Queens of the Stone Age take the knucklehead out of punk. With two hardheaded hosts, a hit, and a rotating roster of rockers, this wizened duo are the life of the party

By Chris Willman
Updated February 07, 2003 at 05:00 AM EST
Queens of the Stone Age Photograph by Chris McPherson

First off, there’s that name. As with a lot of other, well, queer band appellations, Queens of the Stone Age chose their moniker in a pinch, not necessarily imagining how many hours they’d spend explaining it later. But probably unlike Uriah Heep, Toad the Wet Sprocket, and Hootie and the Blowfish, these guys had a pretty good idea going in that their name might have a certain repellent quality. That was part of the plan.

Queens mainstays Josh Homme and Nick Oliveri were founding members of early-’90s punk-metal pioneers Kyuss; upon starting anew, there was a segment of the old fan base they thought they could afford to shed. A somewhat gynecocentric name, they figured, could bear away some of the more violent elements in the mosh pit. ”We’ve been trying to eliminate the menagerie of dumb-ass-ery for a long time,” says Homme. ”We don’t want the front rows of our shows to be taken up by shirtless meatheads that want to rub up against each other. You can’t pick your audience…but you can try.”

They’ve more than compensated for any loss along those lines by picking up a bunch of new recruits, starting with the critics. The British press adore them more than their own queen: ”The Rock Band of the Weekend/Year/Decade,” gushed an NME headline. Now that their third album, ”Songs for the Deaf,” has proven the group’s commercial viability (in a seesaw ride, it debuted at No. 17 in September, fell out of the top 100 by Christmas, and has since rebounded by more than 50 positions), MTV has jumped on board, with the video for ”No One Knows” finally reaching the network’s top 10. The album has shown up on ”10 Best” lists from The New York Times to USA Today, and no wonder: It’s the smartest, most blisteringly tuneful and rewarding hard-rock album since the heyday of the Seattle scene. That judgment would stand even if the association weren’t obviously suggested by the participation of Dave Grohl and Mark Lanegan, formerly of Nirvana and Screaming Trees, not just as slumming session players but, allegedly, full-fledged band members. (More on those guys in a minute.)

Trendy garage rock it ain’t. There’s too much jackhammer precision and un-precious, Pantera-style metal in the Stone Age sonic assault to assign it to the sloppy car park out back. But it’s easy to toss in the group with upstarts like the Hives and the Strokes; all three appeal not only to young thrashaholics but to older fans who’d just about given up on the heavy stuff and resigned themselves to a lifetime of Norah Jones and bluegrass.

Not that Homme buys the whole rock-is-back! thing. ”There must be 50,000 bands. I don’t necessarily think that [in recent years] the good rock didn’t exist. I mean, we’ve been playing for 12 years — this isn’t some overnight thing — and we played with the Hives four years ago. To me it’s more a case of ‘Oh, welcome. We’ve been here partying and you’re just showing up. The bathroom’s over there, the keg’s over here. Don’t use the back bedroom. Bienvenue.”’