Carved From Stone: Josh Homme Turns 50
Celebrating a half century with the Queens of the Stone Age frontman
There is something special – at the time maybe, and certainly in retrospect – about seeing a really good baby band in a small space and getting knocked out but what you see and hear.
Or, in the case of Josh Homme’s band Queens of the Stone Age, what you hear but don’t see.
Let me explain: It’s January 3, 1999 and Queens of the Stone Age are making their Boston area debut at a 100-capacity venue in Cambridge, Mass., the Middle East Upstairs. (Neo-lounge band Combustible Edison is playing the larger, club Downstairs that night.) Now, Queens of the Stone Age were not a baby band in the sense that the players were not new to the world; Singer-guitarist Homme has already made his mark in the metal world with Kyuss, but Kyuss was no more and QOTSA is the new kid on the rock block. Kyuss bassist-singer Nick Oliveri and drummer Alfredo Hernandez rounded out the new band (its first phase anyway).
Now, the Palm Beach, California band first played out in 1997 and their eponymous debut album came out in 1998, so “baby band” is pretty much what they were in my world – that is, Boston – even if they’d begun a metal ascent elsewhere. They’d played the West Coast, England and Europe but not yet the east coast, so there was an excited buzz in the air and wonder about why a band seemingly destined for something bigger was playing such a tiny – if packed to the gills – place.
Outside that night, the air was dense and foggy. And inside, well, the same. Nothing to with Mother Nature, but Queens of the Stone Age was enveloped in a chemical smoke bath from start to finish. I was maybe 60 feet from the stage and it was the first time I’d covered a band without actually seeing the band. Which was a novel mix of cool, mysterious, disconcerting and, I’d learn later, a mistake.
Yep, a technical malfunction. There was supposed to be some chem-smoke, it wasn’t supposed to engulf the band. For the entire set.
They kicked off with “Born to Hula,” “If Only” and “Mexicola.” Pinpoint lights came from the stage, shooting laser darts through the chem-smoke, which kept bellowing out at us. It was surreal and dreamy and either matched in a mindfuck-y way or perfectly contrasted with the sonic assault coming at us. While the music was, at it core, ferocious and metallic, Homme and Oliveri and company had learned a few tricks from the Kyuss days and there were prog and art-rock ripples and wrinkles, even a Devo-esque robotism. There was even a groove buried deep down in the chaos.
Now, QOTSA was riding a bit of a media wave at the time, called by Rolling Stone one of the “10 most hard and heavy bands right now” in an article titled “Metal: The Next Generation.” It’s hard to recall but that probably tipped me off; my metal enthusiasm at that point was not what it once was; ‘80s hair metal knocked a lot of that to the curb, even if Metallica and their brethren kicked it back up a bit.
I talked to Homme, who turns 50 on May 17th, about the metal thing. Nope, he said, not really his bag. “I’m not really into metal, never have been and presume I never will be,” he said. “I like, to me, what is the obvious stuff, Black Sabbath and Motorhead, but that’s kind above and beyond an easy term like metal. When I think of metal, I think of Dokken and Judas Priest and that hurts me.”
Somewhat humorous/ironic note: On 2000’s Rated R LP, one of the singers joining the QOTSA pack was, yep, Priest’s Rob Halford, who happened to be recording in the next-door studio and came in to sing, “Feel Good Hit of the Summer.”
But why, then, the metal tag?
“I think the other band, Kyuss, was shelved there and our delivery is heavy. But heavy is more than sonic heaviness – it’s the delivery of it.” said Homme.
I was aware of Kyuss, but admit I didn’t listen much to them; I thought listening to Kyuss was like being steamrolled.
When Kyuss was put to sleep in 1995, Homme said, “the music scene was so uninspiring, I can’t even look at my guitar case. There are so many [similar] bands … that’s why there was a three-year gap. I was thinking of what to do, anticipating and waiting. I had this idea of a more robotic, stripped-down, economic style and I thought it wasn’t being done. I started listening to [old] CAN and Brian Eno and it supported this idea. Instead of discouraging me, it helped. It made me want to do my own version of this. I talked to Fredo and his style is very Devo-esque and it fit in without him doing anything but being himself. Nick’s addition of aggression is very necessary, too.”
At their best, QOTSA had a rare trifecta, making music that was melodic, hypnotic and heavy. (Like the best of Hawkwind, maybe?) “It would be really nice to be your own clique,” Homme offered. “I feel like we’re supposed to try and do that as hard as we can. We’re supposed to play our favorite music that no one else would play and hopefully that would be an enigmatic mix. My favorite word is ‘delivery,’ the thing that separates one band from the next. With Kyuss’s delivery, there was the redundancy factor. It was like carpet bombing, leaving no stone, or stoner, unbombed.”
With QOTSA, there’s more variance, sonic shuffling and and subtlety. But, and I only asked this partly in jest, might the metal-heads resist or revolt?
“We’re trying to see if we can drop some of the boneheads,” Homme said, “but have the thickness and energy [in sound]. I’m not genre-specific. I don’t want to look out at all boys. If we can weed people out, we will.”
I caught Queens of the Stone Age three years later at the Paradise Rock Club in Boston, touring in advance of their third album, Songs for the Deaf. One thing I recall coming away liking: The idea that the songs didn’t end when you thought they might or should – they would twist and turn, meander and burn. Semi-gorgeous vocal harmonies floating over, or coursing under, dirty-ass rock. A genre-busing set putting brains and brawn together and visually there was the clash of the straight-looking, tall Homme and the satanic-looking Oliveri, with Screaming Trees singer Mark Lanegan coming out to sing a new one, “Song for the Dead,” a long, dark thrasher, and “Hangin’ Tree,” another cheery number. On drums that night: Dave Grohl (you may have heard of him), shirtless and sweating and banging out a Gary Glitter glam-rock beat on “Do It Again.” A mashup of control and chaos. Homme praised his mates: “Dave is Jesus” – he had and still has that look – “and Nick is God.”
The next year at the Massachusetts Lollapalooza stop in Mansfield. Homme’s band, played on a sunny afternoon, on the bill with Jane’s Addiction, Audioslave, Incubus and others. Not a band to see in the sun for one thing, almost as miscast in sunlight as the Jesus and Mary Chain was on Lollapalooza in 1992. Homme looked out over a sea of faces and did not like what he saw going on out there. No, it wasn’t violence in the mosh pit. It was this: A giant multi-colored orb was being batted up in the air around the pit area by presumably shiny, happy people.
“This is not Ozzfest,” Homme barked. “This is about peace, love, booze and fucking” Of the beachball bouncing, “it’s a game, a really stupid game.” My admiration for Homme rose up another notch.
And of the many bands on the bill, which included the way-cool Donnas and the equally way-cool Distillers, QOTSA was the most impressive. There’s was a taut, explosive, rhythmic, Metallica-esque attack, with guitar licks spun out like shrapnel. They were also joined again by Lanegan, ambling on and off stage, singing this and that.
Lanegan, who struggled with drug abuse for years, would die, at 57, Feb. 22, 2022, after a long battle with COVID-19, exacerbated by kidney disease.
Oliveri and Homme parted company later in 2003, Oliveri fired for erratic behavior, including some of that directed at fans. QOTSA regrouped, made four more albums with a fifth, In Times New Roman…, is slated for a June 2023 release.
Before that of course, came the terrorist attack in Paris at the Bataclan in November 2015 where Homme’s other band, Eagles of Death Metal, co-fronted by Jesse Hughes, were playing. They were ripping through “Kiss the Devil” when the devil appeared in the form of Islamic terrorists, whose attack killed 90 people and ripped the rock world apart for a spell.
The last time I saw Homme, it was a gritty, gripping and raucous time. It was January 2017 at the Orpheum in Boston and he was playing guitar in Iggy Pop’s band alongside QOTSA guitarist Dean Fertita. Very much into being a sideman and collaborator with someone he no doubt idolized as a younger man.
Ah, the joy of being part of Iggy’s world – a lust for life, indeed.
VIDEO: Josh Homme “Spinning In Daffodils”
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