By Staff, Photos by Steven Dewall on June 15, 2012
2012 marks FILTER Magazine’s tenth year in print. To celebrate, we are looking back at some of our favorite magazine features, from July 2002’s Issue #1 all the way up to this coming November’s Issue #50.
Below you will find Issue #15’s cover story, in full, where we sat down with The Mars Volta and Josh Homme of Queens of the Stone Age to discuss the false allure of musical perfection.
The Immaculate Resurrection of Art Rock (Issue 15, Spring 2005)
By Gree LaGambina
Photography by Steven Dewall
Coming Down The Mountain. The Impossible Arrival of The Mars Volta and Queens of the Stone Age
THE DESERT MADE HIM. He's restless as a tumbleweed, self-contained like a cactus, he's all the desert metaphors you can throw at him, he's 6'5 and solid and the singer, songwriter, guitarists and mind behind Queens of the Stone Age. His name is Josh Homme (pronounced like "commie"), he's about to release Lullabies to Paralyze, his fourth full-length under the QOTSA moniker. He's twice a legend--while the current Queens one builds, he still has legions who swoon over the music he made Kyuss, the Palm Desert pioneers of what was unfortunately (if not accurately) deemed "stoner rock," who collapsed and scattered after three records, not before inspiring legions of lesser bands who perhaps thought the primary ingredient to make such fault-line quivering, beneath-the-ground sounds was indeed, weed, not chops.
He's come a long way from those meandering baritone epics and finds himself brandishing sharper and shorter methods today, less atonal and without his childhood friend and former Kyuss collaborator (bassist Nick Oliveri, "dismissed" over apparent chemical shenanigans and behavior during the endless touring in support of QOTSA's third, Songs for the Deaf), making music not that bounds as high as his falsetto and as low as Mark Lanegan's backing vocals, all skipping along with some of his catchiest melodies ever. Nitpickers and naysayers have charged that Homme's songs can drone too much, but with Lullabies, if anything he may not even be in a metal band anymore, but a machine of melody chuffing along with every sludgy down-pick. He's still mining in similar caverns but never has he hit such sing-a-long peaks as the darkly playful "Little Sister" or "In My Head," Never has been so thoughtful as on "LongSlow Goodbye." And here he is now, hovering, taking slow slips from a Stella Artois, smoking a Camel, making the Mars Volta laugh.
"You're so little! I just want to grab your butts and lift you into the air!"
Cedric and Omar guffaw with force and at length, they both barely clear the 5-foot mark, by my estimation. And probably wear women's jeans. Tiny people, huge music, the Mars Volta.
They too come from the little heat (El Paso, TX, since relocated to Los Angeles), they too are en route to double their legend (once core members of the highly regarded, lamented and missed At the Drive-In), they too have found their way up to now accompanied by each other, best friends for 15 years plus. (Josh may have booted Nick, but these two are sticking it our for now and the foreseeable future.) They too are brandishing a new full-length, their second, entitled Frances the Mute, a deranged and beautiful follow-up to their bizarre and forgoes debut, DeLoused in the Comatorium. Primarily comprised of guitarist, producer, writer, director Omar A. Rodriguez-Lopez (the one with the flosses) and vocalist, lyricist Cedric Bixler-Zavala (the one with the bangs), they too utilize a shifting line-up of friends and collaborators to bring alive the epics that start only with them. Frances the Mute is a true-blood art rock exercise in overreaching so fat that the snapping back brings into focus a barely smaller brilliance, one that can actually fit onto a CD. IF there were a way to launch music into the air and have it orbit or hover or explode like a comet, this band would opt for that over any double-gatefold vinyl. But for now, a simple compact disc must suffice…maybe two.
Based on a diary found in the back of a car by Jeremy Michael Ward (the band's former "sound manipulator) who passed away in 2003), Frances the Mute's ice separate suites mocha in and out of genre and language and mood and rhthym and volume, with only the lead single, "The Widow," coming close to being a proper "track" (something like a "song"). With titles like "Plant a Nail in the Naval Stream," "Pout Another Icepick" and "Umbilical Syllables," with Zavala's consciousness streaming higher and farther than a roll of toilet paper on mischief night, these songs could very well be about anything and/or everything. Even his mate Omar shrugs and smiles when pressed definitions. It's all a part of what makes it so deliciously intimidating.
And it's all a part of why we've invited these two bands who seem to meet somewhere at the MC5 and the Stooges shake hands at Led Zeppelin, bump into each other lightly at Jane's Addiction, get set and ready with Kyuss and At the Drive-In, to regroup and meet here, in a photo studio deep in California's valley, under thick gray clouds in warm immovable air, perched like a ghoulish-but-affable trio on this black couch, the centerpiece of Filter's ambitions attempt to match their ambition. To proclaim the apparent current renaissance of art rock, whatever that term may mean, however accurate that proclamation may prove to be. To figure out why now, when anxiety and brevity and speed and things tightly wound like Franz Ferdinand, Bloc Party, the Kaiser Chiefs, Red Bull soda, lightning-fast Internet, crank, coke, and Cheney's heart, are all combining to inadvertently get the cauldron gurgling at the other end of the spectrum. Maybe because any one thing needs its opposite to exist, or perhaps it's just things go in cycles and these particular pedals have come back around on the great chain. Get on. Wherever it is we're going, let's go.
Or maybe it's just about time to find something to get lost in. To listen along with a band that's exploring not presenting, to reclaim a time when a band was your life, not a downloadable track from some nameless face you'll never seek out to see live but just hope it swings around enough times on your iPod Shuffle because not only do you not care about albums anymore, you don't even care if you get to pick when you hear a song by whoever it is you just heard. It's time for bands to be heroes, fore records to be stories, for music to be a destination, a place to hide from your life for a while, not something that comes at you and tells you what to eat, think, do, wear. It's time again to spend time with a band on a couch, from the beginning to the end, to pen a day with liner notes and lyrics at at arm's length, to slip in and out of dreaming and wakefulness over the course of a 75-minute piece. Totally involved. Not knowing the dinner bell downstairs from the bell of a cymbal until a parent bangs your door down into splinters.
But here, now, we have Queens of the Stone Age's Josh Homme eliciting laughs and agreeable nods from Omar and Cedric of the Mars Volts. A tip-toe from yours truly over to the couch and a click of the recorder makes it official, the questions roll out and the business of making sense out of it all begins. For better or worse, failure or triumph. Here are two of the best, loudest, most complex bands in America, just prior to launch. Exhale and begin.
Is what you do self-indulgent, in that you're making the exact kind of music you want to hear and it's just an added bonus if it's embraced by the public?
JOSH: I always know that I"m gonna do whatever I need to do, but it's always surprising to see somebody elese do it too. And have it work in a way where you're excited and you're surprised. That last record of yours is os intense [De-loused in the Comatorium] and it's like, "Wow, people are getting this." So, I was really psyched when you guys did a couple of nights at the Wiltern [2200-capacity theater in L.A.] a couple of years ago.
CEDRIC: So were we! We didn't even think it would happen.
OMAR: When they told us they were booking us at the Wiltern, our first response was "Well, do you really think we can fill that place? Shouldn't we just play the [smaller] Henry Fonda Theater again? And then, we get a call a couple of days later, "OK, you've for two more nights there."
JOSH: See! Now that's badass.
OMAR: I know. We couldn't even conceive of it.
JOSH: But that's a really cool bonus too. Because, I used to suffer from this disease called "punk-rock guilt."
OMAR: Yeah, exactly…
JOSH: When I started doing the Queens thing, a part of it was the releasing of all that. When we're done with the record and no one's heard it yet, I already know if it's a success or not based on whether I love it or not. And I don't leave the studio until I'm in love with it.
JOSH: At that point, someone can listen to it or use it as a coaster--they can do anything with it and I"m okay with it.
OMAR: It doesn't matter.
JOSH: Yeah, 'cause I already know how I feel and I also already know that there's no person who can change that feeling. Or change the record itself.
OMAR: Except for yourself, years down the road, as time goes by then you start to notice things--at least for us it's this way--things that you would have done differently. You can grow out of a record and you go "Oh that record--this is the best thing." But no one else's opinion ever seems to matter. In fact, for us, once other people who are not our friends--like the press and anyone else who gets a hold of it first--to us, in a way, the record has died, because we've already had our time listening at it, listening to it, and then we move on to our next journey which becomes our next record.
JOSH: I just love that you listen to your records too, because when Kyuss first started playing outside of the desert and when you'd say to someone in a band, "Well, what do you listen to?" They'd list everyone but themselves. And we'd always go "Don't you listen to your own band?" And they'd go, "Fuck! I can't hear that at all" And we'd be like "Well, what are you doing it for then?" I listen to our records until we make the next one Part of it's science, part of it's lust--you're supposed to play your favorite music, what you've always wanted to hear, but no one else played it so you have to.
CEDRIC: That's right…
JOSH: That helps to answer what seems like a tough question, which is, "How do you do you do something classic?" Well, do something classic. Make an attempt to to do something that's classic. Those questions are easy to answer. It's the doing it that's harder.
Your records seem like starting points. You leave room for your songs to become something else, later. Like back in the day when live albums weren't just make to get our of the rest of a contract, but, but because the songs were so completely different, there was a distinct value in hearing the live versions so you could see all sides of a particular band's personality…
CEDRIC: I was disappointed when I first saw Kiss. I was like, "This doesn't sound like Destroyer!" Then years later you realize, "Oh, that's the way you're supposed to do it."
OMAR: They're two completely different mediums. One's could and one's hot. Playing live is hot, that's when you get the guitars out of tune and the wrong notes--this is the excitement, this is the moment. The record is like a picture--you're able to fine tune everything and make sure everything's in the right place before you show it to anyone. When you go see us play live, this is the theater and our records are our films, where everything's been refined to the point that you want it to be refined.
JOSH: The finite version. A photograph is the term that I always use to describe it. This is what our songs look like at this moment in time. "This is the definitive version for right…" Oh wait, it just went by.
OMAR: [Laughs] Right.
JOSH: Songs are living, breathing things and if you don't allow them to live, they get stale.
Do you feel like now that the record is done, you have to live with it a lot longer than you'd like to? Do you anxious to get off the road and back into the mode where you're making new things?
OMAR: No, it's exciting because of what Josh just said--the songs themselves are living entities, they're always changing and after a while of playing them, they start dictating what they need in order to stay fresh and new. You go along with it; you change things up. If we get bored of a certain part, we take it out and replace it with something from a brand new song that no one's heard yet and we put it into the arrangement. We keep ourselves interested, because I think with both bands, we're constantly in fear of being killed off by boredom. We're out there for, whatever, eight months of the year playing our songs night after night, so, for us, we have to do certain things so that we don't get killed.
JOSH: I never feel that way because I've always liked to just move slowly and constantly and not do drastic spurts. I enjoy each phase that we go through. Kyuss was a band that jammed every song, took hard left and right turns at a moment's notice all the time. Queens is more…half of these songs I just want to hear as a completed thought, but they keep getting changed in and out of rotation. And the other half are like, "Ready everybody? Boom." So, for me, they're like people you get to know better as you're out on tour and you start to learn that they can do other things. It's never over. I've seen bands go, "We've made it!"I'm like, "What are you talking about?"
OMAR: [Chuckles] Yeah, like, "What did you make?"
JOSH: Because if something was over, or if there was something like the peak of Mt. Everest--no, it's not over until I'm dead. And then, even still, it's probably not over. Because I know stuff that I"m not telling you…[laughs]
Is there anything consciously vintage about what you do? Are you pulling from a particular past on purpose?
JOSH: I think that stuff is accidental more than anything. There's not an attempt to, like, "Let's take it back." The modern style of recording and being a band is about the record most of the time. Perfection is something you strive for but not something to expect. But with modern recording, you can make a perfect record. Until you find out that what's perfect is boring. No person can play that way. And in the '70s and early '80s, the '60s--you had to play your stuff. So, really, I think what people are picking up on is the fact that we play our records. "Little Sister"--it's live. The only thing overdubbed is the coeval. That's it. Flicking pickup switches and stepping on two pedals at once, that's just done in the moment. So, it's got a little more swagger than if someone perfectly overdubbed it. I think it's the feeling you get, because that's kind of the last time bands were recorded that way. Now, it's like, well, I've said it--I hear perfection and perfection is lame. The mistakes are my favorite part, because they're human.
OMAR: I think it's that, and journalists are constantly struggling to describe bands or put them in a box, so since they're speaking to a big audience of people they just use big colors. They try to use the biggest colors everyone knows--"They sound like Zeppelin!" And everyone can go, "Oh yeah, I've heard Led Zeppelin!" And everyone can go, "Oh yeah, I've heard Led Zeppelin." And the reality of the matter is that we are playing electric quitters and we're playing drums…
JOSH: Shit, no!
OMAR: [Laughs]… and any time you do anything like that, somebody's gonna compare. You can't really be in a rock band and have really heavy kick-ass beats and a solid drummer the way these guys do without somebody going, "Oh, I hear John Bonham in there!"
JOSH: There was a time when I cared about what someone would say. If they'd be like, "Hey it's kind of like…" you know, some band. I'd feel like they were insulting me and I realize now it's like just trying to let someone know, some band. I'd feel like they were insulting me and I realize now it's like just ruing to let someone know who doesn't know --that if they like this, they might like this. You're using genres to do it. I don't do that for us because I don't need to. And to me, genre is for a record store: "Where do I put Blind Lemon Jefferson?" "In the blues section, it's over there." But it pretty much stops there. I know you guys listen to everything. I listen to everything. I don't go, like, "Metal! That's it bro! A steady diet of metal! Bring on the Stryper!" That just doesn't happen. That's what 13-year-olds do. When I was 13, I was like, "Punk-rock." "How about Kenny Rogers?" Noooo! Just punk-rock!"
If we call what you both do hard rock, for lack of another reference point, in many ways, it's remarkably feminine hard rock. It seems you're going to get some people who totally get what you're doing and can recite back to you your own intentions and what you were aiming at and what it all means, but you appreciate that sour of fan as much as the guy who just wants to "rock" and doesn't know what you're doing and could care less…
CEDRIC: It's more of a challenge to not preach to the converted, I think. It's tough, it probably sucks in that moment. You get pelted with coins when they don't like you, but you know that person one day is gonna fucking say, "Yeah, I saw them." You know they're gonna do that. They're gonna change too. People are constantly changing. It's fun.
JOSH: I think you've made the commitment to be yourself, no matter what that is. Some people will understand and some won't, but either way they're all gonna do whatever they want to do, so why shouldn't I? I like preaching to the non-converted only. And, you know, my band's called Queens of the Stone Age and it's stayed that way partially for the benefits of being able to say, "OK, we're the Queens!"
I like the feminine side better. I touch my feminine side, but I beat my inner child. [Laughs]
But you're 6'5 and you're singing in three-part falsetto harmonies on some of these songs. You're going to get hurt…
JOSH: I'm willing to. No one hurts me more than I jut myself. I'm being honest. With music, I'm not given the choice to fake it. I can't do it because I know that's wrong and I know I can never take it back, but I can always put it out. So, it has to be sincere, it has to be era. More than ever, it's less cryptic, it's like [pats his chest lightly] "Oww…"
CEDRIC: Yeah, it's right there.
JOSH: It's like, "See this giant gash?" You know? It's like Cedric was saying--the converted are already with us. And it's not even about converting anyone, it's just about saying, "No matter what you do, I was honest."
Coming out of making your records, how do you feel? I'm not asking if you've peaked, but how satisfied are you with where you are now…
CEDRIC: Right now, we're very satisfied.
OMAR: For us, we keep saying this record feels like our beginning. It feels like the other two records we made were the Mars Volta dreaming wild electric dreams and now we've woken up an found that real life is even bigger and more colorful than we thought it was when we were dreaming. Now we really get to be loose…
JOSH: It's like tuning the lights on in a long hallway one at a time. And going, "Shit, this a warehouse, not a hallway!" I feel like this is our best record. I want to be in a band where someone doesn't go, "Yeah, the first three are great." Because, that's the thing that's most often said and the thing that's the lease said is, "Dude, their 10th record is insane."
OMAR: Like you were saying, there's always going to be people from the same punk rock school, or music snob school, where it's like, "The first record was pure. After that, I don't know…"
We're celebrating your bands in this issue because we feel it's a part of something larger, whatever that may be. Do you feel like you're a part of some new resurrection of thoughtful, artistic music or that you're the last of a breed, wringing our a few final drips from some golden age that's long gone?
JOSH: I like the work that you said: celebrate. Because, in not paying attention to too many things that are negative, that's one of the first words that come up when you let go of obsessing on the bad. You start to celebrate things. I don't think that the golden age is over. I just think the pendulum is swinging…
OMAR: And I think there's always been bands like us doing really interesting things, it's the people who are going out and buying the records who seem to dictate what's acceptable and what's not. So, if the music is getting boring it's because of what the people are asking for. People want to blame record labels and say, "Oh, the machine!" and this and that, but a record label has no soul and no mind of its own, it's only giving what it thinks the people want. If people are out there saying we ant another Green Day, then the record label says, "Oh yeah, we got Green Day here and we got Green Day over here…"
JOSH: I got Green Day comin' outta here! Look, I got Blue Day and Red Day!
OMAR: …and people start saying, "Oh, we want more interesting things.." or, "We ant more instrumental groups without singing, or more ethereal music," or whatever…
JOSH: More Zamfir.
CEDRIC: The label would be like, "I got your Zamfir!"
JOSH: I don't even think of record labels as bad like I did when I was in Kyuss because now I"m like, "Just don't get signed." If you were selling shoes, you wouldn't be like, "You evil shoe people!" Just do whatever. Our reputation is made up of our repetition. And our repetition is, "I'm going to make whatever record I want to and you'll dig it, I swear. I'll see you when it's over" And like the people at our label. They're cool. They're doing their thing just like I am.
It seems like no one has the time for entire albums anymore, yet you're both making LPs in the age of the iPod. How do you conceive or perceive of a record before you make it? You both sort of hearken back to the days when there were at least two sides to a record, but the lifetime of your respective bands is within the timeframe of CDs being the dominant format. Are they conceived for vinyl, or do you just putt on whatever it'll fit on when you're done?
JOSH: We're coming out as a four-sided record, so there's twice the flipping.
OMAR: I don't think we ever think of CD or whatever. Vinyl is the true format, but we don't think CD versus vinyl, we just think about the record. We just think about the story we're truing to tell, the way we're going to tell it and how we can make it as dramatic as possible, which again involves peaks and twists and turns and question marks at the end. So, when that piece is done, then we figure out if it fits on a CD, does it fit on two, does it fit on two records or dies it fit on four. But the true format is vinyl, we all know that.
JOSH: I think Omar had the perfect answer. Th only thing I would add is that if I don't have a full record's worth of stuff, I'm not stopping until I'm all done. I know you guys feel the same way, but that's the obligation you're supposed to make with every song. Not everyone will agree with you, but whatever. The intone is never to be like, "Song number seven blows, but let's just put it one there."
OMAR: Every song is supposed to be a crucial piece.
JOSH: It's its own human being until it's like a group of good people enslaved to the music. Johnny Cash had such a great quote--"I'm not the creator of the music, I'm its deliverer." It's as if it was this thing he was really lucky to deliver to somebody. I love that because that sense of entitlement some bands have--I can't stand that.
CEDRIC: Yeah, exactly.
JOSH: If you spit in the face of music, it will take itself away from you. You're like, "I have writer's block!" Now duh. You have to slave.
For two bands that get a lot of attention for sound and atmosphere and musicianship and parts and mood--how important is language, words? You spend so much time crafting these epic structures of sound, how much effort goes into these words? Is it more about melody, actual meaning…
CEDRIC: Probably both. I always liked the Eno quote about how sometimes it's not really about what exactly is being said, it's the way it was said, the feeling behind it, or how you said it in the moment. Did you decide to keep it that way, or are you rewriting it? There's so many things--using different languages together, it's probably just a small glimpse of what's going to happen in the future. Like Blade Runner, you know? The Edward James Olmos character speaking German, Spanish, chinese, everything put together. That's going to happen.
JOSH: When I listen to the Volta, I always feel like it's like breadcrumbs and you're sort of following them down this path and you're sorta like [looks up and goes wide-eyed] "Huh?"…
CEDRIC: [Laughs heartily]
JOSH: I love that because it makes you flex a muscle that doesn't get worked on as much in your brain. And you get a chance to derive something that has meaning behind it but ends up asking more questions than answering them.
CEDRIC: [Nods] Yeah.
JOSH: I need colors and shapes and temperatures--degrees of something. The Beatles basically took easy lyrics and made them rally meaningful before I was even born, so that's not cool [laughs]. It's easy to express anger, it's very simple. But to say that you love somebody, or convey something that's complex, it's difficult. I try to spend time on it without spending too much time on it. I think, oftentimes for me, I'm playing what's hard for me to sing, so while I don't go into specifics about what things are I think people can feel it when you're being honest or when it's sincere…
OMAR: And sometimes specifics can ruin a situation. For me, I don't think I've ever asked Cedric what his lyrics mean because they mean something to me and it doesn't even matter what he was thinking. I have my own attachment to the lyrics, whether I'm listening to Queens or whoever. It's more about what I'm getting from the writing. My own image of the whole thing is way more important to me…
JOSH: You don't want to answer it for somebody else…
OMAR: Exactly. Sometimes you don't want to know who the wizard is.
What sort of lifestyle informs the music you make? It's easy to say that this is unusual, strange, atmospheric music so the people who made it must be high…
JOSH: That's very simple so it couldn't possibly be right.
Exactly. But music with so much depth comes from somewhere, so in a liege spent reading, listening, watching, learning, playing, traveling, liven, hating, taking medicine--what do you think brought you to this point where you had to make these records sound the way they sound right now?
OMAR: It's an amalgamation of everything, of all your experiences, of how you grew up, what happened as a child, what happened last week, what happens today, on the road, not on the road, knowing what you're doing, now knowing what you're doing, your intent about music itself, music's own input, spirits, our own conscious mind, our subconscious.
JOSH: It's science, but knowing science is these beautiful free-flowing thing where you're picking up information as you go, collecting your data and re-assimilating it so it's sort of like [makes a sigh, grunts, moves his hands forward like he's giving birth to something]. That's why I'm playing what's hard for me to say because I don't know any other way to discuss certain things. I couldn't sit down to talk about it, so that's why I'm playing. I can't do it. So, it becomes a necessity for me to play or something bad will happen to me. If someone said, "You can't play anymore" I'd be like, "Where's that gun you have?" I have to, or I'm in trouble.
In this particular art that you both pursue, it's almost designed to flash and burn. People who were once amazing can get uninteresting very quickly. Do you feel like some untapped resource with no foreseeable bottom, or do you feel like there's some light that will dim someday…
OMAR: You don't want to think about it that way, just shut up! [laughs]
JOSH: That stuff is not that important. You can't play for money, or girls, or so you can get a better table, because you won't be able to do that and if you can, check your watch. You're just chasing. I call music the bittersweet curse. When you write something and you're all alone and you go, "Ahh!" Just know that the second that feeling is over, you're doomed to face it again and do it again. It's never over. That's why I love it, because it's so mean to me.
CEDRIC: There's no sense in identifying it because it will die right then and there.
OMAR: It's like Josh said, you do something because you don't know how to say it in English or you don't know how to say it in Spanish or you don't know how to say it through words or through body gestures, so you make music. That feeling doesn't go away. There's always things that we're not going to be able to describe, so we have music. This is our conversation. We're always going to be having conversations. People's perception about whether our conversation is any good or not is their own thing. F