Queens of the Stone Age frontman Josh Homme roared into the parking lot of Los Angeles rock radio station KROQ recently astride a Harley Ultra Classic Electra Glide. To be clear, this is a full-sized touring motorcycle. It’s the kind of extensively accessorized two-wheeler ideal for long road trips, and not exactly the rubber-burning chopper one might expect from the notorious hard rocker.
“Yeah, I like to cruise around on it because I can listen to NPR while I ride,” Homme explained plainly, referencing the non-commercial radio network popular for such highbrow programming as This American Life and All Things Considered.
The dichotomy of this towering, red-haired guitar icon relaxing to the intellectual leanings of public radio might be glaring on the surface, but it points to the crux of his band’s impressively broad appeal, despite being one of the music world’s most decidedly rough and tumble (not to mention twisted) rock and roll outfits since Motorhead. Where a majority of QOTSA’s contemporaries reside almost exclusively on commercial rock radio, Homme and company are just as at home with the older and more intellectual NPR crowd, with the band utilizing the network to webcast a recent concert officially launching the tour for new album …Like Clockwork, the group’s first full-length effort since 2007’s Era Vulgaris.
Simply put, it’s rare that a capital-R rock band matters so much to both the hipsters and the regular dudes alike.
While QOTSA first gained notoriety with sleazy, riff-driven rock anthems like “Feel Good Hit of the Summer” and “No One Knows,” the band’s latest effort is a much denser, darker affair that channels early ‘70s Bowie, classic glam and even goth-rock in its moody grooves.
Boasting a cavalcade of all-star guests including Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails, lead Foo Fighter Dave Grohl, Scissor Sisters frontman Jake Shears and Sir Elton John, …Like Clockwork sidesteps the band’s dirty boogie rave-ups to craft a dazzling and diverse effort all wrapped up in the arresting artwork of 25-year-old British illustrator Boneface, whom Homme discovered while perusing the pages of Juxtapoz Magazine.
“I think Josh is just really smart. He’s not just a typical rock star,” mused Risa Lawrenson, head of radio promotions for the Beggars Group, which includes Matador Records. The stalwart independent label is best known for introducing the world to such indie rock perennials as Pavement, Yo La Tengo and Interpol, and serves as the current home to Queens of the Stone Age after years at Interscope.
“He’s more in the brain,” Lawrenson continued. “It is solid rock music, but when you’re that intelligent, I think it comes across in your lyrics. It’s so much more in-depth than most rock bands. Their lyrics just aren’t as profound as Josh’s lyrics. You can be 40 or 50 years old and actually relate to what he’s talking about, and still enjoy rock music.”
…Like Clockwork bears out Queens of the Stone Age’s front-running position at the vanguard of contemporary rock music. Shifting from the swirling psychedelic tones of “Kalopsia” to the strip-club strut of “Smooth Sailing,” it finds Homme and QOTSA continuing to push the boundaries of their sound. They’ve honed their songwriting chops into a laser-focused rock and roll machine now capable of brooding piano ballads like “The Vampyre of Time and Memory” next to high-octane cruising anthems such as “I Sat By the Ocean.”
“I think the point we knew the album was good was right when we handed it in to the label,” Josh Homme said in an exclusive interview with Radio.com this week. “It was more like the point when we knew that we really kind of fell for the record. There’s a bit of a love affair with making records. You have to fall in love with them, and it took a while with this one. There was a lot of courting, dating and hard work, but we got there.”
The album’s dark undertones are a direct reflection of Homme’s brush with death after unexpected difficulties during routine knee surgery resulted in the singer’s heart stopping during the procedure.
“I had an operation and died and survived on the table,” he told NME about the harrowing incident. “I had surgery on my leg and there were complications and I died on the table. I was in bed for three months.”
The experience had a profound effect of Homme and …Like Clockwork, which on the surface sounds like his most personal album yet, though he might not necessarily agree with that estimation.
“I would say it’s the most forthcoming about personal stuff,” he explained. “It’s the most…unhidden, I guess. Part of what we’ve always enjoyed doing is passing along the mystery, and also trying to play sonic tricks, like get you to stand on the musical carpet and pull it. ‘Go with the Flow’ [from Songs for the Deaf] or ‘I Never Came’ off Lullabies to Paralyze, these are all very confessional and straightforward songs, too. But perhaps because we started in a dark period, this record’s just a little different. I wouldn’t say it’s any more confessional.
“Once you’ve been in a band for a long time, you sort of…we’ve sort of exhausted all of the lateral movement and the tricks and these little things,” Homme elaborated. “So a vocal-driven record like this one, although ‘trickless,’ that’s the trick.”
…Like Clockwork does indeed boast Homme’s most vocally nuanced recordings to date, and the response to the new songs has been decidedly positive. The album’s first single, “My God is the Sun,” has been an immediate radio hit, racing up the KROQ playlist to its current position at No. 14, one slot ahead of Daft Punk’s red-hot “Get Lucky.” The album is also resonating among the music-buying public,with early indications that it’s on pace to sell somewhere in the vicinity of an impressive 80,000 copies, which would give QOTSA their first No. 1 album on the Billboard 200 in its debut week of release (the band’s highest album chart position to date is Lullabies to Paralyze, which peaked at No. 5).
“It’s the combo of pure rock talent, he’s sexy as hell, and also I think girls and guys are always looking for that raw rock energy,” surmised Lisa Worden, music director at KROQ, about the perennial and broad appeal of Homme and QOTSA. “There are some rock bands that people feel are a little more fabricated, but Queens is just straight ahead, unabashed rock, and I think there’s a lack of that. If you’re looking for that sound on the radio or out in the blogosphere, you’ll find it in that band. [Homme] has just got this incredible Elvis-like sexy swagger to him. Dudes respect him and women, well, you know.”
“[Homme] has that same thing that Jack White has, in my opinion,” Worden added. “That bad-ass rock energy, they’re cool as s*** and they’re just cool people.”
Homme laughs off the idea that ...Like Clockwork is a lock for Grammy nominations next year, but admits to being respectful and even humbled by the music industry institution.
“It’s nice to have people like your record. It’s a wonderful thing,” he said. “I learned more in the last three years of hardships and difficulties, and I’m quite interested in that side of music, you know? But it would be great to win a Grammy. I won a Grammy with Them Crooked Vultures (the revered super-group which features Homme, Dave Grohl and Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones), and it felt great. But we never think about that. That’s alien to our process. But if (a Grammy) comes our way, I won’t turn it down.”