All good things come in threes. Or, wait—is it all terrible things? In the case of Queens of the Stone Age, it might be both.
Take the band’s first three records. Widely considered an unofficial trilogy, they set the template for everything that would come after—culminating in mainstream success with the instant-classic Songs for the Deaf, which featured the now-legendary lineup of Dave Grohl on drums, Nick Oliveri on bass, Mark Lanegan on vocals, and band leader Josh Homme. Those albums snarled and bugged the fucked out, ripping face without ever forgetting the earworm.
Then: drama. Grohl resumed normal rockstar duties with Foo Fighters. Homme kicked Oliveri out of the band. Lanegan left to do his own thing. Years passed, along with some high-profile side projects (including Them Crooked Vultures with Grohl and Led Zeppelin’s John Paul Jones), a couple Queens albums, and a near-death experience for Homme in 2011.
Homme then set out to make the first album in what would eventually become a new trilogy: 2013’s …Like Clockwork; 2017’s Villains; and this year’s In Times New Roman…. Released in June, Roman features the current (and longest serving) iteration of the band: guitarist Troy Van Leeuwen (who joined at the tail end of the Songs sessions), bassist Michael Shuman, multi-instrumentalist Dean Fertita, Jon Theodore on drums, with Homme at the centre.
“It [Clockwork] was a fucking nightmare to make,” Shuman says, speaking via video chat from his home in Los Angeles. “Villains was kind of a nightmare, but a little bit easier. Then this one was just a nightmare. For some reason with us, it’s just not—I wouldn’t say ‘not fun,’ because there are laughs and good times—but they are difficult to make. There are a lot of roadblocks and obstacles that we have to get over. I’m not sure why with our band. But we all recognize it.”
Shuman says there’s no story arc to these records; rather, they’re connected through the music, the emotion, and the fact that all three were made with the same core lineup (though Theodore joined as a full-time member after Clockwork was completed).
Two songs from the new album, “Straight Jacket Fitting” and “Time & Place”, date back to the …Like Clockwork sessions, and were attempted again for Villains. All three album covers were designed by Liverpool-based artist Boneface, each playing on a variation of the same motif: a person being consumed by some kind of monster.
Roman is the album that the best kind of rock bands make at a certain point in their career. It’s a culmination of their past work, while serving an updated sound and forging new terrain along the way. The album features everything we need from a big-tent band in 2023: art-rock-meets-arena-rock on “Emotion Sickness” and “Paper Machete”, krautrock-repetition a la the band’s debut in “Time & Place”, and latter-day Bowie sounds on “Carnavoyeur”. Where Villains was slick and air-tight, Roman is dank and spacious, lurking in back alleys once the sun disappears.
Shuman says recording was an insular and collaborative process, with everyone bringing ideas to the group: riffs, demos, melodies—anything, really. All ideas were accepted “if we all agreed they were good.” They worked without an outside producer on this one, and sent no word to their label or management on how recording was going. Shuman says they had “total tunnel vision,” with no idea if the music really was any good.
It took about two years to make. The first nine months were spent writing and recording the music, followed by what ended up being a roughly one-year break before Homme was ready to track the vocals. He was going through a separation and well-publicized custody battle with ex-wife Brody Dalle, and he later revealed in the lead-up to the album’s release that he’d been battling cancer as well.
“I think when you’re dealing with the extreme ups and downs of life, you don’t stop and go: ‘I should really make a record.’ Those things don’t exist at that moment. If your roof is flooding, you don’t say: ‘We should make a record about this!’ You have to stop yourself drowning in a flood,” Homme told NME before the album’s release. “You need the flood to be over, and then you can decide whether you can accept the flood. I think with this being a record about acceptance, you need to actually get there yourself.”
By the time Homme was ready to track the vocals, Shuman says everyone else was tied up, so it was just the two of them and their engineer, working together for 35 days straight.
“He’s been my big brother forever, but that was that period of time when we really spent every second together. We got really deep together,” Shuman says. “Finishing the record was really, really hard. It went to the last second before mastering…and I’m really proud of that last bit. It’s weird. You think you know somebody, you think you’re so close, and then you can get even closer. That’s kind of how it went on this record with me and Josh, and I think that’s why we feel so good [as a band] right now, honestly.”
Musically, Roman fulfills the promise made with …Like Clockwork: complex and layered, while simultaneously melodic, loaded with hooks and the sort of ear candy that rewards close listening on the 50th spin. It’s also fun at times—in ways we haven’t heard QOTSA sound in over a decade.
It’s also angrier and more menacing than anything on either Clockwork or Villains. “Straight Jacket Fitting” is the band’s first blues track, but it’s a rambling monster that lopes and swaggers—a killer on the hunt (if there were such a thing as death by face melt).
“Straight Jacket” also demonstrates a vulnerability that’s pervasive throughout the album and that has only ever been hinted at in the past. “To face down your demons/you’ve got to free them,” Homme croons. A fitting end to the trilogy.
At this point in the stage of our career, I do feel confident in saying we are at the peak.
In a way, Roman feels less like the band’s COVID record, and more like a COVID-aftermath record, exploring the complexities of mental health, relationships, and the seeming breakdown of society in the wake of a collective traumatic event.
“I think these last few years have allowed him to open up in a different way,” Shuman says of Homme. “Some things he’d like to shut off and maybe only the closest people in his life would see. But now I think he’s finally opening up to the world this different side of him. I’m really proud of him for doing that and I think that’s why this record is connecting with people so deeply. I think when you finally can be fully vulnerable and not mask a lot of things through lyrics or through distortion, that’s when you really connect with people. And it’s working.”
Occasional vocalist Mark Lanegan died while the record was still in progress. Shuman says “it was a shock to the system for sure,” and he pushed the band to play more of Lanegan’s songs on this tour—in particular, “God Is in the Radio”—as a tribute.
“I really wanted to play that song because it hasn’t really been played since Lanegan was in the band. I fucking love that song and I thought it’d be a nice addition to the set,” he says. “I’ve teared up multiple times, now that we’re on the road playing his songs, more so than when it [his death] actually happened.”
Shuman says the band’s been playing better than it ever has in the current configuration—something he credits in part with the difficult recording process of Roman. They’re creating new setlists every night. The feedback online after the first leg of the North American tour has been near unanimous in praise.
“At this point in the stage of our career, I do feel confident in saying we are at the peak, and hopefully it keeps getting better and better,” he says.
“When you’re a new band, your first three records are usually easier and more fun because you’re kind of figuring out what the band is, right? By record—what are we on, record eight? Usually by eight, it’s shit garbage with filler to get the band on tour to go make money. So for us, we always want to just keep reinventing so that we’re excited about it. We want to be excited about making something different.”
Queens of the Stone Age play the Pacific Coliseum on October 3.