High Flyers - Them Crooked Vultures: 'The Best F**king Band I’ve Ever Been In!'
Most 40th birthday parties end with a sore head, regrettable dancing and uneaten cake. Dave Grohl's bash finished up with him, John Paul Jones and Josh Homme forming a supergroup...
This article originally appeared in Classic Rock #142.
There’s a scene in black comedy movie The Cable Guy in which titular anti-hero Jim Carrey takes Matthew Broderick to a novelty restaurant called Medieval Times. There they don paper crowns, order chicken from ye olde serving wenches and settle in for live jousts from knights on horseback. A host in a tunic hams it to the hilt, promising a night of “feasting and sport the like of which you’ll never forget”. Cue much Camelot-shaped mirth…
It was in that very same castle of kitsch, a 1,000-seat palace with red-tile roof and palm trees, just off the Santa Ana freeway in Hollywood, that the most successful supergroup of modern times was born. It’s where Dave Grohl, former Nirvana-drummer-turned Foo-Fighter-frontman, held his 40th birthday bash in January 2009. And where he set up a ‘blind date’ between Queens Of The Stone Age leader Josh Homme and Led Zeppelin legend John Paul Jones.
“That place is surreal,” Jones laughs. “And I hadn’t seen The Cable Guy, so had no idea what I was in for. By the time I got handed the paper crown and the dragon soup I was like: ‘Oh God! What’s going to happen here?’ I just got stuck in there next to Josh, who I hadn’t met before.”
Grohl’s plan worked. Jones and Homme hit it off immediately. “Well, as much as we could with knights and jousting going on in front of you,” says Jones. “He was a bit embarrassed, I think. But then we all went into the studio the next day, had a bash around and thought, hmm, this could be really fun. As Josh has said before, you can’t actually see how it couldn’t work. You’d be doing something wrong if you couldn’t get some good music out of this bunch of people.”
The trio called themselves Them Crooked Vultures. The phenomenal demand for their recent US and UK tours – on the back of an irresistible debut album that roars forth on a hedonistic tide of garage rock, psychedelia and mutant metal – has revived the reputation and redefined the rules for that old rock behemoth, the ‘supergroup’. TCV are now the most successful example since CSNY’s stadium-shagging peak of 1974.
The line-up has been Grohl’s fantasy since 2005, when he first wished it aloud to a journalist. “I mentioned it in an interview about four years ago,” Grohl recalls, “but I was totally joking. I mean, that was like my bucket-list wish, that was my dream band. For years people have asked me: ‘If you could have a dream line-up, what would it be?’ So this is actually it. I grew up a Led Zeppelin fanatic, and so obviously John is my favourite rock bass player. I’ve been a huge fan of Queens Of The Stone Age since their first album, and I was a big fan of [Homme’s first band] Kyuss. That’s where I met Josh.”
Sessions took place at Homme’s Pink Duck studios in Burbank, with Grohl playing drums, Homme singing and playing guitar, and Jones on bass, piano, keytar, clavinet and other music-making contraptions. (Jones informs us that he bought the keytar on eBay.) By the first week of August they had easily enough songs for a full album. It’s an album that took Zeppelin as a rough fix, then darted off every which way but obvious.
But the remarkable thing – apart from the fact that here was a superstar get-together that actually produced genuinely thrilling music – was how they went about it. The trio made a pact to keep the whole thing secret while they were recording; there was no press, no internet leaks, no clues, nothing. And they were determined that no one would breach the wall of privacy.
“When we were in Los Angeles,” Jones explains, “all three of us couldn’t turn up at any one time in the same place. Two of us would be alright, but never three. It was really hard keeping it secret, especially with my friends. I’ve since had to make up with some of them, because they were saying: ‘You could have told me about it!’ Because I was spending a lot of time in Los Angeles, people would ask what I was doing and I’d just say: ‘I’m working with Dave Grohl.’ It was a cover-all thing, because he works with so many people that it doesn’t actually elicit that much interest. But we decided that we wanted to just get on with it and not have the speculation and all the ballyhoo that comes with an upcoming project like this. We just wanted to get in the studio and do it.”
Jones describes the album process as “very organic, written and recorded in the same room as we went along”. But it wasn’t entirely a record of unknown quantities. Grohl first played drums with Homme on QOTSA’s 2002 album Songs For The Deaf and joined them on the road for the first leg of the ensuing tour. Homme returned the favour three years later, turning up on Foo Fighters’ In Your Honor. The same album was embellished with Jones on mandolin, Mellotron and piano. Near the end of 2008 Jones and Jimmy Page joined the Foos on stage at Wembley Stadium for encores of Ramble On and Rock And Roll.
Notwithstanding all that, personal/musical chemistry is a mercurial business. Them Crooked Vultures could easily have failed, three pampered egos goofing off in the studio, perhaps slaves only to the whims of their own rock-star back-slapping. It turns out that it wasn’t like that at all.
“We knew what was happening,” says Grohl. “And we knew how special it was and how good it was, and that we were doing something meaningful… We didn’t really have any ideas, we just started playing. And that’s a true test of someone’s compatibility. There wasn’t like a band leader, it was just three guys getting together to play. It was free-form and it was improvisational.”
Jones agrees: “It was a very diplomatic process; whoever had any ideas, everybody else would work on them. If you put different people’s ideas together, that would form the song. There was a lot of trial and error involved. I think we decided to just blast through on this first record.”
Interestingly, both Grohl and Jones see parallels between Them Crooked Vultures and the bands that made each’s reputation in the first place.
“The way the band was put together was not unlike how the Foo Fighters was put together,” offers Grohl. “Or not unlike Nirvana. I mean, Nirvana’s a different story because Krist [Novoselic] and Kurt [Cobain] grew up with each other. But I knew that these friends of mine would be compatible musically. It only made sense that the way that Josh plays and the way that I play with Josh could be only complimented by what John does, because he’s the king of that. If you wanna get together and just jam, John’s the king.”
In Jones’s case, the manner of Them Crooked Vultures’ first ever gig (at Chicago’s Cabaret Metro last August) brought back some familiar memories.
“Even the first show was kind of secret,” he explains, “because they just put up those three symbols [to represent Led Zeppelin, Foo Fighters and QOTSA] and the date: ‘Metro 8/9, Midnight’. And I think their servers crashed three times in a couple of hours. So once we played, it was out and really exciting. It was a bit like the early Zeppelin days; I don’t think people really knew our stuff when we first started. There are definitely parallels with Zeppelin. It’s a very similar sort of band: the music is a product of all three members, and then there’s the whole word-of-mouth thing. In those days the press used to turn up at Zeppelin shows and all these people would already be there. It was like, how do these people even know about it? We weren’t reported widely.”
Timing, planned or not, seems to have been crucial too. Grohl has already talked of the sometimes overwhelming burden of being the focal point of a major rock band. Homme has been leading QOTSA from the front for the best part of 13 years now (alongside involvements with Eagles Of Death Metal). And then there’s the whole business of the ‘will they, won’t they’ Zeppelin reunion. Did Grohl’s offer to team up save Jones from a potentially difficult situation there?
“Yes, but not in the way you’re thinking,” Jones says. “First of all, with Jimmy [Page] and Jason [Bonham] we were actually trying to form a new band, despite everybody saying: ‘Oh, it’s Zeppelin without Robert Plant.’ So we tried out different singers. But then there was this whole speculation, this whole thing with people saying: ‘Oh, it’s not a good idea to have Zeppelin without Plant.’ But that wasn’t what it was all about at all. And it put a lot of pressure on us and eventually it just came to a halt. By that time I’d been playing a lot and was geared up for making a record and taking it out on the road. So when Dave came along with that suggestion, I was already three-quarters of the way there.”
Them Crooked Vultures’ self-titled album was first streamed on their website in early November 2009, a week before its official release. The band’s success has since been extraordinary. After a string of summer festival dates, their US tour was a complete sellout. December’s entire British tour sold out within 12 minutes. And all that was before any songs had been released officially. And it’s something that seems to have taken them all aback.
“The project went from being an idea to a reality to something a lot bigger than what I originally imagined it to be,” Grohl concedes. “I sort of thought it would just be a studio project that we’d do kind of quickly. And then it turned into an eight-month-long recording process and an actual tour. Now it’s a whole other experience.”
“There have been loads of really good shows, all well-received and all sold out,” says Jones. “And nobody shouts out for a Zeppelin or Foo Fighters song. It’s amazing. They’re just happy to have what we give them.”
A Vultures show is evidently a mutual adventure. Grohl, when not grinning from ear to ear at Jones, is projecting hard into the audience. “We’re looking at their faces as we do it and their jaws are dropped,” he says, “and they’re smiling and their eyes are wide and it’s cool. Nobody had any idea what to expect, but they expect a lot. ‘It’s fucking John Paul Jones from Led Zeppelin! This better be good,’ you know. And so it’s nice to not only meet everyone’s expectations, but also to have them feel like they’re experiencing something that they’ve never experienced before.”
As for the future, all three men seem keen to keep Them Crooked Vultures circling. Do they all want to make another album?
“Definitely,” says Jones. “We’re going to be playing a lot this year, and I would guess we’d make an album later in the year perhaps. I’m really looking forward to having these people to play with. We all get on well, have fun on the road and it’s a happy ship. Even the management’s having fun, because they haven’t really done anything like this before. Normally it’s the whole press campaign and TV ads and so forth, but of course we’ve done it completely backwards. Everything’s run by the band; everything that happens, we have to figure it out the way we want it to happen.”
Grohl, who has already declared TCV to be “the best fucking band I’ve ever been in”, is equally optimistic: “You gotta take it one step at a time. But we all have other things going on. Josh has Queens Of The Stone Age, I have the Foo Fighters, John has a solo career and he’s always being asked to do things all the time. So who knows what’ll come next? But someone asked me: ‘Are you gonna keep doing this?’ And I said: ‘Who wouldn’t want to do this? I’m playing with my heroes!’”