Josh Homme and the rise of manufactured mystique

by on Tuesday, 29 June 2010 Comments

I have watched two seemingly distinct phenomenon over the last 15 years with considerable interest: the growth of the internet from a niche tool of academics and geeks to a brobdignagian digital life form; and Josh Homme’s transition from cult desert guitarist to supergroup-worthy rock god.  As people around the world now begin to ponder the long-term influence of the internet on society, I believe that analysis of Josh Homme’s career and can help shed some light on this evolution, in particular with regard to the mystique of artists.

Fifteen years ago, I was a curious high school student, who, among other teenage pursuits, was discovering the world of rock and roll.  Having dipped my toes into grunge, g-funk and somewhat mystifyingly, grindcore, I was trying to find my way in the mid-90s alternative music market.  In 1995 I bought a heavy metal compilation that featured One Inch Man[i] by Kyuss, a short-lived rock band from Palm Springs California featuring the then 22 year-old Josh Homme on guitar.  I was instantly transfixed.  This bass heavy track rode a groove that got my head bobbing while at the same had heavy enough riffs to make me feel tough.  Vicarious toughness through music was important to me at that age.  As my funds permitted, I bought all four Kyuss albums and listened to them endlessly.  In fact, 15 years later I still listen to Kyuss quite frequently.  They were that good.

In an odd turn events, only one week after discovering Kyuss, I read in Hot Metal magazine that they had just recently broken up.  At this stage I was still about 18 months away from using the internet.  Information on Kyuss was almost non-existent.  I found a band profile in a second hand copy of Hot Metal from a few years prior but other than that, nothing.  Apart from albums in record stores, an underground band that died in 1995 had little chance of maintaining any sort of profile.  With that being the case, to me Kyuss was nothing more than a well-orchestrated collection of highly listenable sounds.

 

In late 1996 I graduated from high school, eager to enjoy a summer of parties and cricket.  As events transpired, the only guy I knew who had internet access was having a party and I was invited. Sambucca and Southern Comfort were drunk up on the roof, girls were kissed and garden furniture was broken. I even have hazy memories of watching the clip for Wannabe by the Spice Girls. Wiiiild times, let me tell you my friend.  Early in the night I managed to get in a session on the internet – something to me that up until that stage was nothing more than a nebulous idea that media pundits liked to talk about – either as some whiz-bang medium of the future or as a dangerous forum for disseminating The Terrorist Handbook.  None of these options took my fancy.  For me, the internet was there to find out about Kyuss.

I discovered a website lovingly put together by a Kyuss devotee and printed off some fan-made guitar tablature.  At this party I also saw Kyuss film clips for the first time.  The band was a strange looking bunch, swaggering around the California desert belting out psychedelic metal riffs.  In the Green Machine filmclip, Josh Homme cut a very unfashionable figure – shorts and boots worn together have never been very rock and roll[ii].

Three months later I was enrolled at university and the internet was suddenly at my finger tips.  None of my lecturers had worked out how to use the internet as an educational tool and most of the content on it was made by amateurs.  In spite of this, the internet was a revelation to me (like it is to most) and I spent many an hour using Hotbot to scour the neighbourhoods of Geocities, as one did on the Information Superhighway in 1997.

Over the next two years I eagerly checked Kyuss fan sites, hoping for news on upcoming projects.  Occasionally there was a tidbit – Homme and his mates were jamming in the desert, the singer had a new band, the bass player had opened a pet store in Palm Springs, the old drummer was playing with Fu Manchu and so on.  But these stories were rare, and there appeared to be no system for digitally disseminating them.  It was more or less gossip or info culled from Californian street press and then uploaded on to fan sites.  And there were only a handful of these sites on the whole World Wide Web where I needed to look to find out anything, most of which were not much more than digital versions of zines.

Following Kyuss riding off into the sun, Josh Homme re-emerged in 1997 with Queens of the Stoneage, dropping the first track on the silly genre-naming compilation Burn One Up: Music for Stoners.  For those in Australia and without the internet, this event would likely have largely gone unnoticed.  When their debut album appeared a year later the only clue that Queens and Kyuss had some sort of connection was the sticker on the CD case – “Featuring ex-members of Kyuss”.  At this stage there was very little promotional material about Homme’s new band, who were dragging themselves around Europe playing small clubs and festival side stages.

Queens of the Stoneage toiled in the musical underground over the next 5 years.  Another album, R[iii], was released in 2000 and despite getting some play on alternative radio stations in Australia, it seemed that most of the band’s followers were all Kyuss fans first, Queens fans second.  Queens were still yet to cross over into the mainstream.  This changed in 2002 when ex-Nirvana drummer Dave Grohl and ex-Screaming Trees vocalist Mark Lanegan came on board. Queens released Songs for the Deaf[iv] and then became alterna-rock royalty.  For the rest of the decade the band chugged along, releasing albums, enduring personnel problems, all the while maintaining a solid fan base through regular tours and a generally positive critical response.  This success made Homme a bonafide star and brought public attention to his previously underground side projects, such as the Desert Sessions and the Eagles of Death Metal.  While it would appear in the eyes of most critics and many casual listeners that Queens will never top Songs for the Deaf, the band has still managed to somehow straddle the line between commercial acclaim and critical success, all the while producing a distinctive sound.

Of course, over the duration of the 2000s, the internet swelled with more and more folks getting online.  As magazines and newspapers shifted their content into digital format and tried to work out how to keep making a buck, music blogs grew to become the arbiters of trends and memes.  And then there was the explosion in social media (mySpace, facebook, youtube, twitter et al) that, theoretically at least, allowed people across the world to access media with ease that most of them couldn’t conceive of 15 years earlier.  I certainly couldn’t have predicted this digital landscape when I first heard One Inch Man and wondered who Kyuss were and how they could make such transcendent music.

Now I can log onto youtube and watch Kyuss performing live in the Californian desert at one of their legendary ‘generator parties’[v].  Once upon a time I knew that these videos existed but not being familiar with the obscure world of tape trading (what tapes did I have to trade?) these gigs stayed a mystery to me.  As did the performance at the Bizarre Festival in 1995[vi] or the Italian TV gig from around the same time[vii].  For my friends and I, the unattainability of these shows created an aura of mystery.  We certainly weren’t at the shows and had no chance of watching them.  This let our imaginations run wild.  We already had the soundtrack – then we just had to dream of the desert, the drama and the drugs.

Now I can watch all these videos from the comfort of my sofa.  Beyond the initial investment of a laptop, modem and internet access, the world of Kyuss is at my fingertips.  My Taipei apartment couldn’t be further from the shifting sands of California’s Sky Valley but the internet has knocked down that time/space barrier.  That Kyuss’ history has been uploaded is fantastic and in some ways I wish it had happened 15 years ago when my curiosity was at its peak.  But then my appreciation of the band might not have become what it did.  My imagination had to fill in the gaps.

From the few interviews that I was able to read back in the day, I built up an image of Josh Homme.  He came across as chill, and didn’t seem to have the agro that is part and parcel of the metal world.  Then when Queens first started getting press, he claimed to want to create music that makes girls dance, a noble desire in the sweaty dude-filled moshpit that is the world of rock.

Now I can find out almost anything I want about the man.  From Homme’s collection of weird guitars[viii] to the somewhat infamous footage of him loosing his cool at a concert in 2008[ix].  Everything is there, pixellated and ready to download.  Fortunately Homme has maintained his sharp sense of humour and while he has developed something of a rock star attitude, he generally comes across as a likeable guy, someone you could sink a beer or two with.

What does this mean?  Without his ever-growing web presence I think it would be harder for Homme to maintain his career. The music audience has come to expect a steady stream of interviews, live footage and miscellanea to sustain interest in an artist.  Fan-made clips and shaky camera phone recordings augment the glut of professional digital media available, padding out an already large cyber presence.  But by no means has Homme saturated the market.  In the current climate of Lady Gaga, Justin Beiber and their ilk he still remains on the fringe, even with Them Crooked Vultures, his latest project where he has reunited with Dave Grohl and rounded out the band with John Paul Jones of Led Zeppelin.

TCV hit the ground the running and over a period of months went from nothing more than an intriguing concept flagged on a blog post to headlining venues and festivals around the globe.  Tantalising fans with a well-conceived drip feed of studio footage and live clips, TCV (and their management) cleverly used modern communication channels to drum up interest prior to their album’s release.  In a world where illegal downloads threaten the livelihoods of all those involved with recorded music such an approach is now necessary.

This manufactured mystique captured the public’s attention but ultimately left me feeling a bit hollow.  Yes, I watched a bunch of youtube clips and got the gist of what was going on.  But of all Homme’s many projects over the last 15 years (he is a truly prolific collaborator) this one left me the least intrigued.  The whole gestation of TCV had been manipulated to the extent that when the band finally entered my world, I didn’t really care.  There was no magic.  Despite the behind the scenes spontaneity that Homme, Jones and Grohl undoubtedly experienced, I felt like the whole product was being force fed to me.  Not that TCV is a bad band – their tunes seem to be more or less worthy given the group’s much heralded genetics – it’s just that they somehow seem to lack that magic that Homme’s earlier recordings have.

As it becomes easier to build up an extensive archive of an artist, where every recording and performance can be downloaded, where every interview and blog post can be scrutinized, artists have become more accessible than ever before.  Fans have almost instant access to the minutiae of their idols.  It is easier for established artists to step away from this trend.  Their fanbase is already established.  But struggling artists seeking to make a name for themselves need to harness the digital media machine to get their ‘product’ out there.  To do this and somehow maintain an aura of mystery seems to me to be a challenge.  With over-exposure it is easy to tire of an artist and move on to the next emerging sound, of which there will be always be a dozen emerging micro-genres to pick and choose from.

Who knows, Homme is an artist who fortunately shows no sign of burning out after two decades of recording.  There will no doubt be much more to come from him.  And sure enough, I’ll be at my keyboard, waiting for news of the next project he has up his sleeve.  I just hope that it blows in like a cloud of sand from the desert rather than appear on my twitter feed as a micro-managed meme.

(Photo by Craig Carper, source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/giarc80/3976623459/)


[i] http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CAXGu81Rk1g - ‘One Inch Man’ from And the Circus Leave Town (Kyuss, 1995)

[ii] http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Fc-7FXzbeA0 - ‘Green Machine’ from Blues for the Red Sun (Kyuss, 1992)

[iii] http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bAXPUN2z2CE - ‘Feelgood Hit of the Summer’ from R (Queens of the Stoneage, 2000)

[iv] http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s88r_q7oufE - ‘No One Knows’ from Songs for the Deaf (Queens of the Stoneage, 2002)

[v] http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HPFhyd3fabs - generator party in the Californian desert (Kyuss, c.1993)

[vi] http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2pMfqZGg-FA ‘Gardenia’ from Welcome to Sky Valley, live in 1995 (Kyuss, 1994)

[vii] http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-j4A2iGgQQk ‘Asteroid’ from Welcome to Sky Valley, live on Videomusic (Kyuss, 1994)

[viii] http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vY_O3eo1m1Q ‘Josh Homme’s cathedral pipe guitar’

[ix] http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IfZm32tpWY8 - ‘Josh Homme (QOTSA) pissed off @ Norwegian Wood’

Paul Farrelly (范寶文)

Paul is a PhD candidate at the Australian National University in Canberra. His primary research interests are new religious movements and religious innovation in China and Taiwan.

Website: twitter.com/paul_farrelly

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