A thin plume of smoke twists through the air as Clash opens the door to Josh Homme’s plush hotel room. The enigmatic lead singer of Queens of the Stone Age stubs out his smouldering Marlboro in the dregs at the bottom of his coffee cup, looks up, lifts an eyebrow and says, “Hey man, do you wanna do some coke?” He then waves a miniature glass bottle of Cola in the air and starts to smile.
Homme is sitting on an elegant blond wood chair in a third floor room of the luxury Metropolitan Hotel, on Old Park Road, for a day of interviews to promote the new Queens album ‘Era Vulgaris’. “I hate it – it’s a piece of shit,” he smiles, leaning across the coffee table. “Nah, I’m totally stoked with it. It’s a cliché, but it’s the best thing I’ve ever recorded. It’s the longest an album has ever taken us too, it took about two or three times as long as any of the others, it was five and a half months and that’s a long time for us.”
I don’t need things like drugs around to make good music. I don’t need to hide behind anything.
But as soon as the hacking punch of kick drum marks the opening of the first track, ‘Turning On A Screw’, the long months in the studio all seem worthwhile. “We just needed to put everything into this record and stick with it until it was done,” he nods seriously. “I doubt that it’s the most commercial record so far, but that’s not my yardstick for success. Right from the start the drums sound like someone with emphysema. It’s hardly bring-your-grandparents-along stuff, but you never know, stranger things have happened.”
Like bass player Nick Oliveri getting kicked out of the Queens for apparently doing too many drugs. Who would have thought it possible? It smacked of Lemmy getting kicked out of psychedelic metal pioneers Hawkwind, for wolfing down too much speed. But despite missing his friend and long time collaborator, with the band’s fifth album, Homme seems to have finally got over the departure of the man with a penchant for taking his clothes off on stage. “I’m in touch with Nick, even if I’m not talking to him. I’ve been in touch with people he knows,” he half-smiles. “I was with him for a while, but he wasn’t there at the start. It’s been just like a great hamburger, with Nick as the delicious meat patty in the middle.”
But as Homme sits back, dragging his boots across the thick purple carpet of his hotel room, eyes drifting past the tasteful cream walls, minimalist modern art and coming to rest on the flatscreen Sony TV, you can tell he’s got things besides his old band mate on his mind. He tosses the room service menu – featuring a seared tuna sandwich with spicy coconut relish, avocado and Vietnamese salad for £18.50 – to one side and starts talking about the third track on ‘Era Vulgaris’, ‘I’m Designer’. The track features his haunting falsetto vocals proclaiming “my generation’s for sale, it’s a steady job, how much have you got?” ringing out over a crystal sharp riff and drums that could punch a hole in a wall.
“It’s not a finite point or anything, it’s just my sense of humour,” he reassures. “Our generation doesn’t want steel mill jobs. We want creative jobs, there are just lots of people searching for something. I think that it’s valid not to break your back for something that you don’t believe in when you’ve only got one life. I break my back for music because it’s something that I love, but I’m not going to break my back for a bank. I wouldn’t want to be an ATM repairman; there are some things that just aren’t worth it.”
As ‘I’m Designer’ draws to a close in a cascade of scratching guitars and distortion heavy bass, it ushers in the centrepiece of the album. ‘Into The Hollow’ is one of the more laid back moments with sometimes Queens member and former Screaming Trees singer and grunge icon Mark Lanegan gently growling “I’ve always been alone” over the top of spiralling slide guitars and a solid rhythm section.
“I think this album is different even for us, I think it’s like we are a new band,” says Homme, shifting his massive frame in his chair. “The idea was to take our music to the kind of place where we can just play whatever we want and whatever sounds good. I just love good hooks. The album has a lot of different things going on, but musical schizophrenia can’t be cured with regular medication – it would be stupid of us not to change things around, you’ve just got to do your own thing otherwise it starts to grate.”
Less than 24 hours before Clash walked into Homme’s hotel room, he was standing on stage at London’s 100 Club, with a baying mob of beer-swilling fans lapping up every song he could throw at them, from the frantic first track to be released from the new album, ‘Sick, Sick, Sick’ to ‘Mexicola’, from their decade old self-titled album. “The new stuff has been going down really well live,” he smiles. “It’s really fun to play, but it’s really hard to play too. This isn’t an easy album, it’s no walk in the park, it’s more of a light jog with a 50% chance of rain. We look forward to taking it out into the fields of America and ploughing the farms with it. We are playing all the cities in England this time around too. I’m not just talking about London and Manchester – look out Wolverhampton and Stoke-on-Trent, I want to play everywhere.”
One of the biggest cheers of the set was for the digital download release ‘Sick, Sick, Sick’ with its repetitive buzz saw riff, rumbling bass line and vocal cameo from the Strokes’ cooler-than-thou singer, Julian Casablancas. “I’ve always been a Strokes fan, I love Julian’s writing and he’s done a great job on this record,” enthuses Homme. “He came along, laid down some guitar and a set of vocals and it went really well. The song’s about the crown prince high releasing everyone from the shackles. It’s about a fairy godmother coming along and saying ‘you can sing and you can dance and you can fuck’. It is like the examination of a single note, it’s just ‘pow, pow, pow’, it’s like Morse code just bashing away.”
Flanking Homme at the 100 Club there were no celebrity collaborators. Three anonymous musicians crowded onto the intimate stage alongside him. But ripping through the short set, the absence of Casablancas, Lanegan, Oliveri and even Dave Grohl, wasn’t felt. “He’s a very mean spirited man Dave Grohl – a devil worshipper,” Homme laughs. “I believe he was in a band called Nirvana, but I don’t know if they were any good. I sing some of the songs that Mark sings though,” he continues, “but others I don’t, it just seems disrespectful. If we don’t think we can do it justice, we don’t play it live.”
One very rare foray for the Queens is to dip way into Homme’s past, to the late 80s and a band called Katzenjammer, who later came to be known as Sons of Kyuss, before finally releasing four albums as Kyuss and splitting at their peak in ’95. It was in this influential stoner group that Homme earned his stripes and took enough drugs under the baking Palm Desert sun to leave his body for the vultures to pick dry. It’s also where he formed his friendship with Nick Oliveri and was taught to walk to rock ‘n’ roll tightrope by sandpaper throated vocalist John Garcia. But dipping back so far into his past is something Homme isn’t prepared to do.
I break my back for music because it’s something that I love, but I’m not going to break my back for a bank.
“We played a Kyuss song about two years ago at a show, but it’s a very rare thing,” he frowns. “We did it then because John Garcia was there, but I respect him and I couldn’t play it without him. I hope we carried a lot of Kyuss fans through with us though, I think they are fantastic, but I needed to grow and I hope that some of them grew with us.”
But where the Queens really thrive isn’t on the stage, but in the studio, as proved not just by four solid albums, but numerous collaborations in the ‘Desert Sessions’ series. During the first session, held in ’97, for three days magic mushrooms were gulped down by the handful and a whirlwind of mostly instrumental psychedelic prog rock was laid down. But with Volume 9/10 under his belt Homme produced a more coherent album, and planted the seed of ‘Make It Wit Chu’, which was re-recorded and made it onto the new album.
The song is ‘Era Vulgaris’’s most radical departure from the band’s trademark heavy rock stomp. It shuffles through four minutes and 50 seconds of 4/4 padding piano, with a blues tinged guitar line gently weaving its way in and out of the melody. Lanegan is on vocal duties, crooning slowly over the top as Homme contributes Bee Gees-esque backing vocals. It’s a standout track that provides a clear contrast to the straight up hyperactive rock numbers like ‘3’s And 7’s’, the album’s first single proper, released in June.
“The best habit in the world is no habit,” says Homme, discussing the variety of material squeezed into the record’s 48 minutes. “This album was far more collaborative than ever before. We played the songs through all kinds of different ways, before we finally finished them. One rule is that if one person isn’t 100% behind a song, we don’t play it.”
“This is a modern record, this is what we sound like as a modern band, but our version of modernity is complicated,” he continues before adding: “I think my final words on the subject will be ’what was in my drink’, but I don’t need things like drugs around to make good music. I don’t need to hide behind anything.”
With these ambiguous words hanging in the air, mingling with the smoke from another Marlboro, the interview is over and Homme pushes his ash-filled coffee cup to one side, extends his heavily tattooed fist across the table to shake hands with Clash, then disappears from the room to catch a plane back to the States.