|June 2005 - Guitar Player Magazine: Queens of The Stone Age's Josh Homme and Troy Van Leeuwen Trip the Dark Fantastic
by Vincent DeMasi
In the two-and-a-half years since Josh Homme graced GP's October '02 cover, his Queens of the Stone Age have ascended from hipster cult-rockers to cutting-edge MTV icons. The band's previous record, the multi-platinum Songs for the Deaf, spawned heavy-rotation videos for "No One Knows" and "Go With the Flow," landed it a coveted slot on the last Lollapalooza tour, and prompted critics to laud QOTSA's riff-based anthems as the true return of heavy rock.
In the same period, Homme also witnessed the departure of long-time bassist Nick Oliveri, welcomed guitarist Troy Van Leeuwen (ex-A Perfect Circle) as a full-time member, was spotted with the Jesse Hughes-led Eagles of Death Metal, and tracked a side project (Desert Sessions, Volume 9 & 10) with Polly Harvey and Deen Ween, among others. Oh yeah, he also managed to record Lullabies to Paralyze [Interscope], the most musically ambitious, genre-crossing, artistically exigent, sinister-sounding QOTSA record yet.
For the Lullabies sessions, the current line-up (Homme, Van Leeuwen, and drummer Joey Castillo) was augmented by sometime-associates Mark Lanegan (vocals/guitar, ex-Screaming Trees), Alain Johannes (multi-instrumentalist, engineer/ producer), and Dave Catching (guitar/keyboards). The record also boasts a guest shot from ZZ Top ax-meister extraordinaire, Billy F. Gibbons. While still structured on Homme's signature robotic riffage, Lullabies to Paralyze integrates a darker ambience—thanks to Brothers Grimm-inspired lyrical imagery and Van Leeuwen's phantasmagoric textures.
From the brooding "This Lullaby" to the sprawling, seven-plus-minute Kashmir-esque "Someone's in the Wolf," Lullabies to Paralyze is the work of a band unwilling to take the commercially safe path. Instead, Homme and crew aimed straight into a black forest where lesser groups fear to tread.
After the huge success of Songs for the Deaf, was there any pressure to make Lullabies to Paralyze an even more commercial album?
Van Leeuwen: No. If anything, we put pressure on ourselves to not let outside influences interfere with our natural process of making music.
Well, the acoustic ballad "This Lullaby" is in waltz time—that should certainly throw your audience for a loop.
Homme: Exactly. It's my job as an artist to keep people guessing, and if I'm doing my job well, they should guess incorrectly. People probably expected the opening of our new record to sound completely different, and that's my way of saying, "Gotcha!"
Overall, My goal was to get into a situation where we could take our music in any direction, and not be confined by genre labels. I feel we're in a position where our audience is excited about the fact that we're not a particular genre—we're not just punk, and we're not just metal. Everything we've learned on the first three records has been incorporated on Lullabies to Paralyze, and it represents the most realized version of us yet.
The title suggests Lullabies to Paralyze is a unified collection of songs.
Homme: Well it's not a concept album, per se. But I was reading a lot of the Brothers Grimm, and I was inspired by the stories. Essentially, the whole record is a catalyst for dark imagery and color.
You often juxtapose sweet-sounding melodies against gloomy riffs. Which do you write first?
Homme: It could work either way. I don't have any fixed methods for songwriting. Once you say you need to do a certain thing a certain way, you've begun to limit yourself. That's how you paint yourself into a corner and end up with writer's block
Troy, this is your first record with QOTSA. What were your main contributions?
Van Leeuwen: I tried to highlight the band's colors and textures. They've always been there, of course, but some spaces in the music that could have been expanded upon with something interesting were sometimes left open. So I added lap steel, piano, or a guitar lick to fill in those spaces. A lot of guitarists only use solos to define who they are. I can shred when I need to, but, ultimately, I'm interested in playing what the song needs—even if that means not playing at all.
Homme: I like some of the gaps in our music to be filled, and Troy does that really well, so I don't bother. Basically, he's the master of the atmospheric, dark, wet realm, and I preside over the dry-as-a-bone desert realm.
Van Leeuwen: We did switch it up on "In My Head," though. I played the main rhythm and the solo, and Josh played the spacey parts that come in during the second verse. Usually, it's the other way around.
Troy, how do you use the lap-steel as a specific color or texture?
Van Leeuwen: I've learned to take advantage of its textural-coloring capabilities by not playing it like a slide guitar. Lap steel has this sonically ethereal quality that's much sweeter than slide. The indescribable feeling I get when I hear the song "Sleepwalk" is the vibe I'm trying to capture—that "Sleepwalk" sound. I'm haunted by its melody!
How will you ever reproduce all the dense textures of Lullabies to Paralyze live?
Van Leeuwen: Well, I'll have my guitar, lap-steel, bass, electric piano, and everything else ready to go by routing them into a GCX Ground Controller. For ambience, I'll use a Guyatone spring reverb that will let me run dry and wet signals simultaneously, as well as a Lexicon Vortex delay that lets me tap tempos in real time fairly quickly. But I'll have to make choices on which parts to leave in, and which parts to leave out. In the studio, for example, I played piano and guitar throughout "Tangled up in Plaid." But, onstage, I play the first set of guitar licks under the vocal, and then I leave out the second set of licks so I can switch to piano. It's really no big deal. In fact, when you play live, trying to cover too much stuff will only clutter the sound.
Can you give us some more insights into your gear?
Van Leeuwen: I'll divulge one secret: I used nothing but hollowbodies on this record—mostly a Gibson ES-135 and a Yamaha AES1500. I just designed a signature guitar with Yamaha called a SA503TVL. It's kind of 335-esque, but it's loaded with three P-90s and a Bigsby. It also has switches that allow you to use all three pickups in any combination you like. [For a peek at Troy's signature Yamaha, click to guitarplayer.com, then Gear, and then Out Now!]
What was Alain Johannes' main contribution to the record.
Homme: [Mock-British accent] He brought the fancy.
Homme: I don't know what that means [laughs]! But, seriously, he is so talented that he can play every instrument. He also has this youthful exuberance, as well as this amazing ability to transfer his genius IQ to beautiful musical statements. He represents what we strive for—to get better. And when I say, "better," I don't mean technically better. I mean getting better in your ability to translate your feelings into music through the guitar.
The guitar solo on "Burn the Witch" is played by none other than Billy F. Gibbons. How did you hook up with him?
Homme: We were recording a cover of "Precious and Grace," and I wanted him to play on it. I don't see Billy on other people's records too often, so I didn't expect him to come when we called, but he did. I think our approach reminded him of those early ZZ Top records. We recorded three songs, and the two that didn't make the record will probably come out as B-sides.
What did you learn from working with him?
Van Leeuwen: That it's all in the fingers, man!
Homme: Right! I'd heard that old adage a million times, but I never had a point of reference for it until I saw Billy play up close. He can plug any guitar into any amp and he still sounds like Billy Gibbons.
Did you find out what the "F" in Billy F. Gibbons stands for?
Homme: Billy says the "F" stands for Texas, baby.
What are some of your favorite heavy riffs?
Van Leeuwen: Daniel Ash's riff on Bauhaus' "Hair of the Dog" is so dissonant and reverb-drenched that it's almost annoying to listen to. But that's why I love it—it captures that jonesing feeling perfectly. And Jimmy Page's "The Rover" is so slinky, sexy, and bendy. It's absolutely undeniable from the very first note.
Homme: Well, I usually go with the two Jimmies: Light Jimi and Dark Jimmy. Jimi Hendrix has dark skin, but he's Light Jimi because his music has a very positive hippie vibe. Jimmy Page is Dark Jimmy—even though he's as white-as-a-ghost—because his music is so much darker. You could pretty reach into the Jimmy Page hat, pick out anything, and that would work for me. Page knew that the real meaning of "heavy" isn't distortion—it's delivery. I also love "Slip It In" by Black Flag. Greg Ginn is another guitarist who understood that heaviness doesn't come from equipment.
Josh, how do you approach soloing?
Homme: I play solos very stream-of-consciously. I don't think about scales as much as I do textures.
Did you use your infamous Ovation electric on the record?
Homme: I didn't use that guitar at all on this record, but you should know me well enough by now to realize that I don't divulge gear secrets. People always ask me about my rig, but that's not what's important. The real beauty of guitar playing is the act of finding things out for yourself. The best gear advice I can offer is to play through an amp with one volume knob and one tone knob and see if you can make that sound good. You'll learn more from doing that than from knowing the details of my rig.
Van Leeuwen: With sound, you've got to find your own way. Try different things until you come across the sounds you're hearing in your head. Try using equipment "wrong." You can get cool sounds from plugging into a wah pedal backwards.
Speaking of cool sounds, the opening riff on "Long Slow Goodbye" is based around the beeping sound a phone makes when it's left off the hook. Do you regularly use everyday sounds as inspiration for songs?
Homme: Always. "Feel Good Hit of the Summer" was written at the tempo of me walking on New Year's Eve in the freezing cold. I was listening to my footsteps, and I just started hearing the song in my head. "The Lost Art of Keeping a Secret" is another walking song.
Let's take this a step further: Is your music directly connected to your life experiences?
Homme: Absolutely. One is just an extension of the other. Your music has got to be directly connected to everyday experience for it to be sincere. As far as I'm concerned, music is the most valuable resource for helping a person get through life. If I can't figure something out, I can always play it out.