There are few bands in the history of rock ’n’ roll to have inspired such a cultish devotion to replicating their electric guitar tone than Queens Of The Stone Age.
Their rhythm guitar sound is undoubtedly an intoxicating sound, and that’s before you consider the strange textures that sit on top. But there has to be more to it than simple aesthetics. Maybe it is a function of the myths that have been constructed around it; such was the iron curtain around Josh Homme’s early sound, any breadcrumb of information was feasted upon.
It was a great Eureka moment when Homme revealed that there it was a Peavey Decade used on Songs For The Deaf, and in particular for the bass guitar tone on No One Knows. All of a sudden, this mostly forgotten practice amp was the subject of bidding wars, its transistorised circuit was pored over and cloned then reappropriated in stompbox form. The Acorn Solid State, which was released last year, did just that; full-circuit replica. This year Funny Little Boxes launched the £99 Skeleton Key that promised a compact pedalboard solution for Queens tones.
But the smile on Troy Van Leeuwen’s face when we ask him about this whole culture of QOTSA tone-seeking is the tell; there is much more to it, and of course it extends beyond the signal path. Though, he admits that he too would like to try the Skeleton Key.
“It’s funny you bring up that pedal,” he says. “Somebody told me about that, under the same circumstances, ‘This is supposed to be the way you get the Queens tone.’ Like, ‘That’s cute!’ But I would love to try it just because we all collect tons and tons of pedals. I mean, seeing our band live, you can see on the floor how many pedals that me and Josh alone. It’s like a mini Guitar Center.”
In Times New Roman, the band’s first since 2017’s Villains, will do much to inflame passions among their disciplines.
It traffics in reference-quality tones – its production deserves high-quality studio headphones – and in louche grooves that are just rhythmically honest enough to be tight, not too much as to be stiff. When they transcribe Obscenery there might not be a lot of ink on the treble clef but there will be a lot of musical information on the page, a lot of counting as its fuzz riff stops, starts and jerks forward to set the hook.
Like the idea of nailing Queens’ guitar sound, performing their catalogue is on the face of it achievable. But it’s the hope that kills you. It’s the simple bands whose sounds are the most copy protected, and Queens Of The Stone Age might just be the most difficult simple band out there.
As Van Leeuwen admits here, even he has to hold his breath for some of those counts.
Now, this is kismet we have you here today, because in the mail was the Skeleton Key, a new pedal from Funny Little Boxes that allows you to nail the Queens Of The Stone Age guitar tone. So it begs the question: When we hook this up, will we sound like you?
“Well, umm, yeah, I would say, first of all, it’s flattering. But second of all, there’s not just one pedal that does it so… I mean, good luck! Sounding like us with one pedal? I would say it’s probably impossible. My philosophy is that a lot of the way you sound as a guitar player is in your fingers.
My philosophy is that a lot of the way you sound as a guitar player is in your fingers... Billy Gibbons wouldn't sound like Queens ever because he just sounds like he does and it doesn’t matter what he uses
“For example, when we worked with Billy Gibbons, he brought some gear to the studio. This was our first meeting. I don’t even think it was a Line 6 POD; it was some off-brand amp simulator, and we were just like. ‘Yo, plug into one of our amps!’ But the funny thing is, we heard him playing through this thing and it was like, ‘Wow! It sounds like fuckin’ Billy Gibbons!’
“It kind of doesn’t matter. Billy Gibbons wouldn't sound like Queens ever because he just sounds like he does and it doesn’t matter what he uses. Yeah, we could go through all this gear, all this stuff, and there are a lot of secrets we’ve been keeping over the years, but I think that’s the fun part, the magic of being an individual. It’s about teaching people to get their own sound. That’s where I’m coming from.”
You produced this record yourselves. Where do you begin with a project like that? Where do you start with engineering it? Is it a case of finding a great rhythm guitar tone and taking it from there?
“I would say that the main riff that you’re hearing, that’s the first thing you’ve got to nail, and then you can build around it. You want to get that first sound, the thing that’s the hook, the rhythmic pattern, you want that to be the hook and so you want that sound to draw you in. I think you’re right.
“We track the band live, and we used tape this time. It was very much old-school to the bone, and so those rhythm tones that you are hearing, [those are] the ones that we managed to get first while tracking with the band. That was important.”
This is an audiophile’s record. It sounds incredible with headphones. Maybe the tape has something to do with that but certainly, from a performance point of view, tape changes things. Tape costs money. Those takes matter.
“Oh yeah, definitely. It puts you under... I don’t want to say it’s pressure but it is the thing that we all grew up doing. Like, I remember using four-track cassettes forever! And you have to press ‘Record’ and ‘Play’ and then you try to play a whole song, and then if you can find the little button to punch in – which I never got – then you could do a punch-in, but then you had to play the rest of the song.
“So for me it was always about if you can get the whole song in one take, that’s great, but also that makes you go, ‘Well, maybe I can Jimmy Page it where it’s like this first part of the song needs this sound, and then this other sound comes in on the chorus, and I can do something different on the chorus.’ That opens up your mind to parts and hooks.
“Also, I use a computer now, too, like lots of bands over the past 20 years we’re a lot more comfortable using the digital medium. We’ve done both but mainly this is a live band and the way that we sound on tape it really lends to that.”
You are always one of the most difficult simple bands in the world. Take a track like Obscenery, it’s doesn't seem overly complicated but it has this strut that's stilted but it can’t be halting. Is that the toughest thing to get right, keeping the flow going?
“There’s an interesting thing that we do, and this is with a lot of our grooves, and a lot of our tempos, you kind of have to dance it a little bit. [Hums riff] You said it exactly – it’s a strut. You’re just feeling it, and when everyone is in the room, and everyone feels the same as each other, doing the same strut, that’s actually easier for us because if you’re not in the room while it’s happening you are kind of guessing a little bit.”
We don’t use click-tracks. We don’t use any kind of tracks. And sometimes we are on the back of the beat and sometimes we are ahead of it. Sometimes it’s the audience. If they’re sparky we’ll pick it up
It’s a physical element, playing around that beat together.
“It’s a physical element, yeah. We do that live all the time, too. We don’t use click-tracks. We don’t use any kind of tracks. And sometimes we are on the back of it and sometimes we are ahead of it. Sometimes it’s the audience. If they’re sparky we’ll pick it up. And even in the middle of the song, if it feels like it is starting to sink, well, Josh will say, ‘Pick it up!’ and here we go.
“Those types of things come with experience of being a musician that’s been doing this for 30-plus years. Everyone else is in the same boat, and this particular lineup of the band has been together for 10 years already, so that [understanding] is only getting better – and that’s exciting, too. Every time we make a record now it’s like, ‘Okay, all right! We’ve still got it! [Laughs]”
Well, you never really know until you actually start if it’s still there…
“Yeah. It is not easy to decide what songs are going to be on the record and sometimes these things take time. Also, everyone has a family. It’s not like when we were younger, like, ‘Oh, we’re just going to go into the studio and pop this thing out.’ We have to move at a slower pace but that also adds to the care and the way we produce the songs, and making sure the lyrics are spot-on and there is a lot that goes into it.
“I mean, you are right. We are the most difficult simple band. I’ve often heard guys coming up to us saying, ‘You guys are just playing barre chords!’ [Laughs] ‘I am glad you think it is that simple.’”
That just proves the songwriting is working. It is like the swan on the lake. You don’t need to see the legs kicking.
What is exciting you on the gear front?
“There are new pedals on my ‘board every three months. It’s fun. That’s part of the fun, and I’ve always got new amplifiers that I’m trying out. I’ve designed some amps with some friends of mine, and luckily I was able to take them on the road for a test run last year with The Damned and Jane’s Addiction. I got called to step in as the hired gun so I took these amps on the road to see what they would do. It was like R&D for the Queens. We are always looking to try something new.”
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Can you tell us more about these amps?
“Well, the company we put together is called GMI and it is literally myself and Gabriel Currie, who makes Echopark Guitars. He was making and designing Echopark amps as well. He is very much into the design aspect, and also knows enough about the history of the guitar amplifier; what was used in the ‘50s and the ‘40s, the ‘60s and the ‘70s, throughout the years.
“But he doesn’t actually do the wiring. Our friend Sean Romin does. He builds them. So with his knowledge and Gabriel’s knowledge together, I was able to say, ‘This is what I’m looking to do’, and we did it. It is a unique amp. It was designed to have the clarity of something that might be a solid-state amp but also it has a power section that’s tube-based.
“It’s a hybrid, because I need to get the cleanest cleans and the gnarliest fuzzes. It was designed to take a lot of pedals, but also you can plug into this thing, straight in, and it feels real nice, too. It is a super-versatile piece of gear. I’m very happy with it.”
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Maybe the time is right for players to fall back in love with transistorised guitar amplification again because the technology got a bad rep often for no really good reason.
“I think you’re right. It was just that time in the ‘70s where everyone was like, ‘Well tubes aren’t clear enough sounding.’ Then you get the clarity of something like a Jazz Chorus, and there was this company called CMI [Electronics], that Gibson company that made amps for like a year.
“It was that era of mid ‘70s when things were going between tube and solid-state and I just thought that was an interesting time because some of those amps now, when you play them, it is a totally unique experience. And it has a grit to it; it’s just a solid-state grit.”
Without giving away all your secrets. What were the most important bits of gear you used on this record?
“There was a plethora of fuzz pedals that we are always messing around with. It just depends because sometimes you are using an old [Univox] Super-Fuzz and you can’t take that stuff on the road because every old SuperFuzz, they’re all different, and so there’s a certain one that sounds really good so you use that in the studio and then you try to find something [for the road].
“I don’t care if this is a secret or not but I use this pedal called a Fuzz Master General by EarthQuaker Devices, and that basically is a Univox Super-Fuzz clone, and that is the best-sounding one so live I use that. It feels good enough, and it feels close enough to the Super-Fuzz that I like, and so I don’t have to take my Super-Fuzz on the road and run the risk of losing it somewhere! [Laughs] Or it breaking. This thing, it’s new, and it does the thing, it does the job. That’s just one example.
“But we’re using lots of filtering, lots of EQ, because we’re trying to mix ourselves before you get to the mixing [desk]. Like you siad, there is a midrange that we’re always pushing, and you always have to find your spot. I would find my spot in the more upper midrange, and then I use two amps, a dry and a wet.
“That way I can spread across and there’s this spot in the middle that maybe Josh can use. I’ll take the sides and there’s room; there’s a spot in the mix. That’s how we do it. That’s how we do it live, so it’s already mixing itself. You’re not having the cloud in the middle of everything and trying to hang things around that cloud.”
It is the battleground frequency for the guitars.
“Yeah, and that all goes back to that rhythm tone – that needs to be the thing. That’s the midrange too.”
You’ve got such a great sense of space. It sounds like there was some sort of nominative determinism going on – there’s always a sense of humour with your songwriting – but giving Negative Space that title when there is so much negative space in the composition.
“Yeah, you’re right, as you’re talking about the term negative space there is a lot of negative space in that song, too. The groove is going, the rhythm is [hums riff with its pregnant pause]. There’s room for Mikey [Michael Shuman] to do a little bass riff and then there’s the wah guitar, and that’s it. But everything with us is a play on words, a pun.”
Do you have to hold your breath during those silences, those rests?
“I probably unwittingly do, yeah! [Laughs]”
You mentioned Jane’s Addiction. That must have been an amazing gig to cover. Did you have to change your approach for that?
“I grew up watching that band play, in clubs and then watching them grow into this beast, and I was a huge fan when I was a teenager, so for me it was a strange, great honour to have someone like Dave say that, ‘I like that guy.’
“And also, talk about pre-mixing a band? You’ve got Eric Avery, who’s this force of nature, and then you’ve got the drumming of Stephen [Perkins], and those two together have this huge foundation, and as a guitar player, you are just floating around on top of all that. And then you’ve got Perry up here. It’s like a pyramid.
I just told Dave that I was going to approach it as though Jimmy Page was playing in Jane’s Addiction
“It was a big challenge because I haven’t soloed like that since I was learning how to play guitar, so it was sort of like going back to being a teenager and getting that sort of energy back. It is a lot of notes and it is happening all the time.
“I had conversations with Dave about this, too, because even though he wasn’t doing well physically, he was mentally invested in what was happening. I just told him that I was going to approach it as though Jimmy Page was playing in Jane’s Addiction. And he’s like, ‘I love that!’
“I mean, I cannot play like he can. The ease and the way he slings out all these scales and stuff, I can do some of that. I just took more of a Jimmy Page sloppy but, again, with the strut, with a groove, and those guys have groove for days. It was a really cool challenge for me to get up there and do it, and not get things thrown at me! [Laughs] That would be my experience with The Damned, too. As long as people didn’t throw things at me I think I’m doing okay.”
It helps when you’ve got Perry Farrell up there. He still has the energy of a teenager.
“Absolutely! Completely, yeah. And as far as my rig on that tour, I just did basically – ‘cos Dave’s rig has never changed since the ‘80s. It’s a Tube Screamer. It’s a wah-wah pedal. Yeah, just a regular old Dunlop wah. A Boss Stereo Chorus. A Boss digital delay, set to one delay time. If you can get the sound to Run Like Hell by Pink Floyd, that’s the delay time!
“I just did my version of that [rig], which is a couple of different overdrives, a wah pedal, and then I used two Eventide H9s, one was basically the chorus and the other was the delay, set for two amps so there was some stereo imaging going on, and that was it. Very simple.”
Is this album really a trilogy or was that something that was made up after the fact?
“I dunno, I guess maybe it was an idea of doing three because it seems like that’s how the band started. There was a trilogy for the first three records. That’s the way I look at it, too. And I look at Lullabies… and Era Vulgaris as these interesting experimental pieces of art that were basically leading us to where we are now.
“They are like the connective records between the way Queens came out and how people got to recognise the band through those first three records. It feels like the same group of three for this new beginning of the band, this lineup.You’ve got Clockwork, you’ve got Villains, and then now In Times New Roman. It just feels right. I love The Berlin Trilogy with Bowie. I understand chunks of three.
“Now we have no idea what we are going to do and it is absolutely… We could just be a synth band on the next record.”