Interview Queens Of The Stone Age: ‘There Are No Shortcuts’

Sarah Jamieson reports on a band returning tougher than ever.

That which does not kill us works to make us stronger, or so Friedrich Nietzsche’s (or more recently, Kelly Clarkson’s) famous words go. For most of us, his statement is just another philosophical means of encouraging hard work within our lives, but for Queens Of The Stone Age, it’s a saying that they’ve really put to the test. The band’s formidable leader, Josh Homme, lies at the centre of this ethos of late. Arguably one of the most recognisable and prolific figures in modern music, he stands firm at a grand 6ft 4, regarded as one of the most solid and dependable artists of our current era. Yet, all the while, he’s been battling with his own demons.

Following on from the release of their last album ‘Era Vulgaris’ back in 2007, Queens Of The Stone Age played out their commitments and scheduling, all the while juggling their lives back home. It was in that same year that Homme married another rather recognisable face of rock’n’roll, Brody Dalle, after the birth of their first child. Never one to slow down, Homme continued with a handful of other musical commitments throughout the years that followed - namely long-time side project Eagles Of Death Metal and newly-established supergroup Them Crooked Vultures – eating up even more of his already scarce time.

“I was very burnt out personally, and I was trying to rebound from…” he begins, speaking of the mindset that he found himself in ahead of the band’s newest record. He trails off. What he doesn’t address directly is the catalyst of their latest masterpiece. Back in 2010, Homme underwent a fairly routine surgery on his knee, but after a complication due to asphyxiation, the most solid man in rock briefly died on the operating table.

Shaken and confined to bed rest for months afterwards, the musician seemed to succumb to depression, fading into – what he has since called – “the fog”. Faced with his own mortality, the darkness seemed to spread until those around him were the only ones able to pull him out. “I’ve always been pretty hard on myself and I was just trying to come out of it all a little bit,” he assures. “It took me a second, and everyone was pretty gung-ho to make a record…” He pauses, before making his poetic conclusion. “Turns out waiting around for something to change is the wrong way to change. So, we decided to start.”

The mentality of Queens Of The Stone Age followed suit. Entering the studio to begin work on an album that barely even bore roots, they were there to weather the storm, whatever it was set to throw at them. Whatever didn’t kill them… “There were a couple of songs there that seemed like they had the beginnings of something. But, there was no more reason to wait, so it was like, let’s just bet everything on something and win or lose. My old man was always like, ‘If you’re always worried about your problems, maybe you should go focus on someone else’s for a while.’ So, work is always good because you can pay attention to something else.”

Just like that, they had committed themselves to making an album with no real idea of how long it could take. Understandably, things didn’t necessarily get off to the smoothest of starts. “It’s not that it wasn’t working,” explains Homme, “but you know that you have the beginning of something good and you know you’re not gonna quit on it until it’s represented accurately. You’re kind of in this situation where there is no stopping, there is no giving up. We’re here until it’s right. It’s a foregone conclusion and you know that’s what’s going on. It’s just a matter of hanging in there, but you can sense when it’s incorrect. Nothing else matters. There’s no outside anything, which makes it more intense and it means nobody from the outside could do anything to help. At all.”

Holed up in a studio - for what eventually equated as “five months exactly” according to bassist Mike Shuman, there surely had to be some tension between the members eventually, so what better way to diffuse a difficult situation than to invite some friends down to hang out? It turns out, that was the perfect remedy for the band’s growing sense of cabin fever, and it seemed to spark some inspiration along the way. “That’s why,” offers up keyboardist / guitarist Dean Fertita – also of The Dead Weather fame - “we’ve talked a lot about the guests coming in or whatever; because that was the perfect diffuser. We started getting a little crazy around each other, so our friends would come and visit and it lightened the mood. We get to make music with enough of a distraction that we’re not so caught up in ourselves and we ended up getting great things from everybody that came in.”

The list of guests appearing on this album has now become infamous, with everyone from Dave Grohl to Elton John getting in on the action, all there to keep QOTSA going. With a breadth of new performers, the album finally began to find itself, whilst, all the while, the band themselves were busy with their own sense of rediscovery. “I guess it’s inevitable if you’ve been around for a while to have to face stuff like that,” Homme offers. With a career spanning almost two decades, that’s no understatement. He seems the first to admit that music has saved him. “Yeah, it’s also f**ked me up a lot.” He laughs heartily. “But that’s okay! I mean, rock’n’roll is awesome, but if you really want to give yourself over to it, sometimes it’s complicated.”

“I think you have to go through these sorts of situations to appreciate what you have,” weighs in Van Leeuwen, “because if you don’t have it in you, yeah, maybe you shouldn’t play music. If you can’t go through an experience like this and discover something about yourself and the process… That’s what it’s really all about; facing your own worst self. Facing who you are. If you can’t do that honestly, there has to be a point where you’re faking it. I think it’s important that we went through this experience together. I think we all had questions at some point.”

At this point in their career, there’s no doubt that things are a little different in a more general sense. Gone are days of writing stoner riffs in the desert. Here are a band with a legacy, an audience, expectations and – most importantly – an entire life outside of these four dressing room walls. Hundreds of miles away, they’re less musicians and more husbands and fathers, a fact which often gets forgotten. This album has surely held an entirely different air because of that alone. “If you get to be in a band every day, don’t complain.” Josh says, mirroring the same mentality we were met with at the start of our conversation. “Don’t be a f**king quitter. You have to push yourself. If something’s scary or vulnerable or something, to me, that’s like… I have a son and a daughter.” He gestures to Fertita, sat next to him. “He has a daughter, and I want them to know that the real man pushes himself and is totally vulnerable.”

How does having a family now affect things? “It makes it really difficult. It makes every show somehow more important because I don’t want to come all the way here and avoid the things that I love the most to play some half-assed thing that we’re not giving our all to. It puts a razor edge on what we do, and if it doesn’t go well, you almost take it a little harder. I certainly know that if I’m gonna spend that much time away, I wanna make a record that when my kids are old enough to pick their own music, they might actually pick this.”

If there’s anything we’ve learned about ‘…Like Clockwork’, it’s that it took time, effort and maybe even a little bit of their sanity, but it was a storm that the band just had to weather. “If it’s really easy, it’s not worth it,” Josh says, with a sense of finality in his voice. “People don’t appreciate what they get for free, because they didn’t do anything for free. There are no shortcuts. There’s no easy way out. You just do something you like, that way you can accept how rough it’s gonna get and agree to continue on. My grandpa used to say, ‘Life is hard because it’s worth it.’ It’s simplifying it but it’s f**king true. The struggle is just how far you’re willing to go to chase f**king vapour.”

“It was dark,” comments Shuman, “and it could get emotional, but I think those emotions ended up working in our favour to not only make a great record, but to bring us closer. Closer than we’ve ever been, and we’ve been touring and living together for years. I think the band’s really close right now and we all have a common goal now. Looking back, maybe it was a good thing…”

With hindsight we can say that’s so. The band’s sixth record had become their highest charting across the world, scoring their first ever Number 1 in their native US. They’ve just unveiled plans to head out on a massive tour of the UK this winter, with a headlining set at Wembley Arena being the jewel in the crown. But, if it wasn’t for this album, for all of this as an experience, would these men still be Queens Of The Stone Age? Homme answers perfectly. “I don’t mean to be rude but, who cares? You know what I mean? I don’t play hypotheticals. I’m here now and so, I’d rather be living proof than a guessing game. If you came over for dinner, we could play charades… But as for hypotheticals, I’m proud to say that just ain’t happening. I like getting knocked down after all of these years, because I’m proud that no one can knock us down for that long.

“Plus,” he smiles wryly. “We got a way about getting up that’s not so bad.”

Queens Of The Stone Age’s new album ‘…Like Clockwork’ is out now via Matador Records.

Read the full interview in the new edition of DIY Weekly, available from iTunes now.

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