By Anna Blumenthal
Troy Van Leeuwen can’t sit still. Earlier this month, the Queens of the Stone Age guitarist released a new album with Sweethead, one of his many projects, announced a new supergroup, Gone Is Gone, with members of Mastodon and At The Drive-In (an EP is already done and a full-length album is being mixed)—all while being on the road as a member of Iggy Pop’s backing band.
Before Iggy Pop’s April 12 show at New York’s United Palace Theater, Guitar Aficionado caught up with Van Leeuwen to discuss his rig, what it’s like to back up the godfather of punk, and the importance of looking good on stage.
In addition to Fender, you’re using a lot of Echopark guitars on this tour, as well as Echopark amps. How did that relationship come about?
A few years ago I had this tech named Ally Christie. He worked for Queens [of the Stone Age] for a long time then he worked for Them Crooked Vultures for Josh [Homme], then he ended up going to the great gig in the sky with the Foo Fighters. When he left, he said, “You should check out these [Echopark] guitars, everything is handmade and Gabriel Currie’s a great luthier.”
Right after we were done making the last Queens record, we started rehearsing and I reached out to him. That guitar, the De Leon, was the first collaboration he and I have done. Since then he’s done collaborations with Dean [Fertita] and with Josh. He’ll just show up with a guitar at our rehearsal and say, “What do you think of this?” He’s so keen on paying attention to what we like that usually he knocks it out of the park. He keeps blowing our minds. The amps are something he and I have been working on for a couple years too. I was looking to make some changes sonically. The ones we’re using are the Vibramatic 13 Combo, pretty low wattage, and the Vibramatic 23 head with “Short Box” 2×12 speakers.
Right now I’ve got about five. But Dean and I are sharing that area of the stage and we’re both playing the 12-string Telecaster. Then he’s using my gold Fender Jazzmaster and I’m using my signature one. We can always grab each other’s guitars if we need to. Even the original 12-string that we were playing in Queens is this Burns Double Six that’s on the road if we need it. So we’ve got backups for everything.
Were you always mainly a Fender guy?
Not always, no. I was a Les Paul guy for years. And I still am in Queens and when it’s appropriate. Over the years with Queens, I started off with lots of Humbucker Les Paul-type sounds and then over the years, since we have so many different textures and things, I became more of the Jazzmaster and Jaguar guy because Josh and I didn’t want to sound like each other. We wanted Josh’s sound to be the signature and me be more of the angular, ambient guy that spreads out and stuff. And then adding Dean to the mix, it’s really about finding everybody’s frequency.
Do you use Echopark with Queens, Sweethead and Failure and all your projects?
I just started using Echopark with Sweethead, which is great. And I’ve been using them the last few shows that we did with Queens. And then I use the Vibramatic 13 Combo amp for lap steel.
No, Queens has always had lap steel. Not in the traditional sense at all, though. It’s more like, instead of taking a Theramin on the road I would use it with an EBow or something with lots of reverb and delay. It’s a fun instrument to play.
What have you learned from touring with Iggy?
He’s the king, he’s our hero and he’s always been the underdog. He’s never been appreciated at the time that he’s made all these great records. It’s always a time release with his music. Generations later, Raw Power becomes this classic record. So I’ve learned that you can age gracefully and still be a punk rock badass. It’s amazing—with age he’s gotten so much better and his voice is so much more beautiful and nothing gets by him, he remembers everything, he memorizes the set, and he’s always got something poetic to say, so it’s really just been a dream.
What was the first rehearsal like?
It was kind of intense. We had been working without him, getting all the keyboard sounds. With this gig I’m actually playing more keyboards than guitar. We know how the new record was done but we weren’t there for The Idiot and Lust for Life or New Values so we had to research and make it sound as close to the record, because we love those records so dearly. He literally came in to rehearse with us the day after Bowie died, which said another thing to me. We didn’t talk about it, we didn’t discuss it—it was like, “Let’s get to work.” Time is precious. So it was intense and wonderful and it was a great relief to know it was going to be okay, cause you never know what’s going to happen. But it’s been heavy and amazing and fun and great every day since.
How long did you rehearse before the tour started?
He said, “All I need is six days” [laughs]. But we’d been pounding it. I don’t think I ever rehearsed this much for anything. But it’s a really cool band. It’s really, really fun and great.
How much of a secret was this record, really? I’ve read that Josh and Iggy went to Joshua Tree to work on the record and didn’t tell anyone.
I knew about it, and it’s been talked about for years, actually. This was an idea Josh had a decade ago, but the reality of it came together near the end of the tour cycle for Queens. So it was our secret to hold.
I didn’t play on the record, no. I think he wanted it not to be “Iggy Pop backed by the Queens of the Stone Age.” Of course, I’d be honored to play on the record but I think the record is great, and I’m glad that it’s done so well.
What are some of your favorite Iggy or Stooges songs?
“Success” is one of them. There’s so many that I like playing. “Tonight” is really super glorious. And there’s a section in the set where we play “Mass Production” into “Nightclubbing”; that’s my favorite part of the set. There’s so much artful cool shit in those two songs back to back. It goes back to the new record where there’s a tip of the hat to that era of those records with songs like “Germany” and “Break Into Your Heart” that sound like old Iggy, like a song off The Idiot. There’s a really fun part of the set where we play “Repo Man” too, where all three of us are playing guitar and it’s an assault. “China Girl” is great too.
Are there any songs you really want to do that you’re not doing?
There’s a few. I mean, can’t get to everything. I really like “New Values” and I like “Endless Sea” which were on the list, “5’1”” was on the list to do; we just haven’t done that one yet. We had a list of like 50 songs we all wanted to play.
I know Iggy is a real hero of yours. Who else would you kill to play with?
I like playing with people that are my peers. I’m doing something that stemmed from film/video game music and trailer music. The project is called Gone Is Gone and it’s a really dark, cold, heavy experience. The guys involved are also people I consider my peers. One of them is Troy Sanders from Mastodon, and the drummer is Tony Hajjar from At The Drive-In, and we have a composer friend, Mike Zarin. He’s our liaison to the film world. But it started as trailer music and then we ended up putting vocals on it. We have an EP that’s done and there’s a full-length record that’s waiting to be mixed and then there’s also an instrumental, like underscore stuff, coming after that. We’ve been working on that for about three years, but we’ve been keeping it a secret.
Are you going to tour?
No, it’s non-touring. Tony’s on the road right now, and I know that Mastodon are going to be recording another album within the next six months—same with Queens—so it’s impossible for it to tour, but we are going to do a show in LA [at Dragonfly] on the 27th of April.
What’s the latest with your other bands?
Sweethead’s record just came out, Descent to the Surface, which is a complete 180. [We have] a female singer and it’s geared more toward pop structure and there’s a dance element to it, so the guitar playing is somewhere between angular rhythm and noise, over synths, bass synths and real drums. When we play there’s a sequencer happening and everyone’s playing over the sequencer, so for me it’s a new kind of freedom where even the drummer can go off the grid and find his way back.
What about Queens?
We have plans to start another record sometime this year. There was a lot of stuff that we recorded that we didn’t put on the last record, so there’s material that we’re specifically not working on to see what sticks, to see what ideas will stand the test of all this other stuff that’s going through our brains, cause the good stuff usually ends up staying in your head. We’re excited about that. There’s no shortage of stuff.
If Iggy is the godfather of punk, what are you the godfather of?
Sweating in a suit on stage? I mean, I’m the guy that wears the suit. Well I’m not the only guy, now [laughs]. Iggy wears a suit and the jacket comes off at some point. But we’ve been wearing these matching backup band jackets. It’s like if you were in Sinatra’s band, you’d have a uniform. It’s all stuff that I’m so used to wearing, so it’s fun for me to watch the other guys try to keep the jacket on all night.
It’s not easy.
It’s not easy! As long as you look good, does it matter?