Published Apr 01, 2005"I think most bands play by this false set of rules that doesn't exist while we know that there aren't rules." The southern California desert has historically been the realm of weirdos and iconoclasts, from Captain Beefheart to Charles Manson. Josh Homme has inspired similar fanatical followings through his vision of saving rock'n'roll. It's a simple one: catchy songs, hypnotic grooves and ultra-heavy instrumentation. But it has been Homme's role as ringmaster of this travelling circus which after 15 years has evolved into Queens of the Stone Age that has earned him a place as one of the most important and influential figures in the current rock scene. He may not fully grasp how it happened, but with each release, such as the latest Queens outing, Lullabies To Paralyze, or the frequent all-star jams known as the Desert Sessions, Homme continues to push the boundaries of traditional hard rock, subsequently maintaining its vitality within a world dominated by endless categorisation.
Joshua Michael Homme grows up in sparsely populated communities east of Los Angeles with close friends Nick Oliveri, Brant Bjork, and John Garcia. All of them gravitate toward punk rock after seeing local legends Across The River play a lunchtime gig at their high school. ATR evolves into Yawning Man, who play the first desert party Homme and Bjork attend. "We were trying to get into the punk scene that didn't even exist anymore," Bjork would tell L.A. Weekly in 2002. "We were into Black Flag, Minor Threat, Misfits. But when we finally tapped into the local scene, it's Yawning Man, and they're playing this really stone-y music. It wasn't militant like Black Flag. It was very drugged, very mystical the greatest band I've ever seen. It was more like something in the '60s than some gnarly punk scene. Everyone's just tripping, and they're just playing away for hours."
Guitarist Homme and drummer Bjork enlist Chris Cockrell to play bass; he suggests John Garcia for vocal duties, singing lyrics written by Homme and Bjork. Initially called Katzenjammer, then Sons Of Kyuss, they finally settle on just Kyuss. They follow Yawning Man's example of playing unconventional hard rock, but become known for crafting an even sludgier sound. "We didn't have enough money to buy tuners," Homme would tell L.A. Weekly. "And so we kept tuning down and down and down, until the strings were flopping, and then just bring it barely up. Then we would all tune to each other, and the gig would start. We loved our music so much we would play and pay no attention to the audience. Never wrote a set list. We could jam any of our songs at a moment's notice."
After recording their first demo released in 1991 as Wretch the still-teenaged members of Kyuss acquire a manager, who gets the tape into the hands of Chris Goss, front-man of Masters Of Reality, then beginning to cause a minor stir with its early 70s proto-metal sound. Goss is one of five people who attend Kyuss's first L.A. gig, but is sufficiently blown away. "I went ape-shit," Goss says in L.A. Weekly. "There's a thing that happens when guitar and bass play a slow riff and the drums are swinging under it it's a body thing, your spine almost turns to jelly. I'd been a fan of heavy music all my life, and here were some kids doing it as good as or better than I'd ever heard. I walked up to Josh afterwards and I said, Are you a Sabbath fan?' And he said, No, I've never really listened to Sabbath.' I knew we were on to something. This was coming from them." Goss persuades his label, L.A. indie Chameleon, to sign Kyuss, and he offers to produce their next sessions. By this time, the ever-evolving parade of Homme's band-mates has begun, with the volatile Nick Oliveri coming in to replace Chris Cockrell on bass.
1989 to 1990
Kyuss's growing legion of supporters fuels an arrogant attitude toward the L.A. underground. They become an opening act to be feared, especially after a punch-up with a soundman who shuts down the P.A. in the middle of their set. Oliveri's hard-partying nature is balanced by Homme's imposing physical presence. (The guitarist turned down several scholarships to play college football.) In 2002, Garcia would tell Magnet magazine, "People started coming to the Kyuss shows more to see us fight than for the music. We weren't fighting with each other we were fighting with other bands or with crowds just because they looked at us wrong or something." They release their first EP, Sons Of Kyuss, and continue to play around L.A., but find more satisfaction in all-night desert parties. "There was one time in Indio Hills," Homme tells L.A. Weekly. "There's a bonfire in front of us, so no one's standing directly in front of you. But they're on the edge of the fire. The canyon was tight, and there are little fires in the walls of the canyon, in these perches, where people were standing; you could see the shadows on the canyon walls. I remember playing, in that moment, going, This is definitely it.' But the problem with anarchy is, anyone can do whatever they want. Whether it was the wind telling us what to do or Mehi gang guys coming in and stabbing someone in the ass with a penknife, or someone freaking on acid, that kind of shit can stop a party fast. I remember when they lit the car on fire. And it was like, This is definitely not it.'"
1991 to 1992
Kyuss record their first full-length album, Blues For the Red Sun, with Chris Goss producing. Too heavy for punk, too melodic for metal, and too psychedelic for grunge, it creates a new genre, "stoner rock," paving the way for bands like Fu Manchu and Monster Magnet. The buzz leads to a deal with Elektra, but just after the album's completion, Oliveri quits and is replaced by former Across The River bassist Scott Reeder. Oliveri moves to San Francisco and joins the Dwarves under the name Rex Everything. "I got naked a couple times onstage when I was in Kyuss," he says. "Most of the time, I was just drunk. And shit, man, the Kyuss records after that are cooler anyway. I joined the Dwarves, played guitar for one tour, but then everyone realized, God, you suck at guitar.' I just faked it, man. I played on two Dwarves records, then came back to the desert from San Francisco cause I got thrown out of the Dwarves. Then I got rehired. Then I quit in 96."
1993 to 1994
Kyuss receives big tour offers (White Zombie, Faith No More) but a turning point comes during a tour of Australia with label-mates Metallica. The first night, the band is given free reign with their sound; for the rest of the shows they're limited to using half the P.A. system. "The business was starting to get to me," Bjork says. "Josh and I started running at a little different pace. Our ideals started to change a little bit. Which is natural, cause not only was the band developing, but we were becoming adults, too. I started to see [Kyuss] become a demon, and I was burning out simultaneously. So I just decided to leave when I knew I was ahead. As far as I was concerned, we'd blown Metallica off the stage. Where do you go after that?" Before Bjork's formal departure, Kyuss completes work on its third album, Welcome To Sky Valley, a spacey opus in three parts, which receives even more accolades than its predecessor.
1995 to 1996
Despite acclaim and an expanding audience, Bjork's departure is a heavy blow to their spirit. Across The River drummer Alfredo Hernandez joins for their final album, ...And The Circus Leaves Town. Although only in his early 20s, Homme is disillusioned by the music business and dissolves the band. Garcia and Reeder form Unida, while Homme lives in his car and immerses himself in literature and music. He would later reveal to Magnet magazine, "I heard Iggy Pop's The Idiot and Lust For Life and it was like, Well, those records are true, that's everything I wanted to say. Does anyone need to hear what I have to say? What does it matter?' Then I realised: because I like it. It's got nothing to do with anything else. It took me about a year to figure that out." Homme heads to Seattle, figuring he can be anonymous in the city's now-nascent scene. He's sought out by Screaming Trees singer Mark Lanegan, who invites Homme to play rhythm guitar for their Lollapalooza sets that summer, which turn out to be the Trees' final shows. Lanegan, struggling with heroin at the time, recalls, "Josh's presence alone was the glue that kept us together. We didn't want to act up too badly in front of the kid."
Following the demise of the Trees, Homme records a handful of seven-inch singles as Gamma Ray, with Screaming Trees' bassist Van Conner and Soundgarden drummer Matt Cameron, before returning to the desert and reconnecting with old friends like Fred Drake and Dave Catching, owners of the Rancho de la Luna studio where Kyuss had done its final unreleased sessions. Fuelled by weed and mushrooms, Homme starts recording with Goss, Hernandez, and members of Drake and Catching's ambient country band Earthlings. Eventually, the sessions attract members of Monster Magnet and Hole as well, leading to loose new entities arbitrarily named Acquitted Felons, the Eagles Of Death Metal, and Green Monarchs. These first recordings will be released in 1999 as The Desert Sessions, Vols. 1 & 2 on Man's Ruin Records. Although much of it can be called stoner rock, the sessions allow Homme's growing desire to experiment to run wild. Homme tells Magnet, "It just seemed like I didn't have a band, and I always wanted to get together with a bunch of folks and switch instruments and go out to the middle of the desert and ask, Do you remember why you started playing?' No managers and no industry types. Barely even condiments for sandwiches. Just go out there, improvise and say, I got a part in this key, we can transpose it and change the tempo and fit it with your part and here we go.' It's like a genre-less, long-running mixed tape." By the end of the year, a core unit of Homme, Catching and Hernandez emerges that Homme dubs Queens of the Stone Age, and work begins on a full-length album.
1998 to 1999
After leaving the Dwarves, Nick Oliveri resurfaces in Austin, TX, with a new band, Mondo Generator. While in town to catch their set, Homme offers Oliveri a gig with the Queens, and the band releases their self-titled debut on Loosegroove Records. Its cover a shot of a female midsection lifted from an early 70s porn magazine is a good representation of the band's sex, drugs and hard rock aesthetic. Yet, for all of the monolithic riffs, there's a vulnerability in Homme's vocals that clearly sets the band apart from the typical metal crowd. "When you wanna hear something that's rocking, don't you just wanna hear it heavy?" he says. "Like, where you can just give the finger to the speakers? But that doesn't mean that it can't be pretty and sweet, too. I'm six-foot-five, but I'm in touch with my feminine side. Perfect rock music is heavy enough for the guys and sweet enough for the girls." The band displays its aggressive side when it gets into a backstage brawl with the band Terrorvision at a British festival. Although Homme admits that he and Catching do most of the beating, it is Oliveri who is arrested.
QOTSA sign with Interscope, based on the label's success at marketing oddball bands like Primus. Homme and co. record Rated R, a more sonically streamlined effort. Homme splits vocal duties with Oliveri, as well as new part-time member Mark Lanegan. But it is the general aura of excess, as suggested by the album's title and lead-off track "Feel Good Hit Of The Summer," that leads to confusion about Homme's intentions. When Queens join the Ozzfest tour, with an unenviable early afternoon slot, it brings out the band's worst tendencies. "Ozzfest almost destroyed our band," Homme tells Magnet. "I grew up in a white trash community. It was like looking at my hometown up close under the magnifying glass in an amphitheatre for three months." Oliveri's band Mondo Generator releases its first album, Cocaine Rodeo.
Oliveri is dragged offstage by police for playing naked in front of 250,000 people at the Rock In Rio festival. He is forced to make a public apology, but Homme calls it "the coolest fucking incident of all time." Touring antics consistently grab headlines, but take a toll. By the end of the tour, Catching is gone, and the rotating drummer's seat is once again vacant. Homme assembles another desert session. One track that will later emerge, "Hanging Tree," appears in demo form on Vols. 7 & 8. Man's Ruin Records goes under, and Homme starts his own label, Rekords Rekords, to put out more Desert Sessions. Looking at a proper QOTSA follow-up, Catching is replaced by Troy van Leeuwen of A Perfect Circle, and Dean Ween lends a large hand in the studio. But the biggest coup is getting Dave Grohl on drums. "It was like, Dave, will you help us out of a bind and play on this album?' Then he wanted to tour, too. And it was great, because it's really the best the band's ever sounded, musically."
The new Queens line-up does a brief club tour before Grohl returns to other projects. Songs For The Deaf is released in August and is immediately hailed as a masterpiece. Although far from commercial-sounding, the album seems to fill a void for intelligent, unpretentious hard rock. Homme described it at the time as, "Rated B for Bizarre. This is the most all-over-the-place one. It's kind of like the trancey element of the first and the musical diversity of the second, except even further." With Joey Castillo taking over for Grohl on drums, the Queens' live show lives up to the hype. They embark on a year-long world tour, with more lurid tales coming out with each show.
Homme and Oliveri compose the soundtrack to The Dangerous Lives Of Altar Boys; Homme also helps out Lanegan on his next solo sessions, while Oliveri completes another Mondo Generator album, A Drug Problem That Never Existed. The most significant work of the year, though, is Desert Sessions 9 & 10, which includes PJ Harvey as part of the core group, along with Marilyn Manson bassist Twiggy Ramirez.
Homme gets back on the road, this time as the drummer for the Eagles Of Death Metal, an outrageous trio fronted by his old friend Jesse "the Devil" Hughes. Their album, Peace, Love & Death Metal attracts attention simply for the Queens connection, but is best for a few laughs. Homme appears just as often in magazines when it's revealed he's involved with Brody Dalle, front-woman of the Distillers and very recently divorced wife of Rancid's Tim Armstrong. Although Homme appears to revel in the tabloid-style spotlight, it's a different matter when word begins spreading of a serious rift between he and Oliveri. It's reported that Homme is finally fed up with the bassist's dangerous behaviour, resulting in his firing from the Queens. "I don't feel like the issue here is anything musical. The issue is more personal," Homme tells Spin magazine. "It is about my relationship with my friend Nick. The band started with me having this idea of working with people and trying to take their best songs. I've done it by myself, and I've done it with other people, and I've done it a lot with Nick. I can't be someone's babysitter for their life. There've just been too many incidents where Nick is the tornado who goes on to the next city and expects everyone to clean up his mess. Keeping him out of trouble is a full time job. And then I got my own trouble, because I like to party and fuck around, too."
The Queens release Lullabies To Paralyze, with longtime desert session participant Alain Johannes replacing Oliveri on bass. Other significant guests are Garbage's Shirley Manson, and ZZ Top's Billy Gibbons on the primal blues stomp, "Burn The Witch." Although not as immediately throat-grabbing as Songs For The Deaf, Lullabies morphs the original stoner sound into the inevitable evolution of hard rock. As speculation runs rampant over whether tracks like "Everybody Knows That You're Insane," are rants about Oliveri, there are signs that a reconciliation might be in the offing. Troy van Leeuwen tells nme.com, "Nick's going to make another Mondo Generator record and we'll probably all end up playing on it. Him and Josh are brothers. There were a lot of questions [when Nick left]. Looking at it now I wouldn't say that I'm glad he's gone because he's a great artist but I would say that it's okay that we've changed and it's gonna get even better. You've gotta roll with what's going on."
The Essential Josh Homme
Kyuss Welcome To Sky Valley (Elektra, 1994)
The follow-up to landmark debut, Blues For The Red Sun, Sky Valley firmly unified the "stoner rock" nation. There's still an innocence in their Sabbath-meets-Black Flag foundation, but the ambitious three sections of sludge truly earns them the title of sonic revolutionaries.
Queens Of The Stone Age Songs For The Deaf (Interscope, 2002)
With a line-up anchored by Dave Grohl on drums, this album came loaded with expectation. It didn't disappoint. Each track is a hard rock masterpiece, and held together as an imaginary radio show, SFTD unapologetically provided the antidote for uninspired modern rock.
Desert Sessions Vols. 9 & 10 (Rekords Rekords/Ipecac, 2003)
Always a source for fresh ideas, this time the unlikely contribution of Polly Jean Harvey takes things to a new meaningful level. Although she has not yet been drawn into the Queens' inner circle as previous sessioners have, this album shows that she is more than welcome. (Nettwerk)