A Queens of the Stone Age 6-stringer grabs his signature Jazzmaster and his “expensive pedalboard,” and joins forces with Mastodon’s Troy Sanders, At the Drive-In drummer Tony Hajjar, and sound designer Mike Zarin to create a stunning sonic landscape with Gone Is Gone.
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.
“Everyone’s got music that they bring to the table,” says Van Leeuwen. “And that’s great, because if somebody hits a roadblock with something, you can jump in and help make that thing work.”
“Starlight” has such beautifully rendered atmospherics—soaring and psychedelic. Were you laying those sounds down live, or did you and Mike manipulate the effects post-performance?
The guitars, especially, on that are live. It’s really effected stuff, guitar-wise, and I know Mike is playing a fifth part on top of that, but, yeah, those sounds came out of what we were jamming. I have a pretty expensive pedalboard that I try to keep around, and I’m always changing stuff on it. That one was definitely an intentionally effected sound.
If you can remember, what are we hearing effects-wise there?
There’s definitely some compression on the verses and a little bit of delay. I think I was using a [Eventide] ModFactor, which is not a reverb or a delay, but it sounds like both. It’s a great effect. It sounds cool and huge.
“This Chapter” has a huge wall of ferocious distortion that sits inside a cavernous soundscape. How do you guys achieve that balance, where the two sounds are just perfect together?
In the chorus, where you really hear that, I let the bass do most of the distortion, and then, with the Jazzmaster, I’m actually plucking single notes behind the bridge. It’s a lot of the same under-layer/echo/reverb thing. You’re letting the bass carry everything, and then the guitar is mixed on top of that. It’s got that big reverby sound, so, in the mix, it’s perfect.
You guys have done some shows. Any plan for a proper tour?
I know we want to, and scheduling is definitely our biggest consideration. We’re trying to sort that out. That’s one of the challenges with this band: We wanted to take it out of that realm where you put out a record, go on tour, and play a bunch of festivals, and then, after a year, you do it again. We’re looking for other routes, other ways to make it special, because I don’t think we’ll ever be able to actually do tours. We do want to do one-offs, but we want to make them special.
If it’s something you can pinpoint, what do you take from a side project such as this that you can bring back to Queens of the Stone Age?
I think the goal is simply to learn something and to share with your friends. I love playing with different people, because you always get something different. Josh, Dean, and I just went on the road with Iggy Pop, and we learned so much by playing with him and doing something that’s a little different from what we normally do. I don’t like playing by myself. I always enjoy working with someone, working with someone new, learning something new, and then showing your friends what you learned.
You had a period where you were doing studio sessions. Did you ever entertain making a career of it?
No, because I like both aspects of what I do musically. I really enjoy playing live, and I like bringing that into the studio. They both feed each other for me. John Paul Jones and Jimmy Page used to be session guys, but that was back in the day when you could actually make a living being a session player. It’s hard making a living from recorded music nowadays. You’ve got to play live.
Troy Van Leeuwen says don’t call them a supergroup, but Gone Is Gone sound pretty super on their first performance at L.A.’s the Dragonfly last year, powering through the riff-driven “Violescent.” The live version is less textural and more raw than the album take, but, just before the three-minute mark, Van Leeuwen displays his signature “hummingbird” trilling on his Fender Jazzmaster.
Check out our Rig Rundown with Troy who covers all the gear he takes on the road to cover QOTSA tones and colors.