15 Years Ago: Queens of the Stone Age Make Some Noise With ‘Songs for the Deaf’
In 2002, Queens of the Stone Age founders Josh Homme and Nick Oliveri liked to talk about how their band was “an idea.” There was no defined musical style and there was no fixed lineup (which bassist/vocalist Oliveri would find out the hard way).
When Interscope demanded that QOTSA honor their contract and work with a more commercial producer, Eric Valentine, on the band’s third album, they bristled under the constraint. After the group’s 2000 breakthrough Rated R, their record label wanted them to take the next step in popularity. QOTSA, however, wanted to spread out. As it turned out, each got their way.
Beginning work in 2001 on what would become Songs for the Deaf, Homme took the long view. The singer-guitarist saw this new album as part of a larger, three-album arc that had begun with 1998’s self-titled debut and continued with Rated R.
“I think I’ve always looked at these first three records as a set,” Homme said in 2002. “The first one kind of needed to distance itself from Kyuss, my previous band, without losing anybody and establishing a new sound. The second record fans out the music so that we can play a little bit more of what we’d like to play, and I think this third record is the personification of the idea which is musical diversity, and you know, goes from garage sounds to almost like rock opera in some moments.”
Given Homme’s sprawling plan for the record, he decided to call Dave Grohl to see if he wanted to take a break from fronting Foo Fighters to play drums in his band. Grohl had known Homme and Oliveri for almost a decade (when he was in Nirvana and the others were in Kyuss) and had grown to love QOTSA. He’d even offered to drum on Rated R, but Homme felt that his status might overwhelm the record. With Songs for the Deaf, he was no longer concerned. Before he knew it, a very eager Grohl was behind the kit.
“Me joining the band was more about playing the drums than joining Queens of the Stone Age,” Grohl later revealed. “Playing on their album was more about playing drums seriously for the first time in eight years than actually joining the band. So it was a really cool experience in that it really recharged that love of crazy rock music, which is why I started doing this in the first place.”
He wasn’t the only collaborator of note. Dean Ween, multi-instrumentalist Alain Johannes and former Screaming Tree Mark Lanegan all contributed, with the latter becoming a full member of QOTSA. By becoming a fixture on Songs for the Deaf, Lanegan, who had worked on Rated R in a limited capacity, enhanced the vocal lineup (him, Homme and Oliveri) as well as the versatility of the band.
“With three different singers, I think it allows us to be diverse, it allows us to move around musically if we want to,” Oliveri told MTV2 upon the album’s release. “We just want to be in a band,” added Homme. “Not like a ‘heavy metal band’ or a ‘punk rock band.’”
Listen to "Mosquito Song"
As QOTSA began recording the new tunes, over the course of three months and three different California studios, metal and punk certainly revealed themselves as major influences on this material. But so did ’60s garage rock (“Another Love Song”), dark baroque pop (“Mosquito Song”), stoner grooves (“The Sky is Falling”) and even a track without any music at all (the hidden “The Real Song for the Deaf”). In interviews, Grohl confessed he stole a drum intro from Black Flag while Homme talked about achieving “the dry old ZZ Top drum sound.”
With such a diversity of musical influences and sonic approaches, Songs for the Deaf could have been a mess. But, to tie the record together, Homme came up with a running concept that would help the shifting styles make sense. He tapped his friends – including Dwarves’ Blag Dahlia, the Cramps’ Lux Interior and Eagles of Death Metal’s Jesse Hughes – to improvise as radio DJs. Interspersing those clips, along with snippets of jingles and static, between songs, QOTSA created the atmosphere of a drive from the city of Los Angeles to the deserts of Joshua Tree, Calif., with the radio as the soundtrack.
“I think the radio was the only way to stitch these songs together,” Homme said in 2002. “If you didn’t pay attention you might think you were listening to a radio broadcast.”
The desert wasn’t just the virtual destination on the album, it was a major inspiration. Since 1997, Homme had been organizing something called the Desert Sessions, in which he gathered a bunch of his musical friends to play together, take drugs and come up with new music at the Rancho De La Luna in Joshua Tree. The resulting music from the Desert Sessions, which was released on EPs, would sometimes turn into songs that were more fully formed. These gatherings produced early versions of at least four tracks from Songs for the Deaf, among them “No One Knows,” “God Is in the Radio,” “You Think I Ain’t Worth a Dollar, But I Feel Like a Millionaire” and “Hangin’ Tree.”
Listen to "Hangin' Tree"
“I just like playing with different people and I like learning stuff about music from other people’s perspective,” Homme said in 2002. “Like ‘Hangin’ Tree’ – I just wrote a few words, the rest of it was written by Alain [Johannes]. And it’s a song in 5/4 and I never would have naturally played a song in 5/4. And now I’d actually mess with 5/4, which is a real – dare I say – intellectual time frame. So it’s a way to never get writer’s block and kinda keep on moving all the time, even if it is in a very small, tight circle.”
As on previous QOTSA records, drugs also held some influence over the creative process. Yet, this time out, Homme and Oliveri appeared to be more conflicted about the role of these substances in their lives. In fact, in some cases, it’s tough to differentiate if they’re singing about a complicated relationship with a woman or with a substance.
“As far as their necessity, for music, drugs are on a really long list of what it takes to make music, and they’re no more or less important than any of them,” Homme said. “I think we have a song that about this subject called ‘First They Giveth, Then They Taketh Away,’ [‘First It Giveth’] and I think at first you can draw inspiration and then eventually, it negates any inspiration.”
Watch the Video for "No One Knows"
QOTSA seemed to find the right balance on the album’s lead single, “No One Knows,” which combined chugging guitars, thunderous drumming from Grohl and druggy lyrics: “We get these pills to swallow / How they stick in your throat / Tastes like gold.” Pushed by MTV (with a video co-directed by Michel Gondry) and rock radio, “No One Knows” became a huge hit, still the band’s biggest at No. 51 on the Billboard chart. Released on Aug. 27, 2002, Songs for the Deaf became a hit album, too, going gold in the U.S. and platinum overseas.
By the end of 2002, Queens of the Stone Age were all over the year’s best lists and even scored a Grammy nomination for “No One Knows” – although they were beaten out by Grohl’s Foo Fighters for the award. By that point, Grohl had returned to his usual gig with the Foos, eventually replaced by Danzig drummer Joey Castillo. Songs for the Deaf and its subsequent tour also marked the end of Oliveri’s time with the band they he had co-founded. After QOTSA’s tour ended in 2004, Homme booted his buddy from the group out of concerns for his violent behavior towards others. Their relationship was frayed for a long while, but appeared to improve as the bassist guested with the band onstage for a one-off appearance and contributed backing vocals to 2013’s …Like Clockwork, an album that also featured Grohl’s return to QOTSA’s drum kit.
Queens of the Stone Age Albums Ranked in Order of Awesomeness