So, Dean Fertita, how would you characterize the role that you played in the making of the latest Queens of the Stone Age record?
“That’s a difficult question for me to answer,” the keyboardist/guitarist/dude-of-a-dozen-instruments says from a tour stop in Jacksonville, Fla.
Fertita’s response seems vague on the surface, but it’s actually very telling about what makes the Queens of the Stone Age the Queens of the Stone Age.
The best thing about the band — and perhaps the most challenging aspect of being a part of it — is how open-ended everything is.
Pretty much every member of the group is proficient on everyone else’s instrument — the singer-guitarist can play drums, the bassist can play keyboards, the keyboardist can play guitar, and around and around they go.
“There isn’t a clearly defined role for anybody — it’s all about whoever has the best idea or the right idea at the time,” Fertita says.
And so there’s a seemingly infinite number of entry points for this bunch to approach a song.
About those songs: They’re as dimensionless as the manner in which they’re constructed.
QOTSA are a hard rock band at their core, but they toy with what it means to be a hard rock band, right down to their name itself, a goof on the macho posturing inherent in their genre.
Their tunes can come hard with the requisite guitar thrust — with its impenetrable, hypnotic riffs, the band’s self-titled first record is still among the be-all, end-all records of the clumsily named stoner-rock ranks — but their albums seduce and confound, frustrate and titillate as much as overwhelm with raw power.
Because the goal posts are so wide on the QOTSA sound, though, the process of making a new Queens record can be an exercise in the patience it takes to explore the dozens of different avenues the band could be traveling down at any given moment.
This was especially true during the creation of the band’s latest album, “... Like Clockwork,” the best-reviewed rock album of 2013, a diffuse, emotionally turbulent listen that was just as turbulent to make.
“It wasn’t the easiest record that I’ve ever made in my life,” Fertita says with palpable understatement. “A lot of times when things aren’t coming together quickly or easily, it’s usually a sign that there’s something wrong. But there was something different about this in the sense that, even though we were kind of struggling at times with finding what it was that we were doing, we knew that there was something good in there. We kind of knew that the pay off would be there in the end.”
In the end, though, they still didn’t really know what they had.
“We walked out of the studio on March 9th of last year; it was the last day that we had in the studio — we had a tour booked — we were there until 7 or 8 in the morning, finishing up the last things that we could do,” Fertita recalls. “We were like, ‘OK, guess we’re done.’ We were even still doing sequencing on the plane going to play the first show.”
Perhaps the biggest reason the album was a struggle for the band members to really get their heads around was frontman Josh Homme undergoing a serious health scare after complications from a routine knee surgery threatened his life and left him bedridden for four months.
“As Josh was going through whatever he was going through, I felt like the most important thing that I could have been throughout this whole thing was be a friend to the guy,” Fertita says. “It’s really hard for me to get my head around the playing side of it. I feel like I did bring stuff to that too, but for me, it was way more about who we’ve become, how we’ve become friends and how the band has developed on that side of things.”
The music side of things developed as well, though, and the album is heavy with Homme confronting his mortality.
“I survived,” he sings on “Vampyre of Time and Memory.” “I speak, I breathe / I’m incomplete / I’m alive — hooray!”
“If life is but a dream, wake me!” he barks on “Keep Your Eyes Peeled.”
It adds a layer of emotional depth and candor that hasn’t been felt before on a QOTSA record — at least not like this.
It’s all enabled the band to resonate with a broader audience than ever before, save its breakout 2002 disc “Songs for the Deaf.” “... Like Clockwork” is the band’s first No. 1 album and earned the band a Grammy nomination. QOTSA played on the Grammy broadcast, jamming with Nine Inch Nails and Lindsey Buckingham, though the performance was cut short at the end of the show as the credits rolled.
Fertita sounds like he’s over it.
“Our initial reaction was to be a little disappointed,” he says of the band’s Grammy experience. “It’s one of those things where the further away I get from it the more appreciation I have for it. We felt like we were infiltrating this thing, ‘What are we doing here?’ ”
Unlike the question posed to him at the beginning of the interview, that one’s easy to answer.
Contact reporter Jason Bracelin at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-0476. Follow him on Twitter @JasonBracelin.