|Dec. 2000 - Rockpile: It Came From Outer Space - QOTSA Hypnotizes the Masses
by Amanda Feingold
Philadelphia's South Street is a melting pot where culters and lifestyles converge and collide. The area is lined with stores ranging from The Gap to sleazy condom stores and exotic clothing vendors. There are Greek and Chinese restaurants--there's even a Mexican/Indian joint. The street boasts a bar where Nirvana played its first Philadelphia gig--it's right next to a hippie store complete with tie-dyed banners and dancing bear stickers. On most nights, punk rock kids with pink mohawks, spiked collars and multipile facial piercings share the sidewalk with both suburban mothers and drunken college kids.
It's strangely appropriate how much South Street parallels the band playing here tonight. Queens of the Stone Age, an ever-evolving West Coast musical outfit, is similarly eclectic. No two songs on the band's albums ever sound alike, unlike many of the one-trick ponies the music industry has been churning out these days. The Queens' quirky brand of rock appeals to metal, classic rock and Top 40 radio fans.
At 2 pm on a brisk afternoon, Queens of the Stone Age lies sleeping on a tour bus. Knowing the band will be late for its photo shoot, the tour manager promises to have the guys up and out in a few minutes. The guys, in this case, are Josh Homme, the mastermind behind Queens of the Stone Age, and Nick Oliveri, his partner in crime. They are the band's founder/guitarist/lead singer and bassist/singer of the band, respectively.
Waiting around for Homme and Oliveri, you gotta wonder if the band will be as freaky in person as its music and lyrics would suggest. With songs titles like "I Was A Teenage Hand Model" and "Monsters in the Parasol," who knows what to expect? Could it be these guys are deep and mysterious, or do they just have a bizzare sense of humor? The two men finally walk in, and their pleasant demeanors belie the otherwordly nature of their art. Homme is surprisingly tall and clean cut. He is about 6'3" with short, red hair, while Oliveri opts for the shaved head and long gotee look. They are not any more odd or strange-looking than most 20-something guys. In addition, they are very polite, asking permission to eat in the car on the way to the photo shoot.
Homme is best known for his work as the guitarist of his ground-breaking former band, Kyuss. After the band's demise in 1995, he temporarily joined The Screaming Trees. Oliveri was also breifly a member of Kyuss, and he went on to play with The Dwarves under the moniker, Rex Everything. By 1997, Homme needed an outlet for his offbeat songwriting, so he founded Queens of the Stone Age with late-period Kyuss drummer Alfredo Hernandez. Starting a new band was a huge transition for Homme--he had been in Kyuss since 1987 when he was only 16 years old. This new band was a completely different undertaking. This was not going to be the reincarnation of Kyuss.
"It started out with just me and 'Fredo," says Homme of his old friend, Hernandez. "And then 'Fredo had a lot of personal family stuff, so he had to stop, but by then Nick was in the band, and Nick's like terminal cancer. Once he's there, he's there forever."
QOTSA has been getting a lot of publicity lately. Rolling Stone named the group one of the "10 Most Important Hard and Heavy Bands Right Now," and its latest single, "The Lost Art of Keeping a Secret," is gathering some heavy spins on the radio. The band also had the opening spot on the main stage of Ozzfest last summer, but in the car Homme expresses his disappointment with the popular music festival.
"That (Ozzfest) was Josh's favorite," Oliveri says sarcastically, munching on his cheese steak.
Oliveri seems to be the loud and hyper part of the team, while Homme is more mellow and reserved. Homme explains in his calm, slow voice the band's 1:30 p.m. time slot was too early in the day, when many concertgoers hadn't even arrived at the festival yet. Plus, since QOTSA isn't really a metal act, the audience wasn't the band's crowd. Homme also didn't like playing in big venues with seats.
One never knows what to expect when seeing this act live, because Homme and Oliveri are the only constant band members. The other players are just friends along for the ride--for however long they want to participate. Musicians on the band's latest album, R, include Dave Catching and Pete Stahl of earthlings?, Gene Trautmann of The Miracle Workers, Barrett Martin of The Screaming Trees and Chris Goss of Masters of Reality, among many others. Any combination of these members could show up on tour.
"We're going to do a two-drummer tour," says Homme. "We've been a three-piece, a five-piece, we toured with Pete Stahl where he sang a lot. We only have one habit, and that's no habits."
At the photo shoot, the guys jokingly take verbal jabs at each other. It's obvious they are truely close friends, as Oliveri is the wackier foil to Homme's more reserved personality. The pair is gazing at photos for a local exotic dancing club shot the day before.
"I should have been here yesterday," says Homme, gazing at the photos of the dancers.
Playing on the band's name, Homme and Oliveri are happy to don wigs and lipstick for the camera. After all, people could logically assume a band called Queens of the Stone Age cnsists of women or drag queens. However, mainstream logic doesn't always apply when Homme is involved. The name is meant to be ambiguous.
"It works on a bunch of different levels," he says. "I was coming out of a time when bands were like Black, Sponge, Kyuss--these one word means everything names. So with something long like Queens of the Stone Age, I like the little twist on the fact taht some people come up to me and go, 'Why not Kings of the Stone Age?' And it's like, say that to yourself--it just sounds lame. Like I'm going to wear shields and armor and shit.
With this medieval imagery floating in the air, it's back to the venue for soundcheck. On the way, Homme puts everything he sees into a song. Spotting a sign ona store he begins crooning, "Paaaarts and serviiiice..." in his smooth voice. Condidering the obscurity of many of the band's lyrics, this phrase could easily become a song. And furthermore, the song could be about anything--not even necessarily parts or service. Often, the song titles give no indication of what the tunes are actually about, such as "Give the Mule What He Wants" or "Better Living Through Chemistry." But this is part of the band's mystery, and this creates an unmistakable trademark. The band, with its ever-changing cast of characters, is truly original in a world flooded with rap metal and boy bands."
Back at the venue, the band of the evening consists of Homme, Oliveri, drummer Trautmann and Brendan McNichol of Masters of Reality. McNichol will be playing lap steel guitar and electric piano--a role usually filled by Catching. It's not uncommon to find QOTSA experimenting with many different instruments--something Kyuss never really attempted. On R, songs are laced with horns, piano and even steel drums.
Fans of Kyuss may have difficulty understanding Queens of the Stone Age. Homme's former outfit was extremely heavy, sludgy and even trippy at times--a style many call stoner rock. The band's members grew up in the small town of Palm Desert, Calif., and were very influenced by their arid, sandy surroundings. One can almost visualize a clear, wide-open sky, tumbleweeds and cacti while listening to the band's long instrumental jams, which are like a soundtrack to the desert. Their break wasn't due to band member feuds or creative roadblocks. In fact, the group was becoming extremely successful and had released four full-lenght albums. But Homme says he had to destroy the band in order to maintain its reputation. He didn't want to run it into the ground, but rather, go out on top.
"I want people to remember and appreciate Kyuss. I do," he says. "I'm proud of it. I quit so that it would stay cool."
Rather than try to re-live the days of his former band, Homme has created something completely fresh and original with his new endeavor. The music of Queens of the Stone Age is impossible to categorize, and this is exactly the way he wants it. It gives the band freedom to grow and change as much as the musicians see fit. Homme described the self-titled first album as "robot rock" for its strange, mechanical guitar sounds, minimal drum patterns and trance-inducing repetition, like the score from an old sci-fi movie. But the new album is far more varied stylistically. R stays away from the original formula, instead favoring melody and hooks. "Autopilot" sounds like David Bowie circa the Ziggy Stardust era, "Tension Head" is an abrasive punk song, "Lightning Song" sounds like one of Led Zeppelin's acoustic instrumentals and the last track, "I Think I Lost My Headache," ends in a free jazz session.
"Kyuss was about being the same always and this is about changing all the time," says Homme. "On the first record in particular, repetition was the whole idea behind the record. Like, to be as German as possible and just find a cool groove and play it over and over again till it's like a trance. And there's still some of that on this record, as well, although diversity was what this record's about."
The band finally finsihes soundcheck and adjorns to the dressing room where everyone lounges around laughing and joking. On the table are possibly the biggest bottles of Jack Daniels and Absolut Vodka ever made, and Oliveri is chewing an entire jumbo pack of gum all at once.
"Do you know that Carefree whitens teeth? I don't have to brush today. I've chewed about 18 pieces," he says with a mouthful of gum.
McNichol and Trautmann are present, but they sit quietly and let Homme and Oliveri do all the talking. They love to talk about music, but not their lives outside of the band. The lack of personal information coupled with the band's offbeat musical style gives QOTSA a sort of mystique.
"I like rock n' roll mystery," says Homme. "I don't know if we have taht or not. I think only someone else would know if we have that, because we're in the band. For us three there is no mystery, but I hope we do. And maybe there's some things we won't discuss. Like, our lives aren't an open book for everybody, but I'm not too sure that anyone gives a shit, either. I don't know if we're mysterious."
One thing they are very vocal about is escaping the pigeonhole of stoner rock. It's a label Homme endured when he was in Kyuss, and it has followed him to his new band. Stoner rock is typically defined as heavy, tuned-down riff rock. Homme and Oliveri feel this stereotype discredits their efforts.
"We're not a stoner rock band, we're a rock n' roll band," says Oliveri. "I don't even smoke weed. Stoner rock... isn't that like Judas Priest and Ozzy? I mean, when you were like, in middle school, and you wore the buttons, and you were a stoner and you smoked weed. The rock I listened to was serious Priest and stuff. You want to talk about the real stoner rock--that's probably where it comes from, or where it makes the most sense at least."
It's more something that someone else did than something we did," adds Homme. "There's a whole list of things it takes to make music, and drugs are certainly one of the things on that list, but they're not the most important thing on that list. And the only thing I think is kind of weak about stoner rock is it touts the one thing on the list and goes, 'Look!' That seems almost like dumbing it down a little bit."
"The only time we were stoner rock was when we played in Italy and they actually threw little rocks at us," laughs Homme. "Kyuss' last gig ever was in Italy at this anti-mafia festival, and we played with Soundgarden. And towards the end of hte set, John (Garcia, singer of Kyuss) said something--he always says crazy shit--and it was on this field of gravel. And so all of a sudden, here somes the gravel."
It may have been a little difficult for Kyuss fans to follow Homme to Queens of the Stone Age, but it may be even more of a stretch for The Dwarves' enthusiasts to follow Oliveri. Fans of his obnoxious punk alter ego, Rex Everything, may not understand his involvment in a straight rock n' roll band.
"The Dwarves have always been a growth kind of band, too," he says. "Each record has been totally different. It never sounds the same as the last record. There's, like, techno beats on the new one! It's the band that's forever changing and doesn't give a shit what anybody thinks. So I think a true Dwarves fan can truly be a true Queens fan, because there is variety in the music.
"I love being able to record with Blag (Dahlia, singer/mastermind of The Dwarves)," Oliveri continues. "This is the thing that I do fulltime and what I want to do, but I still have some stuff that I write that not necessarily is a Queens song, but I can find a home for it--like maybe it will work for The Dwarves."
The band is getting hungry again, and the serious conversation begins to deteriorate into a silly one. But how long can anyone expect to be serious with the Queens of the Stone Age? Attempted questions about the band's future tour plans fall a little flat--the gang is mainly focused on dinner.
"We're going to do a tour with Foo Fighters after this one," says Oliveri. "Then we go to Europe and do some shows with Monster Magnet, then we go to Rio (De Janiero, Brazil) and do Rock in Rio...and then we're going to do Saturn--the rings of Saturn. We're going to stand on the rocks."
"Then we'll really be stoner rock!" pipes in Trautmann from the corner.
"We'll be fucking out there in the fucking stratus!" yells Homme.
"We're like traveling salesman [sic]," says Oliveri, smiling. "We don't sell stoner rock, but we do sell rock. You can get it at a pretty good price."