Photo by Wild Don Lewis
It’s never enough for some people.
I’ve explained to Jesse “the Devil” Hughes, singer of the Palm Desert/Los Angeles rock & roll band Eagles of Death Metal, that I’ve seen his group perform not once, not twice, but three times in just the last six months. This sort of attendance record might suggest a certain amount of enthusiasm for the band. But Jesse (calling him “Hughes” would be like calling Ozzy “Osbourne”) has got to know.
“Hey, why didn’t you go to the Henry Fonda show?” he asks. He looks at me with searching, sensitive eyes, like he’s been reluctant to ask but now, pride be damned, he’s decided that he really needs an answer. Like many great stage performers, Jesse is genuinely insecure. “I don’t get stage fright anymore,” he says, “but I get scared if people don’t love me.”
What’s not to love, one wonders. Witnessing the Eagles of Death Metal live is like encountering an embodiment of all that once made early rock & roll so wonderful: There’s a simple beat, you can sing along to it, and the singer is bizarrely charismatic. Jesse is a rock star as imagined by John Waters: greased-back hair, glasses, what he calls a “soft wonderful boomerang of love” mustache, gloves, tattoos, tight jeans, a Fender Telecaster and (sometimes) a rayon cape, delivering up the best Chuck Berry/Little Richard/Canned Heat–inspired rock & roll to leak out of America in some time.
He might also be insecure because Eagles of Death Metal owes its unlikely existence (and profile) to its drummer: Joshua Homme, an old high school friend moonlighting from his day job as leader of marijuana-rock powerhouses Queens of the Stone Age. (EODM’s other guitarist is Tim VanHamel of the Belgian band Millionaire.) But it’s Jesse who writes — and sings — the songs about midnight creepers and speaking in tongues, about voodoo dances and kissing the devil’s tongue and wanting to be your monkey.
I talked with him recently on the eve of an Eagles of Death Metal video shoot in Burbank.
L.A. WEEKLY: Where did the songs on Peace Love Death Metal come from?
JESSE: I wrote basically all of the album in a month. It was intentional. I was going through a divorce, and I wanted to feel sexy and I wanted to feel clever. You use music to deal with things. That’s what music is: You don’t feel sexy, you wanna feel sexy? Sing in front of a mirror in a high-pitched voice. And that helps. Now I get to do it in front of thousands of people who adore me.
What does the name mean?
There’s a lot of conjecture about that, but basically Josh and I and some friends were at the Beerhunter out in Palm Desert years ago, and they were playing Poison, but it wasn’t just any Poison song, I think it was “Every Rose Has a Thorn,” the softest and most wussy of their tunes, and this nitwit in the midst of a drunken gleeful moment was dancing around the bar going, “Dude, this is fuckin’ metal, man.” And Josh or someone responded, “This isn’t metal.” He goes, “Dude, this is! This is fuckin’ death metal, man.” And I said, “This is the Eagles of death metal.” Cut to two hours of smoke and haze later, and we were in the back of our friends’ VW, discussing what would the Eagles of death metal sound like. Josh came over the next day, and he got on my drum kit and configured it in a very bizarre manner and started doing a Zombies/Turtles beat, I laid a Piedmont/hillbilly guitar line on it, and he goes, that’s Eagles of Death Metal. And I said, Yessir. And he commanded me to become brilliant and to become the entity that I am.
But you didn’t make a record for years . . .
The band stayed alive because people asked Josh about it for years. The whole time he’s been asking me to make records,
and I’m like, “With you?” I had been married and pursuing a more conservative lifestyle. And a much heavier lifestyle. I was 199 pounds. Now I weigh 148. I’ve literally been transformed by destiny and by the call to be the most amazing mustache in the history of rock & roll.
You’re really into your mustache.
I’ve always carried the mark of the mustache. It’s always been inside. It’s been a Cosmo layout waiting to happen, ’78, Burt Reynolds, you know what I’m saying. A mustache is a kind of tongue-in-cheek way to say, “It’s fun to be a dude — it’s even
better to be a man.” And women are much happier when I rock
Have you always had one?
I think I’d grown it out some, and somebody goes, “Dude, Freddie Mercury.” And I thought, Oh, okay fine, it’ll be really Freddie Mercury — and I’ll fuck your girlfriend.
What’s the cape all about?
That’s the Avenger of Rock & Roll. He showed up around the third day of our tour with Placebo, when I could see the joy in the faces of all the people that were showing up, of having rock & roll returned to them, and by having the uncomfortable cliquish conformity of “You can’t listen to the Clash unless you’ve been into them since ’81” attitude lifted from their shoulders. And miraculously, I think it was supernatural, when I turned to look at myself in the mirror yet again, I saw that I had a cape on that said “Rock & Roll.” As if the spirits of rock & roll anointed me at that very moment, on that third day, and I did rise and don my black leather gloves and the gauntlet of rock & roll, and goddammit, I could boogie.
That you can.
Our motto is “Make Little Richard proud.” See, it’s not just the music you play, it’s the attitude you represent. Cuz you have to approach rock & roll like you’re a medium. Robert Fripp said something to the effect that you’re calling on whatever that entity of music is to wrap its cape around you and take you into its confidence, and those are the moments that inform your pride. Well, rock & roll gave me the fuckin’ cape itself! And has sent me to wrap it around everybody.
All of your songs sound like other songs, including each other.
There’s nothing new under the sun, so I steal everything. Any talent you think I have is showmanship, it’s special effects. Most of Eagles of Death Metal is taking somewhat more highly evolved song patterns from Pentagram or Chaka Khan or Mountain and running them through the Bachman-Turner Overdrive “Taking Care of Business” machine with the Rolling Stones tuning. Only I don’t have as long fingers as Keith Richards, so I keep the finesse low. We have four beats. If you have one good beat going, why get anything else? I can’t think of any more beats. It’s a sex beat: in-out, in-out. That’s about it. [Considering.] No, we have about 12 beats now. In fact I bought a beat CD. It’s cool, I’m getting into it, it’s kind of corny but you have to have something.
You’re giving away all your trade secrets!
But in a sense, I haven’t given anything away at all. Cuz really all space travel is, is a little bit of propulsion and little bit of fuel at the appropriate time.
You write and sing all the songs, but the Eagles of Death Metal are still pigeonholed as a “Josh Homme of Queens of the Stone Age side project.”
As much as I love me, I’m not kidding myself. Only about 11
percent of the people really give a shit about my trip right now.
I get plugged in at this one level, but nobody wants to talk to me unless Josh is standing next to me. It’s a coattail. I just made his coattails extra-comfortable for me, so I can ride them longer.
But there’s no shame in that, because that’s what a side project is. People are like, “It’s entertaining!” And that’s shocking for a side project. They go, “It’s a side project that rocks. Josh is a good drummer. Who the fuck is Timmy? And oh my god, did you see his mustache?”
EAGLES OF DEATH METAL | Peace Love Death Metal (AntAcidAudio/Rekords Rekords)