Cover Feature Lust For Life: Queens of the Stone Age

For the past five years, a shadow has hung over Queens of the Stone Age and their indomitable frontman Josh Homme that, for a while, seemed like it might suck the band up for good. This is how the swashbuckling renegades of rock came back fighting.

Josh Homme is recalling a time not so long ago when he felt good. Standing at the helm of Queens of the Stone Age, the band he’s fronted since 1996, midway through one of their first shows back following the most turbulent half-decade of his life, he remembers looking up at the moon and having a moment of clarity. “The temperature was wonderful, and everyone was smiling and people were dancing, and I just thought, ‘Fuck I wanna live so bad’,” he says. “And I think that fuel is such a great fuel to run on. I’ve run on so many different types of fuel, on various octanes of negativity or happiness or anger or whatever, but right now I’m just glad to be here.”

It’s a sentiment that comes imbued with the heavy weight of all too much experience. In the time since he and Queens last graced the world’s stages, the frontman has been surrounded by spectres: the death of a series of close friends including former bandmate Mark Lanegan, Foo Fighters’ Taylor Hawkins and actor Rio Hackford; a messy and unwittingly public divorce from ex-wife Brody Dalle; his own cancer diagnosis (he underwent surgery, and is now back in good health). But returning with new album ‘In Times New Roman…’ - a brutal, discomfiting yet strangely playful record that leans into the black humour of grief as only those that know, know - there’s a levity to the frontman that’s pure hope.

“Years ago I wrote ‘A Song For The Dead’ - life’s a study of dying, right? - but at all the funerals I’ve been to, the one message I’m getting is that dying reminds you that you need to live,” he affirms. “You’ve got to live. You’ve just got to.”

Queens of the Stone Age talk eighth album 'In Times New Roman'
It’s not my job to go door to door and convince people not to hate me if they want to jump to that conclusion. Josh Homme

The first time we meet Josh is over Zoom from his home in Malibu, where he recently celebrated his 50th birthday: a wholesome affair with his family and dogs and home-cooked food on the porch that he swings his camera around to demonstrate. Having emerged first as a teen with stoner-rock cult heroes Kyuss and then with Queens, before going on to start the rock’n’roll circus of Desert Sessions, front supergroup Them Crooked Vultures, and produce landmark albums for Arctic Monkeys, Iggy Pop and more, it seems unsurprising that he’s made it this far. He’s one of music’s lifers, but recently he’s been coming to terms with the fact that this life doesn’t last forever.

“I think I’m waiting for the doorbell to ring and for there to be some guy with a clipboard and a bunch of people in hazmat suits and I say, ‘What’s up?’ and he says, ‘Uh, no one likes your music anymore, it’s over’ and I say, ‘That was a long time though… That was pretty good’,” he rallies with himself (he is, in conversation, a big fan of the ‘bit’).

“It’s not even imposter syndrome,” he continues, “I just think that everything comes to an end. I don’t feel like an imposter. I know that this is how I chase my ideals, this is how I stay romantic, and this is my religion - how I worship things, how I unload my baggage. The songs are my confidantes, so I feel solid about how I do this and why I do it, but I also feel like I’ve experienced so many endings of things and I want to be an accomplished acceptor of what is real. I wanna get good at saying: ‘That was so wonderful and now it’s done’ and be OK with that. So that’s why, if they did come to the doorbell, I know what I’m ready to say.”

For a period of time before the band revved into gear again with their latest, it almost seemed as if the doorbell had indeed rung. Last year, having announced a short few festival dates across Europe, all were quietly cancelled with no fanfare. When we catch up with the band a few weeks later in Halifax at the first of their UK warm-up shows, guitarist Michael Shuman answers in no uncertain terms as to whether the future felt rocky: “Yes”. End of sentence.

“Until it’s done, it wasn’t done,” picks up keyboardist / guitarist Dean Fertitia of the band’s eighth LP. “We had a lot of false starts. There’s no guarantees with any of it, but we’ve always been dedicated to each other and to the idea that we’re gonna do this, and nobody walks away from a situation without knowing that they’ve tried everything possible. If there’s a positive side to this, then to me it was that everybody was really there for each other in a way that you couldn’t have been without the circumstances being so heavy.”

Josh saunters in and sits himself down, 6 feet 5 inches of red leather jacket, leopard print slip ons and Satan-adjacent facial hair. “When you know in advance something’s not gonna be easy, then you know. Even the drive to the studio was an hour every day and an hour back; from the outset it was like, ‘Oh my god…’ and you just know it’s gonna be difficult,” he says. “Sometimes it’s hard to be someone’s friend. Sometimes it’s really not easy…”

Gallows humour is how I live my life. I love making fun of something because it’s making fun where there was none. Josh Homme

Friendship lies visibly at the heart of Queens of the Stone Age. Theirs is not a ‘separate tour buses’ type of band and, having chopped and changed line-ups over the first portion of their career, the incarnation that’s been steady for the last decade looks unlikely to alter any time soon. When Josh was stuck in the mental mire, then, it was his band mates that “pulled [him] by both arms out of the chair” and back into the studio. “I was trying to do everything possible not to, that’s for sure,” he notes.

For a man who lives and breathes music, who readily admits that he “has no other hobbies” and who answers his own question about becoming a lockdown gardener with a snorted “Fuck no! I’d fucking murder a houseplant; I can’t take vitamins two days in a row”, the saddest thing is to hear how, for a period, he just wasn’t interested. “I think these difficulties in my own life in the last five years have [made me realise] I only have a few things that I need,” he says. “You get surrounded and inundated with the static of stuff and ambitions and things, and they all get peeled away and you only have a few things left. And I had a little trouble getting music to be back in those few things.”

Across the lyrics of ‘In Times New Roman...’, vultures and voyeurs pick their crooked paths through the detritus. On the sombre majesty of ‘Carnavoyeur’, Josh finds some sense of peace: “When there’s nothing I can do / Accept, enjoy the view”; the gnarly stabs of opener ‘Obscenery’, meanwhile, are distinctly less zen as he quips of “voyeurism-jism” and an “empty hole where empathy used to be”. Having had his private life raked over by the tabloids, in March of this year he issued his first public statement: “In light of the continued falsehoods, the repeated invasions of the children’s privacy and the resulting emotional harm, it is time that the truth be told.” It’s an experience that he’s evidently still trying to wrap his head around.

“How’s the best way to say this?” he begins, after a lengthy pause. “It’s not my job to go door to door and convince people not to hate me if they want to jump to that conclusion. It’s my job to show the little people in my house what to do when that happens. The world has become increasingly more about gossip, and gossip is so strong and prevalent it’s like the waves crashing in the ocean - you think it’s receded and then another wave crashes again. But honestly, what should I do? What would you do? What do you do when people say things about you that are wildly untrue, what do you do? I don’t fucking say anything. I turn around and say, ‘That’s not my concern’.

“I want to be good at surviving because as you get better at surviving, withstanding, enduring, getting knocked down and getting back up - as you get better at that, and after the five years I’ve been through, I’m actually so thankful because now something mildly rocky happens and I think, ‘That’s way below my paygrade, I couldn’t give a shit’. And it also binds you together with your people, these tough times, because you don’t know somebody ‘til everything goes wrong. But I know my people, and I know my babies, and we’re welded together forever and ever. So in that sense, it couldn’t be better at how bad it was. What should I do? I made a record and I made it as real as I can, and some people will listen on the way to the shops while they’re riding a bicycle and that’s OK - but if you wanna listen to it the 50th time, you’ll hear something new and you’ll know I mean business.”

Queens of the Stone Age talk eighth album 'In Times New Roman' Queens of the Stone Age talk eighth album 'In Times New Roman'
It binds you together with your people, these tough times, because you don’t know somebody ‘til everything goes wrong. Josh Homme

The Josh Homme that steps up on ‘In Times New Roman...’, then, is one who’s left it all on the field. Queens of the Stone Age’s eighth is a world away from the light-footed touch of its Mark Ronson-produced 2017 predecessor ‘Villains’ because how could it not be. But it’s also an album that laughs in the face of adversity, that finds bleak humour in the darkest of corners and that embraces the oncoming apocalypse with a swagger that only they know how.

“This album is very much like: Rome is burning, the Titanic is sinking, and that’s totally OK but I’m just asking what do you wanna do with your time that you have left? Because all I see is there’s a free bar, there’s raw oysters and the band’s gonna play so let’s tango. Hit it, boys!” he grins, flashing a gold tooth and clicking his fingers in command like the ringleader of the last band on earth.

It’s a spirit that also steps onto the stage of Halifax’s Piece Hall later that night. A stately square in the West Yorkshire market town, it’s an unlikely place for one of America’s most beloved rock bands to make their return, but that’s exactly the point. “We’re outsiders. We look for outsider places to play,” says Dean. “Doing things that are a little uncharacteristic and sharing that with people that have been showing up for years, it just makes it better for everybody.” Josh grins widely throughout, the happiest he’s looked on stage in a long time, while Michael sums up the mindset in camp neatly: “I’m feeling more like myself than I have in five years - just as a human being.”

Amongst the undeniably bleak narrative that hangs around the last portion of the band’s history, it’s notable just how much pleasure they’ve managed to still wrangle from the process. As Josh says: “I think life is what you make of it and you will not escape the hardships. I have scars all over me and it’s guaranteed. But I feel like… yeah, but can’t we giggle through this? My last words would be a joke, certainly. Maybe it’d be like, ‘I drank WHAT?!’ Gallows humour is how I live my life. I love making fun of something because it’s making fun where there was none.”

Where, on 2005’s ‘Lullabies to Paralyze’, many of the tracks came imbued with ideas snatched from the Brothers Grimm, and ‘Them Crooked Vultures’ saw the record populated by animals, on ‘In Times New Roman...’, Josh became fixated with making up phrases. ‘Paper Machete’, ‘Emotion Sickness’, ‘What the Peephole Say’ - there’s barely a title on the record that’s not rooted in wordplay.

“I love words, I’m making up words and on a surface level they’re puns so you can be like, ‘It’s pun-tastic! Wacka wacka, I’m here all week!” he goofs, drink in hand. “But the truth is Bill Shakespeare made up words: elbow, impossible, untenable, inexcusable and on and on. English is so great, we just take other words and go, ‘Entrepreneur - that’s mine’, ‘Los Angeles - that’s mine’. The angels, we’ll call a city The Angels, we’ll just take it. And it’s funny, these entendre-isms, the -isms, the -esques, they’re so quintessentially English.” He pauses, eyebrow raised. “There’s not shit tonnes of that in Germany, I don’t know if you know that…”

Queens of the Stone Age talk eighth album 'In Times New Roman'
I piss on the algorithms. I’ll go with the rhythms I like, thank you very much. Josh Homme

Over his tenure on the frontline of rock, Josh has found a language - literal, musical, metaphorical, sometimes made up - that makes sense of the world. “So much of the time, I have no idea what to say. I wish my face could make the sounds that would fix the people I love and help them, but I just can’t do it,” he admits. “But I can play you something; I could get way closer.” It’s the thing that provided a life raft when he was cast fully out to sea, that pushed its way back into his life - with a little help from his friends - even when he tried not to let it.

“When everything is burning but you have one thing in your life where you don’t even say, ‘Is this good enough?’” he nods, “the exercise of being 100% honest, the process of making something with a romanticism of chasing your ideals extinguishes these fires around you and shows you a clear pathway to get out.”

Returning to the fold with a summer of festival headlines and a winter UK arena tour lined up, it’s notable how these stalwarts of the scene don’t actually feel like that at all. Sure, ‘No One Knows’ will always hit any set like Thor’s hammer, but Queens of the Stone Age are resolutely a band in the now, pushing forward, doing what they do. “Most people make a record to promote a tour, whereas what we did was put on blinders, tunnel vision, and make the best piece of art we could possibly make,” says Michael.

“How do you stay vital even when you’re an old fuck? I don’t feel old, but I’m 50 and that sounds old,” picks up the frontman. “I think you have to just not give a fuck, and not rest on what you’ve learned. The landscape is always changing and we’ve already played a few festivals where I’m like, what the fuck is all this? But our goal is to be pulled through the eye of a needle and make it, so that when the line up changes and it’s all strange then we’re still there and it’s still vital and that’s definitely happening now to us, for us, with us. I didn’t know who half the bands were before anyway in any other landscapes, but I did drink a lot…”

In a world full of algorithms, Josh and his band of merry men are the rock’n’roll pirates drawing their swords and fighting the good fight for something altogether more raw and true. Mention the robots to the frontman and it’s like you’ve spat on his grave. “I piss on the algorithms. I’ll go with the rhythms I like, thank you very much,” he smirks. “People’s fascination that a robot can do it, I’m like, I’ll sodomise that robot. AI will come for me last, cos I wanna find my dumbest things and turn them up, and I love that, I think it’s sexy. It’s the black eye of AI and that’s why, the first chance I get, I’m gonna piss on that parade.”

Fiery, feisty and funny as hell, Josh has weathered a storm that could have viably floored many and almost took him under too, but he’s emerged more sure than ever of what life is really all about: giving a shit to the people and places that matter, being true to yourself, warts and all (or warts, especially), and throwing absolutely all your chips on the table.

“I feel like, if I don’t risk anything then I’m fucked. I love insurmountable odds. Tell me there’s no chance and I’m in. That’s my love language,” he laughs. “I used to say life is hard because it’s worth it, but I recognise that hard slog as being like, ‘Oh we’re going somewhere good’. I recognise the late nights as trying to make the most of a night that’s wonderful. I’ve been thrown out of some of the best places in the world and, for me, that just reconfirms that, with so little time left, I’m gonna fucking explode. I wanna be a fireworks finale at all times.”

Our July 2023 issue - featuring cover stars Queens of the Stone Age - is out now. Get your copy here.

‘In Times New Roman...’ is out now via Matador.

Queens of the Stone Age play Mad Cool (6th - 8th July), where DIY is a media partner. Head to the festival’s website for more info, and to buy tickets.

As featured in the July 2023 issue of DIY, out now.

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