JOSH HOMME on QUEENS OF THE STONE AGE's return: "For me, it's all personal" | Revolver

JOSH HOMME on QUEENS OF THE STONE AGE's return: "For me, it's all personal"

Inside the cathartic 'In Times New Roman...'
Queens of the stone age 2023 cover story lead , Andreas Neumann
Queens of the Stone Age
photograph by Andreas Neumann

Malibu is a three-hour drive from the California desert community where Josh Homme grew up, but it still feels like home. The Queens of the Stone Age leader has a place near the cliffs, a big cozy house with three dogs wandering in and out. Inside, the walls are crowded with framed family photos, and his mom is watching daytime TV by the fireplace. In the next room, his teenage daughter leans over a laptop.

It's a moment of calm in the Homme household, and the kind of domestic bliss that has only become more precious in recent years. His contentious divorce from the Distillers' singer Brody Dalle in 2019, and the ongoing custody battle that followed, turned his life upside down, and became the subject of public fascination and speculation. While grappling through years of that, Homme has said little publicly, at least outside a courtroom.

Queens of the stone age Homme desert portrait UNCROPPED
Josh Homme

His work as a creative artist slowed to a crawl during that time, he says now. "I felt chained to the floor for the last three years," he says, but he did ultimately begin work on new music with his band of brothers in Queens of the Stone Age. The album that came out of those sessions, In Times New Roman…, is their most direct and hard-rocking in years — with a sound and feeling that Homme describes as "sonic brutality," as songs aim to make sense of this period of his life. Song titles are often made-up words and phrases that are self-explanatory and revealing of his state of mind: "Obscenery," "Carnavoyeur," "Paper Machete," or the first single, "Emotion Sickness."

If some of the band's earliest lyrics were notable for bizarre, surreal imagery, Homme's songwriting has grown increasingly personal and vulnerable. Never more so than now. "For me, it's all personal," the singer-guitarist says with a laugh. "When someone says it's not personal, I'm like, 'That's just the lie you tell yourself, motherfucker.' If it's not personal, don't do it."

"I think this is the first time I didn't want to make a record, but I was dealing with a lot of stuff in my personal life," Homme adds. "We recorded a lot of stuff. I think I was doing it because when I'm in trouble, this is what I do. This is where I go to get right."

Today's mid-April conversation with Revolver is his first extensive personal interview in years. It's his first since COVID-19, since the death of many close friends and colleagues, since the end of his marriage and the public nightmare of a custody battle over his three kids — and the first since so much else went off the rails. Last year, he was diagnosed with cancer. He won't get into details other than to say that surgery to remove it was successful, though he's still healing. As he sits in a cushioned chair, in an enclosed patio overlooking the backyard, he gets the occasional twinge of pain.

"I never say it can't get any worse. I never say that, and I wouldn't advise it. But I do say it can get better," he offers. "Cancer is just the cherry on top of an interesting time period, you know? I'm extremely thankful that I'll get through this, and I'll look back at this as something that's fucked up — but will have made me better. I'm cool with that. There's a lot of stuff I want to do. And there's a lot of people I want to do that with."

In most ways, Homme is as he's always been since I first met him in 2002. In a month he'll be turning 50, and he's still a wisecracking, sturdy redhead who stands tall and fills whatever room he's in. He's now got a dapper ginger-and-white Van Dyke beard fit for Robin Hood or one of the Three Musketeers, and he's clad in a gray hoodie, skull and lightning bolts across his chest, leopard-print loafers on his feet.

On the counter is a Bob Ross coloring book, a tribute to the late TV art instructor and host of The Joy of Painting — a man famous for his fluffy perm and soothing demeanor, who for years taught viewers how to paint landscapes with happy clouds and snow-capped mountains. Homme remembers Ross as a calming presence and tuned in regularly throughout his teens and twenties. "When I didn't know what to do with my anger sometimes as a younger man, I would watch Bob Ross," Homme says. "It was like a meditation. And he'd ask questions that were fucking brilliant: 'Why can't a tree be your best friend?' And I'd always be like, I don't know, man."

Homme likes to draw, too, and for 20 years he's been leaving behind "wall tattoos" in hotel rooms on tour — hidden behind framed pictures, behind headboards and toilets, and underneath chairs. After using a special tool to unbolt the art from the wall, he'll scrawl an impromptu psychedelic line drawing in the empty space behind the frame and then bolt it back on — knowing the art won't be found for days, months or maybe years later by unsuspecting hotel employees, revealed to them like ancient hieroglyphics.

When work began on In Times New Roman…, he once again called upon what is now — after a full decade together — the longest-serving lineup in his band's history: guitarist-keyboardists Troy Van Leeuwen and Dean Fertita, bassist Michael Shuman and drummer Jon Theodore. Given recent events, it was maybe inevitable the new music would be a shift from the previous two albums: the lush, evocative ...Like Clockwork in 2013, and the danceable, often playful Villains in 2017. The throughline for QOTSA has long been a balance of bravado and vulnerability, soaring guitar lines and disjointed swing. On In Times New Roman…, guitars are again leading the charge, preventing the project from turning into a woe-is-me record, along with Homme's idiosyncratic wordplay

"I've got nothing against therapy. I just don't go because I play [music] instead," Homme says. "Over the last couple years, I've done a lot of therapy, but at the end of the day, I understand how to proceed, moving forward with the religion that I use — music."

Recording sessions began in 2021, but vocals didn't follow for more than a year, an unprecedented delay for Homme. What came out at the mic in November 2022 was as sharp-edged as the churning guitars. On the angry "Paper Machete," Homme taunts an unnamed nemesis: "I don't care what you say anymore ... Joan of Arc, victim, perpetrator ... The truth is just a peace of clay/You sculpt, you change, you hide, then you erase."

"It's like a photograph of a moment," says Homme. "I've always thought a little anger is a great way to run your engine for the first 50 miles. You wouldn't want to run on it for long because it'll corrode you and kill you. You have to be willing to let it all go and accept."

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Queens of the Stone Age

Also returning like another band member is the artist Boneface, providing a vivid, truculent cover image of a blindfolded, leather-jacketed biker embraced by snakes and other dangerous creatures — completing a trilogy of covers that began with …Like Clockwork. Homme sometimes flew Boneface out from England to hear the music in progress and talk about it. "His sensibilities are gorgeous for what we've done," says Homme. "He has a real disdain for society."

On the album is a song called "Sicily," named for a place Homme's never been, which begins with a creeping bassline as he sings in falsetto: "I'm all used up again/I beat myself like a broken record/Objectified, misuse me as directed/My sweet nothing." The music is romantic, ominous, understated, with a swirling, foreign atmosphere, as he invites a lover to use him up. "I think a little mutual degradation is wonderful," Homme explains. "There's something ancient and biological and beautiful about giving yourself away and then someone doing the same. I'm a bit of a masochist and a masochist's work is never done."

The session for "Negative Space" was when Homme felt the album finding its way, with growling guitars, thunderous rhythm and a bit of jazz in the grooves, a taste of Chet Baker or Dave Brubeck's "Take Five." The strutting, strangely danceable "Carnavoyeur" follows Homme's particular brand of swing and disjointed sense of rhythm. "There's a few of those tunes that are first or second take, and things happened that were not planned while the tape was rolling," says Theodore, previously the drummer for the Mars Volta before joining Queens a decade ago. "It was really liberating and as an experience it brought us closer together. There was real joy, there was passion, there was fire."

Like many successful rockers, Homme's been told by countless fans how his music has helped them through difficult times, tragedies and broken hearts. This time Homme needed it for himself. A phrase that is repeated on a couple of tracks is "emotion sickness." It became one of the song titles and was in the running for album title — and it remains the record's unstated theme.

Jon Theodore Queens of the Stone age portrait
Jon Theodore

"I definitely had a serious case of emotion sickness," Homme says. "There were times I almost didn't make it. It's OK for me to ruminate on that. It's not OK to stay there, feel too sorry for myself. This has been the darkest four years of my life. But that's OK, too. In the heartaches, my mistakes, these deaths and my own physical things I'm dealing with — even though all that has occurred and smashed my old life to pieces, those pieces I've been able to build into a ship that's about to launch. I will float into my new life from all those pieces."

Just below his right elbow, surrounding a tattoo of Elvis Presley's vintage "TCB" symbol, he has new ink to mark the recent loss of close friends. Three new tattoos read: "Rio," "Hawk," and "Ol' Scratch" — for the late actor Rio Hackford, Foo Fighters drummer Taylor Hawkins, and singer Mark Lanegan, the Screaming Trees leader and sometime QOTSA member. They all died within the same period that Homme's marriage ended and everything awful that followed for his family — an emotional catastrophe he had to work through in public.

For years, Homme and Dalle seemed like a rock & roll dream couple, raising their little redheaded kids at home and on the road, occasionally rolling up together in style at some L.A. function in the classic 1967 Camaro he's had since high school. Their public romance began years earlier in 2003, with a startling, hilarious portrait in Rolling Stone of the two in a big open-mouthed kiss, tongues comically smashed together: the desert rocker and the blue-haired punk siren. "She is my punk-rock dream girl," he said over the years. When things fell apart just as publicly in 2020, it was like a disturbance in the Force for fans and their closest friends.

During the course of a public battle over the shared custody of their three kids, there were multiple court filings, and mutual accusations of emotional and physical abuse. Fans debated online and took sides, drawing their own conclusions — without the benefit of any firsthand knowledge. Homme said nothing, and headlines inevitably suggested he was the villain in this sad story.

Queens of the Stone Age Troy Van Leeuwan portrait
Troy Van Leeuwan

"To watch and hear and see things happen in the press, it's devastating," says Van Leeuwen, QOTSA's longest-serving member after 21 years. "He's a great dad. It's more important to him than his career."

Then, in March 2023, Homme's publicist released a formal statement on his behalf, which responded to the allegations and reported falsehoods — and declared that he had been given "sole legal custody of all three children," while Dalle was granted "supervised visitation" with their youngest son. The kids are now solely in the care of Homme and their paternal grandparents in Malibu, until a new court hearing this fall decides "a more permanent solution." Homme still prefers to let the statement speak for him, and all he adds now when asked about the subject is: "I would never talk bad about the mother of my children. And I will not talk about my children."

In the living room of Van Leeuwen's house high up in the hills of the San Fernando Valley, the members of Queens of the Stone Age have left their instruments set up in a circle. The band has gathered here several times a week, learning to play the new songs, with their guitars, mics, keyboards and electric drums plugged into small amps. A stack of lyrics is piled high on a coffee table. It hasn't been time to get loud just yet.

Joining them there are Van Leeuwen's four tiny dogs (two poodles and two Maltese shih tzu mixes) — chirpy, excitable canines who seem to bark constantly. "Those dogs are eternally upbeat and optimistic," Homme says with a laugh. "Every time we finish a song, they jump up and it feels like they're saying, 'That was great! My ears are ringing, and I don't understand that, but that was great!' They give you a couple licks and a little body wiggle. They're a great audience."

Two hours before rehearsal, Van Leeuwen sits poolside out back, a sharp dresser in Ray-Bans, black jacket with a racing stripe down the sleeves, and purple loafers. Above his forehead, a bolt of white in his black hair gives him the look of a debonair vampire. Before joining Queens, he was in the original lineup of A Perfect Circle, working with another forceful frontman, Maynard James Keenan.

"Both of those guys are good at the long game, making plans and seeing them through," he says of Homme and Keenan. "Maynard's more precise and more deliberate, where Josh has more of a creative flair, where the ideas are maybe a little more outlandish and not as safe. They're very much alike because it doesn't matter how you get to that point. The styles are just different."

Making the new album, Van Leeuwen says, Queens had an additional mission: returning to the eccentric guitar attack at the band's core. "I think it was the [desire] to simplify things. The world felt complex, with everything that was happening, and all at once. It was a comfort zone for me anyways — to do what we do."

When Van Leeuwen first joined the band, QOTSA had just finished recording 2002's Songs for the Deaf, a blockbuster with Dave Grohl behind the drums, his first time in that role since the end of Nirvana. As guitarists, Van Leeuwen and Homme shared a deep appreciation for Black Flag's Greg Ginn, and fit together easily. Van Leeuwen once saw Homme's first band, the legendary stoner-rock act Kyuss, at a generator party out in the Southern California desert years before.

Putting a label on Homme's sound and vision is difficult, even if Rolling Stone listed Kyuss' 1992 album Blues for the Red Sun among the 100 greatest metal recordings ever. That band was over by the time Homme was 21. "I think stoner rock's probably a better term for where this comes from," Van Leeuwen says of Homme's music. "But when I listen to Josh's voice, I hear Roy Orbison; I hear Bowie; I hear Marc Bolan; I hear Elvis."

While In Times New Roman... features more lead guitar work than ever from Van Leeuwen and Fertita, Homme's distinctive playing and personality remains the connecting thread. "He looks for the weirdest sort of misfit thing that other people might not see the beauty in and makes something wonderful out of it," says Fertita. "He's got this very angular sense about the way he plays, but he is also channeling Dean Martin in his persona. It spans a wide area."

Queens of the Stone Age Dean Fertita portrait
Dean Fertita

"There's a dynamic that you can't put your finger on that just works, and a connection between us that's intangible," adds Shuman, who joined on bass when he was 21. "We might argue like brothers, but we always come back to each other and look out for each other. That's why I would never want to be in any other band."

After Kyuss, and a stint on guitar with the Screaming Trees, Homme reemerged under a new, confounding name in 1996: Queens of the Stone Age. With former Kyuss drummer Alfredo Hernández onboard, Homme recorded the band's explosive self-titled debut, built on heavy grooves and sci-fi riffs. It was strange and intense. Bassist Nick Oliveri joined up soon after, part of a rotating lineup that at times has included Grohl, Lanegan, Joey Castillo (Circle Jerks, the Bronx), Alain Johannes (Them Crooked Vultures, Puscifer), Dave Catching (Eagles of Death Metal) and many more.

QOTSA has been dependably loud and relentless for a quarter-century, fueled on the examples of punk rock and Black Sabbath, though its connection to traditional heavy metal is fleeting at best. While the band toured with Ozzfest in 2000, Homme never felt at home there. The metal label doesn't fit.

"That was just someone trying to put their clothes on you. I was never a metal guy," Homme says, then lists several punk-rock acts that were crucial influences: Black Flag, Discharge, GBH, the Exploited. The first three records Homme bought at 13 with his own money were the Misfits' Legacy of Brutality, the Cramps' ...Off the Bone, and Raw Power by Iggy and the Stooges — and all remain part of his musical foundation. When he was 15, Homme snuck off with his Camaro and drove from Palm Desert into Hollywood to see Danzig perform at the Palladium.

Homme was always comfortable mingling genres, and collaborating with a diverse range of musical figures, from Trent Reznor to Elton John, reaching for sounds explosive or sublime. During sessions for Queens' 2000 album, Rated R, Judas Priest icon Rob Halford was working in the studio next door. Homme invited him to sing on "Feel Good Hit of the Summer," to chant along to the key phrase: "Nicotine, Valium, Vicodin, marijuana, ecstasy and alcohol, c-c-c-c-c-cocaine!" Later, for 2005's Lullabies to Paralyze, came Homme's "Burn the Witch" — a thumping, thundering, spooky, boogie tune on which ZZ Top's Billy Gibbons unfurls an ominous guitar lead and his first-ever "beard harmonic."

Sadly, a planned edition of Homme's ongoing series of communal Desert Sessions recording projects was going to bring together Gibbons and Motörhead frontman Lemmy Kilmister, who died in 2015 before it could happen. "I should have moved faster," Homme says now with regret. "I spent a lot of great time with him. He was a class act."

Michael Shuman Queens of the Stone age portrait
Michael Shuman

Homme had an especially profound experience working with Iggy Pop, as the producer and musical director of the 2016 album Post Pop Depression, which tapped into a creative thread begun with Iggy's first two solo albums, The Idiot and Lust for Life (both produced by David Bowie in 1977). Post Pop Depression became Iggy's highest-charting album. More important for Homme, the proto-punk pioneer is a rare example of a long career without compromise. "A lot of people lose the plot. They make a bunch of money, or they don't make a bunch. They are afraid. They copy themselves. They listen to others. They just don't care, or their art battery can't go the whole way," says Homme. Working with Iggy, he explains, showed him it was possible to escape that creative dead end. "That means I can get there, too."

Iggy was unexpectedly tested when it was time to tour, with a setlist drawn almost exclusively from Post Pop Depression and the two early Iggy/Bowie albums. Iggy was set to fly out from Miami, and the timing couldn't have been worse. The night before his flight, on January 10th, 2016, Bowie died of cancer. Homme soon got a text from Iggy: "I'm on my way."

At the first day of rehearsal with the singer, they started with "The Passenger," from Lust for Life. Homme looked over at the singer. "He is crying but he's not stopping because it's Iggy. He's piercing through that," Homme remembers. "And I'm crying. I look over and everyone that's playing is in tears, but it sounds fucking insane, phenomenal. It's factually the coolest thing I've ever been allowed to be part of ever.

"Life is about moments hanging in the air, and who will seize them. Iggy will," Homme adds. "What a learning moment. What a confirmation of your own belief. 'We're on the Titanic. It's OK. Everyone's gonna hit the water, but we do requests. What do you want to hear? Hit it, boys!'"

A few days later, Homme signs onto Zoom for a follow-up interview, and he's on his feet, dancing in front of his laptop. He's just come into some tickets for a Monster Jam truck rally the next day. "I'm pretty excited," he says.

By the end of May, he will be back on the road, first with a couple of U.S. music festivals, followed in June with European dates.

He's determined to get back out there. "When I'm on tour, I'm back on the streets where I belong," Homme says. "I'm not such a caged animal out there."

He rarely cancels. In the past, he's toured within days of knee surgery, or pushed on through with the flu. His thinking was always that being onstage is the best part of the day on tour. Why cancel that? On one tour, everyone got salmonella and kept going.

"I lost 28 pounds in seven days," he recalls of the shows that followed. "It doesn't mean they were great, but that's not the point. We were in fucking Norway. What were we going to do, go home? A 12-hour plane ride with salmonella — or do we keep going? We didn't know it was salmonella until later, and that you could die." He laughs. "But I like the idea of pushing through."

Queens of the Stone Age Josh Homme solo portrait
Josh Homme

Queens of the Stone Age will spend less time on tour than in past album cycles, he says. His intention is to push through all obstacles to be home with his family more than ever. "Things have changed a little bit for me. However long I go away, I must come back for at least that length of time," he says, noting that on his list of priorities, playing live must come third, after family and creating new music in the studio.

For this summer's European dates, he'll bring his three kids along. "Travel shows you there is magic in the world," Homme says. "I love discovering those things. And I don't want to do it alone."

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