QUEENS OF THE STONE AGE pull into Seattle on a brilliant spring day in May. While they're in the midst of a West Coast tour promoting their second album and major-label debut, Rated R (Interscope), the sunshine radiates, a fitting welcome for these desert sons.
Nick Oliveri settles at a table on the Queens' tour bus, nursing a highball of Red Bull and vodka that he jokingly calls "a poor man's speedball!" Whether jazzed by the juice or the release of the new album, the amiable bassist, distinguishable by his long goatee, seems particularly excited.
Queens of the Stone Age
Rated R (Interscope)
It probably helps that the band has finally separated their identity from that of their previous outfit, the hard-rocking Kyuss. The Palm Desert, California, band broke up in 1995 and soon splintered off into Queens of the Stone Age, with Josh Homme on guitar, Alfredo Hernandez on drums (he's since been replaced by touring drummer Gene Troutman), and Oliveri; keyboardist Dave Catching rounds out the current lineup. They released their propulsive self-titled debut on Seattle's Loosegroove in 1998 and quickly scored a minor radio hit with "If Only."
The Queens get more ambitious on Rated R, infusing tracks with the unlikely sounds of vibes and horns and veering between punk rock ranters and robotic rockers—there's even a beautiful instrumental. Oliveri explains that he and Homme, a former Seattle resident who briefly played with Screaming Trees, set out to expand on the sound they crafted on the debut.
"Josh and I went to Joshua Tree and wrote the record in five days," he says. "We went into writing it with the idea of making it different from our first record—not to have any boundaries and to be really diverse."
"Feel Good Hit of the Summer" starts things off with a pounding bass line that throbs like a two-day hangover and repetitive lyrics that detail a litany of substances: "Nicotine/Valium/Vicadin/marijuana/ecstasy/alcohol/cocaine!" Homme chants in the song. It's an apt example of the Queens' fresh approach, which involves a wider musical spectrum and the presence of high-profile guests; after swaying between poles of noisy and subdued parts, it's punctuated with a demonic screech courtesy of Rob Halford. "He happened to be recording in the studio next door," Oliveri explains of the ex-Judas Priest frontman. "I figured anyone who sold that many records was probably an asshole, but he turned out to be a really nice guy." According to the bassist, Halford read the substance-laden lyrics and said, "Oh, I've had this before—a rock 'n' roll cocktail!"
SUCH AN OBVIOUS celebration of drugs won't do much to dispel the "stoner rock" tag that critics and fans have slapped on the Queens and on Kyuss before them. Oliveri says he prefers the term "desert rock."
"I don't see us as stoner rock—whatever that is," he proclaims. "All the bands that are niched into that category are friends of mine. We didn't hold a meeting and say, 'All right, we need to come up with a scene—we'll call it stoner rock, dude!'" While "desert rock" may be an equally nebulous descriptive, the music on Rated R evokes plenty on its own. "Better Living Through Chemistry" is a sprawling epic accented with surreal bits; Barrett Martin (of Screaming Trees and Tuatara) introduces it with an exotic bongo beat that fades into a hypnotic groove that wavers like heat rising off the blacktop. The changing tempos, mystical lyrics, and fading vocals could be the soundtrack for a hallucination. "That is probably my favorite song on the record," Oliveri notes. "It was already trippy when we wrote it and I knew by the time we got it into the studio [that] it would emerge as this weird monster. It really has a life of its own."
HOMME ENTERS the tour bus with a handful of videotapes. His red hair, boyish good looks, and polite manners ("Excuse me, I didn't mean to interrupt") belie his rock persona. Like Oliveri, he's pumped about the new record. One song he's particularly proud of is the moving, dramatic "Into the Fade," which features another friend from his Screaming Trees days, Mark Lanegan, taking over on lead vocals. Oliveri enjoyed the collaboration as well. "It was an honor for me to watch Mark work on a Queens song," he says. Then he laughs as he recalls, "Mark would sing a verse and it would sound great, and right at the end of last word he'd go, 'Fuck!' as if he thought he hadn't sang it well. We had to keep telling him, 'Dude, you're a badass and it sounds great!' I guess everyone is their own worst critic."
Speaking of which, Catching joins his bandmates back in the van just as the subject of his writing contribution, "Lightning Song," comes up; it's an acoustic instrumental with a delicate piano and subtle bongos. "It's the worst song on the record," he says, exuding false modesty. Eventually, he straightens out. "We can be sensitive too," he notes.
But Oliveri disagrees. "It's not softer," he says. "Rated R just has a little bit of everything. We've been dealing with 'guy rock' for too long. We need more girls to come to our shows!"