Nick of Time
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."
Although Red Sun was fiery enough to win Kyuss a contract with Elektra/Asylum, Oliveri didn't stick around to reap the benefits -- and, oddly enough, his departure actually seems to have been inspired by that most cliched of rationales, creative differences. Homme and company were interested in stretching out musically (1994's Welcome to Sky Valley features a trio of suites), while Oliveri was feeling punky. The Dwarves were just the guys to scratch the bassist's itch, and his work on the aforementioned Young and Good Looking demonstrates how well-suited he was to the brand of sonic chaos in which main Dwarf, Blag Dahlia, specializes. The collaboration keeps going on Drug Problem. Dahlia shares writing credit with Oliveri on "F.Y. I'm Free" and "Girl's Like Christ"; he also receives an individual nod for "Like You Want" and is listed as a co-producer.
Homme re-entered the picture in 1997. Kyuss had run its course, and he wanted to reunite with Oliveri, a desire that led directly to the rise of a new Stone Age family. "Josh has known what he was going to do with Queens from the beginning," Oliveri says. "And everything he's said he's going to do, he's done."
Granted, world domination wasn't on the agenda. "He was just trying to set things up where we could stay on the road, stay busy, keep the thing rolling," Oliveri recalls. "We had no idea about anything else."
As was the case with Kyuss, Queens won the backing of a major label, Interscope, after unleashing a well-received platter, 1998's Queens of the Stone Age, with help from a smaller company (on this occasion, Loose Groove). Yet even before the appearance of 2000's Rated R, its much-loved Interscope bow, the band won a hefty following for its anything-goes stage shows. Oliveri, for instance, occasionally likes to shed his clothes -- a proclivity that led to his arrest at the 2001 Rock in Rio festival. Some notable rock stars were smitten by the Queens, too. Smashing Pumpkins' Billy Corgan was a vigorous booster, back when that meant something, as was Nirvana-skinsman-turned-Foo Fighter Dave Grohl, whose affection eventually led to him taking the drum chair for Deaf.
"We've always been a band's band," Oliveri says. "You know, other bands would dig us. But we never had any kids who were into it before. We were always, like, a 21-and-over bar band. We could stay busy touring clubs forever, but we didn't get any attention from kids."
That changed with the unforeseen renown collected by the Deaf single "No One Knows." The witty, chugging melody, conceived by Homme and Mark Lanegan, the onetime frontman of Screaming Trees who's now a de facto Queen, had little in common with other ditties on hard-rock radio in 2002 -- which made the airplay orgy that greeted it all the more satisfying. Because Homme, Oliveri and guests such as Dahlia, Dean Ween and Marilyn Manson grad Twiggy Ramirez are such an eclectic bunch, the album as a whole is rather erratic, but there are several great tracks. Even so, the CD's reception was a shock to everyone, Oliveri included.
"We were really surprised," he says. "We weren't expecting anything. We were just, like, 'We want to make another record after this one. I don't know on what level, or what label, but we want to make another record.' It was just like it was with Rated R. We just wanted to make something we wanted to listen to ourselves but couldn't find in a store. And then everything else happened."
The Queens breakthrough would seem to leave little room for Mondo Generator, especially considering the haphazard circumstances surrounding Mondo's creation. Oliveri, Homme and Bjork completed a batch of tunes in 1997, but when Queens became priority one, the recordings were set aside. Several years later, Oliveri revisited the music and liked what he heard enough to issue it on Southern Lord Records with the Mondo Generator handle attached. Released in 2000 as Cocaine Rodeo, the disc earned strong notices, even as it presented Oliveri with new options for compositions that Homme didn't think were quite right for Queens or for the series of discs released under the umbrella term Desert Sessions. Ipecac put out the thoroughly enjoyable Desert Sessions 9 & 10, featuring a cameo by PJ Harvey, in September.
"A lot of times I'll play something for Josh and go, 'Hey, what do you think?'" Oliveri says. "And he'll be like, 'I like that song, but I don't know about that one.' I try to do the same thing for him, but the difference is, I tend to like more of what he does than he likes what I do."
The ensuing cascade of cackles implies that Oliveri takes Homme's judgment in stride, and he quickly offers confirmation. "I totally trust him, and I've known him for a long time. So it's easy for me to say, 'He doesn't like it? Whatever.' I don't get bummed. I know I can do it with Mondo -- and there's no ego or jealousies about that. And it's not like he's saying, 'Oh, man! You're going out on me!' There's no girl-type stuff going on, which is great, because Mondo's like the more uncensored version of me. There's nobody going, 'Geez, that song sucks. Don't put that out.' There's just me, going, 'I like it. Fuck it. I'm putting it out.'"
Oliveri penned much of the material on Drug Problem while Deaf was being assembled, and the fact that it didn't make the cut is no indication of subpar quality. Indeed, it's quite a personal disc, making frequent reference to the deterioration of Oliveri's marriage. The cover photo of Oliveri is ripped and torn (ironically, his current girlfriend, Deborah Vierek, did the damage), and the title is a marital metaphor: "Our love was like a drug problem that never existed, because it never existed, either," he explains. Several songs unflinchingly explore the conflicting emotions the divorce churned up, most notably "So High, So Low," whose lines range from "I'll never, ever hit you" to "I wish you'd die."
"I was just letting it out," Oliveri maintains. "My friend Brad Cook recorded me and helped produce that one, and he did a great job. I asked him to just roll tape, because I didn't have lyrics on that one. All I had was 'Been so high, been so low.' That's why a lot of the words get behind the music, and then I have to catch up again. All of that kind of popped off the top of my head, and I wanted to change it, but Brad was like, 'No, dude, we've got to keep it -- it is what it is.' And I'm glad we did.
"I think it's important to let that stuff out," he continues. "I've got a song that goes, like, 'I don't want to live unless I can kill' [called "Unless I Can Kill," from Cocaine Rodeo], and by singing about it and letting it out that way, I don't do it. So it's like musical therapy." He laughs again as he says, "Deep Inside the Mind of a Retard. That's going to be the third record."
He's probably joking, but maybe not. After Mondo Generator finishes touring the U.S., the quartet will head to Europe, plus the Queens will be cruising to Australia. Along the way, Oliveri plans to write songs for new albums by both of his bands, and he's hoping to squeeze in more solo performances as well. When it's suggested that he try one in the buff, he immediately brightens.
"The totally nude acoustic show!" he exults. "That makes a lot of sense. Maybe I'll have to do that."
A new side project is born.
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