Published Aug 24, 2017Behind every great rock star is a great guitarist. For Queens of the Stone frontman Josh Homme, that man is Troy Van Leeuwen: the former session musician/A Perfect Circle member who, since becoming a full-time member of QOTSA while touring behind Songs for the Deaf, has acted almost like the band's second-in-command, helping usher in a new era and more nimble sound.
Their previous album, 2013's …Like Clockwork, saw them confronting some of their darkest days as a band yet. Inspired by Homme's near-death experience during complications from surgery, and the dark depression he fell into for months afterwards, the album was a sombre affair, with the band embracing tender and thought-provoking piano ballads, introspective and candid lyrics, synthesizers and a newfound sense of mortality. Queens had never sounded so fragile; since then, they've never been stronger.
"It's funny, you know. Every stage of this band I've been in has been unique and amazing in its own way," Van Leeuwen says by phone from California, "but right now it seems like the musicality and the chemistry of the band is on fire. There's almost nothing you can't do."
While on a short break before heading out on a North American tour in support of the band's new album, Villains, Exclaim! spoke with Van Leeuwen about working with Mark Ronson, being inspired by Iggy Pop, his contributions to the new Chelsea Wolfe record and how bands (and peers) like Royal Blood are proving rock's not dead.
1. Working with Mark Ronson
Van Leeuwen remembers first hearing the future Grammy-winner's production while listening to Nikka Costa's debut, but never thought he'd get a chance to work with him.
"Even the stuff I normally wouldn't gravitate towards, like Bruno Mars, I noticed a real musicality there," Van Leeuwen says about Ronson's skills in the studio. "I guess the second [Homme and Ronson] worked together on [Lady Gaga's Joanne], right away Josh knew that this was someone we could jive with. And when he told me that's someone he would like to record with, I was on board right away. I mean, the Queens, we do what we do… but it was nice to just be a band and have someone like Mark checking in and saying, 'Yeah, do that. Be who you are.'"
2. How Iggy Pop inspired the new album
Speaking with The Skinny in support of …Like Clockwork in 2013, Homme said a new album would be on the way sooner than later, and even compared it to Pop's followup to The Idiot.
"Part of me thinks it would be great if this was the point-counterpoint that The Idiot and Lust For Life are, y'know?" he said at the 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!'"
It would take years for news of another Queens of the Stone Age album. In that time, Homme would record with Pop and even recruit Van Leeuwen to tour with them in support of the album.
Four years later, Van Leeuwen says the comparison still holds true.
"I would say that Iggy definitely inspired us to move on making a new record by playing with him," he says. "So it's kind of come full circle then. Because not only were we playing Post Pop Depression in full, we were playing The Idiot and Lust for Life on the road… There's a real connection I have to the way those records are. So yeah, I would say The Idiot is to …Like Clockwork the way Villains is to Lust for Life. It's very well put."
3. Villains isn't the only new album Van Leeuwen has in the works
A member of Sweethead and Gone Is Gone, Van Leeuwen always seems to have another side-project on the go. Up next is Chelsea Wolfe's Hiss Spun, an album, recorded by Converge's Kurt Ballou in Salem, MA, that Van Leeuwen contributed guitar to and guarantees is "definitely heavy."
"They opened up for Queens on the last tour in the States and I really got to know Chelsea and Ben [Chisholm], who's kind of the musical director for her, and they're really wonderful people and I enjoy their music," he says. "I'm really happy with that record. It's completely different than Queens and I'm stoked."
4. On why they're touring with Royal Blood
"Sometimes you just want to be on tour with a band that's kind of akin to what you are doing," he says. "They're a great rock band, and they're just two guys. It's not a giant production.
"A lot of people have been [asking me if rock'n'roll is dead], and I've been like, 'I didn't know rock'n'roll was in a burning building,' you know? I didn't know that was going on. I would say this past year is a rock'n'roll year. There have been so many releases that have been coming out, and lots of them are people I respect and love. You've got At the Drive-In reforming, you've got a new Mastodon record… and Foo Fighters are coming out with a new record and Royal Blood. There's all this rock'n'roll coming out and… I think [showing that] is what we were trying to achieve by doing a tour with them."
Villains is out now on Matador. Check out QOTSA's upcoming tour dates with Royal Blood here.