Dangerous Lives of Desert Boys
1. NO ONE KNOWS
During this past March's All Tomorrow's Parties music festival at UCLA, there was one night dedicated to the legendary Detroit rock & roll band the Stooges. With Stooges singer Iggy Pop absent and the original bassist deceased, the band's Ron and Scott Asheton assembled an ad hoc group composed of underground and overground superstars with the help of guitarist J Mascis and bassist Mike Watt. That night, the formidable task of vocal duties was shared by Watt (intense, perhaps demented), Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore (arty, modest) and Kim Gordon (tuff screech), and Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder (whatever).
But there was one other singer. A tall redhead, kinda scared-looking, essaying a barely audible '1969' -- a ginger deer caught in the Stoogelights, covering a song about a year that happened before he was born, doing his best to bring out the despair, the feyness, the petulance of lyrics like "Last year I was 21 / I didn't have a lot of fun / And now I'm gonna be 22 / I say oh my and a boo hoo." Singing, where Iggy sneered.
And almost nobody present knew who he was.
A lot of this headscratchery has been surrounding that singer -- his name is Joshua Homme -- this year. It'd happened earlier in the year, too, when Foo Fighters leader and former Nirvana drummer Dave Grohl said he was putting all his other work on hold in order to become a full-time member of Homme's band, the L.A.-based Queens Of The Stone Age. And it's happening with last week's release of the Queens' third album, Songs For The Deaf, a masterpiece of pure rock & roll imagination and power certain to attract deserved acclaim and shift serious units to an unfamiliar public. It's as if this record, this band, this singer, have come out of nowhere.
And, in a way, they have, "nowhere" being the Southern California desert: that wilderness, that desolation, that anti-human void two hours beyond the glitter and smog of Los Angeles... past the edge cities and suburban infill of the Inland Empire... beyond even the lands of corporate housing.
Yet when we look closely at almost any so-called wilderness, we often find it's more alive than we first suspected -- perhaps even richer, in the most important things, than the city itself. But we need a guide to help us find the shamanic dudes, to hear about the shifting alliances and labyrinthine confederacies, the high elders and the boy apprentices, the record producers and the devil worshippers, the teenage boredom and the midnight musharitas, the violent brawls and nationally televised public male nudity.
One guide isn't gonna be enough.
A GUIDE TO OUR GUIDES
JOSHUA HOMME: QOTSA, Kyuss, Desert Sessions organizer, Mondo Generator, etc.
BRANT BJORK: Kyuss, Fu Manchu, solo artist, QOTSA, Mondo Generator, etc.
NICK OLIVERI: QOTSA, Kyuss, Mondo Generator, Dwarves, etc.
ALFREDO HERNANDEZ: Across the River, Yawning Man, Sort of Quartet, Kyuss, QOTSA, etc.
MARIO "BOOMER" LALLI: Across the River, Yawning Man, Sort of Quartet, Fatso Jetson, etc.
JOHN GARCIA: Kyuss, Unida, Hermano, etc.
CHRIS GOSS: Masters of Reality; Kyuss and QOTSA producer, etc.
2. THE LEY OF THE LAND
Joshua Homme: There's a bunch of small towns in the desert that are connected. At the start is Palm Springs, where retirees and Hollywood types like to have nice places. And then it ends at the Salton Sea, where it's speed freaks and ranches and farms and Social Security folks and RV campsites. It's like an onion: There's that rich retiree layer, and then the people that work for them, and then the people that steal from them. And then there's the people that grow food and then the people that do tweak. And they're all locked together.
Brant Bjork: The high desert is probably closer to what people imagine the desert to be like. It's less populated. Less mountains. It's more vast. Little houses. Real, real small towns.
Homme: You don't want to run out of gas out in the high desert. The people that live out there? You go to breakfast at the Country Kitchen, you'll hear [in hick accent], "Well, Clara was supposed to baby-sit little Timmy, but all she did was stay up and do speed and never even saw the kid, and he was eatin' paste in the back." You know the places Manson said if he ever got out of prison he would move to? That's Desert Hot Springs. It's very much like getting caught in a David Lynch movie.
But wherever you are, whether it's the low or the high, you'll be driving through the desert, and it's hot as shit, and you'll see a guy just walking on the side of the road in the middle of nowhere. That's Walking Guy. There's one in every desert town.
3. BENEVOLENT GODFATHERS
Bjork: Josh and I grew up together. My dad is a judge in Indio, my mom is a teacher. Josh came from a real well-to-do family. He's one of the funniest guys I've ever known. He was a tall guy, and he had red hair, so he stood out, and he kinda had to live up to that. Clever dude, great musician, had his shit together.
Homme: I was born and raised in the low desert -- lived in Palm Desert, Rancho Mirage, Cathedral City, Palm Springs. It's tripled in population since I was 10. When I was a kid, there was nothing there. And now I'm 29 and everything's there. What once was desert is... not.
Nick Oliveri: I was a transplant. I was born in Los Angeles, but I grew up in the desert. Josh and I have known each other since two years after I moved there, when I was 11.
Bjork: Nick was a living legend in middle school, he was the guy wearin' Vans, jeans, Ozzy shirt, flannel, hair down to the middle of his back. Smokin' cigarettes, doin' blow. Just partying. He's been going like that since the early '80s! He's a radical. Josh and Nick couldn't have been more opposite, really. But equally interesting.
Brant Bjork and Joshua Homme were two years younger than John Garcia and one year younger than Nick Oliveri; they were still in junior high school when Garcia and Oliveri witnessed the local punk-rock band Across the River playing at their high schools during lunch period. ATR were already renowned as the original desert punks; they'd lived in L.A. for a year, toured a bit in their van called "The Provolone" and played a major festival in Riverside. But perhaps Across the River's most important shows were the unofficial, illegal ones far from clubs: the free all-night concert parties in remote desert locations that they organized and played at.
When bassist Scott Reeder joined L.A./D.C. stoner metal band the Obsessed, ATR's remaining members -- guitarist-vocalist Mario "Boomer" Lalli and drummer Alfredo Hernandez -- decided to continue on in a variety of bands. One was Yawning Man, which featured Mario's cousin Larry on bass and longtime friend Gary Arce on guitar. Yawning Man was the band that played at the first generator party Homme and Bjork attended. It was a band and a show that had a huge impact on the two 16-year-olds, who already had their own musical projects going.
Bjork: We had been trying to get into the punk scene that didn't even exist anymore. We were into Black Flag, Minor Threat, Misfits. But when we finally tapped into the local scene, it's Yawning Man, and they're playing this really stone-y music. It wasn't militant like Black Flag. It was very drugged, very mystical. But we got into it. Yawning Man was the greatest band I've ever seen. We saw them many times at their generator parties. You'd get to the location, be up there partying, and then the Lallis would show up in their van, all mellow, drag out their shit and set up. It was more like something in the '60s than some gnarly punk scene. Everyone's just tripping, and they're just playing away, for hours.
So I started a new band with my best buddy Chris Cockrell on bass in '87, and we got Josh to play guitar.
Cockrell persuaded John Garcia to come to Bjork's house and hear his band play. Garcia ended up being the band's vocalist, singing words that Homme and Bjork wrote for him. He was two years their senior, which meant he was on varsity instead of JV.
John Garcia: I was a normal kid in high school, smoking pot behind the bleachers, doing that type of shit. We all played football. We weren't jocks, we just wanted to get in there and fuck people up. They were playing this mean, heavy, fast punk-rock music. Wow! I started singing this really fast punk-rock style, blah balalalahfhha! And Brant stopped right after the first verse and he goes, "No, John. Try singing it like this." And he started singing me this really beautiful melody. I said, "Well, fuck, you want me to really sing."
The band, first called Katzenjammer, then Sons of Kyuss and then Kyuss, sounded unique: low-tuned, heavy guitars doing fast riffs while the vocals hovered above. It was an approach that Homme and Bjork had arrived at partially by accident, partially by design.
Bjork: We didn't know how to tune. So Josh would tune the guitar to what felt right, and we all tuned to him, and then we would just jam.
Homme: We didn't have enough money to buy tuners! And so we kept tuning down and down and down, until the strings were flopping, and then you'd just bring it barely up. Then we would all tune to each other, and the gig would start. When we played outside, with the wind or the generators' power pulses, the guitars would go rrrrrRRRRRrrrrr.
That was the main thing in the desert: You had to sound like yourself, or else people would talk shit about you. The toughest thing for me was trying not to copy Mario Lalli. He's my favorite guitar player in the world, 'cause he's soooo original. Like I have a certain lead flick that I do all the time, and it's from him. I can't help it, it's so badass.
Brant learned lots of his drumming from Alfredo Hernandez, who was into Devo, and Robo and Bill Stevenson from Black Flag. So Brant would make the beat roll. It did something to the music. We loved our music so much we would play and pay no attention to the audience. Never wrote a set list. We could jam any of our songs at a moment's notice.
Garcia: The majority was written by Josh and Brant. That was the best chemistry between two people I will ever, ever, ever see in my entire life. And I weep at the fact that those two never stayed together.
Eventually, Kyuss, now aged 16 and 17, made a demo, gained a manager and attracted the attention of Masters of Reality mainman Chris Goss, (sub)legendary for the classic rock sound and songwriting of the Masters' first album. Goss attended Kyuss' L.A. debut for an audience of five at the now-defunct Hollywood club the Gaslight. Goss was more than impressed.
"I went apeshit," he says. "I hadn't felt heavy music like that since I'd seen Black Sabbath in the early '70s. There's a thing that happens when guitar and bass play a slow riff and the drums are swinging under it -- it's a body thing, your spine almost turns to jelly. The drums were swinging under these really low riffs, and there was a great singer. I'd been a fan of heavy music all my life, and here were some kids doing it as good as or better than I'd ever heard. So I walked up to Josh afterwards and I said, 'Are you a Sabbath fan?' And he said, 'No, I've never really listened to Sabbath.' And then I knew we were on to something. This was coming from them."
Goss lobbied the band's record label, the L.A. independent Chameleon, to let him produce their second album.
Bjork: We were very lucky. We had an innocence to us. There was so much conviction in what we were doing that people couldn't deny that. So these older guys would protect us, and help us do what we wanted to do. Like, eventually we got [veteran punk-rock soundman] Hutch as a soundman. He knew how to take Kyuss and make it sound proper and rad in a club.
We would go into L.A. and see these bands that would go on before us take shit from club owners and stuff. We weren't having that. One night we upstaged [punk-rock thug] Jack Grisham, whose band we were opening for. The club soundman shut off the PA in the middle of our set and got onstage and started taking the mikes down. We hurt the dude pretty bad. I'm not proud of this era, I've since mellowed out, but I mean, that's how we were. We were young, we were pissed, we were punks.
4. ENCHANTING MEMORIES
The band was best in its home environment. Borrowing Mario Lalli's generator, they played many of their most memorable shows at parties in remote locations around the desert.
Chris Goss: I have enchanting memories, where you're driving toward where they're playing in the middle of the desert, and you're totally lost, but you see some car parked by the side of the road lookin' like it's been abandoned by some drunken kid. And you see someone else stumbling out in the darkness. So you know you're getting close. And then seeing a little glow, a single halogen light on a pole -- just one light, so the generator wouldn't blow out. And then actually getting there, and seeing Kyuss playing, surrounded by a few hundred kids slamming in the sand in the middle of the night, with the wind whipping sand around everywhere. And then the sound of it, like you're listening to Kyuss in a tornado, and you could only see this cacophony of bodies, of fucked-up kids, slamming into each other. It was like stumbling on the Plains Indians doing a war dance.
Homme: It had moments of true beauty where it was, This is amazing. There was one time in Indio Hills. There's a bonfire in front of us, so no one's standing directly in front of you. But they're on the edge of the fire. The canyon was tight, and there's little fires in the walls of the canyon, in these perches, where people were standing around these little fires. And you could see the shadows on the canyon walls. And you'd look up and see girls on top of the hill, dancing. And I remember playing, in that moment, going, This is definitely it.
But the problem with anarchy is, anyone can do whatever they want. Whether it was the wind telling us what to do or Mehi gang guys coming in and stabbing someone in the ass with a penknife, or someone going ch-ch-boom! [with a gun] and they're freaking on acid, that kind of shit can stop a party fast. I remember when they lit the car on fire. And it was like, This is definitely not it.
After the release of their second album, Blues For The Red Sun, and with their live reputation growing, Kyuss began to get touring offers from unconventional metal bands like White Zombie and Faith No More. Then came the chance to support Metallica -- at that point still very much a speed-metal band whose sound was completely opposite to Kyuss' heavy, low-end theory -- for a week's worth of shows in Australia.
Bjork: We were like, Who's gonna know us in Australia? The first night, the soundman from Metallica came up to Hutch and said, "You got full PA. You can just rock. Don't worry about it, man, everything's cool." Hutch looked at us and went, "All right." And, like, the first song, the first night, we had thousands of people -- fuckin' boom! With our volume getting up there, and with Josh playing out of bass cabinets, you could feel the floor shaking. People couldn't deny it. The next night, and for the rest of the tour, we didn't have full PA.
For Bjork, the band had reached its peak. He exited Kyuss before what would become the band's third and finest album, the ceremonial Welcome To Sky Valley, was completed.
"I was drinking a lot, smokin' dope, the business was startin' to get to me," he explains. "Josh and I started running at a little different pace. Our ideals started to change a little bit. Which is natural, 'cause not only was the band developing, but we were becoming adults, too. Kyuss was my life. I started to see it become a demon, and I was burning out simultaneously. So I just decided to leave when I knew I was ahead. As far as I was concerned, we'd just blown Metallica off the stage. I was like, Where do you go after that?"
Bjork went to Humboldt for some soul-searching. (He would later join Fu Manchu for a few years, and is now at work on his third solo record.) Kyuss continued on, bringing in drummer Alfredo Hernandez, who was happy to reunite with bassist Scott Reeder, his rhythm-section partner in Across the River. (Reeder had replaced Nick Oliveri, who'd left the band after Blues For The Red Sun was released.) This lineup lasted for less than two years, recording one more (And The Circus Leaves Town) before Homme pulled the plug.
"Kyuss' first record was when I was 17," he says. "We did Blues when I was still 18; 19, Sky Valley; 20, Circus. And then we broke up when I was 21. On the last couple tours, Kyuss was starting to eat itself anyway. I was disillusioned. Punk rock had blown up in my face. What I thought it was was a total lie. And then I heard Iggy Pop's Lust For Life and The Idiot for the first time. If you're a band on tour, those lyrics hit you -- they were so true. And then I heard the Stooges' records. And those records said everything I wanted to say better than I could say it. It made me want to quit. So, I did."
Reeder and Garcia eventually formed Unida, who finished recording their debut full-length over a year ago; Garcia also sings with a decent stoner rock band called Hermano. Hernandez is currently a studio musician who's playing in a desert punk band called Family Butcher. He's recently reactivated Yawning Man with Mario Lalli and Gary Arce. And Mario and Larry Lalli (along with longtime drummer Tony Tornay) are releasing their fifth Fatso Jetson album in September, courtesy of Josh Homme's Rekords Rekords label. ("It's my pleasure," says Josh.)
5. THE TRAVELS OF NICK OLIVERI
Meanwhile, Nick Oliveri continued on his merry way.
Oliveri: I got naked a couple times onstage when I was in Kyuss. Most of the time, I was just drunk. I just really wasn't vibing when I was younger. And shit, man, the Kyuss records after that are cooler, anyway. I joined the Dwarves, played guitar for one tour, but then everyone realized, "God, you suck at guitar." I just faked it, man. So I moved back to bass. I played on two Dwarves records, then came back to the desert from San Francisco 'cause I got thrown out of the Dwarves. Then I got rehired. Then I quit in '96. I went on tour with Slo Burn, with John Garcia, and I stopped in Austin. I had a friend there I'd jammed with before in Baltimore, so I ended up staying with him and playing, and that's the beginning of my band Mondo Generator. I had two bands: I joined a band my friends already had called the River City Rapists that only did, like, four shows. We'd get boycotted. We'd call the news on ourselves.
6. JOSH HOMME'S KUNG FU PERIOD
"I went to the one place I knew music was dead -- Seattle," says Homme. "Grunge was over, and if the semblance of any good band or any scene started, everyone in Seattle just killed it. They were trying to destroy everything, they hated everything. I was like: Perfect. So I went there to not play. I was trying to get off of my record label, Elektra. I had this plan to ask for a ridiculous amount of money to do demos, thinking they would just say, 'Fuck this,' and write it off. And they didn't. Instead they gave me the money! I thought, Well, I'll sing -- that'll get me kicked off. And it did.
"I ended up being in [Seattle band] Screaming Trees as a second guitarist," says Homme. "But I was only gonna go for one tour. I told them that I'll do Lollapalooza, and then I'm goin' home to go back to school. But then when I was driving C.J. Ramone's truck on Lollapalooza, somewhere in New Mexico, I had an epiphany. I was like, What am I doing, going to school? Who cares if there's too many bands? Who cares if no one else likes my music? That's what I hated about punk rock, trying to anticipate what someone you don't know might think. The 'they' theory: Will they say we sold out? Will they like it? I dropped all that shit, left that attitude behind.
"It was a desert epiphany. The desert is a place where you see forever, and you feel small. It makes everything that really is important stick out, and everything else is gone. Mountains in your life get shrunk back down to molehills."
Homme jammed with different people in Seattle and around the desert. One of them was Chris Goss, who was now, by coincidence or design, his neighbor.
"Josh and I became fast musical friends," says Goss. "He'd come over and we'd pull out a couple of acoustic guitars and just go at it for hours and hours, usually outdoors. Jamming. Talking. Listening to music. And smoking weed. He was trying to figure out what he wanted to do."
"This was my 'And he walked for a year' period," laughs Homme. "My Kung Fu period."
7. HOMME ON THE RANGE
Homme started going up to the high desert to hang out with Fred Drake (who died at home this past June after battling terminal illnesses for years), one of the desert's true eccentrics: a skinny 40-something musician/producer from Texas by way of Hollywood who had converted his Joshua Tree house into a fully functioning recording studio he called Rancho de la Luna. Kyuss had been introduced to Rancho via Dave Catching, a veteran L.A. underground musician who operated the studio in a partnership with Drake. (Catching and Drake had also recently formed an experimental art-ambient-country-rock band called Earthlings? with Wool singer Pete Stahl, a longtime Kyuss associate.) Kyuss' sessions there -- the band's last -- had been memorable.
Homme: The place was covered from floor to ceiling with this amazing stuff Fred had bought at swap meets, and filled with old keyboards and organs and little amps. Little lights everywhere. Going to bed there was a 30-minute experience, 'cause you had to power down the building.
Bjork: The kitchen is five feet from the mixing board, so Dave Catching would be in there cookin' up an insane meal, you'd smell garlic and herbs and spices, and you're sittin' there in the next room tracking drums and the bass. Fire pit out front, a hot tub up to the left, a huge view where you could see for miles.
We did the last Kyuss session there, on mushrooms, for three days straight. I sat there and went, "I... cannot... wait, the board's over here." That was probably the best Kyuss session ever, with the gnarliest Kyuss songs ever. Were the drugs totally necessary? I have no fuckin' idea. There's a long list of things it takes to make music, and drugs is on there, but the list is not made in order of importance.
Like Walking Guy, Homme had wandered in the desert between cities. And now, like Joshua of the Bible, who was also a musician, Homme began to make walls fall, too, helming a series of "desert sessions" that started in August 1997 at Rancho. The invisible margins that had historically separated the high desert from the low desert were obviously gone. But the barriers between solo and group recording projects, between friend and collaborator, between jam and song, between musicians of vastly different professional financial status, fell as well.
"Desert Sessions is good for musicians," says Homme, "because you get with a bunch of people you do and don't know but are these amazingly talented people, and hear things done in a way you never would have thought of, and now you have a chance to. And you play for the sake of music."
Drake and Catching were there, playing, producing, cooking, mixing musharitas. Stahl, Goss, Hernandez, Bjork and the Lallis were there, too, along with other desert denizens and various members and ex-members of Monster Magnet, Soundgarden, Eleven and Hole. It's in these first four sessions, released later by the indie record label Man's Ruin, that you can hear not just some pretty great music -- check out the heavy spacerockage of 'Johnny the Boy' on Vol. II, or the triumphantly full-on cover of the Groundhogs' 'Eccentric Man' on Volume IV -- but the evolution to Homme's next band as well.
8. HERE COME THE QUEENS
Goss: Josh called me from Europe in the middle of the night. He goes, "Guess what I'm gonna call my new band? It's something you used to call Kyuss in the studio." I couldn't remember. He says, "Queens Of The Stone Age!" I had called them that a lot. You know, word playing. It actually got to the point where someone had even designed a figure that they thought was a "queen of the stone age": a cement skeleton with a limp wrist.
For the recording of Queens' 1998 Sabbath-meets-Devo-meets-Hawkwind debut, Homme re-upped his partnership with bassist Nick Oliveri and drummer Alfredo Hernandez. Oliveri was now sporting a freak goatee and shaved head instead of his former butt-length hair, but was still up for old tricks -- violence, drug cocktails, debauchery. It was a situation Queens happily stoked: They followed the release of 2000's Rated R -- whose opening song's complete lyrics are "NicotineValiumVicodinMarijuanaEcstasyandAlcoholCo-co-co-cocaine" -- with a much publicized beatdown of British band Terrorvision at an English festival. (It was actually Homme and Dave Catching who did most of the brawling, but Oliveri went to jail. "The events are true, but we just blamed Nick," laughs Homme.) And then there was that show in Brazil and what Homme calls "the coolest fucking incident of all time," when Oliveri was forcibly "detained" by police onstage and asked to publicly apologize after playing in the nude to 250,000 people at a metal festival televised live to a national audience. As a result, Oliveri and the band got more attention for their antics than their music.
But side by side with this pranksterism was an ever-widening artistic ambition. Rated R's 'Feel Good', for instance, was followed by 'The Lost Art Of Keeping A Secret', an epic guitar-riff song augmented with vibes, saxophones and five other musicians. Homme and Oliveri had become the band's only permanent members, the drummer position was in constant rotation, and the shape of Queens changed as other musicians came and went, tour to tour and track to track. Queens had become a semipermanent Desert Session.
"Even though modern music is more lawless than ever, with people like Björk and Tom Waits and Outkast," says Homme, "I think most bands play by this false set of rules that doesn't exist -- while we know that there aren't rules. We don't have to write everything. It doesn't have to be always all us. It just has to be good. And all these people playing with us are good."
They are. And with people like Mark Lanegan, ex-Screaming Trees singer and arguably one of the two greatest rock voices of his generation, joining the Queens as permanent part-time vocalist, the addition of Foo Fighters/Nirvana drummer Dave Grohl to Queens this year shouldn't have been much of a shock. For those who had been following Queens, it was just another pleasant surprise -- and one that couldn't possibly last long.
"This was like, Dave, will you help us out of a bind and play on this album?" says Homme. "Then he wanted to tour, too. And it was great, because it's really the best the band's ever sounded musically. But there's a negative side to it too, you know. Too bad his name isn't Tom Slingerlandsensmithe."
Reportedly put off by the amount of press he was doing to promote Queens' new album, Grohl was back out of the band before Songs For The Deaf was even released. Which means that perhaps now people can concentrate on the extraordinary, varied music this band has made. Songs is a breathtakingly ambitious, accessible rock record packed with humor, artsy musical maneuvers and super-rock guitar riffs. It's got Grohl, it's got Lanegan, it's got guitars tuned high and low, it's got songs written with Mario Lalli and Eleven's Alain Johannes. It's got an orchestral folk song. It's even got genius player and composer Dean Ween. It's a clear progression from Homme's earlier music -- a broadening of tone, range and craft.
"The Queens is an exercise in something," Homme says. "I'm not gonna force it along, because it can't be so wide that you don't know what's happening. When you're a band, you need to move slowly in order to hold hands with whoever is into you. We have a song on this record that I've had for eight years; it just wasn't ready.
"Even though I've been writing stuff like that for a long time, I had to wean everyone else onto it. Now I can do it in Queens whenever I want. There's a song that's full-on pretension, that almost wasn't gonna make it because I don't want to come off like a pretentious dick. But it just happened to turn out this way, you know? So we put it on. I love making records. It's my favorite part -- the sounds you chase in your head are actualized in front of your face. No one can tell you what to do. And I'd like to have done everything, or tried to do everything, by the time I'm dead. Musically.
"We're musicians. We're just the kind of musicians that always like to play."