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“Only badass mofos get to play in Queens Of The Stone Age”: the inside story of Songs For The Deaf

Queens of The Stone Age’s Songs For The Deaf album turns 30 on August 27: Josh Homme and Dave Grohl take us inside the making of a modern rock classic



California‘s Palm Desert might not be a location immediately synonymous with punk rock, but, just like CBGBs in New York and The Roxy in London, this arid wasteland incubated a rebellious DIY music scene whose impact still resonates. Inspired by local skateboarders’ imaginative quests to find new spaces in which to ride, bands such as Yawning Man and Across The River sought out desolate locales in which to spark up, plug in portable power generators and rock out, out of sight of the authorities.

Fuelled by beer, weed, acid and crystal meth, these impromptu, free-for-all assemblies became the stuff of local legend and it was here, that the teenage Josh Homme served his musical apprentice, in Kyuss, a brooding, intense, psychedelic punk band completed by his high school buddy Nick Oliveri on bass, vocalist John Garcia and drummer Brant Bjork.

“We were a little young to go to see Black Flag and the Misfits and GBH and Discharge without getting killed,” Homme recalled, “so we ended up creating what we wanted to hear those bands evolve into. In the desert, it was about having to make your own thing, and being isolated enough to do it without anyone fucking with you.”

Across a five year span, Kyuss recorded four studio albums, peaking with 1994’s Welcome To Sky Valley, before imploding acrimoniously.

“Business started to dictate what we were doing,” says Brant Bjork, “and the spirit of creativity and camaraderie and brotherhood, all that made our band pure and organic, started to evaporate.”

It would have been all too easy for Josh Homme, the band’s most charismatic and confident character, to re-emerge from the wreckage with a vehicle which traded upon the cult success that his former band had enjoyed. Instead, following a summer-long stint as a touring guitarist in Washington psych-grunge unit Screaming Trees, Homme purposefully took a hard left, renouncing stoner rock’s monolithic grind for something altogether more nimble, more abstract and more sensual.

With Queens Of The Stone Age, Homme’s mission statement was to create “trance robot music… heavy enough for the boys and sweet enough for the girls.”

Inspired in equal measure by The Stooges, Misfits, Discharge, Can, Frank Sinatra, Roy Orbison and Johnny Cash, the band’s self-titled 1998 debut album, with its motorik riffs, studied minimalism, louche Rat Pack swagger and obvious disdain for hard rock orthodoxy, represented both a razing of the past and a signpost to new horizons.

The wired, unhinged and stylistically promiscuous Rated R was an even bolder leap forward. Introduced by the remarkable Feel Good Hit Of The Summer, on which Judas Priest frontman Rob Halford joined Homme and his berserker sidekick Oliveri to deliver a verse resembling a junkie’s letter to Santa (“Nicotine, Valium, Vicodin, marijuana, ecstasy and alcohol”) and a single word chorus – the word “cocaine” gleefully stretched like bubblegum – it saw QOTSA anointed as “the new saviours of rock music” by broadsheet newspapers and fashionista style mags, much to Homme’s bemusement.

“Is rock’n’roll in trouble?” he asked drolly. “Is it drowning somewhere and I don’t know? I’ve been listening to good rock music since I was a kid. I mean, I love our music, and I want other people to love it as well, but I just don’t know that rock needed saving.” 

Regardless, 100,000 sales of the album in the UK alone, and Album Of The Year accolades from Kerrang! and NME, meant Queens were now regarded as serious players in an industry which, via indie darlings The Strokes and The White Stripes, had suddenly fallen in love anew with guitar bands.

“[Our label] have suddenly realised they’ve got this cool little band on their hands, all ready to go,” Homme observed dryly.

“It’s almost like a challenge to stay ahead now. Some people may say imitation is the most sincere form of flattery, but I say, Fuck you. Catch me if you can motherfuckers.”

Expectations for the group’s third album were duly inflated… which Homme, forever a punk at heart, naturally interpreted as a green light to make Queens’ new songs louder, darker, weirder and more fucked-up. 

“There are a lot of people who like heavy music but don’t want to listen to Creed or nu-metal bands,” he reasoned. “I think we can offer something a little more esoteric.”

“It’s a three-record plan,” Homme said at the time. “The first record needed to step away from Kyuss and announce a new sound, which was repetition, trance, and simplicity. Then the second record needed to fan the music out so we could display it and play whatever we wanted. So, the third record, to get it right, should combine the first two and go even further.”

Sessions for the third Queens Of The Stone Age album began in October 2001, with Homme confident that he had amassed his strongest set of songs to date.

Many of these had actually been recorded before, at the Rancho De La Luna in Joshua Tree, California, during the Homme-helmed Desert Sessions, freewheeling, spontaneous, experimental jam sessions involving the likes of PJ Harvey, Screaming Trees frontman Mark Lanegan, Masters Of Reality mainman Chris Goss (producer of three Kyuss album and both previous QOTSA long-players), Goatsnake/Earthlings’ vocalist Pete Stahl and more.

Homme imagined that he could recreate the loose, organic feel of these sessions in the studio with Queens, but the vibe with new producer Eric Valentine was markedly different, regimented, meticulous and not altogether fun. To Homme’s fury, word began to filter through that “the adults”, the executives at Interscope Records, were expressing concern over the album’s direction, or, more specifically, its lack of direction. 

“To other people there seemed to be a lot riding on this record,” he noted pointedly, “and they ended up standing in our way trying to help. Our main thing we had to overcome was other people that were not involved with us and sort of pushing them to the side, whether gracefully or violently.”

One man who voluntarily stepped away from the project after a mere seven days, due to other obligations, was Queens’ drummer Gene Trautmann. Fortunately, Homme had a decent back-up option in place, namely former Nirvana drummer Dave Grohl, a long-time friend, now best known as the frontman of the Foo Fighters.

“I called Dave and said, Do you want to finish this record?” Homme recalled. “He said, ‘I’m in Malibu. I’ll be there at six o’clock’. By 8pm we had tracked a few songs.”

“I first met Josh in 1992, at a Kyuss show at the Off Ramp in Seattle because he was touring with my friend Pete Stahl’s band, Wool, and The Obsessed,” Grohl told this writer in 2009. “This was the first time I’d seen Kyuss and I was blown away, they were fucking great. They seemed like us, like kids who grew up in the suburbs listening to rock ‘n’ roll records, doing petty crime and drugs, just a little vandals from the middle of nowhere.”

“Then we had QOTSA on tour with us for a really long time in 2000. Instead of putting ‘Queens Of The Stone Age’ on their dressing room door we used to put ‘Critic’s Choice’ because they were the coolest band in the world, and honestly, we thought that too. So in 2000, as we were touring with Queens, someone asked me what was my biggest regret of the year and I said that it was that I didn’t get asked to play on Rated R.

“So Josh said, ‘Dude, if you want to play on a couple of songs…’ Then, that day, I was driving up the Pacific Coast Highway, going to the beach, and he called and said, ‘Do you want to play on our whole record?’

“Josh and I have a connection musically that I just don’t have with anybody else: as a drummer, playing with him, we share this frequency that I haven’t shared with anyone else. It’s intangible and unspoken, almost like ESP. I made a U-turn, went straight to the studio, and we recorded the drums in like 10 days, maybe two weeks.”

“Dave came in and made these songs that I thought were good, really phenomenal,” marvelled Nick Oliveri. “It uplifted not only our spirit, but us as players, including Josh: his playing on it really made everybody come forward. Dave was a champion of all things. He helped us in so many ways we could never repay the guy.”

As the sessions finally gathered momentum, Homme hit upon a unifying concept to tie his band’s “eclectic, schizophrenic” new songs together: they would be presented as a selection of tracks aired on disparate radio stations dialled in on a night drive from Los Angeles to Joshua Tree, a road trip Homme had undertaken countless times.

“When I’d do it, I didn’t have a stereo, all I had was a radio,” he recalled in 2002. “And it goes into weird religious stations and really bad, bad music on that trip through the middle of nowhere. I used to really enjoy the silence and then every once in a while the station you were at would all of a sudden let out a screech, and become a new station. I just wanted to bring that to a record somehow. It is kind of a concept record, but as if the word ‘concept’ didn’t suck.”

The idea was a masterstroke. With friends such as The Cramps’ Lux Interior, Eagles Of Death Metal’s Jesse Hughes and Marilyn Manson bassist Jeordie White recruited to voice mock radio station idents – “KRDL… we spoil music for everyone”, “KLON… we play the songs that sound more like everyone else than anyone else” – the album was given continuity and cohesion. 

Crystallising QOTSA’s ‘last-gang-in-town’ outlaw cool, Songs For The Deaf is a wild, disorientating joyride into a grotesque world of sex, drugs, violence and death, laced with subtle black humour. On a diverse and challenging album, not everything quite worked – the scorched-earth punk of Six Shooter is disposable at best, while The Sky Is Fallin’ resembles a cast-off from co-producer Chris Goss’ Masters Of Reality – but when Homme’s band hit their mark, it’s irresistible.

Opener You Think I Ain’t Worth A Dollar, But I Feel Like A Millionaire boasts a storming route one riff and a manic Nick Oliveri screaming “Gimme some more!”, First It Giveth deals with chasing narcotic highs, Another Love Song is surf guitar-driven Motown metal and Go With The Flow is a deathless ode to squeezing every last drop of pleasure out of life.

Best of all is the kinetic No One Knows, a Josh Homme/Mark Lanegan co-write, where the thunderous interplay between guest Dave Grohl, Oliveri and Homme recalls Led Zeppelin at their most telepathically locked-in.

Like its desert setting, this is music without horizons, all heat, light and awe-inspiring elemental power.

Released on August 27, 2002, Songs For The Deaf debuted at number 4 in the UK, and peaked at number 17 on the Billboard 200 chart in the US. Its release was preceded by festival dates for the band, including an appearance at England’s Glastonbury festival, with Dave Grohl on drums. This was all the more notable because, at the time, Grohl was supposed to be in a Hollywood recording studio making the fourth Foo Fighters album, One By One, a fact that understandably alarmed his bandmates. Some wondered privately whether Grohl might ever return. For a fleeting moment or two, the thought crossed Grohl’s mind too.

“I did a one-off show with Queens at the Troubador [on March 7, 2002],” Grohl recalled, “and we walked offstage and Mark Lanegan said – and this was one of the few things that Mark Lanegan ever said to me – ‘You know, it’d be a shame just to do that only once’. My decision was purely musical and motivational.

“Being in Queens was one of the greatest experiences of my life. If you can say that you were a member of Queens Of The Stone Age that’s like wearing a patch on your chest that says ‘I Am A Badass’ for the rest of your life, because the only people that get to play in Queens Of The Stone Age are badass motherfuckers, and that’s the truth.

“Walking through the backstage area of a festival with Queens is like the moment in a Western where the saloon bar doors swing open and the piano player stops playing and everyone just stares. You have Josh, [Mark]  Lanegan, [Nick] Oliveri and me walking in a straight line and it’s like being in the coolest gang. We never had a bad show. I was now playing drums in the best band I’d ever been in and fucking loving it.”

This busman’s holiday ended for Grohl at the Fuji Rock festival in Japan in July 2002. 

“I started missing my friends,” he explained. “The Foo Fighters had become a family by this point and I’d been away from home for too long.”

“I always knew that Dave was going to go back to Foo Fighters,” Josh Homme admitted. “I was always trying to intimate that this wasn’t something the other guys needed to worry about. But band people, and I mean this in a very blanket way, are very easily rattled, because many bands don’t last, and they’re such an unpredictable animal that it’s easy to get your confidence rattled.

“What was great about that time was that Dave did go back, and that said that it’s possible to have a musical mistress: it would have been terrible if Dave had stayed in Queens because it would have eliminated and killed the suggestion that you can do multiple things. In a rare moment it had proved that having multiple personalities isn’t a bad thing for someone playing music. Once you feel you can do anything in music, that’s when you can get closer to God.”

Fast forward a dozen years and Josh Homme and Dave Grohl are on-stage together again. It’s another awards show, the 56th annual Grammy Awards show in fact, and Nine Inch Nails frontman Trent Reznor and [then] Fleetwood Mac guitarist Lindsey Buckingham are on the stage too at the Staples Center in Los Angeles. This bespoke supergroup are thrashing through QOTSA’s God Is In The Sun, when adverts for the show’s sponsors – the Hilton Hotel group, Delta Airlines, etc,. – begin flashing up over the performance. It’s a most surreal end to the most high profile QOTSA performance ever, and two weeks later, onstage in Houston, Homme will lay into the event organisers with some choice expletives: “Fuck the Grammys, fuck all this shit.”

Secretly though, you can help thinking that Homme’s inner punk rocker must have found it all quite amusing.

Asked to ponder his band’s new found popularity in 2002, Homme had this to say: “Kyuss got noticed because it didn’t give a shit if anyone noticed it. Bands now scratch and they claw. I don’t wanna show up and go, Please can I get into this club? I want someone to ask me. That attitude is the reason why it’s still fun. It’s like being a deliberate outsider. You invited the outsider in, and now the outsider’s gonna fuck things up.”

The masterful, multi-facted Songs For The Deaf ensured that Homme’s band would be outsiders no more.