Interview:Life In The Stone Age
by Lisa Sharken
Queens Of The Stone Age was formed in the late 90s by former Kyuss guitarist/singer Josh Homme with former bandmates bassist Nick Oliveri and drummer Alfredo Hernandez. The group quickly rose in popularity through touring, as well as increased exposure through Ozzfest, radio play, and a series of highly requested videos on MTV.
Guitarist/keyboardist Troy Van Leeuwen was enlisted following the 2002 release of Songs For The Deaf, coming onboard for the albums supporting tour. A seasoned rocker, prior to joining QOTSA, Van Leeuwen had been a member of A Perfect Circle, Failure, and Enemy.
We spoke with Van Leeuwen after the band completed its new disc, Lullabies To Paralyze, and began rehearsing for this summers tour. Van Leeuwen talked about his musical background and how he got started on guitar. He also told us about his experience in the studio recording the groups latest disc. Additionally, he provided a bit of info about his live rig. But due to a no-tell policy issued by Homme, theres a limit to just how much gear information Van Leeuwen and members of QOTSA are permitted to divulge, particularly about the types of amps they use. However, we got a good amount of information out of Van Leeuwen about what goes on behind the scenes and his role in the band. Although he couldnt tell us everything about the stage rigs, he admits that when you see the band perform live, you may easily figure out what type of amps they play through. Regardless, Homme prefers not to give up this sensitive information to the press and we were respectful of his wishes. So for those gearheads who are enticed by the mystery, this certainly is incentive to come out and see QOTSA this summer to figure out the secrets for yourselves!
Guitar.com: Which artists were you most influenced by when you began playing guitar?
Troy Van Leeuwen: Ive always been into music. My dad played me Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, Jerry Lee Lewis, and all of his record collection before I could remember. Right off the bat, I loved rock and roll, but it took me a while to get the guitar. I was a drummer first. I was attempting to learn how to play drums by listening to Led Zeppelin. Eventually, I figured out it was going to be next to impossible to play like John Bonham. Thats a pretty stock influence because everybody listened to Zeppelin. But theres so much in those records to be learned, and thats how you learn by ear.
Later, I was given a guitar by an uncle and I actually had more of a knack for it. And I would have to say that Jimmy Page was the first influence I had as a guitar player. There were so many textures and different sounds that he got. The riffs that he had were undeniably great. Every one of them. Even the mistakes he made were great. So to me, that was a great first influence. Even on this new Queens Of The Stone Age record, there are mistakes that we kept for character. Thats kind of what my philosophy is. If you can make mistakes, which you inevitably will, you figure out how to land from your fall, and that makes it interesting. Thats where you find the cool stuff and the unique playing. Its when youre trying to do something and you stumble onto something else. Some people call them happy mistakes or happy accidents.
So Page would be my first major influence, and then there were tons of players that I listened to. I always liked David Bowies choice of guitarists. He always had the knack for choosing really great players from Mick Ronson to Adrian Belew and Robert Fripp. I dont even like King Crimson that much, but I thought what they did with Bowie was amazing.
Guitar.com: Which players were you trying to emulate as you developed your style and tone?
Troy Van Leeuwen: Of course, Jimmy Page was one. I think its probably next to impossible to achieve the kind of tones that someone like Robert Fripp or Adrian Belew got, but its fun trying! The guitar player from Bauhaus, Daniel Ash, is someone who has really unique tone as well for atmospheric stuff. Ive always liked his playing. I also like Marc Ribot, who played for Tom Waits. I like his tone and the way he plays.
Guitar.com: Tell us about the gear you currently use in your live rig and what was used in the studio to record the tracks for Lullabies To Paralyze?
Troy Van Leeuwen: Well, theres a limitation to this answer because we have a sworn-to-secrecy policy, which comes from Josh [Homme, QOTSA guitarist/singer/founder]. Hes been working on his sound for a long time and doesnt want us to give up the information. Theres a bit of mystique because Queens has a unique sound. So I cant tell you what type of amps Im using, but I will say that nearly every track on this record was done with some sort of hollowbody guitar, even bass. And every guitar that I use has a Duncan pickup in it, if it doesnt have the stock pickup. Ive always used the Seymour Duncan Custom and sometimes Ill use a JB. Ive experimented with using different models for the neck and the bridge, but I almost always end up using the Custom. I have an ES-135 that I really love which is maybe five years old. Thats my main one. I helped to design a guitar with Yamaha which may come out at the end of the year. Its a hollowbody with a Bigsby and three P90s. Thats kind of a unique sound, as well, and having the option of three pickups is cool. I also play a Chandler lapsteel with a big mahogany body and little palm trees as fret markers.
As for effects, I can tell you theres nothing too outlandish. I use a Dunlop Crybaby wah, Guyatone Spring Reverb, and Lexicon Vortex, which is the easiest tap delay to use. Analog delay sounds better, but I think that its better for me to tap out a tempo on that thing live. Onstage, Im playing lapsteel guitar and keyboards, so Ive got enough to do. I cant lean down and change my echo setting. I rely on using a switching system. Ive been using the Ground Control GCS for years. Its easier for me to program stuff and hit one button, rather than tap dancing around, and I like the fact that it cuts down noise, too. I also use an MXR Dyna Comp compressor to keep the sustain, and a Maxon Overdrive the one like the old Tube Screamer. Those are great pedals for just a little overdrive and a little boost. Ive used the new Duncan boost pedal as well, and thats a great straight boost. Its like an MXR Micro Amp a linear boost.
Guitar.com: How are your guitars set up?
Troy Van Leeuwen: Well, the lapsteel is a little high, for obvious reasons. I use straight open E tuning on it. Theres no strange tuning going on with any of the other guitars either. Its all either straight E or C (standard tuning dropped down), and theres maybe one song thats in D. I like the action on my guitars set kind of high, especially for C because it gets a little floppy. So I like to use heavier strings to compensate. On the Es, Im using a .011-.052. On Cs, Ill use a .012-.056. For some guitars tuned to C, Ill even go .013-.058, depending on the way the guitar plays and the way the tension feels. The sets all have a wound third string. I use Ernie Ball strings on all guitars. On the lapsteel, I just use a heavier gauge because you dont need to bend, and I think a heavier gauge has more matter, so it gives you a better sound.
Guitar.com: What type of picks do you prefer?
Troy Van Leeuwen: I have to have a thicker pick with a grip. I use the silver Herco .75mm ones, like Jimmy Page.
Guitar.com: What did you learn in the studio while making this album?
Troy Van Leeuwen: We relearned a lot in the studio while working on this record, mainly because we had Billy Gibbons come down and play with us. We were doing this cover of Precious And Grace on the last tour, and for the hell of it, we decided to do it on this record. We thought, why not give Billy a call and see if he would want to come down? And it just so happened that we got hold of him, he came down, and he ended up playing on another song, too, called Burn The Witch. You can tell its undeniably Billy Gibbons from the second he picks up a guitar. It doesnt matter what hes playing through, its in his fingers. And thats something that we just relearned about having good tone. It helps to have good gear, but your fingers dictate your tone. Thats something that took me a while to discover when I was learning guitar, but I figured it out. If you dont have it in your fingers, youre not going to stick out as a player. That was the main thing that he bought to us.
Its cool to see somebody that Hendrix dug, and Billy is such a great character and a funny storyteller. Hes a total class act and has it together as a player. I felt like I was having a true exchange with him. We had a lot of gear with us in the studio and he just came in with a reissue Les Paul and some kind of amp simulator, and that was what he used to get his main tone. We got him to play through some other stuff, too, but that was his main set up. I had always thought Billy was more of a purist, with a guitar through a basic tube amp, and he comes in with an amp simulator! Its cool to keep up with technology because you dont want to get stuck in the past. Its also cool to learn how to work with what you've got. Ill plug straight into a computer and find a tone there, because its about working within the limitations. You cant get great tones out of a computer, but you can make do, and use your fingers to get the most out of it, and thats what counts.
Guitar.com: Do you make any effort to use the same equipment onstage as you had used in the studio when recording particular tracks?
Troy Van Leeuwen: Not at all. Whatever works in the studio is what works in the studio. I could plug straight into the board, if thats what it called for. I like to have stuff in the studio thats vintage and I like to keep things as pure as possible. But when it comes to the road, I like to use stuff that works consistently. I dont like stuff thats vintage and cool, but breaks down. So thats why Ill use a switching system and new pedals. I dont care about using vintage pedals over new pedals. The difference live is so minute. First of all, youre in a hall or a theater which changes the sound. Then its going through a mic and through a PA. So live, its not as much under the microscope as in the studio. Unless youre bootlegging the performance, its not going to make that much of a difference to the listener. Your fingers are more important.
Guitar.com: Describe your style and tone.
Troy Van Leeuwen: Im someone who likes to serve the song. I can play solos, but Im more into the texture of something that serves the music, whether its an ambient thing, or something thats slapping you in the face. The song dictates what I do as a guitar player. And if for some reason the song doesnt call for a guitar part, Ive been playing a lot of lapsteel lately, so thats another texture to use. Ive put the ego of a guitar player aside to serve the music. I think thats more important.
The tone Queens have is very unforgiving, meaning that you cant hide behind it or use an effect to cover a mistake. Its a very undistorted, thick tone. So Im definitely on my best behavior as a player because any kind of a mistake just sticks out. Of course, there are mistakes, but you have to be ready to make up for them.
Guitar.com: How do you and Josh differ as musicians both sonically and technically?
Troy Van Leeuwen: Were both very fluid players, but his fingers definitely have a different tone than mine. Sometimes in a live situation, we like to mess around because we have a great sense of harmonic relevance and we play off each other. I call it dueling banjos, just because its kind of goofy that we both play solos at the same time. Somehow, well end up harmonically doing the same pattern, almost like were having a conversation. Thats fun for both of us because weve never really had that relationship with other guitar players. Ive always either played around the other guy or had to be the guy. So I would describe Josh as a born lead guitar player. But I think he shares the same musical philosophy as me: Play what serves the song.
Guitar.com: Which particular track on this album or other recordings youve done stand out as the best examples of your playing?
Troy Van Leeuwen: Thats a good question. I made a record with another band called Enemy which isnt very widely available. But theres a song on there called Locust Sky Zone which I would say defines a lot of my guitar playing. Its something that has strange chords and a very unusual guitar solo that Im not sure how I did. Theres a song on this new Queens record called Long Slow Goodbye which I play lapsteel on, and that one I would say defines me as somebody who serves the song. I think thats essentially where Im at as a musician at this point. Even though its a lapsteel part, it perfectly serves the song.
Guitar.com: What are you listening to these days?
Troy Van Leeuwen: Earlier, I was talking about Bauhaus and Daniel Ash, and I always go through this kind of phase of listening to that music, which is something that I listened to in my later teens. Its what people consider goth music, but I consider it just some dark, theatrical, poetic stuff. Bauhaus, Sisters of Mercy, early Cure, early Nick Cave, and things like that, its so not rock, but it rocks! Its some of the best drum-n-bass stuff. Its heavy rhythm and just dark. Thats stuff I always come back to, and Im in that phase right now. Its that and Funkadelic. Ill listen to any punk rock like Fear, Black Flag, Ramones. Those are in my CD player right now.
Guitar.com: Have you been listening to any of the new young bands that are emerging?
Troy Van Leeuwen: I do listen to some new stuff. I like Interpol, and theres a band called Division Of Laura Lee that Ive been listening to, and Eighties Matchbox B-Line Disaster, which is a Swedish band thats like Nick Cave. I really like Outkast. I think Outkast is like the Funkadelic of the millennium. The music they put out is so filled with spirit and it kind of seems like they fall into the hip-hop or R&B genre, but theyre really breaking ground, as far as the way they record and the sounds they get. Its unique. With Queens, we pride ourselves on having a unique sound. I think they do, too, and thats the key. Ive also like the new Modest Mouse record. I cant think of anything else off the top of my head.
These days, you fill up an iPod with your favorite stuff, and then put it on shuffle so its random. There could be Johnny Cash right next to Black Flag or Bryan Ferry or Roxy Music. Its just random and its only the good stuff. But what I listen to tends to change at times. Im going to listen to more music when we get out on the road. But while were rehearsing, all Ive been doing is listening to Queens. For the last couple of months, thats just where Ive been. The second I get on the road, the CD collection just expands.
Guitar.com: What tips can you offer to other guitarists who are trying to craft their own distinct style and tone?
Troy Van Leeuwen: You have to venture out, find a path, and make mistakes. As youre making mistakes, try to play through them and correct them through your playing. Its not easy, but thats the only way to learn. Playing has to be something that you strive to do, and to never stop learning. Ive been playing for some 20-odd years and I still feel like Ive got stuff to learn. If you ever stop learning, you might as well stop playing. A true player is somebody who always has to be figuring stuff out. Billy Gibbons is a great example. That dude is a bad*** player!
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