By Kurt Orzeck; Photos by Brantley Gutierrez on July 1, 2013
Josh Homme is battle-weary. The 39-year-old guitarist hasn’t yet sprouted any white hairs among his shock of flaming red, but his hulking frame slouches as he takes a seat in a Hollywood deli, and his coffee can’t arrive quickly enough.
It’s a Wednesday evening in April, and the cycle for the new album by his band Queens of the Stone Age has only just begun. ...Like Clockwork won’t be out for another month and a half, and dates for the tour in support of it haven’t been announced. But Homme, who nearly died from an exhaustion-related incident in 2010, already appears fatigued.
“Someone was going to get schooled with this record,” he says, stirring multiple creams into his first of two evening cups of joe. “It was going to be us or it.”
Without missing a beat, Homme admits that QOTSA’s sixth album was, by far, the most challenging to make. After several false starts, the band finally recorded ...Like Clockwork in August 2012; by the time it drops, six years will have elapsed since the previous QOTSA record.
For those already acquainted with Homme’s dry sense of humor, the clever title should be obvious.
Time motifs pepper ...Like Clockwork, maintaining his tradition of sewing through-lines into each QOTSA album. But even more revealing for Homme—who is commonly associated with his Southern Californian place of birth, Palm Desert—is an infatuation with the ocean. It’s a new theme for his band, and it’s loaded with blatant allusions to existentialism, eternity and renewal.
“I’m just along for the ride. I’m at the helm of this pirate ship, but I’m at the mercy of the waves,” he says, looking up from the swirling coffee.
“All I really need is insurmountable odds, and I’m happy.”
Homme deserved a nice, long break in 2009. Not only had he churned out QOTSA records roughly every two years from 1998 to 2007 and toured heavily behind each, but he had recently pumped out the junior album by his tongue-in-cheek side project Eagles of Death Metal. According to Homme’s math, he basically worked nonstop for 13 years.
He was ready to finally open up the hammock he had kept boxed up for six years—but then Them Crooked Vultures came along. Also featuring John Paul Jones and Dave Grohl, the project was a hard-rock fan’s wet dream if there ever was one, and a dream come true for Homme, too.
“I was in dire need of a physical and mental break, but [Vultures] was like a magic trick,” he says. “It bait-and-switched me.”
The trio faced criminally high expectations. Whereas QOTSA usually pits Homme against the recording studio, with an often-rotating cast of ancillary musicians filling in the holes—including guitarist Troy Van Leeuwen, keyboardist Dean Fertita and bassist Michael Shuman—the Vultures stool had just two other legs. And those legs previously carried two of the biggest bands in rock history: Led Zeppelin and Nirvana.
Homme says he couldn’t have cared less about the critics—though they clearly approved, awarding Vultures a Grammy for Best Hard Rock Performance—but he didn’t want to disappoint his bandmates. So he took on virtually all the responsibilities: guitars, vocals, melodies and lyrics.
Homme doesn’t blame his bandmates for setting the bar so high. Ever since he was a kid, he’s put more pressure on himself than anyone else in his life. He lives by the military mantra that if you make life harder on yourself than your enemies make it on you, then you cannot be defeated.
“I tortured myself more on the Vultures record than I needed to, because I wanted to do right by the three of us,” he says. “I put everything into it...and it took a toll on me.”
Homme, who collapsed from exhaustion onstage in 2005, felt different when he finished touring with the Vultures in summer 2009. Instead of elation, or a compulsion to start writing again, this time he experienced confusion.
“I stopped and picked my head up and I was like, ‘Why am I in Fresno, and where are my pants?’” he says. “I realized how far lost I was.”
Homme’s case of exhaustion was so bad that it required surgery. During the procedure, the doctors weren’t able to re-oxygenate his blood, so they had to use a defibrillator to shock him back into consciousness.
“I died on the table,” he says. “When I woke up, I felt like things were stolen from inside me.”
Homme—who recalls trying to brush his teeth, only to find toothpaste in his eyebrows—spent four months in bed recovering from the exhaustion and botched surgery. For a guy who, like a shark, has to keep moving in order to survive, that half-year was hell.
“I’m not good at reminiscing or looking back, because there’s so much wonderful stuff ahead of you that you can’t ignore,” he says.
For the first time he can recall, he felt sorry for himself. But amid that strange sensation of self-pity, Homme had a realization: There was nowhere to go but forward. After the delayed reissue of his band’s first album, Queens of the Stone Age, he set out on a supporting tour in 2011 and played the album the whole way through each night.
But while Homme enjoyed reliving QOTSA’s headier, druggier music, there was a problem: new ideas weren’t coming to him. What was stolen from him during the surgery hadn’t returned.
That’s when Homme decided to call for help. Not 911—Trent Reznor, of course.
The two had some brief but memorable encounters when QOTSA and Nine Inch Nails toured together in 2005, according to Homme. And he had a feeling that Reznor, as intelligent and down-to-earth as any seasoned rock musician Homme had met, would be able to relate to what he was experiencing.
“I needed to talk to somebody,” Homme says. “We wound up having about four or five of these long, five-hour conversations. I realized that sometimes you get what you need when you stop looking for it so hard.”
It started to click again for Homme. But the challenges of making QOTSA’s new album were far from over. Due to scheduling conflicts, Reznor wasn’t able to produce the record, as Homme had hoped. Even more significantly, another potential collaborator dropped off midway through the sessions: Joey Castillo, QOTSA’s drummer of 10 years.
“All of a sudden, it wasn’t working anymore,” Homme says. “It was a tough way to start a record.”
It’s hard to pin down an exact start date for ...Like Clockwork—because there were so many of them. Homme would prepare to convene his bandmates in the studio, only to tell them that he had writer’s block. A couple of weeks off might help, he thought, but those weeks soon stretched into two years.
“People were like, ‘You can’t get so close to [the album]. You’re going to be in a bubble, and you won’t know what’s going on,’” he recalls. “And I was like, ‘Sorry, I don’t really know what that means.’ But this was the first time I was like, ‘Umm...uhh…I get it now.’”
Fortunately for Homme, who completed his contractual obligation with Interscope with the Vultures album, he didn’t have a record label breathing down his neck. It also made it easier that he had his own recording studio: Pink Duck, located in Burbank. It was through those doors that Dave Grohl walked—and helped Homme finally buckle down with the album.
“We have a special relationship,” he says. “It was like, ‘Bro, I need you.’ It meant a lot.”
Even more special to Homme is his relationship with childhood friend and former QOTSA member Nick Oliveri, whom he kicked out of the group in 2004 after the notoriously mercurial Oliveri took a highly publicized, violent turn.
“I fired my best friend and didn’t say much about it,” Homme says. “But I’ve been hanging with Nick since three months [after] he was out of the band.”
But while Grohl and Oliveri helped get the ball rolling, it was an unlikely music legend who had perhaps an even greater impact on both the record and Homme—none other than the Rocket Man, Sir Elton John. After a friend of Homme ran into John and found out he was a Them Crooked Vultures fan, the QOTSA pilot got a call from Captain Fantastic.
Homme invited John to his studio, and his contribution went far beyond a mere guest appearance on ...Like Clockwork. As Homme tells it, the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer helped him finally retrieve what had been stolen from him on the hospital table: his instinct and ability to make music with others.
“I always hear how things sound, so I walk toward what I hear,” Homme says, trying to verbalize what makes him a naturally gifted musician. “If someone has a cool idea, I can hear that move, and I go, ‘OK, so you’re walking here.’ But I lost that for a couple of years. I could only hear other people’s music. It was impossible to write.”
From August to January—an eternity in the studio, by QOTSA standards—they finally created ...Like Clockwork. The end result is the band’s most somber, contemplative and humble recording to date. Perhaps more than any other QOTSA album, it is about Homme the man: what’s going on inside not just his head but inside his soul.
“Not everything that goes around comes back around/One thing that’s clear: It’s all downhill from here,” he sings on the title track.
On another, “The Vampyre of Time and Memory”: “I feel no love/Does anyone out there get this right?”
Perhaps the most autobiographical song he's ever written, “I Appear Missing,” documents the surgery incident (“Shock me awake, tear me apart/Prisoner of sleep/Pieces were stolen from me/As I go down the drain, I appear missing”).
While Homme considers 2007’s Era Vulgaris to be his angriest album to date, it’s fair to say that this is QOTSA’s darkest. “When you look in the mirror and see nothing, you know you’re a vampire,” he says, recalling his hospitalization.
The album does have one or two lighter notes, namely “Smooth Sailing,” which Homme calls a “nihilistic funk song reminiscent of the Eagles” (the other ones, not the Death Metal variety). But while it’s otherwise bitter throughout—look no further than the bridge-burning anthem “Fairweather Friends”—...Like Clockwork is representative of all those who have supported Homme in recent years. Castillo plays drums on four songs, Reznor sings and adds percussion to “Kalopsia” and old haunt Mark Lanegan surfaces on “If I Had a Tail.” Rounding out the cast are Sir Elton John, James Lavelle of UNKLE, Alex Turner of Arctic Monkeys, Jake Shears of Scissor Sisters and new QOTSA drummer Jon Theodore, formerly of The Mars Volta.
“This album is this incorrect flaming arrow into the future. It has this Clockwork Orange feeling, and this kind of David Bowie cabaret vibe,” Homme says, adding that he’s been listening to a lot of music by electronic musician Wendy Carlos, who scored the Stanley Kubrick movie.
“You know when you’re running in a dream and you wake up and you’re like, ‘Thank fucking God that’s not real?’” he asks. “That creeped everywhere. Like, time is the null, and that’s all you have at the same time. Like, it’s stopped and it’s forever.”
While QOTSA spent about four times as long in the studio as they intended, Homme is careful to point out that the new record is no more perfect than any other QOTSA album.
“I’m not a perfectionist. I want mistakes,” he says. “Let’s let this record be this spit on the ground that it is. It’s like being down and getting up. This album is about sitting there after the battle, going, ‘Phew.’”
To that end, he actually left off an album’s worth of additional, earlier material that didn’t fit in with the theme he developed later into the recording sessions. Where fans might have expected a double album after such a long drought, Homme is giving them exactly the opposite of what they might have anticipated—which prompts him to smirk.
“We’ve been set up to withstand criticism, member changes, bolts of lightning, drug abuse, happiness, sadness, anything—and we have,” says Homme, who regularly reads books about invincible generals.
“This is our sixth record, but in a way, I feel like this is our second act, starting now.” F
This article is from FILTER Issue 52