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Queens of the Stone Age: Pleasure & Pain

Death, terrorism and bad knees can’t stop Josh Homme and Co.

Josh Homme emerges from behind a black curtain into a backstage room at Sydney’s Hordern Pavilion as if he’s materialising out of thin air and trying to make an entrance. He doesn’t have to try. At six feet four inches, with slicked back hair, a flash of a grin that reveals a silver incisor and a profile that bears a passing resemblance to Elvis Presley, the 44-year-old leader of Queens of the Stone Age tends to take up the space in any room he enters. And on this occasion, just a couple of hours before he’s due onstage, Homme enters with a bad limp and the aid of a walking stick. He’s fucked up his knee. No, not the knee he fucked up in 2010, which resulted in a botched operation where his heart stopped and he was technically dead before being revived with a defibrillator.

“It’s the other one! The good knee!” he smiles, without going into exact details about how this happened. “Apparently I’m not too easygoing on myself. That’s what they tell me. I was informed that I tore my meniscus. But you know what? I’m not cancelling. I’m not going anywhere.

“I have to take something strong enough for the pain but I want to be able to get up on stage and sing. I have to find the balance between it all. A little pain is guaranteed. But that’s fine.”

Homme tends to hold forth like a cross between a motivational speaker, a rock & roll evangelist and a sports coach at half-time when his team is down a few points but still in the game. Perhaps coming back from the dead – not to mention dealing with terrorists trying to kill your fans and friends – will do that to a guy.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Instead, let’s go back to the very beginning. Conveniently, Homme sets out his origin story in miniature in the opening line of Villains, the new Queens of the Stone Age album: “I was born in the desert, May 17 in ’73, when the needle hit the groove I commence to moving, I was chasing what’s calling me.” It turns out his inspiration for the line came from his wife, Brody Dalle of the Distillers.

“Brody always had this line, ‘I’m Brody. I’m from Fitzroy in Melbourne and I’ve been around the world.’ I saw that as an extension of Howlin’ Wolf and Robert Johnson. Or ‘I was born my papa’s son, when I hit the ground I was on the run’ [from ZZ Top’s “Just Got Paid”]. I see that as a declaration of no dependence. I like that. I also felt like this is a new world, this is our seventh record and I might as well re-introduce myself.”

He taps cigarette ash into an empty wine glass on the coffee table where he’s resting his boots. Across his knuckles are the tattooed names of his grandparents, Cap and Cam, along with the names of his two sons (his daughter’s name is inked across his heart). Family and home – he grew up in Palm Desert, California – have a strong pull on Homme.

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Homme with Queens of the Stone Age

In “Feet Don’t Fail Me”, that opening song from Villains, he sings, “I’m much older than I thought I’d be.”

“I never thought I would make it past 40,” he says. “I’m not being dramatic, I just never had a vision of myself in my 60s. The men in my family don’t always make it that long. I actually had cockier lyrics for that song, but it felt fake, so I decided to be honest. I’m already in what I call the gravy section of my life.”

Recently Homme was fortunate to spend quality time with a rock icon who is even further along the gravy section of his life. He co-wrote and produced Iggy Pop’s Post Pop Depression, which the 70-year-old veteran has claimed will be his last record. Homme learned a lot from Pop, from working on songs that confronted his personal legacy, to seeing him completely turn around an apathetic audience in Miami, to working with him the day after his old friend David Bowie died.

“He was meant to be coming out to California from Florida to rehearse when I heard the news about Bowie,” says Homme. “I called his wife Nina at midnight because he was meant to be up at five o’clock to get to the airport. And I said, ‘I understand if he’s gotta do whatever he’s gotta do.’ She said she’d wake him up and ask him. She came back to the phone five minutes later and said, ‘He’s still coming.’

“We had the best fucking rehearsal. I’ll never forget it. I felt really proud to be there for him in that moment. I said, “Jim, are you all right?” It was the first time I called him Jim, because he’s Iggy and he’s earned it. He was like, “Oh, I’m fine. Let’s play.” We had a conversation, but it’s like he played his way through. I mean, could you ask for anything else at that moment?”

The last Queens of the Stone Age album was called …Like Clockwork because it didn’t go like clockwork at all. Firstly it was delayed when Homme recorded and toured with Them Crooked Cultures, his supergroup with Dave Grohl and John Paul Jones. Then he spent four months recovering from the knee surgery incident, a time during which he was deeply depressed and considered giving up music altogether. By the time recording began, the mood in the band was strained and drummer Joey Castillo ended up leaving.

“I never thought I would make it past 40. The men in my family don’t always make it that long.”

“On Clockwork I think we were joking around while we knew we were on the riverboat to hell,” says Homme. “I was starting from negative integers. I was starting at less than zero. For Villains, I was starting at maybe seven or eight, personally speaking. Those are good numbers.

“I do think there’s a certain amount of difficulty associated with making our records at this point. I just think that they must go further than all the previous ones, an ever-tightening alleyway. They’re built upon the stack of what’s before, so you’re kind of …”

Teetering and juggling?

“Yeah. Teetering and juggling a knife, chainsaw and a bowling ball. Previously I felt like we were creating what was not there and that was part of our thing. We sounded, we looked, we behaved, we were unlike everything around us. But now I feel like we’re mining something out of ourselves.”

A part of shaking things up came from his six-year-old son Ryder turning him on to Mark Ronson’s “Uptown Funk”. Previously his 11-year-old daughter Camille went through a big Adele phase, which resulted in Homme using engineer Mark Rankin to work on …Like Clockwork. His third child, Wolf, is only one year old, so his musical tastes are yet to have an impact on Homme’s production choices.

“People ask me, ‘Why Ronson?’ And I say, ‘Exactly.’ He was a fan. He’s a good communicator. He immerses himself in your world, so his ideas are not arbitrary but within the boundaries of who you are. That, to me, is a good producer. That’s how you become transparent and helpful at the same time. Also he’s very beat-centric and we’re a very beat-centric band.

“With this album I knew we were going to reinvent ourselves in our way. I knew we were going to take some of what we were, the examples of the idea of us, put them on a bridge, then light the bridge on fire, because it’s important to sacrifice the examples of who you are to preserve the idea of who you are.”

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Homme onstage with Queens of the Stone Age in Sydney in July.

In the past, Homme has been at pains to point out that Queens of the Stone Age deliberately work outside of what is happening in the world at large. They’re meant to be an escape, a celebration, a catharsis. Early on, that often played out as a kind of macho hedonism. But Homme has been opening up on the last few albums. In particular, “Fortress” and “Villains Of Circumstance” from the latest record exhibit a new vulnerability, the former about being there for someone going through dark times, the latter about love conquering distance and separation.

One has to wonder if the events on the night of November 13th, 2015, have something to do with it. That was when Eagles Of Death Metal played the Bataclan theatre in Paris. Frontman Jesse Hughes has been Homme’s best buddy since they were in high school together and Homme stood up for him when he was being bullied. In 2006, when Hughes had a serious drug addiction, Homme not only drove his friend to rehab, but paid for the treatment. Homme still records with the band and joins them onstage whenever Queens’ commitments allow. In fact, he was meant to be there that night, but at the last minute had to cancel.

At 9:40pm, three terrorists with assault rifles entered the theatre and started opening fire. The massacre lasted for 20 minutes and 89 people were killed, including the band’s merchandise manager, Nick Alexander.

“I really don’t like to talk about that,” says Homme, going quiet for the first time in the interview.

I tell him that I understand, and that’s fine.

But before we move on, he decides that he does want to talk a little about it after all, just to give a glimpse of what personal damage that night wrought. And what he has to say is both devastating and defiant.

“What I can say is that there’s a group of girls that has gone to every Queens show for 15 years and every Eagles show and all of them are gone now.”
He pauses for a moment.

“There’s so much that you’ll never know about that night, and good for you. I would be glad to be in that spot.

“I can tell you one thing. It’s going to take a lot more than that to get me to not be who I am. I know what cowards would do, because they always do the cheap shit. It’s not going to stop us. We’re going to go on tour. We’re going to go everywhere. We’re united.”

Showtime is approaching. He shakes hands, gets to his feet, picks up his walking stick and limps out of the room. An hour later, the Hordern Pavilion erupts as the band launch into “Turnin’ On the Screw”. Homme does not look like a man who can’t walk unaided. He looks like a rock star.

Eighteen songs later, the set comes to an end with the pile-driving, sludge-metal monster “A Song For the Dead”.

“Life’s the study of dying, how to do it right,” Homme howls.

The song was written for Queens of the Stone Age’s third album, Songs For the Deaf, eight years before Josh Homme’s heart stopped on an operating table and 13 years before terrorists opened fire on fans and friends.

Those words must weigh even more heavily tonight than they did back then. Then again, as Homme would say, a little pain is guaranteed, but that’s fine.

From issue #791 (October, 2017), available now.