By Lauren Wise
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Was it Magnet, Spin or Pulse! that first coined the insidious term "stoner rock" in an effort to describe a new sound emerging from the desert? The sound that's at times lethargic yet prone to getting loud and sonorous at the crack of a high hat. Personally, I'm hoping the term sprung from a more unlikely source, like Highlights Magazine, the favorite of four out of five dentists' waiting rooms. (Just imagine it: "Gallant likes to rock correctly, but Goofus enjoys fucking things up.")
If you want to do a Leonard Nimoy and go in search of stoner rock's roots, it would require time traveling back to the heady days of the early Nineties, just before alternative became a hackneyed buzz word, but more than a couple of years after heavy metal was systematically ruined by guys with poodle hairdos and leopard-skin pants. In any case, to find the real answer, you'd be forced to explore the unlikely province of Palm Desert, California.
Dead, or very near dead Hollywood icons hang over Palm Desert like fangs from an octogenarian vampire. If a street doesn't have either "palm" or "desert" in its name, chances are it bears the moniker of a former TV talk-show host, like Dinah Shore Drive or Merv Griffin Way. Stroll through the Coechla Valley's stretch of tourist trinket shops, and you can buy postcards of Bob Hope's house, which is perched on a nearby mountain and looks very much like a giant armadillo. A few doors down, you can pose for pictures next to a bronze statue of America's favorite redhead, Lucille Ball, sitting on a bench and making like a friend to the friendless. Further along, you meet up with wooden life-size cutouts of Liberace and Frank Sinatra outside of a Blimpie's. Like there's any chance those two would actually be hanging out together.
It's this bizarre hybrid of resort town and Hollywood wax museum that's provided a home base for the now-legendary Kyuss, and its fast rising offshoot, Queens of the Stone Age, or QOTSA. No, you can't buy a Kyuss "Welcome to Sky Valley" postcard here. You won't even hear the occasional Kyuss tune blaring out of a speeding car window. Yet in music circles, guitarist Josh Homme, bassist Nick Oliveri and drummer Alfredo Hernandez, the onetime nucleus of the band, have undeniably put Palm Desert on the map. Kyuss continues to influence new stoner-rock groups like Monster Magnet and Fu Manchu, but, more recently, these three former Kyuss members reconvened to form QOTSA (Hernandez recently quit, leaving the trapsman duties to former Miracle Workers drummer Gene Troutman).
Bassist Nick Oliveri is a man of few words, "cool" and "beans" being two of the most frequently used. At the moment, monsoon rains are turning my end of the phone connection into the 40 day flood, but, characteristically, everything sounds calm in Palm Desert. If anyone would know when stoner rock was born, it would be Oliveri, but he pleads total ignorance. "That came after Kyuss. I don't know too much about the stoner rock title 'cause we hate to label ourselves anything. That kind of limits what we can do."
Thus far, there doesn't seem to be anything limiting Queens of the Stone Age. Because of the Kyuss cachet, QOTSA seems to have no trouble getting on high-profile tours with the likes of the Smashing Pumpkins or Hole. And while scores of bands have gotten dropped or lost in Polygram's corporate shuffle, QOTSA is one of the few bands that the company (via Interscope Records) has actively courted and signed. Another reason Queens is sitting pretty is that it has a built-in and loyal fan base. Even five years after its demise, Kyuss' popularity continues to grow internationally.
"It kind of worked out for the better," says Oliveri. "Because Kyuss is no more, it is more. That's the same reaction that we get in most places we play. Everybody really cares about Kyuss now. Like everything else, once it's gone everybody goes, 'What happened?'"
In 1991, the same year Nirvana's Nevermind was wreaking havoc on the musical landscape, Kyuss released its first album, Wretch. The two records share more than "Warning: Parental Advisory" stickers. Both exhibit a healthy love for furious metal, speed punk and psychedelic blues. While Nirvana had pop leanings, Kyuss was more metal-based, even sounding free-form at times. Something like Glenn Danzig if he'd gotten Blue Cheer to back him up. "I don't know how you'd categorize Blue Cheer," says Oliveri laughing. "But I don't consider Kyuss metal. There might be some elements of metal there, but we were just playing heavy."
In fact, Danzig took the group with him on tour after its second and arguably best album, 1992's Blues for the Red Sun. Another important friend who continues to work with QOTSA is Masters of Reality founder, Chris Goss. "Chris really liked Kyuss," notes Oliveri. "After Wretch, he helped Kyuss to develop; he did some percussion, background vocals. He was like a fifth member on Blues For the Red Sun."
On that album, Oliveri is listed as a composer, lyricist and vocalist, and you can hear the shift away from loose jams to more structured songs. What you also begin to hear is Oliveri's shift away from the band. He left the group after the album, changed his name to Rex Everything and joined a San Francisco combo called The Dwarves. In fact, Oliveri has just completed a new album with the group. "I was kind of going in a different direction and wanted to do something else for a while, and Kyuss kept going," says Oliveri.