Playing the part of the villain seems to come natural to Josh Homme, who relishes his role as rock ‘n roll’s modern day provocateur.
“It’s no secret that we’ve been at the other end of someone’s pointed finger before,” the Queens of the Stone Age front man tells Billboard during a break in Germany on the band’s Villains World Tour in support of their seventh studio album of the same name. If the band’s 2013 record ..Like Clockwork was Homme’s somber retreat into darkness, Villains is his dancey self-revival, produced by Mark Ronson (Lady Gaga, Adele, Amy Winehouse).
Villains is a decidedly uptempo change of pace for Homme, who has endured an emotionally and mentally difficult stretch between records. In 2015, his bandmates in Eagles of Death Metal survived a deadly terrorist attack on the Bataclan concert venue in Paris that left 89 fans dead (Homme wasn’t touring with the band at the time). As a form of musical therapy after the attacks (and the filming of Eagles of Death Metal: Nos Amis (Our Friends) with director Colin Hanks), Homme and QOTSA keyboardist Dean Fertita and Matt Helders from Arctic Monkeys teamed up with Iggy Pop to produce Pop’s eighth studio album Post Pop Depression. With tracks like “American Valhalla” and the catchy, yet unsettling “Gardenia,” the Homme-produced album helped Pop etch his first No. 1 solo album on Billboard’s Top Rock Albums and Alternative Albums.
After a couple months off, Homme and QOTSA are back touring support in of Villains and putting tickets for the second leg of their tour on sale today (Nov. 10), including a return to The Forum in Los Angeles on Feb 17, six months after performing at Dave Grohl’s Cal Jam fest in San Bernardino.
Billboard caught up with Homme (pronounced Hommy, rhymes with “mommy”) to talk about his love for the IE, the sounds of Villain and why Satan always makes for a great dance-party theme.
How was Cal Jam?
I was really happy for Dave. That’s a big risk. From the perspective of being in a band and what you wish a festival would be like, taking little pieces of European festivals that are kind of wonderful and everyone is still free to do what they want, and mixing that with your own line up, is a big risk. It was quite good to be one of the bands there and Dave has a way of saying “we should really enjoy ourselves, everybody go!” He’s always had that way about him.
You’re from the Palm Desert, not far from the Glen Helen Amphitheater, the home of this year’s Cal Jam. I’ve always had mixed feelings about Glen Helen — it’s a gigantically magical place, albeit a bit cantankerous and pitiful. What is your relationship with this glorious dump of a music venue?
To me, it’s in the elbow crease of many freeways, in the middle of nowhere. It’s where you are when you’re about to go somewhere else.
You pass it on your way to Vegas or when you’re trying to run from something.
Yes. It’s a high use area for drug trafficking. But it’s part of the Inland Empire, which sounds so much like the Roman Empire until you’re there. Then you realize it’s not Rome. As Nick Oliveri used to say, “it’s a great place to get gas, take a shit and keep driving.”
Do you feel comfortable taking credit for making the Inland Empire credible and perhaps even cool?
Any place where you’re allowed to take a chance, fail, get up and not be condemned is a good place. And I can say I’m proud to be from the IE, I am proud to be from 760 and I’m proud to be from the desert. In Blade Runner they just say “enhanced” — I’m proud to be from the enhanced IE.
The title of your latest album is Villains. You’ve already said it’s not about Trump or any particular person. Is it more of a construct, a shape-shifting creature?
I just love how the word looks, especially the hardness of all the lettering, except, of course for the unfortunate letter S. It’s a word that immediately elicits a reaction, and because of that immediacy, much like pin the tail on the donkey, people know exactly where they want to put that word. It’s in a different place for everybody. Real art elicits a reaction and it’s immediate. And I knew what we were about to do. I know what the climate is in the world. I’m living in it.
Are you the villain?
I believe it’s an honor to be the villain if you’re a villain to some asshole. That’s a wonderful thing to be, and I’m always proud to be that villain when it’s someone that I am not on board with.
Does that make you a villain of a villain?
Yes. Oftentimes, if you are being played the villain, it’s against what you believe to be a villain. I’ve always had a little bit of a disdain for humanity and a chip on my shoulder, but I’m not a passive-aggressive person and we don’t have a passive-aggressive relationship in our band. Everyone says what they believe — you have to be honest when the time is right.
So you aren’t the real villain?
How about this — when we come to town, we’re hoping to be someone’s villain. Most of the world will just text somebody and tell them “you’re the villain.” But we’re ready to walk right up and stand in front of you and say “It’s me, I’m your villain.” If anything, that’s just a good mantra for life.
It’s also very confrontational.
Do you worry that type of confrontation and intensity isn’t healthy?
Well, I don’t think it pays to be reactionary. That’s why striking the first blow sometimes forces the other person to react. “We’re here. What are you going to do about it?” I think living in the now starts by being willing to initiate a discussion, some action, and ultimately elicits a reaction. But I would rather be on the vanguard of action than sit in the throne of reaction.
What was it like working with Ronson?
I’ll say this — We were all aware of what revealing Ronson’s involvement in the album was going to do, and “Feet Don’t Fail Me Now” felt like the song version of the dirty trick that Ronson was going to be.
Where can you hear Ronson most on this album?
I’m not sure there is any one place. Where do you taste the right spice in a recipe? It reigns omnipresent. As a band, our request is that someone in that role become the sixth member. We move at the speed of inspiration, and when someone has a good idea, we race to catch to that inspiration. That way the only thing you are chasing is what you’re passionate and excited about instead of focusing on what you don’t like, which is a silly way to bond with somebody.
Maybe we can hear a bit of Ronson on “Unreborn Again.”
With that song I had this idea about letting the floor drop out at the apex of the song and hitting the string section, which was almost like the percussion section instead of strings. I was having a hard time finding how to transition into that, and Ronson pulled this deejay trick using a filter drop and make it immediate. Old school Queens would take time to get there, but this had to be like a rug pull, because pulling the rug was the theme of the record, like trying to find the right moment to get someone to look left and hit them from the right side instead.
Did you tell him you wanted to change your sound?
We knew we we’re going to try to reinvent and redefine our sound, which coming from a band that has a sound, can be tricky. And so we needed someone on the other side of the glass. We’re supposed to surprise and excite people — that’s the part of the job I really like — to surprise people by leaping out of the darkness to go boom.
But when you take risks like that, you face all the tweets and Facebook comments and the chatter from the interwebs. Does that bother you?
I don’t read about myself, I don’t think it’s healthy for me. I can already guess what everyone’s going to do, not because I’m Alfred Einstein — Albert’s dumber brother — it’s just that it’s obvious. What else are they going to do? My hope is to agitate, agitate, agitate and in order to say ‘”if you pretend you know in advance, you are wrong.” When I ask for an open mind, I’ve got to have one myself. It’s a great way for our audience and our band to say “whatever music it is, as long as it’s good, it doesn’t matter.” I’m hoping that if we ever decide to play reggae, it’s reggae you could like.
Sounds like you don’t fear losing your audience.
Au contraire. I always assume we’re going to lose 15 percent of our audience with every record. I assume that we’re going to probably shake off some fairweather friends who are on for one bus stop and I’m OK with that. I told Ronson “if 15 percent of the people don’t hate you, you suck.” And Ronson very acutely said “I’m just trying to get it down to 45.”
You just said fairweather friends, which happens to be an incredible track from your last album. Was that intentional?
Well… you write about what you know. And what you see. And what you are.
Let’s talk about“The Way You Used To Do” video. Did you do all your own choreography and dancing?
The truth is I tore my knee by 10 in the morning, and there was so much more I wanted to do that I couldn’t quite get to. But I love to go dancing and again, with Ronson pulling rugs and going where we’re not supposed to go — which is really one of my favorite things of all time — I thought “what if we made a satanic dance video that was Cab Calloway inspired and had death metal backup dancers.” I wanted to have the audience do a deal with the devil. The director of the video is Jonas Åkerlund, a death metal drummer from Sweden. Who else could do this but this guy? Who else would know that it’s real? And after each take, he would look at me and say “hail Satan.” And I would respond “hail Satan.” Even still today, that’s how we great each other.
There’s a lot of rock stars getting into entrepreneurial businesses — tequila, wine, even pasta sauce. I’d like to pitch you on a business idea that might be interesting — Homme’s Salamis.
Yes, fine artisanal processed meats.
Ha! I drink a lot of tequila so I’m sure I can picture myself owning a tequila thing but by the same token, I think a lot of the times people split their focus by trying to sell you champagne or bottled water, which by the way has to be the world’s greatest business. But I’m not interested necessarily in hawking anything for you, or to you. When people say “I’m working on my brand,” that makes me want to take a hot iron and burn you. I never begrudge anyone their success and what they want to do — the way to support artists you love has been stripped away over the years. I have to deal with eBay kids who want me to sign something they can upcharge my fans — they’re getting in the way of our relationship.
And a lot of the world is very entitled and has high expectations and is easily disappointed. That’s kind of lame. But at the same time, I’m not pointing any fingers and it doesn’t make me lose sleep at night. I understand why people want to preserve themselves and have something else. They are not simply relying on music, because that can be scary and difficult and challenging. I’m always expecting someone to walk in the door and say ‘”no one likes your music anymore, it’s over, go home.” It’s why I try to enjoy it now – that and because I haven’t crossed the threshold into selling water yet.
Learn more and buy tickets for the Villains World Tour at QOTSA.com.