Dude, You Rock

I don't adhere to any stoner-rock rules or bylaws," Queens of the Stone Age frontman Josh Homme sneers, leveling in one fell swoop the burgeoning mini-genre that has sprung up around his feet. "You call it stoner rock if you want, but that's got nothing to do with me."

Yowza. What's the story here? Did stoner rock do something to Homme's mom? Steal his amp? Rain on his parade? Nope, it's just followed him around since he was 16. That's the year Homme formed Kyuss in the sand dunes a few hundred miles east of Los Angeles. You may have heard of Kyuss: epic-length jams, mind-expanding guitar pyrotechnics, a short-lived deal with Elektra. Or perhaps not. If that's the case, you've most certainly heard of the bands that have been associated with the group: Monster Magnet, Fu Manchu, maybe Soundgarden.

They're quite good at making Homme's beloved stoner rock, a smoldering brew of sludge-thick guitars, anvil-heavy drums, and a healthy appreciation of controlled substances. It's apparently what all the kids are digging these days, in custom vans and bedrooms and backyard shacks the nation over. But today Homme couldn't care a bit less about it.

"I think we're better off taking advantage of the opportunity to push out our music, its experimental side," he says. "It's important for us to establish that." If the record he's just made is any proof, he's right. Simply put, Rated R, the Queens' new full-length, is the best rock record yet released this year. It's the sound of genres being smashed, of preconceived notions being destroyed and expectations being mocked. From the revving of the engines that is "Feel Good Hit of the Summer," the thing hits 60 in seconds flat and doesn't stop till the three-minute horn meltdown (!) that brings it all to a close. As much a pop record as a metal or rock one, it's chock-full of hooks and buried sonic treasures, from the floating vibes on "The Lost Art of Keeping a Secret" to the choral vocal break on "Auto Pilot." As far from a conventional stoner-rock record (whatever that means) as possible, it's Homme's pièce de résistance, a funny, creative, imaginative, visionary masterwork. For the musician, it's simple math.

"I look at this as a three-record cycle in a way," he explains. "The first record will only be compared to Kyuss, so it had to step away without stepping too far. And then this one, since it is compared to the first one and not Kyuss records, it's the only time when we can really go out as far as we want to establish that we're gonna play anything."

And the third in the cycle? Uh, we'll worry about that later.

Queens of the Stone Age, the band's 1998 debut (released by Pearl Jam guitarist Stone Gossard's now-defunct Loosegroove imprint), piqued critical interest with its loose fusion of weighty guitar textures and weightless Kraut-rock rhythms -- a combination Homme, in his signature deadpan, is fond of calling "robot rock." The attention the record received sparked a major-label bidding war, which Interscope won last year. Making Rated R took about two months' time -- "It just took a while to do; it wasn't from slacking," Homme promises -- during which friends far and wide, including Screaming Trees singer Mark Lanegan (whom Homme played with for a stretch in the mid-'90s), former Judas Priest howler Rob Halford, and studio-musician-for-hire (and Screaming Tree) Barrett Martin, lent their talents to the project.

"We did a lot of pre-production," Homme says of the process, "and we just sort of wrote parts and then said, 'Who figures for this out of all our friends?' Because there's a lot of people that we know that are just excellent; they're totally masters of whatever they do."

One of those excellent people was Masters of Reality leader Chris Goss, who produced the record along with Homme. Perhaps Rated R's biggest triumph is the way it coheres as a full-length work despite its wealth of stylistic shifts. After all, we're talking about a record that includes the proto-new-wave slink of "Leg of Lamb" and the primitive stomp of "Tension Head," the gracefully Eastern "Lightning Song," and the future blues of "In the Fade." Homme defers to Goss, crediting his studio methodology.

"It seemed that if we did it all under an extremely dry drum sound and roughly similar guitar and bass tones," he notes modestly, "it's different but under the umbrella of one kind of sonic thing." The record's other central victory is its flagrant repudiation of stoner-rock protocol -- something that variety essentially ensured. As in any scene, though, making a record as daring as Rated R doesn't come without its dangers. In this case, Homme's got the cries of mustachioed stoner-rock purists nipping at his heels.

"It used to be a really big part of my life," he says of the chance of being called a sell-out. "But I realized that that is as dumb as thinking someone is stupid because they're black or gay, you know what I mean? In my mind, that purism, that allegiance, is faulty at best."

But what about the folks at Interscope? Surely, when they signed the band, they were expecting another genre-satisfying sludgefest, not a schizophrenic pop feast. Not so, says Homme.

"They were excited when they heard it," he counters. "They were kind of giving us a hard time until it was finished, and then they gave us an easier time. You need to operate under the right assumptions, which means if you're gonna sign somewhere, they need to know who you really are. I'm better off if they know who I am and what I will and will not do before I even sign anything."

A good policy, and one Interscope probably relishes in retrospect, as Rated R will likely outlast the majority of what's being touted as stoner rock today -- before it's called grunge tomorrow.

"Our only habit when it comes to songwriting," Homme clarifies, typically underwhelmed, "is to not have any, because whatever's good, whatever sounds best, is what we should play."

KEEP THE DALLAS OBSERVER FREE... Since we started the Dallas Observer, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Dallas, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Mikael Wood