With an ever-shifting cast of characters in the Oval office, racially motivated marches on the streets, and the world on the precipice of nuclear war with a small totalitarian dictatorship in South East Asia, it’s no surprise that many of America’s finest musicians have taken aim at the current state of their nation in the aftermath of the inauguration of President Trump. Queens Of The Stone Age, however, were looking for a little ‘Escapism’ amongst the toxicity.
In a world of fake news and twitter tirades, politics was something the stoner rock five-piece were keen to keep at arm’s length when creating their new album, the unrelentingly groovy desert rock romp that is ‘Villains’. “For me it’s more escapist, It’s a place I like to go to where I can meditate from everything else going on in the world,” explains keyboardist Dean Fertita, when questioned on frontman, Josh Homme’s description of the album as an “ice cream parlour or video arcade that is safe from the bullshit of the day” in previous interviews.
“I appreciate people that have a political view and want to speak out about it and present it through song,” interjects bassist Mikey Shuman as he details the fantastical nature of the latest Queens album, “but I like that we’re the ones who don’t do that. We are the escape, the party that you can go to after you watch the news all day and enjoy yourself”.
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One could be mistaken for this rather poisonous atmosphere to have perhaps unknowingly seeped into the record, with such ambiguous track titles as ‘The Evil has Landed’ and ‘Villains oO Circumstance’ potentially alluding to a certain political figure. “Not at all,” Shuman jumps in quickly to correct me, “if you listen to ‘Villains Of Circumstance’ it has nothing politically. Just about being on tour and being away from the things you love. And that’s it.”
In fairness, Queens of the Stone Age have always been a band that have veered from the topical and political in favour of mind-bending rock jams and sardonic put-downs, whilst preserving a fresh sense of experimentation on all seven of their albums to date. The latest eyebrow raiser being the inclusion of pop impresario Mark Ronson on production duties, a man more well-known for his work with Bruno Mars and Amy Winehouse than with traditional band setups. “With Mark, I think everybody, because of what his body of work is, knows him so they have a certain expectation of him,” insists Fertita. “He’s a music guy first and foremost.”
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It felt like a great environment to create...
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“We’ve met him over the years so we know him and he loves Queens, and we we’re fans of what he does,” Fertita continues. “So, the contradiction from the outside was interesting, there’s a risk on both sides a little bit but I think we knew it would be mutually beneficial too because there are things in response to where we left after ‘…Like Clockwork’ that the only conscious decision was to not work in an environment as dark as the last one, and Queens has always had this dance element there so let’s just take that and stick that knife in and twist it a little harder.”
“Mark is the perfect guy for that”, he continues. “He’s a detail orientated guy which Queens of the Stone Age have always been, so to have this team of people between Josh, Mark Ronson and Mark Rankin, who worked on ‘…Like Clockwork’ overseeing tones and all the subtleties, it felt like a great environment to create.”
Whilst Ronson was a prominent addition to the project, one notable absence were the famous faces and contributors that littered their previous records. With rock icons from Dave Grohl, Mark Lanegan and Trent Reznor to less likely allies such as Scissor Sisters frontman Jake Shears and Elton John (whose frenzied piano outro on ‘Fairweather Friends’ made it one of the highlights of their previous album) having featured heavily on 2013’s ‘…Like Clockwork’. “We didn’t plan it that way but I think the difference with this record to all the other records is that it’s five guys, which I don’t even know the last time it was a Queens record with just the full band,” details Shuman.
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Even from the early days Queens of the Stone Age have struggled to nail down its members on a permanent basis with only their “all-conquering leader” Josh Homme remaining as the only original member of the band, with both Dean and Mikey having joined in 2007. Mikey explains: “We were a strong unit after touring for two years so we just thought that OK we’re a band, we can go in a room together and write the songs together, not thinking it out in a studio. So that’s what we did. That’s the one element that was different. By the time we had all the songs and everyone’s parts, it was all done. And at the end we were like ‘oh there are no guests’”.
‘Villains’ has been described as many almost as a sequel to ‘…Like Clockwork’ both in terms of personnel and sound, a sense of feeling shared by the band, “It’s a reset of Queens I think, ‘…Like Clockwork’ opened a lot of doors for the band and brought it to an even bigger level than we thought it could be. It’s like “oh shit now we’re heading towards this big direction and it feels like that extension,” says Shuman as Fertita observes how this was “pretty remarkable for a band that has been around for 20 years you know”.
And it is pretty ‘remarkable’, how a band that has been around for 21 years now (admittedly originally going by the name of Gamma Ray for the first year of their existence) could still be going from strength to strength. Queens Of The Stone Age continue to take in even bigger festival slots and arenas, particularly in the UK with their upcoming show pencilled in at London’s O2 Arena set to be their biggest to date. When asked of the band’s relationship with the UK, Shuman describes it as the band’s “second home, it’s the first place we come to when we do anything. We see Heathrow airport the most.”
“Michael loves waiting at Heathrow!” Fertita jokes before likening it to “a connection with a friend, where if somebody is on your side early they’ve got your back forever. So I think that only builds over time. If you’re in it early, we’re in it together.”
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We can go in a room together and write the songs together, not thinking it out in a studio.
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And this is a band that has built up a strong, hardcore fanbase here following the breakout success of ‘Rated R’ back in 2000, and a factor that led to the bad deciding to celebrate their album release by performing at both the hallowed grounds of the twinned Reading and Leeds festival on the same day. Shuman explains: “We’ve known about it for a long time and I’ve been looking forward to it. I remember how I felt last time when ‘…Like Clockwork’ came out. I was very emotional; it was big day and we had everyone out here who worked on the record like our team and crew. It was a really special day.”
“So I’ve been looking forward to this one. Because not only does the record come out and we get to share it with the world but to do something like that. I don’t know if it’s even been done. It’s just a special thing to do. It’s going to be something that we remember forever”.
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It’s going to be something that we remember forever...
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Finally, the conversation turned to the state of rock music in its rawest form in 2017. A debate that has been raging for a number of years now and has seen many of the genre’s greatest icons, including the likes of The Who’s Roger Daltrey, wade in and declare such guitar-orientated music as ‘dead’. But surely this isn’t the case. Particularly as ‘Villains’ recently beat off competition with The War On Drugs to claim the UK number one spot. “It’s obviously not dead,” Fertita responds, rather wearily as if tired of such ridiculous headline grabbing outburst from past-their-prime rock musicians.
“I guess you believe in the spirt of it because it exists in a lot of ways. As I get older I recognise the things that excited me as a kid. How the spirit is at odds with the popular thing at the moment. As anything, when it gets more and more popular and less rebellious then it starts to fade away a bit.”
“People look for new ways to do that same thing in a different format, but it’s still the same thing,” he insists. “So for me it’s just you have to look everywhere for it. There will be people doing it the way we do it and then people doing it in another way. That is never going to die,” he says, before starting to laugh: “I’m going to jump off this balcony now!”
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Words: Rory Marcham
'Villains' is out now. Catch Queens Of The Stone Age at the following shows:
18 London Wembley Arena
19 Manchester Arena
21 London The O2 - SOLD OUT
23 Edinburgh Usher Hall - SOLD OUT
24 Dublin 3Arena - SOLD OUT
For tickets to the latest Queens Of The Stone Age shows click HERE.
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