The SPIN Interview: Queens of the Stone Age’s Josh Homme
After six years, more side projects, and a brush with death, the QOTSA ringleader returns with his band's sixth album, the tense, intimate '…Like Clockwork.' DAVID MARCHESE joins Homme to survey the beautiful destruction wrought by three decades of hard living, tough decisions, and scorching rock'n'roll.
Sitting on a bed in a midtown Manhattan hotel room two days after the release of Queens of the Stone Age’s …Like Clockwork (Matador), Josh Homme lights an electronic cigarette and inhales deeply. “I found the right excuse,” he says, “so now I’m going after it again.”
He’s talking about trying to quit smoking, but nodding to something bigger — and scarier. In late 2010, Homme almost died from complications occurring during knee surgery and was bedridden for three depressing months while recovering. During that time, Homme, 40, and the father of two small children with his wife, Spinnerette frontwoman Brody Dalle, struggled to find a reason to continue a career that blasted off more than 20 years ago with the majestic California desert metal of Kyuss, cruised into the massively popular rhythm rock of Queens of the Stone Age, refueled in Them Crooked Vultures with friend and musical partner Dave Grohl and ex-Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones, and took turns along the way for production work with Arctic Monkeys and his own long-running, highly collaborative Desert Sessions albums.
Ultimately, Homme regained his footing with the thorny, emotionally intense …Like Clockwork, an album that offers irrefutable proof of both his resilience and how close he came to the edge — which, as it turns out, was where the future was waiting.
Welcome back. It’s been awhile.
It doesn’t feel like it.
You don’t think six years is a long time between albums?
Objectively, yes, but also not at all. I look at my career as a body of work, not just Queens of the Stone Age records. I’m in Eagles of Death Metal, I’m in Them Crooked Vultures, I make records with other people. Six years only looks funny on paper. If I was just in one band I would have a problem with the amount of time between records, because I don’t want to wave one flag. I just want to be part of something cool. Because that’s what this is, and it’s fucking nuts, man. Six records? How am I still doing this? I’m in New York City and I’m putting out a record. It’s so bizarre.
When you were recovering from your health problems, did you ever think you wouldn’t make more Queens of the Stone Age music?
I spent five or six months waiting for a sign. I like to move forward and notice things along the roadside that indicate where I should go. And so I ended up spending a lot of time waiting without moving forward, trying to figure out what do while I was sitting in my own slop mentally. It was helpful because I realized that was the worst thing I could ever do.
How do you mean? You don’t strike me as a wallflower.
When you get sick and it’s extended, you go through all these mental phases and everyone handles them differently. But what made it difficult was that I got so tired of myself, you know? I wished I could split from myself — leave myself. The problem is that music is selfish in that you need to make it for yourself, so that you can give it away, and those two things don’t jive. I needed to find the right reason to play that had the magic and mystery and excitement that made me want to play in the first place.
Where’d you find that reason?
Well, for a while I thought, “This is so stupid.” What the fuck is all this? [Gestures around the room] It’s so detestable. Then all of a sudden you start to say, “No. Music is beautiful.” You can make somebody weep and you can say things you would never otherwise say. So why wouldn’t you believe in that? Why would you choose being bitter over choosing to make music? Being bitter is gross. It doesn’t amount to anything.
Can you tell me a bit more about your recovery? Did it change your interactions with your family and the people you make music with? What exactly was going on that was pushing you towards bitterness?
I’d rather not say. It’s just — I’ve never been stopped cold before. Obstacles are always, like, “Through it, over it, under it: Which am I gonna do?” It’s just hard to share certain things. I’m not the guy that says, “This thing smells like shit, take a whiff.” I just think: “This smells like shit.” I don’t want you to have to smell it, too.
Can you say what happened physically?
Well, I’ve always been pretty rough on myself. So whatever happened to me, I totally deserved it. It’s almost like I was asking for it. But why focus on things that suck? It’s not worth it.
Putting the health issues aside, you’re 40 years old and you’ve got two little kids who weren’t born when you last put out a Queens of Stone Age album. Have you reprioritized at all?
Queens have moved up on my priorities list. Instead of being my drinking buddy it’s become my war buddy. And the guys in the band are more important to me now, too. When they really wanted to make a record, I said, “Okay, if you want to do this, I’m not in the greatest space. You have to start in the confusion and I don’t know where it’s gonna go and you’re not gonna know either.” But that made us so much tighter. We had to trust each other or we’d pick each other apart. I think that had something to do with why we lost [drummer] Joey [Castillo] and had to let him go [during the …Like Clockwork recording sessions]. He had a hard time navigating that uncertainty. Although it was very amicable, it felt like, “Damn, why did that have to happen?” But it brought the rest of us so close together.
Was the aftermath of firing Joey different than when you let [bassist and founding QOTSA member] Nick Oliveri go after Songs for the Deaf?
Nick and I had troubles that were not musical. He sings on the new album. But back then, in 2004 or whenever, I felt like instead of being understood for making a tough decision about someone who was out of control, people were like, “Fuck Josh Homme, he just wants to sing more.” What? You gotta be nuts. I wanted to sing more? After Deaf, the band started to become more about personalities than the music and that didn’t feel right. Quite honestly, people in the music world had already made their mind up about me by the time [2005’s] Lullabies to Paralyze came out. We divided everybody in our world and I was like, “Oh, shit.” But now I realize that all that external stuff is useless. I’m interested in the long arc of a lifetime of music, in a lifetime of being honest.
You don’t think you were being honest before?
I was poking and prodding before, but now I want to poke and prod where it hurts. It’s the same idea as with older Queens albums, but focused in a different direction.
The lyrics on …Like Clockwork are the biggest difference for me from your past stuff. A song like “The Vampyre of Time and Memory,” where you’re singing about feeling unloved and wanting God to come and take you away — that’s a long way from “Feel Good Hit of the Summer.” Were you trying to be more direct? There’s not a lot of the sarcasm anymore.
I feel like [Songs for the Deaf’s] “Go with the Flow” or [Lullabies to Paralyze’s] “Long Slow Goodbye” are very direct songs. But with those records, I could see the end goal before we started. This one started with no end in sight…it’s just different this time for the band. [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. I’m not complaining, but I do kind of wish it had started in a different way. I’ve always thought of music as separate from reality, but there’s no escaping the reality of where this album started. I had no choice but to deal with it.
If the motivation has changed, what was it on, say, [2000’s] Rated R or Songs for the Deaf? So much of Queens of the Stone Age, from the name to the album covers to the lyrics, seemed like an ironic comment on being in a hard-rock band.
I think that’s an accurate judgment. Any band on their first couple records is just trying to keep up with their inspiration. You’re caught in this tidal wave of grand ideas: “What if a band had three singers? No one ever does that!” I was thinking about what it would be like if the singing was interwoven, like you’re singing lead, then you’re singing harmonies, then you’re barely singing — just seamless transition all the time. It was about that kind of stuff, trying to create something that nobody was doing. And I’ve always had a sick sense of humor and I’ve always wanted that to permeate the music because I don’t take myself seriously. I take the music seriously, but I know I’m not God’s gift to anyone except my mom.
Let’s go back to a song like “Feel Good Hit of the Summer.” Or even earlier, when you were in Kyuss, which is one of the all-time great stoner-rock bands—even though I know you don’t like that term. There was this aura of excess around you and your music. I mean, your record company threw a party for Songs for the Deaf and you requested they bring in midgets and mimes. How much of that was a “comment” and how much was you guys actually enjoying the excess?
It’s impossible to know. With the party, I did that because midgets and mimes freak people out. It was a party for us and they were like, “What do you want?” And I was like, “Oh, that’s easy: midgets and mimes.” It was the most uncomfortable party of all time, but I thought it was fucking awesome. Making people uncomfortable is one of my hobbies. I’m always hoping that half the people get the joke and the other half are the joke. But somewhere along the way, especially after Deaf and the explosion — and then the implosion with Nick — it became clear that it needed to be more about the music. That sick sense of humor is still there, but I’m not so blasé about spreading it everywhere. It should be used in the proper doses because it would be a shame if it confused the real issue, which is trying to sing about life. I used to consider Queens of the Stone Age in an unrealistic way, purely as an escape. I don’t think that anymore.
What does your family think of how music has changed for you?
I can’t really answer that other than to say that I’ve always been tight with my family and the people I care about and that’s all that really matters. They know that things have changed. I don’t try to make sense of what happened, I just know it happened. I know what I went through. I don’t need to be told to stop and smell the roses because I’m sniffing so hard.
“Sniffing so hard.” Do you mind if I take that out of context? That’d be a good headline.
You wouldn’t be the first to do that.
What’s another example?
Once I foolishly said to an interviewer that the songs are about whatever you want them to be about, and that came up a bunch afterwards. “Oh, you say your songs are not about anything.” That’s not it. It’s embarrassing to talk about something personal even if I sing about something personal. Not that everything was always shrouded in mystery before, but on Lullabies I felt a little persecuted because I fired my best friend and it was really hard and it wasn’t about music. And I didn’t say anything, thinking that people would respect that decision. But instead, I felt these social rocks hitting me. Instead of saying, “I feel persecuted,” I wrote [Lullabies’] “Burn the Witch.” I thought, “Well this is clear as day” and it’s more interesting than writing “What the fuck is your problem?” But people didn’t pick up on it.
But when the back-story is clearly so central to the music, it’s hard not to be curious about specifics rather than just talk around them.
I don’t mind circling them, much like something in a toilet bowl. It’s just that to focus on the bad stuff as a way of explaining the good stuff is weird.
You talked earlier about the confusion of making the new album. What does that mean in a practical way? Was there more sitting and staring at each other waiting for ideas to come?
What we do in Queens is talk about songs like they’re a person. The person is not supposed to be perfect. It’s supposed to have scars, and it’s supposed to be represented accurately. You start going, “Who is this person? What has this person been through?” You start playing at that. And sometimes one of us will be like, “This is so close, but it’s not right.” You don’t always know why. So you’re forced to put things down and give things some air and think about it. That’s why it took so long for this record. Normally we all hear what the end game is: it should sound like this. When we went into doing this record I would’ve loved to make a trance-like, James Brown, bluesy, repetition record, but that just wasn’t meant to be. It became that this was a record where the music was supposed to prop up the vocal. Visually, it was an injured vocal and it needed the crutch of the least amount of music possible. That was the situation, and when you’re serving the situation, you have to wait for someone to ring the bell before you go serve it again.
It’s funny that I asked if you could describe practical differences and you gave me a bunch of elaborate similes.
[Laughs] Sorry, man. I wish I could be more concrete for you, but this is about mystery and not letting reality overtake things. Reality and mystery need to be of equal size. What else can I say? I guess, you know the phrase, “Something wicked this way comes?” I love that phrase. It’s so sexy. It’s, “Oh my God, what is that coming over the horizon?” I write at that a lot.
When you were laid up, were you listening to anything that gave you some clues about how to move forward? There’s a tradition of post-health scare albums. Bob Dylan’s Time Out of Mind was one. David Bowie’s The Next Day was another. Were you looking for precedents?
The truth is I stopped listening to a lot of music. I want to like as much as I can, but there’s not a lot out there. The goal would be to find the good in everything. People who say they like everything don’t have the sand to tell you what they really like. I love the Metronomy record The English Riviera. It’s fucking incredible. It sounds like the bleak coast of England. I like the Savages record [Silence Yourself] for how it drags what was forward. I’d like to like lots more music, but I almost feel like it isn’t up to me. I try, but what’s a girl to do?
Did any music that had already been important to you become more important?
I remember listening to the radio and the Bruce Springsteen song “I’m on Fire” came on. I’ve never really been into Springsteen. Not that I didn’t like him, it’s just that I didn’t care. That song came on and I was like, “Holy shit, this is good.” I didn’t go out and buy a Springsteen record, but I got that song and started listening with a different perspective. I understood certain things about it that I didn’t pay attention to before.
You’ve said in the past that recording is the most fun part of making music for you. But is it still fun when the subject matter is so serious? Prior to …Like Clockwork, I didn’t think of you as one of these musicians for whom recording is a cathartic, almost masochistic process.
I worry about that sometimes. The Them Crooked Vultures record, to sing and write the words and put all that together was very taxing. This new album was very taxing. Is it gonna be like that all the time? I pray to the god of rock’n’roll that this is not my new style. Because: Nope. I’ve always been able to enjoy what this is and I’d hate to lose the key to that. The alternative is you become a curmudgeon. I’d like to think that my final words will be a giggle.
The new album is going to debut at No. 1, and it’s your first album on Matador after four with Interscope. What’s been different about working with an indie?
The major-label system got really scared of everything. It’s almost like they woke up in the wrong room and were like, “Oh my god.” But risk nothing get nothing. And at a time when they should be trusting their instincts, they’re doing the opposite.I didn’t want to spend time arguing over a creative idea with somebody who doesn’t play music and doesn’t know what the fuck they’re talking about. It was a waste of energy. I just want to make music and make art and make videos and I don’t care if it’s “for the single.” Who fucking cares? Just don’t interrupt me. Don’t censor me. Don’t stop me. Let me be.
You were butting your head against the wall at Interscope?
It was a constant battle. You don’t want to do something, say, “I don’t want to do it.” I don’t care. But don’t give good meeting. This is the time [in music] when if you’re just yourself, you can shine. Some people want to sell headphones and bullshit like that and that’s totally cool, but I don’t want to be around it. I want to set up a pattern where the business people just let us do what we want to do and Matador was like, “We’ll help you do that.” We could’ve taken more money and taken more this and more that, but those things are temporary bullshit. I want to do something classic. If we do this right, we could actually be someone’s favorite band of all time. That’s fuckin’ rad. How can you beat that shit? Lots of people listen to music on the way to the bank and they don’t think about it anymore and that’s totally fine. But some people listen to a song 60 times in a row. I’m making music for them.
At this point in your career, who are you looking at as a model?
I love Iggy [Pop]. I’ve always considered myself a student of the Iggy world, you know? Just let ‘er rip — and maybe it’ll rip, and that’s okay.
We’ve talked a lot about tough times. What’s the best time you’ve had making music?
For 20 years, all I’ve been chasing is the feeling I used to get playing generator parties with Kyuss in the desert. You never knew what was going to happen. It was wonderful. I was really lucky because that’s what I grew up with. It was a consequence of time and place. That scene did not exist because of me, I was just there. And that’s where I learned the right way to play. The right way to play is not for money and not to get famous. You’re supposed to shy away from anything like that. You play for the sake of music and you play because you have no idea what will happen but you know that the chances of it being good increase when you’re being honest about what you’re doing.
Do you ever still get that feeling?
Absolutely, and with the band right now, playing this music that’s so honest and vulnerable, we have a good chance of getting to that fucking feeling. I don’t know how to describe it. It’s this ball of energy. Some day you might get so close to it that you get burned up.
And if that happened?
What a great way to go.