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Shaking off the desert's dust

With a sound honed in California's outback, Queens of the Stone Age move to L.A., and rock's mainstream.

May 04, 2003|Dean Kuipers | Special to The Times

"Our message of No Message is a good message to have as a message for people that might want a message."

-- Josh Homme, Queens of the Stone Age, on wartime politics.


Josh Homme and Nick Oliveri, the co-founders of "desert rock" megalith Queens of the Stone Age, have quietly, almost furtively, decamped to Los Angeles. It's a big move for two musicians identified for more than a decade with the desert towns of Cathedral City and Palm Desert, and Homme casually drops this news into an interview on their tour bus before a show at the Grove in Anaheim.

But the mystic, hard-edged ethos of the California desert is hard to quit, even if the towns themselves aren't. It's the desert of the Hell's Angels and Gram Parsons and Jim Morrison, of "Vanishing Point" and Kyuss, the legendary alt-metal band of which Homme and Oliveri were members and which first earned the tag "desert rock."

Changing base camps is an effort to save time, explains Oliveri, in a touring and recording schedule that includes half a dozen band projects. Oliveri, 31, is recently divorced, and Homme, 30, was without a girlfriend at the time of this interview, so being in L.A. was a way to turn all their attention to work.

"And we're both starring in Ben Affleck's new movie," Homme adds without missing a beat in his quick but deadpan delivery. "It's called 'L.A. HOT.' "

And just like that, the desert takes over, turning Homme and Oliveri into an unlikely comedy duo born of decades spent in a scorched valley with little but beer, pot, TV and music as relief. They're a bit of an odd couple: Homme is tall, with boyish red hair and a prep-school look even at 30, and Oliveri, 31, looks like a desert wizard, with a bald head, long, pointy goatee and tattoos screaming off his arms.

"L.A. Nights Are HOT!" adds Oliveri excitedly.

"It's where Nick and I are dancers at Party Boys II up in Van Nuys. And Ben Affleck is the main dancer at Jocks," continues Homme.

"We quit our jobs at Chippendales and we go to Party Boys, dude," says Oliveri. "And then we take 'em down."

"We take him down in a dance-off," adds Homme, still not smiling. There is no such movie, of course, but it's getting harder to get straight answers out of a band that's finally in the enviable position of letting its music speak for itself.

Queens of the Stone Age's 2002 breakthrough album, "Songs for the Deaf," has pulled these two smart, sludge-guitar-worshiping adults from the outsider fringe squarely into the rock mainstream. But even there, they escape easy genre distinctions with a shrugging postmodern defiance. The best parts on "Deaf" are the full-throttle motor-metal bits that move like Deep Purple's "Highway Star." But, throughout, there's a pop softness about the sound, rounded edges that can tolerate great volume, which makes it clear they've absorbed grunge and post-punk en route to something very un-1970s.

Rather than ape classic rock, they've started at a more obscure place and merged onto that road after making a lot of fresh tracks around the ocotillo and smoke trees.

"Queens seems to be aggressively into not fitting in," says Rolling Stone senior editor Jason Fine, who has championed the band. "It's coming from punk and metal; it's loud, but it's also melodic, funny, and can be psychedelic, if they want to be."

"Songs for the Deaf," the Queens' third full-length album, debuted at No. 17 on the national pop charts in August and floated in and out of the Top 100 for months, grabbing a Grammy nomination for best hard rock performance and selling about 700,000 copies to date. "Deaf" also aroused the critics, showing up on 2002 top 10 lists ranging from USA Today to the New York Times.

Their humor and almost accidental take on heavy rock, along with their ceaseless touring since the release of the band's 2000 album "Rated R," earned them a showcase spot in last week's dreamy Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival and on the newly revived Lollapalooza.

The Queens' sudden arrival, after almost 13 years together, is the triumph of a noncommercial experiment. The low-end guitar quake and long horizons that power the Queens' Top 10 MTV video for "No One Knows" were an attempt to forge a new sound, one that Homme called "robot rock" in the '90s. While hard-core bands were cultivating vitriol, grunge bands were romancing pop, and Ozzfest's metal and alternative bands got more goth and psychically dark, the Queens went off on its own path.

Like its humor, the band's unique take and intellect are the product of isolation and a purist aesthetic that swirled around parties in stark desert canyons. The first taste of success in 12 years may have driven Homme and Oliveri into L.A., but a kind of punk-rock guilt is driving them deeper into weird musical terrain.

Earlier band's cult following

Homme and Oliveri achieved a cult following in the mid-'90s with their original band, Kyuss, which established the Palm Desert area as a kind of Area 51 for experimental desert metal and alt-hard-core punk.

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