“A lot of what I’ve been doing over the last eight to 10 years has been using single-coil pickup guitars: Jazzmasters and Teles,” says Van Leeuwen. “For me, those guitars are always able to cut.” Photo by Debi Del Grande

Troy Van Leeuwen: When the Going Gets Weird, the Weird Turn Pro

Troy Van Leeuwen is known for his high-profile role as the suited-and-booted lead guitarist of world-shaking, desert-rockers Queens of the Stone Age. His resume is rife with projects that live in the rock realm, yet are defined by unconventional guitar work. From bands like Sweethead, Failure, and A Perfect Circle to supergroup Gone Is Gone to backing up Iggy Pop on the Post Pop Depression album and tour with fellow Queens members Josh Homme and Dean Fertita, Van Leeuwen’s playing always gives songs the extra dimension they might otherwise be missing. Truly an unsung hero of supportive guitar playing, Van Leeuwen proved to be perfect to infuse Hiss Spun with the angular leads and heavy texture that are his calling card. We asked Van Leeuwen about his work on Hiss Spun.

When Wolfe approached you to play on the record, were you given much in the way of instruction or direction?
Ben Chisholm and I were trading songs. I gave him a Sweethead song to work on and he did some programming and added some synth parts, and I put that one on the last record. Then Ben sent me a couple of instrumentals to work with—not necessarily intended for Chelsea’s record at the time, as far as I know—and I recorded some ideas for those at home and he liked what I did, so he sent a couple more! So it was really a very casual thing.

By the time you hit the ground at GodCity, things were sketched out?
I had a very basic idea. Some of the things I recorded at home actually wound up sticking, but when I got to GodCity to track the rest of the stuff, I listened and didn’t really decide on parts and ideas until I felt it, because I like to feel stuff as it comes. So I did three songs there, and I just jumped in the fire and went after it. Ben and Chelsea were both there and it was very collaborative. There was a little bit of experimentation while tracking, but we came up with things we all liked.

You’ve done a lot of work as a texture-oriented lead player, and this record definitely highlights your strengths in that style. Can you outline your core approach?
A lot of what I’ve been doing over the last eight to 10 years has been using single-coil pickup guitars: Jazzmasters and Teles. For me, those guitars are always able to cut, so that’s usually the first thing I grab and they usually do the job.

“Obviously heavy guitars have to chunk and have some weight, but cutting the low end really makes things sit better and mix better.”

Along with this album, a lot of what I’ve done on Queens’ music and the Gone Is Gone record involves heavy reverb, and I’m getting into that way more these days. Usually I have some kind of signal chain that has enough bite and sustain to work, but not too much distortion. And I love feedback! On Chelsea’s record, I was in the room with the amps a lot, so there’s a lot of natural feedback that I think worked well with her music.

Did you bring any of your own gear for the sessions?
Kurt had everything I needed, really. Any guitar I needed—and he has that great amp selection... tons of pedals. I did bring the prototypes for my Dr. No signature pedals, and I brought an Eventide H9, which is one of those “don’t leave home without it” pieces. I also brought an Electro-Harmonix Superego, which I used on “16 Psyche” and “Vex.” But for the most part, everything Kurt had there was well within my comfort zone and stuff that I’d used before over the years. I used Kurt’s Jazzmaster, a 1965 with blocks and binding—which is what my signature Fender is based on—so I felt very at home.

Can you tell me about your signature pedals?
Yeah! One is called the Raven, and that’s a filter and boost—like a really extreme kind of wah pedal without the rocker pedal. You set it at a certain frequency and roll with it like that, and that’s tied to a clean volume boost. That pedal also has a 3-way switch in the middle that you can adjust within the frequency range with your foot—sort of my ideal cocked wah thing with a boost section. The other one is an Octavia-style fuzz—very old school. It’s basically a hardwired Foxx Tone Machine, and it’s one of those fuzz pedals that when you step on it, it’s gigantic. That one’s on “Spun” a lot.

You’ve always demonstrated a really strong ability to find something unique to say with the guitar within heavily layered music. Any advice for players looking to pull that trick off?
It really took me a while to figure this out, but—especially when it comes to heavy music—I like to cut the low end when I’m doing anything over-the-top. Obviously heavy guitars have to chunk and have some weight, but cutting the low end really makes things sit better and mix better. That comes from years of learning how to mix and learning how to track. I used to make the mistake that more low end is what you need to make things heavy, but layering is all about finding frequencies that work and sit right.

What was it like to work with Kurt Ballou?
I’m always up for working with different people from different musical worlds. Each time I collaborate or work with anyone, it’s an opportunity to learn something. For me, hearing his records and learning how he works was really great. It was a cool exchange. His opinions are really brave. Any time I can work outside of what I typically do, it’s a big bonus. Any time Kurt suggested something, he was typically right!