I was walking among the local rock n' rollers when only a week had passed since Nielsen's mid-year report showed hip hop had overtaken rock as the most popular music genre in the United States. It was a group study 13,000 kilometres across the Pacific Ocean, but it may as well have been next door.
"Tonight's gonna be so fucking rock," someone announced as our motley crowd meandered down Dudley Street towards Festival Hall. I wasn't convinced. This was just one voice I heard in a series of tired mantras: "Rock's not dead," " So gonna get my mosh on," and the equally questionable, "I hope they play their Era Vulgaris shit."
The Nielsen report only confirmed what Killjoys, Deadheads, Apple Scruffs and more had been brushing aside for the past decade—and this is coming from someone who mumbles "Helter Skelter" in their sleep—rock was strapped for ideas. The ubiquity and innovation of overseas rappers can only mean growing crowds for local hip hop too. It's '65 all over again, only hip hop is the new communism and instead of sending Marines halfway around the world, Uncle Sam sends Queens of the Stone Age.
It's fitting that these Mojave Desert dwellers would play Melbourne's most celebrated enclave for sweaty mosh pits and stage diving just days after the Nielsen report was published; Homme and Co. had a new full-length on the way with the Mark Ronson-produced Villains—but that evening they also had the thankless task of comforting thousands of scared shitless rock fans in their favorite dump.
Festival Hall is a landmark of the city's musical heritage, though not nearly as elegant as Princess Theatre or your local Kmart. The place is a toilet, but it's earned the distinction. The self-branded "House of Stoush" is where the Beatles left swathes of teenage girls—and Molly Meldrum—in hysterics in 1964; where Bon Scott and AC/DC strummed and punched their way through the pub rocking baby boomers in 1974, and where punk heavyweight, Patti Smith recently played her final Melbourne show alongside hometown hero Courtney Barnett.
Watching the hordes troop down Dudley Street towards their hallowed turf was like watching that scene in War of the Worlds where everyone flocks to churches after realizing the Martians have them by the balls, except the all-powerful invaders are Migos and J Cole.
The crowd was also like a figurative mixed bag of liquorice. Standing at the dusty, wooden-boarded front entrance and checking my surroundings I could almost hear Grace from Ferris Bueller's Day Off whispering in my ear, helping me make sense of these people; the sportos, motorheads, geeks, sluts, bloods, wastoids, dweebies, dickheads all out in force. And me. Instead of getting amongst the gaggle and snapping photos of this glorified shearing shed, I stood there freezing my knackers, checking the time and trying to recall how many Queens of the Stone Age songs I actually knew, even though I had the rest of the night to be a space cadet.
I had "journalist" things to get done and that meant sitting down to yak with lead guitarist, Troy Van Leeuwen. Besides wanting to get the low-down on their new record I also needed to know what I—an intellectual and a novice—could expect once these sex-crazed aces began strumming.
"Dumb-dumb music," he says. "Shit's gonna get stupid." Troy was a straight talker, and in some ways the embodiment of his band's music. Every question I asked got a terse response and a nonchalant grin; the kind only a seasoned rock vet could muster after years of soul-crushing radio promos. He also possessed the transcendental ability of foresight.
"He's incredible," Troy said before I even had the chance to ask what it's like working with Mark Ronson, who produced the entire Villains record. "The truth is he's a lot like us."
I get the feeling every man and his dog has asked the same question. I also had the feeling Troy could give a rat's. Sitting across from me in his three-piece sangria suit and fingers-lined with an assortment of gem-encrusted rings, it didn't seem like Troy was phased by anything.
"How so?" I asked.
"He's intensely inspired by all types of music and he's an amazing musician," He replied.
"But don't you guys self-produce all of your records?"
"This time we wanted to be a band and have somebody else deal with all the technical shit. It was very cool to have someone like him who has an understanding of where we come from and where we're trying to go."
Even if I'm the gajillionth person to ask Troy about the "Uptown Funk" architect, he was game to stay on topic.
"I like talking about it because I think there's a lot of confusion over why we would work with someone like him," Troy said. "We wanted to do something different to ...Like Clockwork because we don't like to work backwards we like to work forwards."
Villains sounds like a band steamrolling forward. Lead single "The Way You Used To Do" is the ideal intro to the revamped Queens. The ZZ Top riffs surging through Ronson's throwback production is light years removed from the confronting lyrics and coarse instrumentation of ... Like Clockwork.
"The Evil Has Landed" is another noteworthy cut. Clocking-in under seven minutes, the sharp, angular riffs and Homme's slick vocals make "Evil" an unexpected return to the repetitive, trance and kraut-influenced stoner rock of their early work. It smacks of the same salacious influences which made Rated R and Songs for the Deaf stand out from their low-risk contemporaries, but it's a shock for me given I still have ... Like Clockwork on a circadian rotation.
"Sometimes it comes right away, sometimes it takes time and sometimes you don't get it," he said. I told him I do get Villains and I like it, but their music makes me want to gorge myself on peyote and brood underneath a Yucca rather than quiff my hair and tear up the dancefloor at Jack Rabbit Slim.
Maybe I got a little too comfortable with this jaded rock star. Then again, the blasé Troy Van Leeuwen I spoke to backstage was nothing like the Mephistophelian guitarist who took the stage with the rest of the band later that night at a very reasonable 9:30 PM—it was a school night after all. The gung-ho "You Think I Ain't Worth a Dollar, But I Feel Like a Millionaire," was the kick-off and it was everything this crowd had been foaming at the mouth for since the band's last visit supporting Nine Inch Nails in 2014.
"Give it to me/ Give me some moooooore!" Homme screamed in the ear-splitting chorus. I couldn't help but agree with Van Leeuwen's tongue-in-cheek comments from before.
This is some dumb fucking music, I thought, but I loved it. Those monstrous riffs, Jon Theodore's ironman work on the drums and Homme's ball-grabbing swagger on stage was infectious. This was what rock was about. If I wanted to nerd out and explore the "deeper meaning" behind this music then I would grab a pillow, get comfortable and force my way through the Genesis discography.
"No One Knows" was an early—though, welcome—surprise. That sharp, jittery riff played like Talking Heads on dianabol and the huge chorus was like getting slammed by a rogue wave of pedalboards and psilocybin mushrooms. Holy shit, when that hook broke, Van Leeuwen's Gibson howled like a blood-curdling hellhound. This was the same dude that only 30 minutes prior had called me a "dark motherfucker."
Mosh pits soon opened and Boags Draught was slung around like a broken fire hydrant. By the time the curvy riff of "Sat By the Ocean" played, everything started getting evangelical: Josh Homme would stand over his legions, coif his hair, brag about how much he fucks his wife—Brody Dalle of The Distillers and Spinnerette distinction—to hecklers and throw up both hands with devil horns. The crowd always mimicked in unison.
The whole night I was my third-grade self again; watching the schoolyard ruckus from a distance but too much of a write-off to join in. I tried to keep a healthy open-mindedness and level of neutrality. Even during "Feel Good Hit of the Summer" I nodded along politely while Festival Hall reenacted Sodom and Gomorrah.
Newbies "The Way You Used to Do" and "The Evil Has Landed" were given obligatory airtime, but not without a half-arsed apology from Homme. The latter might've been a drain on the several-pints-deep crowd, but "The Way You Used to Do" was the unsung hero of the party. I've gotta give Ronson some credit; there's something supernaturally talented about producing a track which made the goth girls in front of me do the Chubby Checker twist.
By that point I was doing perfectly fine being a total square and I wasn't going to let the pentatonic scale and fuzzed-up power chords catch me slipping. Then came "If I Had a Tail" and its monstrous chorus. By the time Homme had finished waxing poetic about swatting flies and owning the night, his Maton had already punched me between the eyes and I was beginning to sink into a pedal-heavy fever dream.This was the most primordial, barbaric, face-melting live performance I'd seen since Built to Spill covered "Don't Fear the Reaper" last year at the Corner Hotel and—God bless 'em—totally pulled it off.
After barely putting up with "Make It Wit Chu"—which sounds like the entirety of AM pounded into a five-minute nugget—"I Appear Missing"—inspired by Homme's temporary death in 2010 during a botched knee surgery, though fans think this is a proxy for Homme's more-than-likely heroin overdose—stood out like a sore thumb that hurt so good. The slow build-up, gargantuan hooks, Van Leeuwen's face-melting solo, even the bummed-out lyrics made me want to bum-rush the pit. Like most tracks that night, it piously shat on the album cut.
Look, it wasn't Johnny Cash at Folsom, but the set was muscular enough to show why Queens of the Stone Age rarely stop for breath while their contemporaries wear floaties in the shallow end of music's talent pool. I have a feeling it was the audience who stole the show. I can't say whether this was a bona fide rock n' roll crowd or just yobs being yobs. Either way, their thrash dancing, tatty spliffs and drunken gusto fed the stoner rock shitstorm. By night's end, I doubt anyone with grubby hair and a torn Iggy Pop shirt even spared a thought for the Neilsen Report.
"Nuts gig, but fuckin' bummed they didn't play "3's & 7's" ay," one pie-eyed straggler said while heading for the exit in a thicket of sweaty bodies and half-empty cans. "Oi Stiz, you seen my left shoe?" I went to Festival Hall to see if rock still had a pulse. The band was peak, but all in all it was this Ritalin-dependent crowd which had my self-aggrandising ego buzzing. The feel good gig of our long, shitty Melbourne winter.
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