June 2002 - The Stranger: Kings of Rock
by Hannah Levin
"I just got my head out of a box of dirt, that's how much fun I'm having," a dryly sarcastic Mark Lanegan tells me via phone from New York. His complaint is legit--burying one's skull in a pile of potting soil for a photo shoot must be unpleasant--but his tone also belies the truth: He really is having fun.

The sandy-throated troubadour is in the midst of a major national press junket to promote Queens of the Stone Age's third record, Songs for the Deaf. After lending his trademark baritone to a couple of tracks on the Queens' Rated R release in 2000, Lanegan has taken on a permanent role in the band and will be joining them on a summer club tour to preview the new material. Photogenic dirty work aside, he is clearly enjoying this evolving collaboration with three old friends: founding Queens members Josh Homme and Nick Oliveri--and recently recruited drummer Dave Grohl, who joins the band for at least the next year.

Lanegan's friendship with Josh Homme was forged in 1995, after the dissolution of Homme's band Kyuss, a rock cult favorite characterized by expansive guitar jams that balanced a fine line between neo-psychedelic grit and bottom-heavy grunge. Homme was recruited as a second guitarist for the Screaming Trees and toured with the band throughout the 1996 Lollapalooza tour. "The last couple years that the Trees were together, Josh was in the band," explains Lanegan. "I met him through Mike Johnson--I asked Mike to go on the road with the Trees and he said, 'Absolutely not. You're insane. But my friend will do it'."

After the Trees broke up, Homme ran into former Kyuss bass player Nick Oliveri at a South by Southwest convention in Austin in the late '90s. That reunion led to the formation of Queens of the Stone Age and the release of their eponymous debut on Seattle-based Loosegroove Records in 1998. Fans of Kyuss appreciated the residual traces of desert dirge in the new project, and new listeners enjoyed encountering hard rock with both brains and brawn. In addition to developing Queens, Homme fostered a fluid lineup of collaborators for an ongoing recording project called the Desert Sessions, an umbrella that showcased talents from members of like-minded bands as well as the continued presence of Lanegan.

After releasing the stylistically schizo Rated R to critical applause in 2000, the Queens began building a loyal fan base by working the European festival circuit, making appearances on the Ozzfest tour, and eventually opening for the Foo Fighters, a wise move that helped pull bandleader Dave Grohl into the Queens' circle. Grohl joined them in the studio for their most recent recording session, along with various members of Ween, the Dwarves, Perfect Circle, and Masters of Reality. After months of sessions at a handful of studios, Homme and his friends produced Songs for the Deaf, scheduled to be release by Interscope this fall.

For people who truly love to rock, Songs for the Deaf is one of those records that makes you want to stick your speakers out on the porch, invite your best friends over, and order each of them to pick up a fifth of Jack Daniel's en route to your house. Homme and Oliveri have little interest in repeating themselves artistically--a creative stance that makes commonly placed labels like "stoner rock" seem ludicrous. They confront the monotony of FM programming head-on, using generically vapid DJ banter as segues between songs, and much like Rated R, invest the record with a schism of soundscapes--from weapons-grade slabs of classic guitar to ethereal, experimental waves of flamenco and acid rock. It's mind-bending, but cohesive, a contradiction undoubtedly sustained by the strength of friendships between the members.

"In any collaborative situation there's got to be something fun about it," says Lanegan emphatically. "And with these guys, I just always have a really good time--that makes it creatively stimulating."

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