”There’s only one Tom Selleck,“ says Josh Homme as he polishes off his second vodka cocktail of the evening. ”There‘s everyone else — and then there’s Tom.“

The guitarist and de facto leader of Queens of the Stone Age, Homme wields a wit that‘s as dry and prickly as a Death Valley cactus. His conservative haircut, piercing stare and measured manner of speaking might remind you of an earnest young lawyer, but a barely perceptible smirk hints at the terminal smartass within, one driven by a deep-seated desire to fuck with unsuspecting idiots.

”Man, we got so many people in Europe to toast to Tom Selleck,“ he continues, as Nick Oliveri, his scraggly-bearded, bass-playing compadre, chuckles at the shared memory. ”We’d always be at some little bar after the show, telling everybody that ‘Tom Selleck’s Number One!‘ They’d be like, ‘Are you serious?’ And we‘d say, ’Yeah!‘ And we’d get them all to drink a toast to him.

“Every city we‘d go to, we’d have 20 or 25 people, drunk as shit, screaming, ‘To Tom!’ as we left the bar. We channeled Tom Selleck so much that, when we walked into this little tiki bar in Hamburg on our day off, the theme from Magnum, P.I. suddenly came on. We revealed our whole Tom Selleck thing to the bartender and the DJ; sure enough, within 30 minutes, everybody in the place was going, ‘To Tom!’ and the DJ was playing the record again and again. I can‘t wait to go back and see what kind of damage we’ve caused!”

Worthy pursuit though it may be, stoking the fires of an international Tom Selleck revival isn‘t Homme’s only raison d‘etre. Since 1998, when the band emerged from Palm Desert with a self-titled debut on the now-defunct Loosegroove label, Queens of the Stone Age have doggedly carved a singular niche for themselves in the big-shorted, testosterone-fueled world of contemporary hard rock. “Robotic rock” is how Homme initially defined it — insistent, Stooges-like riffage layered over Kraftwerkian beats. In an era where it’s the norm for hard-rock front men to shriek like 4-year-olds in need of a good nap, Homme takes a more deadpan vocal approach, floating coolly over the mayhem with an absolute minimum of histrionics. And while the current Korn-fed climate makes it all but impossible to score a record deal without having a DJ in your band, the Queens prefer to rely on Dave Catching‘s electric piano and psychedelic steel guitar for their supplementary sonic seasoning.

On Rated R, the Queens’ new record for Interscope, the band‘s vision becomes even more elastic. “Without running too far, our first record was trying to get away from Kyuss,” says Homme, referring to his first band, the renowned early-’90s progenitors of modern West Coast “stoner rock.” “This one is saying, ‘Look, we’re gonna play whatever we want to play. We‘ll try to unify it under our sound, but it will be wide.’ Whatever sounds cool is cool, you know?”

Which is not to say that those knocked out by Queens of the Stone Age won‘t find anything on Rated R they can grab onto. “Monsters in the Parasol,” the eerie “Leg of Lamb” and “The Lost Art of Keeping a Secret” (the album’s first single) all possess the same sort of stop-start rhythms and skull-drilling riffs that made the first set such a refreshing kick. But the album also contains a free-jazz horn freak-out on “I Think I Lost My Headache,” an acoustic interlude called “Lightning Song,” and the epic “Better Living Through Chemistry,” which is probably the first time anyone has fused the Association‘s “Requiem for the Masses” with Uncle Anesthesia–era Screaming Trees, intentionally or otherwise.

“There’s a lot of space on this album, a lot of breathing room, but it‘s also heavy and punky,” says Oliveri. “We wanted to make each song something different.”

“It’s like, how can you tell that it‘s heavy all the time when it’s heavy all the time?” asks Homme. “You need dynamics to help you gauge where the heaviness is, in relationship to everything else. So we were looking for those sort of gaps, those sort of dynamics.”

During the making of Rated R, Homme, Oliveri and Catching also looked for a little help from their friends. Alfredo Hernandez, who drummed on the first record, resigned on the eve of the Queens‘ last European tour. “Fredo’s a great drummer, and it was sad to see him go,” says Homme. “But I don‘t think he was as into expanding the style of our music as we were, and he definitely wasn’t into touring. So in some ways he did us a favor, because he allowed us to be as limitless as we wanted to be.”

With Chris Goss of Masters of Reality in the producer‘s chair, the Queens recorded Rated R with a steady stream of guests that included Gene Troutman and Nicky Lucero alternating on the drum stool, Screaming Trees drummer Barrett Martin on vibes and steel drums, and Screaming Trees front man Mark Lanegan on backing vocals (he also sings lead on the majestic “In the Fade”). Rob Halford, the flamboyant former lead singer of metal gods Judas Priest, also stopped in to lend his menacing tones to “Feel Good Hit of the Summer,” the album’s opening track.

“We weren‘t sure if he’d dig it or not,” says Homme of the song, which is essentially just a chant of “nicotine, Valium, Vicodin, marijuana, Ecstasy and alcohol,” harnessed to a propulsive, Devo-like chug. “He was recording in Studio A at Sound City, and we were in Studio B. Goss asked him if he‘d be into singing something, so he came into the room and said, ’Well, what are the lyrics?‘ I said, ’Maybe I‘d better write them down . . .’”

Halford immediately liked what he saw. “‘It looks like a rock & roll cocktail!’” Homme remembers him saying. “He was just real friendly, you know? I grew up as a hater of metal, but I was always like, ‘Hey, go easy on Priest!’ Halford had short hair, and he was into spikes and shit, so it always seemed to me like he was bridging the gap between metal and punk.”

“Priest, Ozzy and Sabbath are true stoner rock,” adds Oliveri. “I was a stoner kid, I ran with a stoner crowd, and that‘s what we listened to, man!”

“’Feel Good‘ is kind of a jab at stoner rock,” Homme explains, “but it’s also sort of a social experiment, a test to see how people react to hearing those words over and over again.”

“If they want to throw any of those things onstage, that‘s fine with us,” laughs Oliveri.

“Let’s get drugs off the streets!” seconds Homme. “Send them to us, where they‘ll be destroyed — by my digestive system . . .”

The Queens recently wrapped up a headlining tour of U.S. clubs with a packed-to-the-gills show at the Troubadour. Next up for the band is a main-stage spot on this summer’s Ozzfest tour. Given Homme‘s distaste for testosterock — he chose the name Queens of the Stone Age in hopes of alienating the more homophobic elements of Kyuss’ fan base — the tour might produce some interesting confrontations.

“We look at it as almost a percentage thing,” Homme admits. “We‘re not after 60 percent [of the audience], we’re after 40 percent. When we were on tour with the Smashing Pumpkins, we saw both ‘the finger’ and ‘the thumb’; when it was 40 percent ‘thumb,’ we were happy.”

In any case, don‘t look for the Queens to play it safe onstage, either at Ozzfest or at headlining gigs of their own. “When you go see a band, and they play their record back at you, verbatim, it’s like, ‘What the fuck did I come here for?’” laughs Homme. “This isn‘t fucking Cats, you know what I mean?

”We’re doing Ozzfest as a four-piece, with Gene Troutman on drums, but we‘ve also been talking about doing a tour with two drummers, or a tour with Barrett Martin on steel drums and percussion. We’re not playing the same set twice in a row; it‘s a big concern of ours that we don’t get painted into a corner. The more habit-free we can keep it, the better it will be — for us, and for our fans. We want to make it so that, even if you‘ve seen us four times in L.A. this year, you’ll still need to see the fifth show.“

Tom Selleck would undoubtedly be proud.

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