Sir Elton John saved Queens of the Stone Age. "You know what? If you wanna print that, go right ahead," Queens of the Stone Age guitarist Troy Van Leeuwen tells the Scene. "Elton John saved the Queens."
It's true. Midway through making their sixth album, ... Like Clockwork, the arty stoner-rock stalwarts hit a snag when bandleader and benevolent dictator Josh Homme came down with a case of writer's block.
"Over the years, the one rule that's really stuck is: There is no process," says Van Leeuwen, the most constant member (save for Homme) in the band's ever-evolving lineup. He's played with QOTSA for 12 years. "You're really taking [an idea] out of the tap as it's coming. And if it doesn't come — which in the case of this record, it didn't come very easily."
That all changed one Sunday when Homme got an out-of-the-blue phone call from Sir Elton, a seemingly unlikely fan. "I love your band!" John told Homme, expressing a desire to collaborate. "What you really need in your band is a real queen!"
"It was funny, and it was cool," Van Leeuwen recalls, noting that — after a series of unfertile recording sessions that ended with the departure of longtime drummer Joey Castillo — the fluke session with John was the turning point that inspired Queens of the Stone Age's most dynamic album to date.
Unlike Disney or Kiki Dee, Homme and QOTSA didn't tap the Rocket Man to sing a duet on the album, but instead to tickle (or rather, pound) the ivories on the Clockwork cut "Fairweather Friends," a gritty, glammed-out rocker that recalls John's work with Marc Bolan and T. Rex.
"We specifically picked that song for him because it was difficult for us to play, and we wanted to throw him in the deep end with us," Van Leeuwen recalls. "It was like being in the garage again with your friends. ... We didn't want to treat him just like another guest, but at the end of the day, he's another guest, along with people like [longtime contributor and former Screaming Trees vocalist] Mark Lanegan, who are just as important."
Other guests and contributors on the album include former bassist Nick Oliveri, Nine Inch Nails auteur Trent Reznor, Arctic Monkeys singer Alex Turner and Scissor Sisters singer Jake Shears. Perhaps most notably, Dave Grohl (i.e., alternative rock's Ringo Starr) resumes the role he assumed on 2002's Songs for the Deaf, pinch-hitting behind the skins on many Clockwork tracks.
Led as always by Homme, that all-star cast only enhances the chemistry within the current Queens lineup, which features Van Leeuwen, bassist Michael Shuman and Raconteurs and Dead Weather member (and Nashvillian) Dean Fertita.
"The basic idea with Queens is, it's a band of individuals," Van Leeuwen says. "Each lineup has [had] its amazing qualities, and I would say that the growth of the band has come to this point, and this lineup we have right now is the most musical and [fluid]."
Rounding out Queens' current incarnation is the band's newest member, former Mars Volta drumming hero Jon Theodore.
"Having to come in and [follow] Dave Grohl — that's pressure, you know?" Van Leeuwen says. "This finesse that [Theodore] has — he hits hard, but it's not in the same way [as Grohl]."
Despite Sir Elton's hard-boogie contribution to arguably the rockinest song on the album (except maybe for the heavy metal symphony "I Appear Missing"), with Clockwork, QOTSA comes closer to having "Can You Feel the Love Tonight" moments than on previous efforts — efforts like the frenzied, upside-down-and-backwards experimental mania of 2007's Era Vulgaris, the stoney haze of 2000's Rated R or the muscular powerhouse's signature modern-rock staple Songs for the Deaf. Six albums in and Queens are finally busting out ballads (that's right, ballads!) like the dreamy head-nodder "The Vampyre of Time and Memory" and the heartfelt, falsetto-heavy, piano-centric, album-closing title track.
"We've never played a ballad before," Van Leeuwen explains. "A few years ago, if you heard someone say, 'I love that Queens ballad,' you'd just be like, 'You're fuckin' crazy.'
"I hate to use the word 'matured,' but we have [matured], at least somewhat," he goes on. "[The band] used to be this supercharged, top-fuel hemi car, and now we're kind of cruising along in a '67 Caddy. We've still got something under the hood, but on the outside we feel a little more cruise."
At this week's show, Queens' set list is likely to rely heavily on Clockwork choices. And like the band's 2011 appearance at the Ryman — where they played their years-out-of-print debut album to a crowd largely unfamiliar with the material — fans will hang on every note.
"We're lucky to have an audience that stays with us," Van Leeuwen says, explaining how a dedicated following of thinking-person's hard-rock fans gives the band its carte blanche to grow without chasing another radio hit like the 2002 radio staple "No One Knows."
"It's been really nice to play a song like 'The Vampyre of Time and Memory' and have the audience understand it. We didn't even understand it [when] making the song. ... Those people have really kept us alive."
Less crying, more packing Ben. Good riddance.
"That’s all I got to say." - thats right piano boy time to move along
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