Josh Homme: The Making Of Modern Rock's Kingpin

Josh Homme: The Making Of Modern Rock's Kingpin
 Words: Niall Doherty Photographs: Alex Lake www.twoshortdays.com

Words: Niall Doherty
Photographs: Alex Lake www.twoshortdays.com

This article originally appeared in issue Q376, September 2017.

A couple of years ago, Josh Homme and his family went on holiday to the San Juan Islands, a saltwater archipelago in the Northwest of America that you can only get to by boat or sea plane. It was the Fourth Of July and they took a hike round Roche Harbor’s pioneer cemetery, where the founding people of the islands had built a resting place for family members and workers. The tour guide pointed at a memorial stone table that lay on top of the graves and said, “The kids from Roche Harbor come here to drink.” All of a sudden Homme’s imagination lit up. “Yeah, they come here to drink, screw, talk about the stars, the future, what they will do in the world,” he thought. The connection between the dead and the living excited him, that line tracing the distant past to a not-yet-written future. When Homme dies, the Queens Of The Stone Age frontman wants people to have the chance to party on top of him. He would look upon that as a great honour. 

The older he gets, the more Homme contemplates how he’s going to leave his mark on the world. There are songs on the new Queens Of The Stone Age album, Villains, that Homme sees as being his version of that stone table. When he’s gone, songs such as Fortress and Villains Of Circumstance, with its message of “wherever you go, wherever you are, I’m there”, are what will be left for his family. The 44-year-old has three children now with his wife Brody Dalle, and he felt that now was the time to sing about how he really felt. He realised that now is all we’ve got. There was no point in holding back.

Los Angeles, June 2017. Ten miles north-east of Hollywood, past Walt Disney Studios, beyond the desolate blocks of car garages, Mexican restaurants and liquor stores, you head over the railway tracks and come to a politely suburban area in Burbank. On a tree-lined, residential street that looks like the sort of road where the neighbours might tell you to turn down the stereo if your soirée is going on past 9pm, there’s a nondescript, one-floor building on the corner. Head in through the gate and Josh Homme, bouncer big with the welcoming, slightly mischievous air of a bloke who might organise stag dos for a living, greets Q at the door. 

This is Pink Duck Studios, Queens Of The Stone Age’s HQ since 2007. “It’s become the clubhouse,” says Homme as he conducts a guided tour. Furniture from his grandparents’ Palm Desert ranch is scattered around the place, a sideboard here, a chest of drawers there. When everyone was fighting over their belongings after they passed away, Homme pulled up in a truck and took it all, telling squabbling family members, “if you want it, come and get me.” Homme loved growing up close to his grandparents. Their ranch was half a mile down the road from his home and he used to enjoy the walk between the two houses. His conversation is peppered with sayings his grandpa passed down. “If you’re gonna be different, you’re gonna get hit with rocks, so you need to learn to like rocks” is one, “I have to give a shit for it to matter” is another. There’s a piano in the corner that was painted by Homme with Brody and the kids. Outside, Homme’s Triumph motorbike is stood up next to the back door. 

Homme likes the focus of riding his bike. “I like the absence of a phone and it’s a really quick way to escape,” he says. “In a world of immediate gratification, that is a really successful version of that for me. It’s so singular. It depends on you.” He says that riding brings together all of your skills at once and that, if you don’t want to have an accident, you need to have a wide spectrum of thought and vision. We take a seat in the main studio space, guitars and amps lined up against the walls. This is where the band mixed Villains, which was recorded across town at United Studios in Hollywood. It’s a thumping rock record. Their previous album, 2013’s …Like Clockwork, was introspective by QOTSA’s eruptive standards but their playful shimmy is back. 

Homme is one of rock’s most well-connected men, someone who counts Dave Grohl, Elton John, Arctic Monkeys, Trent Reznor, Iggy Pop, Lady Gaga, PJ Harvey, John Paul Jones and Florence Welch amongst his friends and collaborators, but Queens Of The Stone Age occupy a curious place amid the world’s biggest rock bands. They are outsiders who made it in through the back door, reinventing rock music by example. There aren’t any other guitar bands who headline festivals and play arenas and have zero singalongs. You are more likely to holler along with the riff to their best-known song No One Knows, for example, than you are the words.

Homme helped to pioneer stoner-rock, a clash of psychedelic experimentation and Black Sabbath-style dirges, with his breakthrough group Kyuss but the music he’s made with Queens Of The Stone Age has always had much more of a spring in its step. Its meld of classic rock riffs with a hip-swivelling swing has inspired a new wave of bands over the past decade and you can hear different bits of QOTSA in Arctic Monkeys, for whom Homme has acted as a sort of rock mentor, Royal Blood, Biffy Clyro and Tame Impala among others. 

Mark Ronson, who produced Villains after working with Homme on the Lady Gaga album Joanne, says that their influence stretches far and wide. “They’ve never put a foot wrong,” he says. “I work with all kinds of people. One day I’m in the studio with Diplo, the next day with Steve Lacy, the next day I could be in with Ezra from Vampire Weekend, the next day a rap artist, and Queens Of The Stone Age get the same amount of respect from everyone. There’s a huge amount of respect for Josh because he’s changed from album to album and never sold out. Most of us wish we were that bad-ass but he actually is.” 

 Credit: Alex Lake www.twoshortdays.com

Credit: Alex Lake www.twoshortdays.com

The last few years have been a period of intense highs and lows for Homme. The album he co-wrote and recorded with Iggy Pop, Post Pop Depression, and its subsequent tour in 2016, left a huge impression on him about seizing the moment. The greatest thing he took from it was “enjoy yourself”, advice Pop gave him when Homme asked if he could use a leftover title from the project for the opening song on Villains, Feet Don’t Fail Me. But there has been tragedy too: Eagles Of Death Metal, the band that he formed with his childhood friend Jesse Hughes, were at the centre of a terrorist atrocity when their show at the Bataclan in Paris was attacked by gunmen in November 2015. Homme, who was due to be performing with them that night until a last-minute change of plan, was home in LA and became the person trying to get them back to the US. Both events have fed into the new record.

There will always be a part of Homme that is angry about Paris, he says, angry about the cowardice and about all the things he now knows that he wishes he knew nothing about. “It’s also the frustration from staring something down that doesn’t matter if you like it or not,” he says. “Who cares what you think, it’s happening.” He hates that “other people are in that club now” but he has learned to let go of the anger. “Anger will get you up, fine, but don’t ride on that, because life’s too short,” he says. “It’s too fucking short. This is it. You may have thoughts of tomorrow and beautiful memories or regrets of yesterday but they don’t amount to much when we’re here now. This is all you ever get.” He says he is wary of telling his kids too much because what could he say to possibly explain what happened and what’s happening, but he could do something. “I like working at what we do together, as a family, as a gang, as a style of living. I’d much rather have you look at what I’ve done and sort it out that way.”

While QOTSA were working on Villains, the only people that heard any works-in-progress were Foo Fighters’ Dave Grohl and Taylor Hawkins. Everyone else – managers, labels, wives, girlfriends, children – had to wait. Foo Fighters were making their own new album one building away and the two groups would gatecrash each other’s sessions for dinner and drinks together. One day, Homme was frustrated about a track and Grohl said to him, “You know, not every song is gonna be your best song.” “I thought that was good advice,” says Homme, “but I said, ‘Why? Why not? Why can’t every song be the best version of itself?’ I think both of those are right.” He has been friends with Grohl since he was 19 and considers him a “generous, cool, great guy”. “If ever he and I are discussing something,” he says, “I just always assume, ‘You’re probably right and that’s fine.’” 

One night, a tipsy Grohl turned up at the studio as Homme was struggling with a lyric in the vocal booth. Grohl had been “enjoying himself” and, cautious of making a tense situation worse, producer Mark Ronson turfed him out. “I didn’t see it because I was [in the studio] wrestling an alligator, but in this case Ronson is the new guy and he was very sweet and he was protecting me. Maybe in his own mind he thought he was protecting Dave too.” The song Homme was wrestling with was Fortress, an affecting anthem he wrote for a loved one. “The chorus is almost inspirational for me and that’s harder to do. It’s hard to say ‘I love you’ sometimes, without sounding really saccharine and like a goof, but there is a way to say all things.”

As well as the sentimental tributes, there is also a hefty dose of Homme’s usual wit and cheekiness. You can’t really be pictured on the album cover getting a snuggle from the devil and then have nine tracks of heart-warming salutes to your loved ones, after all. Homme says that he was a big advocate of the sleeve, designed by Liverpool illustrator Boneface, but not everyone in the band was into having big bad Beelzebub on the front of their new record. “Isn’t it just me anyway?” Homme says. “I never blame the devil for what I do cos I don’t want the devil to get the credit,” he says.

 

 Credit: Alex Lake www.twoshortdays.com

Credit: Alex Lake www.twoshortdays.com

Homme is an odd combination of personalities: he is both poet and pugilist, wrapped up in one huge bundle. He is an imposing presence without being too intimidating. Silver-tongued expressions flow from his mouth and it’s fascinating to watch him chase the tail of his own thought process. Sometimes he speaks in a slightly cosmic manner, like a sensei whispering into the ear of his enemy. For example, talking about people who want everyone to behave in the same mundane manner, he says: “I have this contempt for society, and that’s why I want to walk between the raindrops and not get wet. You want me to pick a side but I walk the line that you touch, that’s where I live, in the transition of life.” 

He likes poking fun at convention. If it’s 3am and there’s a red light and no one else around, he’ll drive through it. “I’ve been pulled over multiple times for this thing but I’ve never gotten a ticket for it cos we’re just two guys in the middle of the night that wanna get home. I appreciate the colour red as much as the next guy – fuck, my hair’s red – but do we really have to listen to colours at three in the morning?” He says he’d like to encourage people to break what should be broken in order to create something that looks amazing, sounds amazing and feels good. 

Homme loves bringing things together, and remembers how early QOTSA
side-project The Desert Sessions taught him how to be a “catalyst without trying to control.” He loves being around idiosyncratic people. “A friend of mine kept saying, ‘You’re the shepherd of the weird!’ I’ll take that. There’s some fucking brilliantly crazy people and those people have great perspective.” He has always struggled with his temper. Transcendental meditation has helped – he doesn’t get mad about traffic any more. But he has always detested bullies and “people just dominating someone else”. He will burn bridges over it. “There’s times I wish I’d maybe been a little more political, you know, but I was raised that way.” Brody is the same, he says. “You haven’t lived until you’ve seen a wonderful bridge fire. We definitely pick a side, but maybe that’s OK. My main motivation is that I can sleep at night. I don’t expect anyone to be perfect, let alone myself. So that’s fine.” With that, two of his bandmates, guitarist Troy Van Leeuwen and drummer Jon Theodore turn up. It’s lunchtime, and Homme knows just the place.

It’s a scorching day but that doesn’t seem to bother the affable, even-paler-than-me Van Leeuwen as he leads us out to his top-down black Cadillac. The longest-serving member of Homme’s band, he is dressed impeccably from head-to-toe in black. The gregarious Theodore has surfer dude vibes, and calls, “Shotgun!” as we get to the car. “Hey, you should sit in the front,” he says to Q. “Bet you’ve never been in a Cadillac before.” But the rules of shotgun are clear and must be respected, so Q climbs into the back. Homme sticks his helmet on, hops onto his bike and leads three-fifths of this Queens Of The Stone Age cavalcade towards his favourite lunch spot in the area. 

Chili John’s is a much-loved local restaurant that’s been in West Burbank since 1946. Homme has been a regular for the past decade and when we arrive, he’s already sat at the bar engaging in a lively back and forth with the two old dears behind the counter. One of them is Debbie, the owner. The menu here is simple: chicken chilli, beef chilli or vegetarian chilli, served with rice or spaghetti, hot or medium, with cheese and/or sour cream. There’s no need to get involved with the chilli dogs, Homme advises, the good stuff is in the giant vats. Homme leads the way with his order, hot chicken and rice. “You’re a new guy, huh?” Debbie says to Q. “Well, welcome, new guy.” Homme finds that very funny. 

Debbie tells him that she went to see The Moody Blues a few nights before, and so he spends the next five minutes singing a version of Nights In White Satin pretending that he has dentures that are falling out. “You just wait, honey,” Debbie darts back. Homme is entertaining when he’s one-on-one, and with his friends around him he ramps it up even more. It’s time for him to leave for an appointment now though, and he pays for everyone’s lunch before heading back to his bike.

Villains is Van Leeuwen’s fourth QOTSA album. He says that Homme is a fun guy to be around, especially on the road. The band is like a family, “a Mafioso family,” he says. He laughs when he hears that Homme has been talking about his temper. “I gotta say, it happens,” he says. “That’s part of who he is. I know he hates it but it happens.” Van Leeuwen has seen Homme break $5000 guitars purely because they happen to be in his vicinity. “Sometimes we’ll use a toy drumkit, just cos the sound is interesting,” he says. “He destroyed one. It was hilarious. That poor little drum set and a giant man just pummelling it. Sometimes he’s impatient. Destruction happens…” We finish up, and Van Leeuwen heads home. There’s a man coming round to his house to look into the raccoon problem he’s got in his garden. They keep eating the fish out of his pond.

A week later, Josh Homme is stood on a roof terrace at posh London hotel The Edition, looking up to the grey skies above. Homme loved the heavy rain the day before and he’s equally effusive about the hovering dull clouds that show no sign of shifting. As a born and bred Californian, used to day after terrible day of blue skies and sunshine, he is delighted by the fact that the UK has weather. He is here for a screening of American Valhalla, the documentary he’s made with German director Andreas Neumann about the Iggy Pop album and tour.

It’s a brilliant film, one that shows Homme in his “catalyst” element, a ringleader who doesn’t always have to be the centre of attention. This morning, he woke up early with jetlag and decided to take a walk. He turned left out of the hotel, cut across Oxford Street and kept going for a mile, weaving through Soho, taking in all the nooks and crannies of the West End. “I love Soho,” he says, “I love that energy of the gay area of town and the bookstores. I really liked it in the morning when it was closed and it was quiet.” Homme isn’t necessarily an early riser but he likes the optimism of the morning. When he’s at home in LA, he tries to get everyone in his house in the best mood possible by starting the day with playing what he calls “a little woo-hoo”. It could be The 5.6.7.8’s, or The Go-Go’s, or The B-52s’ Rock Lobster. “It’s starting the day by going, ‘Wooo!’, cos it could be the greatest day ever,” he says. “Someone is gonna have a great day, why shouldn’t it be you?” 

He loves seeing his kids dance around. His daughter Camille is a fan of The Cramps and is currently reading a book on Sun Records. “She’s 11! She makes me really proud. She loves Elvis and wants to listen to Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis.” There’s not a lot in the way of “computering” in the house with the kids. They’re allowed an hour on their iPads at the weekends. Camille recently lost her iPad time after a problem at school. “She got in trouble for saying, ‘Oh, if anyone does that, I’ll kill them,’” he says. He was called in. “I was like, ‘You’re right –how dare she use such banal, run-of-the-mill language. She’s better than that.’ She should say, ‘I’ll string them up by their toes!’ The teacher said, ‘You need to take this seriously.’ I said, ‘I’m here, I’ve spoken to the principle, I am taking it seriously… You want me to take it like you take it. I can tell you’re an intense person since you’re dealing with this in an intense manner.’” He told his daughter that it was using boring language that got her in trouble at home. “If you can’t outsmart a fourth-grade teacher, we’re gonna have problems here,” he advised. “Your first job is to get round these motherfuckers. I’m not trying to make her the ultimate fourth-grader, I’m trying to make her a person that can endure and make it through.”

That probably wasn’t the only occasion that Mr Homme has come up for discussion in the staff room. Another time, Homme was in the school and there was a green space that he thought could’ve been put to better use. “That’s fucking retarded,” he said. A shocked teacher told him, “We don’t say that.” “I’m sorry,” replied Homme, “I didn’t mean to say that word. It’s just… retarded.” The “taboo-ising” of things in the modern world annoys him, people wanting to regulate everything that’s said and done. 

“Everyone says it’s all one world,” he adds, “and it’s a small world. It’s not. Have you ever tried to walk it? It’s really big actually. I think our differences are what is amazing. That’s what we should celebrate.” Homme isn’t a huge fan of the internet. He says most social media profiles end up reading like a trailer for someone’s life. “‘Here are my best moments!’ It’s never like, ‘Oh my God, I got a urinary tract infection, I’ll put that up on Twitter!’ I’m working on my first life, you can work on your second if you want.” Hearing him glide through subjects, you wonder if there is space for a stand-up section in future Queens Of The Stone Age shows. Homme is a modern rock figurehead – you don’t work with Lady Gaga and get Mark Ronson to produce your album if you’re some old fusty Luddite – but also at odds with lots of what’s happening around him. He gets pissed off and angry, he loses his shit. He says he can’t stand the amount of injustice in the world. He’s not a lover of rules, and thinks tradition is a word that people use to hold other people down. 

“But by the same token, what am I gonna do, but do the best I can do?” he says. “Knock me down, I’ll spit a little blood on the floor and giggle. It’s not getting knocked down, it’s getting up, that’s where your style is.” He puts out his cigarette, fixes the collar on his leather jacket, takes one more look at the grey sky, and strides back inside. Because someone is gonna have the greatest day today. Why can’t it be you?

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