Queens of the Stone Age: Josh Homme Q&A

A few months back I spoke to Josh Homme about the reissue of Queens of the Stone Age’s eponymous debut album, and, like all alpha-dudes from bands of a certain size, phone time was strictly rationed to 30 minutes and no longer. But he’s nothing if not a rule-breaker and talked way longer. That first QOTSA record is, and feel free to write in and complain, as good as anything Kyuss had done (hey, it’s just an opinion) and as cool as it was to hear it was being reissued it was doubly cool that Homme still dug it. Here are the stolen minutes from his interview schedule…

People tend to get impatient with repetition in music, especially rock music where everything can be so immediate: was that a concern for you starting QOTSA, when riff repetition is such a big part of it?

Josh Homme: “Yeah they do, but they’re impatient over what they don’t like, which is always fair. But I think they are being rewarded for looking at the big picture for a second, like a mantra. I also think that it’s like when they’re driving their car, and they reach a stop light, and it’s just grooving – no, no, no, no, I’m gonna play this eight or twelve times instead of two. I always thought when you really keep something going you’ve achieved something when people say, ‘Oh my God that’s exciting’. And it’s really kind of informing the like songs we are writing now.”

How did the songs go down for the debut go down when you first played them to people?

JH: “There’s a song called “Walking on the Sidewalks” from our first record, and I’ve had the same soundman for eighteen years, he’s a very tough customer. I think in all the time we’ve worked together he’s said we’ve sounded great maybe five times. And I wish I was kidding. It’s not like he didn’t think we sounded good it’s just that telling us is totally unnecessary, and he’s always helped us keep our feet down in front of the altar instead of right up our ass. I played the song “Walking on the Sidewalks” for him first, deliberately; and it was the repetition, the trance-like nature of that song where he agreed to do our sound because I had to win him over, y’know.”

“Walking on the Sidewalks” all-star jam

How do you look at the QOTSA debut now?
JH: “I think that record sounds as good now as it did then. There is a personality on that record. I think it needs to be discovered by people; a lot of people thought that Rated R was our debut because even when it was out it was hard to get. I mean, I am re-discovering it, thinking, ‘Wow, I really like this thing!’”

It was a risk at the time, you put all your money into it and ended up sleeping in your car afterwards.
JH: “I’d rather risk everything and end with nothing. I don’t mind losing. I mean, I’d love to have a career but there’s nothing that I can do about it, and I refuse just so try to get big to quench the thirst of being big. I don’t really want to safe at all, and I would much rather lose than be safe. And I don’t think it is really a requirement, and I don’t think that anyone expects that. The one thing I’ve never tried to do was to get big, and that’s one of the reasons I am feel really comfortable about letting the chips fall where it may. I need to shake that bittersweet curse of watching a song and ‘Oh my God!’ and watching it fade away and having to do it again. What’s great is, I feel really proud to grab a hold of this record again, it’s quite possible that the first song on that record, “Regular John”, is the best song I’ve ever written, just because it sort of perfectly articulates what I wanna do: I wanna casually ignore most stuff and amble up to something that I like and see if I can groove.”

Are you a nostalgic kind of guy?
JH: “No I’m not. I think now is the best thing that you’ll ever get, and that’s all you’ll ever get. And I don’t really care about the future that much. But I figure enough people are stressed about it as it is, calling up fortune tellers, having their palms read. I know I can’t do jack about what I’ve already done. I’ve never been one for reminiscing because it’s so unnecessary and there’s so much to do right now. Reminiscing, that’s for when I’m 75 and need a rocking chair. When these moments come up we want these re-releases to be special. We’re going to do, how can I do something now, like special vinyl releases and that’s cool, it marks the timeframe.”

You can buy this issue here

To what degree has the desert been an influence on your music?
JH: “Yeah, I mean, I don’t see how it couldn’t have more than 80 per cent affect — for a completely arbitrary percentage. But it’s gotta be more than half, because I look at the desert like a cake dish on the Batphone. The Batphone is important, and my personal Batphone is very important to me. I don’t want it to be abused so I put a fucking cake dish over it. The desert is like that cake dish. That space is that cake dish, that barrier. One of the things about the desert is that if you are coming I can see you coming, and I can see you for maybe 25 miles. Like, I can watch you showing up to interview me for half-an-hour. I could leave twice before you could get to me. So I think that barrier of nothing is one of the greatest accidental gifts that I have ever… Well, it hasn’t got anything to do with me personally but what it does is that space allows you to be yourself for a second. I mean, I am not a perfectionist at all. I love failure. I love mistakes. I love the bizarre. I love characters. I love missing teeth. I love beauty because your eyes are off-center. And how can you notice that in the buzz of the city? So I like the emptiness. I was sitting on the curb drinking a coffee and reading the paper and there was this guy with a walker with stickers all over it, and because he was moving so slow I got to read them all. I turned round and I watched him and he took about five minutes, turned round said ‘Hoooowdy’ and that was a great morning. That was a really productive morning, for both of us.”

Like a real David Lynch character moment.

JH: “Maybe David Lynch is coming to my place because he wants to make a movie. He’s living in a sea of nothing; he’s living where I am, like a lamb in a flock of deer. I don’t know if that’s fair either. I’m not a hippy about it but there’s so much to gain there. I think you have to be careful because you’re given to an activity, whereas I’d like to think I am just being me. I like the notion, I feel like…. I’ve lived in Los Angeles and I’ve lived in the desert and I feel like I’m two entities between them both. I find myself in L.A. just trying to maintain the air that I breathe. Life is about errors. It’s about a dusting-off process. It’s not about doing the laundry— regarding laundry, there are not many good songs about bleaching your colors. It’d be a tough sell. Then you have the whole fashion problem…”

How much of it had you written before you got to the studio?

JH: “I had all the songs. But I was playing with the guys in the Seattle, I’d literally just got the money, thought, ‘I’m going to the desert to record.'”

“Regular John”

You said you really hated the sound of your own voice, and that being the band’s vocalist was a challenge.
JH: “If you are going to sing something you have to become the lyrics, you have to become what the lyrics are, that’s why to this day if there’s a lyric that I don’t like I can’t even sing it, it gives me a physical vomit-type reaction, it drives me insane. If there is someone in the room I’m like, ‘Get out!’.”

Is it really that bad?
JH: “Well I think the difference is why people don’t like their actors to be musicians, because I don’t want you to act real. It’s like trying to be cool. I don’t want you to do anything different; musicians have to be 100 per cent real. You have to have no doubts that you are real, ever. So I look at singing as in the same person that sings is the same person that can walk out on stage. What it is is that you have a house, a cross-section of a house, and as you enter the house you turn out the light in every room and that last light at the top is the person that can sing and can walk out on stage. You need to extinguish the other lights in your personality. For me that is the person that is willing to risk everything. I’ve only got flustered once onstage and that was because I had salmonella poisoning for twelve days but even then I’ve never done anything that disguised that guy in the room with the light on.”

How do you get over this and sing on record?
JH: “Oh I am in complete darkness. I’ve hurt myself! I’ve drank, and stayed up. I’ve been bright-eyed and bushy tailed — whatever the personality of the song, I search around in the house that is me until I get to that room. I’ve jerked off… It doesn’t matter what it is. It’s like, it just has to be real, who cares how you arrive at it, that’s not important. There’s nothing, I don’t get embarrassed anymore, because if I find a window in that aspect of my personality there’s nothing to be ashamed of. That’s how I know it’s real; how could I be ashamed of something that’s real?”

Playing live must have been a challenge, you can’t really put all the lights out.

JH: “Yeah. I had to learn how to sing in front of everybody, and I mean, I learned that I needed to do it. I was basically thrown to the wolves on my own. I had to learn how to play everything. I don’t think I opened my eyes for the first twenty shows, and the second show was at Pukkelpop at twelve in the morning, in the middle of the day, urgh! Talk about a learning curve.”

Why reissue the debut now?
JH: “Because in the world which we live in today every record is out there on YouTube without the cover. Umm, this record is unavailable and it has been out of print for years. It’s been out of print for too long. I don’t think that there is any record that should be not be able to be got these days. I added all the tracks which were recorded during the session. For me, Rated-R came out for a ten-year re-release but that one was unexpected, it just kind of crept up on me, and it seemed cool because it put out all the songs from that time frame in one location. This is more of a labour of love, in terms of my label putting it out, it’s been out of print for so long and not to be Captain Obvious but it really is where it all began for us.”

You financed the QOTSA debut yourself, why? Why didn’t you get a label to do it?

JH: “I didn’t want to – I had been on Elektra records with Kyuss and every time the label never realised that we were never going to give in, and that they should drop it. It was a headbutting relationship. It just felt like, I’ll just make the record I want to make and I won’t have to ask an A&R guy what he thinks because it’ll just be there, and you will be able to say, ‘I like this’ or ‘I think this should be a coaster’ and in that way it’ll be really definitive. It stopped that discussion, that war… but I didn’t really realise I’d be sleeping in my Camaro after that. I think it was really important time for me. I never really cared about money or shit like that, I never wanted to be famous; I wanted to make something that could last for a long time.”

Were you happy with the way QOTSA sounded?

JH: “That’s always been… I don’t want to produce records. I think sometimes people have this desire to have each record sound more and more, I guess professional. I dunno, I don’t even think that’s the right word; it graduates to some level of production but I just like it raw and natural. I don’t mind. I think it sounds really raw and natural and as the years go by I’ve really felt that way. This record is really raw. Listening to this record, for everyone in the band, the immediate reaction was let’s go round the world play this record, and let’s play it exactly how it is. There’s five of us in the band, but there’s not really a lot going on in the music. There’s a lot of percussion, a lot of laying out, and it’s creating this huge dynamic and creating, for me especially, in terms of what was going on back then, I gotta tell you each song is giving us an examination, and it’s been a real eye-opener. Things were done on purpose so that when you’re live you can just take the song off somewhere else. It’s not as deliberate when you are doing it in recording, like ‘This shit is on purpose just to mess with your head’. Our rehearsals have been these really calculated laser strikes and it’s the most fun we’ve had in years.”

Are QOTSA a jam band?
JH: “I’ve gone up and down and around with jamming; jamming often is horrendous, it is watching people not listening to each other. The audience? When you are watching people jam you are often watching people overplaying to impress their way into your heart while the other people do it too. Unless you are watching a band being very symbiotic and listening — and that’s really rare. So recently I’ve got less and less into jamming and more into articulating an idea and spending a lot of time trying to handcraft it and deliver an emotional moment. And I think as a result, personally, we sound better than we’ve ever sounded, and I think our willingness to lose provides a certain amount of safety for me — ‘Okay, good, I know anything could actually happen.’”

What about Kyuss Lives! You were never tempted?
JH: “It’s much like watching pictures of yourself from just becoming a teenager to a 21-year-old and it’s kind why I shied away from doing the reunion, it’s kinda like retaking your high school photographs.”

On listening, QOTSA is almost impossible to date. You can’t really say this is a ‘90s record or whatever.
JH: “No. And in fact, what is really interesting about listening to this record is that modern music is running scared most of the time to my ears.”