Garcia), and even though commercial success seemed only around the corner, it was only a matter of time before the band fell apart. Oliveri had joined punk mentalists "The Dwarves", who later threw him out for being "too crazy", and Brant Bjork had moved on to Fu Manchu. Garcia briefly formed Slo-Burn, followed by Unida (later to be joined by Reeder) and Hermano.
Homme knew in his heart of hearts that it was better to let it die. He told Kerrang! in 1998, 3 years after the split, that he "just wanted Kyuss to be this special, cool band that only did collectable stuff. To preserve everything that was special about it, we had to destroy it".
THE FACT that the QOTSA story begins in Amsterdam is chance, but somehow entirely apt given their party reputation. It was 1996 and, having briefly quit music after the demise of Kyuss and moved to Seattle to go back to school (intending to major in international business), Homme took the job as touring second guitarist for so-called grunge lumberjacks Screaming Trees. His timing wasn't great; Screaming Trees were falling apart in a haze of drug abuse. internal squabbling and long, awkward silences on the tour bus.
Despite the band's internal wranglings though, Homme enjoyed that time.
"It was great to learn what it was like not to have any responsibility," he told Kerrang!. "It was a chance to focus on rhythm guitar and read a few books on the road. If anyone came to me and asked for a decision on something, I'd just shrug and say, 'Talk to the band in the next room about it'."
But fate played a hand while he was in Amsterdam with the Trees and Homme met up with Dave Catching. Somehow they wound up with free studio time and wrote and recorded a song for the Roadrunner stoner compilation 'Burn One Up' (ironic as Kyuss virtually invented stoner rock but actually despised the term). The song was called '18 AD'. And after a brief dalliance under the name Gamma Ray, it was QOTSA's first ever song.
"We recorded it with a giant stack of mushrooms, marijuana and ecstasy," recalls Catching happily. "After that we went back to Joshua Tree and were trying to put a band together. We tried a bunch of different people like Brant (Bjork, former Kyuss drummer), but Josh ended up giving up after a while..."
A year later Homme tried again, this time with a line-up that included former Kyuss drummer Alfredo Hernandez, and a stand-in bassist called Mike Johnson. They were in Austin, Texas for the South By Southwest festival and stumbled on a bar called the Blue Famingo, a gay bar by day and punk rock bar by night, but by all accounts "a total dive". Onstage was a band called Mondo Generator. The bassist was naked, his bass held on with a piece of string, and before the band had played a note he'd managed to get in a fight with an audience member. There was a sense of everything falling into place as they realised it was their es-Kyuss mate Nick Oliveri. Dame Fate shook the dice...
"This drunk guy came up and tried to slap a sticker on Nick's leg," recalled Homme later. "Which was fine, but then he tried to push it on harder an Nick was like Boom! Boom! Boom! punching the guy out. Then Nick breathed this huge ball of fire into the audience, not above their heads, but at them! Me and Alfredo were like, 'We still have Nick's number right?'."
"Yeah," says Oliveri now, with his usual maniac laugh, "Josh was playing down the street and came to see me play. I set fire to some record company people to make sure I'd never get a deal and he asked me to move back to California and play."
This sort of attitude pandered to Homme's mentality. Especially because, as Homme once told Kerrang!, he felt "obligated to fuck with people". He was convinced Oliveri was the missing link in his band and life. He described Mondo Generator as "idiots [Oliveri] had found the week before".
"Nick and I looked at each other like, 'Man, we could be the answer to each other's problems'. Nick was living in Austin and he packed up his bass and came back to California. I was in Seattle and put everything in my car and drove home. And we all met in the desert..."
THEIR FIRST show as QOTSA, in 1998, was as a 3 piece featuring Homme, Hernandez and Oliveri.
"We played in a Mexican restaurant in Palm Desert, California," remembers Oliveri. "It was cool; we played everything we knew and all our friends from the desert came down. Then our next show was at a big festival in Europe, which was cool because I'd never been to Europe before."
Talking later to Kerrang!, Homme described their sound then as, "Robotic, trance rock. The goal was to try to keep it as sparse as possible, sonically tight and bone-fucking dry". He'd aldo made it clear that he was the boss.
"Every band had roles that need to be played," he told Kerrang! in 2000. "I would say that I'm the final censor."
One of the first steps was to come to England because, while Kyuss never really took of in the US, their reputation in Europe was such that QOTSA's first UK gig (only third gig ever) at the Garage in London sold out, the place going suitably mental even though no-one knew any of the songs.
"I knew we had something cool, but that ws success already to me," says Oliveri, having had no idea how big the bad would become.
Indeed, no -one had any idea how big Queens would become. Sure, the Kyuss name packed a punch, but Josh Homme had previously only sung on one record and he'd only done so to get himself off a record label, not on one. His vocal style was understated, something which was rare in rock, and even he didn't seem to sure it would work.
"I don't think Josh was ready to sing," nods Oliveri. "He wasn't comfortable with his voice, which is why he asked me and eventually Mark (Lanegan)."
QOTSA's self-titled debut, released on Roadrunner in the UK in 1998, was a slow burner. Sure, there were some great songs and Homme was still fucking with people (that weird noise at the end of the album was originally intended to blow people's speakers so they could only listen to the album once), but as usual there was no airplay and no press outside rock magazines. Instead Queens earned their fans the hard way, the only way they knew how. By touring non-stop.
By the time they hit the UK again, the vibe of the band had changed with the addition of Dave Catching on guitar and Keyboards. In truth it was only then that their true potential began to show. This was way more than your average rock band; when they played live now it was far more experimental, but with an almost psychic connection between band members.
"I'm not really sure how that happened," shrugs Catching. "When I played in the and it was a little more jammy and free. Not that they don't jam now, but it was definitely open to interpretation. Now it's a little more structured, but it still sounds fucking great."
To Oliveri, that psychich connection was all down to the chemistry they had built over the years..
"Chemistry is something that you can't replace," he says. "I haven't been able to find it with many people, but you can be in a fight with them offstage then the minute you get onstage you know what they're gonna do and how they're gonna do it. It can take years or sometimes you have it the first time you play."
QUEEN'S FAN-BASE continued to grow, mostly through the word of mouth, but their first big break, came with the release of their second album 'Rated R' in 2000. Of course the line-up had changed again by that point with Gene Troutman on drums and Mark Lanegan singing his first song for the band. They even managed to rope Rob Halford in to sing the drugs shopping list on opener 'Feel Good Hit Of The Summer'. But it was the first single, 'The Lost Art Of Keeping A Secret', that saw them generate enough airplay that, by November of that year, they were able to sell-out 2 nights at the Astoria in London. And, of course, it didn't hurt any that Oliveri, always the livewire of the band, was still getting naked and wrecking things.
Suddenly everyone wanted a piece of QOTSA . They had great songs about drugs, fucking and freedom. They retained the cool underground vibe, Oliveri with Mondo Generator and Homme with Desert Sessions. They also had danger and nudity - mostly the work of Oliveri who was getting arrested more and more frequently. One such time was at the Milton Keynes Big Day Out Festival in 1999 after he allegedly beat up Terrorvision. It was later revealed that Homme had done it but Oliveri took the rap ("I went to jail for him, man, but that's what you go!"). Another arrest came at Rock In Rio for getting naked on live TV.
IT SOON became obvious that Queens had a revolving door policy for everyone in the band except Homme and Oliveri. In 2000, Josh Homme said:
"This band is Nick and I and whoever else we can drag along, for however long they wanna go along." He also denied that the reason was because he was difficult to work with. "People are always gonna say stuff like that and fuck them. Chill the fuck out." To date there have been at least 11 band members (not including guests), though some took it better than others when they weren't asked back.
"I was really busy trying to do Earthlings?," says Catching of his departure. "Also, I'm kinda from the punk rock, sloppy, psychedelic school and Josh is coming from a more well rehearsed, perfectionist vibe, so it just seemed time to do our own thing."
You weren't bitter then, considering you co-wrote the first song?
"I had my moments," admits Dave, "but not really because I had so much shit going on and we were still doing Desert Sessions together and Josh was playing on Earthlings? records. It just seemed to be a better thing for both of us. It was great being in the band and we had a great time, but he needed someone more like Troy (Van Leeuwen) who was perfect."
"The way it was set up from the start was it was gonna be me and Josh," agreed Oliveri before his departure from the band. "With that in mind everybody knew that it was gonna be a revolving door."
And a pretty impressive door it was too, because one of the next people to step through it was Dave Grohl, playing drums for the first time since the demise of Nirvana. Not only did QOTSA persuade him to play on their third album, 'Songs For The Deaf', but as Grohl later admitted, he came very close to quitting Foo Fighters and joining QOTSA full-time. He played his first show with QOTSA at the Troubador in Los Angeles on March 7, 2002 and was clearly in his element.
"I don't know if you've heard of the Make A Wish Foundation," Grohl said that night. "It's for people who are about to die and have one last wish. My last wish, ever since I heard 'Blues For The Red Sun'. was to play with Nick and Josh. I feel so much more comfortable playing drums. It's like night and day. I thought I'd be nervous, but when I sat down on the drum stool it was like, 'I'm home!'."
But although Mark Lanegan was now a seemingly permanent Queen, Grohl lasted just one tour before QOTSA recruited ex-Danzig tub-thumper Joey Castillo. For the first time, it seemed that Queens had a solid line-up.
'Songs For The Deaf' went platinum in the States, double-platinum in the UK and the band hit the road, playing vast venues worldwide. It really couldn't have been going any better for the band, even if Homme was getting death threats from most of Oakland after 'stealing' Rancid singer/guitarist Tim Armstrong's wife Brody.
So no-one could have predicted what was coming next, least of all Nick Oliveri, who on February 13, 2004 was fired from QOTSA.
"I didn't see it coming at all," says Oliveri. "A year later I'm still going, 'Huh? What happened?'. I still don't know the reasons because he never really told me why."
Something Homme claimed at the time was that Oliveri was (again) too out of control. Given that he was recruited after setting an audience on fire, this is as ridiculous as complaining your ice cream's cold. Since then Homme has been involved in 2 violent incidents in New York and also been accused of assaulting The Dwarves frontman Blag Dahlia with a bottle.
"It was the pot calling the kettle black," shrugs Oliveri. "But maybe that was an excuse to make it okay to fire me. All I know is I'm out."
IT MEANT that, by their latest release - 'Lullabies To Paralyze' - there was, once again, an entriely new QOTSA line-up, with just Homme remaining as an original member. The new touring bassist is Dan Druff. It turns out that Oliveri likes him so much he even offered to help him learn the bass parts.
"I heard he was trying out and I was like, 'if anybody gets it I want it to be Dan'," says Oliveri. "So I called him up just to offer to help him."
Whether Druff is still in the band by the time you see them again remains to be seen. As ever with QOTSA, keep watching this space...