Queens of the Stone Age: Ancient mysteries

Queens of the Stone Age's front man, Josh Homme, tells James McNair about love, drugs, friendship, deserts and fairy tales
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On 23 February, management for one of the most vital rock bands in the world today issued this statement: "Queens of the Stone Age were forced to halt their mini-tour on Tuesday, February 22 after singer Josh Homme began coughing up blood in his Paris hotel room. What doctors in Amsterdam initially diagnosed as the flu was found to be a serious lung infection. This resulted in his immediate return to the United States."

Further communiques on the band's website asserted that they did not take cancelling shows lightly, were not "pussies", had previously gigged with "everything from broken ankles to bruised livers," and would be back on the campaign trail soon. True to his word, the Queens' strapping singer is now holding court in Bar Solo, off Camden High Street in north London. He looks slightly drawn around his piercing blue eyes, but save for his nicotine patch and the tea he has ordered, his famed lust for stimulants is not in evidence.

Homme's rapid return to these shores coincides with glowing lead reviews of his band's third album in Mojo and Q. "Tough, tuneful, ambitious and sexy as hell", gushed the latter, but for all the talk of Lullabies to Paralyze being "the definition of rock'n'roll in 2005", and Homme as "visionary front man", he won't be resting on his laurels.

"I want to make sure I'm on my knees before the altar of rock", he says, "not climbing around on top of it going, 'What the fuck is this?' Success is an intricate web of stairs going up, but it's a fireman's pole coming down. If someone really likes what I do, I get a big kid grin then go, 'Let's get out of here.' Psychologically, it would be dangerous to stay."

Such reasoned application is what we have come to expect from the workaholic, perfectionist Homme. And while most arch hedonists' productivity tends to be nixed by their excesses, this 31-year-old native of Palm Springs, California has remained impressively prolific. Queens aside, he has collaborated with PJ Harvey, UNKLE, Martina Topley-Bird and erstwhile Screaming Trees band mate, Mark Lanegan, among others. The plectrum-shaped Eagles Of Death Metal pendant around his neck, meanwhile, is a reminder of the side-project outfit in which he plays drums under the alias Carlo Von Sexron.

Lullabies to Paralyze is partic-ularly impressive when you consider that Homme wrote it alone. On previous Queens of the Stone Age albums, he had collaborated with bassist, co-songwriter and long-term friend, Nick Oliveri, a cackling, goateed berserker with many a crystal-meth high and nude stage performance behind him. When Homme sacked Oliveri last year amid stories that the bassist's excesses were out of control, some feared that the Queens' potency would diminish. Elsewhere, Oliveri's online asides - "The strongest leaders are chosen by their followers, not self appointed", he sniped - left Homme with some explaining to do.

"Everything that Nick did, I understood," says the strawberry-blond singer and guitarist. "I knew he would get angry and confused and experience disbelief - it's the stages of grief, man. It took me a couple of years to sack him. Anybody who knows me knows I did everything I could to keep him in the band, but we'd reached that point. Some of the things I'm good at are the shittiest things, sharpening the knife and using it, for example. But I did that to save my relationship with Nick, hoping that after things had cooled down we could have one.

"I took a lot of hits from people who wouldn't have had the balls to do what I did; an anonymous bunch of pussies. I feel I made the right decision, but some of it had to do with things that just aren't that great, you know?"

From Oliveri's side at least, rapprochement is now a possibility. The NME recently quoted him as saying, "If anything falls through and you need somebody, you know where your bass player is, dude."Asked if he will reinstate Oliveri, Homme seems optimistic but cautious. "I never say never, but right now I'm trying to make sense of things. I wanted everyone to know that I can be knocked down, but I'll be the first to get back up. That or I'll be dead."

Friendly and engaging, Homme has more appetite for my questions than for the bruchetta and potato wedges before him. Quizzed about his background, he calls himself "an American runt." The German in him hails from Stuttgart, but a larger percentile of his genes can be traced to Scotland and Norway. The knuckles of his right hand are tattooed with a love heart and the first three letters of his grandfather's name, while his left-hand knuckles pay similar tribute to his grandmother. "Which one do you want", he says, smiling and striking a boxer's pose, "CAP or CAM?"

Homme's tattoos prove more intriguing still when he declines to talk about his parents. "I try to preserve what's private and precious to me when I'm in the press arena," he explains. "Like Palm Springs, it's a foot in either side: one in shit and the other in gold-dust."

It was in the lauded stoner rock band Kyuss that Homme and Oliveri first joined forces, having met at school aged 11. They made their first Kyuss recordings in their early teens, and by the early 1990s they were playing magic mushroom-fuelled gigs in the Southern California desert. Staged in spectacular surrounds, lit by a single halogen light bulb on a raised pole, and sometimes attracting the unwelcome attention of gun-toting gangs, legend holds that these gigs had shamanistic qualities. "It was a desert epiphany," Homme has said of that part of his career. "The desert is a place where you can see forever and you feel small. Mountains in your life get shrunk down to molehills."

For all that, Kyuss was over by 1995. "We were meticulously trying not to change while not copying ourselves, which runs out of room," Homme says. For a time he moved to Seattle to play with Screaming Trees, but soon he was back with Oliveri in a new Californian band called Queens of the Stone Age.

"Feel Good Hit of the Summer", a catchy single from 2000's Rated R album brought Queens to prominence. Next came 2002's Songs for the Deaf, which proved so good that the former Nirvana drummer Dave Grohl postponed work with his own Foo Fighters to drum for Queens live. "Every night we knew that we were the best band that these people were ever going to see," Grohl told Mojo. "It was an amazing feeling."

This, then, was the legacy Homme had to live up to with Lullabies To Paralyze. Remarkably, it's the strongest Queens' album to date, its filthy guitar riffs, deceptively sweet melodies and polka-influenced waltzes delivering on the seeming contradiction of its title. Guests include Shirley Manson of Garbage, Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top, and Homme's girlfriend, Brody Dalle, of The Distillers. When she ditched her husband, Tim Armstrong, of Rancid, for Homme it made the rock gossip columns. Not surprisingly, Homme is not keen to talk about that, but he concedes that the new album's stand-out track "In My Head"was written for Dalle. "It's about when we first met and being completely in love."

Elsewhere on Lullabies the Grimm brothers' fairy tales were an inspiration. "They were read to me as a child, and I love the imagery in them," says Homme. "They don't end with the sun setting and everybody living happily ever after, but I disagree when people say they're inappropriate for children - they're useful warnings wrapped in sugar.

"I'm taking that spirit and adding my own metaphors. It's so much easier for me to say 'Burn the Witch' than what I really mean. This is a dark album, but some of the darkness is just nightfall. I like the juxtaposition of sitting in the dark and reaching for the light.

"On a song like 'Lullaby' we were trying to make the music a catalyst for colours and images. I know some people just listen to music and keep on typing or driving, but I don't. Consequently, our music has to work on many levels. On one level 'Little Sister' is a catchy single, but for me, there are all these micro events occurring within it on the bass and drums."

Billy Gibbons' presence on Lullabies meant a lot to Homme, who has long used the gritty, bone-dry sound of early ZZ Top albumsas a reference point and admires the way ZZ have kept the blues alive without being overtly retro or modern. "They're not like, 'I re-did the wheel, you're gonna love this,'" he says. "It's more, 'Check out my wheel - it's round as fuck!'"

What he wanted from the collaboration, he says, was an equal, mutually beneficial experience. "What was great was busting Billy's perception of us. We did a cover of ZZ Top's 'Precious and Grace', then 'Like a Drug'. We all recorded in the same room at the same time, which was nerve-wracking. I look over and Gibbons is stark white, frozen. Afterwards, he said, 'You know, I haven't recorded like that in 25 years.' My inner hands were high-fiving! I was like, 'Yes!'

"If you're not careful music can turn you into a bitter old crank, but that was never going to happen to Billy. Now I go over to his place or meet him at a dingy little bar and it's great. Does he still have an eye for the ladies? Oh yeah."

Our allotted time together almost up, Homme and I cut to the chase. What does he think of the notion that drugs can be useful for generating ideas, but are less helpful in the execution of them? "I think we are born without any walls into a world that helps to build them immediately," he says. "Drugs break the windows and kick the doors open. But eventually they'll knock the walls down and the roof will fall on you. I've written before about understanding that this is coming. Drugs give and they take away."

Was that what happened when he got ill in Paris, then? "Let's just say I've put a lot of stuff inside me. That's not gonna read right, but anyway.... If something's kind of scary, I usually force myself to push on it and go [indignantly] 'So?' But in Paris I actually got really scared and went 'Stop.' Will what happened make me slow down? Well, I've always liked Churchill's quote, 'Everything in moderation including moderation.' I'm just gonna do what I would normally do."

So he can't imagine cleaning-up his act and doing a Bob Dylan's Saved type album? "Sure!", he says, laughing at the contradiction. "Do you know where I can score some air? Is that, like, mineral water? I'll take whatever you got."

'Lullabies to Paralyze' is out on Interscope on Monday