Was it Magnet, Spin or Pulse! that first coined the insidious term "stoner rock" in an effort to describe a new sound emerging from the desert -- the sound that's at times lethargic yet prone to getting loud and sonorous at the crack of a high hat? Personally, I'm hoping the term sprang from a more unlikely source, like Highlights for Children, the favorite magazine of four out of five dentists' waiting rooms. (Just imagine it: "Gallant likes to rock correctly, but Goofus enjoys fucking things up.")
If you want to do a Leonard Nimoy and go in search of stoner rock's roots, it would require time-traveling back to the heady days of the early Nineties, just before alternative became a hackneyed buzzword but more than a couple of years after heavy metal was systematically ruined by guys with poodle hairdos and leopard-skin pants. In any case, to find the real answer, you'd be forced to explore the unlikely province of Palm Desert, California.
Dead -- or very near dead -- Hollywood icons hang over Palm Desert like fangs from an octogenarian vampire. If a street doesn't have either "palm" or "desert" in its name, chances are it bears the moniker of a former TV talk-show host, like Dinah Shore Drive or Merv Griffin Way. Stroll through the Coechla Valley's stretch of tourist trinket shops and you can buy postcards of Bob Hope's house, which is perched on a nearby mountain and looks very much like a giant armadillo. A few doors down, you can pose for pictures next to a bronze statue of America's favorite redhead, Lucille Ball, sitting on a bench and making like a friend to the friendless. Farther along, you meet up with wooden life-sized cutouts of Liberace and Frank Sinatra outside of a Blimpie's. (Like there's any chance those two would actually be hanging out together.)
It is this bizarre hybrid of resort town and Hollywood wax museum that has provided a home base for the now-legendary Kyuss and its fast-rising offshoot, Queens of the Stone Age. No, you can't buy a Kyuss "Welcome to Sky Valley" postcard here. You won't even hear the occasional Kyuss tune blaring out of a speeding car window. Yet in music circles, guitarist Josh Homme, bassist Nick Oliveri and drummer Alfredo Hernandez, the onetime nucleus of the band, have undeniably put Palm Desert on the map. Kyuss continues to influence new stoner-rock groups such as Monster Magnet and Fu Manchu, but more recently, the three former Kyuss members reconvened to form the Queens. (Hernandez recently quit, leaving the trapsman duties to former Miracle Workers drummer Gene Troutman.)
Bassist Nick Oliveri is a man of few words, "cool" and "beans" being two of the most frequently used. If anyone would know when stoner rock was born, it would be Oliveri, but he pleads total ignorance. "That came after Kyuss. I don't know too much about the stoner-rock title, 'cause we hate to label ourselves anything. That kind of limits what we can do."
Thus far, there doesn't seem to be anything limiting the Queens of the Stone Age. Because of the Kyuss cachet, the band has had little trouble getting on high-profile tours with the likes of the Smashing Pumpkins and Hole. And while scores of bands have gotten dropped or lost in Polygram's corporate shuffle, the Queens are one of the few that the company (via Interscope Records) has actively courted and signed. Another reason the Queens are sitting pretty is that the group has a built-in and loyal fan base. Even five years after its demise, Kyuss's popularity continues to grow internationally.
"It kind of worked out for the better," says Oliveri. "Because Kyuss is no more, it is more. That's the same reaction that we get in most places we play. Everybody really cares about Kyuss now. Like everything else, once it's gone, everybody goes, 'What happened?'"
In 1991, the same year Nirvana's Nevermind was wreaking havoc on the musical landscape, Kyuss released its first album, Wretch. The two records share more than parental advisory stickers. Both exhibit a healthy love for furious metal, speed punk and psychedelic blues. While Nirvana had pop leanings, Kyuss was more metal-based, even sounding free-form at times. Something like Glenn Danzig if he'd gotten Blue Cheer to back him up. "I don't know how you'd categorize Blue Cheer," says Oliveri, laughing. "But I don't consider Kyuss metal. There might be some elements of metal there, but we were just playing heavy." In fact, Danzig took the group with him on tour after its second and arguably best album, 1992's Blues for the Red Sun.
Another important friend who continues to work with the Queens is Masters of Reality founder Chris Goss. "Chris really liked Kyuss," notes Oliveri. "After Wretch, he helped Kyuss to develop; he did some percussion, background vocals. He was like a fifth member on Blues for the Red Sun."
On that album, Oliveri is listed as a composer, lyricist and vocalist, and you can hear the shift away from loose jams to more structured songs. What you also begin to hear is Oliveri's shift away from the band. He left the group after the album was made, changed his name to Rex Everything and joined a San Francisco combo called the Dwarves. In fact, Oliveri has just completed a new album with the group. "I was kind of going in a different direction and wanted to do something else for a while, and Kyuss kept going," says Oliveri.
Kyuss's time was rapidly drawing to a close, however, although the group issued two more albums, Sky Valley and the somberly titled And the Circus Leaves Town, before calling it quits in 1995. As for the breakup, Oliveri says, "There was a lot of political things in terms of business managers. Once everyone was trying to screw the band, Kyuss took a passive-aggressive approach. Instead of trying to rise above it, they said, 'All right, whatever. It's over.' Y'know, just break it up. That was the Kyuss mentality."
Josh Homme moved to Seattle and toured with Screaming Trees for two years. In the interim, he released Kyuss/Queens of the Stone Age, a split EP of unissued tracks from his former band and his new one. Not since the Move "presented" the Electric Light Orchestra has one group so deftly mutated into another.
When the invitation to play with the Queens came up, Oliveri was living in Texas and feeling sorely out of place. "I moved there to check it out," recalls Oliveri. "I don't know why. Living there was kind of weird. If you're from anywhere else, you're considered a transplant, and I'm not too much into the pride of any flag, y'know. And Texas is." Oliveri moved back to Palm Desert, where he'd lived since the early Eighties. "Actually, there was more of a scene then; there really isn't one now," he says.
Among the groups in the current music scene are the Earthlings (which features newest Queens member David Catching), Fatso Jetson, and Uneeda (featuring former Kyuss lead vocalist John Garcia). "Everyone's played with each other, or at least a member or two has played or jammed with somebody," says Oliveri.
This rather incestuous cabal of musicians also seems to revolve around Monkey Recording Studios, co-owned by Goss and engineer Steve Feldman. Up-and-comers like Fu Manchu and the Flys have recorded there in recent months, while countless others have come hoping to capture that elusive desert sound. The Queens recorded their eponymous debut there, returning recently to lay down several new tracks. One song recorded during those sessions, "Infinity," will surface later this year on the soundtrack of the long-awaited sequel to the animated movie Heavy Metal.
Although the first Queens of the Stone Age album features three-fourths of Kyuss's Red Sun lineup, it's hardly a case of Kyuss Mach II. While the emphasis on the band's debut album for the Loosegroove label is still on the act's heavier side, there's an element of pop that would have been unthinkable in the context of the previous group. The track "If Only" features the most tell-tale of all pop signs -- the hand-clap track. Another trait that sets the Queens apart from Kyuss is that Josh Homme decided to start singing.
"I'm a big fan of John Garcia," says Oliveri of Kyuss's powerful wailer. "But to have a guy like John singing, you might as well call it Kyuss. Josh adds a new element. He tried out a bunch of singers until somebody finally told him, "'Dude, nobody else is gonna sing this shit, so you gotta sing it yourself.'"
Compared to Garcia's supercharged voice, Homme's down-to-earth vocal register humanizes the songs and brings a good deal more humor and pathos to them. When he sings "Life is a trip when you're psycho alone," on "You Can't Quit Me Baby," one of the album's standout tracks, it resonates with empathy rather than coming off as a put-down. And while the title and the weird slide tunings are a tip of the hat to Led Zeppelin, the bizarre, low-timbre, humming voices on that track and on "Give the Mule What He Wants" are right out of one of Ennio Morricone's scores. Unlike most guitar heroes whose "talent" depends on how many notes they can cram into a single measure, Homme will bend the same note for two minutes to get a suitable trance-like mood, as he does on "Walkin' on the Sidewalks."
Clearly, the Queens are not afraid of left field. When asked what direction the next album will take, Oliveri laughs. "Up, down, side-to-side, man. It's going in all different directions. I think you'll dig it. Some songs will be heavy, some songs will be trippy. We want to be able to move around with it and keep it new for everybody."
Aware of how playing the same songs all the time can quickly get boring, Oliveri promises surprises on the concert front as well. "We're gonna try tours where we have two drummers, tours where we have two guitar players, add and subtract members. We tour so much, and we plan to stay on the road and make records."
The Queens made good on that promise during their last tour, when they enlisted new member Dave Catching to play electric piano and lap steel as well as rhythm guitar on a couple of songs. "We want to be able to do stuff live that expands on the album. We're not trying to write any hits."
Maybe not, but many of the tracks from the group's first album could easily match the Foo Fighters for catchiness and focused hooks. Cementing their appeal with alternative radio, the Queens recently toured with Smashing Pumpkins. "They played smaller places, for them, so nobody who would have come to see the Queens would have been able to get in, 'cause it was all sold out in however many minutes," says Oliveri. "We really enjoyed that tour, because we wanted to play for the young girls."
The Queens got that chance again when the band toured with Hole after Courtney Love and company defected from the ill-fated Marilyn Manson bill. "I'm pretty sure Courtney gave out at least one guitar or two to some girl in the audience every night. It was pretty wild," Oliveri says, laughing.
The bandmembers can leave the chaos of the road behind when they return to their desert home, where no one over thirty even knows who they are. "It's kind of cool to come back after a tour to a slow-moving place like Palm Desert," says Oliveri. "If you're not playing music here, you're not doing much."
So let Palm Springs and the neighboring counties ignore the contributions of Queens of the Stone Age and the trails the band has blazed in the field of stoner rock. Once all the desert geezers die off and will their orange and green golf jackets to thrift stores, maybe then the chamber of commerce will get around to erecting a plaque or something. After all, it took thirty years and a major motion picture before Lubbock, Texas, gave its most famous son, Buddy Holly, a bronze statue. A wooden cutout of Josh Homme in front of Blimpie's could take even longer.
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