Shaking off the desert's dust

Special to The Times

"Our message of No Message is a good message to have as a message for people that might want a message."

-- Josh Homme, Queens of the Stone Age, on wartime politics.

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Josh Homme and Nick Oliveri, the co-founders of "desert rock" megalith Queens of the Stone Age, have quietly, almost furtively, decamped to Los Angeles. It's a big move for two musicians identified for more than a decade with the desert towns of Cathedral City and Palm Desert, and Homme casually drops this news into an interview on their tour bus before a show at the Grove in Anaheim.

But the mystic, hard-edged ethos of the California desert is hard to quit, even if the towns themselves aren't. It's the desert of the Hell's Angels and Gram Parsons and Jim Morrison, of "Vanishing Point" and Kyuss, the legendary alt-metal band of which Homme and Oliveri were members and which first earned the tag "desert rock."

Changing base camps is an effort to save time, explains Oliveri, in a touring and recording schedule that includes half a dozen band projects. Oliveri, 31, is recently divorced, and Homme, 30, was without a girlfriend at the time of this interview, so being in L.A. was a way to turn all their attention to work.

"And we're both starring in Ben Affleck's new movie," Homme adds without missing a beat in his quick but deadpan delivery. "It's called 'L.A. HOT.' "

And just like that, the desert takes over, turning Homme and Oliveri into an unlikely comedy duo born of decades spent in a scorched valley with little but beer, pot, TV and music as relief. They're a bit of an odd couple: Homme is tall, with boyish red hair and a prep-school look even at 30, and Oliveri, 31, looks like a desert wizard, with a bald head, long, pointy goatee and tattoos screaming off his arms.

"L.A. Nights Are HOT!" adds Oliveri excitedly.

"It's where Nick and I are dancers at Party Boys II up in Van Nuys. And Ben Affleck is the main dancer at Jocks," continues Homme.

"We quit our jobs at Chippendales and we go to Party Boys, dude," says Oliveri. "And then we take 'em down."

"We take him down in a dance-off," adds Homme, still not smiling. There is no such movie, of course, but it's getting harder to get straight answers out of a band that's finally in the enviable position of letting its music speak for itself.

Queens of the Stone Age's 2002 breakthrough album, "Songs for the Deaf," has pulled these two smart, sludge-guitar-worshiping adults from the outsider fringe squarely into the rock mainstream. But even there, they escape easy genre distinctions with a shrugging postmodern defiance. The best parts on "Deaf" are the full-throttle motor-metal bits that move like Deep Purple's "Highway Star." But, throughout, there's a pop softness about the sound, rounded edges that can tolerate great volume, which makes it clear they've absorbed grunge and post-punk en route to something very un-1970s.

Rather than ape classic rock, they've started at a more obscure place and merged onto that road after making a lot of fresh tracks around the ocotillo and smoke trees.

"Queens seems to be aggressively into not fitting in," says Rolling Stone senior editor Jason Fine, who has championed the band. "It's coming from punk and metal; it's loud, but it's also melodic, funny, and can be psychedelic, if they want to be."

"Songs for the Deaf," the Queens' third full-length album, debuted at No. 17 on the national pop charts in August and floated in and out of the Top 100 for months, grabbing a Grammy nomination for best hard rock performance and selling about 700,000 copies to date. "Deaf" also aroused the critics, showing up on 2002 top 10 lists ranging from USA Today to the New York Times.

Their humor and almost accidental take on heavy rock, along with their ceaseless touring since the release of the band's 2000 album "Rated R," earned them a showcase spot in last week's dreamy Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival and on the newly revived Lollapalooza.

The Queens' sudden arrival, after almost 13 years together, is the triumph of a noncommercial experiment. The low-end guitar quake and long horizons that power the Queens' Top 10 MTV video for "No One Knows" were an attempt to forge a new sound, one that Homme called "robot rock" in the '90s. While hard-core bands were cultivating vitriol, grunge bands were romancing pop, and Ozzfest's metal and alternative bands got more goth and psychically dark, the Queens went off on its own path.

Like its humor, the band's unique take and intellect are the product of isolation and a purist aesthetic that swirled around parties in stark desert canyons. The first taste of success in 12 years may have driven Homme and Oliveri into L.A., but a kind of punk-rock guilt is driving them deeper into weird musical terrain.

Earlier band's cult following

Homme and Oliveri achieved a cult following in the mid-'90s with their original band, Kyuss, which established the Palm Desert area as a kind of Area 51 for experimental desert metal and alt-hard-core punk.

The tectonic, mesmerizing fuzz tone and often droning vocals that characterized Kyuss weren't exactly grunge, although Kyuss shared the ambition of Seattle bands. Nor did they precisely echo the hard-core punk from indie labels like SST, home of Black Flag and the Meat Puppets, which was then their favorite music. Their sound was something with a longer wavelength responding to the wide-open spaces. It reflected a heavy new song structure they heard buried under the staccato, gruff hard-core anthems in albums like the Misfits' "Legacy of Brutality." Kyuss took this sound and elongated it into impassioned jams.

"If you listen to the [English] Subhumans' 'From the Cradle to the Grave,' the whole B-side is one song. You listen to that and Black Flag and GBH and you get Kyuss," says Homme.

Not to make too much of this desert thing, but the aesthetic there is one of survival, and Kyuss immediately had to justify its presence at outlaw "generator parties" -- free outdoor shows in remote areas, amps powered by gasoline generators. This experience required more than huge volume, say Homme and Oliveri. The rural 7-Eleven denizens who crawled out of the darkness to attend these shows were their harshest critics. The indie ethic of SST, which ruled the area, demanded originality and a kind of anti-rock-star professionalism, and anyone falling short was told so.

To make it, Kyuss developed shows that were so long and loud -- everything run through huge bass cabinets -- that when it moved indoors, it routinely blew the house fuses.

They also didn't sound like any other band.

"I censored myself," says Homme. "We adamantly didn't want to be popular. We used to go to great lengths to not be played on the radio."

Partly from punk-rock guilt and partly desert pride, the band stayed a mile away from anything that smelled like a standard hook, chorus or radio hit. They considered even the big grunge bands of the day, like Pearl Jam or Alice in Chains, to be sellouts.

"Now we realize that punk rock was just another clique, just a bunch of rules," says Homme. "I stopped censoring myself. It's more free now than it was then."

"We've always been fans of pop music like Elvis Costello and Cheap Trick. How can you not love 'In Color'? You'd be a liar," says Oliveri.

In the subtle shift from Kyuss to Queens, the boys finally dared to turn the hooks outward. "It feels so good to play something succinct," says Homme. "Now when I hear a chorus, I don't turn it into a five-minute jam, I just let it be a rock chorus."

Which brought them to another new experience: mainstream popularity. The second Queens album, "Rated R," has sold a modest 137,000 copies in the U.S. to date, but it touched a nerve with "Feel Good Hit of the Summer," Homme's response to his music's being called "stoner rock." On the 2000 Ozzfest, Australia's Big Day Out and at other venues worldwide, fans roared out the chorus, a celebration of recreational drug use that reads like a Hunter S. Thompson shopping list: "Nicotine, Valium, Vicodin, marijuana, Ecstasy and alcohol ... c-c-c-c-cocaine!"

The song was meant to poke fun at drugs and to skewer both over-serious proponents of drug use and drug prohibitionists.

Since the release of "Songs for the Deaf," Homme has made a widely publicized decision to quit smoking pot -- something that people wrongly assumed was part of his image.

"We're not saying, 'Do drugs,' " says Oliveri. "We're not saying yes or no. There's no message. We're actually the anti-message." Homme nods, "This [music] is an escapist trip. It's like, take your reality and throw it away for a while. And some people do drugs to do that, some people drink wheat-grass juice to do that or jog. We're in full support of whatever it takes."

Kyuss fan and Foo Fighter frontman Dave Grohl lobbied to play drums on "Rated R," but Homme and Oliveri thought it might be too much like a supergroup. When Grohl announced that he'd put off releasing a Foo Fighters album to help make "Deaf," though, he was inducted. With him and ex-Screaming Trees singer Mark Lanegan then involved as full members, the sound gelled into one of the best albums of 2002.

Part of this is a result of the vocals, a mix of Homme's sexy, understated voice on tunes like "Feel Good Hit of the Summer" and "The Sky Is Fallin'," Lanegan's scratchy clarity and Oliveri's punk screaming. On the Oliveri-sung opener, "You Think I Ain't Worth a Dollar, but I Feel Like a Millionaire," which is about liquid courage, the mix does that old grunge trick of seducing with moments of hypnotic pop sweetness -- as on the chorus "Gimme Toro, gimme some more" -- then exploding into punk-metal fury.

A permanent lineup at last

Beyond the commercial success, the big news in the Queens camp is that there's finally a band after years of fluid lineups that had them working with members of Soundgarden, Dinosaur Jr., the Dwarves and Screaming Trees. The whole ethos had become a kind of experimental punk-metal commune, releasing multiple albums under various names like Gamma Ray, Mondo Generator and Desert Sessions.

But there is, for now, a permanent Queens lineup that includes Lanegan, whose scuffed vocals appeared on one track on "Rated R" and who co-wrote three tracks on "Deaf," ex-Danzig drummer Joey Castillo, and guitarist-keyboardist Troy Van Leeuwen, who played with Limp Bizkit and Orgy.

"It's great playing with all those guys," says Oliveri, but the rotating lineup is a pain. "I got all these new songs and I'm dying to play them, but I have to spend all my time teaching the new guys the old songs."

In part that's because the quartet that made "Deaf," great though it was, couldn't last. Between legs of a 2002 Queens tour, Grohl had to go back to his other job with the Foo Fighters. Homme and Oliveri were miffed for a minute, but they were too busy to think about it. By then they'd already written most of a new Queens album and had three new side projects in the works.

The more success they have, the bigger and faster their rock commune grows. "In the last week, Nick finished his Mondo Generator record, Mark [Lanegan] finished his solo record, and I did 'Desert Sessions 9 and 10' and a record called 'The Eagles of Death Metal,' " says Homme.

Almost all of this was accomplished in a two-week break from the Queens tour. Mondo Generator is mostly songs by Oliveri that don't make it onto Queens records.

Then there are the 10 or so new Queens songs they've already written. It's more than just a work ethic. It's a kind of manic phase. Almost every day off tour is a day in the studio. Oliveri's even taken to filling up off-days on the Queens tours with Mondo dates.

"The iron is hot," says Homme, looking serious. "We have to take advantage. You can't buy freedom, but you can rent it. And this is our chance to -- "

Oliveri jumps in, mocking him with a theatrical voice. "Every man dies, but not every man truly lives."

Homme sits bolt upright, taking on his own stage voice, "I love ya. Always have," then turns back, saying, "And this is like our moment, so were going in. We're infiltrating, heavily. We're going to kill the king."

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