Jesse Hughes doesn't have nightmares anymore. He sleeps peacefully through the night, curled up in his bed. It's the waking hours that are hard, as memories of Paris return with a jolt from a random smell or image on the street, taking him back to that night of violence and fear.
More than a year has passed since heavily armed terrorists aligned with the Islamic State walked into the Paris theater Le Bataclan and shattered the lives of those gathered for an evening of seething rock & roll from Hughes and his band, Eagles of Death Metal. The band narrowly escaped, but 89 others were killed and hundreds more wounded. Hughes has been working his way through the aftermath of that tragedy ever since, carrying a weight that he knows will never leave him.
At his house in Atwater, the walls are covered with personal mementos, pop culture artifacts and electric guitars, chronicling his life as a wild-eyed preacher of rock & roll. Hughes picks up a framed picture from the night of Nov. 13, 2015, taken minutes before everything went bad. On one side of the photo is Hughes onstage, presiding over another euphoric concert. On the other side is a crowd of ecstatic young faces, fans who filled the dance floor and balconies.
“I know all these people,” Hughes says quietly. He points to a familiar face, then another. “She made it, but she didn't.”
On the ceiling above Hughes are some of the many handmade posters given to the band on their return trips to France, including one with a peace sign made from a silhouette of the Eiffel Tower, covered in lipstick kisses and handwritten notes of thanks. Hanging beside it is a French flag with words scrawled across the center: “Vive Paris! Vive Le Bataclan! Vive Le Rock! Thank you Eagles of Death Metal. We love you all the time.” (EODM's song “I Love You All the Time” became the band's anthem for Paris and was covered by multiple artists.)
In most ways, the Rev. Jesse Hughes is the same as he ever was, an ordained minister and true believer in boogie fever and wild times, a confounding, obsessive, controversial rocker in aviator shades and shoulder tattoos. He is known for his magnificent red handlebar mustache and for songs supercharged with the healing power of a good “Brown Sugar” riff.
His behavior, always unfiltered, now receives international scrutiny. Last month he got some unprecedented attention from TMZ, which reported on a restraining order issued in family court against Hughes for threats against an acquaintance, including leaving a voodoo doll stabbed with a knife. Hughes says it never happened. “No, that's retarded,” he says. “I like the idea that someone wants a restraining order on me because I'm a voodoo magic badass. That's kind of rad, dude. But come on.”
People wonder if the lifelong Republican supported Donald Trump (he did not), and if he is anti-Muslim (he is not). Hughes was always outspoken, riffing easily on music, politics, drugs and sex. From one French TV interview, his criticism of France's gun-control laws went around the world. He later suggested that some of Bataclan's security guards were accomplices of the attackers, an allegation that led to EODM getting booted from two French festival gigs. After Paris, he found himself caught in a different kind of spotlight.
“I never stated that I was a Trump supporter. I don’t know where that came from.” —Jesse Hughes
“I felt he was particularly unequipped for something like this because he's so sensitive, and because he's so volatile, and because he's so unguarded,” says Joshua Homme, Hughes' best friend since their adolescence in Palm Desert, and the leader of desert rockers Queens of the Stone Age. The two friends are the creative force behind Eagles of Death Metal, with Hughes on vocals and guitar, Homme as producer and sometime drummer. (Homme wasn't in Paris.)
Hughes has been writing songs since the attack, and much of his new material is in the same vein of riotous celebration as before, but the experience of Paris has played a part in shaping it. In his living room, Hughes brings up a demo recording on his iPhone, and a midtempo song blares from his home speakers, with springy guitar accents and a dark, urgent vocal: “Lick your wounds and keep them clean/Holes are burning through, no voice left to scream.”
As the song ends, he tears up. “I can't even listen to them without getting like this,” he says, voice cracking. “It's a strange thing to negotiate. As one might imagine, simply doing the right thing is going to matter when it comes to this stuff.”
Hughes calls up an instrumental track, this one built around a driving, Middle Eastern–influenced guitar pattern. He imagines including a phrase sung in Arabic. “The lyrics I have in my head are very biblical, about being in the garden in the cool of the night, and being betrayed by your brother,” he says, then pauses. “I don't like writing shit like that. Even when I was going through my divorce, I made it into a hah-hah! kind of shit. And I've got to find that hah-hah! here.”
These songs may not appear on the next Eagles of Death Metal album, or ever be released. Hughes may instead include them on an album from his flamboyant solo persona, Boots Electric. Or he could give them to another singer to tackle while he tries to reclaim the life he had before.
“Even with everything that's happened up to this point, I still feel like the luckiest motherfucker in the world,” Hughes says. “I just carry a little more depth with it.”
The concert began like any other EODM show, with Hughes testifying like a Southern preacher, his South Carolina accent cranked up to 11. Onstage at Le Bataclan, he shook his tail feathers and shouted, “Tonight, if you are willing, you can be possessed by the spirit of rock & roll! Are you with me?”
Hughes wore suspenders over a black EODM T-shirt illustrated with the silhouette of a young woman bent over, her hair blowing across a dreamy SoCal sunset. He wandered over to Dave Catching, white-bearded and slashing at a Flying V guitar, and then over to his girlfriend, Tuesday Cross, at the keyboard. “Tonight I'm going to shake my dick, have a good time, and we're going to burn this motherfucker down!” he yelled.
Online, there is much video evidence of a concert going well that night in Paris. A crowd surfer is carried overhead during the tragicomic “Silverlake (K.S.O.F.M.).” Another video wanders the entire theater, capturing a crowd lost in the excitement.
“It was one of our best shows. It was so crowded. Everybody was dancing,” Catching recalls of the first 20 minutes. “No one would have thought in a million years what would happen.”
A cellphone aimed at the stage captures the moment the terror began. Catching and Hughes are midway into the fuzzy guitar frenzy of “Kiss the Devil” when a loud, cracking noise stops them. Hughes sees muzzle flashes and runs offstage. Julian Dorio ducks behind his drums, and bassist Matt McJunkins quickly slips away. But Catching is caught standing center stage, guitar in his hand. He looks out into the darkness, utterly vulnerable.
At first, Catching assumed the flashes he saw were firecrackers. “I could see people moving: 'That is so lame. Why is anyone throwing firecrackers in the middle of the crowd?' Then I saw the guys with the guns.”
The house lights went up. Hughes, trapped on the side of the stage with no exit, saw people die. There was a bloody mist in the air, and the taste of copper pennies in his mouth. “Like a Hollywood effect, everyone fell like wheat in the wind,” he says of the crowd, “like a bomb with a concussion had gone off and knocked all the grass down.”
Hours later, after locking himself in a bathroom and hearing shots and explosions just outside its door, Catching was the last survivor to be led out of the building by police. He had to walk across a dance floor covered in blood and the bodies of fans who didn't survive.
While the musicians suffered no physical scars, the effects are felt every time they are onstage. On the road three months later to finish the European tour, Catching found it harder to concentrate on the music. He kept looking around the room for another attack: “Once it's happened to you, you realize it is possible.” It's better these days, he says, but people he now meets ask the same ham-fisted question over and over: “Oh, that thing in Paris. How was that?”
It took Homme three weeks to watch the new HBO documentary about his band and the Bataclan experience, taking it in a little at a time, shutting it off when it became too much. Released this month and directed by Homme's friend Colin Hanks, Eagles of Death Metal: Nos Amis (Our Friends) takes a deep look at the band and the personality of Hughes, with his friendship with Homme at the center, while leading up to the attack and its aftermath. With the doc completed, Homme says he plans to never speak of the attack again with anyone other than survivors and those closest to him. Both he and Hughes hope to move forward.
Sitting in an empty Hollywood recording studio, Homme recounts the experience for what he insists will be the last time. Wearing a black motorcycle jacket, a small cross over his chest, he stands up to close the door, then describes getting the first text alerting him to the tragedy unfolding in real time on the other side of the globe. He talks of suffering from a distance, as friends he's known most of his life were in mortal danger. He made calls and sent texts through the day and night, checking in with everyone's families and significant others. He called Hughes' teenage son. “I found myself saying a lot of stuff I wasn't even sure I believed: 'I'm going to get them home.'”
Homme might have been with them in Paris that night but chose to stay close to home, where his wife, rocker Brody Dalle, was pregnant with their third child. On short notice, Dorio was recruited to sit in for the European tour. All the band's musicians and crew escaped the massacre, except for one: British-born merch manager Nick Alexander, 36, an upbeat rock & roll lifer who was in the lobby and among the first killed. The Bataclan attack was one of several across Paris that night that killed a total of 130 people.
Homme has contemplated the meaning of the massacre and its implications for how he and the others have chosen to spend their lives. In the past, he has had moments of doubt over the importance of his work as an artist. “I sometimes struggle with: 'Oh my gosh, what I do is so silly.' It feels thoroughly unimportant at these existential moments,” he says. “But all of a sudden, it was no, no, no. Never again will I think that. The arts and expression are so important, not just for my own self but to try to bring people into a way of thinking.”
Few filmmakers could have persuaded Homme to participate in a documentary on the attack — maybe only actor-director Hanks. They first met nearly a decade ago and bonded over music, especially brilliant obscurities such as Blowfly and 1950s go-go music from Las Vegas. Homme also admired the dedication Hanks showed in making the 2015 music documentary All Things Must Pass: The Rise and Fall of Tower Records.
Hanks realized that the band's return to Paris, three months after the attacks to perform a concert at the Olympia Theater, would be a powerful moment around which to build a documentary. His aim, Hanks says, was “to put an end to this chapter for the guys, as well as for a lot of the survivors of the attack. I also thought it was important to document the people coming together and trying to make something positive out of this.”
The massacre itself is recounted in detail through the words of band members and French fans who survived. There are tears but little blood onscreen. “I really wanted to convey things in an emotional way,” Hanks says. “Joshua is sensitive to the fact that he wasn't there when it happened. But he cares about these people, and that really matters to Jesse.”
The band's name started as a joke. One night in the '90s, when they were in their early 20s, Hughes and Homme were in the back of a “zombie green” VW van with the license plate “DOOMED,” and teasing their friend Cole Loo, a genuine death-metal devotee. Hughes demanded proof that the bleak subgenre was legit, and kept asking to hear something from “the Eagles of death metal,” as if a “peaceful, easy feeling” could exist within the speediest, darkest corner of heavy metal.
The first incarnation of the Eagles of Death Metal appeared in 1998 on Vol. 4 of Homme's Desert Sessions recordings, with Loo himself (credited as “Loo Balls”) howling an appropriate Darth Vader death-metal vocal. Hughes wrote the songs, which today sound recognizably his, but back then he was more the behind-the-scenes guy than the extravagant ringmaster he would later become.
Hughes was always a music obsessive. His mother had her young son study the flute, to steer him away from rock & roll. But he eventually heard a blast of early hardcore called “Nervous Breakdown” and snuck out to a Black Flag show in Indio. “Punkers were fucking scary,” he recalls of that night. “They were the type of kids that talked back to their parents.” In 1995, Hughes followed Parliament-Funkadelic on the road for three weeks, riding Greyhound and Trailways buses, chasing the Mothership from city to city. “They were the nasty music, and when I was a kid, I got them. They freaked me out,” Hughes says with a grin. “I'm a funk fanatic. Soul music really moves me.”
He dabbled as a performer along the way, writing songs, playing guitar, bass, occasionally singing. He was in the duo Black List Heroes — Hughes on bass, former Kyuss member Brant Bjork on drums, no vocals — thundering obsessively through sludgy Black Sabbath covers. He briefly joined Fatso Jetson and played drums and wrote songs in the Scary Time Ramblers (also known as Jesse's Girls).
By high school, Hughes' best friend, Homme, was already earning money in a functional, fast-rising desert rock band called Kyuss, which would soon tour the world. It was inspiring, but Hughes never saw music as more than a passionate hobby. His career plans were journalism and politics, which he studied at Greenville Technical College in South Carolina. He was a freelance reporter for the hometown Desert Sun newspaper, and in the early '90s volunteered for the U.S. Senate and congressional campaigns of Sonny Bono.
“I had aspirations of being a senator and then president,” Hughes says of his early career choices. “I saw it as my future. I saw it as inevitable. It seems that I would be good at it. I'm a Boy Scout. I'm an employee-of-the-month type of dude.”
Hughes married early and had a son, Micah. He lived the straight life, playing music only for fun. When his marriage broke up, he became lost and depressed. His mother called Homme.
It turned out Hughes had been writing songs, short blasts of melody and attitude. Homme recognized the raw talent in what he heard and told his friend that when Hughes had written 50 of them, they would record an album together. By this time, in 2003, Homme already had more than a decade of experience as a serious rock performer and bandleader, witnessing many casualties and bad choices along the way. He wasn't going to let Hughes make those same mistakes.
When the moment came, they borrowed a car from Hughes' mom and headed out of Palm Desert toward Los Angeles. Homme was strangely quiet until they hit the freeway and he got started: “All right, Boots, we've got to talk about some stuff …”
What followed was an intense, two-hour seminar on the dangers awaiting Hughes in the rock & roll life he was about to enter. Homme spent the drive giving lessons and sharing cautionary tales.
“I could see that he was really concerned,” Hughes says now. “This world will fucking zap you. People will have a great life as an air-conditioning repairman, and simply get told they have some talent at a mall talent show, and they'll fuckin' leave their family and go live here on the streets forever, unable to accept the reality of their bad choices. He didn't want that for me.”
The album Peace, Love, Death Metal was recorded, mixed and mastered in a week at the L.A. home studio of Alain Johannes and the late Natasha Shneider, whom Hughes now calls “my fairy godparents.” Neither had met Hughes before, but Johannes could see why Homme had faith.
“He wasn't quite the full-force Boots Electric yet, but I could see it was all there,” recalls Johannes, who engineered the 2004 album and its 2006 follow-up, Death by Sexy. “Back then, his energy was amazing. Very charismatic, great songs. His clothes weren't quite as fancy yet.”
On the wall of his childhood home in Palm Desert, Hughes' mom hung a single Bible verse: “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.”
It's a message that mattered to him then, and still does. Hughes became friends with Homme after the sturdy redhead rescued him at a party from high school bullies who had tossed Hughes into the pool and wouldn't let him out.
The memories from his earlier childhood were darker.
Hughes remembers the abuse his mother endured at home in South Carolina. He says that one day his father expressed himself with a .22 rifle. “He locked my mother in a closet when I was 6 years old. While I was holding my brother, sitting there watching him, he pulled her out while she was on her knees, and he kept putting the gun in her face,” he says. “I'll never forget how calm she was: 'David, the gun might be loaded, please put it down. Our children are watching.' He said, 'It isn't fucking loaded!' and kept pushing it into her head. It went boom! and blew a hole in the ceiling. At that moment, I didn't stop loving him. I didn't hate him. But I knew anyone who would do that to my mother was a piece of shit. Right then and there, I didn't want to be anything like him. It sent me on a path.”
His mother grabbed her two sons and fled South Carolina for the California desert, surviving at times on welfare. Hughes had no more contact with his father, a sometime musician and zookeeper who died of AIDS in 1988. He still craved a father figure and joined the Boy Scouts, and learned much there from a conservative gay couple, Barry and Gordy, who watched over him. Barry was a former U.S. Naval commander. Gordy taught Hughes how to throw a punch. “Almost everything I learned about being a real man, I learned from gay dudes,” Hughes says.
The conservative mentoring was hardly unusual in the enclave of desert towns where Hughes and Homme grew up, a playground of golf courses and resorts for ex-presidents and movie stars. Hughes' own politics are raucously Republican, and complicated by life experience. “When you're poor and from the South, you tend to see through bullshit real quick,” he says, “because you've been getting it a lot.”
During this last election season, Hughes was called a Trump man, at least since a 2015 Grantland article. “I never, ever stated that I was a Trump supporter. I don't know where that came from,” says Hughes, but he does acknowledge openly opposing Hillary Clinton. “I take the responsibility of voting seriously, so I'm a thoughtful voter, and a voter who likes to know what I'm talking about. That tends to go conservative. But there are a lot of conservatives and Republicans that I think are shit.”
As an outspoken survivor of the Bataclan attack, Hughes has become a magnet for outrage and debate. Five months after Paris, Vice Media co-founder Gavin McInnes, now a conservative journalist and prankster, published an interview with Hughes that quoted him saying Muslim security people at the club were complicit in the attack, and calling Islam less a religion than an ideology comparable to communism. Hughes now describes the discussion as an ambush, recorded without his knowledge, and not a public manifesto. The interview “made some insinuations about me [that were] difficult to take.”
While Hughes remains a wildly talkative dude, sharing an epic stream-of-consciousness monologue of opinion, he's being careful when it comes to voicing his beliefs about the meaning and motives behind Paris. “Some of my dearest friends in L.A. are Muslims. I have problems with Islam. I think that's fair,” Hughes says, adding, “I was raised better than some of my behavior after that, but I'm willing to forgive myself and give myself a break. As long as I'm trying to land on the right side of the river, give me a fucking break. He who is without sin, cast the first limp dick.”
The theatrical premiere of Eagles of Death Metal: Nos Amis (Our Friends), at the Palm Springs Film Festival in January, was a gathering of family and friends, cousins and former classmates. Hughes dressed for the occasion in a dark velvet jacket, a white boater hat and leather gloves. Homme arrived in a long gray coat over jeans and motorcycle boots. Homme's parents and toddler son were there; so was Hughes' mother.
As with any film premiere, there was celebration in the air, with smiles and congratulations, as Homme and Hughes posed for pictures and answered questions from the press. But after entering the theater for the screening, both of them slipped out before the projector rolled.
“It's a weird thing to be congratulated for,” Hughes says after, as he walks back to his hotel.
In his room, some friends and family are gathered before heading to an afterparty across the street. Hughes has a shotgun by the bed, a Gideon Bible on the floor. “I have less guns out now than I did before but a lot more willingness to use,” he says. “An event like Paris brings out the weirdos.”
The table lamp is draped with a green Slytherin scarf from a recent visit with his son to the Harry Potter theme park at Universal Studios. His mom hands him a new copy of the student paper at Palm Desert High, where Hughes first knew Homme so many years ago. On the front page is a photo of Micah, now 17. Inside, an article by Micah considers the prospects Batman might have as a presidential candidate.
A year ago, Hughes stopped a performance in Fremantle, Australia, to bring girlfriend Tuesday Cross to center stage, where he dropped to one knee and proposed. They had been together for years, and survived Paris, with Hughes calling her “the love of my life.” But by the fall, their love affair was over for good. “An event like Paris can reveal true character,” he says quietly. “There are always going to be casualties that have an echo and take time. Relationships are always the first on the block.”
Other bonds grew stronger. When Hughes first returned to Los Angeles from the horror of Paris, a friend was waiting in the driveway: Amir Ershadi, 24, who moved to the United States from Iran almost eight years ago. They met while Ershadi was working at the corner convenience store. Now he's a frequent visitor to the Hughes abode.
On a recent afternoon, he's with Hughes once again, hanging out in the kitchen and recounting that week. “I was crying. That was crazy. Friends called me, 'Dude, did you see the news?'” Ershadi recalls. “I was really happy to know he was OK. In the end, it was blamed on Muslims, and it made me feel even worse.”
All he could think to do that day in the driveway was hand the devastated singer a string of Muslim prayer beads. Hughes remembers that moment as “a critical thing to shout down and avoid taking a wrong turn somewhere and inviting racism or things that are so ugly and gross. I needed a friend like Amir to be in my life. This is a wonderful man. This is my friend.”
Hughes hugged him in the driveway for a long time.