‘Villians’ For A New Age

Queens of the Stone Age Tap Into Dance-Funk-Rock
L-R: Michael Shuman, Dean Fertita, Joshua Homme, Jon Theodore, Troy Van Leeuwen

Queens of the Stone Age is a band accustomed to change—whether it be a member shift or a new sound—for just about every album they’ve released. For their newest, Villains, the band turned to pop producer Mark Ronson, he of “Uptown Funk” fame. Aiding him in his mission is Mark Rankin, the engineer on Queen’s last release (...Like Clockwork), who made such an impact on the Villains’ sound that Ronson and the band named him as co-producer.

“I usually engineer Josh’s [Homme, lead singer for Queens of the Stone Age] stuff, so I came on as engineer for Villains,” says Rankin. “He told me his plan for the record, and I brought in a few pieces, including a kit that I thought would be good, which became central to the sound.”

According to Rankin, Homme’s plan was to create a “super vacuous and interesting sound— big picture, with lots of air.” To accomplish this, the team moved into Los Angeles’s United Recording. “We had been there before,” says Rankin, “on the Iggy Pop record that Josh produced. They have those amazing rooms, and it was great to be able to set everyone up in that space, with that nice family vibe. Plus those echo chambers! Great historic L.A. studio.”

At work in United Recording, L-R: Engineer Mark Rankin, Matt Zivitch (Joshua Homme’s guitar tech, behind Rankin), Josh Justin (Homme’s assistant), drum tech Sahir, Homme and Mark Ronson

Back to the kit Rankin brought in: We started in the B room with the drum canopy, where you can use it to close the drums right down,” says Rankin. “I brought in some C-ducer contact mics and strapped them oto the drums to get this unnatural distorted sound. We put one on the kick and one on the snare, which also picks up a bit of kick. That became the center of the drum sound.”

The C-ducers were not the only inflfluential pieces of key gear Rankin brought in: “I brought in some Overstayer equipment. We had this great stereo 19-inch rack unit called Mod Channel. It comes from the modular synth world, but it has preamps on it as well as distortion, super-resonant fifilters and compression. That became a main thing, as well. We did a lot of processing with it, and you can totally annihilate things.

One day I was playing with it when the piano was being tuned and Mark [Ronson] and I were in the control room. I started messing around with the fifilters as we were listening to the guy tune the piano, and he just sort of descended into hell when the fifilters started resonating. Mark said, Oh my god, what is that?’ and he commandeered it into the side room and started processing everything through the Mod Channel.” Despite being the new addition to the team, Ronson had no trouble fifitting in. “I’ve worked with Josh a lot, so I know what he wants, says Rankin. And bringing Ronson into that was great. He hasvasknowledge of music and great ideas. If an idea didn’t work, it was no big deal. It’s whatever works for the project. Mark would be involved in the initial stages and the arrangement, and then a lot of times I would be working with the band in the main room while he would work in a side room on other stuffff, and then bring it back into the main room where we would fit it in.

Adding Ronson, King of Funk (Uptown ootherwise), also helped toward the completion of Hommes other goal for the album: a rock record you could dance to. With its ’70s-style funk and ’80s-implied synths, Villains does just that. “I think we got there,” says Rankin. “But Ronson’s processing on the Mod Channel gives it a modern sound, as well.”

Mixed by Alan Moulder at Pink Duck studio (Burbank Calif.), Villains has a clear ’70s inflfluence; it is especially apparent in Hommes vocals, which in several cases seem downright Bowie-esque.The main chain for him was a nice old Neumann U87 I have, a JHS Pedals Colour Sound preamp, and the effffect compressor on the Overstayer,” Rankin explains. “That was the basic chain, although sometimes we used an Eventide H910 or H949 Harmonizer for that close, fake room sound. We also used the Fulltone Tube Tape Echo a fair bit for the tracks that have slap echo on them.”

That echo plays a big part of the sound on Villains, particularly on rollicking “Head Like a Haunted House, which also features a Martin Audio Ondes wooden keyboard controller.That was [Queens keyboardist] Dean Fertita on the Ondes, states Rankin. You put your finger in a ring and you run it up and down a cable. The echo on that tune, like most of the songs on the album, was from the Fulltone Tube Tape Echo.

As they always do, Queens of the Stone Age continue to evolve with each project, building upon the experiences of ...Like Clockwork and bringing them to Villains.

Villains was more processed in an analog world, says Rankin. “We learned from the last one and committed more to certain sounds. There were lots of layers on Clockwork—quite a dense record. This time we used minimal guitar leads and stuck to eight channels of drums. The contact mics were the center of them, and maybe a pair of rooms for character. We were going for character on this...and weird.”

So if you are looking for danceable rock with weird, interesting sounds and lots of air, then Villains is for you, as this remarkable team accomplished all of their goals and created another memorable album for the diverse Queens of the Stone Age oeuvre.

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