Out of all the frequent collaborators one constantly hears associated with Queens of the Stone Age, Alain Johannes is one whose name continues to pop up ever more frequently, with increasingly good music. Johannes, who co-founded the band Eleven with his late wife Natasha Shneider, later went on to join QOTSA as a member, participating in most of their records, and producing several albums for other acts – including the most recent offerings by Brody Dalle and Mark Lanegan. Back in 2010, he released his first solo effort, Spark; now, his second LP Fragments & Wholes Vol. 1 is finally ready to come out, and it’s quite a stunner.
We caught up with Alain in Brazil, before his gig with QOTSA, to discuss his solo work, his project with members of Soundgarden, producing Mark Lanegan, the future of Them Crooked Vultures, and more:
First off, Fragments & Wholes Vol. 1 obviously has more instruments on it than Spark. Who’s playing on the record?
Oh, I play every instrument. I recorded it in April. Twelve days for twelve songs, with a few days in between. Have you been following what I post on Instagram?
Yeah, I saw there were a lot of snippets of songs.
Yeah, every one of those snippets from last year is on the record. Before my mother passed away, during the last year, I’d go outside at night and start improvising, and I’d choose 15 seconds of that and put it away, like a little seed. And after my dad passed away too, I came back from Santiago from the funeral, and I just fell apart. Because my mom got sick, then Natasha, then Natasha passed away, and then I was taking care of my mom, so it was like seven years of this anxiety and tension. But earlier this year I had this chance to record some music for another project I have in Seattle, then I recorded my own album.
And why did you choose to use PledgeMusic for funding it?
Well, it’s basically like selling the record. In other words, I didn’t need to fund it to make it, it was already made. First of all, I wanted that direct connection with the audience to sell it, to start that relationship. Because all my life I’ve been with labels, and it’s almost always been a nightmare, and it takes so long, and you’re stuck and can’t do anything. The thing is, I’m at a really intense creative period of my life. I had offers from a couple of labels, cool labels that I like, from friends, but they couldn’t put it out soon. And I wanna get home and make Vol. 2 of this record, you know, this is only part one. I wanna try to make as many records as I can, because it’s been almost five years since I recorded Spark. I need to be able to put music out as quickly as I make it, and I wanted to try out PledgeMusic because it’s cool. Also, they told me I needed to have more stuff for sale than just the album, so I offered house concerts, which I thought no one would want to buy, but both of them sold out, that was really cool. One of them, I’m driving down to the beach to somebody’s house, and the other one, people are flying in from Japan, which is great.
I think crowdfunding gets a bad reputation because often people do it before any of the actual work is done, and it’s all promises. But this is something solid, there’s no question about it being delivered. And the rewards are cool.
One of the interesting things for sale, the voice mail recording, a couple of people have bought already. My idea was that I love writing and I write really quickly, so I thought it’d be funny to write a special song for the person buying. I’ll ask what kind of message they want in their voice mail – and that’s kind of a reason to record a song. I’ll record a song nicely, basically saying “leave a message”, but trying to find different ways of saying that.
Did you see the goal’s been surpassed already?
The goal was small, just to print vinyl and CDs for people. It’s a beginning, and hopefully it’ll keep going. But at least now I can make great quality vinyl, posters, t-shirts. I just have to keep trying to survive. Production work is so much less than it used to be, like 5% or 10% of the budget. I did fourteen records in a row. But I wanna move out of LA, because it’s too expensive. I wanna have the freedom to tour, also.
Speaking of album sales, was anyone in the QOTSA camp expecting the commercial success that …Like Clockwork had?
No, no one. I think it sold like 100,000 copies on the first week, and something like 25,000 were vinyl. Something happened, some threshold got crossed, and there’s a lot of new fans. It was amazing, I was so happy for them.
When we talked to you in 2011, you mentioned that QOTSA were starting work on a new album – but the record only came out in 2013. How much material from …Like Clockwork was left over, unreleased?
Not much, at least not finished. Most of the songs ended up on the record, they just had earlier versions. There’s a couple of unreleased ones that are really amazing, which they might do on another record.
What about the project you’ve been working on with Ben Shepherd, Matt Cameron and Dimitri Coats? Does it have a name?
We don’t know yet. We had The Ten Commandos as a funny name, but no official name yet. In 2008, the year Natasha passed away, I stayed at Matt’s house in Seattle for a week, and in the morning I would write some stuff on his wife’s acoustic. Then we’d go to Pearl Jam’s space with Ben, work up a song, and record a quick version of it. Some of them had vocals, some of them didn’t. And we didn’t have time to get together all those years because they were busy. And we finally got together earlier this year, in Seattle, and we went to Stone [Gossard]’s studio, and Dimitri joined the band. When I get home after this tour, we’re gonna finish five songs for an EP. So, we’ll put that out soon, it’ll be cool.
Is everyone involved writing songs for it?
Yes, definitely, everybody’s writing. Dimitri’s written three songs, Ben wrote a few songs, as well as Matt and me. So, we have a whole record, but we’ll have to finish it next year.
And who’s singing?
I’m singing. We have a special guest on one song, and Dimitri’s singing too, and obviously we’ll have Matt and Ben sing too, so that’ll be good. I love playing with those guys.
It’s funny when everyone in a band is actually a lead singer in different projects. And Soundgarden have somebody to replace Matt Cameron while he’s out doing other stuff.
Yeah, Matt Chamberlain is great, there’s no doubt about it, and Matt Cameron helped choose him too. I saw them in LA recently, and I got to hang out with Chamberlain at Chris Cornell’s birthday party, great guy.
That was at the co-headlining tour with Nine Inch Nails, right?
Yeah, the gig at the Hollywood Bowl.
What was it like when you toured with QOTSA, opening for NIN, back in 2005?
That tour wasn’t fun at all. I mean, the shows were good, the band was good, but we were playing 45-minute sets. And we weren’t really playing to our fans, so there’d always be like two Queens fans way in the back, and that was it. Also, we were only playing sheds, which were far away from the city, so we’d wake up in the tour bus and there would be nothing around it, just a big parking lot.
Last time I spoke to you, you mentioned that there was a record of unreleased Eleven material being worked on. What happened to that?
I never got around to it. What happened was that I tried to put the songs back together. I found the machine we used, an 8-track; I got the tapes, I put them on, but I soon realized I didn’t physically have Natasha’s keyboards or bass there. They exist somewhere on a floppy disk, because we used a MIDI sequencer to record them. You load the sequencer, the analog starts to play, and the code goes into the sequencer. The performances are human, but they’re being played back not as recorded sound, but MIDI recorded sound. When I realized there’s no way to find those machines again, to retrofit the thing, it was kind of annoying. Because I wanted to remix it. I realized the only way to do it is to get the DATs that I have, of every song, and master them. There’s nothing more I can do, but it’s ok, they sound great. One of my favorite songs Natasha ever wrote, called Flow, has a dropout on the second verse, because the DAT’s really old, but I already transferred it. But yes, I wanna put the record out.
So, is it going to take more work than you originally thought?
No, I have all the songs already. I just have to send them to Dave Collins to master, and then figure out when to put them out. I got sidetracked with work and family, but the songs are there. Plus, the more people I reach with my solo stuff now, the more people will be interested in this Eleven thing, so I think next year would be a good time.
What can you tell us about Phantom Radio, the new Mark Lanegan album that you produced?
It’s done now. We recorded fifteen songs – we put five on the No Bells on Sunday EP that already came out, and ten on the record, which is coming out next month. There’s gonna be a deluxe edition with the album and the EP. It’s a really cool album. It’s different from Blues Funeral, there’s some incredible songs that he wrote, and also, the way that he’s singing… it’ll be interesting to see what people think. Because he’s moving in some crazy directions really organically.
Blues Funeral was already kind of a major departure from his previous record Bubblegum. So this one will go even further?
Yes, I think so.
Last, but not least, a question that lots of fans still have: will we see Them Crooked Vultures perform again?
Well, I know John Paul Jones would be up for it, and I’d certainly be up to return as a member. It’s just a matter of lining up the schedules.
Realistically, though, considering that Foo Fighters have just begun a new tour cycle?
The only way it’d happen is if Queens don’t get into another album/tour cycle like this one right away. So, yes, it’s difficult.