By Noah Hubbell
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On October 3, bassist-vocalist Nick Oliveri was slated to shake Denver's posh Fillmore Auditorium along with his band, Queens of the Stone Age. Two days later, the same group had a headlining slot in Boise, Idaho. That left one day in the middle for the sort of responsibility-free downtime most touring musicians wouldn't think of surrendering. But Oliveri isn't most touring musicians. With help from a friend, he arranged to play an October 4 solo acoustic show at the Larimer Lounge, a club with less than a tenth the capacity of the Fillmore, not to mention a total lack of chandeliers.
This impromptu performance was the first of its kind in America. Oliveri had done a handful of similar turns in Europe, but not stateside -- and to make this debut-of-sorts happen, he had to buy new plane tickets to Boise. If only he felt that the gig itself took flight. While the overwhelming majority of folks who packed the Lounge were reportedly thrilled by his set, he laughingly describes the result as "horrible. The deal was, I overpracticed. When you start overthinking things, they can get really silly." Not that he regrets his decision to go it alone. According to him, "It was really fun to do. I just like to play, you know. That's why we're out here traveling. Even when I suck really bad, it's still a good time."
Clearly, the success of Queens, which broke through commercially with last year's Songs for the Deaf, hasn't altered Oliveri's fondness for the simple pleasures in life. Speaking from the drive-thru lane of a Krispy Kreme franchise in Dallas, he confesses to being "a lemon-filled man" -- and he also retains a taste for divey nightspots, which he developed during more than a decade spent playing with cult acts such as Kyuss and the Dwarves. Fans of the latter group were among the attendees at the Lounge, and when they requested Dwarves material, Oliveri complied as best he could.
"I played 'Drug Store' [from the 1990 album Blood Guts & Pussy] and 'Demonica' [a highlight of 1997's The Dwarves Are Young and Good Looking]," he says. "I wanted to pick tunes that I thought would be fun, and since people were yelling them out and since I did play in that band, I tried to remember them."
Did the chords and words come back to him?
"Kind of, man," he replies. "There's been songs that I didn't know at all that people yelled out, and I just tried to make 'em up as I went. Like, 'I kind of remember how that sounds.' That doesn't work, usually, but the idea is to make it feel like you were at my house and I had a guitar in my hand." He lets loose another guffaw before adding, "And I was drunk."
These days, finding a few moments to get bombed is tougher than ever. After all, Oliveri is committed not only to Queens, but also to Mondo Generator, a side project whose second disc, A Drug Problem That Never Existed, came out earlier this year on Ipecac, an indie imprint co-owned by idiosyncratic singer Mike Patton. Rather than letting the CD fend for itself, however, he and Mondo bandmates Brant Bjork, Dave Catching and Molly Maguire are supporting it with dates at selected watering holes here and abroad. The jaunt won't be nearly as lucrative as a circuit with Queens would be, but Oliveri doesn't care.
"I think it's harder to stay at home than it is to go out and travel, even if the only thing I get to see is the inside of clubs," he concedes. "For me, that's my real home."
Perhaps he feels this way because Palm Desert, California, where he grew up, is so surreal. The region's stark topography is reminiscent of nearby Joshua Tree National Park, the site of late country rocker Gram Parsons's fabled quasi-cremation, but the area is also known as a swank getaway for veteran show-business personalities. Nearby streets are named for the likes of Frank Sinatra, Bob Hope and bandleader Fred Waring.
Oliveri wasn't in that elevated income bracket, and neither were Palm Desert residents Josh Homme and Brant Bjork, which partly explains why they befriended each other during their middle-school years. The three wound up playing together in a succession of bands, with Homme on guitar and Bjork handling the drums. Along the way, they developed an approach that combined metallic bedlam with the sort of psychedelicized spaciness associated with the high desert.
These elements came together in Kyuss, which was formed in 1990 and made its reputation by hosting "generator parties": outdoor concerts in remote settings within driving distance of Palm Desert. The combo concocted its initial album, Wretch, in 1991, but the next year's Blues for the Red Sun made considerably more of an impression, becoming a landmark in the nascent subgenre dubbed stoner rock. And why not? The artwork -- including a photo of an amplifier sitting in the middle of a barren wasteland like the monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey -- provides a visual corollary for music that's simultaneously skull-crushing and mind-expanding. The efforts of Oliveri, Homme, Bjork and lead singer John Garcia still hold up on tracks such as the propulsive "50 Million Years Trip (Downside Up)," the full-throated "Thong Song" (which bears no resemblance to anything by Sisqó), and the crazed "Allen's Wrench," whose lyrics consist primarily of the quizzical couplet "Allen's wrench/Is all you get." Finally, there's Oliveri's only composition, a vocally distorted, totally compelling freakfest with the significant moniker "Mondo Generator."