When Vultures Circle

From the belly of the rock world's most anticipated meeting of minds since Dio danced with Sabbath, former Led Zeppelin bassist <b>John Paul Jones</b> reveals the genesis, the chemistry and the future of <b>Them Crooked Vultures</b>.

Feature by Dave Kerr | 10 Dec 2009

When an unannounced act calling themselves Them Crooked Vultures started hovering around European festival tents at high noon this summer, spectators were treated to an update of Josh Homme’s desert-born robot rock, embellished by John Paul Jones’ psychedelic overtones and Dave Grohl’s deftly controlled fills, rolls and pummelling breakdowns. Grohl and Homme’s union on 2002’s Songs for the Deaf had already set a jaw-dropping precedent for any future collaboration, but the addition of Jones presented a tantalising prospect for rock aficionados of all generations.

Accordingly, as supergroups go, they don’t come with a bigger S across the chest or any greater weight of expectation on their shoulders than this trio. Their virtuosic pedigree – equal parts Led Zeppelin to Nirvana and Queens of the Stone Age – is a combination of the yardsticks that modern rock has come to be measured by. But can the music ever be greater than the sum of its constituents? The Skinny talks to John Paul Jones about the band’s genesis, chemistry and just how long they think they can keep this up.


What were the circumstances of your first meeting with Dave Grohl and Josh Homme?
I played on a few songs that ended up on [Foo Fighters’ fifth album] In Your Honor, done some arrangements with them and conducted an orchestra for them at the Grammy awards. Then [Dave] came over to England for the GQ Men of the Year Awards and presented Jimmy [Page], Robert [Plant] and I with the lifetime achievement award or something. At that time he asked me whether I’d be interested in coming over to Los Angeles and having a play with him and Josh. Josh I hadn’t met, though obviously knew him from Queens of the Stone Age. It sounded like a really interesting proposition. So we got together at Dave’s birthday party at Medieval times, which was bizarre, you wear paper crowns and drink Dragon’s Breath soup. Once we got over the trauma of that we went into the studio the next day and just started playing. It was brilliant from the word go.

Are Nirvana and Queens both bands that you had come to enjoy as a listener before any collaboration took place?
Oh yes, very much, I was always a fan of Nirvana and I’ve heard quite a lot of Queens of the Stone Age over the years. And so, yes, I knew how they played and had a feel for their sensibilities a bit I suppose. Dave is just a killer drummer, probably one of the best drummers about at the moment and Josh has always been a really interesting musician, and a good guitarist, I’ve discovered. I didn’t appreciate quite how good his guitar playing was, and of course he’s a great lyricist and singer…so it’s a dream band.

I think he's had that reputation as an accomplished player from a young age, much like you. Blues for the Red Sun by Kyuss is a classic, and he was still in his teens when they recorded that, long before Queens…
I wasn’t aware of Kyuss previously, I’m quite aware of them now of course [laughs], but they did some great stuff.

How do Them Crooked Vultures balance songwriting, with your background as a composer and Josh and Dave's roles as principle writers in their other bands?
It’s all pretty democratic. Josh tends to – well, in this project – we’ll have recorded the tracks for the songs and Josh comes up with the lyrics last. Which is not usual for him, I think he found it quite difficult…he’ll say so himself. But we all had great input into the tracks and melodies.

How is it to be back recording and touring with a band again?
It’s brilliant. I was kind of up for it when Dave asked because I’d been rehearsing with Jimmy and Jason [Bonham, son of late Led Zeppelin drummer John]. I think after the 02 [benefit concert for Ahmet Ertegün held in December 2007], we’d put in so much work we thought it was silly just to say goodbye. We thought we’d like to start another band – not Led Zeppelin without Robert Plant, as was reported – we just wanted to do another band, although obviously we realised we would have to play some Zeppelin songs if we actually went out on tour. We couldn’t agree on singers in the end. It was just around the time when it had all come to a halt that Dave asked me about this new band. So my mind was in kind of the right place for touring and recording…I jumped at the chance.

You played a series of shows as unannounced special guests at a number of festivals this summer, where were you with the album by that point?
It was pretty much in the can, pretty much there. We had to finish mixing and mastering whilst we were on the road. It was done before we played a single show; although there’s one song we play live called Highway One which may have changed a bit. Since we’ve been playing that we’ve added bits to it and so that’ll probably change. It has been recorded but we’ll probably go back and work on it.

Do you consider Them Crooked Vultures a one off, or might this become a more serious long-term proposition?
I don’t know how long-term it can be, with all the other bands involved, but it could be I suppose. Josh is in three bands at the moment anyway, so it could continue like that. We definitely want to do another record, so it’ll certainly last that long. We’ll probably want to tour that, so it’ll go on to last that long too [laughs]. I suppose we’re taking it as it comes, but there are plans for it.

Was there any fear that the project might not live up to your respective legacies?
We’ve never really thought about respective legacies. I mean, basically those legacies were great for getting us into the press, getting us noticed and getting people along to the shows because nobody had heard the music when they first came along to the shows. There wasn’t a record out or anything, so that was kind of novel. It didn’t concern us, we knew the band was good and we knew the music was good. We were happy to have it stand on mostly its own legs.

What's your own favourite track on the album?
It’s definitely a three man project. We all had a lot to do with the forming of the tracks, obviously not the lyrics. Everything else was very much a band project. Favourite tracks? I’ve got so many of them unfortunately – unfortunately for you [laughs], but not for me. The likes of Mind Eraser, [Spinning in] Daffodils and Scumbag Blues – they’ve all got their own things. It was agreed that nothing would go on the record unless everybody was really in love with the track. And that’s pretty much what happened. There was no ‘[groans] oh, ok, I’ll play on this then’ [laughs]. It was never that. It’s a band record, we weren’t working on a Queens of the Stone Age record.

How do you think Them Crooked Vultures would have fared supporting Led Zeppelin back in the day?
Ooh, well I’d be knackered for a start! [laughs] We’d have given Zeppelin a run for their money, I think. We’d have certainly wanted to give them a run for their money.

Was there any particular Led Zep show you look back on as a particular landmark or turning point for the band?
Bloody hell, that’s hard! There was a load of them. The Forum shows were great, there was one particular one at Filmore West in San Francisco very early on in ’69. That was one of my favourite shows because it was like a big breakthrough. The Madison Square Garden shows were great, there were literally hundreds.

Any memorable performances in Scotland?
Yeah, to be honest all shows in Scotland were pretty memorable because – I don’t know how it is now, because I haven’t played up there for years – in the old days it was always much more livelier and exciting the further north you went. By the time you got to London everyone was sitting there with their arms folded thinking ‘OK…what have you got?’ You've always seemed to have much more fun up north…more receptive and certainly more demonstrative! [laughs].

After all the rumour that surrounded Led Zeppelin since the O2 gig, and new speculation about next year’s Glastonbury, do you see any future plans with Jimmy, Jason and Robert unfolding?
Well, Robert has stated that he really doesn’t want to do that sort of thing anymore, so I think the answer is no. There definitely aren’t any plans and I can’t see anything happening either.

Have you been invited along to appear on the next Desert Session? There are rumblings that Josh has been working on another for a while…
Oh really? [laughs], I don’t think Josh has had much time to think about anything else at the moment, not since February, it’s been pretty full on. Yeah I would though, should he invite me. It sounds like fun. Any excuse as far as I’m concerned [laughs].

Will Them Crooked Vultures continue to be active throughout 2010?
Yeah, there’s going to be festivals, there’s going to be quite a lot of dates I think. A lot of touring. But as I said, I was in that mindset, so I’m ready for it. We’ll make another record; I should think that’ll happen next year.

Them Crooked Vultures play Corn Exchange, Edinburgh on 15 Dec. Their self-titled debut is out now.