Queens of the Stone Age's Troy van Leeuwen and Mikey Shuman on returning from the brink
"If we hadn't hunkered down and got to work then we'd still be in the studio," says Queens of the Stone Age guitarist Troy van Leeuwen. "Or we would have walked away."
Troy sighs the latter comment out through almost gritted teeth, following it up with a nervous laugh that belies how close the band came to imploding while recording their new album Like Clockwork.
As we sit with Troy and bass player Mikey Shuman just a few hours before the band's incredible set at this year's Download festival, the pair are in good spirits. Their laidback attitudes are a world away from the tension they faced in the several years since work began on the follow-up to 2007's Era Vulgaris.
Josh Homme nearly died for one (his heart stopped when a routine knee op went wrong). The imposing frontman then stumbled into a focus-destroying depression that threatened to derail the band. Oh, and he had to give friend and drummer Joey Castillo his marching orders, too.
So, the Like Clockwork sessions were no walk in the park. All of which makes the masterpiece they conjured up all the more impressive. It was how this career-defining record was pulled out of such despair and how the band managed to piece back their trademark sound that we wanted to get to the bottom of as we sat with Troy and Mikey...
Let's start with gear, did you have a go-to rig when recording Like Clockwork?
Troy: "The one thing that I kept coming back to that ended up on a lot of the songs guitar wise was a '65 Jazzmaster. I played that through my AC30. That was one thing that was one constant but we had so much stuff. We had Peavey amps, we had old Fenders, whatever we could get our hands on basically is what we would use. Guitar wise there is some new stuff, some vintage stuff, a lot of Telecasters, a lot keyboards too, Moog Phatty all over the place."
Mikey: "It's a common tale, but it is all on a song by song basis. That's what I love about this record, there was no, 'This is my sound, this needs this and that.' It was finding what each song needed and then exploring that. I think we ended up using a lot of smaller amps, there's some little secrets here and there. We'd pull up the [Ampeg] SVT when we needed a big sound. I also re-found the love of P Bass. I have always tried to steer away from them because when I was growing up that was what everyone played, but that's because it's an amazing bass, so I re-found my love for that."
Troy: "I heard the story that Gibson asked Les Paul to design a bass for them back in the '50s. One day he walked in with a Fender P Bass and said, 'Copy this.' If that says anything, it says that the P Bass is next to the perfect instrument."
Troy, how about pedals, we're guessing you had a fairly substantial-sized board?
Troy: "I did an Instagram picture of my pedal board in the studio. I actually had to do two because it was so long from one end to the other. There's a couple of new companies that I've been using, there's one called Earthquaker Devices, I've been using their Dispatch Master which is kind of a reverb delay pedal. There's this company called Fuzzrocious who make these fuzz pedals that we use. Way Huge, I know George who designs all of their stuff. Like I said, anything that we can get our hands on we will use. There's plenty of experimenting going on."
How about tone, did you always have that classic robotic, jerky Queens tone in mind?
Troy: "It was on a song by song basis. The Jazzmaster through the Vox seemed to work a lot because it has its own space. We have three guitar players now so not everyone can have this big giant sound. Josh's sound has always been his, so Dean [Fertita, guitar] and I would have to flank his sound with ambience or a nice wiry, harsh tone. But song by song we will have to figure it out."
Mikey makes himself heard live (credit: Gonzales Photo/Demotix/Corbis)
Does the fact that you have three guitarists create challenges? Do you each have a role that you fall into or is it, again, song by song?
Troy: "I think it's a little bit of both. We have this philosophy that the best idea wins, so there is a lot of trial and error in finding the best idea. Sometimes you're playing off each other, sometimes you'll have an idea and just do it. That's another reason why our process takes so long because we're always searching for it, we're always chasing it."
At one stage Josh mentioned that the tour you did promoting the re-release of your first album was influencing the new material. Was that the case throughout the sessions?
Troy: "When we did that tour we had to go back and revisit that record. It's so open with so few instruments that even while we were playing it live there was just one guitar so Josh would play guitar and Dean and I would play percussion or keys. We really just paid attention to how that record was tracked and how open and big it was. That probably had an influence on how we started with the new record but where we ended up was a whole new world."
Josh's problems and Joey leaving the band have been well documented, did those issues make this a particularly difficult album to put together?
Troy: "It seemed like the timing was never going to be right so we had to just start working. We waited for, I guess a sign, and we had to just discover that we were down in a dark hole and then try to find our way out."
Were you constantly working on material throughout that period?
Troy: "We're always working on stuff and trying new stuff, no matter what project it is for. We had to pull together and have everybody focus on Queens. That work ethic was what got us where we are. If we hadn't hunkered down and got to work then we'd still be in the studio. Or we would have walked away."
Mikey, as a bassist did working with three different drummers present a challenge for you?
Mikey: "I wouldn't call it a challenge, it was a super exciting opportunity and it was refreshing and inspiring to play with different people. I feel like I play differently, even a song that I tried with Joey, when Dave [Grohl] came in to do it I did it differently because it was a different drummer. You get inspired by groove. Not to blow smoke, but we're all veteran in our playing so we know our s***. It's no problem to sit down with someone new. It takes a little bit to find a groove but otherwise we're all friends and it is an honour to play with all of those drummers."
Did bringing Dave in help you get over the line?
Troy: "Dave is like the best friend to have. He helped us out in a really tight spot when we parted with Joey. He was literally doing four or five hours with us and then leaving to do the post production on the Sound City movie. He came in and we already had a lot of the songs mapped out so he just pushed and listened and was just a presence. He took the songs in and put his thing on them. It was really nice to have him be that good of a drummer to just play to the song."
Mikey: "We all listened to each other and the song a lot on this record, but Dave really did that and listened to what we wanted and he respected that."
Troy: "Of course, in that incidence he's got ideas, some of them work really well and some were like, 'Hey, we're sticking to the song.' It's good to have someone like that who understands songs."
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In terms of the other collaborations on the album – Elton John, Jake Shears, Alex Turner and more - were they mainly fully formed songs before a guest came in to work on them?
Troy: "It's sort of an invitation to step out of our comfort zone and in turn to have someone else step out of their comfort zone as well and meet somewhere in the middle. It seems like everybody that was part of the record really understood that. They're a part of the gang, they're honorary members of our band now. It's kind of cool to hear Jake Shears sing so evil like that. It's bad ass. There is no doubt that has always been there, we've played with a lot of people, we've had a lot of guests and it has always been a good experience."
Was it good to welcome Mark Lanegan and Nick Oliveri back as well?
Troy: "Mark has always been there, really. He's been on every record since Rated R. And Nick was such a chance thing, he was just bringing by his record because he recorded it at our studio. He was like, 'Hey, you want some back-up vocals?' It just happened that we needed some back-up vocals so he went in and did it and it was done. It was nice to have him there."
Who do you have your eye on for future collaborations?
Troy: "I don't want to jinx anything! There are a lot of guys that I want to work with. I think I want to keep that to ourselves."
How did the material come together - were you demo-ing separately or jamming it out?
Troy: "Some of it was brought in from Josh, some of it came out of us right there, some of the magic was spontaneous."
Mikey: "We were all there every day! There are no rules. Most songs come from some kind of demo."
Troy: "We decided early on that this was going to be a very vocal driven record so it had to showcase that. I think that is why it sounds so different for us because usually the vocals are mixed in with the music, but not this time, we focused on Josh and his lyrics."
As an accomplished drummer will Josh often come in with a complete song?
Troy: "I would say he definitely has an idea of what he wants the drums to be. Sometimes he can't articulate that on a drumset, but once there's a drummer in the room he is very passionate about the rhythm section."
Smooth Sailing is a real standout track and has that classic Queens vibe, where did that riff come from?
Troy: "That song is really fun and great to play live. It was a song that was started early on but didn't get finished right until the end of the record. It was a constant theme almost that this was the song that was going to pull us out of this – and it did. That was a riff that Josh had for a while. We always had this mechanical beat programmed to it so we took that and put some drums over it. We put some samples in there and then chopped it up. The groove was set so Dave just played over the top of it. We took almost a hip hop angle to it."
There's a UK tour coming later this year, are you looking forward to moving from the festival season to headline shows?
Troy: "There's something about playing festivals that is a challenge. We want to play whatever we want and sometimes the audiences don't know our deeper cuts so we have to figure it out. We love playing our own shows because we love to do our own thing."
Things can often go wrong at festivals…
Troy: "Almost all of us got food poisoning in Norway and we had to play this festival. Josh and Joey were on IVs before the show and it was pissing rain, somebody threw a shoe at Mikey and there were some words exchanged."
Mikey: "Yeah, Josh didn't like that."
Troy: "I was feeling ok but I kept slipping and falling, it was a rough show."
Do you have any treats in store for the November tour?
Mikey: "I wouldn't be surprised if we played our whole new record."
Troy: "Definitely, we're looking forward to doing that. There's never one set, there's always a change of set, even while we're playing a set! We like to change it up, we're never static. There is a setlist but we have what we call audibles where we go, 'Let's play this!'"
Mikey: "That happens most of the time."
And how about your live rigs, what gear will you bring with you?
Troy: "The thing I have been going back to are my AC30s and I've got a couple of Jazzmasters with me. It's a lot of Fender stuff for me. I think I have one Les Paul with me. There's a new company we discovered too called Echo Park Guitars, they're great. The guy who makes them made a guitar for me in like 12 days. It's a monster, it's amazing. All three guitar players have at least one of those."
Like Clockwork is out now. For more information, visit the official Queens Of The Stone Age website.