Nick Oliveri on Songs For The Deaf

by Greg Prato

The story behind the Queens Of The Stone Age album Songs For The Deaf



The last time we chatted with Nick Oliveri, the goateed/bald/tattooed/singer/bassist discussed his latest project, Stöner, and told us the stories behind the songs he wrote with Josh Homme on Queens Of The Stone Age's classic sophomore effort, 2000's Rated R.

But Oliveri was also Homme's songwriting collaborator on the next QOTSA album - arguably their finest - Songs For The Deaf. Released in 2002, it was the group's commercial breakthrough, with contributions from Dave Grohl on drums and Mark Lanegan on vocals. We couldn't resist a follow-up conversation.
Greg Prato (Songfacts): How did the songwriting process of Rated R compare to Songs For The Deaf?

Nick Oliveri: Rated R, we went out to this place in Twentynine Palms – a bungalow. We took a bunch of supplies out there, and guitars and amps. We rented a place for a week and we sat in there and we lived it, breathed it, wrote it, and finished the record.

We had some songs that were already done – "Tension Head" and things like that. I think Josh had a few of the tunes, like "Feel Good Hit Of The Summer," and then we just went into this bungalow that had a porch, and we'd write on the porch at night. We'd go back and forth with ideas. We'd be strumming on electric guitar, acoustic guitar, or something, and suddenly he'd like what I was playing or I'd like what he was playing. We finished the record that way. We were still working on lyrics and stuff while we were in there.

But with Songs For The Deaf, we had all those songs ready and we were recording them with Gene Trautmann on drums. That's when Dave [Grohl] came in.1 Dave came in and said, "I really want to play on the record. I want to play on a couple of songs." So, they both played on "Millionaire"2 and stuff like that. We didn't finish it before we went into pre-production, but we wrote separately and in the rehearsal spot. It wasn't the same as just me and Josh working on it. It was parts we had – we'd go in and have the band work on it together. We were getting the band ready to record it, getting Gene ready and everything.

As far as lyrics went, we were finishing them as we were going, as we were recording the music. So things were changing a lot. I have versions of songs with totally different lyrics, Josh singing different lyrics and me singing different lyrics. We were filling out things that we liked best and changing the stuff we didn't like.

So it was a process as far as making it the best we could, and having that budget to be able to do that was amazing. And having the time and the studio to make something better and listen back to it changes songwriting a lot, too. We had time to really review the lyrics. Nowadays, I make sure I'm mic'd up and, "Oh, that's good... put it out!"

The music was done but reviewing the lyrics is a big part of the writing. Making sure there's a hook and a chorus and stuff like that. And cool backgrounds, texturing stuff. But the difference between Rated R and Deaf was that Josh was more hands on with Deaf because we had to rehearse with Dave in one studio, then go in and record this stuff. So Dave was learning this stuff and changing drum parts as we're doing it, so the writing continued through the music as well because Dave came in and started writing drum parts to stuff that originally wasn't there. He changed the parts a little bit.

Rated R was more of a group production than Deaf. Eric Valentine and Josh produced Songs For The Deaf and it came out fantastic. Rated R was Chris Goss and myself and Josh – all night long we were working on recording these songs and working on parts that went with the songs, so it was an all-night thing for a month or something like that. Just a lot of sleepless nights making it happen. For Deaf, we would work through the day and take the night off. Long days, but we would rarely pull an all-nighter at Sound City3 like we would with Rated R.

Songfacts: On Songs For The Deaf, it also lists Adam Kasper as one of the producers along with Josh and Eric.

Oliveri: Adam Kasper came in and helped Josh finish the record because we had a little bit of Josh butting heads with Valentine, and we went to another studio from there. We went up north to the Site and we came back down south and finished it in a different studio because there was some tension between Eric and Josh. It kind of fell apart there. Eric did do probably 80% of the record with us but we did finish it with somebody else.

Songfacts: You sing lead on the song "Millionaire," but Josh and also Mario Lalli are listed as writers.

Oliveri: That was a Desert Sessions4 track, and we covered a couple different ones – I think "God Is In The Radio" and "Millionaire." That was one that I really liked and Josh was having me sing it live, so I just kind of took it over.

When we recorded it, we bought these weird "saltshaker mics" – they call them that because they look like saltshakers. We bought a case of them, and if you ride up on these things they really blow out really good – the windscreens can't really take this stress. So I did that in a take and just belted it out. I knew the song from doing it live so much, so I just tried to hone it and make it my own by singing it hard and the best I could do it.

Songfacts: Josh and Mark Lanegan are listed as the sole writers of "No One Knows." But what do you recall about filming the song's video?

Oliveri: The video was directed by Dean Karr. He had us doing some crazy stuff – like strapped to hoods of cars. My girlfriend at the time went to the taxidermy store and got like a deer, and they put mechanical pieces in it and made it into this little robot that could move and smack us in the head! It was quite fun.

I recall being stuck in the wall with our heads through the wall and Mark being sick. [Laughs] And Dean Karr putting grocery bag handles on his ears and Mark going, "You son of a bitch... I'm going to kill you!" It was the funniest thing ever because we were strapped in the wall. It was a long one, but it was a fun day.

Songfacts: What do you recall about the song "First It Giveth"?

Oliveri: The lyrical inspiration for that was drugs, pretty much. "First it giveth, then it taketh away." First it's great, then you're stuck.

That was one of the ones where Dave Grohl asked us to leave the room and Eric Valentine - a drummer himself - helped him figure out the main drum part in that song, which makes that chorus really jump out. That great tom thing he does in there.

I'd never seen Dave go, "Can you guys leave the room? I have to work on this part. I can't do it yet." Eric coached him through it, and in five minutes he was like, "OK. Let's track it." It was amazing. We were like, "Whoa." It really took the song to the next level. Instead of just playing a drumbeat like the verse, he added this cool tom thing.

Songfacts: "The Sky Is Fallin'."

Oliveri: We put the music together and Josh did those lyrics on the fly. Changed them a couple times, but pretty much did that on the fly. "Close your eyes and see the sky is fallin'."

That was right at the end of the session. We knew we needed one more song for the record - it was missing something. I had a tune as well called "Open Up And Bleed for Me," which we recorded with Dave. So we recorded both songs and we both ended up choosing "The Sky Is Fallin'," 'cause it was just much better.

We were mixing at that time and we decided we needed one more tune, so we went in and tried to make the best thing we could do. I think "The Sky Is Fallin'" is a better song than this "Open Up And Bleed For Me" song I had, which I ended up putting on a Mondo record5 Not that version, but there is a version out there somewhere with Dave on it. We also recorded "Little Sister" in that same session for Deaf, and it made it onto Lullabies To Paralyze [2005 QOTSA album] later on. I've got weird versions of songs laying around my house that are pretty amazing.

Songfacts: How many songs were recorded or demoed for Deaf that haven't been released?

Oliveri: Well, there were a couple on Rated R as well. I noticed when Josh did the Rated X deluxe edition, he didn't put in a couple tunes that we had. I was like, "He must have forgot, because he didn't ask me." He put that out and I didn't even know it was coming out. There are a couple of tunes that he either forgot or didn't want out there that were finished – fully mixed and everything. And there's a couple of songs from Deaf that we didn't end up using. There's some jam stuff we did that could have been songs – just playing with Dave. Like, "Let's just roll tape and see what happens." It was great. There's probably quite a bit of stuff.

I know we had two 16-track machines chasing each other in sync, so it took two machines to finish one song. It's a pain in the butt, but it makes for really high-quality sound. It started on tape and finished on Pro Tools. I remember having these tapes in my garage for a good two years and I finally got them over to Josh. I was moving and said, "I got some things that are yours. You might want to get them." I was already out of the band [Nick left QOTSA in 2004] and was carrying these things around, making sure they didn't get harmed or messed up. He's got all those tapes.

Songfacts: What's the story behind "Six Shooter"?

Oliveri: "Six Shooter" was just a jam that we thought sounded kind of cool. That was a guitar part I had – a strumming, weird thing. I do this weird thing with chords, and I move my hands around on the fretboard, my fingers to different spots.

We needed an "explosion" on the record. We look at each record like, "What does it need?" It needed a soft, ballad-y song that isn't too ballad-sounding to be lame. And we needed a heavy explosion, just quick and fast. We needed a poppy song.

We tried to fill in the gaps of what the record needed if you're listening to it as a whole instead of just one song. That was just something the record needed, a quick explosion, and then you're on to the next tune. So that was the whole purpose of "Six Shooter" – to have a needed explosion to get into the next song, to ease the listener's ear with something that is more melodic after that.

Songfacts: "Go With The Flow."

Oliveri: That song we played at the Reading Festival before the song was even recorded. Gene Trautmann actually plays drums on that – I think it's listed as Dave, but that's one of the ones Gene played. He nailed it in a take – Gene was on fire. It really turned out cool. It came after "Millionaire" as far as the songwriting in order. That one was done early on. I can't remember if we had it during Rated R or not. We had that song and "Millionaire" in the bag. The lyrics we put together later on but we had the chorus, and we got it together and did it live before we actually recorded.

Gene is on "Millionaire" as well. There are two drummers on that – Dave and him. Gene was nailing stuff, but it's hard when Dave Grohl is standing there and he wants to rock on the record. It was a rough day. [Laughs] It was a terrible thing, man... and a great thing at the same time. But I don't think the record would be the same without these guys.

Josh is really smart, but he was incredibly smart back then when he produced the record. He put the right people in place to be on it, and to be in the band, and to share the front spotlight with another frontman was a key to that band's success. Being able to put your ego down and share the stage with these guys, Dave and Mark. It's really a reason why this record is special - because there are different frontmen on it. And Dave on the drums is a frontman. He hadn't played on a record in a while, so Josh was a smart guy to put these people in place that really made the band special.

Songfacts: "Gonna Leave You."

Oliveri: "Gonna Leave You" was a tune I had that sounds like Devo to me. I love Devo. It wasn't an intentional thing, but it's a weird, strange progression of "Mongoloid."

It's about my ex-wife. She was quite a strange gal and I was going to leave her, so I was inspired. "Another Love Song" is about her, too. So, it wasn't all for nothing.

Songfacts: The title track.

Oliveri: "Song For The Dead" is probably the heaviest one, but "Song For The Deaf" is one of the heaviest songs on the record.

I had the bassline and it inspired from there, it started moving from there. There wasn't any, "Hey, I've got this song." We were jamming in the room and I started playing this bass part and Josh liked it and started jamming on it. Then other parts came to me. The jam part in the middle, I wanted the song to be a longer tune because it was the title track.

Mark and Josh singing together on it really makes it special. I think their two voices together with the falsetto [Josh] and the low [Mark] is a real treat for the ear. It's a nice, eerie kind of sound while being melodic at the same time.

I think the song holds up to be the title of the record. Lyrically, Mark wanted to go for a deaf, dumb, and blind kind of thing. That was the inspiration behind the lyrics that Mark was trying to come up with there.

There are six interstitials on Songs For The Deaf that sound like a radio going up and down the dial and then landing on a station. Each of these between-song bits lands on a different radio station, starting with K-L-O-N - Klone Radio, where they "play the songs that sound more like everyone else than anyone else." The DJs are various friends of the band, including Blag Dahlia of the band Dwarves and Twiggy Ramirez, ex-Marilyn Manson. Josh Homme had to make the drive from Los Angeles to his home in Joshua Tree quite often, and spent a lot of time tuning to different radio stations that would come in and out of range during the trip.
Songfacts: How did the idea come up to have different "radio DJs" speak throughout the album?

Oliveri: The radio DJ thing was an idea that we got from The Exploited.6

Josh had the movie theme for Rated R, and I had a radio theme. Josh had the idea to bring in DJs and write commercials instead of taking stuff that was out there on the radio, so we wrote a bunch of songs for that, too. That's kind of an "everybody idea" – me and Josh came up with that. He had the movie theme for Rated R. He wanted to do that for a Kyuss thing at one time but it didn't really fit the band, but he could do it with this band, which is cool. An old idea.

The radio thing was inspired by The Exploited album Let's Start A War. We wanted to do funny commercials and ads. Some of the songs we wrote for that were so ridiculously hilarious. You only got a second of them when they're changing the channels, but we had these weird, stupid jingles we wrote. I have all that stuff on disc – tons of stupid stuff we did, and funny stuff... quite interesting. It would make a great box set if all that stuff could come out on it, but I don't know if they'll ever do it. Who knows?

Songfacts: Did the album's success catch you off guard, or did you realize it was a very strong album when it was completed?

Oliveri: I know that the album was strong, and I knew what we had sold with Rated R meant they could have dropped us, but they were willing to keep us to do another record. When Dave came in, the game changed. It was immediately a game-changer for how we were being treated by the label – as naturally would happen. And we knew the songs were super strong and we had something super special.

Even live before we'd go on stage, I'd look at all the guys I was about to go on stage with and be like, "We're going to kill this right now." I'd never played in a band where I was like, "We're going to kill right now. This is going to be insane." It was like being on a winning team that nobody could touch. It was a real pleasure to play with those guys, and an honor. When the record was done, I felt the same way about it. I didn't know that the success of it would be great, but I had a feeling that people would be into it for a long, long time.

Songfacts: How do you think Songs For The Deaf holds up today?

Oliveri: I think it holds up as strong as anything out there, if not better. To my ears. But my head's growing as I'm saying that! I'm quite proud to be on that record because I think it can hold up with anything that's out there. I think it's a well-made record. The songs are well-crafted. I know I, Josh, and everybody who played on it gave everything they had. Everything technically they could do and everything in their mind they could come up with that was next level than what they'd done before, myself included. I've watched Josh over the years try different things and push himself to the end of his ropes. And myself, as well.

And Mark was always a champion. He was this bad-ass, and one of the best voices I've ever heard sing. And Dave pushed himself – "Hey guys, you have to leave the room. I have to get this right" - working out parts that he wanted to push himself to do. And I know with every song we did that.

So, I think that record really shines through like that, down to the mix. Everything about it is very well thought out. Every single instrument on it, where it's placed in the mix, if you put on headphones you can hear it come from one side to the other side or in the middle. Everything was very strategically done and I think that shines through for the listener. It's definitely the best record I played on.

October 4, 2022

For more Nick, visit instagram.com/nickoliveri.

Further reading:

The Devo story
Dark Black and Blue: The Soundgarden Story - An Excerpt
Riki Rachtman's 10 Best Metal Videos Of The '90s
Fact or Fiction: '90s Metal
Judas Priest interview

Footnotes:

  • 1] Queens Of The Stone Age is a collective of sorts with Josh Homme the only constant. He and Oliveri were both in the band Kyuss, but Oliveri didn't join him in QOTSA until Rated R. They've used a lot of drummers over the years, often more than one on each album. Dave Grohl, never one to stay tethered to his comfort zone, took a break from Foo Fighters to do most of the drumming on Songs For The Deaf and also tour with the band. (back)
  • 2] Full title: "You Think I Ain't Worth a Dollar, But I Feel Like a Millionaire." (back)
  • 3] Rated R was recorded at Sound City studios in Los Angeles, one of the last bastions of analog recording. Nirvana recorded Nevermind there, and in 2013 Dave Grohl released a documentary about the studio called Sound City, featuring Josh Homme and Chris Goss. Most of Songs For The Deaf was recorded at Conway Recording Studios in Hollywood. (back)
  • 4] Since 1997, Josh Homme has taken sojourns into Joshua Tree with collections of musicians and artists to make music, which he then releases as a "volume." Oliveri was part of one of these sessions in 1999 and helped develop "Millionaire," which first appeared on Volume 5 of the Desert Sessions. (back)
  • 5] Mondo Generator is Nick's intermittently active band that he formed in 1997. Homme was a founding member and appears on their first album, Cocaine Rodeo, released in 2000. "Open Up And Bleed For Me" is on their second album, A Drug Problem That Never Existed, released in 2003. (back)
  • 6] On their 1983 album Let's Start A War..., the Scottish rockers The Exploited used bits of actual radio broadcasts before the songs. The album deals with the Falklands War of 1982 when Britain and Argentina fought for control of the Falkland Islands. The radio bits were mostly news reports from that time. (back)

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Comments: 1

  • Joel from Manchester, UkThanks so much for this interview, Greg and Nick. PLEAAAAAAAASE make the box set release of SFTD happen. People would pay top dollar for that
see more comments

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