Compiling the brilliantly-titled ‘N.O. Hit At All’ series, Nick Oliveri has been taking stock of a career in desert rock. Co-founder of Kyuss, member of Dwarves, and leader of Mondo Generator, he’s best known as sidekick to Josh Homme in kings of the genre Queens Of The Stone Age. Readying volume five in the series which sees the bassist / vocalist collaborate with some of the above and more, we caught up with the California native to talk roofing, recording, and his days with QOTSA. Regular John: Eamon O’Neill.
How are you today, Nick?
I’m good, man, good. I live in Joshua Tree, California, and it’s really hot here, and when the sun came up I was up on my roof, painting. It’s reflective kind of paint to keep the heat from baking you. I was up at 4.30am doing that.
Well you’ve, got to stay cool, right?
Well, I was drinking beer, so that’s the best I could do.
You’ve recently released volume four in the ‘N.O. Hits At All’ series; can you believe you’ve made it that far?
Well, volume five’s coming out in October, and it’s going to be the last one for a little while. It’s just stuff that I sang on as a guest on other people’s recordings and stuff like that, having fun in there. I thought it would be a good idea to compile it all, and have it all available. There’s a vibe in there, so it’s still kind of deserty, at times for sure. I relocated from L.A. back over to the desert. I never thought that I would come back here again; it’s dirty; dirty and hot!
Is it nice to have everything housed together in one collection like that?
Yeah. It seemed like it came together pretty good. I wanted to do a 7” collection over twenty volumes or whatever, but it made more sense to do EPs. It’s come together pretty good; some stuff new and some stuff old. I was just having some fun with it.
Compiling these compilations, has it been nice to look back over your career?
Sure, sure, absolutely. These are all bands that asked me to sing on a track, and I said; “Yeah!” It wasn’t like; “Hey, we’re going to pay you to come and sing”, it was like, a friend would call up saying; “Do you want to do it?” So I would sing on a track, and it’s basically just compiling all the tracks over the years. Some of them are really good productions, and some of them are like, in the garage in the punk rock setting. So production-wise, it moves around a bit. But it’s all fun, and it’s all good, and I remember it being a good time recording the tracks, so it’s been fun compiling them too, I guess.
Are there any of those sessions in particular that jump out at you?
Yeah, sure, I mean, I think the Kyuss Lives song [‘Kyuss Dies!’, from Vol. 3] is kind of fun. That was a fun song, you know? That was a tune that I wrote and I did the vocals after. It was kind of after the fact that Kyuss was gone.
One of your more infamous vocal performances is on the Queens Of The Stone Age song ‘Millionnaire’.
That was a strong one. That was a good time. We had a good time making those Queens records, you know. That was a real interesting time in my life, and it actually reflects on the recordings and on the music; the different vibes that some of the songs take you through, and feelings and whatnot. I really had a good time myself. That was a fun song.
How do you psyche yourself up to record such an abrasive vocal like that?
That song, actually is the one song I’ve ever recorded, in my life – and this is a true story – where I wasn’t drinking! [*Laughing*] I stopped drinking for three days. I was three days sober. I don’t know why, I’d never tried to stop drinking before, I just was like; “I’m not going to drink for a couple of days”, and I did, and I guess it sounds like that to me, like I needed to calm down – “Calm down, have a beer, man, you seem a little tense!” [*Laughing*] And I think it came out good because of that; I was a little bit on edge, and something just clicked with me, inside of me. I really attacked that song, I really attacked the part, and it came across really good because of that. It’s the only song I’ve ever approached that way.
Queens Of The Stone Age made a huge leap in popularity between the release of the band’s self-titled first album , and 'Rated R' ; did you anticipate that that would happen?
We kind of knew there was a buzz going on. We did a lot of touring on the first record, and we did maybe fourteen months in the States and in Europe - mostly on the States. We went to record ‘Rated R’, and we went up to Twentynine Palms up here in the desert, me and Josh, and we got guitars in there and supplies - what we needed for our head or whatever - and we had all our stuff right there; our little guitar amps, and our guitars and basses, and we sat there and we wrote that record. We finished that record in there, ‘Better Living Through Chemistry’, songs like that, at four in the morning just jamming, and just like playing; “Woah, that’s killer, man, let’s jam another while!” We really had a good time making that record, and I don’t know if we saw like a leap; we thought there was a leap in the song writing, like we were touching on some cool stuff, and going like; “Man, this is really opening up and turning into something really cool”. Not that it wasn’t already, but like, turning into something in a positive way.
So musically, things were taking a natural progression?
The first record I really dig, it’s like we didn’t want to just come out - and a lot of bands do that – the first record’s great, and then the next record; “Oh man, they’re really losing it”, so I think it went up. On each record we really tried to do that, and equally, like keep everybody’s ideas, try everybody’s stuff, and really put everybody’s flavour and taste and person on the record. And you can hear that.
And that progression continued onto the next album ‘Songs For The Deaf’ .
I was out of it after ‘Songs For The Deaf’, and for me, it’s the peak of our work, that last record. It wasn’t like the tour for the first record just peaked out and it all went downhill from there; everything kept going in a forward motion. It was a really good time for is, because I think everything we were trying to do, we were all working hard for things we wanted to happen. We did what we wanted to and we all had the same point of view on things, we all had the same path we were trying to go with it, so we all moved forwards towards that, and I think that was important. There was lot of inspiration and fun and every emotion you can think of involved in a band, and we saw everything through. It was a good time. I had a great time in my thirties, man, I’m just going to say. I had a good time playing in the band, and I think rock and roll’s supposed be a good time.
You’ve said that the best time you had was when you were working with Dave Grohl on ‘Songs For The Deaf’; what was it like making that album with him, Josh and Mark Lanegan?
Man, you have no idea. Everything it sounds like it would be like, it really was. It was like, wow, Mark Lanegan’s in here, Dave Grohl’s playing drums, and he’s just killing, taking these songs to a new level. It was like; these songs were good, now they’re great. Dave really came in and made songs that I thought were really good, absolutely phenomenal. Oh my god, it was just killing, like; “You’re so good on drums, man!”. It was ridiculous, it really was. It was like, this guy’s a machine, you know? And it really uplifted me as a bass player, because when you play with somebody who’s that good on drums, you’re going to start doing some cool fills along with his drum fills; it’s going to open up my playing more, it’s going to make me a better player, and that’s what it did at the time. It uplifted not only our spirit, but as players, including Josh and everybody involved; his playing on it really made everybody come forward. So Dave was a champion of all things. He helped us in so many ways we could never repay the guy. He’s a really cool friend, and a phenomenal musician.
And Josh too as a co-producer on the record as well, with each record his production has gotten better and better, and that was one of the things, man, it really uplifted everybody’s skills, spirits, and wanting to do more and learn more about what we were doing.
What are your personal favourite tracks from your time with Queens Of The Stone Age?
Well, some of those songs are great if you play guitar, because Josh is a great guitar player. His solo stuff, he doesn’t always pull it out in every song, but when he does, when we’re playing live and we jam some, that guy can play his ass off. He’s got that going for him for sure, in his live set up, but there’s a lot of songs that I really, really dig that I would do, and I would prefer our co-written songs. I really love stuff like ‘Better Living Through Chemistry’, and ‘I Think I Lost My Headache’, the kind of songs like that. I also like some of the shorter stuff too, I mean ‘Monster In The Parasol, I love that; great song, it’s fun to play, it’s got a weird EBow kind of feel to it. It’s really, really an interesting song, with some of the background parts and the singing parts. There’s a lot of different parts that are in these songs that I don’t even know if people know they’re in there, or have really picked out.
But I think some of my favourites of all time to play from that band, are ‘Feel Good Hit Of The Summer’, stuff like that. People had a good time with that stuff. ‘Song For The Dead’ when Mark would come out on stage, Troy [Van Leeuwen , guitar], Mark, me and Josh and Joey [Castillo, drums], it was like, we were swinging, you know, and tooting hard, and it was rad.
Have you got any archived material that wasn’t used from any of the album sessions?
I’d take CDs home every night from the studio. I’d never go against the the band and release any of the stuff, but I have CDs of stuff that have weird piano parts on the songs, that never got mixed and we didn’t use it, and I’ve got crazy lyrics, and songs with Josh singing different lyrics over, and the songs that didn’t make it to the record, and just weird stuff like that. I kept all that stuff.
What was it like returning to record backing vocals for 2013’s ‘…Like Clockwork’.
It was the first time I’d went in the studio with Josh and it wasn’t a collaboration. That’s the way that it would have been in the past, so I’m thinking that when I get there, and the producer was like: “I need you to sing the background part that I have – why don’t you try to do it like Mark Lanegan?”, and I was like; “What?!”, and then I had to do like six layers of that, different octaves of it and stuff – “Whatever you want man, cool”. But I’d never been ‘produced’ by him, it was normally like; “Here’s the mic dude, go for it, try something there”, and it would capture who I am on the recording. So, it was good and bad. I was honoured to be on the records, and I just thought it would have been cooler to… I would never ask Josh to come in and play on something of mine and tell him what to play, I’d be like; “Do your thing, dude”, so people can say; “Okay, that’s Josh! That solo is definitely Josh!” So, it was kind of difficult for me, but I think it was also cool at the same time. I always have a great time hanging out with Josh, and on a personal level, we just pick up where we left off.
Back to the present day, and what’s coming up for you?
I’m working on a new Mondo Generator record with Mike Pygmie, and I’m really, really happy with it. It’s been a long time since I’ve done a Mondo record, so I’m really, really excited about it, and I can’t wait to record it. Each song is, I think, something special, and I haven’t felt this excited for other people to hear it, so I just know that’s something that’s just going to be rad. We’re shooting to record after September, so it’ll come out next year.
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Nick Oliveri’s ‘N.O. Hits At All Vol.5’ is released on 12th October 2018, via Heavy Psych Sounds Records. For a list of current tour dates, see poster below.