Feature: A Complete History Of Queens Of The Stone Age

Josh Homme casually dropped the news recently that his band Queens of the Stone Age were set to return for their seventh album. Now, long-time bandmate and suit-wearing aficionado Troy Van Leeuwen has taken it a step further. Speaking on 2 Hours with Matt Pinfield, Leeuwen revealed that the band were “already talking about what we’re going to do. There’s tonnes of idea bouncing around… We’re going to do something before the end of the year, as far as recording goes.” So with the impending return of QOTSA confirmed we go back to the very beginning and chart how they became one of the greatest rock bands of their time.

Josh Homme started his career as the young guitarist in legendary desert rock outfit Kyuss. The quartet boasted heavy and sludgy rock that was purpose built for long nights spent out in the middle of nowhere with little more than generators and a small audience of likeminded individuals to keep them company. While they are now viewed as an influential band though, at the time they went largely ignored by the masses. Upon their split in 1995 an EP arrived a year later with the flipside featuring three songs from Homme. It garnered little to no reaction, but this would be the first anyone would hear of Queens of the Stone Age.

The self-titled debut was released in 1998, and was almost entirely devised from one man’s vision. The new project, which also featured ex-Kyuss member Alfredo Hernandez, was a melodic approach to heavy rock. It was softer at the core, purposely more accessible, and seemingly more at ease to let its guard down than Kyuss ever was. The music still had the same driving rhythms that were familiar and a hard boiled edge that had been cultivated from too much time spent out in the harsh desert sun, but beneath that exterior was an undeniable sense and love for melody. For Homme, the debut acted as much as a departure from Kyuss as it was an arrival for Queens of the Stone Age.

The robotic riffs, chugging bass, and single eyed vision from the debut was then expanded upon for 2000’s Rated R. The sophomore effort was the first real indicator of who the band would later become and how it would operate and evolve. A whole host of guests put their fingerprints on it, but it still remained uniquely Homme’s vision. It was undeniably a stylistically restless and highly ambitious album. Nick Oliveri came in on bass and general mad man duties, while Mark Lanegan performed vocals for the first time with the band. Yet it’s not these sort of details or additions that stick with you about the album. It’s more about the fact that they had the gall to open it with a song called Feel Good Hit of the Summer that just lists an albeit impressive mixture of drugs in the system over and over again. They used just about any instrument they could get their hands on; bongos and xylophones included. Oh, and they enlisted the help of Rob Halford on backing vocals for no other reason than that he was working in the studio next to them.

Songs about teenage acid trips, hangovers and the failure to keep secrets were then left behind in the dust as a sprawling drive through the desert gave the band their mega-hit and a concept album that still stands as one of the greatest in music history. The idea was simple for Songs For the Deaf; Homme wanted to recreate the desert road trip soundtrack. Monstrous riffs, screams and dusty guitar lines were a feature, and that was just on the first track You Think I Ain’t Worth A Dollar, But I Feel Like A Millionaire. In between classics such as the impossibly catchy No One Knows and Go With The Flow were splices of jerk-off radio presenters who loved the sound of their own voices more than the music they intermittently played. But while proving to be annoying at times and humorous at others, they anchored the album into the truths of the long haul desert car journey; The constant twisting of the radio dial to try and find something good to listen to. The window wound down fully while the wind hits you like you’re holding a hairdryer right up to your face. The vast nothingness of the desert on the horizon. And how the sweat underneath your armpits has made the shirt you’re wearing stick to the skin like glue.

Dave Grohl was brought in to play drums in the ever rotating fixture of the band. Mark Lanegan was made a full-fledged member and Nick Oliveri provided the Ying to Homme’s more refined and poised Yang. It was arguably the greatest line-up QOTSA ever had. It is arguably the greatest album the band has ever made. But that is part of what makes QOTSA so great, you could reasonably argue for just about every album they’ve made as being the best and not be wrong.

After the brutal high point of Songs For The Deaf, Grohl returned to his day job with the Foo Fighters, Lanegan stopped being around as much, and Oliveri was kicked out of the band entirely. Fans worried about what Homme would be able to provide amongst all the upheaval, but what he gave them was a dark and twisted album. Lullabies To Paralyse had very little of the muscular swagger that the record preceding it had. Instead of trying to replicate it, QOTSA went in another direction entirely. Whereas the insane screams of Oliveri opened the last album, Lanegan opened this one with a lovesick lullaby. The difference couldn’t have been more marked. It was a brave move and was one that was backed by the first appearances of long-time members Joey Castillo on drums and guitarist Troy Van Leeuwen.

Along with Homme, the trio formed the core musicians for the album and, as was now the calling card for the band, a whole host of others came in and added their own touches. Long-time friends and collaborators like Alain Johannes, Chris Goss, Dave Catching, Jesse Hughes and Homme’s now-wife Brody Dalle all appeared on the album to varying degrees, while ZZ Top guitarist Billy Gibbons played on stand out track Burn the Witch. It didn’t receive quite as much fanfare and critical praise as Songs For The Deaf and was seen as a massive departure by many, but Homme was happy with it. It was the most personal record he had made so far in his career and had by all accounts been a pleasure to make.

“To me, it’s not necessarily sad, it’s just dark. When the album starts, it’s already night time. And halfway through it goes past midnight. For me, I like to write about things that are dark or twisted. Where the poetry seems to be is when you start in the dark and reach for the light,” he told Pitchfork at the time of the album’s release.

The fifth album Era Vulgaris followed two years later and featured yet more line-up changes. Current members Dean Fertita and Michael Shuman were drafted in alongside the usual cast. The talk of guest appearances was overwhelming as usual, with Julian Casablancas, Billy Gibbons, Trent Reznor and Mark Lanegan all rumoured to appear. However, not all of these came to fruition on the album as Homme again sought to redesign his band’s sound. Throughout his career he had always sought to defy expectations and flip them back on themselves, but here he returned in a way to his old sound of robotic riffs. The softer and richer guitar sound was replaced with jarring and spiky stabs (the smooth blues of Make It Witchu being a notable exception) along with the new heavy influence of electronic music.

It would be another six years until QOTSA released their next, and currently, most recent album. Their sixth arrived with similar stories like all the other albums. There were returning members- Dave Grohl on drums for a few tracks and Nick Oliveri, departures- Joey Castillo, new arrivals like John Theodore, a whole host of guest stars including Sir Elton John, Reznor, and Alex Turner from Arctic Monkeys, and anticipation for where Homme would take himself and his band next. However, …Like Clockwork wasn’t like any of the other albums.

“[Matador founder] Chris Lombardi told me that this is Act Two of Queens of the Stone Age and I agree with that. Act Two just happened to start with me waking up in a hospital,” Homme told Spin in 2013. For so many years he and his band had seemed indestructible, but in between albums Homme found out that he was not.

…Like Clockwork was forged after Homme “died” on the operating table after a routine surgery went wrong and he had to be brought back to life. The vulnerability stemming from this traumatic experience is heard throughout the record. On The Vamypre of Time and Memory Homme is accompanied by just his piano as he sings, “I want God to come and take me home ‘cos I’m all alone.” In I Appear Missing, he addresses his past mistakes in life with unnerving clarity as he comes around from his near death experience. “Pieces were stolen from me, dare I say given away.” It was a version of Homme that no one had encountered before. Introspective, fragile and confused are not words that you would have attributed to QOTSA at any other time during their career, yet on their sixth album it fit them perfectly.

One thing that is clear, it’s all downhill from here,” Homme sings with his fading falsetto on the final track of the album. On a deeply personal record that addressed a man who was lost in the world that he thought he had in the palm of his hand, it can be seen as a dark summation of his situation. But Homme always talked about reaching around in the dark for the light. And while he did, he managed to find it, and shone the spotlight on himself in a way that he never had before.

What’s to come next for the band is anyone’s guess. As of yet, there’s been no official announcements, or even rumours about direction, guests and the like. Much like how their last album was influenced by Homme’s near death experience, it’s possible that their forthcoming record will similarly hone in on the emotional consequences of more recent events – most notably, the terrorist attack in Paris last year, which saw dozens killed at a concert of Hughes and Homme’s other band, Eagles of Death Metal. 

Whatever may be on the horizon for Homme and co, we’re so excited that they’re back, and we can’t wait to hear it.

Image: Brantley Gutierrez