MAKE WAY FOR THE BAD GUYS
QUEENS OF THE STONE AGE FRONTMAN JOSH HOMME AND HIS FELLOW GUITAR BANDITS DEAN FERTITAS AND TROY VAN LEEUWEN ARE GLEEFULLY BURNING BRIDGES WITH THEIR NEW, MARK RONSON- PRODUCED ALBUM, VILLAINS. LACHLAN MARKS PEERS BEHIND THE EMERALD CURTAIN FOR A STIFF DR
Most young journalists dream of meeting their heroes and being invited into a momentarily larger-than-life existence, being flung behind the curtain and ending up with wild stories of rock’n’roll excess to regale their inner circle with.
But it’s not 1970 anymore, Toto. Everyone has a camera in their pocket, and media is immediate. An artist is often very much just someone who has a product to sell (sometimes begrudgingly), time is precious when you’re trying to hit every outlet, and the adage of “all publicity is good publicity” no longer rings true. The quotes are often well-rehearsed and polite, and the process runs according to plan – there’s usually a publicist a few centimetres away to get them back on course if it doesn’t.
Music journalism is so streamlined in 2017 that when it suddenly does go off course by way of that ‘day one’ journo fantasy, you realise that you’ve only ever thought about how great the experience would be – never what you would actually do in it.
When Queens Of The Stone Age frontman Josh Homme – holding court backstage before their sold-out Sydney show (off the back of headlining Splendour In The Grass) – paused our interview, stood up and walked into his dressing room saying, “Come over here, let’s get some tequila,” we froze in our seat for a second and all that came out was, “Ah... Um... Sounds great?”
JERRY LEE LEWIS, THREE GUITARS AND THE HARDEST SONG
But we’ll come back to that. First up, we were lucky enough to spend some time in the company of Queens’ accomplished multi-instrumentalists Troy Van Leeuwen (A Perfect Circle) and Dean Fertitas (The Dead Weather). These are the men who flank Homme in the studio and onstage, every night, in the ceaseless dogfight that is Queens Of The Stone Agevs. The Expectations Of The Public . Despite what we previously noted about the sometimes meat grinder-like nature of these types of press engagements, we’re gifted with an ace up our sleeve in the fact that guitarists love to talk about guitar. Both players were excited to discuss their craft and what went in their bold new album, Villains. The decision to engage dance producer Mark Ronson in the process spooked some long-term fans – no doubt deliberately.
DEAN FERTITA: It actually didn’t change things much at all. For me, personally, I felt a little more relaxed because Mark’s a fan.
TROY VAN LEEUWEN: He was really easygoing, and we got to know him really fast. He let us be who we are, and sometimes he even reminded us of who we are – it was important for us to be the band and f or him to be the producer. It’s a live record, for the most part.
DF: It’s cool because we were in a situation where we were both making records that are slightly different to what we were used to, so he was able to try new approaches on things that he wouldn’t normally. The same went for us, too.
TVL: The way I saw him reacting to what we were doing on the guitar... He was very much excited by anything that was a little bit outside of ‘ normal’, especially when it came to what Dean and I do . Anything that we were doing would not only support the vocal, but the atmosphere as well. That was always encouraged – the creepier, the better.
Queens Of The Stone Age are one band that has three guitar moments, but it never feels like, say, Iron Maiden. Is that something you have to police yourselves from doing when you’re writing, or is it naturally tasteful?
DF: It becomes an interesting way to approach the guitar, because none of us want redundancies in guitar playing. We don’t need to have three people playing stuff at the same time – but every once in a while, you put yourself in a situation where the only way you can do it things rhythmically is to have three guitars. It’s forced us to reapproach an instrument that we’ve played in a certain way for our whole lives, and that was really cool to do.
TVL: There’s a lot of basic language between the three of us, too, where it’s really not that hard to figure out what we’re trying to do. It’s become very easy, musically, to be like, “Oh, you’re trying to do that, I should do this,” or, “I should sit this one out .” Guitar players usually tend to have an ego, and we all do, but it’s all healthy and respectful. Because at the end of the day, we’re really just serving the song.
You guys are both multi-instrumentalists. What’s your relationship like with the guitar in regards to the other instruments you play?
DF: It’s funny – I started playing the piano when I was a kid, and did classical piano lessons f or years. But then I got an AC/DC record and started playing guitar, and I never wanted to play keyboards again. Growing up, you almost don’t even want to acknowledge that you should be in a rock’n’roll band. There’s no keyboards here, right? Then, years later, I started talking to other friends and started to fall back in love with the piano. After all, what’s more rock’n’roll than Jerry Lee Lewis?
That helped me fall in love with both instruments more. I come back to the guitar and it f eels new, and I’m thinking about how I’m seeing things differently. And then if I move to the keys, I think about playing in the same way I would play the guitar, almost.
TVL: It’s always interesting to switch them up a little bit, too. You don’t play guitar notes in a chord or an arpeggio or whatever in the same way that you do on a piano. I learned from both instruments; both feed each other. After playing the keys for a while, I’ll approach the guitar in a completely different way. I think that’s important. It keeps things feeling fresh.
At this point in your career, how much preparation does it take to reactivate the machine that is Queens Of The Stone Age?
TVL: For me, the older stuff is like riding a bicycle, and the newer stuff is very tone-intensive. Gear-wise, we had to really figure out what we were going to do – that was the biggest challenge. The playing is in us already, but trying to condense all of those sounds from seven records into one rig? That’s a f***ing bitch.
I know the rigs are a bit of a secret for you guys, but is there anything in there you’d say is a key element for you?
TVL: I tend to lean on my Jazzmaster. I can get whatever I want out of that guitar, tone-wise. As far as choosing one pedal, though, that’s really tough. I designed a pedal: it’s called the Raven, and it’s basically a filter boost pedal. It’s two-in-one. I’ve had a whammy pedal on my board since 1995, and I can get away with that. And I like my ‘65 Bassman. That’s my amp. I’ve always used it. DF: It’s really hard for us because we’re all about colour and ambience. For me, it’s anything that has a filter
IT’S FORCED US TO REAPPROACH AN INSTRUMENT THAT WE’VE PLAYED IN A CERTAIN WAY FOR OUR WHOLE LIVES A CERTAIN WAY, AND THAT WAS REALLY COOL TO DO DEAN FERTITA
sweep, so I can occupy a different spot in the frequency range.
Are there any parts in the show – like, say with tonight – that fill you with a healthy fear when it comes to what you’ve got to accomplish on the guitar?
DF: Gosh. I’ve gotta say, the newest single [“The Way You Used To Do”] is a big one for us. It’s deceptively difficult.
TVL: It’s so hard. There’s three guitars playing all the time. You can’t get the tone of the guitar by smashing it – you have to be delicate – but it’s such an upbeat song, so it’s a real juxtaposition. Your heart’s going, “Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!” but your fingers have to be delicate. It’s really tough, but it’s all about restraint. I’m playing a 12-string guitar on the song, the other guys are playing six-strings, and there’s no doubling – everything is intertwined, so if your part is even a little bit off, everyone feels it.
How long will it be until you reckon those nerves will have shaken off?
DF: Probably when the tour’s over.
THE SECRET DISGRACE, THE FIERY DEATH AND A NINE-STRING GUITAR
Sometime later, as we enter the dressing room with Homme, we greet Van Leeuwen again – this time, he’s flipping his way through a sizeable rack of tailored suits in preparation for the evening’s performance.
Diligently tapping away on a practice pad in the corner is drummer Jon Theodore. “Hey, what’s up? I hate guitars by the way,” he says with a smile.
Van Leeuwen is entrusted with pouring the drinks, and Homme – with the aide of a walking cane due to a torn meniscus – is now free to roam around a much more comfortable domain to answer and deflect questions at his choosing. He’s by no means sober, but the man is still remarkably articulate and engaging.
When asked what it’s like to deal with the expectation that each album will outdo the last creatively, he counters, “The truth is, the bar is gone. We stand on top of what we did, so it’s beneath us in that respect. We stand on it to look further and go somewhere we haven’t gone before. We use some of the tools that we’ve always used, because that’s who we are. But we need to burn the old ones, like a f***ing Viking funeral, so you know that we mean business. I mean, I’ve got old school Peaveys out there on stage tonight. When was the last time you saw one of those?”
It’s been a while. “Even the Peavey logo is its own disgrace, right? So these are 70 solid state musicians and standards, right? These things were always in the background in our band, but you never knew. We’re using tube shit, too, but the electricity of the solid state – beating it to the punch – it’s like a microsecond gets there first. It’s like dog bite – so it’s clearly a casual, ‘Go f*** yourself,’ but it’s also a, ‘Come all ye, come closer, look at how f***ed this is.’
Van Leeuwen interjects: “It’s also another opportunity to say, ‘Well, what really makes this sound the way it does with our band are these,’” he says, flexing his fingers.
“Y’know, I never understood that reference point until we jammed with Billy Gibbons,” Homme explains. “I’d always say, ‘Yes, I know,’ but I didn’t really know what that actually meant. But I took the best top one percent of all my amps, and I swear to God, every time he played, I shut my eyes and it sounded the f***ing same. So I was like, ‘Ah, shit.’ Everything he plays sounds the same through every amp. It just sounds the f***ing same. He’s the master.”
We angle the conversation back to the progressive nature of Queens Of The Stone Age’s recordings – the unhinged, synth-heavy chaos of Villains and how this ‘Viking funeral’ approach applies to songwriting. Do you literally have to throw out or reverse everything you’ve learned so far?
“I think the process of going backwards is one of the great lessons that people don’t know,” Homme deadpans. “If you have a great part and you’re looking for another part, try playing it backwards.”
As ridiculous as it sounds, that’s actually a great tip. Van Leeuwen emerges with three wine glasses, all overflowing with tequila. “It’s kind of a big one, sorry. I got the biggest one, though. Cheers.”
“To the biggest tip!” Homme toasts, raising his glass high.