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These rockers have an understanding : Jelling from their first jam, Them Crooked Vultures' well-known players like a new role.

November 16, 2009|Steve Appleford

NEW YORK — Dave Grohl had a new rock 'n' roll dream, and it came true in a castle in Orange County. It was his 40th birthday, so the lead Foo Fighter and former Nirvana drummer celebrated with a January evening of jousting and costumed swordplay at the Medieval Times dinner theater, a venue promising a night "where honor was unquestioned and courage was unmatched!"

Cardboard crowns were distributed and roasted chicken devoured with bare hands. Among the guests were his pal Joshua Homme, the singer-guitarist from Queens of the Stone Age, and Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones, on a visit from London. The two had never met, and Homme made a joke about knights and armor. In reality, he was mortified. Jones remembers him saying something like "We're not all like this. But Dave is."

From that unlikely summit came Them Crooked Vultures, the realization of Grohl's desire for a new band of heavy-hitting rock, melding Zeppelin's innovation and tradition with the forward-leaning roar of Queens. From their first moments jamming together as a trio in Homme's Pink Duck Studio in Burbank, they were linked by thunderous improvisation and playfulness.

"We literally switched on amps and just started something," Jones said. "Already you could feel the beginnings of an intelligent band."

The recorded results of that collaboration can be heard with Tuesday's Interscope release of the band's self-titled debut. It's celebrated the same night with a performance at the Wiltern, where songs are likely to be stretched out during extended jams.

"We can create those moments where you get the chills, but we can't choreograph them. They just sort of happen," Grohl said excitedly. "They happened within the first three minutes that we jammed ever. And they happen every single night."

It's a quiet afternoon backstage at the Roseland Ballroom in Manhattan, and Grohl is relaxing with his legs up on a couch. In a few hours it would be the band's 14th show ever, and from a nearby hallway came the plucking of an eight-string cigar-box guitar by touring rhythm guitarist Alain Johannes.

"When we went in to record this, there was this understanding that anything goes," Grohl said. "There was no discussion of how it should sound. We just let it happen."

From the moment news leaked of the trio, it was dubbed a "super group," a usually dubious category that often promises more than it can ever deliver, though a number of musicians seem to be teaming up on projects lately -- indie rockers Conor Oberst, Jim James, M. Ward and Mike Mogis formed the cheekily titled Monsters of Folk, while veterans (and former Van Halen musicians) Sammy Hagar and Michael Anthony teamed with guitarist Joe Satriani and drummer Chad Smith for a new group called Chickenfoot.

Them Crooked Vultures emerged from some organic roots. Grohl first became a serious drummer while studying the playing of John Bonham on Zeppelin albums and bootlegs. And he's been friends with Homme since 1992; they became collaborators when Grohl joined QOTSA as the drummer on 2002's "Songs for the Deaf" album and a tour. It was his first extended stint behind the drums since the end of Nirvana in 1994.

"Josh and I had been talking about working together again for a long time," Grohl said. "After I left Queens of the Stone Age to go back to the Foo Fighters, I realized the connection I had with Josh was something special that kind of only comes once in a lifetime -- when you meet that musician that understands your intuition."

Homme was unsure how the esteemed British bassist would react to his worldview. While recording vocals in Burbank, Jones watched from the control room.

"You're supposed to be vulnerable, but it's so naked," Homme said. "I'm thinking, this song is called 'Mind Eraser, No Chaser.' Is he going to be like, 'You're an idiot'?" He laughs. "I walk through the door and he goes, [adopts British accent] 'That's brilliant!' . . . I hugged the guy."

The new band recorded 18 songs, trimming the total to 13 for the album. There is a Zeppelin-like rhythm to the heaviest tracks, including "No One Loves Me and Neither Do I" and "Elephants," with sparks of sci-fi guitar from Homme and lyrics that are surreal, bleak and comic. Those originals are all that the band has performed onstage since its August live debut at the Metro in Chicago. Nothing by Zeppelin, Queens or the Foos.

"We're not a cover band," said Homme, 36, adding that both Queens and the Foos continue as active units. "The point is that this is very now. We happen to each have our own pedigree, but it's not about that as much as what we're doing. That's what makes it vital."

A year ago, Jones thought he might be preparing for a Zeppelin-related project, following the classic rock act's October 2007 reunion concert at London's O2 Arena.

"I remember a thought came to me as I was doing that show, a typical first night of the tour thought: 'Hmm, I'll do that differently tomorrow,' " said Jones, 63. "Then I went, 'Oh, this is the first night and the last night of the tour.' "

Singer Robert Plant chose not to go on, and there was some thought of the other Zeppelin players carrying on under a different moniker with another singer. They could not agree on that singer, and plans were abandoned. That's when Jones says he called Grohl and said: " 'Remember when you were talking about that band?' "

Later at Roseland, the trio (with Johannes) faced 4,000 fans, opening the concert with the heavy boogie-rock of "Elephants," Grohl head-banging behind the drums. After the extended set-closing wind-out of "Warsaw or the First Breath You Take After You Give Up" two hours later, there was no encore, but the show felt complete.

"This is, I hope, quite a long-term project," Jones said.

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calendar@latimes.com

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