Queens of the Stone Age's Josh Homme Is Our Last Real Rock Star
Photo by Chapman Baehler
The time has arrived for a changing of the Elvis at Pink Duck Studios. The velvet painting on the wall just isn't cutting it, and Joshua Homme wants it replaced. "That velvet Elvis sucks," Homme tells his studio manager. "It's truly awful." So down it comes, switched with a more regal portrait of Presley as a younger man, microphone in hand, dressed in a steel-blue prom tuxedo with a sky-high '70s collar to remind us who we're looking at. The Big E, the Hillbilly Sinatra, The King.
Homme hangs the painting directly above a rack of custom electric guitars, his tools of choice as leader of the band Queens of the Stone Age, where he crafts an eccentric hard-rock roar of elegance and brutal swing. Trent Reznor calls Queens "the best rock band in the world" and extols their ongoing tradition of bravado, vulnerability and authenticity, adding, "And they could kick your ass if you ran into them in a bar somewhere."
That happens less often these days, as Homme at 41 is a committed family man, with two little kids and a punk-rock wife (Brody Dalle, of The Distillers and Spinnerette) at home in the Hollywood Hills. He remains a sturdy redhead with tattooed knuckles, standing 6-foot-4 in lizard-skin boots.
Someone once called Homme the "Ginger Elvis," and it stuck; gifts of Elvis ephemera have been arriving from friends and family ever since. You can see the affection on Homme's face as he stands in his private recording studio in a quiet industrial corner of Burbank, taking in Presley's sainted image and the moment in time depicted in oils. "That to me is post-'68 comeback," Homme says, looking at the painting with a smile, "where he's feeling good, he's back on top, and he's just starting to dress funny."
These days Homme is in a similar place himself, fully in motion on multiple fronts following a moment of uncertainty that nearly ended his career. Last year's deeply personal Queens of the Stone Age album, ...Like Clockwork, was the band's first to reach No. 1 on the Billboard top 200, but it arrived after a wait of six years. There was a lot of touring and scattered side projects during that time, but also an unexpected, painful illness that knocked Homme down for six months and left him deflated and doubting his own gifts.
It began with a routine knee operation gone wrong in 2010. Homme died on the table and was revived. He was in the hospital for weeks, and recuperating at home for months, with family, friends and a visiting nurse attending to the open wounds of a painful, antibiotic-resistant MRSA staph infection. He'd never been so sick.
Making ...Like Clockwork was Homme's way back, and his usual Queens brethren of "gnarly guys" was joined in the studio by Dave Grohl on drums and an unlikely new sideman named Elton John at the grand piano. The songs were heavy and revealing, brooding with ghostly images of a psyche adrift: "Pinned like a note in a hospital gown / Prison of sleep / Deeper down the rabbit hole, never to be found ... again."
"It was terrible and awful, and I wish it didn't happen, but I wouldn't take it back," his wife, Dalle, says of the ordeal behind the songs. "I think it was important for him to go through this metaphoric rebirth."
Homme's love of Elvis is real, but his obsession with Presleyana was always exaggerated in the minds of his admirers. In a lot of ways, Homme is more of a Dean Martin man, admiring not only Dean's "looseness" and ease with a manly melody but also sharing his instinct for the devastating wisecrack as host of his own informal roast of a tight circle of comrades and collaborators.
Dino's contracts specified that he never be at a TV rehearsal, and the truth was that he never needed one, and hardly seemed to care. Homme is not so lucky. Beneath the surface burns a more anxious, obsessive force devoted to his collisions of sound and inspiration in all their ragged glory. There is no rest here, except for cigarette breaks.
"You can either create, or re-create or emulate," the singer-guitarist says. "The war for second place, I have no interest in that. It's not about winning. It's about being your own thing."
Queens of the Stone Age is his show and always has been. Homme is the only consistent member throughout the band's 18-year history, but this isn't a solo act. He craves the give-and-take of a band of brothers on a shared mission, and says, "Why not gather people who don't have massive egos, and we work together and make something wonderful?"
Homme learned this in part by witnessing other rockers repeat the same tragic errors that happen every rock & roll generation, despite all the evidence of public trial and error. He's seen too many bands on the road "where they treat each other awful: mean, just terrible, rude, ruthless, cruel, fuckin' stupid, racist, misogynist, homophobic," Homme says. "They're like a cancer — they're destroying what was good from the inside out."
Band members have come and gone from Queens for various reasons, some creative, others personal. Guitarist and sharp dresser Troy Dean Van Leeuwen has been with Homme the longest, joining in 2002. It was during the making of ... Like Clockwork that another longtime player, drummer Joey Castillo, made a surprising exit. "The process of finding all these people takes years," Homme says.
Queens' origin story begins with another band. Homme first emerged from Palm Desert in a band called Kyuss, a relentless hard-rock act that languished in obscurity in the waning days of synthetic hair metal. Dave Grohl first saw Kyuss when he was living in Seattle as a member of Nirvana, after getting a tip to check them out at the Off Ramp Café. What Grohl found there was a band of shaggy desert misfits, and guitarist-songwriter Homme, just 19. "Josh looked like this baby-faced giant with a baseball hat on backwards," Grohl remembers.
At the time, the newest Kyuss album was 1992's Blues for the Red Sun, and their live set of weird metal and wild instrumental tangents instantly converted Grohl to the cause. Soon he was buying multiple copies of the album and sharing the discovery. He gave a copy to Metallica guitarist Kirk Hammett and even told Kurt Cobain that this was what the next Nirvana album should sound like. "And he said, 'Really? You think so?'?" Grohl says with a laugh.
Joshua Homme onstage at Coachella
Photo by Steve Appleford
Not everyone understood. Kyuss received the usual rewards for pushing hard against the boundaries of sound and content: indifference, ridicule, hostility. On the Sunset Strip, Kyuss arrived from the desert to share stages with bands in teased hair and Spandex.
"If you want to follow your own path, this is the job for you," Homme says. "People hated Kyuss. I got so used to not being liked, you just go, 'Yeah, because you don't get it.' It starts to be your mantra. That's how you can carve a scene. That's how you start a sound. The goal is not to be with everybody."
Kyuss had grown up together, but internal discord struck them as well. Only Homme and singer John Garcia remained of the original lineup when Kyuss disbanded in 1995. Queens of the Stone Age was a reaction against the ill communication that helped kill Kyuss.
"This band is different from other bands. This is a creation against what I saw when Kyuss was touring around," Homme says. "Even how people in Kyuss couldn't always say what they wanted to, but I was always like, 'Why?'?"
By then, Homme and Grohl were friends, and when Queens recorded a third album, 2002's Songs for the Deaf, Grohl was sitting behind the drum kit. It was the first album-length project to feature Grohl as drummer since 1994, the year of Cobain's suicide and Grohl's solitary recording of the first Foo Fighters album. In 2009, Grohl and Homme reunited in the studio as Them Crooked Vultures, a high-powered trio with Led Zeppelin's John Paul Jones on bass.
"Josh and I are kindred spirits, in that we are entirely focused musically but we don't give a fuck," Grohl says. "In the last 22 years, I found my musical soul mate with Josh. He is definitely the one musician that I've connected to the closest of anyone I've played with. We have this ESP unspoken language of our own that doesn't take any discussion."
In 2012, Grohl was home in Los Angeles reading to his daughter before bed one night when he got a text from Homme: "Call me. It's an emergency."
Grohl soon learned that Joey Castillo, who took over the drum seat after Grohl returned full-time to his Foo Fighters, had just left the band during the struggle to record ...Like Clockwork. It was just one more crisis during the recording, and Homme immediately turned to his old friend. Grohl performed on half the album's 10 tracks.
It wasn't a casual effort. "When I record drums with Josh, he pushes me more than anybody else in the world," Grohl says. "Because he's a drummer as well, he understands the relationship between a riff and the rhythm. And he'll push me. I get really frustrated. He likes to get me in that place where I'm sweating and I'm pissed off. It always comes down to me saying, 'That's just not how I play the drums.' But it becomes the way I play the drums."
The struggle was not over. Even with Grohl at the sessions, Homme was unsure of the direction or value of what he was doing. He remembered that Johnny Cash once said he was merely the deliverer of music, not the creator. Likewise, Bob Dylan had said he has no idea where the songs from his mid-'60s creative explosion came from. "I fully embrace that," Homme says. "I feel less in control of the music than ever. I'm doing whatever I feel that I'm being told what to do."
Early in the planning of ...Like Clockwork, Homme talked to Reznor about producing. The Nine Inch Nails leader was busy with his own projects, but their discussions about Homme's creative crisis was a crucial help.
"I saw a guy that was trying to make a great album, and trying to find where his voice was, and feeling unsure of himself artistically," Reznor says. "All I said was, 'For me, if I'm not sure about what I'm doing, it's a sign I'm probably doing the right thing. If I'm too confident, and too sure of myself, am I really pushing myself to the next place?'?"
Homme turned to transcendental meditation. And Dalle got to witness Homme's creative return up close and in private moments. "I'd see him in the bedroom at 3 in the morning playing a riff," she says now. "It's a beautiful thing to watch."
The man in the doorway is in a pink tank top with a picture of the Statue of Liberty raising a Slurpee, and a matching pink cap. "Dude, I just got this shirt at 7-Eleven," says Jesse Hughes, an excited smile beneath his thick red mustache. His hair is short, and he wears shades and black suspenders, a small hoop earring in his right lobe. "See, you can't help but to look at it."
Hughes has been one of Homme's closest friends since high school, and since 2004 has been known to the world as the flamboyant singer-guitarist in Eagles of Death Metal. Among friends and admirers, he often goes by the name Boots Electric, or Boots for short.
Joshua Homme, left, with Jesse Hughes, his longtime friend and partner-in-crime in Eagles of Death Metal.
Photo by Steve Appleford
While Hughes had been in other bands out in the desert, he was resigned to music just being a hobby. He was a married man and the father of a little boy, working in a neighborhood video store, contributing articles to the local newspaper and volunteering for the U.S. Senate campaign of local hero Sonny Bono.
After his divorce, Hughes began writing songs of audacious sexual healing and danceable "Brown Sugar" riffs, which finally captured the joyous rocker within. Homme recognized what he heard, and together they created Eagles of Death Metal. Hughes was the seething-romantic-anxious frontman on vocals and guitar; Homme was the drummer and studio mastermind sitting right behind him.
In the control room at Pink Duck, Homme sits at the computer, sampling bits of drum beats from their previous EODM albums to create a crooked Frankenstein beat. He bobs his head fast to the beat and plugs a bass into the wall of electronics. "That sounds kind of bubbly," Homme says approvingly.
On the wall is a framed portrait of John Wayne, in classic late-career pose for the camera, right hand on holstered six-shooter, left grabbing the barrel of a Winchester rifle. A rusted horseshoe hangs upside down above the doorway, near another painting of Elvis in a cowboy hat lacquered to a wooden clock.
"Let's track this. I've got it ready to go," Homme says, and soon they're deep into a speedy riff, Homme on bass, Hughes on guitar. The song is "Got a Woman," set for the new EODM album, due in 2015.
Boots switches into a black Misfits shirt with a pink skull face on his chest, and bites into a rainbow snow cone. "Basically, I come in here and record for 10 minutes and Josh fucks with it for an hour and a half," he says. "So I just walk back and forth."
Leading a tour around the block outside the studio, Hughes points out a building with tinted windows and sealed doors. He insists it's a monitoring station and points to a back parking lot filled with nondescript cars with federal license plates. He says the building is manned by the Secret Service and Homeland Security, a listening post right out of The Conversation and Three Days of the Condor. He's not joking.
"I came into this business so strangely. Josh is the only person I relate to," Hughes says. "He made it possible for me to exist. He didn't have to — and there is no precedent for him to have done it."
They both grew up in Palm Desert, an arid paradise of ex-presidents and movie stars and retirees who'd worked their whole lives to reach it. Homme remembers it differently. "Literally, all I heard for the first bunch of years of my life was 'Keep it down' from everyone," he says. "The amount of people that shook a cane at me? I just walked by you. 'Don't walk so fast!' Old people abound. It looks like the fucking walking dead."
The sons of a successful construction contractor, Homme and his older brother learned the value of hard work in the desert heat. "They're all fucking hard workers," says Dalle, who married Homme in 2007. "They built what they have from nothing. They had to earn it. That's how you get respect in the family as a man. Josh wasn't given anything. He was planting fucking trees when he was 5 years old. And not just a few tress — try 500 trees. He and his brother worked their little asses off."
Every summer the Homme family packed up for a road trip to an aunt's place in the woods around Sandpoint, Idaho, and the cassette deck was given over to endless plays of Jackson Browne's Running on Empty, with its stories of cocaine and the rock life recorded in hotel rooms and tour buses; and albums by Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton. They were in Idaho all summer, which always included the local music festival. One year it was Carl Perkins at the mic, and young Joshua learned something about a place called Sun Records.
The rest of the year was endless desert. Hughes was the chatty wiseguy who was picked on by high school bullies, until Homme stood up for him at a party. They've been close friends ever since.
Celebrities were everywhere. Hughes was caddy to Telly Savalas at the Bob Hope Classic. "I remember when Andre Agassi was fucking Barbra Streisand," Hughes says, "and I got to see parts of that play out behind the scenes. That's awesome."
Boots once ran into Richard Nixon on the golf green, and the old man allowed him to play through. "He said, 'See, Bob, it's not an old man's game. Nice to see you, young man, out on the course,'?" Hughes recalls with a smile. But Nixon is dead and gone, and Hughes now does most of his golfing in Los Feliz. "The problem with the golf courses in the desert is they are very traditional, and this shit," he says, pointing to the macramé of tattoos on his arms, "has to be covered. Any alternative flair isn't cool. It's an irritation: 'Get off the green.' That's the attitude."
By their teens, they'd met a young rocker named Mario Lalli, who opened his house in La Quinta to the kids and anyone else who wanted to plug in and rock. Lalli led a band called Fatso Jetson and was the essential figure in that early desert scene, fueled by the uncompromising example of Black Flag and SST Records. "To me he's Saint Mario," Homme says now. "He just believed and embodied the ideal of you can do it yourself, and it should be original."
Some of the parties were in the desert canyons just beyond the notice of parents and cops, powered by Lalli's generator. Homme's earliest live experiences with Kyuss erupted amid the canyons and sand pits.
"It could be the most amazing surreal experience possible, and it can also be really scary," Homme remembers. "No one was there to stop it. So whatever starts — whether people on LSD or people fucking over there or a fight — people just would back up and you would have to finish it.
"When I look back in hindsight, I can't believe that 300 people's parents, not one of them were like, 'We've got to put a stop to this.'?"
Hughes nods in agreement but adds, "They genuinely didn't know. Honestly, I think our parents were like, 'It's the desert, what are they going to do?'?"
Homme does fewer interviews these days, and you will not find him on social media (unlike Boots and Dalle). He is not available to be tagged, poked, liked, hashtagged or linked, and he shares nothing of his kids on the Internet. In the early days of Queens, talking with a journalist never got uncomfortably personal and often meant "spreading rumors and manipulating stuff because it all seemed so silly. It's not a real world." But things have only gotten more personal and public.
In 2008, Homme was pushing through a gig at the Norwegian Wood festival in Oslo with a temperature of 102 when a kid threw a shoe at him. Homme noticed, and between songs he laid into the kid with insults and promises of hands-on punishment. Then Homme, already infamous for halting shows to angrily heckle misbehaving fans, pulled an old schoolyard smear from his pocket: "Turn the fuck around, you chickenshit fucking faggot!"
The entire show was taped for broadcast, but that single moment is all anyone without a ticket will remember of the gig. The response was predictable and immediate: Homme was loudly called out as a homophobe.
At Pink Duck, he brings up the incident himself, and you can tell it still bothers him. After all, he says, his brother "has had the same boyfriend for 22 years. Which is nobody's fuckin' business. I'm just not PC."
It's not a small thing for him. Soon, Homme calls his brother to make sure he's OK with him being mentioned in an interview. His brother is fine with it.
"We grew up in the gay mecca of the world," Hughes says. "We know every archetype very well. We don't give a shit at all. If we didn't love women, we would be the best gay couple in Hollywood right now."
Homme's other longtime friend from his teen years is Nick Oliveri, recognizable around the rock planet for his shaved head and long Mephistopheles goatee. He was the raving nutjob behind the mic on Queens' "Tension Head" and added a dangerous, unpredictable accent to the band's shows and albums between 1998 and 2004. Oliveri and Homme toured the world together, got thrown out of places and rumbled with the locals.
Oliveri is a true believer, a hard-rock lifer through thin and thick, equal parts punk and metal. When former members of Black Flag reunited in 2013 as FLAG and raged through their first gig at the old Moose Lodge in Redondo Beach, pumping his fist in the front row from beginning to end was Oliveri. He does not hold back.
Oliveri was an early member of Kyuss but left the band in 1992. He joined Queens after a chance meeting with Homme in Austin, Texas. Homme had already recorded the band's self-titled debut album, but before its release added a recorded phone message from Oliveri and put him in the band photo. They quickly became tight as musical partners and friends.
"He's got a gung-ho, 'Let's do this!' attitude," Homme says. "Nick does not want to sit around: 'Come on, let's go!' He's the perfect right-hand man. If you want a riding partner, he's up for it."
Oliveri's abrupt exit came around the same time as vocalist Mark Lanegan's, formerly of Screaming Trees, but it was Oliveri's ouster that caused the most public commotion. Fans took sides. Music journalists asked questions.
"It was confusing," Homme says now. "It was frustrating because it felt like, 'Shit, I fired my best friend. Could you do that?' I did it to his face. I didn't want to. That's hard, man. I felt like, what do you know about it? It was the first time it became antagonistic. That's about the time I stopped reading anything ever again. This is not healthy for me."
Over time there were multiple explanations for Oliveri's exit, most of them playing into his loose-nut reputation. Most serious was news that he'd been fired after beating up his girlfriend. There was talk of erratic behavior fueled on drug and drink, less surprising from a band whose catchy 2000 sing-along "Feel-Good Hit of the Summer" is made up entirely of the lyrics: "Nicotine, Valium, Vicodin, marijuana, ecstasy and alcohol — cocaine!"
Oliveri now says it was a falling-out over a missed rehearsal and his challenging the boss. Either way, their special bond was shattered for a time. Oliveri appeared on a Dwarves song that mocked the Queens frontman (as Blag Dahlia sneered clumsily, "This one goes out to Queens of the Trust Fund/You slept on my floor/And now I'm sleeping through your motherfucking album"). But by the next year, Oliveri was often seen at Homme's shows, hanging out backstage, watching with the fans. Homme and Oliveri were sometimes spotted out together, just never onstage.
"I went out to see him a couple of times and I put it out there: 'Hey, man, I'm here. Why don't I come up and sing?' It's Josh's band," Oliveri says. "I love going to see him play. I like to feel I helped build them to a certain point, but they've got farther beyond that, for sure. Josh is taking it to a whole other level on his own."
In April, a full decade after his dismissal, Oliveri was invited to climb onstage for a song at a Queens show in Portland, Oregon. After that, Oliveri was put on the bill of Homme's upcoming "End of the Road" festival at the Forum on Halloween. It's a one-night gig, part of a full lineup of music.
Sitting at an old Mexican restaurant in Echo Park, Oliveri looks especially pleased. This would be a great gig for almost anyone. For Oliveri, who has a new solo album, Leave Me Alone, it means something more.
At night's end, Oliveri confides across the table, he is supposed to join Queens onstage for a few songs. It's supposed to be a surprise, but in the weeks after he keeps telling anyone he can, media or not. By late September, the story is in NME, Rolling Stone, Pitchfork, Spin, etc.
Who could blame him? Being ejected from the band was a devastating blow to his career, his finances, his fun and his friendship with Homme. One night to relive that is more than he'd come to expect.
"We had some moments where I was — for a lack of a better term — I was butt-hurt," Oliveri says with a laugh. "It's hard to see your band go on without you. And I lost it by my own doing. It wasn't out of the blue: 'You're out, dude!' I thought it was, but it really wasn't. It takes some time to figure that out."
Homme has no plans to slow down in 2015. After the new album with Eagles of Death Metal, Homme will reconvene his dormant Desert Sessions series with another gathering of heavy hitters in a studio out in Joshua Tree. Later in the year, work begins on another Queens album, and somewhere in between is a secret collaboration so precious he won't even talk about it.
"Next year will be a year of science and collection of ideas," Homme says, sitting in the studio control room, a studded white leather bracelet on his wrist. "There's no reason to wait. There's no reason to be hasty. I'm just moving at a good clip and looking really wide to see if there's any interesting pathways that seem scary and cool."
First, he must get off the road, which he will do Halloween night, when Queens of the Stone Age end a year of touring with that one-day festival. He'll be joined there by The Kills, JD McPherson, Suicide Girls burlesque dancers, a wandering Día de los Muertos mariachi band and, of course, Oliveri. There will be games and a truly disturbing haunted-house attraction from the notorious Blackout company, and everywhere will have the presence of The Cramps, the dear departed psychobilly band that was an essential influence on a teenage Homme.
For decades, The Cramps were host to an annual Halloween show at the Warfield in San Francisco. The festival at the Forum will be something of a tribute.
"People should know about that shit. I think of me, a 13-year-old kid with a mullet, with a Bad Music for Bad People shirt on, walking through a suburban town," he says. "What if I had never heard that shit? That was the most punk shit ever. Punk is outsider music, and they were the outsider's outsider."
Part Elvis, part Dean Martin, part ringmaster, even now, Homme still identifies in his own way with the punk aesthetic he first learned in the desert. He's pushing boundaries, offending some, thrilling others from Pink Duck to Oslo to Coachella.
"You have to throw yourself off the cliff," he says. "And have faith that if it's real — even if you get destroyed — what a swan song, you know?"
Editor's note: A previous version of this article incorrectly referred to Kyuss's 1992 album as Blues of the Red Sun, rather than Blues for the Red Sun. We regret the error.
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