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Inside Queens of the Stone Age’s Dark, Danceable New LP

Josh Homme and Troy Van Leeuwen on how Mark Ronson and Iggy Pop helped shape the band’s upcoming ‘Villains’.

Josh Homme and Troy Van Leeuwen on how Mark Ronson and Iggy Pop helped shape the band's upcoming 'Villains'.

Queens of the Stone Age‘s upcoming record, the nine-song Villains, is a little looser and more uptempo than their last release, 2013’s …Like Clockwork. “Frankly, that’s just because I like to dance,” frontman Josh Homme tells Rolling Stone, sounding deadly serious.

But it’s also partly because this time they teamed with producer Mark Ronson, who’s best known for his work with Bruno Mars, Amy Winehouse and Adele. “I think maybe music people might not understand the vast overlap of the curves between Ronson and Queens,” Homme says. “If you listen to ‘Uptown Funk,’ you hear that tight, kind of vacuous dry sound, and that’s where I wanted to take this new Queens record. I wanted it to be like our record Songs for the Deaf, but looking at it with goggles on underwater – that kind of clarity. Also, he’s as obsessed with drum beats as I am.”

“I thought it was cool that we worked with him, because he’s just an outsider to us,” offers guitarist Troy Van Leeuwen. “It turns out we have a lot of the same tastes and sense of humour. He’s like an encyclopedia of music. If you name a record, he can tell you who played what keyboard on a song. He’s spent a lot of time reading liner notes.”

But even outside of the production, Homme feels the band found a new approach on Villains, which comes out August 25th. While the guitars still have the limber crunch of Queens albums past, they’re playing around easy-breezy disco beats and chilly synths on songs like “Feet Don’t Fail Me” and “Un-Reborn Again.” It’s all more carefree than their last album, 2013’s … Like Clockwork, but at the same time it’s also more personal, making it a rare hard-rock album that can sound burly as well as sensitive. “I think as you go on in your career, records become more about expressing who you are,” he says. “They’re almost like markers on a timeline of being alive.”

Homme has had a lot to write about since ... Like Clockwork. On an up note, he produced a late-career classic for one of his idols, Iggy Pop, and supported him on a well-received tour last year. “That tour was probably the funnest three months I’ve ever had on the road,” Van Leeuwen says. “Iggy was just incredibly generous and gave everything every night. I don’t think we even had one bad show. Then when it was done, that album title, Post-Pop Depression, was a real thing. We really didn’t want to do anything for months.”

But before his time working with Pop, Homme was in a darker place. The frontman found that his faith in rock & roll – and everything else – wavered in 2015 when a concert in Paris by his other band Eagles of Death Metal was the scene of a terrorist attack. He wasn’t at the show, but the whole event shook him. “It affected the way I did everything,” he says. “It reinforced that you shouldn’t wait to do something or you’ll fucking regret it. Move now. If you have a beef with someone, squash it. If you want to do something, do it.”

That sense of immediacy crept into Homme’s lyrics as well as the way the band functioned in the studio, banging the album out between January and March of this year in Los Angeles’ United Studios and Burbank, California’s Pink Duck Studios. They decided they wanted to make a generally less brooding album, in contrast to …Like Clockwork.

“There’s a lot of depth and midtempo songs on the last record, and we are a rock & roll band,” Van Leeuwen says. “Peppering this record with some upbeat stuff was good for balance. That’s a result of self-awareness. When you have a song like [Clockwork’s] ‘The Vampyre of Time and Memory,’ you listen to it, like, ‘Holy shit, why are you so depressed? You have the best job in the world and you’re surrounded by people who love you and you get to do this so shut the fuck up.'” He laughs.

The guitarist says that some of the songs have been in various states of completion for years. The springy “Head Like a Haunted House” has existed without lyrics since the period surrounding their 2007 album Era Vulgaris. And they’d had the moody “Villains of Circumstance” since 2014, since Homme debuted it as an acoustic number at the London festival Meltdown.

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On Villains, that tune starts with shimmering guitar and plodding bass as he sings, “Life goes on/That’s what scares me so.” “I wrote that in a hotel in Austria, and it all came at once, which is a real luxury and a rarity,” Homme says. “A couple of days later, I played it acoustically at Meltdown. It just felt really natural that way.”

Here, though, it’s a big, almost New Wave–y number full of dynamics that highlight his revealing lyrics. “When we recorded it, we were like, ‘How do we retain that feeling?'” he says. “We wanted something like Elvis’ version of ‘Blue Moon,’ where it just felt empty sonically. One of the guys from our label, when he heard it, said, ‘I believe people don’t understand how much you play mellow or acoustically or things like that.’ I thought, ‘Really? That’s odd.’ But maybe he’s right. Maybe people don’t associate us with the wide spectrum of music that’s there.”

Similarly, Villains‘ lyrics, whether on the dancier numbers or more introspective ones, variously deal with mortality, devotion, love and distance. “The one line that is sewn through the record is the idea of ‘now,'” Homme says. “Now is all you’ll ever get, and there’s no reason for you to wait. If you wait to do something, you’re probably making a mistake.”

For Homme, some of Villains’ songs are quite intimate, even if he still cloaks what he says in the dry wit that defines his sensibility. “When it comes to the heavier topics on the record, I didn’t really need the crash course in it,” he says. “I’ve had a few ‘near-life’ experiences already. I’ve certainly got experience in dealing with things that it doesn’t matter if you like it or not, this is how it is. I think that understanding – and, in a certain sense being OK with that, too – is part of how I view the importance of dealing with your own ‘now.'”

Although he’s hesitant to discuss the subject – or as he tersely puts it, “I really don’t like talking about that” – he’s still shaken by what happened to his Eagles of Death Metal bandmates, and it struck him again this past May when he heard about the attack on Ariana Grande’s concert in Manchester, England. “It’s a terrifying club to be part of,” he says. “You hope it never gets any bigger now than two artists. If you could trade places, you actually wouldn’t, because someone else would understand that. I don’t think I would wish that on anybody else. … There’s always been fucked-up shit. There’s always been villains. All it does is give you the raison d’être to go again. If you needed a fucking reason, you got one.”

With that sentiment, he says he’s ready to hit the road again with Queens. “I refuse to philosophically feel any different than I always do,” he says. “This is what I want to do, and I’m gonna do that. It’s just always a desire. You can call it being free; you can call it being American; you can call it being punk rock; or you can call it being a banana-fucking-head. I don’t care what you call it. I’m gonna go do what we do, no matter what.”

“The one line that is sewn through the record is the idea of ‘now.’ … If you wait to do something, you’re probably making a mistake.” –Josh Homme

“Fortress,” one of the more personal songs on Villains, echoes that sentiment. “I don’t want to fail you, so I tell you the awful truth: Everyone faces darkness on their own,” Homme sings amid a mushy collage of guitar and synthesiser. “As I have done, so will you.” And he promises, “If ever your fortress caves, you’re always safe in mine.”

Although he doesn’t reveal what specifically inspired the song, he says he feels good about showing his true self more on this album. “When you’re younger, I think you are encouraged or you encourage yourself to hide behind a mask,” Homme says. “As the years have gone on, that mask has worn away. I’ve lost any reason to hide. I have a vast disinterest in hiding anything when it comes to writing music. The more vulnerable and honest it is, the better I feel about it.

“And what else am I gonna write about?” he continues. “Queens has always been a place that’s free of the politics and rigmarole of the day. We’re more like an arcade or an ice-cream parlor where you don’t talk politics. There needs to be escape. I’d rather talk about one of the only things that matters – that can be family and what you’re passionate about.”

On the more “ice-cream parlor” side of things, Homme wrote silly autobiographical lyrics for album opener “Feet Don’t Fail Me.” “I was born in the desert, babe, 17-and-73,” he sings to a four-on-the-floor dance beat. “When the needle hit the groove I commenced moving, I was chasing what was calling me.” Homme was born in 1973, but beyond that it’s a lighthearted retelling of his life so far, with lots of references to dancing. “I had written something that was much more cocky, and I thought, ‘Fuck this, it’s not even true,'” he says. “So I started with lines like, ‘Life is hard, that’s why no one survives it, and I’m much older than I thought I’d ever be.’ I’d rather just say that than talk some bullshit.”

Incidentally, that song is one of Van Leeuwen’s favourites on the album. “It reminds me of war drums,” he says of the track’s rhythmic feel, also comparing it to something Foghat would record. “It’s like Native Americans would be jumping up and down before they scalp motherfuckers to that.”

As they sought out these new paths, the band enjoyed experimenting in the studio. Ronson brought a plethora of synths to the group’s recording sessions this past winter, leading the band members to experiment more with keyboards on Villains. Van Leeuwen cites Clockwork Orange composer Wendy Carlos’ synth style and Dr. Dre’s kick drum on “California Love” as inspirations. But those influences only obliquely made it on the record, judging from the glammy, T. Rex boogie of “Un-Reborn Again” and Berlin-era-Bowie vibes of “Feet Down Fail Me.”

“I did just make a record with Iggy Pop, and I love T. Rex,” Homme says of that assessment. “Iggy is the single greatest example of a frontman that you could have for rock & roll. You can say, ‘Oh, I like this person’s voice better,’ or, ‘I like that person’s songs better,’ but you can’t find someone who’s more rock & roll and more honest and daring and more at the tip of the spear – ahead of his time by 30 years – than Iggy. Working with him just recharged my faith in rock & roll and in trying to blaze your own path at whatever cost that is.”

“After touring with Iggy, a lot of the sounds we were getting for that tour were in our bag,” Van Leeuwen says. “And those Berlin albums always influenced us. But just being around someone like Iggy makes you want to get off your ass and do stuff. He’s fucking 70 and still doing stuff, so get off your ass and go.”

As for T. Rex, Homme says he’s taken some influence from what he calls the “Ethel Mermans” in Marc Bolan’s background singing, those high-pitched, out-of-place vocal interjections. “There’s always something ridiculous about the male vocal that sounds like it’s screaming, ‘Come on, Archie,’ like in All in the Family,” he says.

“I think the guitar tones range from T. Rex to the Jesus Lizard and Duane Denison,” Van Leeuwen says. “Duane had this wiry tone on a lot of records. So when you have three guitar players, you have to split the frequencies. Josh has his signature thing, and between Dean [Fertita] and I, there’s a frequency trade-off, which is the upper ends where things get really wiry, grimy and bright.”

There’s also a little nod to the Georgia Satellites in “Un-Reborn Again,” in which Homme quotes the “wedding ring” line from “Keep Your Hands to Yourself.” “That’s such a great song and I loved that video as a kid, with them in on a flatbed truck,” he says. “Although they’re from the South, they reminded me of being from the desert, like wearing jean shorts or a swimsuit, and that it seemed innocent.”

Homme has also lately been imbuing his home stereo with positive music. “I love to listen to music in the morning,” Homme says. “It sets the mood for the day. I’ve been listening to a lot of Cab Calloway and Dean Martin, because it’s impossible to be grumpy while you listen to ‘Minnie the Moocher’ or ‘Mambo Italiano.’ I defy anyone’s hate for cereal during that moment.”

Van Leeuwen feels he can hear a little Calloway on “The Way You Used to Do,” the first song that the band released from the record. “There’s a swing to it,” he says. “It’s like Calloway on speed.”

Aside from exploring more uptempo sounds, Homme and company worked at other ways to keep their music from sounding staid. The frontman says he pushed himself to write “orbitally.” “When I say ‘orbitally,’ I mean you hear a verse one way, but the next time you hear it, only 60 percent of it is the same,” he says. “There’s a new element each time. It’s always turning and on the 50th listen, you hear something new.

“The whole goal is to make something where you challenge yourself and that challenges the audience,” he says.

But that’s not to say Queens don’t want to have fun. “We play rock & roll, and now, more than ever, people need to enjoy their lives,” Van Leeuwen says with a laugh. “Including us.”

Mostly, Homme wants listeners to feel something when they listen. Homme says, “I really want to grab people by the shirt collar and say, ‘You can use your feet to dance or split, but you can’t sleep.'”