When Them Crooked Vultures United Three Rock Legends
Supergroups often turn out to be less than the sum of their parts, but when those parts are as incredible as Nirvana/Foo Fighters veteran Dave Grohl, Queens of the Stone Age frontman Josh Homme and ex-Led Zeppelin member John Paul Jones, the results are bound to rock.
For proof, look no further than Them Crooked Vultures, the amp-overdriving alter ego debuted by Grohl, Homme and Jones in 2009. Getting the three together had been on Grohl's mind for some time; in 2005, he told Mojo, "The next project that I'm trying to initiate involves me on drums, Josh Homme on guitar and John Paul Jones playing bass. That's the next album. That wouldn't suck bratwurst." He later admitted that he'd sort of been dreaming out loud when he made that comment, but the idea lingered.
It didn't hurt that Grohl had a connection to Homme, with whom he'd played as Queens of the Stone Age's sometime drummer, as well as with Jones, who'd guested on the Foos' 2005 LP In Your Honor.
"When I started playing with Queens of the Stone Age, I realized that Josh and I have this musical connection that I don’t really have with anyone else," recalled Grohl later. "So after the Queens of the Stone Age project, I wanted to get back and jam with them again sometime. But Josh and I never had the time; we were always on tour with our respective bands. We’d bump into each other out on the road and say, ‘Fuck sitting on a tour bus and doing interviews all day long. Man, let’s do a project!’ So then I had this idea. I said, ‘What if we called John Paul Jones?'"
As Jones explained, the timing was perfect, as he'd been left at loose ends following an aborted attempt to make something more permanent out of Led Zeppelin's well-received reunion gig. "We’d done so much work together, it seemed crazy just to leave it at that," he told Guitar World. "So we thought we’d start another band. It wasn’t going to be Led Zeppelin, as was reported in the press. We wanted to write new material. We auditioned some singers, but we couldn’t agree on one, and it all fell by the wayside. So by the time Dave mentioned this thing with Josh, I was in the mindset to do some recording and playing."
That might have been putting it mildly. In fact, aside from the odd solo project, Jones had found a hard time latching onto anything musical since Zeppelin's breakup.
"I couldn’t get arrested in the '80s at all," Jones lamented to the Telegraph. “After the Beatles broke up, would you have asked Paul McCartney if he’d be in your band? Nobody thought I would do anything, and I didn’t really want to join another band after Zeppelin, because I knew nothing would ever be as good as that." (Interestingly, McCartney might have ended up playing bass for Them Crooked Vultures if Jones hadn't been up for the gig.)
Listen to Them Crooked Vultures' 'Caligulove'
Once the Vultures got into formation, Jones knew they were onto something. "Even from the first jams," he recalled, "It was like, ‘Ooooh, this could be something very good. Now what can we do with it?’"
The answer to that question, as evidenced by the self-titled LP the band debuted on Nov. 16, 2009, was loud and aggressive. "Rock ’n’ roll only sounds good when it’s lean, hungry and wants to grab you," argued Homme. "It doesn’t sound good when it relaxes." As he told Guitar World, "We’re all out to do something classic here, and I know that in order to do it you have to take some risks. Risk nothing, gain nothing."
The band's gaudy pedigree notwithstanding, there really was plenty of musical risk involved – not least because Homme and Grohl operate from opposite ends of the songwriting spectrum. They needed creative glue, and fortunately, Jones was there to fill the role.
"John’s a brilliant arranger," Grohl explained. "He’s famous for that. So he was often in the middle when Josh and I were seesawing on opposite sides. I’d try to standardize stuff, and Josh would be saying, ‘I have this song with 17 different parts, and nothing repeats.’ And I’d say, ‘Okay, wait: Shouldn’t we maybe repeat something? Like maybe twice at least?’ And John would have to say, ‘No, he’s right,’ or, ‘Yeah, you’re right.’"
"Everybody brought their own influences into the part and molded it into a monster," Jones enthused in an interview with Reverb. "There’s a lot of honesty in the band, musical honesty. There’s no point in throwing something out that you like and do well to try and be different, which is not to say that we don’t push the boundaries of what we do, all three of us, individually and as a group, to see what else is there. But you can always follow the paper trail to any one of our influences, whether it’s the blues-rock or the desert stuff or the punk, which are our three main sounds."
In spite of Grohl and Homme's ongoing commitments to their "other" bands, Them Crooked Vultures was more than a casual one-off project; the band made its live debut even before the album hit stores, and it went on the road for a well-received tour. The record itself, while greeted with overwhelmingly positive reviews, wasn't quite the sales sensation the label might have been anticipating; Them Crooked Vultures peaked at No. 12 on the Billboard chart, and failed to achieve gold or platinum certification. Still, as far as a lot of listeners are concerned, it remains one of the better rock records of the 21st century – and if everything works out the way it should, it'll eventually be followed by a sequel.
"We all want to do another record," Homme said after Them Crooked Vultures' release. "I don’t know when that would be or if it’s even gonna happen. ... I know the next record would be, like, ‘sophomore jinx, my ass,’ ’cause we know one another now. We were actually just hitting our stride in the studio when we knew we should stop. That was one of the main struggles. ‘Dude, we’re just getting going.’ But we knew we shouldn’t take too long. This stuff, if you’re not careful, turns to vapor. We gotta live in the now."
"I always try to be in the best band in the world, I promise myself," Jones added. "I'm obviously very proud of the Zeppelin legacy, and I'm hoping I'm keeping the spirit alive with this band."
And although it's been five years, that spirit hasn't died – at least not as far as Grohl is concerned. "I would love to make another Vultures record," he told NME in 2014. "I think our biggest hurdle is just a logistic one, that the three of us are all pretty busy."