Queens of the Stone Age: "It's been kind of a blur"
When he calls, Dean Fertita [far right], Queens of the Stone Age’s keyboardist/guitarist, has just wrapped up sound checking for tonight’s show at the 2000-plus-capacity Duke Energy Centre for the Performing Arts in Raleigh, North Carolina. It’s been a while between shows for QOSTA (at the time of this interview) and the band has spent today banishing cobwebs and getting their heads around the ridiculous assortment of gear they need plugged in to deliver their famously horse-powered desert-rock stage show.
Fertita says surveying the thousands or tens of thousands of empty venue seats during a sound check is a good opportunity to visualise what might transpire when the venues fill up later.
“Some venues are really beautiful,” says Fertita. “You just feel something when you walk into the room. It just tells you something. There are definitely moments we’ve gone into theatres and it’s had a calming effect.”
Queens of the Stone Age are currently embarking on the largest tour in the band’s history, in support of 2013’s critically-lauded and commercially successful …Like Clockwork, an LP that largely owes its apocalyptic demeanour to frontman Josh Homme dying on the operating table during surgery in 2010, spending three months in bed post-revival and then struggling to come to terms with what the hell had just happened. As dark as …Like Clockwork’s genesis is, the record itself is a highly hooky mix of dance floor-friendly pop-rock anthems, cosmic rock and eerie balladry.
With the band’s forthcoming Australian double-headline tour with industrial scarecrows Nine Inch Nails imminent, QOSTA’s long-running world tour is reportedly seeing them clock up some of the best live shows of their career.
The Vine: 2013 was widely hailed as a pretty darn good year for QOTSA. How did it stack up for you?
Fertita: It’s been kind of a blur. But we all feel very motivated and happy with the way things are going. The record was difficult to make. It took a little longer than we expected and it made us extra cautious about going into touring. So to have it be received so well, and for the shows to go so well, it’s really re-affirming.
We’re glad we stuck to our guns with this record. It’s what we wanted to do and what we had to do, and it’s motivated us to keep going. Hopefully it won’t be very long between this record and another one. But yeah, everything that’s come along with this year and this record has just made us more determined to keep it going.
Playing a slew of arenas on your biggest-ever world tour sounds like a wet dream. Is it?
Well, you know, being away from home for long periods of time is difficult – some of us have kids and family and stuff – but the only way we could really do this and dedicate ourselves to it is by feeling it’s the right thing to do and we’re pushing ourselves creatively and getting something back for the work we’re putting into it.
I’ve been in the band for seven years and Queens have been around for 17; to have this happen to a band that’s been around that long, where we’re going and playing bigger venues than we ever have before, is almost unheard of.
It’s well-documented that an ensemble cast of musicians pitch in on this record (they include Dave Grohl, Mark Lanegan, Nick Oliveri, Trent Reznor, Alex Turner and some dude called Elton John). Some of these guests seem rather left-of-field on paper. To what direction did this group of contributors move the record in directions you didn’t anticipate?
It was more about the experience and the sound it brought to it. Like, when Elton came in to play, we were having a really bad stretch for a few days. But he came in and Dave came in and it completely turned the whole session around.
What I think is cool about it is that you have all these people on there but it might be hard to distinguish where they are on the record. Like, if nobody told you this person was on the record, you wouldn’t know they were there. So it’s not like Queens featuring this person or whatever. We played our songs and they adapted to what Queens do and we just made this thing together.
A lot of times these scenarios can be really distractive and take away from the integrity of the record if it gets too collaborative. But it never felt like that for one minute. It was more like friends were just coming in and giving us their support, so it was a really cool experience.
What was the chemistry like with Elton John?
It was fantastic. None of us really knew what to expect with that either. Josh had been talking to him. But for me, as a piano player and a kid, I grew up learning Elton John songs, so to meet him was pretty mind-blowing. It just happened to be at this time I was going down this whole thing of watching old YouTube footage of him and Mark Bolan.
I don’t know if you’ve ever seen this stuff but it’s amazing. I was thrilled just to be able to meet the guy but within 20 minutes of him showing up we were working out arrangements of ‘Fairweather Friends’. We just got down to business. He was great. He’s just a true professional, that guy.
When I listen to this record, I keep visualising a really tragic mature-age stripper doing a really lonely dance in a dingy club to a few old men with cobwebs in their ears. How does that compare with your take on the overall vibe of the album?
Um [pauses]. Well, yeah [laughs]. It kind of came from tragic circumstances. I think it’s Josh’s most vulnerable record lyrically and that was part of what made this record difficult to make – it’s honesty. He needed to have a lot of support around him to say, ‘Alright, this is the record we’re going to do and fuck it.’
I don’t know if Josh is the lonely stripper you talk about but it definitely comes from kind of being at the bottom and looking up. But that’s what I think is inspiring about the record. It is about looking up from the worst possible place you can be in.
At what point did it dawn on you that this album was shaping up to be capable of garnering the positive critical and commercial reception it has? Did you have any inkling it could be that kind of record before its release?
When it went to number one when it was released (…Like Clockwork is QOSTA’s first-ever number one record on the Billboard 200 chart) we realised people were responding to it. But I don’t think we ever felt like we were doing anything different. We were just excited to have a record out.
The fact the record was selling well and people were liking it was obviously a bonus. But the band has always just done what we want to do. We hope people go along with it and they did this time.
What’s most appealing to you about touring with Nine Inch Nails?
For me personally as a musician, I like being around other bands in that scenario because I feel like I get to learn from it. It makes me feel like I’m a more complete musician, the more experiences I have.
I think this particular case is going to be really interesting. I think we’re going to push each other a lot.
QUEENS OF THE STONE AGE AND NINE INCH NAILS – AUSTRALIAN TOUR 2014
Thu 6 March - Sydney, Entertainment Centre
Fri 7 March - Sydney, Entertainment Centre
Sat 8 March - Newcastle, Entertainment Centre
Tue 11 March - Perth, Arena
Thu 13 March - Adelaide, AEC Arena
Fri 14 March - Melbourne, Rod Laver Arena
Sat 15 March - Melbourne, Rod Laver Arena
Mon 17 March - Brisbane, Entertainment Centre
Mon 24 March - Hobart, Odeon Theatre (QOTSA only)
- By Josh Jennings