California’s arid oasis in and around Palm Desert is known for more than just paralyzing heat, tumbleweeds, Gila monsters and cactuses.
It’s the home of stoner rock.
In the late 1980s, teenage singer-guitarist Josh Homme formed Kyuss in that vast wasteland, hell-bent on scorching the airwaves with a blistering combination of Black Sabbath-like heavy metal and Black Flag-influenced punk rock.
A product of his environment? Indeed.
After four full-length studio albums, Kyuss ran out of steam in 1995. From its ashes rose Queens of the Stone Age, an even more unyielding champion of loud, aggressive, repetitive and surprisingly melodic rock ‘n’ roll. Homme calls it “robot rock.”
Though the group’s self-titled debut album barely made a sales ripple in 1998, it prompted Rolling Stone magazine to call it one of the “Ten Most Important Hard and Heavy Bands Right Now.” The Queens’ second album, “Rated R” (released June 6 on Interscope), solidifies that declaration.
The first single, “The Lost Art of Keeping a Secret,” is climbing Billboard’s mainstream rock tracks charts and Pause & Play’s Picks chart, and the dark humor of the album’s opening track, “Feel Good Hit of the Summer,” waits in the wings.
During a recent stop on the Ozzfest 2000 tour, Queens bassist-vocalist Nick Oliveri – a onetime Kyuss member – says he can’t believe there’s any talk of having a radio hit. It never entered his mind.
“I don’t really know how it works and how it all happens,” he said. “I’ve never had a record like this. The records that I’ve played on, they’ve always been cult records with a cult following. They haven’t really ever taken off or anything. At the same time, you can’t just sit down and say, ‘All right, I’m going to write a song for radio.’ You just write what comes to your mind, and you decide which one you’re going to push as the single after you’ve done it.
“We’ve played to a lot of people on this tour, and hopefully we’ll sell a couple of records and get a little bit of airplay, as strange as that sounds. It’s going to take some time, but the kind of record we wanted to make was something that took you a couple of listens to really get what we were doing. I think we pretty much accomplished that.”
The group – also featuring keyboardist Dave Catching and drummers Gene Trautmann and Nicky Lucero – isn’t going to win any songwriting contests, but the twisted tracks, such as “Feel Good Hit of the Summer” and its infectious, rapid-fire verse (“Nicotine, Valium, Vicodin, marijuana, ecstasy and alcohol”), is stuff of legend.
“We definitely love what we do,” Oliveri said. “We just kind of try to go with it, go with the flow and do what we do. We try to make music that we would want to listen to. ‘What’s not available for me to buy and listen to, that I can get, that we can write? What’s not around that we can write and put out there, something that we could listen to?’
“I think this pissed-off music that everyone’s into right now is going to slowly die away. We’re very ahead of the game. We’re going to just swoop right up in there. We just try to kind of have a good time, play rock, turn the lights down and play a little grab-ass with the girls and rock! Let’s try to bring some of the element back into rock that’s been missing, get rid of the guilt and the pissed-off music and just rock.”
“Rated R” also has its share of special guests, including Judas Priest’s Rob Halford, Screaming Trees’ Mark Lanegan and Earthlings’ Pete Stahl.
Oliveri says they just wanted to make an album that was drastically different from their first.
“We wanted to make something as diverse as the band is,” he said. “From song to song, we can sound like a completely different band, but the same tones with a different style. We wanted to set up on this record so when we start to make the third record you’ll be surprised at the direction that any song could go in.
“If we think it doesn’t suck, we’re going to play it. It’s just that simple. We don’t stick to a formula. There’s no ‘We have to play heavy all the time.’ There’s going to be some psychedelic songs, there’s going to be some in more of a punk-rock vein, there’s going to be some with a lot of space and air and movement between them, and there’s still going to be the heavy ones, too. We’re going to be as strange as we want to be.”
Stoner rockers have that prerogative … but please don’t call Queens of the Stone Age stoner rock, Oliveri says.
“I just don’t get the whole stoner-rock tag,” he said. “We’re just playing rock. We don’t want to sell ourselves short and call it any one thing. As soon as you title yourself, it sort of limits what you can do.”
Queens of the Stone Age has a lot more music in it, Oliveri says, unlike Kyuss, which was its own worst enemy.
“Kyuss was a band that sabotaged itself a lot,” he said. “If the band started to do well, the band did something else. ‘We can’t do well, it’s gotta stay where it’s at or it’s a sellout.’ The band started to do well and then the band broke up.
” ‘To preserve it is to destroy it.’ That was the whole philosophy with Kyuss, get in and get out, and leave what we left behind. It’s one of the things I think we accomplished. We made some pretty cool records, and it was fun.”
THE FIRST RECORD I EVER BOUGHT: “I’d say, maybe it was Black Sabbath, ‘Paranoid,’ or Kiss’ ‘Destroyer’ or something. When you’re a kid, you play with Evil Knievel and Gene Simmons dolls. Kiss was a perfect thing for a kid.”
THE FIRST CONCERT I EVER WENT TO: “It was a heavy metal thing called the US Festival (in San Bernardino). It was in ’82, something called ‘Big Heavy Metal Sunday.’ It was like 300,000 people, something ridiculous. It was like Judas Priest and Ozzy and Motley Crue and all these bands, Scorpions and Van Halen and all those bands that were ruining music at that point in time. I was like 11 years old, so it was a pretty big impact. It was a big party.”
THE LAST CD I BOUGHT: “I just bought a box set of Cheap Trick’s first three records – ‘Cheap Trick,’ In Color’ and ‘Heaven Tonight.’ I thought, ‘I’ve gotta get it!’ … You know, they’re one of the greatest pop bands ever. Robin Zander’s voice is still golden, man. I went and saw them last year, when they did the three albums-three nights thing, they did the first album the first night, the second album the second night and the third album the third night. Still a golden voice, still kicks ass, amazing.”
BWF (before we forget): Rock on with Queens of the Stone Age @ www.qotsa.com.