Most bands, by the time they get to their sixth album (if they get there at all), are coasting, preaching to the converted or hurtling along a sharp downwards descent. Not Queens of the Stone Age, who have just scored their first US No 1 with their finest work, … Like Clockwork, and are about to play arena shows in London for the first time. How did that happen?
“I don’t think it should be surprising to have a great moment deep into your career,” says 6ft 4in frontman Josh Homme, who before he got here had also made five albums with his first band Kyuss, three as Eagles of Death Metal, one with Dave Grohl and John Paul Jones in Them Crooked Vultures, and 10 sets of Desert Sessions with an ever-changing cast list. Phew! “There’s always that chance to make your greatest move.”
And this is a great move, a collection that lives up to the soft-centred brutality of that perfect band name, by mixing skull-crushing guitars with Homme crooning the most open and honest lyrics of his long career. You may initially be reeled in by an all-star guest list that includes Grohl on drums, Alex Turner of Arctic Monkeys and Elton John, but in truth you might not notice they’re there without being told. This is Homme’s masterwork, one born out of extreme suffering.
Not that you’d know it today, in a posh central London hotel bar, where the 40-year-old is in joshing interviewee mode, puffing on an electronic cigarette and finding plenty of room for wisecracks. Discussing the common problem of musicians running out of lyrical inspiration after a few albums, he starts singing, “All these mansions are tough to live in.” He wears a black heavy metal T-shirt with a cracked skull and flaming eyes, and it takes me half an hour to notice that the blood red scrawl across the top reads “CELINE DION”.
He’s chuffed to have two nights at Wembley Arena booked, of course, but says that isn’t really the point. “We’re stoked, but it’s just a by-product of trying to do good music,” he tells me. “Our goal has always been to make a record that feels real and honest. This is everything we’ve got in this moment. We’ve laid it all out on the table.”
Keyboardist Dean Fertita, who also plays in The Dead Weather with Jack White and knows good music when he hears it, says it is still dawning on him how great … Like Clockwork is. “I don’t think any of us knew what we had,” he says. “This is probably the longest I’ve spent making one record but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. We didn’t leave anything unturned.”
But if this is what it takes to make your best album, there might not be too many other bands signing up. The five months of recording were a near constant struggle. “When we started we did a song called Keep Your Eyes Peeled just like that and thought, this is going to go well. Then it immediately ground to halt for song number two,” says Homme.
He was lucky to get that far. In the autumn of 2011 he had a knee operation during which, for some reason that he seems to blame on his hard living, his heart stopped and had to be restarted with a defibrillator. He spent the next four months in bed with dark depression, during which he wanted to destroy all his guitars and never record again. “Music is a very selfish process. You have to do it for yourself, or that’s how I interpret it. And I was sick of myself. I kind of wished I could get the hell away from me.”
For some rockers, Slash or Ozzy Osbourne say, a brush with death becomes a badge of honour, a cool thing to impress fans. Homme, a father of two young children with his singer wife Brody Dalle, doesn’t feel that way. “I didn’t like it, it would have been great to avoid it, but I’m thankful it happened because now I know what a fool I was. I think I wear the badge of foolishness more than the badge of honour.”
That wasn’t the only problem. Midway through the recording process, Homme fired the band’s drummer of the past decade, Joey Castillo. He was familiar with the process, having kicked out long-term bassist Nick Oliveri in 2004. That friendship has since been repaired, with Oliveri singing backing vocals on the new song, If I Had a Tail. Homme has come to accept that membership of his band is fluid.
“Artistic relationships don’t last. I want them to but I don’t expect them to. They’re like an orange. You get all the juice you can and you don’t sit there holding the rind for the rest of your life. I expect them to have an ending point. When they do last a long time I just think, God, how big is this orange!”
Even so, he doesn’t assume the dictator role that you might expect, and Queens of the Stone Age is anything but a solo project under a fancy name. It was the other band members who helped to lift him out of his fug and persuade him to make music again. “We all decide what direction to go in. But then someone has to hold the wheel and drive, someone else has to read the map — those roles are necessary. Where the friction comes from is when someone wants to switch roles and they won’t admit it.”
With so many collaborators over the years, from PJ Harvey and Trent Reznor to Arctic Monkeys, whose third album, Humbug, Homme produced, it seems like he must be a fun workmate.
“Elton John really is a sweetheart,” he says, talking about working with him on Fairweather Friends. “What was great was that we had a complicated song to work on, so that popped the balloon of ‘This is weird that we’re here with Elton’. Straight away we were tinkering on something together.”
Homme is still a great admirer of Arctic Monkeys too, and not just because he sang on their recent album AM. “Their new record is awesome. There’s a real swagger there that I love and it’s not contrived. They’ve already weathered the hardest part of this. Usually you fall into a career plateau that’s fairly low but they’ve kept it at this great level.”
As for Queens of the Stone Age, maybe they haven’t even plateaued yet. “The second you try too hard it’s over, so you just have to let it go, make it as honest as possible and damn the torpedoes. If you do that right maybe your 16th record could be your best one.” I’m looking forward to hearing it already.