Queens of the Stone Age return in a blaze of glory this week with seventh album Villains. KAREN LOWE caught the band live in Sydney recently at a Splendour in the Grass side show and hung out with guitarist Troy Van Leeuwen to talk about producer Mark Ronson, working with Iggy Pop and his side group with members of At The Drive In and Mastodon.
Working with Mark Ronson on the new album seems to have stirred up controversy amongst fans with some dismissing the album before it’s even released. What do you say to those people? And how did working with Ronson go?
Gosh, I have no control over that. I think it’s short-sighted but you know, everyone’s got their opinion on it. I think what’s important is that we worked with somebody that was different for us. Somebody that challenged us and we were able to challenge him as well.
It was really cool working with him. He’s an amazing musician and we can speak the same language. When somebody knows that much, not only about playing music but having an encyclopaedia of knowledge, we can cross reference things that maybe we listen to, that he listened to growing up, that were different or the same. So we had great language with him and as far as people having judgements before they’ve even heard the record; I think that’s whack. I would never do that. I like to listen to music and make up my mind after that.
Yeah exactly. If I am about to see a band live for the first time, I won’t listen to their CDs first…
I think that’s a good idea. Records are a representation of what, theoretically, what you want but if you can’t cut it live then that shows. We are a live band and Mark Ronson’s a producer and he let us be a live band in the studio. That was cool.
How do you feel this album will compare with previous Queens albums and without giving too much away, do you have a favourite song?
I do, and well, every record’s different for us. Every process is different. The only real thread of similarities between them is to not repeat yourself. We’ve always tried to keep ourselves interested in our own music so really what happens is we end up playing, or making our favourite music.
Speaking of favourite songs, my favourite is, and it changes, but I say this week it’s Un-Reborn Again. Have you heard that one?
I have, that’s a beautiful song…
I like that one because it’s the most far-out there. It has so many different expressions within one song, the dynamics are incredible and believe it or not, it was almost completely live. So we worked on it, crafted it and every part of if is intentional. It’s chock-full of stuff.
My favourite at the moment is Head Like A Haunted House…
That’s the complete opposite too.
You guys always manage to keep that quintessential Queens sound even though each album is so different. How do you begin the writing process to ensure that there is that different element each time? Or is it based on personal events happening around you all at the time?
I think that everyone evolves and we’re no different but our process; it’s always different. The only thing that really shines through is our personalities and that I think is what our sound is. It’s a combination of all of us, of the way we play together and our personalities just in general; the way we tell jokes and stuff and the way everyone dresses a little different so I think we have a great chemistry. That’s the Queens. That’s what makes Queens and the writing is what’s new, what’s freshest. I think that’s the easiest way to put it.
The Way You Used To Do feels like your Leg of Lamb track and has such a 1950’s jive feel about it. Was it a freeing feeling to be able to put out something so joyful and happy? Especially compared to Like Clockwork which is very melancholy?
Absolutely. The easiest way to answer that is YES. It was a direct response almost in some case. When you’re going through what you are going through when making a record like Clockwork, you don’t realise how much, you know, how dark it is but we wanted to brighten up for sure.
We wanted to express that, we have a great life and it’s filled with ups and downs and mostly right now, we’re on the up so I think that’s what came across.
It was exactly what I needed as well…
Oh good! And I’m glad you mentioned Leg of Lamb. That’s something that people don’t usually like, respond to.
I love that song…
Yeah it’s really cheeky.
If you guys could play that live again, I would love it…
(laughs) We will, we will.
If you look at the headline acts over the Big Day Out years as opposed to festivals now, there were far more rock band headliners. What do you think has changed within the industry?
That’s a good question. I don’t know. For us, we’re just so… we have our own kind of world I guess. I think this year is a good rock and roll year.
We were making our record two blocks away from the Foo Fighters making their record and personally for me, those are two big ones. I put out a new record within the first week of this year with Gone Is Gone and the other two guys in that band which are in other bands; they put out records this year too. Rock and roll is all around us and I played on my friend Chelsea Wolfe’s record so that’s coming out so there is a ton of… I think it’s cyclical, maybe. That’s what’s going on.
For festivals and so on, in Los Angeles we have Coachella. There are a lot of bands, a lot of R&B and it used to not be that way and that’s why things like CalJam17 come around because when you don’t have a play to play rock music, you create a place and that’s what I think. That’s our response. I mean, let’s be honest. People always want to say that rock and roll is dead but it just never is. It just isn’t. Rock and roll is punk rock. Rock and roll is hip hop. Rock and roll is psychedelia. It will always be there.
Touring usually means that you are in close quarters for long periods. What steps do you take to make sure that you all get along?
We have a good time. I think there is a healthy respect between all of our band members. We hang out on days off, we go out and DJ on our night off, we’ll go to the zoo. We will look for things to keep it fresh and if we need a moment, we’ll walk away. It’s never been like that. Everyone talks. If there is a problem, it’s sorted. We have a healthy chemistry. That’s the same thing while playing music together. We kind of work those things out while playing so it’s healthy you know.
You have been on the road almost every year since the inception of QOTSA. How do you balance your relationships with family/band?
The best way that we balance our relationships with family is bring them with us whenever we can. It would not last if we weren’t able to see each other. Everyone knows everyone else’s family and sometimes we all vacation together so that’s how we do it. We have to have a balance otherwise we couldn’t just be in a submarine for five months and come out without someone dying by someone else’s hand.
Have you ever taken risks that could have potentially destroyed the band?
Personally, I would not do that. I don’t think I can speak for everyone else but I think everyone respects what we have too much to put it at risk. There’s no drug problems, there’s no abuse of any sort. Yeah I don’t think so… not intentionally anyway. What we have is so good and everyone knows it. It’s too precious.
As a fan, it’s often quite hard to go up to your idols and say hello for fear of being turned away or fear of seizing up and sounding like an idiot. As a musician, how do you go at meeting your idols? Have you ever gone to speak to someone and just seized up?
I’ve met some of my idols and they’ve been nothing but wonderful. I haven’t had that response with anybody yet. I think it’s important to at least try and make a connection with those who inspire you so I would always try and say hello but I think that there’s a point to when you say hello; like what the circumstances are. Like, I would never go up to Nick Cave in a restaurant when he’s with his family. I’d wait till he’s at his show or somewhere where we could chat. You have to have respect with people.
Speaking of the greats, what was it like working with Iggy Pop?
I can’t begin to… him being my favourite idol that I’ve met, meaning, just because the more I got to know him, the more respect I have for him. It’s like a dream come true. You don’t realise when you are a kid that that could happen and someone that inspired you so much could still inspire you at age 70. He’s somebody that taught me so many things; to give everything every night and to not let it slide. If there’s one person that’s just not getting it, he focuses on them. He’s just incredible and out of all the heroes that are here and those that are gone, he’s still here and no one expected him to still be here. That’s the biggest deal to me. At 70, he still listens to new music, has a thirst for poetry, still making it count every day. He takes care of his body and takes care of his mind. He’s a real inspiration.
I have named my cat after Iggy…
Why not? It’s a great name!
And my dog after Jello…
Jello? That’s very funny! They were both 100 yards away from each other like, three weeks ago. Jello was here, Iggy was here and we were in the middle.
You have also formed a supergroup with Troy Sanders (Mastodon), Tony Hajjar (At The Drive In) and Mike Zarin – Gone is Gone. How did that come about and will you guys do a big tour once everything with Queens has settled down?
Well, it’s really hard for us to tour as you know. They’re all busy, I’m busy right now and literally today, today we handed in a new single that will be released later in the year but it’s all via email so we can’t tour via email. I mean, everyone’s in different places of the world so it’s really hard. But the reason it came about is because of the time off that we have. I’ve known both Tony and Troy for ten years plus and it just seemed to be something to fill in when we were all off the road and it turned out, due to the chemistry of those three characters, that we were able to make a lot of music in a very short amount of time. So that’s why we are able to continue to release stuff.
Is there anyone that you haven’t actually worked with as yet that you would absolutely love to?
Oh man, that’s hard to say right now because I’d have to really think about it. You know, we’re always meeting new people and there’s certain people you know that some day you could work with them. Chelsea (Wolfe) is a great example, we played together on the road and I really love her work and it literally happened to be, like, a two-day period where I was able to go and play on the record. So I’m always open but I don’t want to put that energy out there like “I’m gonna work with this person.” It feels a little bit like… creepy. I like things to happen organically. The Iggy thing, if I would have said “I’m gonna work with Iggy Pop” to myself, it just wouldn’t have happened naturally and I like it that way.
What was the best advice that you were given when you first started out? And what advice would you give to someone who was starting out now?
I didn’t really get any advice. I didn’t get any advice and it was probably a good thing but I would say to somebody starting out that you can’t wait for people. Be proactive without being a dick. You have to take your own chances, decide on your own how far you want to go. If you can see it, you can visualise it, then you should just follow that.
Finally, a lot of people were upset that Perth was not included this time around. Will you guys be coming back for the album tour?
(laughs) I know that we have every intention of coming back and we have to play Perth. This is just the first trip that we are taking so, there are no plans in place but it would silly for us not to come back.