Queens of the Stone Age on Rock Greatness: "It's Like a Magic Trick, Like Mind Control"
Photo by Nora Lezano
At this current moment, Queens of the Stone Age is the best rock 'n' roll band on the planet.
A bold statement, to be sure. However, while there exist other artists with similar relevance and artistic integrity, no group so deeply embodies the spirit of the genre's past while fighting to make fresh statements in the present, and none have developed a sound so immediately identifiable and unique as that honed by Josh Homme and his ever-evolving cast of kindred rockers.
Though the band has enjoyed the undying adoration of serious fans since forming from the ashes of Homme's previous band, Kyuss, in the late '90s, Queen of the Stone Age's most recent release, 2013's ...Like Clockwork, has catapulted the band to a level of truly universal praise and respect that has eclipsed even the success of the group's mega-selling 2002 album, Songs for the Deaf .
In preparation for the band's long-awaited return to South Florida, we here at Crossfade spoke with the band's lead guitarist and Homme's chosen foil, Troy Van Leeuwen, about the band's growth, the trick of being successful without selling out, and the greatness that was Mick Ronson.
Crossfade: It was announced that Queens will be performing at the Grammy Awards this year. I feel a lot of serious musicians from the rock 'n' roll world are at odds with the Grammys as an institution. Do you have an opinion on what it represents these days?
Troy Van Leeuwen: Well, you know, I don't really have a problem with awards and stuff like that. We're a rock 'n' roll band, we're only making the world a livable place for ourselves as musicians. And as artists, what we can't say in everyday life with words, we say with music, and if it touches people, that's great -- that's the most important part to me.
So, in order to be nominated -- you know, this is like the fifth or sixth time we've been nominated -- and we've gotten to this point where it's like, "Shit, it's never going to happen." So, we don't really have the expectations of what all that stuff is. For us, performing on the Grammys is kind of like crashing the prom, you know what I mean? It doesn't really make us who we are, but it's a nice kind of cherry on the top, a nod from the musical community. I think it's cool, personally. It's not going to change who I am, it's not going to change who we are as a band either, but it's nice to be noticed by your peers and the industry.
In a time when most of what makes its way to the mainstream is extremely processed and approachable, Queens of the Stone Age continues to make music that is challenging, organic, and human while retaining a certain mainstream appeal. Do you feel there is a key to that success?
All I know is that when we make our records, they're really a labor of love. There's not really a process that we lean on. Every record that I've made with the band has been completely different. It really just starts from within, and usually, you know, our records in the past, we've been able to knock them out pretty quickly. This record was a tough one, and we're not used to that. So, we did the most questioning of ourselves on this record and I think that kind of vulnerability came through, and I'm just feeling like a lot of people identity with that. So yeah, the process that we go through is an internal one and it's checked by each one of us, and everyone has got to be cool with every single note on every single song before we move on with it.
Even six albums deep with a revolving-door lineup, each record works as its own cohesive statement that sounds distinctly like Queens of the Stone Age, but sounds completely unique within the discography.
Yeah, I mean, every filter that we go through is our own. We just want to play our favorite music and we're trying to slowly grow in the process. At the end of the day, we sound like who we sound like and we can't really change what that is!
...Like Clockwork is definitely the band's most mature-sounding album. Did the struggle of making the album yield that kind of growth?
I think it made the band tighter, yeah. We know each other better, we know each other's strengths and weaknesses better. You got to have a lot of trust with each other to go through that and come out with what came out with. Now that there's Grammy nods, it's a nice kind of reminder that we did the right thing.
Beyond the Grammy nods, every serious rock 'n' roll fan I come into contact with -- even classicist types -- seems to accept that Queens of the Stone Age truly carries the torch for relevant rock music in the millennial era. From my perspective, the band is poised to be one of the only rock bands in the past 20 years to truly join the club, so to speak. Is that something the band is aware of?
Yeah, we're definitely the hardest on ourselves and I think that when you say that, it's not taken for granted, it's something that we're constantly trying to earn. I think that comes from our need to constantly better ourselves -- especially in the live situation. I think it all stems from that experience, because getting the audience on your side and having a moment together, that's the biggest challenge I think right there.
That's the true human element of it all.
All of my favorite rock 'n' roll bands and artists, they can all reach out to their audience and pull some magic off. From Tom Waits to Bowie to even Zeppelin, it's like a magic trick, like mind control. They've got the audience and I'm in it, you know what I mean? So, I think we all have sort of a keen understanding of what that means and how to kind of grasp that sort of magic out of the air.
Photo by Nora Lezano
Over the years, you've recognized players like Mick Ronson, Marc Ribot, Daniel Ash, and other incredible guitar sidemen as major influences. When you started, were you always focused on developing yourself as a foil and musical partner?
I've always been about the song, you know? I like to work with people on music. I rarely make music on my own and say, "This is me, check it out." I've always been into collaborating. I just set out to be the best musician I possibly can, and sometimes that means not playing guitar, and it gives me an appreciation for it. If I'm doing percussion or keys or even lap steel, that's different enough to where I can come back to guitar and really get into it.
As a guitarist, you've gained quite a bit of respect and press from the more mainstream end of the guitar community. You're on your second signature model guitar and I have to assume that would be a trip for any player.
It's definitely a trip! It's dorky too, because I'm a guitar dork as well, I really am. My signature model came out this week for Fender, it's a Jazzmaster, and I play it live. It's made in Mexico and I'm not like, superprecious about it. It works for me, it's what I like, and I'm not just slapping my name on something -- I was involved with what it is. As a kid, you're like, "You don't get guitars named after you." But I guess you do in my case!
Are we ever going to see a signature pair of boots?
That's next, yeah! [Laughs] For sure! Suits and boots, man, that's what I'm talking about! That's my next venture!
Nick Cave once said that he wears a suit to work like any other professional.
Him and Tom Waits are the reasons I wear a suit. I like to get down to business as well.
Would you care to elaborate at all on the influence Mick Ronson had on you?
For me, discovering Bowie was discovering Ronson. The records that he played on, every note is so choice and the way it's played, it's not really cockiness, just this real understanding of what Bowie was going for, and it was really dramatic and supersexy. The way Ronson played was no joke and it was almost upsetting when he stopped playing with Bowie -- he was such a side guy, you know? The dynamic duo was those guys on stage. But I have an appreciation for Bowie because the next record that he put out without Ronson, Diamond Dogs, he played guitar on himself and it's pretty mind-blowing what he did on that record.
Which comes back to Queens of the Stone Age having something of a revolving-door lineup over the years. Would you say you have to sometimes lose people to evolve?
I think that in our case, we are all friends enough -- even Nick and Mark, and I was with Joey the other day. We're all grown up enough to know that things change and people grow apart, and that's actually OK, just as long as you're growing, it doesn't matter. If you have to go off on your own to discover something, that's understandable. From my involvement in the band, I happen to have the same sort of goals and same sort of wanting to challenge myself constantly as Josh. I mean, I think we've been playing together for 13 years now, and that's the longest I've ever been in a band!
Queens of the Stone Age. Wednesday, February 5. Fillmore Miami Beach, 1700 Washington Ave., Miami Beach. The show starts at 8:30 p.m. and tickets cost $39.50 to $55 plus fees via livenation.com. All ages. Call 305-673-7300 or visit fillmoremb.com.
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