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Guitarist Troy Van Leeuwen learned a lot when he joined Queens of the Stone Age. Like, never waste more than five takes trying to tape a song, that way everything stays fresh. Or, if it’s broke, break it again!
“If you’re onstage and people are watching you and your gear isn’t working, you’re gonna have to break it,” he explains. “So my guitar wasn’t working—a custom-made, big, fat hollowbody that Yamaha made for me. I always had a thing: ‘You can’t break guitars.’ But I lost myself! And I threw it way up in the air!”
You’ll notice that guitar doesn’t appear in the official videos for Van Leeuwen’s new band, Sweethead. It’s still recovering. But that same caught-in-the-moment abandon characterizes everything Sweethead do. In fact, Van Leeuwen just broke his nose at the high-desert video shoot for the band’s not-quite-out-yet video for the song “City of Dirt,” a new track available on the brand-new U.S. release of their self-titled full-length. And he had an epiphany while teaching his nephew how to use a computer to make a virtual band-in-a-box: “That doesn’t work for me. I gotta cut my fingers on something!”
So with Sweethead, there will be blood. That’s just where Van Leeuwen comes from. Between growing up in LA and joining pre-Queens rock outfits such as A Perfect Circle with Tool’s Maynard James Keenan, he used to actually cut his fingers as a tiny little kid struggling to master Led Zeppelin’s “The Rover.” (“That was the first song I actually cheered after learning,” he recalls.) And when he joined Queens after their 2002 album, Songs for the Deaf, they dumped about 30 songs on him and told him to be ready to play the guitar parts on tour in a few days. No problem. He likes a challenge, he says.
“I don’t know what else to do with my life,” he says. “Before I spoke, my mom tells me I’d be humming and walking and tapping my teeth to the rhythm. I guess I’m just doomed. It’s my one talent—music.”
He put Sweethead together in 2008 during downtime from Queens with the backline of his band Enemy and new vocalist Serrina Sims, a tough blonde with family from high-desert chemical area of Trona who would have been right at home fronting a Kim Fowley-produced heavy rock band. Their Great Disruptors EP and self-titled album have been available internationally since 2009, but Sweethead released them domestically only just last week. (A “finally, FINALLY!” moment, says Van Leeuwen.) Fans of Queens won’t be disrupted by Sweethead’s smash mix of ’70s stompers such as Sweet, Zep, Motorhead and Alice Cooper. Yet Sims adds something all her own to that sound. She comes off like Barbara Stanwyck gone Suzi Quatro or Lita Ford—maximum glam and an attitude that annihilates the front row of an audience on contact.
“That’s the beautiful thing about different bands—the different people,” says Van Leeuwen. “I’ve known Serrina a long time. I always knew she had a voice. Introducing Serrina to the world is something I’m really proud of.”
And even if Queens call him back to duty, he hopes Sweethead can carry on without him, the same way a Josh Homme-less Eagles of Death Metal are still out there, roaming wild. It’s kind of like the mothership, he explains. The musicians of Queens descend from Planet Rock to colonize this rock we all happen to live on.
“The whole point is to breathe life into music,” he explains. “The blood, sweat and tears. You don’t wanna overexpose a band like Queens because Queens are supposed to be special. So that’s why you do other things and make them special, too.”
It’s not quite world domination that Sweethead are after, he says with a laugh. But Van Leeuwen does keep his own little part of the world securely dominated—he has two guns and three guard dogs, even if each of those guard dogs is about a foot tall. (They’re still plenty loud, though.) But like the song “The Great Disruptors” suggests, Sweethead are here to break through the bore-us-some-more radio noise with their reinforced rock & roll, and if it costs a few guitars and nose bones along the way, well . . .
“It’s like the end of Fight Club, where he blows up the buildings,” says Van Leeuwen. “Instead, he should have thrown a party. And we’d be the house band!”
Sweethead perform with Los Mysteriosos at Alex’s Bar, 2913 E. Anaheim St., Long Beach, (562) 434-8292; www.alexsbar.com. Fri., 9 p.m. $8. 21+.
This article appeared in print as "Blood, Sweat and Broken Guitars: Queens of the Stone Age guitarist goes for wreckage and abandon—just not quite world domination—in his new band, Sweethead."