Australian Guitar - - Feature -

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?”


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


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.


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.

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