Hot Rock: Queens of the Stone Age

The weirdest band on Ozzfest makes timeless psychedelic grunge that could only come from the California desert

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Below is an excerpt of an article that originally appeared in RS 849 from September 14, 2000. This issue and the rest of the Rolling Stone archives are available via Rolling Stone Plus, Rolling Stone's premium subscription plan. If you are already a subscriber, you can click here to see the full story . Not a member? Click here to learn more about Rolling Stone Plus.

It's Josh Homme's night off, so he orders another Bloody Mary. A round, actually, for his entire band, Queens of the Stone Age. The Queens are a heavy band — note: not a heavy-metal band — from the California desert. Tonight they are drinking at a secluded patio bar in Virginia Beach, Virginia, a block or so from the ocean and the tacky boardwalk of haunted houses, taffy shops and restaurants with names like Pocahontas Pacakes. Low-flying military jets from a nearby base occasionally buzz overhead. The Queens have come to Virginia Beach to play rock & roll.

"Could we get doubles? Like, in a big glass?" someone asks the waitress.

"And make them strong," requests Homme, who is tall and rangy, with short red hair and WASP-y good looks that, from the right angle, recall Late Late Show host Craig Kilborn. "Hit me hard. Like we hit each other."

"We're drunks — let's get it on!" cheerfully seconds Nick Oliveri, Homme's partner in crime since the sixth grade. Though Oliveri looks like he should be tattooed on a biker's biceps or hefting a pitchfork — he has a shaved head and a long paintbrush beard that he often strokes to a point — he is almost always the most cheerful person in the room. Tonight he is wearing a Hawaiian shirt covered with sake bottles.

The drinks arrive a few minutes later, in large glasses that look like they're meant for lemonade. Then a middle-age woman in beach-casual attire approaches.

"So what's the name of your band?" she asks.

Homme cranes around in his seat, kind of half-smirks at the absurdity of what he's about to say, then answers, deadpan, "We're called Queens of the Stone Age."

"Oh," the woman says, possibly wondering if she should pretend to have heard of them, then deciding against it. "Cool."

Josh Homme is the kind of guy who, some four years into it, still finds great amusement in having to say his own band's name in public. Yet the singer-guitarist — who formed his first group, early-Nineties cult faves Kyuss, when he was only fourteen — also takes music extremely seriously. It is his life. Which is why he feels compelled to sort of mock it at the same time he's embracing it.

What the Queens are not is a joke band. They are not Spinal Tap. Their sound — hard to pinpoint, because it changes from song to song, but most often is an expansive, distortion-heavy trippiness falling somewhere between grunge and psychedelia, a sound very clearly born of the desert — hits you hard. (You know: the way they hit each other.) But they certainly don't fit in alongside the new wave of chart-topping metal bands. As Homme tells unfamiliar crowds before playing a note, "Hello. We're not angry and we don't rap." The weird timelessness of the Queens' brand of rock — the sense that they are doing exactly what they want to be doing, fashionable or not, as if cut off from the past twenty-five years or so of popular culture — is what makes the band's new album, Rated R, so great.

But, yeah, Homme also likes to kid around. He chose the name Queens of the Stone Age to piss off homophobic metal fans. The first song on Rated R is called "Feel Good Hit of the Summer." The lyrics, in toto, go like this: "Nicotine! Valium! Vicodin! Marijuana! Ecstasy! And alcohol!" Former Judas Priest singer Rob Halford handles the chorus, which is: "C-c-c-c-co-caiiiiinne!"

"Halford was in the studio next door," Homme recalls. "It was just like, 'Dude, you wanna try this?' He goes, 'So, what are the lyrics?' I looked at him, and I looked over at the guys, and I said, 'I'd better write them down.' I wrote them real big on a blank sheet of paper, and then I handed it to him. He goes, 'Oh. Rock & roll cocktail. I know this one.' "

The other key to Rated R's brilliance is that songs like "Feel Good Hit of the Summer" are performed with a completely straight face and can segue, seamlessly, into a song like "The Lost Art of Keeping a Secret," the slow-burning, vibraphone-haunted, entirely serious come-on that is the album's first single. Homme and Oliveri — who plays bass and contributes lead vocals on two of the tracks — recorded the rest of Rated R with a rotating cast of characters, which adds to the record's mercurial sound. Songs drift from a flat-out punk anthem ("Quick and to the Pointless") to some hallucinatory percussion ("Better Living Through Chemistry") to a gentle vocal turn from former Screaming Trees singer Mark Lanegan ("In the Fade")

It all makes sense when you consider the scene Homme and Oliveri emerged from. They grew up in middle-class families in Palm Desert, California, a small town in a valley that also includes ritzy Palm Springs, agricultural center Coachella and gay mecca Cathedral City. For the discerning teenage music fan, one of the few outlets was the weekend parties held in the desert: in the isolated canyons of Indio Hills, where bands plug into a generator, or at the ruins of the old, abandoned nudist colony, where skaters had long used the drained pool as a half-pipe.

"It was anarchy," Homme says. "You just had to not sound like the next band, and you were fine. That was the only catch when Kyuss was first starting. It was like, 'You sound like this.' Nick and I and the rest of the band were like, 'Never again will they say that.'

"People say, 'I got into music for the girls,'" he continues. "But I didn't realize that until later. I got into music because I loved it, and it was like chasing shit in your head, and everyone else in our scene was the same way. Once it was like, 'Let's be different,' it became, 'Well, how can we be different, really?" You hear your favorite song and you say, 'That makes me feel so good. Now what if no one else played it, so I had to?' In the desert, it was about having to make your own thing, and being isolated enough to do it without anyone fucking with you."

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From The Archives Issue 99: January 6, 1972
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