August 27th, 2002, Queens Of The Stone Age released their third album, Songs For The Deaf, on Interscope Records. Josh Homme once proclaimed, “Rock should be heavy enough for the boys and sweet enough for the girls. That way, everyone’s happy, and it’s more of a party. Kings of the Stone Age is too lopsided.” Which neatly sums up the modus operandi of Homme’s band since its inception. Bludgeoning hard Rock with a sophisticated, sexy edge. With Songs For The Deaf, Homme and Co. nailed that credo down tight.
After the breakup of desert rock pioneers Kyuss in 1995, Josh Homme seriously considered abandoning his music career but was persuaded by Mark Lanegan to join the Screaming Trees as second guitarist. Homme duly obliged and set out on tour with the legendary Ellensburg, Washington troupe in support of their 1996 album Dust. In 1997, Homme formed Queens Of The Stone Age with former Kyuss drummer Alfredo Hernández, initially under the name Gamma Ray. In 1998, Queens of the Stone Age released their self-titled debut album, followed by their sophomore effort, Rated R, released in 2000.
Rated R was a critical success. Its trippy, textured musicianship was more arranged than its predecessor, making its point through warm fuzz-guitar tones, ethereal harmonies, vibraphones, horns, and even the odd steel drum. It also had a revolving door of guest musicians, something that was very much the vibe of Queens Of The Stone Age throughout the first decade of the band, Homme being the only mainstay.
For Rated R, he enlisted his old Kyuss bandmate Nick Oliveri on bass and an array of guests, including Mark Lanegan and Barrett Martin of Screaming Trees, Pete Stahl of Scream, Mike Johnson of Dinosaur Jr., Chris Goss of Masters Of Reality and one Rob Halford of metal titans Judas Priest. This revolving door ethos carried into the recording of 2002’s Songs For The Deaf.
Meanwhile, in April 2002, with the proverbial ‘I’m outta here!’ Former Nirvana drummer and current Foo Fighters frontman Dave Grohl left the sessions for the Foo Fighters One By One record and took an extended break. The previous summer, in August of 2001, after performing at the V Festival in the UK, Foo Fighters drummer Taylor Hawkins suffered a heroin overdose that left him in a coma for two weeks, forcing the band into a short hiatus while Hawkins recovered.
During that break in Grohl’s schedule, Homme invited him to play drums on the new Queens Of The Stone Age record. Grohl happily accepted. “I called Dave and said, ‘Can you come right now?'” Josh Homme recalled after previous drummer Gene Trautman had lost interest in being in the band just as Queens were beginning to record the follow-up to Rated R. “It was noon, and he said, ‘I’ll be there at 6.30 pm. By 8 pm, we had already tracked a few songs.”
On returning to the Foo Fighters fold after recording the Queens Of The Stone Age album, tensions within the band were at an all-time high. For Grohl and his bandmates, the writing and recording of One By One was proving impossible, costly and depressingly unfruitful. In April 2002, Grohl had had enough, discarding all recordings and putting the band on hold. In the aftermath, band members each started individual projects, with Grohl becoming a full-time touring member of Queens of the Stone Age.
Dave greatly admired Homme and Oliveri’s band; his relationship with them was instigated when Grohl and Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic caught Kyuss live in 1992. The association furthered when Dave asked the band to open for the Foo Fighters on their 2000 Nothing Left To Lose tour.
“I love this band,” explained Grohl. “I’ve known them for years, and they invited me to play on this record. Seriously, they’re one of my favourite bands and I haven’t played drums in a long time. It’s great music to play drums to. They’re amazing live, and they needed a drummer, so I thought I’d do it. It’s a nice change of pace. Not being in the spotlight is kinda nice. It’s really about just playing the drums. I feel much more comfortable and confident doing this than trying to sing every night.”
The core band for the recording of Songs For The Deaf consisted of Homme, Grohl, Oliveri and former Screaming Trees frontman Mark Lanegan. Again, as on Rated R, the guest list reads like a who’s who of alternative Rock. Alain Johannes and Natasha Shneider of Eleven, Dean Ween of Ween, and Paz Lenchantin, later of A Perfect Circle and Pixies, are among some of the impressive cast.
Another unique concept for the album was how it’s knit together with interludes by fake radio DJ segments. Homme believed the concept gave the album “fluidity”. According to Oliveri, they are a jibe at “how a lot of stations play the same thing over and over. We don’t get played on the radio, so we figure we should talk shit about them.” The list of contributing voices to the “Fake” DJ segments is impressive, with Big Dahlia of the Dwarves, Alain Johannes and Natasha Shneider of Eleven, Chris Goss of Masters of Reality, Twiggy Ramirez of Marylin Manson, and Lux Interior of the Cramps all adding their voiceover talents.
The album opens with the sound of keys rattling and turning in a car’s ignition, followed by the unknown driver scrolling through the dial of the car radio. Between the static, sounds of top 40 country and pop songs whizz past until the dial stops on KLON Radio: “We play the songs that sound more like everyone else than anyone else” and its hapless host Kipp Kasper.
Several songs on the album are reworked versions of tracks previously recorded and released on the Desert Sessions series. Desert Sessions is a side project of Josh Homme’s with various guest collaborators. One song revived for the album is the opening track, “You Think I Ain’t Worth a Dollar, But I Feel Like a Millionaire.” The song originally appeared on Desert Sessions Volume 5: Poetry for the Masses (Sea Shed Shit Head by the She Sore). On the original recording, vocals were provided by Mario Lalli of desert rock legends Yawning Man. On Songs For The Dead, it’s the filthy guttural roar of Nick Oliveri.
“You Think I Ain’t Worth a Dollar, But I Feel Like a Millionaire.” is a devastating opener. Kicking off with Gene Trautmann’s tom heavy drum pattern (Millionaire is one of two songs Grohl didn’t play drums on, the other being “Go With The Flow”) and Homme’s slippery riff, before exploding into a fiery frenzy of slick riffs and high-octane swing. Nick Oliveri leads the charge with a maniacal vocal performance.
“No One Knows” follows. Released as the first single from the album and, ultimately, the song that catapulted Queens Of The Stone Age to stardom. Written by Josh Homme and Mark Lanegan, its four-to-the-floor riff and insatiable chug became an instant hit. Reaching number 1 on the US Modern Rock Chart, 5 on the Mainstream Rock Chart and 51 on the Billboard Top 200.
“First It Giveth” was also released as a single. The song’s driving bass and Grohl’s potent drums set the stage for a twisted fever dream of enormous proportions. Guitars interweave with nightmarish harmony as Homme’s falsetto drifts above the din, extolling the virtues, or lack thereof, of drugs and the creative process. Homme explains, “We have a song about that subject called First It Giveth, Then They Taketh Away. At first, you can draw inspiration, and then eventually, it negates any inspiration.”
The album’s centrepiece is the crushing “Song For The Dead.” Its monolithic grind and wrecking ball swing is endlessly contagious. Mark Lanegan takes lead vocals; his distinct, weathered howl perfectly fits the barrelling, claustrophobic rage around him. Grohl’s outro drumming is potent, reminding the world why he’s easily one of the greatest rock drummers to ever sit behind a kit.
“Sky Is Fallin'” glides with an eerie ambience before it reveals a super tight start/stop riff and off-kilter syncopation. “Six Shooter” is a violent blast of crazed hardcore energy. Nick Oliveri again takes lead vocals, vomiting his lyrics toward the mic with a demonic rage. “Hanging Tree” first appeared on Desert Sessions Volume 7: Gypsy Marches. Its infectious glitchy riff and tenacious drumming create the perfect foil for Mark Lanegan’s burned and beautifully delivered baritone.
“Go With The Flow,” the second single released from the album, became another massive hit for the band. Essentially a three-chord trick, the song’s rampant energy is colossal and barely contained. It was nominated for Best Hard Rock Performance at the 46th Annual Grammy Awards, beaten to the gong by Evanescence’s “Bring Me Back To Life.”
“Gonna Leave You” is familiar QOTSA fare, a characteristically propulsive performance with Oliveri relating all the reasons he’s got to go, “I gave it starts, I stomped on your hearts, This is the end, No more pictures, we ain’t friends…” “Do It Again” displays another side of the band’s style. Sounding like a demented carnival ride, “Do It Again” shares similar traits to “Leg Of Lamb” from Rated R or a more ‘boozy’ “Tension Head” from the same album.
Mark Lanegan sings lead on “God Is In The Radio.” His unmatched voice seeps through the song’s pores as he proffers: “They say the devil is paranoid, Always trying to cover, But God is leaking through the stereo, Between the station to station..” “Another Love Song” has a spaghetti western feel, updated for the early noughties.
“Song For The Deaf” closes out the album with Lanegan and Homme leading the band through a lucid barn burner full of sinister twists and euphoric dynamics. At the song’s end, Dave Catching can be heard saying, “It’s been a good night, Dave Catching here, not saying goodnight…just saying…” followed by a manic version of Rated R’s “Feel Good Hit Of The Summer” with all the lyrics replaced by laughter. The hidden track “Mosquito Song” is an acoustic cut that wouldn’t sound out of place around the campfire during the Middle Ages. Accordions, strings, and grandiose percussion fill out this medieval jam.
Songs For The Deaf is a staggering achievement. It’s a sprawling behemoth that boldly contorts expectations without losing its footing. Grohl’s presence added a steely heart. Lanegan’s world-weary voice felt like an old blanket in a maddening gale. Oliveri added a chaotic unpredictability, and Homme, the ship’s captain and visionary, tied everything together. The performances are otherworldly; the songs are hook-laden, memorable and always offer something new and unusual. It was the crowning achievement for a band still on top of their game.