Back with a new album, Villains, Queens Of The Stone Age are about to restake their claim as Coolest Rock Band Ever. Bassist Mike Shuman talks tactics with Joel McIver
California’s Queens Of The Stone Age, now a recording and touring unit for 21 years and counting, are quite the rock phenomenon. Essentially the project of frontman Josh Homme, previously the guitar player in the seminal desert-rock band Kyuss, Queens have enjoyed a revolving-door line-up over the years. Current bassist Mike Shuman has been on board since 2007, and although few would disagree that the group’s best albums were recorded from 1998 to 2002 with last month’s BGM interviewee Nick Oliveri on bass, there’s no denying Shuman’s skills on the four-string. That’s four, never five, as we found out when we caught up with him on the eve of release of QOTSA’s new album, Villains.
Looking forward to going back on the road?
I haven’t played shows in almost two years, so I’ve been getting back in the saddle. We finished our last cycle and I put out a record from my other band called Mini Mansion. We toured for about a year and I’ve just been home, scoring some stuff. I also joined Sparks briefly, which was great.
Villains has got some amazing bass parts. How do you write them?
It varies from song to song, but most of the bass-lines on Villains were written after the foundations of the song were built. For a good amount of the songs, Josh would bring a demo into the studio, and we’d all be in a room together and expand upon it. ‘The Way You Used To Do’ was the first song that we knew we were going to do for the record: Josh had a demo of it over two years ago. It had some clapping and three guitars, but no bass, so that was the only song where the bass needed to be created on top of it. That was an interesting one. We got together and tried to be creative and melodic without trampling all over it.
How do you achieve your tone?
Again, we tried to go song by song and see what it needed. We like to take our time and experiment in the studio, and find out what’s right for the song. I figure out how to get out of the way of the guitar frequencies, and work out what complements those frequencies. I used two rigs. A lot of the time I used a Guild Maverick, which is an old 60s combo with a single 15” speaker. It’s been a Queens’ secret for a long time! We wanted to keep on keeping it secret, actually, but when Josh toured with Iggy Pop last year, they took out that amp, so there it was. I’m using two of them live now. I also had a Fender Super Bassman head, a new one, and an old 300-watt Orange head that belongs to Troy [Van Leeuwen, guitarist] that they don’t make anymore. I forget the model number, but it’s from the early 70s and it is a fuckin’ beast! It’s got insanely great open, clean sounds, and mixing that with the Maverick – which is all character-driven – gave it enormous depth. That blend was mostly what we did.
What basses do you play?
Guitars were all over the place. I tried a bunch of different stuff. On the song ‘Fortress’ I used an old Fender Coronado, which I’m a big fan of because they have these woody characteristics. I’m trying to get Fender to do a real one, they keep coming out with these reissues… And there’s a lot of Jazz bass, honestly. I never was a Jazz bass fan until the last cycle, and it kinda does everything for me. Even more than a P-Bass. It covers everything I need, and it’s always pretty even. Fender made me a couple of Jazz basses, the American series with the 60s neck that are really great. And on this one song, ‘Hideaway’, I never thought I’d play a fretless bass in my life, but we went for it because it was the right thing to do. I thought it would be a bit like Duran Duran or something – John Taylor is a terrific bass player – so I went for that. We had 12 basses in the studio, and I’d go back and forth until I found the right thing. I was super fortunate.
Which of them will you take out on tour?
Well, I can’t leave that Jazz bass alone. I’ll take a lot of Fenders. Like I said, I have the two Jazz basses, and a 60s-style sparkle gold one that I’m in love with right now.
Then there’s my Coronado and my 70s Gibson Ripper, which I’ll never leave. I also just started playing a Gretsch Billy Bo bass. The White Falcon was too big for me, so I wanted to try the Billy Bo, which I believe Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top helped to design. It’s a really funky-looking red short-scale bass, and I’m playing a few songs on that and really loving it.
How did you get into bass?
I was a guitar player growing up, and playing in punk bands. When I wrote songs, I would write bass parts, and when I was 15 or 16 I started a band called Wires On Fire. I switched to bass because the other guy in the band was a guitar player, and it was the best decision I ever made. I know it sounds like a cliché, but I was young and hungry and I said to myself that I was going to make a point of being original and unique, in a world where it’s hard to do that. I was going to do my best to be the best bassist I could be, and try to blend the musical styles that I grew up with and come up with something new. I still really try hard to do that.
Which bassists did you admire?
I was a big Paul McCartney and John Paul Jones fan, as well as guys like Joe Lally from Fugazi and David Sims from the Jesus Lizard. In high school I had a James Jamerson book, and I don’t read music great, but I would try my best to learn as many songs as I could of his. To be so busy and to have so many melodic and intricate lines, yet you don’t notice them, and they never get in the way, was amazing to me. That was a breakthrough realisation for me: I was like, wow – I can rip balls but not be obnoxious about it. That was a big thing for me.
What was your first bass?
My first bass was my friend’s Fender Squier that I played in rehearsals, but the first basses I actually bought for the band were a Music Man and a Fender Aerodyne, which was a mix of a Jazz and a Precision. I learned pretty quickly, because we were writing in a post-hardcore band so I could be weird and fucked up. We played all day, every day, and made our first record when we were 17.
Are you a five-string player?
No, I don’t think I could ever do it. I don’t think I even understand it. I’m not knocking people who use them, but I don’t understand the reason for it. Honestly, in the music that I play, it’s not the right tool.
Can you slap?
I can, because I learned to do it as a joke. I can actually do it pretty well, but I would never do it in a real situation. At the same time, that’s why I love this record, because we found a spot where it was so weird to pick up a fretless bass that it made sense. You’ve got to push boundaries, and you also have to push your own boundaries.
We’ve got two years of touring, and we’re excited. On this new record, I really got to open up and do my thing the way I wanted. Some of Queens’ songs are really structured and need to be done a certain way, and then there’s lots of pure freedom where you can do whatever you want.
Villains is out on August 25. Info: www.qotsa.com.