Stoner Rock Royalty

Queens of the Stone Age finds tipped-out serenity in its private desert oasis

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.

Modern stone-age family: From left to right, Josh Homme, the departed Alfredo Hernandez and Nick Oliveri.
Lisa Johnson
Modern stone-age family: From left to right, Josh Homme, the departed Alfredo Hernandez and Nick Oliveri.

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.

Kyuss' time was rapidly drawing to a close, although the group issued two more albums, Sky Valley and the somberly titled And the Circus Leaves Town, before calling it quits in 1995.

As for the breakup, Oliveri says, "There was a lot of political things in terms of business managers. Once everyone was trying to screw the band, Kyuss took a passive-aggressive approach. Instead of trying to rise above it, they said, 'All right, whatever. It's over.' Y'know, just break it up. That was the Kyuss mentality."

Homme moved to Seattle and toured with Screaming Trees for two years. In the interim, he released Kyuss/Queens of the Stone Age, a split EP of unissued tracks from his former band and his new one. Not since the Move "presented" the Electric Light Orchestra has one band so deftly mutated into another.

When the invitation to play with Queens came up, Oliveri was living in Texas and feeling sorely out of place. "I moved there to check it out," recalls Oliveri. "I don't know why. Living there was kind of weird. If you're from anywhere else, you're considered a transplant, and I'm not too much into the pride of any flag, y'know. And Texas is."

Oliveri moved back to Palm Desert, where he'd lived since the early '80s. "Actually there was more of a scene then; there really isn't one now."

Among the groups part of the current scene are the Earthlings (which features newest QOTSA member David Catching), Fatso Jetson and Uneeda (featuring former Kyuss lead vocalist John Garcia). "Everyone's played with each other, or at least a member or two has played or jammed with somebody," says Oliveri.

This rather incestuous cabal of musicians also seems to revolve around Monkey Recording Studios, co-owned by Goss and engineer Steve Feldman. Up and comers like Fu Manchu and the Flys have recorded there in recent months, while countless others have come hoping to capture that elusive desert sound. Queens of the Stone Age recorded its eponymous debut there, returning recently to lay down several new tracks. One song recorded during those sessions, "Infinity," will surface later this year on the soundtrack of the long-awaited sequel to the animated Heavy Metal movie.

Although the first QOTSA album featured three-fourths of Kyuss' Red Sun lineup, it's hardly a case of Kyuss Mach II. While the emphasis is still on the band's heavier side, there's an element of pop that would've been unthinkable in the context of the previous group. One track off its Loosegroove debut, "If Only," features the most telltale of all pop signs -- the hand-clap track. Another trait that sets Queens apart from Kyuss is that Josh Homme decided to start singing.

"I'm a big fan of John Garcia," says Oliveri of Kyuss' powerful wailer. "But to have a guy like John singing, you might as well call it Kyuss. Josh adds a new element. He tried out a bunch of singers until somebody finally told him, "Dude, nobody else's gonna sing this shit, so you gotta sing it yourself."

Compared to Garcia's supercharged voice, Homme's down-to-earth vocal register humanizes the songs and brings a good deal more humor and pathos. When he sings, "Life is a trip when you're psycho alone," on one of the album's standout tracks, "You Can't Quit Me Baby," it resonates with empathy rather than coming off as a put-down. And while the title and the weird slide tunings are a tip of the hat to Led Zeppelin, the bizarre, low-timbre, humming voices on that track and on "Give the Mule What He Wants" are right out of one of Ennio Morricone's scores. Unlike most guitar heroes whose "talent" depends on how many notes they can cram into a single measure, Homme will bend the same note for two minutes to get a suitable trancelike mood, as he does on "Walkin' on the Sidewalks."

Clearly, Queens of the Stone Age is not a group afraid of left field. When asked what direction the next album will take, Oliveri laughs. "Up, down, side to side, man. It's going in all different directions. I think you'll dig it. Some songs will be heavy, some songs will be trippy. We want to be able to move around with it and keep it new for everybody."

Aware of how quickly it can get boring playing the same songs all the time, Oliveri promises surprises on the concert front as well. "We're gonna try tours where we have two drummers, tours where we have two guitar players, add and subtract members. We tour so much and we plan to stay on the road and make records."

Queens made good on that promise during its last tour, when it enlisted new member Dave Catching to play electric piano and lap steel as well as rhythm guitar on a couple of songs. "We want to be able to do stuff live that expands on the album. We're not trying to write any hits."

Maybe not, but many of the tracks from the group's first album easily could match with the Foo Fighters for catchiness and focused hooks. Cementing its appeal with alternative radio, the Queens recently toured with Smashing Pumpkins. "They played smaller places for them so nobody who would've come to see the Queens would've been able to get in," says Oliveri. "Cause it was all sold out in however many minutes," says Oliveri. "We really enjoyed that tour because we wanted to play for the young girls."

Queens of the Stone Age got that chance again when it toured with Hole after Courtney Love and company defected from the ill-fated Marilyn Manson bill. "I'm pretty sure Courtney gave out at least one guitar or two to some girl in the audience every night. It was pretty wild," he laughs. When the tour made a stop at the Mesa Amphitheater, the little girls in the audience screamed like Beatlemaniacs during Hole's set. It was something that didn't happen during the Queens' riff and spliff performance. "I don't know if we're much the young kiddie band," agrees Oliveri. "I wouldn't mind some screaming, though."

Oh well, there's always those adults. The band can leave the chaos of the road behind when it returns to its desert home, where no one over 30 even knows who they are. "It's kind of cool to come back after a tour to a slow-moving place like Palm Desert," says Oliveri. "If you're not playing music here, you're not doing much."

So let Palm Springs and the neighboring counties ignore the contributions of Queens of the Stone Age, and the trails it's blazed in the field of "stoner rock." Once every person three times Queens' ages dies off and wills all their orange and green golf jackets to thrift stores, maybe then the chamber of commerce will get around to erecting a plaque or something. After all, it took 30 years and a major motion picture before Lubbock, Texas, gave its most famous son, Buddy Holly, a bronze statue. A wooden cutout of Josh Homme in front of Blimpie's could take even longer.

Queens of the Stone Age is scheduled to perform Tuesday, August 10; with Ween, at Alice Cooper'stown. Showtime is 8 p.m.

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