Recording sessions organized by Joshua Homme of Queens of the Stone Age this past February in Joshua Tree have yielded an autumn treat: a full album’s worth of new songs featuring Polly Jean Harvey, Dean Ween (Ween), Alain Johannes (Eleven), Joshua Homme, Twiggy Ramirez (ex-Marilyn Manson), Chris Goss (Masters of Reality), Dave Catching (earthlings?, Mondo Generator), Joey Castillo (QOTSA), Josh Freese, Brian ‘Big Hands’ O’Connor, Troy Van Leeuwen and The Tuff Gentlemen.
Written and recorded over eight days at the quickly-becoming-legendary Rancho de la Luna studio, Desert Sessions 9 & 10’s dozen songs (plus two bonus numbers) run the proverbial gamut of style and arrangement: Teutonic menace and siren’s laments, heavy rock instrumentals and piano-rolled soul ditties, funked-up melancholia and new Neu-beat night music. It’s often-astonishing stuff, music that hangs out at the distant borders and in the darker corners, looking for new or lost riches. In other words, it’s a typically adventurous and bewitching Desert Sessions album, reflecting both the assembled musicians’ variegated talents and the startling songwriting chemistry and collaborative, communal creativity that the Desert Sessions perpetually draw from participants, regardless of their experience or status.
“Desert Sessions is good for me, and for the musicians that participate, because you get with a bunch of people you do and don’t know–amazingly talented people–and you hear things done in a way you never would have thought of,” says Homme. “It’s a chance to try some new ideas or rhythms, or pick up stuff.”
The Desert Sessions started in August, 1997 when Homme first gathered musicians from Soundgarden, Monster Magnet, Kyuss, Goatsnake and earthlings? to record at Rancho de la Luna, a unique studio-home run by Fred Drake and Dave Catching in the high desert town of Joshua Tree. Since then, even as Queens of the Stone Age have built a rabid fanbase worldwide and, with the release of last year’s justly celebrated Songs For the Deaf, ascended from cult favorite to gold-record status in America, Homme has continued holding Desert Sessions and releasing the finished songs through various independent record labels.
“The Queens is an exercise in something,” explains Homme. “There are things [we’re writing now] that the Queens will do someday, but I think that when you’re a band, you need to move slowly in order to hold hands with whoever is into you. Because it can’t be so wide that people who’ve been into you don’t know what’s happening. It requires these outside projects.”
Although Homme has often debuted songs at Desert Sessions that would later be re-recorded for Queens studio albums, you would be mistaken–oh so sorely mistaken!–to think of Desert Sessions as nothing more than Josh Homme and his drug buddies workshedding Queens material far from the meddlesome and quite possibly unclothed influence of Homme’s partner-in-Queens, bassist-vocalist Nick Oliveri. It may be that on occasion–check out the very Queens-ish ‘In My Head…Or Something’ and ‘Covered In Punks Blood’ –but 9/10 is mostly about novel songwriting collaborations and ensemble playing.
“For me, Desert Sessions is more than the playing, it’s the introducing of people to each other, saying, ‘I’ll be back in an hour and check in on you guys,’” says Homme. “I love that shit.”
The February sessions for 9/10 were especially productive, even by Desert Sessions standards. It’s hard to pick out highlights, really; check out the spooky, Bowie/Heroes-esque ‘Dead in Love’; the sweet, sounds-exactly-like-it‘s-titled ‘I Wanna Make It Wit Chu’; the off-kilter electroid group-piece “Powdered Wig Machine”; and ‘There Will Never Be a Better Time,’ a striking duo collaboration between Polly Jean Harvey and Chris Goss that features Harvey’s most intensely full-on vocals since To Bring You My Love. There’s lap steel and slide guitar, crumar and piano, harmonica and mandolin, bass clarinaet and E-bow. There’s the bizarro bluegrass of ‘Creosote.’ There’s the railroad funk of “Subcutaneous Phat,” which at 2:13 lays down what’s likely to be the killer breakdown of the year. There is also ‘Sheperd’s Pie,’ which, unfortunately, is not a Small Faces cover. What you hear is an audible sense of fun, of communal creativity being sparked in new, fascinating directions. It’s music being made for the right reasons.
“At Desert Sessions, you play for the sake of music,” says Homme. “That’s why it’s good for musicians. If someday that’s not enough anymore, or that’s not the reason behind you doing it–that’s not your raison d’etre–then a quick reminder like Desert Sessions can do so much for you, it’s amazing. It’s easy to forget that this all starts from playing in your garage and loving it.
“And I think when you do outside projects you love your band more, because you appreciate what it does.”
The February 2003 Desert Sessions documented on 9/10 were the first sessions to be recorded without Rancho de la Luna founder Fred Drake, who died last year. With the Drake family’s blessings, the studio has remained open since his passing. Packed from floor to ceiling –and from porch to backyard–with folk art objects, electric lights and vintage musical and recording equipment, Rancho stands today pretty much as Fred left it.
“Part of Desert Sessions is the vibe–and Rancho IS the vibe,“ says Homme. “If Rancho ever closes, then I’ll stop doing Desert Sessions, probably. Because, where else am I gonna do ‘em?. It’s a very magical place. He had vintage equipment everywhere: old keyboards, Dictaphones, stuff you’d never seen before. And you could play drums by the fire, and sing in the bathroom. Well, you had to, you know? Cuz it’s a house.
“Fred is probably the toughest motherfucker that I’ve known. He was always sick, from the day I met him. He always had a terminal illness. But he smoked and ate bacon and rode his horse Kashmir and would just fuckin’ go. He prolonged everything. He should have been gone ten years ago. But he just refused to go. He was just pissed off enough to stay around. He was definitely a tough bastard. That’s what I liked about him.
“Dave Catching was friends with Fred — Fred had lived in L.A., that’s how Dave met Fred. Fred had moved out there, to get away. Dave turned us on to that place and Kyuss went out there and did this thing for Man’s Ruin where we just basically took mushrooms for three days straight. That was probably the best Kyuss session ever, with the gnarliest Kyuss songs ever. Once we met Fred, that was it. I just started going there, all the time.”
“The sound that you’d get there was so incredible,” says Brant Bjork, who co-founded Kyuss and later played on some of the Desert Sessions. “And Fred was a big collector of like swap meet trinkets so there was stuff all over the house. There was never a space open, there was always something to grab your attention. The kitchen was right five feet from the board so Dave Catching would in there cookin’ up an insane meal, you’d smell garlic and herbs and spices and you’re sittin’ there smelling it while you‘re in the room right across from the kitchen where you‘re tracking the drums and the bass! You could record outdoors. Firepit out front, a hot tub up to the left, a huge view where you could see for fuckin’ miles.
“Fred was one of the most special people I’ve ever run into through music. He was this tall skinny cowboy with a hat, kinda like the Marlboro Man. He didn’t look like people probably thought. They probably thought he’d be this bearded longhair hippie dude in the middle of the desert. But he couldn’t be further from that. You’re sitting up there after a long night of recording, and he’s already up at 6:30 in the morning having coffee, he’s got his cowboy hat, he’s already fed his horse, he’s got his cowboy boots on, he’s already been to the swap meet and bought four new things. He always was burning a joint, all day. Had a nice even keel. He was sophisticated, he was smart, he had a great sense of humor. Just really mellow. He was definitely the captain of that ship.”
“Everyone leaves, at some point,” muses Dave Catching. “But we’re here in spirit. And Fred was there in February, even if physically he wasn‘t. I thought a lot about how much fun he’d be having, because he was such a huge PJ Harvey fan, such a huge Ween fan. But he was there in spirit: all the equipment and everything was workin’ good. And Kashmir rode by a couple of times.”