The worry was that Dave Grohl, John Paul Jones and Josh Homme might damage their legacies with Them crooked Vultures. The result, says NME is a band worth of being mentioned in the same breath as their past glories...
Meet In An Unusual Place
Them Crooked Vultures began, as these things often do, in drink. Dave Grohl was speaking to his pal John Paul Jones after presenting Led Zep with an award in London in September last year, and since he was "absolutely pissed," rattled on about his plans to work with his besht fuckin' mate Josh Homme, and asked Jones to come play in LA. Grohl and Homme both wanted a break from Foos and Queens respectively, had been looking for an excuse to work together again for ages, and now Grohl had an amazing one. "For 20 years people have asked me what my dream band line-up is. And now I can say, I'm in it!" he says. However, at the time Jones had a Led Zeppelin around his neck. "I wasn't quite sure what was happening with another band we were trying to start!" he laughs. "Once we heard that Robert didn't want to do anything, Page and I weren't going to reform Zeppelin, but just a new band. But nothing came of that, so I called Dave up and he invited me over for his birthday party at Medieval Times."
The US restaurant chain where you eat while watching knights duel on horses was a very Grohl-ish place to set up Homme and a member of that most Arthurian of bands on their "blind date".
Homme recalls, "Dave never mentioned John to me until December, and I didn't even believe him until January [at his birthday party]. What was good about Medieval Times was that there was no risk of pretension. It broke the ice. With a lance." Jones says they quickly arranged to play amid the clash of swords. "It was weird, the blind date, but I was aware of Josh's music, obviously, and I thought he was really interesting as a singer, a guitarist and songwriter. I couldn't imagine it not working."
When It Comes To Rehearsals, Man Up
Two days later, these three legendary musicians converged on Homme's Baby Duck Studios like the greatest gunfighters in the West ready to prove who was the fastest of them all. Grohl and Homme, arguably the greatest drummer and guitarist of their generation, eyeballed each other as they set up, but when Jones strolled through the doors like an old sheriff - the greatest bass player of all time, who was playing 'Kashmir' while they were still shitting in nappies - they trembled. This was not for the faint-hearted, this was muso-a-muso, Goliath Vs two only slightly smaller Goliaths, and the sheer weight of musical history hung between them in the air. Josh Homme is still having palpitations about what happened next. "It was white knuckles - oh right, HERE, and then HERE. It was like cramming for a test. To be honest, I was fucking nervous. It was just a blur. But the second jam it was like, this is on. It had a real forward motion to it, and I think we all understood we had to grab hold of it."
Grohl chuckles at the memory of the Titans Of Rock awkwardly seeing if they should get serious. "After three days John had to go back to England, and we put down our instruments, sat down and looked at each other and went, 'OK, should we be a band?' and everyone nodded. It was funny, none of us has started a new band for years!"
Don't Be Afraid Of Legends
When Jones returned they reconvened at Baby Duck with the understanding that they keep their activities completely secret (Homme: "Just to do a number on everyone and hope they dig it") and challenged themselves by writing and recording in the studio. While Jones was thrilled by this ("We had to discover each other musically during the actual recording process. It was different for me, but brilliant") and Grohl was oozing confidence ("I knew it was going to be the best thing I'd ever done"), the uncharacteristically humble Josh Homme that NME speaks to confesses he was worried. "I've spent my whole career avoiding situations like that. I've always had 15 pieces of songs, or actual songs waiting for a record, so you're freed from the pressure of writing. But in this situation I had one and a half tunes, and I hadn't played guitar in six months."
Grohl was surprised by how stressed Homme was. "Josh is usually the strong bravado leader type, but he was nervous. That made him make the best record he's ever done. But there were times where I could tell Josh was questioning himself. I don't think he often questions himself, y'know? (laughs) At one point I said to him, 'Man, let's just blast through this like a Desert Session. And he said, 'This is NOT a Desert Session record. I'm dead serious with this.' Josh had the realisation that the three of us together had to deliver something classic."
Homme reasons, "Once Dave asked for this to go down, it had to work - it'd be damning if we didn't deliver." But the promise of their reputations wasn't the only worry; since sessions revolved initially around jamming, their musical mettle was effectively tested, as Grohl so colourfully illustrates. NME: Was it also, Dave, that Josh felt pressure because he was playing with John Paul Jones and... Grohl: "Fuck yeah, who didn't?! NO SHIT! Jones is a musical giant and when you're in a room with someone like that... John Paul Jones is not forcing you to do the best you've ever done, he's not holding his name above your head to remind you he is A FUCKING GENIUS AND WAS IN THE GREATEST ROCK'N'ROLL BAND OF ALL TIME! You just have it implanted in your mind." NME: How did you cope with that? Grohl:'"Cos I entered into this knowing, OK, he's already played with the greatest rock drummer of all time. There's no way on earth that John will ever say, '(simpering) Dave, you're the best drummer I've ever played with.' There's just no way that could ever happen. So that takes a lot of the pressure off for me. That's my warped sense of justification." Homme says the two young 'uns covered up such concerns by being cheeky. "Dave's the type of guy to be like, 'Whatever, John Paul Jones of Led Zeppelin." So it was among the most ego-less albums I've ever been on." Jones himself says any awkwardness was soon dispelled. "We all laughed a lot. Josh soon put his rustiness behind him. When he saw we were blasting away he thought, 'I'm gonna be part of this', and he was. The two of them are up there with the best I've ever played with."
Take It Seriously
Once everyone had gotten comfortable with each other, they got down to it with serious focus. They understood they weren't going to just bash it out Dead Weather-style, there was serious intent to write something great. Working from noon until 3am every day, they got better and tighter, and took more risks.
"We all worked very hard and the atmosphere in the studio was electric because the music was obviously very exciting," says Jones. "We would impress each other as well, because you're showing what you can do. It's not really competitive, but everybody's trying to show their best side. And it comes out in the record. Nobody's sitting back and coasting, everybody's taking chances. It really makes for some fiery music."
As Grohl might say, 'NO SHIT!' Really, it's resulted in the most exciting rock album in a long, long time. On opening track 'No One Loves Me And Neither Do I', the buzz in the studio is palpable, as the three of them strut bluesy patterns around each other before uniting for a crunching, relentless, rhythmic climax. Hell yes it sounds like 'Songs For The Deaf meets 'Physical Graffiti', and the sheer amount of ideas crammed into every song - tempo changes, riff changes, instrument changes, clothes changes, sex changes - shows the band works spectacularly well, and they can barely believe it themselves.
Jones says, "I got to stretch out, and I'm playing better than I have done in years," while Grohl states, "I did things on this album that I've never done before, that I'm really proud of. I've just played disco AC/DC beats for my whole career, but this album I'm pulling some shit where my drummer friends are like, 'Wow! How the fuck did you do that?'"
Yet, despite his concerns, it's Homme's playing that first grabs your attention. For while the album touches esoteric places on say, the Tom Waits-goes-drone of'Interludes With Ludes', spectacular gee-tar action is never far away, because while it's hard to fully appreciate the polyrhythmic genius at work, we all know a muthachuff a of a riff when we hear one. When the experimentation and heavy rocking truly lock together as on 'Elephants' and 'Spinning In Daffodils', it's unlike anything you've ever smashed your face to before.
Homme says putting it all together was "like three people solving a giant Rubik's Cube". He's proud it's quite difficult in places and embraces Jones' arsenal of oddball instruments: "Jones is the Swiss army knife of rock'n'roll. Music has got really safe. That's not for me. Risk nothing, get nothing. So it's important for Jones to whip out his tools." He winces at the word 'supergroup', notes how pedigree didn't count, and insists their methodology wasn't self-indulgent. "It was the most difficult record I've ever made, knowing I wanted it to be as good as possible - it was the time to push it. But early on it was decided we should make songs. And I'm a sucker for hooks."
He's a walking contradiction is Josh Homme, and while all insist there was no leader, you feel he's the key to where this is coming from. Grohl says of 'Reptiles', "I only started understanding that song three weeks ago. I'm not kidding. Josh put together this beat and I was like, 'I don't even know what that is. It sounds completely random.' And he was like, 'Yeah, it's supposed to.' Things written to sound arbitrary and random - that's Josh's forte."
And of Homme himself, Grohl says, "I have no problem calling one of my best friends a total fucking genius. But he'll come to the studio with something that you think is the most ridiculous piece of shit you've ever heard in your life."
Homme laughs about deliberately doing that as a way to push Jones. "I was trying to think how I can take him to a new level, and then I finally realised I have to play the dumbest stuff ever. My granpappy always used to say, 'If you can't out smart 'em, out dumb 'em.' That's where 'Caligulove' came from. The riff in that song is amongst the stupidest I've ever done."
Jones hoots at the memory. "I wasn't going to be out-dumbed either. I can play a dumb riff as good as anybody! But we played it, and went, 'Well actually...' And I started doing an organ riff, using a sound I always hated in the '60s. And it worked out. It was something I'd never have done otherwise."
When You Play The First Shows, Kick Some Ass
With an album ready by August, the band played their secret Lollapalooza show, followed by surprise sets at Reading and Leeds, and delighted in blind-siding everyone. "The audience hadn't heard anything at that point," says Jones. "They went wild between each song and then they shut up, and had to concentrate. It was really funny."
Homme talks about surprise being important ("It's one of the great elements of music, being able to go BOOM, and it's gone in the last few years") and it continues to be a motivator. "Before the shows, I've felt like a puppy with rabies, frothing and jumping at the guys, because I don't know exactly what's going to happen." Jones similarly loves the onstage "stretching out", especially when he plays keytar and "jaws drop", but even better for him, "These are the first shows in years when nobody has shouted out for 'Stairway To Heaven'. The audiences expect to hear Them Crooked Vultures music. It really is nice." With a full tour coming up in December, Grohl's primary concern is survival. "I just want to make it through the set without having a stroke. It's not easy at 40 to play like you're 21. Unfortunately that's what my enthusiasm for this forces me to do. I go completely berserk. People make fun of me for it, but I can't help it."
As for the future, Homme and Grohl say they're having the time of their lives, but aren't sure there'll be more music. But, John Paul Jones, who the two youngsters were so worried about impressing, says, "Another album? Oh yeah. Yeah! Absolutely. I mean eventually their bands will want them back, but they're going to have to fight me first!" He then explains why he's enjoying it so much. "There's many parallels to Led Zeppelin with this. It's like Zeppelin plus the internet in the way it's spread through word of mouth. And it's like Zeppelin in the way it's bringing together some of the best players around, and not having to follow rules."
So there you go: according to John Paul Jones, this is your generation's very own Led Zeppelin. And you should listen to him, because he wrote shitting 'Black Dog'.
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