Queens of the Stone Age is a band accustomed to change—whether it be a member shift or a new sound—for just about every album they’ve released. For their newest, Villains, the band turned to pop producer Mark Ronson, he of “Uptown Funk” fame. Aiding him in his mission is Mark Rankin, the engineer on Queen’s last release (…Like Clockwork), who made such an impact on the Villains’ sound that Ronson and the band named him as co-producer.
“I usually engineer Josh’s [Homme, lead singer for Queens of the Stone Age] stuff, so I came on as engineer for Villains,” says Rankin. “He told me his plan for the record, and I brought in a few pieces, including a kit that I thought would be good, which became central to the sound.”
According to Rankin, Homme’s plan was to create a “super vacuous and interesting sound— big picture, with lots of air.” To accomplish this, the team moved into Los Angeles’s United Recording. “We had been there before,” says Rankin, “on the Iggy Pop record that Josh produced. They have those amazing rooms, and it was great to be able to set everyone up in that space, with that nice family vibe. Plus those echo chambers!Great historicL.A.studio.”
At work in United Recording, L-R: Engineer Mark Rankin, Matt Zivitch (Joshua Homme’s guitar tech, behind Rankin), Josh Justin (Homme’s assistant), drum tech Sahir, Homme and Mark Ronson
Backtothe kit Rankinbroughtin:“We startedin theBroomwith the drumcanopy, whereyoucan useit to close the drumsright down,”says Rankin.“Ibroughtin someC-ducercontactmics andstrappedthemon tothe drums to get this unnatural distorted sound. We put one on the kickand oneon thesnare, which also picksupabitof kick. Thatbecamethecenter of thedrum sound.”
The C-ducers were not the onlyinflfluential pieces of keygearRankinbroughtin:“Ibrought in some Overstayer equipment.We had this greatstereo19-inch rack unit called ModChannel. Itcomesfrom the modularsynthworld, but ithas preampson it as well asdistortion,super-resonant fifiltersand compression.That became a mainthing, aswell. We didalot ofprocessing withit,andyou cantotally annihilate things.
“One dayI wasplaying withitwhenthe piano wasbeing tunedandMark [Ronson]and Iwerein the controlroom. Istarted messingaround with thefifilters aswe were listening to theguy tune the piano, and hejustsortof descended into hellwhen the fifilters started resonating.Mark said,‘Oh my god, whatis that?’and hecommandeered itintotheside roomandstartedprocessingeverything through theModChannel.” Despite being thenew addition to theteam, Ronson hadno trouble fifitting in. “I’ve worked with Joshalot,soI knowwhat hewants,”says Rankin.“And bringing Ronsonintothatwasgreat. Hehas a vast knowledge of music andgreatideas.Ifanidea didn’twork, it was nobigdeal. It’s whatever works forthe project.Markwould be involvedinthe initial stagesand thearrangement,andthen alot oftimes I would beworkingwith the band inthe mainroomwhile he would work in asideroom on otherstuffff,andthen bring it backinto the main roomwherewewouldfititin.”
AddingRonson,King ofFunk(Uptownor otherwise),also helpedtoward thecompletion of Homme’sother goal for the album: a rockrecord youcould danceto.Withits ’70s-style funkand ’80s-impliedsynths,Villainsdoes justthat. “I thinkwe got there,” saysRankin.“But Ronson’s processing on theMod Channelgivesita modernsound, as well.”
Mixed byAlanMoulder atPink Duck studio(BurbankCalif.),Villains hasa clear ’70s inflfluence;itisespeciallyapparentinHomme’svocals, whichin several casesseemdownrightBowie-esque. “The main chain forhim wasaniceold Neumann U87I have,a JHSPedals Colour Sound preamp, and the effffectcompressoron the Overstayer,” Rankin explains. “That wasthebasic chain, althoughsometimes weused anEventide H910or H949Harmonizerforthat close,fake room sound. We also usedtheFulltone TubeTapeEcho afairbit for thetracks that have slap echoonthem.”
That echoplaysa bigpartofthesoundon Villains, particularlyonrollicking“Head Like a Haunted House,” whichalso featuresa Martin Audio Ondeswooden keyboardcontroller. “That was[Queen’skeyboardist] DeanFertita onthe Ondes,” statesRankin.“You put your fingerin a ringand you runit up and downa cable.Theecho on thattune, like most ofthesongson thealbum, was from the Fulltone Tube TapeEcho.”
Asthey always do, Queens ofthe StoneAge continuetoevolvewitheach project, building uponthe experiences of…Like Clockwork and bringingthem toVillains.
“Villainswas moreprocessedinan analog world,” says Rankin.“Welearnedfrom the last oneandcommitted more to certain sounds.There werelots of layers onClockwork—quite a denserecord. Thistimeweusedminimal guitar leadsandstuck to eightchannels of drums. The contact mics werethecenterof them, and maybe a pairof roomsforcharacter.We were going for characteron this…and weird.”
So if youarelooking fordanceablerock withweird,interesting sounds andlotsofair, thenVillainsisfor you,as thisremarkableteam accomplishedall of theirgoals andcreatedanothermemorablealbumfor the diverse Queensof the StoneAgeoeuvre.