MUSIC IS NEVER WRONG
A visit with Them Crooked Vultures’ Josh Homme and John Paul Jones
Interview by Jay Babcock
Posted: October 15, 2009
Them Crooked Vultures is a new band comprised of guitarist-vocalist Joshua Homme (Queens of the Stone Age, Kyuss), bassist John Paul Jones (Led Zeppelin), drummer Dave Grohl (Foo Fighters, Nirvana) and guitarist Alain Johannes (Eleven), with Jones and Johannes also playing other instruments. These guys really don’t need an introduction so you won’t be getting one here. What’s interesting is what they’re doing: Vultures have spent much of this year together, writing and recording music in a Los Angeles studio, and are now touring without having officially released a note of the music they’ve recorded. No album, no single, no YouTube video, no leak, no official photos, no nothing: the only way to hear Them Crooked Vultures, really, is to see them live.
In some ways, it’s an echo of the Eric Clapton-Steve Winwood-Ginger Baker supergroup Blind Faith, who did a similar thing in 1969, touring ahead of their album’s release, selling out tours on the strength of their collective pedigree. But unlike Blind Faith, who hedged their bets by including renditions of songs from their old bands, Vultures are performing 80 or so minutes of new Vultures music every night: no Zeppelin covers, no Queens jams, no standards. As Homme says onstage on the night I first see them play, it’s a “social experiment” as much as a musical one, and to the audience’s credit, there was not a single shouted request that I could hear for something other than what the band was playing: Vultures’ blind faith is being rewarded.
Perhaps this is down to a collective solidarity with the idea of the independent musician, or a real interest in simply unfamiliar music by trusted faves—or maybe it’s because most of the songs presented on Monday night were strong on first listen, and if listener’s fatigue inevitably set in at some point due to the continued ear-pummeling, then you could just stand there and behold the wonder of 63-year-old John Paul Jones, shoulders bobbing, at the helm of his instrument, smiling with pleasure at Dave Grohl as yet another propulsive, post-”Immigrant’ Song” (or “Achilles’ Last Stand,” or…) bassline locked in with Grohl’s powerhouse thumping and a distinctively Homme guitar riff. Interestingly, Grohl’s drumkit was not on the riser usually associated with big-time rock bands, which I’m sure disappointed some Foo Fighters fans, but it had the crucial benefit of placing the musicians nearer each other, allowing them to create a more cohesive sound in the midst of so much volume; as John Paul Jones said after the show, “I can feel Dave’s kick-drum that way,” and from his smile, you know that’s as much for his benefit as the audience’s.
Smiles. The amount of smiling between the Vultures onstage, as well as the sheer caliber of playing, reminded me of Shakti, the Indian-Western supergroup led by English master guitarist John McLaughlin and Indian tabla genius Zakir Hussain that fuses classical Indian music with Western jazz. I’m not talking about laughs between songs, or witty stage banter, although with Josh Homme at the microphone you’re always going to get that, but the smiles that occur in the midst of the music: the joy that emerges spontaneously in the midst of collective creativity, usually marking some new discovery or progress, or a new threshold being crossed, or something just feeling fundamentally good. In the last two decades of loud guitar music, this kind of uncontrived on-stage joy has been far too rare—outside of Ween shows, of course, and gee wasn’t that the Deaner himself backstage with the champagne on Monday night? Anyways. Josh, who I’ve interviewed before, and who headlined the second night of ArthurBall in 2006 as half of The 5:15ers (a duo he has with longtime collaborator Chris Goss), invited me to talk with him and John Paul Jones in the band’s dressing room just prior to their set at Philadelphia’s Electric Factory on October 12, 2009. Here’s how the conversation went…
Arthur Magazine: Josh, when you put out the last Queens of the Stone Age record [2007′s Era Vulgaris] you were talking about the era that we were living in, that our generation was one that had almost too much possibility—over-possibility, that it was a period of decadence, and so forth—
Josh Homme: That’s right. The Soft Pink era.
Arthur: [laughs] So what era are we in now?
Homme: We’re in the Moist Towelette Wiping era, post-orgiastic feeding. I was talking to my wife and she said, I wish we didn’t have to have cel phones anymore. And I said, like a naïve jerkoff, Well you don’t have to have them. That was my answer. And she was, Yeah, we do. Everyone you know does. That’s what we do. There’s been a societal push for it. I thought about it, and yeah it’s really only been about six years or seven years, of this almost…attack. I’m not trying to be [old man voice] ‘Get off my lawn!’ about it, but it’s very strange… I’ve definitely come to the mind that the lamest invention in the history of mankind is the Internet. It has all the promise of something great—as a lure to stick porn up your ass. That part is great—don’t get me wrong, I like jerking off as much as the next guy—I’m a musician [laughs], I’m a guitar player! But I just find it strange. That shiny pretty light: I can’t help but stare at it either, you know?
Arthur: You know the Borg from Star Trek? I just feel like everybody wants to be assimilated, bit by bit. We’re all carrying machines around— [Dave Grohl walks up, shirtless] Except for this guy.
Homme: [to Grohl] What are you doing, just walking around naked?
Dave Grohl [assuming persona of the blissfully ignorant, positioning Grohl groin distressingly near Arthur correspondent's face]: What are you guys talking about? How’s your interview?
Homme: Getting a little hot right now…
[Grohl wanders off talking about his belly button.]
Arthur [regrouping]: You were talking about gazing at the light of the computer screen. Doesn’t that go back to sitting round the campfire, and then the first shadow puppets, and then you have the projected image in the movie theater—
Homme: Well it all makes sense, how it gets to where we are now…this grand thing that we’re all… [pauses, redirects] Whenever someone says, ‘We’re all one,’ I’ve always been like ‘No we’re not, and that’s what’s great, so stop saying that or everyone’s gonna start believing you.’ But yeah, as we all look at the same projection on the wall, we do become one, and I started to realize the horror of that. And I make no attempt to try to alter it from being that; my thing is more about trying to apply some principles of magic—how to walk between the raindrops—and take advantage of a situation like that, because it’s the only choice you have.
Arthur: In terms of getting around this alienated, Internet-age thing, you guys are doing something really interesting right now with this band, You’re insisting on a live, immediate experience and by playing music that no one’s heard before.
Homme: My years of reading P.T. Barnum is finally coming into play. [snaps fingers] This notion of saying nothing, of keeping a secret, and doing it in a way that’s not elitist but that’s like, You wanna come in here and hear? [whispers] We have a secret. That’s all that I can tell you. But you’re involved. You know?
Homme: And I like this notion of people having to listen. And for us to work out our things too: I mean, this is certainly the hardest music I’ve ever played! Not intentionally, but it was written in the studio, and it’s, Ah, ah, oh! [gestures trying desperately to play guitar notes] But it’s been great. Sold-out tour…
Arthur: : Do you even have to put out an album?
Homme: No. Not necessarily. That’s an excellent… That’s an interesting… [looks at John]
Arthur [repeating question]: Do you have to put out an album, at all?
John Paul Jones: Ah… [laughs]
Arthur: I don’t mean to corner you—
John Paul Jones: [laughs] Theoretically, no. I mean—
Homme: That’s a really interesting idea, actually….
John Paul Jones: [considering] Yeah. I take the idea that when we do put the album out, that it be an entirely different set of songs—[Josh laughs]—so that nobody will ever know what they’re about to hear.
Homme: I think that’s an extremely intelligent and highly manipulative idea, but I’m too stupid for stuff like that, to take it to that length. Because really, I want people to get excited about it. Although I hate the notion that we all should be one, I do like to gather, you know? [laughs] I like to be the reason behind someone’s good time. Or a part of someone’s good time. Because my actual desires are exactly what the internet and all these things are catering to: I like dumb, bonehead stuff—done eloquently. Like my grandpa used to say, You can always pretend to be stupider than you are, but you can never pretend to be smarter than you are. And this notion of scraping the bottom on purpose? That’s exciting. That doesn’t mean I’m smart—it just means I’m not touching the bottom at all times. And so, putting out records is a way to share that…
Arthur: I guess you could put out vinyl only—
Homme: Yeah. We are putting out a double record for sure on vinyl. There may even be a third half-side…
Arthur: You could put engraved art on the rest…
Homme: Yeah, like a picture disk…. [chuckles]
Arthur: You don’t need my suggestions, you’ve always got secret stuff you put in there…
Homme: I love the trail of breadcrumbs. Because you should be able to be a bonehead and get it and then also, if you’re someone that listens deeper then just going to the bank, you know, then there should be something there for you. And really, that’s who I’m always playing to. That way you have something to [whispers] whisper about…
Arthur: I like this idea of wanting to be the reason, or a part of, somebody having a good time.
Homme: Even though I don’t feel like a joiner, it’s good to feel like you’re being part of a community. I certainly like that. And I’ll take the ‘ignorance is bliss’ community over anything, because I long for the days of being both! [laughter]
Arthur: The funny thing is your Queens songs are not good-times songs, lyrically.
Homme: I know, I know—
Arthur: [playfully] What’s your problem?
Homme: Uh….You know what—
Arthur: You know what I mean? You’re inviting all these people to come down here and have a good time but you’re singing… It’s always been darkness with you!
Homme: Yeah, I don’t know… The thing is that… Music is the best way that I know to say the things that are difficult to say in English. Words get in the way sometimes. They’re so goddamned… interpretive? [laughs] Just… say, the difference between “badass” being a badass and having a bad ass is just so overwhelming, it’s so hard to reconcile…. But music is never wrong. You might not like it, but it’s never wrong. It’s such a great way of explaining stuff.
Arthur: I guess what I’m getting at is, Do you wish you could be Jesse [Hughes, Josh’s partner in party-rock band Eagles of Death Metal]?
Homme: Well, I am Jesse.
Arthur: [laughs] I always forget that.
John Paul Jones [to Homme]: There’s definitely a little Jesse in you—
Arthur: I mean Jesse the lyricist.
Homme: Well, I am.
Arthur: I forgot that too.
Homme: Jesse is the most vain and insecure person I know. I love him. He changes costumes literally six or seven times a day. It’s great as a viewer to see that many outfits. However…he and I have always worked really closely together and I think that’s why this musical schizophrenia has developed.
Arthur: [laughs] I’m just saying, you don’t wear a cape onstage, and Jesse does.
Homme: No. But I do wear the underwear. At all times. [laughter But] I think, really, I want to be in a band that plays the greatest mixtape of all time, basically, but it’s difficult to fling so many styles at people, even though they’re listening to all styles of music.
Arthur: You’ve always talked about that, actually…
Homme: That’s my dream. That radio station called The Good Shit.
John Paul Jones: It used to be like that. FM underground radio used to be like that. They’d play Zeppelin and they’d play Otis Redding immediately afterwards.
Homme: Because that makes a hundred percent sense. Because they’re both good. This notion that they have to sound similar is crazy to me.
Arthur: Someone pointed out to me, you know how computers will draw up a playlist of songs or artists you haven’t heard from what you have heard. But whatever you plug in there, especially if it’s a diverse group of distinctive artists—Otis Redding, Captain Beefheart, Diamanda Galas—if you run the algorithm enough times, all it does is move you to the center. It doesn’t run around the edge. It keeps trying to find similar things in terms of style until it gets down to a mush.
Homme: That’s a vanilla-ator. [laughter]
Arthur: People keep saying, you can just sit at your Borg terminal and the internet will help you. You don’t have to have a record store, you don’t have to have a magazine, you don’t have to have a radio deejay—
Homme: But I want one. I miss my music stores, and the record stores, and the cool hobby stops that sold spikes where you couldn’t get ‘em… When I was on tour, that’s where I would go, in order to find out what to do if you didn’t want to be a tourist. That’s how I was never a tourist wherever I went. Now, honestly, for the life of me, I don’t know what to do when I go on tour. Because I’ve already seen every museum in every city I’ve ever been in, and many of them four times. I want to try to live Art, not just watch it. And I don’t know where to start, now that those cool hobby stores are gone. I have to take up hiking or some shit, just to get high! [laughs] Maybe mountain climbing…
John Paul Jones: I carry a mandolin and a fiddle.
Homme: That’s like a bomb risk, though. You go to an airport with a fiddle…
Arthur: John, I’ve seen those old posters with Led Zeppelin doing shows with the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band opening, or…
John Paul Jones: Yeah. Or Led Zeppelin and Rahsaan Roland Kirk.
Arthur: Yeah! How did those artists go over with your audience?
John Paul Jones: Great, because that’s what they were used to hearing on the radio. They’d heard all this stuff. It wasn’t strange to them.
Homme: This notion of Wolfman Jack, playing the songs that HE liked to play…
Arthur: Or John Peel.
John Paul Jones: Or JJ Jackson in Boston at WBCN.
Homme: Consistency is king to me: you can always put it out, you can never take it back. These people, you start to trust their taste. So off the back of their success, of playing whatever they think is good, that consistency, program directors take over and dictate the same thing. With the success, they get this extra power and use it to kind of usurp, that hacks away at the very root of what got them there…
John Paul Jones: I think it also has a slightly insidious effect, people listening to the radio now. Young bands, a lot of them, don’t actually know what else is out there. They don’t actually get to hear this other music. So they’re in turn making music being influenced by bands that are almost exactly like themselves. It’s self-perpetuating, it’s just more of the same things.
Homme: The snake eating its tail.
John Paul Jones: Yeah, exactly.
Homme: And what you get is almost… It keeps getting more of the same until that’s all it is. Just 1…1…1…1…1…1…
John Paul Jones: In the sixties, the music that the Beatles, the Stones, us, used to listen to, we had BBC National Radio. And basically, you would hear everything.
Homme: You had to!
John Paul Jones: You had to, because there was nothing else. So. It’d be Ray Charles, then Hank Snow, then the Everly Brothers, then Count Basie. You’d hear the whole fucking lot. You couldn’t choose. There was no specialization in English radio, which is the reason—well, one of the reasons—why English music was kind of interesting in those days.
Homme: Because of this autocracy—but with taste. I love that. It’s almost snooty: [in posh accent] ‘We’ll be the most diverse station in the world.’
Arthur: John Peel: he wasn’t elitist—he just wanted to turn you on.
John Paul Jones: Yeah, something excites him and he wants to share it!
Arthur: Is that even possible nowadays?
Homme: Yeah, of course. But that Rubik’s Cube, how to solve it fast, I don’t know. No one’s got an amalgam, we can’t put all of our turns together and get it done either. That’s what’s so crazy. Like I said, it’s just that I miss those things. I wish they could co-exist.
John Paul Jones: Well, you’ve got magazines, still.
Homme: They’re barely hanging on.
John Paul Jones: I read The Guardian, and it has a music section every week or every other week, and you know, you can really go through it and find a bit of rock, a bit of classical, a bit of jazz, a bit of new music. Again, though, I trust the opinions of certain writers. Ah, he likes it, I’ll check it out. And then use the internet. [laughs]
Homme: Well to get deeper, which it’s great for. YouTube is fucking amazing. To be able to watch every Fear video…
John Paul Jones: Yeah, if you know what to look for, then the Internet is useful.
Homme: Whatever got filmed makes it on there somehow. Like how to take bacon and make it into a car. [laughter]
Arthur: What’s the most frustrating thing about being in this band?
Homme: Learning some of the songs,. Learning the song “Reptiles” is frustrating. It’s not even that the parts are difficult, it’s that they’re so contrary, there’s so many…where I feel like… [looking at JPJ] You’re a trained organist: that’s five things playing at once! I’m a guitarist, that’s two things.
John Paul Jones: But you’re singing at the same time, I could never do any of that.
Homme: And they both have to be done with feeling, or it’s just not that good. So being able to let both sides of your brain do stuff, that’s been the frustrating part for me.
Arthur: Josh, you go back a long ways with Chris Goss [Masters of Reality, Goon Moon, etc] there’s a weird parallel/connection between you guys, as usual. You’ve both worked with guys from an older generation: you’re working with John, and Chris worked with Ginger Baker [Cream, Blind Faith, etc.] at one point in Masters of Reality —
Homme: Ginger’s the only guy who ever called me ‘boy.’ [laughter] If I may tell a story… [laughs] I was selling pot for a brief moment then. I brought them some weed. They were in the studio, and there was a pool table. And he said, You play pool. I said Yeah. You have pot? I said yeah. He said, Roll us a joint, boy. And I was thinking to myself, [muttering] youmotherfuckerI’mgonna. So we played pool for five bucks a game, and after I’d taken 45 bucks off him, I said, You’re not very good at pool but you’re really stoned…old man. [laughter]