For a guy whose recent history includes, in no particular order, almost dying, being bedridden and depressed for months, firing a long-time friend and collaborator, completely hating music, and thinking seriously about killing off his chart-topping band, Josh Homme doesn’t seem even remotely bitter.
On the contrary, the strapping redhead, who is famous primarily—but not exclusively—for fronting alt-rock kings Queens of the Stone Age, comes across as a man who has not only escaped the darkness, but is at peace with everything that has transpired in the past few years.
Before we get to the sunny side of the street, let’s start with the troubles. The run of bad luck began sometime after the singer completely burned himself out touring hard for QOTSA’s 2007 full-length Era Vulgaris, dabbled here and there with the side project Eagles of Death Metal, and not only formed the supergroup Them Crooked Vultures with ex–Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones and former Nirvana drummer Dave Grohl, but recorded an eponymous album and embarked on a successful world tour.
Was it all too much? Hell, yes.
“Without going into too much detail, I’ve never been really easy on myself,” a relaxed-sounding and forthright Homme says, on the line from his Los Angeles home. “You wanna be there for everybody, but it’s just not possible. I think I just sort of broke myself.”
From the way he describes things, Them Crooked Vultures was the straw that buckled the pack mule’s back.
“I was fairly burned-out before we did Vultures, but it was such a great opportunity,” Homme offers. “I love Dave, and to be able to play with Jones was something really cool that you can’t say no to. But by the time it was over, I’d been beating myself senseless.”
As exhausted as he might have been as Them Crooked Vultures wound down, Homme’s real horror story began once he was off the road and ready, ironically, to start taking care of himself. The shitshow got under way with what was supposed to be a routine knee operation. At some point in the procedure things went very wrong, to the point where, when he finally woke up, a doctor informed him, “We almost lost you.”
Then the black clouds really rolled in. Thanks to complications from the surgery—during which Homme flatlined from asphyxiation—the singer-guitarist ended up bedridden for months. That led to a deep depression and days of wondering what the hell he’d done to deserve it all.
A man left with nothing but his thoughts in such a setting can be a dangerous thing. Homme soon discovered that, getting to the point where he not only found no joy in music, but began to think he’d had enough of Queens of the Stone Age, which, over two decades, had gone from stoner-rock cult heroes to platinum-shifting rock-radio mainstays.
“You kind of go through this strange range of emotions,” Homme notes. “I’m a fairly upbeat and happy guy, you know? I don’t like people that feel sorry for themselves, and I traditionally stay away from people like that. But that’s something that you go through for a while, when it’s long like that.
“But it’s good because it gives you a chance—I don’t mean physically, but mentally—to stand up,” he continues. “I don’t think it’s good to run on anger, but it’s really great when that’s the first couple of gallons in your tank—when you’ve had enough, and you’re just pissed off enough to go for it. In a lot of ways, that sort of environment can be a catapult for a great situation.”
And “great situation” pretty much describes where Homme finds himself today. Motivated by friends, family, and bandmates, the 40-year-old musician somehow got the will to climb off the mat and get back in the fight. His reward? That would be …Like Clockwork, an album that’s been universally hailed as a classic in the vein of Queens of the Stone Age’s 2002 breakthrough, Songs for the Deaf.
Even more gratifying than the reviews is the fact that QOTSA’s sixth full-length isn’t just a critical hit. Given how ambitious, challenging, and marvellously fucked-up the album’s 10 songs are, Homme had no idea how the record would perform commercially. To his surprise, …Like Clockwork debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard charts in the States, a first for the group, which was widely seen as having lost some traction with both Era Vulgaris and its 2005 predecessor, Lullabies to Paralyze.
Queens of the Stone Age is, then, officially back. And that has Homme, on some weird level, appreciative of all the shit that was thrown at him.
“You get a fire in your belly,” he says of his brush with death and subsequent trip back from purgatory. “You’re like, ‘Fuck this—I’m getting going, and we’re getting up out of this.’ Like you just can’t take it anymore. Scar tissue needs to be broken, you know?”
F. Scott Fitzgerald famously once wrote, “There are no second acts in American lives.” Every now and then, someone will be lucky enough to disprove that: John Travolta rising from the dead with Pulp Fiction, or Weezer surprising tastemakers everywhere with “Hash Pipe” and “Island in the Sun”. Mostly, though, the pop-culture highway is littered with those whose 15 minutes are miles behind in the rear-view mirror. Think Limp Bizkit, the Spin Doctors, and Winona Ryder.
Before the release of …Like Clockwork, no one was expecting Queens of the Stone Age to roar back and tear up the charts. Stardom had been a long time coming for Homme, who first made waves in the late ’80s with the stoner-rock prototype Kyuss. No sooner had he finally scored big with Songs for the Deaf and the gold-standard hit “No One Knows” than things veered, almost perversely, into deep left field.
After famously sacking bassist/collaborator/professional wildman (and, above all, friend) Nick Oliveri from QOTSA in 2004, Homme decided to challenge his newfound fans with Lullabies to Paralyze and Era Vulgaris. Both records were the sound of a man who obviously didn’t give a flying fuck what the masses wanted or expected. They also cemented Homme’s reputation as an artist determined to pigheadedly follow his own muse rather than pander to record-label executives and commercial-radio programmers.
That maverick streak surfaces again on the magnificent …Like Clockwork. Forget sticking to one sonic template: Homme and his supporting cast roll out everything from funk-splattered pop (“I Sat by the Ocean”) to soft-focus piano ballads (“…Like Clockwork”) to peyote-fried art metal (“My God Is the Sun”). It’s a release that’s all over the place in the very best of ways. And that had the frontman wondering what the hell he’d done when the album was completed.
“This is the record that, more than all the others, we had no clue what was going to happen when it came out,” he says. “We’re trying to do this thing where we don’t make the same record twice. But then you get into this situation where there isn’t a song that happens twice, in its mood and the way it moves. So you start saying to yourself, ‘Is this too much of a musical salad bar?’
“But I think it’s important,” he continues, “to push those kind of ‘What if…?’ questions out the door, because they aren’t really answerable and they don’t really amount to anything. It’s better to end up replacing those questions with ‘Is this real? Is this real enough to be on here?’ That’s got a real answer, and has a real gravitas to it. In the end, you’re going, ‘I don’t know if anyone is going to like this, or how it’s going to go, but we’re all really proud of it.’ And, somehow, that’s more than enough.”
…Like Clockwork—which finds Queens of the Stone Age recording for indie powerhouse Matador after years with the major label Interscope—wasn’t without its drama. First off, Homme’s conspirators in Queens of the Stone Age—who include guitarist Troy Van Leeuwen, bassist Michael Shuman, and guitarist-keyboardist Dean Fertita—had to convince him that he wanted, and needed, to make another record.
Halfway through the recording, in a move that he’s understandably been unwilling to talk about, Homme fired drummer Joey Castillo, a friend who’d been behind the kit with QOTSA for a decade. (Although Dave Grohl would step in to finish the record, the band has since hired Jon Theodore, formerly of the Mars Volta, as its new timekeeper.) Eventually, it became a band joke that whenever everything appeared to be going okay, something would come along and mess everything up. Like, say, clockwork.
Whatever rough patches were involved in the conception of QOTSA’s unofficial comeback, there’s no arguing with the finished product. One of the great records of the year—and also in Queens of the Stone Age’s impressive catalogue—the release never stays in one place. One minute, Homme is channelling his inner Ziggy Stardust with the black-hearted goth of “The Vampyre of Time and Memory”; the next, he’s parked in a ’50s lounge with the Flamingos for “Kalopsia”. What often stand out are the little things, like the cello that suddenly appears out of the murk at the end of the blown-piston boogie that is “Keep Your Eyes Peeled”.
“We have a saying in our band that goes ‘This is where most bands stop,’ ” Homme says of the song’s funereal-strings outro. “That’s a way to acknowledge that most bands would choose that spot to go, ‘We’re good.’ When we put a cello at the end of a song that’s had no cello in it, the reason is that I don’t need a reason to try and blow your mind. That’s what I’m here to do from the second that we show up. I listen to music, and I’ll be, ‘Why the fuck is this cello here? It’s unnecessarily cool.’ I’m glad that people notice that stuff with us, because that’s the whole point.”
Just as awesome, for entirely different reasons, is the piano that snakes in and out of the distortion-baked “Fairweather Friends”. Homme’s been high-profile enough for long enough to qualify as a celebrity, and that’s put him on the radar of other folks who don’t need a reservation to get a table in Hollywood. A former roommate of his now works as an assistant to Elton John, and turned the fabled rocket man on to QOTSA during a car ride.
Given that John is—as more than one wag has written—a bona fide queen from the stone age, it makes sense that he’d not only demand to meet Homme, but offer to play on …Like Clockwork. That the pop-music icon sat down at the ivories for “Fairweather Friends” amazes Homme.
“I remember being seven or eight, and we were at my mom’s friend’s house,” he recounts. “I was laying on a yellow floatie in a swimming pool. I was listening to KDES—104.7 in the Desert—and they played ‘Yellow Brick Road’. I remember the guy coming on and going, ‘That was Elton John doing “Yellow Brick Road”. ’ And I remember going ‘Man, this is a yellow floatie—it’s all like The Wizard of Oz.’ He’s such a cornerstone of classic-rock radio, which is what I grew up listening to, that he’s like this dude that’s always been in my ear. That made it one of those moments where I really was shoved into a fanboy corner.”
There’s a palpable sense of excitement as Homme relates this story. It’s also there when he talks about what he’s accomplished with …Like Clockwork and the attendant resurrection of Queens of the Stone Age.
Lest one think that Homme has completely escaped the black clouds, rest assured that, on some level, the darkness is still there. Consider the business of having to return to the road, where he ground himself down to near exhaustion not that long ago. That’s made even more bittersweet by the fact that touring means being separated, for weeks at a time, from his wife, Brody Dalle (Spinnerette and ex-Distillers), and their two kids. (The couple have a seven-year-old daughter, Camille Harley Joan Homme, and a son, Orrin Ryder Homme, who was born in August 2011.)
“I’ve always looked at touring and music as a beautiful curse, like this amazing gift of, like, bronzed shit,” Homme says with a laugh. “I’m realizing on this very phone call how much I tend to romanticize a lot of this. I think that’s because I want there to be the chance for something classic. But you have to give up something to risk something. And, man, being gone for a month in Europe? It’s got its highs, man, but, fuck… Really? Like I wanna see my little midgets, you know? But that is what it is.”
And, obviously, there are worse things. Like, in no particular order, having to fire friends, hating music, wondering if it’s time to pull the plug on your band, being depressed and bedridden for months, and almost dying.
Homme, however, is now able to see the bright side, to the point where, despite all the troubles of the past few years, he thinks he might somehow have been blessed.
“I think one of the coolest things you can do is disappear for a while, because it gives you the chance to re-emerge,” he says. “To sort of pounce out of the jungle.”
As for the future, count on at least a few more chapters in the history of Queens of the Stone Age. Barring near-death experiences and months in the sick bay, Homme isn’t planning on going anywhere soon. There is, he suggests, a very good reason for that.
“The truth of it all,” Homme says with another laugh, “is that I’m too stupid to know what else to do.”