"I was lost in the dark" – Queens of the Stone Age's Josh Homme in interview
As Queens of the Stone Age purge their doubts with the most serious album of their career, Josh Homme stops to count his midgets
“I’ve got midgets everywhere, man.” Josh Homme’s chasing his kids around the kitchen of his
Returning to the fray with their long-awaited sixth studio album this month, “an audio documentary of a manic year” according to Homme, it seems a lifetime ago since the desert dwelling kings of peyote-laced psychedelic rock played it fast and loose with 2007's Era Vulgaris. As a sombre, accomplished and at times uncomfortable record that carries the scars of a band determined to shed its own skin once more, don’t expect …Like Clockwork to plunge its fangs into your neck on the first date in quite the same way as its predecessor. Had Homme shaken his demons once recording was complete? “As soon as the record was done, I was done,” he still exhales with a sigh of relief. “It’s almost like it’s your monkey now," he laughs. "It’s a good monkey, but also you should spank it every once in a while.”
Why so keen to get it off his back? By the band's own account, the genesis of ...Like Clockwork was heavy. Heavy, because of Homme’s surprise showdown with his own mortality when he briefly “died on the operating table” during what should have been routine knee surgery in 2010; a profound experience which left him recuperating, bed-ridden for four months. In an effort to reclaim his mojo, the band embarked on a year-long lap of honour for its rough-hewn but fully formed 1998 self-titled debut in 2011. Homme speaks candidly about the mission statement: “I really wanted to make almost like a trance blues James Brown record, but that just wasn’t there for me. I was hoping that playing the first record would really inspire me and make me fall in love with music again. But I think I was just lost, looking for something in the dark. In that dark I found this record. I wish I had enough control over what I do, to sort of wield it around. And there’s been moments when I have, but this is not really one of them.”
Heavy, because Joey Castillo – a rigid fixture in the band since joining the ranks in late 2002 – made an abrupt exit in the middle of …Like Clockwork’s recording sessions. Back to the proverbial drawing board, then? “Yeah, we were maybe about a third of the way in, so there was still a lot of work to do,” recalls band multi-instrumentalist Dean Fertita. “That was an emotional thing for us – we love Joey to death.”
“chaos needs to be at the forefront of what happens here" – Josh Homme
“It was a rough week,” Homme concedes. “So I called my friend Dave [Grohl].” With Castillo out and Grohl back in the drum stool, Sir Elton John – introduced to the band via his chauffeur, another friend of Homme’s – also came knocking on the studio door. “Three days later, Elton was there, so that was a big come together moment for a lot of reasons,” says Fertita. “It refocused us and our commitment to seeing [this album] through. He made the comment when he came in: ‘so have you got a ballad for me?’ We were like ‘no, we want to do a rock song with you in the room with everybody else.’ We had a completely inspiring afternoon with him. I mean, I started playing piano when I was six… did all the usual, learning classical, then got my Elton John songbook. So this was mind-blowing. We were all just staring at the guy.” Homme agrees that the experience galvanised the group: “By the time Elton had left there was this excitement in the studio. It was like we had sat in the same catapult together and pulled the chord. There’s time to craft songs, but that wasn’t really one of them – it was time to just throw down.”
Then, the news that Queens’ former Songs for the Deaf incarnation had also reconvened for the occasion (albeit temporarily) set their fan community alight; once-regular co-conspirators Mark Lanegan and Nick Oliveri joined the party for a growling gang chorus cameo on the album’s most swaggering rocker, If I Had A Tail. “It wasn’t really until someone started asking me about the marquee value of these guests that I really thought about what they meant,” says Homme now in hindsight. “It was really helpful for me, because it made me think ‘why the fuck did you do this?’ Then it all dawned on me in about two seconds: this was the moment when I needed my friends. It was just a nice distraction away from the record for a second. Like, ‘come over here, let’s just hang out, drink some tequila and we’ll figure out something cool to do.’”
So did the band just need some good old-fashioned chaos to unlock the recording? “I would say that chaos needs to be at the forefront of what happens here,” Homme affirms. “I’m not a control freak, I don’t want it to be perfect, I don’t want it to be my way, I want it to be the way that’s on the verge of explosion. After all these years, we’ve gotten to this place where it’s us now. I think it’s OK to transition that. There was a time I really wasn’t all that comfortable singing, I was like ‘what if we had three singers?’ It came from a cool idea, but it also came from being a bit of a pussy about it. You chase down the best ideas you have in the moment you have them and you don’t apologise, you just move.”
Looking back at the end result on the eve of its release, did the band surprise themselves? “No, it honestly scared me more,” Homme admits. “There’s a part of me that’s releasing this record, and I do mean releasing it – and saying ‘Goodbye!’ to it, in a way that I never have before. I’m saying ‘Thanks for kicking my ass, and I’m so glad to see you go. I deserved it, I needed it, and I got it. And I don’t want to do that again, if that’s cool?’ Now I’m not complaining, that’s just part of the gig. I wasn’t complaining then and neither were the guys, but I had to ask them ‘if you want to make a record with me right now, in the state I’m in, come into the fog. It’s the only chance you got.’ It brought us much closer, because you never really know someone till everything goes wrong. We’re trying to hang our toes off the edge here, because the music is totally honest and real – that’s where you can fail. But I’d rather fail and die by my own sword than let somebody else choose or play it safe. I just feel like musical safety equals death. You want me to make the same record I made before? Don’t hold your breath; because you’re probably gonna pass out.”
Although determined to hit the road (“It all starts next week”), Homme hints that another Queens album might arrive sooner than we think, referencing the dark before the dawn of Iggy Pop’s first two ‘Berlin period’ solo albums, written, recorded and released in swift succession within the same year. “Part of me thinks it would be great if this was the point-counterpoint that The Idiot and Lust For Life are, y’know? I love those records so much; they came out in a quick period of time. The Idiot is very dark and Lust For Life is sorta like ‘Tah-daaah!’ I would love to answer this album with a ‘Tah-dah!’ at some point.” Some point soon? “Yeah, absolutely,” he assures. “I think six years is far too long...”
For now, as they prepare to make their live UK comeback at Download Festival in the middle of a Motörhead and Iron Maiden sandwich, does the band still feel at home on a heavy metal bill? “Well we’re outsiders everywhere we go, and that hasn’t changed,” Homme offers. “If the question is ‘Can we just throw down, bury the needle and run over you?’ You bet your fuckin’ ass. And I suppose we’ll do a little bit of that, but I also suppose that we’re being asked to be there to be something of a ginger on the palette. I think we take a risk, is what we should do. These are the days where, if you aren’t just who you are, you die. Before, you could sort of fake your way through all this stuff, but these are the days that are made for bands like us. And Motörhead, too. I mean, Motörhead is who Motörhead is; Lemmy is the king shit of fuck mountain. Why? Because he’s always himself; I think you just take a cue from that.”
Guest INTERROGATOR: Chris Goss (Masters of Reality)
Josh, could you give three reasons why The Skinny should be listing, recommending and not ignoring Masters of Reality's Glasgow 17 June Cathouse show?
Josh: You want three reasons why you have to go see it? I can do that easy: Darkness, Mystery and Loveliness. Those are my three reasons. Chris is not only one of my dearest friends in the world, but I’m a fan of his music, and they’re not mutually exclusive. I don’t like something just because I like someone. It’s a good feeling when you can love your friend and love what they do too. I highly recommend that you go there.
Also, there are lots of fans asking if there will be any last minute guest appearances in each other's sets at Download. We've done Monster in Your Parasol a zillion times, so how about I play on Sick, Sick, Sick and you play on Deep in the Hole?