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Q&A with Queens of the Stone Age Troy Van Leeuwen

Q&A with Queens of the Stone Age Troy Van Leeuwen

Fender News recently caught up with Queens of the Stone Age guitarist Troy Van Leeuwen for a Q&A covering gear, the band’s next album and some of his early guitar memories …

Fender News: What inspired you to want to play the guitar as a teenager?

TVL: I just didn’t know what else to do. I always loved music and I remember my dad playing me Chuck Berry when I was I don’t even know how old and going “Wow, that’s really cool.” It was mainly Jimmy Page who really got me into playing guitar.  I’m not really that much into technique. I just dig how people have flair, and he has 37 pieces of flair on every record. He also produces the records, so you can hear every overdub he does. It’s like picking apart a guitar part and then panning it with different tones, so that really got me not only into playing guitar but recording music.

FN: What was the first song you ever learned to play?

TVL: I believe it was a Johnny Cash song on an acoustic guitar. It was something basic, what I call church chords. After that, the first rock song I really wanted to sit down and learn was “The Rover” by Led Zeppelin. I studied it, didn’t do my homework and I barely passed high school.

FN: Is it true that when you first joined Queens you had to learn 30 songs in a week?

TVL: It is actually. Luckily I was a fan of the Queens before I joined, so I had a pretty good idea of what it was just by listening to it. I was never able to read music. I can if I really strip away my A.D.D., but I can actually pick things up better by listening. So that’s how I did it. I just kind of did a cram – is that what you call it? When you cram for an exam? I love that word – cram.

Van Leeuwen checks out the NEW Johnny Marr Jaguar. Hear what he had to say about Marr and his signature model here.

FN: We take it you didn’t cram very much for school?

TVL: No, but I crammed for the Queens that’s for sure. That’s a quote.

FN: Queens is known for the way they texture and layer sounds. Care to share how you achieve some of that?

TVL: Well, I use anything and everything. On records, there’s nothing sacred. We’ll take a speaker and then break it specifically and mic it with the mic against the floor instead of on the speaker. There are really no rules. It’s funny because I just discovered this Fender Excelsior amp. It’s a typical amp that you would find in the Queens recording session – something that has got low watts and is kind of funky. Like an old Teisco amp or something that is made in Japan and that nobody wants anymore. So that’s why I liked playing through the Excelsior. It kind of reminds me of how we do things. Plus, it looks vintage, almost like a suitcase.

FN: We know you use a ton of gear but what are some of your main guitars these days?

TVL: Well, the first guitar I ever had was a Telecaster. Teles are a classic. I’ve had a reissue of the American Deluxe Tele — the Keith Richards guitar, that’s what I call it. I used that guitar a lot on the last Queens record, and live also. I love the way a Tele sounds, but also I like the location of the pickup switch. Because I have to play lap steel, it’s easy for me to flip the switch and go to lap steel and then go back to playing. It’s just really useful. On our last Queens record, we started getting into more wiry tones. We’ve been known as a heavy band, but it’s very not heavy in the way that we approach our music. The Tele really came in handy for that, and the Jaguar because it kind of separated all the heaviness. There was a cut to all of my parts. It really lent a different color to our band.

FN: You’ve also rocked a ’63 Jaguar for a few years now. How did you come across that one?

TVL: Yeah, it’s one of my favorite guitars. I got it about five years ago. A tech was selling it. It was a Candy Apple Red at one point, so it has the red headstock, but somebody did a terrible black paint job over the body. Over the years, the chips in it show like silver and red. It looks like it’s been around. It just sounds amazing. It’s got kind of a greenish vintage pickguard. It’s got pickups that sound just like the new Johnny Marr Jag, but it’s stock – totally stock.

I’ve got a few other Jags, and got into a Blacktop Jag more recently. In separating our tones in the Queens – Josh (Homme) has the classic Queens tone and I’m going in more of an ambient sort of direction. What the Blacktop Jag did for me, it really took the tuning for C really well so I could use it for some of that older stuff but still get some of the thickness, and still have a body that just sort of fits my frame a little more. After breaking my collarbone, I just didn’t really like playing my Les Paul. The Jag is lighter and it’s balanced, and that’s why I dig the shape. It just fits my body, and also has different tones. I have to have something with humbuckers and the Blacktop Jag seemed to work. We did a tour last year of our first record, which barely anybody heard, but it’s a very heavy dropped down to C tuning record and the Blacktop came in really handy because it could really get thick.

FN: You’ve recently added a Pawn Shop Mustang Special to your arsenal as well. What do you dig about that guitar?

TVL:  Like the Blacktop Jag, it’s a really light guitar and really helped me be able to play with a broken collarbone so we have a connection. I just like it because it’s kind of funky; kind of goes along with the philosophy of the Excelsior amp.  It’s funky and looks vintage but it’s new, so it works. I like things that work. Plus, it doesn’t have the single coils. It’s got humbuckers but you can split the coils so you can make it sound like any single coil guitar.  I used it on a couple of new Queens songs in the studio. It just does that thing.  I clean up my amp and it just has this great pluck to it. It sounds killer. I love it.

FN: So what is the latest with the Queens of the Stone Age? New album is apparently in the works?
TVL: Yes, we went out to the desert to get started on it before the holidays. We have this little place called Rancho de la Luna. We’ve actually turned a few people on to it. It’s basically just a house with some gear in it. It’s got a great vibe to it so we went out there for a few weeks and got things really rolling out there. It’s always a journey doing a Queens record because you never know how it’s going to be done. It’s always different.

FN:  How is this one most different to you thus far?

TVL: It’s shaping up differently because we have some new band members that are really key. My role in the band in the past has been multi-instrumentalist: guitar, lap steel, keys.  But we added a keyboard/guitar player [Dean Fertida] and so now we have three guitar players and can get any kind of keyboard playing. We are just kind of evolving.

Between me and Dean, our side of the stage is going to have a lot of gear. We both play guitar and both play keys.  He’s way more of a pianist than I am, so that will be interesting too.  We’re thinking somewhere between Lynyrd Skynyrd and James Brown.  All the guitar parts on James Brown records are so rhythmically set in stone and juxtapose each other. It’s like taking what one guitar player would do and splitting it up. It’s multi-layered.

And our new bass player [Michael Shuman] is also really gifted and really talented. So just adding those characters to the mix changes things. It’s more fun to track live like that.

FN: After kicking things off out in the desert, you guys took a break from recording for a bit. How has that affected the way this album is being put together?

TVL: Well, we wrote a bunch of stuff during the first sessions and then took a break, and now we’re back to the ghetto-blaster demo stage.

The last record we did, it was all from the studio.  That worked for that record. This time, we’re all microscopically looking at the parts and the arrangements of the songs so we can go in and perform them while the digital tape is rolling. 

Watch a video interview with Leeuwen here. 

We came back with a lot of new ideas. In many ways, that was good. We’re not really thinking, “This is the record.”  We’re thinking, “Here’s a collection of songs, and we’ll pick out what they are as we go.”

There’s no typical way, and we’re discovering what that means.  We’re trying to play our favorite music, and some of that is stuff you wouldn’t expect.  It’s not trying to be self-indulgent.  We want to keep our fan base, but also grow.

FN: What are your expectations for a release date?

TVL: We’re looking to hand in the record in November and have a release next year, hopefully first quarter.  And then, we’ll be on tour for about two years.  That’s just what we’re talking about, but we’re going to tour a lot. 

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