Van Leeuwen, at left, hefts one of his Jazzmasters while he and his bandmates play along on a soundstage to “Starlight,” in this still from the song’s official video. “In Gone Is Gone,” he says, “I’m more of a lead player.” Photo by Lindsey Byrnes
Troy Van Leeuwen has the kind of resume that most guitarists envy. Along with his steady day gig as part of the Queens of the Stone Age axe trio (which also includes main man Josh Homme and Dean Fertita), he’s logged time in A Perfect Circle and Failure, and has participated in a fleet of crafty side projects and spin-off bands, such as the Eagles of Death Metal, the Desert Sessions, Mondo Generator, and Sweethead. Just to name a few.
Fitting in another side band wasn’t exactly on Van Leeuwen’s to-do list, but when he got a call from film composer Mike Zarin to lay down guitar parts for some music he was working on with At the Drive-In drummer Tony Hajjar, the offer seemed too good to resist. “It didn’t start out as a band, per se,” Van Leeuwen explains. “They were doing some video game music, and they wanted a band vibe for a trailer. They asked me if I could come in and play guitar, so I said, ‘Sure. Let’s try some things.’”
The trio kept at it, with one song leading to another. The music was bold, experimental, and cinematic in scope. Eventually they realized that vocals were needed, and in discussing who could lend the appropriate full-throated roar to their tracks, one candidate rose to the top of the list: Mastodon bassist-singer Troy Sanders. “It was a little funny how we all somehow magically ended up talking about Troy—the other Troy,” Van Leeuwen says with a laugh. “I’ve played lots of shows and festivals with Mastodon, and Troy and I always got along. So when the idea of him came up, I said, ‘I know him. Let’s call him up.’ It was that easy.”
The quartet dubbed themselves Gone Is Gone and tracked an album’s worth of material, boiling the songs down to eight tracks that they’ve just released as an EP. While Sanders’ unique bellow does give the music a distinctive Mastodonian edge, none of the numbers veer into that band’s brand of prog-metal, nor do they sound anything like Queens of the Stone Age.
Instead, Gone Is Gone is more metaphysical art rock, with Van Leeuwen laying down layers of epic, doomsday guitar to the band’s lead single, “Violescent.” Deep in the unnerving tone poem, he releases effects-laden sheets of guitar soundscapes, and on the surging “One Dividend” he goes full-on nü-metal-guitar-star, spraying machine gun-like leads that pierce through the song’s raging rhythms to brilliant effect.
Van Leeuwen sat down with Premier Guitar to discuss how Gone Is Gone operates, what new guitar muscles he’s stretching in the band, and why he thinks the outfit shouldn’t be described as a “supergroup.”
It’s pretty tempting to call Gone Is Gone a supergroup, but you’re not fond of that label, right?
I’m not [laughs]. I mean, yeah, I understand it, but I’d rather not use that term. It’s just a little bit too easy in my view. It doesn’t really describe how the project came to be. I would call it a “collaboration.” How’s that? And it’s a real collaboration, where everyone’s all in, and it’s an experiment to go outside of what we do in our other bands.
The way it came together, was it kind of a big mutual admiration society?
There was definitely that already going on, sure. When you’re on the road for 15 years, you run across people you like and admire. You see each other in places like Australia or Copenhagen. That’s where it all started, but basically what got the ball rolling was Tony calling me in 2011.
So you, Tony, and Mike had been recording music. When Troy Sanders came in, did he work on anything that the three of you had done, or did the four of you start anew?
It was a little of both. He worked on some stuff we’d already started and we also ended up writing stuff together.
With Queens of the Stone Age, A Perfect Circle, Failure, the Eagles of Death Metal, the Desert Sessions, Mondo Generator, and Sweethead already on his schedule, Troy Van Leeuwen wasn’t looking for another band. But thanks to guitarist/sound designer Mike Zarin, Gone Is Gone found him. Photo by Lwells555
Is there a normal process to how you work together? Do you actually jam like a real band?
That’s the one thing we do in our process: We get in a room and play, and something comes out of it. Mike has music, I have music, Troy has music—everyone’s got music they bring to the table. And that’s great, because if somebody hits a roadblock with something, you can jump in and help make that thing work. That’s where the collaboration really comes into play.
Did you have discussions among yourselves to set ground rules? “We’re not going to sound like Queens. We won’t sound like Mastodon.”
Not really. “Whatever works” is usually the rule. There are things that we do in our bands, and then there are things that we do outside of our bands, but for this, we just go for whatever works. The thing that really gets amplified is the chemistry between the individuals. That’s what makes it unique and not just a supergroup that sounds like all of our bands combined.
What was it like working with Mike Zarin as a guitarist? What stuff would he be more apt to play than you?
He has the unique addition of also being a sound designer. Sometimes we’ll take guitars and we’ll process and sample them, and then we’ll manipulate them and put them on a keyboard. There’s a lot of that going on, where we’re creating sounds—whether it be out of a guitar or a door slamming. That’s where he comes in as a guitar player, supporting what I’m already doing.
Were you able to stretch out on guitar in ways you can’t in Queens?
Of course, in Queens we have three guitar players, and everyone plays off each other. There’s a lot of listening and playing along and then juxtaposition. Here, I’m more a lead guitar player. I’m playing 90 percent of the guitars. Sometimes it’s very fumbly, sometimes it’s noisy—it’s very noisy [laughs]. With my Jazzmaster, I’ve really learned how to play the totality of the guitar—not just between the pickups. There’s a lot of stuff I do with the whammy bar.
You do some extremely fast picking in the solo on “Violescent.” Would we call that “trilling?”
I would say trilling, yeah. I first experimented with that on a song called “Run, Pig, Run” with Queens, and the guy we were working with, Chris Goss, called it the “hummingbird.” Traditionally, it’s called trilling. It’s almost become a crutch for me. It’s literally like playing a video game. You’re trying to fire as fast as you can. It’s definitely on a few songs. It’s a trick, and I like tricks.