INTERVIEW: QOTSA’s Josh Homme & Mini Mansions’ Michael Schuman

Queens Of The Stone Age, Eagles Of Death Metal, Them Crooked Vultures – Josh Homme has always followed his creative muse in whichever direction it may lead him, and recently it led him back to Rekords Rekords, a label he founded in the mid ’90s but which had lain dormant for some time since. The first two releases on the label have been Spark by Alain Johannes and the self-titled psychedelic showcase by Mini Mansions (distributed here in Australia through Liberator Music).

“I have no idea when the label started,” Homme ponders. “I think it was around 1996 or so when I started putting out Desert Sessions records. It was basically a home for more esoteric stuff, and I didn’t want to have to ask if it was okay. You’re always fighting that fight when you want to release a record through someone else’s label. Early in 2010 I heard some records which were just so good and which I wanted to release, by Alain Johannes and Michael Shuman. I’d worked with them in Queens of the Stone Age (both Johannes and Shuman) and Them Crooked Vultures (Johannes) and I said to myself, “I want to be around this music.” They’re both just so good… so incredible! Both are great in spite of me! Queens Of The Stone Age is something we all do because we want to, and that’s a great reason, but secondarily, I want to be around my favourite musicians.”

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Queens Of The Stone Age guitarist Josh Homme has always been a master of the dry, clean-yet-distorted tone, and nowhere is this sound more in-your-face than on the self-titled debut by his ‘other other band,’ Them Crooked Vultures, a trio with Dave Grohl on drums and Led Zeppelin’s John Paul Jones on bass and keyboards. Homme’s guitar is recorded very cleanly and mixed very loud and clear, so this recording is the perfect way to get your ears right up close to his tone without risking the wrath of security by scrambling up on stage to jam your ear against his speaker cabinet.

There are a few tricks to getting Homme’s tone down. Part of the secret is in using low or medium output passive humbuckers. Use too beefy a ‘bucker and you risk overloading the input of your amp, smearing articulation and making everything too hot. Homme is fond of interjecting power chord riffs with barre chord stabs, and this kind of contrast and emphasis would be totally lost of your dynamic and tonal spectrum were squished by too hot a pickup. His pickup choice also helps to maintain clarity and punch when playing single note lines on the lower strings (and don’t be shy about using the neck pickup for overdriven rhythm – it’s all too easy to get into the ‘I play rock, so rhythm guitar must be on the bridge pickup’ trap). Homme has been known to use a variety of Aussie-made Maton electric guitars over the years (check out the BB1200 JH with Maton ‘Hommebuckers’) in addition to Ovation Ultra GPs.

Homme has used all sorts of amps over the years, including bass amps and an array of vintage Ampeg valve amps. Aim for a clean tone to start with (rather than beginning on your amp’s high gain channel), but crank it to get some crunch and grind from the power amp and the speakers rather than the preamp. Keep the bass at treble at around halfway or lower and boost the mids for some of that characteristic power. It also helps if you’re able to get your hands on several amps and a splitting device so you can drive multiple sound paths at once, all set for different sounds, and preferably with different speaker sizes, wattages and constructions to really enhance the three-dimensionality of the sound.

Homme uses pedals to augment his basic tone from time to time, and the Crooked Vultures album is home to a few particularly tasty octave fuzz sounds. This type of octave effect (also heard on Jimi Hendrix’s ‘Purple Haze’ solo and used more and more live by Joe Satriani) is different to the harmonizer or pitch shift version of octave doubling. The effect, which is combined with fuzz, is more like a bizarre squirrelly harmonic overtone doubling your original note. True octave fuzz pedals track better when you use the neck pickup, and they’re very interactive units so you might need to listen closely and adjust your picking technique by minute degrees to get the most out of the pedal. You can also get some rather strange background noise if you don’t mute your strings properly between notes or chords, so be careful!

REVIEW: Maton BB1200

Maton’s now-classic Mastersound model has gone through many permutations over the years, from the original versions in those famous photos of Phil and Tommy Emmanuel as young kids traveling around Australia playing to adoring crowds, to the more sleek and refined version favoured by Josh Homme of Queens of the Stone Age and Jesse Hughes of Eagles Of Death Metal. The basic template of the guitar lends itself to a variety of styles – classic rock, punk, jazz, even metal, and Maton has taken the opportunity to recast the guitar’s aesthetics and appointments accordingly.

The new BB1200 semi acoustic brings with it the vibe of a much older guitar. When I opened the case I experienced that same ‘aaah!’ factor one gets when holding a genuine vintage Gibson or Gretsch.

The review model was finished in a classy high gloss black with gold hardware – other colour options are ultra blue, cherry, black, natural and wine red sunburst, but custom colours are available for an extra cost. The body is made of Queensland maple (with a big chunky centre block for stability, and options include either a rock maple or Victorian blackwood top. The neck is rock maple, and its profile is surprisingly thin, almost like an Ibanez Wizard II neck, although the painted, glossy back of the neck also has a lot in common with Gibson’s slim 60s necks. The fretboard has a 12 inch radius and 22 jumbo frets.

The strings are anchored to a Tonepros nickel stop tailpiece and bridge set, fast becoming an industry standard due to its stability and durability, while the pickups are a pair of Maton’s own Alnico 8-loaded humbuckers, the JHB and JHN. Each pickup can be split to single coil mode, drastically increasing the number of sounds on offer.

There’s a warm, loud midrange to the BB1200, which is accompanied by a tight bass and smooth treble. It seems the guitar’s natural frequencies are perfectly tailored to sit well in a mix without overpowering the other instruments, but at the same time occupying enough of its own space to be heard. The bridge pickup has a great, loud classic rock tone with a touch of dryness and a lot of dynamic control. The neck humbucker is round and noodly, and in combination their respective volumes can be set to either darken up the bridge pickup, or brighten up the neck.

The single coil mode almost turns this guitar into a Thinline Telecaster, and the resonance of the hollow body makes it hard to resist playing bluesier styles. Switching back to the neck pickup on a clean tone, a fine amplified jazz sound is available. While acoustically it’s a loud guitar compared to a solid body electric, the body’s a bit too small to make it really viable as an acoustic instrument in the same way as some of the big jazz boxes, but amplified it can hang in there with the big boys.

One final thing I’d like to mention is the exceptional setup right out of the case. This guitar played so well that it was very easy to rip out blazing fusion or shred lines, yet there was enough height left in the strings to still be able to dig in with fingerpicking styles.

The BB1200 has all the makings of a modern Australian classic, and I wouldn’t be surprised if this guitar ended up in the hands of a lot of high profile players.

BODY: Queensland Maple core, selected Rock Maple or Victorian Blackwood top.
NECK: Queensland Maple or Rock Maple set
FRETBOARD: White bound Rosewood, 12 inch radius, 22 jumbo frets
SCALE: 25.2 inches
BRIDGE: TonePros nickel stop tailpeice and bridge
TUNERS: Chrome Grover
CONTROLS: 2 Volume (both w/coiltap), 1 Tone, 3 way toggle selector