Iggy Pop on Josh Homme's Genius, Singing Opera, Why He's Done Making Albums

Working with Iggy Pop changed the life of Queens of the Stone Age frontman Josh Homme, who produced the former Stooge’s lushly arranged 2016 LP Post Pop Depression. “Iggy is the single greatest example of a frontman that you could have for rock & roll,” Homme recently told Rolling Stone. “Working with him just recharged my faith in rock & roll and in trying to blaze your own path at whatever cost that is.”

It was such a monumental experience for Homme that he decided to document it with the just-released film, American Valhalla, which he co-directed with Andreas Neumann. It features Anthony Bourdain interviewing Pop and Homme, as well as their band and crew members, as they explain how the Stooges frontman sought out Homme as a collaborator and how two xylophone-and-guitar demos that the latter made became the album’s shadowy “American Valhalla” and dramatic “I Want to Break Into Your Heart.” In turn, Pop sent Homme detailed notes about his time in the late Seventies with David Bowie in Berlin, and the pair bonded. The doc also follows them on the short run of shows they did supporting the album, playing Post Pop Depression songs, as well as a nice chunk of tunes from Pop’s first two solo LPs, 1977’s The Idiot and Lust for Life.

It’s an interesting film in that, as Pop tells it, Post Pop Depression may well be his final album. But at the time, he didn’t think much of making a movie about it. “Josh wanted to do it; I just cooperated,” Pop, now 70, tells Rolling Stone with a laugh during a lengthy, wide-ranging interview. “We were doing it and then at some point we were doing it about doing it, which was all right with me. It’s a compliment on his part.”

Now that he has hindsight and has moved on to other projects, including doing the interviews for American Valhalla, Pop can see the album’s larger significance.

When you watch this film and look back on Post Pop Depression, how do you feel it stands out in your discography?
I’m singing more and the vocal range is wider. I’m aware I’m not Caruso or … who’s the guy all the moms love? Michael Bublé. I’m not even him. But there’s a big range of style on it, and I never expected going into this for it to be a rock record. It has an awfully nice groove. I put a lot into it. We lived it. I haven’t really lived a record like that since [1993’s] American Caesar, but mostly all my albums in the Sixties and Seventies were more of a communal experience where you’re living the whole thing.

Why did you never expect it to be a rock record?
Because, look, I’ve done these things before. I’ve worked with a lot of different people. Generally, when I collaborate with somebody, I don’t expect them to bring what they’re already good at, what they already do really well as some sort of free pass for me to, “Oh, I’ll sing on it this time.” No. So Queens is a hard-rocking group, but, on his last record, I heard this ballad master coming out on stuff like “…Like Clockwork.” That was the stuff that really floored me. I was like, “Jeez, he can do that?” So I thought he was gonna keep this rock stuff for himself; he earned that. You earn your rock spurs the hard way. It’s a really dirty business [laughs].

So I knew we’d do something just different. I didn’t know what it would be. Then once I heard the first two little bits he gave me, I thought, “Oh, it’s gonna be kind of like Chelsea Girls or something. It’s gonna be like [sings the Velvet Underground] ‘Sunday morning …'” You know? But there was a little more to it than that. He got into this midtempo swagger on this stuff. It all ended up with a really nice groove. I was pleased.

The film makes it seem like you had to pursue Josh to get him to work with you. What is it you look for in a collaborator?
Well, it can be different given the occasion and what it is I want to do. I wanted to do something fresh for me, but I wanted it to be something that could and would communicate to the applicable, current music audience. Josh is a valid, current musician that people listen to. So that was important to me. Then, basically, the taste and articulation that I heard from his Desert Sessions [recordings] – he’s kinda open for anything. If you’ve ever heard “Shepherd’s Pie” by him, it’s basically a ragtime comedy track. In advance, I just thought, “Well, this guy’s intelligent.” I knew he’d listened to what I’d done with some degree of interest, so I thought we’d just give it a whirl. That was it.

I also watched their Wiltern concert from the last record and although I didn’t want to go out and tour – I wasn’t thinking about a tour for [Post Pop Depression] – I noticed how well-presented it was live. And I read the comment section and I was shocked by how much the people who went appreciated the quality and the detail. It was refreshing to see there were a lot of people who really respect and appreciate what this guy’s doing. I thought it was good myself. I thought it had feeling. That’s what was really, really important: the feeling.

Why didn’t you want to tour?
Because I’ve been touring a lot, and it’s hard, bloody work. I had thought, “Oh, I’ll just do this as what it is, then I’ll go out and just do it [normal].” What I do is a measured amount of touring anyway, in a way that’s sustainable for me at my vintage and that’s great for me. I think I do a good job of it. I’m proud of it. But do I want to go out with this … Josh is a force. He’s a handful. So it’s like, “Do I want to go out with this maniac and actually put boots on the ground and play theaters and have a production and everything?” And I’m so glad I did. It was a once-in-a-lifetime result for me, to bring the repertoire forward and to get washed-up and dressed nicely and play beautiful places where there’s actually a toilet seat on the toilet in the dressing rooms. We played a lot of opera houses on this tour.

We had a kind of a thing between us. I think it came from something he heard in a couple of my vocals. There was a certain way I was singing that he took to be like opera. He would put his hand aloft like a Siegfried in the ring, and he would say, “We’ve gotta keep it up there. It’s opera.” I’m actually talking to somebody … I’m threatening to do some opera in a couple of years [laughs]. Why not? I really like [Wagner’s] Tristan and Isolde; that’s a big favorite for me.

It seems like you’ve been doing a little bit of everything lately – jazz, electronic music. You worked with Oneohtrix Point Never recently.
Part of it is just because people called and asked to work with me. I’m approachable. The Oneohtrix Point Never song I did was probably kickstarted by the theme song I did with Danger Mouse for the Matthew McConaughey vehicle, Gold, which was a last-minute job. They were desperate for a vocal, and I had two days off on the tour break and I said, “Allll right.” But Danger Mouse had heard a song I did called “I Wanna Go to the Beach,” which is on Préliminaires, which is one of these little, quiet, French-ette albums I was making when I could scrape time away from the original Stooges. So he knew what I could do. He said, “I’ve got a song, I want you to sing it the way you sang such-and-such.” Then when that came out, it got a bit of attention and I started getting calls. I’ve done three since then, and the Oneohtrix has come out.

I think it’s like, if you’ve got a Disney movie, you can call Elton John, but if you’re indie, I’m available [laughs]. And the Oneohtrix was just such a wonderful piece of music.

And it was the same with Jamie [Saft], Steve [Swallow] and Bobby [Previte]. They sent me three tracks through an old friend named Bill Laswell, who’s a jazzbo, a really interesting producer and just a general music maverick. I like Bill, so I keep in touch with him, and I’ve done things over the years, like I did a Buckethead thing for him and I did a Burroughs thing, just because I like him. He sent me word that these guys were looking for me. That’s all he said was, “Good musicians and such, not the usual thing. What do you think?” I said, “Well, send it to me, I’ll listen to it.” I thought, “Oh, wow. I’d really love to try to sing to all three of these.” It was late in the year. I wasn’t doing anything else. They didn’t rush me. So that’s why I did it. It was just a chance to try something a little softer in attack and more exacting in approach … although the vocals aren’t very exact, I’m afraid. But I tried. I gave it a shot. There’s some feeling in there anyway. I’ve got something to say.

Do you feel like you’re done with rock records?
Well, about the time I got halfway through this record, I just said to Josh, “This is gonna be my last LP.” I just felt like I’d done a lot of LPs. I’d done ’em indie. I’d done ’em self-released. I’d done ’em where they were bootlegged first and later legitimized. I did ’em for me. I did ’em for the man [laughs]. After a while, OK, I’ve done ’em – lots of ’em. Also, I noticed when the Internet started becoming more important and different outlets for people to hear the music became available, some of the records I’d made weren’t quite as reviled and pooh-poohed as they had been when they came out. Some of them that were just considered just kinda OK, people started going, “Well, wait, actually, this is something.” That continues. So part of it is, I have this instinct to just get the fuck out of the way of my own stuff, just let it sit in for a while. Do I really need to sit around scratching my head like, “I need to make a statement”? No.

But if I’m going through something personally at the time, and I get one piece of music from Oneohtrix Point Never, and it makes me feel a certain way, and nobody hassles me, and lets me do what I want, and I don’t have some horrible weasel who imagines that his investment allows him to pee all over me bothering me, then I can get into a mood and sing something that means something. So I’m just feeling like that sort of thing is a better outlet for me, or maybe the theater or the opera. Even doing the radio show I do, just presenting other people’s music. How about that? So for that reason … what else can I do? A Ramones cover album? I don’t know.

“If nobody hassles me, and lets me do what I want, then I can get into a mood and sing something that means something.”

I’d listen to that.
[Laughs] Hey, OK. Maybe that’s an idea.

In the film, you tell Anthony Bourdain that it bothers you when somebody would tell you that you put out stuff that wasn’t so good but that you’re good. You said you wanted to make something higher quality with this record. Can you explain that a little more?
In general, I would say that the American West Coast Rock – with a capital R – know-it-all ethic tends to be short on ideas, long on execution. My favorite music often tends to be the opposite. It tends to be really long on the ideas and short on the execution. I think it was Bob Dylan who was saying the other day, “Well, Goddamn it, when I made … ” – and he named his greatest album, like Blonde on Blonde or whatever it is – “I was trying to squeeze 25 songs onto one side, so the song quality is thin, blah blah blah.” There is something to that sort of thing. There are people out there who appreciate you more if they feel that you’ve tried hard to make something fully realized, pristine and … how do I say this? There are hard-working people in this world who want you to work hard on what you give them, too.

I didn’t want people to think I’m just some bum who sits around and bleeds and collects a paycheck all the time [laughs]. So I think some of that desire has been expressed in the approach I’ve done to my live work for the last 15 to 20 years. I’ve been doing consistent, good work live. And I’ve seen people who hold large events started looking for me instead of looking away in horror. So I wanted to bring some of that into the recorded side of things. Try to put my two cents’ worth into something that was very, very carefully done, also something in which I was challenged. For the challenge, I needed an outside guy. That’s also where Josh came in. You need somebody stubborn and opinionated to tell you, “No, not that. This.” And that’s a good thing.

Speaking of your concerts, there’s a scene in the film where Josh says you complained about the barricade being too far away from the stage in Berlin and that you couldn’t jump into the audience. Why do you feel you have to do that?
[Laughs] I did finally slowly give it up. I haven’t done a stage dive since I played three nights with Metallica at a racetrack in Mexico City [this year]. I did what was a pretty tame one, since there were so many people packed in they had to catch me. I did one each night.

That was in March. I turned 70 in April, and I haven’t done a dive since. I think it’s OK. I go work the crowd in front and stuff like that; I mix it up. But the reason that came up in the film was, I didn’t want to be like, “OK, everybody. Sorry. You don’t get to see the real Iggy Pop. You just get to see the guy who put on the suit.” It was a very long dive in Berlin. On the actual concert film, you can see just the two little desert boots sticking out of the crowd. I went straight down.

It’s good they caught you. I’m sure that hasn’t always been the case.
Well, no. Not always. But it’s usually worked out.

On the tour, in addition to the Post Pop songs, you did a lot of The Idiot and Lust for Life. Did Josh ask for those?
I kept sending him balanced lists of songs from different parts of my career. Then Dean [Fertita, guitar] was sending him stuff, too. But in the end, Josh is a big train and he’s gonna do what he wants to do. So finally, I just wrote him two days before I was supposed to go out for the rehearsal and I said, “Look, I give up. I know all my songs. Just learn the ones you want to, and I’ll sing ’em.” That was how that went. He felt closest to that material, which was kinda great, because some of that stuff had never been done live and a lot of it had been done only seldom or not really very well live. So it was really good to give it an airing. As it turned out, it fit really, really well with the stuff from the new record, which he was probably aware of since it was coming through his fingers. He’s a very savvy musician.

In the film, Josh shows a package you sent him to encourage him to work on music. It has pages of these incredible details about your Berlin years with Bowie. I know you did an autobiography in ’82, but have you thought about updating it for something new?
I’ll never do that. I said enough in the one I did. I’m not enough of a shit to do one for the money. I’m not clever enough to edit myself and I’m not shitty enough to tell everything. Because most of my life belongs to other people anyway, and who am I to talk? I got a lot out of doing it once, really, really early. It’s sort of way there in the distant background, kind of a strange-ass reference work. And that’s fine. I’d rather just leave it that way. I could sing about that stuff. Sometimes I think about turning it into fiction. But many novelists are alcoholics, so that’s a problem. Writing is a lot of pressure in general.

Did the influence of those Berlin albums come across in Post Pop Depression?
I think more just the feeling of … again, something vaguely operatic that happened during The Idiot, between the musical themes that I was getting handed. What came out of my mouth when I just opened my mouth and my ignorance and my joyful divorce from the booted foot of the American L.A. music scene – I was just in another world. I had nothing to lose. I thought I was an artist. I always had. I never thought I was a donkey to shit bread. Some of these themes came out, and I just kinda found myself opening my mouth and making these meandering baritone vocal patterns that had this kind of a feel to it. I think that made an impression on him with that particular record, The Idiot, more than the other one maybe. What he thought about doing with it, I don’t know.

Listen, a lot of the themes musically on [Post Pop Depression] are bits and pieces that Josh had had for years and years, but I suspect he didn’t have an outlet for them. The choral melody and chord pattern of “Gardenia” was something he’d had. The same with “Chocolate Drops.” Those were actually two things that were part of one piece and I asked him to separate them and make two different songs. And he kept telling me, “You’re singing it backwards.” Apparently, that really bugged him and there was a big discussion that I didn’t hear between him and Dean, and Dean was saying, “It’s OK that he’s singing it backwards. It’s the way he hears it.” So he was like, “OK, sing it backwards.”

In the film, you tell Josh that you feel very overwhelmed sometimes. How do you deal with that?
I think, “What are the elements conspiring to bother me here?” If it gets really bad, I’ll sit down and write an essay. I’ll say, “Here’s what I feel I’m involved in and what’s bothering me about it or why it looks so insoluble.” And I’ll just pack that away and refer to it a couple weeks later and go, “Hey, it wasn’t really that bad. I got through it.” So that’s part of it. Qigong helps a lot. I do a set of exercises I learned from a tai chi master. I don’t do them as much when I’m working hard, which is unfortunately a lot lately. But I’m lucky to have work. So I do that and that generally makes me feel more fit and calm. So that’s pretty much it. I just try to grapple with the details and not expect. The worst is when you expect an instant solution. You’re not gonna get one.

From the shots in the film of your home in Miami, it looks like you should be able to chill out easily.
Well, the palm trees… I do like ’em. They confer a certain serenity that I don’t necessarily possess personally. That’s why I like being near water and the palm trees. Where I am right now is that backyard that’s in the movie somewhere. It’s that little house with the river and the trees and everything. It’s actually a slowly gentrifying part of a very basic neighborhood on the edge of Little Haiti. But otherwise, there are other places I reside and it’s always near the water with me.

Speaking of relaxing, what music have you been liking lately?
There are three girls named Fémina from the Andes in Patagonia that are just terrific. They’re just starting their U.S. tour, they actually landed in Miami today and I might call and see if they want to have coffee after I hang up with you. I played them on my radio show the other day and I don’t think they’re used to being all over the radio in the English-speaking world. But they’re really, really good.

There’s also a punk band called O.D.I.O., which is an acronym for the word “hate” – but they’re not nasty – from Bogotá that I like. I love Sleaford Mods. I think they’re just about the most credible new group going that don’t rely on the old conventions to make the music feel good. I like Thundercat, but so do lots of people.

How do you discover music these days, like the South American artists?
I think I found them because I was looking up Mitski songs – I like her – on YouTube, then the computer started to figure me out. Because I look for South American stuff and Cuban stuff and Dominican stuff quite a bit, then I was looking at female stuff, then suddenly up popped Fémina. So I listened to it. That was how I found that.

But I also tend to read the reviews sections in daily papers. Not as much music press because each separate music-press entity generally has a slant to it and the coverage is tied into their advertising, as you know. So it’s not as efficient for me as if I look in the New York Times gig guide, like who’s in town in the next week. Then it’ll tell me Chastity Belt. Oh, they have a new album, they’re playing Williamsburg? Well, I’ll listen to it. Or The Guardian has a very, very good review section for stuff that a lot of people will call obscure. They’ll give 200-plus words to some people who’ve got something new out and you might not hear about otherwise.

Then I have friends who send me stuff. I have five or six sources. There’s somebody who runs a record store here, this guy’s in a band here called the Jacuzzi Boys. Bill Laswell. A couple of people in France send me stuff from time to time because I’m curious what’s going on there. So like that.

“I love Sleaford Mods. I think they’re just about the most credible new group going that don’t rely on the old conventions to make the music feel good.”

Speaking of the Jacuzzi Boys, I dug that “Asshole Blues” song you did for them.
Well, thanks. It was just something I was doing at home years ago on my iPad, which is why you can hear me going, “How do I turn this thing off?” And it’s really sloppy. I could barely play the riff because I’ve got gnarledness in my fingers from age and use. But I felt it. Then it was just sitting there, I wasn’t gonna do anything with it, but they said, “Hey, if you’ve got something … ” I said, “Well, yeah.” I like playing porch blues. It’s nice to play a little acoustic guitar tuned open. It’s warm, you can hold it, and in open tuning, you don’t have to think too much about it.

There’s a scene in the movie where you tell Anthony Bourdain about how a record exec asked you to sing Leonard Cohen’s “Ain’t No Cure for Love” on one of your records, and you told him no because it wasn’t right for you. What became of that?
It was an exec at Virgin America. We had a showdown and I finally said, “Just gimme some money and I’ll record ‘Louie Louie’ instead and leave me alone.” And they did all right with “Louie Louie.” They got some mileage out of that.

Did you have to deal with a lot of that?
Well there’s a lot of it, and sometimes, you just have to do one. There was a very funny one when I first came to Virgin. There was a song for the film called Black Rain. It was called “Living on the Edge of the Night,” and it had been written by the sound engineer, and the director, Ridley Scott, really liked it and they wanted me to do it. Virgin said, “Well, Iggy Pop could record this for you.” Then I said, “Well, I don’t really feel that song.” I didn’t think it was right for me.

He gave me a call and said, “Come on, give it a go.” I said, “Well, all right, I’ll try it.” We went into the studio and he attended the session and I did my best, but he already had Gregg Allman on the soundtrack and he kept going to the talk-back button saying, “You must sound more working-class.” And I thought to myself, “He’s just gonna end up using Gregg Allman. Gregg is working class. That’s not me.” So I did the song, and it didn’t ruin my life. He was looking for something to open the film. He ended up using Gregg because Gregg is great. Gregg is Gregg, man. So that was funny.

At one point, between Fun House and Raw Power, there was some sort of proposal to make me into a teen idol or a boy band, going around. That would have been the weirdest boy band in world history.

I don’t even know what teen-idol Iggy Pop would sound like.
I don’t know. You know, the original Stooges record, I think, if video had existed as a commercial TV outlet at that time, the Stooges probably would have gotten a lot of exposure because we had a nice visual and it wasn’t too nuts until later. When we first started, we actually looked pretty spiffy and I could front. The songs were simple, but carefully done. I think there would have been a larger audience for it than what it got. But that’s worked out anyway, because of the Internet. So it’s OK.

Lastly, in the song “American Valhalla,” you sing, “I’ve nothing but my name.” Do you really feel that way?
Well, yeah. Uh-huh. Sure. Don’t ask me what it means, but I do. That’s why it came out. I don’t know why I feel that, but that’s what I feel. It may have something to do with the game I’m in, or the position that that game confers upon you. I don’t know. It’s just a feeling. Not a bad feeling.

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